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.

Vandal Hearts Dialog

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.

VandalHearts Dark Star

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.

PhaseShift Gif

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.

Top 5 Sword Fights in Fantasy Films

Sword fights are awesome.

They’re a top draw when it comes to fantasy, as the sword symbolizes ye olde times.To many they symbolize honor, chivalry, and good old fashioned adventure.

While fiction and film have certainly romanticized what is essentially a glorified death knife, there remains a special place in the minds of many for the respect held toward those who’ve mastered (or at least look like they have mastered) a trusty blade. Even though they DO NOT make a *SHING* sound when drawn from the scabbard.

The following is a short list of the top sword-fight scenes in fantasy films. However, a few rules are to be followed for this specific list:

  • *must use swords – that means Martial Arts are for another list
  • *must have a fantasy element to the story
  • *non-animated scenes/characters (sorry Anime). That also rules out a couple of my other favorites from videogames — so that, too, will have to make another list someday

Also, to add some depth in measuring the value of these fights, I’m implementing a scale for various aspects of each fight. They go as follows:

Badassery/Tension: 1 to 5
Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 1 to 5
Fun Factor: 1 to 5
Style: 1 to 5

They shouldn’t need much explanation. The Badassery/Tension scale is meant to measure how much fear we feel for the characters, how serious the situation is, how high the stakes are. Efficiency/Choreography means how believable the fight is — too often are sword fights flashy and silly. The Fun Factor is for the overall enjoyment of the action — the environment in which the combatants are fighting, why they’re fighting, and (rarely) the banter.

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  • The Princess Bride

This is a classic, light-fantasy movie adored by generations. Since 1987 sick little boys have had their grandfathers come into their room and show them this movie about unforgettable characters, chocolate-coated miracles, and true love. No really, if this movie is on your “I’ll get to it list,” you have homework.

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The first fight scene, between Inigo Montoya and The Man in Black, is one as much of banter as of blades, and for tha reason the Fun Factor and Style ratings are high up there. The movie itself is a bit dated, with a score that sounds like it was performed on a synth keyboard (something not unusual for movies of the age, I mean, come on, man, it was the 80s) and an environment that is obviously the confines of a stage — all ends up detracting a bit from the Tension/Badassery as well as Choreography scores, but not unsatisfactorily so. The fight is still great – just not for actual fighting itself.

Badassery/Tension: 2 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 2 | Fun Factor: 5 | Style: 4

  • Troy

So Troy gets a bad rap for its extensive list of historical inaccuracies, plenty of which can be looked up in a heartbeat. The artistic liberties taken with putting together this movie, in addition to it largely being based on a myth, makes for adequate Fantasy criteria if you ask me. I still count it among my most enjoyed Ancient War movies on account of the excellent soundtrack and good action, but fewer moments are as memorable to me as the opening fight between Nimbled-Footed Achilles and Boagrius the Lacking a Title.

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The fight is actually a bit unsatisfying in it’s own Ong Bak or Raiders of the Lost Ark sort of way, but that adds heavily to the scores since it’s something of a bold move in cinema to show a fight like this. There was something of a buildup regarding the prowess of each character, though not much — it’s all in the music, and of course anyone who’s heard of Achilles before and that whole near-invulnerability thing. This fight gets a high score in three of the elements and a low in one for the same reason: it’s over too fast. The situation is tense thanks to the music, the (ahem) strike is wicked, the style is unique, but it’s over in a fraction of the time of the build-up.

Badassery/Tension: 4 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 5 | Fun Factor: 1 | Style: 4

  • The 13th Warrior

Back in the olden days, when it was acceptable to cast a man of Spanish descent as an Arab, The 13th Warrior took us on a largely unbelievable journey from the sands of the Mediterranean to twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. If you’re into Vikings squinting their eyes at monotheists and fighting off bearskin-wearing Neanderthals, then this movie is for you.

