Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Two Types of Tropes

A trope is one of those things that you often see in movies, television, and prose fiction, some bit of storytelling grammar that recurs over and over. A policeman tells the hero that he's only a few days from retirement, which makes his death all the more tragic. A scientist explains something complicated and someone says, "In English, doc." TV Tropes has a saying, which is that tropes are tools; the nature of this post is to examine where those tools come from and what we use them for.

Tropes are memes

The word "meme" has mutated a bit since Dawkins coined it, but here I mean it in the original sense; a meme is a unit of imitation. One of the primary uses of tropes qua tropes is that they set audience expectations. Invoking a trope allows you to do characterization really, really quickly, so long as you stick to one of the stock characters. A modern audience is very familiar with the Absent-Minded Professor, which means that you can sketch the character in a single sentence without breaking a sweat. (Stock characters and stock plots are, of course, widely hated. Stock characters are recognizable, but that makes them boring.)

For a more interesting example, take the Four Temperment Ensemble. If you go looking for it, you'll see it everywhere, and I don't think that's (just) confirmation bias. Why is it so prevalent? It's a convenient way to divide up a group of four characters, sure, but it's also a way of dividing up characters that the audience will already be subconsciously familiar with, and it draws on the existing culture. By contrast, the Japanese have blood type personality worked into a lot of their fiction, as a totally different way of dividing up groups of four.

Neither of these two divisions are something that someone who was storytelling from base principles would come up with on their own. It's something that exists as a meme out in the world which the author brings into their story to either help flesh things out or to connect with a reader. Often, these meme tropes are then subverted or played with in some way, but their origin is in the collective consciousness.

Tropes are emergent

Some tropes exist because they're too useful not to exist. The Unspoken Plan Guarantee is the principle that a plan which is described to the reader cannot be perfectly executed. The reason for this is simple; describing the plan robs the plan of tension and spoils the action for the reader. If you were rewriting the rules of storytelling from the ground up, you might very well independently invent the Unspoken Plan Guarantee.

Storytelling is inherently an optimizing process, whether the end goal is to delight, depress, or just make lots of money. Because the problems are largely the same from culture to culture, the same tools get invented time and again. If there were a people with no culture, these tools would be invented ex nihilo, because the problem of getting people to feel a certain way with your story would still have the same sets of obvious solutions. When those solutions were invented, the good solutions would crowd out the bad solutions, and eventually they would become tropes.

If I had to break down the dichotomy into a tl;dr, it would be that some tropes are used because they're cultural and some tropes are used because they're the result of good storytelling principles (which probably then stem from something intrinsic to the human brain, giving the universality of storytelling).

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: Massive Chalice

I've been playing Massive Chalice lately, and it bothered me enough that I feel the need to write a review. No spoilers, because the game doesn't really have a story.

Long-view Gameplay

There are two core gameplay mechanics in Massive Chalice. The first is long-view gameplay, which takes place over the course of three hundred years. Here, you're building on the land, doing match-making between bloodlines, train heroes, and engaging in research. The second is battle gameplay, where you equip heroes, bring them onto a battleground, then fight against the Cadence.

Massive Chalice claims to take place on an epic timescale, but part of the problem with the long-view gameplay is that it never feels like it. Keeps take years to build, but all that's involved with building a keep is pressing a button and then waiting for the years to pass, which happens over the course of a few seconds as time goes into fast speed. There are five events that can happen when you're in fast mode:
  • Someone dies, sometimes accompanied by passing on a relic or a vacancy needing to be filled
  • Someone is born, no action needed
  • Random events, pick one option
  • Build/research finishes, pick a new one
  • Cadence attack, go to battle
The random events and births aren't exactly irrelevant, but there's not much aspect of choice involved in the random choices, in part because their results are opaque to the player. Deaths do represent an actual choice, because people are one of your two resources (the other being time), but again, there's not that much weight to this.

In part, I blame this on presentation. There's an established visual grammar to moving forward through time; show a spinning clock, then day flickering to night and back again, then the seasons passing from summer to winter and back again, then a tree growing and blossoming. Maybe throw in some blurred lights of passing cars and pages falling from a calendar. Massive Chalice gives you no visual indication of time passing aside from a countdown of years and days. In fact, there's no indication that there's anything going on in the kingdom at all. There are no people moving along the trade routes (and no trade routes), no crops being harvested, no real indication that things are being built, no festivals, no seasons ... nothing. Moving forward in time is a completely sterile experience. There is no appreciable difference in moving through time that makes it different from XCOM, which happens over the course of a year or two instead of centuries.

Another way that presentation falls flat is that you only rarely see your heroes. There are only two times; first, when you're taking them into battle, and second, when you're looking at them in the keep (usually this only happens when arranging a new marriage or replacing the person running the keep). Massive Chalice doesn't allow you to see a baby grow into a teenager who then goes to fight in battles, since in the course of normal gameplay you never see them, just a name and a banner (and maybe some stats). Even your vanguard (those you take into battle) you only see when the Cadence attack, which means that on average, you see them four or five times before they die of old age, and that's if you start them young and never put them into retirement.

