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

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 by calling out our behavior as harmful on Twitter.

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 (status quo defenders) 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 that the "price" of disrupting the status quo would be endless iterations of the same argument...again and again and again and....

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

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Best of December 2018

We're wrapping up the admin end of the 2018 year here with our Best of posts. (There's one more order of business as the patrons and Patron-Muses have yet to be thanked.)

It may take me a little while to figure out the year's best and the adjusted three best by month. I have to account for one of FB's most greed-inspired and dramatic throttlings to date. If I went strictly by the numbers, only posts from before mid-October would make it. So what I've got to try to do is figure out what did the best by ratio compared to the rest of articles accounting for a major dip in numbers.

Facebook claimed their massive change to their algorithm was so that its users could see "more of [their] friends and the things they love" but behind the scenes they have quadrupled their efforts to badger page admins into paying ad revenue. (They all but said "Nice outreach you used to have. Shame about what happened to it. Want it back?") I dropped by 90% overnight and trying to figure out what that means to which articles actually did "better" will take some consideration.

However, as December was all on one side of The Greedening Throttling, it's easy enough to figure out which articles did the best for that month in a vacuum.

Ten Flavors of Gamergate Fail
A rescue from another blog about a years-old event turned out to be our best article of the month. Ain't showbiz funny?

"You Live in a Bubble" (Social Justice Bard)
The claims of echo chambers and bubbles are oft tossed at folks who dare to care about social issues. But is there anything to them?

20 Questions (Meta)

  • Can I take you to lunch/take you out to get a cup of coffee. Will you share your Amazon wishlist/Steam wishlist/Something wishlist.
  • Amber asks: Do you ever get PMed questions that just require too much emotional labor to answer or just make you feel gross?
  • Becky asks: Most amusing instance of "Hey, aren't you the WAW guy?"

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Best Contemporary Science Fiction Poll (or Series)––Nominations Needed (and New Rules!)

Edit: The nomination process is closed. Come vote in our poll.

We're going back to some of our most popular polls of the past few years, but this time we're doing it with lots more voters (and we'll be keeping the results on display.) It's all part of our new Sticky Polls--the 2019 roll out for polls here at Writing About Writing.

To start, the very latest in science fiction.

The Rules (pay close attention because some of them are new):

  1. There is a new category of nomination. It is NOT a nomination for the poll. It is an UNDERSUNG HERO nomination. Basically it is for books you think are great, tragically overlooked, but maybe not necessarily the besty bestest best. I will be listing these books along with the poll results. However, if you nominate a book it will not be considered for the undersung hero list and if you shout out something for an undersung hero, it will not be counted as a nomination. (Someone else can nominate it.)
  2. As always, I leave the niggling over the definition of genres to your best judgement because I'd rather be inclusive. If you want to nominate Worm, I'm not going to argue, but you have to convince others if you're going to get on the poll--nevermind win.
  3. Your book must be copyrighted 2009 or later. If it is a series, the ENTIRE SERIES must be written after 2009.  Of course you can nominate the most recent novel in a series if you are trying to work around the rules, but not the series itself unless it's entirely published in the last ten years. No small number of shout outs to Discworld have included only the books from the appropriate time frame. Why should we stop now?
  4. You get to mention two (2) books or series. That's it. Two. You can do ONE nomination for the poll and ONE UNDERSUNG HERO.  Or you can do TWO nominations. Or you can do TWO undersung heroes. But two is the total. If you nominate three or more I will NOT take any nominations beyond the second that you suggest. I'm sorry that I'm a stickler on this, but I compile these polls myself and it's a pain when people drop a megalodon list every decent book they can remember of in the genre. It is up to you how to divy your two choices.
  5. You may (and absolutely should) second AS MANY nominations of others as you wish. THEY WILL NOT GET ONTO THE POLL WITHOUT SECONDS. You can agree with or cheer on the undersung heroes, but they won't "transform" into nominations unless someone else nominates them as "best" (and then they get a second). Also stop back in and see if anyone has put up something you want to see go onto the poll. 
  6. Put your nominations HERE. I will take nominations only as comments and only on this post. (No comments on FB posts or G+ will be considered nominations.) If you can't comment for some reason because of Blogger, send me an email (chris.brecheen@gmail.com) stating exactly that, and I will personally put your comment up. I am not likely to see a comment on social media even if it says you were unable to leave a comment here. 
  7. You are nominating WRITTEN genre fiction, not their movie portrayals. If you thought Matt Damon was great in The Martian, but you didn't really care for the book, nominate something else.
  8. This is probably well known by vets of this blog by now, but there will be no more endless elimination rounds. I will take somewhere between 8-20 best performing titles and at MOST run a single semifinal round. So second the titles you want even if they already have one. (Yes, I guess that would make them thirds, fourths, etc...) The competition on THIS poll is going to be FIERCE so please come back and second, third, fourth, and twenty-fifth everything you want to see go on to the poll. You may have to get your friends involved. Buy them a pizza. Make it real. 

