Friday, August 29, 2014

Your Critical Framework Matters (Far Cry 3)

Note: This post contains spoilers because it has to. You'll see. Just keep reading.

In my continual quest to squander lunchtimes on electronic entertainment, I recently picked up 2012's Far Cry 3, an open-world, first-person-shooter for which I held out a lot of narrative hope. The game's protagonist, Jason Brody, is a twentysomething from an uber-wealthy family who finds himself and his friends captured by pirates while vacationing on an Asian archipelago. After escaping by the proverbial skin of his teeth, he ends up embroiled in an ongoing struggle between the marauding pirates and the island's tribal warriors. Only by learning the tribes' ways and overcoming his own privileged immaturity can he hope to save those he loves.

You'd expect lots of character development with a setup like that, right? Well, Far Cry 3 has some, but what players end up getting in spades is a lesson as to why a writer's critical framework matters.

During Jason's adventures, he meets a sexy jungle priestess named Citra who molds him into a warrior through dangerous trials and drug-induced visions. She succeeds, as you very well may imagine, and Jason soon transitions from a sniveling slacker to a Rambo-esque figure with few qualms about filleting baddies with a big knife. Sounds clichéd, right? Well, the ending changes that. After saving his little brother (who is the last of the captives to be rescued), Jason returns to find that Citra and her men have stolen his other friends a second time. The final confrontation goes disastrously wrong when Citra doses him with a mysterious powder, and he comes out of the hallucinations it induces to find himself with a knife pressed to his bound girlfriend's neck. The game then offers players a choice: Save Jason's friends or sever -- quite literally -- all connections to his past and join the tribe.

I'm not going to talk about the "save your friends" ending, because it's pretty standard stuff and you can watch it yourself right here (content warning). But the other deserves some discussion. Select it, and one very bloody throat-slashing scene later Jason ends up noisily copulating with Citra as the priestess mutters about how his bloodline will help secure the tribe's future. Then, without warning, she rolls over and guts the clueless protagonist with a ceremonial blade. As the light fades, she intones, "You are a warrior. Die a warrior. You won."

"You won"? Sure doesn't seem that way, does it? I mean, that's about as unsatisfying a conclusion as you could imagine. A quick survey of gaming sites would show that Far Cry 3's conclusion enraged fans -- which is exactly what writer Jeffrey Yohalem intended. In an interview with The Penny Arcade Report, he said:
"Sex, violence, and the player is killed. Here are the things that satisfy our animal side as men, but they’re subverted because it’s a female doing it. Here you’re thinking of the princess in the castle. It’s like if Princess Peach stabbed Mario. Now that I’m thinking about it, that final scene should have been Citra castrating Jason. Seriously, that’s the point! It is like, ‘You win, [expletive]!’ It’s totally like, ‘[Expletive] you, you misogynist idiot!’”
Far Cry 3 is far from the only story to morally implicate the audience in its own plotline. Joe Wright's cinematic version of Atonement did so with a gentle touch, while Michael Haneke's Funny Games used a sledgehammer, but the final message is the same: "Hey, you there in your comfy chair, you're to blame because you helped create this meaning of this piece simply by being here."

But does storytelling really work that way? Not really. In the best narratives, the author lays down commonly agreed-upon symbols (i.e. words, images, sounds, or what have you) in an attempt to communicate his ideas and the reader carefully examines those symbols in an attempt to discern them. The latter isn't creating constellations out of stars scattered across the firmament by the former; he's tickling tumblers to unlock the door of meaning. The framework is one of mutual submission between writer and reader, each humbly reaching out to the other -- not adversarial bludgeoning. In the end, Far Cry 3 lambasts players simply for partaking in it. No wonder they got angry.

(Picture: CC 2013 by Joshua Livingston)

Monday, August 25, 2014

"All Things Come"

"All things come to those who wait," Zeke's father liked to say. It didn't work that way for Zeke. No Ivy League degree, corner office, pearl-wearing wife. He got community college, a Domino's delivery route, sitcom marathons.

