Dansky Macabre
A Most Wanted Man - Thoughts

The opening shot of A Most Wanted Man is of water. It’s a simple shot of water sloshing up against a seawall, then sloshing slightly higher as a boat’s wake rolls past. It is, in a word, fluid. Then, a man pulls himself up out of the water and up a ladder, onto dry land. He’s soaking wet and anonymous; he does not speak. At this point, he, too, is completely fluid.

As the movie progresses, we learn more about this man. His name is Issa. He is half Chechen and half Russian. He was jailed and tortured. He is indeed a wanted man, and he is many other things.

And as the movie progresses, the shots we see change. The early ones are full of the images of liquid. Every establishing shot shows water in the background. We get shots of whiskey glasses, of coffee, of tea. The fluidity is there in the imagery. But as we move along, those shots go away. They’re replaced by rigid images - brushed steel and chrome, dry land and building guts. The coffee cups get covered up. Things are settling into a single pattern. The future is increasingly less fluid. 

And eventually, Issa is defined - for the people who want to use him, and for us, the audience. He is what he is. His possibilities have been whittled down to a single one. He is no longer fluid. 

Which is where the story ends.

But there’s another guy in the movie. He’s a spy, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his last role, and he’s also caught up in the narrowing of focus, the loss of possibility. It’s a brilliant performance, with Hoffman shambling through the film like an aging, wounded bear, underestimated but still dangerous. Of course, Hoffman’s character is the one drawing the threads of possibility closed. He’s got an endgame in mind, and he relentlessly cuts off every other character’s other options until there’s only one way things can possibly play out. But he’s caught in it, too, as trapped as any of the people he’s been manipulating “to make the world a safer place” all along.

And when the final step is taken, when the endgame goes horribly wrong, then we realize that Hoffman’s character’s story parallels Issa’s. That in thinking he was master of his own destiny, he was led to a place where there was only one way things could end, and it was not the one he imagined. That like Issa, he had retreated from a bloody past in hopes of perhaps drawing some good out of evil, and that he was encouraged to think this was a possibility in order to serve the ends of others.

I’ve seen reviewers call this a “minor” film, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s a minor key film, where the stakes are high in human terms but the plot is distinctly lacking in showpiece explosions. Everything is understated - conversations and plots, interrogations and chases. There are maybe half a dozen moments of physical violence in the film, and no blood. And that’s fine. Explosions and blood would have made this about the moment of conflict and the adrenaline rush of the race for survival. What A Most Wanted Man touches on instead is the bigger game, and the notion that big things are made from small actions, combined and conjoined in myriad ways.

There’s one moment in the middle of the film, unrecognizable when it happens, when Hoffman’s character is offered a way out of what’s coming. It’s an admission from his American contact that it was her people who blew his op in Beirut, who got his people killed, who got him demoted to Hamburg. It’s a suggestion that she shouldn’t be trusted, and that he should walk away while he still has the chance.

He doesn’t walk away, doesn’t even realize what he’s being offered. And so everyone’s fate is sealed, in minor gestures that have major consequences.

If you’re getting the impression that it’s not a cheerful film, you’re absolutely correct. To watch A Most Wanted Man is to watch a failure of hope, to see good intentions and a desire to lessen bloodshed cynically used for the benefit of the ambitious and uninformed, to observe old failures repeated in a way that will recreate old problems. It is, in its own quiet way, vastly pessimistic in a way that shouts “it doesn’t have to be this way”. And as such, it’s worth seeing, and listening to.

 

On the Loot That Is Character

So here’s the great thing about the Telltale story-driven games.

It’s not that they’re “GREAT STORIES”, though they are in fact excellent examples of the storyteller’s art, showing keen understanding of their respective properties (Walking Dead and Fables, respectively, for those of you yahoos who haven’t played them yet, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for). There have been, much to the surprise of many, quite a few excellent stories in games over the years. No, that’s not what makes these two, Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us, stand out.

It’s because Telltale figured out a mechanic - a mechanic! Yes! A game mechanic as a storytelling tool in a game! - to make you care about the characters in the game world.