My other main problem with the long-view gameplay is the shallowness of choice. There are only two resources in the long-view; people and time. People can either be available as vanguards, used as sagewrights, used as trainers, or used as breeding stock. All of these options are, for no adequately explained story reason, mutually exclusive, even though Cadence battles only take about a day. Okay, so the sagewright thing is explained as those heroes taking up the white banner, stripped of their house so that they might aid the kingdom in matters of learning. But that doesn't explain why people in the vanguard can't have children of their own.

The other major resource is time. Research, building, and finding children all take between 5-20 years and are all mutually exclusive. I suppose one way of thinking of it is that your kingdom's entire productive effort is being geared toward that one single thing, but regardless of what justifications we might make for that, it's not particularly fun or interesting. This is a case where combining trade-offs results in a paucity of actual choices and makes the choices less interesting than they might otherwise have been. Also, because the only resource spent on research/building/recruitment is time, that means that there's very little trade-off. We're only speaking in terms of a single currency.

So how to fix all this? I know that Massive Chalice didn't have a massive budget, so I'll try to stick to things that could have been different that would have given better depth without greatly increasing development time.
  1. Use something else as a currency in addition to time. The kingdom should be producing something; it doesn't need to have complex animations, but I would have liked some basic high level things like stone or iron, which would then be spent on keeps, guilds, crucibles, etc. This would also give the sense that the kingdom was more than the sum of its keeps, and could add some much-needed strategic variety to the game by allowing different plots to generate different amounts of things.
  2. Place the heroes more front and center. If nothing is going to be happening on the world map while time is moving forward, I would have liked to see the heroes aging in real time, preferably with all of them standing around together, grouped by family. If I could see a woman holding a baby who grows into a toddler over the course of seconds, then drops to the ground and climbs up, aging into a teenager, I think I would have felt more of a connection. This does dip slightly into budget issues. Failing that, I would have liked to see some ceremonies, such as funerals, to give some sense that these are actual people who are mourning the loss of their loved ones. For that matter I might have liked an actual graveyard instead of just a list of the deceased with only a banner and name to represent them within a submenu.
  3. I really wish that there were something proactive I could do. All decisions made within Massive Chalice are the result of waiting around until you're presented with a choice (usually a binary one). There is nothing that you can do, most of the time, except pass the time. Most of the time, you want time to pass as quickly as possible, because time is what separates you from actual gameplay. I would have liked some ability to strike out on my own, to take the fight to the Cadence, clear out the creeping sickness, or send someone on a quest. That would at least have given me some pause before hitting the button that speeds through the years. (XCOM includes this as part of between-mission downtime.)
  4. I want there to be more for my heroes to do between missions. This ties in with both proactivity and putting the heroes first, but also with complaints about the game feeling like it's got no weight. Heroes are locked into doing one thing, the same as research and building are locked into one thing, which removes many interesting elements of choice. I would have liked heroes to have children, even if they were children outside of a royal marriage that I had arranged. I would have liked them to be training (and specifically, to establish a padawan/master relationship, which would help them to feel more like real people). While I really like the idea of sagewrights giving up their banners and renouncing their faith, I would have liked some way for my heroes who aren't doing anything to contribute to building or research. If those were distinct things, perhaps they could be barred from research and put their efforts toward building.
  5. Slow things down. Battles happen about once every ten years, on average. If heroes start at 15 years old, that means that they have about five or six battles until they die, assuming that they devote their entire lives to battle (which you don't always want). If battles happened every five years instead, you'd get twice the time with your heroes, so might feel a little bit more weight. Unfortunately, I don't think the core battle gameplay is fun enough to support this. In either case, if you did this you'd want to make the long-view gameplay more crowded so there was more to do in the intervening time.

Battle Gameplay

Battle gameplay makes up the majority of the game. Pick your five heroes, equip them, then send them into battles against the Cadence. This all takes place on a grid, presented from an angle. They have two actions every turn, they can move, they can attack, etc. It's basically just doing the XCOM thing. Notably different from XCOM though, there's no overwatch (the mechanic where you can get in a position to shoot the next enemy that moves) and no cover (though you can still sort of hide from sight).

The first and biggest problem is that there's very little variety in the battles. Here are the types of missions in XCOM:

  • Abduction missions: The aliens have landed, go kill the aliens
  • UFO missions: We've shot down a UFO, go kill the surviving aliens
  • Escort missions: Take this guy to the evac zone
  • Terror missions: Kill the aliens before they kill the civilians
  • Asset recovery missions: Protect the assets and kill the aliens
  • Target extraction missions: Find this guy then take him to the evac zone
  • Bomb missions: Defuse the bomb then kill the aliens
Some of these are fairly similar and only really differ in the sort of art you're seeing when you go around killing the aliens, but others actually change how you play the game. Some of them put on a time pressure that's not in place during the main game, while others put constraints on how you're allowed to position your resources (a major part of the game). In Massive Chalice:
  • Attack missions: The Cadence are attacking, kill them
  • Defense missions: The Cadence have attacked a keep, go protect the people living there
These do not play terribly differently. The people you're defending in defense missions are heroes as well, so the only real difference is that you start with a segregated squad. I should note that in 300 years I only got a single defense mission.