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Trump Shutdown: A Tale of Two Narratives (Social Justice Bard)

If you learn one thing from this blog, let it be....well, let it be that you should write every day if you want to be a paid writer. But if you learn TWO things, let the second be that controlling the narrative is true power, possibly greater power than splitting the atom or splicing genes. The ability to say who is right and who is wrong and whose story we will not even listen to is the power to take a species of storytellers and exert the ultimate social control over them.

The Republicans DESPERATELY (and urgently as their numbers slip every day) want to paint this shutdown as just a simple negotiation gone wrong because of the Democrats, and the declaration of a state of emergency as merely another tool in the executive toolbox to get things done when the opposition has the votes to veto. (Odd that I can distinctly remember them howling about "executive overreach" just a couple of years ago....) They want to paint Dems as intransigent and unwilling to negotiate despite being the ones to walk away from the table, refuse compromises that would at least end the shutdown, and even having their party leader refuse a Republican compromise. McConnell won't even take up a bill to keep other parts of the government open, chiefly because he knows it would pass, and force the President into the optics of vetoing a million paychecks.

The narrative here isn't in the GOP's hands. The longer this goes on, the more Trump is just the petulant guy on high-profile camera slapping away the olive branches that Dems brought to the table in good faith. The longer it goes on, the more his constituents realize "he's not hurting the people he is supposed to be hurting." The longer this goes on, the more facts and narratives (including calls from "within the house" of Conservative politics) start working against him. And the fact that we were already pretty definitely headed for a recession makes the timing even worse.

Republicans desperately don't want the Democratic narrative taking hold; i.e. that playing politics with nearly a million people's livelihoods creates a "hostage situation" and that if they wanted to pass legislation for a wall, they should just pass it like any other legislation. Oh wait, they can't. It's unpopular and the American people don't want it.

Unfortunately Trump's biggest problem right now is that he's NOT a Washington insider. He doesn't know how the winds can change. Those with expertise tend to be very sensitive to the narrative and which way it's shifting. Whether because he chiefly listens to Fox News or because he fires everyone who isn't a sycophant, Trump is unable to recognize the clear signs of a cause being lost by inches over time.

This potential for the narrative to shift is the same reason the GOP kept calling for votes without a floor debate, accurate reporting, or even time enough for everyone to read the legislation: they were passing unpopular laws based on unpopular policies and the Republicans knew full well that the longer anyone got to talk about the actual facts, examine the issue, do impact studies, talk about the issue openly, or even READ the goddamned thing, the more public opinion would swing against them, even from their own constituencies. It's the same reason they rammed through a SCOTUS appointment without an investigation and then shrugged and said "who's going to investigate these fifty complaints now?" They have relied on their reputation as fiscal conservatives and good faith actors to act impugned when their motives are questioned, but they needed that legislative blitzkrieg so that the narrative could still be (R) vs. (D) and us versus them and they could walk away with a win at any cost, only later for sob stories of betrayed rural voters to crop up in the media because the Leopards Eating People's Faces Party ate their face.

