I’ve heard lots of criticisms of video games over the years, but Jeff Vogel’s critique that they have too many words is a new one. He makes a strong case against one particular game–Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity. After reading his article, it’s hard to argue against the claim that Pillars is too verbose. The character creation and menu screens are packed with tons of text for the player to wade through.

I’m less sure about whether this is really a trend in gaming generally. After all, Pillars was explicitly designed as a throwback to the beloved text- and lore-heavy Black Isle RPGs. For example, Planescape: Torment has over a million words. Even I tended to ignore some of the esoteric descriptions in Planescape, and I love that game.

Scene from “Planescape: Torment”

Some players really do seem to enjoy the atmosphere of a game rich with background material. It may be true that much of the information is irrelevant to the game’s mechanics, but this is High Fantasy, and one of the things High Fantasy fans look for is a sprawling world filled with many interesting details that don’t all fit into the main narrative.

Using lots of words is indeed a problem, as Vogel says, but not just in games. The High Fantasy trope of giving tons of background information can be traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Pillars of Eternity intro is nothing next to the dense opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. In general, when writing in a genre, you will try to emulate the most successful authors in that genre, so it’s hard to blame Obsidian for looking to the work of Tolkien and his successors for ideas.

I myself have never been a fan of this style. And that’s despite the fact that some of my influences favored verbosity. Take H.P. Lovecraft for example–he was a pioneer in writing horror, but he tended to go overboard with some of his descriptions. I think some of that crept into my own early attempts at writing horror.

It’s much easier to use too many words than to use just the right number. The old line about “writing a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one” applies.  It’s easy to waste words, and that dilutes their intended effect.

The economy of any piece of writing is a very important consideration, but few people ever think about it. It wasn’t until I saw the movie Lawrence of Arabia that I really learned to appreciate it.

Think of it this way: whenever you write something, eventually you will have to stop. You only have so many words before you have to hit send, or mail it to the publisher, or whatever. While the supply of words is theoretically infinite, in practice it’s severely limited–by the reader’s attention span if nothing else.

So, you want to maximize the value you get per word. What do I mean by “value”? Well, it’s whatever idea or feeling you are trying to communicate in your writing. If it’s an informational document or a bit of technical description, then you want to be as clear and concise as possible. If you are writing a character who prefers to communicate non-verbally or who is just mysterious, you use few words, and you make them vague and open to interpretation.

Sometimes there is value in deliberately using too many words. The dramatist W.S. Gilbert (another of my favorites) would often have characters say things in as complicated and lengthy a way as possible for comic effect. “Quantity has a quality all its own,” as they say in big organizations.

Vogel is right that the Pillars opening screens are bad at conveying information. They could have communicated the same points more succinctly. But the problem is that in addition to giving the player some information, they are also supposed to be atmospheric. And you usually need more–or at least different–words to create an atmosphere than to just convey information.

It’s a difficult balancing act–the writer(s) must both communicate technical detail about how to actually play the game while also keeping the player immersed in the virtual world in which the story is set. (For an example of a character creation intro that is more integrated with the game and doesn’t bore the player, I recommend Fallout: New Vegas-also by Obsidian.)

The “optimal” number of words is dependent on what the writer is trying to convey, as well as on the medium they are using. Obviously, a screenwriter is going to use fewer words than a novelist to describe the exact same scene, because the screenwriter knows they will have actors and sets that will communicate certain things visually.

To summarize, all writers, regardless of their subject, style or genre, should follow Einstein’s advice: “Everything should be as simple as possible–but no simpler.”

I posted an excerpt from this last year.  Lately, another bit of it has been running through my head.  It was my G&S-ified depiction of the scene where Palpatine declares himself Emperor, set to the tune of Ludwig’s song, “A Monarch Who Boasts Intellectual Graces” from The Grand Duke. (Note that throughout, “republican” and “democratic” are used in the general sense of political concepts, not the present-day parties in our own galaxy.)

