My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Very Best of 2018

Rounding up the best of 2018 presented its own particular challenge. It would be easy enough to just round up the ten posts with the most pageviews (a bit time consuming, but not particularly hard).

This year, I had to account for Facebook's fuckery. If I just took the ten highest viewed articles, they would all be from before mid-October (when FB engaged its hugest algorithmic throttle to date in an effort to squeeze page admins). But what I wanted was the best performers not just the highest numbers, so I had to kind of look at how the posts after the throttling did compared to all the ones around them and pick out the few that performed well relative to the others. 

Actual Protip: Don't Do This 
When you work in traditional publishing, it's not a good idea to drag members of the creative team that helps you come up with your final product.

Words Fucking Matter
When the president calls asylum seekers at our southern border "animals" it matters.

The Buy-Me-Lunch Answer About My Gender 
There's the "Hi, we just met" answer, and the one I take the time to explain over club sandwiches.

"Why Didn't You Report It At The Time?"
As a survivor of rape, the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings were PARTICULARLY difficult.

Won't Someone Think of the Straight White Males (Mailbox)
The Year of Diverse Polls are over, but boy they pissed some people off.

Duck Shaped Bigotry 
A phail shaped like a duck is not a real duck and no one is fooled that there isn't liquid inside by naming it.

Narrative Distance 
Point of view is just the beginning.

Ten Flavors of Gamergate Fail
A rescue from another blog. A few years old but it didn't keep people from checking it out.

Fake Geek Girl: Misogyny not Elitism
Another rescue from another blog.

15 Things Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me About How to Write (Part 1)
Get your geek on and learn some valuable writing lessons. It's time to roll for initiative.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Bioshock Infinite: Your Argument is Invalid (Part 4 Subtext in Art)

Two quick reminders:

1- This is part 4 of a multipart article, and I’m jumping right in without much of recap.

You can go back to Part 3 

Or go all the way back to Part 1

2- While I’m not decoding the end or discussing the plot directly, there will be spoilers. (I’m also going to be doing some minor spoilers for Alien in this post.)

We’ve shown that Bioshock Infinite has a theme that is important to the human condition and that the internal elements of the game help reinforce this theme. We’ve shown that the technical execution of the game is superb.

What about subtext? Does Bioshock Infinite have any of that?

Subtext is one of those things in art that is a little hard to explain, but it is easier to describe.

Imagine you’re watching an old married couple:

"Wanna get something new on your pizza?"

"I know what I like."

"Oh I just thought maybe you might like to try something different for a change."

"You're welcome to get your own."

"I don't want my own....pizza. I'm just tired of the same old thing and never trying anything new."

Now, you know for sure this conversation isn't REALLY about pizza. That's subtext. Deeper meaning. Something beyond what the superficial appears to be. A layer beyond. In music without lyrics, this can be as nebulous as feelings evoked by the minor falls and major lifts and resolving Nimrodian chords or as deliberate as "This is a song about war. It's called Mars, the bringer of War."

Let me give you an example in film: Alien. Alien is a movie about a mining crew that finds an egg and the alien runs around the ship kicking the crap out of them until Ripley, the protagonist, blows it out the airlock and then fires thrusters...in its face.

Sup art world!

And how many times has this plot unfolded exactly in the same way in a million forgettable movies? Horror. SciFi. Scifi Horror. We’ve seen it done over and over and over again. Why is alien one of the most praised horror films of all time?

Because Alien is steeped with subtext about something else—specifically about rape. (Okay so here is the content/trigger warning for the next couple of paragraphs of discussing Alien's subtext, so if you want to meet after the picture of the bunnies below, I’ll see you there.)
Last chance to skip ahead.....

This deepened subtext of Alien not only taps into deeper primal fears, but flips the script gender wise to do so, creating intense anxiety around birth scenes, using crew members to procreate, and causes a shudder when we think about it choking Kane and threatening to kill him if it is removed “before it’s finished.” But even beyond that, it gets into even deeper social commentary when you realize that the ship's name is “Mother” and the thing with that parental name was what forced them into the position to be violated. (OOOOooh what’ll really bake your noodle is if you realize that the gender switching of alien violations means that "Mother" can actually be read as a social commentary on FATHERS and how they put their daughters into danger.) And you thought that alien mouth shooting out was just kind of cool. Its phallic...dripping...mouth. Okay, I think that point's been made!

That is subtext. On the surface it’s a movie about an alien with a second shooty mouth. Under that, it’s about much more.

"Is it safe to come out now?"

Now there is a lot of subtext within B.I. that I could analyze, but again my goal here isn’t to write a master's thesis article about everything going on and put all my readers to sleep. Cages, birds, corsets, free will, religious imagery, and even the writers’ attempts at social commentary (which we will get to next time) all play into a deeper subtext that challenges the ostensible action on the screen. Once you get past the convoluted plot about multiple dimensions and the “what really happened” analysis, B.I. has so much more roiling beneath its surface. But in order to continue proving that video games
have the capacity to be real art, we need really only examine a single successful (albeit ubiquitous) symbol that is pervasive throughout the game.

So let’s talk about water.

You step into Columbia (having come from a lighthouse in the middle of an ocean) and you are literally inside a fountain. The water spills across the floor in a shallow pool, it flows down the
stairs in defiance of every reasonable safety precaution. There isn’t even a handrail! (I hate to think whose job it is to clean up the blood spatters and twisted bodies of everyone who slipped on this
breathtaking display.) Water covers the floor in not one, but two chapels with spectacular stained glass, and then you go down the stairs along a single walkway of waist-high water with candles floating in it. (Just consider for half a second the pragmatism of the upkeep of something like that.) Throughout the story, despite the fact that you are in a city floating miles above the earth, water is all around you—beaches, traitorous falls, near drownings, and of course the brutal end of several characters.

Let me point that out explicitly. In a game about a floating city—where it would be easier in every way to just leave water out of the game—the game designers took great pains to explain and put it in.
Dismissing its significance is absurd. A case can be made for water as a symbol for life or death or
even both simultaneously. Three major characters die in water. Being “reborn” within the waters of baptism is not only a major part of the plot, but is essential for Booker to enter Columbia (but not without saying he “nearly died”). And of course, there’s the unambiguous end in which both life and birth come from the single act of Booker’s willing but forced asphyxia at the hands of his own daughter(s). However, an even more interesting subtextual meaning for water is as an allegory for choice—the game’s principal philosophical conundrum, and we can track this by paying attention to how deep the water is during any given moment.

When Booker arrives in Columbia, he is confronted with a thin
 layer of water over everything—and there is only one way he can possibly go to enter the city. In fact, he must be baptized within these waters “for that is the only way to enter the city.” Later it is during his plunge into deep water that he almost is free
 of Songbird the first time, but he wakes up, on land and his first words are of Anna.

It is no coincidence that the water kills the songbird at an
 almost comically shallow depth (for a construct of such ferocity). The one part of Booker’s life that he can’t seem to overcome to regain his agency and free will (“Songbird always stops you…”). But the deeper the water goes, the more choice he seems to have. Underneath the water’s surface, his agency is restored him.

Comstock is basically drowned in a few centimeters of water
within a birdbath as a tender waterfall flows near him from some
infinitely recycled source. Indeed, his fate was sealed the minute you walked in the room.

