Category Archives: Story

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.

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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:

Give me stories lest I die

I’ve lost my stories, and it’s really bothering me.

I didn’t realize until I started changing jobs that I’d come to rely on the steady diet of stories I was getting out of my teaching experiences.  And now I’m starving.

Back up, I don’t want this to sound too weird. Let me explain. 

I’m no gifted storyteller. Pretty much every one of my friends is a better joke teller than I am. I like the momentary attention of telling a funny story to a circle of close friends, but when I’m honest with myself (usually that happens at night as I’m falling asleep, or in the morning as I move from hazy dreamland to uncaffienated semi-consciousness) I know that I’m a middlin’ storyteller at best. Hearing people like my North Georgia father-in-law spin a yarn about guys named Walkin Tom and Shine go on adventures in Appalachia just reminds me of how much I stand to learn about wit, hyperbole, irony, pacing, and understatement.

So I’m not talking about those stories.

When I began teaching, in 2002, I discovered a wealth of stories. Like Boris Karloff’s Grinch, my heart great three sizes that first year, expanding again and again to wrap its arms around the children in my classroom. It was achingly hard, teaching was, but it was deep and rich and satisfying in its difficulty. Some moments were very hard, they were formative, they left deep impressions that changed who I was at my very core.

I’m not talking about those stories either, though I treasure the lives that intersected ours so hard they left skid marks.

I am talking about the daily tales that emerge from a teacher’s experience. They’re scattered throughout my digital existence now; probably not even able to find them all to put them in one place. But they each started with a line like “Today in class, So-n-So said…..” or “You won’t believe what happened in 3rd period!”…. or “I thought I was going to die of laughter but I managed to hold myself together when…..”

I stored a few student gems in my Facebook "About Me" section. I'm glad this survived the umpteenth reviewing of the FB interface. I'd forgotten many of these till I took this screen shot just now...
I stored a few student gems in my Facebook “About Me” section. I’m glad this survived the umpteenth reviewing of the FB interface. I’d forgotten many of these till I took this screen shot just now…

For 7 hours a day, we lived life together, our little learning community. We ate lunch at the same tables, swapped stories, talked about shows on TV or games we were playing or books or current events.  There were arguments in class and out of class about politics or anime or sports teams. I was exposed to a million YouTube videos and memes and songs and pop culture references that I would have otherwise missed.  (Trogdor!)

It was a wealth of stories, and I drank in every one, relishing the opportunity at the end of a day or week to fall into a chair near a co-teacher to rant for a minute, or sit at a table in McGees with a pint on a late Thursday afternoon and hear Jack launch into a story with “These kids are driving me to drink!” (He was kidding. Mostly.)

When I left teaching in 2012, I felt like Abraham heading out to a foreign land not knowing where he was going, just that he was supposed to go.  It was time to leave. I knew that.  And I finally got a job with people who fit what I was looking for in a new coworker tribe: interesting, caring, witty, creative.

But I did notice, rather quickly, the spigot of stories had slowed its output to a trickle. I came home with enough material to retell some witty banter from the day and discuss a bit of interoffice, not-very-important-so-of-course-we’ve-got-to-discuss-it drama.

But that was it.

That first year at Erskine was hard, partly because I had to wean myself off the stories. I didn’t have the rich interaction with students like I’d been used to for a decade. So I had to recalibrate my sensors to detect interest in the work we were doing as an office, in the projects we discussed, in learning to think better and listen more effectively and ask better questions.  But deep down, I still knew that nothing was replacing the stories.

Four years later – aka, now – I launched out again, this time charting a course toward academic/student support within higher education. It feels good to be back in education proper again; not that I disliked marketing and creative direction – I learned a ton and liked it a lot – but I like being able to think and write about education and not feel guilty that I wasn’t hired to think and write about it on company time.

But the past month has been hard. Very hard.  My new job came wth 5 weeks of training, mostly in isolation. I appreciate the investment of time and care; I feel very prepared for what they’re asking me to do. (Thumbs up.)  But there are very few stories to be had in this job.  I met some great people during the initial week of training, and some of their stories have become threads in my view of the world.  But my daily work is quite tactical, not narrative, not strategic.  And not rich with interpersonal interaction.

Self-reflection and self-awareness take time and effort and mostly just experience. Sometimes we discover what we need during its absence, not its abundance.

I have learned that I crave the kind of work that sends me home at night tired and occasionally annoyed but always with a handful of tales worth telling.  I’m not trying to carve out a career as Garrison Keillor or a stand-up comedian. But I’ve learned that if my work doesn’t bring me close enough to people to learn something about them and begin to overlap their worlds, I begin to starve.

