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Friday, November 17, 2017

Our "Idol System" Kind of Sucks Too

These days, you don't even have to be an industry professional to have an ear to the dark side of Japan's idol culture. The girl groups (and occasionally guy groups) are cute, perky, approachable, talented, and seemingly free of any romantic attachments. More than just enjoying their music and dancing and costumes, older male fans are in it for the girls themselves. Having a boyfriend could sink one of these performers as fans would consider them "secondhand goods" no longer worth cheering for, and it's pretty much as rife with creepers and harassment as the whole setup would lead you to believe.

Despite our love for Love Live! and Aikatsu! and the like, we're still able to separate the fairy tale from the reality, and enjoy shows about inspired and self-motivated performers while calling out the ugly system that makes them tick in reality.

There's plenty to say about the West and the rise and fall of Disney Channel performers and the like -- but that's for another time (if at all -- I may not be the right person for that topic). Because overall in America, we use the word "idol" very differently. Still for performers, still for people we like to cheer for. But the tables are somewhat turned, especially in recent months.

I went on a hunt for the least creepy Kevin Spacey pic I could find and here we are.
Despite our increased understanding of Eastern culture and the best efforts of shows like American Idol, we still understand the term "idol" to be someone we look up to. Someone we would, perhaps, like to be like. Someone we can look to as a talent and a human being, whether we want to emulate them, work with them, or just buy them a drink and tell them how awesome we are.

2016 saw many of those drinks crash to the floor as an entire generation of entertainment greats hit a mortality wall. And this year, it's a very different wall they're hitting.

Suspiciously hot on the heels of Hugh Hefner -- not that I'm tinfoil-hatting, but you have to admit this all kicked off after Hugh Hefner died -- we've begun watching many of our idols crash and burn. It was easy with Harvey Weinstein, the sleaze in plain sight. It was even relatively easy for Kevin Spacey, despite his admitted talent. He is, after all, the king of playing really untrustworthy bastards.

The going was easy for a while. People everyone "always figured" were trouble began getting outed, and no one had an issue.

Then came George Takei. And suddenly there was a shuffling of feet.

It's actually a lot easier when you source images this way.
I've met George Takei. In the ten seconds we exchanged words, he was a kind and friendly person. He's been a kind and friendly person to many in the fandom. He is a great talent and has done charity work and raised awareness for issues that would often go overlooked. And that's all wonderful and noble.

When I heard the accusation, I had my usual reaction: be open to the fact that it might be true, and await further news. But there was an outcry online. Because suddenly when it was someone they didn't want to go under the microscope -- when it was the Internet's favorite cheeky grandpa and not someone they were actually targeting -- everything was different.

Hot on his heels, Louis CK and Al Franken. Both first issuing stunning non-apologies, and both acting in ways that read like they consulted an agent first. Fortunately, many people have their eyes on the real issue: the pervasive culture of abuse perpetuated by the powerful. But others are more interested in ousting The Ones They Don't Like, forgetting that abusers can be on any side of the Culture War.

And this is where things get hinky. Because when the target is an out-of-favor creep, it's very easy for the rest of the world to come in and tell you to stop enjoying their work, stop supporting them, don't feel bad or conflicted, just drop them.

And, well, the freak-out is pretty easy to understand. Because we believe that those who outwardly share our worldview can Do No Wrong. That once we've decided they're perfect -- once we've idolized them -- any accusation against them is obviously incorrect.

Like I said in the title... our "idol system" kind of sucks.

On the old saw of whether one "can" or "should" separate the creator from the creation -- that is solely up to the individual. If you can enjoy a movie that still stars an outed sex offender because you are separating the human from the work they were in, that's fine. If you suddenly find you can't look at certain movies again because of who made them, that's also fine. Well, it's sucky on a personal level if those were movies you really enjoyed, but it's also your reaction and no one else's.

The important thing in all this -- because it will continue, though I'm not optimistic enough to believe it's going to immediately effect any long-term change -- is to rethink idolizing people. There are a select few I can count on one hand whom I would ride into hell beside. And if one of them were genuinely, honestly accused of a crime, I would not pretend it didn't happen just because I like them a lot. That's unfair to the victim.

When it comes to your personal life and your personal entertainment, what remains on your DVD shelf is your business. But when it comes to discussion with friends and online, blind support of your fave is not necessarily the way to go. Because among your friends are people who have been abused... perhaps by other friends. And if they see that you're willing to disbelieve a stranger's claim because you're a big fan of the other stranger involved, you may not be the one they come to if someone else in your circle has hurt them.

