Ralph Breaks more than just the Internet

Ralph Breaks more than just the Internet

***This Post contains Spoilers for Ralph Breaks the Internet***

I loved 2012’s Wreck-it Ralph. It was a near perfect video game movie. Its references weren’t meaningless call outs, but tools to build a colorful, storybook world. It was a writer’s story too, a tight character driven piece of work that understood Ralph and Venellope’s desires and conflicts and weaved them together in a tidy braid. Even if you didn’t like the movie, the craftsmanship was something to appreciate. So, I was expecting to like Ralph Breaks the Internet and I didn’t. I wouldn’t say I disliked it either, I don’t really have any reaction to it other a bland sense of disappointment.

Ralph 2 isn’t bad. The internet world it creates, like the arcade world of the previous film, is a colorful, beautiful place that would be a delight to explore (unlike the real internet, save for gems like this blog of course…please follow). There are charming characters like the search engine Knowsmore, and the pop-up con-artist Double-Dan. I loved the constant costume changes of the Taraji Henson voiced Yesss and the energy she brought to the character was perfect.

The returning cast is just as good. Venellope and Ralph are adorable together, especially as they stumble through the internet lost and naïve. And scenes remain sharp and interesting, like the Disney Princess bit halfway through the film. The ingredients are all there, but the recipe never comes together. The issue is the plot. The problem that brings Ralph and Venellope to the internet essentially gets resolved with little to no effort, or at least little to no conflict. That leaves the movie asking, what are we doing here? What’s the fuel that moves us from scene to scene?

It finds answers, but they feel forced and the final conflict is heavy handed. It boils down to a lack of honest communication between Ralph and Venellope. Ralph unleashes a virus on Venellope’s new game ‘Slaughter Race’ in the hopes of slowing it down so that Venellope will get bored and go back to the arcade with him. It’s selfish for sure, but Ralph doesn’t understand the extent of the virus he unleashes and regrets it almost the second he does it. But, the virus escapes and builds a literal monster out of Ralph’s insecurities.

It’s too much, and a product of the film not having a defined antagonist. Ralph is clingy, but the big bad at the end is really himself? The film didn’t do enough for me to buy into that. I wouldn’t be surprised if an original draft of the movie had Yess as a villain. But maybe the writers thought that making the personification of click culture evil was too preachy or they just found Yesss too much fun to turn evil.

It’s possible they never had any villain planned at all, because the film seems to care less about its plot and more about what new fun internet-thing can it incorporate next? The world building is enjoyable, but it’s not as purposeful as the first film. Ralph and Venellope feel out of place, surrogates, the most easily adaptable Disney property to take this journey. Manic GTA meets Disney Princess musical numbers and creepy Dark webizens are bizarre enough to be entertaining, but Ralph 2 feels more like a series ‘Buzztube’ videos than a story. Much like the internet itself, it’s lesser than its potential.

When something bad happens

When something bad happens to me, the first thing I want to do is write. I want to understand what I’m feeling, I want to express it, to see it. I want to expel every thought and emotion that it stirs into one blank space, vomit it out. And like vomit it’s messy and gross and even if it made me feel better immediately afterwards, I know I’m going to do it again soon.

Emotion, the big, bad emotions: sadness, anger, they are like that to me. They swell searching for an outlet, to cry or to be screamed out, I indulge and for a moment it passes. There’s a rational part of me that feels above these emotions. It can acknowledge that my reactions are self-indulgent or that I’m taking an offense to something that wasn’t attended as such. The rational part can see that these expressions of grief or rage are useless, that it would be better to sit down and plan, map out a response to the trauma or try to fix the problem.

For the longest time it felt like the rational and emotional parts of me were at war. I’d want to sit down and focus on doing something to fix my issue, but the emotion just felt like this bigger, more ravenous thing that craved attention, thrived on it. I would explode in displays of emotion and feel embarrassed afterwards (rarely in public and never to anyone other than close friends or family, I’m from Connecticut, we are biologically incapable of making a ‘scene’). I would always chastise myself for these outbursts, hate myself for them. I used to think that getting in control of my emotions meant not feeling them.

