Tuesday, July 16, 2019

DETROIT BECOME HUMAN: On the Family We Choose and the Family We Choose to Be (2/3)

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Kara was the first member of Detroit: Become Human's android trio we ever met. Initially introduced in the PS3 concept piece "Kara" a full six years before the game itself first came to be, she became something of the mascot for the game. Initially she was a fresh new android, bright and happy and self-aware within moments of being switched on—and fearful of a factory reset for sale.

By the time of Detroit, she's in a home (not a great one) and has a story of her own ahead of her. Her desire to live curled up one hell of a finger on the monkey's paw, because her move from sentience to freedom (you know, depending on how well you do) is more life in a few short days than many humans get in give-or-take a century. In particular, her story line focuses on family: gaining it, losing it, protecting it, and how being a part of one alters your values.

For Kara, "family" means Alice—the daughter of her former owner (though we of course learn it's a lot more complicated than that)—and eventually new deviant Luther. Kara quickly takes on a very maternal role, with action trees that run the entire gamut from light touch to full-on Mama Bear Mode. How she plays this role, of course, is up to you; but the results of her actions aren't necessarily what you might expect. And therein lies one of the hardest truths about holding together a family.

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To start, if it isn't obvious enough from this patchwork of a family, families are not required to be blood related to be valid. While there are absolutely genetic and evolutionary elements that encourage parent/child bonding, it is not the only way this can be achieved. In some case it may not even happen, or be overshadowed and outstripped by any number of factors.

The point is, D:BH strips us of the "genetic" aspect from the get-go, anyway. Kara's bonds to Alice, and later to Luther, don't spring from shared genetics or evolutionary traits; they develop, just as those traits can develop in us with the creation of foster families and close friend groups. Blood ties are not obligatory for these familial instincts and responses to grow in us—love is.

The miniseries Jekyll reframed the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a conflict between logic and instinct when it comes to love of family. "Love is a psychopath," the protagonist's mother says, as well as being "our oldest, deadliest impulse." Parents know that, when the needs and safety of their children are at stake, they would just about anything at the expense of just about anyone else. It's not a genetic trait: adoptive parents are just as staunch in this. It's what comes of that peculiar mix of fierce love and all-encompassing responsibility: the knowledge that, actually, you probably could straight up kill someone for this person who, at least for now, relies entirely upon you.

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Video games are funny, though. They give us these little screens with insight into the deeper aspects of what's going on. Some tell us exactly how many hits our character can take before death; others dole us out a map as we explore a dungeon, ensuring we never have to rely on our memory to navigate it. In the case of D:BH, we get a few extras to guide our experience. But a major one is each character's opinion meter: showing us in real time how what we just did altered how we appear in the eyes of our loved ones, our peers, and (in the case of Markus's story) the world at large.

For Kara, her most important meter is Alice. It's consistent across different actions and thus becomes relatively predictable, but it flies directly in the face of those fierce familial instincts. As you look for safe haven, you need to provide for Alice. You might (depending on how you play) be willing to do literally anything for her, from stealing bus tickets to pulling a gun on an unsuspecting shopkeeper. But no matter how much you know Alice needs things, her reaction to Kara stepping off the straight and narrow will always, always be a loss of respect.

This is understandable for a lot of reasons. Up front is Alice's own experience with abuse. Abusive people rarely start that way. They can seem fine at first, else we'd run. Abuse creeps in slowly, whether because the abusive person is changing slowly themselves or because they're learning what they can get away with. Watching Kara break more and more rules—a theft here, a threat there—would obviously trigger feelings of fear that the one person she has left in the world is going the same route as her father.

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For another thing, Alice has a very idealized view of Kara and the life they could have together. Combine that with her own very tried-and-true moral compass, and what may seem to you-as-Kara to be necessary evils and personal selflessness will register to her as disappointment and unnecessary cruelty to others.

As the player, the question becomes what's more important to you: Alice's love and trust, or her well-being? I will admit as a player I always did my best to look for Other Ways—as much as I wanted Alice to survive, I didn't like the idea of her living on with someone she'd grown to dislike or distrust in an already unpleasant world. Your mileage may vary... maybe Alice's approval is all that matters. Or maybe you're willing to be hated as long as she's looked after.

As with Connor's own journey in finding validity in himself and others, this isn't a purely fictional setup. We may be willing to sacrifice everything, from the happiness of others to our own reputation, to make sure the people we love are safe and happy. But it's important for us—parent, child, friend, caretaker, what have you—to remember that our loved one loves us back. Seeing us break a law can hurt just as much as an empty stomach. Seeing us willing to sacrifice a stranger's needs to provide for a loved one can be scarier than being attacked.

We think about how we could take, or shoot, a bullet for someone; we don't always step back and question whether that is what they would want from us. All those elements—what we could do, what we should do, what they want us to do, what's necessary regardless of what anyone wants—form a complicated matrix for which there's really no consistent right path. As I established last week, having emotions is kind of a bitch.

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Next week, I'll wrap things up with a look at Markus's storyline and a constant favorite thing of mine: So Much Biblical Symbolism.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

DETROIT BECOME HUMAN: On Basic Humanity and Self-Image (1 of 3)

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Not long ago, I finished one playthrough of Detroit: Become Human and then watched a few more people be better at it. I didn't particularly enjoy 2/3 of my outcome because I suck at quicktime events and I made some ridiculous choices early on, but overall I liked the experience. My regular readers know how into branched storytelling I am, so something like this — with something like 40-odd endings — intrigued me.

It honestly took me a while to get down to collecting my thoughts about it for the purposes of blogging. This is partly because there's frankly a lot to cover, and only some of it strikes me as within my wheelhouse. It's also partly because I'm well aware it's a divisive title. I've yet to meet someone who's lukewarm about it. Either they really enjoyed it, or they disliked it with every fiber of their being.

