I’ve been binge-watching Cyberpunk 2077 reviews and playthroughs. The game looks amazing, and also amazingly glitchy. I have an older generation console, which means I’d either be getting a buggy mess or have to install massive updates, which with my internet connection would take forever. But what can one make of a game that gives us this:

And also this:

I’m sure I wouldn’t mind the bugs, though. My favorite game of all time is KotOR II. Fallout: New Vegas and Mass Effect: Andromeda are not far behind. Kids these days are spoiled; expecting their immersive sandbox RPGs to work perfectly. Why, in my day, we played KotOR on a backwards compatible Xbox 360 and the frame rate would slow down to, like, three frames per second during combat and the sound would randomly cut out. And we were grateful!

No, my real issue with this game is the same thing that makes me so interested in it: it’s too big. The time that I could spend in the neon dystopia of Night City, fighting street gangs and cyborgs, driving futuristic cars and customizing my avatar’s weaponry, abilities and appearance, is daunting

But of course, that’s the whole selling point of the thing! We want to distract ourselves from daily life by escaping into an anarchic world polluted by drugs and depravity, and where the only law is made by ruthless mega-corporations. [Editor’s note: something about that sentence seems off–consider revising.] Who wouldn’t want that? But then I look at these skill trees and shake my head. There’s no way I’d have time for all this. 

An aesthetic, at least to someone who appreciates it, is like a drug. The more of it you get, the more you need to get that same feeling it gave you on the first hit. The thrill of a bizarre techno-city that filmgoers of 1927 could get from Metropolis now requires 100GB of a high saturation battlefield with police chases and cyborgs. And Keanu Reeves–although somehow I feel if he were transported to 1927, he could have fit in to Fritz Lang’s world, too. Maybe he’s a time-traveling cyber-wizard.

There are a couple ways this trend of accelerating aesthetic experience can go: one is total immersion in VR worlds. The technology is almost there. I wouldn’t be one myself, but I can believe there are people who are so obsessed with aesthetic experiences, they would submerge their physical bodies in some type of suspended animation and don the headgear to live 24/7 in a simulation. If this sounds creepy–and/or reminds you of another film starring Mr. Reeves–it should. But not surprising. The hallmark of the classic decadent is, frankly, a weird obsession with aesthetic authenticity. As the crazed protagonist of Lovecraft’s 1922 short story The Hound put it:

Wearied with the commonplaces of a prosaic world; where even the joys of romance and adventure soon grow stale, St John and I had followed enthusiastically every aesthetic and intellectual movement which promised respite from our devastating ennui. The enigmas of the symbolists and the ecstasies of the pre-Raphaelites all were ours in their time, but each new mood was drained too soon, of its diverting novelty and appeal. 

Only the somber philosophy of the decadents could help us, and this we found potent only by increasing gradually the depth and diabolism… till finally there remained for us only the more direct stimuli of unnatural personal experiences and adventures. 

If you’re a horror fan who has never read The Hound, do yourself a favor and check it out–it’s one of HPL’s best. If, on the other hand, just reading that has skeeved you out so much you don’t even want to know what the narrator and St John got up to next, well, I can’t blame you. Let’s just say it ends badly for them.

While researching this post–yes, believe it or not, I actually do research on these things before I vomit them forth into the blogosphere–I found this fascinating US ad for Metropolis:

This looks like a poster for a musical comedy. Maybe even a parody of a musical comedy, as written by P.G. Wodehouse: “What ho! It seems young Freder has fallen into the soup once more…”

Can you imagine going to see the movie you think you’re getting based on that ad and actually seeing Metropolis? I’m not sure I can, although I’d sure like to. The dissonance is so strong that it’s actually beautiful. I don’t care if you’re running it on the best gaming PC with the best monitor in existence, I’ll bet you anything that Cyberpunk 2077 can’t hold a candle to the pure, unexpected, unadulterated shock of techno-decadentism you would get from that experience.

Which brings me to the other path I could see this aesthetic going: a future where cyber-aesthetes learn discipline, focus, and restraint. Values which are, admittedly, fundamentally not the values of a decadent… but hear me out on this.

I’ve used this analogy before, but think of entertainment media as a sort of expansion pack for your imagination. A book gives you raw words that you have to imagine. A black-and-white silent film like Metropolis gives you some images to work with, but it’s still not a whole visual world. A color film gives you more, a video game still more, and VR games are basically taking the place of your imagination. 

The more you’re relying on media, the less you’re using your imagination. Which I totally understand, by the way. Using your imagination is hard. It’s awfully tempting to just sit back and let the computer do the work. And we’re right back to option one, where we lose ourselves in VR world.

Except, as we have seen, we’re already at the limits of how much of this we can take. At least, I am. I admit that your mileage may vary. But for me, the prospect is overwhelming. Immersion is supposed to be a feature, not a bug, and yet it’s also my principle reason for not buying this game.

But all that is really needed to experience an aesthetic–whether techno-decadentism or anything else–is imagination. Like Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous fictional detective said, “From a drop of water… a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.” Likewise, a cyberpunk future can be inferred simply from reading a single sentence describing it. All that’s left is the imagining. The hard part is sharing it. But since the entire thesis of decadents is that art is personal, does that even matter that much? Surely anyone like-minded enough to care will be able to understand it well enough to share it.

Either we will learn enough self-discipline and mental concentration that we can satisfy our desire to create whole worlds made purely of imagination, without the need to manifest them through technology, or we will create simulation technology so powerful that our own most human qualities become obsolete. 

