Monthly Archives: December 2013

Some fragmentary thoughts on The Last of Us

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I’ve made sporadic, clumsy attempts to write about video games on this blog before, and here’s another. I do think I might do this more, though, because I write about games a good deal in a vaguely academic sense for Cyborgology, and when I do, I tend to come at them from a narrative-focused perspective, though I’ve also written about things like mechanics and game design (and DRM) because you can’t really separate those things from narrative in a game – yeah, that pretty much tips my hand on where I come down in the now-tired ludology/narratology debate.

I also tend to be behind in terms of writing about games that you have to pay more than about $10 for. This is because so much of my time is taken up by writing and teaching and other related stuff, and also because, for financial reasons, I tend to really, really try to wait for Steam sales, which usually puts me a few months behind at least.

All that said, I got The Last of Us for Christmas and I have some Thoughts. Here they are.

– I’m both impressed and a little startled that something this much of a trope salad ends up not feeling like a game that’s desperately and clumsily trying to please an audience that’s already been pounded to death by post-apocalyptic militaristic zombie dystopias. I don’t know if it’s because of how emotionally engaging the story manages to be or whether I’m just still a sucker for things like The Road, but I never found the obviously tropey stuff distracting or clangy. It somehow all meshes together and feels of a piece. That’s saying something about the quality of the writing involved.

– I cannot even believe the voice acting. This should be the standard that all other narrative-driven games try to meet, because you know? Voices mean a lot. They might mean just about everything. Facial animation helps, but man.

– Boy, a lot of the first half of it reminded me of Enslaved. I fucking loved that game.

– I do largely agree with Christopher Franklin that the game is working within a limited design format that ends up creating a slightly jarring disconnect between cutscenes and combat. The Last of Us is clearly trying to connect the two in a way that feels meaningful, but it doesn’t quite stick the landing. In what is – in my opinion – an otherwise nearly perfect game, that’s the one really noticeable false note.

– I loved the ending. I see why some people seem to not have done. But for me, the emptiness and the bleakness fit the rest of the game’s mood. I also found the ambiguity about the future more satisfying than I think others did. No, there are no immediate consequences for the choice that gets made. But I think the game is strongly implying that there will be, and they won’t be pretty. I like that the writers had the guts to leave the part to my imagination.

– Along those lines, I think the last game I played that was this emotionally brutal – aside from The Walking Dead, which also shares a lot of similarities here – was Spec Ops: The Line, though of course The Last of Us is nowhere near as overtly abusive. There were things that happened that literally had me staring at the screen in shock. There were things that made me say, out loud, “Oh my God.” There were things that I found deeply upsetting. Part of this is that I often lose myself in a story to the point where I don’t clue into the parts that other people find predictable, but regardless. Like The Line, this is not a “fun” game. It’s not trying to be.

– Further long those lines, probably what I found bravest and most effective is something else that the game shares in common with The Line, which is a deep skepticism about the idea of heroes in games wherein the protagonist commits acts of horrendous, cruel violence. Walt Williams, the lead writer for The Line, said in an interview something that I love and has stayed with me: “Your main character can never be more righteous than the core mechanic demands.” In other words, don’t do or be Nathan Drake. If you’re killing hundreds and even thousands of people, you are or must become a mutilated monster of a human being in some very fundamental ways, and the game’s story – if there is one – needs to address that in some way. Uncharted does not. The Last of Us does. Joel is not a hero. Joel is an emotionally ruined, selfish, wreck of a human being and he makes horrible choices. When the game ends and you sit there feeling sad and empty, I think that’s pretty much how you should feel.

Even further along those lines, I think The Last of Us does something else that makes the characterization of Joel even more poignant and effective: it makes it very, very clear that most of the people Joel/you kill aren’t special or evil or even significantly different than Joel himself. Almost everyone in the game is simply doing whatever they perceive is necessary for their own survival. No one is a good person; the world doesn’t allow them to be. As Joel says at one point, “it was either him or me.”