To that end, if you did not enjoy Detroit: Become Human, I'm afraid you might not get much enjoyment out of my next three pieces. I'm not writing these to convince people who didn't like it that they ought to, or that they need to. People are people, and they get to have their opinions without me telling them (beyond typical silliness among friends) that they're Just Wrong.

Hell, that's a good place to start.

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Connor (you know, the android sent by Cyberlife) is easily my favorite character in the game, and that's saying something in a game where there's a character with my name (spelled right) who'd probably shank a dude to protect a kid. Besides just being straight up delightful (and played by Bryan Dechart, but I repeat myself), he's got one of the most convoluted journeys in the game, with the most divergent possibilities. Out of all three protagonists, he's the only one who can choose not to consider himself a human. And that's kinda freaky.

Detroit: Become Human is not at all subtle about their metaphor, with androids stacked quietly in the backs of buses from the very first scenes. Their roles slide into this same metaphor: Kara the housekeeper, Markus who gets an education from his owner before going out into the wider world, and Connor whose only tiny scraps of respect come from the fact that he's there to bring down his own people. Connor in particular navigates through his scenes because, well, he doesn't respond to the insults. He's just there to do a job. The case is the thing, and of course he doesn't want to be treated like a human. He's not a human.

Meanwhile, he hunts down Kara, Markus, and others who think differently. It's up to you, the player, whether his work rubs off on him as he sees the truly human behaviors of Detroit's Deviants. If you're a real cold-hearted son of a bitch (or you've played before and are being a completist), you can carry Connor through all the way without him confronting his feelings of humanity. More than likely, though, you'll find him going the way of Markus and Kara when given the choice.

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The game asks us repeatedly to make choices, many of which will affect both the genetic humans and androids around us. Each storyline couches this question differently. I boiled it down like this recently:

Markus: Are these people as important as my cause?
Kara: Are these people as important as my loved ones?
Connor: Are these people?

And Connor's is where it all begins. In the world of D:BH, we're talking about civil rights for people different from ourselves; but as on-the-nose (occasionally awkwardly so, admittedly) as that metaphor is, just as important is the constant question of whether people in general deserve our respect. Because we make those choices every day, independent of (albeit sometimes guided by) the world around us. We make them about others, and we make them about ourselves.

Getting what we want — from things as mundane as the next job or the last PS4 on Black Friday to things as all-encompassing as equality — will usually come with some sort of baggage. On a good day, it's not much baggage: if we get the job, someone we've never met won't, but that's how it works. But in other cases, you have to ask who gets the backlash when the backlash comes. Are you willing to do what you're about to do regardless of what will happen to your opponents? What about the random people in the crossfire?

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Humans have empathy, and empathy's a bitch. And it's those more empathic decisions that make up a lot of how D:BH will go. As Kara, will you steal a family's bus tickets to get you and Alice to safety? They're not running for their lives, but context clues show that there are valid reasons why they need them. Is your need greater than theirs? As Markus, will your protest be peaceful or violent? Humans don't seem to mind kicking the shit out of androids so a few busted windows and overturned cars would still leave you in the black ethically, but is that what the protest is about?

As people with empathy, the idea of hurting other humans causes guilt. It's natural. There are ways to interface with that and things to take away from it. There's also the other, quicker option: deciding that these people aren't human. In this day and age it may not be quite as literal a move as in this fictional Detroit, but it is a tactic: convince yourself that the person in question is basically as good as inhuman, and suddenly you're a lot freer in your choices.

In Connor's story, android creator and Jared-Leto-faced-ass-looking-MFer Elijah Kamski doesn't even mince words. He puts that question out in front of Connor before anything can continue.

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Now, obviously Kamski isn't doing this for Connor's betterment. I'm not saying that. This whole thing is an interesting experiment to him. If he has any desire to see an android develop empathy for their own kind, it's so he can tell himself he's created a population of humans and feel all Godlike. It serves the purpose though: the Kamski Test (i.e. "will you shoot Chloe you absolute monster") answers two questions in one (possibly literal) shot. First, does Connor consider androids human? Secondly, if Connor doesn't consider androids human, what does that mean for him?

As much as we decide for ourselves in difficult situations whether someone is worthy of humane consideration, we do it for ourselves on a daily basis. We encounter people who ask us to put aside our thoughts, our ethics, and our self-worth for them. Maybe it's allegedly for the "greater good." Maybe it's because they've placed themselves above us in such a way that they can cast themselves as just knowing better. Maybe it's because, for a very long time, we've been made to believe that that's just how it is: that we're secondary to the needs of others.

Realizing that we're not — and that we can still work toward a greater good while still seeing ourselves as worthwhile and worthy of human respect — can be harder than it sounds, especially when we've been in an environment where we're fed the exact opposite line day after day. It can seem not right, or unfair, or like we're making a huge mistake. Not breaking out of it, though, leads to even bigger problems.

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Connor becoming a Deviant (or, more accurately, admitting that he is a sentient being worthy of respect) is multilayered. It isn't just about him, even though it's super about him. That one choice alters his entire worldview. By embracing his humanity, he is simultaneously embracing the humanity of every android. Admitting he is worthwhile and human cannot happen unless he's ready to admit that everyone else like him is also worthwhile and human.

Markus's and Kara's stories begin with epiphanies: they don't want to be treated this way. They want to be more. They are more. It's very individual, even though the implications become broad (especially for Markus). But Connor works from the outside in. His epiphany is all-encompassing from the moment it happens. I'm valid, and so are all of them.

