Review — Story Break

In my quest to get caught up on all the podcasts I want to listen to (5/9 done!) I’ve been listening to a lot of Story Break, RocketJump’s podcast where three screenwriters try to adapt a famous or unadaptable concept into a TV series or movie. Throughout each one-hour episode they take a concept and flesh out what the narrative of that story should be. Each episode is basically a huge brainstorming session as if they actually had the rights to these properties.

Their second episode is about giving Jar Jar Binks his own movie, and their first rule was that they wanted to make a movie that redeemed the character instead of it being one of those trash movies people pay to see because it will be so bad.

I’ve watched roughly two-thirds of the episodes that have aired so far, and I love the podcast for two reasons. The first is their primary goal—very often, they (seem to) do a really good job and plot out a movie I would love to go watch. Obviously a screenwriter’s vision isn’t necessarily what ends up on the big screen, but you get the idea. Their knowledge of the narrative structure is pretty solid, so it isn’t a question of whether they can forge a good plot, it’s whether or not they can hold true to the original ‘feel’ of the thing they’re drawing from. If they’re making a movie about Monopoly, they aren’t just plugging in the keywords, they’re trying to make something that feels like a live action game of Monopoly. They don’t always knock it out of the park, but the constraint of staying true to the origin is admirable.

The second amazing thing about this podcast is the side effect (intentional or otherwise) of drawing the audience into the brainstorming session by drawing from media and concepts that they are already familiar with. It means that I can have my own ideas spinning around in my head and be ecstatic when they get to the same ideas, or I can be amazed when they come up with this idea or plot thread I hadn’t thought of. It isn’t as though they’re making things up because they’re drawing from established “universes” (if you can call the collective Kellogg’s brand cereals an EU).

I’m really enjoying the podcast because brainstorming and pulling together plots is something I love doing. I won’t get into it here, but it taps into that strange contradiction where I hate outlining my own stories but love plotting in general. Seeing these guys have fun doing it is an inspiration, and it is a good foundation for what outlining plot is. In later episodes they also act out elevator pitches (with sound effects and… acting… and everything).

Overall, it’s a great podcast. It’s a weekly, hour long podcast just like everything else, but they do a great job on an episode-to-episode basis. The one thing that I don’t like, and there probably is no fix for, is that when they fail to come up with a good story I’m really disappointed, and I feel like I’ve wasted that hour of my time. Trouble is, there’s no way to know beforehand if they fail, so you can’t just skip those episodes.

That doesn’t happen a whole lot, though. Maybe four times out of the forty episodes I’ve listened to.

Me — Unlocking Your Own Secrets

I’m a very introspective person. I’m constantly thinking about things and framing my experience into sizable chunks, and a lot of my life is characterized by the need to constantly improve myself and my personality.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that we as people do things for the wrong reasons a lot, even when we ourselves don’t realize it. I’m constantly trying to better myself, but I often misdiagnose the problems in the first place simply because knowing who you are isn’t always simple.

Let’s imagine a person, we’ll call him Jack. He’s very extroverted, pretty attractive, gets along with everyone. The kind of person that goes to lots of parties and has a huge social media presence just because they’re so sociable. Jack has a problem, though. He never makes time for specific people. He’s too busy hanging out with and being everyone’s friend. He might say he’s too busy with other friends to actually spend time on any one person. His best friends are just the people that he hangs around most when he goes to these parties.

But what he doesn’t realize about himself is that he doesn’t make actual, meaningful connections with people because he’s scared. His mom left when he was a kid, and he never understood or overcame that. He doesn’t want to get close to anybody because he’s terrified that if he allows himself to be vulnerable, that person will leave him. He may not realize it, but the brain has a way of doing things even if you’re not aware of it.

I’m not going all Freud on you, I promise. But even when we try to learn why we are the way we are, we may not be able to find a solution. You have so much baggage surrounding your life that it’s hard to parse what is and isn’t relevant towards for determining the reasoning behind your behavior. It gets even harder when we rationalize actions based on false information to unconsciously hide ourselves away.

I wish I could know every objective truth behind me and my actions. It’s a lot like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle of your brain, only you don’t know what the picture is supposed to look like, you just have a pile of pieces with no edge to work with.

But when you tell a friend about your troubles, they’re not looking at the information the same way. They don’t have all the baggage that comes with your life, they’re just thinking about the information you give them. Imagine them watching you struggle to put this huge puzzle together and they say “Dude, the box is right here, why don’t you just look at it?” The answer seems so simple that it’s hard to believe, but the more you think about it, the more you realize they’re right.

Of course, this is what psychologists and therapists are for, but sometimes a good, close friend can do the same thing.

Self discovery is a quest never finished, but it’s a much longer journey when taken alone.