Enjoy!

****

PALPATINE:

Oh, the Chancellor who uses emergency powers

Will gain, if he’s smart, a good deal of support.

      He can speak to opponents without getting glowers

 And won’t have any need to lie or distort–

You know, I am sure, in these perilous hours,

That though a sep’ratist danger still towers

And threatens this Senate of ours,

  I know of a plan that will make ‘em abort!

Oh! My motto is “safety;” I’m not a daredevil,

And while I rule here, we will all be secure.

With a powerful Emp’ror, who’s quite on the level,

Republican principle may long endure!

CHORUS:  

Oh! His motto etc.

PALPATINE:

When rule democratic simply fails to succeed;

And Congressional meetings are just a mess–

An Emperor clearly’s the thing that you need

To at once set ev’rything right in Congress!

With no more long meetings progress to impede,

Improvements extreme we can make with all speed,

It’s easy to do, and I will do the deed—

              It’s done! And here’s to our having continued success!

 Oh! Our Galaxy nearly had gone to the Devil,

But I thankfully happened to know of a cure–

With a powerful etc.

CHORUS:   

Oh! Our Galaxy etc.

 

I decided to post this after reading this post by Barb Knowles.  Like her, I was disturbed to see that most of my favorites are white men. (And all but one of them is dead.) Also like her, I’d love to have suggestions on diverse authors. I plan to do a list of my favorite non-fiction authors–that should be a lot more diverse.

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W.S. Gilbert: As long-time readers will know, I’m a huge Gilbert and Sullivan fan. Sullivan was a fine composer, but in all honesty, it’s Gilbert’s words that I love.  Moreover, he has a huge number of other plays done by himself or with other composers.  So much wit and genius.  Truly, he “made his fellow creatures wise” by “gilding the philosophic pill”. He’s the reason I became a writer.

 

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George Orwell: Most people know him for 1984, and it’s a great book. But I think his best fictional work is Animal Farm. These books are more than just political satires on events of the time–they are timeless examinations of human nature.

 

 

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Charlotte Brontë: True, I’ve only read one book by her: Jane Eyre. And yes, it is in some ways dated with the trappings of Victorian melodrama. But it’s still a very good tale, filled with unexpectedly humorous moments.

 

 

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Robert W. Chambers: The King in Yellow, and more specifically, The Repairer of Reputations, is the greatest weird tale I’ve ever read. Not even Lovecraft or Poe ever managed to create such a bizarre atmosphere in so few words. I’ve read it countless times, and each time, I have more questions about it.

 

 

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Robert Bolt: He didn’t write books. He wrote films and plays–most notably Lawrence of Arabia and A Man For All Seasons. If you want to see historical fiction done right, look no further than these. Lawrence is one of my favorite films, partly for its beautifully spare script.  Man For All Seasons is a fascinating take on questions of morality and pragmatism vs. idealism.

 

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P.G. Wodehouse: As somebody once said: it is impossible to be unhappy while reading one of his books.

 

 

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Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most widely-read and beloved books in America. And yet I still think it’s underrated. Mostly, this is because so much of the talk about it focuses on Atticus Finch.  He’s a good character, but it means other characters like Heck Tate, Miss Maudie, Calpurnia, and even Boo Radley himself don’t get their due. Go Set a Watchman, meanwhile, is not bad once you understand it’s a draft–which many people don’t.

 

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Thomas Hardy: In some ways the anti-Wodehouse, as his stories are usually very grim. But he was a master at creating an atmosphere, and there are parts of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure that are shocking even now–I can’t imagine how they would have struck Victorian audiences.

 

 

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John Kennedy Toole: I’ve only ever read one book by him.  (For a long time, it was thought to be the only one he wrote.) A Confederacy of Dunces is a strange, strange beast. If I tried to describe it, you probably would think it totally crazy.  And it is.  But it is also brilliant–I’ve never seen such an intricate plot that fit together so neatly.

