Singing for charity
My mom sang in the choir at a Catholic charity event that raised $10,000 for Haiti disaster relief.
My mom rocks! Go Mom!
My mom sang in the choir at a Catholic charity event that raised $10,000 for Haiti disaster relief.
My mom rocks! Go Mom!
What is "tension"? It's the force that makes us want to keep reading/watching a work of fiction. Without tension, the audience loses interest.
You've all seen that graph in English class that shows time on the x-axis and "Tension" on the y-axis? And it's got, like, rising action, then climax, then falling action and denouement. You know the one I'm talking about? Good.
That graph is completely unhelpful because it doesn't explain how to increase or decrease tension. How do you create it?
My theory is very simple. Tension is really just questions. The audience has a question in their mind, so they'll keep watching/reading to find out the answer.
Let's look at some examples from one of my favoritest movies ever, The Princess Bride, which is a nearly flawlessly paced movie. (Spoilers ahead, but really there is no excuse for you not to have seen this movie a hundred times.)
At the beginning, when Buttercup and Wesley are all lovey-dovey, there are no questions, so there is no tension — which is why the kid rightly declares the book boring! In fact at this point in the movie, the only tension is between the kid and his grandpa, because the only question the audience has to go on is:
Will grandpa win the kid over with this story?
Once we hear that Wesley is murdered by pirates, the story in the book starts generating questions, and therefore tension, of its own. As the kid says: "Murdered by pirates is good!" From that point on, we can easily map out the entire plot just in terms of the questions that are being introduced to the audience's mind, one after another:
Some of these questions, like "Who will win the swordfight?" last for only a single scene. When the question is answered, the scene ends, and the next scene introduces a new question to replace it and raise the tension back up.
Other questions last for much longer, and keep tension going throughout the whole story. In particular, "Will Buttercup get married to Humperdink?" is in question for almost the entire length of the movie; that question is the main plot. Later on it is also joined by "Will she get back together with Wesley?" and "Will Inigo get revenge on the six-fingered man?" which of course all resolve at about the same time, in the climax. Right after that, the very first question resolves as we find out that the kid not only enjoyed the story, but learned to tolerate kissing scenes. The end!
Note that between scene tension and long-term tension, the audience is never left without at least one question to wonder about; each plot point pulls you right along to the next. Which is one of the reasons this is such a perfectly paced movie. (Variety in the type of tension is also a factor, but that's a whole nother article.)
So to create tension, you have to have:
On the scene level, tension comes from the audience imagining different possible outcomes for the scene. On the whole-story level, tension comes from the audience imagining different possible endings for the story. Of course the tension will fail if the alternate outcomes aren't plausible or if the audience just doesn't care.
For instance, it's pretty obvious that Wesley and Buttercup have to end up together, because that's what happens in fairy tales. The only way to keep up the tension is to introduce obstacles that tilt the scales the other way by making it seem impossible for them to get together, like the fact that Wesley is Mostly Dead, or that the clergyman already said "Man and Wife". Without these obstacles, the bad ending is implausible, thus no tension.
Or, the other way to fail would be if we just didn't care about the question. For instance, if Inigo hadn't been such a cool character, and hadn't been so driven, and if the six-fingered man hadn't been such a sneaky bastard, then maybe we wouldn't have cared whether Inigo got revenge or not, which would have sucked the tension out of that whole subplot.
Storytelling failure is when your story spends time answering questions that the audience wasn't asking and didn't care about!
Finally, resolution and endings: Answering a question resolves the tension, by turning one possibility into reality and destroying the other possibilities. When the last source of tension is resolved, your story is over! (And if there are still pages to go, the audience is going to wonder why.)
Therefore, the question that you make the audience ask at the beginning of the story establishes what the story will be about. Either you have to end the story by answering the same question you originally asked; or else you have to pull a switcheroo: introduce a new, *bigger* question as you resolve the original one, and end by resolving the bigger question. There's an axiom I read somewhere: what a story is about is defined by the biggest unanswered question asked so far.
When I started my webcomic, I didn't know the first thing about story structure.
I didn't know anything about story structure when I came up with the original idea and first sketches and plot outline, which was in freaking 2003, I still didn't know anything about it when I started drawing pages in 2004, and I still didn't know anything about it in 2005 when I started drawing the stuff that ended up in the archive I have now.
Story structure is hard to learn. It's even harder if you're a science fiction fan and a (traditional) role-player. Science fiction teaches you all the wrong lessons about story structure, because SF makes the settings so prominent that when SF fans start trying to write things, we've got a pathological focus on setting to the exclusion of character and plot. Traditional RPGs have character and plot, but they get it all backwards. The GM writes the plot first and then you take a bunch of characters who have nothing to do with the plot and try to force them into it. So as an SF fan and RPGer I had a lot of crap to unlearn about the relationship between setting, character, and plot. (And theme? What's that?)
