Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Make Room, Make Room

Empty Shelves

Pardon the self-indulgence (honestly, what else is one going to do with a blog?), but I'm going to wallow for a moment and pour one out for my old graduate office space, which I finally locked up for the last time today. Not a moment too soon, and probably slightly late--ten minutes AFTER the next tenant comes in is cutting things officially too short. I know the room is property of the university and department, and not meant to be thought of as belonging to any individual students (or groups of students, or post-students). And I know it was selfish of me to continue squatting in the space when other graduate students were fighting for space. And I know that the space, and my attachment to it, are somewhat symptomatic of a degree it took me Too Long to complete. 

And yet... I feel a twinge of real loss at giving up access to it. It's silly to call it a home, but it was a space, a place, that was mine for a very long time. I spent eight years, give or take, in that office; I've dwelt there longer than any other place since moving to Kitchener-Waterloo. In fact, I've dwelt there longer than any place since moving out of my parents' house sixteen years ago. It was a bit of continuity in a changing life, and I'll miss it.

So it goes, and time marches on. Onwards, upwards, and so forth to whatever comes next.

(And yes, I see the resonance between a graduate space that I've clinged to for too long and this blog. So don't think pointing it out is clever or something.)

Later Days.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Book, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou--and no offense, but the Bread and the Thou are optional

I just had one of the most relaxing Sunday afternoons of my life. It was very simple; I walked around for a bit, I stopped, and I read for a while. Once at a coffee shop while I had lunch, once on campus, once in the park, and once in another coffee shop while sipping on a frappaccino. And each time, I'd rotate between reading a chapter in one of four books: Brian Staveley's The Providence of Fire (high fantasy fare--also, incidentally, a great title); Darowski's The Ages of the X-Men (an edited essay collection discussing the X-Men chronologically); Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (my first foray into classic literature in a LONG time); and Enevold and MacCallum-Stewart's Game Love (an edited essay collection on play and affection in games).

All of the books were satisfying. The Providence of Fire had various maneuverings and fights, and The Brothers Karamazov had the first but not the second; in general, BK has proven to be a book that's not really about anything but a very close look at the lives of the title characters. The bit I read today covered a long monologue from Ivan about an imaginary confrontation with God to Alyosha returning to the monastery. Ages of the X-Men had four essays about various aspects of the X-Men early years--the cultural understanding of mutants in America leading up to the X-Men's debut, the way the 60s comics depicted Cold War negotiiations and promoted the commune (two separate essays there), and the way the 70s Claremont-relaunch was driven initially by market concerns. I read an essay from each of Game Love's sections, which meant one from Waern on how players express love for NPCs in Dragon Age: Origins, one from Brown on interviews from erotic role-players in World of Warcraft, one from Lenio taking an exceptionally ontological view of what it means to love an NPC, and finally, a rather lengthy essay criticizing the way sustained videogame play is framed in terms of addiction, whether that's in terms of cognitive science, psychology, or holistically as compensation for a lack in the player's lives.

But to be honest, very little of the above had any impact on why I found the day so relaxing. The content of the books didn't matter. The exact locations didn't matter. The rigidity of the formula--four readings, four locations, repeat--didn't matter. What matters is that I sat in a public space for a while and read a book. And that act, in whatever variation it might unfold, is like a cup of tea straight to my soul.

Reading alone at home doesn't put me in that state; neither does reading on the bus, or playing videogames, in public or private. Neither does walking through a place, or talking with someone else on a park bench or hanging out at a coffee shop. Don't get me wrong; I like all of those things, quite a bit. But none of those are relaxing in the same way that today was. If I had to put it into words, I enjoy being in one place while the world flows around me, and the world and I are content to let each other be. I have a hunch that this would be my ideal vacation too--go to somewhere exotic and, instead of seeing the sights or doing adventurous stuff, simply sitting in a corner and watch a different part of the world unfold without worrying about a deadline or whether I should be doing something else.