I’ve come to understand that there is no ‘defeating’ a trauma, repeated exposure can dull the effects, planning can sometimes mitigate one. But trauma and rage, cannot be outwitted. Once sparked they will come, and they will storm. The most I can do is accept them, let them happen, analyze my thoughts, know that they will pass and neither encourage them nor feel ashamed of them. And most of all, understand that they will come again; for there is never only one reaction to something horrible. We don’t feel sad for a day, or a week, or a year and then never feel it again. Trauma is like the sea, it’s deep and it comes in waves.

The most surreal moment for me is when the horrible thing has just happened. I often don’t know how to feel. I just have this anxiety. I know it’s going to come, but I don’t feel it yet. I go on walk. I see the world, I experience it intensely. I am never more in the moment then right before the emotion hits, the point where you are cracking, where there is a you that exist before the trauma and a you that exist after it and you have not yet metaphorized. You are still in a world where everything is okay, it’s a Monday, the sun’s out, it’s wet and cold, but those are your only concerns. And yet, you know, you know it’s there, you know the world has changed, a demarcation line has opened in your life. There is the before and there is the after, and you will now live only in the after. You know at some point things will be okay again, that it will be Monday again, and wet and cold, but you are a long way from that moment. And there is nothing you can do but wait.

*Note*: I’m fine, just got some potentially bad news and nothing permanent just wanted to share what I wrote in response  

Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy and Sci-fi often get lumped together, and while there’s a lot of cross over between the two genres, both in terms readers and concepts, there is one vital difference. Sci-fi is representation of how we think of the future, while fantasy is often about how we view the past.

Fantasy novels are clearly not history books or even historical fiction (though they do share some DNA). Fantasy isn’t a verbatim retelling of past events, but rather seeks to capture the overall ‘feel of the past’, that’s why so many have magic and fantastical creatures, those things feel realer, or were believed to be realer, in pre-modern times. And while magic and fantastic beasts appear in almost every fantasy novel, they are not the defining element of those worlds. The setting of a fantasy novel is not so much a magical place, but an old one.

One of the reasons Game of Thrones became so popular was that people thought it was a more ‘realistic’ fantasy story. Most of its seasons don’t deal with magic at all, but rather brutal medieval combat and court intrigue. It shows a Hobbesian past where life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. In part we watch it because of all the nastiness, it intrigues us even though we wouldn’t want to live through it ourselves. It’s a past that we’re grateful to have move beyond.

In contrast Tolkien envisioned a gentler past, his hobbits live simple, pleasant lives, suffering only village gossip and British passive-aggressiveness. War comes, and it is brutal and requires sacrifice, but the lines are clearly drawn: good and evil. The enemy are literal inhuman creations, spurred on by an evil god. Men are mythical heroes, taller and stronger than the simple hobbits who themselves have more in common with the reader than the mankind of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien’s past is both idyllic and epic, it’s something we feel we’ve lost.

Both Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings speak to the way we view history rather than to any particular period of history itself. And while it’s true that both Middle Earth and Westros invoke some of the more exciting elements of Medieval Britain: knights in full plate, maidens in long gowns, the remnants of a more advance people (the Romans), barbarian invaders, etc. They have as much to do with actual Medieval Britain as Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angles has to do with modern LA.

Outside of the hobbits, dragons and white walkers Medieval Britain also didn’t have taverns, smoking pipes, sewers, full plate armor (until the very end), banks, or large population centers. Medieval combat rarely involved pitched battles on the field and was mostly castle sieges. Trial by combat was exceedingly rare.

Tolkien’s Hobbits have a lot more in common with 18th and early 19th century British farmers than they do with Medieval peasants. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has Norse style Northmen raiders, but they’re duking it out with Union soldiers who use fencing foils, a technology appearing more than five hundred years after the Vikings. Michael J. Sullivan’s Heir of Novron series takes place in a world of knights and a tyrannical church, but also has early 19th century style ships, with sailors that would have fit in during the Napoleonic wars.

