Vandal Hearts Retro-Review

I first experienced this game on the Playstation in the late 90s as a teenager. Nowadays people likely look back on the PSX similar to how early-Millennials like me look back on the Atari or Amiga — antiquated relics of a history long since past.

Vandal Hearts in my day

The original Playstation (sometimes called the PS1) influenced my upbringing considerably. It’s easy to point at the big titles — Resident Evil, Tekken, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Metal Gear Solid, all standing in the shadow of the magnanimous Final Fantasy 7. Whether FF7 was your favorite (I often hear that 9 is awesome), it’s hard to deny it’s popularity, especially with the confirmation of a remake, the hype of which seems to have died away..

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But I’m not talking about the heavyweights today, though the spotlight of this post can be easily relateable to a super effective Squaresoft title: Final Fantasy Tactics. Today we’re talking about Konami’s Vandal Hearts, a turn-based tactical RPG set in a world that I’ve always found most endearing.

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For the gamers reading this, one could describe Vandal Hearts as “if Final Fantasy Tactics had a baby with Pokemon,” without the whole “catching creatures” thing. Rather, there’s a set cast of characters of whom you have limited control in terms of class delegation, but the system in place offers what I simply think of as Simplified Final Fantasy Tactics. There’s a grid-based map and a variety of abilities to employ.

For non-gamers (and everyone else for that matter) reading this, think of it this way: rock, paper, scissors, with a few extra features.

Swordsmen kill archers, archers kill hawknights (more on them later), and hawknights kill swordsmen. Then of course you’ve got healers and mages, as well as “heavy armor” (stronger-yet-slower warriors who’re susceptible to magic attacks) and monks, who later become ninja. All in all, there aren’t really any new and innovative concepts happening here; the enemy in each turn-based battle is comprised of similar classes and it falls to you as the player to exploit any weaknesses opened. You know, tactical fighting. It’s rather good stuff. But the objectives are quite varied — not all of the levels have the requirement “Destroy all enemies,” and in some cases, attempting to do so would bring about your downfall.

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The blood sprays are especially satisfying, if over the top, and really eye-catching — something that Final Fantasy Tactics noticeably doesn’t have.

The story of this game, despite being pretty good (seeing as it’s a Japanese translation) at the time, exhibits a few predictable tropes by today’s standards, and having played it to completion twice, the dramatic reveals naturally lose their power. Yet, there are a few interesting concepts explored in this game, some of which I realize my teenager-mind had found attractive, though at the time I lacked the mental vocabulary to describe and verbalize my fascination.

First off, Vandal Hearts attempts to draw you in by pitting your heroic characters against familiar types of foes: starting off with random bandits on the first level, later uncovering nefarious schemes on part of malicious politicians in an increasingly decadent and corrupt society. Ishtaria, the country in which the majority of this game takes place, stands about one and a half decades after a brutal civil war, and to maintain order there are a lot of references to “anti-terrorism forces.”

In fact, the hero — Ash — and his companions Diego and Clint (your starting party) are members of Ishtaria’s Security Forces. This game came out in 1997, a few years after the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing in New York, and a few years before the infamous 9/11 attacks. As a barely-sentient teenager, I don’t recall feeling any awareness or sensitivity about the use of the word “terrorism” at the time, but nowadays, at an age that supposedly passes for adult, I can see how this game might have been perceived as “too soon,” or otherwise “too real.”

Yet there is a light-heartedness to the narrative that doesn’t really make you feel overly invested. Vandal Hearts isn’t all that popular (there were several lackluster sequels), yet to me there were some very interesting things that influenced my ideas on gaming, storytelling, and more recently, on magic.

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Though not necessarily from the dialog…but again, a Japanese translation, so it suffices.

We’ve talked already about the gaming experience; it’s simple and fairly straightforward, yet a well-executed strategy leaves you satisfied, like you’re actually a good commander or something. The most interesting aspect of the story is directly connected to a sort of flavor they’ve got with the magic system — and no, it isn’t a gameplay mechanic (mages/priests utilize MP just like any other RPG), but more of the running theme.

Within Vandal Hearts, they toy a little with temporal shifts and time loops — something that often is something best left untoyed. Not only do characters in various media always suffer as a result of trying to mess with space-time, but the writers about such situations tend to not really have a strong grasp on what time travel actually is, let alone its paradoxical implications.

A good example of bad time-travel logic would be Back to the Future. Great movies (some of the best) sure, but flawed. Terminator did a decent job of executing an effective time loop, and Vandal Hearts pulls off something quite similar — except it’s not backwards in time, but forwards.

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Or you could just cast caution to the wind and do whatever the heck you want. But thankfully Rick & Morty hasn’t touched on Time Travel; just interdimensional travel.

So Ash, the hero protagonist, gets sucked into a warp along with some other friends about 33% into the game, and soon find themselves stranded in some extra-temporal island, populated by various people from different eras. Architecture found there is both ancient and modern, and folks living in this “town at the end of world” seem pretty resigned to their fate as forever-lost.