 

 

1024px-chris_avelloneChris Avellone: I did it. I put a video game writer in the same company as Brontë, Orwell and Hardy. And it’s justified. The script for Knights of the Old Republic II is a meditation on the spiritual and psychological effects of war that ranks as great literature. And the iconic Kreia is one of the all-time great female characters. I rank KotOR II slightly ahead of Avellone’s legendary Planescape: Torment, which explores many of the same themes, but both are absolute masterpieces.

Dramatis Personae

Donald Trump: President-Elect
Barack Obama: Outgoing President
John Roberts: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (And a good judge too!)
Bill Clinton: A former President
Hillary Clinton: A former Secretary of State
Al Gore: A former Vice-President
Chorus of Senators, Representatives, and Townspeople.

Act I. Scene: Washington D.C. A frigid winter day. The familiar landmarks seen in the background. TRUMP discovered standing at podium.

TRUMP: Well, well, at long last the fruits of my eighteen months’ labor are to be crowned with inestimable glory. At noon today, I shall finally achieve the august rank of President, defying all the many baleful prophecies set forth by the ignorant laymen and avowed antagonists of my singular quest. The prospect is Elysian–big league!

(Enter BARACK OBAMA, BILL and HILLARY CLINTON, AL GORE and Chorus. Chorus seen begging OBAMA in a furious state of agitation.)

OBAMA: There’s no getting out of it. The law is the law. At 12 o’ clock today, I relinquish control of the office to my elected successor.

(Chorus much dejected)

OBAMA (aside): Never mind my misgivings about his personality, or his total contempt for my liberal policy agenda; not to mention his hiring investigators to find evidence that I am not a legitimate president. I’m a constitutional lawyer–it’s built into my, er, constitution– and respect for the law, unpleasant as it may be, is paramount! (aloud, to TRUMP) Well look, Donald, I certainly wish you the best with your efforts to undo everything I have done. I have heard it said that you wish to, er, how does it go? “Make America Great Again” by “draining the swamp” is that right?

TRUMP: Yes, that sounds like something I would say.

OBAMA: I know we have had our differences over the years, but I do hope we can put those behind us, and work together in a spirit of mutual bipartisan cooperation for the betterment of the country.

TRUMP (aside): This fellow still thinks I listen to people. Sad! (aloud) Beautiful, very very beautiful! I’ll have my people look into it.

(Enter CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS, looking harried and nervous)

TRUMP: What’s the matter with you?

OBAMA (checking his watch): The inauguration does not occur for another half-hour yet.

ROBERTS (frenzied): Stop–stop, both of you! There is a problem here.

TRUMP: Problem? What do you mean? Explain!

ROBERTS: Mr. Trump’s investigators have just completed their report on President Obama’s birth certificate and by extension, eligibility to hold office!

(OBAMA and TRUMP both much affected)

OBAMA: What!

TRUMP: I had forgotten all about that!

ROBERTS: Yes, well it seems that Mr. Obama’s birth certificate really was a forgery! They fabricated it using someone else’s birth certificate.

(OBAMA staggers in disbelief.)

TRUMP (Triumphantly): I knew it all along!

ROBERTS: But there’s more to it than that–it seems that the certificate they used was yours, Mr. Trump! They simply wrote “Hawaii” over “New York”.

TRUMP: So?

ROBERTS: So, technically you’ve already served two terms–

OBAMA (clapping TRUMP on the back) –and a fine two terms they were, if I may say so myself.

ROBERTS: –and you can’t serve a third.

TRUMP: This is ridiculous–then who is going to be President?

ROBERTS: I’ve checked into that–the results of the last three elections are all invalid, and so we can’t use those. And the winner of the two before that is obviously ineligible to serve as well. As such, I have taken the liberty of convening the court to overturn the results of Bush v. Gore.

(All gasp. ROBERTS motions GORE to step forward.)