The British Empire itself looms large in most of our Fantasy. The attitudes, manner of speaking and social economics of a great deal of supposedly medieval fantasy worlds instead come from late 19th, and early 20th century Britain. Medieval Britain was poor and splintered, with dozens of ethnic groups and a ruling caste that considered itself more French, or Norman at least, than English. The arrogant western like kingdoms in fantasy who refer to other people as savages and who think of themselves as more advance come from our living memory not our distance past.

None of this is to belittle or attack these works, I’ve enjoyed every series I mentioned here. None of these writers are trying to create a historical place. Their worlds are constructed from a hodgepodge of myth, different historical periods, and imagination. But all of them are trying to conjure the past and when they do so they are speaking to our comprehension of it. The use of so much British empire in our fantasy works shows the impact that the British empire has had on us and how we distinguish our modern selves as people distinctly different than the Imperialist of old.

And as the fantasy genre has spread out it has begun to leave behind both the trappings of Medieval Europe and the attitudes of the British Empire. Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series takes its inspiration from early Chinese history (as well as the Odyssey, and the Vikings again). S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon both focus on myth and history from the Muslim world, while Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti brings in influence from African history and culture. The expansion of Fantasy genre is an expansion of our understanding of the past, of who’s past has value, and who’s past deserves to be mythologized and critiqued.

As we grow, becoming more multi-culture our fantasy will as well. The genre will ask us to explore new pasts, new combinations, new understandings of where we come from, who we are and who we are not. The past might be the past, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change.

Telltale and Choice

Telltale and Choice

Last month out of seemingly nowhere, Telltale games announced that they were shutting down. Like many gamers I was stunned. While far from its height of relevance after releasing the amazing Walking Dead Season 1, the studio was still working with some of the biggest properties out there: Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman. They had also inked a deal with Netflix to make a Stranger Things game. They seemed to have carved out their own niche in the industry, a bridge between TV and video games.

The internet has been a buzz of blame and think pieces on the closure. Polygon’s Ben Kuchera has a well-researched, scathing take-down where he levels the blame at the company’s technology, stale game design and poor working conditions. The working conditions argument is Kuchera’s strongest. It’s depressing to see that Telltale suffered crunches and poor management. But some of Kuchera points, while well argued, feel overly harsh.

Telltale’s engine did feel wobbly, creating stiff character animations and bugs, but Bethesda has been using a version of the same janky engine since Morrowood and people still eat up their games. And I’ve yet to bump into a video game where character animations make it all the way through the uncanny valley. Even the Witcher 3, a god damn masterpiece and my favorite game of all time, has some awkward animations and character model. Any game that’s going to be as story focused as Telltales is going to have issues.

Kuchera’s game design argument is even harsher and I feel like it ignores a depressing truth. Telling stories in video games is hard, making storytelling the sole focus of your game is even harder. And to be fair to Telltale they did try. I played three Telltale games, The Walking Dead Season 1, Tales of Borderlands, and Batman Seasons 1 and 2. And did all three games have a similar vibe? Sure. Where they as Kuchera claims, cookie cutter knocks of the Walking Dead Season 1 with choices and twists I saw coming miles away, no, not at all.

The Walking Dead Season 1 was bleak, shocking and touching. Tales of Borderlands was far better than it had any right to be, hilarious and surprisingly emotional. I would have been happy if the Borderlands series dropped the main games and continued as a Telltale series. Telltale’s Batman did some of the best reinterpretation and deconstruction on comics most reinterpreted and deconstructed character (even wrote a post about the first season). To say the games were all boring, retreads is just unfair.

If Kuchera’s argument is less that the games themselves were all cookie cutter and more that Telltale’s choice system often felt the same regardless of the game you were playing, that I can see. Looking back, I only remember a handful of choices I made in any of the series and very few of the choices changed the outcome to a season. But choice in Telltale game wasn’t about changing the story.