And of course it is Booker being plunged into the waters of
 baptism, but held beneath them (a final moment foreshadowed during his arrival to Columbia), that is the only way to end the vicious cycle of becoming Comstock and building Columbia over and over again. He must let himself be held under the surface to find the only choice he can still make. Like Songbird, he is killed at an almost comically shallow depth (barely over his knees) and in doing so his agency is restored to him.

Even small details within the game mechanics themselves help to reinforce this relationship: the control you can exert over enemies via water with the Undertow Vigor borders on ridiculous.
This is also why in the scene that takes place in the deepest water in the game—a brief foray into the setting of Rapture (an underwater city) – Bioshock’s earlier incarnation – a moment of
truly infinite choice is opened up as Booker DeWitt casually uses a "bathysphere"—the use of which by Andrew Ryan is a major plot point of the original game and a genetically coded device.  (Now go back and look at the little sisters and Elizabeth again.)  In the deepest of water, the full scope of “infinite” within the Bioshock universe becomes clear as it is implied with almost diabolical subtlety that Rapture may be an echo of Columbia. Deepest water—infinite choices. [2019 NOTE: less "diabolically subtle" since the release of the Rapture DLC, but certainly at the time of the original article.]

Consider in this context the imagery with which the game opens. Literally leaving the ocean of choices behind by heading towards a lighthouse—a beacon that is ostensibly land jutting out from the water but also represents the end of Booker's choices and the beginning of Booker’s predetermined path. And in the end, you wind up back at the same lighthouse, walking across water (but unable to enter it) as you go from one lighthouse to another, the illusion of choice revealed not to matter, and the destination right back where you started.

Subtext?  Yeah, it’s got some of that

(Next time, I’ll enrage white middle class geeks everywhere as I talk about some of the ways Bioshock Infinite spectacularly failed in its quest to be politically and socially poignant and what that means to its claims of artistry.  Stay tuned!)

Friday, February 15, 2019

I Need Advice! (But Not "Write Every Day")

See, it's multiple mailboxes since I get
this question all the––you know what, forget it.
Image description: 12 stacked mailboxes and
a package nook
(like from an apartment complex)
I want advice on writing, but not "write every day."

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple each week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. I have a metric buttload of questions in my backlog, though, so make 'em good if you want them answered before 2031.]

I'm looking at my inbox from yesterday:

Do you have any piece of advice for someone who'd like to write a story/book/whatever? Not the obvious "write every day" type of advice.

There's another one that I got a few days ago that is a little more pointed. "I want to write this. Please don't tell me the only way is to write every day for ten years before I even start."

I get some version of this question on the regular (perhaps a new FAQ question is in order), and sometimes it lands like "I already know and am writing every day, so what's next?" and sometimes it's more like "Is there someone else here I can talk to? Maybe a manager? I want different advice."

It's writing advice, not a goddamned salad bar, people. You don't take what you want and leave the rest when it comes to the fucking wisdom of the ages. You don't come into MY house on this, the day of my daughter's wedding, and tell me my tried and true wisdom is not GOOD ENOUGH for you. Y'all fuckers need to get yourself some basic common fucking––

*hit by a tranq dart*


*shakes head*

Okay, okay. I don't know who did that, but fair enough. I'll take it down a notch.

So before I get into my answers about the next most likely advice, I'd like to ever-so-gently unpack some of this epic fucking Holy Grail advice questing shit that is so cheesefucking BASIC––(*hit by second tranq dart*)....uh, I mean somewhat more ubiquitous than in many other industries.

Naturally this isn't for all of you. It's just for people who want to kind of "get around" that pesky writing every day (or almost every day) part. And for a moment, I need to put on my "Not Amused 'Uncle'" face that I use when the five-year-old won't stop running towards an intersection or kneeing me in my groin while playing Ninjago.

Are we ready?  Okay. I'm srs now. This is srs bzns.

Srs face.
You're NOT going to "make it" without a shit ton of work, and there is a really good reason that "write daily" is at the top of the list of advice that Every. Single. Successful. Author. gives all the damned time to people who want to know how to "make it." Other than reading, no single bit of advice is more ubiquitous.

Let me make an imperfect metaphor and compare being a successful working writer to being a doctor. I'm not talking about a world-famous brain surgeon; I'm talking about your run-of-the-mill doctor. 4 years of undergrad. 4 years of medical school. 3-7 years as an intern/resident. Now has a little practice that makes a bit of money. That's an awful lot like the timetable of your average fledgling writing career. You don't have to have a college degree in liberal arts (particularly English), but a quick scan of successful authors without them shows that it sure helps*. 4 years of additional ARDUOUS unpaid practice honing one's craft is almost universal. And then 3-7 years of very-low-paid, onerous work to establish oneself in a way that might pay the bills. Yep, that sounds about right.

*MFA's are about 60/40 among published fiction authors (with slightly more authors NOT having one), but four-year degrees in liberal arts are around the 95+% range. 

Again, this metaphor is imperfect as most doctors have to be able to read and write competently, but applying a band-aid is where most writers' ability to practice medicine ends; the levels of OFFICIAL training are very different (generally, you wouldn't have a medical doctor who was vaguely incompetent, had an unofficial clinic that scoffed the AMA as a bunch of "fucking prescriptive blowhards," but was really good at social media self-promotion); there are ways to do your "four years of medical school" while getting paid––like jobs in non-creative writing. Plus writers will never quite make that sweet, sweet attending doctor money (unless those writers REALLY hit the bigtime, which has more to do with luck than ability). There are a lot more doctors in the world than professional writers. Perhaps the biggest difference is that tenacity is important, but it isn't the most important thing in medicine. You aren't really the person who gets to decide whether you keep going in a medical program. You either pass or you wash out. It's not a choice every year whether to abandon all your invested effort or keep trying for something you may never achieve. But the long hours and the many years of training kind of line up, so I hope you'll indulge me without too much pedantry.

Now what would you say to someone who said, "I want to be a doctor, but I don't want to have to go to medical school and be an intern every day for years"?

Weird, right? Like...you would suddenly physiologically transform into a character from anime so that you could just stare at them and blink loudly a few times. Very likely, you would REALLY encourage them to maybe possibly perhaps rethink their seemingly limitless passion for that end goal if they weren't willing to go to med school.

And if you were feeling super generous, you might ask them some really tough questions like what they wanted to get out of being a doctor and find alternative paths to the things they found compelling. Like maybe they want to save lives, so being a paramedic would satisfy them and that's a lot less training (though it is not easy or particularly well-paid). Or maybe they want to help people in pain feel better and being a healing massage therapist would scratch that itch. Perhaps they could get on some slow track where they were able to broker a slower-paced education with the administration of the various institutions and not come every day, but it would take them twice as long (nearly twenty years) to get to the end. But if they really wanted to be a licenced medical doctor, you wouldn't see a way around those ten or so years and a lot of hard work.

You would react the same way if someone said they wanted to be a professional basketball player, but not practice every day. Or be a paid musician, but not rehearse.

