Joe Queenan in The Wall Street Journal has a good article entitled “Why Italian Moms Are the Best”. It’s about this ridiculous fad, started by Amy Chua, of books claiming what groups produce the best mothers.  The article does a pretty good job pointing out the absurdities of it all, even if it does sort of engage in them at the same time.

I’m getting pretty tired of this stuff myself. It’s a stupid concept. Logically, if one group consistently produced the best mothers, it would also consistently produce the best sons and daughters, and therefore be immediately and obviously superior to all the others. That this is not the case shows that the different groups each have their advantages and disadvantages. Everyone already knew that. This is just a way to sell books by giving them provocative titles about a subject people are sensitive about.

A friend of mine told me about this book not too long ago, and then I read that Thingy had enjoyed Selznick’s book Wonderstruck, but since Hugo Cabret was written first, I thought I’d check it out first.

The book is quite interesting in that it makes use of illustrations to tell the story. By that I mean not simply that it illustrates scenes from the text, but rather that it alternates telling the story in text, then in pictures, then back to text again. This quality makes it hard for me to discuss the actual story in this review, since it’s hard to describe it without including all the pictures. Besides, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. So, my review focuses mostly upon the book’s style rather than its story.

I will say, however, that the story is quite cute–it’s intended for children, so perhaps there were times when certain plot elements were obvious to me, but the intended audience would not have seen them coming. But it’s still a very good little tale even without the innovative method of telling.

This method, however, is definitely the book’s big selling point, and with good reason. Selznick’s pictures call to mind a storyboard, and with good reason, given the subject of the story. Moreover, the alternation of pictures and text gives a “pace” to the flow of the story that would be quite unachievable otherwise.

It’s not always perfect–there were a few scenes where I felt the illustrations were unnecessary, and a few where I couldn’t make out what I was looking at very easily, which is a problem when the picture is integral to the story. But even so, when it works, it works very well. There are times when the pictures flow together like a 1930s-style animation–a quality which, again, is highly relevant to the story, for reasons which I will let you discover.

I think Selznick’s style is very clever, and may indeed be put to even more ambitious use than it is in Hugo Cabret. For some reason–perhaps simply the Parisian setting the two stories share–I thought it would be interesting to see H.P. Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann adapted in this style. Selznick’s illustrations have a mysterious and otherworldly quality that would lend itself well to a horror story, even though Hugo Cabret is certainly not that.

At any rate, it’s an innovative book. I encourage you to check it out.

Thanks to Thingy, I’ve been reading up on the “Amityville horror“–the actual case and the book about it, not so much the movies.

Apparently, there’s quite a lot of controversy over the extent to which it is “a true story”. Without having read it, but only read about it, I’d have to say that it’s certainly a compelling and powerful story, but on the other hand, so many of the weird events that happened to the Lutz family sound kind of clichéd. For instance, quoting from Wikipedia:

“The Lutzes’ five-year-old daughter, Missy, developed an imaginary friend named ‘Jodie,’ a demonic pig-like creature with glowing red eyes.”

To me, that’s really creepy. True or no, it’s something that sticks in the reader’s mind. But the concept also sounds a lot like the idea behind “Captain Howdy” in The Exorcist. Also, the actual description of the thing reminds me a bit of the Lord of the Flies from the 1954 book of the same name.

A believer in the supernatural might make the argument that horror clichés are clichés precisely because these phenomena have haunted humanity from the beginning, and thus speak to something in our genetic memory. Or perhaps, as Charles Lamb wrote in Witches and Other Night-Fears:

“Gorgons and Hydras, and Chimaeras—dire stories of Celaeno and the Harpies—may reproduce themselves in the brain of superstition—but they were there before. They are transcripts, types—the archetypes are in us, and eternal.” 

(As an aside, H.P. Lovecraft used that passage as the epigraph to his story The Dunwich Horror, the title of which is thought, according to Wikipedia, to have inspired the title The Amityville Horror.)

My reaction to this, as to all such “true ghost stories” is: well… maybe. I can’t say for absolute certain that it’s impossible. Who knows what weird stuff there is out there? But it seems unlikely. I mean, which is more probable, given your knowledge of the world:

  • That bizarre, fantastic supernatural phenomena occurred.
  • That some people made up a story that sounded cool for money and fame. 