I make no bones about the fact that while I think Democrats are FAR from perfect (or even "okay" much of the time), Trump Republicans have made revolting and harmful bigotry and abject cruelty towards me and the people I love part of their political DNA. This is the party that supports and is supported by white nationalists, literal nazis, and where prominent party members like Steve King come right the fuck out and openly wonder what the big deal is about white supremacy. Some may receive some harsh words from fellow Republicans (mostly for saying it out loud), but the right leaning voters don't stop electing them and the RNC doesn't yank their funding or do the Klingon back-turn discommendation ceremony. And the leader of the Republican party was elected president because he just comes right out and SAYS the bigotry so many are thinking of. So I have no problem pointing out the narrative that they are trying to float as the same sort of fact-immune alternate reality, we've-always-been-at-war-with-eastasia absurdity which began on day one when Trump tried to claim his inauguration was bigger than Obama's.

...and continued later that day when he assured us he didn't really lose the popular vote.

...and hasn't really stopped because he just swore he never said Mexico would pay for the wall.

Trump is working against a lot of simple, cold, hard facts surrounding the issue. Trying to flip the narrative blame onto Democrats is going to be an uphill battle (not that he won't try––he is notoriously allergic to taking responsibility for anything he perceives as negative––the buck stops....with everybody). Frankly, it takes a measure of cognitive dissonance to buy the party line:

  • Perhaps the most epic snag in trying to hoist blame onto Dems was the fact that he outright said he would be proud to shut the government down, and he wouldn't blame the Democrats. Bellicosely. Twice. On live television. Not just regular ol' live television either, but in front of cameras HE invited into a private meeting because he thought he was going to run the table so bigly. The only hoisting was Trump....on his own petard.

  • Currently the GOP has a majority in The Senate and the leader of their party is the POTUS. The Democrats aren't "in control" as Lindsey Graham would have us believe when he dons his crown of thorns and crawls up on his cross to weep. Dems provide only a veto. Republicans are trying to "rule" rather than govern by the rules set down for making compromises in a pluralistic society. You can't always get what you want. This is an inconvenient truth for someone who can't deal with not getting absolutely everything he wants when he wants it.
  • There WAS a limited extension budget. It passed. All Trump had to do was sign it. It wasn't the DEMOCRATS who let Ann Coulter goad them on Twitter at the 11th hour that they needed 6 billion to spend on a largely racist symbol that multiple studies have proven doesn't work against the types of problems Trump is catastrophizing and/or making up whole cloth.
  • It doesn't look entirely....ingenuous to blame an utter failure in governance on the party that you have spent the last two years essentially DARING to stop you from doing whatever the hell you wanted because they didn't have the votes. 
  • Republicans wouldn't NEED sixty votes if they hadn't used the once-a-year reconciliation simple-majority bylaw as a workaround for unpopular legislation they didn't want to have to debate or compromise on earlier in the year (in a total middle finger to the founding fathers' intention if you're keeping track of who clutches their pearls and talks about that every time they lose the popular vote by 4 million votes or someone wants longer waiting periods for grenade launchers or something).
  • The Republican disrespect for democracy over power grabs knows little limitation. We saw it in Michigan, South Carolina, and Wisconsin after elections ousted them from power and this is just a larger echo. They have suppressed votes, gerrymandered the shit out of as many places as they could, and it's looking increasingly like they at LEAST looked the other way as our greatest geopolitical enemy interfered to their benefit in democratic elections. Playing chicken with a million people's livelihood if you don't get what you want (after you LOST a midterm election in which the American people voted for some checks on your power by 8.7 MILLION votes) takes a breathtaking disregard for what the people you claim to represent have told you they want.
  • Trump was offered even MORE than he's demanding now. He was offered it back in 2017, and if he had been willing to compromise on DACA, he could have had his "big beautiful cement wall" under construction already. Instead, after agreeing to a deal with Senate Minority Leader Schumer, Mr. Art of the Deal suddenly changed his mind since he thinks "deal" means getting people to do things when he already has power over them instead of "compromise."
  • He's not OFFERING anything to peel off some moderate Dems. He's not going back to DACA or offering to overhaul legal immigration. He's not rolling up his sleeves and working hard here. No midnight oil has been burnt. He's actually promised this could go on for months because apparently his wall means more than a million people's homes, health, groceries and such. He's not making deals (which is odd because I was assured he is the best deal maker that has ever lived). He's just Tweeting about how unfair life is that he has to be a public servant for a pluralistic society instead of the absolute monarch he wants to be. 
Ultimately, the power of the narrative is working against Trump the longer the shutdown drags on. He'll have his 30% base pretty much whether or not he starts eating babies on live TV, and since adulation is all he can handle listening to, he will continue to have a very disconnected perception of his image, but the rest of the country blames him, more and more Republicans see the way this is going to hang off them like a millstone and are jumping ship. What Trump has indicated as an "almost certainty" is that he is going to declare a state of emergency, his wall funding will end up quagmired in the courts, he will have to deal with the dead albatross of the optics of using Puerto Rico's emergency funding to build a monument to his racism. And blame for the whole thing will land squarely on him and the GOP that enabled him.