And how do they do that? By stripping away all of the “game” elements of the game until those character are all that’s left. You don’t level in The Wolf Among Us. You don’t collect loot. You don’t get XP or better armor or a +3 sword of fable-smiting. In fact, they have taken absolutely everything that you normally use to keep track of your progress and advancement in a game and stripped it out.

The only thing that’s left? Character. More specifically, your relationships with the other characters in the world. There is, quite literally, nothing else to hold on to. 

And that is, by and large, the mechanical function of those characters in the design as well. They’re not quest givers. They’re not there to give you combos or unlock skill trees or shoot bad guys or do anything mechanical for you. They are there to be a part of the world, the only part of the world that matters from moment to moment. 

It’s a remarkable achievement, and an elegant one. To make characters mean more, give the player less. Bravo.

Pro Con Goer

So I went to PAX.

Not because I wanted to GO TO PAX. I mean, I’ve seen show floors before. Lots of them, many of them more conducive to keeping my hearing intact that the Vegas-like carnival that flourishes inside the Washington State Convention Center.

And not because I wanted to “do business”, whatever that means, for someone in my position. (Seriously, I have no idea. Suggestions are welcome.) I did have one panel, moderated and organized by the estimable Chris Tihor, that I was a part of. But that was literally my only formal commitment while I was out there. I didn’t talk to any media or take any meetings. I did show off some of the cards for Squatches and Scotches, the card game I’ve been working on, but that was really more in the interest of getting ego gratification for the incredibly funny things I’ve written as card text, and less about actually flogging the game per se.

And I certainly didn’t go to PAX for the frequent flier miles. As a matter of fact, I kind of botched my travel roll - a first for me in ages - and booked myself into a hotel in Bellvue when I thought I was booking a place near SeaTac and light rail. On the bright side, this allowed me to make new friends out of numerous Lyft and cab drivers in the greater Seattle area, but Lordy, new friends get expensive if you have to keep on making them a half hour ride at a time.

No, I went to PAX - and really, this is why I go to most conferences, conventions, kaffeklatches, gatherings of the tribe and so forth - to see people. To talk to people. To immerse myself in a pool of very smart people whom I think very highly of, so we can talk of things various and sundry. About writing, about games, about scotch, about ACC football (if it comes to that, which it occasionally does), about what we’re working on and what we’re not working on and what we want to be working on. 

Why? Why fly cross-country and subject myself to an Au Bon Pain in DFW at 5 in the morning, just for the odd bits of conversation?

Because that stuff is what’s really important. It recharges my batteries. It stimulates new ideas. It gives me new ways to tackle existing problems. It feeds new data into the system, which is exactly what I need to be re-energized and get back into the word mines with a jaunty tilt to my cap.

And hopefully, talking to me helps do the same thing for the folks I talk with. Or at least provides them with a good laugh or two.

I joke, but I’m also quite serious. Getting out of headspace inhabited solely by me or the few people I interact with on a daily basis is a good thing. Filling that headspace, even if it’s just for a couple of days, with other folks is both a genuine pleasure and good for the Muse, who gets cranky if left to endlessly peruse the old magazines in the waiting room of my mind.

So young’uns, take heed - there’s much to be said for getting out there and talking with smart people to make you better at what you do. It’s a worthwhile investment of time, of money, and of energy, and it would be if all you got out of it was the chance to spend time with people whose company you genuinely enjoy. Throw in the added benefit that it makes you better at what you do, and, well, it looks more appealing all the time.

So, to all the smart and generous folks I had the good fortune to hang out with at PAX, I say “thank you”. Not just for the pleasure of your company, which is considerable, but for the energy and inspiration you provide. And to those of you who don’t think you need to mingle with your professional peers now and again, well, it might be worth reconsidering.

Booky Thingy

Oh look. Just got a new shipment of copies of my short story collection, Snowbird Gothic, in. Crowded office is now slightly more crowded.

Unless you’re going to swing by to help unclutter the office, you can get it here. Which you totally should. Because it’s awesome.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE INANIMATE OBJECT?

A full scotch bottle :-) 

perilunesky:

That this shit happens, specifically threats of all kinds and harassment of women in the game industry — that this happens and keeps happening over and over and over again, on every scale… this is why I speak out. It’s why I share links, it’s why I re-blog posts, it’s why I’m on social media.