I've known this about myself for quite some time, and in the spring especially, I like to stop in the park on a bench on the way home from work and indulge for a half hour or so; spending basically a full day at it like today is nice but not necessary. And it always puts me in a good mood for the evening.

I'm curious, though, if it extends the other way. If I get up in the morning and spend a half hour on a park bench before I reach work, will that tranquility be instilled into the whole day? Will it give me at least a morning boost? Or would morning crankiness and work grind chip away at my zen?

Might be worth finding out.

What's your secret to tranquility?

Later Days.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Movie Buff: A Spoileriffic Review of The Final Girls

The Final Girls is a film with a good hook, but bad follow-through. (Does that work? I guess the metaphor is that the film is a boxer.) The elevator pitch is decent--a group of five modern teenagers find themselves trapped in a 1980s horror film, complete with stalker monster and a camp full of horny counselors. And it's got a great cast, suited for its tongue-in-cheek approach to the material--Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), Tom Middleditch (Silicon Valley) and Taissa  Farmiga (American Horror Story). And the 80s counselors include Adam DeVine (Modern Family, Work Aholics, Pitch Perfect; it's a similar asshole performance as Pitch Perfect, but he's really good at it) and Malin Akerman (Children's Hospital). The problem isn't in the premise, or the actors, but the details.

If you're going to have a film that mocks the plot of horror movies, even 1980s horror movies, you need to have a reasonably rock-solid plot yourself. And there are some gaps here. I spent the first half of the movie assuming Gertie, Alia Shawkat's character, was Max (Farmiga)'s aunt, because while Shawkat is great in this and I want to see her in more movies in general, she is playing high school age, or freshman college--ditto with Tom Middleditch. You can kind of squint and make the case that this doesn't matter for DeVine, Akerman, and the rest of the 80s crew, since they don't have to be believable as teenagers so much as it needs to believable that someone in the 80s would cast them as such, but for the modern group, it doesn't work. The actors are, again, great, but the roles they're playing could use some re-definition.

The other problem is the emotional core at the center of the movie. In the movie within the movie, Akerman plays a scream queen, whose role is to lose her virginity and die horribly for it; in the movie at large, she's also Max's mother, who gets killed in the first scene. A lot of the film is devoted to the daughter working through the mom's death through interactions with a fictional character that looks like her mom. It's kind of a clumsy set-up: Nancy, the in-film character, has to be elastic/shallow enough to bond with someone she just met, but real enough for Max's emotional struggle to matter, AND fit in as a stock horror trope for the film within the film. It takes a lot of hoop jumping to make it happen, and I'm not sure it works. A better way to go about it, I think, would have been for Akerman as Max's mom not die in that first scene, go with them into the film, and be forced to replace Nancy after she accidentally dies too soon, to keep the plot going.

There's a lot of little logic jumps too, where the plot's compromised to make a joke of questionable quality--that's the peril of trying to be a meta-horror film and a comedy. But there's also some really coo bits, both meta and otherwise. The moment where the modern group realise that they're about to meet Max's deceased mom is wonderfully creepy (and would admittedly be a loss if they changed it to my suggestion), and the first half of the fight against the slasher is really cool as it threatens to go against and in their favour. On the meta level, finding out that the entire film universe loops every 92 minutes, being caught up in a flashback, and I can see the humour in trying to restrain the ditsy oversexualized character (Angela Trimbur does a real fun job with the role, putting a lot more into it than it really deserves), even if it doesn't quite get there. 

It's not a bad movie, and it does the aforementioned meta-horror/comedy mix better than, say, the entirety of the Scary Movie franchise. It's not as good as Cabin in the Woods, though it fits light popcorn film a lot better. It has some strong performances from really great comedic actors. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hoping for more. There's room for more play, and more critical play, than what's here.

Later Days.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

In My Defense

My defense is next Friday. To say that I am anxious about it would be a severe understatement. I can hardly bear to spend more than an hour or so away from it. I am having an onslaught of dreams where I accidentally sleep through the whole thing (which takes a lot of sleeping, since it's an afternoon defense). The biggest sign of all is that the anxiety has even brought me back to my poor, neglected blog. So this post is going to be a stream of consciousness hodge-podge that will hopefully let me vent some steam.

