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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Monday, 25 June 2012

A Brief Comment About Mass Effect 3: The Extended Cut

Hello, everyone!

Well, it's virtually unavoidable: time to dig up a metaphorical dead horse and possibly beat it with a stick. You know what I'm talking about: the Mass Effect 3 ending fiasco.

Wait, what? You don't know what I'm talking about? Have you been on the internet since March? If you've avoided it, by intent or accident, this should help: my post about ME3. If that doesn't help explain some things, this post might: a reflection on why heroes die. Go read them and come back, if you're confused.

Okay, enough shameless self-plugging. At this point, our proverbial horse is basically a slowly fossilizing skeleton, already leaving immortal calcium deposits on the history of gaming. The mess Bioware got itself into by providing three very different endings with radically similar animation is now legendary, and will probably be the bete noire of gaming companies completing epic stories for years to come. After all, is there anything worse than slaving over a beloved game and pouring your heart into it, only to discover that fans resent your decisions and consider them an emotionally damaging pile of slapdash phuquerie?

As a writer and a casual artist, I have to sympathise, and say I can't imagine anything much worse than that. However, I'm also not part of a large corporation rushing me to finish something and forcing me to achieve consensus with dozens of other writers. And, for better or for worse, I don't have hundreds of thousands of fans breathing down my neck every time I make a decision they don't like (yet). At the risk of being a hypocrite, much as there are plot holes that the Normandy herself could pilot through with ease, I can see why they wouldn't want to change their own work.

However, I am a fan, and though I enjoyed at least one of the endings, the emotional dissatisfaction with similar animation and similar implications for all three was truly heartbreaking. There have been other games that caught my attention, and made my heart beat faster. There have been other games that made me truly care about the their protagonists, settings, and struggles. And yet, I have not seen a game as richly alive and as soul-captivating as the Mass Effect trilogy. The ending, which was nearly a cliff-hanger in its brevity, seemed to foreshorten the struggle. A whole world of possibilities opened for the ending, but we didn't see them. The only options given were a variety of failures, and nearly all involved possible or implied genocide of various flavours.


Source. Personally, I liked the green apple flavour! Or, as some would have it, the watermelon flavour. Strawberry was also okay, but phuque the blue raspberry flavour. Did anyone choose blue? Didn't think so.


This downloadable content should fix the problem of tying up plot threads and fixing the "oops, we didn't mean to kill the galaxy" issue, but it's not going to change the ending. Our hero will still make the ultimate sacrifice, or kill everyone else trying. This was Bioware's decision, from the sound of things. I won't pretend it's perfect, but when you work hard enough to get either that much-vaunted red or green ending, there is still a certain satisfaction about it. They got their controversy, all right, and then some.

So, final thoughts. Have I seen the DLC yet? No, of course not, though you can bet your shapely blue asses I'll be writing some thoughts up as soon as I do. Am I happy that saving the galaxy (?) will probably require Shepard's death? Not really, because I really was crossing my fingers for a happy ending, or at least something less clich├ęd. However, if it's a question of whether or not I respect the writers for having the guts to say they weren't going to make everyone happy, that's an easy answer. In spite of all the fire, the dissatisfaction, the endless threats, raging, trolling, and even lawsuits, they're going to be faithful to their own work. And that represents an ethic that deserves no argument.

*****

As always, I hope you enjoyed today's batch o' fresh thoughts. There will be more Humble Bundle, more writing updates, some missed-it reviews. Keep an eye on new releases by following on Twitter and on Tumblr. This is your SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

It's One Grimm Popcorn Flick: An Analysis of Snow White and the Huntsman

Welcome back to the nest!

I did promise folklore and mythology on this here blog, and I aim to deliver. And so, with trepidation, hope, and my boyfriend and his baby sister, I found myself in a theatre watching Snow White and the Huntsman. I've lightly touched on my love of fairy tales before. I've also made it clear that I enjoy fantasy settings but have reservations about them. Well, wouldn't you know it, this movie did a fine job of justifying both the love and the...lesser love.

So, first question: should you see this movie? Well, I'd actually recommend it, but with reservations, as I'm about to explain. Do I need to warn you that there will be spoilers? Well, consider yourself warned.

