Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Waiting for Godot of video games

It's unconventional. It breaks the fourth wall. It raises questions of personal choice and freedom. And nothing you do really matters. It's called The Stanley Parable. It's a Half-Life 2 mod, but you don't have to own HL2 to play it (not on a PC, anyhow). You can download the game and the Source engine for free on Steam.

And I recommend that you do before reading further. It's short, it's free, and it's the kind of thing that's best experienced for yourself first. There's no combat and no puzzles, just you and a narrator describing what you're doing... or not.

From this point onwards, I'm going to assume that you've either played it yourself or have absolutely no intention of doing so and just want to hear about it.

But seriously, you should try it.

Being a reader, writer, and gamer, there's a lot in TSP that's intriguing and enjoyable. Most of it centers around the wry commentary on video games a medium, but it's well-produced all-around, from the clever narration to the music selection, which channels American Beauty. It's appropriate for the story of a man who presses buttons on command* for a living.

There are six different outcomes that can transpire depending on how you play the game.** There's an implication throughout that gamers actually have very little choice in how games turn out.*** Choices are illusory; if you choose the "wrong" door, you're nudged back to the correct one. There seems to be an entire environment laid out to make players feel that they're exploring a space, but they're meant to follow a relatively narrow track within it. After all, if you just want to free-roam, why don't you go play something else?**** The endings suggest that the only way a player can actually demonstrate autonomy in a game is by switching it off.

The developer mentions in an attached text file that most people chose to obey the narrator up until the end of the game, at which point they enabled the generator. Perhaps this suggests that gamers like to play a game according to its own rules but then screw with the "ideal" outcomes and obvious choices (as constructed by the game) in a way that offers a bit of catharsis (or humor). Kind of like creating an ugly Shepard, killing the lion in King's Quest II, or attacking your squadmates in just about any action game where you have them. They're little rebellions.

The Stanley Parable seems less concerned with how we should play games and more concerned with  understanding why we're playing. After all, every set of choices is dignified with its own ending. You can play by the rules. You can play by the rules and then send it all to hell. You can explore the limits of the game to see just how much freedom you have. You can ignore the objectives set out for you and play your own game. It all eventually comes to an end.

*Yes, they're talking about YOU, button-masher!

**My favorite was "Everything In It's Right Place" for the ending when everything is clearly not. This was the first ending I got, by the way. What about you?

***Has anyone playing the original Half-Life ever wished you could choose not to run the world-devastating experiment?

****Like Minecraft. Or something in the Elder Scrolls series.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Never write this in a love scene

Even good authors sometimes make galling mistakes. Here's something I stumbled across while reading Shantaram, a generally well-reviewed epic about a man finding himself in India:

"When I kissed her, the storm from her blue eyes came into our mouths...."

The sentence goes on, but I stopped there.

A dash of figurative language is fine, but author Gregory David Roberts doesn't stop there. He gets all Song of Solomon. By the end of it, it's hard to say if you've read a love scene or a heroin trip.

But the bigger problem with this passage is that no one should ever, EVER include something about anything coming into anyone's mouth... unless it actually happened. Because my mind went there. And I'll bet yours did, too.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Scrivener sale

According to lovely folks over at GalleyCat, Scrivener is on sale for half-price. It's writing software designed to help writers structure their works according to scenes and to allow for flexibility and easy organization.

You can buy the program directly from Literature & Latte, but if you want the discount, you'll have to go through Amazon: Scrivener [Download]

So, I guess you can ignore this if you're in the anti-Amazon camp.

In other news, I've recently started using the program myself. It's too early for me to compare it to good old Microsoft Word, but rest assured that I'll provide my unsolicited opinions once I've had more time with it.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Freddie Macmillan

James Patterson recently ran an ad in Publisher's Weekly and the New York Times Book Review calling for a bailout for the nation's publishers, bookstores, and libraries.

It's a noble sentiment, if not necessarily a practical one. I doubt any legislators will consider the publishing houses "too big to fail" or a priority over the various economic woes facing the country. In a more cynical view, I doubt the Big Six (Big Five?) have the kind of political pull that the financial giants and automakers have.

But the devil (and everything else) is in the details, so I was interested to hear what James Patterson had to say when Salon interviewed him about the ad.

Unfortunately, not much.

It's not like I have any ideas, of course. Still, Patterson seems to see his role as "conversation-starter," and while he's accomplished that much, I'm not sure he's given us anywhere to go. 