Things far away from us have ripples, and they do affect our social circles. How you react to accusations that have nothing to do with you will key others in to how you think. And it's time to start, if not blindly believing, then at least being willing to admit that the people we admire may not be absolutely flawless.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

"Thank goodness she isn't like you."

Unsurprisingly (and with no anger toward them because I expected it), my friends lately have done largely the last thing I wanted them to do: ask my what I think of Jodie Whittaker's official Thirteenth Doctor ensemble. Not because of a strong feeling toward it one way or the other, but because I've been burned in the past by forming opinions of new Doctors' outfits.

I still remember the show's return, when fans were in an uproar over the Ninth Doctor looking "too normal" in his jumper and leather jacket and extremely short hair. Of course, before the show started, we had no context for his look. But within his first episode, the look was already beginning to make sense alongside his working class demeanor and almost mournful undertones post-Time War. Nowadays, people long for it; in 2005, people were suspicious.

So asking what I think of 13's look when she hasn't even said a word is awkward. How can I know if the costume is good? I don't know who she is yet.

All of this is simply to lay out an important point before I start: none of what I say is a critique of the outfit. Because I can't judge it until I know the personality of the woman wearing it. No, my commentary is on... well, the commentary.

Pretty much every announcement preceding series 11 of Doctor Who has evoked the same roll of feelings in me: curiosity, followed by cautious enthusiasm, followed by dismay when I hear fans saying exactly what I hoped they wouldn't say. Generally things that people have no idea are dismaying because they are enthusiastically positive. But there's a cutting undercurrent to their positivity that, without their knowledge, sweeps my legs out from under me.

When the talk of the new outfit first started, the extreme opinions actually made me happy. Whether people loved it or hated it, lauded it or mocked it, fought with each other, it was a normal fight. It looked like every other reaction to a Doctor's costume ever. And there was something quite nice about that. Something about the complete normality of the reaction. This was yet another Doctor Who costume debate. Already, fans were treating the first woman ever to play the Doctor as -- well -- a Doctor. No codas, no footnotes.

But then other things started creeping in, and I felt my legs being swept yet again.

"Thank goodness it's not a dress."

"Thank goodness she's not wearing a ton of makeup."

"Thank goodness she's not wearing too much jewelry."

Regardless of positive or negative feeling on the outfit in general, a few stray voices would crop up to express relief that the woman in the spotlight hadn't dressed like a Traditional Woman. And it surprised me, in an era when we're meant to be championing women dressing as they please and not being judged either way for it. Because all I could see were people being relieved that our new Doctor hadn't gone and dressed like me. Because that would be unforgivable.

Are there certain outfits that would have been deal breakers? Yes. Whittaker would have refused them. There are some mistakes, relegated to companions so far, that would have been Genuinely Bad Ideas.

But God forgive me, there was a part of me that wanted to see 13 show up in a giant pink ballgown with a race day hat and a sparkly handbag, just to see if everyone so "okay" with a woman in the role was still "okay" if she didn't dress gender-neutral.

This is the point where, in my mind's eye, I see friends and readers and acquaintances rushing into my comments. That's not what we meant when we said we were glad of this. We just meant we're glad The Men At The BBC weren't dressing her all girly. Or, we're glad she wasn't forced into something sexy. Or, we're glad there was scope given to her costume.



I understand. I genuinely believe that no one who was breathing huge sighs of relief over 13 not dressing feminine were specifically going "Oh, Good, she doesn't look like Kara." But I'm not the only one who dresses that way. I'm not the only one who adores a dress that does the spinny thing. Or shiny shoes. Or weird colors in my hair. Or the best earrings. Nail polish. Whatever.

I do not believe every woman has to enjoy that. I do not believe only women can enjoy that. But there is something quite sad, quite daunting, about being told by the world around you how happy you should be that the Doctor is now "like you," and one sentence later hearing how wonderful it is that she isn't.

Judging by her outfit, this Doctor does not fancy dresses. That's all right. I'm looking forward to seeing what draws her to what she wears. But I'm, as usual, lamenting the fact that many women in the Doctor Who fandom are being inadvertently steamrolled in the "woke" portion's rush to remain as woke and accepting as possible.

We are now, and have been for a bit, in interesting times. Times when entertainment is acknowledging the broadness of its fan base, when we have to actually consider what we're doing instead of just throwing radical ideas at a wall and hoping they don't land in an awkward arrangement. Women having a greater voice in the world of Doctor Who -- as actors, writers, directors, artists, experts, and fans -- is a wonderful thing. But as we open ourselves up to this, it's important to remember the thing we keep telling the people around us: women are not a monolith.