Same goes for writing. If you just want to be published, there are ways. (You might not get more books sold than you have family and good friends, but you can be "published.") If you want that ONE story published traditionally, you can probably get there. (It might take you twenty-five years and a small fortune in editing, but you can probably do it.) Want to be read by millions? (You might have to write smutty fanfic or a blog where you take extreme positions on social issues, but it can be done.) If you want to make a lot of money writing, you can. (You might have to have a day job doing business or technical writing, but it is certainly feasible.)

But if you want to be a successful working creative author, there aren't shortcuts. I'll write until my fingers bleed that you don't need to write every day to be a writer and it's ableist to prescribe daily writing as a metric for "realness," and you alone define what success even means, but you can't get around what working creative writers have in common. There's no "trick" to get you around all those years. There's no way to skip the queue on all that work. It's not like Super Mario Brothers where anyone who wants a shorter game can just pop over to the warp zone and the only reason folks haven't heard it yet is because writers refuse to release the craft version of Nintendo Power. When people try to write and get frustrated by their lack of success, it is almost always because they don't yet have the technical skill or the voice to use the alchemy of their craft to transmute what's happening in their mind's eye into clear, crisp language.

And there's only one thing to be done about that: read a lot, and write a lot. A LOT!

There just isn't any other way. None that I know of. None that other authors ever speak of. None that has ever been whispered at the Working Writer Secret Conferences™ any kind of meetings, not that writers ever have such meetings––and I will swear an oath to that effect. None that I have ever seen  in all the books I plumbed by shockingly transparent authors as I went spelunking for the One True Advice™ that would transform me into a writer.

It doesn't exist.

Okay.....that was long but now I can relax my srs face.

Whew! Being srs for that long is exhausting*.
Time for some threesome jokes!
*Also tranq darts

Okay, now on to the part for people who just want MORE advice. The next logical step. The folks who are "writing daily [or mostly], but now what?"

Write more: Look, you don't get better at anything by NOT doing it. That's why I'm really good at World of Warcraft battlegrounds but epically n00bfail get pwned at Overwatch. I could read Overwatch theory until my eyes popped out of my head, and watch tutorials and talk to Overwatch masters, but what I really need is to practice playing someone other than Torb for a goddamned minute and only him for a couple of games a month. So if you want to get better at writing, write MORE.

Read (or keep reading): A lot of writers stop reading. Like they kind of figure they read all the books they'll ever need early in their life and now it's THEIR turn. Don't do that. Trying to just write is like trying to only breathe OUT. You will be a better reader if you're writing and a better writer if you're reading.

Occasionally read things you wouldn't normally: Tough books. Nonfiction. Western canon lit. A Pushcart anthology. A genre you don't usually dig. Once in a while take a stroll on a new path and see some new sights. You might learn a few things and get some WONDERFUL ideas.

Figure out why you like writing that you like: One of the reasons literature majors and creative writing majors spend about 90% of their time in the exact same classes is because the "close reading" of literature and the "how did the author make me feel this way" of creative writing are basically the same skill––you get down into the guts of the sentence structure and word choice and see what made that meaning happen. For a casual reader, it's fine to just read something, press the book to your breast, and sigh wistfully. (Such beauty. Much prose. Wow!) To be a writer who is reading, though, pause and take a moment to look at that sentence or passage that moved you. WHY THAT LINE/SENTENCE/PASSAGE? How is it doing what it's doing? Is it the language? If so, which words? Is it the sound it makes in your head? Is it the imagery? Is it the sentence construction? Or maybe the way long and short sentences weave together? Notice what is going on. Unlock its secrets. Let that author teach you their tricks. Be the ready student and the master that is that writer will reach across space and maybe even time and give you your very own writing lesson. Read consciously.

Practice outside your comfort zone, but also practice writing that plays to your strengths: I love writing dialogue, and really hate trying to write about FEELINGS. So I often pause when I read good descriptions of feelings (above) and pay attention to that and try to emulate it in prompts or when I'm writing on some draft. My more final versions though....TEND to be focused on dialogue because I want to go where I'm strong. Consider some of the writing you do like practicing for a sport. If you suck at speed but are super good at endurance, you want practice sessions to include speed drills so you work on that weakness and get better. However, in a competition, as much as you can, you want to play to your endurance and avoid situations requiring raw speed.

Start wherever (beginning or maybe not): Perhaps the weirdest thing about starting writers is they know but still refuse to accept that they're absolutely NOT going sit down and write their magnum opus book from beginning to end and then just go "clean up the grammar." But they still insist on a contiguous experience and have the hardest time making cuts. Go ahead and write those disjointed scenes (or even just one). Write that scene in your head even if it's floating in primordial timeline ooze somewhere in the middle of your grand narrative. Just get it out. Perhaps it's future fodder, but maybe it's just practice. Writing is a recursive thought process because it is literally impossible for you to write faster than you think. We're an intensely imaginative species, and swells of music and emotion can evoke powerful creativity. The harder part is wrangling those into some form like language (writing). That's why so much practice usually has to happen first. Most of us can do it a little, but it takes a while to learn how to really bring someone else along for the ride. Besides, by the time you have finished writing scene 4, scene 13, and scene 22, you've probably thought of scene 7, 3, and 12. Then you can work backwards, sideways, upside down, or whatever timey wimey way you want.

Routine!: Try to develop a daily routine if that's possible for you, even if (or perhaps especially if) that routine involves a lot of rest and relaxation. It might be counterintuitive at first, but the more sort of...BORING your outside life is, the more your creative life tends to flourish. That doesn't mean you can't go on a vacation or something (though maybe you still try to wake up and do a half an hour every morning except for the day you're actually GOING to Disneyland). It means you embrace as much routine as you can. If you can come to the page at the same time every day, it's going to turn your creativity up to eleven. That's just the way our brains work. I know it's not possible for everyone. I myself have had to learn a more guerrilla style (and the jury-rigging process is here), so I can sit and write creatively at any time regardless of a certain five-year-old (and now a newborn), but I cleave to routine as much as I can.

Treat yourself well: We treat our brains like they're these psychic entities that live on other planes of existence that can only be reached by astral projection from the psi-vortexes within our skulls but our brains are right there with us not getting enough sleep, hurting from stress, and feeling kind of overloaded after that triple cheeseburger with greasy fries and a shake. Exercise a little (if you can). Eat decently (if you can). Drink enough water. Take your meds (if you can).

Trust the process: This one might be the hardest for starting writers. Half the reason they sit frozen at their opening sentence is because somewhere inside they believe it's got to be perfect and aren't trusting that it will probably be completely different––they may not even keep the entire first chapter.  See, you're going to have to write many drafts. You're going to need peer review. You're going need to change some stuff.  You're not the chosen one who won't need to rewrite your book and make huge changes. You're not the special snowflake who is going to get no feedback that doesn't hurt your feelings at least a little. You are not the messiah of writing who won't have to write a few years before you're good enough that people want to pay you to do it. The process is long, messy, and sometimes painful but if you don't trust it––implicitly trust in all its imperfect chaos––ironically, it gets longer, messier, and even MORE painful. And that goes for the larger process too––processes like how many years of practice it's going to take. Processes that must be trusted.