Me — My Dislike for Televised Media

I’m not a big fan of televised media as a whole. It’s characteristics don’t synergize well with my personality for a number of reasons, and as such I don’t watch a whole lot of things. It has led to this new problem, though, that I can’t relate to analogies people bring up in movies or TV shows, even classics, so there’s this barrier that happens between me and other writers. It’s something I need to work on, and I’ve tried forcing myself to start a weekly classic movie night, but it has never stuck.

I’ll say this much—I like movies way more than TV, and this is almost entirely because of the time investment. I really don’t want to watch the same characters dealing with the same issues over and over again for twelve one hour long episodes for ten seasons. That’s just… insane to me. One season I can get behind, but investing hundreds of hours watching one thing? What a waste of time. (And yet here I am complaining when I’ve binge watched almost 500 hours of Critical Role. Humans are nothing if not contradictory.)

I can enjoy movies without complaint because I know it’ll be over in three-ish hours. It’s not something I’ll spend the whole day getting a fraction of the way through. I’ll meet the characters, experience their story, and be done. Rarely are movies made with the intent of cliffhangers to explore in the sequel. We can’t all be the MCU.

But the biggest roadblock for me is the fact that TV shows tend to be much more character driven than plot driven. I know how to write a plot. Telling stories is my jam. The thing that my writing is lacking in is character, so I would learn a lot more from TV than movies.

Okay, I do have an explanation for the Critical Role thing. The biggest reason why I’m not just watching televised media constantly is that it demands all of my attention and focus to consume it properly, and if you know anything about me it’s my incessant need to be multitasking whenever I can. I’m not just playing games, I’m listening to podcasts. I’m not just eating I’m making a new playlist of music. You get the idea. I can’t do that with movies or TV, so I can’t help but feel like I could be spending my time more efficiently.

Also, going to the movie theater is awful. $10 for 2 or 3 hours of entertainment, are you kidding me? I would expect a video game to entertain me for at least 15 hours with that price. (You’ll notice I dislike going to see things in theaters in particular.)

I really don’t have much free time to myself. Even devoting enough time to watch one new movie a week feels like a lot, and I no longer consider that free time. In an ideal world I would have a time every week where I just sit down and watch a new movie, but my schedule doesn’t currently allow for that.

So until that day comes I’ll sit here twiddling my thumbs and grumbling about how I dislike television like an eighty year old man that doesn’t understand texting.

Review — The Wind Rises

Sometimes I think that the part of my brain that should have emotions is missing. This was especially true when I was younger—I never got sad because nothing was sad, it was just stupid. Marley & Me? I mean, sure I understand why it was supposed to feel sad, but I felt nothing. This isn’t so much of a thing anymore; as I’ve come into adulthood I’ve found that I’m actually pretty normal in a lot of ways, especially as far as my emotions go.

And oh boy, did The Wind Rises give me emotions.

(Because this movie is relatively new, I’ll write the first half of my review spoiler free, and I’ll make it clear where the spoilers start. Keep in mind that the thing I loved most about this movie is a spoiler, so there’s that.)

I’ll say it now to get it out of the way: the animation is incredible. You knew that, it’s a Studio Ghibli film. That said, this movie is great in a lot of ways. It’s color palette is fresh and inviting, and in a way provides a very liberating feeling. The vibrant blues and greens do a great job at shedding optimism in a world at war.

The movie also does a great job with its characters. It’s strange, because I don’t perceive the protagonist to have any character flaws whatsoever, and the film is very much about him. But there is no bad part about himself that he is working to overcome, he’s just trying to be an artist while the rest of the world is using him for his genius. He’s very personable and the fact that the movie revolves around him is just relaxing in a way I can’t quite describe. It’s the same feeling the colorful and carefree color palette provides.

The other characters are great, too. I’m terrible with names, and since it’s been a week since I’ve watched it I already can’t tell you the love interest’s name, but she and Jiro’s bosses characters were also really well done. Miyazaki tows a fine line between stereotypes and archetypes here, but in the end he does a really good job with making these characters more than who they are to the plot while also making them easily accessible by making you think they’re stereotypes before you get to know them.

My one critique is that early on there are a lot of time jumps. Three, I believe. I’m much better with faces than names, but since the faces kept changing, it took me a while to get a hold on who was going to be important throughout the movie. I’m also still a little lost about what the love interest’s dad’s involvement with everything was. I’m sure it would be obvious if I rewatched it, but that was one thing that did not stick once I’ve had distance from the film.

Overall, great movie, a work of art in a lot of ways, you’ll probably cry.

Okay, spoilers ahead.

I don’t usually like romance plots in any movie, main or subplot. They often feel cliche or convoluted to me, or unrealistic (which is the worst). I have a hard time relating to most of them, which makes it hard to even enjoy any. This one, though. This one got to me.

