Category Archives: Consuming Media

Here is Where My “Last Airbender” Joke Would Go if I Could Think of One

Last night, before combining The Last Airbender with Rifftrax, I made the mistake of watching it without the sarcastic commentary. Surprise! It truly earned its 6% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. I was fascinated, though, with why it’s so eye-bleedingly bad.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the whitewashed casting and how it undermined the setting established by the original Nickelodeon series. I will admit that I was taken aback by seeing a Fire Nation represented by actors of Indian, Maori, and Iranian descent, not to mention a notionally Inuit group of people represented by two very white actors. But leaving aside that giant misstep, the movie did a terrible job of condensing the original source material into a movie, in large part because it’s focused on the wrong thing.

The movie is based on the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a cartoon on Nickelodeon. That series’ first season was over ten hours long. The movie runs a little over an hour and a half, yet attempts to fit all of the first season’s major plot points into that time.

The result? A whole lot of stuff happens, a giant brownie of plot with dollops of exposition ice cream and topped with a glaze of voice-overs, but there’s little meaning to the action. To fit in all of the story, they had to dispense with character development.

In the series, the main characters have time to grow and become fully-realized people. Aang comes to terms with being the Avatar; Katara learns to trust in her strength; Zuko learns who he is and what he truly values. This is the series’ core, the real story being told. In the movie they’re ciphers, blown about by the winds of plot. The Last Airbender doesn’t even bother with common movie shorthand to signpost character growth, and skips any real banter and character interaction for poorly-staged and ill-paced action sequences.

For my day job I write proposals and put presentations together to teach people about my company’s technology. A big part of my job is deciding what story I’m telling, and to whom, and what the most critical parts of that story are. Because of that I’ve gotten better at recognizing when a story is about more than the specific events of its plot. In focusing on cramming ten pounds of plot into a two-pound bag, Shyamalan lost sight of what Avatar was truly about.

Chris Crawford’s Unflinching Look at His Life

Chris Crawford is a visionary game designer. He began his career at Atari and created some of the earliest computer-based wargames. He founded the Computer Game Developers’ Conference and The Journal of Computer Game Design. In 1985 released his best-known game, Balance of Power. In it, you played either the President of the US or the General Secretary of the USSR and worked to gain as much prestige for your country as possible without lighting off a nuclear war.

Even then, though, his real interest was in making games that told stories. In 1992, dismayed by the direction in which the computer games industry was going and frustrated by a lack of progress on true interactive stories, he gave The Dragon Speech in which he declared that he was leaving the games industry to pursue his dream of interactive storytelling before charging out of the room.

For the last twenty years he’s been working on this problem. He released the Erasmatron system in 1997; in 2007, he released the updated Storytron system. I’ve not been impressed with either, and not just because he considers interactive fiction a dead end. He has taken a reductionist approach to modeling human interaction, boiling it down into variables to be tracked and formulas describing their interaction and then attempting to create an emergent story from those variables and formulas. My experience mirrors Emily Short’s: I have yet to find a story built entirely from such a pile of numbers that has the power of a more deliberately authored story. As Crawford’s own Erasmatron showed, procedurally generating entire stories is hard.

Earlier this year Chris Crawford turned sixty. When he did, he wrote a meditation on reaching this milestone. Most striking to me was his willingness to face his mortality head-on through the concrete metaphor of beads in a jar and his clear-eyed assessment of how successful his life’s work has been.

Thus, when my sixtieth birthday struck, I found myself bereft of achievement in my most important undertaking. I have always felt a calm self-assurance that I am right, that I have developed ideas that would surely conquer the world if I only gave the world enough time to recognize them. My sixtieth birthday shouted loudly that my ideas had most definitely failed to conquer the world. It certainly looks as if I am a washed-up failure. I don’t really believe that — I still believe that I’ve hit upon a solid approach to interactive storytelling and that someday the world will appreciate my work. But with each passing day the evidence of my failure mounts.

I do not know if I could make such a ferocious, unflinching critique of my life as Crawford has done of his. I have not agreed with his approach, and am not one who is in awe of his ideas, but I am in awe of his willingness to give up safe choices and iterative development and instead run headlong, screaming a battle cry, in a two-decade-long attempt to slay his chosen dragon. Crawford’s ideas may not have won me over, but as the trajectory of my own life begins to curve downward, I could do far worse than to be won over by his tenacity.

Remixing Storm Troopers and the Stanford Prison Experiment

This weekend at GMX I met George Willis, who took part in a reality series called The Colony. The conceit is that a group of people must survive a global catastrophe — in this case, a viral outbreak. They dumped ten people in a Louisiana town near New Orleans that had never been rebuilt and left them to scavenge what they could from the wrecked homes. From time to time the producers sent in other people to steal their precious supplies or, in one case, kidnap one of the core cast.

George had a lot of interesting stories about what it was like to have so little food that he lost forty pounds in two months, or having to build your own forge so you can make machetes. What really caught my attention, though, was his description of how paranoid they all became after having to fight off raids and marauders, and how he and the others are still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “Do you know the Zimbardo experiment?” he said, and it clicked: the Discovery Channel had indeed re-created the Stanford Prison Experiment. It’s nice to know that an experiment that led to new ethical standards for psychological experiments is A-OK for reality TV.