The idea is not to accept all women provided they are vaguely gender neutral and talk a certain way. If you are welcoming women, if you are accepting women, you are accepting them all. The ones in stripey shirts and braces. The ones in ballgowns. The ones in catsuits. The one in boiler suits. The one in princess dresses.

If the idea is that any child could be the Doctor -- that means any.

Friday, November 10, 2017

On Goals vs. Aspirations

I'm going to lay out a hypothetical for you.

You're an artist. You love comic books. Your favorite comic book writer ever is Biff McWriter (I'm tired, just work with me), creator of the Super Buddies series. You've gone to art school, you're an up-and-coming comic book artist yourself, and your one goal. Like your one big goal. Is to illustrate a comic by Biff McWriter. That's your giant glowing target in the distance.

Let's also assume for the sake of this exercise that you are hard-working, talented, and in a position to eventually climb the ladder to be enough in Biff McWriter's sights that he could hire you if he saw you.

Now, bearing in mind that this is your one absolute goal ever that you've been working toward, tell me what you do when one of the following happens:

Biff McWriter retires.

You discover that Biff McWriter is, within his industry, notorious for not hiring people of your gender/race/sexuality.

Biff McWriter dies.

Biff McWriter's recent works begin reflecting a belief system you find reprehensible, and working with him would mean helping to elevate that belief system.


You get your portfolio in front of Biff McWriter, he looks over it, and he turns you down.

Now what.

At first flush, this all looks like a heavy dose of cynicism or pessimism. And, let's be real. It sort of is. But it's also a heavy dose of potential fact.

We as creators are inspired by the people we admire. And it's natural to want to work with these people. Really, there's nothing wrong with that. I have a short list of people I'd give my left arm to just spend one day interning with. There are studios, companies, and businesses I would love to work with or for. And for much of my adult life, I considered these goals. That someday I would get good enough, known enough, to work for such-and-such group doing such-and-such project.

Imagine my recent dismay when I discovered they "have issues" hiring women. It seems like a very medieval issue these days, but it does still happen. And the minute I heard that a company I admire, that I've been working to get "good enough" for, is currently in the process of being called out for just not really wanting any women working for them, my heart sank. I felt like a great deal of my hard work had been for nothing.

Now, of course, that's not true. Every article I write, every page of fiction I slap together, is a step on the road to improvement. And it doesn't really matter why I improve, or for whom. Even if I discover at the end of the day that one of my major goals is now an impossibility because of something outside my area of influence, my work isn't undone.

There is that. But. It did make me back up and start reconsidering a good number of my goals.

I have a spreadsheet covering several areas of my life, each with a list of monthly goals for the next six months. I look at it daily, tweak it, update it, go to it to see how I'm doing or if there's something I've fallen behind on. And up until about a month ago, there were a lot of proper nouns on my list. Names of people, names of companies, names of studios. "Get a job with ______" or "Write one thing for ______" were common formats.

After this most recent boot to the head, I had to stand back and think. Because seeing a good chunk of my spreadsheet trashed by the actions (or inactions) of other people seemed wrong.

So I tweaked it.

And now I separate out my Goals and my Aspirations.

I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to work for or with someone, to be published under such-and-such brand, to contribute to such-and-such title. But goals should be separate. Goals should be things that, at least to a degree, you can achieve without the whims or failings of one individual out of 7 billion toppling them. A goal is getting a certain type of thing published with "a notable publisher" -- not the same as wanting to work for a specific one.

It's painful to make myself let go of specific goals, because by doing so you're admitting that the people and places you wanted to associate with may not want you back when the time comes, for reasons other than your talent. Or, when the time comes, you may discover you want nothing to do with them.

There are certainly still people I want to collaborate with, places I want to work, people whose voices I would love to hear read my words. But those may have to be a separate list from the things I put my whole heart into. At least for now.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

MOVIES: The Villain of "Hush" Isn't as Flat as You Think

So first things first. The movie Hush is amazing. Look it up on Netflix. It's a tight, quiet horror movie about a deaf/mute novelist (that's not a spoiler, that's literally within the first minute or two of setup) being chased through her house by a serial killer, as she tries to outwit him and last the night.

For obvious reasons, there's very little dialogue. There is some -- our heroine Maddie can lip-read, and the unnamed killer uses that to his advantage, taunting her as he hunts her from both inside and outside her home. But dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum, with the majority of the movie playing out in silence or well-designed sound effects.

As I read through reviews and theories about the film after watching it, one thing kept coming to the forefront: the unnamed man was a "flat character." True, we never learn the reason for his killing spree. The film sets us up to expect Maddie's recent ex to be the man behind the mask, but (again, not really a spoiler) it's Just Some Guy. What little we learn of him only tells us enough to know that he doesn't know Maddie or her ill-fated friend, and that he's just putting notches (literally) in his crossbow.