Jiro runs through the garden because he’s worried his fiancée is sick. When he finds out she’s okay, he says “Sorry, I’ll use the front door next time.” She smiles and tells him the garden is faster, to which he replies “Garden it is.”

This moment does a lot, but most importantly it subtly shows that they truly love every split second they have with each other, to a point where they want as many of those split seconds as possible. That’s really heartwarming. The two had many interactions like this throughout the movie, but this one was my favorite.

The Wind Rises has several themes going on at any given point in time, and it juggles them well. I find it fascinating that the main plot of this film deals with Jiro’s life as he contends with what is the hardest, most productive, most loved, most cherished, and most heartbreaking years of his life all at once. He sought to make an amazing plane, and he did, but they were all taken from him. He met the girl of his dreams (literally), and nothing stood in his way, but did they live happily ever after? Well… well, no, not at all.

The last scene. I have explained it to two people, and the first time I got choked up and had to stop talking because I almost started to cry. (I’m not a “manly man” that hides his emotions, but the only time I’ve actually cried in the last three years was when my cat died.) You know a movie does a good job when you can’t even talk about it without getting emotional.

The movie is just a work of art. It’s beautiful in every way—animation, sound design, plot construction, voice acting—everything.

She was beautiful. Like the wind.

Me — Editing My Own Work

I’ve never had an easy time revisiting my own work after it makes it past its first draft. I would say that it’s probably one of my biggest flaws as a writer. In fact, rarely do I even go so far as to reread my own work before I publish it to the blog. I mean, I’m sort of reading it as I write it, so I don’t make too many grammar mistakes, but it does happen.

But once I actually finish something, the only reason I’d go back and read it again is if I was either recording it to post it on YouTube or because I need to familiarize myself with the stories and characters before I continue writing. Pretty much anything anyone has ever read of mine is going to be as I wrote it, with almost no edits. If you’re reading it here on this blog, then that’s doubly true, though I may have gone back and fixed typos.

I actually find it pretty difficult to go back and change my writing. I’ll receive edits and know what I want to change, but this often means cutting and adding larger chunks. I was recently given notes for my one act play I’ve been working on (for a playwriting class I’m taking), and instead of changing the ending, I just took out the last paragraph and added two more pages. I hardly touched character motivation, character dialogue, or anything at all. I just added.

To some extent, I think that’s fine. But here I am thinking about the second draft to my Spear Gate novella and I’m not even considering editing. I feel like it needs so much work I might as well start it from scratch (after making a real outline, of course). I think the biggest hurdle is that two of the three main characters need better motivations for their actions, which is no small fix. Especially with how I operate, going back and editing each and every line just isn’t feasible. It wouldn’t be worth my time. Still, I’m not sure rewriting it from the beginning is a good idea, either.

It’s sort of funny because I edit naturally as I read other people’s works. I can’t even turn it off, editing is the only mode I have as a reader (which is why I read so slow and often fall asleep), except when I’m reading my own writing. I don’t know if you can train yourself to use it only when you need it, but I’d certainly like to learn. Writing a bunch of first drafts of several different Chapter Ones can get tedious, and though I usually like how those short stories turn out, I want to write books! If my theory that Mary Sues are just protagonists that need to earn their perfection, then I need to write in the same story a lot more. I’ll never earn any level of awesome if I only hold on to characters for 2,000 words at a time.

Me — “Who is your Mary Sue?”

You probably hear all the time about how budding writers fall into the trap of writing a Mary Sue as the main character of their story, or at least some prevalent character. If you haven’t heard that, maybe you’re accidentally doing it.

For those of you that don’t know, a Mary Sue is basically a character that is perfect in every way. They have no flaws to speak of, they’re super attractive, smart, talented, you know, everything.  They follow the “Rule of Cool” to its extreme, forgetting realism and ending up with a boring character. Good characters have flaws they have to face, after all, so a character without flaws is generally pretty boring.

But it got me thinking: We must all have a Mary Sue floating around in our head somewhere, right? Even if we’re cognizant of the fact that we can’t put an amazing being of perfection in our story and retain a compelling tale, we still like to fantasize about those perfect characters, right? (I actually don’t know if everyone does this, but I certainly do, so bear with me.)

I then came up with a thought experiment for myself. If I could make a character, or even several characters, without worrying about anything, what characters would I make? If I didn’t have to worry about making the characters too powerful, too cliche, too edgy, too anything, what would those characters look like?

Well, stay tuned for that, because I’m still working on their abilities and personalities. As you could probably expect from an epic fantasy writer such as myself, they’re all fantasy-based people with demi-god level power. Something interesting that I’ve noticed, though, is that I’m instinctively considering backstory and flaws. It’s difficult to curb that instinct, because giving somebody the title “The Corrupted Flame” implies backstory, but I am intentionally avoiding giving them flaws and backstories unless that is part of the “Mary Sue” I attach to them. It defeats the whole point to give characters flaws to make them more well-rounded, because the whole exercise is imagining these people in their most awesome form.