To distract you from how we’re torturing people for entertainment, have some K-Pop. The video for “Can’t Nobody”, by the Korean group 2NE1, mashes up so many pop music trends I can’t stop watching. It’s like a manufactured girl band from the 90s jumped into a Delorean so they could take advantage of Auto-Tuning, crazy costuming, and Ke$ha-like pitch bending. If you’re short on time, skip to 1:28 and watch through about 2:02. That’ll give you a concentrated dose of everything I’m describing, and will let you see dancing Stormtroopers. Culture is weird; culture filtered through someone else’s culture is even weirder.

Eugie Foster Won a Nebula!

My friend Eugie won a well-deserved Nebula1 for her novelette Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast. If you’ve not read it, Apex Magazine reprinted it online for free. You can also listen to an audiobook version of it courtesy of the Escape Pod podcast.

1The Nebula Awards are given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and are voted on only by members of SFWA. In short, Eugie’s story was selected by a jury of her peers.

Friday Night Supercuts: Get Out of There!

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of supercuts, where someone takes every instance of a phrase they can find in a TV show or movie and smushes them together. The first one I ever saw was just about every instance of Buster saying, “Hey, Brother,” in Arrested Development.

After that there were all of the people who weren’t here to make friends.

A few months ago I was fascinated by “Let’s Enhance”, a montage of a tremendous number of “freeze it! zoom in!” sequences from TVs and movies.

Now I have a new favorite. For today’s entertainment, I give you an insane number of examples of people shouting, “GET OUT OF THERE!”

See how many of the movies you can identify!

The Video Game Marketplace Explained in One Short Scene

INT. GENERIC GAMESTOP – DAY

STEPHEN and his six-year-old son ELI enter. ELI is instantly captivated by Super Mario Brothers Wi-hee! on the Wii next to the door.

STEPHEN
Hey, Eli, are you going to stay here by the Wii?

ELI
Look, I’m moving Mario all around the map!

STEPHEN
I’ll take that as a yes.

STEPHEN wanders over to the Xbox games. He sees that Assassin’s Creed II is on sale for half-off. He dithers for a bit before picking it up and taking it to the counter to buy it.

Behind the counter, GAMESTOP GUY eyes the Assassin’s Creed II box and nods. He’s in his early 20s, with slightly scruffy hair and the standard Gamestop polo shirt.

GAMESTOP GUY
Hey, good choice. That game’s great.

STEPHEN
Oh? Excellent. So it’s awesome?

GAMESTOP GUY
Well, there’s a bit of side-boob at the beginning, but after that it’s all killing.

STEPHEN
Oh, uh. (beat) I guess that’s plenty of awesome, then.

STEPHEN pays for the game and shuffles away. He manages to get ELI to stop playing Super Mario Brothers Wi-hee! and they exeunt, pursued by a bear.

Digital: A Love Story

Here’s the thing: I very quickly figured out what Digital: A Love Story was on about. I could see where the story was headed. I suffered through some sketchy story mechanics.

None of that mattered. In the end, Digital: A Love Story told an affecting story superbly, bolstered by its evocation of a specific moment in online history.

A BBS registration screenshot from Digital: A Love Story

It’s set “five minutes into the future of 1988”, and takes place entirely in the proto-cyberspace of bulletin board systems. You’ve been given a brand new Amie (an Amiga-alike) with a modem, leading you to dial into your first local BBS. You read through the posted messages, replying to one user, Emilia, who’s posted a bit of poetry. As your relationship with Emilia deepens you find yourself hopscotching across multiple BBSes, using phone codes to steal long distance so you can call the ones that are further away.

And that’s all there is to the gameplay, really. You dial into BBSes; you read messages; you hit reply. You don’t even see what you write, only what (if any) response you get. At first I found that approach very distancing, since I didn’t know what I was saying. But as the game went on, I became more and more of a fan of this approach. It helps immersion, since you’re less likely to say, “Hey, I wouldn’t have written that!” It keeps you focused on the other characters in the story. And in one notable exchange between Emilia and me near the end, I was replying to messages as fast as she was sending them and felt like I was having a real conversation.

Long distance calling card codes for dialing into BBSes without paying for the long distance

That helped counterbalance the other glaring weakness in the game. Since the gameplay hinges on you replying to others’ messages, there are times where the story pauses while the game waits for you to read and reply to the right message. At those points, I quickly began lawnmowering through the messages, dialing up every BBS whose number I had and hitting “reply” for every message until the story proceeded again. It’s the same problem often seen with dialog trees in games, where you select every dialog option without paying attention, pressing the conversational lever until you’re rewarded with a food pellet of story. More side-discussions would have helped, like my argument with a guy who introduces his thesis that Japan is taking over everything by saying, “Ni hao, bitches!” At times the game’s world felt empty, every message read and my replies gone unanswered. But, then, that was part of early online culture, where you might send a message to Usenet and see no replies for days, or log onto BBSes with ten users who were more interested in playing door games than chatting.