Do peer review: A special shout out to the part of the process people tend to trust the least. It's gonna sting. You won't like it at first. You're brilliant and why can't they see that? Seriously they didn't notice that thing you did? Who are these clowns anyway? But you have to get you some, and even more importantly you have to GIVE you some. In the getting, you will see all the things you think you're doing well that you're not. You'll learn what you need to work on. In the giving, you'll learn more about how to make your own writing deliberate and conscious. Without peer review, you'll skip happily along, thinking you are brilliant until you hit a gatekeeper, your first review, or (if you self-publish) really, really shitty sales. It's not easy, but it's peasy. Feed back some feedback on your....um.....back.

Have fun: Remember fun? Back before the frustration that you weren't published and making money? Back when you just wrote because you loved it? Because books were magic and you wanted to cast your own spell? Go back. Fall in love all over again. Plenty of writing is hard and not fun so try to find joy where you can. Write something you'll never publish. Catch yourself giggling. Play with the words. Toss out a scene and see where it goes, knowing you'll most likely kill it in the morning. Laugh at your own jokes. Have FUN again! Back off all that big-picture pressure about who's going to read it and what publisher might pick it up and for how much of an advance. That's way down the road. For now, just remember that quiet joy that brought you to the page in the first place. Joy is so....joyful and joyous. Joy.

I know this guy who has a blog: Seriously, this is what I do. I write a blog. Look....here it is! Poke around. Put your feet up. Try the shrimp puffs. See if you can watch your cells on the back of your hand doing mitosis like I can. There's LOTS of advice here: writing promptscraft advicemany many questions for the mailbox. I'm still working on a lot of that stuff but it's only been seven years––don't fucking rush me. I do a lot of stuff. But given that this is what I do for a living, and I make enough to live on, I can't recommend me enough. I'll eventually extrapolate on all these things and more. This is some good shit, my friend. Zzzome gooooood shiiiiiiit.

Oh my. Oh, I do apologize.  Well.....if you'll excuse me, I'm coming down off of an adrenaline high, and I can feel this tranquilizer is.... kicking in. So I need to sign off and take a––*thud*

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Ch-ch-ch-changes: The Dragon Sisters

Book 6 in the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series is just about ready to go out to my wonderful coterie of Beta Readers.  Based on their feedback, I’ll do a revision and then it’ll go to its editor. I have interesting things planned for the covers and illustrations and this book will come out on schedule, around the time of the summer solstice. Hurray for my incredible production team!

I’ve been thinking about and referring to this book by the working title Renko’s Challenge since its inception.  I thought the book was mainly going to be about the teenaged Dragon-Girl confronting her draconic and human natures, her European human appearance and her cultural identity in Japan. This is truly hard for Renko. But her older sister, Otohime, also dual-natured, is wrestling with her anger at their father and finally facing the way she’s become stuck in a particular tragic period of her life. Trapped together in a cave-in that robs dragons of their powers, they come to grips with their difficulties and find ways to move on in their lives and grow as dragons, humans and always themselves.

Of course much more happens in this book. There’s a growing ensemble cast  who all face opportunities for personal growth as their world changes around them. “May you live in interesting times” is a Chinese curse. These characters definitely do.

Starting out with a title and a fixed dramatic arc is like wielding a two-edged sword.  It cuts no matter which way you swing it, and sometimes it cuts what you hadn’t planned it to. I tend to be what’s called a “pantser,” a writer who doesn’t outline extensively, who writes, at least to some extent, by the seat of her pants.  I usually know my first line and my last, and have a rough idea of major conflicts and the history that will bring them forth. I set fictional and folkloric characters in a very real historic period. I use these literary devices to explore and expose authentic Japanese history and character in a way that’s more accurate than most fiction and more fun than any history book.

As I write, things change. Characters insist on telling different stories, on growing in surprising ways, on exploring different kinds of folklore and different aspects of history. Characters I thought had moved out of the series come back with new adventures to explore.

Don’t get stuck in your preconceived notions. No matter how much you like your outline, your character arcs and your plot points, don’t become wedded to them. Let your story and your characters talk to you. Listen when your victim sits up and tells you she’s your murderer, when your romantic hero isn’t the least bit enthralled by his designated love interest, when your dutiful maid decides to set fire to the hay barn, steal the horses and lead a serf rebellion. You can only transcend genre if you let your work dictate to you rather than constraining it with your expectations.

That’s why Renko’s Challenge is now The Dragon Sisters, and is now a much better book.  I hope you’ll think so, too.

Also check out Claire's blog and FB page and available books here (book one in the series is always free!!!):



Facebook:  The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy

Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/The-Toki-Girl-Sparrow-Boy-Claire-Youmans/dp/0990323404/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8

If you would like to write a thinly veiled promo for your own work guest blog for Writing About Writing we would love to have an excuse to take a day off a wonderful diaspora of voices. Take a look at our guest post guidelines, and drop me a line at chris.brecheen@gmail.com.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Best Contemporary Science Fiction (Seconds and More Nominations Needed)

What is the best science fiction book (or series) written in the last ten years? 

Definitely need more books if we're going to run a poll, so if you have some feelings about the last ten years of science fiction, the time is now to pop over to the original page (very important), read the rules (because there are some totally new variants for the new year), and drop your nomination. 

Our hardcore admin/behind-the-scenes work continues, but we have a guest blog for next week to help do some of the heavy lifting, some quality jazz hands, and a mailbox I'm working on. Plus new parts of serial articles I've been working on and our next big revamp project coming up.

Remember, go to the original page or it might not count. Not a comment here. Not FB. Not Tumblr. HERE.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Choking on the Throttle

Facebook's profits have soared, even amidst multiple severe scandals, and as a page admin, I can tell you why. Here is an image I took for my last blog post of my analytics by month.

Last October, right around mid-month, FB did their largest content throttling to date. You can see my number start to tank in October and go WAY down after that. The algorithm, which already ensured that less than 1% of the people following a page would ever see a given post that page published, got even more conservative. My personal numbers dropped by over 90%.

Take a moment to think about that. I went from 10k hits per day to maybe 1000. 90% *more* people who are on my page never see a link that it is still entirely their decision to click on or not.

Facebook billed this change to rank and file users as a wonderful "See more of your friends and family" change that they were GIFTING people. (As if people didn't want to see the content they signed up to see.) However, three things betray their true motives:

1- Content within the FB ecosystem is more popular than ever. Without my page growing by more than a few thousand, I have seen posts get two, three, even more times the number of likes and comments that they used to. That means the macros and posts are more common on your timeline than before. What is being throttled is links to outside URLs. Basically any page (like mine) that is not working for FB's benefit, but trying to put on a little show to get a few more eyeballs for their blog/website/Etsy/whatever, has been reduced by 9/10ths. This is part of the reason you see infographics now instead of links to articles.

2- Behind the scenes, page admins have been subjected to a DELUGE of ads trying to get us to advertise, including new "Messenger Ads" (that look like someone in our PMs) and even more intense email and timeline saturation.

3- People are seeing more sponsored content than ever before. Not less. More. They aren't actually GETTING more of their friends and family.

Social media is vital to the business models of a lot of independent artists and entertainers, and FB has basically sauntered through and said "That's a nice outreach you have there. It'd be a shame if something....HAPPENED to it." And yes, FB sales are up because some of us are desperate to get back the reach we once had. But the money doesn't pay for nearly enough outreach and most small pages I know are looking for other ways to promote themselves.

