Thoughts on Anne Rice’s Prince Lestat novels (spoilers ahead)

Anne Rice’s newest novel, Blood Communion: A Tale of Prince Lestat was published on the second of this month and I’m sorry I missed it.  Ever since Anne Rice returned to The Vampire Chronicles I’ve never failed to get  my hands on the new books as soon as they’re available.  Anne Rice may not be my favorite living storyteller but she is definitely up there with my favorites.  Although she may not pull off a completely lucid success with every given story, she is always ambitious and her ambitions are always exciting.  I also think it’s a testament to her character as an artist that she is not afraid to follow sequences in narrative development and thematic complication regardless of where they end up. While I can think of previous works on hers that are more dynamic and successful examples of this, I also believe the three recent Prince Lestat stories are worth reading for their ambition and enthusiasm even if they’re essential success cannot be gauged yet (Rice has not specified at what point the new arc that these stories constitute will be finished but that she has at least a few more novels planned).

The first extremely bold challenge Rice takes on in this new stories is turning Lestat into a hero.  Lestat, at times, has been an anti-hero and at others has almost been a villain protagonist (I’m thinking of The Vampire Lestat and Tale of The Body Thief).  The first time I can remember reading a portrayal of Lestat that edged on unambiguous benevolence was at the end of Merrick, when Louis had attempted suicide by exposing himself to the sun.  While the novel largely hinged on Louis and his feelings of responsibility for what happened to Claudia in Interview, David Talbot is the viewpoint character and at times I think he took up more of the foreground that he should.  The resuscitation of Louis was one of those.

Some books in The Vampire Chronicles are standalone stories but Merrick is not one of them.  At a bare minimum, Merrick requires context from Interview With The Vampire, which makes it clear that Lestat is primarily responsible for the things that Louis feels tortured over.  The fact that Lestat revives Louis after he exposed himself to the sun and then sequesters himself away with him seems…troubling, to say the least.  But Rice chose  to frame it as unambiguously positive.  The change in David from a narrator into an actual protagonist allows the implications of this ending to fade into the background.  David’s attention is primarily on Merrick and Lestat which doesn’t give the reader much of a chance to consider Louis and how he feels about his “rescue” by the author of his suffering.

From this point on until Blood Canticle, Lestat occasionally took up the mantle of a morally ambiguous protagonist or at least a key plot-mover but his presence in the overall series became questionable for the first time.  My feelings about his presence and function within Merrick are deeply mixed but I believe it essentially works.  I don’t think Lestat’s intervention at the end of that book breaks any continuity or takes risks with suspension of disbelief, but it does tilt the story in a way I didn’t care for.  I believe his involvement in that novel works in the end, even if it creates an ending I don’t like.  Blackwood Farm is another situation altogether, though.  Blood Canticle brings us back to Lestat’s first-person narration in a lovely way but it also hinges on how Blackwood Farm brought him back to that foreground, and that for me is too bad.

Blackwood Farm begins with our protagonist seeking out Lestat for assistance regarding a problem at the center of the novel’s plot.  The function Lestat serves within the plot is to put the main characters in touch with Merrick Mayfair from the prior story, who is a medium capable of summoning and exercising ghosts.  This is with a story that has the Mayfair family involved way before there is any surface level reason for Lestat to be anywhere near the main events, and we already know from the Lives of The Mayfair Witches novels that the Mayfairs are on comfortable terms with the supernatural.  Many vampires renounce their association with their mortal contacts after being transformed, but Merrick Mayfair probably would not.  There is no organic reason for the plot to require Lestat to bring her into fray, especially since this is only the second time the Mayfairs have had direct contact with vampires (first time with Merrick, second time with Mona Mayfair falling in love with Tarquin Blackwood).  Merrick herself would be sensitive to that.

Now, regarding the following book, Blood Canticle, there is nothing within it’s own pages that takes any unnecessary risks and the return of Lestat’s first-person narration is very welcome.  The problem, though, is that his central place in Blood Canticle hinges entirely on his involvement in Blackwood Farm.  

Needless to say, these are conclusions regarding the apparent nature of the final result and do not involve Rice’s own feelings and intentions.  I have read a lot about Anne Rice’s own thoughts regarding the internal process of her work.  She has very personal reasons for being attached to Lestat and has had a dynamic relationship with this character over the years, but I do not believe it is necessary to keep Lestat at the forefront of the Chronicles.  This is especially true since we have seen so many other character threads fade into the background.  Armand, Marius, Louis, Pandora and others have occupied the foreground of certain books never to be a protagonist again afterward.  We have seen characters do their part and then retire to the background.  I don’t believe the Chronicles would suffer if the same happened to Lestat.

While I do not think he is any more necessary than any other character, though, I see no problem with Anne Rice insisting that he is necessary by continuing to use him as a main character.  Keeping Lestat in his morally ambiguous niche would be a way to play this safe.  So while I haven’t really appreciated Lestat’s function in the later Vampire Chronicles, I do think Rice has chosen to take a very intriguing risk with him in the Prince Lestat stories, and Rice’s refusal to play things safe is one of the things I love most about her.

Not only do the Prince Lestat books see Lestat situated as a hero, we also see a very stark attempt at reversing part of the basic philosophical nature of The Vampire Chronicles.  Until this point, Rice’s vampire novels have had a fundamental relationship with alienation and otherness.  My favorite Anne Rice novel, The Vampire Armand, struck a very personal chord with me as a queer, dysphoric teenager, especially since there were places in the novel where Armand seemed to have something of a fluid gender identity and sexuality.

Many of Anne Rice’s characters show this kind of fluidity but The Vampire Armand was the first time I connected with one of her stories on that particular level.  Perhaps this part of my reading would have happened differently if I was born later, but one reason why I identified so much with Armand is that many of my own confused feelings about my own identity made me feel fundamentally insane, as if there was this world of health and function that I was shut out of.  Armand, for me, was a way of connecting with the possibility that there was something outside of what was conventionally sane or desirable.  Many friends of mine who are also queer discovered a similar resonance with Anne Rice.

Another form of alienation that is front and center in The Vampire Chronicles has to do with finding meaning in a world where your interaction with others is always slanted toward either withdrawal or destruction.  Not only are her characters often banished from human society at large but interactions with other vampires can easily slide into very hostile territory.  In this way the Chronicles often involve a search for values and a meaningful place in the world with protagonists who have the odds stacked against them in this way.  Even before I read Armand’s novel, The Vampire Lestat had a special place in my heart for this reason.  The power behind the meeting between Lestat and Marius in that book, and later the confrontation between Akasha and the rest of the vampires, has to do with a clash between nihilism and philosophical optimism.

The odds, though, are always against you.  Another reason why The Vampire Armand is my favorite in the series is the confrontation between Armand and Marius at the very end, when Marius loses his faith in humanity and transforms two humans because 1) they want to be vampires and 2) humanity just isn’t worth being invested in.  I do not think the Chronicles in general are misanthropic but that particular character shifting closer to misanthropy is a powerful and important event in the story.

This moral struggle is another thing that Rice attempts to reverse in the newer stories.  I have not yet read Blood Communion: A Story of Prince Lestat but my copy is in the mail (yes I’m that much of a fan girl, I need hard copies and this one is signed 😛 ) and maybe I’ll change this assessment.  Maybe the struggle is simply changed, but as of Prince Lestat and The Realms of Atlantis, it seriously looks like it’s being reversed.