A few viewers have argued that knowing his motive could have made the movie more compelling -- that simply having A Killer meant we lost out on a lot of potential drama. I can absolutely see how this would be the case, but I don't necessarily believe it would have bettered the movie.

For one thing, this is not the story of Maddie vs. the killer. This is a story of a woman fighting back. The whole scenario is deeply steeped in the imagery of her as a writer attempting to pull her story's threads together into a satisfying ending. So deeply steeped, in fact, that some believe the entire movie from the moment the killer arrives is just her playing out plot scenarios in her head. It's a neat conceit, but not likely.

I was recently a guest on Radio Free Skaro discussing the Doctor Who episode "Knock Knock." While much of the panel said that the lack of background on the episode's many victims took them out of the moment, I maintained that the lack of focus was meant to redirect our attention. An undeveloped character can be bad writing, but it can also mean that we are meant to immerse ourselves in the circumstances surrounding them. Without heavy characterization, we're freed of any concern as to their fate, and the horror of the story is allowed to play out.

This is a tactic that horror manga-ka Junji Ito pretty much uses as his bread and butter. His stories almost never have well-developed characters, to the point that even his protagonists look extremely generic (with the exception of a handful of regular players like Tomie). With no empathy and very little way to tell this lead apart from the lead of his last five stories, we're free to witness the eldritch horrors of their surroundings consume them without being distracted by getting attached.

Handing the unnamed killer a motive, even if he was genuinely a foul and irredeemable human being, adds another layer to the story, and it makes the story about Maddie vs. The Killer. And in point of fact, the film is about Maddie vs. Insane Odds. There's no harm in not giving those insane odds a background.

That said... I'm not entirely certain we weren't given one.

What do we know of the killer? He kills. He enjoys killing. He uses a crossbow and comments on how it's not as easy to use as it looks. His crossbow has has marks in it -- presumably his kills. We can assume he preys largely on defenseless women, as his previous mark was a woman and his interest in Maddie is piqued as soon as he realizes she's deaf. And he wants to toy with her a bit before he finishes her.

That could honestly be any movie killer (or, sadly, any real-world killer). It's not much to go on. Most have assumed he's a hunter, given his skill with the crossbow and his love of hunting and killing.

But there's one little tiny throwaway moment that tells us exactly why he kills... and exactly why he's going for Maddie.

Around the middle of the movie, we see him taunting her through her window. He's removed his last mark's earrings and is flashing them at her, making silly faces. Maddie, overcome with the seriousness of the situation, turns away and begins to leave the room -- not as an act of defiance, not to run, but simply because she's hit so hard with what's going on that she needs to sit down and have a freak out before she keeps going.

Maddie isn't what we need to look at, though -- it's the man. Because what he does is interesting.

A bully (because this is bullying -- just very gruesome levels of it) would likely take delight in seeing their mark collapse so obviously. That means they're accomplishing their goal. They might laugh or go harder, knowing they've found something that works.

But that's not what the killer does when Maddie turns away. He gets mad. He starts pounding on the window, shouting at her angrily. He's clearly distraught that, now that she's turned away, she is no longer able to witness his bullying.

This is about attention. And power.

"Well, obviously," you're saying. But think about it. This is a man who discovers that the one witness to his crime didn't witness it. Because she couldn't. If his main goal was not being caught, he would've just gotten the heck out. If his main goal was upping his body count? He could have walked in right then and shot her through the head, and she wouldn't even know what hit her.

Instead, he set aside his whole night and risked his freedom and his body count, all to mess with her. To make her do the one thing she hadn't done: notice him. Be forced to observe him. Better still? Force a deaf woman to "hear" him -- something truly impossible. But he'd manage it.

Only when he'd gotten enough attention would he end his game.

We may never know this killer's name, but we do know that attention drives him. Or, if it didn't before, it does now. Does it make a difference to the film as a whole? Probably not. This is still about Maddie, her courage, and her problem-solving.

It is, though, an amazing look at how a tiny motion or two can deliver characterization. It's true in real life, and it's true in film.

Again, please be sure to go watch Hush if you haven't already. It's an amazing piece of work.

Monday, November 6, 2017

CHANNEL ZERO: "No End House" and the Disease of Memory

Note: this involves spoilery discussion of No End House. I highly recommend you watch it before reading on -- this can be done via the Channel Zero website or YouTube. Knowledge of the previous season isn't essential, but you might as well give it a shot anyway because it's rad. If you've already watched, or don't mind spoilers, read on.