And what if he doesn't? Because that's absolutely an option. You can stick to your guns, decide humans are humans and androids are androids, and throw yourself all the way into that cause. And, well, when you set standards for others, you're setting them for yourself. When you strip away the humanity of others, your own isn't all that far behind.

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Connor's story makes one other thing abundantly clear: being a human is terrifying sometimes. Things aren't always easy and logical. Reason and emotion are often at odds, and we have to be the one to make the ruling. No one is responsible for our actions save for ourselves, and if we get it wrong we have no one to blame but ourselves and our own judgment. Having feelings is really annoying sometimes. But that weird combination of freedom and empathy is strangely worth it.

Next time, Kara — the android with the best name in the game — and the family mentality.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

IN-FLIGHT MOVIES: The Kid Who Would Be King

I've been home for a bit now, but trip recovery always takes a bit of time. I have more than enough material to blog about in the coming weeks, movies and anime and games included (in particular I'm outlining a three-part take on Detroit: Become Human with my Kalibourne collaborator Rob Lantz), but a lot of those are going to take some time to make cohesive... not easy when I'm also tailing multiple deadlines.

In the meantime, I did watch plenty on my flights to and from the UK, and I've always enjoyed doing something of a recap of the movies I finally have a chance to catch up to. One I was happy to find, since it was out of theaters basically as soon as I'd decided I'd give it a go, was The Kid Who Would Be King. For someone who hasn't yet seen Attack the Block (yes, I know, the line for confronting me with shocked disbelief starts to the left of the door), "giving it a go" amounted to wading in blindly. All I knew was it was Arthurian, Patrick Stewart was in it, and it was kid-centric — the last of which can really go one way or the other.

The fact that our hero's name is Alexander Eliot was actually an immediate reassurance: if nothing else, the naming conventions would be spot-on. Alex is your average British schoolkid with a slightly more-than-average interest in the legends of King Arthur, thanks to a book left to him by his now-absent father. He and his bestie Bedders endure bullying from school big-shots Lance and Kay, with Alex's chivalric code doing... well, about as much as one would expect under the circumstances.

After an especially vigorous round of bullying where it seems the pair think they may have actually killed Alex, he finds a sword in a stone. It comes out easily and he takes it home... and that's when the trouble starts.

Our old friend Morgana (who even on her best days is going to have a wildly varying canon) is ensnared deep underground, awaiting the ultimate hat trick: a world in turmoil, the return of Excalibur, and a solar eclipse. We sort of have the first, no question. The second is now with Alex, and the third is coming pretty soon.

Merlin is next on the scene, played by Angus Imrie (recently of The Spanish Princess) as a mix of Bertie Wooster, the Eleventh Doctor, and the writer of this Amazon review. He's here to prep Alex and his knights (which he'll have, hang on) for their battle with Morgana and her Mortes Milles. Provided they can put the centuries-old magician in her place before the eclipse, all will be right with the world.

From there, we get our A and B stories that walk along hand in hand. At the front is the immediate challenge, of course: Alex has to build an army (albeit a small one) and train up to put an end to Morgana's plans. And if you haven't guessed from their names, Lance and Kay will be involved... as will all the trouble that threatens to bring.

But Morgana isn't just sending undead soldiers after the kids. She has roots everywhere (quite literally), and knows their children's weaknesses. Even Alex. Hell, especially Alex. Excalibur will only strike true provided the Code of Chivalry (outlined by Merlin) is observed from the moment it's drawn, and fortunately for Morgana there are plenty of unexpected places for our heroes to trip up.

I don't want to go into too much detail beyond that because, frankly, the way they handle everyone's personal stories is both overall good and just plain a relief. The introduction of bullies as allies into a narrative is always a tricky one. I grew up bullied and got every version of the narrative on why it fell to me to be the bigger person, including Very Special Episodes revealing the great hidden truth that bullies tend to be unhappy people themselves. While that's often true, it's rarely true that a bullied person just understanding this will turn the heart of the bully and stop the violence.

There is absolutely character growth for Lance and Kay, and it's gratifying that it doesn't fall to Alex and Bedders to shoulder that burden themselves. Actions have consequences, and in this modernized Arthurian world, "actions" include feelings and internal motivations, too.

Alex isn't exempt from some Big Pills, either. If anything, he has to swallow some of the biggest ones. He's our gateway into an unexpected discussion on legends — not just the heroic kind, but the kinds we spin for ourselves and hold ourselves to. What do we do when the facts that motivate us turn out not to be true? Going further into that would spoil some really heartfelt reveals, but suffice to say there are lots of ways to save the world.

I apparently hate fun because I have a very low tolerance for goofy slapstick comedy, but The Kid Who Would Be King stayed within my comfort zone. There was some silliness mixed in with very real life-or-death scenarios, but nothing that really muddled the tone of the film. It was also nice to see Bedders, the self-professed Samwise of the group, as a full and valid member of the team rather than a go-to for physical gags. (Which isn't to say there weren't any.)

Patrick Stewart's time as Merlin is relatively limited, but he makes the most of it. The role is most definitely Imrie's, with Stewart's older version coming in as a stand-by for when a scene needs extra drama or gravitas (an admission Merlin freely makes himself because kids don't listen). His final lines, too, are some rare welcome positivity in the midst of trying times — a challenge to the idea that awareness of the state of the world can only be expressed via cynicism and existential dread, and anything less than pessimism amounts to foolishness or naivety. 

The Kid Who Would Be King lands safely where other Arthurian movies might fumble because it doesn't attempt to be a retelling. It's a loose interpretation and presents itself as such, even within the narrative. It's the whole point of the movie: you don't have to be The Next Arthur to be capable of great things. Hell, that's a lot to expect of yourself. Respect, hope, kindness, motivation, and honesty can pave the way, and choosing to be a light in dark times accomplishes more than collapsing under the thumb of sadness.