Your characters encounter a mysterious figure, who turns out to be a powerful mage that had disappeared from history hundreds of years prior, and who helps Ash and the handful of friends that got sucked in there with him back to their own time. The process takes a day, but when they return, three years have passed.

Interesting.

On top of that, one character named Eleni encounters a young child, who in the endgame falls into a similar wormhole/temporal shift doorway whatever you want to call it. Eleni realizes that that child was indeed herself, and she (her younger self) would re-appear eighteen years in the past as a lost, wandering orphan. The circumstances surrounding this …

“Oh no, the little girl was our only hope, what are we gonna do now?”
“Don’t worry,” says Eleni, “that little girl was me…so I can totally do what THAT ONE THING only the little girl could do and thus carry the plot forward!”

…aren’t all that awe-inspiring, but the concept is quite interesting to me.

Lastly, mages in this game sport a number of spells that seem to fall into the category of “magic that fucks with space-time.” Contrast this with most games where schools of magic fall into strict elemental schools, often organized in symmetrical categories and familiar archetypes.

The level 1 spell that mages in Vandal Hearts possess is called Dark Star, and whether it was the intentional artistic direction of the creators to have this spell look a bit polygonal and jagged, I am unsure, but the sharding effect is rather interesting, considering the limitations of the Playstation console. Rather than hardware constraints, though, I prefer to view it as the mage temporarily ripping a hole in space-time, and that’s gotta be painful as well as visually hard to digest.

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Later, mages gain access to something called Phase Shift, that really fucks with the landscape and the minds of those assaulted. Taking into account concepts such as relativity and very objective facts (being exposed to outer space is lame, and best avoided, but if someone opens a window to the stars next to you, you’re going to feel it), a spell like Phase Shift feels like hacking reality and breaking some rules — temporarily — in order to cause some serious pain.

I may not even necessarily be affecting the physical realm, just the enemy’s perception of it, which could be enough to deal crippling damage all on its own.

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The spell itself isn’t the most powerful in the game (in fact it becomes inferior after a few levels) but again, it’s the concept that resonates with me.

So we’ve got space-time magic happening, how about the setting? Ishtaria apparently sports elements of steampunk as well, making it dear to my heart. Though air travel (by dirigible, the signature steampunk vehicle, it would seem) is unknown, there is a battle that takes place atop a speeding train. There are ships propelled by both steam engines and wind sails, and the aforementioned hawknights — fighters gifted with the ability to fly, using mechanical apparatuses that give them lift – some with primitive jet propulsion, others with Davincian wings not unlike our old pal Icarus.

Hawknights fascinate me on a conceptual level, but in-game I found little use for them.

The last thing worth mentioning is the soundtrack — I remember reading a review of Vandal Hearts many years ago describing the OST of this game as “nothing remarkable.” You won’t hear a beautifully conducted orchestral score booming from your speakers if you play this one — the synthesized melodies get recycled a few times and a few battle-themes are downright repetitive, but some of the songs actually carry an interesting tune.

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I played this as a kid and dug it. I played it again as an adult, and despite knowing what was going to happen (storywise), I found myself focused and invested. Perhaps this does not come as a surprise, coming from an experience glowing with the nostalgia effect, yet the levels are actually varied and interesting enough to keep the game fun.

Recommended.

Heat Death of the Universe 1

As of this post, two black holes smashing into each other made breaking news some months ago. It was kind of a big deal, and when astrophysicists get excited about something I try to make it a point to pay attention.

Yet these events sparked something that’s been on my mind. So, let’s get to Heat Death!

To those unfamiliar, “Heat Death” is actually a rather simple scientific concept, and is summed up most *scientifically* in the following Google-found statement:

The heat death of the universe is a historically suggested theory of the ultimate fate of the universe in which the universe has diminished to a state of no thermodynamic free energy and therefore can no longer sustain processes that consume energy (including computation and life).

What this means is that all energy will, eventually, be expended. There’ll be no more energy from the innumerable burning stars out there; they’ll all burn out at some point or another. This is the nature of entropy, and was explored to tremendous effect in Isaac Asimov’s short story, The Last Question.

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Find and read this story.

According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, heat will equalize in a given system (our 3rd Dimensional Universe). And, since our universe seems to be ever-expanding, the larger it gets, the more literal space energy will be evenly distributed. That means that whatever heat you feel would be spread out across uncountable light-years, which will make the passage of energy impossible. Without movement of energy, we don’t have time, life, thought.

Or heat.

Here’s a great metaphor from Reddit:

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They also call Heat Death the “Big Chill” or the “Big Freeze.” They explore this and explain it in pretty easy-to-grasp terms on the YouTube channel Kurzgesagt.

Yet I derive a strange sort of comfort from the inevitable HDotU. There’s something liberating in an understanding that the choices made by you, everyone you know, and all your descendants until the extinction of our race will likely have no impact on the ultimate fate of the universe, so there can’t be any “wrong choices” (or “right choices,” for that matter). Assuming morality can even be factored into this equation, it sorta suggests that no matter what you do, in the end it really doesn’t matter.