In the last couple years I've finally been figuring out a few things about story structure.
Part of it is understanding that it's all artifice. It means looking critically and analytically at how your favorite stories function, not just letting yourself get swept away in them. You have to look behind the illusion if you want to learn how to create it, which means giving up certain romantic notions: about inspiration, and about imaginary worlds taking on a life of their own, stuff like that. I understand now that comicking is 1% inspiration: the rest is careful planning, repeated revisions, throwing stuff out, trimming dialogue, and grinding out lots and lots of drawings of the same things over and over.
I think I've also learned a lot from the improvisational, collaborative style of role-playing that I've been doing the past few years: how to create an initial situation that is ripe for action, with characters who have motivation and natural reasons to get into conflict with each other, characters with issues that will force them to make morally/thematically relevant decisions.
Suffice to say, if I was starting the comic now I would do things a lot differently. I'm proud of (most of) the pages that I've done, but if I was doing it now I wouldn't have spent 30 pages just on lining up characters and setting and Yuki's daily frustrations etc. I would have started with more of a bang.
My plan right now is to do 19 more strips to finish out the arc I had planned for chapter 1. I've had to throw out a lot of stuff to get it down to just 19, including some strips I had already sketched - they amused me, but they weren't essential to the story. Chapter 1 will end on or around strip 50.
Then I'll plan out Chapter 2 using everything I now know about story structure, and hopefully it'll be a lot tighter and have a lot more drama.
Two comics I archive binged on recently:
People have been telling me to read these forever, so I'm happy to be finally caught up.
Both are really, really good. Both are more story-driven than joke-driven, still ongoing and with deep archives. Both original and well-developed settings. Aside from that they're completely different from each other.
Erfworld is all strategy and logistics and intricate planning. It doesn't connect the dots for you, it throws out a lot of information and unfamiliar names and challenges your left-brain to put it all together.
Gunnerkrigg Court is the opposite: all emotions and mysticism and leisurely character development, and at first it appears to have barely any plot at all. You can just drift through it enjoying the atmosphere and the beautiful colors.
Erfworld is the story of a fat, unloved gamerdork transported to a fantasy world by a summoning spell which was intended to summon "the ultimate warlord". Parson's only warlording experience comes from tabletop games... but the world he's in appears to operate by tabletop wargame rules, to the point where people only act on their "turn" and know exactly how many hexes they can move. It all seems suspiciously similar to a game Parson was designing... so is he hallucinating the whole thing or what? Despite being essentially living game pieces with very goofy names, the characters here are fleshed-out characters with their own loves, hates, loyalties, and vendettas. The faction that summoned Parson is on the verge of total defeat, and nearly everyone else is allied against them. Can Parson overcome both their situation and his own ignorance of how the world works and use his strategy gamer skills to turn the war around? More importantly, should he, given that the faction he's working for appears to be the bad guys?
It's exceptionally well paced; once you get into it you won't want to stop reading. The writer really knows what he's doing. It's obvious that Erfworld isn't his first webcomic; he's already figured out exactly how to tell the story he wants to tell. Underneath a surface layer of extreme silliness ("dwagons", "twolls", "gwiffons" that look like marshmallow Peeps, Titans who look like Elvis impersonators, magic specialties like "croakamancy", and a universe-wide filter that turns all swear words into "boop"), Erfworld has at its core a very serious story about war and loyalty.
Gunnerkrigg Court, meanwhile, is the story of some girls at the eponymous Mysterious Boarding School. It's a sprawling, city-sized, ancient and mostly empty structure (beautifully rendered in mesmerizing shades of purple), full of secrets, and feels like a place to get lost in for weeks. Beyond the court is The Forest, a forbidding place of myths and spirits generally unfriendly to humans. In many ways the court and the forest are the main characters; this is a comic about places as much as anything else.
The human protagonist, Antimony, has a gift for speaking to spirits, and seems destined to become a sort of human bridge between the scientific creations of the Court and the mythological beings of the forest. A lot of the events have a dreamlike quality; they don't make sense right away, and aren't explained, but they follow a certain dream logic.
The plot can best be described as meandering. Many chapters seem to go nowhere in particular: Antimony and friends might befriend a ghost, or track down a minotaur for a class project, or explore the world of the robots, and that's it. The atmosphere of mystery and exploration pervades everything, so events are sort of inherently interesting even if they don't play into a larger conflict. Then again, we keep coming back again and again to certain central mysteries, like the ghost of a woman with a sword who guards the Annan Waters... are all the wandering story threads going to come together after all?
Lesser comics that try to pull of this sort of thing usually fall apart into just-weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird. But Gunnerkrigg makes it work, proving you can be consistently interesting without following a tightly plotted 3-act arc structure. There is deep and subtle art at play here.