In the moment, while playing a Telltale game, choices felt important. They spiked the drama, gave weight to the scene and helped immerse me in the story. Deciding whether or not to cut Clementine’s hair didn’t save anyone, but it helped establish a bond between Clementine and Lee. Choice was a mechanic, an action to help tell the story rather than a means to change it.

The more impact a studio gives to particular choice means the more work they have to do. A big enough divergence would mean creating two or more wholly different stories, different games even, that might sound exciting, but that means that most players will only experience half of the work a studio puts in. And the more changes you have and the more radical you let those changes be, the less control you have over your story and characters. You might easily end up with some very unsatisfying narratives.

From Mass Effect on, we’ve debated the naked ‘choices’ we bump into in narrative heavy games. Players try to weigh the value of them, becoming upset if they realize their ‘choices don’t matter’. But in truth these choices, never matter. Sure, they might mean that one character lives while another dies, or that you get a good ending as opposed to a bad. At best they are divergent points in the narrative, giving a slightly different journey, but one that will eventually lead to the same end. The player is like a switch operator at a station deciding which ‘track’ the train will go down, but there’s only ever so many tracks.

What Telltale understood best was that choice isn’t about how the story reacts to the player, so much as how the player reacts to the story. Choices often effected dialogue and a particular scene rather than the aggregated season. You choose to be cruel or kind, serious or brooding and other reacted. Your choice was the emotion, not the outcome. You were engaging with the narrative and not deciding it. Telltale was far from perfect, but I’ll miss them and their use of choice.

Where do Characters come from and what do they want?

Where do Characters come from and what do they want?

Interesting, complex characters are the most important element of any novel. I will tolerate the most cliched of settings and plots if I love the characters. When writing my own fantasy novel, (which involves the very cliched plot of a kidnapped princess) I sought to create a team of fun characters that I wanted to spend time with and see embark on future adventures. Knee-deep into draft three of my novel, Ghets, I’m not thrilled with my word choices (seriously Matt, you’re using ‘luckily’ again?), but I absolutely love my Ghets team. They feel rounded and interesting and play off each other well.

Creating characters is lot like creating worlds to me. There’s a long germination period where I play around with an idea in my head. I usually have some sort of framework to start with when I sit down to write, and generally can’t track the character’s inception point. Reez, my lead, started with some questions like why not make the lead an orc? Why not an orc woman? and grew from there. Elise the Coward’s backstory was a direct reaction to the macho-mythologizing of the Spartans. But other characters, like Jaques, seemed to emerge ex nihilo. I can’t even remember a time when I was work-shopping them.

Characters follow a truth that has become something of mantra for me and writing: everything is perfect, until it’s real. Meaning, when you’re doing the necessary, fun and frantic work of constructing a character in your head they seem dynamic and stuffed with potential. But then when you start arranging them on the page, you realize you don’t know what they’ll say or how they’ll react. No matter how much time you spend thinking about your characters, you don’t know them until you start writing them.

Writing is a process of creation, re-examination, and change (yes, I couldn’t think of a third ‘tion word), characters follow the same process. They start out one way in the early drafts, and then slowly evolve the more time we spend with them, shaping them, coming to understand them. I would even argue that it’s a good idea to just start with a scene, something you never intend to include in your novel, that’s just your characters doing something together or sitting around talking.

I’m a dialogue guy, so I do a lot of scenes of just talking. But when I first started writing I noticed that a lot of my characters sound alike. To try to find their voice I would play with dialogue, create lists of words they could or couldn’t use, tried to reach outside of my own vocabulary and vocal meter. I tend to ramble, so a lot of my characters did too. I tried to reign that in, create characters that said little or nothing and communicated with expressions and gestures or characters that spoke very precisely.

Character voice is important, it’s one of the few things that can help differentiate characters on the page. Ideally you want each character’s voice to be so unique that the reader can tell who’s speaking by voice alone. But what’s even more important than a character’s voice is a character’s desire.