It’s dangerously close to nihilism. But rather, I find that this line of thought is very therapeutic. It really puts our daily stresses into perspective.

I’ve come across this concept, heard it mentioned once or twice in an occasional game of Cards Against Humanity, though at the time I knew nothing about HDotU. Recently, the timing of multiple events seems to have really brought this stuff to the forefront of my consciousness. Here’re the two major reasons why:

As of the time of this writing:
1) I happened to go visit my ‘hometown’ (Woodstock, NY) at the start of February, 2016. It’s typically cold there that time of year. Yet after staying in tropical Viet Nam for nearly two years, the change in climate was disastrous for me; every time I set foot outside I found myself thinking — exaggerated, of course — about walking on the godsdamn moon.

Friends and family assured me that the region had been undergoing a warm winter, but on some days (and often at night) the temperature plummeted to below zero, plus windchill. Farenheit. Oh, that’s all, some of you might say? Well I already had a -25% Cold Resist debuff when I lived in New York as it was. Now I seem to have a -50% debuff going on.

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The moon if it had trees, oxygen and a place called Cooper Lake.

2) I’ve reached a point in my life where having children has been brought up in casual conversation. This is something I’ve been mulling over for some time. And I, with my Big Picture attitude (HDotU, Nihilism/Existentialism…) — coupled with the effective birth control that my screaming nephew and niece have given me — have spent considerable time thinking about the long-term effects of making biological half-copies of myself. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

I imagine the first scenario — cold rural New York in February — is an easily relateable concept, but how does the second one connect to this?

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Rarely do we ponder our own personal strain on the economy and the environment, for our selfish genes and our egos demand that our survival come first. It is the natural way of things.

Put another way, it is a privilege of the people of developed nations to reach the point of awareness where they wonder “How can we do this more efficiently (and with less of an impact on the environment)?” whereas many humans across the globe are foremost concerned with “How can I not die, and ensure that my family won’t die too?”

This can be illustrated well through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

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By it’s own definition, this is more enlightening than most people will know — if Maslow’s chart itself stands in one of the upper segments.

I don’t mean to put myself on a higher pedestal — I suffer the same selfish desires and impulses as any other living mortal — but when it comes to spawning a brood of my own, my thoughts turn toward the economic, moral, ethical, biological, and philosophical.

  • Economic: Will my child(ren) be “worth” the economic strain it literally costs to raise them? Will their output be greater than what they drain from the economy (or more selfishly, me for that matter)?
    • *Living in an Asian community, I often hear the opinion that a major drive for having children is for the very purpose of taking care of the parents later in life.
  • Moral: Do I deserve to have children of my own when there are innumerable orphans out there in desperate need of families?
  • Ethical: What right do I have to presume my genes are superior to any other and worth spreading? After all, there is something of a history of mental illness in my family (spoilers), so oughtn’t I consider benefiting ‘the herd’ and avoid adding my genes to the pool?
  • Biological: Am I just feeling and/or resisting the urges as per the edict of my genes, as the Dawkins suggests? My genes don’t care about my creative output, or my happiness, or the wellbeing of myself (let alone others). They only care about making more genes.
  • Philosophical: What’s the point of having kids if I’m just producing another vermin to be eradicated when our Robot Overlords rise? Or another fraction of a blink of an existence in terms of geologic time …or cosmic time, for that matter? We crawl inexorably closer to the HDotU, don’t forget.

In other words, what good is there having a child if I know that that child’s life is generally meaningless in the big picture?

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As I delved deeper into these questions, I found my conclusions growing increasingly nihilistic, so I brought in the big guns. Taking refuge within the rough-sawn domicile of a fellow philosopher, fantasist and creative, I brought my concerns before a friend.

After a conversation that stretched long into the the freezing wintery evening, I believe I have come across a satisfactory answer to my ponderings.

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The domicile in question.

Game Review: Darkest Dungeon

When it comes to dungeon crawlers, a genre of game involving exactly what it sounds like, most veteran gamers will think of things like Diablo or the aptly named Dungeons & Dragons. The concept of lashing together a party of people and delving into dangerous, subterranean locales is not a new concept, particularly as far as fantasy adventure is concerned.

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Whether the hero’s purpose is to seek riches, to defeat the evil found below, to gain glory for one’s self or one’s organization, to discover occult knowledge, or some other unlisted factor, the end-result in terms of this kind of game is generally the same: Descend into a cave/dungeon and survive traps, kill monsters, and bust open treasure chests. It’s a great narrative for a story and an adequate excuse for why people of different paths (like clerics and thieves) might be inclined to work together.

It’s also a valid living if ever there was one, if you ask me.