Does FB have a “right" to do this? Of course. I'm not saying they don't. (I have used their ad services myself when I was working too much on side gigs and had more money than time to write.) When it comes to social media, WE are the product being sold, and there's a reason sites like FB are "free." It doesn't make it less shitty for those of us whose incomes rely on a landscape that changed SO dramatically overnight (and with the intention of fleecing us for money).

This is why one of the best things you can do is support pages you like by following them on other social media, engaging with their posts (likes, upvotes, etc) to help them with the FB algorithm, and make a note to go to any webpage or something they're promoting. Anything you can to help them against FB.

I am telling you all this because I'm going to keep trying to find workarounds to social media, as it is the way I find donors and patrons and am able to be a working writer. I won't just be trying other sites but ways to make FB (which, unfortunately, is still numerically the only game in town) work. Some of this may affect my ability to post as frequently here, as it has in the past.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Happy 7th Birthday Writing About Writing!

Even though Blog is a little down this year, it's time for party poppers, cake, and Peter Gabriel's Big Time on a loop.

Writing About Writing is seven years old!

For seven years we've been shoehorning regular articles into listicles and telling you in every flavor we can whip up that it's probably good advice to write daily if you want to be a professional.

Through death, cancer, birth, unbelievable loss, and labor pains of a (very) modest writing career we have been blogging through it all and trying to bring you some nuggets of wisdom about writing––some we accumulated over a lifetime, some we picked up from a formal education, and some we're learning on the fly.

Blog is trying to keep a stiff upper lip. Bellwethers like patrons and income have had to take the place of raw numbers ever since Facebook decided to try to squeeze page admins by throttling pages from its algorithm yet again.

If you look REALLY, REEEEAAAAAALY close,
you can probably just make out where the subtle shift in FB's
algorithm started.

It's a bittersweet birthday, with none of Blog's goals even close to achieved. But I'm sure once the cake has settled and Big Time is on its fiftieth or so repeat, Blog will have some new goals that are not so dependent on one of the Evil Empires.

Blog: "Okay Chris, I've got it!  This year, we straight up double our income!"

Me: "Here we go....."

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Admin is Adminning (Personal Update)

Hi all,

Cedrick here.

"The hour is nigh! The portents have been fulfilled. THE TIME OF PROPHECY IS UPON US!"

Okay, not really prophecy so much as what Real Chris told us was going to happen. I just really always wanted to say that where I could hear it echoing and the P.A. system here is AWESOME.

But seriously the actual time that is upon us is an admin break (and a regular break too) here at Writing About Writing.

As you know (or maybe don't), our Patrons here at WAW are completely awesome sauce. They are the reason Chris can write more than once or twice a week. But as you also know (or maybe don't), writing pays for rent, food staples, and NOT MUCH ELSE, so if Chris want a cell phone, health insurance, and a the occasional vegetable medley, he has to work some side gigs. Because of aforementioned Patron awesominity, he doesn't have to drive 50 miles to petsit or teach ESL classes at the local community college anymore, but he does do freelance writing, editing, local petsitting...

...and of course nannying.

The big news that can now be shared is that the nannying gig just doubled its number of kids. Now it's a five year old Contrarian and a new infant. The last couple of weeks have been pretty non-stop, and it's time for Chris to spend a day sleeping in and playing first person shooter games.

Plus once Cathamel comes back online, the first thing Chris has to do is a lot of writing to do for those awesome Patrons. The monthly post that gets cannibalized for a newsletter and the quarterly Friday post that gets cannibalized for an "Inside Scoop" letter both are happening in the next few days. It's the closest thing we'll ever do to exclusive content and a small way I have of saying thanks to all those patrons for making writing viable.

And on top of THAT, there is actual admin work to do. Menus are falling apart from neglect behind the scenes, and the FB throttling at the end of the year is going to make figuring out which articles (actually) did the best kind of an epic pain in the ass.

Don't worry. We're not closing our dors. There will still be reminders to nominate titles for our current poll and at least one more part of our ongoing Bioshock series. Plus even with duct tape and silk ropes it's impossible to keep Chris down for very long (unless he has a safe word and uh...you know what, maybe another time on the rest of this), so he's likely going to be back at the computer by mid-Thursday no matter how many tranq darts I shoot him with.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Art in a Bad Economy

Hi everybody!
[Note: these posts never do particularly well on their own, and the algorithms that throttle content prevent MOST people from ever seeing such a post, so if you are sans money but still want to help (or if you are with money and want to double up on the help) a really useful thing you can do is help me work around those algorithms by giving this post a like or share this on social media.]

There is every chance that between trade wars and government shutdowns our "inevitable recession" is going to be a doozy of a bad time for artists and entertainers who are riding that edge of barely-making-it, and I know all too well that simply giving away hard earned money is one of the first things most folks trim, so I'd like to take a moment to thank the folks who literally keep the lights on around here and keep the posts coming.

Of course I'm also here to ask you if you can join their legions by sparing a dollar a month. Or three if you want a newsletter. Or five if you want a newsletter and some selfies and pics of vacations and pets I sit. Or....

Well you get the idea.

Become a patron for only a dollar a month!

You'll get in on behind-the-scenes news, upcoming projects, progress reports on major works (like my book), occasional polls asking about our direction here at Writing About Writing, and at higher tiers, even more.

Or you can do a one time donation through Paypal. (Technically you can make a recurring payment there too, but you won't get any rewards.) And my Venmo account is chris.brecheen@gmail.com. That's also my email address if you want to talk about something....less typical. (Got everything here from a gratis 2016 burlesque calendar from a professional model to a watercolor by a professional artist to some ridonkulously good cookies. (Okay, the cookies are long gone, but you get the idea.)

Winter* is coming. The economy was already showing signs of slowing down before costly trade wars and government shutdowns, and I'm way too jaded and cynical to think for a second that folks aren't going to start re evaluating whether they can afford to drop $10, $20, $50+ a month on this entertainer and his blog. I've already lost the contribution of a furloughed federal worker and noticed that recovery from November (holidays are always a loss) is slower than usual. I'm battening down the hatches with side gigs, but those take me away from writing.

It's always true that every little bit helps, but that's particularly true in a slower economy. As much as I love my big fish patrons, some of whom account for 10% of my income, the economy will affect them too, and some of them account for over 10% of my income (which can be a lot to lose in one hit!). A thriving ecosystem of small patrons ($1, $3, and $5) keep a random contract renegotiation for a freelance job in Clackamas Oregon from causing me an agonizing pay cut.

So even if you can't do more than $12 a year, you'd be helping more than you know.

I'll be saving as much as I can to help whether the storm. My blog and fiction will still and always be free. I'll write as much as I have time for. I'll keep doing what I'm doing. And my book is coming along. But if you like the writing I do and want to see more of it, or don't want to see me have to cut back so that I can petsit or nanny more, please consider tossing a little support my way.


I want to thank you all just for reading. For clicking and maybe liking and sharing and anything else you might do. You make all this work worth it, and more days than I care to admit, it has been remembering folks I don't want to let down that has brought me to the page.

In particular, I want to thank my Patrons and donors. Be they through Patreon, Paypal, Venmo, mailed checks, or bills pressed into my hand from folks I run into in meatspace. You are all keeping food on the table and keeping me writing.