Good to know.

 

Hugo 2016 wrap-up

Here are the winners of the 2016 Hugo Awards | The Verge

Thrilled that my top picks (or #2 pick, in one case) in the major categories for the Hugo were awarded top honors yesterday. Especially thrilled that good writing came out on top, from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds and cultures.

Please go check out the year’s winners if you need some new books in your life.  In some cases, I found all the nominees in one category to be good reads – I noted that in my reviews:

Novel: The Fifth Season (review)

Novel: Uprooted (review)

Novellas

Novelettes

Short Stories

Review: Hugo Awards 2016 – Novelettes

What is a novelette? you ask.

It’s what, as an English teacher, I would’ve called a short story just a little bit too long to assign for one night’s homework. (That makes novellas, to me, about a week’s worth of high school homework.)

I found more to like among the Novelette nominees for the 2016 Hugo Awards, though the Sad and Rabid Puppies certainly left their muddy paw prints all over this category. All 5 nominated works were on one of the Puppy slates, but usually not both.

The nominees continue to suffer, in these shorter works, from poor selection but perhaps that’s as much a result of fan voting as it is the Puppies’ attempt at chaos and domination.

In order of my appraisal:

  1. “Obits” by Stephen King is going to be my top pick in Novelette, though my #2 selection is within a hair’s breadth of taking my top vote.  But it’s hard to deny the feel of sentences coming off the pen of a man as experienced and talented as King. It’s like holding a real $20 bill after checking out some counterfeits. Sure, his writing has weakened in the past decade (that auto accident did something to him, I think) but he’s still a master of the craft, and I’ve always liked his shorter fiction the most.
    This tale is nearly perfect – the “voice” of the main character just fits, the way it’s supposed to. Every word slots into its the sentence, painting exactly the picture King wants you to see and feel.

    This story, like a good sci-fi/fantasy tale, pushes people to the forefront to carry the plot, allowing the non-realist elements to create a rich background tapestry that absolutely supports the plot without shouting it down. I enjoyed pretty much every line.  The conceit of the tale isn’t a new one, but King handles it well, and I think that’s worth a lot.

  2. “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingling, trans. Ken Liu surprised me in several ways. The story would be at home in the dystopian future of Paolo Bacigalupi, a world in which man’s inability to care for himself and his planet yields ugly consequences.In this story, Beijing in the future has been engineered so that the richest 10% of the population lives in spacious homes and parks for 24 hours, then the city “folds” itself, origami-style, and rotates, giving a second group of people 12 hours of daylight. That second group represent a minority class of educated professionals who rush to get everything done. Finally, the bulk of Beijing’s 50 million inhabitants are crammed into the teeming, squalid third realm, which emerges in the last quarter of the 2-day folding cycle to see 12 hours of night.

    Against this rich background Hao tells us a story of love and loss that’s poignant and touching.  The writing is a little bumpy – I know Liu is a good translator – perhaps there’s something about the cultural shifts and language usage that isn’t quite coming over clearly. But this is a story well worth your time to read.I’m not sure if this next story deserves a Hugo, but I sure enjoyed it:

  3. “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander mashes up two of my favorite genres into one lively and darkly funny story that still manages to be very human and very perceptive.  She takes the cyberpunk world of Blade Runner or Android Netrunner and inserts the kind of hard-bitten characters you want to find in 1950s pulp detective fiction. But her protagonist, Rhye, blows through any gender stereotypes, presenting as a tough-as-nails street tomboy with a mouth like a sailor. (I noted that several folks on Goodreads gave up on this story quickly due to the flying F-bombs in just the first paragraph.)

    As a woman who happily inhabits gamer culture, I found this story like stepping into online multiplayer – a bit crazy, a bit vulgar, and very fun. It wasn’t exactly new thinking, but the writing was great. Plus, even as a Puppy nomination (Sad, not Rabid …. since I can’t envision any Rabid Puppy being supportive of a Strong Female Lead), this story shows that “classic” sci-fi themes aren’t destroyed when authors bend the genders and honor the culture of gamers/cyberpunk with good character writing.These two stories will fall below the “No Award” bar on my ballot, for sure

  4. “What Price Humanity” by David VanDyke was interesting enough, but the Big Idea has been done before (many times) and the story itself was a little ham-handed in its construction and plot pacing.  I guessed the twist at the end easily; the frame tale that attempts to give the story some context feels disjointed and preachy. Even the Big Question that VanDyke is trying to wrestle with falls flat.  It could have been provocative, but … it wasn’t.