Why does the game work so well? Digital: A Love Story does two things absolutely right. One, its interaction fits the story being told, even if there are sections that you lawnmower through. The story unfolds, paced by the rate of messages and the occasional light puzzle that you have to work through. Two, it’s rooted in a very particular time and virtual place. It captures the heady days when being able to talk to people on a computer was new and amazing. It’s a tour de force that’s made more astounding by Christine Sarah Love, the author, having been born in 1989.

Digital: A Love Story is free to play, and will take about an hour of your time. It’s a neat demonstration of how digital storytelling can make stories more visceral, and it’s touching and poignant. Go give it a try.

Crafting, reading about crafting, listening to podcasts about crafting, oh and snow!

It’s been a snowy mess here lately. I jokingly said at Christmas that it snowed all the time here, so I think the universe decided to prove me right.

While it’s been too cold to even stick my toe outside, I’ve been stitching and listening to podcasts. I blame Alex at The Gearheart for addicting me both to his story (which is made of pure awesome) and to podcasts in general.

From Gearheart, I got hooked on Craftypod and I’ve been completely grooving to the fabulous big name crafty guests Sister Diane interviews as well as her informative shows on various crafts. Her website is a treasure trove of links, crafts and fun stuff. She’s also writing at theMake and Meaning site and I’m super excited about the conversations happening there. Now, not only can I nerd out about the crafts I do, I can nerd out reading about other people nerding out about them as well.

Just see what I’ve accomplished listening to The Gearheart and Craftypod since I started working on Starry Night:

And because I haven’t posted since before Eli’s birthday:

You can read more about the awesome cake that Reneé made for Eli at The Domestic Scientist.

I can’t post about Eli and not Liza, so here’s Liza and Lola:

The Dollhouse Finale Wasn’t Very Good At All

Huh. So that’s how Dollhouse ended: with a jumbled, unfocused episode that epitomized many of the show’s shortcomings.

It didn’t help that Misty and I watched Epitaph One right before the finale. Epitaph One was the first season episode that only showed up on the DVD release, at least in the US. It was set ten years after Dollhouse’s main timeline, at a point where the mindwipe and imprinting technology had become widespread and readily abused. People could be erased remotely and have new personalities imprinted on them. Everyone was paranoid, and with good reason. How did you know that you were still you? What was to keep someone from wiping you and hijacking your body? How do you live in a world where one nation can phone the citizens of another, wipe them, and turn them into an instant fifth column? Epitaph One reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s stories where people’s identities were fluid and no one was sure who they were any more. It was smart, it was engaging, and it hinted at a show that I very much would have enjoyed watching.

Epitaph Two, the series finale, failed to live up to Epitaph One’s promise. A lot of that is probably due to how rushed the show was. Credit Whedon and his writing team for wrapping everything up, but the lack of time meant that there was no time to build the sense of dread that the show really needed. Here’s this world-changing technology that in the end brings down civilization, and instead of seeing it happen, we get a “meanwhile, ten years later”. It was a classic case of story events being far too exciting to be shown.

Character beats were rushed, making the finale feel like someone’s fanfic, as if someone said, “Hey, what if it were ten years later?” and immediately fired up their copy of Wordpad. Alpha reappears, only now he’s a good guy and is about as dangerous as Bertie Wooster! Anthony loves that the technology lets him pick up new skills instantly, while Priya hates the technology! They’ve split; I wonder if they’ll get back together! Will Paul and Caroline get back together? Only time and cliché tropes will tell!

There was no time to establish how the characters moved from point A to point Ten Years Later, so their choices in Epitaph Two had very little emotional impact. Topher’s crazy, see, because he’s destroyed the world, but it’s okay, because he’ll get redemption. He’s going to push a giant reset button that would make the Simpsons proud, and it’ll kill him in the process. Meanwhile Adelle gets to wring her hands in the background because she now loves Topher. Underlying it all is a weird cavalier attitude to killing off people’s copies, even by the copies themselves. Caroline’s personality ends up in a young girl, and that splinter of Caroline is quite happy to be erased at the end? Really? Even though that’s effectively the death of an individual? Would you be willing to die if you knew a copy made of you several years ago was going to go on living? We’re who we are in part because of our continuous memories. Cut that thread, and the person made up of those memories is gone. They’ve bobbled something that even a forty-year-old Star Trek novel got right.

The finale also relied heavily on Whedon’s established narrative kinks. You’d think Whedon would develop new ones, or at least outgrow his old tricks, but no. It’s like seeing a forty-year-old man dressed in his childhood sailor suit. Paul is killed surprisingly and unexpectedly because that’s how Whedon likes to generate pathos. Much of the population is insane after being mind-wiped and imprinted and are called Butchers because Reavers had already been taken.

In the end, the series really was Rapehouse. Caroline, the strong woman who was the series’ center, realizes she loves Paul the stalker only after he’s dead, so she puts his personality in her brain. I cannot summon enough words to explain how creepy that is.

Once upon a time, Joss Whedon did some truly amazing, ground-breaking work. Maybe he’ll go back to doing that again now that Dollhouse has been put out of its misery.