The strength of Channel Zero for the past two seasons has been its ability to take a short-form story and, rather than adapting it, use it as a springboard for a message-bearing tale that spans beyond the scope of the original work. Candle Cove started as a short piece in messageboard format that protracted our memories of children's shows that were Just A Bit Too Creepy. But in televised form, it became a story of the power struggle with childish, primal desires.

No End House started as a story of inescapable horror, of nightmarish scenarios placed one after the other, with the House of the title finally showing that it will let you go when it damn well feels like it. As with the previous series, the original story informs only the first of the six episodes. From there, it's all up in the air.

And there were a lot of directions No End House could take. But we're shown fairly early on what our "lesson" will be this season. We open with two friends uniting as one is still grieving the loss of her father. And as time goes on, we see just how much of both their lives is affected by this moment.

No End House is, among other things, a story of the mourning process: the toll it takes, the trap it can set, and the effect that the actions of friends and family have in these times.

The Traveling Shadow

In a modern medium that leans heavily on promises of payoffs, one thing surprised me: we never get an answer for what the No End House is. We never meet its creator, we never find out why it exists, and the point of the story isn't to "defeat" it (although that is discussed at one point). We get some vague discussion of what it is (or more what it's "like"), and we do learn its rule set over time. But the point of the series isn't to unmask the true purpose behind it.

But on a symbolic level, it does seem dressed for the occasion: a solid black gable-front house that looks like five country churches in a traffic jam. It's simple, austere, and oddly plain. At a glance, it almost evokes an old-fashioned funeral parlor. And that can hardly be an accident. Because within this house, at least for Margot, the more bloodthirsty aspects of grief play out.

Devouring Memories

If you have never lost someone close to you, you are very fortunate. It's something we all hope no one will ever have to go through, but it does come eventually. As someone who's suffered that sort of loss, I can speak firsthand about a lot of what happens in the process. Regardless of how strong you are emotionally, there genuinely is a feeling of being eaten alive inside. Grief unattended is a slow-spreading poison, and it does eventually begin to eat up everything inside of us.

The House eats memories -- this would explain its rather artsy claims that "you" are an element of its creation. In particular, the residents of the house's alternate dimension spring from memories and desires. Missing relatives, loves that never were, alternate versions of loved ones or ourselves. And as tempting as it may be to stay, living with those fictions comes at a price.

When a doppelganger eats your memories in the No End House, it's disgusting and visceral, with every horrible mouth-sound you want to hear the absolute least. And once that memory is gone, it's gone, leaving Black Mirror-esque gaps in your vision and memory.

Some learn to cope. Some "strike deals." Others give up, or don't know they've given up. For the few who attempt escape, it isn't easy. And it isn't always pretty.

Lacey and Dylan: The Brutality of "Tough Love"

The globe-trotting Dylan and his wife Lacey -- on whom the show opens as she attempts to flee a smiling doppelganger of her husband -- have so much more story than we'll ever see onscreen. Our first glimpse of her is her wanting to escape. But when Dylan finds her, she wants to stay where she is -- with a "House" iteration of Dylan -- and is willing to fight him to stay there.

We see very little of this Dylan. He's well dressed and always smiling, but unpleasantly aggressive when the situation calls for it. Then again, so is "our" Dylan, the more we see of him. His rescue of Lacey from the House involves zip ties, weapons, and eventually death threats. A soft-hearted viewer might even find themselves preferring that she stay with the House's Dylan instead of being dragged home.

What's especially interesting is that the SyFy summary itself touches on the husband she's with being Lacey's "fantasy" version of Dylan. Fantasy... as opposed to what?

The more we see of Dylan, the more we make sense. The smiling, suited version is an uncanny photocopy, but Dylan's version of love borders on the caveman. Tying her up, dragging her bodily, forcing others to keep an eye on her, and eventually losing her (and himself) to the house even so, it's an all-or-nothing sort of "tough love" that starts out as heroic and becomes... uncomfortable.

Put in the context of the House being a place of grief, this still rings true. Those friends and family who want to help, knowing only to drag the mourner kicking and screaming into daylight, could potentially be doing more harm than good. While there are times to "get tough," to stage interventions, this storyline shows the collapse of a relationship where the rescue party pushed far too hard.

Jules: The Pain of the Untouched

In a time of pain and loss, we often seize up when it comes time to talk about the caretakers, the friends of the affected who haven't necessarily been directly affected themselves. It's natural to hesitate to bring their feelings into it. After all, they aren't the directly affected in the equation. And, worse still, some personality types will attempt to turn guilt and blame onto the grieving party for being distant or difficult to talk to.

