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The Proper Use of Expanded Universes

I touched a bit on this in my Gears of War 3 review last night, but one thing I’m getting pretty sick of is an overuse and misuse of expanded universe references in video games.  While it’s well and good for video games to develop beyond the game disc and branch out across multiple mediums, especially in particularly rich settings like Mass Effect or Warcraft, there’s been a trend that tie-in books and comics are becoming less and less about expanding the world a little bit and are becoming more like required reading.

Expanded Universes, by definition, are designed to expand upon the original story.  Ideally, they’re supposed to add something that the original work didn’t really get a chance to cover, like Han Solo dropping his cargo or David Anderson’s term as a Spectre.  Maybe it’ll go in depth on a side character or fill in gaps the audience didn’t even know was there in the first place.  That’s cool.  These may not be literary masterpieces, but the idea of going in and expanding on a cool world to give more to the readers is nice, and the best part is, they’re completely optional.  If someone doesn’t really want the specifics on something and would like to leave it up to their imagination, it’s not going to affect their enjoyment of the original work.

Lately though, it’s starting to get out of hand.  Gears of War 3 introduced at least three new characters with previous relationships with the characters the player is already familiar with.  Unlike in the original work where the relationships and situations are eventually explained somehow (either directly or through implication), a lot of these characters were just dropped in like the player had come in after missing the first 20 minutes.  For instance, there’s a character named Sam who has never appeared in any of the games and doesn’t get along with Baird, a guy introduced pretty much in the second level of the first game.  It’s never explained why they hate each other, nor is anything really implied about their relationship.  There’s a new girl, she doesn’t get along with a guy in the group and it’s never explained why.  The character was apparently introduced in one of the Gears of War books by Karen Traviss (who also wrote Gears of War 3), and while I’m sure Traviss’ novel certainly has literary merit, it shouldn’t be required reading for me to get a handle on who this new person is in the game.

Pictured: A literary masterpiece

Compare this to Mass Effect, which has several comic book mini series collections, a handful of comic books and a cell phone game, all of which go out to explain something in the game (Anderson’s time as a Spectre, the Illusive Man’s possible origin and how Jacob got recruited into Cerberus), but none of them get in the way of the story.  Anderson mentions his past with Saren a little bit, but doesn’t go into too much detail and the Illusive Man’s origin is neat and all, but overall, it’s of no real consequence to the overall story. It’s there, it’s cool and it doesn’t intrude on the original work.

The problem with the way games like Gears of War are introducing these Expanded Universe elements is that to a lot of players, this stuff may not have happened at all.  To this section of the audience, apparently some cool stuff happened off screen and they never get to find out about it.  It’s like Aggra’s sudden appearance in World of Warcraft when the player is going into Deepholm (or if they roll a Goblin).  She’s apparently Thrall’s girlfriend (wait, what happened to Jaina?) and she did technically appear during the Elemental Invasion event before her “real” appearance in the book the Shattering, but most of what we find out about her and how she got into this relationship with a guy who’s pretty much the main character of World of Warcraft is detailed only in this book.   Suddenly, a girlfriend appears, they’re in love and then they get married (at least Jaina got invited to the wedding).  There’s some development for this somewhere, but most players are getting left in the lurch.

Subtitle: Shit that happened off screen durinng patches

The audience shouldn’t have to be doing extra homework just to keep up with a narrative.  There’s nothing wrong with expanding out from the original work, filing in blanks or something like that is well and good.  However, it’s problematic when doing so is leaving part of the audience out of the loop.  In jokes, winks to more dedicated fans or some references are great, but introducing plot points whole hog in an expanded universe and only half explaining (if at all!) what they mean is just lazy.  At least take some time to get some exposition out of the way for the people who didn’t check out the extra stuff.

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Thoughts on Fantasy

This post on Io9.com made me think.  There really are a lot of weird issues with the fantasy genre.  Personally, I’ve grappled with the idea of the “super gene” (as I call it) that shows up in a lot of speculative fiction stories.  The gene that makes magical ability or other extranormal abilities run in families.  I’ve always thought it reminded me slightly of a “master race” concept.  Why can those guys do magic?  What about them makes them better at manipulating the foundations of the universe?