I’m not saying the Lutzes were lying–I have no proof of that, and really, no one can know for sure. Their story might have been quite true. But at the same time, I think know which scenario is more plausible. It’s the same way with all these sorts of tales.

I loved the Fallout: New Vegas add-on Dead Money, which is about a heist in an ancient casino called the “Sierra Madre”. I therefore assumed it was based on the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which I’ve heard about but never seen. However, Dead Money writer Chris Avellone tweeted when someone asked him about this that it was based more on the book that inspired the movie.

I hadn’t even known that the movie was based on a book. So, I decided to find out about the book, and maybe pick it up if it sounded good. But then, I got to reading about the book’s author, “B. Traven“. His life is quite fascinating–or more accurately, the theories about what it might have been like are. It seems he was something of a mysterious man. (I guess I should know, right?)

I won’t attempt to summarize all the ideas people have about who he might have been, but it’s quite intriguing. I don’t know how much of it is common knowledge to you, but I was surprised that I hadn’t heard about something so interesting before.

Let me begin with a quote from a recent interview with my favorite writer, Chris Avellone, who said of his feelings on the digital distribution of video games:

“I love digital distribution… Of course, one of the greatest things about digital distribution is what it does to reduce the used game market. I hope digital distribution stabs the used game market in the heart.”

The used games market is upsetting to developers like Avellone because the developers make no money directly off of games sold in that market. Some say it is good for the industry as a whole, in which case perhaps the rising tide lifts all boats, but there is room for debate.

Now, here is a quote from a not-so-recent interview with my other favorite writer, W.S. Gilbert, talking about the problem of Americans pirating his and Arthur Sullivan’s comic operas:

“It is the American pirates for whom we have a deadly hatred. But we shall soon be even with them… We… are determined to do battle with every American manager who attempts to produce one of our plays without paying the fee. We have fought, we are fighting, and we intend to fight, cost what it may. The pirates are beginning to fear our pugnacity, and I think we shall win in the end.” 

Reading these two quotes set me thinking about the similarities between the medium of video games and that of theatrical performances. While selling used games is not quite analogous to pirating stage plays, it may be, I think, even more analogous than pirating video games is to pirating stage plays. And really, all are almost identical from the perspective of the creators.

Avellone inspired some anger with his comments. (Gilbert probably did too, but there was no internet in his day, so we don’t know what his fanboys and haters thought.) Since eliminating the used market would make it harder to get games cheaply, some fear it would hurt the medium, both artistically and economically.

And indeed, one could make the same argument about theater performances. After all, if Americans were putting on unlicensed performances of Gilbert and Sullivan, did that not signify healthy demand for good comic opera? I mean, contrast this with the present-day when, I suspect, most people wouldn’t go see it for free. And indeed, after so many American productions of H.M.S. Pinafore, G&S and Richard D’Oyly Carte moved to get in on the action with their next opera. (About, amusingly, pirates.)

Economically speaking, used game sellers, game pirates and theater pirates are all quite similar in their effects on the market. However, if we consider games and plays from an artistic, and not economic perspective, there are also similarities. The first thing that springs to my mind is that the practice of “modding” games is quite analogous to some of the updating and setting changes given to stage plays. I don’t know if I’d say West Side Story is to Romeo and Juliet as Counter-Strike is to Half-Life, but the practices seem to me to be similar. (There is also the fact that in both stage productions and video games, it sometimes falls to the fan community to restore a piece to its originally intended form.)

There’s more freedom, I guess, in games and plays than there is with movies and books. I suppose you could also argue the same is true with music, as musicians may cover a song and in so doing change its meaning. But since many songs ultimately depend on the skills and intentions of one performer, as opposed to being collaborative like games and plays, the analogy is not quite as good.

If you are wondering what my point with this post is, there really isn’t one. I’m just kind of musing.

Nathaniel Chapman, a video game designer at my favorite game studio, Obsidian Entertainment, had a good post on his blog about “A Theory of Fun”. He makes a great point that “fun” doesn’t describe a game, it describes the experience you have while playing it.

His post also made me wonder: do I play video games for fun? Do I, for that matter, read books or watch movies or otherwise indulge in such pursuits for “fun”?

I mean, I obviously do it for pleasure. But what is this sensation “fun”? For instance, are my two favorite games Knights of the Old Republic II and Planescape: Torment “fun”? I don’t know if I would actually say they are. The feeling I get from them is altogether a more powerful one. It is much more like “awe” or “wonder” than “fun”.