This is something else that The Line attempted to do: to humanize the people you kill, to make it clear that they’re just people, as lost and confused as the protagonist, desperately fighting to stay alive. That said, the one way in which this fails – and also failed in The Line, though I think you could also argue that it’s part of Martin Walker’s crazed attempt to justify to himself what he’s done – is that no one is really ever afraid of you, at least not in the gameplay segments. They remark on how startling and worrying it is that you’ve killed so many of their friends, but no one cowers in corners and pleads for you to spare their lives, unless they then attack you seconds later. No one runs in terror or tries to shield their friends from your bullets. They just come at you, over and over and over in a human wave, and you kill them. In that, the game both humanizes and dehumanizes them, and not in the conscious way in which The Line worked. It’s another slightly false note, though on my first playthrough I didn’t notice that it detracted from the experience at all. And in fact, I suspect that that has more to do with how accustomed I am to playing a game like that than the quality of the game itself.

I’m not sure how to fix this, and I’m skeptical that actually having NPC enemies do those things would be fully effective. I think the problem is, yet again, core mechanics, the fact that in a game like this, killing – even lent emotional weight by the narrative – is fundamentally problem-solving, something that has to be done in order to allow you to move through to the next cutscene. Again, I think The Line was aware of this and managed to make some narrative use of it, but it didn’t seem to me as though The Last of Us was, and I’m not sure how it could have been that kind of self-aware without being an entirely different kind of game.

A game that does do this – that does almost everything that The Last of Us is trying to do and does it much better – is The Walking Dead, but that game makes use of different mechanics; I think that’s a huge part of why it’s able to do these things more effectively. So again we’re simply running up against the inherent limitations of a particular kind of game.

Again, for what it is, I regard The Last of Us as a game that comes about as close to perfect as a game like itself could. It’s definitely on my list of the top ten games I’ve ever played. But again, I’m with Christopher Franklin in seeing it as also a perfect example of what this kind of game really just can’t do, at least not as it currently stands. I think it also stands as a call for something better, for something new in terms of how we blend mechanics with storytelling. So I’m optimistic about what The Last of Us means and is doing.

And I’m playing it all again, so that definitely has to mean something.

So hey let’s talk about romance for a sec

Because I think it’s appropriate at this juncture.

Warning: This might be whiny, though I’m also trying to talk about what I see as a persistent and troubling issue in how genres are marketed and how Feelings in SF are seen by some. Skip if none of that sounds appealing.

A day or so on Tumblr I saw a post making the rounds wherein someone was begging for reqs for non-romance genre fiction that nevertheless had a romantic sub-plot (queer in nature). Like any good self-serving author I was tempted to jump in with HEY I HAVE THIS BOOK CALLED LINE AND ORBIT THAT FITS THE BILL MAYBE YOU MIGHT WANT TO CHECK IT OUT OKAY PEACE

I didn’t, partly because it seemed like it might be obnoxious, but also because Line and Orbit is a science fantasy/space opera novel that is both categorized and marketed as gay romance, and it would look like I was effing lying.

I find myself in this position a lot when it comes to trying to get more mainstream SF-crowd attention for this book, the position of feeling like I need to say LOOK IT’S NOT ACTUALLY ROMANCE DON’T GET SCARED WAIT WHERE ARE YOU GOING COME BACK. I hate the idea of saying that, partly because, while the romantic relationship between Adam Yuga and Lochlan d’Bideshi is not really the primary focus of the book, it is nevertheless very, very important, and it probably is fair to categorize it as SF romance. But I also hate saying it because it makes me feel like I’m complicit in the disparaging of romance as a genre, which – let’s face it – tends to be misogynist in a really gross way as well as being silly and baseless, especially coming from SF&F, a genre wherein no one should be putting on airs.

But either way, I do feel like – I could be completely wrong about this – I’m fighting a general probable reaction of “oh, romance, that just doesn’t sound like it’s for me.”

I also feel like I’m fighting a less general but nevertheless very existent reaction of EW LADYFEELINGS IN MY SF but you know what basically fuck those people. They aren’t my audience and I don’t want them. There’s plenty of stuff out there for them.