So, without further ado, I'm about to get mediaeval on this movie's ass--settle into a nice milk bath, and enjoy the critique.


Source. It's like this, but also completely different from this.


Main Characters: Or, Why I Wish Hollywood Would Grow Out of Name-Dropping.

As always happens with these sorts of movies, there are three fairly big names and a bunch of mid-level types. The minor actors all do a good enough job, I suppose, but this movie really rests on its trinity of stars, and boy does it show.

Bella Snow White: Kristen Stewart is like rice: you can cover her in sauce, add a variety of stir-fried vegetables, meat or tofu, or serve her as a side-dish, but she is still, irrevocably, a bland and somewhat starchy product. However, rice is actually filling and somewhat nutritious, and has more of a flavour range than Stewart. I'm not saying I hate her. She's too nice to hate. However, I spent virtually every moment she was in the frame wishing she'd close her damn mouth. Even if one has been locked in a tower for the last few years, one shouldn't leave the old gob hanging down slackly. It's just begging for a good slap. She also has a tendency to slouch about and look gormless far more than a princess should.

She isn't as annoying as Bella was, of course, and having the movie write itself around her as some sort of semi-immortal paragon of innocence (or something...it was unclear, and we'll get to that in a minute) only worked half of the time. Sure, in the fairy forest, and a few other times, her delivery really worked--as she paused, a timid, doe-like grace suggested itself in her frame and in her eyes. Those moments of absorption were a pleasure to watch. However, her adorable upturned nose, stick-out ears, and buck teeth sort of clashed with the composition of all the 'fairest in the land' beauty shots. I hate picking on her appearance, here, but I do think it made a difference, especially when she is set beside the queen.

Ravenna: It's no secret that I like girls almost as much as I like men, but damn, Charlize Theron would be enough to make even the most red-blooded straight girl question her preferences. I didn't realise it was her, at first, but the ageless, sculpted beauty and smouldering charisma of the queen left no doubt. Between a truly fabulous wardrobe and some very subtle acting, I was sold. Theron seems to like roles that involve her beauty being compromised, and watching the Queen deal with aging and growing youthful again was certainly interesting. The way she reacted to things and suggestions of her frigidity and victimization (including vaguely implied childhood sexual assault) was marvellous. Oh, sure, Hemsworth and Stewart were pretty, but Ravenna was worth the price of the admission. I would have loved to see a film solely centred on her back-story; not unlike the famous Elphaba of Wicked, she is a fascinating figure. At least one person watching it with me thought her acting could've been better, and I'd agree that the temper tantrum was pretty artificial, but her lonely, self-reliant, wounded character is still a treat to watch.

The Huntsman: Chris Hemsworth does a pretty good job of stepping to the sidelines in his role as Huntsman; he lets Stewart glow with the magic of the film and concentrates on playing a protective, good-natured lunkhead with a few hints of genuine emotional richness. He knows his character has a good heart rather than a strong brain, and he works with it; better still, he doesn't play a mediaeval Thor. The suggestion of questionable morals and a pinch of Han Soloesque actions make him a likeable sort of fellow. He also handles the underplayed romantic encounters with Stewart deftly, which makes one of them, at least. He did seem to be feeling like Pedobear for getting so close to an actress substantially younger than himself, but he handled it well.


Source. Here, you go over there and I'll make a Neanderthal face while your mouth hangs open again!


Visuals: These were what kept me in the theatre and glued to the screen. From the tiny perfect details in the armour construction to the delicious sartorial work in the ladies' and dwarves' costumes to the sweeping beauties of the settings, I was thrilled. The camera work is mostly excellent, with lots of wide-framed shots that really get a story-book feeling across. There was some sloppy editing, unfortunately, and occasionally cases of unintended camera wobbling, but the clean, stark colour choices and use of colour themes was wonderful to see. The Sanctuary's fairy forest was lovely, and the evil forest, equally so; the castle, a joy to explore. There were tonnes of cliches, but the wholehearted embrace of them actually worked in the film's favour. Sometimes the CGI was contrived, but frell it, I didn't care; the atmosphere and composition were spot-on for that fairy-tale feeling. Even if the actors sometimes waver, the designers believed in their vision wholeheartedly.