If you want compelling characters you need to know what they want, and what’s keeping them from getting what they want. A lot of times what your character wants is something immaterial: respect, connection, etc. And also, a lot of times the character themselves might not realize, or be resistant to, their own desire. Ideally as the writer, you should know what your characters are after. Good scenes and good character moments are created when we let characters and their desires drive the plot.

If you get your character’s right they will help you understand your own story better, they’ll guide you as much as you guide them. Readers too will stick through a tough or detailed book if they love the cast. So take your time, play around with them, ask them questions. Figure out how they talk and think and most of all what they really want. It’ll help you figure out what you want from them.

Kings of The Wyld and Bloody Rose: The Band Series Rocks

Kings of The Wyld and Bloody Rose: The Band Series Rocks

On a whim I picked up Nicholas Eames’s Kings of the Wyld and loved it. I devoured the book in under a week and immediately dove into its sequel Bloody Rose. It’s a good book, on par with Kings of the Wyld, but different in some meaningful ways. What really makes Bloody Rose impressive though, is how it improves and complicates the world that Eames introduces in Kings of the Wyld. Two books in and Eames’s Band series is already a roadmap for any writer looking to make a one and done story into an entertaining series.

In Kings of the Wyld mercenaries in the style of D&D adventurers, right down to classes like warriors, thieves and wizards, gather in ‘bands’ that have a distinct rock and roll vibe to them. (Sidebar, fantasy needs a new sub-genre for stories that are purposely playing with D&D and video games tropes, I’m thinking RPG-Fantasy? Something catchier?) The merging of rock and roll with epic fantasy drives the lion’s-share of the world building. There’s arena shows, bookers that get mercenaries gigs, when mercenaries head into the dangerous Heartwyld to go adventuring it’s called ‘touring’. There’s a big festival called the ‘War Fair’ where bands get drunk and party; you get it.

The story focuses on Saga, the greatest band of all time. Saga broke up decades ago and Golden Gabe, the band’s ‘Front-man’, needs to get the band back together for one last tour. He has to save his daughter who is trapped on the other side of the dangerous Heartwyld in a city under siege by a horde of monsters. It’s a compelling plot and Eames runs with it, combining his aging adventures with aging rockers to create a hilarious, bad ass adventure.

But the adventure ends. Rose is saved, there’s some foreshadowing of greater threats, but everything is neatly taken care and honestly, how long can you really stretch the whole ‘D&D characters are rock stars thing?’ Saga is a fun crew, but they’re also old and have other responsibilities. Can you really force the band back together for two more books? Wouldn’t you lose what made the first one so special if Clay Cooper had to leave his family behind two more times to save the world?

Eames smartly decides to leave Clay and the rest of Saga home for the sequel. Instead he focuses on a new band, ‘Fable’, led by Gabe’s daughter Rose. And he makes the ‘bard’, a joke role in his first book, into the lead for his second. Fable’s prospective character is Tam, a seventeen-year-old girl and huge Fable fan. While Tam is likable and pragmatic like Clay Cooper, the perspective character in Eames’s first book, she’s coming from a very different place and that allows us to see Eames’s world in a different light.

But it’s not just Tam, Eames smooths out the rough edges of his world building in the second book. Mercenaries are still rock and rollers, there’s still arena fights and even groupies and tour followers. Fable still gets drunk, has crazy sex and does drugs. But the rock and roll stuff fits neater into the world this time, it feels less like a clever joke and more like a thing of consequence.

There’s a seedy underbelly to the arena shows and the treatment of ‘monsters’. Eames grazes this in his first book, but really explores it in his second. Fable’s booker is a monster, they stay the night at Tree Ent’s place, there’s a much more complex situation going on. Tam starts to see the mercenary bands she idolized in a different light. In this way Eames leaves behind the rock and roll stuff when it doesn’t suit the world building and makes the connections when it does. This gives Bloody Rose a less manic and more disciplined vibe.