Hopefully the time will come when we won't need a kid with a magic sword or a crazy owl magician to slap that mentality into us.

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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Why Do I Have Anxiety About a Trip I Want to Go On?

Sometimes I wonder what I ought to blog about. Like, sometimes it's easy. I've just seen a good movie, or I've got a book out, or I'm going to an event or whatever. Other times it's like... well, it's Wednesday, guess I'd better shake my life down for some lunch money.

Another option—one I'm testing out today—is filling a void: taking a question I've Googled helplessly and seeing if maybe I can provide an answer where none existed. On the one hand, this is an inexhaustible resource because I write a lot of checks that Google can't cash. On the other, that means I have to try and do what I couldn't do in the first place: answer the damn question myself.

We're doing a bit of time travel right now. For me as I write, it's the evening of Thursday, May 30. Tomorrow evening I drive to my uncle and aunt's place in Norfolk, catch an Uber to the airport at 4 am, fly to Chicago, meet up with m'kouhai Ginger at local time 7 am, and stay with her for a few days. Then on June 4 we fly out of Chicago...

... and catch up to where you are now, reading this on June 5, when she and I will both have our feet on the ground in England. Her for the first time, me for the first time in... a year or two. It's a common trip for me. Past!me just has to do one last load of laundry, a pet store run for supplies for my guinea pig sitter, and maybe get some more blog and social media posts banked if I feel like it before I take off Saturday morning. We have Airbnbs and train tickets booked, our phones our ready, our banks have been notified, our time off has been approved.

So why, future readers and future self, am I having full-blown anxiety about a trip I want to take and am ready to take?

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By the time you read this, the issue will have solved itself. The anxiety will be gone and Ginger and I will be enjoying ourselves and I'll wonder what my problem was. This happens before any trip I take that requires me to be far from home for more than 24 hours. It's not homesickness. It's just... a weird fear that something about what I'm doing is quite terrifying and maybe I ought not to be doing it after all. I've had it before conventions, before extended stays with friends and family, before this same trip. And it's amounted to... nothing to fear.

Which is lovely, but that doesn't change the fact that it comes back every time, and no amount of pre-planning or preparedness shakes it. It's just there, waiting, crouching on my bedpost to tell me something's awful but I don't get to know what.

The resources I found all had pretty much the same advice: see your mental health professional, plan ahead, and get a more realistic idea in your head of how low your risks really are. The thing is, I know. I travel a lot. I know my way from Heathrow Arrivals to my friends' house in Carshalton like the back of my hand, and I have enough friends and family on tap that even in a disaster I have options. The problem is that the anxiety is there... and that means something's wrong with me, surely.

If I feel this way, I imagine at least one other person in the world does, too. Your bags are packed, your tickets are in your purse or on your phone, there's nothing to worry about, you're going to have a great time, but you feel like an absolute fool for the constant jitters. So... what now?

That's been my day today (last Thursday as you read this). And, for now, here's what I have.

(As an aside, I'm using the term "anxiety" in the medical sense. I'm aware there's situational anxiety, cold feet, things like that—but going forward, I'm talking about it from a mental health standpoint.)

1. Nothing's wrong with you. You just have anxiety.

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If you're like me and have chronic anxiety, you already have your answer. Anxiety is not logical. That's kind of the point. It's brought on by uncertainty, and there's no bigger uncertainty than leaving your status quo for an extended period of time. Even if you plan ahead perfectly and have everything flawlessly in place, even if you've made the trip before, you are still moving into a realm of elevated uncertainty.

One of the tough things about anxiety is that, even when we are aware we have it, our brains still sometimes demand we explain ourselves—even when it surfaces in a situation bound to trigger it. As though there are situations when it's less reasonable. The whole point of anxiety is that it's not reasonable. There's not a sliding scale of when it is or isn't "okay" to feel it. You feel it. Recognize that. You haven't failed in some way.

2. Anxiety is not an ill omen.

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Whatever you feel guides you—intelligence, a sixth sense, your gut, a god or gods, experience—you have probably at least once had a feeling that Something Is Not Right. And you've either ignored that feeling and wished you hadn't, or followed it and been grateful you did.

Remember that feeling. Did it feel like fear? Did it feel like anxiety? I can't speak for everyone, but the answer is more often than not no. I can't describe what it feels like for me with any helpful words, but I do know it feels nothing like my anxiety attacks. It's a brief feeling, non-threatening but insistent, just a little tug at my brain to think a little more critically and step away.

There are times when fear is good for decision-making. Let's say you're pulling out from a side street onto a busy road. You're about halfway out, and suddenly a car you did not see comes barreling down. If you're anything like me, you get that cold drop in your stomach and reverse right the hell back. Your brain registers danger. You act. That's our lizard brain keeping us safe.

But there's a big difference between that and creeping, buzzing anxiety. It's not an omen that needs to be observed. Having anxiety is only a prophecy of bad times to come if it becomes a self-fulfilling one. So if you're about to go on a trip and you've got the anxiety? No. It's not telling you not to go. Not unless you've got a very different feeling indeed.

3. Your reaction is a sign that your trip is doing what it's supposed to.

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I was in my mid-20s when I made my first trip to England. I went just before Christmas. I traveled alone. I'd never been outside of the country; I'd barely seen any of my own country. I had a great time, save for the end (which involved multiple delays, a hospital visit, a bad complimentary hotel room, and getting stranded in Paris on Christmas Eve—followed by months of women in their 40s who don't speak a word of French saying they wish they could be "stranded" in Paris).