References: No, not mine, the film's. I just can't let the visual and literary references to other works go unnoticed. There were a few Shrek-like moments with the Huntsman and Snow White, some clear visual references to Lord of The Rings with the whole 'filing in line up a craggy mountain/hilltop edge' bit, and, most surprisingly--and uselessly--a reference to Murakami's masterpiece, Princess Mononoke, when a many-horned white stag in front of a cleft tree 'blesses' Princess Bel Snow White. There were, of course, some very expected Twilight references, such as Ravenna's creepy pale brother, Gollum, WhatsisNuts, explicitly saying that he was watching Be Snow White sleeping. (There is also the beginning of what Bella should've done with Edward, i.e., cut his bitch face open with a rusty nail. I wish that had been a Twilight reference.)

I don't know if I need to mention the 'girl leading the people' scenes and the hint of Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen about the story; having magpies as Snow White's symbol (yes, I did squee) certainly didn't hurt the suggestion of that, either. I don't even know how to classify the romantic triangle that was suggested--is that even a reference, or just a trope, at this point? There was also a less innocent reference--the Queen wants Snow's heart because it will somehow give her eternal youth. The way Snow White is portrayed and the way Ravenna is portrayed was more than a little reminescent of Neil Gaiman's beautiful Stardust, one of the loveliest fairy tales to be written in the modern age. It's well worth a read, and the eating hearts and entrails of wee cute animals is repeated there as well as in this film, though more tastefully in Gaiman's version. I don't know if I'd call this one intellectual copyright violation, but I'd say that between the darkish feel and that thematic similarity, there was definitely a hint of Gaiman's inspiration for this one.


Source. She's pointing at you, movie, now explain yourself and apologize!


What Does It All Mean?: Now we come to the fun part.

Winter Symbolism:I mentioned that Stardust had a witch looking for an immortal's heart--a star's, in this case, not a princess's--and I should've mentioned the aging-when-magic-is-used thing there, too. This film, however, takes that basic concept, which is not terribly rare, and seems to use it as a subtle commentary on the feminine quest for beauty. Ravenna must literally suck the souls and beauty out of young women to keep herself beautiful, and her makeup is generally cover-model immaculate. In comparison to Snow White's wholesome, dirty-fingered, natural prettiness, which is supposed to come from within (something Steward sort of fails to portray), it is bot spectacular and as artificial as a hothouse orchid. Ravenna also seems to simultaneously love, hate, and fear her condition of imperfect immortality and beauty, a curse forced on her by a mother trying to defend her from the ravages of a predatory king.

Ravenna spends her life destroying men and their kingdoms, but my not-so-inner psychologist noticed some clear suggestions of trauma and replaying her own victimization on others. This makes for a complex villain, and I was actually a bit mad at Snow White for simply stabbing her in the end, rather than shedding a couple drops of her own blood to break the Queen's curse. Sure, Ravenna is evil, but she is still fond of her creepy monkey brother, and even though she is a carrion-creature, personifying death and winter, her loneliness makes her sympathetic. Snow White's verdant themes and spring-toned associations are a bland contrast against Ravenna's solitude, but the message of natural beauty and its triumph over artifice is a subtle one that every review I've seen so far completely missed.

Christian Politics:I also want to touch briefly on the Christianity vs. Paganism thing before I give the perfunctory feminist analysis a go. In one scene, Snow White says the Lord's Prayer, and there are a few quiet references to the Crusades. The Queen, in contrast, is firmly pagan, with her raven association--a callback to celtic goddess Morrigan, goddess of war, associated with the carrion birds. We can't forget her movement through stages of maiden, mother/wife, and crone, and above all, the blood ceremony in her childhood binding her to unnatural life and beauty doesn't really smack of prayer circles, either. The milk baths, too, are an interesting addition to her daily routine of beauty preservation, because milk was supposed to not only soften the skin, but also block magic. Roses, too, responsible for Snow White's colour, are supposed to have anti-magical properties...these are interesting, at least, but the movie never does anything with them, just a couple of unexplored themes to go with all the tiny loose plot threads it leaves.