Both of these comics are a lot better than a simple description of their premise makes them sound. They take somewhat cliched elements and make them new again. I'd rank them among the best comics I've read on the web or on paper.
Read and enjoy!
Does it even make sense to use the term 'webcomics' anymore? Everything is on the web now. And we don't call musicians who release MP3s on their website "web musicians" we just call them musicians, right?
On the other hand, there are a few things that set webcomics apart. Webcomics have two pleasures which you don't get from any other medium.
One is the pleasure of a really weird, idiosyncratic, singular vision, the kind that you only get from reading the brain ravings of an isolated weirdo with no editorial oversight.
The other is the pleasure of watching something start out crappy and then start getting good as the author figures out what they're doing. You get to watch someone evolve as both an artist and an author in the space of an ongoing narrative. You get to watch previously flat one-joke characters grow unexpected depth. You get to watch as people learn how to use Photoshop. You get to watch people finding their voice, and figuring out what their strip is really about only after they're a hundred strips in. Those embarrassingly bad early strips never go away; they're stuck there in the archives forever. It's also interesting, if sometimes painful, to watch someone retcon their gag-based early strips into a serious dramatic arc.
You don't get to see this in other media because most of them have some kind of gatekeeper which ensures that the creator has to reach a certain level of skill before they can get published at all.
Of course, there's also the pleasure of the Archive Binge...
Enough people have told me to read Kingdom Come (most recently in this comment) that when I saw a copy at the bookstore today, I bought it and read it (while sitting at a table on the sidewalk outside a coffee shop, looking at the rainbow that marked the end of California's week-long rainstorm).
It was kinda... um, well, the art was really pretty, I'll say that. But I thought the story really suffered from too much telling, not enough showing, and from being overcrowded with too many cameos and continuity references. (Which seems to be a common pitfall for these "big event" comic miniseries... gotta find a way to cram in everybody from the DC universe, right?)
Spoilers ahead, so don't read if you don't want to know. The setup is that it's the future, most of the main DC heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc etc) are old and retired or semi-retired. There is a new generation of "metahumans" (i.e. superheroes, not Shadowrun races) on the streets, but they kind of suck because they care nothing about protecting innocent lives; instead they just spend all day fighting each other and causing massive collateral damage, because, I dunno, they just like fighting I guess. The main plot is about whether the Geriatric Superfriends are going to come out of retirement and stop the rampaging metahumans, and if so are they willing to fight violence with violence? Are they willing to break their code against killing?
Cue many pages of grandiose posturing and self-righteous speeches about war and peace, etc. liberally sprinkled with quotes from the book of Revelations. There's a boring framing device with this hooded dude, who is like an avenging angel of justice or some nonsense, takes a bearded old preacher guy on a trip through time and space to silently and invisibly observe events (i.e. be omniscient viewpoint characters) while making OMINOUS PORTENTS OF DOOM every couple of pages. There's also a pointlessly complex plot about Lex Luthor mind-controlling Captain Marvel. Meanwhile Superman builds a giant super-jail and throws lots of angry dudes inside it, Wonder Woman is uncharacteristically bloodthirsty, Batman double-crosses people, and Kansas gets nuked. Twice.
No, look, I do get it. I get it. It's a commentary on the de-evolution of superhero comics: the new generation of metahumans are all grim-and-gritty 90s antiheroes, and the story is about how horrified the Superfriends would be at all their ultraviolent shenanigans, and how ultimately the corny 50s-style caped-crusader characters are the ones you would much rather have around in real life. It's all wrapped up with a lovely message about how What The World Needs Most In These Dark Times Is Hope.
And that's great, but what annoys me is how it's all just told to us in narration boxes instead of shown, explored, proven through storytelling, etc. The central problem that all these 90s antiheroes are making the world suck because they just fight all the time with no concern for civilian casualties? Potentially an interesting problem. But the problem is literally explained to the audience - in about as much detail as I just used - in narration boxes, spread across beautifully painted panels of funny-looking dudes flying around shooting laser beams at each other. Most of these 90s antiheroes don't even get names, let alone personalities or motivations. Where did they come from? What do they believe they're fighting for? Who are they fighting exactly? Why don't they care about collateral damage? Why didn't the Superfriends teach them better before retiring?
There's only one 90s antihero, named Magog for maximum clumsy allegory points, who has any individual screen time at all, but even he is just a walking plot device with no personality. The rest of them are just an undifferentiated mass of capes and spikes and guns, a collective McGuffin.
It's fine to do metaphorical commentary on the state of the superhero genre, but the problem here is that if you ignore the metaphor, the literal events don't stand on their own as a believable story.
It's also implied at certain points that some of the old generation of superheroes are running the earth like gods, imposing order on humanity through totalitarian rule, not letting humanity find its own destiny, etc etc. but again this problem is just stated in as many words, and never explored or illustrated in any depth.
