Month: November 2015

Salt and Steel (a Sunless Sea review)

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I adore the world of the Echo Bazaar, the world of the Neath, damned to a shadowy existence both literal and figurative. Horror isn’t usually my jam, but this world has undeniable character and a creepy kind of charm. I’ve played Fallen London, on and off, for a while. Though I was initially very enthusiastic about it, I found the game mechanics wearying and never progressed as far as I liked. As such, I was terribly excited when Failbetter Games announced Sunless Sea, a desktop game exploring a new, wider horizon of their addictive fictional realm.

As a Kickstarter backer, I got access to the earlier, incomplete (and sometimes buggy) versions of the game. Not surprisingly, it was an up-and-down journey. The earliest versions had a somewhat notorious problem raising enough cash to buy fuel and supplies. Sometimes, just as I was setting out, only starting to get comfortable with my explorations, a new update would throw me for a loop. At one point map-shuffling was introduced which, at a stage of development when many map tiles were blank, was a major challenge to the player.

Still, new content kept coming out, expanding and improving the game, and I knew that eventually one of my captains would survive long enough, and raise enough cash, to reach the later stages of the game’s many quests. The major thing that changed this perception was the Steel beta. Sunless Sea updates were rolled out in batches, coded by color. The Steel update was added to the development plan rather late, and hadn’t been part of the Kickstarter game concept. It changed the game’s combat system from a turn-based mini-game to an integrated, time-sensitive style.

I wasn’t enthused for the Steel update. I don’t do well with time-sensitive portions of games, and I had been generally pleased with the turn-based combat, except for the over-abundance of low level opponents at mid-level gameplay. Naturally, I did want to give it a chance. I was a little apprehensive because I was launching a mid-level captain into a situation where I didn’t know if I’d be able to defeat (or survive) mid-level zee monsters. Even though I was resolved to give the Steel beta a chance, the game I was playing became less relaxing and less fun.

I didn’t play for very long after the Steel update. I had no intention of abandoning Sunless Sea altogether, even though, with the number of hours I’d already sunk into it, I’d definitely gotten my money’s worth. Because the game was in beta, I decided it would be better to wait and see whether future updates would compensate for the change I was so impatient with. I had little interest in re-learning combat, to begin with not my favorite part of the game. If my screenshots folder can be taken as reliable witness, I swore off the game for a little over a year. It was only lately that I picked it up again.

A lot can happen in a year. The game I launched three weeks ago was very different from the game I’d played pre-Steel. A little disorienting, with certain features having been removed or replaced with more elaborate, dynamic variations. But overall, the game benefited from a huge addition of content. The early parts of the game were still a trial, and I did find myself consulting more than one informal player’s guide. At least, though, the game no longer felt unplayable — or playable, but not enjoyable. Combat remained fairly stressful in the early stages of the game, but then I’ve always been a gun-shy game player.

After three weeks of intense preoccupation, my third captain achieved her life’s ambition to write the zong of the zee, and I achieved the much more modest ambition of making peace with the Sunless Sea combat system.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Antagonists and the Pivotal Choice

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I’ve been thinking again on the dilemma of villains.

Common wisdom has it that every story needs a central conflict. Conflicts come in many varieties, and certainly are not restricted to individual antagonists. All the same, most of the stories we see in mass media are structured around the opposition of a protagonist and an antagonist, although not all antagonists can be termed villains. A villain can easily be considered as a special category of antagonist.

So, if your hero is not struggling against the impersonal forces of fate, technology, or the universe, sooner or later you will find yourself writing a villain, and villains require motivations. Finding the right motivation for your hero can be tricky, but finding one for your villain can be downright grueling. There are so many angles to consider! Does your mythology rely on black-and-white morality? How cynical or idealistic is your story meant to be? Should the villain be sympathetic at all, whether to the heroes or to the reader? The theme of the story should also be considered. Sometimes, the right motivation for the villain is one which complements the hero’s journey.

As much as the classic supervillainish antagonists have their own unique flair, modern storytelling leans strongly in favor of an antagonist who is at least potentially sympathetic, from a certain point of view. A story with gray morality can’t flourish unless the reader can consider that they, under certain circumstances, might have acted as the antagonists did, made the same choices they made. This is the pitfall that trips up most self-styled gray morality stories. In many of these stories, heroes are overtaken by anti-heroes, but the villains, if anything, become even more abhorrent.

