Your summer story challenge

So this is waaaaay too good to pass up:

I was Tumblr-delving today thanks to a tip from Ars Technica and found “Postcards from the Frontiers of Science” (wittily living at lewisandquark.tumblr.com) where someone is cataloging their adventures using an open-source neural net and feeding it data sets like paint colors or recipes and seeing what happens.

Is it funny? Oh, you betcha!

Right now my favorite might be the list of neural net generated story titles.  Who wouldn’t want to read or watch “The Excellent Very Broken Christmas” or “American Midnight: Swear Dragon”?  …I know I can’t wait.

So this is my challenge: Go to the link, find a title, and write me a story. It can be one sentence, it can be a whole manuscript. Knock yourself out.  Post it as a comment, or post the link to your blog/site/etc. If you’re more into art or cartoons, feel free to draw or design covers for these. #hilarityensues 

I’ll do at least one and post it as a comment sometime this week. And I promise you, if I were still teaching, you can be 100% sure this list of titles would be the basis for Monday’s writing lesson!

Story Titles, invented by Neural Network

What’s a man to do with his epiphanies? — Chris White HQ

“Could it be that this all of this op-ed commentary about pop culture serves more to fill our empty places—those places deep within us that desire to make and say and express but are completely disengaged within the context of the kind of lives most of us live as consumers, not makers. Have we all become so obsessed with commentary and critique because actually making and creating is just too damn hard?”

Source: What’s a man to do with his epiphanies? — Chris White HQ

Wanted: A soul – Mass Effect: Andromeda Review

Sometimes games can’t beat the pressure of their own ancestry. If any game series risks being downgraded due to its own success, it’s Mass Effect. Many of us found the ME trilogy to be one of the most powerful story experiences of the previous console generation. ME2 ranks as one of my favorite stories of all time, across all categories (book/game/film/TV). I wrote about power of the Mass Effect storyline here several years ago.  Despite the controversy about the series’ ending, the writers showed us just how high excellent game storytelling could rise.

So it’s not an understatement to say I was bubbling with excitement this spring to get my hands on Mass Effect: Andromeda, the newest game from the BioWare team.

… and discovered that this newest installment has no soul.

I can’t escape the tinge of disappointment that I feel whenever I’m playing the game. The basic arc is all there, the loyalty missions, the questing structure, decent sci-fi shooter combat. The game’s shine is dulled a bit from the effect of Mass Effect hitting in 2007; games overall are so much better now and audience expectations march ever higher.

But what I genuinely miss is the story having a soul.

Briefly (only mild spoilers here), you play one of the two Ryder twins who are traveling with the Milky Way pilgrims to the Andromeda galaxy. An unknown large corporation (The Initiative) sponsored 100,000 colonists to move to the neighboring galaxy and set up shop. If you know the ME series, this game takes place around the same time as the start of ME2, so you know that all Milky Way life is being threatened  by the reapers, though most folks there don’t realize that yet.

The themes in Andromeda are a lot of what you’d expect: meet new alien races, fight the ones who try to kill you, explore brave new worlds, do side quests that range from annoying to genuinely interesting, and try to get these new colonies off the ground before everyone dies in the cold darkness of space.

Honestly, if the only expectations Andromeda had to live up to were last year’s No Man’s Sky debacle, I’d say it was winning. This is what we all wanted No Man’s Sky to be, in many ways: fly around on a kick-ass ship to brightly colored planets with difficult environments and poke around till we find something cool. Build bases. Stare at a sky full of stars – because Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s star maps are breathtaking. It’s always been one of the best features of the ME games.

A recent patch allows gamers to skip the long travel cutscenes as they move throughout a star system, but they’re genuinely beautiful.

But therein lies the problem. As consumers, we demand that each new iteration be an improvement. Is it ok that Andromeda feels like the writers sketched out the bones of ME2 and swapped in new names and new inciting incidents?

Why does this game leave me feeling so cold inside? Why do I pick up my controller (driven by a “need” to finish, because it’s a BioWare game and I want to know what happens) yet feel bored by pretty much everything that’s happening here?