In the decisive volume, Prince Lestat, the alienation of the vampires is challenged.  This possibility is suggested early in an innovative way that I thoroughly enjoyed.  Ever since Interview With The Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, we’ve been aware that within the fictional universe all of these books have fictional authors and they disagree starkly.  Lestat rants about how unfair Louis’s portrayal of him was and I was also tickled by an argument by Lestat and Louis in Tale of The Body Thief.  Louis is insisting to Lestat that his apparent chance to be human again has got to be a dangerous trap of some kind.  Lestat says “if you don’t stop I’ll weep”.  Louis says “go ahead, I’d love to see you weeping” and Lestat replies “you described my weeping very well in your memoir in a scene which we both know did not take place” (forgive me, I’m paraphrasing).

In Prince Lestat we see spaces between Lestat’s volumes that include significant omissions.  Lestat had chosen not to describe the existence of vampire scientists who were studying vampire physiology and biology since, if vampires in general knew about it, they may have been singled out as a risk to exposure to humans, especially since they recruit prominent scientists who are humans and then later transform them.  We also learn that Lestat has a human family, of sorts: a victim of random circumstances whom he had “adopted” in a sense (Rose) and a genetic human son created without his knowledge by the vampire scientists.

We also see a character named Antoine for the first time since Interview With The Vampire.  Now for most of the duration of the Chronicles the brief mention of Antoine and his subsequent disappearance could easily be chalked up to an oversight on the part of Rice.  Maybe once she got going with The Vampire Chronicles she simply couldn’t find a way to include that character in a meaningful way and eventually the Chronicles started taking off without him.  That’s not the worst thing in the world: oversights happen, after all.  But including Antoine in a story that pointedly draws attention to Lestat’s unreliability as a fictional writer just makes it work.

What this means for the new series is that the framing of the entire previous narrative is being called into question, or at least is no longer canonical and definitive.  I’ve read parts of Blood Communion online already and we have Lestat stating that he did, in fact, author the books Prince Lestat and Prince Lestat and The Realms of Atlantis.  That new wrinkle could go well or it could go badly, but until that point I was rather enjoying the possibility that the new stories were not going to use the device of the fictional author, especially since Prince Lestat calls the authority of Lestat’s authorship into question so much.

Bottom line: what was considered true and immutable in the Chronicles until that point is now no longer true.  And the change in how the fictional author is treated is a fun and interesting way of understating this.

One truism that we may be letting go of is how vampires do not seem to thrive in a communal setting.  In Rice’s prior stories vampire groups succeed best as small families.  Larger vampire communities, like the Children Of Satan, The Theater of The Vampires, the household of Eudoxia, the Court of The Ruby Grail and the priesthood of Akasha, exist only through the power of an autocrat.  Until now, it seems large groups of vampires need a single strong, dominant vampire cracking the whip all the time.  Now, we’re seeing the emergence of a fairly benign and consensual vampire government.  We also see characters like Gregory, who owns a large and influential pharmaceutical company, that are beginning to interact with humanity in the most direct way since Lestat’s rock career in the early eighties.  Even though the clinic and laboratories of the vampire scientists are run by their own kind, they choose candidates for transformation from among the human scientific community.

One of the most radical expressions of these dissolved boundaries fails to carry enough weight in the first volume, though, and that is Rose and Viktor.

One common plot device in the Chronicles is situating a story around becoming a vampire.  It was front and center in the first two books and has been used as one of the central plot details in several others.  We have seen a ton of Anne Rice stories about what it is like to become a vampire.  While reading Prince Lestat, it seems that Rose and Viktor are going to serve as a distinguishing new expression of this.  Something about their transformation into vampires is going to be different from all the others and is going to be in line with the other fundamental reversals at work.

It just now occurred to me that it may be possible to interpret this part of that book as a success, but it would have to hinge on the perspective of every other character except Rose and Viktor.

This may seem like a fine point, but everything about Prince Lestat begs you to think that this is a turning point in the Chronicles so fine points and the contrast with older precedents matter.  This is by far the least personal transformation we see.  While Merrick Mayfair was transformed “off camera”, we still see her immediately afterward and we learn what she thinks and feels as a vampire.  The transformation of Benji and Sybelle in The Vampire Armand constitutes a huge part of the ending’s momentum.  Not only do Rose and Viktor become Vampires “off camera”, we don’t even get the chance to spend any substantial time with them afterward.

Another complication with this is the traditional role of the Maker in Anne Rice’s stories (Maker: a vampire who makes another vampire).  In Interview With The Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, the main character is either transformed with not enough information (Louis) or against his will (Lestat).  Lestat’s egomania and toxic sense of possession of others also expresses itself in this way, not only with Louis but with Claudia and with those whom he wants to sweep in and “rescue” (Nicolas, his mother, Mona) and another instance that happens in a way that is non-consensual and violent to the point that it resembles rape (David).  Marius, in a way, takes sexual advantage of Armand as a young boy.  Vampire sexuality does not work the same way as human sexuality, but they do have a kind of sexual intimacy that has long-reaching and destructive consequences for Armand’s human life and essentially ends it.  Armand decides he doesn’t want anyone except Marius and, during a stretch of promiscuity, attracts the attention of a homicidally jealous man.  In the end, Marius needs to transform him into a vampire to stop him from dying, which itself can be construed as a consequence of a violated boundary in Armand’s childhood.

Not all vampire transformations in these stories are brutal or unwanted and not all of them have dark, sexualized undertones, but a lot of them do.  The role of consent versus non-consent and the ways in which a Maker takes charge of a fledgling’s early existence are high-lighted often. This inevitably involves the feelings of agency or non-agency in the newborn vampire. So, in Prince Lestat, in which so many fundamental things are being redefined and turned around, what are we to think of the transformation of Rose and Viktor?  Rose has been rescued from traumatic disaster multiple times by Lestat which already prompts her to think of him as a kind of super hero who can always protect her.  Never does she have full control over her life with no shadow of outside influence and then there’s the plot points that require her to be sequestered away with Viktor and eventually transformed.  Oh yeah, and Viktor has lived his entire life under the rigid surveillance and protection of the vampire scientists and has had even less of a shot at an independent life than Rose.

Now, with moments in stories that are meant to break with prior convention, there is an expectation that those moments have some sort of meaningful contrast with the older conventions.  One cannot escape comparing them.  With this in mind, I don’t see how it’s possible to read Rose and Viktor’s story in a way that’s not dismal.

Luckily, though, this so far is the only really bad thing I have to say about the Prince Lestat novels.  Hopefully nothing in Blood Communion will exacerbate this.  There are other details that one could construe as weaknesses, but only if one insists on reading Prince Lestat outside of the context of the prior works.  Every chapter involving a vampire from before that book requires the context of the larger series to fully appreciate it.  I can understand that some may take issue with this.  Since I am comfortable reading Prince Lestat in the context of all the other stories, though, I do not take issue with it.

I have to disagree with the general fan reaction in that I think Prince Lestat and The Realms of Atlantis was amazing.  The only complaint I can think of is that it would have benefited from spending time with Amel after his corporeal destruction and maybe a little bit of his initial contact with Mekare and Mararet.  I also really appreciated getting to know Amel fully as a fleshed out character beyond his oblique little communiques in Prince Lestat.  The manner in which the sacred core is placed into it’s own body also puts all of the onus of being the Prince on Lestat, since he no longer wields the unassailable protection of having the core in his body.  I also can’t help but wonder if the denizens of Bravenna will show up in any future stories.

