Media Musings ~ Spring 2021

July 04, 2021

Hey! It’s been a while.

I’ve been thinking about that phrase, “it’s been a while,” recently. Since the pandemic is “““calming down””” and masks are coming off around my area, there’s been plenty of times for me to say it. Visiting my hometown again, repeatedly going back on campus (for a very dumb reason), randomly running into a friend in person for the first time in a year, visiting family again, opening up an old favorite game or book. There’s a relief in being able to return to some stuff, but sometimes there’s a weird melancholic blankness as well, probably because some situations in the first place didn’t involve as much happiness as much as they were routine.

It seems like there hasn’t been many times where “it’s been a while,” isn’t fitting though, even when things were “““normal.””” Outside of academic or work environments, there’s always been long enough gaps between those occasions where it felt like something had changed for the while to have been. It could just be a me thing, of course—but apparently this is what inevitably happens the longer you’re in this world, with all its dumb socioeconomic pressures willing that while to be over time.

Anyway, I’m sure you’ve noticed all the fiddling around in the time between this blog and the last! I wanted to change the fonts to match the feel of LOST SPHEAR, the game where this background of concept art is from. Had a little trouble shuffling between a bunch of different typefaces and all their loading speeds and different appearances on different devices, but I think I’ve finally settled on a nice enough combination, even if Verdana seems a little too blocky in comparison.

I think these musings are probably gonna stay as a seasonal thing, since I figured out pretty quickly that doing them every month simply won’t work with how I can only really focus on a single kind of writing at a time. This exchange from Celeste feels truer and truer with each passing day…but I sometimes wonder if that's just its own kind of drawback.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin (Great Cities trilogy, ongoing, 2020)

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Do you ever think about your place in a city? Y’know, where you happen to fit among the melting pot of cultural enclaves, tourist traps, scraper clusters, backroads, alleyways, pockets of greenery, smokestacks, brownstone mazes, and samey suburbs? Ever wonder about the people within a space, whether a certain demographic regularly haunts or just passes through a district, or the history of how that place came to be, or any ideas or where it might go? How many older or abandoned locales have you passed by without ever noticing it until you suddenly do go that “oh, that place is/was a thing once” just as the cosmic maw of gentrification opens to swallow it up?

If it sounds like I’m new to thinking about this, it’s totally because I haven’t done it before. Except for the latter. That seems to happen about every other week in every other city I frequently find myself in now.

“Cosmic maw” might be a little extreme to peg gentrification—depending on how big the project is, they’ve never been much more than just dumb big annoying construction congestion causers. But, after seeing the literal cosmic entity in this book embody its destruction of New York City through it, I think I’m gonna file it with those other eldrich evils in my lexicon more often.

The City We Became’s urban fantasy shtick is that its five protagonists are each “avatars,” more like representatives of one of NYC’s boroughs—the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island—along with a primary avatar standing for the whole city, gone missing due to said cosmic entity’s machinations. Like how gentrification tends to be uncalled for by longstanding residents, the city chooses vessels for its power without any sort of warming; and since pretty much all of them have their own pressing concerns or responsibilities before the Lovecraftian invasion, absolutely none of them want to deal with the cosmic chaos over the rest of the NYC’s everyday bullshit.

Or even the bullshit each gets from another—different people settle into different city districts as they’re wont to do for all the myriad reasons, and seeing the quirks of its boroughs bounce between and clash with one another makes the moments when they work together in spite of their differences much more compelling.

Something begins to shift. I grow bigger, encompassing. I feel myself upon the firmament, heavy as the foundations of a city. There are others here with me, looming, watching—my ancestors’ bones under Wall Street, my predecessors’ blood ground into the benches of Christopher Park. No, new others, of my new people, heavy imprints upon the fabric of time and space. São Paulo squats nearest, its roots stretching all the way to the bones of dead Machu Picchu, watching sagely and twitching a little with the memory of its own relatively recent traumatic birth. Paris observes with distant disinterest, mildly offended that any city of our tasteless upstart land has managed this transition; Lagos exults to see a new fellow who knows the hustle, the hype, the fight. And more, many more, all of them watching, waiting to see if their numbers increase. Or not. If nothing else, they will bear witness that I, we, were great for one shining moment.

One thing I think really deserves mentioning too, since I don’t see it discussed often in online SFF spaces: N.K. Jemisin’s prose is incredibly sublime. Her last series, the Broken Earth, is set in a world where the climate seasonally becomes actively hostile to its inhabitants—earth cracking open to spew volcanic gas that dims the sun and all the chaos that entails—and has to be subdued by special humans who can suss out and subdue its power. There can be these long stretches of abstraction to convey the magical energies involved and the intricacies of minerals or the sheer force of the earth’s tectonics, something that’d be boring explained by another character or so—yet there’s almost always a fitting metaphor or a small revelation or emphasis on how it feels or emotionally matters to the character to, well, make it emotionally matter to you. When a phenomenon is terrible or beautiful or literally earth shattering, you will understand the breadth of power or beauty or destruction wrought when you read Jemisin’s prose.

