Vaal vs. Hindsight
Tastes change. That’s no secrets or revelation; we all know it. Things that fascinated us even last year might hold no magic for us now while things we once found utterly repulsive are now dear to us. It’s just one of those ‘human’ deals we run into because we’re thinking creatures who accumulate years of data and emotion connected to experiences.
Having your tastes change is just another, less objective form of learning. One day you’re vowing never to listen to rap, then the next, you hear a phat beat by Outkast on the radio of a car next to you in traffic and you can’t get enough. (Or, you know, some jerk with a blog links one to you).
And sometimes you land more in the middle of the road; a place where you now understand and accept certain things even if you don’t necessarily like them. That’s th eplace this article is going.
As I said before, I’ve been writing for internet audiences for a damn long time and I’ve learned a great many things from the experience. Many entries in this blog are about my observations on pop culture and the things that ‘work’ for me, but there are some things that didn’t for a long time, but now that I’ve been on the ‘supply’ side of things, I can see why they happen.
Terrible Explanations of Videogames
The first game I owned was The Legend of Zelda and I’ve been a gamer ever since. And like most gamers (or hobbyists or any kind really), I really hate it when media dumb my pastime down. Whenever someone is playing a videogame, they’re always mashing buttons furiously, trying to get enough points to get to the next level. And they don’t mean experience points and character levels either.
If you go by what you see in the movies or TV (gaming is almost non-existent in books for a reason I’ll bring up shortly), gaming hasn’t changed since the original NES and even in instances where it has, it’s still just mindlessly shooting people of ‘points’.
The common excuse is that most writers round up until the last couple of years have been people who might have played Space Invaders (and that link will take you to a place where you can play Space Invaders) in the 80’s, but haven’t touched a control pad in the last thirty years. I call bullshit on that because everyone knows at least one teenager with a PSP or X-box that will let you play for the ten minutes necessary to understand how games work these days.
In the same vain, I was always more than a little annoyed with the common plot where characters go into a game and the game itself is total nonsense that would be unplayable if it were an actual game.
Well sir (or madame), a few years back, I got my chance to Do Things Right, when I wrote The Gremlin and the Game, a story that featured several of our heroes trapped in a virtual game of Deathgate (and by the way, despite loving their Dragonlance books, I somehow managed to remain ignorant of Weis and Hickman’s Deathgate series at the time I created the in-universe game. I’ve since read and enjoyed the first book). From the experience, I learned precisely why videogames in stories always suck.
First, modern gameplay is stupid complex. Having grown up learning controls via tutorial, then relying on muscle memory, I never really noticed until trying to write a description of the stuff you do in a game. In the case of Deathgate, the idea was that it would be a World of Warcraft ripoff, but there is a LOT going on when you play even a quest. There’s searching out the quest giver, following th eminimap, switching out gear, buffing, setting your pet’s mode if you have one… and that’s before the fight starts. Once you’re in combat, it all becomes a blur of skill selection, monitoring cooldown, using things out of the inventory, healing—before long, your average dust-up has taken a page all by itself and that’s not even getting into giving context to the scenario.
Oh, and about that, if you want to do a game justice, you must give it some context. There are very few games where you’re just shooting things for ‘points’ anymore. Instead, you’re completing mission objectives, looking for drops, providing cover, or in the case of me and Grand Theft Auto, being a sociopath for kicks. Without the context for what you’re doing, most gaming looks… pretty stupid.
The problem there is that the more time you devote to giving the game context and conveying the experience, the less time you have for the actual story and characterization.
That’s the rub: in order to do a good job on describing a videogame accurately, it takes way, way more effort than most other media and it just isn’t worth it most of the time when the game is just a oneshot backdrop or something the characters as doing as a bit of business (‘business’ is a showbiz term for putting in some action for an actor to undertake during their scene that isn’t connected to the plot. Whenever you see a character arranging something or sipping a drink, that’s business.)
Do I still wish more people would take that time? Hell yes. But do I understand why they don;t? Most certainly.
This does not absolve Uwe Boll in any way, however. He does those things he does on purpose.
