Saturday, November 28, 2015

Hammering Out an Effective Foil (Tomb Raider)

Gamers of a certain age can’t help but remember the first time Lara Croft strolled onto the screen in 1996’s Tomb Raider. Wearing only micro-rise hot pants, a painted-on tank top, and an over-serious expression, the polygonal pinup seemed the confirmation of every unfortunate gaming stereotype. Despite all the cheesecake, though, the title turned out to be pretty darn good, and its combination of exploratory acrobatics and blasting baddies with pistols akimbo soon made the nubile riff on Indiana Jones a household name. But it wasn’t destined to last. Increasingly mediocre sequels followed, and Tomb Raider’s original publisher shut its doors in the mid-2000s. Although a few moderately successful spinoffs followed, it seemed as though Lara Croft might stay buried forever. Then in 2013, developer Crystal Dynamics decided to completely reimagine the character Guinness World Records declared “The Most Successful Human Virtual Game Heroine.”

And they did so by beating the ever-loving pudding out of her.

While the new Tomb Raider’s prologue isn’t exactly inspired, it sets up the new Lara’s development rather well. Straight from her graduate studies, the fresh-faced archeologist joins the vessel Endurance, an exploratory vessel hired by the shifty publicity-hound Dr. James Whitman. A scholar fallen on hard times, Whitman hopes to find his way back into the limelight by discovering the mythical land of Yamatai. But when the ship breaks apart in a freak storm while sailing through the infamous Devil’s Triangle, the expedition becomes a living hell. Separated from her friends, marooned on a mysterious island, stripped of supplies, and pursued by members of murderous cult, Lara will have to learn how to survive—and how to kill.

If you never played the original Tomb Raider, you have to understand something: Lara Croft was the boss. Cool, confident, and impossible proportioned, she could scramble through traps and make epic leaps with a sardonic sneer on her face. The new Lara, though? She’s exactly the opposite. Callow. Cowed. Quickly bloodied. The game’s first cutscene ends with an antagonist knocking her cold, and she awakes hanging a cave ceiling by her feet. After managing to set her bonds on fire, she plummets to the floor only to impale herself on a protruding spike. Her shriek of pain is just the beginning of Lara’s aural agony. She gutturally grunts after missing jumps, gasps when grazed by gunfire, and screams in pure torment while cauterizing a grievous wound. Successful sorties hardly prove less traumatic, Lara’s petite frame a definite disadvantage during combat with larger male opponents. (Crystal Dynamics has made the new character model only improbably attractive this time around.) She staggers when striking out with a climbing ax, putting her full weight behind each stroke. Enemies nearly drag her off her feet when she attempts to stealthily strangle them with a bowstring. And once she gets her pair of iconic pistols during the final battle, the controls turn wobbly as she struggles with the guns' recoil and weight. I haven’t even gotten to the cringe-inducing death animations. Spastic writhing as a cave in crushes Lara’s skull. A bullet messily blasting through her brainpan when she attempts to wrest a gun from an assailant. A ride down a rushing river suddenly terminating as an extruding branch pierces the flesh beneath her chin and punches out through her head.

You get the picture: The whole thing is upsettingly violent.

Indeed, the Tomb Raider reboot’s grue has drawn the ire of some critics. “The essence of the issue for me is that Lara is entirely reactionary,” says Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of Zero Punctuation. “So you can kill a man and take a machete like a champ. A concrete block can do that. But you can’t kick one out of the back of a moving truck and call that a character arc.” A fair enough critique, as is the suggestion that inflicting such torments on Lara impugns the developers’ chivalry. But both assertions overlook Crystal Dynamic’s original intent: They were first and foremost trying to create a foil, a character who strongly contrasted with the near-caricature that inspired her. And whatever plot-related or thematic shortcomings that constantly keeping their protagonist bloodied and bruised might’ve caused (and they’ve caused plenty, in my humble opinion), they certainly hammered out an effective one.

(Picture: CC 2013 by Joshua Livingston)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Bell on Becoming a Prolific Writer

Over at Kill Zone, James Scott Bell (Try Dying) discusses how he moved from being a frustrated neophyte to a prolific professional writer. Excerpts:
Got an email the other day from a writer I met at Bouchercon. We’d chatted a bit about the craft, and he wanted to thank me. He’d just completed his first novel and was raring to go on his second. He wrote, “I’m amazed at how prolific you are.”

That was nice to hear, because when I started out that’s what I wanted to be—prolific. I was 34 years old and hadn’t written much of anything for ten years (I’d been told in college that you can’t learn how to write fiction, and since I couldn’t write fiction—fiction that was any good, anyway––I figured I just didn’t have it). So when I made the decision to finally go for it, even if I failed, I wanted to make up for lost time.