Darkest Dungeon takes this concept and blends ingredients both familiar and new, delving into an equally familiar mythos in the form of Lovecraftian homage. In terms of gameplay, there is the RogueLike element, however, that makes this stand out from other Dungeon Crawlers. That and the aforementioned homage to a Lovecraftian Horror takes the form of a very real game mechanic, which I’ll detail shortly.

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The story is pretty straight forward. An unfathomably opulant estate has long since fallen into ruin, and under it stretches labyrinthine tunnels and passages and caves. Heeding the call of your ancient relative (uncle?), you employ adventurers of varying dispositions and goals as they arrive by stagecoach every week to plumb the depths and do what adventurers do best.

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Great so we’ve got RogueLike dungeons and motley parties of adventurers bent on combating the influence of an Eldritch Abomination that has made no secret of taking residence nearby. What makes this game stand out?

In a word: Stress. This is literal in two senses.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a veteran gamer, but I’m not a novice either. There is a disclaimer at the opening of Darkest Dungeon warning the player that they *will* lose, and that their characters *will* die. The game is about making the best out of a bad situation; when I saw character flaws manifest themselves in your characters, I mean that shit can get hard, fast.

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I didn’t quite grasp the weight of this until afterward.

What makes Darkest Dungeon unique to many dungeon crawlers, but not necessarily unique to Lovecraftian-themed games, is the Stress Meter mechanic. I think it’s safe to assume that even someone who’s never played a game before in their life can grasp the following concept the same minute they first pick up a controller.

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“This is your life bar. When it reaches zero, you die. Eat food or find medkits or drink red potions to restore your health.”

Therefore, maintaining your party’s health — particularly when they’re suffering from DoTs (Damage Over Time effects) like bleeding or blight (poison) — so that they can keep on swinging is pretty much the opposite of new. Managing the stress of your party is significant for the longevity of your party, and what makes this fascinating is that this is rarely ever addressed in games like Diablo, World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Baldur’s Gate … the list goes on.

Rarely in these games does the magnitude of the task at hand really affect the characters. Sure you’ve got life-infused characters in Dragon Age, who might express their discomfort in the form of form of emotive voice acting, or even Edward from FF4 who actually has a command option “hide,” something with about as much use as passing on your turn.

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Edward was memorable for a multitude of things in FF4, but being a useful fighter was not one of them.

But these things don’t usually affect both the character and the story except in the form of scripted sequences; of COURSE Edward has the Hide option; the story dictates that his character is a coward. Darkest Dungeon takes this in a different direction — people don’t become fearful because the writers dictated it as such, but because of the unforseeable things that happen *to* them in your randomized dungeon runs. Quirks such as nervousness or anxiety about certain environments or monsters happens as a result of the adventures.

Look, going into a dungeon is a stressful situation for anyone. You’ve got things like horrific monsters, the impenetrable darkness around you, food (or lack thereof), even your own team mates to worry about, as well as any other factors you can imagine that could be remotely connected to these. If your heroes reach too high of a level of stress, they break down — and generally the situation spirals downward from there. If one person breaks, it has an effect on the other party members, and after that it doesn’t take much for the undead horrors, blood cultists, rotting pig-men and other lovely beasties down there to tear you apart.

And when they die, they stay dead.

One misstep and this game will punish you. In fact even when there are no missteps, this game will punish you. It’s a very heavy RNG (Random Number Generator) game, which is gamer-language for “luck.” Therefore you can have great RNG or bad RNG — despite any preparation or how solidly put together you think your party is.

If you’ve played this game before, you’ll understand when I say: “I’ve had luckier runs in this game with a motley group of level zeroes with NO HEALER than with a carefully constructed group of Level 3’s.” As my older brother and I used to say back in the day, when we’d play a game and for all practical purposes we should have succeeded/survived a situation, “The Game just decides [that it wins and we lose].”

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More than once I’ve envisioned tossing my computer out the window thanks to what can be chalked up as “bad RNG,” but I’ve come to understand that that is a major factor in the fun — without difficult times, we cannot compare successful or otherwise “Eh, could’ve been worse” situations. When you experience success in this game, when shit actually goes as planned (or you just downright get good RNG), it’s one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve had from a game since beating Dragon Age: Origins and making decisions that gave me the ending I wanted.

I haven’t even touched on the presentation. Perhaps what wraps Darkest Dungeon together so solidly is the dark, grimy art style, with heavy black lines and a slightly unfinished illustrative look. The minimalist, two-frame action animation works to such an effect that I had never previously imagined possible, and on top of it all we have an excellent soundtrack that succeeds, thoroughly, in cultivating a gloomy and often hopeless atmosphere.

This game gives you a sense of true Lovecraftian Horror; that humanity, despite all its best efforts and accomplishments, is utterly powerless in the face of cosmic evils. It’s not that the universe hates us, no, it exhibits something much, much worse:

Indifference.

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And if you spend enough time thinking about it, insignificance.

Overall, I sense that I’ll one day get fed up with bad RNG, but otherwise this game is a tremendous experience and has helped me grow in terms of storytelling. Whenever I write about adventurers (in a dungeon setting or otherwise), I’ll be paying as much attention to the Stress Meter as their hunger, bathroom and health gauges.