There are some games, obviously, which I play purely for fun. Sports simulation games, especially, come under this label. But I do not think of these games as being in any way “better” than those above, though they may technically be more “fun”.

This applies to many other things, as well. The basic romance or murder-mystery novel, is, or at least used to be, regarded by many as a “fun”, cheaply thrilling reading experience, whereas reading Great Literature (or in some circles, Holy Books) is not actually a “fun” experience but definitely a better one. The same goes for films: Star Wars and Jurassic Park are “fun” films. Are films like Citizen Kane “fun”, or is the feeling they evoke different?

People often do draw a distinction between “High Art” and “Low Art” to describe this kind of thing, but the trouble with that is that it can quickly devolve into labeling things you personally dislike “Low Art”, and then it becomes simply an issue of taste.

Before I get to my main point here, I should begin by saying that it is thought by many that fictional storytelling ought to convey a “message” or “moral” or else in various ways make people think or challenge certain beliefs they held. There are also many others, however, who believe that fiction should only entertain, and should not question assumptions or in any way engender serious thought in the audience. Those readers who hold the latter view are to be warned that the following article proceeds from the premise that fiction ought to compel thought.

If this is the case, it still leaves the problem of how to go about challenging assumptions and provoking thought. However, if a work of fiction is to challenge a belief system, it is very difficult for it not to veer into the realm of what we call “propaganda”. (I use the word in its colloquial sense, to evoke the concept of “forced moralizing”.)

A novel which challenges its readers beliefs could be viewed as merely a work of propaganda, and therefore discounted. Since the author controls all events in the narrative, it may be said that there is no lesson to learn from his/her novel, because he may manipulate it to prove whatever s/he wishes.

Because of the nature of storytelling, it has long been the case that the interaction is fundamentally one-sided. The audience is told the story, and judges it as they will. If it is a story with a “moral”, and that “moral” is in harmony with their beliefs, they will likely praise it, and if it conflicts they will probably dislike it.* They must, however, “take it or leave it”.

In this respect, video games are different from other forms of storytelling, in that audience input can change the outcome. For this reason, video games have the potential to allow a degree of give and take not allowed by the other forms. Whereas in a book or film, the audience sees the maker’s characters enacting a set piece with a particular aim, or, if it is really sophisticated, some amount of ambiguity; in video games one may choose one’s interactions with the characters and plot elements.

Now it’s true that most games are not taking full advantage of this capability, and small wonder; as it requires more work on the part of the author(s) to do it well. Most games do not even try, and even of the games which do afford the player the chance of impacting the story, many simply allow a choice between being a selfless good Samaritan and a cruel psychopath, as excellently documented by Eric at Critical Missive. There is very little in the way of true moral choice; the player merely plays through both ways so s/he can claim such as another notch on the controller.

However, there are some games–Planescape: Torment and KotOR II are my personal examples, as longtime readers were no doubt expecting–which I think do elicit an emotional response from the player so strong that the player is compelled to make a certain choice each time. At least, I am.  This is not due to unbalanced “gameplay bonuses”, but because of genuine feeling about something in the game’s story. In this respect, such games act almost as a kind of self-test, revealing something to the players about themselves. This, in turn, may lead to the player examining their own beliefs.

I am not sure that this is possible with any other medium. You might have your views on something changed by reading a novel that makes some point, but it seems more likely it will impact your view of the world around you–a very important thing, of course–but because reading a novel is rarely a test of its reader’s ability (unless it is a very bad novel) it is hard to feel the sense of personal involvement. Doubly so if the novel is trying to persuade its readers of something they are not inclined to believe.

I am not, by the way, attempting to claim that games are superior to novels or movies or anything like that. They are merely different forms, each with pros and cons.

*There are undoubtedly cases where people’s minds have been changed by works of fiction, but I still believe these are not that common, especially regarding political or religious issues. Feel free to chime with any examples of it you may have, however.

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about this new Bethesda game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s been getting quite a bit of hype, but I just cannot get interested enough in the setting to buy it.

I have just never liked the “sword and sorcery”, medieval setting. Not just in video games, but in movies and books as well. I’m one of the few people I know who thought the Lord of the Rings movies were boring. Not because of length, but because the setting is not interesting to me. I also tried to read the books, and I don’t think I made it past chapter one of book one.

