Friday, June 29, 2012

The Legend of Korra

I admit that I joined the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom a bit late.  In fact I think the final season of the show had already concluded by the time I discovered it.  Personally I think this was a blessing to me since I was able to watch the entire series at my own pace instead of being forced to watch only one episodes a week for the current season, and then sitting through the entire season break agonizing over what happens next.

The show was that amazing.  I probably would have been really aggravated waiting to see how things turned out, especially late in the show when the big conflicts really came to a head.

Unfortunately I do not have that luxury with the sequel series The Legend of Korra.  The same creative team behind Avatar also created Korra, and it shows in the consistency of the world and (more importantly) in the quality of the writing.

Now that the first season is over, I find myself in that unfortunate position of wondering what is going to happen in the second season.  There are two things that I hope get a significant amount of screen time:

1. The realization that Mako is kind of a jerk.  The way he handled things with Asami (or in his case, actively didn't handle them) was just a jerk move.  Not cool.  I was actually starting to hope that Korra would come around to Bolin for a while, just because I didn't want her to end up with Mako.

2. While the main villain of the season, Amon, has been defeated there are still a lot of issues that need to be dealt with.  There's obviously a fairly large portion of the population that feels neglected (at best) or actively oppressed (at worst) due to being non-Benders.  Since part of the opening sequence for the show contains the line "Only the Avatar can bring balance to the world," I hope that Korra tackles this problem in season 2.  If that many people feel that much discontent, then any sense of balance has certainly been lost.  Honestly I'm hoping that Korra opens up a way for more people to become Benders if they want.

The season was full of great moments by itself, though. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Tenzin watching Korra in her very first pro-bending match.  He's been trying to hard to teach her Air Bending, and it's just not clicking for either of them.  But finally, in the midst of what essentially amounts to a fight, the lessons he has been teaching her finally click and it just works.   I know I've felt those moments in my life, so that resonated with me.

2. Asami in general.  She deserves so much more than the way Mako treater her at the end of the season.  How many times have we seen a character oppose the plans of his/her parent, only to show them mercy again and again...just so that the villain can attack them over and over.  It's a very old and very bad trope.  So glad to see that throughout the season, Asami never seemed to waver very much in her conviction that her father was indeed in the wrong.  Especially at the end where it would have been so easy to just let him get away.  But she didn't.  Because Asami is awesome.

3. Tenzin's kids.  The little air benders had great personality and were pretty amusing.  They weren't perfect by any stretch.  Meelo's "Fartbending" was a bit overplayed in the last few episodes.  And the way the kids saved the day during the attack on Air Temple Island was just sad.  I mean...anyone could have saved the day since all the bad guys just stopped moving as soon as kids were involved.  The animation really fell down in that scene.  With that said, the characters were great.  I especially loved Meelo's reaction to Lin's actions to help them get away from the pursuing Equalist zeppelins towards the end of the series.

4. Speaking of Lin Beifong, she's amazing.  I seems rare to have a character with that much fiery determination, but I love it.  And the creative ways in which she makes use of her abilities and equipment to protect her friends and the people of her city are so much fun to watch.  I hope we see plenty more of her in season 2.

Finally, I know the writers teased us with this in the very first episode, but...I WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO ZUKO'S MOTHER!!!

Sorry about that.  I'm better now.  But you have to admit that was kind of cruel.

So, what did you think of The Legend of Korra?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Shades of Milk and Honey

In an attempt to step away from continuing to rant (futilely) about a certain video game's conclusion, I decided it would be useful to talk about writing that I do like.  Yesterday I mentioned one of my favorite podcasts, Writing Excuses, and thought it would be fun to talk about the most recent book I have read by one of those podcasters.

I picked up Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal, two or three weeks ago.  The underlying premise is "what if Jane Austen wrote a book that also involved magic?"

I will freely admit that I am not quite as well read when it comes to Jane Austen literature, but from what little I have been exposed to it feels like Mary has done an excellent job in evoking the feel for that era.