It wasn't until I was back home in my own bed that I actually believed something my uncle told me: Part of the reason you travel is so you can come home. This seemed ridiculous to me at first, but it's true. As much as I love England, I also love coming home from England. I've had time to reset, to think about how I go about my work and my life from a distance without having to enact anything in the moment. I've probably seen new things and had new ideas. It's like rebooting, in a way: sometimes the best thing you can do to improve your daily life is to leave it behind for a bit.

As a counterpoint to #2, anxiety over leaving home to go on holiday is probably a sign that you're doing the right thing. It means you've become so used to where you are that even the idea of dropping it temporarily on purpose is getting to you. Imagine where you'd be right now if it wasn't your idea.

If you're feeling that anxiety no matter what, then good! That's your high sign that you need the break and are making a good choice for yourself... and your daily life when you return will benefit.

4. It will pass.

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If you've traveled before and are getting cold feet about your next trip, stop a second and answer me this question: at what point are you certain this is all going to drop and you'll feel great?

For me it's when I board the plane that's actually crossing the Atlantic. When I've settled in for the long haul flight and picked a movie and they come around with "coffee or tea" and I'm like "Oh, right, I'm off again." I can tell you right now that's when this will drop off my shoulders (or, from your point of view, when it did drop off my shoulders).

Maybe for you it's when the plane lands. Maybe it's in the airport before you even board. Or maybe it's when you first set your feet on the ground and realize you've landed, and think about everything you've got ahead of you.

If you've never traveled before... trust me, you will have this moment. There's a point when the holiday will begin, and you'll be on it. The anxiety isn't generally about being on holiday. It's about the leaving-the-familiar part. Once you've left the familiar? It may take a little time if you're new to it, but you'll get there.

5. Be kind to yourself until then.

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The absolute worst thing you can do with anxiety is try to strong-arm yourself into not feeling it. Especially if you do so by telling yourself it's stupid and you shouldn't. You don't like it when other people treat your anxiety that way, right? No reason to do it to yourself, then.

The biggest gift you can give yourself in these moments is to just go... you know what? Okay. This is anxiety. I feel it. It feels at odds with what I need and want out of this trip. That doesn't make me bad or stupid for feeling it, and it doesn't make me wrong about making the plans. It just is.

In the meantime, do what you know works for you. If you take meds, take your meds. (Do that anyway, really.) If you have doctor-approved methods of getting yourself to sleep, use them. Do whatever it is you need to get to that point when the anxiety breaks and you can enjoy yourself. In my case, one of those things has been writing up what I'm going through in hopes of seeing it in print and maybe helping the next person who feels that way.

The most important thing, though, is that you haven't failed by having anxiety over a thing that's supposed to make you happy. If you consider it a failure, you'll bottle it up instead of acknowledging and treating it. And that's just going to tire you out.

What's helping me now is knowing we're going to go to lunch or dinner later, I'll remember I wrote this, and I'll pop this up on my phone and think about past!Kara fighting off this anxiety. And I'll be glad she did because I'll be with a good friend in one of my favorite places in the world. And maybe, maybe, now that I know how anxious I get when I get too stuck in my ways, I won't wait as long between steps outside my routine.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Lessons Learned as an Editor

So, if it hasn't been smashed clean through your skull right now, I've got an anthology out. My first one — well, my first one editing. Unearthed was largely an experiment in what it took to make an anthology.

Up front, the question was never "Could I do an anthology." If I was uncertain about my ability to actually follow through, I wouldn't have done it; I don't feel right about stringing along that many people with that much work for potentially no result. My question was a lot more simple: "What will I not be expecting, and what will I know for next time?"

I was fortunate to have more than a dozen creative, helpful people on board. From being prompt with their work to lending a hand when I found myself unexpectedly pressed for time or at a loose end, I had a pretty darn good team of people. And I absolutely did learn a lot of things... because nothing goes off without a hitch, no matter how well it goes from the front.

Originally I was going to take these down privately to go over for the next anthology I do (eventually... got plenty on my plate right now, so while I have a couple ideas, they're going to have to stay on the back burner until I get my work load sorted out). But, as with most things, sharing is caring. Some of these may be obvious. Some of these may not apply to all. But hopefully it's helpful to some.

Lesson 1: Don't start without a schedule (and bake "disaster days" into it early.)

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I was of two minds on this anthology when it came to schedule. On the one hand, it was for charity. Not because it uses licensed properties (it doesn't — any existing characters used are either in the public domain or owned by the author), but because royalties vs. flat fees are something I want to figure out on their own. Because it was a charity gig and my first anthology, I felt awkward putting too much pressure on people to meet specific dates.

On the other, specific dates make the project go 'round, and I very much regret not coming in before anything else with an indelible schedule.

Now, "indelible" isn't entirely true. We had a couple unforeseeable events go down, one of which was me being rushed to the ER with an infected gallbladder and having to have emergency surgery right during the stories' extended deadline. There were others related to the individual contributors, too.

In retrospect, the first thing I would have done, once I had my concept, is a calendar. Ginger Hoesly is really good about schedules for her charity zines, so I may be consulting her. Ideally — especially since I was one of the people with an emergency — I'd tailor in some sliding dates to account for the unpredictable. Because oh boy, things are unpredictable.

Lesson 2: Format stories on arrival.

laptop technology editing computer keyboard personal computer personal computer hardware

James Bojaciuk of 18th Wall (who also contributed the story "An Egyptian Cameo") was a massive help in many ways on this project... one being the whole editing situation. In fact, he gave me a worksheet for how to get stories into a printable format that, like, can become muscle memory before long.

He also handled editing on Unearthed thanks to my aforementioned difficulties, for which I am eternally grateful.