As Paul Graham once wrote, “we’ll increasingly be defined by what we say no to.” Aesthetics, which are really just the crystallization of moods that we imagine, are wonderful and strange. But saying “no” to the ability to have such things created for us in simulations is increasingly our only hope of retaining the ability to imagine at all. And after all, saying “no” to what is normal and routine is the essence of counter-culture, punk, and decadence.

The Outer Worlds is one of my favorite games in recent years. I’ve played through it twice and a bit. I didn’t finish my third run as a melee fighter, but I was delighted to fire it up again with my original character to play the DLC.

Peril on Gorgon begins with the captain of the Unreliable receiving a package containing a severed arm and a datapad. The datapad instructs the recipient to meet with Minnie Ambrose in her manor on Gorgon.

Minnie is trying to track down the journal of her mother, Olivia, who was a scientist working in a lab on Gorgon where things went very, very wrong. (As often occurs in video game labs.) Minnie wants to restart her mother’s experiments on Adrena-Time, and needs some to comb through the marauder-infested labs of Gorgon to piece together what happened with Olivia’s experiments.

On Gorgon, we find a ravaged, lawless world that makes Edgewater look civilized. There is one small outpost, the Sprat Shack, that serves as a hub of sorts, but otherwise it’s a largely hostile and barren world with lots high-level enemies to fight. There are a few interesting vignettes in keeping with the game’s signature offbeat humor, but it’s largely fighting, with much of the plot delivered from audio logs scattered around the planet.

Which is fine. The combat in Outer Worlds is smooth and fun. There is one thing I found a little disappointing, and this is pure gamer nit-picking, so readers not interested in a discussion of equipment crafting may skip the following three paragraphs.

One of the things the DLC promises is new weapons and armor. And indeed, there are plenty of new armor sets and unique weapons. The armor was fine, but I have two issues with the weapons. First, with the exception of three new science weapons, they look identical to the weapons in the base game. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s a little bit of a letdown when you get a new revolver that belonged to one of the major characters in the DLC that looks like any other revolver.

Second, and more importantly, the unique weapons aren’t that great. Pretty much all of my weapons were modified to Tartarus and back before I ever set foot on Gorgon, and whenever I would try a new weapon from the DLC, I’d inevitably put it aside after a few minutes and go back to my heavily-customized arsenal.

Now, I know: not every player is into crafting, and for those who aren’t, the unique weapons could be a lot more exciting. I admit, I was hoping for additional equipment on a level similar to that found in the DLCs for Outer Worlds‘ spiritual ancestor, Fallout: New Vegas. Every New Vegas add-on delivered new and interesting weaponry, from Dead Money‘s holorifle to Honest Hearts‘ Thompson gun to Old World Blues‘ K9000 to Lonesome Road‘s Red Glare.

But that’s really only a small quibble. The game itself is highly enjoyable–it’s more Outer Worlds, after all, so how can that not be good? Minnie’s quest to restart her mother’s work has a variety of possible outcomes, and the one I got was very satisfying. (I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say I did a quick re-spec of my character and put 150 points in the Persuade skill in order to get it.)

The Outer Worlds is a game perfectly suited to DLC. It’s logical to add a new planet to explore with each add-on. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one.

Lastly, one word for anyone who already played Peril on Gorgon and is just reading this to see what I thought:

Llama!

The_Outer_Worlds_cover_artThere’s a moment, maybe a bit more than halfway through the main story arc of The Outer Worlds, that really sums up what the game is all about. On the planet Monarch, there are two rival factions who are fighting for control of the planet. I was acting as intermediary. 

I was trying to decide which side to support, which was difficult because there were people I liked on both. In fact, there was really just one hardliner who seemed to be causing the problem. I wished I could get him out of the picture and bring the two sides together.

And as it turned out, because I’d done a lot of legwork beforehand, and built a good reputation with both sides, I could. The game let me oust him, and put his more practical second-in-command in charge. It was incredibly satisfying, after hours of combat and long, dangerous treks across Monarch, to see two characters who I really liked hammering out their differences at the bargaining table.

There are many moments like this in The Outer Worlds, but this one best illustrates two of the game’s defining qualities. First, there’s the ability to make creative choices to solve problems in unexpected ways, rather than the simple Good/Evil binary we see in many games. And second, there’s the fact that, with a few exceptions, most characters in the game are really likable.

The Outer Worlds begins with your character being roused from cryo sleep aboard a spaceship called the Hope, by an eccentric scientist named Phineas Welles. Welles is recruiting you to fight against the mysterious “Board”—the controlling entity that governs the various corporations in the Halcyon colony.

Shortly after Welles’s rescue, you find yourself stranded on the world of Terra 2, where you have to make your way to the starship Unreliable. At least, that’s what the game pushes you to do. But, not being one to follow directions, I had my character instead make her way to the nearby settlement of Edgewater—a struggling company town. And the game, to its credit, let me do that.

The Spacer’s Choice corporation runs the show in Edgewater, and we soon see a glimpse of how dehumanizing the corporate policies are: before even entering the town, I met a grave-digger asking for help collecting gravesite fees from the populace. This is a good introduction to the politics of the Halcyon colony—the status quo that the outlaw Welles seeks to destroy by reawakening colonists on the Hope.

