The trouble with elves

It’s been a while since I read Lord of the Rings, but this post brought back some old memories.

I was never really an elf fan. My favorite characters were the hobbits, because the hobbits seemed like people rather than Heroes of Legend. They’d rather have been at home than off adventuring, and they wanted to know when the next meal was going to be, and they mostly spoke in casual vernacular rather than solemn pronouncements. The elves were graceful and poetic and magical, and that was the problem–they were too perfect. They never seemed quite real the way the hobbits did. One of the great things about Lord of the Rings is that in a landscape lousy with elves and kings and wizards, it’s the humble little people who aren’t anyone special who make all the difference. Frodo isn’t a Chosen One of prophecy; he volunteers for a job that needs doing. And arguably the real hero in the end is Sam, who’s the most ordinary of them all.

I was reminded as well of another series, A.J. Hartley’s Will Hawthorne books. My feelings about those are more mixed, and I frequently outright disliked Will Hawthorne himself. But I usually liked him a lot better than his traveling companions, because they were all upright and noble adventurers on a quest that they took very seriously, whereas Will had a sense of humor, not to mention a healthy sense of self-preservation. (The generic-fantasy-photo covers on the author’s website are kind of unintentionally hilarious with the actual content of the books, which are narrated from Will’s sardonic perspective.)

I’ll take a character who seems like a real person, warts and all, over a paragon any day. The elves are impressive and all, but they’re kind of boring.

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Bring Out Your Dead: Nuts and Bolts

Emily Short is currently running Bring Out Your Dead, an invitation for developers to post unfinished works that will probably never be finished. So I’ve dug out an old IF project: Nuts and Bolts, aka Man vs. Machine, aka Robotopia. It’s the opening puzzle to a planned much more complex game, so while there’s not much there to play, I do have some commentary on the process.

I wanted to do an IF game with a bunch of robot NPCs, on the grounds that if my NPCs were a bit stiff and repetitive it would only add verisimilitude. The story went through many iterations before I settled on one where the PC is a scrappy human rebel against the robot overlords. I had hazy ideas of a puzzle mechanic based on reprogramming robots to do your bidding. If the game had continued beyond that opening scene, the robots would have gotten increasingly sophisticated, to the point where the player had to grapple with the ethics of reprogramming them and whether this was tantamount to taking a sentient being’s free will.

The trouble was, my puzzle ideas were so vague that I couldn’t implement them when it came down to the nitty-gritty. (The nuts and bolts, if you will, giving the title a certain retroactive irony.) I flailed about trying to figure out how to make a parser-friendly puzzle out of reprogramming a robot. At some point I had a half-baked idea of using square dance as the inspiration for a puzzle, thanks to this post; I still think it would be cool to make a puzzle like that, but I suspect it would have to be very visual, which makes text adventure a poor choice of medium. Without a solid puzzle mechanic, the whole thing fell apart, and the game never got past scene 1.

I still like the opening, though. I’m not sure if I had listened to Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully before writing it, but that sitcom also had a protagonist whose investment in the romantic notion of being La Resistance was disproportionate to her actual effectiveness.

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Time travel and plot holes

I once co-taught a class for Splash on “Time Travel for Fun and Profit”, about the different ways that fictional universes handle time travel. It’s a bit like writing about magic, or faster-than-light space travel: since none of those things work in the real world, the author can make up whatever rules they like… as long as the rules are superficially plausible and internally consistent. And the dirty little secret is that even that rule isn’t ironclad; as with so many things in fiction, you can get away with nearly anything as long as the audience is entertained enough not to notice the inconsistencies until they get up to go to the fridge.

In other words: the only way to do it wrong is to do it in a way that breaks suspension of disbelief.

Which brings me to Legends of Tomorrow.

Look, the time travel on The Flash doesn’t always make sense, but it’s mostly okay if you accept that this is a universe where you can go back and change the timeline, and it’s not the focus of the show. Legends of Tomorrow puts time travel front and center and then blatantly lets the rules be whatever the plot needs them to be right now. This show holds the dubious distinction of having time travel mechanics handwavier than those of Doctor Who, and Doctor Who once described time as, and I quote, “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff”.