Monkey Business 2/2

For Part 1, click here.

Assuming you’re caught up, you’re likely reading this in search of monkey stories. Let’s get right back to it.

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The Batu Caves of Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, turned out to be quite the host the largest concentration of monkeys I’d yet seen. The Batu Caves, a thoroughly interesting land formation — one of those massive limestone mountains with intense weathering characterizing its walls and with a toupee of jungle the summit — had a ten-story staircase leading up to said cave entrance. Through this one can continue on through a chasm, leading eventually to the back end of the caves, where looking up one could see the sky through an immense, weathered opening.

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It felt like walking into an empty volcano, and someone, long ago, thought it was a good idea to build a Hindu temple here. While the temple itself doubltess attracted tourists, the monkeys held our attention as much as anything else.

Doubtless related to the macaques I’d seen a bit north as in Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, this Malaysian variety had the characteristic long tails that people like to associate with our simian cousins. And at the Batu Caves, there were a lot of them.

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On our way up the steps, I remember pausing to regard the city beyond – clear air stretched on between my vantage and the far reaches of that view, for my visit came at a lucky time. The smog from the 2015 Indonesian Fires had lifted a day before my arrival, and locals were telling me stories of how one could barely see across the street. Looking out now at the afternoon haze, one could hardly guess that huge tracts of land had been set fire in a neighboring island country.

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My companion, Lan, brought a bottle of juice with her and held it placatingly toward one of the monkeys as we scaled the stairs. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the thing ran up, snatched it from her grasp, and set to work opening it with its teeth. The monkeys found here and all around Southeast Asia have long since learned the value of stealing food; it’s comparatively energy efficient to be a thief than it is a farmer, after all, and these guys were brigands.

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This’d be the charming bandit that stole Lan’s drink.

I watched one Japanese tourist notice a monkey approaching him. The guy decided he would have none of that and simply placed his drink on the ground, scurrying away as the monkey didn’t bat an eyelash taking his 7UP. The monkeys’ll take anything edible, and when if their nose or eyes do not bring them promise of easy pickings, they’ve been known to steal other things.

Sunglasses off your head, iPhones out of your hand, even sandals off the feet of small children being carried in the arms of their mothers. Nothing is sacred, and the monkeys will hold fast to whatever percieved-valuable item they’ve pilfered until such time as they are presented with a morsel of food. The exchange complete, they’ll let loose whatever human-made thing they held (often dropping it like a forgotten toy), take the food it won, and scurry to a higher vantage before its colleagues can pester him for a bite.

They get pushy sometimes. They say you aren’t supposed to make eye contact in the animal kingdom, but as a self-described animal I found myself abundantly curious of these things. Staring at a monkey an arm’s length away rewarded me with bared teeth and a false charge — more than enough to make me jump away. Groups of tourists — locals and foreigners alike — posing for photos often had monkeys make cameos, strolling up towards them with expectant little hands. They sometimes saw the monkeys approach, illiciting a thumbs-up or bigger smile on part of the tourist, while other times, as someone posed for the shot, a monkey would approach them and nobody would issue a warning. Every time the tourist jumped, and sometimes the monkey would make off with something.

They have learned behavior that cannot be unlearned; once one sees it happening, doubtless their friends spread word and the stealing-exchanging cycle perpetuates itself. Elders perfect the art while the young observe and imitate. Whether I’m talking about the tourists or the monkeys here is up to you.

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In one of the central provinces of Viet Nam, a region and city known as Dak Lak, I and two travel mates perused a souvenir boutique as we waited for our overnight bus. This would be at the tail-end of a several-day-long adventure the likes of which I happened to be eager was ending.

After a brief walk through the initial room — the boutique stretched in much further than it looked from the outside — I came across a cardboard box no larger than milk crate. Inside there peered up at me a baby monkey, the same widespread species of macaque you find everywhere. A little chain went to its neck and it looked small enough to have been torn from its mother prematurely.

I signalled to the attendants as to whether I could play with it — they nodded their head, and I kneeled by the box and extended a finger. Tiny hands grasped me and the monkey’s eyes locked with mine. The thing about looking into the eyes of another human is that there is, usually, this general common understanding of sentience. With most humans you meet, you probably regard them as a creature with its own independent emotions and motivations. One usually does not encounter this in something non-human, aside from dogs and cats and birds that many families have adopted, and given enough time around them, anyone will come to associate anthropomorphic qualities into it. We do that with cars and dolls, so why not animal companions?

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Little do you realize this is in fact same-sex marriage.

But the thing is that monkeys come with litereal anthropomorphic traits prepackaged. That little baby primate stared at me with legitimate sadness in its eyes, and in those brief moments I felt his little fingers holding mine, I might have felt a sense of desperation. When the time came and our bus arrived, it would not let ago, and I entertained fantasies of snapping the chain loose and smuggling the thing in my coat.