I’m struggling a bit because I have about 4 different archetypes of “Mary Sue”, but they come in slightly different species. One of them is the archetypal paladin, white armor with gold accents, harnessing the power of the Light to strike down his foes and defend his realm. Another is a vengeful angel sent down to incur the wrath of her god. These Mary Sues, I’ve found, are actually the same character, just different flavors.

It’s a strange balance to strike—imagining the identities of these characters without thinking too hard about it. After all, it should be intuitive. What is the coolest thing you can imagine?

And then, I realized something. What if fantasy book series are just about your protagonist’s journey to earning their “Mary Sue” status? I mean, think about how powerful characters like Rand Al’Thor from The Wheel of Time, Tavi from Codex Alera, or Kaladin from The Stormlight Archive get the more you read. If a character arc is about overcoming their flaws, they are, by necessity, becoming more perfect. So I bet you could pretty easily begin a book series with the end “Mary Sue” in mind, making the perfect hero, and then working backwards and imagining how your protagonist gets from Point A to Point Z.

Review — Hollow Knight

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed anything other than a movie. You may have noticed that I’ve been posting my weekly essays for my film class as the review posts the last several weeks, as they spoke more formally and about more specific topics than I usually address.

Well, that class is over, so let’s talk about a new game I’ve recently played through: Hollow Knight. It’s worth mentioning that I knew almost nothing about this game before I played it. All I had was: the art is cool and it was very well received by the community. I didn’t even know it was a metroidvania style game. (For those of you that don’t know, the metroidvania genre is basically characterized by a 2D platformer where you fight bosses and they give you new abilities, like dashing or wall climbing, that allow access to previously restricted areas.)

I don’t really play metroidvania games. They aren’t really my cup of tea for the most part, because the gameplay is often so linear. You explore one area, kill the boss, and you gain an item that allows you access to the next area and so on. Hollow Knight is very much a classic game in this genre. In fact it sits in a very strange part of my head for one very specific reason: it offers nothing new to the genre (outside the cool art and music), and yet gets too difficult for inexperienced players to enjoy to its full potential.

That’s the entire game in a nutshell, really. It’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong. I played it for 30 hours and I’ll still probably go back to it to challenge extra bosses I couldn’t beat the first time. It feels fluid and it does everything right, with a few exceptions. But it doesn’t enthrall me with a compelling story, impactful player choices, or, well, any reason to play beyond the challenge of difficult foes.

Alright, here are my three main issues with this game, and they’re admittedly pretty small. The first is that the compass—your position on the map— is treated as something special. The only way you can use the compass is by devoting a precious charm slot for it, and these charm slots are precious because you only get a few and they are the core method of varying your playstyle.

My second gripe is the strange NPC interactions. There are tons of NPC’s in this game, and most of them offer nothing more than a few strings of dialogue. There is no way to tell if they are actually important or if they’re just randomly placed throughout the game, and it’s frustrating to meet somebody that sounds important and never find out whether they are. This is mainly a Kickstarter issue. I think a lot of this comes from people being inserted in the game arbitrarily because they funded money during production.

The last thing is that it is impossible to tell where to progress. You can explore endlessly, but there’s no way to know which areas are more locked than others based on abilities you do or don’t have, and this lack of direction is frustrating for me personally. You have no health bars outside of your own, so you can’t even tell whether the monsters in X area are more powerful than the monsters in Y area. This genre also obviously has a lot of secret areas, so by nature of its construction, parts of the map might be restricted because you’re supposed to come back to them when you gain a new ability, but you can’t know if that part of the map is just a simple secret pile of money or the path to a new boss. Also, I’m a completionist, so I hate leaving things like this for later because I know I’ll miss some when I go back to look for secrets.

Bad stuff out of the way, this game is great. The soundtrack is awesome, the art style is distinctive and unique, and the gameplay mechanics are intuitive, yet challenging. Bosses get tough, which makes the feeling of finally beating them very rewarding. Also, you can brag to your friends when you say “I beat the Path of Pain“, which is an insanely difficult platforming challenge. (Which, I’m proud to say I did beat, though it probably took me an hour or so.)

So, is the game worth buying? Well, I’ve been thinking about my brothers’ $1/hr rule of justifying games. I’m thinking I should start being more strict with that, because $15 for 15 hours of entertainment doesn’t seem great to me, especially when online games provide hundreds of hours of entertainment for free*. Hollow Knight is $15, but it also comes with a bunch of free DLC (which is downloaded and automatically integrated into the game), so with my 30 hours, I’d say $15 is more than reasonable. As I said, it’s nothing remarkable or revolutionary, but it’s a very solid game with some good music. If you’ve never played a metroidvania and you are interested in the genre, Hollow Knight is a good one to start with.