It’s the same for The City We Became, but since it’s set in New York and written by a New Yorker, the specific references to real things keeps the strangeness a lot more fathomable, and subsequently memorable.

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses (2021)

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I’ve never been much for paying attention to widely-held “rules” of writing—not in a conscious “I think X is bad because Y” way, but just…naturally gravitating whatever I think fits my voice better over whether it’s considered “good writing” or not. (Adverbs are bad? Say the most with as little words as possible? Always act as if all nonfiction you write is 100% true and infallible? pfffffffffft)

Every creative medium seems to have its own set of conventions, those so-called “rules you need to learn so you can break them later,” usually with a specific name. Craft is what this is called in creative writing, and all the typical elements—plot, characterization, conflict, structure, and the like—have a lot of built up baggage of adages you’ll find thrown around in nearly every advice thread or google search.

All events that happen in your story should have a cause-and-effect correlation that moves the plot forward somehow. Your main character has to want something, they have to actively search for it, and the conflict stems from some force, be it internal or external, getting in the way. Show, don’t tell; write what you know; kill your darlings; defamiliarize the familiar…and so on and so forth.

There’s a problem with simply taking this advice at first value, outside of the specificity of what works for the story you’re trying to tell. These ideas are widely accepted as the canon of creative writing—but like I’ve written in the past, many “canons” are another unseen paradigm that perpetuates the dominant values of white, straight, able, cishetero, middle class men. When a marginalized person writes to the conventions of their own traditions and presents it to an audience that knows the “canon” and only that, the choices that would make it good or bad in that specific tradition(s) get misunderstood or completely ignored in favor of some nonexistent idea of “pure craft.” So, if they want to “succeed” to a popular audience, they’re forced to shape their writing so that the majority can understand it—usually by broadening the scope at the expense of shallowing the depth.

Craft in the Real World examines these issues and a lot more, particularly how this dynamic stymies marginalized writers in American creative workshop classes in its back half. The first half is devoted to deconstructing Western-entrenched ideas of “craft,” offering new ways to define them, and offering examples from other traditions. Even if creative writing isn’t something you do often, I think seeing the author break down and redefine the “rules” in favor of tailoring something for a specific audience makes it worth reading to try and apply the ideas to your own favorite medium.


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(oh look another videogame that makes me wish I had any sort of analytical vocabulary for music)

So, this is UNBEATABLE. It’s a story-based rhythm game, with their two-button only arcade mechanics used for the music bits, and 2.5D adventure bits where the narrative plays out in. It’s story is centered around a rock band in a world where music is illegal, a scenario that I think could actually happen in my lifetime (did you know that Lucifer, the devil in Christian scripture who got a bunch of angels kicked out of heaven or something, was originally a musician?). It deliberately looks a lot like anime made by Studio Trigger (who made Kill a Kill and Promare, I think?), as a tribute to pirated VHS tapes some of the devs used to watch back in the day. It’s soundtrack, befitting an anime rock band- rhythm game, is a veritable bop, a trove of garage and J-rock tunes waxing about frayed relationships and finding one’s voice.

Did I mention it’s a rhythm game? A really good rhythm game? Admittedly, the only other rhythm game I have any extensive experience with is Audiosurf—but a game that convinces me to toss money at their crowdfund for a copy of the game and soundtrack has to be pretty dang good, right?

Part of that probably has to do with all the fighting games I took seriously years ago (more on that in a later post, probably)—getting good(-ish) at those permanently implanted in my brain an almost carnal pleasure center of hitting super specific sequences buttons within tiny windows of time. Since UNBEATABLE cuts upwards of nine total inputs mechanisms on an arcade stick to just two and removes an opposing force plus the high-speed chess mindgames that comes with fighters though, concentrating on hitting your full chain that naturally bops in tune with the bangers is its own kind of exhilaration.

I dunno. Go watch the video, check out a clip I have here, and if anything strikes your fancy, there’s a demo that gives a small taste of the adventure and story bits but basically infinite helpings of the rhythm game bits.

tfw you miss only 1 note for the full chain

Dragon Quest VIII (Level-5/Square Enix, 2004)

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I did a replay of Dragon Quest VIII as a podcast game over the past few months, and yeah…this one’s definitely still my favorite.

I think if I were to compare VIII to that other one…XI is a game I would want to play (though that’s starting to be less and less true as time goes on; fiction writing fatigue aside, there’s some treatmill compulsions to that game that feel really icky in retrospect), while VIII is the game I would want to make.

It feels like there’s a specific, old-fashioned honesty to VIII compared to all the other Dragon Quests’ I’ve gone through (DQI through DQV and XI). Old-fashioned as in all the archaic trappings from those games are still fully intact: the copy-pasted NPC designs all over the world, the seemingly scattered magic/ability distribution now with high-committal no-skill-point-take-backsies progression, the occasional bouts where the game leaves you with nary a hint about where to go in its vast world…it’s all still there, just glossed up into a third dimension.

