Wednesday 25 July 2018

Hamilton Review

Once upon a time, there was a man who cared so very little for musicals. Quite a lot of them actually - but I am talking about one particular individual who made a fatal error. That mistake was to marry a woman who was absolutely obsessed with the bloody things.

So he took her to Book of Mormon and Wicked. He watched Disney movies and Les Miserables. He listened to musical songs whenever she stuck them on Pandora. And in doing so, he accepted that they were just stories and music and jokes the same as most anything else. But this never blossomed into a fullblooded love of the thing.

That was until Hamilton.

Because Hamilton is one hell of a story. It has the power of an 800 lb gorilla. A gorilla made from titanium. And that has bombs strapped to its fists.

Part of that power comes from Alexander Hamilton’s own life. Going into the show, I only knew that Hamilton was an early Secretary of the Treasury and died duelling (thanks Something Positive). I didn’t know the extent to which his tale was a straight up Greek tragedy. I didn’t know how influential he’d been or the many things he’d done. Lin-Manuel Miranda deserves a pat on the back for spotting this half-forgotten story and the potential in it if nothing else.

But there are so many things else. The songs are incredible. Rap’s ability to enthrall and amaze with the sudden twists of its wordplay are fused perfectly the musical’s love of big emotive choruses. I wonder whether the surely inevitable imitators will be able to handle these two influences half as deftly. I’m going to guess mostly no, but I hope enough do that rap musicals take off and become a thing. They need to be a thing.

Of course, the rap element also adds to Miranda’s decision to cast the play as predominantly black. There’s so many words that have been written about that, and better than I can write them, that I will stick to one point and one point alone. That is the added weight given to many of the lines placed in the founding fathers’ mouths by the fact it is a black man speaking them. The contradiction between their words on liberty opposed to their actions regarding slavery is sharp, but sometimes forgotten. Not here.

It seems that no nuance or contradiction in words is missed here. And it is that textual density that is the final and greatest source of Hamilton’s power. Every re-listen to the soundtrack sounds better as a consequence. That textual density allows Hamilton to be history lesson, character study, philosophical treatise and incredible entertainment all at once. Anyone who claims to love words should listen to the songs and read the lyrics and see just how much Miranda accomplished here.

Those words are the most fitting tribute there could be to Alexander Hamilton; a piece of art that matches his inexhaustible energy and eloquence.

And that’s why I might be a little obsessed with a musical.

Monday 23 July 2018

X-Com, Long War, and the Thief of Time

One of the reasons my writing is suffering at the moment is the amount of time I spend playing X-Com 2. So, in a vain attempt to at least keep myself in the habit, I’ve decided to write about X-Com 2.

For those unfamiliar with the name, X-Com is a long storied franchise where you command an agency dedicated to fighting the aliens menacing Earth. The lion’s share of that command belongs to directing the squads of elite soldiers (well, sometimes elite) as they undertake missions against the enemy. X-Com 2 is the latest edition (the number being misleading due to a reboot) and this time, the aliens won and you’re directing a guerrilla operation against them.

Those unfamiliar with the name will also be unaware of X-Com’s reputation for tense and punishing game play. Part of that is due to gamers getting attached to the soldiers under their command - particularly when they’ve customised them and renamed them after friends and family - and therefore taking every death personally. The other part comes from never knowing when a rash move will trigger a huge alien backlash and put the mission at risk.

Personally, I’ve yet to find this to be the case. That may be because I’ve only played on normal difficulty so far but mostly, I find the aliens a bit toothless. There’s a lot of frustration when you’re groping around for a contact - or worse, flanking during a firefight - and trigger the next group with your last soldier. But mostly I survive. The aliens seem to lack a killer instinct unless I’ve grossly underestimated who can see and reach me. Which happens less and less as I understand the maps and enemies.

No, my problem with X-Com 2 is it doesn’t go deep enough. Combat often feels a bit simplistic due to the best action almost always being to take the best cover you can and shoot. I don’t make too many squad alterations between missions as I don’t have to and in any case, I don’t have too many options. There’s four base soldier classes and I already mostly know what I want out of them. The strategic element bolted on top is very simple and rarely leaves me feeling stretched or forced to make hard choices. Its fun, but it feels a case of unfulfilled potential.