As it happens, keeping a monkey as a pet is generally a bad idea, and more than once I’ve rationalized that I don’t lead the right lifestyle to keep a full-time animal companion in my home/life. Especially one of a species shown to have the emotional and problem-solving intelligence of a small child.

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But I’ll never forget the Dak Lak baby monkey’s silent plea for release.

Monkey Business Part 1/2

Posts have been lacking. Apologies. More are in the works and on the way.

Much has happened, and yet there’s been a lot of not happening. It is a curious conundrum.

Perhaps chiefest among the big events would be visiting my home-area if Upstate New York for a month after 1.5 years away in Viet Nam. I find myself repeating the same stories, sometimes with details forgotten, only to be remembered later. The following is a brief dissertation of my exposure to the primates of South East Asia.

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One of my favorite shots from outside the Batu Caves; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I’d seen monkeys on television and YouTube videos. Most of us have. I’ve seen monkeys in zoos, imitated them as a kid (and adult), read about their symbolism in various mythologies as tricksters, or scientific studies as test subjects. It should come as no surprise to any sentient, *sapient* being of the modern era that these things have a lot in common with us.

I’ll never forget the time traveling with a group of friends in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Monkeys ruled the trees and the streets like squirrels, seen picking through garbage bins and tussling with stray dogs.

We had arrived in the late afternoon, having taken a morning bus from Sai Gon, Viet Nam. The five of us moved as a group, following the rough advice of a half-remembered Google Maps coordinate along some haphazard streets of the city. Compared to Sai Gon, my chosen city of residence, Phnom Penh stretched on as a sleepy, unhurried city full of inhabitants as eager to smile as they were to stare.

Near the de-facto center of Phnom Penh there lay a round, mountainous park, encircled by a roundabout and topped off with a dollar-admission temple to gods whose names I may never know. Trees shaded out the sun, and we welcomed the respite, but the monkeys walking leisurely along park’s floor caught our attention above all other things.

A gangly-limbed specimen drew close to use; I can remember my General Animal Instincts being overpowered by White Man Tourist instincts as curiosity filled me. The monkey showed no fear, its interest chiefly focused on the garbage seen either discarded along the sidewalks or collected in rubbish bins.

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Anna always had a way with bonding with the natives.

One of my travel mates, Anna, took a seat to get some zoomed photos, and the same simian we observed came quite close, electing to take up a perch on her shoulder with a vigorous hop. Like any benign cousin it preened through her blue-dyed hair, doubtless in search of grubs, and though she laughed (as I caught the event on video) one of us caught sight of a patrolling local signalling us — gently — to let the monkey be.

“That is a human,” one of my travel mates, Will, had remarked after we left. I watched the monkey stroll off and tussle playfully with a stray dog.

Seeing a monkey online or on television or in a book is certainly one thing. To see a monkey — and realize that it *sees* you back; at first with assessing the danger, then assessing your worth, and then disregarding you entirely — is quite another.

Darwin Poster

The following day, after we arranged a plan to take a riverboat up from the capital toward Siem Reap, another travel mate — Will — and I decided to take a stroll on the streets of Phnom Penh in an attempt to get a good look at the monkeys again. Seeing as it was our last evening in the city, we knew not when the chance would again present itself. Returning to the same park, we found none, and we opted to return back to our hostel but took a slightly longer route for the sake of exploration.

The sky deepened with the tangerine and apricot shades of an approaching sunset, and as the two of us swaggered our way along, remarking on whatever hooked architecture we saw or what mad things we had seen up until then, movement along the rooftops caught my eye.

“Will,” I said, nudging his shoulder with one hand. He followed my other hand as I gestured above us. “We are being watched.”

The orange sky quickly faded to dark velvet blue, and the silhouettes of small, thin-limbed simians could be seen stalking the two or three stories above us. At first I felt unnerved, imagery of the Jungle Book, in one of its several film incarnations, coming to mind, but I quickly realized the monkeys above cared about as much for us as people on a tour bus might care for poverty-stricken locals through whose villages the vehicle passed.

Monkey Business Part 2 next week.

 

A Call To Arms

I remember when I started this blog a few years ago. I had no precise idea what the purpose of it would be or the range of topics I might cover.

It’s since evolved. To some extent.

One of my earliest posts focused on common writing tendencies — encountered in as much published writing as editing clients’ “books to be” — that bothered me. Like, actually bugged me enough to write about it publicly.

Lately, I’ve been coming across a number of articles (and other things) regarding The Craft that I found useful. Today, I’ll highlight a few of them that I feel are worth your time. I’ll also touch on a couple of the writing terms mentioned that might need some extrapolation.

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Let’s start things off with discussing the use of vulgarities, profanities, swear words. There’s a gentleman whose posts have garnered some steam in the NaNoWriMo group Facebook Group,occasionally circulating amongst us aspiring writers with varying degrees of opposition or acceptance. I, for one, rather enjoyed both what he had to say and the manner in which he conveyed it – that is, with extreme profanity.