Meanwhile, the framing device with Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Future, sorry I mean The Spectre and the preacher dude, just felt unnecessary. They could have just used an omniscient viewpoint and told us the story directly, without having to explain who was viewing it all. The Spectre says a bunch of stuff about how the preacher must pass judgment on what he sees and decide who is innocent and who is guilty, but he never actually does that! Aside from nicely asking Superman to please not collapse the UN building at the end, he doesn't have any effect on the plot at all. The whole thing could have been taken out and you wouldn't have lost anything except a lot of random Revelations quotes. It felt like they were just in there so that every couple of pages the writer could remind me that the clash of the superpowered titans could mean the end of the world, armageddon is fast approaching, the fate of the world is at stake, everything is Very Serious and Full of Portent, yadda yadda yadda. Bad writer! Stop telling me that your story is Very Serious and show me why I should take it seriously!
Finally, why the heck did they make Captain freaking Marvel such a central character to the plot? Who cares about Captain Marvel anymore?
(Sushu: Captain who?
Me: He's this dufus with the lightning bolt on his chest. He was really popular in the 40s.)
I had a bit of a birthday party tonight (I just turned 30). Played some Illuminati (the non-collectible one) with Dave, Aaron, and Atul.
Illuminati is fun for a while because the situations it creates are so inherently amusing. You can't even announce your basic actions without saying something that makes the people overhearing you say "WTF". I like to add a layer of role-playing and come up with elaborate justifications to explain exactly what, say, the Phone Phreaks would be doing to help the Bermuda Triangle take over Texas, or what Convenience Stores controlled by Libertarians would be like, or why Kinko's is the only thing that stands in the way of Cthulhu rising agin.
But Illuminati has a really serious problem as a game design, which is this: it's nigh impossible for the game to ever end. As soon as one player is within striking distance of any victory condition (always public info btw) all the other players will gang up to stop the decisive attack. This happens in lots of games, but it's especially effective in Illuminati because any player can spend money one-for-one to increase or decrease any attack. No matter how much money one player has, there's going to be N-1 other players (so in this game, three) with roughly equivalent income, so they can always outspend the attacker three-to-one and make the attack fail.
It's not even a negotiation game at that point, because there's nothing to negotiate: there's nothing you can meaningfully offer another player in exchange for them letting you win. Nothing internal to the game, I mean. Maybe you could offer them another slice of cake or something. So basically you go around blocking each other's attacks until somebody gets bored of the game and gives up. The best chance to win is usually to talk everyone else into throwing all their money into stopping an attack on the turn right before yours, so they don't have enough left to stop you after you get your income on your turn. But that gambit's easy to see coming, so eventually (after many tedious turns of no progress) it comes down to deciding which other player you would rather stop from winning.
Kingmaking: The situation in a 3-or-more-player game where you know you can't win, but you can decide who does. Kingmaking is a problem in game design because it ain't fun. It's not fun being the guy who decides, and it's not fun winning or losing just because somebody else made an arbitrary decision for or against you.
Illuminati is all about kingmaking in the end. So is Munchkin, and it's one of the main reasons I don't enjoy Munchkin. Actually I think every Steve Jackson game I've played except for GURPS has been all about the kingmaking. Maybe Steve doesn't recognize it as a problem, or maybe he enjoys the kind of wheeling-and-dealing that it leads to.
Other kinds of negotiation in a game are fun, like when you offer another player some sort of trade of favors or resources or put your heads together to plan an attack. Sometimes the politics overwhelms the actual game part of the game, which is frustrating, but used judiciously the possibility of negotiation adds a layer to gameplay that I really like. (It's one of the things missing from most Eurogames, which often eliminate kingmaking as well as politicking by severely limiting your ability to directly affect other players).
What's the difference between negotiation and kingmaking, though? What makes negotiation fun but kingmaking not fun? A conversation I had with Ben a while back about Settlers of Cataan gave me the answer. In a kingmaking situation there is no rational in-game reason for making one decision over another. In a proper negotiation you can weigh what you're giving up vs. what you're gaining and think about how it affects your plans and your chance to win. But in a kingmaking situation you've already given up on your chances to win, so there's nothing to measure your choices against. You have to decide based on out-of-game factors. Like being bribed with extra cake. Or social factors, like deciding which player you like more. (And this is how game design contributes to wrecking friendships. Thanks game designers.)