Enter Long War 2.

Long War is a mod for X-Com that does roughly what it says on the tin. It makes the war longer. A lot longer judging from reviews and information. And it does by introducing more depth all over the place. More soldier classes, with more options for each class to pick from and more gear per soldier. More strategic choices. A wider variety of missions, suggesting the need for multiple squad options - out and out stealth, run and gun, straight up fight, and maybe others.

I’d been meaning to install Long War after I finished X-Com, but this weekend I caved and went and did it.

To a certain extent, its done everything I wanted. The opening mission in X-Com features 4 soldiers. The opening mission in Long War features 8. That makes me feel like a real squad commander, with a huge amount of options. A problem arises though in that most missions in Long War heavily tilt the numbers against taking that many men, which sucks. It sucks a lot. I dislike games that promise what they don’t deliver.

Another problem is that when you start with 8 soldiers and there’s 8 classes, everyone gets promoted to a different class at the end of that first mission. So far so good, but the classes aren’t made equal. There’s a lot of classes dedicated to using really big guns, but only one dedicated to stealth and one dedicated to hacking. In my first go through, I had two soldiers wounded in the first mission. They wouldn’t be available for the first month of my campaign. Guess which two classes they were? Sure enough - my stealth specialist was out. I played on a bit, but it became obvious to me that I’d want my stealth specialist. Particularly as he’s also one of the few classes that can do guaranteed damage and even more particularly when the opening set of missions all needed stealth.

So I restarted this morning, played through the opening mission… and lost my stealth specialist to the hospital again. I didn’t even bother progressing past that moment.

At some point this evening, I’ll probably try again. I’m not sure what I’ll do if it turns out I lose one of my required classes in that first mission again. But I do know that right away, Long War has that tense and punishing flavour I never got from X-Com. The problem is that it does it more by utter randomness than punishing me for my mistakes. And I dislike having to play for an hour to find out how the dice fell.

I also really dislike that even with 8 classes, they still felt the need to pigeon hole such important roles into one class again. What’s the point of having all this variety and options if I’m going to dedicate nearly half my roster to Specialists and Shinobi?

But I will be trying it again. Because no matter what I dislike, Long War promises everything I ever wanted. Save having the time to write that is.

Sunday 22 July 2018

What Readers Really Want - One Reader's Confession of Contradiction

Pop onto a writing forum. Look for a discussion on how best to do X. Count the posts until someone says something to the effect of "well, this is what's best to do for the readers". This is what readers like, this is what they understand, what they' expect, and so on. 

If you got as far as ten, you're not using the same forums as me, that's for sure.

This is probably a good tendency. The point of writing is communication and communication works due to shared understanding of concepts. The stronger the understanding is, the more effective the communication.

However, as with all attempts to find out what people want, there is a big problem and that is the notorious inability of the people to reveal what they actually want.

I recently confronted this in myself when reading The Traitor God by Cam Johnston. Normally, I'd tell you I like action-adventure books. But when the book wrapped up its mystery early in favour of a big fight, I thought it the most disappointing decision that Cam made in writing it.

So do I like action-adventure with lots of fighting, or not? Maybe its sudden shifts in terms of the emphasis of the entertainment I dislike - it's not the first fantasy mystery book I've had this problem with. But in general, I'd say I like authors to try and do this. Kushiel's Dart switches very smoothly between intrigue and a desperate flight for survival. Numerous Feist books career all over the place.

It appears that I can either like or dislike these pitch shifts within books. I can't tell would-be authors to do it or not to do it. As I think about it, the most I can offer is "Just get it right". But I can't tell you what right is, I'll just know it when I see it.

I often refer to this as Goldilocks syndrome. There's pieces of writing craft where the judgment of the end results will be so subjective and so varied, where there's popular books at opposite poles of approach, that there's not a lot of useful advice to do other than "Just get it right". Which isn't very helpful, but its more helpful than some of the advice about what readers like and don't like out there.