Anne Rice has stated that many of her favorite writers are “messy” and that she thinks about her new vampire novels as “messy” stories.  I agree with both her choice of the word “messy” and the positive connotations she gives to “messiness”.  The new Prince Lestat stories have an unbridled feeling of possibility but it’s hard to determine their essential success or lack thereof this early in the new series.  At the very least, she has a deft grasp on the nature of the reversal that she is attempting, she is fully aware of how huge it is and so far I am enjoying seeing the adventure unfold.

How fashy is Batman?

Eventually when I branch out more with the books and movies I discuss on this blog I’m going to date myself even more than I have with my commentary on video games.  One way in which my perspective is hugely dated, as someone born in 1988, are my thoughts and feelings about comics.

In mid-childhood I read a few comics derived from Jurassic Park, Sonic The Hedgehog and occasionally Batman.  I believe my first run-in with Bruce Wayne with panels and word balloons had to do with my grandparents from the lower forty-eight (what we Alaskans call the rest of the States) who had sent me a package of presents.  I don’t think they had any way of considering what my tastes at the time were- they appeared to have sent me things that my dad (their son) would have liked at my age.  This included several comics that, to my six-year-old mind, looked blandly unattractive.  The only character I recognized was Batman, as I had seen Spielberg’s Animated Series and my uncle had taken me to see the Joel Schumacher films which were new at that time.  I read a brief story about the Bat and a female accomplice fighting some technologically animate zombies and that was that.

When I actually began reading comics in earnest as a teenager, ordinary super heroes were nowhere on my radar.  A close friend of mine had turned me on to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and a brief look at Watchmen at another friends’ home put Alan Moore on my list of authors to check out.  For the most part, though, The Sandman was the first comic that I was truly grabbed by and even now, at age thirty, it remains my favorite comic period. I also briefly followed mangas like Angel Sanctuary and Dragon Ball Z (although I saw the DBZ anime first on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block).  Every now and then my dad would share Heavy Metal comics with me.

I briefly encountered the world of Gotham again in Gaiman’s Black Orchid story and inevitably I found Moore’s The Killing Joke.  Rather predictably, the Christopher Nolan movies were the first time I actually dwelt on those characters and their mythos in a very long time.  In recent history I’ve also gotten hooked on Fox’s Gotham (I actually enjoy watching Robin Lord Taylor as Penguin more than I enjoyed Heath Ledger as The Joker).

Lately, though, I was away from my hometown for job training and had the chance to explore in what, for me, was a large comic book store.  I knew vaguely that I was interested in reading something that involved Jason Todd as Red Hood.  Eventually, I settled on the New 52 story The Joker: Death Of The Family.

Fairly early in the story we find drug-addled Gothamites attracted to a cult of personality revolving around The Joker.  This seems like it was sparked somewhat by a recent public demonstration.  In Batman’s narration, he makes it clear that legally protecting the rally under the freedom to assemble was a terrible idea.  Later in the story we learn that a sort of “Joker gas” is causing much of this chaos but there are other nuances.  After we see a few people getting drugged there are some subplots that involve gangs of Joker copy-cats who seem to be systematically plotting kidnappings and bombings which the drugged victims seemed too frenzied to slow down for.  An otherwise lucid and calm psychiatrist in Arkham is drawing Joker-influenced doodles on a piece of paper in a way that tempts the reader to think he is part of the movement of Joker emulation.  Evidently, this isn’t all because of the Joker gas and many ordinary citizens are truly smitten with The Joker.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with the same friend that pointed me in the direction of The Sandman when I was younger, regarding the film The Dark Knight Rises.  My friend said that the movie portrays ordinary people as too fickle and unstable to govern themselves and require a stern, authoritative personality to keep them in place.  I don’t know if she mentioned the way in which Nolan modeled the rioters and followers of Bane after the Occupy movement, but I do remember that being brought up in more than one review.  I said that Selena Kyle was a kind of audience insert- that in the context of The Dark Knight Rises Selena represents the everyperson, and why an ordinary woman or man would be disappointed with the status quo and wish for revolution.  My friend insisted that Selena was nowhere near present enough for that narrative layer to be apparent to the audience.  I hesitantly took her point; Selena’s presence was diminished somewhat near the middle and the end of the film.

Now I understand that, unless you have some sort of academic credential, talking about things like archetypes can seem murky and abstract to the point of being meaningless.  In this case, though, I think there’s something to be said for a pattern expressed in more than one way through several different creative minds.  In both the Christopher Nolan films and Death Of The Family, ordinary people are totally mindless know-nothings who can’t survive without a firm hand from authority.  I don’t think I would be going too far to say that the zeitgeist in which the first Batman story was published, America at the beginning of World War II, cast a shadow over the concept.  There was even an issue of Superman in which the Man of Steel went to Germany to lay some hurt down on Hitler.  It would probably be more surprising if the classic DC stories and characters exhibited no pre-occupations with fascism.  Even then, though, there are still more consistent indications of fascism within Batman.  When Frank Miller wrote Holy Terror in the wake of 9-11, a comic about a super hero taking down Al-Qaeda, he originally wanted it to be a Batman story (the original title was Holy Terror, Batman!).

What also complicates this are differences between archetypal, subconscious influences, and open and frank discussion.  In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, for example, we see mob violence happening for a variety of reasons.  There are protesters who feel like super heroes have compromised everyone’s safety by making the police go on strike and emboldening criminals.  There are people called Knot-Tops who may at times express specific ideological motivations or might just erupt in a spontaneous bloody frenzy.  Rorschach submits his diary for publication to a radically conservative ‘zine and Ozymandias markets toys and perfume based on himself and other superheroes.  Both the people who inspire the masses and the masses themselves are shown to have a diverse array of motivations which are all shown in sympathetic and unsympathetic ways.  It makes sense to say that Watchmen discusses power fantasies in those who feel powerless.  When consistent attitudes express themselves through innumerable different writers over several decades, though, there is probably something  going on other than simple authorial intent.

The possibility that Batman channels a subconscious attraction to fascism is not the same as saying that the story and anyone associated with it are fascists, though.  If anything, discussing things like this can make the expressions of subconscious fascination more fruitful.  I always thought that an essential function of villains like Ra’s Al Ghul, Azrael, Red Hood and The Phantasm is highlighting a fundamental insecurity in Batman as a fictional person: is he a force for good or is he a moralizing thug?  The presence of actual moralizing thugs like Red Hood and Azrael makes questions like this inevitable and makes characters who experience conflict over them more compelling.

Me and American Patriotism

As a Native American, I’ve found it hard to have a straightforward way of identifying as an American.

Before I get into a bunch of personal stuff let me clarify what I do not mean.

Clearly, I have no doubt of my legal nationality.  That might sound too basic to bare mentioning but we’re all familiar with how idea exchange on the internet works and sometimes basic stuff needs to be clarified.

I am also not claiming to speak for anyone’s experience but my own.  My use of the personal pronoun I in that first sentence looks a little clunky to my eyes but I did it anyway.  I’ve held onto a few basic assumptions about writing and grammar from college English classes and one of those is that, since your writing is authored by you, there is no need to attribute your own conclusions and chains of reasoning to yourself.  Nonetheless, I’m leaving that sentence as “I’ve found it hard” instead of “it is hard” in order to emphasize that I’m only speaking for myself.

(I’ve never broken anything like that down before now, and I’ve definitely been way less careful when talking about books and video games, but I suspect this is a topic where the reasoning behind word choice might be looked at closely)

A third thing that I am not claiming actually segues into the rest of what I wanted to write about: I am not anti-American, although throughout my life I’ve found it hard to be well disposed to America emotionally and morally.