Conversely, some stories spend so much time building up the humanity of their antagonists, that either the writer or the readers can’t bear to leave them as villains. The villain then becomes a hero, and a new villain is required to replace them, this one often falling into the same trap or the one mentioned above. In longer, ongoing works there then forms a kind of villainy treadmill that the writer has to race on, or in shared universes, the reviled revolving door of morality.

How, then, to balance the need to keep villains human and relatable, while still keeping them locked into an antagonistic narrative role? In order to maintain narrative conflict there is required at least a single point of friction, a major philosophical, moral or personal difference that sets the heroes and villains apart. Ostensibly, the most common variation on this point is the idea of ends justifying the means, where an antagonist will be working to the same ends as the hero, but much more inclined to slip into morally-dubious tactics. It’s a hit-and-miss writing trick that can come off as authentic or stale, depending on the writer’s talent and the story’s circumstances.

Writing relatable villains always runs the risk of readers relating to them more than they do to the heroes. This is especially true in cases as above, where any given reader may regard the heroes as naïve or even cowardly, all from accepting more readily the premise of the villain’s viewpoint. ‘How far are you willing to go?‘ is one of the questions most difficult to answer on behalf of your readers – and in general.

Sometimes writers will use a fork in the road plot to show the reader a glimpse of who the hero might have been, if their circumstances were less heroic. Forming the villain into the hero’s shadow archetype not only makes both characters more human and relatable, it also draws a crisp outline of villainous intent. A narratively simple way of following through on this would be to differentiate the characters by the circumstances of their upbringing. A popular approach, especially as it reflects on the writer’s own society, and creative point of origin.

Origins can provide a powerful, socially originated foil that blocks the villain from reforming, or joining the side of the heroes. For a more introspective story, a psychological motivation can serve as a similar obstacle that checks the villain and returns them to their rightful narrative position. An impulse, a moment’s carelessness, a snap decision gone wrong, any of these can set a character on the path to darkness. One decision leads to another and so an antagonist of circumstance becomes a villain of choice. The critical juncture in this anatomy is the single bad decision that sets the course of events.

A writer’s job is to force their characters into difficult decisions. With the pivotal choice, a character is forced into making a momentous decision under adverse conditions ranging from ignorance to a poor temper. With perfect control over the circumstances, a writer can position their characters in a vantage that exploits their fatal flaws and natural myopia. A character’s actions in the aftermath of their pivotal choice can determine their course as a hero or a villain.

Ideally, a pivotal choice flies under the radar and can only be readily identified in retrospect. The trick, then, is to circumvent a thoughtful, considered, deliberate course of action. Instead of thinking through one’s options and selecting the best available solutions, one’s actions are informed by the deepest biases, most unexamined heuristics. If the source of all plot comes from putting characters in situations they don’t know how to deal with, it’s the conflicts they don’t even realize they’re in which reveal their weakest aspects.

The aftermath of the pivotal choice determines what sort of villain you’re working with. If the consequences are dire enough, from a moral point of view, you can find your character snared into a loop of escalating violence, whether by social disapproval or by their own guilty conscience. If the pivotal choice is buried deep enough in the past, drowned in years of resentment and vengefulness, it no longer matters how innocuous or comprehensible the original inciting act really was. The weight of years of hostility and brutality rests on every action, and redemption or forgiveness become an unreasonable expectation.

A particularly clear variation on this formula is common in murder mysteries. A character witnesses a crime, or causes a deadly accident, or for some other reason believes themselves to be prime suspects of a murder that has no yet been discovered. In their effort to protect themselves from the veil of suspicion – real or imagined, probable or far-fetched – they end up committing crimes far worse than the initial decision that set the snowball rolling. However innocent they might have been at first, they are still rightfully culpable for the murder of the witness or the detective who was about to reveal their crime.

The pivotal choice is a character device with infinite possible permutations. It can be as clear or as subtle as the story requires, it can leave an opening for redemption or more completely damn the character in question. The biggest trick of it, I think, is discovering the foil that could lead to such an ill-fated decision, without making the character appear foolish to the reader.

After all, there’s nothing worse than a stupid villain.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.

“My Life for a Thousand” – Bounty Hunters in Space

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I binge-watched the first season of Killjoys concurrently with reading Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. The latter sat at the top of my metaphorical TBR pile for years, after having received multiple enthusiastic recommendations. I started reading it and was quickly sucked in, although at intervals there were lulls in my reading. Not surprising, given the pervasive violence of the narrative, that now and then I needed a short breather.