Then unexpectedly, the world ended.

The cuevavirus moved so fast it never got a name. At the pandemic's 36-hour mark, Zeke saw a pale figure stopping at every door on his street, turning the never-locked knobs. The screaming started afterwards.

Zeke was the only one it passed by. As he watched it go, he could've sworn a small smile curled its thin lips.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

In Which I Do Not Actually Review Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep

Oh, how I wish I could review Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep.

Regular readers know that I have a somewhat strict blogging policy: To satisfy FTC regulations (and for general ethical reasons), I only review books that I've secured with my own resources. That means no ARCs, no packets from promoters, no electronic copies from self-published authors. But some time ago, I sent to Patti Abbott a copy of a novel that I thought she'd enjoy, and in turn, she asked me if I'd like a copy of one of her Edgar Award-winning daughter's mysteries.

I'm a reader first and foremost. What do you think I was going to say?

So there's the dilemma. I've just finished Bury Me Deep, a noir based off the 1931 case of Winnie Ruth Judd, and I can't review it. Can't talk about how Abbott walks a tightrope over the chasm between the literary and genre worlds, every sentence showing her knowledge of the writer's craft while the subject matter stays committed to delighting the reader. Can't mention how she manages to make Thirties-era slang both sound simultaneously authentic and comprehensible to twenty-first-century ears. Can't discuss how the novel falls firmly in the noir-as-ethical-instruction camp.

Not being able to opine at length about that last point really irks me.

See, Bury Me Deep focuses on Marion Seeley, wife of a morphine-addicted doctor who departs for a three-year stint as a mining company physician, leaving her in Arizona with naught but a marginal nursing job. Marion soon finds friendship with a nurse named Louise and her tubercular roommate Ginny, working-class girls who only scrape by thanks to the largesse of various "gentlemen" whom they meet a wild parties held in their house. It's at one of these parties that Marion meets Joe Lanigan. Handsome Joe, wealthy Joe, a staunch Irish Catholic who counts himself a member of numerous influential civic organizations. This Joe takes a shine to Marion, and Marion takes a shine to Joe, and soon Joe begins to call on Marion, and not long after that Joe has Marion flat on her back at the end of every evening. She thinks it's just a private affair, but private dalliances have a way of becoming public in spectacularly violent ways.

Were you to compare the Marion on page one of Bury Me Deep to the Marion of its final chapter, you'd be shocked. Had I purchased the novel myself, I'd now talk about the way in which Abbott steps her down from a prim, Dutch Calvinist girl to a battered fugitive with the stench of gunpowder on her dress. And what tiny, utterly believable steps they are. "Marion, there are things you are sure you'd never do, Louise had said to her once. Until you have." And Marion most certainly does them, each small sin swelling into an oh-so-slightly larger one. She spends the first half of the book bemoaning her husband's weakness for morphine, "but then she thought about her own: here a man with a way of smiling so and doffing hat and tilting head just so. These accumulations of gesture and a tender word or two and then she pliant on any bed, seat cushion, what have you? Well, if that wasn't a weakness, what was?" Marion -- and Abbott -- understand that guilt comes not from some extraordinary crime. It's the universal human condition.

But you can't take my word for it, after all. Guess you'll just have to read it yourself.

(Picture: CC 2007 by Madalena Pestana)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Reviving the Prophecy Trope (The Farseer Trilogy)

One of the things I most appreciated about Robin Hobb's The Farseer Trilogy was how it handled prophecy. Seers and sages are hoary tropes in the high-fantasy genre, and the oft-used convention of the prophesied farm boy who grows up to slay an ancient evil has garnered its fair share of ridicule. (Tim Pratt delightfully skewers the trope in his short story "Another End of the Empire," a delightful reading of which is available for free at PodCastle.) Yet even though The Farseer Trilogy hinges on prophecy as does so much fantasy, Hobb manages to make it feel fresh. How? By altering the very nature of the convention.