Take exposition. I tell people that I buck the seeming tend and that I enjoy a lot of exposition. But I know there's been plenty of Amazon samples I've put them down because they've got too much to begin with. Am I telling the truth, or is there something else in play? Maybe its just that the exposition at the front comes before I'm interested (I think C.S. Pacat sums up neatly where exposition should come here) but honestly, I think Moraine's recounting of Manerethen's fall in The Eye of the World is where I got hooked.

Or take my recent attempt to try and figure out why I like a big message in some books and not others. Or take just about anything.

People will point at sales figures and say what is popular, is what people like. I find that hard to argue with and equally hard to come up with a coherent pattern of what readers want from what is popular. The two totem poles of popular fantasy today are Harry Potter and A Song Of Ice And Fire and in a lot of ways, they're pretty damn opposite. If I had to pick a third biggest contemporary author, I'd probably say Gaiman, who's kinda off out there on another axis. And you can probably pick out most of the "You don't want to do that" rules that writers hear getting broken in one or another of their books.

In fact, the only commonality I can see is that all of them were perceived as doing something fresh and new and different from the market. "Same But Different" is one of the great guidelines for being hyper popular.

And as such, what guidelines can we offer in terms of what people want - when people themselves often fail to express what they want?

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Scrubs vs Brooklyn 99

Me and the American normally watch Food Network when enjoying downtime on the couch. When its not Food Network, its normally a sitcom. We love big long dramas, but that involves a bit too much mental commitment.

The first sitcom we watched together was Scrubs, a show we both loved from long before we ever knew each other. We watched five series in our three months together in Pittsburgh. More recently, we were watching Brooklyn 99 on Netflix - until we spotted Scrubs on Amazon Prime and immediately switched back.

This has got me comparing the two shows in my head and wondering why I prefer Scrubs so much, particularly as I'd generally rather watch police shows than hospital shows. It's not like they don't have some huge similarities with a lot of the same character stereotypes. This isn't preferring nutella to peanut butter, its about which brand of peanut butter I like best. And I love making that sort of distinction between stories.

The other day, I think I figured out why. But first things first - know I'm really not a fan of narcissism. 

Now, Perry Cox and Gina Linetti are arguably the two biggest narcissists among each show's cast. It's a lot more arguable in the former's case, as Scrubs contains a lot of narcissistic tendencies. Gina is the heavyweight narcissist champion of Brooklyn 99, a show where a lot of the characters are actually quite self deprecating.

Which, given my hatred of narcissists and overblown egotism, should make Brooklyn 99 my winner and Dr Cox a hated character. Quite the opposite. And why?

When the Scrubs scriptwriters made a point of playing up Cox's self-love, he's usually headed for a fall as a consequence. In contrast, Gina's continual self-absorption is almost always rewarded.

Now, first off, of course that tilts me towards Scrubs just on its own. Seeing narcissists get rewarded for tricking people into drinking cement rather than getting punched in the face is enraging. But it goes deeper than that. Because Cox has to confront his narcissism, he's a far deeper character. Because he sometimes overcomes it, he's a lot more sympathetic. This isn't exactly the deepest most radical storytelling analysis ever I know - but Cox gets a hard time and is a more interesting character for it.

After thinking of this, I realised it runs all the way through both shows. The Brooklyn 99 cast has their share of interesting character flaws, but it rarely seems to impact them hard. I know some don't like Scrubs for its melodramatic element but to my mind, it seems to provide the necessary counter-balance to the comedy. Without those struggles to give them humanity, Brooklyn 99's characters feel a bit throw away and 2D. And the best laughs come from characters acting like real characters, not just people saying great lines.

This can be taken too far. Maybe my least favourite part of Scrubs is the way the main characters JD and Elliot make the same over the top bad decisions again and again. I far prefer Turk and Carla, whose relationship constantly changes, getting stronger as they overcome different failings. I can only sympathise with those who find JD and Elliot too melodramatic and it's writing devices such as them that make me rebel against the advice "Always make things worse".

But, on reviewing the differences between Scrubs and Brooklyn 99, it would seem its better to go too far here than undershoot.

And that's why I love Scrubs - and stories like Scrubs - more.

Well, that and less celebration of rampant narcissism.