ROBERTS: I give you: the Next President of the United States!

ALL except TRUMP: Hurrah!

GORE: Fallacy somewhere, I fancy.

All except TRUMP exeunt in jubilation. TRUMP lowers his head dejectedly.

CURTAIN

Against my better judgment, I’ve posted an amusing (?) little trifle: it’s an attempted parody of High Fantasy that I wrote when I was 15 years old.  I found it the other day while looking through some of my old projects that I had set aside.

Nothing is stranger than revisiting something you did a long time ago.  People change over time, and so it can feel as if you are reading a brand-new author.  If I were a third-party, I would be quite baffled to find that the person who wrote this absurdity also wrote this. And now I am forced to confront the fact that not only did the same person write it, but in each case, I was the perpetrator.

Effectively, I might as well be a completely different person than the stuck-up teenager who first sat down to write thinking he’d be the new P.G. Wodehouse or W.S. Gilbert. And yet, presumably that teenager is still stored somewhere in my brain, although try as I might, I sometimes have difficulty summoning him to explain what he was thinking.

Anyway, that’s all a tangent.  Here is “The King”, or “What I Thought Was Funny At The Time”. Enjoy!

All. Well – what’s the news? How is the election going?

Ernest. Oh, it’s a certainty – a practical certainty! Two of the candidates have been arrested for debt, and the third is a baby in arms – so, if you keep your promises, and vote solid, I’m cocksure of election!

Olga. Trust to us. But you remember the conditions?

Ernest. Yes – all of you shall be provided for, for life. Every man shall be ennobled – every lady shall have un­limited credit at the Court Milliner’s, and all salaries shall be paid weekly in advance!

Gretchen. Oh, it’s quite clear he knows how to rule a Grand Duchy!

Ernest. Rule a Grand Duchy? Why, my good girl, for ten years past I’ve ruled a theatrical company! A man who can do that can rule anything!

–W.S. Gilbert The Grand Duke. Act I. 1896

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Crowther, the secretary of the W.S. Gilbert society, tweeted:

My initial reaction was that the reason for this was that Gilbert’s works are inaccessible to modern readers because he was sometimes a bit of chauvinist, and most publishers aren’t keen to push the works of another straight, white, male Victorian writer.  Modern readers are looking for more diversity.

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W.S. Gilbert. (Image via Wikipedia)

I was about to say this, but then I realized it wasn’t true–and my own literary interests showed why.  (You can see my whole exchange with Mr. Crowther here.)

Specifically, I thought of H.P. Lovecraft, the early 1900s horror writer, whose influence on modern horror seems to be ever-increasing.  His ideas creep into films like Alien and The Thing, his famous monster Cthulhu is the shorthand for Ultimate Evil in some parts of the internet, and there is an entire genre of horror named after him. Only yesterday I wrote a review of a horror novel clearly influenced by him.

And Lovecraft is way, way less accessible to the modern reader than Gilbert. Gilbert, as I said, was a bit of a chauvinist.  Lovecraft openly sympathized with the Nazis.  His letters, while in other respects brilliant and insightful, show a man prone to almost genocidal racial screeds, and his books often contain appalling racist diatribes and descriptions.

Everyone who reads and enjoys Lovecraft’s work ultimately has to grapple with this undercurrent of White Supremacist venom that runs through it. (For the record, here’s where I did it.)

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H.P. Lovecraft (Image via Wikipedia)

So, if a racist Nazi sympathizer can have such an influence over modern writers, why can’t a lovable old Victorian dramatist have the same?

The answer is that Gilbert’s main claim to fame are the comic operas he wrote with Arthur Sullivan, and comic opera is out of fashion.  In fact, not only is comic opera out of fashion, but the form of musical theater that evolved when it fell out of fashion is also out fashion.

Gilbert’s other famous work, the Bab Ballads, are witty, short poems in a style that is, once again, out of fashion.