While I'd like to get more excited about Patterson's basic ideas for book evangelism, it's the kind of thing that I suspect passionate readers already do and that non-readers are more or less immune to.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Happy World Book Night

Tonight, outgoing readers will proselytize their love of the written word to non-readers at events and book giveaways around the country.

Retiring types can enjoy the excuse to kick back, pour a cold one, and read into the wee hours. As if we needed a reason.

However you celebrate World Book Night, please celebrate responsibly.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Jazz hands for American Psycho

I'll throw it out there: the stage musical version of American Psycho is probably the weirdest adaptation I expect to hear about for the rest of the year.

The question is: will Patrick Bateman sing Phil Collins and Huey Lewis when he's hacking women to bits? Will his cue cards be printed in Silian Rail?

This is not an exit.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

5th period is science fiction class

West Virginia legislator Ray Canterbury is proposing required reading in science fiction for middle and high school students. A fan of the genre himself, his plan is less about winning young readers over to the literary side of sci fi and more about winning them over to science.

As he told Blastr:
"In Southern West Virginia, there’s a bit of a Calvinistic attitude toward life—this is how things are and they’ll never be any different. One of the things about science fiction is that it gives you this perspective that as long as you have an imagination and it’s grounded in some sort of practical knowledge, you can do anything you wanted to. So it serves as a kind of antidote to that fatalistic kind of thinking."
He also says that students are under-performing in math and science despite their enthusiastic adoption of personal technologies like iPhones and tablets.*

He isn't the only one. Neal Stephenson founded Project Hieroglyph, an online journal built around the idea that imaginative, technologically robust science fiction is part of what inspires actual scientific development.

Either way, I would have gladly traded The Red Badge of Courage for Starship Troopers in my day.

*Spouse has mused before that there seems to be a lot of attention and money spent developing consumer gadgets and toys (which we also love, don't get me wrong) and less on big, world-changing technologies. Maybe it only seems that way because there are plenty of commercials for new smartphones but not so many for better rocket fuel, but even the awareness gap says something, no?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Go the F to the Movies?

By now you may have seen the news that Go the Fuck to Sleep is all set for a film adaptation. If you're like me, you thought, "What, how can you make a movie out of a satirical lullaby?"


If you're not like me, and you thought, "What is Go the Fuck to Sleep?" then you need to google "Samuel L Jackson reads bedtime story" and see what pops up on YouTube. Werner Herzog has his own version if that's more your style.

Anyway, some folks are going to make a movie out of this, and even though adaptations and remakes seem to be the strategy du jour, this seemed a little excessive. The irony of the medium is what makes the book so funny--all of the angry, sing-song rhymes next to earnestly cute illustrations of babies--not the plot.

I mean, you couldn't make a TV show out of a Twitter feed, could you? Nobody would make a movie out of an internet meme, right? There's just not enough to build on.

Anyway, Gawker makes a good point about the quality of certain supposedly "unadaptable" or barren concepts, but I'm still wondering how true it is to call this an adaptation rather than the filmmakers' take on exasperated parents.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Pulitzer-winner's author

Congratulations to Adam Johnson for The Orphan Master's Son, the newest winner of the Pulitzer for fiction. You can bet it's on my reading list.

There's something about the title I can't put my finger on. I've got this weird sense of deja vu.

And the list goes on. Don't get me wrong, these titles have a nice rhythm, but enough already.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Most challenged books

Shelf Awareness posted the American Library Association's list of the ten most challenged books of 2012. For anyone wondering, here are the winners:
  1. Captain Underpants (series) by Dav Pilkey
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  3. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James
  5. And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell & Justin Richardson
  6. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  7. Looking for Alaska by John Green
  8. Scary Stories (series) by Alvin Schwartz
  9. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
  10. Beloved by Toni Morrison
What's interesting is that four of the top five are children's or young adult books. Say whaaaat.

You knew this was going to make the list, right?

Friday, April 12, 2013

WTFriday: Snark mongering

If you want to spice up your Friday, Hugh Howey blogged today about an unpleasant encounter he had with a rather rude individual at last year's WorldCon.

Yes, the encounter in question is undoubtedly unpleasant, and the individual is unquestionably rude. I can't say I'd have felt differently about it were I in his shoes.

But the question is, who looks worse at the end of the story--the shady lady who goes out of her way to be rude to a stranger, or the quite-successful author who's still angry about it a year later?