He was worried a couple of weeks ago that the fed raising interest rates was going to make him Herbert Hoover unpopular. 

At this point, the narrative should be so merciful. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Memory of the Polls: 2019 and Polls That Will Stick Around (Also Undersung Heroes)

Note: This is going to be an article referenced many times in the coming years for the rules it outlines, so everything in italics is going to disappear after a couple of weeks.

There's so much good stuff coming up in 2019 that I spent part of today just trying to figure out where to start. I sent some company off yesterday and jumped right into one of my side gigs. And this weekend I'm going to start in on this backlog of awesome.

But first, it's already Jan. 10th and we need to get started on things like the year-end wrap up and our polls for 2019. (Seriously, I'm kind of wondering HOW I'm going to get all this done with only a 3-or-4-times-a-week update schedule.)

Before we move forth to our 2019 polls and a whole new dimension of our polling here at Writing About Writing, let me thank everyone for participating in an incredible year of diverse polls. 2018 was an amazing run of great polls that didn't include all the same cis het white guys that dominate most every poll of the type, and I got a lot of ammunition for my To Be Read list. And I only had to ban a couple hundred people, so it was pretty awesome. 

Sticky Polls
Once upon a time we did our polls and that was that. You could dig through the archives and look them up or wait for them to come around again.


In 2019, we're going to combine the fact that we now have a decent-sized audience with the fact that you can really only run so many polls before you end up back where you started or trying to crack a whip to eke out a few more nominations on some woefully esoteric niche.

So we're going to start properly archiving the results of our polls.

Starting in 2019, there will be a menu. There will be a link to each the polls after they are done. Folks can see each of the old polls and who won, and even get an idea of when a particular poll niche might come around again. And when we do come around to a poll topic after a while (as seems to happen every couple of years with the popular topics), after a comparison, the new results will replace the old ones at the "top" of the menu, but with a link to the past iterations so the changes can be noted.

Undersung Heroes

I will also offer up a place in our nomination from now on for undersung heroes. I find that many books or series nominated are done so not because they're the genre's "best," but because someone really wants to give a shout out to a book that they feel hasn't gotten enough positive attention. While nomination pages are often huge recommendation lists already, I'd like to start making that an organized part of the results of each poll.

As in, "Here are the poll results and here is the list of undersung books or series that folks have recommended you check out if you haven't already." This is to try and keep the polls themselves down between eight and twelve titles that folks agree are "best," and limit some of the nominations folks make just to try to get a bit of limelight shining on something no one seems to have heard of.

Here's the catch. A nomination for the poll will either get the necessary seconds or won't and if it doesn't, that's that. I assume most folks have heard of it, but it's not a contender for the best and it's not "undersung." An "Undersung Hero" will go on the list at the end of the poll, but won't count as a nomination and won't go on the poll.