So, getting back to me-

Early in life, like many Native Americans, I learned that the nation my family has historically belonged to had it’s autonomy wiped away for no better reason than that white people wanted their land.  Said white people were also guided by a moral force that made land piracy innocent so long as it happened to non-Christians.

If I wanted, I could take this into a bigger argument about the annexation of Native America in general, but as this is a blog entry about my personal feelings I’ll confine my scope to my own heritage and my own thoughts.  I’m a Tsimshian, and Tsimshians are indigenous to modern day British Columbia.  When rampant disease broke out upon initial contact with white people, a Scottish missionary named William Duncan led a handful of Tsimshians farther north where they would settle Annette Island which is now the reservation called New Metlakatla.

It is documented that William Duncan wanted to abolish the rank of chief, largely because Tsimshian chiefs were believed to be the descendants of divine supernatural beings.  The chiefs were considered representatives of the spiritual world which made them religious authorities.  In his letters, Duncan wrote that he intended to replace the authority of the chief with the Anglican Church.

Now, William Duncan is justly celebrated in the Southeast Alaskan Tsimshian community as someone with genuine good intentions and a worthy legacy.  He wanted New Metlakatla to be an economically and socially self-sufficient community and today he is remembered as one of its essential founders.

But it all came at the price of forfeiting our historical spirituality and replacing it with Christianity.  And the movement north from British Columbia to Southeast Alaska happened in reaction to rampant disease and economic displacement, which makes the moral framing of Duncan as a great founder really questionable.  If someone offers to save you from death and disaster if you do whatever they say, is that person really a hero?

This is a minority opinion among the Natives I grew up around and I’m well aware of it.  Once, as a teenager, I attended an anti-suicide event with a handful of other kids from my hometown with family ties to Metlakatla, along with a few community leaders.  One of those adults accompanying us mentioned once that conversion to Christianity was the one undeniably good thing to happen from white contact.  Many rural Native communities in Alaska are strongly Christian as are many rural communities across America.  One night, during a summer-camp trip organized by the local Native corporation that I was a part of, a few adults and a few kids decided to assemble a traditional sweat lodge.  Many of those participating helped build this and participated in a sweat, while many others refused on the grounds that it was “witchcraft”.

While many in the Native community I grew up in are heavily invested in our traditions, language and culture, Christianity is given priority whenever it clashes with those traditions.  The moral sanction that Christianity gave to the American conquest of Native Americans was the main reason why American patriotism was emotionally and morally repugnant for most of my life, to say nothing of the emotional and moral repugnance of Christianity itself.

While, as a thirty year old adult, I am not anti-American, this is not because I think any of these things turned out to be good in the end.  Nothing can ever exonerate or justify the erasure of Native American culture and spirituality and nothing can diminish the role the Christian Church played in it.

In spite of that, my distance from  being anti-American even extends to being pro-American.  This is because, in many substantial ways, America has set important moral and historical standards.  The moral elevation of freedom of expression, religious and intellectual pursuit and democracy are all essential steps forward for both the West and the rest of the world.  I absolutely believe that the existence of a global standard-bearer for democracy and the steps the Enlightenment helped us take away from monarchical autocracy and religious tyranny is necessary on the world stage.

Make no mistake, like any other huge developed nation, I think America harbors an inevitable degree of confusion and animosity.  While there is always a rational-to-irrational spectrum within public opinion, I feel like many sides of many common conversations agree on the right things.

For example, the importance of individual autonomy.  In spite of what many Libertarians claim, they are not a besieged minority.  Most people in America think the individual is a basic cornerstone of our values and any politician who wants to get elected will need to say so.  You could be a corporate Democrat with everything that makes them repugnant, the kind of person that Republicans think of whenever anyone brings up big government or political correctness run-amok and Progressives think of as a Hilary Clinton-style bad guy who gets cuddly with Super PACs and is totally okay going to war with whistle-blowers like Edward Snowdin and Chelsea Manning…and you would still have to at least pay lip-service to the individual.  Sorry for the ugly run on sentence, lol

To illustrate this a bit more: my values as a libertarian made me a feminist.  For me, feminism has been a logical expansion of the values had back when I identified more strongly as a libertarian.  As far as defending ones right to control their own bodies and govern their lives as freely as possible while not disenfranchising anyone else, feminism has done way more heavy lifting.

I’m not gonna waste my time defending second-wave feminist insanity any more than a self-proclaimed Libertarian will defend Timothy McVeigh.  I don’t think any transsexual (such as myself) or anyone who is a sex worker or thinks that sex workers are human could ever get behind second-wave feminism.  Those who espoused second-wave feminism were also disturbingly willing to ignore the autonomy of large groups of women and queers, this would happen along the lines of “you’re too saturated with internalized misogyny to be reasoned with”, with transsexual women being especially likely to end up on the receiving end.

With the freak-bin safely out of the way, I feel like the link between feminism and libertarianism is pretty hard to avoid, at least in terms of moral reasoning.  No one is wed so much to the sanctity of the individual and self-determination as feminists and libertarians.

(if I seem inconsistent about capitalizing things like proper nouns, it’s because I know there is a difference between those who identify as Libertarian with a capital ‘L’,  as a proper political party, like Republican or Democrat, and those who use words like ‘libertarianism’ and ‘feminism’ as generalized categories like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’)

What I’m saying is that, a lot of the time, we agree on many of the essential and necessary things even if we disagree on a million other things.  Lately, I’ve become less convinced of this.

While I feel like many people are aware that the press has been profit-driven and manipulative in the past, it has never really bothered me as much as it does now.  While presidential elections in America have often been a personality competition, I don’t feel like I’ve observed anything like the 2016 election in my lifetime.

Before 2016 I feel like there was this threshold for cynicism, within which was permissible irreverence and a somewhat hopeful spectrum of possibilities for an elected official.  Before 2016, if your choice for president made it to office, you might be resigned to the fact that they will play ball with the big money on the other side but still confident that some of things you voted them in for might reasonably happen.  Now, I’m not altogether sure if that threshold still exists.

At least a little bit of my doubt began when Donald Trump began his relationship with Alex Jones.  A presidential candidate had chosen to validate someone who thinks all mass shootings were false-flag operations carried out by NWO puppet masters to trick America into surrendering its guns.  Trump validated a group of people who don’t think mass shootings even exist.  So far from introducing a specific side in the debate on gun violence, the American mainstream was now embracing people who are willing to dispute whether one even exists.  Perhaps involving disagreement over the nature of reality itself was meant to provide room for a positive view of how an unobtainably expensive border wall will impact our economy.

My doubt grew a little more when anti-SJW internet trolls unanimously fell in line behind Trump.  These are people who felt like a hypothetical anecdote from Anita Sarkeesian was the same as an attack on all male gamers and the panic surrounding non-binary individuals.  I think, inevitably, the hysteria over genderqueer people within alienated nerd subcultures has some link with the stigma of furries and otherkin.  A ton of Anonymous and 4chan groupies had already built something of a subculture over ripping on otherkin and furries and the second someone got confused over the concept of “non-binary” it became an intuitive lightening rod for these people.

I mentioned in my very first entry in this blog that I have, for a few years, anyway, followed Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast and considered him the last remaining good guy among pop-atheists (I might include Ayaan Hirsi Ali in that as well but she’s not very invested in theism versus atheism).  And even Sam Harris mentioned “nude pronouns” as one of the things that alienated people from the left and contributed to the election of Trump, as if it was a clearly insane priority that the left should have known better than to get involved with.