Since this was a charity volume with fairly open concepts, my editing consisted mostly of proofreading; and that, I did as things came in. But as I watched the book assembly go forward, I realized that formatting for print is something you can do one bit at a time. Once the last story comes in, boom. Then you just have to assemble them... which is a whole other job.

The idea of breaking the book down into smaller elements that could be done on each piece's arrival had occurred to me, but the best practices for doing so still eluded me. 

Lesson 3: Schedule updates, even if there's nothing to say.

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I outgrew the concept of "No news is good news" a long time ago when it came to projects. If I don't hear anything, I panic. So, really, it's only fair if I treat my contributors like a dozen me's who would like to hear something regularly, even if there's nothing going on.

Another thing to bake into the schedule in future? Weekly emails. Even if it's just to say "Hey, how's it going?" while not applying pressure (that's for before the deadline). Something to let people know things are ticking over and it's still a priority, even if there's no news to tell.

The trickiest part, I think, is that pressure thing: making sure that if something is not urgent but just a friendly check-in, it comes across as such. We've all known (and been) that guy. Plus, sending a weekly check-in that isn't "HEY ARE YOU GUYS WRITING ARE YA HUH" means finding other good things to talk about with the project... which is a stress reliever.

Lesson 4: Keep notes.

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When I first got Unearthed pitches in, there were a couple I kept off to the side. They didn't make it into the book, but what they pitched made me sure I wanted them for other Altrix projects — which would be private calls rather than public. (For what it's worth, one person who didn't get into Unearthed is going to be writing a full-length book for us; more on that at a later date, but when they pitched back the book idea it reminded me exactly why I kept their Unearthed pitch in my back pocket.)

As much as we talk about fresh blood and widening the playing field... unless every project you do is in a new genre or medium, you will likely work with the same people more than once. Hell, there's nothing wrong with having a couple of go-tos you know will deliver certain things well.

In the aftermath and sales period of Unearthed, I've been taking notes on everyone I worked with now that I've seen their writing in action and dealt with them on a business level. Which I know sounds like some sort of weird imperious "I've got my eye on you" quasi-threat, but it's worth doing. It's not just a matter of "Yes, we worked well together" or "No, I probably won't work with them again" — it's learning what conditions some people work best under, what styles they shine at, what styles you know they'd like to take a crack at, all that. Knowing that if I ever decide to do something specifically cyberpunk, or specifically historical, I can look at this list and go, "Hey, so-and-so really knocks this kind of story out of the park" feels like an extra level of preparation.

Lesson 5: We are not good at predicting how easy or hard an unfamiliar task will be.

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Coming into the final stages of Unearthed, I assumed formatting would be the easiest part and getting printing set up would be the hardest. Boy, I couldn't have been more wrong.

To be fair, I have a garbage track record when it comes to estimating which unfamiliar tasks will be most difficult, so I probably should have expected more of the same here. That said, even attempting to assign "easy" or "hard" to something new in advance sets expectations. Classing something as "easy" makes you lax about it, thus you'll be taken aback when there are difficulties; classing something as "hard" makes you put it off because it seems big.

I'm pretty sure every time I put out a new book, there will be at least one unfamiliar element. That's just how things tend to go. The trick, I think, is listing the building blocks, and then not assigning any difficulty level to them that is anything beyond objective time spent and materials needed. It's exhausting to hold yourself to anything else.

Will I do this again? Hell yes. I have one (shorter) anthology in the super-early planning stages, which will be my first foray into handling royalties for authors. My friend Rob gave me an idea for one that's too good to pass up, which is way on the backest of back burners. And I'd love to collaborate on charity anthologies or zines in future.

Overall, I'm pleased. I miscalculated several things, and I had to fall back on several safeties, but Unearthed has turned out to be both a lovely book and a great learning experience. I really hope all of you will give it a read:

Order Unearthed from Altrix Books.

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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Too Much Faith in the Virtual YouTuber

NOTE: This post does not reflect the views of any of my employers.

It's a dang cute idea, and one that just about anyone with a decent setup and a little cash to spare can take part in. But cute ideas don't always necessarily make for good bets.

VTubers are a new hotness largely out of Japan, though Western countries are picking up on the trend. Short for "virtual YouTubers," the concept entails dropping a small investment on some simple motion-capture software, getting a 3D avatar created, and hosting videos as said avatar. The resulting characters are usually cute anime girls, though you'll find a fair mix of everything else in there, too.

If the idea sounds familiar, it's likely because you've seen or heard of Kizuna AI, a VTuber so popular she made Newsweek Japan's listing of Japan's Top 100 Globally Influential People.

For what it's worth, AI is pretty solid. Her actress, who remains anonymous (though there are strong guesses online that are easy to Google), is an entertaining presenter who's very good off-the-cuff. She sings, does a good Let's Play, and has an unexpectedly tweaky sense of humor. She's clearly the result of more than one person—her actress, sure, but also comprehensive design work, stable motion capture, and good business representation. 

Meanwhile, individuals and companies have been entering the field along with her. There are a few stand-outs, like Tokino Sora and Mirai Akari, but suffice to say there's more and more competition by the second.

Which is not to say it's a bad idea. It's a great innovation for camera-shy people, or those who just want to try something new, or for companies looking for a mascot to be their online face. Too, these are all personas—allowing for a fictional aspect to your YouTube content, which is always fun. As with any new technology, though, the novelty alone won't remain a selling point: there has to be substance.

Someone didn't tell Dwango that.

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Dwango is a fairly large company that happens to own niconico, Japan's answer to YouTube (albeit with different functionality and a community with a very different vibe). They've also been all about this VTuber thing... so much so that they created two companies, a streaming platform, and a TV series around them.

Such egg. Such basket.