It bothers me.  Like the quote in the article says, some people do try to link genetic magical talent to artistic ability running through families.  After all, a family that has a musician is more likely to produce more musicians (maybe).  But, it’s not really the same thing.  First of all, part of the reason a family of artists produces artists is because the children of artists spend time with their parents and are exposed to the things that their parents do and what inspire their parents.  A child of a musician is likely to learn music at a young age, simply because he’ll sit around while his parents play music.  As time goes on, he’ll likely pick up an instrument, or be encouraged to do so, meaning that artistic talent is really inherited through experience, and not necessarily through genetics.

Another issue is that while writing a poem or playing music is important, it’s not on the same level of being able to summon fire out of nowhere, is it?  It’s a genetic talent that makes a person literally more powerful than a non-magic user.  If magic is genetic, no matter how hard I train, study or work at doing magic, I’ll never learn it if I don’t have the right genes, and worse, in some worlds, there won’t be anything I can do to stop a magic user, no matter how bad ass I am with a gun or sword.  It’s not too hard for someone to connect the dots and say that magic people are strictly better than mundane people.

It’s different in a world where anyone with sufficient will and determination can learn to use magic, and it makes the magic-art analogy much stronger.  In the real world, anyone can learn to play guitar or write a book, but no one is simply going to be good at it without training and skill, no matter how much inherent talent that person might have.  Magic, if it’s supposed to be a stand in for art, should work the same way, because then the character will go through the same struggles that the author went through as they learned their craft.

I wasn’t born with the ability to write or play music.  In fact, when I started playing clarinet, I was so bad my teachers told me to quit.  However, after years and years of working my ass off, my senior year of high school, I made it to All-State auditions, I was one of the first clarinets in the marching band and I had a duet with the top clarinet player in the school at a concert.  It took me years of practice and determination, but I eventually became pretty good.

If I had been born with the ability to up and play clarinet beautifully, it wouldn’t be the same, would it?  Sure, some people I knew were more musically inclined than others (several of my friends in fact), but even they had to work their asses off to make sure they were good.  Every skill, every talent and every ability is the same.  People have to work their ass off to be good at it.  Why should magic work any differently?

I’m back and I’m rested

I took the past week off to rest a little bit.  Work had become really stressful and while I had some time to update over Thanksgiving break, I decided to take the time off to have a complete brain reboot.  I had just gotten way too tired and I figured that would be the best way to keep myself from going completely mad.  In the meantime, I managed to beat Dragon Age: Origins the first time, so I’ll have a review up on Thursday.  I also saw Boondock Saints 2: All Saints Day, and I’ll have a review of that tomorrow.

In the meantime, I’ve mentioned a few times over the past couple of months that I’m replaying Final Fantasy XII.  Although it’s a controversial game in the series, Final Fantasy XII is my favorite Final Fantasy game.  It’s a bittersweet tale of magic and wonder, weaving dark political intrigue with traditional fantasy, dungeonpunk and some science fiction to tell a truly epic tale of love, revenge and politics.  I’ve mentioned many times that the setting really lets my imagination soar, but what really draws me in is the almost sorrowful way the game tells its story.  It has a happy ending, it is a Final Fantasy game after all, but there is a lot of  sadness in this game, and the characters are forced to sacrifice a lot.

Almost two years ago, a friend of mine once mused that all of the best stories are sad, even if they have happy endings.  I didn’t want to accept it at first, but the truth is, we don’t really accept “…and they lived happily ever after” as a legitimate ending after we’re 3 years old (because that’s the point in life we can start to ask “and then what happens?”).  I think part of the reason for this is because conflict is what makes stories interesting, and conflict will inevitably lead to some undesired outcome for at least one participant, but that’s not the real reason.  As humans, we have to sacrifice a lot to get where we are.  Not just time or money, but sometimes we have to give up things we truly love to get to a better place in our lives.  Sometimes it’s a hobby or something simple, or something important like a loved one.  When a protagonist reaches a better point without ever giving anything up, I think we feel cheated.

One of my favorite game of all time is Final Fantasy VI.  At the end, for reasons I’d rather not get into for spoilers, magic has to fade away from the world in order to save it from the psychotic clown Kefka.  It’s such a haunting and sad ending, but hopeful.  I played it when I was in high school, years and years after it came out, but it had a very profound affect on me, and it made me realize how much a heroic character will have to sacrifice to do what must be done.  After I finished that game, I had a better understanding of fiction, writing and characterization.