The words of John Hartness in these two articles, Five Reasons You Won’t Make it as a Writer and Why Your Self-Published Book Looks Like A Pile Of Ass And Won’t Ever Make You Any Money come off as unsurprisingly irate. I imagine they are written as much to dissuade the dissuadable as to encourage the competent. If one were to read these articles and these articles alone, one could quickly and easily surmise that the anger boiling in this man’s belly is like the stomach acid of a sarlacc.

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Any would-be writer would do well to read these two articles simply on the basis of knowing what’s going on out there; whether or not Hartness’ words are news to you is besides the point. If you find yourself discouraged, then perhaps indeed you must rethink your path. While not in agreement with everything he says and I’m not exactly endorsing him, I will make one quote that I believe in:

“…I’ve spent my life in the arts. Theatre and writing are how I’ve made my living, at least tangentially, since I got out of college. I’ve spoken to many high school theatre kids and I’ve always told them the same thing – if there is anything else in the world that will make you happy, please go do that. This (theatre and writing) is a lonely, bizarre, world-destroying, soul-crushing business where you accept rejection as the norm and the tiniest bit of encouragement is like the first rainbow after Noah docked that fucking ark.

A life in the arts will destroy your health, relationships, and any hope of routinely seeing sunlight. It is not a career, it is a calling, it is an addiction, it is my church. If you can imagine yourself doing anything else – go do that. Save yourself the suffering. …”

But, as has been pointed out by both unknown commentators and even some of my peers, he isn’t saying anything particularly original in these articles. His use of excessive profanity is meant to be attention-grabbing (you will indeed notice a shameless plug for his own work somewhere between the fucks he doesn’t give) but I will say I learned something.

One thing that stood out to me is his mentioning of the passive voice, something I learned about from Steven King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft many years before writing this post, and have since endeavored to reduce it’s usage whenever possible. I do, however, often enough forget the terminology used to describe the passive voice, and why it’s sub-optimal. I, for one, am in the camp that using it does indeed weaken your writing. I also did not know there was term for what’s known as “filter words,” which I’ll talk about in a moment.

A colleague of mine wrote a post in response to John Hartness’ articles I linked, talking specifically about the use of vulgar language in blogs. You can find Joy’s post here – she, too makes a solid point.

 

The Passive Voice 

So what exactly is the passive voice? Perhaps it is best to demonstrate. passive 02

Passive Voice: Tired and blood dripping from the blade, and the sword was gripped by John.

It was, eh? Well, we can glean easily enough that this was a night in the Simple Past tense, but that’s not quite what is meant by a passive voice; it is passive in the sense that stuff happens to the thing, rather than the thing doing something. Compare that with:

Active Voice: Tired from the fight, John gripped his sword, blood dripping from the blade.

The active voice, even in this very rudimentary example, so
unds noticeably more immediate. Stuff’s happening now, and has a more urgent energy to the imagery you paint in your mind. The passive voice is especially damaging to faster-paced action scenes. Also, there’s this nifty trick…

 

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Not sure? Take the example I provided a moment ago:

Tired and blood dripping from the blade, the sword was gripped by John.

[by John] can easily be replaced with [by zombies]. Anything that was written in the passive voice can be capped off with [by zombies]. Or, conversely:

Tired and blood dripping from his blade, John was gripped by zombies.

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What I have read, and what I do,  to avoid this is simply omit the usage of the word “was” as much as possible. Nowadays I see it mostly as a sort of ‘word inefficiency,’ and sometimes, at its worst, I see it as downright lazy. At first, I was ruthless about cutting it out of my prose, because I found strengthened my writing. If you don’t allow yourself to use the word “was,” you force yourself to reconstruct the entire sentence. More often than not, the result turned out to be more expressive and articulate.

I suggest you attempt the same, but one must always strike a balance. I’ll let it slip occasionally, but very rarely in straight-up prose — and when it comes to character dialog, well, they say whatever they say (‘cuz real folks don’t much cotton to grammar).

A final words (at least in this post) in regards to the passive voice from are none other than the King himself.

“[One] of my pet peeves [has] to do with the most basic level of writing, and I want to get [it] off my chest before we move along. Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive voice. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style.

Messrs. Strunk and White don’t speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I’m willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.

You can find the long version of Stephen King talking about the passive voice here. And if you’re unfamiliar with Stephen King to any degree, you’ll soon learn that he’s not particularly afraid of using profanity and cutting through the bullshit to make a point.

There are loads of articles with similar advice and similar links. Yet we frequently encounter the Passive Voice, and I cannot help but agree with the King in the above quote. We each have our stages, and our paths; perhaps once I was a timid writer but I wouldn’t ascribe to such a label these days. I have restraints, sure, and there are certain topics that make me downright uncomfortable to write about. My stance on profanity is that if it helps further the point of the topic (or if a character is speaking, it does more than just “adultify the tone”), then have fun.