The preparation itself is interesting. Up to this point, I managed to avoid most of my worry by focusing on smaller events that were happening between the time the date was set (back in late September) and now. First, I was giving a guest lecture on narrative and ludology for my supervisor's first year course. Then I had another guest lecture on masculinity and game culture for another professor's class (this is turning into a humble brag about my guest lectures, but I'm going somewhere here, honest). Most recently, there was going to Wordplay 2015, a one day event in Toronto showcasing games that feature words predominantly in one way or another--a must-go event for someone whose research area is videogames and text. (I met Emily Short! I made a no to slightly negative impression!) In each case, the dissertation defense was something I was working on in the background and preparing for, but it wasn't until it was the Next Thing Coming that it suddenly started to really affect me.

The prep is going... all right, I think. I've met with the tech people, so I'm nominally familiar with the equipment in my defense room. I've done enough presentations to know that being familiar doesn't stop things from going wrong, but at least I'll know what to troubleshoot when it does. I've read over and over the dissertation draft, finding all the terrible typos that somehow evaded me before the dissertation went out. 

Actually, I have some advice on that note. For financial and moral reasons, I use Open Office, an open-source word processing program, over Microsoft Office, but I really wish I had converted it into MO before sending it out. The big problem was formatting it properly with the table of contents and page numbering. To make a table of contents, you need to set up headings and subheadings, and there's a bug where OO automatically adds about half a dozen lines of blank space to the first footnote of every chapter, regardless of how many times I take it out. The other problem was the page numbering--university regulations say that everything that comes before the table of contents has to have roman numeral page numbers, and arabic numbering for the TOC and everything after. And again, that's a pain to do in OO. (Maybe a pain in MO too, but it's OO I'm working with) I finally wound up having to copy the whole document into a new sheet entirely so I could start from scratch. And THAT wound up, for some reason, erasing all the alignments I did for my long quotations. I had to go in and re-align them manually, and as a result, I missed about a quarter of them. Suffice to say, OO is not maximized for 300+ pages of formatting.

I've also met with two out of the three members of my internal committee, which has been a huge source of relief--I'd really recommend it to those prepping for their own defense. Even apart from the useful advice on how to handle the defense, talking with them has reminded me that, at this point, I am the expert; I'm not just the expert on the subject, but on the defense itself. I will certainly have read it through more than anyone else in the room, and it takes a priority for me more than anyone else in the room. That second part in particular is a useful reminder, in that for everyone else, this is a routine thing--while everyone's there for the dissertation, I'm the one with the greatest emotional investment. It's a big deal in my head, but less so for everyone else. I don't think I'm fully expressing what I'm trying to say here, but I find it comforting on some level to remember that the dissertation is less burdensome from other frames of mind.

It's still going to weigh pretty heavy on my frame, though. The major task left is to prepare the slideshow. That's easier said than done. All in all, I've got a minor or major focus on approximately forty different games throughout the course of the argument, and that means a lot of screenshots that I need to line up. That's a practical aspect of game studies that isn't discussed enough, I think--how presenting a lecture on a videogame differs from more traditional media. Luckily, I have a small bank of images ready to go from previous presentations--video game manuals, Doom, Myst, and Planescape: Torment are already covered. That still leaves, however, two dozen or so games from the second and fifth chapters that need more substantiation. I spent about four hours last night watching walkthroughs of Final Fantasy: Tactics, only to realize that was watching the remake, not the original, just to get a shot of a cutscene that occurred about 3/4 of the way through the game. Film studies doesn't have this problem! (It has its own, I imagine. But not this one, specific problem, in exactly the same way.)

Anyway, I'd better get back to the work. I have promises to keep, and hours of Ni No Kuni walkthroughs to go before I sleep.

Later Days.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Story Idea: the ol' f ⊕ f

Quick story idea: a fantasy trilogy called "Fight or Flight." First book is "Fight," wherein, immediately, a crown prince type character is ambushed by a potential usurper. The rest of the book is a study of the culture in the grips of a civil war. Epic war fantasy type stuff, ala Game of Thrones. 