This lack of variety on the tactical level is a major problem, since this is the core gameplay element and it gets repetitive in a hurry. XCOM breaks up the gameplay with variants that force the player to change their playstyle. For the most part, Massive Chalice does not. This means that by the time you're on your tenth or twentieth mission, there's very little that gives you pause and it's a paint-by-numbers experience (but not in the zen way that paint-by-numbers can be good).

The overall tactical gameplay is a bit shallow, but there's enough variety in the classes (three normal, six hybrid) and the equipment loadouts to keep the feeling of newness going. The enemies are varied in their attacks and effects, but I felt like the strategic-level resource hits (enemies that reduce XP, age up characters) were more cute and quirky than tactically interesting. There wasn't too much interesting emergent gameplay that came from it, in part because getting hit for five years only really means that you miss out on half a battle from that unit's expected utility, which isn't much.

Final Thoughts

The two big things that Massive Chalice is missing are weight and depth. This leaves it feeling unfinished, which it might be. I know enough about the software development world to know that sometimes you don't get all the nifty features that you were planning for, so it might be that this came down to budget. With that said, I think the fact that XCOM already laid so much of the groundwork (and was so heavily cribbed from) makes the lack of weight and depth a little puzzling and disappointing. Firaxis had a much larger budget for XCOM than Double Fine had for Massive Chalice, but Double Fine already went for a low polygon art style and skimped quite a bit on the graphics. So if they knew that they weren't going to sell anyone on graphics, why was the gameplay not at least on par with the game they were copying?

I found this game frustrating because it had good ideas that didn't go far enough and an interesting premise that they didn't execute as well as they could have. I was ready to like it, but while it was a decent enough game, it never grabbed me and I don't think that I'll ever return to it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Shadows of the Limelight: Post Mortem

Spoilers for Shadows of the Limelight follow. If you keep reading, not only will none of this make sense to you, but you'll also deprive yourself of enjoying the actual book. So if you haven't read it, get out of here.

I still intend to finish up the second appendix and write an epilogue, and I have ideas ready for the sequel, but I need to get this out because I've been focusing on the flaws too much and hopefully a post mortem will be cathartic.

Characterization

I think the biggest single problem with Shadows is that the main character, Dominic, is not compelling. Most of my other problems with it extend from that. In the original outline, Dominic was supposed to be the naive newcomer through whom some of the setting could be explored. He was going to slowly uncover the truth behind the other three principle characters (Vidre, Welexi, and Gaelwyn). Welexi would see him as an apprentice and later as a threat, Vidre would see him as a threat and annoyance and later an equal, while Gaelwyn would look to him for approval and eventually have to side with Welexi.

This all went more or less to plan and was basically fine. However, Dominic still wasn't interesting enough or compelling enough on his own.

Even now I have trouble articulating his story. He starts out as a street urchin, estranged from his family, and ... that's not enough. He doesn't have enough in the way of hopes and dreams, he has purposeless ambition, and though he displays agency it's just not enough because there's nothing behind it. It's not even that he's a shallow character really, it's that he's fumbling his way through this new realm of living, being dragged along behind it. His moments of actual action, like taking the lead on stepping in front of the duel with the Blood Bard, seem to happen because he thinks it's something he needs to do rather than because this comes from the core of his character.

If I had to rewrite it all, I would have made him a fanboy, a loyal adherent to Welexi who followed all of the news of the illustrati. I'd actually thought about that in the planning stages, but it felt too obvious and cloying. The character arc would have followed the same general path, but this time Dominic would have had his idealism stripped away from him. He would step up to the duel with the Blood Bard because he imagined that this was heroic. Welexi would still be threatened and we could still follow that arc. Perhaps that would have been too obvious, but I think it would have still been better. But that's not what I did.

I think Vidre worked well; she was complex and compelling, at least to me, and I didn't hear many complaints. I think of the four principle characters I understood her the best. She sat at a nice place in terms of proactivity and competence.

Welexi's reveal at the end of the second act was a little too fast and could have been foreshadowed better, but overall I don't have any other complaints. There was nothing structurally wrong with the character, he could have just been fleshed out a little better. I thought he was interesting despite that. The ambiguity of his character undercuts the end of the novel a bit. Maybe this is a case where ambiguity worked against making it compelling.

Gaelwyn was supposed to be a junkyard dog taken in and made presentable, which he did well enough. I think his relationship with Dominic could have been developed better, but Dominic could have been developed better, so maybe I should attribute it to that.

Plot

The plot gets a little muddled at the end of the second act (after the turn). It also gets a little muddled at the end of the Meriwall arc. It's entirely possible that there should have been an arc in between Meriwall and the Iron Kingdom, though I'm not sure what it would have been (and that's why it's not there). One comment that stuck with me was that they could have just sailed around the world, having adventures for ever and ever. I agree with that, and think that the period of stasis could have lasted longer.