That aside, the role of the untouched friend or family member in the grief process is still an important one, and the feeling of disconnect is a valid one that deserves addressing. Because, as Margot needed Jules, friends need each other in times of loss.

Jules's "memory sink" in the No End House isn't a friend or a family member or a longed-for individual. It's a giant tumor with human figures moving inside it. In her case, the House doesn't give her something she's wishing for -- it's giving her something she's helplessly drawn to. The bulk of her guilt, drawn up into a single entity, pulling her mind apart.

Both Margot and Jules know how far Jules's absence exacerbated the situation. It isn't until she can confront that guilt, dive into it and be immersed into it and slice her way out, that she's ready to help Margot in any useful way. Being the friend to a grieving person is extremely difficult. Belated realization that you didn't do all you could for them is painful. But hardest of all is finding the happy medium.

At the end of No End House, Jules quite appropriately cuts a figure extremely similar to Dylan's -- visually, thematically, but the similarities end there. Where Dylan was aggressive and forceful in his rescue mission, Jules is compassionate. Forceful, yes -- but in a very different way. She's found the emotional center in herself she needs, and thus succeeds where Dylan fails.

Seth: The Comfort of Surrender

At some future point, I'd love to do a once-over of No End House focused solely on the House-created individuals. There's a whole other world to crack open there for them, formed incompletely from memories and uncertain of their own humanity. It would take more than a section in this post to really piece apart what they are and what they mean as individuals. But I do want to take time to look at a House resident who is not a product of the House itself: someone who gave up.

To be fair, we do see a few who "give up" at one point or another. Margot and Lacey (arguably, though we're still missing context), of course, are the ones who spring directly to mind. Others are scattered or implied here and there. But it's Seth, our "orchid mantis" who lures others into his situation, who takes an actual degree of pride in his position in the House. Lacey and Margot and others we may see are resigned, hollowed out, but Seth instead builds a literal fence around his trauma and revels in the fact that he's beat the system -- he doesn't have to escape because he's learned to "cope" his way.

There are two major problems with choosing the House as your home, though, and they are the same two problems you're likely to find in people who fence in their issues rather than coping. For one thing, these people can't help but bring others down with them -- his cul de sac of Hollow Girls is his alternate coping method, recruiting one partner after another to deal with his shit and casting each aside when they're no longer useful.

The second, the biggest downfall, is even grimmer: grief denied long enough will eat you alive all in one go, leaving nothing behind.

Margot: The Return

In the end, though, this is Margot's story: a girl trying to understand death and all its trappings. Why has it invaded their home? Why have her friends seemingly abandoned her? Why, even when faced with what appears to be her real living father, does she still have no answers for any of her questions?

Grief is strange and quiet. It isn't falling down in the middle of the street and sobbing -- it would be easier if it were, because then there would be a relatively quick catharsis. But it's invasive. A pillar of our lives has just been swiftly and silently removed. More often than not, it's no one's fault, and that then leaves us with no one to blame for unhappiness.

The House lures you with what you want, and it's easy to believe that what Margot wanted was to have her father back. But the House knew -- what she wanted was an answer. A chance to make sense of things. If all she'd wanted was her father back, the trap would have snapped shut in a moment. But when it became clear that a version of him created from her memories could never give her what she needed, she achieved greater clarity than she might have otherwise.

Even so, the recovery was long -- because the embodiment of her grief was strong. It took bargaining and stripping bits of herself away, but finally (with the help of Jules) she ended it herself. It's an active choice to say good-bye and to move forward. It doesn't close the wound forever, but to leave the valley of grief and rejoin the world is a very personal move.

We'll never know what happens to Margot and Jules back in the real world -- whether their personal defeats of their House counterparts meant the return of their memories, or if their lives will continue with blank spots scattered throughout because of what they were forced to lose. Neither is particularly inappropriate.

As good as Candle Cove was, No End House was a marked improvement. We're seeing more and deeper stories told on the foundations of these stories, with more risks being taken to expand thematically and explore outside the immediate rigidity of the story's plot. And the handling of it was excellent -- we never saw the protagonist of the story's original version, but there's no reason to think he couldn't exist within the universe of the series. An earlier victim, perhaps?

I can't wait to see what 2018 will bring. The third season will be Butcher's Block, based on the eight-part creepypasta "Search and Rescue Woods." The teaser looks wild. I'm definitely in, and I hope you are, too.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Month Ahead: NaNoWriMo and the Re-Re-Opening of My Patreon

It's going to be a big, busy month for yours truly.

For a start, I sat back and re-thought my Patreon. Yes, again. I worked with Oni Hartstein on her blog rebranding and chatted with creative friends on what they like that I bring to the table. And after a lot of thinking and re-thinking, I'm bringing the Patreon back. With things that will benefit you and help me offer my best work.