And my worst new rule relating to this is that I will still only deal with two titles. You can write two nominations. Two Undersung Heroes or one of each, but I'll ignore everything after your second title.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Poll Results––What is the BEST Genre Fiction (Non-SF/F/Horror) Not By a Cishet White Guy

The results are in! Best Genre Fiction written by a woman or person of color or member of the LGBTQIA+ community.

From your nominations and seconds to the final results. I would have liked that knot in the middle to spread out a bit, but we have to move on to our 2019 polls.

Also get ready for a huge change we're going to make going forward here at Writing About Writing from all the polls we've done so far!

Thank you all for participating in our year of diverse polls.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Last Call for Votes––What is the BEST Genre Fiction (Non-SF/F/Horror) Not By a Cishet White Guy

What is the BEST Genre Fiction (Non-SF/F/Horror) written by a woman, a person of color, or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community?  

Please follow this link if you're wondering why this poll has some particular limitations. This is the last of our diverse polls.

Your very super lastly last chance to vote on this poll before the results go up this weekend. We have to get on to our new year of polls that will start 2019.

Everyone gets three [3] votes, but as there is no way to "rank" votes, you should use as few as you can stand.

The poll itself is in the lower left at the bottom of the side menus.

If you're on mobile you can scroll ALLLLLL the way to the bottom and click on"webpage view" to see the side menus and get to the polls.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Bioshock Infinite as Art: Your Argument is Invalid (Part 2- What Even IS Art?)

Return to Part 1  

Just a reminder, while this isn’t a “what does it all mean?” post analyzing the plot of B.I., I cannot avoid some spoilers. I also have some mild Inception spoilers, so if you haven’t seen that yet, go find out why all the critics were wetting themselves in 2010. I’m going to hit the ground running from Part One without any recap, so please check that out before digging in here if you haven’t already. 

In order to haughtily declare that something "isn't art," it's important that we all have a working definition of what art ACTUALLY IS that goes beyond "What I like is art" and "What I don't like isn't." Unfortunately for an awful lot of cookie-cutter academics and art snobs, "What I was taught to like is art" is a pretty close approximation of their best guess. But let's see if we can break "art" down past what these champions of bourgeoisie aesthetic who look for what conforms to their ethnocentric and back-in-the-good-old-day, past-revering sense of artistic merit say it is.

Is it simply a completely subjective matter of opinion? I have a friend who likes trashy movies (actually likes them, not just appreciates how terribad they are), and so has decided rather than confront the idea that he might like bad things (which is totally fucking okay), that good and bad is utterly meaningless and utterly subjective and there's no way anyone could possibly figure out art end of line thanks for playing pleasesigntheledgeronyourwayout. However, if that were the case, there would be no way anyone could agree on how to make something "better." There would be zero consensus. The entire art world would be anarchy and no one would ever know how to improve their craft. Perhaps there is a reason that people the world over and from many different cultures seem to have a general level of agreement about a lot of good art. What is it that makes art connoisseurs mouths go dry—whether schooled in New England or Uganda or Tokyo—when they look upon the statue of David by Michelangelo, The Persistence of Memory by Dali, or Spring Morning in the Han Palace by Qiu Ying. Even if they had not before been taught to like THAT work or style.

Is there some way to consider an offering of something totally new to the artistic world without getting a million people to upvote it on Reddit, or calling up your old Humanities professor to double-check that you're allowed to like it? Can an individual human look at some bit of art and decide if it is good at some level beyond their personal opinion?

“What is art?” is a complicated question wrapped up in the philosophical idea of beauty, and there’s no way anyone can definitively answer it—especially not while keeping geeky and making lots of threesome jokes.

The good news is that I don’t have to.