The advanced promotion for the game had pushed the theme of corporate dystopia pretty hard, so I was expecting that much. What I wasn’t expecting was how skillfully the portrayal is done—nobody, even the town boss in Edgewater, is a caricature. In the beginning, I thought it would be an easy choice between him and the refugees hiding deeper inland, but when it came down to it, both sides are presented as earnest people, struggling to eke out a living on a remote frontier. 

The Outer Worlds has been touted as the spiritual sequel to Fallout: New Vegas, and rightly so. The nuance and well-meaning nature of many of the characters put me in mind of J.E. Sawyer’s New Vegas add-on Honest Hearts—another story about basically good people trapped in a harsh and desolate land that forces them into making hard choices.

The hallmark of Outer Worlds, like New Vegas, is giving the player freedom to do as they wish, and letting the consequences play out accordingly. You can, as the marketing materials say, play it as a psychopath if you want to. But why would you, when it’s infinitely more satisfying to do things like help the struggling colonists, or spend time aiding your companions in overcoming their own personal challenges?

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Ellie also rocks.

Whether it’s helping the sweet, shy Parvati overcome her nerves and ask out the woman she loves, fighting side-by-side with the hard-drinking huntress Nyoka to honor the memory of her fallen comrades, or talking the spiritually-troubled Vicar Max out of revenge and into finally finding the inner peace that has eluded him all his life, The Outer Worlds has some of the best companion quests I’ve seen since Knights of the Old Republic II. You can’t romance companions, which initially was a little disappointing—but in a way, that just made their quests that much more satisfying. They weren’t just notches on a virtual bedpost for experience points; they’re well-rounded characters with fully-developed personalities.

Personality is something that The Outer Worlds is brimming with. The graphics have a splendid visual style, from the towns to the corporate advertising plastered everywhere, right down to the loading screens, which even out of the context of the game are retro-futuristic masterpieces:

Loading_Screen_Ad_Terror_ad

Even minor details like quest and weapon names (e.g. the first quest is “Stranger in a Strange Land” and there’s a unique flamethrower named “Montag”) have a sense of science-fiction fun about them.  Everything in this game screams that this is a work of craftsmanship, made by people who cared deeply about it.

Speaking of craftsmanship, the crafting system in this game is wonderful. If you remember my Mass Effect: Andromeda review, you may remember that I said I don’t normally get into crafting, but the mechanics in that game made it fun. The Outer Worlds is like that, too—I would check every shop and vending machine in every town for new weapon mods that I could use to give myself a better arsenal. 

Actually, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a pretty good comparison for Outer Worlds generally. Andromeda was also about building interstellar colonies and forging new homes for humanity in the cosmos. The spirit of optimism and adventure that I noted in my Andromeda review is also present here. The thing Andromeda was unfortunately (and in my opinion, somewhat unfairly) denigrated for was its bugs and technical glitches. I’m pleased to report that there are almost no such issues in Outer Worlds. A couple times, I got stuck between rocks on particularly treacherous terrain, but that could be solved with fast-traveling. The game auto-saves frequently, so even if it had been a problem, there seems little chance of losing much progress.

I have really only two complaints about The Outer Worlds. The first is about one minor quest on Monarch where you have to find someone who disappeared. He was delivering a package to a group of people in the wilderness, and when you track them down, they seem extremely—even excessively—polite, and ask you to stay for dinner.

Now if this is your first time playing an RPG, you might be surprised by what happens next. If, however, you remember the Andale quest from Fallout 3, or the White Glove Society from Fallout: New Vegas, or the inn from Jade Empire, you will not be shocked to learn that the people are, in fact, cannibals, and that the upcoming dinner and the fate that befell the unfortunate delivery person are related.

I’m sorry, but polite people who are secretly cannibals has been done to death in RPGs. I saw it coming a mile away. Now, it’s such a minor thing that I suppose you could say it was a nod to the great RPGs of yesteryear (as those three I listed undoubtedly are) but it felt too rote and by-the-numbers. But perhaps it only seemed so because all the other quests are so original and fun.

The second complaint isn’t even really a complaint; even though it strikes at one of the thematic pillars of the game. It’s more like a philosophical quibble.

As I mentioned above, one of the key parts of the game’s identity is that it’s supposed to be a satire of corporations. The corporations run Halcyon and that’s precisely, the game implies, why it has become such a mess, driven to the very brink of extinction by corporate drones who care more about filling forms, spouting ad copy, and following inane, inhuman policies rather than actually serving the needs of people.

The thing is, none of these flaws are unique to corporations. Any sufficiently large, complicated organization run by human beings will inevitably devolve into a bumbling bureaucracy. Things like governments, universities, and non-profit organizations, after all, are hardly innocent of the flaws that The Outer Worlds mocks in corporations.

In fact, the game seems to almost tacitly admit this by the later stages, when you reach the decadent city of Byzantium, where the wealthiest members of Halcyon society live, gossiping about aetherwave serials and fashion, in a bubble insulated from the horrors of frontier life, like Prince Prospero’s court in The Masque of the Red Death. There are a couple quests where you have to visit the Parcel Delivery service, and in each instance, are given a classic “That’s Not My Department”-style bureaucratic runaround. It’s a hilarious parody of red tape run amok, and one of the greatest examples of satire I’ve ever seen in a game. 

But think about what they’re making fun of here: the post office, a government-run organization. It’s not just capitalism that’s being mocked.