 Book 2 is "Flight." Same starting point, but instead of responding by raising his own army, the crown prince type goes on the run. Instead of the war fantasy, the operative mode is the thriller novel, with the prince one step ahead of his pursuers. This time around, though, I play with the readers' knowledge of the first book, confounding it in some places, allowing them to predict events in others, by using the same cast of characters, but to different effect. Also include some revelations that shed new light on motivations in book 1. Both books end, somewhat anticlimatically, for a fantasy book, in tragedy. 

The third book is "Or....?". There's a number of different approaches for this one. One would be to take literally, a number of different approaches, sketching out a plethora of alternatives for crown prince beyond those explored in the first two books, and using the readers' knowledge of the fictional world derived from the other two books to fill in the blanks. Or stretch out a single one, that deliberately incorporates parts of one and two. The real question is how far to make explicit the overall model in the last run. Should the narrator play coy about the repeated structure, or is that the point where they nod conspiratorially to the reader? Could the character be made aware of "the multiverse" without it feeling too hackneyed?

The idea of multiple time lines is pretty common in science fiction, and the retellings of such universes is pretty old hat--I mean, we've even got the "evil = beard" star trek cliche. I think it's a little more rare in fantasy. The closest is the "this story has many tellings" that you get through repeated variations on fairy tales and the like, or the approach where the fantasy world is deliberately constructed as a videogame, and is thus open to restarting and replaying with different approaches. (Vivian Van Velde's books are my childhood go-to for that sort of thing, though others have utilized it as well.) I guess Robert Jordan does it too, in some of the earlier Wheel of Time books, though not to this degree.  All right, so it's a hack idea. I still think it would be a fun exercise in plotting. The trick would be to engage the reader in such a way that the repetition is a feature, not a bug. 

Anyway, just an idea to toss out there. But it's mine, dammit, and if any of youse steals it... Well, then I'll have to think of a follow-up.

Later days.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Chrono Trigger Warning