I don't quite think that the introduction of the Harbingers was a mistake, but I'm not sure that they added much. If the conceit is that fame gives you power, then maybe the ability to bypass that undercuts what should have been a more full-throated meditation on what it means to be known by people, or the difference between stories and reality when people are motivated towards making a myth of themselves. If I'm going to toss a transformative artifact in there, it needs to have more of a point, more of a way of hitting at the central theme. Maybe I could argue that it's an extension of the thirst for becoming a legend? Again, it's something that I might not do if I had to do it over.

My other thought is that perhaps I should have started smaller. Dominic goes from unknown to being in the company of some of the most famous people in the world. But if I were starting smaller and ramping up more gradually, I would have needed Dominic to be compelling (see above) which he wasn't. And perhaps that wouldn't have worked in my favor either. In fact, it's entirely possible that the Corta subplot should have been cut from the beginning entirely. That subplot definitely should have had a better, more gripping resolution. (I think I was trying to mark the division between worlds, but I don't think it worked.)

The third act could also have been longer and more detailed. I'm not sure that would have improved anything as far as the larger points of the book.

Since I'm not trying to shit all over this thing that I spent six months working on, I thought the ending was satisfactory and pulled in enough elements from earlier that it closed some threads. The idea of winning by presenting a story still seems clever to me, which means that there's a good chance that it's actually clever.

Prose

It could have been better, more elaborate, more evocative. Some of the chapters didn't incubate long enough, especially at points where I was already feeling unhappy about the story.

Final Thoughts

I don't think that Shadows is the worst thing I'm written. I wish I could go back in time and do some things differently, but I wish that about most things I've written. I would actually go so far as to say that Shadows is good, though it would need serious work prior to publication. It's got issues, some of which I think I'll be able to avoid on future books or which I might have been able to see if I were more experienced. My biggest regret is definitely the character of Dominic, but that's also one of the hardest things to change in editing, short of rewriting the entire story.

I'll eventually get this novel edited into something that I'm more happy with, but it will probably take some time. Eventually my bad feelings about it will fade and I'll be able to take a more optimistic look at the work; right now my editing work is going slowly.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Creating superpowers through "Yes, And"

Okay, so I've never actually done improv. But one of the basic principles is that you're never supposed to deny and offer made by your partner. If your partner says "I just bought a pet zebra", you don't say, "No, you didn't buy a zebra" because that leaves the scene with nowhere to go. Instead, your partner says "I've bought a zebra", and you say "I asked you to get my cough syrup and you came back with a zebra?". The basic point is that negating something is boring, as is simply accepting it. What you want to do is accept it and then add onto it; this is the "yes, and" principle. With every additional thing you add, you increase the complexity and give more to the scene.

I was thinking about this because I'm working on a new setting and trying to tear apart other settings that I enjoyed to see how they work. Worm is a big one. The most interesting powers within the setting are built on the principle of taking something basic and adding on a restriction. Burnscar has pyrokinesis; yes, and the more fire there is around her, the less control she has over it. Battery has super speed; yes, and she has to charge it up in order to use it. Trickster can teleport things; yes, and he has to swap two things of similar mass.

This is one half of Sanderson's Second Law; limitations, costs, and weaknesses are more interesting than powers. But Sanderson is explicit that his law is not just about creating complexity, it's about forcing more interesting things into the story. I think where I disagree with him is that I think limitations are about complexity and that's most of what makes them interesting, meaning that it should also be possible to add complexity (and therefore interest) if you use an additive rather than subtractive process. I guess I would also add that whether something is an addition or a subtraction is largely a matter of perspective.

Take something like Avatar: The Last Airbender. There are people called firebenders who have short-range pyrokinesis; yes, and they can shoot lightning if they have the right training, yes, and their power increases tenfold when a particular red comet crosses the sky. These things are additions to the core conceit, powers added on top of powers, but because they add on a complication, they add on interest and make things more compelling. We might imagine a simple magic system where mages can control and manipulate glass; yes and there are mages that manipulate sound. This is instantly more compelling, because we immediately set up a conflict and contrast between the two systems of magic.

To some extent Sanderson does this within his own magic systems. Mistborn has a system of sixteen feruchemical abilities and sixteen allomatic abilities and much of what's dynamic and interesting about the industrial era books is how twinborns (which have one from each set) can combine their abilities in unique and interesting ways.

I'm currently working on worldbuilding for a new series and trying to capture some of what I like in other series, which I think is going to boil down to a framework magic system that I can hang all sorts of things on. To this end, I made a quick javascript generator (which I'd embed in this page if I could get rid of the SSL errors). Here are treatments for the first three powers I got through the improviser:

Precognition. Yes, but happiness.

Given that it's a "but", there's an implied limitation. So, the ability to see the future, but limited to only happy things, or possibly only while happy, which might amount to the same thing. As soon as you start looking at something that makes you upset, the vision starts to destabilize.