In the series, there's a character known only as the Fool, an acid tongued, albino jester who has the blood of ancient prophets flowing through his veins. Yet the Fool doesn't discern the future as clearly as other more traditional mystic types. Instead of clearly glimpsing what's to come (which we could call "foretelling"), his visions serve as a nexus at which probabilities converge, a central point from which a thousand different futures branch out in a dendritic riot. At one point in Assassin's Quest, the Fool tries to explain it to protagonist FitzChivalry:
"Years ago I had a vision," the Fool observed. ... "I saw a black buck rising from a bed of shining black stone. When first I saw the black walls of Buckkeep rising over the waters, I said to myself, 'Ah, that is what that meant!' Now I see a young bastard whose sigil is a buck walking on a road wrought from black stone. Maybe that is what the dream signified. I don't know. But my dream was duly recorded, and someday, in years to come, wise men will agree as to what it signified. Probably after both you and I are long dead."
That's a smart switcheroo and not only because it pleasantly subverts readers' expectations. It also happens to have precedence in at least one of the world's major religions -- Christianity.

While those weaned on the paperback apocalypses of LaHaye and Jenkins might assume that foretelling encompasses the entirety of Christian prophecy, it actually has a trifold nature. Yes, foretelling is part of it, but so is "forthtelling," the idea a prophet speaks moral imperatives for the here and now. However, the third aspect, "typology," might prove the most interesting for genre writers because it's so delightfully different. Francis Foulkes provides a decent starting point for explaining it in his 1959 article "The Acts of God," writing that:
One of the deepest convictions that the prophets and historians of Israel had about the God in whom they trusted, and whose word they believed they were inspired to utter, was that he was not like the gods of other nations ... Rather he had revealed himself to them, and had shown himself to be a God who acted according to principles, principles that would not change as long as the sun and moon endured. They could assume, therefore, that as he had acted in the past, he could and would act in the future.
This presupposition forms the foundation for typology. Essentially, an observer can look back at something distinctive that happened in the past ("a type") and see its pattern repeated later on in history ("an antitype"), thus demonstrating divine action by the unchanging God. Examples include the prophet Ezekiel linking Israel's Babylonian exile with its early wanderings in the Sinai wilderness, as well as Jesus pointing out the correspondence of his own forgiveness-securing crucifixion with Moses raising up a molded-bronze serpent for miraculous healing of the people during the Exodus.

Why am I going into such detail? Certainly not to impart some sort of Sunday school lesson (although those really interested in digging into old texts might enjoy G.K. Beale's doorstop-thick tomes on the subject). Rather, I want to urge genre writers toward greater cross-disciplinary study. Many authors brush up on science and history before putting pen to paper; very few study theology, and it shows in their works, with prophecy being just one example. Sure, we have Robin Hobb and Orson Scott Card, Lars Walker and Saladin Ahmed. They put serious thought into the spiritual nature of their fantasy worlds. We need more of them. Our stories -- and readers -- have everything to gain from it.

(Picture: CC 2010 by Ian Scott)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Cronenberg on Censorship

In 1982, Mick Garris conducted a roundtable discussion with horror directors John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), John Carpenter (The Thing), and David Cronenberg (Scanners). The talk ranged far and wide, touching on everything from special effects and film quality to body horror versus external fear. For me, though, the most interesting section involved Croenberg discussing how censorship came in to play with the extreme content in his movies. He said:
Every picture I've done has originally got an X [rating] here in the States. You have to understand that I live in Ontario, Canada. ... When I came down here to talk to the MPAA about ratings, it was still a relief compared with what happens in Ontario, which is that they take your picture, they take every print, and they cut it, and they hand it back to you, and they say, "This is your new movie." They keep the pieces that they've taken out, and you go to jail for two years if those are projected, if you put the pieces back. And that's real censorship.