Dat Feminism:Finally, the feminism thing. The movie passes the Beschdel test--I've mentioned it before, in That Feminist Post, and that's a relief. However, it sends conflicting messages. Ravenna's beauty makes her a victim of male control, but Snow White's mother tells her she will be a good leader, without mentioning a man at all. The romance is nicely underplayed and left to suggestion rather than being a focus (a huge shock for me, but not an unpleasant one). And yet, there are no women in the army apart from Snow White, undercutting that independent idea once again. Add the suggestion that Snow White is somehow immortal, and you have a 'women inevitably ruin everything' situation on your hands. The movie hints at this stuff, but doesn't follow through with it, leaving me hungry for a sequel and/or prequel that is artistically bold enough to do so.


Final Prognosis: It had some huge plot holes and occasionally weak acting, and I'm not even touching the unnecessary cameo dwarves with a standard ten-foot-pole, but the visual feast and subtle themes in Snow White and the Huntsman make it worth a watch. It's good for popcorn viewings, sure, but more intellectual members of the audience will have a few things to play with. And that, at least, counts for something.


*****

Well, I hope you enjoyed the show today. There will be more on folklore, game reviews from the Humble Bundle, science!, and of course, tasty teasers for my fiction writing in posts to come. Don't you dare touch that dial. Follow me on Twitter at SciFiMagpie and on Tumbler at SciFiMagpie. The Tumblr is still under construction, but I hope to see you there! This is your SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Monday, 4 June 2012

Brought to You by Science!: Secrets of Prehistoric Icky Tooth Goo

Hello, everyone!

Now on SciFiMagpie: "Brought to You by Science!" This new segment is a short reflection on recent stuff on science news, and what it means for writers and the rest of you.

I have just found a reason to feel less guilty about the occasional night of skipping a tooth-brushing in my youth. Inside Science reported that calculus on ancient Neanderthal teeth--that's plaque, to the rest of us--had actually proven to include tiny fossilised bits of bacteria, pollen, and cooked food matter. This is a pretty big deal, because it means that the method of cooking food, type of food eaten, and where the food came from can all be examined. And, since prehistoric dental care was about as good as that of modern uninsured Americans, there is no shortage of physical evidence.

I don't really know how they discovered this, but since they "can examine the calculus directly on the tooth with a microscope", and used modern dental tools to scrape off bits of the rest, I suppose someone noticed a wee bit of ancient bacteria whilst popping a tooth under the most highly-powered microscope in the lab. Because, you know, it was Thursday, and scientists always like to pop a random sample under a microscope on Thursdays, just to see how it's doing. All right, there was more of a method to it than that. Still, the discovery--if the 'excited squealing' tone of the paper and the casual article are anything to go by--appears to have been a bit of serendipity, and it got me thinking.


Source.

On one hand, this is a good thing, if only because it disproves the fairly stupid concept of the Caveman Diet (a high-meat, high-fat, low-grain, moderate veggie and fruit). It also gives us some insight into what kinds of things historical re-creationists should be cooking. And, should one be writing a story with a prehistoric--or partially prehistoric--setting, there will actually be more reliable sources of information on the sorts of food your characters will be cooking and eating.

On the other side, it does mean we'll have to do more research, of course, and I think I speak for more than a few writers when I say that doing the research to ensure something is historically accurate can be really frelling frustrating. I say "can be", but what I really mean is, "inevitably will always be, even without a direct drip-feed of Wikipedia articles into one's frontal lobe."

Anyway, getting on with it, coming across this research and its conclusions was both expected and surprising. Years of interest in palaeontology and a friend with interests in early homonids have combined to provide me with a basic understanding about Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens. (Including the fact that they may have interbred with us, and there was, at minimum, cultural contact. Think about it next time you watch football.)I was well aware of the fact that Neanderthals had pretty respectably well-developed brains and had a more sophisticated culture than previously expected--including death rituals, well-made hunting equipment, and that sort of thing. Still, imagining a Neanderthal family sitting down for a cooked meal of greens, starches, and grains as opposed to grunting and tearing into a hunk of raw mammoth is a different proposition. I've come across a few Clan of the Cave Bear-type books in my time, though never many, because it's a difficult topic to tackle. Now that there is more evidence than ever about the sort of life our distant cousins led, I hope to see more people attempting to write these stories. I don't know that I'd ever scribe one myself, but it would be a very neat scene inclusion in something that involved a twisted timeline, a cosmic flashback, or suchlike.