Emotional manipulation. Yes, and age.

Emotional manipulation is one of those things that's pretty damned wide. The word "and" means that we're adding something onto it, not taking away. Emotional manipulation getting stronger with age feels a little too simple, so maybe we can tie this manipulation to age in a different way. Perhaps negative emotions are tied to getting older and positive emotions are tied to getting younger?

Earth manipulation. Yes, but heat.

Earth manipulation probably means being able to telekinetically move rocks around, though there are a few directions you can take that end of the prompt. Heat as a complication might mean a lot of things: earth manipulation gets more difficult as the temperature increases, earth manipulation generates heat, earth manipulation requires heat as an input, etc. I think I like the first one better, since it brings to mind an earth-mover who stays in colder climates and shuns the fires of civilization.

The generator is not robust and probably has some nonsensical combinations. Each of the lists could probably be expanded in size two or three times over to give more interesting combinations, and weights could be given to the powers and modifiers that are most open to interpretation, or with cascading probabilities. But let me know whether I'm just blowing smoke; I'd love to see some examples given the prompts.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Critical Review of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

This is a critical review of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky. If you haven't read it, be warned that this review contains major spoilers. I don't mean "critical" with overtones of "faultfinder" or "censurer". I mean "critical" as in "a judgement of the merits and faults". If you really, really liked this story, imagine me beginning each sentence with "In my opinion,".

The Nature of the Work

I don't really agree with the notion that a piece of literature needs to be any one thing. The best works of art are multitools - different things to different people, and even different things to the same person. If done correctly, social commentary can be combined with comedy and schmaltzy romance can be combined with biting parody. So long as the goals of the work don't conflict, it's possible to accomplish them all at the same time. So what are the goals of the work?

Didacticism

Methods of Rationality wants to teach you things. It wants to give you lessons on social psychology, cognitive biases, and science. For the most part, it delivers these lessons in a straightforward way - many of the chapters feature a direct explanation of a concept by Harry, and then in a later scene hit upon that theme less directly. These lessons begin to drop off following the Azkaban arc in favor of other elements - primarily drama.

Character Growth

This is the story of Harry outgrowing his heritage as Tom Riddle. When the story begins, Harry is arrogant, power-hungry, condescending, scheming, and quite angry. If we're being charitable, he's telling the truth when he says that he's outgrown all of that at the end. Harry supplements his INT with badly needed WIS, and I think in that you can see a lot of the author's life story as he would tell it.

This creates some serious problems where the story's didacticism is concerned. The story wants to teach us lessons, but wants to teach them through a flawed character, and a flawed teacher. Harry's condescension and jargon-dense explanations are perfectly in character, but they make it difficult for a reader who isn't already familiar with the subject matter to understand what he's saying. This is compounded by the author's decision not to look things up, a decision that was made in the name of realism but which undercuts the story's ability to teach.

This character growth arc also has a bigger problem than the fact that it's at odds with the pretensions towards teaching - it doesn't happen organically. The path that a standard story might take to show a character overcoming their flaws is to show them failing because of their flaws. In this story, Harry rarely fails. His single biggest organic failure was when he lost a battle to Hermione because he didn't think to consult with his soldiers, and afterward showed real growth. In my opinion, this is the only real believable moment of character growth for him.

Harry is not shown failing because of his "dark side", he is shown winning because of it. His early battles of will with McGonagall are won primarily through blackmail and deceit, and the end result of this is not a lack of respect from her (which might have resulted in a chance for reflection and growth) but with McGonagall beginning to treat him as an equal.

Harry is also not shown failing for his more human faults, the first and foremost being his lack of wisdom. Harry accompanies Quirrell to Azkaban and breaks Bellatrix Black out, which is clearly a mistake and meant as such. Harry gets away with his deceptions, beats all odds, and there are never any meaningful consequences. Even at the story's end, this adventure remains a secret from every other character. Harry says something to Snape that breaks the spell Lily had cast over him, and there are no consequences to this. Harry tells Quirrell about the Resurrection Stone, and there are no meaningful consequences to this. Harry has his Time-Turner locked down, and there are no meaningful consequences to this. Harry steals Hermione's body and lies about it, and he is rewarded for it. Harry gives away his entire fortune to the Malfoys and trade enormous political power for Hermione ... and the debt is wiped clean, with the politcal power renewed soon after.

Harry is never given any incentive to change, and never really shows any change. The character growth arc is implied, but for the most part not actually present. Harry does not win the climax of the fic by having overcome his flaws, he wins it through brutal murder. The biggest organic change he undergoes is from believing in the value of truth to advocating for multiple conspiracies against both the wizarding and muggle worlds, and if that's character growth, it's a message I find ugly.

Parody/Deconstruction/Reconstruction

Methods of Rationality is a commentary on the canon books of J.K. Rowling, and to a lesser extent, a commentary on the fanfiction of Rowling's books and other stories (most notably, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, which a large portion of the chapters are a pastiche of). It's not meant to be read without knowing the canon books fairly well. Character descriptions are often skipped with the assumption that the reader will simply know what that person looks like from either the books or movies, even major ones. Harry doesn't get even a brief description until the eighth chapter (from Hermione's perspective) even though his appearance is important to the plot before that. Hermione doesn't get a description at all. The fact that Methods leans on canon should be considered a feature and not a flaw - much of what it accomplishes is through the mirror it holds up.