I’m sure there are good stories to be told in this setting, and probably some I would really enjoy. (In fact, I did kind of like the games The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and  Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, but I can tell I liked them in spite of the setting) But in general, I can’t make myself care long enough to discover them.

Anyone else feel this way about the fantasy genre, or indeed about any other fictional setting?

The more M.R. James I read, the more I like the guy’s writing. He’s very good at creating a mundane, triflingly pleasant world and then shattering it with the horrific. For instance, here is a passage from early on in his short story Casting the Runes:

“The Secretary and his wife were lunching out, and the friends to whose house they were bound were Warwickshire people. So Mrs Secretary had already settled it in her own mind that she would question them judiciously about Mr Karswell. But she was saved the trouble of leading up to the subject, for the hostess said to the host, before many minutes had passed, ‘I saw the Abbot of Lufford this morning.’ The host whistled. ‘Did you? What in the world brings him up to town?’

‘Goodness knows; he was coming out of the British Museum gate as I drove past.’ It was not unnatural that Mrs Secretary should inquire whether this was a real Abbot who was being spoken of. ‘Oh no, my dear: only a neighbour of ours in the country who bought Lufford Abbey a few years ago.'”

This sounds to me much more like Jane Austen than anything else. There are only a few paragraphs of real horror in this story, and a few more of vague mystery, and both are led into very gradually by this sort of light stuff. And, in my opinion, it’s not jarring at all. He makes it all blend very well, so that the horror stands out–as it ought to.

Another example is his Mr. Humphreys and his Inheritance. There’s only one paragraph of actual horror in that story. And it occurs five brief paragraphs before the end of the story. The preceding stuff ranges from purely descriptions of everyday life to hints of odd goings-on.

In summary, James came up with the concept of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies about a century before anybody else did. Only instead of playing the juxtaposition merely for easy laughs, he managed to turn it in to actual horror.

UPDATE: I should add that the flaw in his writing is that when he does, at last, bring the horror element in, he sometimes resorts to using simple violence. This is, I think, a crude device in horror fiction. The great thing about H.P. Lovecraft was that he could suggest the frightening without any violence at all.

If you combined James’ style with Lovecraft’s conception of “cosmic horror”, you’d really have something.

One of the greatest writers and game designers of our day, Chris Avellone, has often said that even his best stories aren’t as good as the stories which players make for themselves just playing his video games. As he himself put it in an interview with Iron Tower Studio:

“[A]s a narrative designer, I can’t compete a player’s story about how their dwarf fighter with 3 hit points exploited a crack in the canyon terrain and the limited range of motion of orcish axes to lure 20 orcs to their death one by one. Simple, but that’s a legend being made right there.” 

I’m not sure that this is always true; as Avellone’s stories are, to me, some of the best I’ve ever seen in any medium. But it’s probably true for most video games.

However, as I was thinking about this post some more, it occurred to me that audience experience might be more vital to a work than people realize, even in media like books and films. Obviously, such passive forms don’t offer the same opportunities as games, but there is still room for spontaneous occurrences in the audience’s experience.

Let me give an example of something that happened to me once that illustrates what I mean. I was listening (with headphones) to an audiobook of some horror novel. I was getting to a suspenseful point in the narrative when I became conscious of an odd sound, barely discernible, in the background. I thought it might be my imagination, so I kept listening to the story.

The sound gradually built just as the story began getting really ominous, eventually becoming an outright roar, until I became certain it was not merely my imagination. A moment later, I realized it was also not a sound effect in the book. At this same moment, the narrator of the story announced the arrival of the monster.
Simultaneously, I removed my headphones and realize that this roar I’d been hearing was… merely an aircraft flying over my dwelling.

This is a minor incident, and it took only about 30 seconds to occur, but it worked with the story well enough to dramatically increase the effectiveness of the scene I was listening to. And it was something that neither the novel’s author, nor the audiobook people had any control over.

True, they could have put in some sound effect to achieve the same effect, but it’s hard to create the same effect with something deliberately planned as opposed to something spontaneous. Even if you succeeded, it would only work the first time somebody listens to it.

I’ve written before about reading books and watching films at particular times of year, and under particular weather conditions. Perhaps this is another important element in the horror genre: getting the external conditions right to allow for spontaneously scary experiences.