In fact, all the talk about it being a satire of corporations actually understates just how ambitious The Outer Worlds is: they’re not making fun of corporations only, but all big organizations. That’s why it resonates so much—because it pokes fun at the flaws of dysfunctional entities in general, whether they are mega-corporations, late-stage communist governments, or federally-mandated services. 

That’s why I can’t call this a complaint, exactly, because as a satire, it’s extremely good. It’s like the original Deus Ex in how it makes you think about the structures of society itself, and leads you into questioning just how the world around you really works.

I do have a theory about why the game seems so superficially focused on corporations however; although it involves a digression about the inner workings of Obsidian and a lot of speculation on my part. Feel free to skip the following five paragraphs if you don’t care about game industry inside baseball. (Or I should say “tossball,” the main pastime of the Halcyon colony.)

There have been a lot of rumors about Obsidian Entertainment, many of which involve the departure of founding member Chris Avellone. Avellone is a legend in the gaming industry, as the genius behind titles like Planescape: Torment, Knights of the Old Republic II and the Fallout: New Vegas add-ons Dead Money, Old World Blues and Lonesome Road. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest storytellers alive, and his work is a big reason I fell in love with role-playing games.

The details of his departure from Obsidian are difficult to describe, and every account is inherently unverifiable. But it’s safe to say he did not leave on good terms. Avellone has not been shy about discussing his differences with management, nor about his critiques of the game industry generally.

I bring all this up because, if I didn’t know better—that is, if he hadn’t personally confirmed his non-involvement with Outer Worlds many times—I’d have thought it was an Avellone game. It bears so many elements of his signature design style: player choice, reactivity, an irreverent sense of humor… it’s basically the greatest game Chris Avellone never made.

This is purely speculation on my part, but I think it’s an interesting series of events: Avellone has a far-from-amicable departure from Obsidian, after which he vocally expresses his views on management practices in the game industry generally and at Obsidian in particular. Then, a few years later, his fellow game designers make a game about corporate (mis-)management destroying people’s lives. And it’s not just any game, but a game that is clearly the descendant of some of Obsidian (and Avellone’s) greatest triumphs.

Does it mean anything? I don’t know. It may all be just a weird coincidence. In any event, though, this much is known: Avellone remains friendly with Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, the co-designers of The Outer Worlds, and while it may be a pipe dream, I would love to see him work on DLC for it. The universe of this game is a big one, and it feels like it has room for more stories, especially ones written by MCA himself. Like Phineas Welles, I’ll cling to any hope, however slim.

You may have noticed I’ve made comparisons to lots of other games throughout this review. That’s quite deliberate: The Outer Worlds feels like a culmination. I don’t play games much anymore because they require such a big time investment. But when I saw this game billed as the successor to some of my all-time favorites, I had to give it a shot. And as I played it, I felt like I was experiencing an epic symphony composed of all my most beloved games. 

The smooth, easily-flowing gameplay and careful world design of New Vegas, coupled with a rich art style at times reminiscent of Borderlands, Dishonored, and BioShock, but with its own, unique flavor; the mounting tension of rallying the crew for the attack on the Collectors in Mass Effect 2, combined with the hopeful, pioneering spirit of Mass Effect: Andromeda; the cyberpunk rage against the elite machine of Deus Ex, along with the personal tale of introspection and self-discovery that was Planescape: Torment—all these happy gaming memories came to mind as I journeyed through Halcyon.

And yes: there are echoes of Knights of the Old Republic II; the epic that got me hooked on RPGs in the first place, with its story of the lone exile returning to a galaxy on the brink of collapse, with the choice to let it die or fight to save it—it too came to mind as I played The Outer Worlds. Both games are ultimately about something very simple and very important; something that everybody knows but too few really understand: the fact that our decisions matter; that whether the world we live in thrives or perishes depends on the consequences of people’s choices.

It seems so obvious, and yet so many people seem to forget it. But it’s a point that games as an art form are uniquely equipped to make, because they allow for audience participation to such a profound degree. All the great games demonstrate this truth, and that is why, as it stands on the shoulders of these giants, The Outer Worlds is an all-time classic.  

Virtually-Yours-Take-Two-200x300I don’t typically read romances. But this short story is a romance between videogamers. There aren’t enough books about the world of gaming, and as a veteran gamer, the unique concept attracted me.

It’s a short, light read. As is always the case with romantic comedies, the central dramatic challenge is how to keep two characters who are meant for each other emotionally separated for a while. And the solution Norse finds is a creative one. It might seem strange to non-gamers, but I would guess most people familiar with narrative-driven games are also familiar with the concept of having a crush on a video game character. Just a hunch, though. 

Also, the two main characters have the surnames “Link” and “Shepard”—which I think have to be Zelda and Mass Effect references. I suspect there are even more game references I may not have noticed on the first read.

Virtually Yours is a fun read if you like light romance or if, like me, you enjoy stories about gamer culture. Plus, I am a big fan of short fiction. I appreciate that Norse didn’t feel pressured, as authors sometimes do, to pad this story out with filler. It’s a fun, quick tale that lasts just as long as it needs to.

Point Lookout is unbelievably creepy, from the minute you get off the ferry into the deserted, foggy island, with its crumbling amusement park, cemeteries, bands of deformed, mad hill-people trying to kill you, and omnipresent strange hanging dolls and mutilated toys.