Methods is at its best when it's engaging in reconstruction - taking some piece of canon and remaking it into a better form, to allow people who have read the books to get some thrill of seeing something they love remade. The description of Occlumency is more thoughtful than the one presented in canon, and at the same time hits the themes of text fairly hard; it's a narrative multitool. Transfiguration is similarly well thought out, and takes something rather poorly defined and makes it into something both distinct and similar to canon, while at the same time putting forth lessons on the map and territory (though those are somewhat flawed) and being cool in its own right. Even Dementors as literal Death is an interesting twist that takes the work in new directions.

I personally find it at its worst when it's pure deconstruction. It does this a few times - criticizing the plots of the canon books (notably Goblet of Fire and Prisoner of Azkaban), the characters (Ron), or the worldbuilding (Harry's arbitrage scheme, Quidditch). I've read the author's assurances that his characters don't speak for him, but the problem is that the text speaks for itself. Though in some cases it revisits the things that it's taken digs at, this feels to me like backpedaling - or like a bully assuring the teacher that he was only joking around, not actually picking on someone without the ability to defend themselves.

I don't know whether these moments where it the text revisits a subject with more kind eyes are due to feedback from readers, but it feels to me as though they are, mostly because they're removed from the places where they could have made their point more strongly. Modern Quidditch having a problem with the snitch due to faster brooms is interesting in a way that out-of-hand dismissal is not, and had that point been put in chapter seven instead of chapter one hundred and sixteen I think it would have not only been better received by those of us that liked the books, but better for the story overall. If Ron had explained that of course the Snitch is a problem that any modern follower of the sport is familiar with, it would have underlined Harry's character flaws of arrogance and presumption, built the world in a clever and satisfying way, and avoided "dropping an anvil" (as the author's note says) on a character.

The Plot

The undeniable climax of Methods happens when Quirrell has been unmasked as Voldemort and gives Harry sixty seconds to surrender information prior to his death. Harry then kills the arrayed Death Eaters and incapacitates Voldemort, and everything after that is wrapping up loose threads. The climax of the work is then in chapters one hundred and thirteen and one hundred and fourteen.

Yet the plot of Methods is not about Quirrell as Voldemort fighting with Harry. Prior to chapter eighty-eight, Voldemort has no intentions of killing Harry. Voldemort's plan, as laid out in a language that doesn't allow lies, is to make Harry into the ruler of magical Britain. Harry's plan is to figure out how science works and revolutionize magical Britain. Dumbledore has two primary plans. The first is to trap Voldemort beyond time, which Dumbledore is unsuccessful at; this happens almost entirely off-screen. The second is to thread the needle of prophecy, which Dumbledore presumably has succeeded at when the novel ends; this also happens almost entirely off-screen, and the parts of it that we do see are incomprehensible.

Do you see the problem here? Prior to chapter eighty-eight, the plot hasn't actually begun. Harry and Voldemort share largely the same goals until that point, though they likely differ in how they would achieve them, and of course have obvious moral differences, but this is not what drives them into conflict in the climax - the thing that does that is a prophecy, not any aspect of their character.

The conflict between Voldemort and Dumbledore has a different problem, the biggest of which is that so much of the story is told through the eyes of someone who is somewhere between a pawn and a bystander. I think some of this issue stems from the authorial decision to keep so much of their plotting off-screen, which made their final confrontation into a complete let-down (and the root cause of that is the decision to play Quirrell's identity as a mystery rather than a source of dramatic tension).

From reading two-thirds of the fic (and frankly, quite a bit further than that) you might believe that the plot was going to be that Harry was going to learn the secrets of magic and revolutionize magical Britain, but neither of these things happen. The scientific exploration of magic is mostly dropped by the time of the Azkaban arc, reduced to mere guesses about how magic might work. The revolution of magical Britain is left as an uncertain thing. These promises set up in the beginning are left unfulfilled. (I've heard people say that there's no possible way that those could have fit into this work, but I disagree - see the next section on the pacing problems.)

Midway through, you might think that the plot was going to be Harry destroying Azkaban and defeat Death. There's even a prophecy to that effect. Yet this doesn't happen either; it's left as an exercise for the reader's imagination, another promise that's not delivered on.

Pacing Problems

The pacing problems of Methods are pretty easy to see just by looking at the chapter titles. There are far too many reactions and aftermaths. For every major event that happens, there are thousands of words expended on showing the reaction from every angle. There are relatively few plot points in the six hundred and sixty thousand words, especially when compared to canon - Methods covers Harry's first year in the same number of words that the canon books cover Harry's first four (almost five) years. Not all of that is due to the parts which might have been lifted straight from Yudkowsky's Sequences.