My three favorite games of the sixth generation of video game consoles were Jak II, Final Fantasy XII and Radiata Stories.  All of them had the heroes giving up something and sacrificing something they loved more than anything in the multiverse to do the right thing and save the world and help others.  I think that’s one of the many reasons why I loved those games.

It’s Late, I know

I almost forgot to put this up, but damn, I need to do so while these resumes are printing out.

I might be alone in thinking this, but I think DJ Hero looks annoying.  Techno and dance music are two of the few musical genres I’ve never really gotten into, so this sort of fuels my bias.  However, I just don’t think the game will have the appeal Guitar Hero ever did, simply because DJing isn’t exactly on the same level as playing a lead guitar, even if the former actually does  requires a great deal of skill.

To me, there’s always been a sense that anyone can be a DJ.  This is patently untrue, as anyone can be a DJ in the same way anyone can be a lead guitarist.  If someone dedicates their life to being badass at an instrument, they’re bad ass with that instrument.  Still, DJing, in my mind, lacks the prestige of rocking out in on stage with a guitar.

Admitedly, this is mostly born out of ignorance.  I haven’t played the game and I likely won’t, but I figured I’d throw my opinion out there.

I finished the Somnambulist last week.  It was entertaining, but I had some problems with it.  First, it was a bit amateurish.  The prose was certainly top notch, managing to be both clever and witty and it did an excellent job of presenting itself with a faux-Victorian (well, post Victorian) voice.  It was obviously written by a modern hand imitating that style of writing, but it did a better job than others.  While the prose was nice, the characters were flat and simple and the plot was kind of boring.  There were a lot of coincidences, which I know was the style of the time, but it comes off as a little contrived here.  Also, the B-plot with the albino doesn’t really mesh well with the rest of the book.

My other issue with the book was that while it was definitely fantasy, it seemed like it tried to hide from it, as if to escape from the Sci-Fi Ghetto (no link.  I’m tired).  I could be wrong, but it almost seemed like the author was trying to hide the fact that he wrote a fantasy story.  Magic, Eldritch Abominations, etc. all exist in this world, but they’re mentioned obliquely.  I suppose this works for a writer like Lovecraft, who is trying to craft a story about the unknowable and the alien, but that’s not really a thing here.  The characters pretty obviously know about the supernatural and are not phased by it.  In fact, the titular character is obviously some kind of magical creature or person.  None of the supernatural elements are explained in the novel either, which again, works in a horror story, but this is not a horror story.  I suppose it could work in another type of story where the magical elements aren’t particularly important and simply add to the setting (like they do here), but considering all of the major characters know about this stuff and one guy even walks around claiming to have lived in the fucking future, it just comes off as cheap.

Still, it was a good book.  Fun and interesting, but mostly forgettable.  I think what I’ve read of Boneshaker handles supernatural elements in an otherwise “normal” world with much more maturity and grace than the Somnambulist.  At least the Somnambulist tried.  I’m willing to look at the sequel, after all.

Also, I saw Zombieland on Friday but couldn’t fit into the post. It’s awesome

I’m close to beating Uncharted 2.  I’m going to play through it again on hard when I beat it, which will probably be tonight or tomorrow.  I just want everyone to know that it’s completely bad ass, vastly improved over the already excellent original game and very fun.  I recommend plunking down the requisite $60 to pick this up.  There are a few minor issues with the game and I have a few criticisms, so I think I’ll write up a full-on review later in the week.  Probably on Wednesday.

In case you haven't heard, this game kicks ass

In case you haven't heard, this game kicks ass

On Friday, I read a Cracked.com article about 5 reasons why it sucks to be a Joss Whedon fan which made me think about things a little bit.  I’ll admit, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is kind of what inspired me to write about a female character, and originally, Willow was the inspiration behind Adrienne (it’d be difficult to see it now).  I am something of a Joss Whedon fan, even if I don’t like Dollhouse or Buffy Season 8 (I did like seasons 6 and 7, go figure), so I was a little surprised when I found I really kind of agreed with what he said, at least on points 5 and 4 (the other three aren’t really about his writing).