The thing is, I’ve read books recently that were every bit as heavy on the romance as Line and Orbit, but were marketed as SF, and I do feel like those books have an easier time of it in terms of attracting attention from that crowd. Which, duh, marketing counts for a lot and ends up meaning that certain things are on people’s radar and certain things just aren’t, and that’s mostly fine. I’m also aware that sometimes people just don’t like a book, and that’s fine too; I do not mean to suggest that I think that PEOPLE AREN’T READING MY THING BECAUSE SEXISM. But at the end of the day, I still feel like I’m in an uncomfortable authorial position brought about by relationships within genre that are intensely problematic and also unlikely to change anytime soon.

This is all to say: I wish lines between genres weren’t so damn robust sometimes. I wish it didn’t get really, really sexist. I wish I was less clumsy at promotion. I wish I had a million dollars and a pile of kittens.

But I do hope that writing these kinds of books might, in a tiny little way, help. There should be a place for romance in science fiction and fantasy (and also vice versa, because I also get the sense that a lot of romance readers – rightly – feel very unwelcome in SF and don’t tend to go there), and really I think the two are natural partners – it’s there already. There should be absolutely no shame in it. And people shouldn’t be afraid of writing it or talking about it or liking it or just checking it out sometimes.

2013: a Writerly Review

Two things happened recently that are very good.

First, Line and Orbit got a Top Pick in RT Book Reviews. The review is here, but is behind a paywall for the next couple of months. However, it includes words like:

[A] delightful romance with a brilliantly clever science fiction twist…A truly innovative story that will even reward after multiple reads.

Also, Lois Tilton has picked me as her “2013 new author of promise”, as well as selecting my story “Event Horizon” as one of her four standout pieces of the year from Strange Horizons.

Given those yay-worthy tidbits, it seems like a good time to review 2013, which was a pretty great year, all told.

  • Novels. I wrote four of these and most of a fifth. They are: Wordsinger, which is unpublished and is making the agent rounds; the first version of Fall and Rising (the sequel to Line and Orbit), which will probably never see the outside of my hard drive; Labyrinthian, which will hopefully get picked up for a 2014 release; Ravenfall (the sequel to Crowflight); and the fifth almost-complete one is the second version of Fall and Rising. I had two novels see publication, Line and Orbit and Crowflight. Line and Orbit earned me my first starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. Hopefully it won’t be the last. It also took silver in the Best Gay SF and bronze in the Best Gay Debut categories of the Rainbow Awards.
  • Short fiction. Seven stories published in all. Full list here.  Two of them – “Event Horizon” and “A Heap of Broken Images” – were given the status of “recommended” by Lois Tilton at Locus. “A Heap of Broken Images” was selected by Gardner Dozois for the 31st volume of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, my first and again hopefully not last appearance there. Other high points: I made my second appearances in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, and Strange Horizons. I’m probably most proud of “A Heap of Broken Images”, not only for the recognition it’s gotten but for the company it has in We See a Different Frontier, which is an amazing  anthology that I’m incredibly happy to have been featured in.
  • Coming up. The print edition of Line and Orbit will be out on February 4th, and I’ll be giving a signed copy away. Ravenfall will probably be out from Masque Books sometime this coming year, though nothing is finalized yet.  I have stories coming out in both Apex and Lightspeed, as well as a story in the anthology Long Hidden. Hopefully there will be much more on the way.
  • Goals. I hope to have Rookwar, the final book in the Casting the Bones trilogy, done in the next few months. I mean to write the final chapter of the story I and my co-author began in Line and Orbit. I don’t think Labyrinthian will get a sequel – I feel like I did all I want to with those characters – but there is another novel in the Line and Orbit universe that I want to write, probably concerning Ixchel’s past and her relationship with Adisa (ah, doomed love). I would really like to have an agent by this time next year. I have several short stories that I’m working on and of course I always want to be producing those. I love novels and I’m spending a lot of time on them these days but I will always need to write short stuff, I think.