To be fair, they're not alone. The VTuber craze has bitten just about every company with any sort of ties to the geek community. Anime series old and new are starting channels with mo-cap "virtual" hosts, and companies like Compile Heart have created and cast actresses for channel hosts using the technology. Japan's Weather News service even has their own—Weatheroid Type-A Airi—who's handled by an actress for special videos and an automated voice for regular weather reports.

That said, the VTuber portion of any company's business plan seems to be a single aspect, just as with any other social media plan. It's yet another platform for conveying information, which the company still has to produce, and it just so happens to be engaging and eye-catching. For individuals like AI, Sora, Akari, and so on, it's the personalities that make them shine, not the fact that they happen to be on-the-fly motion capture. And despite the sheer number of popular VTubers, you're unlikely to see a single company sinking all their efforts into more than two or three personalities.

Well, 'cept for Dwango. Let's talk about what they've done.

1. Created Lide, Inc. Lide was going to be such a thing. The whole point of it was to create new content based on the entire VTuber scene. Some major names like anime studio Kadokawa and Evangelion's new home Studio Khara were involved, too. To handle Lide's output, Dwango then...

2. Built a great big studio. The photo you see above is from Lide's mo-cap studio in Tokyo, the largest of its kind in town. Its 54 cameras can capture footage of a dozen and more live performers, for use either in animation or as live VTuber-style footage. Regardless of the solidity of their business decisions, that is pretty cool.

3. Started a company for YouTubers. Then there was Watanabe Amaduction (short for "amateur production"), which existed with the goal of landing YouTube personalities gigs on TV, radio, and other more traditional platforms to increase their reach. This included VTubers, of course; and the company even owned their own, named Yuu-ham.

4. Made VIRTUALSAN - LOOKING. Remember how I said there was a TV show? There was a TV show. It ran last season, and was basically like SNL for VTubers. I think. I watched some. Kizuna AI performed a theme for it, which recently garnered attention as its own banger music video. Incidentally, the show was shot in Lide's massive studio in Tokyo.

5. Started VirtualCast. Well, that's fine, right? It just sounds like something for VR, and that's hot. No. It was a streaming platform centered around distributing VTuber-centric content. And, as far as I can find, not a lot else.

I'm not kidding about "Such eggs, such basket." Dwango had all five fingers of one hand in the VTuber pie, which is a terrible sentence I'd like to take back.

All this happens over the course of 2017 and 2018. Cut to last month. Kizuna AI is flying high, doing commercials for ramen and appearing as a special character in the second of two popular "what if warships were cute girls" mobile games, Azur Lane. She's got action figures, live shows, her first album, you name it. Other VTubers are doing respectably well for themselves, too.

Meanwhile, Dwango announces the launch of TUNEDiD, a company offering its massive Tokyo mo-cap studio to corporations looking to do VTuber and mascot work. So... okay... but wait. How are they going to balance that with Lide?

They're not. Because, as we found out in the last few days, both Lide, Inc. and Watanabe Amaduction have been dissolved. Oh, and funnily enough, that dissolution actually took place late last month, contemporary with the formation of TUNEDiD.

As someone who used to work for a person who did some ballsy spin whenever met with business issues... that's some ballsy spin.

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We aren't done, by the way. There's more. Remember VirtualCast? Apparently it's upwards of 155 million yen in debt. That's about $1.5 million USD on a good day.

"Seriously, company that sees more money in a day than I will ever see in my entire lifetime," says the freelancer, eating a discount TV dinner, "what were you thinking?" And yeah, true. I'm sitting here in my garage-office yelling "Y U NO DIVERSIFY" at a company that has already done better than me at life. Granted. But there is a lesson here, and the lesson is personality and content over gimmick.

It's a lesson no one's ever gonna listen to, but whatever, stick with me.

Kizuna AI isn't popular because someone figured out how to do on-the-fly motion capture. She's popular because she has a weird sense of humor, because Resident Evil 7 taught her to cuss, because she's an entertaining and engaging personality. Same for every other successful VTuber out there. The gimmick got them seen in an environment where they might have otherwise been passed over for being Yet Another Cover Artist, Yet Another Let's Player, Yet Another Whatever. The gimmick isn't their appeal; the gimmick amplified their appeal.

If we're not to a point where the VTuber bubble bursts, we'll be there soon... which likely means that going that route to be seen will become equally difficult, and talented people who can't get a leg up will have to find the next big thing to propel them. And while I'm sure there are fans out there who like VTubers by virtue of what they are, without much care for what they're like, it was never going to be enough to establish three businesses on.

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The goal behind Watanabe Amaduction actually seemed the most grounded out of anything, and a focus on that—pushing the personalities rather than the medium—could have been promising. It's sad to see that go in the wake of Lide and everything else.

The sad thing is that Dwango and other companies will likely take this as a sign that VTubers aren't as popular as they thought, rather than homing in on the creators. The creators are not the medium, and throwing everything you've got into a digital medium in 2019 is kind of dangerous. We don't even know what's here to stay yet, and with tech evolving exponentially, we can't know without sitting back and waiting a minute. Better to miss being bleeding-edge than to just end up bleeding money.

Maybe Dwango can recover some of their investment by handling the heavy lifting for other companies. Or maybe all they can do is chalk this up as a lesson learned. Either way, content remains when trends fall away, and that's something all of us operating on fewer dollars can take away from all this.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2019


So it's Golden Week, which doesn't mean much unless you live in Japan or work in an industry influenced by Japanese business or entertainment. The span consists of multiple national holidays laid end-to-end, meaning if you live there you get a week (or more) of free time. If you live overseas and work in a Japanese industry, it means everything grinds to a halt.