There are… many things that can be said about Steven Moffat as a writer and showrunner, but one thing I always give him credit for is pulling off plots based on loopy time travel mechanics. “Blink” is the classic one, but a disproportionate number of Doctor Who episodes where Moffat has a writing credit are particularly timey-wimey, including recent high point “Heaven Sent”. (The two-part mini-episode “Space”/”Time” is a good example in miniature.) He’s good at playing with concepts like stable time loops, jumping ahead in the timestream while someone else takes the slow path, etc. There are some kludges (“you can’t change that, it’s a fixed point in time”), but at least there’s a sense that Moffat and the other Who writers know what they’re doing.

Whereas on Legends of Tomorrow, I don’t get the sense that the writers have really wrapped their heads around time travel. For example, there’s a concept that’s come up more than once, that changes to the timestream don’t “stick” immediately and some time has to pass before they become permanent… and it goes completely unacknowledged that the concept of “time passing” for the timestream makes no sense. You cannot give your heroes a time machine and then put them on a clock; if you can go back in time now and fix what you broke, you can just as easily do it (subjectively) later, because, hello, time machine. I twitched every time Rip brought up this idea.

It all comes back to suspension of disbelief. Plot holes are acceptable if they’re only noticeable after you’ve thought it over.* But when I’m watching the episode and shouting “That makes no sense!” at the screen, it becomes a problem.


*One that Legends of Tomorrow more or less gets away with: recently, the heroes contemplated killing a future dictator at the age of 14. They didn’t do it because of moral qualms about killing a kid, but it’s implied that going through with it wouldn’t have broken the timestream. A mere two episodes later, the team drops off their younger selves at Last Refuge, an isolated spot where future Time Masters are taken as children. So… it never occurred to Rip that he could send Per Degaton to the Evil Baby Orphanage?

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The abuser logic of crunch, and why producers are important

Signal boosting this, because it’s rebutting an article (and an attitude) that needed to be rebutted. The unhealthy mindset that equates work-life balance to insufficient commitment to one’s work does no one any favors in the long run: not the employees who burn out, and not the companies who get short-term productivity in exchange for burning out employees in the long term. Sure, the work gets done faster now, but then you lose good people and get a reputation as a horrible place to work.

I am a game developer, and I’m well aware that I could be making more money elsewhere. I chose this industry because I love what I do. But I also love having friends, and hobbies, and time for side projects, and I don’t think it’s healthy or sustainable to have nothing in your life but your job. (After all, your employer could go under, or lay you off, so why put all your eggs in that basket?) The industry will be the poorer if we drive away everyone who could find better uses for their free time than working into the night.

My current job actually gives me a pretty decent work-life balance, and what do you know, we’ve managed to make and maintain a pretty successful game without working stupidly long hours. How about that. So given that it is, in fact, possible to make and ship games on a sane schedule, the contention that people who don’t want to work long hours just don’t love their jobs enough starts to sound like a Captain Awkward letter where an abusive partner says “If you loved me, you would put up with [insert toxic behavior].” In fact… I’m starting to see a lot of abuser-logic patterns in St. John’s article. Such as the typecasting of people who dare to want fair pay and reasonable hours as “wage slaves”. (Oh, I thought you were like one of those cool game developers who was going to make it big, but now that you’ve had the temerity to ask for downtime you’re just like the rest of the drones.) Such as saying that if you’re feeling burned out by long hours, it’s your fault that you just couldn’t hack it. Such as the idea that because we have been given the gift of a job in this industry, we now owe it all of our time and brainpower and sanity in return. You shouldn’t have to be married to your job if your job is going to be clingy and jealous and stop you from seeing your friends.

Also, I’d like to address a point that is touched on lightly by both articles. Bolded text is from St. John’s original article, unbolded text is from Ismail’s rebuttal.

You can’t “make fun” on a schedule, under budget, on time with a bunch of people who are all grumbling about what a miserable time they are having finishing a game together.

You can’t, which is why you make sure that your employees aren’t miserable finishing a game together because you did stay on schedule, under budget, and on time. This situation occurs when your schedule sucked and your budget sucked, and that’s the fault of the entrepreneurs — not the employees.