There are quite a few digressions which exist not to teach a lesson or advance plot or characterization, but because the author thought it would be interesting. He's often right, but the price of that is that the plot moves much more slowly than it otherwise would, and sometimes the conclusion of a chapter leaves me scratching my head asking myself whether anything meaningful had actually happened. There are numerous references, cameos for fans, and lengthy digressions into esoteric subjects. Sometimes these are interesting, and sometimes they aren't, with the difference often being how much you care about the topic in question. Sometimes it's the sort of foreshadowing that's only obvious in retrospect. Either way, the slow pace doesn't tend to be worth it.

Of special note are the "battle school" portions of the plot, which are a pastiche of Ender's Game, which do little to advance the plot. The battles all happen close to each other, and while they reach a natural conclusion in chapter thirty-five when the generals have tied and made their wishes before Christmas, but then there's another battle which happens afterwards. While this section was enjoyable in and of itself, it seems disconnected from the larger work - existing primarily because the author had always wanted to write a pastiche of Ender's Game rather than because it was integral to the other purposes that the work was trying to achieve. The lasting plot impact of these battles is small.

Realism and Narrative Satisfaction

I've heard many people say that Methods is realistic. I generally agree with this (with a few caveats). It is realistic for the enemy to be doing their own thing off-screen where the hero can't see it. I agree with this. However, this is not the same thing as being satisfying to the reader. A Deus Ex Machina or Diabolus Ex Machina is realistic, but it's also bad storytelling. The easiest fix for this is simply to show the reader things which are unknown to the protagonist, yet for all that Methods shows aftermaths from dozens of characters, and moves narrative focus from one character to another, it stalled on showing the perspective of Dumbledore and Quirrell so much that their final battle seemed to be set up and resolved in a single chapter, with all the tension and suspense deflating rather than reaching a climax.

I'll say the same for the over-use of a few tricks - mostly, the Time-Turner. Yes, it's realistic for a character to use a hammer every time there's a nail that needs to be pounded down. No, this is not satisfying for the reader. It would have taken little effort to contrive a circumstance where Harry lost his Time-Turner. Off-hand, I can think of a few places where it would be in character for the adults. But instead the Time-Turner is used for everything under the sun, even when these uses are repetitive, and something fantastical has turned boring. I don't think that realism and narrative satisfaction had to be at odds here. (I also find it suspect that there's a potion to lengthen the sleep cycle for people who have Time-Turners, but not one to shorten it. Surely people aren't granted their Time-Turners forever, especially if they're handed out to children, so if someone takes that potion are they just stuck with a lengthened sleep cycle even after handing the Time-Turner back? This is a minor quibble - I'm sure I could invent a just-so story for why the world looks like that.)

Final Verdict

I liked Methods, but I can't help but find it flawed in many ways, some of which seem nearly impossible to fix. It's a power fantasy in many ways, and the sort of power fantasy I enjoy, and yet my enjoyment of that is undercut by a purposefully unlikable main character who never gets his comeuppance.

Addendum: Hermione and Draco

I sort of forgot about Hermione and Draco when I wrote all of the above. Sorry Hermione and Draco.

For secondary characters, I actually thought that Hermione and Draco went through much better character growth arcs than Harry. Draco's is cut a bit short, and it's not really clear where he's ending at given all the turmoil in his life, but there's some hope that he's gone from spoiled son of a noble to enlightened reformer. Hermione traces a fairly organic path from uptight bookworm, to would-be hero, to disillusioned pariah, to reborn superhero (okay, so that last part isn't so organic to the character).

I actually liked the S.P.H.E.W. arc, but at the same time felt like it didn't do enough to further the plot. Like the battle school chapters, it felt like a different fic that I'd been dropped into for a short while - like a spinoff television show. And it never really felt like too much would be lost from cutting the whole thing entirely, especially given Hermione's ignoble end. At the very least, it's one of the big contributors to the pacing problems. I think it would have worked really well as its own, parallel fic, in an Ender's Shadow to Ender's Game sort of way. Or perhaps it would have worked better if it had been interleaved with the other chapters - an ongoing arc tracing its course alongside others rather than a single enormous clump of text on this one subject.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Metropolitan Man: Post Mortem

About a year ago I wrote a novel-length fanfic about Superman called The Metropolitan Man. This blog post will make absolutely no sense to you unless you've read that first, and, as per the title of this blog, is probably something that you will find boring. At any rate, since this is currently my longest (completed) work of fiction, I thought that picking it apart to see what works and what doesn't might be helpful for future writing projects.

What Worked

  • I went with a historical setting - the 1930s - and I think it did a lot to ground the story in the real world, which is a hard thing to do when you have supernatural elements.
  • For the most part, characterization went well. When writing fanfic there's always a pre-existing characterization, and that means that you have to write along the lines of what other people have in mind. It's a narrow tightrope to walk, but I think that I did pretty well.
  • For the most part, the plot went well - the plot was fairly tight, one event flowed to the next, and the actions and reactions of the characters made sense within what had been established for them.
  • There are a lot of small scenes that I like, little details that make the city and world feel more alive. Part of this is that grounding in the setting.
  • Lex Luthor seems like he's smart - much smarter than I am. I used a lot of tricks to accomplish that, and I'm glad that I didn't get too many people telling me that Lex was being stupid.