Ben pointed out that most game groups eventually settle on some sort of social rule for making decisions in kingmaking situations. The social rule is an unspoken assumption that gets applied not just to a particular game, but to every game that group plays. The most common social rules are:
I've played in a lot of groups that do "attack the player in the lead". Many people have tried to convince me that it was, like, a moral imperative that I attack the player in the lead. Even in, like, Mario Kart. There's a little logic to this, I guess, in that attacking the player in the lead stops the game from ending and thus extends my infinitesimal but theoretically non-zero chance of winning. But, meh. That argument is only persuasive if I want the game to go on forever. Which I generally don't. I'd rather get it over with and play something else! But people who play with this social rule tend to get mad at you if you "throw the game" by letting someone else win when you could have stopped them.
Game designers: Please don't be like Steve Jackson. Design your game to avoid kingmaking situations! It's not impossible. Figure out your victory conditions so that the game can't be dragged out beyond the point where the winner is obvious! Make it so that even if you're not going to win, you can at least play to improve your own score for the last few turns! Include some kind of turn counter or limited supply that forces the game to end in a finite time! Just do something other than leaving it up to a kingmaker.
PVP normally doesn't do anything for me, but I really like the Watchmen parody they did, called "Ombudsmen". It shows a deeper understanding of what Watchmen was all about than did oh, say, the entire corpus of Watchmen-influenced mainstream superhero comics in the 90s. Which is to say: Watchmen is in many ways a comic book about comic books; this series of PVP strips reimagines it as... a comic strip about comic strips.
I just made a donation for Haiti through Doctors without Borders. Not to say there aren't also plenty of other worthy charities, but it seems like Medicins Sans Fronteires has a long history of working with Haiti so they should know what they're doing.
I hear that the earthquake flattened the UN building in Port-au-Prince, killing everybody inside, so the people who could have been doing the coordination of the relief efforts all died. Plus the city's airport and main seaport were heavily damaged so it's harder than it should be to get people and supplies in or out. And the epicenter of the quake was almost right underneath the capital city and most densely populated area. In the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Long story short, they are in really really bad shape.
Couple of links:
This is a good article: How Not to Help in Haiti explains why you shouldn't try to help by sending stuff or by going to Haiti yourself, and why donations will still be needed long after the tragedy stops being on the news.
Ill Doctrine explains Haitian history: "We need to act not because Haiti is some nation of perennial victims that we need to have pity on. We need to act because Haiti is a nation of heroes and we have to repay them for what they've given us."
Ben Lehman is donating all proceeds from game sales this week to earthquake recovery organizations. Go Ben!
And not only that, Sushu did another China comic tonight too! She posted it while I was scanning. We are like some kind of productive comic collective over here.
P.S. I should add that Sushu has taken charge of doing postproduction (i.e. photoshop) duties for Yuki Hoshigawa. She has mad photoshop skills and can do things that I could never do in Graphic Converter which is what I was using before.
Miniatures painted: 0!
Comics drawn: 2!
So, it turns out I really like drawing sushi.
I feel a truly epic political rant coming on, this day when the Democrats are poised to once again snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, after an excruciating year of farcical political theater that has revealed in glorious detail just how ridiculous and broken our system of government is.
But I can't write that rant right now, because I have to work. So I'll just say this: The Senate must get rid of the filibuster. Permanently. It's not how the Senate was designed to work in the Constiution. Historically it's done far more harm than good no matter which party has used it. It makes a mockery of representative democracy. It prevents senators from being held accountable for their decisions. And it is now clear that America is never going to be able to enact the reforms that everybody knows we need as long as the filibuster is there protecting the status quo.
Write to your senators and tell them you want to see them doing their job, which is voting on bills. Tell them to kill the filibuster.
It would have been Bobby's 25th birthday if he was alive today.
I miss him a lot!
His mother gave me some of his ashes. She said that he wanted to travel more than anything, so please take those ashes with me on all my travels and think of him. I've been carrying those ashes around in a little shampoo bottle for the last six years. (Hope you don't think that's creepy.)
Here are a few of the places we've been to.
Pacific coastline, Big Sur state park, California
Beach just below the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge
Near the top of the Bright Angel trail, Grand Canyon, Arizona
Tar Pits at La Brea, California
Gateway Arch, St. Louis
Mississippi river, Louis and Clark expedition monument, St. Louis
Rock formation in Laramie, Wyoming
Great Salt Lake, Utah
Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah
Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah
Top of a mountain near Whistler, British Columbia: Future site of the 2010 Winter Olympics
Riverboat on the flooded canal streets of Zhujiajiao, China
Wooden Buddha at Kezhiyuan estate, Zhujiajiao, China
Great Wall of China, at Badaling
Lotus-covered lake in Yuenmingyuen park, Beijing
Tomb of Mao Tse-tung, Beijing
Tienanmen Square, Beijing
Forbidden City, Beijing
Throne room of the last Qing emperors, Forbidden City
The "Birthday Party" we had with all Bobby's friends last year.
OK I have a new favorite webcomic. It's called The Princess Planet and it is about a planet where all the girls are princesses and they have adventures! It is nothing but incredibly corny puns and sight gags. (I secretly love corny puns and sight gags.) I don't think I've ever laughed out loud so many times during an archive binge.