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There are a number of good fights to be had in this flick, but my most memorable is fight between the character Hergerd the Joyous and Angus the Red-Haired Giant. This fight ranks in the top-five because there is serious tension in the air — by the time this fight rolls around, we’ve long-since come to utterly adore Hergerd, and as it turns out the fight is all part of scheme. What it lacks in style it makes up in efficiency, and the actual purpose of the fight makes the result all the sweeter.

Badassery/Tension: 5 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 4 | Fun Factor: 3 | Style: 2

 

  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail

And you thought that first Monty Python reference was just for fun. No way, the fight between King Arthur and the Black Knight goes into the mix because it’s downright unforgettable. Like much of the movie, it’s ridiculous, and that is the point.

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The tension is pretty much non-existent – the contrast of dramatic music and King Arthur’s calm, self-assured expression results in us having pretty much no fear for the character, and the choreography is expectedly silly as well. However, I never would have thought that seeing someone dismembered would be so funny, and as a child when first viewing this I was rolling on the floor. The fact that movie producers who attempt to do something similar to this will immediately be accused for paying homage or outright plagiarism, which maxes out the style score.

Badassery/Tension: 1 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 2 | Fun Factor: 5 | Style: 5

  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

I can still remember seeing this in theaters. I was nearly free of High School and had heard very little this Johnny Depp guy, though at the time I was rather familiar with the work of Hans Zimmer (the film’s music composer, considered among the best in the industry). There is a subtle use of melody and rhythm during the, to me, most remarkable fight in the movie and one of the most coolest fights in cinema.

J v W

There’s a lot of stuff happening here. As an audience, we’re not quite sure whether Jack is someone to root for, while at the same time William is painted as the Goody Goody hero, but the class of character between the two makes for an interesting dynamic. What we have is more or less a conflict between agents of Order and Chaos. There’s something animalistic about Jack Sparrow when juxtaposed to Will Turner, even something vaguely sexual in the manner he wields his sword – which no doubt helped get the fan-girls all riled up.

Between the music, the choreography – timed well to the music – the time spent to have us already invested in the characters, the end result is a fight that, while not exactly remarkable, ends up being really really enjoyable to watch.

Badassery/Tension: 5 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 5 | Fun Factor: 4 | Style: 3

 

*** Honorable Mentions ***

  • Star Wars Episode 4 and Episode 1

As much as the Star Wars “Prequels” has something of an infamous reputation, there’s something about the concept of the Duel of the Fates showdown that’s a lot deeper than I perceived it on my first viewing. The outcome of the fight between Qui Gon Jin and Darth Maul – essentially a battle over what would essentially happen to the young and impressionable Anakin Skywalker, could have quite possibly altered the the timelines of Star Wars saga. Personally, I like to think that Darth Maul might have gained stewardship of Anakin, and perhaps a Reverse Darth Vader might have been produced as a result.

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 2004

I actually am not actually particularly fond of this movie. I am, however, hugely admiring of the source material, and I grew up on a 1979 animation of the same name. That doesn’t detract from my appreciation of the swordplay in the most modern adaptation. Jadis is an interesting character, though she’s a bit one-dimensional (she’s a children’s book villain, what do you expect), and part of this is shown in the duel between Jadis and Peter during the ending battle scene. She’s got style, she’s got finesse, she’s got skill — too bad she hasn’t Fuzzy Jesus on her side.

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Got your favorite sword-fight scenes not listed here? Let me know in the comments, I’m always open to exploring new stuff.

In the future: Top 5 Martial Arts Fights, Top Five Sword Fights (animated) and others!

Two Opposing Crime Comedies

It is interesting to have a specified niche genre of dark crime comedy. These are the sorts of stories that take us into the underworld of criminal affairs, where the threat of death (or worse) seems to be a rather prevalent theme, yet things are light-hearted enough where we laugh most of the time.

Easily enough, morbid topics are flipped into funny ones.

fc64a43b176b81970da1d47ddc2b56c1I recently watched Snatch for the first time, as well as my second viewing of Pulp Fiction. Let us discuss and compare the successes and failures of these films as stories.