Now, according to traditional standards of the writing life, I am prolific. I’ve produced around fifty books, hundreds of articles, several stories and novellas. I’m happy with my output. ...

I heard from a young writer recently who said he was having trouble getting started. He has a wife and young child at home, is working long hours, and when he gets some time to himself he is easily distracted by social media, and is too much of a perfectionist to get many words done.

For those who have these sorts of constraints, let me offer some advice on becoming more prolific, for it can be done!
Read the whole thing. Bell goes on to list some insightful steps for persevering in the writer’s craft, everything from the importance of goals to how to dealing with rejection (which is the one thing that consistently pulls the plug on my own motivation). But I’d like to add a suggestion that riffs off his list, if I may. Bell proposes setting a strict writing quota, and notes that “some writers say they just can’t write to a quota, that it’s too much pressure, that it squeezes the creative juices right out of them.” I’ve been one of those writers. Something that’s helped me move beyond that mindset, though, is content writing. Yes, I produce punchy pabulum for pay, and regularly doing so on short notice not only reinforces the idea that I can write, it reminds me that sometimes people like it enough to give me money. And that perks me up even when I’m feeling like the most melancholy genre hack.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Nic McPhee; Hat Tip: Brandywine Books)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Engaging Angels Isn't Broken At All

It’s hard to transplant writing styles and structures across genres. Just look at Richard K. Morgan’s Broken Angels, the sequel to his SF/hardboiled debut Altered Carbon. Whereas his first book was a delightfully tortuous far-future riff on Raymond Chandler, Broken Angels takes protagonist Takeshi Kovacs out of dingy barrooms, trash-choked alleys, and amoral brothels, sending him instead to the stars.

Thanks to cortical stacks and needlecast transmissions, death isn’t death anymore. Your body may get blown to bits, but with your consciousness encoded on a sliver of silicon embedded in your vertebrae, in no time flat you can end up in a new sleeve (i.e., a genetically engineered frame or one from a convict who’s had his consciousness stripped away). No one knows that better than Takeshi Kovacs, a former U.N. envoy-cum-criminal-cum-detective-cum-mercenary. During his colorful career, he’s been sleeved into more borrowed bodies than he can count. These days he finds himself fighting someone else’s war on the distant world of Sanction IV, a bloody conflict between the governmental powers and revolutionary forces of fanatic Joshua Kemp. He won’t be fighting it long, though. One of his fellow soldiers claims to have discovered a mysterious archeological artifact that will lead to untold riches, a remnant of a long-extinct Martian civilization. To get it, all Kovac needs to do is rescue a near catatonic academic from a concentration camp, try not to get double-crossed by a voodoo-practicing corporate executive, and sift through the remains of a recently nuked city

According to my favorite review metric—namely how much sleep I’ve lost in order to finish Just One More Chapter—Broken Angels is a good book. Morgan knows how to hammer out a solid scenario and then ratchet up the tension, cranking out complication after complication. During a moment of seeming calm at the novel’s midpoint, a pessimistic character intones, “It’s hard to think in terms of peace when you have a murdered city on one hand, the pent-up force of a hyperportal on the other, a closing army of nanocreatures just over the hill, and the air awash with lethal-dose radiation.” And that isn’t even the most pitched encounter; extraterrestrial starship sorties, mech-assisted wholesale slaughter, and deep-space mano-a-mano dueling await. But despite the winning pacing, I still found Broken Angels a little lacking. It goes back to that dense prose and twisty plotting I mentioned earlier. Constantly shifting alliances couched in convoluted writing work well when the action stays small, but if events turn epic, it just makes everything confusing. Also, Morgan’s naturalistic nihilism blunts both the grand and poignant bits. It’s hard to feel emotionally invested when Kovacs keeps opining about how this charnel waste of a universe is forever spinning off into oblivion. Cheery stuff. Still, taken at face value, engaging Angels isn’t broken at all.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Daniela Munoz-Santos)

Friday, October 30, 2015


Note: The following was written as part of ISLF friend Eric Douglas’ Halloween-themed 100-word-story challenge. Please visit Books By Eric for more spooky tales.

“Tronie,” Henner said, scraping clay from his hands.

“Aren’t they paintings?” Joseph asked. “Archetypal portraits?” He loved the old sculptor’s studio. Had for as long as he could remember.

Booooring, Joey. Real Housewives is on.” Khloe smacked her gum. Henner had introduced them last month.

Henner chuckled. “Usually. But I trained in the school of ben Bezalel. You know, I don’t think you two are good together.”

He passed a hand over Khloe’s forehead, smudging the luminous lettering suddenly shining beneath her skin.