Seriously, you guys, I am not being sarcastic. The Princess Planet is the best comic. It's so refreshing to find humor on the internet that is not based on pop-culture references punctuated with sick violence. The Princess Planet is just simple, creative, and fun, with good art, and kids could read it.
So my brother-in-law John is the captain of his high school robotics club, Paly Robotics. I'm way jealous! I wish my high school had had a robotics club!
They compete in a yearly tournament called FIRST, which announces a different challenge each year. The one for this year was just announced last Saturday. Here's a video explaining the rules of the game, called "Breakaway". As you can see it's quite a complex game, involving numerous engineering challenges and different possible strategies.
It's even more complicated because the game isn't robot-vs-robot, it's alliance-vs-alliance: each alliance is three robots built and operated by three different teams. The alliances are formed after some qualifying rounds determine an initial ranking: The top eight teams get to pick from the remaining teams in a certain order. From the way John describes it, there's apparently a lot of scheming and diplomacy involved in trying to get on an alliance with a good chance of winning. You can build a generalist robot and try to get a high enough ranking in the qualifiers to be one of the teams that does the picking, or you can build a robot that's really good at some specialty and then lay low in the qualifiers and hope to get picked by the top team, or...
On Saturday I went to visit the Paly Robotics HQ, a garage/warehouse type workspace stuffed full of old video arcade cabinets, metalworking tools, salvage, and scruffy couches. It was a bustling hive of activity as nerdy high school boys badly in need of haircuts brainstormed possible strategies.
John introduced me as his brother-in-law who works at Mozilla and I offered to act as a programming mentor if they need one. The robots operate autonomously for part of the match, but even during the radio-controlled period there is benefit in automating some robot functions to make the operator's job easier. Turns out they had a lot of hardware mentors already but no programming mentor. The robot's brain will be a PowerPC chip and there are APIs to control everything from a C++ program, so it will be fairly standard stuff, not any kind of exotic embedded-chip cross-compilation.
So I might be on call to help teenagers program robots at some point this month. I've always wanted to do something like this!
P.S. To my surprise I see that XKCD just did a comic about the FIRST competition! You can even recognize the field layout in the second panel if you look closely.
Hey Alexis, look what I finished!
With this page I decided to see what I could do if I went for broke on the backgrounds. I tried to really capture the feeling of walking down Japanese city streets at twilight in autumn. I used a lot of reference photos of Sendai, which is one of my favorite Japanese cities (apart from Kamaishi of course).
It took forever to do these backgrounds, and I think the end result is too busy visually - it makes a cool drawing but it doesn't read well as a comic. So, it was a fun experiment but I think I'm going to cut way down on the details from here on in order to get pages done faster.
Mixi is a real social networking site. It's bigger than Facebook in Japan.
Images of the worlds Aleksa made in Metaplace, pasted together from screencaps taken on the last day Metaplace was running.
(These are thumbnails, click for the full-size version)
There was a bug in the blog code that made it so if you clicked the "show comments" link on an archived page, it would kick you back to the front page. I just fixed it.
In working on writing my comic, I'm trying to figure out the secrets of writing good dialogue. It's hard! And there aren't a lot of helpful guides. Books on writing always say things like "write subtext!" but what does that actually mean?
Here's an approach I've figured out which seems to be working for me.
(Apologies to whoever took this picture... I got it from Google Image Search)
The stuff above the surface is the WHAT: what the character says. The stuff under the water is the HOW and the WHY: How the character says it, and why they say it.
My approach is: Start with the WHY, because that will determine both the HOW and the WHAT.
Here are some reasons that people in real life may have for saying things:
Etc. etc. etc. Infinite possibilities and combinations! But I'll stop there.
If a character has no reason for speaking in a scene, then why are they there? Why aren't they off somewhere else reading a book?
Figure out this reason for EVERY character in the dialogue. It tells you WHY the character is speaking. And that will tell you HOW the character speaks: their tone of voice, facial expression, body language, choice of words, choice of emphasis, whether they speak metaphorically or sarcastically, etc. etc. Everything!
The agenda itself, the WHY, does not end up on the page. The HOW ends up on the page. The reader reads the HOW and interprets it, using it to deduce the WHY.
Meanwhile, the WHAT -- the actual literal meaning of the words -- is there too, but it's secondary. The HOW and the WHY are the subtext, and an alert reader uses them to understand the character's internal state, which conveys what the scene actually means for the character, which is generally where the meat of the storytelling is.
Here are some things that are NOT reasons people say things in real life:
Those are reasons that authors make characters say things. They're not reasons for characters to say things.