It only gets creepier from there, as you discover haunted mansions with an evil brain-in-a-jar, ritualistic sacrifice altars, evidence of plots set in motion by communist spies, a mysterious cult in a church, a quest to recover a forbidden Necronomiconical tome and a chilling hallucinogenic sequence set deep in the swamps. 

(Oh, and there’s also wrecked ship called the USS Ozymandias. You can imagine how I loved that.)

Playing Point Lookout, I more than once wondered about the story behind it—there are so many unnerving, disturbing sights that I honestly worry about the mental state of the team that made it. And I haven’t even gotten to what makes it creepiest yet, but let me hold off on that for the nonce. 

While I generally don’t like the stereotype of mobs of evil, in-bred hillbillies—always seemed a little offensive to rural people, to me—I have to admit it absolutely works here. They’re a lot more unsettling than the straight-up zombie skeletons that are also roaming around, because they’re almost human. And it’s not really explained how they got this way, either—there are a number of possibilities.

The main quest of the game is actually its weakest point, but that’s par for the course in Bethesda games. I still enjoyed infiltrating the cult.

The real strength of Bethesda has always been its environmental design, and is that ever on display here. There are a thousand little stories you can piece together from inspecting various aspects of world around you, and pretty much all of them are the stuff of nightmares. The Homestead Motel alone is terrifying.

I also like the puzzle to get into the sinister mansion, even though I had to look up how to do it online, which normally annoys me to no end.

All right, time to lay my cards on the table: yes, I know Point Lookout is actually an add-on for Fallout 3, which, while fun, is actually kind of a stupid game. The writing in the main game is abysmal, as Shamus Young has cataloged in meticulous detail.

The thing is, the general idiocy of Fallout 3 actually makes Point Lookout better. I wasn’t expecting to go from a relatively generic, incoherently-written post-apocalypse into a foggy swamp of psychosexual Lovecraftian horror. But that’s what happened, and the sheer surprise of it added to the fear.

It would, in my opinion, have been the ultimate horror-writer move to create Fallout 3 simply as a vehicle to get people to play Point Lookout. Fallout 3 is the red balloon, Point Lookout is Pennywise. I’ve said it a million times: the best horror doesn’t announce itself; rather, it sneaks in, presents itself as something unassuming and inviting, and then springs the trap. That was the way of M.R. James, and while he was an incredibly screwed-up person, he was a great horror writer. Because every time you start reading one of his stories, you think, This doesn’t seem so bad.  And then…

Not that I think that’s what the designers set out to do. I’m pretty sure Bethesda didn’t take the trouble of getting the Fallout license just to mess with people. My point is just that this is how you deliver a good scary experience: first, change your audience’s expectations, so they’re not expecting to be scared.

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Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

[Thanks to Lydia Schoch for inspiring me to write this. Be sure to check out her post on fictional romances.]

You’ll notice I don’t often write romantic sub-plots in my stories. I was feeling pretty bold with 1NG4 and included one, but it’s largely implied and in the background of the larger story. 

Romance is hard to write. You need characters who work on their own, and also complement one another. It’s about balance. If you get unbalanced characters, it doesn’t work—or at best, it only works as wish-fulfillment for people who want to imagine their perfectly ordinary self being married to a demigod or goddess. 

And if you’re writing a story where the romance is the plot, then you also have to come up with some reason why two characters who clearly belong together aren’t. Usually social expectations are the best mechanism for doing this, to the point that it’s a cliché—A can’t marry B because it would violate all of their society’s most sacred traditions!

The problem with these sorts of stories is that too often, it becomes more about the pursuit, and in the process, one character gets reduced to nothing more than a McGuffin that the other character is trying to get. I hate that.

Here are some fictional romances I consider effective. You’ll notice that they are generally sub-plots, or at least not the sole focus of the story.

Evie Carnahan and Rick O’Connell (The Mummy) 

Image result for rick and evie o'connell
Evie Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) The Mummy. Universal Pictures. Re-used under Fair Use

This works because it’s pretty well-balanced—Evie’s brains and Rick’s adventuring skills make them a natural team. This is what I mean—if Evie were always a helpless damsel in distress, or Rick were always a big stupid lug, it would be dopey. But as it is, you can see why they would gravitate to one another, apart from “It’s a movie and we need a romance.”

Thomasin Yeobright and Diggory Venn (The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy)

When you read about Return of the Native, 90% of what you hear about is Eustacia Vye this, Damon Wildeve that. I love the book, but as far as I’m concerned, both of them can go soak their heads. Oh, wait—I guess they do. Sorry if I spoiled this 141-year-old book. Anyway, what I like about the book is Venn’s loyalty to Thomasin, and his (admittedly credulity-straining) adventures as the almost super-human “Reddleman” looking out for her.) 

Miranda Lawson and Commander Shepard (Mass Effect 2-3)

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Commander Shepard (voiced by Mark Meer) and Miranda Lawson (voiced and modeled on Yvonne Strahovski) Mass Effect 3. Electronic Arts. Re-used under Fair Use.

Am I the only person who doesn’t hate Miranda? I might well be. Most players find her stuck-up, but I like her. Maybe part of it is that because ME 2/3 built up Commander Shepard as this awesome hero, and Miranda seems like the nearest thing to his equal in a universe that otherwise regards him as something close to a God. She saved his life, and she’s genetically engineered to be perfect, so she  can meet him on even ground. I like that. I don’t see an equivalent romantic interest for female Shepard.

But maybe it’s just my fondness for Australian accents that’s making me biased here.