As in, a warning I'm going to make a terrible Chrono Trigger pun. Also, flippancy aside, I think trigger warnings are a useful thing, and I encourage people to do them. I was proctoring for an examination today, and that means essentially three hours of standing around not using your phone or reading. It was an English test, so cheating is generally at a minimum, which meant I was largely there to escourt male students to the washroom. As the prehistoric pelican said, it's a living. It's not a particularly exciting living, though, so to keep my mind occupied, I thought I'd spend the time going mentally over the ins and outs of a favorite series. I came into the quick problem, though, that I'm not really a repeat viewer anymore. There are books I'll read again, and episodes I'll rewatch, but an entire series overview isn't where my media interest is these days. So I needed something lengthy that I'd been through so many times that it was more or less embedded in my brain. I waffled a bit, and wound up with the 1995 Super Nintendo game Chrono Trigger. I'm sure I've talked about Chrono Trigger before, though I'm not in the mood to track down those entries. And I'm also not in the mood to offer much by way of explanation of the game's basic plot or mechanics. So the rest of this post is one for the Chronoheads (as I'm sure they call each other despite me just making the term up). --I could go through most of the plot in my head, with two exceptions. First, how the party learns about Melchoir--I'd totally forgotten about his Millenial Fair appearance. Second, how the party gets to the Antiquity time period--Lavos' arrival creates a convenient crater. So there you go. --Unlike its contemporary, Final Fantasy VII, the party-characters of Chrono Trigger don't really have an arc to them. They're just a bunch of happy-go-lucky folk (and Magus) who resolve to save the world from apocalypse. I'm largely ok with that, because they're still fairly fully-realized characters, if a little one-dimensional. You give me a bit of dialogue, and I could still probably determine which character said it. That's memorable character writing, in my book. --Ozzy's a perfect mid-boss character. He's scheming, manipulative, but not really good at it. He's distinct enough and difficult enough to be acceptable as a repeat character, and hits just the level of annoying you need to make beating him satisfactory, but also sufficiently annoying that it wouldn't be dramatically acceptable for him to be any more significant than that. Other JRPG characters fill similar roles: Liz and Ard in Wild Arms 2, Geshp in Shining Force II, and Ultros in Final Fantasy VI. Disgaea lampshades the mid-boss role to amusing effect. I'd have to go back to check this out, but I think one of the points in Final Fantasy VI's favor is that Kafka is largely presented as a mid-boss (albeit a particularly murderous one) until half way through the game. --And while he's largely a joke, I always felt sorry for him if you bring Magus in the party to fight him the final time. He expresses anger at Magus betraying the Fiends, and Magus utterly dismisses him: "Hear that? It's the sound of the reaper." Under Ozzie's goofiness, there's some untapped tragedy. --(I really, really hate to say this, but given the Reptites' and the Fiends'struggle against humans, and how Chrono and co are utterly uncaring about either except for how it gets in the way of their larger goals, Chrono Cross does a much better job of exploring the uneasiness of that dual existence. And given that the fiends seem largely extinct in the future (maybe they're the mutants and such?), their struggle does seem necessary.) --Two really fun longform accounts of Chrono Trigger:Reverse Design blog's version, which as you'd expect, focuses mainly on design; and Michael P. Williams' book Chrono Trigger from the Boss Fights book publisher, which digs more into the cultural and philosophical sides. --Re-using enemy sprites is pretty common in videogames, and Chrono Trigger is as guilty of this as anyone. (Though I do like the subtle visual suggestion that the Fiends are the descendants of the Reptites.) But what the game does really well is offer variations on monsters you've already encountered that require the player to shift tactics. For example, it becomes pretty clear immediately that Queen Zeal's final form is like the much earlier Giga Gais--a central head, and two appendages. But with Giga, the strategy is to take out the powerful hands and go after the defenseless head after. with Zeal, attacking the hands results in a devastating counterattack. Similar things going on with Guardian and, much later, Mother Brain. --When all's said and done, my favorite part of Chrono Trigger (besides the time travelling, maybe) is Lavos as a villain. It exists on such a larger scale than any other creature in the game, it played a pivotal role in shaping the history of civilization, and for the most part, right up until the final battle, it bares acknowledges or can acknowledge that the heroes even exist. It's just too alien to think in terms of individual humans. --I wonder if the giant decomposing corpse of a space monster in the earth's core will create any problems. Also, the whole point of the Antiquity era is that it's a society built from channeling power from Lavos, but where is Lavos getting the energy? Presumably, it's feeding off the earth in some way--if it wasn't, it wouldn't need to inhabit the planet's core. OK, looking at the game's script, it's not clear that that's what Lavos is doing; it may be sucking the earth's vitality, but the big work is harvesting the DNA of its organisms, which it does by... hanging out at the earth's core? At any rate, when the player goes to 1999 to fight Lavos on the day it arrives, it occurs to me that this is the worst possible time to fight Lavos--it's already harvested the life force it needs, and now all it has to do is bust out and leave. Is the earth in much better shape if you fight Lavos (via the Black Omen) in an early era? Or since the difference between antiquity and the future is so much less than prehistoric and any other time period, does that mean the damage has already been done? Chrono Trigger sequel: the Lavos energy crisis. --Speaking of Chrono Trigger sequels, going back and reading that Lavos (somehow) shaped all evolution on earth does lend some credence to the plot of Chrono Cross. But to say that it was responsible for humanity only, as Chrono Cross claims, is still off. We *see* humanity exist before Lavos arrives, and characters claim that it manipulated more than just humans in Chrono Trigger's final fight. So there and take that, decades-old videogame that is still rightfully considered a classic! So thinking through Chrono Trigger took up about half of the two and a half hour exam. I spent the rest thinking about this blog post. And here it is. Later Days.