Ismail mentions this more than once–that crunch time can be prevented by better scheduling–and I think it’s an important point that deserves to be expanded on. As someone who has starting to dip a toe into the scheduling and planning side of game development, I cannot over-stress the importance of planning ahead, time budgeting, and managing feature creep. If employees are crunching to finish a project on time, it’s because somewhere along the way something went wrong: someone didn’t budget enough time to allow for bug fixes and other unscheduled tasks, or was over-optimistic about the time it would take for necessary tasks to get done, or added time-consuming features that weren’t in the original estimate. And these things do happen, but it’s the job of producers and management to allow for them and leave breathing room in the schedule–and then to monitor progress along the way to make sure everything is still on track. If the project is too big to finish on time, they can cut features, or extend deadlines, or hire more employees; pick a side of the vision-schedule-resources triangle. But it’s not fair to employees to force them to take up the slack when someone above them has dropped the ball on planning. And to suggest that “this is just how it is” in the industry, or that making great games requires crunch time and everyone just has to suck it up, diminishes the role of all the producers out there who are working hard to get games shipped on a sane schedule.

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Schroedinger’s canon

I’ve written before on the subject of divergences in fictional continuity and what qualifies as “canon” or not. As it turns out, the subject has come up again in relation to my two most recent posts.

I’ve already discussed my feelings about Daredevil volume 5. I enjoyed the end of volume 4 because for once, the story ended happily. But as Orson Welles pointed out, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” (A quotation I learned from White Collar, a series whose ending proved that sentiment apt… but I digress.) When Secret Wars happened, it undid the happy ending, or overwrote it, or possibly just continued past it–I don’t know, Secret Wars’ relationship with “canon” is weird. But the writers are treating it as a soft reboot, so volume 5 feels more like a reset than a sequel, and I felt a little cheated that the ending that I wanted was wiped away.

I also recently learned that the CW is working on an Archie Comics TV show called Riverdale. Overall, I’m very interested to see what they make of it, but having posted on the subject recently, my first thought was “…crap, Jughead probably won’t be asexual in this one.” (All right, my second thought, right after “Hey, Jughead is one of the twins from Suite Life of Zack and Cody.”) Maybe I should give Greg Berlanti and the CW some credit; by my count, the relatively small Arrowverse has more canonically queer characters than the entire MCU, though that’s a depressingly low bar. But while queer representation in media is improving, asexual representation remains vanishingly rare, which is why I was so excited over Jughead in the first place.

So, what’s the one true canon? Is Matt Murdock’s happy ending gone for good? If Riverdale says Jughead is straight, does that override the comics saying he’s asexual, or do the comics win by dint of coming first? And for that matter, what if there’s an earlier Archie comic where Jughead is into a girl? Does “canon” mean the original version, or the latest version, or the most popular version?

Just as Kate Griffin came to my rescue last time, by writing a rather more coherent post about the varying incarnations of characters across media, this time I’ve been given some perspective in the form of a post by Max Gladstone. You should really read the whole essay, but I’ll quote the part most relevant to my point:

The Expanded Universe doesn’t go away just because that story’s done.  The tale, well told, remains. […] Honoghr doesn’t disappear.  It’s still out there, rebuilding.

That resonated with me. The stories as I want them to be are still there. Comics-Jughead is still asexual, Daredevil at the end of Volume 4 is still living happily ever after in San Francisco. It doesn’t matter if another writer has come along and done something differently; the old stories aren’t any less valid than the new ones.

You can’t ask questions like “Is Jughead asexual?” out of context. Or, to give another cross-media example, is Clint Barton deaf? It depends on whether it’s the Clint Barton of the MCU or the comics, and possibly on which era of comics canon you’re talking about. Sometimes characters even enter a Schroedinger’s-cat-like state of being both alive and dead; Game of Thrones has pulled this more than once, as did the manga vs. anime versions of Fullmetal Alchemist. Some adaptations diverge from the “canon” portrait of a character deliberately, which is how we have a black Nick Fury in the MCU and a female Watson on Elementary. It’s perhaps instructive to pay attention to which characteristics are deemed so vital to a character that they persist across continuities. You might see a Clint Barton who isn’t deaf, but Matt Murdock is always blind–even when he isn’t Daredevil, as with Spider-Gwen‘s Murderdock. Riverdale‘s Jughead may or may not be asexual, but you can bet their Kevin Keller will be gay.

There’s a reason I keep putting “canon” in quotes here. Canon is not monolithic. In the notorious labyrinth of comics continuity, or when a work gets remade or rebooted or adapted, canon becomes able to encompass multiple, often contradictory states. Does canon contradict itself? Very well, then it contradicts itself! Canon is large and contains multitudes.

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