Honorable Mentions: Unrequited Romances

I started out to make a list of good requited romances, because those are harder for me to write than unrequited ones. But that’s not to say that an unrequited romance can’t make for a good story, because it absolutely can. In fact, the advantage of these stories is that they have conflict inherent in them, as opposed to having to be introduced externally. So, here are some good ones:

-The Carlo/Corelli sub-plot in Corelli’s Mandolin. One of the most interesting things about the disastrous movie adaptation was that this was the only romantic sub-plot that even remotely made sense. 

– The Atris/Jedi Exile relationship in Knights of the Old Republic II. I talk a little about that here. Actually, KotOR II is brimming with tons of unfulfilled or outright doomed romances. Chris Avellone is great at writing those.

-Elsie Maynard and Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard. Just listen to this.

And now, for my favorite fictional romance…

Jane Ballard and Dan Frost (Jane Got a Gun)

Jane and Dan
Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) and Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) Jane Got a Gun. The Weinstein Co. Re-used under Fair Use.

Come on, you all knew this would be here. I love this movie, and a big reason why is the relationship between the two leads. The way they gradually rekindle their relationship under brutal circumstances makes for a great story, and the carefree romance of their past contrasted with the grim present is very powerful. True, a lot of what makes it work is the acting as much as anything—the same lines with lesser actors wouldn’t work as well.

I suppose that writing romance for the screen or the stage is easier than writing it in a novel. In a visual medium, putting two attractive people with great chemistry together gets you at least halfway to making the audience to buy in. On the page, though, you have to do a lot more work.

kreia
Kreia, from Chris Avellone’s “Knights of the Old Republic II”. Possibly my favorite fictional character, and a great example of a well-written female character.

A.C. Flory wrote a brought up a good point about Theresa Gannon, the protagonist of my book, The Directorate:

“I couldn’t relate to the main character… I simply don’t see her as female… to me, Gannon could be a he just as easily as a she.”

I know exactly what she means. Honestly, I’m surprised more readers don’t mention this, because I feel the same way. There was never much of anything distinctively female about Gannon.

“Well, you’re the one who wrote it!” you are no doubt thinking. “Why didn’t you fix that, dummy?”

Good question. As a male, writing a good female character is something I find difficult, for a number of reasons.

Stereotypes

The lazy, quick-fix approach to make a character seem distinctively gendered is to resort to stereotypes. I could have made Gannon interested in things like clothes, or shoes, or something like that. That would be stereotypically feminine.

But I hate stereotypes. It’s not that there isn’t any truth to them; most people are stereotypical in one way or another. That’s why stereotypes exist, after all. But the point of writing fiction is to give people something new and surprising. Stereotypes are, by their nature, not new and surprising but old and familiar. So in general, I think it’s good to avoid them whenever possible when you’re writing stories.

This is another way of saying that it would just feel ham-handed and rather disrespectful to have my space soldier run off to go shoe shopping. Other, more skilled writers probably could pull that off, but I couldn’t.

Writing From A Female Perspective

You don’t have to resort to stereotypes to write plausibly feminine characters, though. You can write plausible, relatable, well-rounded characters who are also distinctly women.

The big problem I see in a lot of female characters written by men is that they tend to be distinctly women first, and characters second. Usually this manifests itself in female characters being preoccupied with sex in one way or another, or else being described largely in sexual terms. I’ve read way too many female characters who seem to exist solely as sexual beings, and it gets tiresome. With Gannon, I consciously strove to avoid this. In doing so, I think I made her too non-sexual, and that makes it hard to relate to her.

The Miranda Lawson Problem

Making a character sexy is a risky proposition. If done right, it can make a character that much more memorable. But more often than not, I feel like the risk outweighs the reward, and you can end ruining a character by trying to sex them up.

Miranda Lawson is one of my favorite characters in the Mass Effect video game series. Part of it is Yvonne Strahovski’s performance (I love Australian accents, OK?), but she’s also a pretty well-written character. She’s been genetically engineered to be the “perfect woman”, and as a result, she feels a lot of pressure to be the best–pressure that sometimes makes her do morally questionable things. All in all, a really good character.

But! There’ s a major “but” here (pun not intended): for some reason, BioWare designed many of the game’s dialogue and cinematic scenes to focus, ridiculously, on her backside. Miranda wears a white catsuit, and the animators missed no opportunity to show her from the back, the most egregious example being a dialogue scene where the view “pauses” there for as long as the player wants until they choose to advance in the conversation.

BioWare defended this by saying it’s part of Miranda’s “character” that she’s genetically-engineered to be beautiful, and supposedly all this was to underscore just how sexualized she was, and how that impacts her personality.

Maybe that was the idea, but it totally didn’t come across that way. It became a running joke by Mass Effect 3 that if Miranda was around, the “camera” had to be positioned behind her. It made her seem less like a character and more like a sex object–which was too bad, because she actually is a good character, and it’s a shame she became the butt of jokes instead.

This is something that’s always bothered me, and what I took away from how Miranda is perceived is that making a character sexy is a very dangerous thing to attempt. It can very easily turn your well-crafted character into a ridiculous figure. I think this is especially true for men writing women.

Mary Sues vs. Competent Men

There’s another common criticism that I’m surprised no one has yet leveled at Gannon, but which I fully expect I’ll hear someday: that she’s a “Mary Sue”. “Mary Sues” are “idealized and seemingly perfect” characters, as Wikipedia puts it. Characters who exhibit preternatural skill in a variety of areas. Such characters seem too good to be true, and as such are hard to relate to.