While there are problems at either end of the spectrum of “art is only narrow definition X” vs. “art is totally subjective", and a large grey area of personal taste and slippery definitions in the middle, there do tend to be certain factors that consistently play into art crossing the “real" art Rubicon, in a way that most people agree with most of the time. We don’t need to spend a lot of time examining the murky grey area between art, “high art,” and consumable entertainment. We can just look to see if the art that most people agree is fabulous has certain commonalities. You aren't going to see "rules" per se, but we can find some useful guidelines.

And we do*

*I would like to pause here to point out one very critical bit of dialogue from this conversation that has only JUST begun to reach the mainstream of academia in a meaningful way. "High art" has been defined for generations as white (mostly male) art. A highly Eurocentric, colonialist, and Orientalist view seeded deep into the pedagogy of much academia where European art was "high art" and art from other places was "folk art." And the colonialist legacy of stealing art from indigenous peoples and even MELTING IT DOWN TO SEND BACK TO SPAIN, has echoes that inform this imperious rubric. It is not impossible to still find a Humanities professor who believes that they aren't prejudiced, but the only "real" art happens to be European or European-style. Even after everyone in academia happily declared they were past all that, the aesthetic and methodologies that conveniently exclude most of the world's art live on as the metrics for what counts and doesn't.  Similarly there is a gender valuation in the labor of art vs the labor of "crafts." Frankly very little was traditionally considered art before the fifties or so if a white guy didn't do it, and don't think for a moment that that legacy doesn't endure.

Here's what we can say about most "real" art, most of the time (and while some of these can get a little.....elastic when it comes to art forms where they don't quite "fit" [like music] they still tend to have some identifiable threads :

1) It is technically excellent in either its realism or its abstraction. If it is writing, it is superior prose. If it is painting, it is masterful painting. If it is sculpture, it is nearly perfect. If it is film, it has seamless editing and audiovisual elements. If it's music, it is done in tune, to the beat, and with no wrong notes. Whatever the art is, it’s execution borders on flawless. Or at least as flawless humans are capable of.

2) It has subtext. Whatever the form of art, it goes beyond itself, with a meaning that is greater than its absolute. Its gestalt is greater than the sum of its parts—even if not explicitly in the mind of the artist during creation. There are things within the art that mean more than simply themselves. In a video game, as in a movie, this can take place by means of symbols in the visuals, subtext in the dialogue, or both. In a sculpture like David, there is an embodiment of power, prowess, and traditionally "male" virtues (according to the ancient Greeks). If it is Andy Warhol's 32 Soup Cans, its subtext is consumerism and commercialism. Within music, even without lyrics, elements weave to evoke feelings or occasionally (even more directly) are written with a deliberate subject in mind like Magic Flute freemasonry themes or Brahms' love letters.

3) It is relevant. Yes, the old famous “human condition” that has become a cliche of art departments round the world for the frequency of its parroting. "Good" art touches something within us in its examination of humanity. It can be politically relevant, socially poignant, or simply an expression of our longest standing philosophical struggles with our own existence. And music is so fundamental to human experience that it's hard to even think of separating the two. But at some level, the art explores something about humanity that we all share. This is why, within science fiction, infinite Star Wars clones fail to impress most “high art” sommeliers, but Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick are grudgingly allowed to sit at the "literary" table.

4) The composite elements that make up the art form help reinforce (either by working with or through the relief of contrast) a thematic vision of the art itself.  Here's where things get harder to explain and you start seeing a lot of four-year degrees among those with the knowledge to track entire movements with their historical contexts and such. But to put it as basically as possible: every art has elements that make it up. Painting has color and texture and form and content and imagery. Literature has setting, plot, character, tone. Film has cinematography, soundtrack, acting, costuming, and visual effects. Music has instrumentation, tempo, melody, and harmony. In many arts these elements themselves have further elements (like cinematography has lighting, focal points, composition and such) that all lead up to a massive composite of skill and artistry (or not) within the final work. If this artistry is haphazard, the work can be extremely technically proficient, relevant, and have subtext, but there is a strange discordance between the elements. What we tend to notice in “good art” is that these elements work with some of the work’s central themes and form a cohesive vision.