The reason I’m mentioning trolls is that Trump validated a whole movement of people with a ton of anger and no inclination to map that anger onto anything that exists in the real world.  Within internet troll culture, ripping on feminism in gaming and gender non-conforming people didn’t beg any further explanation because, within its own culture, it was understood to be supported entirely by malicious humor.  After internet trolls were embraced by the alt-right, though, they were empowered  by the realization that they were taken seriously without an explanation.  Feminism and queers were accepted as illegitimate and threatening on their face and that position could not get called out in public without drawing censure and ridicule.

The generalized dismissal of feminism and queer equality also had a smooth consistency with many men in Trump’s fan base who showed up to rallies wearing t-shirts saying ‘grab America by the p****y’.  The whole ‘p***y grabbing’ buzz phrase evolved from a sexual abuse allegation.  Not infidelity, not being a closeted gay or bisexual, not for being a closeted kinkster or any number of morally innocuous (in my opinion) things that politicians have been discredited for in the past.  The allegations were about sexual assault. Soo…within mainstream right wing culture, the people who claim to support individual autonomy no matter what, up to the point that they think you should be able to shoot trespassers on your property…these people, so many of whom being self-proclaimed Libertarians, have ceased to consider sexual assault discrediting.

Remember when I said that we are generally aware that the press has a history of being self-interested and manipulative?  Strictly speaking, I think shifting popular conversations away from policy and facts toward generalized attitudes is nothing new.

But maybe, now that I’m thirty, it’s really sinking in for the first time.  Or maybe this time it really is different.  Presidential addresses have definitely been very suspect in the past for similar reasons.  How many former presidents, though, have called the American press the “enemy of the people” and mentioned political fads in popular sports (at least) twice?  The Independent recently published an article about spent casings from artillery used by ISIS has been tracked to nations and groups that America supplies with weapons.  And yes, the casings and the weapons the ammunition goes to are of American make.  The rebel groups and nations that we are supporting in the Middle East are openly playing ball with ISIS and Trump is making stupid little pot shots at sport stars who support BLM.

All that can be simplified as: the American president is now openly attacking the press while at the same time using it to establish links between pop-culture and the attitudes of his base.  What sort of political leaders attack the press outlets that aren’t being bent to their will?  While also hijacking attention away from things our government is doing that has real consequences?  Where in history or contemporary geography have we seen things like governments that go to war with the press while using it for misdirection and propaganda?

Again, manipulating the masses through buzz-words and oversimplifications is nothing new.  But I can’t help but think that America has never had a president that is as openly cynical about it.  And sure enough, whenever some stupid new outrage catches the ire of CNN some talking head is going say that this isn’t going to happen a second time, that this isn’t the new normal.  They’ve did it more than once, every time CNN or some other big name news outlet compiles a list of lies spoken by Trump they’ll also add some comment about how this is just a contemporary anomaly and that Trump definitely is not setting a new standard.  I find it very hard to believe these optimistic claims…but if they’re as wrong as I think they are, then what does that suggest about our future?  Have we actually passed the threshold from political cynicism to political nihilism?  Have our disagreements over the nature of reality passed beyond the attacks the religious right makes on science into something even more ubiquitous and destructive?

AAaaaaaaaaand now we’re full circle regarding my own personal feelings regarding patriotism and my beliefs about America’s role in the world and what being an American is even like.  I mean, I’m not gonna say right now that America has abandoned its moral and cultural vitality, but I’m definitely closer than I’ve been to thinking that than I’ve been in a very long time.

My recent PS4 experiences and Final Fantasy XV

A little boring, I know, but I’m trying to hold myself to some kind of regularity standard 😉


Soo I’m actually closing in on my third playthrough of FFXV (not for any good reason- I botched my chance for the regalia type-F so I gotta get to the post-game section all over again) and I’m not sure how much my opinion of it has changed since I originally began playing it.

Fundamentally, the game is pretty much a desert feast.  For me, games like Bloodborne and Salt And Sanctuary are like well-rounded meals compared to most modern video games.  Bloodborne is a meal; Final Fantasy XV is a four-hour stretch of ice cream, fast food and cheetos.  My retro sensitivity also keeps me in touch with older FF titles (IX, VI, VII and IV), Shin Megamei TenseiChrono Trigger and the odd platformer and horror-survival game here and there, but right now we’re talking about new stuff.

I’d also like to add that I’m not sure whether or not I qualify as a Soulsborne fan.  I really love Bloodborne and Salt And Sanctuary, so clearly I like some fundamental aspects of the formula.  However, I only recently started playing the PS4 remaster of the original Dark Souls and it just seems…underdeveloped?  Some of that is to be expected, since the first game to break some new ground can hardly anticipate the more mature off-shoots of its influence, but I also kinda think Bloodborne ruined me.  So I think I have a foot in the Soulsborne door but I don’t think I’m “there” yet.

What I meant about a meal versus desert-marathon is that Bloodborne (if I may be a little repetitive in my examples) takes advantage of multiple different dimensions with both gameplay and narrative.  A huge manifestation of this is the use of multi-player within Bloodborne versus the recent expressed priorities of the big bugs at SquareEnix.  When one first plays Bloodborne without any prior experience of Soulsborne or its derivatives it almost seems unplayable.  If one putzes around enough to get into the cleric beast boss fight and score your first Insight point, there is a clear implication that you really should take advantage of co-op.

I’ve came across a few gamer size-kings on YouTube who felt emasculated by this, but I think it’s the beginning of one of the game’s essential sweet spots.  The circumstantial emphasis on multiplayer (which gets VERY difficult to avoid in the last of the Chalice Dungeons and parts of the Old Hunters DLC) also adds something cool to the narrative experience.  Bloodborne has little to no plot explication.  The vast majority of information available to the player as to what they’re doing and why is visually and circumstantially suggested by the environments and creatures.  You do get some interesting interactions with NPCs but their understanding of what is going on, rather like your own, is only superficial and relative.  Beyond this, the rest of our information about the setting and the plot comes from item descriptions and loading screens.

One consequence of this kind of story-telling is to make the player feel alienated from any single in-game source of information and therefore compelled to reach their own conclusions.  When this is combined with the multi-player experience, though, it’s hard to avoid discussions with your fellow co-operators about the world and lore of Bloodborne.  Not only are you sorely tempted to team-up with other players by the occasional overwhelming boss fight or punishing section of level design, but the multi-player experience also adds to the unfolding of the narrative through discussion and mutual discovery.

Compare this to what SquareEnix has shared with the press regarding its future business models: they plan on shifting most of their emphasis to MMO’s and mobile apps.  Essentially, they plan on letting go of the single-player experience as a primary concern.

If me opening this entry with a stated comparison between Bloodborne and Final Fantasy XV seemed a little odd, just look at how FromSoftware and SquareEnix look at multi-player: one of them seamlessly integrates a HUGE multi-player component into the linear narrative more common in single player games, and the other uses narrative as a threadbare gimmick to hold the game together.

Like I said, a meal versus a desert feast.  In Final Fantasy XV you are encouraged to do every little side quest between point A and point B regardless of how it effects the story’s sense of pacing.  This can be cute at times, like when Giadiolus wants to delay the journey to Altissa in order to look for the perfect ingredients for a cup of ramen.  At other times it’s just kind of jarring.  When the party stops at the elevator near the only Lucii royal tomb on the Niflheim continent you could, if you wanted, take a break to help a train passenger find her lost chocobo chicks and a journalist find pictures.  This is happening at the same time when the party is experiencing its first internal crises.  There has been a recent character death, one of them is permanently disabled and two of them are fighting like cats in heat.  Noctis being compelled to do little random chores at the same time goes beyond distracting into bizarre.  The game is designed to give you several chances to do stuff like this, which can only mean that the developers meant for the player to treat the central plot as secondary.