They are nevertheless sometimes necessary. You do have to move the plot forward somehow. But putting the plot directly into the WHAT, what people literally say, breaks suspension of disbelief, because people just don't talk that way in real life. People don't say things like:
"Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo, so long ago when there was nothing but our love."
Movie screenwriters have a word for this sort of thing, when characters speak in literal plot-advancing statements. They call it "On-the-nose dialogue". A useful term for what you're trying to avoid. Google it!
Instead, take the plot-advancing reason for the dialogue and hide it behind an even more compelling in-character reason. Tell the story through the subtext, through the characters' actions and HOW they speak, not WHAT they say.
If you do this right, it lets the reader exercise the parts of their brain that evolved to understand the motivations of other human beings. Exercising this part of the brain is one of the main things that makes fiction enjoyable. Don't let it atrophy by writing crappy dialogue!
So we all know The Phantom Menace was a terrible movie. I don't think anybody's going to argue that.
We also all know that Star Wars fandom consists mostly of hating Star Wars. It's alright. Use your anger. Let the hate flow through you. Etc.
But I think the Star Wars prequel trilogy is really something special. These are no ordinary bad movies, to be watched once, laughed at, and forgotten. These movies are way beyond that. They had everything going for them - the story George Lucas was supposedly dying to tell for 20 years, unlimited budget and CGI technology, tons of time and fame and reputation and even love went into them, and they had a built-in audience of fanatical fanboys...
... and with all that, they weren't just, like, mediocre-bad. They weren't just not-as-good-as-the-originals bad. They were fundamentally screwed up at the most basic level of storytelling competence.
The prequel trilogy needs to be saved and passed down to future generations as a monument to human folly. Anyone who wants to learn about writing and how to tell a story, especially in science fiction (and I know I do) should study these movies in order to learn how to avoid their many mistakes. We should maybe even thank George Lucas for giving us the Rosetta Stone of bad filmmaking.
That's why I love this 7-part video review of The Phantom Menace.
It's a total of 70 minutes long (!!) almost half as long as the movie it's "reviewing". It's an epic takedown, a dissection of every mistake. The reviewer barely even wastes time on the surface-level mistakes like Jar-Jar and midicholorians and excessive CG. We already know that stuff is bad; why waste time rehashing it? Instead, the reviewer goes for the deeper structural problems in the story, like the fact that it has no protagonist, the villain's plan makes no sense, and nothing is at stake in any of the battles.
The reviewer also takes on a bizzare persona, talking in a "creepy old man" voice and dropping hints that he is a serial killer who does whatever his Pizza Rolls tell him to do. Eventually the police come for him. (This is how you make a 70-minute-long review stay interesting: give it a plotline of its own...) He also splices in behind-the-scenes clips to support the thesis that everyone was too scared of Lucas to challenge his ideas.
So, check out this post on The First Draft of Star Wars. It quotes extensively from the very first draft, from 1974 of the first Star Wars movie. It's... very different from what ended up on the screen. It's also amazingly, hilariously bad. It starts on the planet Utapau, Luke Skywalker is over 60 years old, the main character is "Anakin Starkiller", there's a space fortress that gets blown up by Wookies, and a major plot element is a belt of test tubes containing liquid scientist brains. I am not making any of this up. There's way too much clunky exposition of backstory that nobody would care about, and the whole thing just sucks.
For me, that clinches it. George Lucas is rubbish at writing. The only reason any of the Star Wars movies were any good at all was because of the people who forced him to keep revising his original drafts... or who wrote the script for him, in some cases. The badness of the prequel trilogy wasn't because Lucas, like, forgot how to make a good movie. The badness comes from Lucas getting exactly what he wanted, with nobody telling him "no". Exactly what he asked for in his first draft.
Scary, isn't it?
Some other miscellaneous links.
The same reviewer also does some very funny and spot-on takedowns of Star Trek movies in the same fashion. The one for Generations is a good place to start.
I've also been enjoying Darths And Droids, a photo-comic which reimagines the prequel trilogy as the output of a role-playing campaign that jumps off the rails in the first session and never really recovers. The plot makes no sense because the GM is desperately trying to improvise. The guy playing Qui-Gon is an idiot, the guy playing R2-D2 is a ruthless min-maxer, and when somebody's kid sister wants to play they let her create a character... she comes up with Jar-Jar. Everything makes so much more sense this way.
Oh ho ho ho, I have founds some right here. There's a lot! What do you guys think I should learn to play on the accordion first? Zankoku na Tenshi no Thesis? Some Final Fantasy songs? Or maybe the "Get Along" song from Slayers, that looks pretty easy?
On New Year's eve Sushu was mixing drinks and she invented a new one:
Baijou + Calpis Water!
She calls it the "Manchukuo".
Baijou (白酒, "white alcohol") is a kind of Chinese liquor, and Calpis Water is a Japanese sweet yogurt drink.