Jane Austen used certain character archetypes in such a way that, once I recognized a character filling that role in this book I worried that things would get stale.  Once you figure out who the dishonest rogue is, you know roughly how the various characters connected to him will react.  Thankfully that fear was baseless.  While Mary has done quite a bit to call up the tone and ambiance of that era, she doesn't rely on it as a crutch to excuse poor plotting or bad characterization.

The characters all have their own motivations, which are rarely what they initially appear to be.  And the magic system she has devised is fascinating to think about, especially given the established rules regarding what it can and can not do.

By the time I finished reading this book, I was anxious to see how events progressed for these wonderful characters that Mary has crafted.  Thankfully Glamour in Glass is already out.  I just need to buy it now.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What I've learned from Writing Excuses

I first started writing in something resembling a serious fashion during my sophomore year in college.  That was back in 1999.  I feel so old saying that.  Anyways, I joined an online Star Wars club (because I am that much of a nerd) and one of the core activities of that club was writing essentially what amounts to Star Wars fan fiction.  There have been a variety of ups-and-downs in my relationship with the club, as well as my dedication to just writing for me.  Which ultimately means that while I can be pretty opinionated about the writing aspect of various forms of entertainment (just ask my wife after we have seen a movie together for the first time), I'm not as far along with my own literary skills as I would like.

Recently I've started listening to the Writing Excuses podcast pretty regularly.  I downloaded every podcast from their website onto my iPhone, and listen to a little more than one whole podcast on my way to work in the morning, and one more on the way home.  Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, Dan Wells, and the (relatively) recent addition of Mary Robinette Kowal are all pretty amazing authors.  Listening to them analyze the craft of writing is both educational and informative.  In fact I imagine I'll be talking about them individual and the podcast itself quite a bit in the future.

One little gem that has been mentioned several times, primarily by both Howard and Brandon I believe, is the idea of 'fulfilling promises made to your readers'.  In addition to the beginning of your story setting up the theme, tone, setting, characters and plot, whether you know it or not, you are also making certain promises to your readers.  Based on their initial impressions they are going to make certain assumptions about what will or will not happen by the end of the story.

(Yes, it is possible to subvert those expectations, but I'm not talking about that today.)

One of my biggest qualms with Mass Effect 3 and how it ended is that there were several such implicit promises that were made earlier in the series that I never felt were fulfilled.  Things like this:

"The Decisions you make matter"

In Mass Effect 1 you discover that an alien race, called Rachni and long believed extinct, is still around.  And you have the choice to free them from imprisonment or to kill them all.  Bioware touted from the beginning that such decisions would impact events later on, in addition to the more immediate consequences in the original game.  As a result, I expect that choosing to kill or save the Rachni will have huge ramifications by the end of the trilogy.

If you chose to free the Rachni, then in Mass Effect 2 you meet someone that was helped by the Rachni and is now returning the favor…but that's it.  And then in Mass Effect 3, you just discover that they've been enslaved again, you can choose (again) to free them or let them die.  

And even if you choose to free them, nothing else in the game really gives any indication of that being a big decision.  They never really show up again, even in the big space battle at the end. The consequences of this decision should have been huge, instead of feeling like an afterthought.  Because not only did it feel like the initial decision was worthless, I'm faced with pretty much the exact same decision two games later, and it still has almost no impact on how the rest of the game plays.

The hero should eventually get to fight the villain

In Mass Effect 2 the villain orchestrating events throughout the game is named Harbinger.  Harbinger can possess his minions and act directly through them.  So you literally spend the entire game fighting against him without being able to actually fight or kill him.  Your character never even sees Harbinger aside from in holograms, and you (the player) only get to see him briefly in the cutscene at the end of the game.  

As an ending by itself, that's fine, but now I expect that I'll get to face off with Harbinger and beat him down by the end of Mass Effect 3.  

Instead we are treated to a poorly executed 'surprise' main villain, Harbinger isn't even mentioned until around 75% through the game, and he only shows up once to blow things up at a key moment.  And then he flies away, never to be seen or mentioned again.  Very disappointing.