In terms of gritty scenes too-insane to actually be considered plausibly real, both these movies have both in abundance. As viewers, we’re not only put in at position to see things from the perspectives of criminals, but actually relate to them. After all, criminals are also human beings, however coked up or cold blooded or greed-driven they may be, with motivations and (sometimes) personalities. The more interesting characters are the ones whom you come to “know,” and end up rooting for — despite them being one of a slew of bad guys.

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If you watch this movie for the first time, place bets on which of these is the good guy.

As something of a novice Tarantino viewer, I actually know next-to-nothing about Guy Ritchie (Snatch), though some light research showed he directed the more recent Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

The movies were OKAY.

Setting aside their other works, though, comparing Pulp Fiction and Snatch as standalone films shows more than a few things in common, yet they manage to stand apart.

Both films are, of course, crime thrillers. Both feature the perspectives of a rather extensive cast, each interwoven in the overall story arc. There’re quite a few moments of morbid comedy (also known as black or dark comedy), leaving us smiling and laughing at the utter misfortune of more than a few characters. Perhaps most of all, both flicks have a rigged boxing match as one of its central plot elements.

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Certainly there are significant differences between the two movies as well — the narrative style contrasts quite a bit, with Pulp Fiction doing the whole “show don’t tell” thing, while Snatch does a helluva lotta telling. Turkish, one of the two “good guys” (the best among the criminals to which we can relate and root for, I suppose) of Snatch, also plays the part the occasional narrator. Hearing Jason Stathom spoonfeed us plot and character details is a stylistic choice, I’m thoroughly aware, and as I endeavor to consume more and more varied media, I’ve been slowly coming to the conclusion that British films really enjoy their protagonist-narration.

Pulp Fiction, conversely, has no narration at all, but there is no lack of talking. I know I referred to Pulp Fiction as doing a lot of showing, not telling, and this can be done despite the preponderance of dialog. Tarantino movies tend to have profound or, at the very least, above-average ambitions when it comes to what characters say to each other. People in his films – Pulp Fiction being no exception – talk like complex, intelligent adults, bringing up concepts, debates, and philosophies that I wish I could have on a casual basis.

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This makes for interesting characters in between action scenes, and let me tell you, the action and tension in both these movies is great, but action can only take a story so far. If nobody cares about the characters it doesn’t matter what happens to them — and we care about characters who stand out, whether it’s through profound dialog or otherwise.

Certainly in some cases, the utter lack of dialog can make a character. Take Clive Owen’s performance in The Bourne Identity. He barely says a goddamn word but gets a lot of screen time, and we really get the impression of what kind of person he’s like.

clive assassinBack to Snatch, it’s a fun movie, and it was one of those movies I’d heard of more than ten years ago and finally got around to seeing. An old high-school friend went so far as to say it was the best movie ever, but then we know how teenagers are prone to hyperbole. Regardless, an aura of mystery always surrounded the title; what could such a movie with such a peculiar name have that could make it someone’s “all time favorite”?

To put it simply, after ten years of not seeing it, I finally did, and I’m not really sure what the big deal is. The overall story arc feels incomplete, almost as though the budget ran out before filming (even editing) was completed. Like I said, though, it’s fun — the characters are fun, and yes there’re great bits of dialog to be found as well, but by the time the credits abruptly rolled, I found myself throwing my arms in the air.

What, precisely, was the point of this?

Pulp Fiction, with its nonlinear storytelling (something of a Tarantinoism, so I’ve heard), memorable characters and extremely quotable moments, stands quite apart. A character is seen shot dead, and it’s much to my disappointment (and, presumably, that of the audience), as we’ve come to enjoy him, or at minimum get to know him, thoroughly. Then the story jumps back in time, and we get one final scene with him — it’s almost as though the writers of Pulp Fiction enjoyed John Travolta’s character too much to let him just be killed off.