On the other hand, VIII’s narrative is a huge bump up in enjoyment from other games. Quirky European voice acting and prettier models aside, its band of outcasts strike a good balance between the cartoony single-ish drums earlier casts beat to and the more charmingly rounded cast of XI—while also letting them to get prickly with each other, and you as well. I’ve seen people list the cast’s squabbles as a negative—but that’s almost always a given if you stuff people from different backgrounds into living alongside one another over a long journey, isn’t it? Characters are ten times more interesting to “hang out” with then there allowed to actively give their views on the world and interact with one another more than they fawn over the player or nudge them in the right direction, that’s for sure.

Since this is a Dragon Quest game though, the real negatives are its same old gender problems—Jessica, the only female party member, was designed with its grossly juvenile notions of sexuality in mind; while Angelo, the last (both these qualifiers are only true in the original PS2 version) one, has a litany of skirt-chasing lines that veer into broken record territory at times.

That latter bit does end up fitting into the grand scheme of things though, since Angelo admits his habits for debauchery is how he copes with the abuse he growing up in an abbey filled with corrupt men of the cloth—which is a thread running through all of VIII. The ever-present churches of the Goddess usually serving as little more than places for save file invocations are elevated to Catholic Church (…would evangelical Christianity be a better metaphor in 2021?) in VIII’s world, and the narrative can get very unflattering at how that affects its people. Combine that with the handful of folks reacting in different ways when their power highs suddenly come crashing down and Angelo’s bastard of a bastard brother clawing his way to the top of the church out of spite (with kind of a fair take on it all too)…and it turns out Dragon Quest VIII actually has a nicely nuanced view of how hierarchical systems of power naturally leads to their abuse and subsequent ostracization of those under its heel?

And then there’s tension. Like a lot of other Dragon Quest mechanics, tension is another simplified mechanic that sounds really neat on paper but ends up implemented weirdly (only for another series to steal it and get more popular on this side of the water in the process).

Dragon Quest III created the template of JRPG class-changing systems, which lets players make a party of their own and fine-tune each character’s stats, but since III’s spell and MP growth is attached only to certain classes, it takes a lot (and probably justified) amount of grinding to make a properly versatile party. V has its monster catching system it probably copped from Megami Tensei, but since monster recruitment rates can be astronomically low with no way to increase them, it’s still gonna take a lot of grinding to get many of them. XI has pep powers, where two or more characters in a special limit break state can unleash special skills, but since most of them are gimmicky spectacles and/or require the hero out of the combinations of 8 party members (even if they’re laughably stronger than the rest), you’re much better off just taking advantage of the stat buffs outside of bosses.

I think tension is its own kind of mixed bag though—the gameplay and narrative and everything in Dragon Quest VIII seem to revolve around it, to a degree that most entries don’t. In battles, every party member can use a turn to “psyche themselves up,” increasing the strength of whatever calculation-involved-attack or action they do next. Tension can be stacked up to four times for a x7.5 multiplier, which is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds—pithy fireballs that only hit for 20 damage can balloon to 150, and since nobody is really wanting for ways to deal it, you can psyche your whole squad up enough to turn random encounters into even more pick the right all-targeting move for the job affairs than they already are and feasibly eat up all of a bosses’s health in a single swoop.

(the two extra characters in the 3DS version are really busted)

Of course, there are countermeasures in place to keep everything from getting snowballed, mainly that reaching that x7.5 strength only happens 1/3rd of the time after three psyche ups. Past the midpoint of the game is where enemies with full resistance to certain elements start showing up, and tension-nullifying disruptive waves are tossed around at a higher rate than other games—with the unfortunate side effect of making the usual buff juggling a little harder too. Also, base damage seems to be a little low across the board, meaning you’re kinda missing out if you’re not psyching up at least once for most attacks…which can easily lead to someone going “why am I forced to stand around for a turn all the time to deal normal damage lol wtf”

The answer to that lies in VIII’s themes. Witnessing most of the church’s self serving shepherds is balanced out by the actual quest, which is unwittingly going on a wild goose chase to find the descendants of the seven sages that sealed away the big bad a long time ago. All those true-holy-figure people get murdered so the evil darkness can get resurrected in the end; but before you can actually damage the big bad, you’re forced into a fight that can only be completed by praying to the sages—by way of committing all your party members into standing around for seven turns, something the player should have been doing with tension for the entire game already!

So if psyching up is supposed to be prayer (in the way of praying for luck or an aim to be on the mark), and the story revolves around going to see a bunch of holy figures and visiting holy places, that means Dragon Quest VIII is it’s own kind of pilgrimage. Despite the cast of onlookers and outcasts from the church, they may or may not be indulging in their own form of faith, gesturing towards how inescapable religion’s influence is in a world dominated by it! …or something like that.

Anyway, I’m not exactly how sure tension is received among the fanbase, either today or back in 2005—though I’m assuming the dearth of complains I’ve seen scouring around means it was fine, enough that it got brought over to the ninth game and even a few spin offs. Coincidentally, I recently picked up a Dragon Quest IX cart off eBay to finally try and fill in my knowledge gap between VIII and XI (ドラクエⅩには日本語のみで、だからまだそのゲームするをできません), so I’ll see how that goes if I can wrap my head around one of those fiddly class systems…