And, since the calculus also contained microscopic disease bacteria, we can also figure out whether the modern cold sucked more than the ancient forms of the virus. Add that to your pile of things to check for historical accuracy! Or don't, if the pile is too big, as that will give you a heart attack. On the bright side, future archaeologists who discover your corpse will be able to use the bacteria on your teeth to determine that poor cardiovascular health (as worsened by bacteria) was the result of your demise!


That's all the time we have for today, but be sure to check out my Twitter feed, SciFiMagpie, and to come back for more stuff about science, games, writing, and goofing about. This is your SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Humble Bundle Reviews, Part 1: Psychonauts

Welcome to my Humble Bundle specials!

Since a rather fortuitous sale by a bunch of amazing indie developers has bestowed some beautiful games on Andrey, the rest of you get to benefit from a review! Or rather, five of them, because I will have a short review of every game in the pack.

This is Humble Bundle 5, for those of you unfamiliar with this charity campaign; this time, it's Child's Play, the group that provides games and controllers to kids with severe and terminal illnesses. And what do you get for your "pay what you want" donation? Why, only Amnesia, Psychonauts, Limbo, Superbrothers: Sword and Sorcery, and, if you pay more than $7.82, Bastion--and, they give you the soundtracks for the games too, which is amazing.

All right, now you're convinced that it's awesome, so here's a link to get the games and do some good. There's more information on the site, obviously:

The treasure trove, for your consideration.

Just to remind you--and to let you newcomers know how this works--he plays while I spectate, and my reviews are focussed mainly on writing and general construction rather than on gameplay. Some mechanics will be mentioned, but only if they're useful, relevant, or just overwhelmingly freakin' annoying. That's just how I roll.

All right! So, time for summary no. 1: Psychonauts. (2005)

Psychonauts: I May Not Know Karate, But I Do Know...Really Amazing Writing.

Psychonauts is a wonder. It's a genuinely amazing piece of gaming, and its legendary status is well-deserved. I was expecting to rip a few holes in this one, even though it's a classic, but, nope...it's marvellous. Many gamers have bemoaned the abandonment of sequels for this game, and the reason for that is simply that it somehow didn't sell enough back in 2005. That may change, though, since Schafer has made some cautious comments recently about a sequel, and fans have been clamouring for it since its release. Tim Schafer's brainchild is still alive and well, though, and it has held up shockingly well to the test of time. If you, like me, had heard of this game but never experienced it, you're going to need to go play it. Like, right now. Here are some reasons why.

Visual Design: The graphics do show their age, but seemed quaint rather than ugly or lumpy. The unusual design and stylised characters still look pretty good about seven years after its initial release. In the future, I can't say how well they'll hold up, but they look a hell of a lot better than I expected them to. The colourful worlds and whimsical detailing make it very entertaining to look at. It's a little bit reminiscent of American McGee's Alice, but not quite as dark. Any darker details tend to show up in specific levels in out-of-the-way places. However, discovering characters' memories in safes, and the old-fashioned projector/viewfinder that showcased their deeply private moments, yielded some disturbing and haunting still-image short stories. It's silly, but serious, and self-consistent; for a vaguely similar aesthetic, check out Xenoclash. (That baby is going to get a review as soon as there's time for it, by the way...)And similarly, there are some freaky sections--this is a serious spoiler, but "Milla's Children" creeped me the hell out. And the asylum's people were something special...and we haven't even gotten to the meat circus. Dibs on that band name, by the way.