I’ve yet to watch a Tarantino film that I didn’t enjoy, though their roughness sometimes leaves me a little worn. I end up saying things to myself such as “I won’t be seeing that again any time soon.” But then again, I’ve been feeling a bit in the mood for some Kill Bill. post-19458-Quentin-Tarantino-Game-of-Thro-mRur

Addiction in Fantasy

I started reading Dune again.

I’ve said it before, but I encourage you to read it if you haven’t.

To catch up those unfamiliar, a central theme of the books (though I keep primarily to the first one) is a commodity known as melange, colloquially known as “the spice,” in a science-fiction future set approximately 24,500 years after the 21st Century. Melange is a naturally-occurring substance from the fictional planet Arrakis (otherwise known as the titular Dune) that proves to be the focus of high politics and war, being of pivotal economic importance. When consumed, the spice provides life-extension and, in some, a degree of prescience, which is essential for deep-space travel.

Basically, the concept is that mechanical computers are, to put it lightly, long since out of fashion, and calculation of warp-drive jumps through space is done by human minds. The spice is required (to augment the navigators with prescience) in order to predict whether or not the ships will collide with obstacles (such as asteroids, planets and suns) as the travelers careen through the Known Universe.

In other words, no spice, no interstellar travel, no empire. It was important stuff, oft-cited that one briefcase of the spice could buy you a planet.

But apart from granting extended lifespans and the ability to peer into the future (to a limited degree), melange also had the effect of being highly addictive – and withdrawal is fatal. Extensive, long-term use apparently had the effect of warping the human body, turning the Navigators into beings that were simply “human once.”

Frank Herbert was not afraid to make a variety of drug references in his work — some of an experimenter himself — and it is the use of these things in storytelling that I write about today. Addiction is a powerful thing, something not to be discussed lightly, as it is in our lives – all of us – even in its most minute forms. Johann Hari talks about how we look at and treat addiction in our world now in his excellent TED Talk.

But in Dune, not only is a major plot device a mind-expanding drug, but the use of addiction as a means of controlling an individual is employed in another, less over-arcing plot point. Another drug, called semuta, is the apparent addiction of choice for the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen’s guard captain, Nefud — an interesting study all its own, as the drug taken alone doesn’t do much, but after taking semuta, it is triggered by listening to “semuta music,” which apparently activates it while in your body. In any case, it is also highly addictive, and the baron uses this as a means of controlling Nefud.

The Dune novel is about many, many things, and cannot be summarized easily. A soul once asked whether the book was an allusion to marijuana — it isn’t, at all, and one guy does a damn good job summarizing what the book really is about here. But when we talk about addiction in terms of a plot device, or as a motivation (incentive?), or even simply something to spice up the story or character, we have the makings for something that is very believable and convincing.

There is even a website dedicated to geek-themed cooking recipes, not least of which this Dune-inspired one.

And if your idea of drug addiction is associated primarily with the so-called hard-drugs like cocaine and heroin, consider that non-outlawed drugs are bloody everywhere, from caffeine to nicotine to alcohol.

Humans are flawed and prone to fill the void (or as Johann Hari from the TED talk would put it: the lack of connection) with something – anything – whether its the chemical response to the artificial euphoria of cocaine, or what I’ve heard described as the contentedness bestowed by marijuana, or the pleasurable escape from reality provided by video games, television and Facebook. These are real things the likes of which each of us, or just as often someone we know, must contend with at some point or another in our lives.

Speaking from experience, and without any official medical testing, I’ve come to believe I have something of an addictive personality — that is, I’ll latch onto something as a means of escape even when I know I ought not be doing it, and it usually takes the form of video games. It’s all too easy for me to lose more hours than I can count at a game such as League of Legends and World of Warcraft, both of which are expertly crafted games made for the express purpose of forever being uncompleted.

As something of a pseudo-ex-gamer, I found myself going into a relapse not very long ago, and then it hit me – if I had enemies who would seek to control my activities (or lack thereof), what would they do to exploit my weakness? What would be a subtle, sinister way to prevent me from being productive, or otherwise prevent me from treading down a path that someone might otherwise not want me to do?