While I think these kinds of side quests are presented very awkwardly and constitute something of a weakness, they are very fun at times.  Particularly the things you have to go off the beaten path to find, like Costlemark Tower and a few of the more challenging hunting side quests.

I’m not trying to state the obvious by insisting that this game is awkwardly developed but even with the recent DLC, multiple updates and the Royal Edition expansion, there are still a few glaringly important angles that somehow escaped everyone’s notice even back when FFXV was just released.

One of the major plot-points in the movie Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is that Lucis was defending several smaller states from being annexed by Niflheim and once the peace treaty (to be ratified with the marriage of Noctis and Luna) is set into motion, Lucis has agreed to stop defending these states.  Not only was Lucis protecting them from being conquered, but they also exacted levies from them in the form of military personnel.  Most of the warriors of the Kingsglaive are not indigenous to Lucis; when the treaty is signed, they feel as if their homelands were forfeited in a negotiation between more powerful nations.  This consequence of the peace treaty seems like it should have had way more impact on the plot of the video game; at the very least you should encounter a mention of it here and there.  Noctis should have at least some reaction to it, since the marriage alliance between Lucis and Niflheim involves him and Luna personally.

While we’re talking about differences between the various pictures of the FFXV universe, I wanna mention what I consider the coolest of the recent content updates (version 1.16) which really tied a huge part of the story together and makes a connection between the plot of the game and the distant lore.  And even involves Ardyn and Luna’s character arcs.

In the distant, mythic past, Ifrit was the only one of the six deities to directly interact with humanity.  He helped them create the super-advanced civilization of Solheim and encouraged their every ambition.  Ifrit’s enthusiasm for humanity eventually did its part in romantically winning over Shiva, who had previously looked down on humans.  Ifrit eventually began to feel spurned by Solheim, though, since its people began to shift their loyalties to themselves and the rest of humanity and away from the god Ifrit.

When Ifrit has a meltdown over this, Shiva is instrumental in defending humanity from his wrath. The rebellion and the fall of Ifrit subsequently gave rise to the Starscourge.  This links us directly with Ardyn, the first oracle, who initially acted as a big’ol sponge soaking up the Starscourge infection.  Ardyn was made immortal in order to contain the Starscourge indefinitely, but subsequently felt shunned by the world he was supposed to protect, as he was basically turned into a walking quarantine zone.  While Ardyn is not on-screen participating directly enough in the plot for us to connect with him much, I felt like this helped make him more interesting.

About Ardyn, though…this leads us to one of the really, really bad decisions at work in this game: the repeated internal comparisons to Final Fantasy VI.  I have no clue how the developers thought FFXV would ever benefit from that comparison.  I mean…the 16-bit buddies regalia decal, the use of the word ‘magitek’, the use of the phrase ‘world of ruin’ and Noctis saying to Ardyn “Get off my chair, jester”…for some reason, they thought it would be a great idea to beg people to compare this game to FFVI.

Also…”Get off my chair, jester”?  Seriously?  Are we seriously supposed to think Ardyn is somehow analogous to Kefka?  Has anyone who has played both FFVI and FFXV ever thought that Ardyn compared well to Kefka?

Like…like…that was a 16-bit game from the early nineties that did open world way better than FFXV.  I mean, the whole second half of FFVI is totally up to the player.  During the original ‘world of ruin’, you are guided up to the point of recovering the airship.  From that point, you could do anything or nothing.  You could go straight to Kefka’s final boss fight if you wanted or you could track down the rest of the party.  You could even go way out of your way for some delightfully random optional characters like Gogo and Umaru and Mog and some truly awesome optional dungeons (some of which are harder than Kefka in Vector).  As wonky as some of this stuff is, none of it is positioned in a way to take any momentum away from the pacing of the central narrative. All those bells and whistles were in the original game in the early nineties.  Zero need for later additions in reaction to demands from the fanbase.  But somehow the developers thought the most recent Final Fantasy game would look good if they invited people to compare it to FFVI.

Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider’ (TONS of spoilers ahead)

Ok…first post in awhile, I’ll try to be more regular about this.

Just lately I mowed through Stephen King’s most recent novel, The Outsider, and while it was quite the page-turner for the most part I would still say it’s essentially mixed.  The overall thematic development is consistent and compelling throughout but sort of chokes on itself.  With the pointed Dracula nods at the end, I can’t help but be reminded of Bram Stoker’s own botched ending.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.  Fairly early on Stephen King establishes clear parallels with an Edgar Allen Poe story called William Wilson.  The wife of the main character even brings the story up with him, and in the same exchange we hear an Arthur Conan Doyle quote, which can be reasonably paraphrased as ‘when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains must be true, however improbable’.  Ralph Anderson, our main character, when discussing the Poe story remarks on the “damn good psychology” for “the nineteenth century”.  Here he’s referring to the story’s ending when William Wilson commits suicide, after being psychologically destabilized and overwhelmed by the lifelong presence of a doppelganger.  Anderson’s wife says that, when you look past the psychology, you’re left with the supernatural.  William Wilson had a deadly psychological reaction to something that, as far as the story is concerned, seems to have been physically happening.

This is the central thematic thread that I think Stephen King has trouble with.  Not long after Anderson has this conversation with his wife, the story makes a hard shift to supernatural fiction.  Holly Gibney, a character from King’s Mr. Mercedes books, enters the plot fulfilling the role of Dr. Van Helsing, which I actually thought was pretty cool.  Since I finished The Outsider, I’ve read Finders Keepers and I’m currently halfway through Mr. Mercedes largely because I wanted more of Holly Gibney.  Gibney even has a talk with Anderson and company about the need to overcome their assumptions about reality and the limits of the human mind, sorta like how Helsing prefaces one of his explanations by pointing out things in the natural world that, at that time, seemed improbable (like extremely old turtles).  Holly Gibney is also a film-buff and has a tendency to bring movie and book references into casual conversation (when they find out that the vampiric title character has a human servant, Holly refers to him as a “Renfield”).

While I’m going on about the iffy transition halfway through the book, I’d also like to add that it adds substantial depth to Ralph Anderson’s character arc.  At the very beginning, Detective Anderson directs a very public arrest of Terry Maitland, a high school teacher and little league coach, in the middle of a game because he is absolutely convinced that he raped, murdered and mutilated a young boy (a crime that we later learn was the work of the Outsider, or el cuco, a Latin American variation of the vampire myth with more emphasis on shape-shifting).  Anderson feels like he knows, beyond any possibility of a doubt, that he has the right man, chiefly because of DNA traces and eye-witnesses before and after the killing.  The fact that Maitland’s reputation and alibis are squeaky clean makes him even more convinced, since an immaculate public front looks like careful denial or misdirection when paired with evidence that he did something monstrous.  Not to mention everyone has heard of the serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer, whose friends and neighbors were shocked after the arrests and said that they always seemed so nice.

I find it easy to think that, with this sort of beginning, the reader is going to assume that either Maitland did it or that Anderson is dangerously off-base and arrogant.  Personally, Anderson made my skin crawl early in the book.  At least part of that had to do with certain genre conventions, though.