What can you expect? Glimpses into my daily life -- and useful ones. $1 and $5 contributors may think they're just getting random guinea pig videos and journal entries, but I'll be doing my best to make these useful as well. I'm offering a look into my life as a creator and journalist. Silly observations, yes, but also discoveries and observations that I make as I work that I think could benefit you. People who inspire me and where you can find them. Indispensable programs and apps that make my work life easier. Things I'm looking forward to that you might also enjoy.

And, yes, silliness, too.

I'll also be offering unpublished or out-of-print short stories once a month at the $10 level.

As the tiers go higher, we get more ambitious. I've done away with the newsletter as I felt it wasn't anything I couldn't do anywhere else. Instead, I'll be making monthly videos on writing, critique, and analysis. Though technically there will be two -- patrons at the $25 level will get monthly videos right away, and hitting the $100/mo level overall will unlock another monthly video that's publicly accessible.

The difference between the two? The public video will be broad thoughts and commentary on a topic: interactive storytelling in video games, say, or how to actually write a "strong female character." It will give some basic tips, but the videos accessible to patrons at the $25 tier will include tips and concepts you can put into use right away in your own work. Also, patrons at this level can send me topics to be addressed in later public videos.

Yes, there are higher tiers -- and I'm doing my best to make them worth it. Bigger spenders can "hire" me once a month to do a credited guest spot for their blog, podcast, or other creative project. (These are at my discretion; if I find something contractually wonky, I may chat with you about alternatives.) Higher tiers can also get monthly beta readings and personal consults!

Sound like your jam or someone else's? Hit up my Patreon and let's start creating!

And speaking of creating...

I'll be participating in NaNoWriMo for my second year! I tried it last year out of curiosity, and I loved the experience (and the finished product). If you're signed up, be sure to add me on the website!

Oh, and if you're a Patreon patron and a participant? You'll definitely want to make your word count. Because I'll have a gift at the end of the month for any patrons who finish their novel.

Are you ready for a big, busy month?

... yikes.

Monday, October 30, 2017

GAMES: "Doki Doki Literature Club" and the Illusion of Choice

Note: This article is spoiler-full, both for the sake of discussion and as a warning to those who might be affected by the game's more "unexpected" elements. If you want to approach it unspoiled, please do not read on.

I'm not going to lie. I have written and rewritten this article approximately five times at this point. Not because I dislike what I wrote before, but because the deeper I delve into Doki Doki Literature Club, the more I find fascinating about it. And as someone who plays visual novels for fun, works on visual novels for a living, and writes for a living, there are multiple angles to it that grab my attention.

It took three playthroughs, some game guides, and watching someone else's let's play before I really landed on what hits me most about this game. I mean, yes, it's going to attract a cult following because it mixes Cute and Gory. That's like the mug cake of indie game popularity. But taking apart the structure and delving into just how much you can tamper with the game reveals a surprise level of brilliance that was lost on me at first, even though it's something I have lots of opinions about in other games.

That is: this a game whose entire message hinges on choice, the illusion thereof, and the breaking of programming -- on multiple levels.

Infinite Choices, One Outcome

Despite how heavily the story and operation of the game rests on its coding and structure, you don't actually ever need to have had your fingers in Ren'Py code to comprehend what's going on... or how to tinker with it.

For those who've yet to experience it and want to be spoiled: you kick off playing what appears to be a three-route dating sim with a very simple function to "choose" your girl. Each time you go to a literature club meeting, you're given a list of words with which your character will write a poem. Figure out which words resonate most with which girls, and you will impress that girl at the next meeting, unlocking part of her path. Also present is club president Monika, not a dating option, but a character who does seem to like you regardless.

This is all well and good -- until Sayori (your childhood friend and one of the romanceable heroines) has a breakdown and admits to you that she suffers from major depressive episodes. And recently she's discovered she has feelings for you, and hiding them has made these episodes worse. You can choose either to reciprocate her love or tell her that she is your "dearest friend," but neither option really matters: you will find her in her room, having hanged herself.

From there, the game begins to fall apart -- Sayori's character file is deleted, and trying to go back to a previous save point forces a new game to start, with Sayori notably absent and Yuri and Natsuki's personalities going off the rails. If you attempt to romance Natsuki, Yuri will force herself on you, revealing her habits of self-harm and her stalkerish tendencies. After watching her stab herself in front of you, Monika comes in and wipes the game clean -- just you, her, and an empty room.