5 really bothered me, because, yeah, most of his characters do only achieve growth when something terrible happens.  I once said that “writing tragedy is easy, you make a guy likable and kill them, everyone loves you.  Writing comedy is hard.”  I kind of use it as my manifesto for writing.  I like happy endings.  I like to see people grow and learn from their experiences and the dark places those take them.  I don’t really like tragedies, because people just die.  Yeah, it’s sad, realistic (maybe) and dramatic, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything and can even feel cheap, as was often the case in Buffy.

I like to focus on characters and their development when I write, so when I realized my novel was originally inspired by Buffy and Buffy kind of embodies a lot of things I hate about Whedon’s writing, I pause a little bit.  I want my characters to grow and learn and love.  Yes, I want bad things to happen to them.  I put poor Adrienne through the wringer, but I don’t want her to only grow because bad things, particularly death, happen around her.  That just means her life is nothing but misery and woe.  That’s not a character I think is worth writing about (and might be why I have no interest in Buffy season 8 anymore).

The 4th one is something I wholly agree on, and something I’m glad to say I’ve kind of averted.  I’m not too worried about Adrienne or Danielle becoming faux action girls or succumbing to chickification.  The reason is, because there are two glaring exceptions to that.  Yes, a lot of female characters are really just stereotypical women (except on Angel, but that was the show Whedon had the least to do with), but that doesn’t apply to either Buffy or Zoe.  Why?  Because those are the characters that the writers remembered that gender is a description, not a character trait.  If you made Buffy into Buster the Vampire Slayer, the only change to the series you’d have would be that you’d have to make Angel into a woman (kind of a femme fatale type.  Interestingly, this really wouldn’t change Angel very much, either.  Show or character), and that would be it.  Hell, you can even keep Buster’s affinity for fashion, and have an older woman use him up in early season 4.  Why?  Because Buffy was built as a person, not as a “female type.”  Yes, she was a woman, but I think the reason she was empowering was because she was interesting as a person.  She’s a hero, she saves people.  She doesn’t get locked in the basement by the villain and she kicks ass.  She’s also not driven by wanting a man, and thus her desire for a relationship comes off more as appropriate for her age than stereotypical.

I’ll admit, Zoe is similar, but that’s partially because she didn’t get much character growth.  It’s kind of sad, really.

Season 4 of the Venture Bros. started last night.  It was awesome.  Click that link to watch it on Adult Swim’s website.

Lastly, I’ll leave with some food for thought.  I saw this over at Io9.com while I was typing this giant essay.  It’s about a book that predicts the next cold war and international politics over the next 100 years.  I think it’s a pretty interesting read.  Click the link and let me know what you think.

Just a quick update

It turned into one of those days pretty quickly for me and I almost forgot to update.  I spent most of the evening watching Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi with Kate this evening, and then I got lost on the Fallout Wiki again.

As I mentioned yesterday, I picked up Uncharted 2.  I played it for about 4 hours straight after my update yesterday and I made it about a quarter of the way through.  I’m very impressed, although I feel the game might be a bit too short.  Oh well, it’ll make a nice game to play over and over again when I’m itching for a good platformer.  The game has managed to improve on literally every aspect of the previous game.  Even the voice acting and control interface are improved, if only slightly.  Also, the combat is much more streamlined and balanced (Nate no longer has to take on a fucking army all at once) and the game has shifted more towards “Holy Shit” moments that require you to have some serious platforming skills.  Seriously, a helicopter blew up the building I was in, and I had to jump out of it, onto another one, shoot up some terrorists while jumping from building to building, while finally blowing the god damn helicopter out of the sky with a grenade launcher.  And that’s just level 6.  The last quarter of level six.  There was even more badass crap earlier.

Oh yeah, I picked up a new book about steampunk today on my lunch break.  It’s called Boneshaker.

Yeah, it's pretty fucking sweet looking

Yeah, it's pretty fucking sweet looking

I haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet, I’m still reading the Somnambulist, so I probably won’t get a chance to start it until later in the month, but I haven’t ahd a chance to read any good steampunk in a very long time.  I read the first page and I was impressed.

Also, apparently Unseen Academicals is out.  I wanted to get it too, but it was going to be too expensive with both books.  I’m pretty depressed about that.  Oh well, I’ll get it next month.  So much for reading “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”