Killjoys suffered somewhat in comparison… at first. At one point early in the first episode, I was very close to dropping the show and going back to my book. I figured if I wanted a story about a badass, no-holds-barred, mercenary-minded bounty hunter in space, I had one on hand that had already proven its merit. As others have said, Killjoys gets off to a shaky start, and I wouldn’t say that I was hooked until episode four (“Vessel”, not coincidentally the first appearance of Delle Seyah Kendry).

These two stories contrast well. On one level, there are superficial similarities in subject matter, both dealing with a formal bounty-hunting organization with institutional reach of authority. Both the killjoys and the bel dames set themselves up as keepers of peace and social order, to some extent or another, and both are pervaded with manipulation and power-play, often at the expense of the individual agent. Their machinations, in both cases, exist on a genocidal, planet-level scale. Of course, with similarities like these, there’s an immediate need to scrutinize the differences that distinguish them.

God’s War is a darker work, psychologically speaking. Dark in a deeper sense than the type of “grimdark” fiction I’m used to seeing in both novels and television, tangling its narrative hopelessly in fatal flaws and moral dilemmas that are not readily unknotted. Nyx, the protagonist, stretches what it means to be an anti-hero, especially for a female character. More on that later. The casual brutality of Nyx’s existence is handled so precisely as to be almost unnoticeable.

Killjoys is less subtle. A television series by necessity has different rules of pacing to a novel, and this series like many others before it makes the most of that. As such, the early episodes feel more like a pulp adventure or a space procedural, while in the background each episode sets aside the building blocks of the meta-narrative. For the diligent viewer, pushing through the less interesting early episodes pays off with a juicy conspiracy plot that culminates in a painful cliffhanger.

Beneath the superficial similarity, and the more analytical distinction, there is a contrast of theme that runs more interesting than discussion of plot. After all, the attraction of the badass anti-heroine can be traced back to a single trait, the same trait that has made similarly structured male characters staples of the action genre. The characters in these stories are survivors. This is especially true of Nyx and Dutch, but here also the distinctions are just as important as the similarities.

Nyx, an unemployable ex-soldier who’s had her entire physiology reconstructed so often she has none of her original organs left. Dutch, a woman from nowhere with no family and no people, a child raised for murder by a paternal shadow assassin. Patriotism and family loyalty, an impetus or an imperative to kill. Nyx’s nightmares drive her back to her military days and fuel her continuing attachment to the bel dame motto: “my life for a thousand”. Whereas Dutch does everything in her power to leave her past behind, but adopts another absolute motto: “the warrant is all”.

Arguably, the two mottoes are more similar than they initially appear. Arguably, the bel dame council works harder to present itself as a patriotic institution working to protect their nation. Meanwhile, the killjoys live in a planetary system dominated by the plutocratic, encroaching and ominously nameless “Company”. Maybe this is what makes them more inclined to broadcast their tolerance for ends justifying means. Which organization is more cynical in its presentation?

Planetary peace-keeping militias aside, there is another important difference between the two protagonists. Rather, between the two teams. Nyx builds around herself a team of competent expatriates and assorted other losers. Contrary to genre convention, they can’t really be described as a rag-tag bunch of misfits. The team members’ ambivalence is a thread constantly visible in the book, circumstantial loyalty always promising to give way to betrayal. Or rather, the each-for-themselves attitude that found family narratives exist to unwrite.

The process of leaving behind adverse circumstances and overcoming trauma is central to Dutch’s story, as well as her co-protagonists. Forming that very same found family is a critical aspect of this process. Dutch, Johnny and D’avin are all, for lack of a better term, fucked up. They make poor decisions, hurt each other, and spend a lot of time dangling psychologically by a thread — but climbing ever upward.

Two stories of survival from two complement perspectives. The story of Dutch and her compatriots, about the adversity of climbing your way out of trauma in a hostile world, identifying your people and building support structure. By contrast, Nyx’s story is fundamentally about a downwards spiral, the story of a woman who has driven away every friend and ally and support system she ever had. What makes Nyx so dreadful is her dedication to self-destruction, not by means of drinking or gambling or a thousand other vices, but by the process of willful estrangement.

As much as Nyx’s downwards spiral is the story of an inveterate survival refusing to give up, the central Killjoys character arc is an upwards spiral, centered around people building up their lives. The characters or Killjoys are notable not only for their pervasive mental trauma, but for their variety of coping mechanisms, positive and negative.

On a personal note: after ten-plus years of major depression, it’s gratifying to be able to tell the difference.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.