So yeah, 2013 was pretty much awesome. If 2014 continues the trend, I’ll consider myself both happy and fortunate indeed.

Joyeux Noel

image by Rob Wanenchak

Five-thousand million years ago, this earth lay heaving in a mass of rocks and fire
Wasting, burdened with its emptiness
Tonight, when arthropods and worms and sponges have given way to dinosaurs
And dinosaurs to working, wandering apes
Homo erectus have given way to sapiens, and he to
Homo sapiens sapiens (alias Paddy Mack)

Look down on Dublin from the hills around
And lights could be a million Christmas trees
Still firs standing, while in the sky a glow as if of dawn
This day a light shall shine on us
The Lord is born within our city

Look along to the river toward O’Connell Bridge
The lights, the neon signs, all stream on water like breathed-on strips of tinsel
All is still…

Eleven-thirty, pubs begin to empty
Men stop to argue, sway and say the name of Jesus
For those who have known darkness
Who have now seen a wondrous light
Those who have dwelt on unlit streets
To them the light has come

Tonight, few cars go by
The blocks of flats with windowed-plastic trees
And fairy lights stand, watching for a miracle
Here are no dells where fairies might appear

Out from the dark an ambulance comes speeding
Sickly blue lights search in siren-still
The mystery of the night ticks slowly on
It will pass and leave memories of friends and small, half-welcomed things

In Him was life
In Him, life was the light of man
For neither prehistoric swans nor trilobites, the mesozoic birds
Neanderthal, nor modern man had ever dreamt or seen what was our God

The shops are gay with lights and bright things
All save funeral homes, they dare not advertise their presence
As midnight peels and organs start to play
Two cars meet headlong in a haze of drink
The crash flicks into silence
Pain crawls like a slime through blood and into limbs
God is revealed, a baby naked, crying in a crib

In the church porches and out along the grounds
Teenagers laugh and swear, smokin’, watchin’ girls
So, once more, Christmas trails away
Its meaning moves back into the mist and the march of time

– John F. Dean

“So three men from the recovery house next door help him to his feet,walk him to the halfway house and put him in the shower. They wash his clothes and shoes and give him their things to wear while he waits. They give him coffee and dinner, and they give him respect. I talked to these other men later, and even though they had very little sobriety, they did not cast this other guy off for not being well enough to be there. Somehow this broken guy was treated like one of them, because they could see that he was one of them. No one was pretending he wasn’t covered with shit, but there was a real sense of kinship. And that is what we mean when we talk about grace.

“Back at the meeting at the Episcopal Cathedral, I was just totally amazed by what I had seen. And I had a little shred of hope. I couldn’t have put it into words, but until that meeting, I had thought that I would recover with men and women like myself; which is to say, overeducated, fun to be with and housebroken. And that this would happen quickly and efficiently. But I was wrong. So I’ll tell you what the promise of Advent is: It is that God has set up a tent among us and will help us work together on our stuff. And this will only happen over time.

“For you, Crabby Miss, and for me; together, over time.”

Anne Lamott

I got an early Christmas present

Yesterday I received an unexpected package.

BcMg46DIEAAAsBE.jpg largeYes, that is what it looks like. I didn’t honestly expect to get my contributor copies until mid-January at the earliest, so this is fantastic. Just in time for gifting.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be giving away one of these babies, signed. Stay tuned.

Merry Holidaymas from the Moraine compound

And yeah, it sort of is a compound, given how weird our landlords are about putting up fences with scary KEEP OUT signs. Anyhoo, this is our first Christmas in the new place, so for posterity, the tree.

We’re Philadelphia ex-pats, if you didn’t know.

And a very Merry Catmas from Sadie.

 

Sunday Linkdump: That murning made and mirth among

From photos the husband did of our Christmas decorations. Little-known Biblical fact: there were Megalodons at the birth of Jesus.

Last one before Christmas, yay. Trying a bit of a more streamlined format.

A Maiden moder mek and myld,
In cradle kep,
A knave child,
That softly slept, she sat and sange.