On the Priority of Falling Rocks From Space

Got home the other night well after 11, after the local gamedev drink-up at an Irish-ish pub in downtown Raleigh. When I reached the front door, I remembered that this week was the Perseid meteor shower. Tuesday was supposed to be peak activity, which turned out to be not such a good thing, schedule-wise; Tuesday night here could best be described as “ark building weather”.  Thick cloud cover, torrential rain and the omnipresent chance of being flash-fried by a couple of zillion volts makes for a poor meteor shower viewing experience.

Tonight, though, was clear. And it was late and it was quiet and it was reasonably dark, except for the street corner light and the neighbors’ outdoor light and our porch light, which had been left on so I wouldn’t have to try to figure out in pitch blackness which of the 84 keys I carry was the the right one for the front door. 

Best viewing conditions would be, of course, out in the country. Up by Falls Lake, maybe. Away from the city. Not on my front lawn, with porch light and neighbor light and street light.

I went to go inside, thinking “there’s going to be another one.” Or maybe I was thinking “I’ll catch them next year.” 

And without realizing it, I said to myself, “How many more of these things are you going to get a chance to see?” Not because there’s anything wrong, or I’m in imminent danger, or I’m feeling the weight of my creeping middle age particularly heavily tonight. It was just a thought about how taking that sort of thing for granted - assuming that the thing you skipped out on today will always be waiting when you want it tomorrow - doesn’t always pay off. 

I tried taking my nephew and his friend out watching for meteors earlier in the summer. We set up too early and saw bupkis. Opportunity, gone.

But it was late, and I was tired, and tomorrow’s a school day, metaphorically speaking. I went up onto the front porch, Opened the door.

Thought about it for a second, then reached in and turned off the porch light. Turned around, marched myself back onto the lawn, and held up a hand and an iPad respectively, to block out the neighbor’s light and the streetlight. 

So.

Easy enough to just dust that off with a “Cool story, bro” or whatever, and move on. It’s another “stop and smell the roses” thing, right? Of course it is.

I looked up. I waited. And a minute later, I saw a meteor.

Just one. This wasn’t a precursor to Day of the Triffids, after all, with the sky on fire with a million bits of cosmic leftover raining down in fire and light. It was the waning evening of a trip through old cometary incontinence, left behind for us to swing through and ooh and ah about. One bit of dust that hit the atmosphere and took a short trip and flamed out.

I looked around. Nobody else was out there. On my block, at least, that moment and that vision were all mine.

Which was enough. I waited another minute, then inside and shut the door. 

Except it isn’t.

Because, aging nerd that I am, I’ve always wanted to see meteor showers. They are, in a sense, important. they have a priority.

The problem being, that priority was always lower than the priority of something else I was doing at the time. It’s always a different something else, but each instance is higher priority at that given moment.

Which is how, if you look at it in the long view, “lower priority” becomes “no priority”. And “no priority” means “it never gets done, ever.”

I have a comic book spec script I’m working on now. It’s a project I’m excited about. But because it’s a spec project, it slots in behind Story X for Anthology Y or Game Project Z or Book Review Omicron, any of which may have a greater urgency at a given moment, but none of which are such high priority that they’ve got the heft to consign another project to the dustbin permanently. 

But that’s the practical effect. (Note: this sort of thing applies at work, too. Check your task lists for the stuff that’s been lurking at the bottom for weeks or months or years. It’s never the most important thing, which is why it never gets done - until suddenly it’s the thing that needed to be done ages ago and ohcrap) And the end result of that practical effect is things left undone and regretted because of the always-excusable strict hierarchy of priorities. There’s no individual element of that decision-making that can be critiqued, because any given item, when weighed against the spec project, carries more heft. It’s only when things are seen in toto that the cost becomes apparent.

Which is why it is occasionally worth it to reprioritize based on on the long view, and not the short. To temporarily assign artificially high value to a particular project to keep it from forever defaulting to no value. And to, just maybe, trade a minute at the keyboard for a minute looking at shooting stars. 