If you’re one of those types who either don’t yet see “the big deal” with the Passive Voice or who have otherwise staked out a tent in the camp of people who believe that people can write whatever they want, then please understand that I see you’re point.

I just heartily disagree with it.

I’ll get into a list of tips and tricks of the Craft that I follow in a future post. Until then, consider these things when writing and revising.

Happy writing!

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Today’s musical number recommendation comes from Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts, the work of whom I fondly came to love while watching Cowboy Bebop. As of January 2016 (some weeks before this post) I managed to, at long last, watch the series in its entirety. Cowboy Bebop my responsible for my interest in soft Jazz.

 

The Influence Map

Improving your writing should be an ongoing effort.

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It’s easy enough to find writing advice online, ranging from drafting the so-called perfect scene to 297 Words to omit. While much of it is sound advice, it is often difficult to find advice that is at your level, whatever level that may be. From learning how to cut out over-used phrases (for instance, my characters tend to shrug, snort, and raise their eyebrows often) to understanding how to seed information throughout your story as opposed to performing an InfoDump (very common in Fantasy and Science/Speculative Fiction), or even simply challenging yourself by going through your draft to cut out the words “was” and most any adverb (-ly words) … mercilessly.

Following even just the guidelines I just mentioned:

  • The rough scheme of how to construct a scene
  • Omission of words that serve as useless padding
  • Awareness of one’s own tendencies
  • Seeding information (avoiding InfoDumps)
  • Restructuring sentences (but not necessarily all) to avoid using an -ly adverb or the word “was”

…Following even just that, I am confident the majority of would-be writers will see an improvement in their prose.

But what if that isn’t enough?

After all, once you’ve mastered the art of storytelling (which, as I said, is an ongoing process and as such mastery is a matter of subjective opinion), what if the story itself you’re trying to tell is downright not engaging? What if you’ve spent months-worth of hours crafting and inventing a world, but the story in which it takes place just isn’t all that interesting?

There is no formula for an effective story, as Andrew Stanton says in his awesome Ted Talk, but there are clues. I have heard his points reinforced by other writers, such as those found on the Writing Excuses Podcast.

I share these with you now to cover any bases, for those of you unfamiliar with these links and methods. But to be honest, I have researched all of these things before (which is not to say I mastered the aforementioned techniques, but I feel I’ve got a good handle on them), and I was looking for something more.

That’s where mentors come into play.

If you are someone I want to say lucky enough to have yourself a mentor, no matter the field, this is a boon for your career. If you meet someone who does what you want to do, has what you want to have, and they are willing to take time out of their life to show you the in’s and outs of this, that is a magical, special thing.

However the majority of us do not have such a person in our lives. And as it turns out for me, personally, most of the writers I admire are dead. But I, too, am lucky to some degree, for the most powerful research tool in the largest library in history is readily available as well as readily taken for granted.

I discovered another Ted Talk, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon (he has a book of the same name). Watch this video.

Following the idea presented in the TED Talk, I drew up my own Influence Map. This is the result after a few hours:

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A web like this makes sense to me, as a visually-oriented person, as opposed to, say, a spreadsheet or a simple list of names.

For the more technically minded, we can see from this beautiful and half-chipped white board more than a few familiar names. You can see that Isaac Asimov (specifically Foundations) and Frank Herbert’s Dune were each inspired mostly by … well, science and history. The same goes for George R. R. Martin, the works of whom I have criticized thoroughly in the past, yet I cannot deny he has had an influence on me.

Many Go-To-Influences include Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose writings get put into the same rough genre yet differ greatly from each other. I’ve never been a direct fan of Tolkien (never read LotR, only The Hobbit), and Howard’s writing style had a profound effect on me — years ago, when I started taking my writing seriously. Names like Roger Zelazney come up often as well.

Yet there are those inspirations for certain pieces and by certain authors that I may never be able to unearth. Cory J. Herndon wrote the first Ravnica books, novelizations for a particular setting in the Magic: The Gathering trading card game. He’s been relatively quiet since then, and like many of the MTG novels, creativity is doubtless involved, but for the most part, writers have the same recurring theme going on within the confines of a premade setting. Novelizations of a trading card game are, after all, promotional material at best.

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Lorwyn, one of nearly a dozen canonized worlds (planes) under the Magic: The Gathering multiverse.

Yet several of the MTG books stand as extremely influential for me, not least of which the Ravnica series by Herndon. Among a few other writers, he is unfortunately one of those whose background and influences I could not dig up.

And then, somewhere to the side next to “MTG Books” I’ve got Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 7, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Where the Japanese creators of those geek-culture phenomena got their ideas is not so easily discovered. Granted, those were video games and an anime series — a team effort, with different members contributing different things. I would give up my legs for a translated transcript of those brainstorming sessions.

I would recommend the Influence Map exercise to anyone, regardless of what branch of creativity from which you sprout. Who inspires you? Who inspires(inspired) them? And who inspired *that* one?

Consider reading and learning from those books.

Happy writing!