Yesterday I found myself short on news to write about, and wished for something, anything, newsworthy to happen. One finger on the Monkey's Paw curled up, and we got the new Sonic the Hedgehog trailer.

Now, let me just say up front that I'm a big believer in waiting and seeing a movie before passing judgment. Because I've been wrong as hell about some movies before. I think we all have. Like Speed Racer. How the hell was Speed Racer good? It was, but how?

That aside, I am pretty willing—like, real willing—to take a bet that this is just gonna be Not Good. At the time of this writing, the trailer is 67% disliked by viewers. Not the 16 million dislikes and 85% hatred of last year's YouTube Rewind, but at 205k downvotes, it's not going well.

And today, because I hate everything, I'm going to go over with you, bit by bit, why I personally cannot stand this shit.

Here's the trailer in case you wanna subject yourself:

Right, so let's go. Uh. Fast.

First off, Green Hills. I'll give you that, I see what you did there. Also, not a surprising opening shot for a movie about a fast animal and a cop: catching Sonic on his radar. Then our cop protag finds one of Sonic's sparking quills, and...

I mean, there are seriously moments where I feel like this trailer wants us to believe. Look at that. That's cute. The rings. Again, I'll give them that. But then we cut to Sonic himself, as he puts on "Gangsta's Paradise." Why? Why? What does Sonic have to do with anything in that song? What does it have to do with going fast? I can only assume it's because it's a 90s throwback, just like a lot of other stuff in this trailer. Then, of course, we get the Legy Boy himself:

Sonic's character design has really been coming under fire and I can't think why. Personally, I don't give a damn about the fluffiness (though I am absolutely Team Fluffy Pok√©mon when it comes to the upcoming, less terrifying-looking Detective Pikachu). I don't care about separate vs. conjoined eyes. I don't care about "looking more like a real hedgehog." It's just... weird.

Former Sonic Team head Yuji Naka went on record as saying the design looks unbalanced, and SEGA is apparently less than please with how it's come out. I understand needing to change designs to work among real humans and settings, but... what is he? Like, what?

Sonic then goes on to cause a power surge that just straight-up knocks out everyone's electricity (killing 491 newborn babies in the process, if this Redditor is to be believed). The Men In Suits call in an expert to figure out what caused this power surge. Who is the expert? 2019 Jim Carrey, pretending he is 1994 Jim Carrey and wearing these handlebars:

Full disclosure: I don't like Jim Carrey. I don't like his anti-vax weirdness, I don't like that he was a jerk on the set of a movie and chalked it up to being possessed by the ghost of Andy Kaufman, I don't like how he acts like that guy at every party you've ever been to who's decided he's A Wit and is going to make sure he's got something to say in response to every syllable that comes out of your mouth.

That said, the fact that he is not what bugs me most about this trailer is really something. It is notable that he's turning in an Ace Ventura-era performance from what we see, just piling on the proofs that someone was trying to give the movie a 90s vibe without actually just setting it there. (All things considered I don't care that he doesn't enter Looking Like Robotnik: this is an origin story. You don't just start by looking like that.)

Honestly, his jape-to-human interpreter is the only being in this trailer I give a damn about. The actor's name is apparently Lee Majdoub. I hope he is having a nice day.

Then we get to a moment that I have so much to say about, despite its relative shortness. It's just. It encapsulates for me in what should be a very benign and even funny exchange what's making me cringe inside-out about the whole situation.

"Uh... MEOW?"

Where do I start. I mean, probably with the distressingly human teeth. That's nightmare fuel. Look at them. He looks like drunken taxidermy. He looks like something someone at an art show would try to sell as a warning statement against the dangers of capitalism. He looks like a cursed salaryman.

Then there's the way he delivers the gag. The "Oh no, I've been caught, I'm going to make the sound of something I'm obviously not while the person is looking right at me" is hard to mess up because it's inherently funny. So how did we end up with this? This weird too-cool-for-school Rude Dog rad-boy tone? Why was it even an option in the recording booth? What does this even mean?

I hate him. I hate this Sonic so much. He's being weird and smug about pretending to be a cat badly. I'm aware as I type this that I'm overreacting and that makes me hate him more because he's made me overreact about something so inconsequential. "Meow."

Then we get some more actions shots. We see that Dr. Robotnik basically wants to. I don't know. Study Sonic? Maybe kill him? Honestly he is a terrifying uncanny blue monster who took out a power grid with a foot race so I can't blame him.

Yes, yes, I get it.

Oh, hey, this. Now this has the potential to be cool. Remember that scene in Days of Future Past with the dude from American Horror Story as Quicksilver? That was rad. Yes, sweet, let's do something like that. Hit me.

... eh. Maybe it works better with "Time in a Bottle."

We then go on to a forgettable bit of buddy comedy humor where Sonic gets the human star to make it sound to two random women like he's kidnapped someone's kid and stuffed them in his duffel bag. Which is. A choice.

Then we close out on the one adaptation choice that looks even remotely successful:

Overall, it felt like they were desperate to double-fist a 90s sensibility and modern badassery. Not an impossible feat, but if the trailer is them showing us their best... I'm not encouraged.

In all fairness, I don't really have a dog in this fight. I was a Nintendo girl, and I like Sonic fine, but I have nothing to lose or gain based on how the movie does. Something tells me that 10 or 20 years from now we'll have a sort of weird fondness for it. Maybe CG will have advanced far enough that Sonic looks less terrifying and more doofy to our future eyes.

Hell, maybe this movie is just the right kind of self-aware and they just put out a sinfully bad trailer. I don't know. But I'm not confident, lads.

I've also realized why I tend not to do hate/takedown posts. I feel no better and I've changed nothing. But at least I've got you guys to suffer with.

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