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Big Brother is reading over your shoulder

CourseSmart is a new program designed to track students' use of e-textbooks, and a handful of universities are already implementing the test version.

The New York Times reports that CourseSmart can tell professors about students' reading (or skimming), highlighting, and note-taking habits. Each student has an "engagement index" based on his or her interactions with the e-textbook.

An optimist would point out that data on study habits can help instructors advise students who are performing poorly, and the NYT story indicates that this is happening. But it also demonstrates that professors are looking at the "engagement index" and questioning the behaviors of students who are performing well in class. And some of these students are looking for ways to raise their own indices despite good grades and apparent comprehension of the material.

Even assuming that CourseSmart accurately tracks reading, highlighting, and note-taking (which may be a generous assumption), it obviously can't track time spent with peer study groups. Or note-taking by hand (or word processor).

More importantly, it can't assess what individual students need.

I was the kind of student who studied early and often, and those habits served me well. Spouse was the kind of student who skimmed and crammed and also performed well. It would have been a mistake to try to force either of us to study like the other.

CourseSmart doesn't seem that insidious when our web browsers, e-readers, and cable boxes already track our habits for marketers, but there's a danger that students will be evaluated on how they study rather than whether they do so successfully. That's why the best use of this technology would make it optional. Students who want advice on their study habits could make use of it, but students who don't need it could opt out.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Some feedback on feedback

Recently, Marketplace's Freakonomics Radio discussed the relative value of positive and negative feedback. Which is more effective?

As it turns out, positive feedback is important for newbies who are still developing the commitment and confidence that they need to persevere.

On the other hand, negative feedback is what helps people improve.

Heidi Grant Halvorson at the Harvard Business Review blog further explains that while positive feedback motivates beginners, negative feedback is better suited to motivating people with more experience.

This type of information is helpful to keep in mind when choosing and working with critique partners. What kind of feedback do you find most useful?

Friday, April 5, 2013

WTFriday: $#*! Jeremy Irons says

I always knew that Jeremy Irons had an enviably smooth voice. I just learned that he is totally cray cray.

He objects to legalizing gay marriage, but not for the usual reasons. He's concerned that fathers would marry their sons for tax reasons.

A lot of questions popped into my mind about that part. Thankfully, The Guardian asked almost all of them. The answers are just as bizarre.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Book + Beverage = Marvelous

Today I came across BookPairing, a blog that pairs books with beer and wine. I had a why-didn't-I-think-of-that moment until I realized that I do already (kind of) do that, just with less introspection. My pairings are usually a question of what's on tap in the Bota Box and which craft brews were on sale last at the grocery store.

Now I can feel a little classier about it.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What is a "bad" finale?

Season three of The Walking Dead wrapped up last Sunday and managed to stir up resentment on its way out the door. Reviewers at places like Forbes, The Mary Sue, and Cinema Blend describe the finale as frustrating and disappointing.

So, what is it that makes an ending, whether in a book, film, or TV series, "bad"?

There are two types of badness. One is like a date where the food is cold, the conversation is bland, and every minute reminds you that you'd rather be doing laundry. The other is like a date where everything is perfect until the moment your companion asks if you'd like to come over to see his ThunderCats action figure collection.

The first kind stretches time into a wormhole of tedium, but you can breathe a sigh of relief once it's over. The second kind makes every enjoyable moment leading up to the disappointment feel like a betrayal, and the sting persists long after the ordeal.

Sometimes, when the last leg of a series is deemed bad, it's bad in the usual sense of the word. It's poorly-written, rambling, boring, contrived, or otherwise the kind of thing that makes you ashamed to even admit to reading/watching it.

But then there's a kind of badness that's only possible when something is really, really good. When someone grumbles about this kind of badness, it's like a first-grader shoving her crush on the playground. It's a sign of affection.

People sometimes criticize a finale because things didn't turn out the way they wanted. The heroes didn't emerge victorious, the villains didn't get their comeuppances, and the world wasn't restored to the balance that the reader/viewer would have found satisfying.* Or maybe there's too much ambiguity.   Or maybe the resolutions didn't seem as meaningful and spectacular as they should have. In any case, bleak, unfair, or unclear endings only frustrate people because they care so much about the characters and the world.

*Alternatively, I'd argue that when people complain that an ending is too neat and rosy, it's more akin to the first type of badness. If people get the kind of ending they want and still don't like it, it's probably because the loose ends were tied up in a hot mess.