Thinking about the Lovecraft v. Gilbert issue was what really brought home to me how out of fashion metered, rhyming poetry is.  Because Lovecraft also wrote poetry, and yet, for all his influence, his poems don’t seem to get reprinted nearly as much as his short stories and novellas.

I have a collection that purports to be “The Best of H.P. Lovecraft” in front of me.  It contains mediocre tales like “Pickman’s Model” and “In The Vault” , but not his great poem “Nemesis”. If Lovecraft had only written horror poetry, probably he would not have one-tenth the influence he does.

So, why did poetry fall out of fashion?  I have no clue.  It’s easy to memorize (that’s part of the point) and tends to be shorter than the sprawling novels that students in schools get assigned.  And yet, poetry–or at least, rhyming and metrical poetry that adheres to rhyme schemes and other rules, is distinctly out of fashion.

(As an end note/bit of self-promotion: for those readers who like both Gilbert and Lovecraft,  I once wrote a short horror story entitled “The Revival”, very much in the Lovecraftian vein set around an amateur production of Ruddigore.)

About ten years ago, I wrote a comic opera adaptation of the Star Wars movies, with songs set to Gilbert and Sullivan tunes. It was just an exercise in songwriting that I did for fun, but it definitely helped me learn how to write a decent rhyme.

Re-reading it now, I see most of my lyrics were pretty bad–although to be fair to myself, few lyricists can ever hope to match the great W.S. Gilbert.

But there were a few songs I wrote that were pretty decent.  For instance, this adaptation of the meadow scene from Attack of the Clones, in which Anakin explains his dictatorial political philosophy to Padme. It’s set to the tune of “Were I a King” from The Grand Duke.

ANAKIN: Were I in charge, in very truth,
And yet had kept my health and youth,
In spite of my ascension;
To keep us peaceful, keep us strong–
And make these blessings last for long–
I would request the voting throng
All their concerns to mention.
To some big council they would go
And voice with elocution,
Their little problems all, and lo!
They would find a solution!

The men who would be to this council elected,
Would all by popular vote be selected–
And if they all did what they said on campaign,
They could run for office again!

CHORUS:    Oh, the men who would be etc.

ANAKIN: And if councilmen should disagree
The problem would then come to me–
And I’d make the decision!
One side may say to “Cut the tax!”
The other says “Prevent attacks!”–
Unlike our current plan that lacks
An executive with vision–
Both sides would have to go to me,
And I’d make ’em see reason!
And if they still would disagree–
I’d have them shot for treason!

Oh, the man who can mold a political sphere
Completely bereft of corruption or fear,
Can govern and rule, with of his brains a tenth
Intelligent life–and possibly Ennth!

51ojcxq47jlThis book is probably the single most significant and influential book for my intellectual development.  It changed the way I thought about fiction.  When I talk about motifs and  imagery and thematic coherence in my reviews of novels, movies, TV shows, and yes, even video games–that is Wren’s influence.

Without this book, I might not have ever learned the critical skills needed to appreciate dramatic art the way that I do. I’m not saying everyone’s reaction to it will be the same–it’s probably just a function of it being the first piece of critical writing I ever read–but nevertheless, I can’t overstate how much it shaped my thinking. It influenced me tremendously as a writer of fiction as well–after all, you can’t criticize fiction if you aren’t willing to put your ideas into practice, and hold yourself to the same standard you hold others.

But enough about how it completely altered my life.  You’re here because you want to know if it’s any good.

Answer: yes, it is very good, although I disagree with Wren on a few points.

A Most Ingenious Paradox is a critical analysis of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Wren’s thesis is that each one contains a central theme, usually about Love, that is supported by all the lyrics, dialogue and music.  Wren argues that this underlying thematic element is the reason for the incredible staying power of the operas.

For example, the conflict of Love vs. Duty is a theme that occurs in at least 9 of the operas, and Wren argues that it is not fully realized until Yeomen of the Guard. (The only G&S opera with an unhappy ending.)