And especially, I want to thank the Patron Muses. Folks so unbelievably generous with their time, money, emotional labor, or relentless social media proliferation, that they deserve the ultimate shout out. Thank you to Julia, Margaret, John
, Pol
, Ginger, Kelly
, Alisha, Hélène, Amy, TM Caldwell, Alex, another––more different––Alex, and two Anonymouses. Without all of you, I would still be teaching four nights a week, updating once or twice, and wondering if I should have stayed a restaurant manager.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The MLK That White People Like (SJB)

Let's get something straight, my fellow history-whitewashing, tender, gentle, fragile white people who like to quote Dr. Martin Luther King.

Like to quote him, but only when we want the "arc of history"'s inevitability to keep us from having to actually say or do something about racism or when we are clinging to the quote about love defeating hate because it convinces us that MLK would have never been angry and NEVER would have made us feel bad like that person of color just did by calling out our behavior as harmful.

The narrative we have in our heads is wrong. That story is wrong. It's been told to us a lot of times, so it's not entirely our fault, but it's time we learned the other narrative. The real one. The TRUE one.

MLK would not have hugged this out. MLK would not appreciate All Lives Matter. MLK would not have been a big teddy bear spewing platitudes about equality that make us feel good about doing literally nothing other than nobly refraining from burning crosses and (mostly) not using the N word.

MLK would have resisted authority. MLK would have broken unjust laws. MLK would have gotten arrested again and again. MLK would have been "no angel." MLK would not have just "obey[ed] the fucking law." MLK would have fucked up our commute home. MLK would have gotten in our face. MLK would have put his protests where we couldn't look away even if we wanted to. MLK would have told us to stop talking and stop telling black people what is and isn't their own oppression. MLK would have harshly censured anyone who wanted stability and peace over equality and justice. MLK would have told anyone practicing respectability politics that he wasn't entirely sure they were not a bigger obstacle to justice than outright, drunk uncle, Trump-loving racists. MLK would have spoken vociferously against capitalism because of its perpetual need for an underclass to use for labor. (Yes, THAT capitalism. The capitalism most of us think is the best, most moral system there could be and makes the world a better place and is more about human nature than that dirty communism. The capitalism upon which the star-spangled awesome US of A is built.) MLK would have condemned the capitalistic gains and white supremacy born of perpetual foreign wars. MLK would have said he could not condemn rioters even if he himself used non-violent civil disobedience absolutely akin to the Kapernick kneel. MLK would have told us that our silence made us complicit in white supremacy every damned day.

MLK would have died an enemy of the state.

Because he DID do all that stuff.

So if we're going to invoke him (as writers or as humans), let's use the right narrative. Let's cleave to the truth instead of commodifying the anti-establishment out of him until he makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy. Let us honor the story of who he really was and how he really agitated and how he successfully made white moderates feel PROFOUNDLY UNCOMFORTABLE about the injustice they tacitly supported, and not Texas-sharpshoot a couple of quotes from his "I have a Dream" speech that support our fee-fees that we're golden just as long as there's no active, bubbling, Kiefer-Sutherland-in-A-Time-To-Kill cauldron of hatred in our hearts.

Friday, January 18, 2019

I've Seen The Preview: I Don't Need to Hear Your Shitty Argument

Ending of the movie on cover.
What do shitty arguments have in common with crappy movie trailers?

Only everything.

When I went to see Bumblebee, there was a trailer for A Dog's Way Home, which seems to pretty much be Lassie Come Home for a new generation. As you watch the trailer for A Dog's Way Home, it becomes obvious that you just saw the entire movie. I mean there might be a scene that you aren't able to predict exactly, but all the major beats are right there in the preview. Even the part where the dog and the human are reunited at the end is in the trailer.

These kinds of trailers are not unusual. You watch them and it's really clear that you don't need to see the movie. You've seen the whole thing. You already know how it is going to go.

Arguing with Dudebros and SQuiD's about social issues is very similar. They are, from the moment they appear, the living embodiment of the latest studies that raised upper forebrains, logic, rationality, and thinking are not created to find truth, but to win arguments. And they want, more than anything else in the world, to win.

They often equate the unwillingness to debate them so with an inability, but in reality, just like that movie, you just don't NEED to see this one out. They think they are original, edgy, vital, fresh to death, but what they really are is an edgelord clone with a all-too predictable stream of clichés spewing out. From the first moment they reveal their "Debate me!" position or demand proof of things like "inequality exists," you already know pretty much exactly how it's going to go.

Not a lot of variety.
First, they demand proof! Whatever it is, they will demand that it be proven. It's a very popular strategy because it mimics good faith skepticism, and claims require evidence. Here's the punchline though: you're NEVER going to prove it to these people. Maybe inequality existed once, but we're past all that now. (It's always, mysteriously, ten years ago that this great shift occurred––even if they themselves age a year, it doesn't become eleven years ago, but still ten).  If you give them statistics, they argue the narrative. If you give them the narrative, they question the statistics. If you give them both, they question the source as reliable. If you give them an impeccable source with pie charts and graphs and hundreds of studies that they can't possibly argue, they pontificate some heretofore unexamined X factor like they are suddenly experts on the subject who are seeing a flaw in the data. They work tirelessly to grind the argument into dozens, maybe hundreds of comments just dealing with something like the very existence of racism or sexism, and turn the entire ordeal of attempting to educate into a huge emotional labor engine trying to get them to acknowledge not only the value of a person's ability to relay their own lived experience, but something that literally all evidence points to.

They twist the institutional forces of bigotry into the false equivalency of someone with prejudice. ("I can name a white person who once got called a honkey before being punched, so obviously the entirety of systematic and systemic racism is a myth.")

And then they will claim that equalism/egalitarianism/humanism should be the real goal (because they care about social issues and equality, but only so long as no specific group gets to talk about how inequality affects them in particular), as if the only thing holding them back from being the champion of oppression everywhere is a branding issue, and not in any way a silencing tactic.

Come on guys! They changed the name to "egalitarianism."
That's what we were waiting for, and now
we totally give a shit about pay inequality for women!

And then they will attack the person making the claim for anything they have ever done that seems questionable as if it justifies the bigotry they have experienced and/or insinuate (or outright claim) they are faking it for attention or money.

And then they will claim that the efforts to name and shame the social issue (sexism for example) are just as bad as the bigotry itself. Because they can remember a time a woman was mean to them for holding the door open or something.

And then they will attempt a fallacy of relative privation because someone somewhere has it worse.

And perhaps they may even attempt a rousing round of "That's Just How Humans Are." The game where it's apparently not ever worth pointing out or working against fundamental inequality because at the end of the day, humans just suck. (That 99% of people who say this happens to be in the group that benefits from this fundamental human suckage is surely just coincidence.)

The cleverer versions of these folks will, at each step of the way, first try Just Asking Questions and imply that their genuine skepticism is above reproach. Any emotion that meets their non-stop questions it (be it frustration, anger, or anything else) is simply evidence that it's all an emotional reaction, worthy only of scorn.

At some point, it is likely they will say that they would listen (or would have listened) if everyone had been a whole lot nicer to them. They may say this despite their own inability to remain even remotely civil because of course THEY were being "attacked" and accused of not getting it and not to mention not a few unkind words as regard to their character, and of course, that is the real crime––their feelings––rather than the implication that entire groups of people are making shit up.