Edit: I guess this is what happens when you do your whole post in HTML mode over compose mode; it eats up all your spaces. Well, I kind of like the ridiculousness of the lack of spacing, so I'll keep it as is. It makes the whole thing feel like an out of breath declaration, which fits, given my fannish obsession with the subject.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Random Thoughts, May 2015 edition: Futurama, dissertations, informed consent in fantasy, and match 3 games

This is going to be a combination of updates, and things that have occurred to me.

* "Not sure if _____ or ______"
"You're _____ is bad, and you should feel bad!"
"I don't want to live on this planet anymore."
"__________ do not work that way!
"I'll make my own ___________! With blackjack, and hookers!
Not an original observation, but Futurama's clearly going to be more remembered as a meme generator than a TV show. There's a Buzzfeed article in there, somewhere."
Just posted this on Facebook. I don't really feel like fleshing it out too much further at the moment, but it's an interesting issue.Arguably, Futurama has had more cultural value as a source of memes than as a TV show. That probably still holds if you talk financial value too--but only if you factor in the ad revenue generated by the hundreds and thousands of sites that have deployed variations of these memes to get clicks. It's not money that's going to the show creators. Then again--who creates a meme? Its original coiners, or its major circulators? If I ever have a spare couple of days, it's a new media area I'd like to delve into more fully.

*The dissertation's reaching a boiling point. My defense is projected for September--though I've only got permission for one more term of grad school, so that's a fun future hurdle--and I'm still coping with the notion of what comes next. I should be applying for things and submitting other things like crazy but... I'm not there yet. It might be the same sort of procrastination that led to the degree delays to begin with, but I feel like something still needs to click. Soon, hopefully.

*Speaking of clicking, I've been reading Rachel Aaron's The Legend of Eli Monpress. I'll probably have a full review somewhere at some point, but an idea in regards to the series popped into my head today, and I want to preserve it. The magic system in the novel is essentially the animus version, with a genie twist. That is, every object in the fantasy world--manmade or natural--if it's of sufficient size, is inhabited by a lifeforce, a sentient spirit. Wizards can communicate with the spirit, and bind it to them and make it serve them, ala the genie/master relationship. So far, so good. But what Aaron adds to the concept that really makes it interesting is the idea that the current dominant group of wizards, the spiritualists, believe that it's unethical to bind a spirit against its will. The only spirits you can call on as servant, then, are the ones that you enter into a willing relationship with, where both parties supply the other with what they need, and both may break it off, if they wish. In short, it's a fantasy universe where magic is based on the idea of informed consent.  That's kind of amazing, and makes the series really relevant in terms of greater cultural issues. Yes, there's a huge difference between consent as relates to sexuality and as it relates to magical spirits, but framing the relationship in terms of ethics and moral responsibility over personal desire creates some really interesting parallels.

*I gave a talk this week based on the third chapter of my dissertation. I got some good feedback on it, but in a lot of ways, it's the wrong point in the dissertation process to be soliciting feedback from outside of my committee. I'm really glad I did it, and I understand my own argument and how it's perceived a lot better now, but it would have been better to have pursued this sort of thing earlier. At that point of writing, I was too caught up in the idea that I couldn't put anything out there until I had my committee's seal of approval; more experimentation could have been helpful. That's something to remember.

*Conversation overheard on the bus today: "When I was a kid, I used to read while I walked around, with my nose in a book." "Me too! It really bugged my mom. She thought I'd walk into a tree, or something."
Me, in my head: "I AM ONE OF YOU."

*This weekend is all about prepping for the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and writing the paper for the Canadian Game Studies Association. I've got some draft notes, but it's time to flesh them out. If I was a better planner, it'd be a presentation on dissertation-related material, or even a revised version of this week's talk. Instead, it'll be a look at the cultural, economic, and design-related issues involving Match-3 type games. Basically, it's a chance to take some of things I've said  about Match-3 games and put them before a larger audience. I'm thinking five minutes on the social and economic aspects of Match-3 games in general, five minutes on how some of them incorporate narrative skins, and five minutes on how Marvel Puzzle Quest in particular approaches these issues.  If anyone's interested, I might put the piece up here when it's done.

Later Days.