The term “Mary Sue” comes from a parody of Star Trek fan fiction, so this is an issue for sci-fi writers especially. And the original Mary Sue was even a lieutenant, just like Gannon is! So, I probably am guilty of this.

Here’s my defense: there’s another stock character in fiction, referred to as the “Competent Man“. This character archetype is strongly associated with the work of science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who wrote a passage extolling the virtues of having many skills, concluding with the famous phrase, “Specialization is for insects.His heroes tend to have a wide variety of skills.

And indeed, having many skills is rather key to becoming a hero. Incompetent characters would not be terribly effective at having heroic adventures.

As a few readers noticed, many elements of The Directorate are intended as an homage to exactly the kind of military science fiction that Heinlein pioneered. I think such stories lend themselves to having competent protagonists–after all, usually people who are or have been in military service possess a lot of training in a wide variety of skills.

Have Female Editors

One piece of advice for any men who are writing female characters: make sure you have female editors and/or beta readers. I would never have attempted to publish a novel with a female protagonist if I hadn’t known women who could critique it first. And am I ever glad they did, because their feedback improved Gannon tremendously from the first draft to the one I ultimately published.

That said, there were still times when I would overrule their objections and refuse to modify something. Because, first and foremost, Gannon had to be somebody I understood. If I didn’t do that, I would have no chance of writing her plausibly. So when somebody suggested changing the character in a way that didn’t sit right with me, I would stick with the way I wanted her. I feel it had to be this way, but it’s quite possible this made her less-relatable to everyone else.

“Everywoman”

As I’ve discussed before, my early writing has been rightly criticized for having too little description. I tried to correct this in The Directorate, and not just in describing the setting–which is essential in sci-fi–but also in how I described the appearance of the characters.

The exception is Gannon. I was deliberately vague about how she looked, because I wanted the reader to project their own image of Gannon. For most of the book, she is the proxy for the reader, and they experience the world through her eyes. My idea was that by leaving her description largely to the reader, they could create their own image of a character they found relatable. (This is something I picked up writing horror: what the reader imagines for themselves is usually way better than whatever you as the author create.)

It’s possible I made her too vaguely-defined, however; and this could make her difficult to relate to.

Conclusion

Creating convincing female characters is one of the biggest challenges of writing fiction for me. I try to avoid obvious pitfalls that I’ve seen a lot of male writers fall into–lengthy descriptions of their anatomy, character traits that are nothing more than clichéd stereotypes–but I’m still not entirely satisfied with what I’ve done so far. The good news is that I can tell I’m improving, and the more I write, the more I feel emboldened to experiment with characterizations, which hopefully will lead to better and more relatable characters.

220px-Far_Cry_5_boxshot
I’m not reviewing this game. I’m reviewing the reviews of it.

I haven’t played it. I probably won’t play it. I haven’t played a Far Cry game in years. You can read my thoughts on Far Cry 2 here. My sense is that not much has changed about the series since then.

For those who don’t know: Far Cry 5 is set in Montana, and the plot involves a doomsday cult of survivalist “preppers”. I don’t know much beyond that, but I gather it follows the standard Far Cry formula of a big open world for the player to run around in, getting in gunfights and blowing stuff up.

The marketing for the game has hyped the political aspects of the plot, and generated lots of controversy as a result.

The reviews I’ve read, however, have almost all complained that the game doesn’t have any real political message, saying things like “it plays it too safe” and “doesn’t want to offend people”. I get the sense a lot of people are disappointed in Ubisoft for not dialing the political commentary up to 11.

I admit, once I learned it was going to be just another open-world mayhem thing, with no major political message, I also lost interest in it. But I can’t blame Ubisoft for making that decision. If you think about it, they hardly had a choice.

Far Cry games are about people in extreme environments, fighting to survive against hordes of enemies with a vast array of deadly weapons. There is no clear morality in the world of Far Cry, save the Law of the Jungle. So if you play these games, it means you want to role-play surviving in a savage world of death and destruction.

Survivalists, doomsday preppers, and militia types are doing the same thing. They’re just acting out this fantasy, as opposed to playing a virtual simulation of it. In gaming lingo, they’re Live-Action Role-Playing, or “LARP-ing”.

So Ubisoft couldn’t go full bore political satire against survivalist/militia-types without also attacking their target audience. For those saying that Far Cry 5 should attack people who fetishize wilderness survival and military hardware: Who exactly do you think is buying this $60 simulation of over-the-top violence and destruction?

Is it possible for a game to criticize its audience? Yes, I have seen it done once: Spec Ops: The Line presented itself as a standard-issue military shooter, only to turn everything on its head and morph into a mind-bending satire of the genre that forced the player to question why they play these things at all.

But Spec Ops was not a huge money-maker, and Ubisoft is not going to alienate a huge portion of its audience for the sake of making a clever satire. The majority of audiences do not want to be satirized. They want to be entertained. It would be kind of like writing a detective novel where the detective fails to catch the killer specifically because he spends too much time reading detective novels.

“Form ever follows function” wrote the architect Louis Sullivan, and it’s a good principle for design in any medium. Because if you try to make a game whose function (satire of gun-loving survivalists) is directly opposed to its form (a simulation of gun-loving survivalism), the customers who want the form are going to be upset, and the customers who want the function probably aren’t going to buy it in the first place.