She sagged, collapsed—a formless lump of earth.

“Better,” Henner said.

The flesh above Joseph’s brows burned.

Postscript: If the above widget is giving you trouble, visit ISLF's Soundcloud page or consider subscribing to the podcast to listen to audio recordings of this and other stories.

“Exhibit S: Surveillance Transcript of James Errichetti, aka 'Jimmy the Scholar,' Recorded at Tom’s Diner, 722 Washington Street, Hoboken, New Jersey (April 17, 1983)”

Note: The following was written as part of ISLF friend Eric Douglas’ Halloween-themed 100-word-story challenge. Please visit Books By Eric for more spooky tales.

Hey, calm down. Let's remember the main thing: Everything boils down to matter, motion, and time. Atoms bouncing from one picosecond to the next. Very simple.

So your petty philosophies? Your ethical paradigms and moral imperatives? Your promises and pledges? They don't matter to matter.

Meaning? Purpose? Please. Matter just keeps moving until it stops. It has to stop. You know that. The universe itself has a heat death coming, everything just petering out.

Your death, though, doesn't have to be hot. I don't have to fire up this deep fryer. Just talk.

Still, your choice. Hardly matters to me.

Postscript: If the above widget is giving you trouble, visit ISLF's Soundcloud page or consider subscribing to the podcast to listen to audio recordings of this and other stories.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Music To Write By: U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire”

Why Listen? For evocative, if obscure, imagery; lush, dreamy soundscapes; inspiration divorced from interpretation.

I always find it funny when fans of U2 praise the band’s songwriting skills. Why? Well, for every cogent tune enriched by engaging metaphors in the group’s oeuvre, you’ll find a score of others filled with nigh-impenetrable verbiage, all murky and vague. Abstruseness maketh not for great songwriting. Still, the fanboys have a point: Even in its bad songs, U2 has a way with evocative language. Consider the title track off of the band’s fourth album, The Unforgettable Fire.

The song’s title allegedly comes from an art exhibit about the Hiroshima bombing that the Irish quintet saw while on a 1983 tour in Japan, although you couldn’t tell from the lyrics themselves. Dreamy synthesizer riffs, jangling guitar harmonics, and breathy background vocals buoy moody verses:
The wheels fly and the colors spin
Through alcohol,
Red wine that punctures the skin,
Face to face in a dry and waterless place.
While Bono and the boys may have some idea as to what they’re trying to communicate with these vivid lines, I’m completely clueless. Unless an author somehow explains his private symbolism, it remains exactly that—private. Still, “The Unforgettable Fire” gives my imagination a pleasing prod, its verses conjuring up images of wild revels during some debauched, desert-bound Mardi Gras, a kind of Nightmare Alley as penned by Neil Gaiman. Inspiration doesn’t necessarily require correct interpretation.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Wells on Grammar—Sexy, Sexy Grammar

In the October 1, 2015, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Georgia Wells talks about one of the most attractive qualities on online dating sites—good grammar. Excerpts:
Dating site Match asked more than 5,000 singles in the U.S. what criteria they used most in assessing dates. Beyond personal hygiene—which 96% of women valued most, as compared with 91% of men—singles said they judged a date foremost by the person’s grammar. The survey found 88% of women and 75% of men said they cared about grammar most, putting it ahead of a person’s confidence and teeth.

“When you get a message that is grammatically correct and has a voice and is put together, it is very attractive, it definitely adds hotness points,” says New Yorker Grace Gold. “People who send me text-type messages, and horrific grammatical errors? I just delete them.” She recalls the red flag raised by one potential suitor who had written his entire dating profile in lowercase.

Language has always played a part in how people judge others, but it has become amplified in recent years with increasing informal and colloquial usage, says Ben Zimmer, a lexicographer and chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. ...

One reason people judge grammar and spelling snafus so harshly is that they can reflect the level of effort, or lack thereof, that folks put into their bio. “People use quality of writing as an indication of work ethic,” says Max Lytvyn, co-founder of automated-proofreading company Grammarly.
Read the whole thing. When “Fostering” got picked up by Acidic Fiction a few months ago, the most encouraging thing the editor said to me was that the piece was "very clean." (Since it dealt with messy dismemberment and marital strife, I can only assume he wasn't referring to the content.) Why did I find it so heartening? Because Lytvyn's assertion is absolutely correct: Good grammar signals a certain degree of professionalism. Career politicians, business professionals, and even apparently potential mates all get judged according to their command of the language. How much more so people who want to sell stories to others? Grammar may not be the sexiest area of study, but there's no denying that it can make almost anyone more attractive.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Daniel Silliman)