Face Turns by Awesome Villains
Oh boy… buckle up, folks because in order to even get into this one, I need to give a bit of a history lesson.
As a child of the 80’s and 90’s, I was naturally a fan of pro-wrestling, but not as many of you know it. In my time (god, I’m old), wrestling was all about the weird gimmicks: a time when The Ultimate Warrior was just a racist caricature of Native Americans instead of a racist caricature of all Americans, and a wrestler was defined by how much of a weird creature they could be. There was a guy who brought a live snake in a bag to the ring, a really fat Japanese dude, and (I shit you not) an actual clown.
To this day, I enjoy Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s movies (He should have been Captain America, damnit), but don’t understand how he got famous as The Rock without at least painting himself gray. Same for ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, but I digress.
It was also a time before the fact that pro-wrestling is as fake as MMA wasn’t part of the fandom’s culture. I clearly recall knowing kids who would provoke fist fights simply by calling wrestling fake or renouncing Hulkamania. For us, wrestling was totally real; the refs really were blind, folding chairs really are just stored under the ring, and the Undertaker really was an undead monster.
To make a long story short, since I was out of the fandom ever since awesome costumes stopped being a thing, I’ve only recently been learning the lingo thanks to (of course) TVTropes.org. For example, the term ‘kayfabe’ is used to describe the… fake parts… or wrestling. And a ‘heel’ is a bad guy while a ‘face’ is a good one.
Which brings me back to the actual point. A face who goes bad is said to be making a ‘heel-turn’ while a heel that becomes heroic is making a ‘face-turn’.
Most people would have just explained that at the start, but then I wouldn’t have gotten to show you a terror clown and a child about to barbecue himself. You’re welcome.
Now, the reason I’m not a fan of a villain turning good is that it has one of the same bad effects of character death: it closes off interesting stories. See, this sort of thing usually only happens to really awesome villains that are that perfect mix of threatening and interesting and taking them out of the villain role necessarily means that… they won’t be the villain anymore, duh.
On the surface, this might sound good. After all, they were cool before and now that they’re in the main cast, we’ll get more of them—yay! Just below that surface, you start to see cracks.
For one, the new villain is usually not just a fresh copy of the original, but someone higher up the sliding scale of villainy. Usually this means they’re more evil, less complex and by virtue of the first two, usually less fun. So right off the bat, doing this has the potential to add a less fun character into the story in a major role.
An speaking of roles, the reformed villain will usually become less prominent (because the new villain is eating up their old screen time while they’re now sharing with the main cast). They’re also usually softened to fit with the main cast, becoming somewhat less evil and therefore less of the wonderful bastard the audience grew to love. Plus, the fact that they were against the protagonists. And let’s not forget that the first character arc about them will be a tired one about how no one trusts them. Because that arc always shows up.
Now, even without the below, I can admit that this has been done well. Avatar: the Last Airbender has one built atop three seasons worth of character development that is simply epic. But that’s rare and more often you end up with situations like Spike from Buffy. Now, Spike did improve, but for a while there, he was stripped of nearly all of the cool he accumulated in the second season, reduced to a cmoedic token evil teammate with no real threat or edge.
And let’s not even start on Magneto.
Now, I haven’t really written any face-turns as of yet, but I’ve pondered them and it was the point where I started seeing it as an option that I realized why other writers did too.
To put it simply, it’s hard to keep a villain around without making the heroes look bad. Sometimes it’s even worse than that.
Take the famous example of how the Joker always survives, always breaks out, and always kills way more people than pretty much any real terrorist in history. While some people accept this as the nature of comics and the price of having a character like Joker around, people who take this sort of thing way too seriously constantly try to have Batman called out for not murdering the Joker himself in order to save all his would-be victims.
Ignore that it’s really just an excuse to turn Batman into another 90’s abmonation like Killgun or Deathblood or some shit, that’s pretty insane when you think about it. If you kill Joker, why not Two-Face, even though he’s proven to be generally curable if other people didn’t keep doing things to make him revert? Why not Poison Ivy? She’s literally poisonous and might not even be human. How dangerous does someone have to be in order to tip us over into the ‘okay for a man in a bat costume to kill without trial’ territory? Considering his arsenal, Bats could probably kill every criminal ever to be honest.