Mysteries should be explained

Also in Mass Effect 2, there's a big mystery surround a particular star that seems to be aging must faster than it should.  But there's no resolution to the mystery, since your character's primary focus at the time was to simply recruit a member of the research team assigned to that project.  One would expect that such an unusual phenomena would be revisited in the final installment of the trilogy.  But no one even mentions it.  

The moral of the story is that, as writers, we have to be aware of what we're promising to our readers, even if we are not aware of having made those promises.

Starting tomorrow I'm going to start talking about things I actually like, where I felt the writing worked, and leave Mass Effect 3 alone.  I've spent more than enough time agonizing about how tragically (and not in a classical/good way) the series ended.  

I think I'll have to put it in the same drawer that has the Star Wars prequel trilogy DVDs in it.  In some ways it feels like they belong together.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

In Which I Participate in Internet Nerd Rage

I have loved the Mass Effect games, created by Bioware, since release day of the very first game.  I've completed each game multiple times, using different character classes and making different decisions.  Like many other fans of the franchise (and of the company that made it), I was really looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy.  And roughly 95% of the game played beautifully.  But the last 5% were just awful.  There is an abundance of Internet Nerd Rage© out there detailing the various grievances with the ending we, they players and fans, received, so I won't go into that here.

Bioware did seem to notice and decide they had to do something, though, and today they released the Extended Cut ending for the game, in order to address at least some of the issue with the ending.  The project director for the games was very upfront about the fact that they were not changing the endings they had created, just adding more detail to the existing endings to clear confusion on certain points.  And that's exactly what they did.

Does the Extended Cut make the ending any more palatable?  In the words of a recent bit on the Colbert Report: "Sure…the same way jumping helps you get closer to the sun."

Some of the cosmetic changes that were made did indeed help to differentiate the different endings from each other, which is nice.  Previously the only real difference was the color of the expanding energy field that 'solved' the problem.  Now there's actually a cutscene that shows events playing out a little differently based on the decision you've made.  It doesn't involve any of the characters you've become attached to over the course of three games, but I guess you can't have everything.

We also get a nice epilogue for each ending, that was sorely needed, to help establish that everyone didn't die as a result of the decisions you made.  One of the most important, but possibly subtle, changes made is the the Mass Relays (enormous space subway stations basically) aren't destroyed as a result of your actions, just heavily damaged.  Prior to the Extended Cut, regardless of the decision you make your character is informed that the relays will be destroyed.  'The Arrival' DLC for Mass Effect 2 established that destroying a Mass Relay results in an explosion that bears a very strong similarity to a Supernova.  So, really everyone should have died.  So Bioware basically just retconned this part of the ending to make it clear you didn't just wipe out all life in the galaxy.  I call that a good step that Bioware was willing to make that adjustment, but also find it sadly lacking giving the other big change.

Previously you had (at best) three options to choose from to end the game.  None of the three options are particularly good choices.  Instead of making a choice based on saving galactic civilization, you have to make a choice based on inflicting your decisions on the survivors.  These options literally boil down to:
1) Destroy all synthetic life, including one of your friends/companions and an entire race of synthetic beings that (if you made the appropriate decisions earlier in the series) have allied with you against your enemies.  Because you're ok with causing extinction level collateral damage.
2) Control your enemies, where you basically become Skynet and rewrite the bad robots to be nice and help the ordinary people.
3) Rewrite all organic beings in the galaxy to become part organic/part synthetic.  Outside the fact that this makes no sense (I know, I know, what am I doing expecting my science fiction video game to make sense?), this again boils down to you mandating a change for every living being in the galaxy, regardless of their wishes.

Which brings us to the new fourth ending provided in the Extended Cut.  Bioware listened to all the various arguments about how your character, given all he/she has been through, would react to those choices and indeed gave us the option to say that all three of those options are just terrible choices.

The only problem is that making that choice actually results in everyone dying, and the bad guys winning.  In other words Bioware said, "Sure, you can point out that these crappy decisions are indeed crappy, but we don't really care what you think." 

I'm grateful that the existing ending got a bit more meat to them so explain what happens, but I don't imagine I'll be playing the game again anytime soon.  Choosing to put myself in a position where I have to make crappy decisions sounds like a crappy decision to make in the first place.