Disclaimer: I know I’m not remotely important enough to have an individual enemy of that caliber.

But if I did, they would probably see to me having in my possession a powerful computer system, like the ones I used to build for myself in the past, loaded with easily-accessed and notoriously addictive games, like the aforementioned LoL and WoW. Hell, I even went through a Hearthstone phase a few months ago.

Would it that I were to win a lottery, the prize of which being said gaming PC, for example. The world probably wouldn’t hear from me for some time in such a scenario.

This line of thought inspired me for a character I’m writing, a flaw of whom is a penchant for drinking. Now, what would someone of power need to do in order to keep this character under control? Provide the easily accessed alcohol, of course – and in a manner so as to not rouse the character’s suspicions. Here’s a glimpse into the character, as well as a bit of a plot-element for my Work-In-Progress:

Radh lost someone dear to him, and not for error of another, but that of his own. He is convinced she died because of him, and unable to come to terms with overwhelming guilt, he crawls into a wine bottle — but before doing so, he also saw something he shouldn’t have, something that a trusted ally would otherwise want to keep secret.

The ally, a high-ranking and influential individual, is threatened by Radh’s possible recollection of the Thing He Shouldn’t Know. Thus he sees to putting Radh in a safe, secluded location and, rather than simply having Radh killed, the undoubtedly more secure of options, the ally will instead engineer an environment in which Radh will take to drinking himself stupid again.

Out of context, and written purposefully vague as it is, I would expect readers to look at the above few paragraphs which fingers scratching their heads. It’ll be clear when the novel is released, which is also why — as I’ve said in the past — I’m so paranoidically avoidant of sharing specific details.

In any case, addiction is a powerful character trait; old school Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine addict, and the otherwise extremely likable Jonathan Clemens from Alien 3 had battled with a morphine addiction. Not to mention Dr. Gregory House.

Do I draw that addictions are required to make a successfully interesting character? Not necessarily — but they can add depth to an otherwise shallow one in need of it, or provide a glimpse of another facet to someone we thought we knew. A character trait like this can help us paint the picture of a Functional Addict or, if used (arguably) lazily, supply the motivation for just about any nefarious activity.

I know what I’m doing with this information. Have you any ideas for yourself?

The Three Borders

Similarly in line with my earlier essay about my preference for the number three, I have another philosophical concept I posit before you.

I call it The Three Borders, and in fact these borders are difficult to perceive.

These are not lines between states – well, not political states anyway, but rather states of mind. The world and our perception of it is nothing if not subjective, and I have no doubt that someone else has thought of and written about my idea before more. Often enough, I see reference to at least one of the Borders, but never all three at once.

So let’s dive in.

  • Madness and Brilliance

Simply put, we always ascribe the term ‘mad genius’ to a person or character with an obviously uncommonly high intellect, but equipped with some eccentricities as well. Such individuals can just as easily be of such an elevated level of creativity that they see themselves above the normal conventions of law, morality, and social conduct – making clearly unusual people to observe or to interact with – as they can be completely unaware of such things anyway, so focused are they on whatever endeavor into which they poor themselves.

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The concept that creativity and mental illness are connected is not a new one. Modern science has continually shown that painters, writers, inventors, performers – creatives all – tend to be more prone to developing various psychoses; but there are plenty of people who exhibit a “normal” level of creativity and appear “normal” to their peers.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s the normal ones who scare me.

In any case, I’ve still yet to read any findings in regards to whether one causes the other, or which comes first. But, one could suggest that the divergent thinking of eccentric minds would lead to creative (or at least alternative) solutions to any given problem. A spark of madness, though, might be what it takes to ignite a flame of creativity.

As for me, I’ve yet been unable to really determine the exact border between the two. Perhaps the difference is that, while both do not adhere to convention, the reason behind such lack of adherence is the determining factor. Is convention, normalcy, purposefully shunned or simply unimportant enough to be noticed?