That’s not to say the world isn’t still a blast, full of crazy, weirdos and funny situations. There’s a Shaman that accidentally turns into a bear cub, a satyr that eats everything like a goat, a guy living with monsters who ties an extra pair of felt arms to himself to blend in. Moog, the impish wizard from the first book, shows up again to delight. It’s fun, but the world feels more introspective.

Part of that is the crew. Fable is younger and more damaged than Saga. Don’t get me wrong, Saga had its problems and arcs. I also absolutely loved Clay and his bandmates. But they were more established, their issues played for jokes at time. Rose and her team are younger and there is an insecurity to them that feels real.

Eames is more interested in exploring these characters than his world, but that’s for the better. He does good character work and while there is a touch of cliché to everyone in both Fable and Saga, they both raise above their tropes and become so endearing it’s hard to let them go by the end.

And let them go you must. Eames has a three book deal, but he says that each book will focus on a different band. While I’m sad to see Tam and her friends depart, I can’t wait to see how Eames’s world will continues to evolve. I also have no doubt that I will grow to love his final band as much as I loved the first two. If you’re looking for a fun fantasy world that isn’t afraid to grow and question its own conceits, then check out Kings of the Wyld and Bloody Rose

On World Building

On World Building

Hugo award winning author N.K Jemisin was recently on Ezra Kline’s podcast, where she talked about world building and did a world building exercise. It’s a fun and fascinating episode and my fellow fantasy writers should definitely check it out, find it here

Jemisin has a very wholistic approach to world building, starting not just with the geography of her worlds, but with the atmosphere and gravity. After settling on the basics, she zooms in on an ‘element X’ the thing that the work is going to explore and makes the world ‘fantastic’ in some way. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms it was enslaved gods, in The Fifth Season it was the earth magicians known as Orogenes.

Jemisin has a masterful talent of taking her ‘element x’ and extrapolating it out. In particular the effect ‘element x’ would have on societies, the way people would react to it and build their cultures around it. She’s a writer who has thought long and hard on her world building process. Listening made me realize that I don’t have as tight grip on how I build worlds.

World building for me has always been fun. I world build on walks while listening to music. I world build at night to try and help me fall asleep. Once I have the energy going and the bare frame of the world, it’s easy and exciting. One thought leads to other; ‘They make their soldiers from a living pit, how do they make the pit? Do they also make living tools?’ And everything just keeps building.

But I realized that I’m much more genre focused in my process, even to a creative detriment, than N.K Jemisin is. Grant it, I’ve only written two novels, (find out more about the good one here!) and one of them is a direct reaction to the High Fantasy genre. But a lot of times when I start my world building I start it from a place of genre knowledge. I look at other people’s work, I write in reaction to them. I think about the tropes I like and want to emulate or explore and what tropes I don’t like and want to subvert. In other words, I don’t approach my worlds so much as worlds to begin with, but rather as stories.

Now as I world build I do start to gravitate away from the confines of genres. The Dairkkul started as a reaction to typically demonic, evil factions in Fantasy stories, but evolved to be their own complex people. Mostly this came from considering their ability to shape life out of Doom Cotta and the problems and moral quandaries that ability created. But even as I started to write the Dairkkul and decide their noble houses I still leaned on my genre knowledge and the overall ‘theme’ I wanted them to exhibit.

In general theme and genre define my worlds more than a logical or focused extrapolation might. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Ghets is meant to be a playground where I can fool around with fantasy tropes with semi-self-aware characters. And there are always questions that writers can’t answer or even address in their worlds/stories, because it will break them. But I do think that there is something to be gained by throwing genre away.

To create new, interesting worlds, we need to do more than just remix the tropes we love. I’m not saying we should abandon genre completely. Emulating and reacting to other’s work is the foundation of art and it’s good to know of the novels that are similar to your own. But rather than trying to figure out the box we’re writing in, it might be better to start with the world first and then let the natural formation of that world and it’s reaction to element X decide the theme and genre. Maybe for my next work I’ll try it more Jemisin’s way.

My fellow writers, what’s your take? How do you approach world building?