A central conflict is hardly ever resolved at the very beginning.  If something looks all-important early on, then it cannot be.  At least, it cannot be with a lot of successfully written stories (if I ever write something on this blog about Final Fantasy XV, I’ll probably bring up the romance between Noctis and Luna as a huge problem for a similar reason).  With that in mind, I found it easy to assume that Maitland’s incrimination was simply a set-up for the bigger plot and that he is probably not guilty…which makes Anderson’s certainty appear repugnant.

It also doesn’t help that we hear Anderson trotting out the brutal death of the child to inspire fellow cops and the District Attorney to work for a conviction more than we hear about the actual killing.  I know that’s a bit of a technicality, and with stories that exploit subjectivity we are naturally shown perspectives of events rather than events themselves.  So, within this sub-genre, it’s a totally legitimate thing to do.  Just sayin’, it doesn’t make Anderson look any more sympathetic or justified.  What it does do, though, is prove to us that Anderson himself believes it, which makes it all the more compelling when he is forced to acknowledge that he’s wrong.  It also helps the reader connect with him when he and Holly Gibney are talking about the need to acknowledge that something is happening that transcends what Anderson is initially willing to consider.  In the end, when Holly and Ralph become the central heroes, we have seen Ralph Anderson go from someone on the brink of convicting an innocent man to a truly sympathetic protagonist.  Stephen King doesn’t always handle morally gray characters very well, but when he does he nails it.  (My favorite anti-hero of his being Roland Deschain…more on that if one or more Dark Tower posts happen).

Having mentioned the essential quality of Ralph’s arc, though…the story becomes glaringly plot-driven once we discover the real nature of the Outsider, which both Holly and Yunel Sablo (a supporting character) compare to a shape-shifting, folkloric monster called el cuco.  On one hand, it’s nice to see people from the two opposing sides of the Terry Maitland fiasco working together (Anderson and Sablo manage to enlist the  help of Howie Gold, Maitland’s lawyer, and a P.I. who works for him named Alec Pelley).

On the other…the tension and drama of the first half of the book hinged on the reasons for the starkly opposing pictures of whether or not Terry Maitland was guilty.  In other words, it was psychological tension.  Then the first half comes to a head and we hear Anderson’s wife remark, while talking about William Wilson, that, once you drop the psychology, you are left with the supernatural.  This is where the plot is supposed to really thicken.  But the dramatic momentum of the first half just isn’t matched in the second.  I don’t think the second half is essentially bad, but it does feel a little bit naked compared to the first.

The involvement of the alcoholic detective who turns into the Outsider’s “Renfield” is interesting until he dies in a gunfight.  Like Snakebite Andi in Doctor Sleep, I was kind of left wondering what exactly the “Renfield” brought to the story (other than another character death in said gunfight).  When the snake that bites the alcoholic got it’s own sub-chapter, I thought it was gonna tie in with el cuco….maybe he can telepathically manipulate snakes, kinda like how Dracula can manipulate wolves?  In which case, is he simply bumping off his “Renfield” because he’s ceased to be useful, or is something else going on?  Is the “Renfield” going to get transformed into another vampiric creature or something?  When you use a specific sub-chapter for a snake that’s about to bite someone, you’re naturally prompting the reader to wonder about it’s significance.  If the significance is simply to provide a slow death to a character you don’t know what else to do with and make him shoot badly, then it’s kind of underwhelming.

If I wanted, I could get really snarky and say that these problems with the second half and ending are also halmarks of Stoker’s influence, since in the original Dracula Van Helsing flips the lids on the coffins containing Dracula and his brides before nightfall and just stakes them all.  I remember reading that book when I was sixteen and I thought it was one of the biggest anti-climaxes I had ever read.  Then there’s this little chapter at the end with everyone having families which, for sixteen-year-old me, just made it all the more fake and unsatisfying.  It’s like Bram Stoker just got performance anxiety at the end and choked.

While the Outsider’s death happens abruptly, there is one interesting detail.  In most vampire fiction, vampires are portrayed as formerly human with many aspects of their human identities and feelings still intact.  Since the Outsider changes shape so often and can create a ghostly avatar that creates the appearance of teleportation, we are tempted to think of him as fundamentally not human.  No more human than Pennywise.  One of Terry Maitland’s daughters even catches a glimpse of him without a disguise and sees him as having “straws for eyes”, which almost sounds like eyes on stalks.

But when Holly is talking to him in his cave, she says that without the memory altering (he can do that via telepathy) and shape-shifting, he is just a pedophile and a sexual sadist.  The Outsider loudly denies this, saying that he targets children because their suffering provides the most nourishing psychic sustenance for him, and that he leaves semen on the bodies of his victims (we learn earlier that he didn’t just do it with his most recent) in order to provide a DNA link to his chosen patsy (while assuming someone else’s shape, his DNA is also a perfect match for theirs, hence the DNA evidence against Terry Maitland).  Holly points out that there are other ways to do that, like with saliva, sweat or even his own blood.  Holly insists that he’s a sexual predator, provoking him into a sloppy attack and providing a chance for Holly to kill him.

While we were initially prompted to think of the Outsider as fundamentally non-human, the fact that Holly got him wound up by accusing him of being a pedophile and a sexual sadist is telling.  In the natural world, animal predators do not seem to have complicated and messy feelings about their prey that they are compelled to misrepresent.  Not that we have any way of knowing this, but shame and denial don’t seem to be in the equation with species-to-species predation.  The implication is that the Outside actually was formerly human and was transformed.

There are a few other satisfying aspects to the ending, such as Ralph and Holly’s conversation at the very end.  In general, though…the book is just lopsided.  Not as lopsided as Doctor Sleep, but still lopsided.  I also gotta admit that it’s more re-readable than Doctor Sleep.

The relationship between graphics and scenario writing in video games

I have attempted two playthroughs of Final Fantasy IV and choked both times.  As a FF fan that ain’t normal for me, to say nothing of how excited I was to play it in the beginning.  From what I read on the internet prior, it seemed like IV was the turning point for Final Fantasy becoming the narrative heavy experience that we all know today.  I don’t think I’ll sound too lame if I own that the Golbez fight in the castle of the dwarves was a factor in the termination of both of my playthroughs, especially if I add that I was playing it on a DS those times.  For some reason, Square Enix decided to buff a boss fight in this remake that was already notoriously hard to begin with.

So playthrough one ended with the Golbez fight and playthrough two ended when I started buffing Rydia immediately before she disappears from the party.  I got her to learn bio, which most agree is a thing you want to have in the dwarvish Golbez fight, but my nerves were so fried from all the grinding that took that I just didn’t have the patience to keep playing after that point.  Just yesterday, though, I was able to start playing the original 16-bit SNES version and I’m actually getting more interested in the events of the story than I was the first time around.  Within my first few minutes of SNES FFIV I was reminded that the effect of the Nintendo DS graphics and voice acting was almost as much of a turn off as the remake’s infamous difficulty spike.

No matter what the subject of a film, painting or video game is, how that subject looks is bound to direct your attention at least as much as the script of the subject’s story.  However with video games and commercial cinema there is an oddly quantitative way of judging something as qualitative as visual and auditory effect.  To me, it’s comparable to saying that photographs have destroyed the reason to ever draw, or that photography has replaced painting.  We could digress even further if we dwell on what ways of looking and sounding are treated as the most “natural” or “appealing” in computer animation (I mean, if I wanna look like Serah Farron in FFXIII, I’m gonna need to spend several grand on plastic surgery).