What Didn't Work

  • When I said "for the most part characterization went well" there was one notable exception - Lois Lane. Her purpose in the story was to provide a contrast to the two principle characters, as well as a B-plot of her figuring out Superman's secret identity. For the most part, I think she accomplished that, but I tried to keep a realistic shifting of emotions for her which didn't come off well. In my own personal life, especially when there's a lot going on, my moods shift, and I have personal revelations that get canceled out and the whole thing is confusing. But while I might find that to be a realistic reaction, I don't think it's terribly good fiction. It's better to have a characterization that you hammer home over and over with slow and gentle shifts than to try to make someone as weird and complex as a real person - especially when they're the only one that's like that among your principle cast.
  • There's a scene where one of Lex's henchmen screws up and kills Ma Kent, in part because of the unforeseen event of the Dust Bowl which interferes with plans that had been put into place. He kills her mostly on accident. This is the first major thing that goes wrong for Lex, and the first time I wrote it, I think I flubbed it. I fixed it somewhat before the next chapter went out, but I still think that it's a weak point of the story - something that feels just a bit forced or unnatural.
  • The ending is the weakest point in the whole piece. I think that building up to the final confrontation went well, and the final confrontation itself went well, but the resolution came too suddenly and I don't think was foreshadowed enough. I've thought a lot about how I would change the ending, though I have no intention of doing so (mostly because I think that an author is better of not endlessly rewriting, especially when the work has already reached its audience). I've gotten comments that the ending is sad, which I'm totally fine with and intended, as I see the story as a tragedy. I've gotten comments that the ending never delivers on a promise of reconstruction, but I don't feel like I ever made that promise. But I've had people say that the ending felt too much like luck, and on reading it, I somewhat agree with them. It's a planned for sort of luck, the luck that comes from having lots of plots in play and plans within plans, but it's luck all the same. And at the same time, I didn't want for Lex to win simply because everything went his way. I think that if I had to do it over, I would include a scene from Superman's perspective, to show that he had options and took the one that was the most "good", and that's what got him killed. It's a somewhat cynical downer ending, but I think it would massage out some of the luck, and it's kind of a downer ending either way.
  • The prose was a little too lacking in emotion. A lot of the dialog is dry and descriptive, or focused on details. There are a few key emotional scenes that I thought were powerful, but it could have used more emotion in the day-to-day. This I'm less sure on - I think it might just be how I write, and one of those things that I get criticized on for future projects, but writing emotionally is one of those things I find difficult unless I can convince myself to really feel it.
Overall, among those people who have bothered to rate it, it has four stars. I think that's more than fair - my own rating would probably be more towards three and a half, though that might be because the flaws are all quite apparent to me, or because I've spent more time looking at the failures than the successes.

(The Lack of) Methodological Problems in High-Rise Syndrome Cat Studies

There's a popular fact that gets thrown around a lot: cats can survive falling from great heights, and actually survive more often when dropped from a greater height (above seven stories).

There's also a popular rebuttal to this: the study which came to this conclusion was only looking at cats that came into the emergency room, and has what's called a survivorship bias. What they mean is that it could be that there are (hypothetically) a whole bunch of cats who fall from above seven stories which die before ever getting to the emergency room. The study therefore has a methodological flaw, and no valid conclusions can be drawn from it.

Here's the rebuttal to the rebuttal: that's a misreading of the study. The study in question is almost always the 1987 Whitney and Mehlhaff study, which went viral pretty quickly and was then just repeated ad nauseum since forever. What the study actually showed was that the severity of injuries to cats was curvilinear with height - injuries increase as you add height, until a certain point where they stop increasing and start decreasing with height. Specifically, limb fractures begin to decrease while thoracic injuries remain more or less constant (or with a mild increase).

So when a cat falls from a large height, we can divide them up into three groups.
  • Dead cats, which don't go to the vet
  • Injured cats, which go to the vet
  • Uninjured cats, which don't go to the vet
In any study of cats coming into the emergency room, we're only going to be seeing cats in the middle group. We can further divide the injured cats that we're seeing into three groups.
  • Severely injured cats
  • Moderately injured cats
  • Mildly injured cats
Now, if mortality were increasing linearly with height, we would also expect the severity of injuries to increase with height. This is not what we see happening. What we instead see happening is the severity of injuries decreases with height. If you want to maintain that there's a survivorship bias going on here, that bias needs to explain why we see fewer injuries among injured cats.

I've had this debate online a large number of times. In fact, that's why I'm writing this blog post. The generalized argument among the counter-study people is this: most of the cats that fell from high floors simply died. When I ask what plausible hypothesis explains why those that don't die don't see increased injuries, I usually hear back an answer that doesn't make sense. It's usually some variant on "they were lucky", which as you can imagine, I find scientifically lacking.