(Manchukuo is what the Japanese called the puppet state that they set up in the part of northeastern China that they conquered prior to WWII, speaking of Japanese fascism. It's a cold snowy area. The drink is Chinese + Japanese and white. So there you go.)
Thanks to Chris for this link: Live Action Space Battleship Yamato trailer! Woot!
Since Hollywood isn't involved, it might actually stand a chance of being decent, unlike say the Speed Racer or Astroboy movies.
This trailer set off an interesting discussion about the apologia-for-Japanese-fascism which lurks barely concealed in many scenes of Space Battleship Yamato. I get the sense that Leiji Matsumoto was a man who never got over the fact that Japan lost WWII, and was forever torn between wanting world peace everlasting, and wanting to rewrite history so Japan could win. Maybe that's why the stuff he writes is all tragic and "War is Hell" and yet at the same time it glorifies obedience and self-sacrifice and people who are willing to die for their
country planet. It's fascist and pacifist, or "Pascist" as Ben called it.
Like the race issues in Lord of the Rings (fair-skinned men = noble, swarthy men = invariably in league with Sauron)? or the implications in The Incredibles that if you're not born a superhero you shouldn't try to become one? I can recognize the messed up messages in a work of fiction but still enjoy it for other reasons, right? I hope so.
This illdoctrine video pretty much sums up how I feel about the Christmas season. This year, I mailed off some cards and presents but I didn't do anything Christmasy, and I didn't miss it. Just hung out in Seattle play-testing the Jiang Hu game and playing the accordion and talking, did a little karaoke, had dinner at Chinese restaurants (the only places open.)
Most of my family had really crappy Christmases. Not surprising when the economy is as bad as it was in 2009. I kind of wish I could just opt out of Christmas without feeling like I'm letting people down; I'm not a Christian, so why should I celebrate it, anyway?
Not so much resolutions as a to-do list.
When I was in Seattle, Alexis teased me mercilessly about my abandoned comic. She teased me so much that I actually started drawing again. It's something that has been back-burnered for much too long (I only wrote two strips in 2009) and I've been wanting to get back to it anyway; I just needed a kick in the pants. So doing my comic is going to be my top personal goal for this year. To have a measurable goal, I'm going to aim to finish the first story arc by the next Hackers conference.
My other goals are to...
Finish the five presents I promised to make. Two are done, one is mostly done, one is like half done, and the last is barely started. Hmm.
Then there's my programming projects...
Produce a playable demo of Beneath An Alien Sky.
Make the music program usable. (That thing needs a name, too.)
Then there's the skills I'm trying to learn...
Get good at the accordion! My plan is to practice playing some anime theme songs, then bring the accordion to ACen and play a show for my friends there.
Become conversationally fluent in Chinese, enough to participate properly in a dinner table conversation with Sushu's family.
Get back in shape. I joined a group from Moz that's been doing exercise classes. I went to one Wednesday and another one Friday. My whole body aches now, especially my abs and my lateral muscles. They were even more out of shape than I realized. Well, the first couple classes are the worst. It should get better from here. These exercise classes will make it easier to...
Start Aikido again, which I haven't done since summer 2008 when the Obama campaign took over all my free time. After that I got married, went to china, moved... my life turned upside down and hasn't gone back to normal since. But things should be calmer in 2010.
In order to have any chance of doing all this stuff, I'm going to have to fundamentally reorganize how I spend my free time. I'm going to have to make some sacrifices and cut out some stuff.
So, sadly, no painting miniatures or making terrain for me in 2010. (Or reading about them on the internet). You would be shocked at how much time and creative energy I spend on tiny army men for a game that I don't even play. There's just something about painting miniatures and painting terrain that I find very addictive and I can easily blow hours of free time a week on it. If I put all my miniature painting time since 2004 into comics instead, I would have a lot of comics done now, and I would be much prouder of the end product.
Even more sadly, I'm quitting my saturday role-playing group. It's been fun, but it's going to have to end so I can have my saturday afternoons back for creative projects. (Dave sent me an email with six sad-faces in it when I told him this news.)
Not sure how much I'm going to travel this year, but traveling is really time consuming (especially when it means flying between California and anywhere back East) so I want to keep it to a minimum. I got a webcam for my family so I'm going to try to do video chat or something with Aleksa so I can keep in touch with my family more without traveling so much.
Am I going to care about politics in 2010? It is an election year. But on the other hand, caring about politics is a time-consuming hobby, and mostly it makes me angry and depressed. Is it really worth it to me personally to spend energy reading, thinking, or arguing about?
Finally, I have to try to cut way back on internet stuff too. As for this blog, I think I'm going to try writing MUCH shorter posts. Like, one sentence posts. Both to practice brevity in writing, and to burn through the backlog of post topics I have built up while spending less total time on blogging.