And faced with this wall of anti-logic, many writers choose to either get rid of good villains before their time, or do the one thing they know how to preserve them: turn them good… or at least less evil.
Sure, it gets rid of the cool villain, but the hero saves face, neither looking incompetent for letting them get away, nor being urged by bloodthirsty fans to abandon one of the basic pillars of civilization (that being ‘Dude, stop killing people’, written by Lonelicles, sudden orphan and even more sudden only child.) and get rid of the villain in an even more permanent manner.
There’s also the old ‘shaking up the status quo’ chestnut, but as a rule, that’s just code for ‘I have a short attention span and a bad idea’ in my experience, so that has no bearing on my thoughts.
But I can understand saving a character at the cost of losing a villain. Sometimes it’s done right and sometimes a better villain replaces them. It’s all about the skill of the writer and the quality of the character sans their villain status.
We’re currently in an age where we might have more movies coming out that have a twist than those that don’t. And that would be good if having twists be nearly mandatory didn’t go completely against the point of twists in the first place. Or, you know, if they managed to be good at least half the time.
Oh, instead we get things like the villains having plans to delicate and hinged on uncontrollable events that they seem to be omnipotent, variations on everything just being a dream, and characters abandoning most of their early characterization just to ‘reveal’ something in the late hours of the plot.
And while movies are just starting to pile these on, television and comics have been doing it forever. The dream/holodeck/training exercise deal especially has been run into the ground at least in single episodes of almost every show since I was growing up.
The problem, once you stop and ponder it, is clear: a twist of this type makes everything that came before meaningless and effectively ruins the replay value of the story. If partway through, the narrative itself effectively informs you that everything previous was meaningless, why bother going back over it?
There are a couple of reasons for this one. I think the primary one is a desperate attempt to garner attention with an actually surprising ending. Many of you will recall The Sixth Sense, a movie with actual well-laid clues leading up to a twist ending that had everyone talking and generating enough good will to allow M Night Shamaylan to have a career long after he proved that he was a two-hit wonder.
A good twist makes people excited and get them to talk about stories more. And because word of mouth is one of the best methods of advertising, writers flock to anything that can create it. Unfortunately, a twist needs some serious love and attention to make it work and a lot of writers (often on deadline) just can’t devote that much to it, so they tack on stock twists that don’t need lead-ins and hope the shock value carries them through.
Another reason these happen, I imagine, is the nature of stories themselves. Maybe people who don’t write may not understand this—and people who write, but use outlines might not either, but when you write like I do, entirely by the seat of your pants with only the vague notion if the plot, the story becomes a living thing. It changes and grows before your eyes and like any living thing, it evolves.
Sometimes those evolutions mean bad things for your plans, or the plans for someone else down the line (recall that most television is written by a group). The result might be a good story on its own, but might diverge wildly from the tone or direction of what you’re trying to do with it. In order to preserve the story, one only needs to tack on a negating ‘twist’, which isn’t so much a twist as a reset button—something I totally understand.
And finally, I suspect that many people who write ‘twisty’ stuff that goes nowhere are genuinely trying to create art. They want to surprise and subvert the reader’s expectations or make a point of the unpredictability of the universe. And I can sympathize with that. These days I understand and accept that I am an entertainer, not an artist, but I do occasionally have the itch to play with motifs and themes and symbolism in my work and understand that sometimes you’re on the wrong side of Sturgeon’s Law in your attempt and that what you’ve done is part of the ninety percent crap. It’s not a good feeling, but it one doesn’t try, one will never succeed.
There’s more, but I’m out of pages for this week. Behold another blog series I will take forever to continue!
Questions, comments, verbal abuse? Please post them below in the comments, or the forum.
You can check in on what Vaal’s working on or just what’s on his mind by following @ParadoxOmni on Twitter, or using the hashtags #TheDescendants or #RuneBreaker. You can also browse books by Vaal by visiting his Author Page on Amazon.com.
Vaal’s latest book, The Path of Destruction (Rune Breaker, #3) is now available on Amazon.com.
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