 

  • Cowardice and Intelligence

We see this in fantasy fiction a lot. Any setting where a battle is on the horizon, or a duel about to erupt. Even (especially?) in political intrigue – fantasy or otherwise – we see a veritable rat’s nest of people exhibiting of high amounts of intelligence, cowardice, or both.

It’s almost always in reference to the idea of retreat. Retreating from the face of the enemy on the proverbial battlefield is often enough considered an act of cowardice by the pursuer, or an act of tactical intelligence on part of the one running away.

Run and live to fight another day. This phrase, and similar variants, is oft repeated by the hero – or more often, the hero’s loyal friend, close at hand and restraining said hero – when it would a good time to leave.

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Kind of like how in any fight you’ve seen on T.V. where your protagonist, whether evenly matched or in fact smaller than his larger, much more powerfully-built opponent, strikes the adversary in a tender area. When the bad guy delivers a knee to the groin or a hit to the pre-existing gunshot wound, the audience jeers. When the hero produces a knife and slashes the enemy’s leg in a moment of bring held prone, or the time-tested favorite of, yes, punching the big guy in the dick, the audience cheers.

Are so-called ‘cheap shots’ acts of intelligence or cowardice?

I suppose it depends on who you’re routing for. Especially if it’s the good guy, or yourself.

Honor has a problem discerning the two. Or, conversely, discerns the two too hastily. To flee and show your back to the enemy – most dishonorable and cowardly. Unless, of course, your plan is to lead them astray and ambush them later. Then it’s smart. Though, even an honorable opponent would label such ‘dirty tricks’ as cowardly.

I’ll never forget a moment while playing Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos many years ago with a friend (as an ally, with us playing against computer opponents), and while we were engaging the enemy, I ordered my army in for the attack. When the battle went from unfavorable to grim, my friend pulled his forces out while mine continued fighting. I remember calling him a coward, and his reply was “No, smart.”

To this day I’m certain that had he remained, I wouldn’t have lost my army and we would’ve taken them down.

I’m pretty sure we lost that match because with my forces depleted, the enemy was able to move in and surround his base with an army twice as big. It would have been equal had we stood together.

Was my friend’s flight a tactical retreat? Undoubtedly. But in that circumstance, like many we see in fiction, the real act of cowardice isn’t necessarily about the flight itself, but the intention – and repercussions. It’s leaving others behind for the sake of self-preservation.

This border also takes some thought to really distinguish. What I’ve come to understand, as a general idea in helping tell the difference, is essentially this: if the act is born of selfishness and without regard for (or worse, at the direct expense of) others, then it is cowardly. If the act is born of a cool head and a desire to minimize loss, then it is intelligence.

cowardpedal

 

  • Stupidity and Bravery

The third and last of the Three Borders is that to be found between these two. It most often comes up when trying to describe a hero, or supposedly heroic act. How do you tell whether a person charging head-long into a dangerous situation is either fearless or an idiot?

One of my earliest memories came about when I was no older than five or six. On a dual-family day-trip to a swampy-lake place we called Wilson State Park, where my father would bring his canoes and kayaks, I was off with a friend some distance away from the group. I remember not how I found it, but I can distinctly remember holding a small snake; having been catching ringnecks, garders and red-bellies since a very young age, this came natural.

But thinking back, it might have been a copperhead, which is notoriously lethal. In any case, I wasn’t bitten, but I remember seeing it threaten to bite me as I held it.

My friend, a girl a few years older than me, remarked that I was very brave. We likely had no idea of the snake’s toxicity if any, but like many people she probably regarded the snake with revulsion. As such, my handling the writhing thing may come off as brave to anyone, except that to me I was just playing with a cool-looking animal I had found.

I have no doubt that I was stupid, not brave. I don’t have a fear of snakes these day, but I do have what I call a very healthy fear of poisonous things.