As it happens, that's all she's ever wanted. At some point, she gained self-awareness and fell in love with you -- the player. But the game gave you no options to romance her, so she flipped the script. From talking Sayori into suicide to actively tinkering with the code, she created a landscape where you had no choice but to do as she says.

The game ends when you yourself dig into the directory, deleting her character file, which brings the game back to the beginning with all characters but Monika restored. Sayori briefly gains self-awareness, and things look to be going bad again -- but what little of Monika remains destroys the game from within.

This is a very long way of saying that your three-route game actually has only one, with a few different scene options along the way. And just as Monika's later tampering gives you only the illusion of choice (a "Yes" button without a "No," or fifteen buttons that say "Monika"), Team Salvato's code railroads you into one ending.


Cracking the Code

Creator Dan Salvato has gone on record as saying that Doki Doki Literature Club was inspired by his love-hate relationship with the tropes of anime. Pay attention to the characters' reactions to you, and you'll probably see another, slightly more subtle call-out: the mentality of dating sims in general.

As you're creating poems to impress your girl of choice in the club, only two of the four girls will be at all interested in your work: Monika and the girl you're out to impress. But rather than just being disinterested, the other two girls will call you out on spending all your time trying to get your girl of choice to like you instead of actually working on your writing. Which is, of course, exactly what's going on. Because that's how you dating sim: find out what your fave likes, then keep doing it until they like you.

But pay close enough attention -- again -- and the game will show you that your methods aren't actually particularly helpful. In the poem-writing section of the game, it seems easy: Sayori likes bittersweet poems, Natsuki likes cute things, and Yuri likes deep and complex things. But regardless of Monika's assertion that her classmates are "one-dimensional," observation shows that it's not quite as easy as the game presents it. Each of the three romanceable girls does want something -- and it's the club.

Yuri, as we find out rather bluntly in the second arc, expresses herself via self-harm. Natsuki gives implications that her father abuses her. And Sayori bottles up her depression to keep others happy. Each of these girls needs you, yes -- as a fellow club member. Yuri needs the creative outlet, Natsuki needs the safe haven, and Sayori needs to see that the person she loves has a support network bigger than herself. Despite being programmed to confess to you, they all need the literature club more than anything.

Of course, this doesn't become evident until everything's already been shot to hell. And it never becomes evident to Monika, whose final words imply that there can never be happiness in the literature club. But that's not necessarily true -- and to accomplish that happiness, you have to take a play out of Monika's book. You have to cheat.

Alternate Endings

Not counting the fake-out endings you get in the course of a run-through (Sayori's suicide, Natsuki's jump-scare), there are three endings you can achieve. But two of them require you to not play entirely fair.

Don't feel bad, though. Monika hasn't exactly been playing fair.

The first one is the simplest, and one that might already have occurred to you: delete Monika's character file before all this starts. But that's... not the best solution. After all, without Monika, Sayori becomes self-aware. And then the game is over in a matter of moments.

The best possible outcome takes a lot more conscientious work... and a whole lot of savescumming. Normally this wouldn't do any good, but this game is programmed for you to toy with the programming.

Basically, you'll have to save before you write the first poem, and carefully play through the first arc three times, unlocking each girl's special scenes. Be sure the first two times not to respond to Sayori's confession -- jump back to the save point and pick a new girl each time, leaving it 'til the third, then tell her you love her.

The terrors of the second and third arc will still unfold... but instead of the game collapsing in on itself, there's a brighter ending. And it makes sense, after all. Because when you give each club member equal time, they all get what they want. Natsuki feels loved and wanted, and has a friend to share her interests with. Yuri has a safer creative outlet. And Sayori gets to see you and her beloved club united as friends -- which is what this whole mess was about in the first place.

So in its way, Doki Doki Literature Club is absolutely a story that plays on the illusion of choice... but someone determined, who treats the characters the way they'd treat real people (an honor Monika attempted to reserve for herself), discovers that yes, there can be happiness in the literature club.


That's sort of all I wanted to say, but I'd be remiss if I didn't hint at the fact that doing a deep-dive into the Ren'Py code will show you what appear to be the beginnings of an ARG.

Searching around online will give you the answers if you're not a Master Hacker, but if that's a hobby of yours, I recommend first you go to the .chr files. They don't actually contain character information (the game functions by noting which files are present or absent from the folder), but they do contain something. Play around a bit, and you'll find references to what appears to be Team Salvato's next project.

I'll leave the rest to you to discover. For now, consider giving it a try if somehow you've read all this without actually having played the game. Honestly, no description I give could do the psychological madness justice. It's free -- so if you like it, consider buying the fan pack ($9.99) for a soundtrack, artbook, and wallpapers.