For many enacting this carefully choreographed dance on some sort of open forum or multi-person venue, the entire time they will conveniently miss the logical and careful arguments they claim to be interested in by those who carefully, logically, and OH SO NICELY refute their points, they will respond mostly to the emotional arguments, which they find easiest to attack.

Of course, every one of these is one type or another of fallacy––from a burden of proof fallacy (dismissing something on the basis that it hasn't been proven beyond all doubt is a part of that fallacy), to Tu Quoque, to Argument Ad Absurdum and more.  Honestly it would take a week and change of a critical thinking class to break them all down.

Ironically, about 90% of these people would recognize these fallacies if they were being told to prove vaccines work or to prove that the earth is round. 

And then....the best part of all. The climax of our story––which, just like Free Willy, you already know....

The ghosting.

If all of this somehow ends in inescapably pinioning the person, they simply disappear. Like a ninja with a smoke pellet, they must go, or it is time for work, or their spouse is calling, or maybe....JUST MAYBE they quite appreciate the rousing intellectual stimulation you have provided them purely as a diversion and thought experiment, possibly with a side of thanking the person who managed to explain the issue in the most detached way possible (weaponizing their discipline against everyone else who had the temerity to get frustrated).

And then the next time you see them they have returned all the way back to "Prove to me this exists at all." They didn't learn. They didn't grow. It was all designed to make sure everyone knew the "price" of disrupting the status quo.

Of course, at any point during all of this, should anyone give up and assume this agent is not operating in the most irreproachable of best faith to be educated OH so gently, it is because they CAN'T. It is because this social issue doesn't really exist. It is because this claim has no evidence. The whole thing is made up and run by the group's emotions.

The thing is, from the moment most of us who butt up against this sort of motivated skepticism every day recognize that someone is stubbornly NOT GETTING IT, we don't need to see the whole movie. We've seen the preview with the entire thing. We've watched the earlier version. We know exactly what's going to happen. As amazing and intellectual and original as these people think they are, the best most people can do with their time is go watch something else.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Bioshock Infinite as Art: Your Argument is Invalid (Part 3-Human Condition? Subtext? It's in there.)

Two quick reminders:

1- This is Part 3 of a multi-part article, and I’m jumping right in from Part 2 without recap.

(Or go all the way back to part 1)

2- While I’m not decoding the end or discussing the plot directly, there will be spoilers.

A brief real-time caveat: this is a snippet of conversation I had with an artsy geek friend since beginning this article. But since I have to lay this out as me being awesome, I'm going to call him "Art Snob" and cut a slice out of our broader interaction so that the whole thing looks a lot more antagonistic than it really was it totally happened just like this.

Art Snob:  You know that a game can ever be real art. You’re wasting your time with that article.

Me: Dude, I haven't even finished. Wait until you see what's next.

Art Snob: The rules of games are too arbitrary. You have to have levels. You have to have a difficulty curve. You have to have random dudes with chocolate and ammo in their pockets. You have to have an epic end fight. It’s all these constraining artificial… “rules.” (“Art snob” is also kind of a geek, so he knows these things.)

Me: How is that any different from, say, an Elizabethan sonnet? 14 lines. Specific rhyme scheme. Iambic pentameter. Three quatrains. Shift in the 9th line. Ending couplet. How are those rules less constraining? You know as well as I do that when art colors inside the lines, it becomes even more creative. Especially if it bends the rules of the convention in a way that works with the themes.

Art Snob: (after a very long pause in which he—I shit you not—kind of picked his teeth with his tongue and I thought Duel of the Fates was going to start playing) Very well then, Christopher of the Brecheen clan. (As he said this, his body seemed to stretch and shadows filled the room like Gandalf in Fellowship of the Ring.) Finish your article. But mark my words and mark them well... (He extended a gnarled, bony finger directly at me.) Should you fail, the world of video game art fails with you, and there will be a reckoning such as never has been. No pressure, dude!

That's totally exactly just how it happened.

So we’ve established that Bioshock Infinite is excellent in its technical execution. From its eye-popping graphics, to its spectacular play experience, to the voice acting and facial expressions, to the intriguing 19th-century stylistic covers of modern songs (which actually have an in-game explanation), and even the mechanics of gameplay. Somewhere out there there might be a Comic Book Guy discussing the “clearly visible rogue pixel in the baptism scene” or something, but short of that, I think the quality seems pretty well verified by everyone who has played through.

What about the other three aspects we discussed that TEND to make for great art?

There are lots of artistic elements within B.I. that I could examine, but to avoid a thirty-five-part article and y'all force-choking me around Part 7, I will focus on one element in which we can hit two birds with one stone.

So first, let’s look at whether Bioshock Infinite deals with any fundamental (human condition) type philosophical questions.

Looking back on the 80s in hindsight,
I can sort see why this turned into a pregnancy joke.
Uh...yeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaah. It's in there.

Perhaps Bioshock Infinite’s most prevalent thematic concern is free will, and the question of whether or not we really have any. (A case could be made that the overarching theme is redemption—“wipe away the debt”—but I believe that the redemptive aspects of the various character arcs are tangled in with their free will—can they, in fact, actually ever make the choices that will redeem them? Besides, it's not like redemption isn't a human conditiony thing.)

The nagging anxiety that Bioshock Infinite seems to slam into with more force than a Handyman on crack is that we may actually make no decisions more significant than whether we want coffee or tea. Our lives may be written for us and we are puppets just acting them out––whether we are Dimwit or Duke (the Goofus and Gallant of the Bioshock world), good or evil predetermined by forces outside our control.

Knowing what we knew, when we knew it, would we always do the same thing in the same set of circumstances? Or do we have the ability to make different choices? The entire unfolding plot reveals the idea that the characters may have indeed walked past whatever precious moments that their fates were sealed, and that the only way to make new choices lies in undoing previous ones. Booker’s past continually locks him into only one possible course of action, and the same thing ends up being true of Elizabeth’s dark future.

It turns out that free will is a major anxiety in our current society. B.I.’s writers didn’t just throw “philosophical conundrums” into a hat and pick out one at random. Predetermination looms larger and larger as social sciences have shown that more and more ideas of meritocracy and exceptionalism (usually weaponized to blame the poor and marginalized for their poverty and marginalization) are far from the truth. As we delve further and further into life science and behavioral psychology, we start to learn that so many decisions we think we are making consciously are products of genetics, early development, social acculturation, and environment, and that there may even be less free will involved in our existence than we ever imagined. Since the moment the Twinkie defense actually fucking worked, and liberal/conservative traits were found to have genetic proclivities, we’ve been questioning if we are truly capable of being anything greater than a composite of our DNA and environment.

This isn’t the first time that our society has struggled with the concept of free will. Before the rise of rationalism, the concept of divine predestination had people ill at ease about their free will. If God knew what everyone was going to do before they did it, and had the power to change anything…did we really exercise free will at all? But philosophies (at least the so-called "Western" philosophies) diverged from religious determinism in the 19th century, and focused on humanity's indomitable will. We conquered nature. We subjugated people who were not like us. Science won. We were walking examples of free will—gods of the universe.
And it was not until the late 20th century that we began to slip back into the uncomfortable realization that this might not be true. This time our anxieties came not from the omnipresence of God, but from the unfolding discoveries of science.