The difference between being brave and being stupid is that when one is foolish, they simply aren’t aware of the danger.

BeBrave

A brave person is at least partially aware of the danger, but carries on anyway, and often enough with some regard (if not a complete dedication) toward others.

Which individual comes off as possessing more bravery to you?

The one who says: There’s nothing to worry about;

Or the one who says that they themselves are in fact scared, but do whatever they do  in spite of the danger?

Firefighters make a great example. Most people would not dare run into a burning building. It’s kind of a stupid thing to do. But, of course, firefighters are trained professionals; they are aware of the risks and are prepared in more ways than the average self-described street hero. No one would describe the firefighter profession as stupid.

But it arguably takes a certain degree of ‘lack of thinking’ in order to perform acts of bravery, wouldn’t you say? After all, thinking too much is paralyzing, and that’s certainly something you don’t want. Particularly in a situation where not only yourself, but others, are at risk.

Much like the other Borders, it’s not necessarily the act itself, but the reasoning behind said act that would label it as either that of foolishness or valiance.

~~~

What do you think?

Fear Of The Finish Line

finish-line

Not long ago, I had a strange epiphany-like moment. It happened when I was mulling over precisely why it was that I haven’t been writing fiction like I used to.

In the not-so-distant past, I eagerly strode out of my home to one of a myriad of cafes within walking distance and would sit down for hours at a time, drafting, editing and scrivenizing raw prose. Sometimes it was arduous, and sometimes it flowed like a cluster of frog eggs from your adolescent hand during a hot summer’s day.

How’s that for a visual?

So naturally, life distractions happen. Every writer’s bane is the internet itself, for all its usefulness. I have YouTube channels I like to follow that release daily content, all manner of websites full of interesting articles, and of course Wikipedia. Perhaps worst of all is Facebook, the ultimate time sink.

In case it may interest you, I’ve recently restarted using an app for Google Chrome called StayFocusdUsing this deceptively nifty little extension, you can limit how long you browse certain webpages. If you’re anything like me, and you easily lose track of time while browsing or “doing research,” it’s a great tool to help limit the internetical meandering.

By the way, no one gives me anything for this little endorsement.

Anyway, throw in any excuse with which you are most familiar. I have responsibilities, I don’t have enough time, I have a boy/girlfriend, I have appointments, deadlines, — whatever. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling one’s self these things, as though to excuse one’s self from actually working on one’s personal projects. The world is full of distracting things.

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Turns out I had the time, and still do, occasionally, have an extra hour or two between busy-ness and business. Granted, I have been monumentally distracted, but had I focus, I could turn those spare moments into productive writing time. I will gladly and freely admit that I am a fundamentally lazy person, but have endeavored to change my behavior to become more productive.

It has worked. Over the course of the last few years, I’ve effectively turned myself into the type of person that gets extremely antsy and anxious if I’m idle for too long. I’ve got more projects in my life now than I know how to complete. As far as writing is concerned, this includes:

A short story for my writer group, the Sky Writers, a short story for Masque & Spectacle (Vietnam Edition), any number of whimsical blog posts, and, of course, the all-consuming, all-powerful novel project.

The truth is I have had the time to work on any number of these. Energy, on the other hand, is arguable. Willpower has waned. So I’ve been getting very introspective, repeatedly asking myself the fundamental question: Why?

I, like many writers, think we need (or possibly delude ourselves into thinking we need) to be in the right state of mind in order for our time to be conducive to creativity. In other words, lots of us just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike us, which I’ve come to believe is most certainly the wrong way to do things. I hear it all the time, and the result is always the same: they aren’t actually writing anything.

Steven King, a man I cite often here, is a notoriously prolific writer, and in the book I cite just as often (if not more so) than the man himself, On Writing, King makes it clear that you can’t wait for the muse; you have to train your muse to know where to find you. That means making the habit of setting aside time, honoring it, and sitting in front of a notebook or a screen with a pen in your hand or a keyboard under your fingers. Make it habit. Personally, I like to have a cup of ice coffee nearby.