Consider John Steinbeck, an author I picked because most Americans have read at least some of his work. You probably had to do some homework at some point about how Steinbeck’s settings always mirrored the psychological struggle of the characters within the chapter. Rooms with old lamps that caused one half of the room to be lit and the other half to be in shadow became chapters where both the best and worst of humanity were revealed. Several books of his in which nothing has changed except a lot of suffering to no good end begin and end in essentially the same place. Steinbeck constantly used his settings as a kinetic landscape for the themes he explored.

However, this idea may be easiest to demonstrate rather than explain. Take the example of Inception. Critics went happyfeet over this soundtrack and it was nominated for the Academy Award for best original score (though it didn’t win). Here’s one of the best songs in that soundtrack:

It’s a simple song, reiterating a single theme over and over, but at each new iteration, it adds in a new layer of instrumentation. Most of the score involves songs that are very similar in execution. This is actually a pretty basic and overdone musical technique called “looping.” It’s considered to be pretty uninspired most of the time. Why did critics like looping so much for Inception? Because that layering effect both increases the complexity of the score and adds to the sense of danger at each new level….

…in an exact mirror of the movie itself.

At each level of the dream, a new layer of dramatic problem was added and the stakes increased.The music was a perfect reflection of the themes of the movie. Also, the movie itself was exploring the way that once an idea gets into your head, it goes around and around picking up steam—much like the songs themselves were doing—becoming louder each iteration. The soundtrack represented and enhanced the movie’s themes.

So those are the four elements. They aren’t comprehensive, and there’s a lot of room for personal aesthetic, but the works consistently deemed to be “high art” tend to have these things in common.

This is why Star Wars is always listed as one of the greatest films by all but the most snobbish of film critics—even though it gives most literature professors an eye twitch when they think about it. That movie is breathtaking. The flawless execution (for 1977) of audio and visual effects was a masterpiece, and every single frame reinforced the thematic core of good versus evil, from the costumes to the music to Han’s divorce from moral ambiguity at the end. And though it took a generation to consider the historical context of Star Wars, we now appreciate its response to a post-Vietnam-era world where culturally there was a lot of anxiety about good and evil and if either of those things were really real forces in the world. George Lucas gave us that world in a space opera steeped with mythological subtexts.

I will leave others to nitpick Bioshock Infinite’s technical excellence if they wish. I am neither a game designer nor a programmer, and I can’t really say if there were mistakes (as such) in its execution.

I will say this: I have played through perhaps 50 games per year since I was five or six. And probably turned on and PLAYED a hundred or so more in each of those years. So that’s like…um…carry the two…uh…a lot of games. I fought my first-grade friends with bouncy bullet tanks for a victory in Combat on my Atari. I got the Triforce and rescued Zelda back when that was an 8-bit quest—(and again at sixteen bits, and again at 32….) I’ve played every iteration of Final Fantasy (2019 edit: including that sausagefest road trip that was the most recent one). I have hunted the giant boatfly in the DLC of Fallout: New Vegas. I know the pain of the jumpy parts in Castlevania, and the triumph of beating the C&C General’s boss on the highest difficulty.

If gamer dudes look at me and say “Do you even game, bro?”, I have the honor of stoically nodding my head like the grizzled veteran I am.

My sense, as an experienced gamer, is that Bioshock Infinite was as close to flawless as I’ve seen a game. I have been watching acting in games since Malcolm McDowell blew us away as Admiral Talwyn and listening to non-midi soundtracks since I bought my first 3DO nearly 20 years ago now. I was there when the chill went up the collective spines of gamerdom as we realized that there was a choral accompaniment for the battle with Sephiroth. I was there when we had to plug our controller into the second player slot to beat Psycho Mantis. I was there when the mountain began to move and the fight with the first Colossus began. If there’s a game with a markedly better technical execution in terms of graphics, voice acting, or soundtrack, I’ve not seen it.

On to Part 3