It is absolutely no coincidence, then, that Bioshock Infinite starts in a religiously laden 19th century filled with predestination within religious imagery, but also hybridizes in a futuristic world of quantum realities and multiverse dimensions without the 20/21th century science mucking up the middle. That determinism is taken from God and prophecy about halfway through the game and handed to quantum physics and science, but the main conceit of the game from its first moment remains the ability to definitively prove that in the same situation, the same person would make the same choice over and over (and over) again––be it to sell a baby or destroy a city.

Kind of like our growing cultural anxiety.

In fact, exactly like it.

Because of the bantering of the Lutece twins and a few other clues, we know that the player takes control of the 123rd Booker DeWitt to come to Columbia, and that New York has always ended in fire. We know he never rows. We know he always flips the coin the same way. He always picks 77 (despite the warning). There is even an implication in the dialogue that even though the player sitting at home gets to make a choice between cage and bird, Booker has made that same choice over and over again.

He helplessly plods along a path of determinism, unable to change his fate. Every choice the player makes (or thinks they make) is revealed to be just another illusion. It doesn’t matter at all to the ending. From decisions about whether to draw first at the ticket booth to decisions about whether to kill someone begging to die. They are all details that in DeWitt’s words, “wouldn’t change a goddamned thing.” One of the Lutece twins even says at several points where you must do something to progress in the game: “He will do it. Eventually.”

In this way B.I. weaves an element of video game storytelling into the broader themes that it’s exploring.

The characters in B.I. all do terrible things as their lives unfold, and each literally feels powerless to make different choices. At one point Elizabeth stands in front of a burning New York, and says she could not have done otherwise. Apparently convoluted plots involving time travel and the key to Songbird are doable but just saying “Why don’t we go to Disneyland and have a Coke instead?” when it’s time to wipe a city off the map is unfathomable.

But hey, who am I to judge? I like pineapple on my pizza. THAT'S the real crime.

And yet Bioshock Infinite does not leave us with such a bleak statement about free will being an illusion. Its final message is one of hope and choice. Even if it takes 123 quantum times to shine through, there is something above and beyond just our genetics and our upbringing. Because after 123 times, both father and daughter make the same choice. Maybe they cannot stop the railroad violence that has determined their lives, but they can go back—back to a moment before it became too late—and make a different choice.

In this way B.I. might even be said to have some undertones of a didactic lesson. Life has a way of locking us in. So perhaps we might be reminded to consider well those few choices we really do have.

And golly gee willikers, doesn’t it seem like maybe there’s a book or two that deals with the concept of young folks' choices making old folks' destinies? Yes, I’m certain a tweed-jacketed English teacher or two has assigned me JUST such a book.

Okay, so Bioshock Infinite has a theme that is important in the human condition. One of the age-old philosophical questions. But a deep theme doesn’t mean much by itself. Prometheus was a film that tackled several deep themes yet still managed to be one of the most poorly fucking written movies of the last decade.

However, when we're discussing art that is mostly considered GOOD most of the time (by most?), what is more important than the themes simply being THERE, is whether the discrete technical elements of the art form a cohesive vision that echoes this theme.

Does Bioshock Infinite do this?

Do its separate artistic elements reinforce the themes of free will vs. determinism?

Lana is taking this article into the....danger zone.

Bioshock Infinite is the story of the 123 “loops” of a repeating pattern. It’s basically like Groundhog Day or that déjà vu episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, except that the player is only playing through the final loop. Before you showed up, 122 Bookers have come to Columbia, fought Comstock, made decisions that didn’t end the cycle, and started all over again. The Luteces' banter can be analyzed to reveal that they have begun to realize they might be caught in a loop that will be infinite.

Hence the name of the game, if you didn’t realize.

So the plot and the dialogue already reflect the theme. Again, I'll just analyze ONE thing so you know it's there, but it's actually part of a list. (Seriously, I think someone could do their master's thesis on this game.)

Let us consider one of the game's most salient criticisms. In the modern era, most people want big sandbox games. Games like Bethesda makes (Skyrim or Fallout) where you can run around and explore gigantic landscapes full of all kinds of side quests and adventures. Many reviewers’ and critics’ main complaint about B.I. is that the game is FAR too linear. You can’t explore all the shops and stuff—you just grab the money and move on. It’s only a 15-hour game and that’s if you poke through every possible nook and cranny. You can’t really interact with people. There’s only one way to go. Even when it feels like you have a choice, it doesn’t matter. The alternate ways to explore turn out to be a bunch of dead ends with only one truly viable path. The entire game seems like you’re just acting out a predetermined course of actions instead of having any real control.

Sound familiar?

If it doesn’t, maybe this line from Elizabeth may help: “So many choices. They all lead us to the same place.”

And lest you think this was just a coincidence between thematic exploration and slapped-together game mechanics, I offer you this counterpoint. The first choice you get (between cage and bird) is also at the beginning of the first map where there are actually byways to explore beyond a straight shot to the next plot point. At each step beyond this, choices begin to grow almost exactly on par with map complexity. It is even possible to get lost in the run-up to Comstock house. In the final moments in the sea of lighthouses, Booker literally can choose any combination of rights, lefts, and straights the player wishes and go in infinitely different directions.

And each time the path is clear and straight, something happens (like a Songbird attack) to remind them of how few choices they really have.

The idea that it is a coincidence that with each successive map, Booker has more free will to move away from a nonlinear path is one of those absurdities of thinking the artist stumbled upon such a metaphor. It's not like the idea that maybe the curtains were just fucking blue, but actually patently ludicrous to imagine that this was all a big series of interlocking coincidences. This game design aspect perfectly reflects both the scope and urgency of Booker and Elizabeth struggling against their fates.

And yet, all choices end in the same place.

And yet, that is a place with a choice…a choice that actually does matter.

Still not convinced? There’s more….

I will leave you with one other artistic game-based aspect cleverly woven into the game that reflects the theme of destiny.  Consider for a moment the skylines that are so integral to the combat in so many areas. These are supposed to be for troop transport and cargo transportation. Right?

Did you notice that they don’t actually fucking GO anywhere?

Except for a couple in the cinematic sequences, all the skylines Booker can interact with are nothing more than loops. It is a design that would be preposterously inefficient for moving cargo or troop transport. No real tracks would ever be so poorly designed. They don’t go from one area to another. They don’t have connecting tracks. Most of them don’t even have multiple “stations” where they stop. They just go around in a circle. Like anyone would want to move their cargo down the block and back all day without actually building more tracks.

If you build a track system to help with transport, you want it to go, you know, maybe across town or at least to another station so they could unload it once it got where it was going. These are the worst fucking skyline designs in the history of anything, if they are looked at pragmatically. They just go around in a big circle and end up where they started. However, as a thematic reinforcement that most people probably didn’t notice, they are strokes of genius. These skylines are just like Booker and Elizabeth. They just go round and round on a predetermined track, unable to ever really leave. And even though they get more and more convoluted with each successive map, they always end up right back where they started.

So yes, the elements within Bioshock Infinite were reflections of the theme. For realsies.

On to Part 4