What you've got here [in the United States], however imperfect it may be, at least you still have the option of releasing the film as an X. Of course, there are huge economic sanctions against doing that, and usually you have a contractual obligation not to have an X. Nonetheless, if you really want it to be an X, you can still get it shown here. In Canada, you go to jail.
Watch the clip in question here. Much has changed in thirty-some years, but I still think Cronenberg's opinion might prove profitable for us today. Longtime readers know my dislike for the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, a celebration that seems to intentionally confuse community involvement with standards of appropriateness and prior restraint on publication. Cronenberg obviously knows no such confusion, although history shows his proposal of creating "another [rating] category, something like 14 and over" has fomented as much confusion about content as clarity. Still, he's on to something. Storytellers in America enjoy immense freedoms not shared by artists globally. Instead of bickering about what few restrictions we face, why not channel that energy into creating stories that speak to all of life and the truths that give it meaning?

(Picture: CC 2012 by aeneastudio; Hat Tip: Tor.com)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Uneven Quest Ultimately Satisfies

It's no secret to genre lovers that the final installment in any multi-part story tends to fall a little flat, and at first Robin Hobb's Assassin's Quest -- the last book in her The Farseer Trilogy -- seems to succumb to that very fault. Court assassin FitzChivalry has found himself quite literally pulled from his grave by old friends after being tortured by Prince Regal, who is bent on securing the throne at any cost. And secure it he has. King Shrewd perished in his bed, and King-in-Waiting Verity disappeared beyond the mountains in search of the Elderlings, mysterious mythical creatures whom he hopes can save the Six Duchies from the marauding Red-Ship Raiders. Now Regal reigns in their place. The foppish prince cares nothing for maintaining trade routes or wisely ruling his subjects. He yearns only for sensual delights and the elimination of any who oppose him. But FitzChivalry is going to do more than just oppose him. Regal's actions have stripped away everything precious to him, and he's going to see the youngest Farseer royal bleed no matter what it costs.

One of the great delights of Royal Assassin, the volume that preceded Assassin's Quest, was its subtlety. Hobb wove the fabric of its action with exceeding skill, plot threads twining about each with nary a gap between them. Assassin's Quest proves much more straightforward. FitzChivalry has set his mind on killing Regal and goes right for him. When the attempt fails (and you know it will since the confrontation occurs about a third of the way in), the goal then becomes to find Verity. So far, so standard, which was a letdown from the heights of the previous two titles. When mentions of dragons began to appear at around the two-thirds mark, I rolled my eyes at the cliché, but kept on reading. Boy, I'm glad I did, because soon after Hobb jumped off the well-trodden paths of fantasy and romped through the undergrowth.

To give it a fair shake, Assassin's Quest does invert some tropes early on, but they're less dramatic than what's to come. A novel that includes the word "assassin" in its title might conjure up images of uber-competent killers who know a dozen ways to murder with an unsharpened stick. That's not FitzChivalry. He fails at almost every assassination attempt, slaughtering people he doesn't intend to, never quite reaching those he most wants dead, and accidentally hurting those he loves in the process. Such clumsiness becomes a large part of his character's development, but Hobb wants to do more than examine the interior lives of her creations. She's interested in shaking up fantasy tropes (and not in that smug, self-aware way that the intelligentsia love). Rather, she infuses existing conventions with fresh ideas. I won't spoil anything, but let's just say that the aforementioned dragons owe as much to Jewish mysticism as to Saint George. What's more, the Red-Ship Raiders' senseless savagery seems a lot more rational by the final page -- indeed, almost understandable. Assassin's Quest may be a bit uneven, but it ultimately satisfies.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero)

Monday, August 4, 2014

"Silent Persuasion"

The rat fought his restraints until Jimmy brandished the shotgun.

Rudolph picked lint from his blazer. "It's not hard to extract information. Brass knuckles, bats, bamboo shoots, whatever. But the interrogator has to own it."

Jimmy was screwing a fat, black cylinder onto the firearm's barrel.

"His own design," Rudolph said. "Nothing but a click. Great for city work. Four shells, four limbs. Talk and you walk out of here."

Oh, did the rat talk.

When the rat finished, Jimmy looked disappointed. "He only needs his feet to walk," he pointed out.

Rudolph nodded. Couldn't argue with logic like that.