But for now, regardless of what we are treating as real, let’s at least allow that trying to look “real” is something that is widely valued in both video games and big budget movies.  How “real” something looks can be valued with strange single-mindedness, though.  For some, the fact that black and white film can have color doctored into them is a good enough reason to do it, regardless if certain decisions were originally planned to have the best effect as black and white images.  Digitally adding color to a film like Orphee or Les enfants terribles would, to say the absolute least, be very, very single-minded.

I think this was the mistake that was being made in the DS FFIV remake.  Voice acting and 3D graphics were added without consideration for how they would change the flow of the action.  The voice actors also sound unsure if they are supposed to be melodramatic or earnest.  I get that stories and characters are allowed to have tone shifts, but with the FFIV voices the changes sounded too random to be intentional.  In the older version, though, the use of text-based dialogue allowed both the delivery of words and their content to go by the player’s own pace.  In this regard, I think the DS remake compares particularly badly to  the original.  Just look at the different presentations of the desolation of the Mage Village and the theft of their crystal.  I found the 16-bit portrayal easier on the eyes and therefore easier to take in.  Probably because the scenario was written with a 16-bit image in mind.


Anyway, this is more of a random thought of the day.  I’m still pretty early in my playthrough but so far everything about the presentation is working better.

Random thoughts about Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ and ‘Doctor Sleep’

In the last few months I’ve quickly mowed my way through both books Stephen King wrote about Danny Torrance and I think the contrast between them has interesting implications.  The dialogue between the two is intrigueing but the second one needs it more than the first, a little too much, actually.

Within the first few chapters of Doctor Sleep dealing with the True Knot characters the town Jerusalem’s Lot is mentioned, to say nothing of the close resemblance between the True Knot and the way vampires are portrayed in both ‘Salem’s Lot and the fifth Dark Tower book.  The ‘Salem’s Lot nods contained within a Shining sequel is telling.  That this is a sequel about Danny Torrance as an adult emulating his father’s mistakes also adds to the implications here.

As a creative writer myself and a litcrit buff I found this interesting but not sufficient to carry the whole weight of Doctor Sleep.  The overly-formulaic story can only lead me to believe that Stephen King’s possibly unconscious wish to comment on his earlier work was his main motivation here.  The lack of balance and chemistry between the creative retrospective and the lazy plot construction is just too bad since a few characters are written very well and I enjoyed spending time with them (I’m thinking specifically of grown-up Danny, Abra, Abra’s Momo, Rose The Hat and Snakebite Andi- more on that last one later).  In the end I would give Doctor Sleep a C-.  I still enjoyed reading it, though, and may actually re-read it at some point.

Although the places King chose to place most of his effort made the book lopsided, the beginning is compulsively readable.  I think anyone who loved The Shining would find it easy to get sucked in early on, as it picks up with Danny and Wendy Torrance and Dick Hollorran three years after the events of the first book.  I also enjoyed reading about Danny’s tentative journey back to sobriety and almost every chapter that involved Rose The Hat or Abra.  Even if the book is unbalanced overall, it’s compelling in some places.  This, though, just leads me back to the weaknesses.  Near the end when Danny is checking up on the lock boxes “in his head” and the True Knot settles at the Overlook Lodge it seems like some special deep connection with The Shining or more satisfying tie-in with his early work is about to happen.

The reader has known that two of those three boxes contain two of the most memorable ghosts from what used to be the Overlook Hotel.  The mention of the boxes at that point prompts you to wonder about how your attention was directed early on: not only was our opening look at Danny, Hollorran and lock boxes three years after the events of the first book fun, but it told us centrally important things about the current story.  At that point I was wondering if the True Knot really was just an external danger that telepathically “bumped” into Abra at the right time to set the plot in motion- but now, with the plot converging at the former location at the Overlook Hotel and Danny considering opening the boxes up, it seems like the plot is finally coming together.  This place in the story even feels consistent with Dick’s cryptic message from the afterlife: all devils come from your childhood.  We even learn that Danny’s father impregnated Abra’s grandmother during an alcoholic blackout and that Abra is his niece.  It all seems to be coming together.  That the True Knot has an affinity for the Overlook Lodge even suggests a deeper connection from their end as well.

Also, since things from early in the story are now proving their relevance, it also seems like the ultimate function of Andi’s arc may be around the corner.  If this character we’ve been following for so long is supposed to have some sort of effect on the overall story and her shooting death truly was not the last word, then it seems like involvement of Andi’s lover at the end would open that up.  Ghosts are a thing in this story, after all, and when Andi died I wasn’t quite sure if she seriously went the whole story (as one of the True Knot members we see the most of ) without actually contributing to the plot or interesting participation with other arcs.  It seriously looked like Stephen King brought her in for no reason- now that Andi’s lover is doing things at the haunted place, though, now it looks like we’re gonna see why that character was in the story.

Anyway we don’t.  Normally, shutting down the whole antagonistic half of a story without giving a compelling reason why the antagonists are there is a bad enough move.  The best understanding we are given is that the vampire-like people found the psychic little girl.  The True Knot just happened to wander in from the outside.

Now I don’t think that passive protagonists are always a bad idea.  Granted, they need to be handled more carefully than active protagonists, but that doesn’t mean they never ever work: they’re just trickier to do, and Doctor Sleep doesn’t pull it off.  There is no organic reason outside of the True Knot for Danny and Abra to be in the same story.  One of the reasons why this stands out in such a bad way in this book is that, as a sequel, you’re just tempted to remember the precedents set by the first story.  In The Shining, all characters and plot elements had clear purposes and the development of the story does not require a spontaneous outside force- everything that happens throughout The Shining happens with all of the things we started the story with.  Now sequels can break rules and conventions set down by their source material if the sequel is a totally sufficient story on it’s own and does not need prior context, but Doctor Sleep is not self-sufficient.

While plot-movers that arrive randomly from the outside are not necessarily bad all the time (any more than passive protagonists are bad all the time) they are generally not a safe bet- random outside occurrences within a story need extra work, sorta like how passive protagonists need extra work, and many writers who use both of those tropes do not realize that.  Since Doctor Sleep needs The Shining for context and since The Shining did not take these extra risks, the fact that Doctor Sleep takes them and fails is hard to get around.  So if Doctor Sleep does not work as a follow-up to The Shining and is not written in a way that makes it wholly self-contained, this sorta leads me back to my suspicion that a wish or need to look back on older work was Stephen King’s real motivation.

A weakness in this that I can cop to immediately is that this whole assessment hinges on my opinion that Doctor Sleep fails as both a sequel and a stand-alone story.  That’s totally my opinion, but if I think that a book fails in the roles it is presented in, then it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that there was a motivation at work that is not connected to how it is presented.  If a book that appears to be a sequel does not work as a sequel and cannot be self-sufficient on it’s own, then I think it’s reasonable to suspect that the author had some other feeling or intent in mind.

Since the relationship with early Stephen King novels is front and center, I don’t think it’s going too far to think that this is largely a statement on The Shining.  Another statement on \ interpretation of The Shining, the Kubrick film, prompted Stephen King to make his own statement in the form of the 1997 miniseries adaptation.  King has felt the need to comment on The Shining in a way that he does not comment on a lot of his other works.  While he likes little understated world-building nuances revolving around The Dark Tower, he does not normally make frank connections and statements.  Maybe there’s something I’m not getting but I think The Dark Tower is the only other story where King feel the need to say something himself in his own work (granted, that was way more literal than the Danny Torrance stories).