Most fiction is treated as entertainment and nothing more. You watch a movie for two hours, maybe talk about it a little with your friends afterward, and that’s it. There are some works here and there that are so dazzling they make a more lasting impression on you. Really spectacular special effects in a movie, or a particularly good line of dialogue, or a moving character death in a novel can do this.

This is as much of an impression as most fiction makes upon its audience. But there is another level on which a story can function. It is the most powerful, and also the hardest to achieve. That is the type of story that actually makes the audience look at the world differently, and act differently as a result.

This is, I think, pretty rare. There may be many stories trying to achieve it, but only a few succeed. And even those that do succeed probably only do so for a small percentage of their total audience.1

Note that when I say “act differently”, I’m not referring to the people who saw Star Wars or Harry Potter and decided to start attending fan conventions in costume, or to name their children “Anakin” or “Hermione”, or to have themed weddings based on the stories. That’s fandom, and can happen with anything.

What I’m talking about is general knowledge that you can apply to a wide variety of situations. And it has to be something that wasn’t obvious or easy, at least not for you. Lots of stories try to have some overarching theme on the order of “You can do anything if you believe in yourself”. Which may be true, but is so obvious most audiences probably have heard it already.

Naturally, the idea for this post began when I asked myself, “What works of fiction changed how I act?” This is the list I came up with. Long-time readers will probably not be surprised by most of the entries:

  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. (In a nutshell, the big takeaway is that every action has consequences, often ones we don’t foresee. So choose wisely and think about how your actions will influence others.)
  • Jane Got a Gun. (The lesson here is that you should never assume you know the whole story. You should listen to what other people have to say, even if you think you know better.)
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. (This one is pretty well known, but for me the lesson is that people try to seize power not only by force, but by controlling the thoughts of others. You have to resist them.)
  • Eating Bull by Carrie Rubin. (The point here is that what people eat is driven by a number of personal, societal and economic factors. Your diet is a more complicated business than you might realize.)

KotOR and Jane changed how I approach day-to-day interactions with people. Nineteen Eighty-Four changed how I read political news and think about government. And Eating Bull changed how I eat.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of fiction I consider “good”, though it is a sub-set of it.2 In fact, I was shocked at how short the list is, given how many works of fiction I enjoy in different genres and media.

I am a big fan of weird fiction, but I can’t say I did anything different after reading Lovecraft et al. (Other than trying to write weird fiction myself, I guess.) I love the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, but they didn’t change how I approach the world. And the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are also absent from this list, even though it was from a G&S critic, Gayden Wren, that I first learned how to analyze fiction in terms of “levels” of storytelling.

Now, it’s probably true that the stories I listed above weren’t the only way I could have learned these lessons. Maybe the reason I needed fiction to learn them at all is that I’m an especially unobservant person, or else I would have figured them out myself from observing the real world.3

But if so, that speaks to the power of fiction: it can teach people things they would otherwise never have learned.

NOTES

  1. To a degree, it’s a personal thing. The unique circumstances under which somebody sees a film, plays a game, or reads a book, probably play just as much of a part as the work itself.
  1. It’s important to realize that a story can also be pretty bad, from a technical perspective, but still change how people see the world. Many people seem to get life-altering epiphanies from reading Ayn Rand’s novels, but they still have many flaws as works of drama. This raises an important point, which is that some people  “cheat” and try to tell a story about big, powerful themes without first having a solidly-constructed plot and characters. If you do this, you usually just end up making something incoherent and pretentious.
  1. I guess this is the central difference between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is entertainment, and it’s a bonus if you learn something from it. Whereas every work of non-fiction should teach you something new, or it’s a waste of time.

I keep writing reviews that include a line to the effect that “it’s like Lovecraft, but it also explores aspects of human psychology that Lovecraft always ignored.” This has happened with The Ballad of Black Tom, Annihilation (the book and the movie), Prey, and The Friendship of Mortals. I’ve been writing this so much that I can’t call this an exception to the rule anymore. It has become a style of its own.

It feels wrong to call it “Lovecraftian” horror. Lovecraft deliberately minimized the role of human emotions and thoughts in all his stories. Lovecraft’s philosophy was that human beings were unimportant “incidents” in the grand cosmic scheme, and he wrote accordingly. That was part of the horror. (Hence “cosmic horror” as a synonym for “Lovecraftian”.)

The works I listed above certainly retain elements of cosmic horror, but flesh out their human characters, making them interesting and relatable. Whereas Lovecraft approached the horror of humanity’s place in the cosmos with a detached, dispassionate tone, subsequent writers have framed it by humanizing their characters first, then pitting them against the unimaginable outside forces.

This style is also different from the kind of horror that humanizes things too much to be called “cosmic”. Stephen King, for example, writes in a style more like that of noir detective thrillers that feels too immediate and gritty to be “cosmic”—even in stories that have what you might call Lovecraftian elements. (e.g. 11/22/63) The works I’ve described above are much closer to a 50/50 balance than King’s style of an “earthly” horror story with a few cosmic elements.

My point isn’t that any one of these styles is better or worse than the others; but just to point out that they are distinct, and that I don’t know of any term that fits stories like those I’ve listed here. Calling them “semi-Lovecraftian” or “semi-cosmic” feels too weak. “Weird fiction” or “New Weird fiction” is too broad. The best I can come up with is “humanized cosmicism”, but that sounds awkward.

Thoughts?