Plot: Do I really need to tell you how many spoilers there will be in this section? Well, there are. Anyway. I will do a very brief version of this, because the only way to describe the full plot would take most of the article. A kid called Raz runs away from the circus to a fancy camp for psychics, to train them to be professional soldiers called "Psychonauts". He encounters other kids, crazy instructors, and a janitor-secret-agent with entertaining split-personalities. Eventually he also realises that something is awry when kids walk around moaning, "tee...veee...TV..." and the adult teachers go missing. Investigations reveal that the kids' brains are being stolen for a tank that runs on brains (extracted by super-sneezes, of course). Eventually, after he runs around for a while and rescues literally every other person in the camp, amusing circumstances result in him being stuck in his own brain, inside a tank, with the main antagonist as a child. There is a meat circus and a happy ending where everything is resolved...and then, there's a cliffhanger, where a second game was supposed to go, and never did. It's an odd little plot, very Saturday-morning cartoonish, but it works. Above all else, it's very well-implemented, and there are subtle levels of meaning and moral that make it a truly feel-good experience, not just a lump of candy.


Source. Raz, at left. And if you were wondering, yes, he does use those goggles, shockingly; they aren't just there for looks.

Characters: Oh thank god for giving us a childish game with a main character who's not a dumbass. Razputin--Raz--is a nice kid, and actually manages to be spunky without being offensive or pertly annoying. The other kids are realistically rotten, perverted, goofy, and sweet, without being precious or artificial. The voice-actors are pretty fun to listen to, and the same goes for the adults. I admit that the gap-toothed, ginger-fluff-haired bully made me want to punch the computer, but that was mostly due to my personal hatred for really gappy, uneven teeth. Surely this fancy government camp has a dentist somewhere? Oh well. I really liked Sasha Nein, too; his wry humour was understated and well-implemented. The romance is pretty good too--the kids are appropriately shy, enthusiastic, and inept, and the adults' romance tends to stay off-screen. The loving detail that went into the supporting cast is very apparent, and the well-developed world full of real characters makes the game even more fun.

Dialogue And General Writing: This was a real treat. There were lots of witty visual jokes--as someone trained in counselling, the fact that you can find "Emotional Baggage" and remove it by labelling it was hilarious. The use of Jungian theory and touches of other psychological ideas really amused me, and added an extra level of intelligence to the jokes. Then, at the asylum, the investigation into mental illnesses via metaphor was simply the best exploration of the subject I've ever seen, in a video game or movie, ever. There are also some good one-liners, and the settings are absorbing and believable. Of course, when I say "believable", I mean "involving wandering around the city mind of a mutated lungfish as a Brobdingnagian version of Raz in order to free said lungfish from mind control." Yeah. That's what I thought, too. This, my friends, is the essence of phuquerie, pure and undiluted.

Mechanics And Gameplay: The quests are nicely laid out in your notebook, and they'll pop up on your screen when you're in the relevant area. They keep these simple, and it's nice. It doesn't feel like you're doing a pointless grind. There is a lot of crap to pick up for various things, and as usual with adventure games, getting some of the items is a pain in the ass, but that all sort of goes with the genre. The camera doesn't move around too much, which is a relief for those who find shaky cam an irritation rather than a 'gritty style feature'. It's smooth, fun, well-done, and lacking in the usual adventure-game glitches. There are no sticky corners and minimal pixels, and that makes for a headache-free experience. Unless, of course, it crashes, but that is mercifully seldom. Some elements in navigation, monster-killing, and crap-finding are, and I quote, "doable but frustrating", but it's hardly the nightmarish difficulty level of, say, Dark Souls. (And yes, there will be a Dark Souls review eventually, but I need to get Andrey to stop rocking back and forth and whimpering every time I mention the game.)Oh, sure, there are level glitches and some annoying camera-work at times, but it's mostly pretty good. Some end levels are a pain--the meat circus and the day-glo velvet nightmare mexican level with the luchadores had Andrey swearing a fair bit, and I personally found the dancing level tiresome, but the rest was pretty decent.

Final Prognosis: A damn fine game that is actually worth the fuss. It's been reviewed by many people before, but it is definitely worth your investment in the Humble Bundle or on Steam. The visual design is absolutely wonderful, the writing is sensitive, cute, and clever but not afraid to go dark, and it all makes for an unmissable experience.


Thanks for tuning into the SciFiMagpie channel today. Follow me on Twitter for more updates and reviews, at SciFiMagpie. And, of course, don't forget to keep coming back this month for more reviews of the Humble Bundle, news about my writing, clever ideas, and more fun stuff than you can handle in a single sitting! So long for now...

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