A Small Note On Depression

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There are many better voices than mine to discuss what depression really is, how being rich or famous or good-looking is not an automatic counter to its ravages, and how it is a disease and not something that can be easily overcome simply through “sucking it up” (whatever that means).

That being said, I’d like to politely suggest that everyone who does think that wealth or fame counters depression, or that it is something that can be easily overcome with enough Arizona Diamondbacks-style grittiness check out some of these resources, leave their preconceptions at the door, and maybe put themselves in a better position to help the people in their own lives who are suffering from depression.

Because if your attitude is that those suffering from depression are weak, or have no willpower, or are lazy, then you are just making it that much harder for the ones you care about who are dealing with this to come forward, to get help, and to try to find a way to get better. You are, in other words, making things worse for people you know and love.

Don’t be part of the problem. Because there are people in your life wrestling with this, even if you don’t know it. And being stubborn or uninformed or disdainful towards the problem makes pushes in exactly the wrong direction.

Things I Think About The Guardians Of The Galaxy (largely spoiler-free)
  1. It was a wonderfully enjoyable movie. I laughed in all the right places, I sniffled in all the right places, and generally had a great time. No complaints.
  2. For something that is explicitly sold as a wacky good time in space, the film sure is violent and, on occasion, foul-mouthed. The commercials - and the 17 minutes of preview footage screened for fans a month ago - really de-emphasized how brutal many of the fight scenes are. There are stabbings. There is attempted murder. There are impalings. There are stabbings and explosions and various other unpleasant ways to go out inflicted on various characters, some of whom even have speaking parts. Not that I’m going all Hayes Code or anything here, but if you’re bringing your kids expecting nothing but cute talking trees and raccoons, you might want to adjust those expectations.
  3. Spiritually, this splits the difference between the ongoing Marvel films, which do an excellent job of mainstreaming obscure nerd properties with machinelike efficiency, and the mid-80s action comedies like Big Trouble in Little China or Buckaroo Banzai. It’s winkingly self-aware of the genre conventions it’s sending up, recognizing that they’re shared vocabulary that lets the film do something different. At the same time, the film is composed with mechanical, relentless precision. Every character gets their one moment of pathos, the climactic showdown plays out beat-for-beat like innumerable other action films, and there’s plenty of sly toy commercials built into the film. But that’s OK, because the craftsmanship of the film is so damn good.
  4. Vin Diesel really is Groot. This may be the defining performance of his career.
  5. I want some of the space technology that preserves audiocassettes, AA batteries, and earphone foam for multiple decades. Seriously. I’m not nitpicking. I’ve got a couple of aging cassettes that are shedding iron oxide faster than Donald Trump ditches creditors and if space technology is what it takes to save those suckers, I want it now.
  6. Director/cowriter James Gunn does an impressive job of shoehorning a ridiculous amount of exposition about the Marvel Universe into the movie without turning it into Adam Warlock Studies 101. Those who are paying attention can squee to themselves over the nice little detail touches that get worked in; those who don’t care or who don’t realize that all this infodump is the setup for about six other movies can simply relax because the only bit’s that actually pertinent is “blue guy in a hoodie wants to blow up the planet.” Everything else? Details.
  7. Complaining about the post-credits scene is self-entitled nonsense. What we get is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the film and a nice nod to a bit of Marvel’s history. No, it’s not splodey or ominous or plot-relevant; it’s fun. Talking yourself into thinking that it was going to be Ultron jello-wrestling Thanos while Nathan Fillion and the cast of Firefly cheer them on might have been fun forum fodder, but Marvel and James Gunn are under no obligation to match the fantasies you spun out of whole cloth. And besides, complaining about how the free stuff you just got is the wrong free stuff always kind of makes you look like a jerkface.
  8. Whoever decided that Benicio Del Toro’s version of The Collector would look like someone trying to cosplay the abominable snowman from the old Rankin Bass Christmas specials may want to have others check their work on future character redesigns.
  9. Part of me will always wonder how different a movie this would have been in StarLord’s mom had liked Yes, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull instead of early 70s cheese rock. 
  10. Did I mention I really enjoyed the movie? ‘Cause I did.