Wren’s thesis is that the endurance of the operas is due to their powerful central themes rooted in human nature.  Wren points out that scholars have long given the same reason for the longevity of Shakespeare’s plays. He makes a good case, offering extensive examples of how all the elements in each opera tie together to reinforce a thematic point–or don’t, in the case of less successful operas.

Still, there are some objections that can be raised to this idea.  For example, if Ruddigore is vastly more thematically coherent and developed than H.M.S. Pinafore–as Wren argues it isthen why has Pinafore been more popular, from its original run to the present day? Wren makes some effort to explain this, but never quite does.

(For the record: Ruddigore is my favorite of all the operas, and Pinafore among my least favorites, even though it was the first one I ever heard.  But while I agree with Wren’s analysis, there is just no way to argue Ruddigore is more popular. This suggests that perhaps the thematic element isn’t what determines a G&S opera’s fortunes.)

Then there is the problem of The Mikado, which is Gilbert and Sullivan’s all-time greatest hit, and Wren has to admit it is not as thematically sophisticated or emotionally deep as the operas either before or after it.  Wren writes: “The opera has something of the charm of a clever clockwork… [T]he ingenuity of the machinery is so remarkable, so flawlessly meshed, that it remains a source of joy on many repeated viewings.”

He’s right; and it would be hard to find any G&S fan who didn’t like The Mikado. But where does that leave Wren’s central argument? If the most enduring of the operas doesn’t contain the things he says make an opera endure, the whole thing looks shaky.

Re-reading it now, for the first time in about a decade, I realize I don’t–and never did–know if Wren’s main thesis is right or wrong.  And I don’t care.  What I do know is that it is an absolutely brilliant piece of critical analysis.  Wren’s masterful critique of what went wrong in Utopia, Limited should be required reading for all authors and dramatic critics. It is worth learning about the opera just to be able to understand that chapter.

Of course, if you don’t know Gilbert and Sullivan at all, you have to familiarize yourself with their work before the book will even be intelligible.  Obviously, I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t love G&S, but if it’s not your cup of tea, you won’t understand this book.

For anyone familiar with the operas, however, I consider it a must-read.

{Sung to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General“}

I am the very model of a charismatic candidate,
I have thwarted ev’rything the GOP has planned to date.
From starting as a dark horse, I’ve become the odds-on favorite
Saying I will build a wall and then force Mexico to pay for it.
And though Establishment Republicans think I am despicable
Ev’ry charge they level at me has proved totally unstickable.
And even though I’ve said disgusting things about my progeny
And made so many statements that are dripping with misogyny–
By thwarting ev’ry action that the GOP has planned to date,
I’ve proved myself the model of a charismatic candidate.

My “Apprenticeship” in showbiz has undoubtedly done well for me–
I am so telegenic, all the major networks fell for me.
My domineering manner plays so well when I’m debating folks
It doesn’t even matter that I sometimes tell degrading jokes.
Believe me, folks, I’m so very, very big-league entertaining
That I have no need coherent policies to be maintaining.
I’ll be so much like Reagan, it will make your head spin, I insist–
Heads will spin so much it will all be like the film The Exorcist.
Since I’ve thwarted ev’rything the GOP has planned to date.
I am the very model of a charismatic candidate.

 
In fact, when I know whether Judges “sign” on “bills” or not
When I’ve decided what to do with all the immigrants we’ve got–
When I’ve some idea what is and isn’t Constitutional–
When I’ve proved my economic plans are not delusional
When I have shown I will not always act impulsively–
When I behave towards women just a little less repulsively–
In short, when I have turned into my very living opposite–
You’ll say a better candidate has never run for office yet!
Though all my civic knowledge is just stuff I learned in real estate,
I am sure a brand-new wall will make our location really great.
And since a country is the only thing I’ve yet to brand to date,
I am the very model of a charismatic candidate!