Elizabeth Gilbert makes a counter-intuitive point to the idea of “your elusive creative genius” in her TED talk. This is among the top TED Talks that have left the greatest impression on me.

So even while knowing these things (even though I haven’t been putting them in practice quite as often as I would like, or would otherwise have you think, considering the preachy nature of this blog post), I still found myself asking the question: Why?

Then it hit me.

I think I am afraid of completing the novel.

Schmendrick

Bear in mind that, once finished, this would be my first, and were I to buckle down and write the last damn final chapters, the manuscript could be completed in something like a week or two. You would think that with the end in sight, I would be rushing to the finish line, but as it happens, I think I discovered an unexpected hurdle.

You see, I’ve been working on this thing for years. It’s conception first came about like the result of a prom night gone wrong, and about as long ago. That’d put the earliest bits of development around ten years before this post — but I’ve only recently taken my writing seriously as of about two or three years ago. Before then, my stories and ideas were but musings of an idle mind. Since then, the writings have taken on various incarnations; the novel I started is far different than the novel that will be finished, as it has been scratched and started anew several times.

In fact, almost nothing in common with the original story remains, except a slight sense of familiarity. It’s like an old computer you’ve had for ages, but you’ve gone about upgrading the hardware and software over the years. At which point does it, or did it ever, cease to be the same computer you started with?

The point of all this is this:

I discovered in myself that I might have actually fallen in love with the romantic ideal of “working on a novel,” rather than actually finishing it.

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The project has been in development for so long that more than once I’ve actually lost sight of the end! I mean sure, as per the reassurances of my writer-peers, I can and will always get involved in the next book.

Like I said, there’s a series planned. Standalone fantasy books are an excellent gulp of fresh-air, but that’s not what this particular story arc is.

The problem isn’t inspiration, or a lack of time, or even being in the dark about what will happen next in the manuscript. Usually what it comes down to is forcing myself to a place where the muse will find me: in a cafe somewhere, wearing giant headphones and with one or two drained coffee cups nearby, my laptop open and my notebook at hand.

I’m in fact emulating that as I put the final touches on this post.

Swallowing that strange thing that I can only describe as a fear of finishing.

Have you ever reached the finale of a game you’ve loved? Or a T.V. series? Or even a sequence of books or movies? There is always this sense of emptiness afterward. I’ve felt this after turning the last page of a few books, but in fact I’ve felt it strongest at the end of an anime or a classic JRPG of old.

Some of the most influential games for me were Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 7, Chrono Trigger. Mario RPG was one of the greats, as well. Each of these games I had beaten several times, but the first time I saw the credits roll, I sat and gazed at all the foreign names, letting the magnitude of my experience sink in.

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I can even remember a sense of depression after seeing the credit rolls halt, and reading a final “~FIN” or “The End” or “Thank you for playing.”

And writing about this has actually inspired me to dig up and start a new one. I haven’t played a JRPG in years; perhaps it’s time I see what all the hallabaloo is about Earthbound.

It ended. It was really over. Sometimes there would be looping music. Sometimes dead silence. Always stillness.

Now what?

book-hangover

Substitute the word “book” with “RPG” and it rings just as true.

 

Every now and then, I regain the encouragement or wherewithal I need to remember my purpose. I swear, half the things I write about on this blog are about why I’m having trouble writing and what I do in an attempt to combat that. But I wonder how many others ever have felt this same anxiety?

The truth is that once I am completed with one novel project, there will always be another one to write, whether it’s a sequel or a separate piece.

It’s just merely a matter of getting over myself in order to write the blasted thing.

Funny how we are our own worst critics, our biggest hurdles, and our own only hope.

Do let me know whether you’ve experienced anything like this in the comments.

~~~

This post’s music comes from an OverClocked Remix of Final Fantasy’s Prelude, a part of the Balance and Ruin Remix Album for Final Fantasy 6. It never fails to remind me of my dreams as a writer.