I’m still working through my first play through, so I can’t speak to the ending of the story. It’s possible ME:A will wow me by the end by offering up what I’ve come to expect from these guys: really interesting deep writing with thorny ethical dilemmas and characters I love like members of my own family.

My Sara looks a little like this. Actually, mine looks a LOT like Michelle Obama, which was entirely unintentional…..

But I’m 50+ hours in, and my love for the crew is tepid. I like Sara Ryder (I’m playing her rather than Scott, her brother), but she’s such a goody-two-shoes at times. Without the paragon structure in the dialogue choices, I often feel as if my only options are between “nice” self-righteousness and the asshole version. Ryder is quite young, so maybe that’s part of BioWare’s goal with this character – to evolve her own understanding of the difficulty of command as the game progresses. But I’m not seeing it really, and it all leaves me a bit cold inside.

AAA+ game titles are too big to fail, so they die from the inside out.  If you’re too afraid to gamble your story by pushing it forward and challenging the player, you kill it by a thousand little cuts. It’s not that the ME:A writing is bad; it’s fine. Well, dialogue is laughably stiff much of the time, but that may have more to do with the game’s engine and pacing than the actual writing.  Extra Credits did an excellent piece on why the animation has been so stiff in ME:A and the challenges that come with trying to create realistic game conversations:

But animation issues aren’t at the heart of what’s wrong with Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s that the story seems to have little driving it forward emotionally, while the gameplay itself isn’t innovative enough to offset this weakness in the writing.

I’ve heard that BioWare is stepping away from the ME franchise after this – gutting the Montreal studio that made it and focusing on other IPs instead. I’m sorry to hear that; the ME universe is so rich and well-developed thanks to the trilogy. But they didn’t gamble big enough on story, while gambling too much on the switch to the Frostbite engine and all the animation issues that caused.

*****
A good example of RPG game-writing with heart: The Witcher 3 blew my mind and set the bar pretty damn high for all future RPG writing. I’m thrilled to hear that Netflix is going to produce a Witcher TV Series. I’m so excited!

I wrote about my experience playing Witcher 3 a few months ago … it’s #1 in my list of “best games I’ve ever played,” barely edging out Journey and Mass Effect 2 for that title.
I played a parenting sim disguised as the best video game I’ve ever played

 

Idea for a course on “rhyming history”: lessons from the past to navigate today

History rhymesSupposedly Mark Twain said something like, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure rhymes,” and with that in mind, I was struck by the quality of book recommendations in this conversation I had with a Facebook friend today.

My friend, who does social media under the name “Theo Logos,” is a voracious reader – well outpacing anything I could hope for in my paltry Goodreads goals for the year – and our conversation this morning about Mark Twain’s disdain for Teddy Roosevelt turned into an outline for what would seem to be an incredible college course (or personal reading journey) through turn of the century American imperialism.

While Trump’s policy speeches have turned from American intervention abroad toward an inward focus on insular defense (buttressed by a jump in nationalistic rationale), I think Trump’s underlying view of the world remains about as imperialistic (might I say even jingoistic?) as anything Americans saw from their leaders in the late 1800s.

Few history courses teach high schoolers or college students about the horrors of the Philippine war – an assault by America against Philippine sovereignty justified by the US protecting its own interests. Yet that is one reason why Mark Twain looked upon his own age with horror.  American leaders (like Teddy Roosevelt) who occupy a nostalgic corner in my brain were the men who offended Twain the most because of their policies and aims.

As soon as we were old enough to walk by ourselves as a nation, the US has used its might (later buoyed by the decimation of Europe and parts of Asia in World War II) to further our agenda in the world.  Often this has resulted in geopolitical disaster. Consider the aftermath of the US overthrowing democratically elected governments in the 1950s and 1960s because we were afraid those nations would align themselves with the USSR. We installed fascists and dictators into places like Argentina, Chile, and Iran so that we could control them.  Usually, that ended poorly.  Sometimes it created a horrific mess leading to disasters like the rise of ISIS.  We need to learn from past mistakes, and studying the roots of American imperialism offers much.

Plus, looking at history through the eyes of literature and culture makes history come alive, and offers readers/students a sense of context for the biting satire that Twain and others produced during this rough and tumble age in American politics.

So I’d like to put this out here in case any history teachers want to take up the challenge to create a course about the way American imperialism rhymes with current political discourse about defense spending and immigration restrictions.  

We need to learn history’s lessons so we can stop repeating them, a little bit louder and a little bit worse.

Below the screenshots, I will link out to the books and articles mentioned here.

American Empire pt 1 American Empire pt 2 American Empire pt 3 American Empire pt 4

Essay: To the person sitting in darkness (Twain)

Short Story: The War Prayer (Twain)
YouTube: https://youtu.be/6BW0agONujg

Book: The True Flag; Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer (Amazon)

Book: The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism, by Mark Zwonitzer (Amazon)

Book: The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898, by Evan Thomas (Amazon)

Novel: Empire, by Gore Vidal (Amazon)
One way to understand the past is to embrace a well-written fictional retelling. Vidal’s incarnation of the Gilded Age brings home this age of excess.

And for more, you can visit Theo’s full shelf of books on American Imperialism at his Goodreads feed (Goodreads)

On Civic Trust: “Teach Us (How) to Trust” | Comment Magazine

Wise words from one of my favorite authors:

When suspicion is the water in which we swim, then power, might, and tyranny start to look like lifeboats.

Closer to home, though, the source of mistrust might be more quotidian and bottom-up. In some ways, our distrust is the outcome of our own perceived cleverness. We’re so smart and “in the know” that we end up not trusting anyone who isn’t us. We see through everything, cultivating a knowing distance above the fray, deflating any manifestations of passion and sincerity as scams and facades. So the enlightened posture of the hipster has more social consequences than we might realize. The cause in this case is subjective: a corrosive individualism swells our self-interest, with ripple effects of suspicion. Our loneliness—”bowling alone”—is not a result of mistrust, but a cause. Where cynicism and irony are the last virtues, the web of trust is torn. It’s lonely in the cage of wink-and-nod “authenticity.”

Source: Editorial: Teach Us (How) to Trust | Comment Magazine

I played a parenting sim disguised as the best video game I’ve ever played [The Witcher 3]

Oh no. Here it is. One of those moments where you’ve got to make a snap decision, but you can feel in your heart that it’s a biggie.

Damn. If I let her go off and do this, she’s not ready. She’s going to get hurt. She doesn’t understand the risks. This could end badly – so badly. I’d be an idiot to let a teenage girl walk into that situation without her father.

But if I make the call for her, if I insist on shoving myself into her decision, then I’m also diminishing her as a person. I’m robbing her of the opportunity to become all the woman that she can be. And that’s starting to mean more to me than ‘keeping her safe.’  There’s going to come a day when I’m not there, when I can’t keep her safe. She’s got to be able to make it on her own.

I’ve spent the last week second-guessing my choices as a “parent,” worried that I could have chosen better … This wasn’t what I expected when I popped the game disk into my PS4 in December.

The Witcher 3 is a video game by a Polish studio based on a fantasy series popular there, one that is just now making its way into the American market. (You should immediately go buy the first book on Amazon, because if you like fantasy at all, you’ll enjoy it.) The books and games center on the story of Geralt the Witcher, one of the few remaining members of a guild founded in the book’s Middle Ages to fight monsters who prey on humans. As people began to populate the land (a clone of Eastern Europe) back in the day, witchers were created through mutation and strong drugs to be faster and more capable mutant humans, able to take down the terrifying creatures that the humans discovered in their land. But that was hundreds of years ago, and the witchers are a dying breed now, a relic of an older and less-enlightened age, and despised by most people as an aberration.

witcher-3-screenshot-4-840x473Geralt is a pretty hard man at the beginning of his story. Unlike many fantasy RPG’s which throw you into an open world to craft your own story, Geralt brings his own strong, established personality and a definite story arc. He reminds me of a 1930s noir detective. He speaks in short clipped sentences and sees the world in his own version of black and white. To a witcher, the politics of men matter little. His job is to kill the monsters that men can’t kill … though he wisely recognizes that many “monsters” are far better than the rich men and rulers who devour their subjects through greed and corruption. But he wasn’t created to deal with them.

***SPOILERS AHEAD*** YOU SHOULD STOP NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T PLAYED THE GAME
and you really should play this game! ….One of the best I’ve ever encountered. 

Into Geralt’s hard and lonely life comes a child, a Child of Destiny, a consequence of the Law of Surprise. (“As payment, give me something you have at home that you do not expect.” Or “Give me your first child, the one yet unborn.”) Geralt has little use for Destiny since he survives by hard training, fast reflexes, and avoiding the stupidity of a fight he cannot win. But Destiny has other plans, and inserts into his life a six year old, blond firebrand named Ciri. Geralt, when he has a home, lives with a couple other bachelor witchers in a drafty, crumbling castle. His idea of “fun” is either drinking or working out.

But suddenly, he’s a dad. And through the power of video gaming, now so are you.

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Ciri grows up, as children are wont to do. And so does Geralt (who’s 100 years old, by the way, when the story opens – witchers don’t really age thanks to their mutations). And so does Yenefer, Geralt’s on-again/off-again love interest, a woman who’s so polarizing, the Witcher fanbase sorts itself into #TeamYen and #TeamTriss. Yenefer is a hard woman to love. That’s a long story and I’ll leave it for the books or games to unravel for you, but it’s worth noting that I couldn’t stand her for the first several hours I played the game (or the first several hundred pages of the books). I came around later.

But what makes the Witcher 3 a stunning masterpiece of storytelling is the way it thrusts you into the job of parent, so craftily that you don’t realize it’s happened. Geralt is on a mission to find Ciri #becauseplot and along the way you’re asked to make decisions, often in the heat of a moment, about how you’re going to respond to Ciri’s attitude or request or needs.

Do you coddle her? Encourage her? Forbid her? Protect her?

It matters. There are three endings to this game, and one of them is horrible. Gamers talk about how that ending crushed them. The other two endings are “good” but also bittersweet. Parents can’t keep their kids forever. It’s not what’s meant to be, no matter how much you enjoy their company. You’ve got to let go. The big question is, will you be able to live with yourself once you see the embodiment of all your parenting choices? #allthefeels

What struck me, once I finished the game, was how much Geralt and Yenefer (and I-as-Geralt) had changed because of parenting Ciri. You realize you’re making decisions differently. They’re sacrificing themselves for the sake of this girl they’re raising. And as Ciri becomes more and more their heart-child, a woman they will fight and die for because they love her that deeply, their sacrifice is redemptive. By sacrificing themselves, they save themselves – from a life of loneliness and bitterness and selfishness. “He who saves his life shall lose it; but he who sacrifices his life for My sake, shall find it,” said Christ in the Gospels. Learning to live and love sacrificially has consequences, primarily for the person who’s learning to love selflessly.

Please dive into this game if you have any inclination toward video games at all. I promise, you won’t be disappointed. In fact, I’ll probably find you bawling your eyes out at the ending, like I did…. because that’s what a great game does for you. It drives home its story so that you cannot escape it, so that you feel it and walk around in a daze for a bit afterward, wondering how you could have been a better parent…..

I recommend reading this lovely short piece on the quality of The Witcher 3‘s storytelling.

Screen Shot 2017-02-03 at 11.12.52 AM.png
Over 800 awards for this game. Nothing to sneeze at.

You might also enjoy this great analysis by the guys at Extra Credits on how The Witcher 3 uses choice and romantic dilemmas to force the player to confront his/her own character:

How to contact your Congressman … and be heard

From this Tweet:

Came these images, which outline how to contact your representatives and be heard (whatever party you side with):

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[the list each day]

I hate making phone calls like this…. but I think I’m going to start.

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