    SPOILER ALERT…. I don’t want anyone who’s planning to read the story to see this accidentally so again — Spoiler!! — but VanDyke didn’t even raise a deep ethical quandary IMO. Is there anything unethical about copying a human’s consciousness and having it control a weapon? well, doesn’t that depend on whether the human whose consciousness is being copied gave his/her consent or no? and it’s so materialist (in the philosophical sense) to ground a story in the idea that copying someone’s brain pattern exactly (an engram) would somehow recreate a whole *person.*  Nah.  This is a bad knock-off of cloning ethics, at least in the way he handles the story here, and I’m confused why VanDyke didn’t learn anything from the other, similar stories in this vein that surely he’s read.

  5. “Flashpoint: Titan” by Cheah Kai Wai is the personification of what I expect the Rabid Puppies want in their foreign policy. I found the story to be a bit naive, slightly racist, overly reliant on stereotypes, and dull due to its reliance on technical details.  It had good moments, and I didn’t mind reading it through to the end. I even liked the main character and his crew, and I learned things about space warfare that I hadn’t considered (like the incredible cost to delta vee and propulsion systems that a simple redirection of course would take).

    That said, this story – like “Seven Kill Tiger” on the Short Story ballot, from this same collection There Will Be War – feels like a bunch of 50-something Republicans who like to shoot guns but never actually went to war decided to chew the fat about how much they hate Muslim terrorists and the Chinese, and turned that into a short story instead.

    Cheah’s story is at best tone deaf when it comes to racial stereotyping, totally unaware of how playing into 40s and 50s era pulp caricatures of other countries should strike 21st century readers as offensive. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure the Rabid Puppies who nominated this work consider that kind of insensitivity a badge of honor.

One final thought —

Military sci-fi can be brilliant (I thought The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu presented amazing military/space dilemmas) and very thought provoking (Joe Haldeman’s Forever War) even when it’s “fun” (eg: Hammer’s Slammers by David Drake).  But Drake and Haldeman write like men who experienced combat — because they did —  and their stories focus on the human side of war, not the details of the warfare itself.

To me, that’s a key difference between military sci-fi worth my time, and military sci-fi that reads like it was sponsored by the Koch Brothers.

*****

Next up (and already in progress): Novellas! I’ve read 2.5 and enjoyed them so far. Looking forward to writing that review.

Review: The Fifth Season, by NK Jemisin

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. (Since you asked, Goodreads, “What did I think?”)

I rarely read fantasy. I generally find the genre vacuous and tedious, reveling in arcane magic babble and tired story patterns. Rarely do fantasy novels explore deeper, valuable questions about humanity … which is why I usually consume fantasy in the form of video games. But this novel breaks that mold. Grinds it to pieces, really.

I find that sci-fi and fantasy can reach new heights when the authors writing them are people outside the “mainstream,” people who bring a new voice into the genre. And people of color have been serving up some of the best new writing in sci-fi and fantasy (IMO). NK Jemisin absolutely delivers with this excellent novel about an alternate earth. Is it sci-fi? Is it fantasy? Well…. I’d say it’s fantasy with a sci-fi edge. It’s not magic, it’s “orogeny,” the ability to manipulate the actual earth, to harness its power to stabilize earthquakes or maybe level a city. Brilliant.

I loved the voice of the narrators. The shifting pronouns (using both 2nd person and 3rd person) could have been annoying but I found them a useful narrative device, drawing a tighter bond between author and reader. The plot fit tightly together, moving at a fast clip but forcing this eager reader to slow down and wait for things to develop, a tactic that builds tension and makes the ensuing “release” all the more enjoyable.

This book is earthy (other readers will get the pun – don’t groan) in all the right ways. The characters feel quite real, even though their cultures are foreign. We unite through the folkways and familiar threads of daily life, and that familiarity makes the characters sympathetic (or despicable, since they are believable and relatable). This book sets up a vivid universe and offers the potential to become a memorable series. I can’t wait for book 2…. is it out yet??!

I read this book because it’s one of the Hugo Award nominees for 2016. Honestly, since Dark Forest by Cixin Liu was snubbed in the Hugo nominations this year, I expect my top vote will go to The Fifth Season. I think it was that good.

Any critiques? Not really. I can find little to complain about, and much to celebrate. I guess if you’re prudish about people “getting it on” in the pages of your book, you might be offended by that. *shrugs* Fictional people gotta reproduce too…. Or if you’re the Grammar SS, the 2nd person narration will set your teeth on edge. Whatever. Go police somewhere else.

View all my reviews

Unbecoming (2016): A Review

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Continuing their theme of locally sourced film art, the poster for Unbecoming was created by Columbia, SC artist (and personal friend) Daniel Machado.

Chris & Emily Reach White write and produce carefully crafted films, a fitting outgrowth of Greenville’s craft scene within the work of storytelling.

What I love about Chris & Em’s films is that they offer us such richly nuanced visions of the world. A moment can hold a world – and often when these two are involved, it’s true. (Check out their latest feature Cinema Purgatorio, a funny and warm look at the independent film world.)

Chris’s latest project is a set of five short films released April 3 as Unbecoming.  Through these five tales, we stare at a kaleidoscopic view of loss, through a lens sharply ground to precision by Southern Gothic humor and insight.

I adore short stories. To me, they represent a nearly perfect genre: concise and measured yet high-impact. The best writers are brief to the point of almost miserly with their details. Unlike novels, short stories don’t require 20 pounds of details to drive home their point. A gesture, a glint of light, a glance: we learn everything we are intended to know only through careful observation of the tiniest details.

And Unbecoming delivers those carefully curated details to us as the stories move us through moments in the lives of these otherwise-unrelated characters. We all understand that gut-punch of a breakup; we’ve all wondered if this fight is the one that will end it all; we’ve all got a skeleton or two in our career closets; we’re all trying to run from the final unbecoming, the day when our worldly journey stops with a period instead of hinging on a hopeful semicolon. At times, we are all “unbecoming” – ill-fitted to the moment where we find ourselves. Eventually, we are each “undone.”

Short films, like short stories, demand more of their audience. Chris White doesn’t let us off the hook easy. It’s like being offered a steak dinner in a world saturated by corn-syrup media: welcome, filling, satisfying.

Tied together by look, feel, solid acting, snappy dialogue, story themes, and Carolina locations, the five shorts that form Unbecoming work together to leave an impression far weightier than the 40-minute runtime might suggest. As an honest Southern storyteller, Chris White gives us both wisdom and folly, laughter and regret — and then sends us out to chew on the details for far longer than we spent watching him spin the tales.

Unbecoming premieres in Tryon, NC on April 3, 2016. Visit ChrisWhiteHQ for more information about where to see the film during the coming weeks.

 

Worth Reading This Week: Film, Helping the Poor, School Desegregation, and Racism (Oh my!)

Two reads and one listen that are more than worth your time.

I’ll open with what I think is the best of the three, though it will require a longer time investment.

Episodes 562 and 563 of This American Life delve into a topic people stopped talking about years ago: school integration.  “Separate but equal” schools were rejected as a solution by the Supreme Court 60 years ago, yet many inner-city minority students live in a world in which their schools are measurably inferior to the surrounding suburban schools where all the money resides.  As rich schools get richer, we must confront the increasing data that supports continued integration of schools across racial lines as a solution to the achievement gap.

Or to be really blunt about it: The Gospel might mean I should love my neighbor enough to send my kid to a worse school so that families with few other options for their kids can benefit from the effects of my (white) privilege.

Controversial enough for you?  Good. Give it a listen.
Also, if you aren’t shaking with anger and grief during the audio of the parent meeting in St. Louis in 2013, you have no soul.

This American Life: The Problem We All Live With (#562)

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Second, I commend this dense but readable essay that suggests Christians should stop fighting a PR war and focus attention on the daily, hard work of loving the people around us.  It’s not rocket science. But it takes work … when it’s a lot easier just to snap a selfie at a rally or #StandWith on Twitter or complain about how the Church isn’t helping the poor. (That last line is for you, John)

If you Love the Poor for the sake of the Favs and RTs, it will destroy you. Even doing it for the love of others can tear you apart, constantly peeling the onion of intersectionality until you’re a crying mess. Loving the Poor for the praise of Our Father In Heaven, as Jesus told us to do, might involve just as much crying, but it at least gives you something beyond yourself that you can hold on to when you have no idea whether or not you’re actually loving people or loving the thing you’re building for them or loving the way they make you feel.

Loving the Poor: Pics or It Didn’t Happen (from CAPC)

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Finally, this essay about how watching films changes us for the better because it trains our hearts to empathize is well worth a read. Again, a little denser than I’d like for a casual piece, but absolutely worth your time.  Brought back lots of great memories from the time I read James K. A. Smith’s excellent book Desiring the Kingdom.

Irrigating Deserts: How Film Transforms and Causes Us to Love Our Neighbors (From CAPC)

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OK, I lied. One more.

All the hoopla over Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman hasn’t produced in me any desire to read it. I’m familiar enough with the shape of the tale and the surrounding metanarrative of how a reclusive author at the end of her life suspiciously agreed to release a manuscript she never wanted published.

This is the first article I’ve read which makes me think perhaps GSAW is worth a read after all.

“I am Atticus”: Racism and Vision in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman