Batwoman was finally canceled after limping along for two extra seasons. I saw one episode of the show (the first) and tuned out ever since. But from the sidelines, it’s been an interesting study on how the CW has tried to chase an audience that didn’t reciprocate its interest in bulk. In a country with 332 million people in it, Batwoman as a show is only trying to chase .001% of it, their core audience of 450,000.
What went wrong first?I’d say it’s that the show decided from the start not to chase the comic book fandom or the Batman fandom, but a very tiny cross section of the progressive LGTBQ+/diversity crowd that likes comics and watches TV. Instead of going for mass appeal, from the earliest trailers they made it clear they were writing for a very particular audience.
From the very first trailers, slogans about how the Batsuit would be “perfect, once it fits a woman,” and the casting of Ruby Rose (a prominent lesbian actress in the part of a lesbian superhero) really pushed who the show was trying to appeal to the most.
From a business standpoint it’s good to know who your audience is and what your product is about, but in show business with network television you need viewer volume to justify costs. One of the biggest problems with Batwoman the series was that the target demographic is notoriously tiny; each season was trying to hang onto that core audience lost the “normies” who were tuning in for the story, the action, the drama, and the links to the Batman mythos.
What numbers are we talking about? Well, let’s start with a big picture view:
The CW overall in 2021-2022 has taken some major hits, with none of their top 10 shows cracking an average of a million viewers per episode. Check it out:
On this chart Batwoman doesn’t look like it’s in terrible shape compared to the bottom half, until you also factor in that it’s lost over 60% of its viewership since season one.
As a comparison, here’s CBS’s numbers for the same season:
CBS’ lowest rated scripted show pulls in 2.276 million viewers on the average, which is better than double “Superman & Lois,” the best performing CW show on the chart, which pulls in .9 million.
Plus the retention numbers (year to year) wasn’t filled with good news either. Batwoman lost 28% of their target demographic from last year. They have around 450,000 regular viewers . . . that’s it. In comparison to Good Sam, the bottom-of-the-barrel CBS show, Good Sam had 560% more viewers!
If that wasn’t bad enough, Good Sam’s time slot is Wednesday at 10 PM! The Primetime CW shows are earlier (7–9), meaning that Good Sam on CBS as a middle-of-the-week late show crushed every CW show in what are considered the best time slots. 
What does this all mean?
Batwoman got slaughtered in ratings by the other broadcast companies and took such a beating that the WORST show on another network pulled in over 4 times the viewership. Add to that during season one Batwoman lost over 60% of the original audience.
The show was likely renewed twice because the show wasn’t the absolute bottom of the CW barrel, but compared to other TV shows on other networks, it would have been canceled after season one, maybe even during season one. However, because it’s the CW and all their shows have way lower viewership than the other companies, it survived. I also think the company didn’t want to admit defeat with this property, even after losing its main star; even after the serious dive in viewers and writing quality in season two; after all of that it was renewed for a third season. That decision defied most TV logic. It’s true some shows don’t find their footing until a few seasons in, but usually those shows have over a million interested viewers.
Batwoman isn’t alone; the CW as a company appears ready to sell off the network, (possibly to Nexstar), which may mean a radical shake up for the entire line up of shows and the company overall.
Let’s talk the technical side of the show and not just marketing. Why did it perform badly?
Time for a deeper dive. Aside from the demographic targets and the marketing of Batwoman, the production itself has had some major problems.
Batwoman . . .
lost their original main star (Ruby Rose),
lost their arguably biggest name actor (Dougray Scott),
experienced the same challenges of filming a TV show or movie during COVID,
and then had to replace Rose with newcomer Javicia Leslie playing a new character, Ryan Wilder, with no comic book background, which was a big miss with a lot of Batwoman fans, who came into the show off the strength of the comic revamp of Kate Kane.
To be frank, Ryan Wilder as a character, a reformed criminal living in a van down by the river, wasn’t a strong replacement for the cousin of Bruce Wayne, and wasn’t well written. Having an ex-criminal don the costume on a whim and just “be” Batwoman, without any story lead-up or in-universe training, didn’t do anything to enable the audience to suspend disbelief, not even the “core” audience. The whole change to a new character was a mess. Ryan Wilder’s first season’s story focused more on criminality than heroics, a bad call for a show that never found solid footing even when Rose and Scott were still in play.
The marketing for the show infamously had conflicting ideals; for instance, Kate’s insistence that she didn’t want anyone stealing the credit for her persona/work, while simultaneously stealing every aspect of the Batman identity for herself to use. This conflict in ideals also led to a conflict between the intended audience, and the wider audience, pitting the feminist ideal of a woman empowering herself against the plot reality of a woman taking on the mission and trappings of the man who started a legacy.
Ultimately, this show has suffered from a poor start, low budget, and a plague of problems both internal and external.
Could anything have saved the show?
I absolutely think so. First, if the show had kicked off with someone like Bruce Wayne having trained Kate Kane and asking her to take over due to a long absence he needed to handle, I think a lot of the core Batman fandom would have been down for the ride. Batwoman exists as a character because of Batman; instead of respecting that origin, the show tried to put a very negative light onto the character of Batman. That was a big mistake. Even the marketing divided the audience before the show even aired; by unifying Kate and Bruce to the same mission and showing a deep respect, (even familial love) between the two, that could have fostered a unification of the target audiences as well.
Second, I think the show would have been a lot better after Rose’s departure with recasting Kate Kane, and keeping Kate-the-character in the suit. An audience that was already having trouble investing in the star as the character was then asked to believe in Ryan Wilder as a super hero, when everything about her was antithetical to being a super hero. What makes Bruce Wayne Batman or Kate Kane Batwoman? Well, it’s that both honed their minds and bodies into a living weapons against crime, but through very different paths; creating a new character who is supposed to just step in and be brilliant because she believes she’s strong doesn’t work with anyone who understands reality or comic book reality.
Third, a fresh angle would have helped. “The Batman” had a nice take of focusing on Batman as a detective again. I think Batwoman would have worked better at the inception if Kate was in over her head and struggling to rise into the role. But because it’s an episodic show, a good fresh take wasn’t likely to happen. But I think it would have helped a lot.
What makes me sad about the show ending? Well, I may not have been a fan of the show, but Rachel Skarsten and I went to the same church in Los Angeles for a while and I found her to be a wonderful human being with a great work ethic and dedication to her craft. In this town there are a lot of fake people but I found her to be a real gem, so I’m a little sad she lost her job.
I’m sure she’ll bounce back just fine; she’s really beautiful, talented, and not afraid to work in Vancouver or LA. I wish her and the rest of the cast and crew a speedy journey to their next projects.
Let’s keep going on our writing series. One of the biggest complaints from critics of fiction about flat, shallow characters is that they lack flaws. But what does that really mean? Well, in all honesty, they’re usually complaining about the execution of said flaw; obviously, not having it there in the first place is a big strikeout, but giving a character a flaw that never is fully explained, fleshed out, or that penalizes the character make for a flaw that falls flat.
Let’s take a look at a really common “flaw” with a lot of heroic characters: Trust Issues.
You’re going to have to do some homework and preparation when giving your character a flaw. If you want your character to have depth, you’re going to have craft multiple elements to any particular aspect of a character, especially the flaws, because it’s usually the flaws that drive the conflicts for that character!
First up, make strong decisions on where these trust issues come from. The source of their distrust matters IMMENSELY, because people with trust issues come in different flavors and act out that distrust in different ways.
Was this person…
Betrayed by a close family member like a brother or sister?
Grew up in a rough area?
Set up by someone they thought was a close friend?
Inverted: maybe this person was the bully, but reformed; however, they may not trust themselves and thier own impulses.
Were they constantly set up for disappointment?
Maybe they come from a family where one child was adored more than the rest?
Could this person have been constantly promised that, “this time, it’s for real!” which of course, it wasn’t?
Does this person lack trust because when it was their time to be front and center, everyone let them down?
Inverted: This person got everything they ever thought they were due… until NOW. This story about trust issues is about a person going through the situation where their perfect life has now been flipped and everything is going WRONG.
How about cheating?
Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice… shame on me.
Inverted: Could this person have trust issues because they were the person who DID the cheating, and now they don’t trust themselves? Don’t be afraid of inversions!
Classic orphan – this person was abandoned by any and all family and left to fend for themselves.
Classic rogue – this person lives in a dirty world of grey where the only thing keeping them alive is their healthy mistrust of others
Inverted: this is the story of how someone who has always known love and support has now been completely ostracized; this might be due to tragedy, personal illness, maybe an accident or crime, etc.
Do you see how just looking at one aspect of that flaw, (where it came from) already can have many different approaches, backstories, and shades of flavor it gives a character? Saying a character has “trust issues” is really broad; but once you make solid decisions on where those issues come from, you start adding unique flavors to your character.
Other questions to consider:
How does this flaw help or hurt their relationships?
How does this flaw help or hurt their job/career/goals?
How does this character try to overcome this flaw?
Would inverting the situation work better for the character I’m crafting?
Thinking about these things and adding in these layers help you make a three dimensional character. It’s a great exercise, and I encourage any writers to give these serious thought as they work.
Just writing that a character is mistrustful can be a nice trait to flavor your character, but if you want this character to really shine, you should take the time to decide on why this person is distrustful. It’s not a universal attribute; we tend to want to trust everyone implicitly until our trust is BROKEN. Who broke it, how it got broken, and why it got broken become the scar tissue and safety mechanisms around our hearts that we use as a barrier from having it happen again.
Many classic heroes are distrustful, usually because they choose to trust the wrong person or the wrong thing at the wrong time. That becomes a pivot point for the character moving forward.
As the writer, the more solid this is for you, the better you’ll craft this character for the audience. Specifics matter to the writer, even if you choose not to disclose all your work from behind the curtain!
And don’t be afraid of inversions, too: Batman has a blindspot for trusting children. Despite not having any real attraction to any women in the world, Sherlock Holmes allows himself to be awed by Irene Adler. Sheriff Enos in the Dukes of Hazzard can’t help but fall for Daisy Duke’s charms every single time, despite knowing he’s getting conned. Charlie Brown is a cynic, yet he constantly wants to trust Lucy when tries to kick the football. Even though all these characters are distrusting, by seeing the cracks in their armor we learn something important about the character. In fact, a whole story can be built around the inversion: this is the one time this person decided TO trust, or was FORCED to trust someone else, despite naturally being distrusting.
Whatever you choose, make it strong, make it clear, and make it well defined!
I try not keep things short and sweet, (and leave the long posts to Sir Knowsalot), but I’ve been trying to write about TV and films in my blog and the review section, and due to recent events, I thought I’d share my thoughts on The Oscars, and why I think they are one of the best con jobs ever produced in the U.S. I’ve lived and worked in [redacted] for [redacted] years, getting near to the 20-year mark. I love the TV and Film industry, but I’ve also seen many of its problems first-hand. Personally, I think The Oscars have run their course, but I think by talking about what would need to be fixed, more people can understand what is so very wrong with this award and the culture around it.
So how do you make the Oscars popular again?
The list is long, but it’s starts with breaking up the elite country club/political platform it has become and moves towards objectivity, true inclusivity, and raising the bar on excellence by awarding for merit. And it wouldn’t hurt to thank the fans.
Problem 1: The Academy Awards are essentially a con with you as the victim.
The notion of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) began with Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). He said he wanted to create an organization that would mediate labor disputes without unions and improve the film industry’s image. 
Think of it this way: the major names in an industry got together and thought of a way to award themselves for the job they do to increase their profile and standing with everyone outside their industry.
This was almost 100 years ago, and chances are, you grew up with the Academy Awards, and thinking it was natural for Actors to get awards. And I mean, LOTS of awards!
But what other industry is this self-congratulatory? Do sheep farmers have awards and televise the results? (They do actually have awards, but since you likely didn’t know about them, that serves my point.) Do accountants have a, “Best document creation in Excel” category for their work? Not even politicians give each other awards like the arts industries do: The Academy Awards, The Tonys, The Grammys, and more. In fact, The Oscars are only one of MANY film industry awards, like the AFI awards, The Hollywood Film Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and… well, you get where I’m going.
It’s smoke and mirrors designed to make you think that what they do is more important than what you do, or that being in this profession makes them better and more noteworthy than you.
And to a lesser extent, it satisfies a personal need in arts types to be recognized and feel special.
What they do is definitely higher profile than what you may do, but the con for my industry is convincing you to idolize us; the best way to do that is to convince you that we have something you don’t, but then saying we’re letting you into our world and giving you the backstage pass.
That’s what the Oscars are: they are there to convince you that this industry is more than what it actually is. The Film industry is creative job field and some of the most fun I’ve had in my working life, but it’s just a job. One day on set demystifies all of the glitz and glam. But most people never have that experience. The real magic of the Oscars is that they create the illusion of the Wizard from the Wizard of Oz: the illusion is that it’s a great and powerful being that is better than you; the reality is that there is a man just like you, (or possibly worse) hiding behind the curtain.
If the Academy wants to be popular in our modern world, it should start by admitting they are nothing without the fans, and maybe instead of breaking their arms patting themselves on the back, they put more effort into entertaining the fans. Spending one night trying to please the crowd would go a long way towards making people at least want to WATCH the spectacle of the Oscars, even if it has no real meaning.
Problem 2: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is basically a Hollywood Country Club that hands awards to each other.
Why is this problem? Let’s start with the membership. To become a member, you have to be sponsored by two current members, which is the main way of coming in. 
Nepotism already runs deeply through Hollywood, but this adds another layer since the “most prestigious” awards for filmmaking is basically a club of people who have to want you in for you to get in. It’s NOT necessarily merit based.
Imagine a football team where the players decided who they wanted to join the team, and no one else had a say. Then, regardless of how the team performed in the season, the give each other awards on who they think the best players are, without any input from fans, professional sports writers, or any other form of critique. As an added bonus, the interior politics of the team count more than merit: “Johnny got his trophy last year, so this year, it’s Billy’s turn!”
That is the AMPAS right now. It’s made of elite people, for elite people, and insulated from anyone who isn’t invited.
But that’s actually how it was designed: from AMPAS Wikipedia 
The notion of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) began with Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). He said he wanted to create an organization that would mediate labor disputes without unions and improve the film industry’s image. He met with actor Conrad Nagel, director Fred Niblo, and the head of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Fred Beetson to discuss these matters. The idea of this elite club having an annual banquet was discussed, but no mention of awards at that time. They also established that membership into the organization would only be open to people involved in one of the five branches of the industry: actors, directors, writers, technicians, and producers.
So the first problem is that the GOAL of the AMPAS was never about rating movies on any objective scale or evaluating performances with a critical eye; it’s always been about OPTICS and trying to improve the film industry’s image. That needs to change: if you want to be taken seriously, you need to be serious.
If the Oscars want to be popular, they need to up their game and change the image of being a country club of rich elites and starts BEING a body of experts who critique films on some objective standards.
Problem 3: Oscars don’t mean jack.
Why? Because it’s all subjective to the members of the Academy, and there are no objective standards as to what makes for the ‘best’ in any category.
Yes, this is art, and yes, art can be viewed subjectively. But if you look at enough art, you do start to see patterns in craftsmanship that start to inform over time what is ‘great’ and what is not.
Here’s a good example that I like to use because I have background in acting. What makes for a great acting performance? Well, here are two Oscar performances, and we can compare the quality and see if one was superior to the other.
Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook”
Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”
Subjectively, you can like one of these more than the other. But objectively, Heath Ledger did a lot more for his role than Jennifer Lawrence did for hers. Acting is about creating characters, and this character is so far away from who Heath Ledger is that he is unrecognizable as the actor. The voice, the mannerisms, the cadence to how he talks… these are all acting tools he used and combined with the makeup and wardrobe made for an unforgettable performance. It’s fair to say that in the auditions, 90% or better of the men who auditioned for the role all made what I would call the “safe” choices: likely an imitation of Jack Nicholson or Mark Hamill’s Jokers. Ledger took “risks”; the nasal voice for instance is an inspired choice that was either going to really work or really fall flat. And he made it work. Objectively speaking, when an actor can stretch so far out of their range, take risks, and craft a character so convincingly you don’t see them in it, they have done something very special. When you add the final layer, (the script), you can compare how most actors would read each line and compare it to Ledger’s take, and see how he brought each line to life with his character.
Jennifer Lawrence is probably making 75–85% of all the same choices another actress would have in the role, and as far as stretching, it’s a stretch on her normal range, but I’m not losing her in the role the way I did Ledger. It’s not just makeup, it’s all the physical tools, mannerisms, accents, and more. I’m not saying she did bad, but objectively, she did less acting than someone like Ledger for his role. Between the two performances, Heath Ledger’s was better.
Nightmare Alley was nominated for Best Picture at the 2022 Oscars: I saw this film. I’m probably one of the only ones who did. It’s box office was 37.8 million dollars. Was this film Best Picture material? I’d definitely say, “no”. I think most audience members who walked out of the film at the end would say, “no”. Should be considered for costuming, lighting, cinematography, and adaptation? Yes… those aspects of the film were outstanding, but it wasn’t enough to carry the film.
However, outside criticism doesn’t reach the interiors of the Academy. It doesn’t matter how few people actually went to see the film, or thought it was lackluster in terms of pacing and plot. The members of the Academy want to nominate it, so they do. Period.
You don’t get people excited to see the Oscars when they haven’t seen the movie that you’re nominating, or didn’t care about the film when you do nominate it. And that’s even more true if the audience didn’t think it was all that great, let alone “Best Picture” quality.
For a while, I think the public believed that the people running this process of nominating and awarding films for Oscars knew more than we did about films. And having worked on TV and film sets, I believe part of that is true: people who make films do know more about what goes into making a picture than your average joe. It’s their jobs.
But knowing the job is different than coming at it with a critical eye on the finished product. When it comes to technical achievements, insider know-how is very helpful, but when it comes to the subjective elements, (acting, directing, writing, etc.) it takes a different skill set… that of a critic… to judge the quality of the film. And a critic’s worth is only as good as their ability to reach for objectivity. Knowing facts, taking emotions and subjectivity out, and holding movies against particular standards can be a particular skill set, and may be more removed from interior politics and biases.
We’re also in a very different age when it comes to watching, reviewing, and critiquing films on our own. There have never been more options of who to listen to about rating films then there is today.
There is a downside, obviously, which is that the internet is so vast that you can find someone who exclusively agrees with your opinion about anything nearly instantaneously, which does make it harder to make an objective stance.
But that’s also what makes taking one so important, and by doing so, gives you credibility.
You’re not going to be perfect; no one is. But by striving for objectivity, you also end up striving for facts, fairness, and merit. That is what helps create standards.
If the Oscars want people to watch, they need to prove that the award they are giving out has some merit behind it. Someone racing for a gold medal in the Olympics has the benefit of definitive rules that establish the conditions to win or lose. The Oscars really needs something similar to lock in why winning their award is important.
Problem 4: The Oscars are out of touch with normal people.
The Oscars used to be fun for escapism. That time has passed. The more country has been divided ideologically, the more escapism has become important. So tuning into the Oscars just to hear Los Angelino one percenters show off how rich they are, lecture the audience on how evil we are, and prove their own hypocrisy is a bridge too far.
The other problem is the new attitude from around 2012 to now: “this isn’t for you”. Whether it’s Star Wars creators bashing on long time fans, or political messages having to be slipped into dialogue for films, or race bent casting, or yet another ‘adaptation’ of a property like Ghostbusters which is essentially a rip-off of the original with the uncreative change of using female actresses, the film industry’s depth seems to have gotten more shallow. The Oscars was a place you could tell fans from a big stage, “we love you and appreciate you, and without you, we’d have no job.” Now, the first thing the presenters want you to know is propaganda about Florida law.
The highest ratings for the Oscars was in 1998.  Titanic, As Good as it Gets, L.A. Confidential, The Full Monty, Donnie Branco, In & Out, Amistad, Anastasia, Wag the Dog, and even action movies like Con-Air & Starship Troopers were nominated for Awards. Oh, and a little film called Good Will Hunting.
That’s a very stacked deck. The industry has changed a lot since then, and so have the productions Hollywood pumps out. People tune out not just because of politics or being sick of the glam; there just isn’t a lot to tune in for.
For the Oscars to be relevant, they should consider the time-honored tradition of thanking their audience, and gearing the Oscars towards entertaining the common man, instead of lecturing him.
What does this mean? – Well, I think the glam Oscars isn’t likely going anywhere, and it wasn’t a problem until the audience felt like they were being lectured. So, drop the lecturing. Simple. And if you make it a point to try to appeal to the widest audience possible, (and accept that people who don’t politically believe what you believe enjoy movies too), and do something crazy like thanking the fans, you might see more come back.
To summarize: I don’t think the Oscars are ever really coming back unless they change their image, prove their awards have weight, and get in touch with the common man again.
Final thoughts: I think the Oscars have run their course. People and technology have changed, and unfortunately, AMPAS and the Oscars have been changing in an ugly way. They were created to basically be marketing “Hollywood”; that has turned into showing off how ugly Hollywood is now and how separate from normal people they are. To be honest, we, as the audience, don’t need the Oscars, and the Oscars have been set on trying to tell the audience how they don’t need us. That’s about as mutual of a parting-of-ways as you get.
I get asked all about zombie fiction all the time, mostly about why it’s popular, but more importantly, “what’s the point?!” Interestingly enough, if you’ve read The Walking Dead comic, it actually makes it very clear that the series has a very important point to make, far beyond what the individual struggles to survive would have you believe.
The Walking Dead was about carrying the light of civilization through the end of the old age and into the new; so really, the big takeaway is that we’re all just, “The Walking Dead” without civility, order, and morality to guide us.
WARNING: HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD
(okay, you’ve been warned.)
The Walking Dead comic book ends with a time skip after Rick’s death to a point in the future where his son, Carl, is married with children.
We discover that during the time skip, society got back up on its feet: civilization is rolling again, (though much lower down the technology chain) with schools, law, order, and justice; this was everything that Rick Grimes fought to keep alive during the fall of the previous civilization.
The Walking Dead, as a comic, isn’t so much about zombies as it is a study of what happens to humanity as we lose our humanity. Zombies are the catalyst for an apocalypse and an analogy for what humanity becomes: walking dead. Human bodies still moving around, but with no purpose, no morality, no spark of live in their eyes, and only the most rudimentary instincts of self-survival.
Each major villain and arc of the series, (in retrospect) shows the progress of descending into darkness and having less and less dignity or civility. With Shane, we see how good people go bad when the light inside them shifts to being about pure ‘survival math’ and how without law and order, we devolve into creatures motivated by our own selfish desires. With the Governor, we see how people desperately cling to liars and tyrants if it means they can live in the illusion of the old, familiar world. With Gareth and the cannibals, we see the next stage, which is that once the trappings of the old world are gone, humans ‘feed’ on each other, with cannibalism being the metaphor for how we become savage enough to take anything from our fellow man to save ourselves.
Then, the series shifts and we start seeing villains who are trying to build a new society, (like the Saviors) which lacks that “light” of the previous civilization, and it’s that light that Rick Grimes fights to have and keep in his communities. He isn’t a perfect person, but he stands out in the series as the leader who managed to hold on and make people believe that a new society could emerge with the same humanity the old civilization had.
I’ll let you make your own analysis from here, but I think you’ll get the point, and if you didn’t see it before, now all the villains of the series are going to make a lot more sense. Each set of villains is a metaphor for how humanity tries to adapt, (or fail to adapt) as a society. Even the Whisperers, creepy as they are, make metaphorical sense: people who try to blend in with the ‘new normal’ while actually losing parts of themselves in the process.
When you can step back and see the completed story, it actually becomes a much more intelligent fiction than what you’d originally believe when you’re in the minutiae of each issue. It’s a saga based around one former lawman who deeply believes in humanity, and his fight to keep that humanity in the face of the fall of society.
The biggest lesson to me, is this:
It’s not society that gives us our light, but our belief in morality, justice, honor, and kindness that give civilization its light. If you abandon these, you might manage to be physically alive, but dead inside because you have killed the spark of what makes us truly human.
I don’t know how the show will end because it has departed pretty far from the comic by killing off Carl and having Rick go MIA, and they are (literally) the keystone of the entire comic book. Since the story of the series is about Rick passing the torch down to Carl and what that torch actually means, it’s hard to say the show will make as strong an ending without these two lynchpin characters. But as a comic book, The Walking Dead, (when you understand the point), is actually a really terrific series in the zombie apocalypse genre because it’s not really about zombies, but people.
Continuing on writing characters for fiction, (and having recently watched, “Murder on the Nile” with Kenneth Branagh), I thought it’d be fun to go over some of the basics of writing detectives in fiction. Keep in mind, these aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but they are some of the basic building blocks that can get you started!
Great detectives are usually very observant… though how they get to be that way can be something the writers play with!
Many great detective creations start with a character that is simply observant: they see things and notice what other people seem to miss. Small details, like mud on a pair of shoes, may be significant or not to the case, but a good detective usually sees it before everyone else.
Let’s say a woman died, and the detective is at the crime scene. The observant detective is the one who notices not just that she’s married, or that her husband isn’t on site, but also that their car is missing, when everyone else hasn’t noticed they even had a car.
Logic: a proper or reasonable way of thinking about something : sound reasoning. (2) : a science that deals with the rules and processes used in sound thinking and reasoning.
The easy way of looking at this is that A should be processed in such a way as that it leads to B, then to C, and finally to D. A good detective doesn’t assume D right from the start; they look at the evidence, they follow where it leads, and make logical connections along the way.
For instance, a woman is murdered. She’s wearing a wedding ring; the husband is nowhere to be found, and their car is missing. Logical reasoning would lead the detective to believe that because the woman is dead, the husband is missing, and their car is gone, it’s likely the husband did it or is involved.
This isn’t to say they make their CONCLUSION… simply that their logic is fairly sound. The detective doesn’t see the woman dead, the husband missing, and the car gone and say, “Obviously, the BUTLER did it!” Logically, there’s no evidence of that.
Has deductive reasoning
This is a little different than straight logic. Deductive reasoning is where the detective uses what they’ve observed, their pattern of logic, and makes an informed “guess”.
Sherlock Holmes is infamous for his deductive reasoning. With very little observable evidence and his wealth of knowledge, he’s usually able to make a very accurate ‘guess’ that is usually right, based on logical conclusions he draws from what he sees.
It’s pretty much his coolest feature.
Let’s use the example of the woman and missing husband again. Sherlock in the same room, might notice that the woman is dead, the husband is missing, the car is missing… and then announce that the husband is a hostage, not the killer.
How does he do this? Well, he probably notices a few things the other cops or detectives didn’t, (the first point I made about being observant), but he also draws connections.
For instance, the woman was hit on the back of her head, but is lying in such a way that she’s on her back with her legs in front of her; that means the body was staged; also, the pictures around the room show the couple as being very happy, and a brand-new box was in the driveway. This detective saw the coding on the label as he walked in, and knows it’s from a baby supply store.
The couple doesn’t have a baby in any of the pictures, they look happy, and they ordered a crib; since the body has also been staged, this detective deduces it’s not actually the husband who struck her, because he loved her and was excited to have a child with her, since it’s his name on the box.
“But, how do we know the husband didn’t move the body?” – asks one of the cops.
At this point, the deductive detective goes into a litany about the tiny observations and what they mean… why a husband who loves his wife would typically close the eyes, even if he killed her in a rage, or how the indentations on the floor indicate the killer had shoes on, when most couples don’t wear shoes in their bed room.
This is the really fun part of most detectives, because their ability to reason is what sets them apart from the other investigators.
Is a bit competitive… they like to win, solve the case, catch the bad guy, etc. They probably have trouble letting things go, too.
A good detective is a bit of a bloodhound: once they get the scent of a mystery, they don’t really like letting it go until they’ve figured everything out or caught the bad guy.
They may come from very different walks of life, and the circumstances of how they are pulled into the case may vary, but typically, a good detective is persistent, even in the face of adversity.
In my example of the dead woman, it’s usually the part where the lead detective shows up and yells, “You’re off this case!” to our hero… but we know the hero isn’t going to drop it.
This is one gets overlooked a bit, but is actually key to writing a good detective. They need to be WRONG somewhere in the story.
That’s actually VERY OKAY, because a good detective should be eliminating possibilities when they aren’t able to magically deduce the right answer.
Not every detective is Sherlock Holmes; some of the best detectives are the best in their perspective stories because they’re very good at finding what didn’t happen and crossing it off the list until they narrow it down to what DID happen.
I worked on the show Bosch, and HIGHLY recommend the first season for exactly this type of detective work. It’s not fast, it’s not easy, but man… you really appreciate the detective who does the WORK.
And lastly… they have some style! Though this point is strictly about fiction.
I’m not talking talking about fashion, (although you can throw that in, if you want!)
No… I’m talking about “style”. The character pops off the page against all the other characters because they have some bold choices in their character creation.
Usually this is in their attitude, their temperament, and their skills, but it can also be personal flairs and touches as well.
In a good detective story, all their attributes are brought together and showcased as they move forward through the case.
I love “Miss Congeniality”, because despite being a comedy, Agent Hart is, at the center of her character, a detective/investigator. She’s trying to catch a bad guy, and the story uses ALL of her talents and abilities to crack the case… including talents she didn’t even know she had.
For characters like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Jessica Jones, heck… even Wadsworth from “Clue”… their ‘style’ makes them all wildly different from each other as characters. They have wildly different weaknesses, strengths, habits, idiosyncrasies, and desires, yet they’re all great investigators.
As a writer, I think that’s important. Even if there’s crossover in skills, a good detective should have some personality, some flair, something that makes them unique and real to the universe they inhabit.
Uses deductive reasoning
Is a bit competitive/likes to win/solve the case
And has some Style
You can play with these, but overall, a good detective character should have a combination of these. You can play with their strengths and weaknesses and why or how they have they skills they do, but overall a good detective is going to need to crack the case, so they need to be written with the skills to do it.
Let’s break this into two parts: the story/plot first, and then we’ll talk about the quality second.
PART ONE: The Story
“The movies are about how Leia – I mean, who else is going to be the leader? – is trying to rebuild the Republic… Luke is trying to restart the Jedi.”
“Darth Maul trained a girl, Darth Talon, who was in the comic books, as his apprentice. She was the new Darth Vader and most of the action was with her. So, these were the two main villains of the trilogy.”
Really quickly, I think this is a very nice outline, even though it is brief. The story would be set with two very clear goals in mind: Leia building the Republic, and Luke building the Jedi.
THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT FANS WANTED.
Sadly, the plans for this got put to the wayside due to real life concerns for Lucas and eventually, everyone got a bit too old to make this into a reality.
Regardless, whatever George Lucas’ faults are as a director of actors and as a dialogue writer, he does at least understand how to sink his teeth into juicy ideas for a sequel. In this case, Luke and Leia’s journey is a continuation of where they left off after Return of the Jedi; it paints both characters in a positive light and even though conflict would be inevitable, it would at least be true to the movies that came before and the characters.
As a bonus, there was already a clear outline for a villain: Darth Talon. Lucas even had a rough idea for her origin.
The catch is that it’s more of the same Jedi/Sith conflict we’ve already seen in six films. Now if it’s done well, I don’t think it’s that big of a problem, but after having played Star Wars: The Old Republic for years, I can safely say there are a lot of great ideas for problems in the Star Wars universe that don’t have to revolve around the Sith that can still have all of our favorite Star Wars elements. Secret Cabals pulling strings behind the scenes, programs designed to make artificial warriors, (like Powerguards) that can stand against Force users, or even Eldritch style abominations like the Terror From Beyond.
My only criticism of Lucas is that he believes in refrains, which means he may repeat himself a bit in his films. I think a little collaboration does him a world of good, and if Disney made one major mistake, it was not using Lucas’ notes and maybe a fresh writer collaboration such as Drew Karpyshyn/Timothy Zahn with a really good scriptwriter to bring it all to life.
PART TWO: Quality
George Lucas knows how to make a damn film! Even the prequels, with their faults, are still well crafted from a technical standpoint. He uses every tool in the book, and then creates NEW ONES just to tell the story he wants to tell. There are few, (VERY FEW) who have ever even attempted to come close to matching his work, and that’s typically with vast amounts of money and CGI, cribbing Lucas’ own technology, style, and techniques to do what he pioneered.
I think the sets, costumes, lighting design, hair and makeup, alien designs… with Lucas at the helm, it’s going to be really fantastic.
And the original trilogy was only matched by Lucas himself in the prequels, and finally, almost 30 years later, other franchises have managed to compete, and only one other Star Wars film, (Rogue One) has matched Lucas’ work. There is no doubt Lucas knows has the know-how to craft a fantasy epic; I still think he has put together some of the finest space battles seen on film.
If Lucas had done the sequel trilogy, I think it would be visually and technically right on point as a sequel to his beloved franchise. It would definitely “feel” like Star Wars.
The Unknown part to this is whether George Lucas, (after the criticisms of the Prequel Trilogy, the bombing of the CGI Clone Wars Feature Film, and his departure and “hands-off” time from the franchise) affected his work on a new trilogy.
It’s impossible to know if Lucas would have come back to the franchise willing to listen and collaborate more with the talent around him, or if he’s still be as driven to micromanage like he was in the prequels.
One of the reasons the original trilogy worked so well was because George Lucas was forced to collaborate; in Star Wars (A New Hope), he was a young, unknown director and the actors let him have it when they needed to. In Empire, he was fighting a battle with the Director’s Guild of America, and had to hand the directing reigns to his old mentor and leave most of the script up to Lawrence Kasdan. He came back for Jedi, and I actually like Return of the Jedi quite a bit, but the stark reversal in tone (including Ewoks and much more ‘kid’ humor), might have been too much of an over reaction.
So it’s hard to say. I’d like to believe that since Lucas was older now, he may have also gotten wiser, and maybe would have looked to have the majority of the work rest on another director’s shoulders with him supervising both the direction and the script… basically producing and being the creative head while someone else handles the day to day.
He started doing this with Dave Filoni on the Expanded Universe series of The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels, and pretty much anything that wasn’t an actual film, so I’d like to believe that as he was growing older, he was learning to trust the next generation a bit more.
This photo from the set of “The Mandalorian” could have been what the sequel trilogy video village looked like: Filoni or another director like Jon Favreau leading the charge with Lucas giving the occasional note.
People change over time, and Lucas changed a lot over the years since the ending of the Prequel Trilogy. He handed so much over to Dave Filoni that Filoni had carte blanche to write whatever he wanted, and Filoni did, even if it went against George’s canon. I think it’s important to remember because people often tend to try to associate Filoni’s visions with Lucas’, and they don’t always gel, because they weren’t supposed to.
”The novels and comic books are other authors’ interpretations of my creation. Sometimes, I tell them what they can and cant do, but I just don’t have the time to read them all. **They’re not my vision of what Star Wars is.”**
– George Lucas 2004
“The terminology of “Expanded Universe” was a careful one; it expanded on the world created in the core stories, but was never officially meant to be Star Wars canon, according to the Maker himself, George Lucas.”
~ Dave Filoni 2017
Still, I think Lucas liked Dave Filoni quite a bit, and I think an older Lucas who is a little more tired about the day-to-day grind might pull an Obi-Wan Kenobi and work with a “Luke Skywalker” who can eventually take his place and be trusted with new ideas.
Without help or a dose of humility, the bad part of a sequel trilogy would mostly come in the form of dialogue that doesn’t work and micro-managing of performers. Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and of course, Harrison Ford were all brilliantly talented actors who turned in very questionable performances when Lucas directed them at times because he’s not great with performers.
I’ve known a lot of directors, and the fact is, many directors are clueless on how to talk to an actor about their process, how to work with an actor to get the best performance, how to effectively communicate what they want from a performer, etc. This is Lucas’ Kryptonite.
Left to his own devices, this is pretty much assured to be the weakest aspect of a trilogy he’d helm, IF he hadn’t absorbed and learned his lessons.
Sadly, George Lucas sold the rights to Star Wars to Disney, and they have squandered most of what they purchased.
Disney utterly failed to take what could have been a multi-billion dollar money making machine, and instead, chosen to spin Gold into Copper. Lucas remains a grandfather figure, but I call the “Sequel Trilogy” the “Fan-Fiction” trilogy because that’s exactly how it feels: like some cobbled together set of stories pieced together by different writers to rewrite Star Wars in their own image. It is very clear that Disney, (more aptly, Kathleen Kennedy, the head of Lucasfilm) did not want the franchise to have anything to do with Lucas’ visions except rebrand it in her own image.
Had it remained in George Lucas’ hands, I think we could have been assured of a few things:
It would have been technically spectacular
It would have had a positive story direction for Luke, Leia, and Han
It would have had a clear villain right from the start, and finally,
It definitely would have “felt” like Star Wars, because George Lucas created Star Wars; as the original author, he is the authority on what he wanted Star Wars to be.
This entry is going to remove some of the obscurity behind the entity known as Andras the Obscure. I’m sharing this because well, for one, it’s been on my mind a lot recently, and for another, I feel that, potentially, someone may benefit from knowing that they aren’t the only ones out there going through such an experience.
One of the most substantial challenges that I face in my life is dealing with my mental health. Mental health has always been a taboo subject, and in general a lot of pre-determined opinions about mental health have been negative, both in my family and community, much less the nation. As such, a lot of bad decisions, rash actions, and abused substances have led to a horrid spiral of real suffering over the decades for many people as a result.
I’ve had a lot of struggles with my mental health, and retrospection has allowed me to understand that now. The underlying constant anxiety and depression that I’ve had with me all of my life fed into my anger management issues (because, as a male, it’s socially expected to express negative emotions on the canvas of life through the limited palette of anger alone). A fair number of my regrets in life stem from my poorly-handled anger at life’s whims, leading to a whole lot of angst, self-hatred, and some bouts of self-harm. A fair number of my experiences have personally verified Yoda’s teachings that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and that hate leads to suffering and the Dark Side. As much as I wanted to be Luke Skywalker as a kid, I’ve realized now that I’ve always been Anakin Skywalker, for what that means.
And to be honest, the fact that I’m here now doesn’t mean that I’ve reached the end of my journey and stumbled across the “lived happily ever after” endgame. I’m still struggling with many of these issues, though therapy and medication are now present to help me tackle my mental health just as medication and exercise help me with my physical health. I know that this is a chronic illness, and I’ve accepted that.
Oddly enough, gaming has both helped me and hindered me in dealing with my mental health. Now I’m not making some damn foolish claim that I couldn’t separate fantasy from reality like a character from that slanderous Mazes and Monsters work. Rather, my limited social skills and anxiety was exacerbated by dealing with the regular drama that is human beings, from having to deal with cliques forming within a group of friends to still feeling ostracized despite having friends, to even having anger management issues because of ego clashes with others. Ultimately, I’d say all of that stress and drama wasn’t worth it, and that I should’ve not let it get to me as much as I did.
I’m bringing all of this up because madness is an element that isn’t really addressed well in many sorts of media, gaming included. Mental health issues have often been treated as a sort of failing of character for an individual, even though others who make that assessment most likely are themselves enduring or coping with mental health issues themselves. In the past, the general spectrum of mental health goes from toughing it out to committal into an institution, with maybe on occasion the overindulgence of substances being recognized as a sort of coping midway point. Anger management issues like mine have been compared to berserker rages, especially by myself. To be fair, the depiction in games mirrored the viewpoint held in life, as flawed and harmful as it is.
For the most part, the gaming industry has recognized the reinforcement of stigmas in its products, and has worked to step away from that in some form or fashion. One of the challenging elements to deal with is “supernatural madness” as often noted in the works dealing with the Cthulhu mythos and similar concepts. In that sense, it’s refined itself as being a sort of biological “divide by zero” conundrum for our minds, crashing all of our systems. Or, in some instances, our awareness and senses are now made aware of this long-present and dreadful element that was invisible to us before now, and still remains invisible to many others. The behavior that the majority witnesses from the now-aware individual may be interpreted as “madness.” It’s like an individual suddenly gaining the ability to see the entire spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, and watching them avoid areas heavy with ionizing radiation that, to our limited senses, seem perfectly fine.
Our media, including our entertainment, reflects the zeitgeist of those creators and audiences. What was acceptable fare in 1920 may not be acceptable, or could even be deemed offensive or myopic, in 2020. This is just as true regarding role-playing games. We’ve had almost fifty years of role-playing games in the spirit of Dungeons & Dragons, and what was made reflects the views and tastes of the times.
I’m objectively talking about the concept of “madness,” and not a clash of viewpoints and beliefs that lead people to label others as “mad.” The real challenge to including it in a game is to depict it but not stigmatize the suffering individual(s) afflicted with it. Furthermore, another key challenge is to distinguish it from real world mental illnesses, especially if there’s a plot point where the afflicted can be permanently “cured” of the affliction. In these circumstances, avoiding disease-based terminology and using curse-based terminology may be better, because the condition can be corrected or eliminated, while mental illness can be treated, though it may still be with the individual(s) for life.
Totally copying behaviors and symptoms of real life mental illnesses wouldn’t be wise for a supernatural affliction of the mind. Also, things like mood swings and the like shouldn’t be reduced by attitudes or comments: as someone near and dear once told me, it’s like equating a single skipped lunch to famine-induced starvation. There is a choice and opportunity to have this supernatural madness manifest in new, different ways. It could be a new form of phobia, especially of something that isn’t encountered in this world. It could be a fear of fear itself, literally. Or perhaps the afflicted individual may obsess about obsession. An instance where a particular element is intensively mirrored by the cursed individual.
Then again, what if some elements typically associated with mental health conditions are actually coming from an exterior source? Perhaps an individual is malignly charmed to sense an illusory reality, and that individual alone. Their actions and behavior to outside observers would be “mad.” Then again, classic elements such as “hearing voices” could actually be spirits, fiends, or actual literal monsters covertly communicating with the individual only. In a fantastic fictional setting, this is all too possible. And even in a moden-day setting like sci-fi or superpowers, there are paranormal abilities that can.
Simply put, there’s ways to avoid perpetuating the stigma of mental illness in game, as well as in other media. The goal is to not denigrate real-world people and real-world experiences. It’s bad enough to have to deal with all of this in some form or fashion in reality, so there’s no reason to include it in our entertainment.
With the D&D Direct announcement of Spelljammer, I find myself at an odd junction as a gamer. I remember the original release of the setting for the 2nd ed. of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, though I wasn’t as enthralled with it as some as my peers. I think the element that the promotional materials for Spelljammer uses, that retro-80’s spacey futuristic vibe that Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok (with the cyan & hot pink-infused title cards) perfectly capture the vibe of the setting, which younger generations may get a kick out of and the elder generations have a rueful chuckle.
Perhaps since I am older, the initial corniness of the setting (for me) that pushed me away from it is actually a good thing in its presentation now. It’s not some super-serious and grimdark reboot like that of Battlestar: Galactica, but a tongue-in-cheek mixture and homage of science fantasy of various flavors (along with a hefty dose of the kitchen sink-style of wide cosmos from comics) with a twist of Age of Sail ala the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. To display an example of the humor and homage present in the game, one just needs to behold a monster released in the free promotional material: the Goon Balloon.
And now, behold the alien from John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star:
This is not a bug; it’s a feature of the setting. The bizarre silliness of it all fits in with the bizarre silliness that’s sorta cool as harnessed in Guardians of the Galaxy, and that’s been rendered into a central feature of the cosmic MCU. And it’s also used as a narrative means to explain how, if a group desired, to have a party of adventurers travel through the Astral Plane from one realm to another, such as from the world of Abeir-Toril from Forgotten Realms to the war-torn world of Krynn from Dragonlance (which also is getting some love through a novel and an adventure).
I’d also argue that it’s a reminder of the possibilities of role-playing games, and the sorts of tropes that can be used or exploited all in the name of fun. And fun is the key element here—it’s meant to entertain and pass the time. This sort of silliness is present throughout gaming, though I think people can willingly forget or ignore that aspect. Having a character running around in a pink bunny costume in an FPS game is the same impulse of silliness, just manifest in a different way.
Also, in the history of D&D, there is an established tradition of scient fiction elements being integrated into fantasy: the cosmic horror of Lovecraftian-style creatures, the crashed spaceship in the module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the S.S. Beagle in Mystara/Blackmoor, and the like. Even one of the old CRPG series from the 1980s and 1990s, Might & Magic, has a very science-fiction backstory for its fantasy setting and game, much like Ultima I and Ultima II had a ton of fantasy and science fiction references throughout. (And the Ultima games are spawned from the homebrew game made during the original old D&D “white box” edition of the game, which left everyone customizing the game as they saw fit.)
But these are the fun, good elements from the time. I would argue that Wizards of the Coast is doing their best to perpetuate the positive aspects of the game over its long history while editing out the things that evoke cringe or discomfort because it was deemed “acceptable” in those days of old. It’s not a denial that it was ever there to begin with, but it’s an acknowledgement and a conscious decision to leave such things behind as life and the game move forward.
The Case of Hana & Alice is an anime film starring Yû Aoi as as Tetsuko Arisugawa (Alice) and Anne Suzuki as Hana. The film was written and directed by Shunji Iwai in 2015 and can be watched with French and English subtitles. Upon doing my research for this blog post I discovered this film is actually a prequal to Iwai’s 2004 live action film Hana & Alice. But I believe this anime gem can be a stand-alone film, full of plenty of subtle themes with deeper meanings, interpretations and symbolism for us to explore. I am going to be delving into some of the most significant themes throughout the film. So, without further a due we’ll be taking a deeper look into The Case of Hana and Alice. Please note I have done my best to make this spoiler free!
Let’s start deep in the rabbit hole with a key element to the story’s Big Reveal: Number Four. As a western viewer I thought picking this number was a peculiar choice. Why choose four of something over another number? But as I began to dig into the significance of the number it became crystal clear. In Japan and other east Asian countries the number four is considered unlucky because in their language(s) it sounds terrifyingly similar to the word death. In fact there is even a name for the fear of number four, Tetraphobia. This heightens the mysteriousness featured in The Case of Hana & Alice as the two girls search for answers to expel the sinister unknowns that haunt them and their school. Although this is a more subtle detail to the film’s resolution I think it is a nice touch the creators included it as an extra layer of eeriness to the mystery.
In the film there are mentions of Judas and Amaterasu. My interpretation of the former is that the creators are referencing the biblical story of Judas’s betrayal which arguably is the catalyst that results in the Passion of Christ. I believe the creators included this reference to mirror the depth of emotion and betrayal Hana could have felt. Wallowing in her heartbreak drives her to rash actions the consequences of which leaves her with crippling guilt. Next, we have the Holy Amaterasu who the students at Alice’s new school use to help expel the evil that curses their class. According to my research Amaterasu is the Japanese Sun Goddess, queen of heaven and creation. The sun represents order, purity and justice. I believe her inclusion in the film signifies the rise in superstition. We see in the film Alice’s entire class live in fear of rumours and the supernatural entities that have been layered on top. And with no knowledge of where these rumours originated from and nobody around to verify the truth it is understandable why a group of scared students would invent rituals and pray to deities to protect them. So poor Alice must partake and join in with the madness in order to be accepted by her new peers. The inclusion of these themes seemed random to me at first but now that I have a deeper understanding of what they are and mean I think its clever how Iwai has used them here.
The use of ballet is showcased early on in the film and is definitely the most prominent theme in the story. Not only does the elegance of the dance form create aesthetically beautiful movements and visuals for the anime; I believe it relates to the characters and their journey in an interesting way. I believe ballet could be used by the creators to signify connection and friendship. The reason why I think this is the case is because Alice doesn’t begin to fit in until she starts doing ballet after school. It is said that ballerinas can suggest that you are able to deal with social situations and get along with other people which are skills you need to make friends. This idea is strengthened when Alice and Hana spend more time together. Alice teaches her a few moves and Hana’s curiosity about the dance grows. Ballet is shown to be a bonding experience between the girls and is the basis of their friendship that blossoms in the mid – end of the film. Another source states that ballet requires a dancer to be disciplined and gives them the confidence to move forward. This can be applied to Hana who at the beginning of the film was at a standstill in her life which begins to change once she has clarity, friendship and just lets the past go. She even starts attending ballet classes after school too.
These themes on their own are rather subtle and delicately sprinkled throughout the film – each contributing the overall narrative and meaning of the film. I had two aims with this post. Firstly, for those who have already watched The Case of Hana & Alice, hopefully this article has given you greater insight to some of the deeper meanings and themes explored in this masterpiece. I hope this has also inspired you to take a deeper look at the film and come up with your own interpretations of the film and what it all meant. Secondly, for those who have yet to see the film, I hope reading this article will allow you to get more out of your first watch keeping the themes I have described in mind. It can seem a bit random and odd first time around but as I have shown they’re far from it. Let me know in the comments below what your interpretations are, if you agree with me or feel I’ve missed some out.
There are many topics that I think are worth discussion but present a plethora of issues in discussing them properly. These issues are either timeless or very timely in their form, but in either case discussing them threatens unrestrained passionate responses in return, and dramatic conflict and stances as a result, with the attempted points of discussion cast aside in the process.
However, one thing I think is important is identifying these potential hot-button issues from the get-go, so that they can be addressed respectfully and considerately in the best means and format possible for each group addressing them. This is a complex matter in its own right, because what exactly constitutes “right” for all involved can vary greatly. The selection of objective criteria can, in some ways, devolve into a subjective process that undermines the objective intent of those criteria in the first place.
What I am going to discuss in this post is intended as brainstorming and not as authoritative answers to particular variables. Any answers you want should be created by you, for your use, in your particular situation.
Diversity, in my opinion, is a wonderful and natural thing. It’s multilateral respect for and acceptance of difference. It is also, for what it is, not the innate way of things currently. Diversity can help to counter factionalism, the “us vs. them” mindset all too common throughout existence, and which has been based upon serious and ludicrous factors.
Our fictional creations reflect the issues of our real world, and including diversity in fictional works has been a bit of a controversial issue. In many cases, those who’ve endured the negatives of factionalism through one or many of the multiple -isms of life can see echoes of those harms in the fantastic creations of others. The Otherization of certain groups echoes the historical or contemporary experiences of their own group or other groups.
The tricky element regarding role-playing games is that it is a communal activity—it involves multiple individuals, rather than just a single player or consumer interacting with a product by a creator or author. Some participants may immerse themselves in the game and “take it seriously” while others just mess around to have fun or let off stress, though that could inadvertently stress or annoy others in the process. This is something that needs to be addressed ahead of time, so that everyone involved can have fun, and not just a few at the expense of others.
I mention this because such attitudes and expectations of what a game or setting “is” or “is supposed to be like” can impact enjoyment just as much as whether someone is “taking the game too seriously” or not. If a player’s character treats all orcs as evil, but such belief is not valid in the game and setting presented, then where is the fault? Is it the player in question, who acted on an assumption? Is it the game master who didn’t clarify that such assumptions weren’t accurate for the game being run? Is it both of them?
Consider the myriad elements of identity possible for human beings of Earth to have, and how those things may be accepted or rejected by various societies for various reasons: appearance; belief; culture; ability; language; handedness; desire; status; caste; interest; region; etc. Now, multiply that level of complexity by the number of non-human beings that could exist in a fantastic setting. It gets to be a bit overwhelming and mind-boggling, to say the least.
But, also consider the factors present in that setting that are not present in our setting at all: magic, for example in a fantasy setting, or gene-editing, splicing and cloning in a science-fiction one. Then, ask yourself a serious question, with a relevant follow-up question:
If one could, would one use the unique resources available in that make-believe world to fulfill a deeply-held desire that individual may have? If not, then why not?
So, let us imagine that, in a fantasy world, an individual born male wishes to become female. And, within said fantasy world, there are magics that can fulfill that wish. Would the individual in question take that option? Let’s assume there’s no Faustian bargain attached to it or anything of the like—the offer/opportunity is there, and needs only be taken. What happens next?
In a similar vein, in a science-fiction/science-fantasy world, an individual who is quadroplegic desires to be able to join in activities like anyone else. How does the individual do this? Does the individual obtain unique devices and equipment to be capable of some of the demands while in their original body? Or, does the individual pursue other options possible with the advanced technology of that setting, such as transplanting their brain into a cybernetic body or a cloned body, or using remote-controlled systems to participate while staying safely away from danger, and the like? Once again, what happens next?
If either character accepts the offer and changes to their desired new form, who’s to know their past in the first place, unless they themselves disclose it to another? Yet, if either character rejects the offer and remains in their current form, yet still have their desires, then consider why the character made that choice. Are those individuals trying to prove something to others or themselves? Is there a reason why they chose not to pursue that option?
The reason why I pose these questions in this light is because we have to regard how the world at large may or may not consider those who do not conform to what that majority of others considers as “average” or “acceptable.” With the science-fiction example cited above, why would there need to be accessibility options for people when there are means to provide or restore fully-functional ability to those individuals in the first place?
This is one of the most difficult things that anyone can face: enabled and enforced conformity. A means for everyone to “fit in” and be provided for in a standard way, with no need whatsoever to modify or accommodate those who are different from what a society at large considers “standard” or “average.” Some individuals may understand why accommodation is important for some individuals while others may not. Some individuals with particular aspects may desire to change in order to “conform,” while others may accept who they are and ask that things change to “conform” to them rather than them changing themselves to “conform” to things.
I bring this up because I can, in my own way, understand the difficulties of not being considered, much less being regarded as the one to change in order to fit in rather than making changes to make things easier for me to participate in. My personal example is rather minor in the grand view of things, but it has affected me throughout my life and affected what I got involved in or invested my time in.
I am left-handed. If you think it’s not a big deal, then I challenge you to use your non-dominant hand only for a week straight, using ergonomic devices that are ill-suited to that orientation. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is using safety scissors as a kid that failed to cut paper properly since the blades were pushed apart rather than pushed together by the very action of using them to cut. Or handwriting or drawing pages of material with constant smears or stains of ink or graphite covering the bottom of my hand because the left-to-right writing method winds up dragging my hand across the freshly-marked page constantly.
Since there’s only 10% or so of the population that is left-handed, I face cost increases for trying to find items ergonomically designed for me, whether it’s scissors or electric guitars. While typing on a QWERTY keyboard is easy for me, an “ergonomic” one isn’t with my typing style, and playing piano is a thwarted interest because the very hand I’d be more likely to instinctively use to play free notes is instead relegated to playing chords while my clumsy non-dominant hand tries to hastily and accurately hit a flurry of notes while trying to stay in time.
Being a left-handed person in a right-handed world has been quite an experience for me. Regardless of any other attributes I have that could make me feel like an outsider, being left-handed has been a big one for me. In many cases, I have been made to feel by others that my left-handedness was a handicap to overcome instead of just a different sort of normal. Even looking at language, customs, and beliefs, my sinister trait makes me seem gauche in comparison with the right way to do things.
I remember how it felt to see someone who represented me, and it was rewarding. Oftentimes left-handedness was associated with evil, and actually having a left-handed hero made it easier for me to see myself in such a role. Whether it was having an action figure who could hold their main accessory in their left hand, or having a hero regularly depicted as left-handed, it made a world of difference to me.
So, I get it. And, on a related note, going back to the “would you change if you could” scenarios I posted above: I would not change via magic or super-science to become right-handed. I may consider ambidexterity, but I would still see myself as and be left-hand dominant. It’s the one part of my identity that I really feel the strongest about. I dislike the negative-left language bias in English as in other languages, and I actively try to avoid it the best I can, though it can be hard at times.
(Even when I try to use “correct” instead of “right” as a response, I’m still using a word that, at its roots, essentially means “right” direction-wise. Very frustrating, to say the least.)
However, I am aware that what is best suited for me and my preferences isn’t what best works for many more people other than me. I am aware that I do have to adapt to fit in or keep pace, even though I may feel at times that it’s unfair that I have to. That is the greatest challenge in any of this: to respect every individual, whether they conform to a particular set of “majority” traits or not.
I bring this particular can of worms up because diversity in gaming has been a hot-button politicized topic as of late, and gets latched onto like any other human endeavor or creation into the abysmal and toxic culture wars. Diversity isn’t a bad thing, but we don’t deal with the topic well or respectfully. We tend to consider our own stances and vilify any opposition to it, which only perpetuates the cycle of culture wars.
In role-playing games, there can be a myriad number of stories that can be told. However, in many instances, the memorable ones involve solving some sort of problem or overcoming some sort of challenge or threat. Adversity lies at the heart of the game, and whether mild or severe, overcoming said adversity is the goal of the game. With role-playing games, it’s a collaborative rather than competitive effort, so everyone contributes in some form or fashion.
However, part of this massive narrative can derive elements from many real-world incidents or concepts. Though the intent to use or refer to an element may serve as a quick and easy shorthand to communicate a concept with the participants, those elements could still have a harmful aspect that can’t be ignored. For example, Romani stereotypes have frequently been used in the media of the past, and efforts to remove where those appeared is made out of an earnest effort to stop using harmful stereotypes. While some may see this as an erasure of past attitudes and viewpoints that are no longer acceptable, we need to be mindful that these elements are being used in a revisited item that intends to get contemporary participants, rather than be ignored and lost to time with all of its original features intact.
So, how could this element be addressed?
Simply put, I think one way to do so is to inform all involved: the players, usually. Let them know what the game is and isn’t like. Provide a sense of general expectations that are or aren’t accurate: mining dwarves, forest-dwelling elves, militant hobgoblins, etc. Having a clear sense of what is and isn’t typical can help make game play flow smoothly, rather than having chaos ensuing due to personal incorrect assumptions.
If players show hesitancy or express resistance to this, then remind them how they might feel if they were playing a Star Trek campaign using assumptions valid during the Original Series era, except that the game being played is set during the Next Generation era. Or, how they would feel if they were playing a game set in the Eberron setting but players acted like it was like Krynn of the Dragonlance setting. In essence, wouldn’t they prefer to fit in with the setting of the game and the play, rather than intentionally clash and contrast with it and cause disruption? (If they want to cause disruption, then that’s a whole other issue, which I may address in another post. Or not.)
I also bring this topic up because, as I have seen and encountered in the past, sometimes players wish to adopt a role that is different from themselves, but not different from what is possible in reality. In some instances, it’s a male player playing a female character (or vice-versa), or a player adopting a different orientation than their personal one, or even having limitations or issues as a part of their character (such as limited ability or mental health issues). While I can understand the drive to experiment and try to take on the experience of others different from oneself, I am often very nervous about perpetuating stereotypes in such portrayals, or even trivializing a real struggle that people endure. This is not that different from issues regarding actors in respect to the roles they are playing (or should not be playing).
Part of the problem is that such adoption of other identities by individuals (often members of a majority group) has been done in the past by some as a means to mock or reinforce stereotypes espoused by some from said majority group, just as much as some may have adopted that role to provide an “earnest” depiction of those individuals. It can often rest on the razor’s edge of respect and mockery, or humor and derision, and be both and neither all at once, which makes it so infuriatingly annoying to us human beings who prefer simple, instinctive, often binary categorization of ideas and concepts. The removal of the Community episode “Dungeons & Dragons” because of Señor Chang’s drow/dark elf cosplay highlights this well.
A key thing that one should consider is what is your intent on playing someone different than yourself, and if there is anything that you might consider to be “naturally” a part of that character’s behavior that could come into question. Such reflection could serve to prevent instances occurring at the game table, especially with a new group whose expectations and viewpoints you are not aware of.
I think one problematic issue with player behavior in this regard is the failure to regard other individuals’ viewpoints. The defense of “well, I didn’t think it was offensive,” speaks to a lack of awareness of the speaker. Even “I didn’t mean to be offensive” is a problematic statement because it reinforces a lack of forethought about the age-old problem of intent versus effect. If intent was always clearly understood and never misconstrued, then the effect of that behavior would always yield the same expected reactions and behavior. But, as anyone who’s gotten into an argument over a misread text or misunderstood discussion can verify, what the effect of a message is compared to what the intent of the message was are two different things.
And getting down to the blame game of “not getting the message” is never helpful–step back, consider what occurred, note how it can be avoided next time, and move on. Obsessing about a miscommunication isn’t helpful, if it’s an innocent miscommunication. If it is something greater, then by all means address it to correct it, and not go ballistic in an effort to punish a transgression—if anything, it serves to alienate, chill expression, or even reinforce the very thing that you’re trying to stop in the first place.
Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, a pending release from Wizards of the Coast, will add to diversity, showcasing the possibilities of Dungeons & Dragons through a lens not often utilized in past editions of the game (at least through an official publication, of course). While the tropes and trappings of a fantastical pseudo-Europe are common for fantasy, as exemplified by Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Dungeons and Dragons, Warcraft and other prominent works, it is most certainly not the only possibilities viable. I’ve already pre-ordered a copy of the work, and I’m very interested to see what it adds to the game.
And that’s the thing—this is all about adding things. The more the merrier, I’d say.
After making a joke about Jada Smith’s haircut and saying she was prepping for “G.I. Jane 2”, Will Smith walked up onto the stage and hit the performer right in the face.
I honestly don’t know where to start with this.
I may have to update this later if charges are filed, (you can file within six-months), but tonight, Chris Rock’s loved ones saw him take a blow to the face in front the elite of Hollywood and no one lifted a finger in his defense. Worse, the Oscars are recorded and filmed in front of millions of people; and millions more, (like me) will see this clip replayed multiple times. And it will never completely go away. If you’ve never been hit in the face and felt the shock, or the helplessness of someone hurting you and everyone just ignoring it, then keep that in mind as you watch the clip.
I wasn’t watching the Oscar’s tonight, and I think the decline in viewership means most everyone else wasn’t either. But everyone’s going to be talking about them for a while now because this is big news. I’m sure this photo and the video of Will Smith walking about onto a stage in front of crowd, televised audience, family and God, and “smacking the shit” out of Chris Rock, (Rock’s words), will be all over the news for the next week. At least. It’s not just the slap, but that Will wasn’t arrested AND he stayed to win an Oscar later in the evening! At best, Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry went over to Will to talk to him, but that’s pretty far off from should of happened, or would have happened if this wasn’t Will Smith.
Let’s cover some basics:
California Penal Code Section 242 PC: Battery 1. Definition and Elements of the Crime
Battery under California Penal Code Section 242 PC is a frequently-filed criminal offense that involves any intentional and unlawful physical contact on another person. Battery is often discussed in connection with the offense of assault under California Penal Code Section 240 PC, however these are two separate crimes composed of their own individual elements.
To prove a charge of battery, a prosecutor must be able to establish the following elements:
- The defendant intentionally and unlawfully touched another person in a harmful or offensive manner.
- AND the defendant did not act in self defense, in defense of someone else, or while reasonably disciplining a child.
The slightest touch can be enough to satisfy the battery statute, if it is done in a rude or angry manner. Making any contact with a person, even if it is just through his or her clothing, is also enough to violate the statute. The touch in question does not have to cause pain or injury. In addition, the physical contact can be made on something closely connected to a person. For example, if a person is holding an object or riding a bicycle and another person strikes the object or the bicycle, that person could be charged with battery in both incidents because of the close connection between the physical object and the other person.
Pretty cut and dry: what Will did was definitely assault. Just watch a video of it and listen to the crowd get incredibly silent and uncomfortable the moment they realize it’s real and not staged.
But this is also going to be the first sticking point: defining “defense of someone else”, because the first headache in all this was that he didn’t like Chris Rock’s joke about Jada looking like she’s filming the next “G.I. Jane” due to her short haircut. Depending on who you talk to, that could be defined as an assault, or hate speech, etc. I certainly don’t believe that it meets the standard to be called “Hate Speech” or “Assault”, but that’s going to be one of the big debates over the next few weeks, because if you believe that it’s just a joke, then Will was way out of line. If Rock’s joke IS considered hate speech or assault, then Will’s act becomes defense of someone else. Expect this to be hotly debated over the next few weeks. Personally, I think that justification is thin; as a performer, he knows what it means to be on stage; as a human being, he knows about violence and the right and wrong ways to use it.
Now, for the Academy: I couldn’t find a specific rule, but I did find a quote from 2017 during the Weinstien scandal.
For this we need to go back to 2017, when the organization made a clear stance against misconduct after the industry sex abuse scandal. AMPAS CEO Dawn Hudson wrote to members via Variety:
“Academy membership is a privilege offered to only a select few within the global community of filmmakers,”
“In addition to achieving excellence in the field of motion picture arts and sciences, members must also behave ethically by upholding the Academy’s values of respect for human dignity, inclusion, and a supportive environment that fosters creativity,“ she continued.
“There is no place in the Academy for people who abuse their status, power or influence in a manner that violates recognized standards of decency. The Academy is categorically opposed to any form of abuse, harassment or discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability, age, religion, or nationality. The Board of Governors believes that these standards are essential to the Academy’s mission and reflective of our values.”
Walking up during the Oscars, the most visible and public moment the Academy has, and smacking the host on live television very likely violates “recognized standards of decency”. Up until now, streakers on stage and bad chemistry between hosts were the weirdest things to happen on stage. (5 of the Weirdest Things to Ever Happen at the Oscars (cheatsheet.com) Now we’re in a whole new territory.
We also come to problem two: no one came to Chris Rock’s aid when this happened. No one filed a police report, and even knowing that Will Smith was a winner later in the night, the production team just kept rolling and didn’t appear to change their night in any way. The Academy is in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” spot with this. By not acting against Will, it can be seen that because Will Smith is a powerful figure who just brought more attention to the Oscars then they’ve had in two years, and that they are still awarding a guy who is brazen enough to attack another member on public TV. If they do remove Will from the Academy or sanction him somehow, they’ll still be hit with the question of why they didn’t immediately act and why they still handed him an Oscar that night. If they continue to do nothing, it looks as though they don’t care, and if they do something, they’ll be judged that it was too much or not enough.
Where do I sit on this?I’m shocked he wasn’t arrested the second he got back to his chair. Chris Rock is a comedian, and this was an award show for performers who understand the nature of comedy and acting. Will Smith has been in the game for decades and has certainly joked and roasted others before. There is no excuse; this isn’t the 1800’s where they’ll be pistols at dawn to demand satisfaction, or the Wild West where we punch and shoot our way to justice. I completely understand Will’s desire to guard his wife’s feelings, but this wasn’t somebody’s backyard barbecue, or a billiard table at the bar, or schoolyard. Everyone walking in that door tonight understands the difference between reality and performance.
To be honest, how this is handled is going to say a lot about Hollywood. Can you imagine if Ryan Reynolds had walked up and done that? Or what would have happened if the host had been Billy Crystal and Will had done that? This wouldn’t have been right if it was two white guys, two Asian guys, two green aliens or any combination you could put together. At some point, we have to recognize human decency and where we cross the line. Will definitely crossed that line. This isn’t about race, but it might end up being about power if Will squeaks by with no punishment.
Here’s the question: “If this hadn’t been Will Smith, would this have gone differently?” I think the answer is actually yes; I think the only reason he wasn’t immediately approached by cops afterwards is because he’s a mega celebrity. He’s in the AAA tier. Because it was Will Smith at the Oscars, no one there knew how to handle it, even though the process was probably crystal clear.
Did Chris Rock cross a line, first? Did he “deserve” it?– No.
I’m not an expert on victim blaming. But I am familiar with the Oscars, and when they’ve had comedians host, part of the joking can occasionally be roasting the audience sitting in front of them. Even if this wasn’t a group of performers who were sitting there, would an audience member in a comedy club coming up to the stage and smacking the comedian be acceptable? No. So why would this be acceptable here? Part of Chris Rock’s job as host is to entertain; there is an understanding between performers and the audience. Will and Jada didn’t like the joke; I get that. Was it in bad taste? I don’t think so, but that doesn’t really matter: there are times and places you can let performers know that what they said hurt you. Walking up on stage and hitting the performer isn’t it.
What exactly is a “broken” power in fiction? I’ve talked about this a bit when we talk about Mary Stu’s and Gary Stu’s, but I think it helps just to tackle this by itself, because sometimes, characters are thought to be “broken” due to their powers, but may have other limitations that keep them grounded as characters. Other times, a broken power can kill the fun of the story. So how do we define this?
I define it the same way I look at a Mary Sue or Gary Stu: if the universe entirely bends around the powers of the character, so much that it breaking the rules of the setting the story is taking place in, the power is (probably) broken.
I think the best examples are usually found in Isekai Anime, which launches a lot of their stories with the premise that the hero is ‘breaking’ the rules of that new world with whatever power they have.
(Not all Isekai have lead character with broken powers. Some can be very, very good. But that said, it’s a subgenre that has a very high amount of stories that feature broken powers per capita. I don’t want you to think I’m just picking these anime.)
Let’s go a bit further. Every story has to rely on the basics: plot, setting, and character. Within the setting, there usually needs to be a set of rules on how that universe works. That goes double for works that include a system of ‘magic’, even if that magic is sci-fi based. Whatever ‘empowers’ your characters in your setting, whether it’s technology, psionics, magic, alien biology, mutant powers, or divinity, for the writer, there needs to be a set of rules in place for how they work. The audience may not need to know all of them, but anything you establish needs to have parameters for how it works, and normal parameters can be pushed, ignored, or broken, and what circumstances create each condition.
Brandon Sanderson, who finished writing “The Wheel of Time” series after Robert Jordan’s passing and has quite a few books of his own under his belt, has “three laws” that I really like to bring up to help define what we’re talking about.
What Are Sanderson’s Laws Of Magic? | Brandon Sanderson
Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
Sanderson’s Second Law can be written very simply. It goes like this: Limitations > Powers: It isn’t what the heroes can do that is most important to who they are, but what they have trouble doing. (Or what they can’t do.)
The third law is as follows: Expand what you already have before you add something new.
Let’s look at one that follows the rules: Gene Starwind and his caster from Outlaw Star.
The series establishes that this weapon let’s people without magic powers cast magic spells. There are conditions set: finding ammo for the gun is rare already, and the more powerful the spell you try to use, the more of your life force it will end up taking to cast the spell.
We see the series stay within the limits: there is a whole episode where Gene has to find ammo for this gun, and it’s an adventure on its own. When he uses them, it nearly kills him, exactly as advertised.
To ‘break’ this power, we would have these same rules in place in the setting of how a caster is SUPPOSED to work, but then have the weapon and the hero using as many shells as they want completely consequence free, defeating every villain with ease because the caster can just crank out spells on demand.
By establishing a set of rules and telling the audience, “this is how this is supposed to work and here are the limits” but then breaking those rules so that device/magic/power doesn’t need to follow any of them, and WORSE, bypasses all the limitations those rules were supposed to put on the character or story breaks a big part of the fiction for the audience.
A great example of rule breaking: Rey using Force Lightning. It’s been established as a Dark Side power that is only accessed by the evil characters. That’s rule one being broken. Rule two being broken is that she supposedly kill Chewbacca, (a consequence) which is immediately erased not long after.
The logic of the setting had already been established under the original writer for six films on how the Force works; it’s established that using the Force takes training, and using the Dark Side of the Force requires a Dark Side master to teach the advanced techniques, and the most advanced technique we see one use is Force Lightning. For Rey to ‘just use it because she wants to’ breaks that logic completely.
But what about the power itself? How do you define the power as “broken”?
Let’s go back to Isekai.
Shin in “Wise Man’s Grandchild” lives in a world with magical rules; he constantly breaks them. He can make any spell he wants whenever he really wants to. If there is a stated limit such as, ”one enchantment per item” that no top-tier enchanter can break, he will break that limit effortlessly.
The powers that the character has force the rules of the setting to change around the character.
This isn’t something like breaking the sound barrier, where no one thought it could be done until the math, technology, and skill lined up to do it. What we have here are the laws of magic for that universe being changed by this character’s powers whenever it’s convenient for the character.
“In Another World With My Smartphone” is probably an even better example.
In a world of magic and no high technology, the protagonist dies in our world but gets to pick something to bring with him: he chooses his smartphone, and that ends up being a universe-breaking device in the new world. There is nothing the character can’t accomplish in this new world thanks to this combination.
What’s the result?
It’s a total break of Sanderson’s Second Law. Now, Sanderson will always be the first one to tell you that no law is absolute. But even if demoted to a “rule”, it’s a pretty great rule for storytelling.
The Second Law: Limitations are more important (greater) than the powers.
This is what sets up your characters to be CHALLENGED. This is why determines whether they will struggle to overcome obstacles. And this also determines if they need to grow as a character or dig into their bag of noble attributes like guts, determination, or self-sacrifice to overcome their obstacles.
Fictions with broken powers typically have a busted protagonist that is uninteresting to watch, because they are never actually challenged.
How do you avoid it?
With characters like Superman, he’s mortal, not perfect, makes mistakes, cares about things like his job and relationships where his powers don’t necessarily help him, and good Superman stories show him struggling in a human way. The rules of the setting limit what he can or can’t do with his powers, give him weaknesses, (like Kryptonite) or conflicts, (like having to keep his word and rescue someone due to a promise, even if that means he can’t rescue someone he loves, like Lois).
Saitama is ungodly powerful, but the world doesn’t just bend down for him. He struggles to get work, he’s instantly loved and respected, and actually has to learn about what it means to be a hero sometimes by the examples of the other, more fragile heroes around him.
Spider-Man’s powers, though amazing, rarely let him profit from it. In most of his stories, it SUCKS to be Spider-Man.
With Asta in Black Clover, he’s a guy with no magic in a setting where EVERYONE has magic and it’s integral to the universe. His power for magic negation would look like a busted power on the surface, but it’s written with a TON of limits. On top of that, the character is shown having to work 50 times as hard as any other character to achieve even moderate results.
These are four really good examples of characters who could have ‘broken’ powers, if the writers hadn’t done such a great job in their stories making sure that the limitations surpassed the powers. Each character struggles; it’s not a physical struggle, (like Saitama and Superman), sometimes it can be a person struggle that puts limits on the character.
“Broken Powers” usually break the laws of the setting that has been established in their fiction, and they break the setting so hard there is likely no real challenge for the person using those powers.
In the short run, it can be fun to watch someone in an Isekai, for instance, turn the setting on its head. But in the long run, it usually makes for boring characters and stories, because the person using the busted powers is never really in any actual danger, and may not have to grow or change at all to surpass their limits or overcome obstacles.
Along with my posts that I’ve noted as “Minute Musing,” I’ve decided to establish another category: “Can of Worms.” These sorts of posts are ones that I feel may be likely to provoke conversation or response, quite possibly of the passionate or heated variety. I’m aware of this, and so have noted that fact by the very label of “can of worms.”
One thing I have seen argued time and again over my years in gaming has been arguments about various systems or aspects of systems used in games. There have been many game systems created and used over the years, many in an effort to properly “capture” the feel of a particular genre or medium, or perhaps in an effort to “fix” a system that some see as being inherently “bad” or “broken” in their eyes.
The reasons and systems debated are countless: class-based systems versus skill-based systems; systems that use one type of die or multiple types of dice; systems that use abstractions or simulations for events such as combat; systems of alignment or indication of a character’s character, whether acceptable or unacceptable in particular contexts; systems trying to replicate a specific fictional series of work authentically (like officially licensed games for well-known franchises); and so on.
Frankly, everyone has their own preferences for game systems and play, though I’d say those preferences are shaped to a degree by the enjoyment experienced playing those games, and not just because of the supposed simplicity or efficacy of those systems. I still have fond memories of the Basic/Expert/Companion/Master/Immortal Rules set for Dungeons & Dragons (often called BECMI D&D), but I do find 5th ed. D&D to be a much more friendlier system to learn and play with.
The thing is, we all have a wide variety of opinions, tastes, preferences, experiences and the like that shapes our palette when it comes to everything–food, entertainment, work, friends, relationships and so on. Though we may believe that there could be a perfect one-size-fits-all solution to a problem, we can’t agree on what that solution is, and we can be particularly partisan or hostile when it comes to why our preferred solution “works” and anyone else’s proposed solution “doesn’t work.” To be brutally honest, our subjectivity ultimately dominates our judgment with things we feel passionate about, despite our best attempts to remain truly objective with the process.
Some systems do “work” better for certain genres of games, but I feel that there are unspoken elements behind these genres that aren’t necessarily considered in the grander scope of things. I’ll provide an example that immediately comes to mind: skill-based games in general.
In many instances, skill-based games are built on the default premise that all of the characters are human, or human in origin, or human-like in form. Skill-based games work great along the line of thought that anyone could potentially learn anything, and thus have a diverse grab-bag of skills and developed abilities over the course of their lives. Starting characters have a pool of points from which to build their characters, used to develop a character’s attributes, skills, and the like.
However, the mathematical balancing method of this approach poses a problem: it assumes everyone is human. In many cases, options implemented to show that the character is not human (whether an alien, mutant, or fantastical species) is done by providing unique traits that can be acquired through spending points, most often the very same points used to develop skills and attributes. Ultimately, this puts non-human characters at a disadvantage, because the very same pool of potential they draw from is lesser than that of a “typical” human character due to being not human.
I can understand the concept of game balance, especially if the creators of the game don’t want players all rushing to play a certain limited range of options because they provide more benefits or options than a typical “average” character. But to be fair, it is a bit of a balancing act. Recently, Dungeons & Dragons have changed a long-standing mechanic present in multiple editions of the game by eliminating set ability score bonuses for specific ability scores based on the race (or heritage) of the character. So, no more are elves, by default, more agile than humans on average, or dwarves sturdier than humans on average, or orcs stronger than humans on average and so on. You can have a frail dwarf or a clumsy elf or a feeble orc if you wish. It’s a nice change, and it helps break the habit of having specific race & class combinations exploited in the game. There’s some other changes as well, once again to allow players to create something other than the stereotypical version of a non-human character. However, this approach is by design, and it works for this specific game system. Rather than codifying every possible permutation of a character’s heritage, it allows the player to, within certain constraints, create their own heritage without breaking the system to gain an unbalanced advantage. So that human with elf, orc, angel, demon, dragon, and vampire heritage is something you can have, but it’s all going to be rather watered down and makes for more of an interesting family tree story rather than unlocking an ultimate power combo that “wins” the game.
The class-based system of D&D isn’t perfect, either, because there are realms of possibility that could be acted on if it used a pick-and-choose point-based skill system rather than having locked and set ability bundles as per a “class.” Once again, for the concept and original play style of the game, the class-based system worked because it allocated specific abilities to certain characters who played a defined role within a group experiencing the events of the adventure.
And that’s the key behind it all: what the possibilities, demands, and challenges of the imaginary world are, and how the players may navigate them. Having a group consisting only of agile, stealthy characters may be great for a heist-themed adventure or a reconnaissance-mission adventure, but they are most likely going to be wiped out if they are stuck in a brutal face-to-face confrontation with a powerful foe where their advantages are rendered useless or even are considered disadvantages. In those instances, the players built their characters off an assumption that their selections would allow them to dominate or avoid most of the challenges they expect to face. The only problem is that what they expect to experience versus what they will experience can be substantially different.
And regardless of the system, it’s player attitudes and approaches to the game that impact how well a game plays. In many instances, role-playing games tend to have an “ensemble cast” outlook to play—everyone contributes something notable to the game, at various times. No one character outshines the rest of the group, and thus no one character can be proclaimed the “hero” of the story with the rest of the group thus being relegated to the role of “sidekicks” or “supporting cast.”
I feel that the best analogy for the play style for role-playing games in general is the various Star Trek TV series. Problems arise when players try to treat the game like an episode of TOS Star Trek; they see themselves as a starring role (most likely Kirk, but also Spock, or even Bones). Other characters in the group are seen as part of the bridge crew—frequently present but not the focus of the narrative.
However, a well-run game or campaign, in my view, is more akin to episodes of TNG Star Trek; any and every character can be the focus of an episode of the show, and all of the characters who get to be in focus have their moment to shine. Picard is not Kirk, nor is Riker Spock (or even Data Spock), or Geordi Scotty—they are who they are, more than and above the stock character concepts the previous generation filled out. (Looking at the original pilot for TOS Trek shows this—Kirk isn’t far from pilot Pike, nor 1st Off. Spock from Number One, or even Bones from pilot Dr. Boyce.) The TNG series reflects the “ensemble cast” concept much, much more than TOS did. The opening credits for each series pretty much reveals this: only Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley had opening credits, while all of the TNG regulars had them, whether they appeared or were the focus of the episode or not.
But that also is based on the assumption that the game is a collaborative endeavor. It’s very possible for such games to have inter-player competition present, and as such each player has other players to potentially contend with alongside any of the threats by non-player characters or monsters. That’s a whole other dynamic that I’m not going to delve into, though I will say it’s more in line with “traditional” board games and war games where the objective is to succeed despite obstacles and competition. (It’s also a playstyle I don’t often enjoy or seek out because of more than enough experiences of gameplay with others who display poor if not atrocious sportsmanship, being sore losers or even worse winners.)
Ultimately, it’s the playstyle, players, and presumptions of a game that dictate the system used to implement the game. Is the game collaborative or competitive? Does the game encourage or require teamwork to achieve success? Is everyone playing a default human-like character, or is the range of possibilities greater? What is possible in the game? What isn’t possible in the game? It’s these sorts of questions that shape a game, and thus those sorts of questions that should be considered before decrying a game because it doesn’t use a system you prefer.
Why would be choose to use a setting like a post-apocalyptic future, a depressing dystopia, or some form of apocalypse in the future to set our story in? Because you don’t know how good you have it till it’s gone.
If this is what you know…
… but this is suddenly your reality in the story…
… it makes you take a second look at everything you have and have been taking for granted.
“Crapsack World” – in short, anything that CAN go wrong, HAS gone wrong.
There is a cathartic fun to crapsack worlds in storytelling. It puts your heroes in the absolute worst spot possible, and tells them to sink or swim. There is no question the hero has to dig deep and find reserves of strength, will, fortitude, and guts to survive in what should be an inhospitable landscape. But there is also a silver-lining: when your backdrop is this dark, and tiny speck of light stands out that much more. Something that would be a normal act of kindness, like sharing food, isn’t necessarily a heroic act in a perfect world where you can just hit the vending machine or walk to the fridge. But in story where most of the food is gone and everyone is starving, that same act of sharing food with another person comes at cost to the one sharing. That changes the act to being one of self-sacrifice!
Even if it’s not a total crapsack world, and is instead just your garden variety dystopia…
… it can still be very cathartic. No matter which dark setting you pick, the setting itself provides a warning to the audience of what letting our worst sins run rampant can lead to. The heroes existing in the dystopia might look a little braver for being in it and not succumbing to the same sins that the world around them has.
“Why the pessimism? Why are we so attracted to ‘dark future’ stories? Why don’t we have more happy, “Star Trek” type stories with optimistic futures?”
Well, life happens in cycles: we don’t know what the future holds, but we can look to the past and understand that from any one point in time, there are three possible outcomes: things stayed the same, things got better, or things got worse. Sometimes, much, much worse.
Generally speaking, we don’t know what future we’ll have past today; would it be the optimistic future of Star Trek, the dystopian future of Firefly, or the crapsack world of Warhammer 40k?
We don’t know.
Here’s what we do know: most people living today, (and I’m speaking in general terms here compared to all of human history), actually have it pretty good.
It’s not a perfect world we live in, but for many, it’s not the Zombie Apocalypse, the Terminator future, or the Mad Max madness that we see in those films, either. In fact, it’s a long way from those. For most people, (not all), most basic needs are met, and we can even indulge in our wants.
So if things are good right NOW, what makes the more contrasting story?
Things being the same
Things being better
Things being worse
The answer is, “worse”.
When it comes to fantasizing about the future and wanting to tell a story that other people will read, you’re looking to have CONFLICT; there are internal conflicts and external conflicts, and one of the easiest ways to provide those is if something is wrong in the world.
“I am not Starfire” is a story where the central character, Mandy, is complaining that her parent is too rich, too famous, too powerful, and that being their kid is just too much to handle; she wants to be angry at Starfire for her success and walk of the SAT’s halfway through, yet still have the audience believe Mandy is the good guy here. It might entertain a few people, but overall is going to miss the boat with a wider audience. That conflict is very narrow, and to be frank, makes the protagonist seem extremely shallow and selfish. Even as she gets powers and saves the day at the end, most of the themes are about just accepting how awesome you already are, and during a good portion of the book the protagonist flat-out has zero appreciation for her talented, successful, hero mother who was a literal slave before coming to Earth and actually overcame an immense amount of trauma.
The drama here is that Mandy has to find her place in this world, but for many readers, her plight rings false; the real issue isn’t that the world doesn’t accept her, it’s that she doesn’t accept the world, and wants the world to change to accept her as she is right now. Most of the conflict is internal, the stakes are personal and fairly low, and to be frank, it’s a pretty lousy story and adaptation of DC’s characters like Starfire. But I’m using the example because the setting for the story is essentially what we all would wish for: at least one loving parent, fame, fortune, and having an open future with all possibilities available. Against that bright backdrop, any negativity really stands out and becomes even more negative.
On the other hand, stories like “Battle Royale”, where a class of kids are dropped onto an island and forced to fight to the death is a story with much higher stakes and conflicts.
Getting dropped into a game of death has been played with in, “The Hunger Games”, “No Escape”, and more, because the setting provides an instant high-stakes conflict that automatically is pushing on the characters and threatening them at the highest possible level.
The dystopian setting ups the ante: it’s live or die for the characters. Does being a hero help or hurt you in this scenario? Do you stand by your principles, or just try to live and call surviving a principle? The problems are a hell of a lot more serious than internal drama about, ‘why does everyone love my mommy so much!?’
With such an extreme backdrop, any noble quality really pops out. Did you give that kid some of your food and let yourself go hungry? That’s not a big deal in a world where you can just run to the vending machine and grab a snack, but it’s a huge deal in a world where everyone is dying of hunger. That can be a huge power of the setting when we talk about story telling.
Optimistic stories definitely have their place, too. It’s just that since we face the future with uncertainty, it’s usually already tinged with fear. A lot of these future stories tap into something we already feel about the future and runs with it.
I’m definitely a fan of optimistic stories and a future where everything works out. On the other hand, I also recognize the inherent drama and conflict futures-gone-wrong provide in story telling, and I can accept that for a lot of writers, it captures their imagination. It becomes an easy “in” for providing high stakes and high pressure to their characters, and becomes a dark backdrop where any dose of goodness or heroism really stands out.
I just finished watching the film, (seriously, about 50 seconds ago), and felt like typing a review. The Adam Project does something I haven’t seen in a while: it breaks away from a lot of the modern story telling tropes to tell what I would call a classic story. What kind of story? Well, a simple one: “The boy learns a lesson.”
Without going into spoilers, the movie is obviously about a time traveler, (Future Adam), who goes back in time and teams up with his 12-year-old self, (Younger Adam) to stop a villain who is abusing time travel. Along the way, there is a character study about growing up, dealing with the loss of loved ones, how we find ourselves, and rediscovering that the parts of our past that we liked the least may have been some of the best parts that shaped us the most.
Younger Adam is played by unknown actor Walker Scobell, who truly knocked it out of the park as an actor! Not only does he do a great job with the script that is handed to him by ranging from humorous to heartfelt, he nails a lot of the Ryan Reynolds-isms and sarcasm. That style of talking, that oral cadence is very specific, and Walker did a terrific job with it. Ryan Reynolds is very much just Ryan Reynolds; he does a good job being himself, and I don’t fault him for it because that’s obviously why he was cast and a huge selling point of the film. Thankfully, he’s a legitimate actor, and turns up the emotions when needed in the script. He actually has some powerful moments because not only is Future Adam dealing with personal loss, he’s dealing with Younger Adam, who is dealing with Younger Adam’s loss! How do you help yourself through a tragedy? That’s part of the fun of the movie, and I don’t want to spoil it.
I will spoil this though: the movie uses one of my favorite songs, “Gimme Some Lovin'” by The Spencer Davis Group not once, but twice in the film, making this truly a nostalgia trip for me, since I associated that song with my own childhood and listen to it all the time even now. It’s one of the reasons I think movie is a great throwback to movies of the 80’s that would use songs from previous decades in their storytelling.
Speaking of which, the reason I say the movie jumps backwards in time in terms of story telling is because of the near complete lack of social commentary in this film. There are no preachy speeches about saving the environment, rich white people being the problem, or about racial injustice. I’m not saying they aren’t part of the film, I’m just saying the story and script return to a, “Show, don’t tell” method where it’s up to the audience to analyze the film and the movie choose not to filter the experience with any social commentary filters for you. I liked that a lot! It’s a movie that just shows a strong female characters without making them perfect or having to make them unrealistic. In fact, Adam’s mother, (played by Jennifer Garner) is the picture of a woman going through heartache, but by being honest to that experience, the movie connects the audience to her character very easily. We all can see our mom’s in Adam’s mom… I know I certainly did! Yes, strong women can be action girls, (there is one in the film played by Zoe Saldana), but being a strong woman can also mean being a parent struggling as a single mom.
And I really appreciated that! It’s also a movie that let fatherhoood actually be cool and important again, instead of the post-modern beating it usually gets during films that want to focus on toxic masculinity. This movie definitely has a few statements to make about it, but again, it doesn’t bash you over the head with it. And in a very touching way, Mark Ruffalo gets a nice chunk of screen time, just like Jennifer Garner, to show that the relationship between father and son is an important one. It’s also one that many men tend to deal with their whole lives, and the movie doesn’t shy away from that. It even goes the extra mile to deconstruct how our adult perceptions of who are parents were in our past may be off base, and a positive theme of the film is pushing the audience to see their parents and pasts with different eyes.
It does have a lot of modern traits to it, especially in the action scenes, CGI, and stunt work. Thankfully though, those elements serve the plot and the story, not the other way around. Just like in classic films like Total Recall or Back to the Future, there might be some jazzy looking prop or special effect up there on screen, but the prop isn’t the story. It’s not a film about the props. Just like Back to the Future, it’s a story about using time travel as a plot device to help us learn about ourselves and the people we love.
I give this movie a big thumbs up! It’s not a movie you’re going to strain your brain with, and it’s not an instant classic, but it sits in that happy sweet spot that merges being fun and entertaining, with just the right amount of being heartfelt. I never felt like the movie was trying to be completely serious or completely silly, and instead, just aims to tell its story in a straightforward manner without bashing the audience over the head with politics. I think this movie would have tanked terribly if it was done with a, “Ha ha ha, look how much smarter we all are in the future and how dumb everyone was back then!” – attitude that is prevalent in a lot of fiction these days. Instead, the movie just paints a picture and lets you glean what you will.
The Adam Project: if you have Netflix, is a fun ride that will leave you feeling pretty good! It’s an upbeat adventure, and it reminds you to reconsider those parts of your past that you think you want to escape from. It doesn’t shy away from saying that you have to work hard to achieve great things or changes, but it does point accurately at a trend we have as human beings to rewrite our own history in our minds. If you’re looking for a fun popcorn movie to watch on date night, this one definitely fits the bill!
Well, that is The Question, isn’t it? (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself!)
Inour writing series, this is a good time to explore inner drive for a character if they don’t have some personal loss as the inciting incident to kick off their quest. Many super heroes and heroes in fiction DO, because it’s an excellent inciting incident that is filled with emotion. That’s why so many heroes lose a parent, a sibling, a girlfriend, etc. in their origin story: it’s a life-changing moment that triggers a change in the protagonist.
Yes, almost every super hero has a personal motivation for what they do, (like Batman’s loss of his parents or Spider-Man’s loss of Uncle Ben), but that doesn’t mean that is what’s at stake in every story, or the driving force for every hero.
Sometimes it’s a personal, internal driving need that fuels the protagonist on a particular adventure or story: it could be the thrill of the hunt, a moral code/an innate sense of ethics, or an inner belief system.
Many crime thrillers have protagonists who are fueled by the stakes of the case; someone has been murdered, someone could be murdered again, or just the puzzle itself of how a murder was done might be enough to fuel the drive of the protagonist. For some hunters, it’s all about the chase.
Investigators like The Question, or classic heroes like Sherlock Holmes are driven by the hunt and the chase. The need to find answers and solve riddles in the deadliest game of life and death provides all the stakes they need.
What’s at stake? –In stories like this, the bad guy gets away if the hero fails, and that usually means more mayhem and destruction.
Also, you don’t have to have personal tragedy in order to have someone rise to the occasion or challenge.
The hero’s motivation should be personal, but it can be a personal sense of justice, an obligation or sense of duty, or because the hero is highly motivated to prevent other people from experiencing pain and loss. These are typically people who choose to adopt a code of ethics, a belief system, or channel their inner desires towards protecting others.
Paladins, Guardians, White Knights, Sentinels, Watchmen… there have always been particular descriptions of people that describe the ever-vigilant protectors who are called by a sense of duty mixed with righteousness to combat evil. They do it because they feel the call to stand against evil and darkness, even if it means they personally sacrifice of themselves to meet that end.
Characters like the Green Lanterns are chosen; essentially they are space paladins who take an oath and live a by a creed, sworn to uphold justice in their space sector. Paladins in most fiction are warriors of righteousness who take up the call in service of others, and are some of my favorite characters of all time.
A key aspect of most of these characters is not the desire to be a hero, but the desire to serve others.
What’s at stake? – In stories like this, evil triumphs when good men and women do nothing.
Or, you could go a completely different direction, and have the hero be very reluctant. They may be a hero not because they’ve lost anything personally, but because they are fighting for recognition or to help two opposing factions/sides/views reconcile.
Chris Claremont’s X-Men from the 70’s is a great example of a team dealing with a lot of personal problems, but typically end up being heroes because at their roots, they are idealists fighting for a better world for all, not just because they’ve suffered personal tragedy.
What’s at stake? – In stories like this, in the long term, the stakes are that if the protagonists act, the world itself may change and get better. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s worth fighting for.
I mean, if you really wanted to, you could even boil it down to a generic, “hero of justice” approach that you get out of some Manga or Anime, where the lead character does what they do just because, “it’s the right thing to do”. I’m definitely overgeneralizing this one, but I thought it might come up.
It’s a lot cornier than Paladin I described earlier because it comes from a more immature, childish place that’s more self-centered around the protagonist’s view of themselves. Unlike the Paladins/Guardian types I mentioned earlier, these characters DO want to be ‘the hero’, even if most of them don’t admit to it.
“Heroes of Justice” tend to be much more selfish; their mission is based off of an idealized sense of self and self-importance. The main difference in my book is that most ‘heroes of justice’ tend to hold onto their desires because they feel it makes them special, even though they might not admit it or be aware of it.
The Paladnis and Green Lanterns I used as an example earlier are typically called into service and are, (for the most part) not doing it for any type of glory. Heroes of justice tend to have false modesty and enjoy being the hero of the story. The trope in anime usually has the ‘hero of justice’ making speeches about their beliefs because it’s their whole personal identity and makes them feel special in comparison to others.
What’s at stake? – In stories like this, typically a hero of justice is pitted against a true ideological opposite or villain, and their battle is one of outlook, where one is proven right and the other wrong, and both have their personal identities on the line.
Ultimately, it’s up to you. These are some suggestions, but as a writer, you have to figure out what you’re passionate about and put that into your writing. Even if it’s not a love of family or personal familial stakes that drive your story, your protagonist will still need some personal fuel to light up their fire and push ahead in the story.
I’m not good at riddles, but I love a play on words. Is “The Batman” good? – Yes, yes it is. And yes HE is. The movie was well done and the character of the Batman has come back to his heroic roots and origins as a detective.
It feels strange that I need to type that out, but with the Snyderverse Batman having been branding and killing criminals without a second thought and directly using Frank Miller as an inspiration, (specifically, “The Dark Knight Returns”), it’s actually been a while since we’ve seen a more canon comic-accurate Batman. Matt Reeves’ take on the character isn’t 100% accurate to the canon comics, but it goes back to the right roots: The Batman is ‘good’ again; ironically, I can say that, “The Dark Knight”, (with an emphasis on “Knight”) has finally returned, and it’s a pleasure to have this Batman come out from under Miller and the Snyderverse’s shadow.
I know that seems a strange place to start a movie review, but this is a Batman movie that isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s dark due to having a scary set of villains doing some really evil deeds. The upshot is that our hero is here to stop them, not join them, and this Batman certainly does not act in such a way as to make us question if he is as bad as the villains he chases.
I have to mention this because Frank Miller’s most famous Batman story was an out-of-continuity, (and in many ways, out-of-character) story about Batman that hit the post-modern nose on the head in 1987. Ever since that came out, when people ask, “what’s a good Batman story to read?” the answer most people tell them is, “The Dark Knight Returns”. This has ended up having tragic results for Batman films because Miller’s work is a dark opposite of what makes canon Batman so fantastic. Batman V. Superman has Miller’s influences all over it, and Miller’s work doesn’t make for a Batman who is heroic or a foundational character to build anything off of. It’s a deconstruction in the truest sense, and savvier writers like Christopher Nolan wisely avoided much of that material, though the recent “Snyderverse” was laden with it; that part of why I think the Snyderverse of DC floundered so hard: we weren’t really watching heroes, because the writers of the film didn’t believe in heroism. That is the influence of Frank Miller and post-modern deconstruction.
Which brings us to, “The Batman”; I really enjoyed this film because instead of using Frank Miller’s work as a base inspiration, it gravitates more towards the Denny O’Neil era in terms of Batman’s characterization and stories: he’s a DETECTIVE.And the journey of the film is transitioning from the Caped Crusader of vengeance to the Dark Knight, (emphasis on KNIGHT) who is the champion of Gotham.
Other films capitalized on Batman’s plethora of fighting skills, training, and larger than life mystique. Yes, Batman is a martial arts master and scientist, but primarily, he was originally designed to be Sherlock Holmes in a cape. This tones down the larger-than-life aspect of the character; if you’ve seen the meme that ‘all Batman needs is prep time’, well, I have good news for you: this isn’t that Batman! This is Original Recipe Batman, very much in the vein of O’Neil’s revival.
Denny O’Neil, for those who don’t know, is the person who brought Batman back to his darker, detective-based roots and revived the character of The Joker who had been lost in camp for about two decades during the ‘camp’ era of the Comics Code Authority. Denny oversaw many stories as the writer and editor of Batman and Detective Comics, presiding over some of the most intense eras of Batman stories I ever read. He was also the editor on “The Dark Knight Returns”, which is part of why that work was good due to his reigning in of the writer. Frank Miller without an editorial leash with that same version of Batman was seen in, “All-Star Batman and Robin”. In that storyline, Batman is a full-on psychopath, kidnapping Dick Grayson and forcing him to eat rats in the Batcave, and being sexually aroused by beating on criminals. The phrase, “I’m the God damn Batman!” comes from ASBAR, and not in a good way; it was like a crazy man declaring how proud he is of being crazy. So much of why “The Dark Knight Returns” tends to be popular is, (in my opinion), because of Denny O’Neil’s understanding of what heroism is, what Batman is supposed to be about, and his efforts to make Miller either tone down or rework parts of the story so that the Bruce Wayne presented had at least some heroic shades of the canon version.
The Batman isn’t a perfect translation of the Denny O’Neil’s work on Batman, but it’s the first time I sat through a movie actually feeling like I was reading the comics again and watching Batman peel back the layers of a mystery.
I can’t express how awesome and amazing that felt! That was a huge part of the fun as a kid reading Batman stories; each issue was another piece of the puzzle bringing Batman closer to confronting the villain for a final time and hopefully, stopping their maniacal plans. That, without any spoilers, is the plot of “The Batman”. In a very Denny O’Neil way, the movie is about working the case piece by piece as it is presented. The movie’s run time is just a few minutes under three hours, but I’m grateful they didn’t try cutting this film any more than they probably already did.
And Batman’s not alone; Jim Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth, and Selina Kyle are all contributing to solving the case as well. In true detective story fashion, and a hallmark back to the O’Neil comics, Batman is the smartest guy in the room on a good day, but he is just a man. He can’t be everywhere at once, and just like in the comics, relies on partnerships to achieve his goals. His enemies are smart and capable, so the tension in the story comes from matching wits and wondering just how Batman can get ahead of his enemies. No other movie captured Batman on the hunt like this one has, which is why it really stands out from all the other films!
Good mysteries and detective stories have to build momentum. Everything in the film is geared towards that purpose. Even The Batman’s theme in this film is a slow-moving build that eventually crescendos with a powerful two measure theme that has the feel of a slow march. It’s the same music from the trailer, which was just as powerful in the film as it was there.
On a quick sidenote, that made me pleased as punch that the excellent trailer music for The Batman actually was from the soundtrack of the movie and the actual music in the scene! That’s the kind of confidence this movie has in itself and is one of the reasons the movie is so damn good! It’s also great to finally see a movie where everything wasn’t spoiled in the trailer!
Visually, the movie borrows a lot from movies like Seven; Gotham has gritty and nasty interiors, dark streets and lots of shadows. High society has a gothic feel and an opulent level of wealth. Even nightclubs are underground and hidden behind a veneer of decay. The look of the film is then tied to the costume design choices and cinematography which has a surprising result: Batman looks very much like a man in a cape in a city and world that is much larger than himself. He looks very human, very mortal, and not very intimidating.
And that’s part of themagic; almost every criminal who sees him in the film for the first time realizes that everything they’ve heard about The Batman really just boils down to a very human looking man in a caped costume. This is in stark contrast to every other Batman film I can think of, where a lot of the movie and the in-universe character’s time is spent trying to do the opposite: they try to make Batman look like more than a man in costume. “The Batman” goes the other way, with spectacular results. A villain might scoff at seeing Batman for the first time, but then Batman’s fists go flying, and he literally walks straight through gunfire and goons like an unstoppable force.
It’s not 100% comic-accurate, but I think it’s a fantastic way to play within the spirit of the character, because it helps flip the mythos building of Batman. Here, everyone knows he’s just a man and sees that it’s just a man; but his legend is growing because he appears to be an unkillable one. What they see him do is so far beyond normal that even though they know he is just a man, he has grown into something much more in their eyes. It’s really fun to watch this happen in the film, as people who scoffed at a man in a cape are won over by his dedication, self-sacrifice, capabilities, and heroism.
Speaking of which, I deeply appreciated that this film tries approaches Batman’s classic morals: he doesn’t kill, he doesn’t use guns, and he works hand-in-hand with the police. At the end of the day, this is a journey to find a way to inspire hope in the citizens of Gotham, which is a town without morals or hope.
After the Zack Snyder’s brutally dark Batman in his films and his personal insistence that fans are morons for liking a Batman that doesn’t kill, it was great to see a classic Batman on screen again. He’s dark enough to wear a mask and beat criminals with his fists, but he’s not casually murdering goons in the name of justice or vengeance. This Batman knows all too well how tragic the loss of life is on both the victims and the survivors. I can’t say much more than this, but I appreciate seeing a Batman on screen who may not be a perfect person but can hold the moral high ground against just about everyone else.
Speaking of seeing a good Batman on screen, I have to give a nod to Pattinson’s head, which is the perfect shape for the molded cowl the costumer made. Pattinson in that costume looks great as Batman, which is a huge plus, since he’s in that costume most of the film. The costume design, fight choreography, and fight sound effects borrow a lot from Marvel’s Daredevil, but it’s in a good way. The fights are fantastic, and now, they’re also in a wide enough shot that we can see the action as it happens. It makes Batman look all too mortal in a harsh world and makes him that much more intimidating and heroic when he puts everything on the line.
I did have some issues with the film, but they’re mostly minor. I don’t think any of the cast really stands out as being a well-performed version of the character they are playing. Pattinson isn’t the best Batman, Kravitz isn’t the best Catwoman, etc. etc. They’re also not the worst versions of the characters, either, but I don’t think anyone is coming out of the film with the awe we had for Heath Ledger’s Joker. None of the actors are bad, but none of the actors are great, either. And that’s actually okay, because…
…what works is that the film’s story is the main driving force of the film, and the story is quite good. It’s methodical, well-paced, and full of some fun surprises. It’s a script that was good enough that as long as the actors showed up and said their lines with even a minimum effort, the movie was going to be good. As it is, it’s very good. But it’s not perfect. The characters don’t have a ton of chemistry between each other, but it’s enough to keep the ride going. And since none of the actors really stand out as extremely good or bad, the whole cast more or less just gels: we accept the part they are playing and then forget about it as we ponder the angles of the mystery they are tackling.
The real magic of the film is how all the pieces come together and make something stronger than any individual piece. Taken as a whole, the script, the acting, the direction, the art design, the costuming, the fight choreography, the music, and the pacing make for a very solid and confident film! It takes inspiration from several sources but has a clear vision of what it wants to be and goes for it.
The only thing that does cause some speed bumps in the story are the social commentary elements; I can’t go too far into it without spoiling parts of the film, but the lines stick out when characters talk about how white rich people are the problem, systems are corrupt and bad, and the only way to have a better tomorrow is to burn everything down and start over. I find these statements deeply ironic when they are found within a script, setting, and world that has been completely devised to make the complaint a reality. The production race swapped Jim Gordon and Selina Kyle from being white to black, and so it’s clear that the same production and script could have done the same for the villains… but didn’t. A nearly all-white ensemble was cast as the people in charge of Gotham, and then shown as corrupt to make the point that rich white people are the problem in the film. Having a writer comment about how crappy something is through the voice of a character within the same universe they are writing feels contrived and preachy. Thankfully, it’s pretty sparse in terms of overt dialogue, but because most of the movie treats the audience in an intelligent fashion, the moments where the commentary comes out feels forced. Aside from that though, most of the script simply follows the characters and the action, allowing the audience to form their own opinion on what is being presented, and sticking to the universal battle between good and evil.
To close this out, let me say again: this isn’t a Batman film for everyone; in fact, kids should probably avoid it and adults with short attention spans might have most of the film go over their heads.
But for fans of the character or of mystery thrillers, and even action movie goers will likely enjoy the film as much as I did. And if you’re a fan of Batman being a detective or the Denny O’Neil era of Batman, then you’re in a for a treat. The movie doesn’t copy the comics point for point, but it definitely embraces much of the spirit of the O’Neil era.
Batman is a detective. He’s a dark knight with an emphasis on “knight” not “dark”. He’s an imperfect character fighting against talented villains in a city where he is outnumbered, and only has a few allies and his wits to try to save the day with. It’s a classic hero tale that I don’t want to spoil, but needless to say, it was a great three hours!
Hunger can be terrifying, whether it’s what it drives you to do or what it drives others to do to you.
Cannibalism, fully in the sense and definition of one eating one’s own species, is an ancient taboo and probably one of the oldest horrors thrown about. And for those of us in nations or regions with regular access to food of some sort for the majority of our lives, it’s an unimaginable sin often attributed to “those” people who aren’t as “evolved” as the rest of us. In a way, this disdain crosses the species line and can tinge some rhetoric of individual vegetarians or vegans on how they regard others of broader diets.
But I ask you, and them: what do you know of hunger? Real hunger? Ever-present and mind-gnawing hunger? FIght-or-flight primal survival mode hunger? Not being hangry, or not having your blood sugar crash, but absolute, genuine, hair-graying hunger? Because that is the hunger that lies at the base of terror and nightmare that is cannibalism. It’s not the crazed psychopath frothing for human flesh because the neighbor’s parakeet told him to do it or else his blood would dry up in his veins, but the average, everyday person in dire circumstances driven to the brink of desperation, and with little to no other options to pursue in a desperate attempt to survive.
Because such realities have been in this nation and other nations at various times, often due to bad weather or harvests. A successive wave of bad luck for agriculture could wipe out small communities, whereas large events harrowed nations and regions. I will not provide links in this post, but I can say running a simple Google search (whether image or all) on “1920s Russian famine” will generate shocking images that have been committed to film. The event it is part of is the greater upheaval and food instability that underlie the establishment of the Soviet Union; an event that was used as background to explain what made Dr. Hannibal Lecter into Hannibal the Cannibal. The fact that it’s not commonly taught or gone over in detail is, perhaps in part of the shame of it having occurred in the first place, but perhaps a self-inflicted piece of denial by a society that lived on after it (much like, say, the members of the white community who perpetrated the Tulsa race massacre).
It is a dreadful reality that has occurred, and may yet still occur despite many efforts to prevent it, whether at home or abroad. And it all starts with addressing the reality of what is there to eat when the default, reliable and expected staples are not?
For me, the term “delicacy” in cuisine equals “horrible tasting food ate to avoid starvation.” Snails are not an immediate choice for a meal, especially compared to fruit, gathered nuts and berries or nutrient-rich animal flesh. But when there’s not a single thing available except for snails, it’s suddenly an interesting menu option. And it’s often pursued because, if we’re not alone, we know that desperation may make us consider the horrible specialty menu reading us over at the same time. There’s lots of old cartoons showing anthropomorphic castaways looking over their companions as prime dining, but the unfunny undercurrent of the joke is the reality it reflects.
The raw shock and horror of the experience in real life is best shown in that iconic work, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors. Horrid as it is to phrase this next sentence in this way, but it is, in effect, a best-case scenario of doing what must be done to survive. There’s no drawing of lots, no desperate pleas to be spared, no ugly fights for life, and no morbid rending of still-warm freshly-dead flesh to satiate the maddened state survival instincts triggered in the attacker. Think more of the horror of the film Ravenous and its 1840s America context, loaded with nods to the Donner Party and Alferd Packer.
Finally, to really reach into what I would argue is one of the most conceptually frightening horror films of all time, and its various reinterpretations and additional performances, I would like to touch on the mondo film genre and its voyeuristic observation and judgment of cultures other than our own, and how it spawned the cannibal film. The most infamous of these films is Cannibal Holocaust, with its real animal suffering and stunts that left anyone but the performers wonder if actual violence and crimes were committed to the cast. The most recent of these is Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno. But, ultimately, both focus on outsiders breaching or invading an isolated community only to fall prey to that community (for justified or unjustified reasons). And, cannibalism is an aspect of these fictional tribes’ isolated culture surviving and thriving, with the acts, beliefs and methods used becoming required rituals to keep the community going.
Though the cannibal films and mondo films pack a punch, these are works created by snobs meant to shock and astonish a bunch of other snobs using bigoted shorthand, and still dehumanize the other even when the other has been humanized; in Cannibal Holocaust the foreigners get what they deserve, but the fact that the natives still did what they did is a statement about the natives in its own right.
This ultimately brings me to the film franchise I’m going to talk about, which has a new release on Netflix: the Texas Chain Saw Massacre (TCM).
As a kid growing up in a part of Texas not that far away from what terrain was shown in the film, it scares me. Not scared, but scares me still. Why would some 70s slasher flick do that to me? Because it’s not just some 70’s slasher flick. It’s not some escaped murderous lunatic carving up people in his old neighborhood, it’s not a vengeful mother or son punishing the selfish and wicked along with any other unfortunate present. It’s not some Grand Guignol for the masses. It’s a horror story unfolding before our eyes which has been firmly rooted in the time of its creation, allowing it to very easily be mistaken to be found footage or a performance of a very real event that occurred recently.
There are several entries into this particular film franchise, but I am specifically going to focus on the original film. The reboot/restart sequels like the 3D one or anything else like that all sort of miss the point and try delivering into the “monster mythology” of the family or its most recognizable boy, and thus demote Leatherface into yet another common slasher film killer. And, from my initial viewing of the Netflix offering, my original plans to review the new film fell by the wayside as I realized that this new release also misses the points and powers of the original film, and feels like it’s merely trying to capitalize on the nostalgia success that the latest Halloween films have enjoyed.
As many reviewers and critics have noted before, TCM is a gruesome fairy tale of old: Hansel and Gretel stumble across the old witch’s house and almost get gobbled up. Or rather, the band of youths foolishly go astray and fall victim to the mad and cruel bandits dwelling not far. That isn’t the actual plot, but the beats are there and resonate with the audience. It’s a “happy” ending since there’s a survivor, but that’s the only “happy” aspect of the story. To understand the full weight of forces that created the cannibal clan, we need to look at the 1970s, as well as some key events before then. Madness plays a role in this story, but not to the garish degree of extravagance that drama likes to crank it up to for a “memorable performance.”
Before TCM was made, America was shocked to its core by the actions of one Mr. Ed Gein of Plainfield, Wisconsin, in 1957. You may Google search him and his crimes, which included murder, mutilation, and graverobbing, and find more pictures that you would have ever known to have existed. His madness and crimes inspired the book Psycho, which in turn inspired the film Psycho, which in turn generated a lot of material on crazed killers and unhealthy familial relationships and the like. Add on to this time the ghoulish fascination of serial murder cases, like the Cleveland Torso killer or Ted Bundy, and you have the pot of imagination bubbling in America at the time.
Around the time of TCM, the nation was facing the decline of the Vietnam War, as well as economic woes and downturns that struck everywhere: the promise and prosperity of those propaganda-tastic golden 50s had dissolved, technology and its advances were winnowing jobs through innovation and automation, and conflict in the Middle East, itself a legacy of decades-prior colonialism and decades-current Cold War scheming, impacted fuel supplies and prices, leaving lines of customers waiting at the gas pumps (sound familiar?). Throw on top of this the withering death of small communities after their economic arteries were severed with the broad cutting pass of the new U.S. Interstate Highway system (oddly echoing the “train company bypassing the town” trope once more), and then you’ll see where our ogres of old may lair.
For the younger readers who may not have gotten this in the first pass, a summary for thee: Imagine growing up in a rural farm community, and have been part of the community for generations. Community stories and memory can recollect bad weather events or famines or scandals or moments when the Civil War or Great War or whatever war hit home. Like many generations of old, families tended to stick to family businesses, and all were ill-prepared to leave the community and find a niche elsewhere. Now, as the youngest members of the family, you are watching the way of life known by your family crumble away one way or another. The glory days of the past are too far gone to try and catch them again, and doing what you’re good at isn’t enough to keep money in your pocket, and then at some point, food on the table. You know doing it yourself isn’t an option, because you don’t have the land or the skill or the bout of luck that would have let you be a farmer, much less let any of your ancestors be farmers. Raising and selling livestock was the way of the town, and jobs linked to that are the only means to make your way in the town.
You’re not homeless, since you have the family household to live in, but it isn’t worth much and can’t offer much to move elsewhere and start again, so selling the home means homelessness. Maybe back in the day the family had livestock and land to sell, but misfortune and whatnot already drove the family to sell those things off long ago. And, the big drive a couple of decades ago was to get bodies out of the fields and into the factories, so you did along with your family. But, nowadays, because costs are bad and measures must be made, the factory starts to invest in technology rather than training workers, and old jobs start to fall by the wayside. Skilled killers and butchers aren’t needed as much anymore at the slaughterhouse thanks to automation and more efficient and safe meat processing procedures.
So now, trapped in a soon-to-be-ghost town, sheltered under the only home you’ve known, and rendered useless to the community by time and technology–a community that didn’t always welcome or accept you and your family in the first place–you’re driven to do anything to survive, even if that anything is a bit unthinkable.
However, how unthinkable really is it? A bunch of hollering and squealing comes out a pig just the same as a chicken or a bull–they just wriggle around differently. Death is part of life, too–that piece of fruit on the table is just as dead as that strip of bacon, and they both came from something that was alive not that long ago. The only difference is that the piece of fruit couldn’t run away or scream. The screaming and the killing doesn’t bother you, because that’s just life on the farm or on the old job. It’s been going on ever since the time of the Bible, and it’s just how life is.
So you start to do what you’re going to do. You pick off people that those around these parts aren’t going to miss–drifters, lost travelers, escaped criminals, and the like. And lo and behold, it works out. There’s food on the table again. But there’s always lean times when it comes to hunting and farming, so it’s best to stock your larder for when those days come around, like when there aren’t as many travelers or there’s lawmen sniffing about. What’s the point of those lawmen, anyway? They didn’t keep the slaughterhouse from firing all of those people, or arrested them when they failed to pay any severance or pension. The law’s always been hard on the family, and they don’t care to deal with you at all if they had a choice.
And by mercy, it’s working. In fact, you’ve got so much that you have a hard time keeping it from spoiling. What can be done? Well, sell it to anyone else who’s hungry? You just don’t waste good food. Don’t have to tell anybody the secret recipe. Heck, if they come back for more, then they’re no better than you. You can sell off all that other stuff that’s left behind, too, after keeping the things you like.
And, then, what do you know? A gas shortage. Sure it means that you can’t sell gas and make money that way, but it makes it easier to go harvest.
Though the description I used above uses “harvest” instead of “hunt” or “kill,” the vocabulary doesn’t really matter much–the deed is the same regardless of the word used to describe it. And this perspective, from what I can intuit, maps onto the minds of the cannibal family members in TCM. There’s suggestion of incest in the family (but not confirmed), but that detail would reinforce the idea that the family is an outcast family in a small, declining community. Desperation and abuse and unchecked mental health issues hang on the family like the skin on their bones. And then, with that troubling foundation, throw in the existential crisis of unemployment and starvation. It’s not just another bad year, but the end. The well is dry, and the family can’t just up and leave like everyone else is doing. This is home, and they’ve been through too much to abandon it now.
The family does what it knows and what it can to survive, but built on a flawed logic driven to further extremes out of desperation. In the original film, the family consists of three grandsons and a grandfather: an end to a family line. All three grandsons have some degree of mental issues, based on whatever reason (once again, incest being an inferreed reason), their respective ages also reflecting their respective instability.
The Cook is the “sane” face of the family, who maintains a facade that allows victims to be drawn in. He’s also able to voice reason and play individuals’ natures against themselves, such as him advising to keep away from the old farm near the family home. He knows a well-placed “you oughta not do that” is enough to get some to do something they’re inclined to do anyway. However, he’s not able to slaughter the livestock like his brothers, and he has issues with having his authority being respected, resulting to violence and abuse to maintain the household.
The Hitchhiker is a polar opposite of the Cook: young, wild, unpredictable, and unaware of how his behaviors are off-putting to others. He’s the irresponsible bratty younger brother who always clashes with the eldest. However, he is one of the most capable of the killers, and shows a genuine love of his work and of the craft. He’s also the kid who plays with his food, torments the livestock as it awaits its slaughter, and a morbid artist who crafts and sculpts with the dead. We learn that the scenes of desecration in the graveyard at the opening of the film is his handiwork. He’s more cunning than we are led to initially believe, but his energy and mania often overwhelm him and lead him to act impulsively.
Finally, there is Leatherface, the iconic killer of the film. He is not some massive wall of menace terrorizing individuals, but a large young man with deformities and severe developmental issues raised in a horrible environment. After Leatherface kills Jerry in the family home, we are provided a closer look at him, and it’s clear that he has Hutchinson’s teeth, a classic indicator of congenital syphilis.
He is the one who does any actual killing in the film, and he continues to do the work he knows, but with a different species of livestock. This massive menace is easily dominated by the other two brothers, and he fulfills certain roles that the family lacks by literally assuming a new mask to fit the role. The mask we initially see is a work mask, worn when he slaughters victims. The next mask, that of an old lady, is when he works as a domestic, preparing meals and getting the house in order for dinner. Finally, the pretty lady mask that he wears at dinner echoes the Southern tradition of dressing up for dinner, showing that tradition and doing things as they’re supposed to be done is how he was raised.
In fact, I’d argue that when Leatherface does what he is supposed to do and how he’s supposed to do it, he succeeds. The first youth, Kirk, is killed with a hammer blow, just like how a farmer may lure in a hog to be slaughtered. Then, when Pam is caught and put on the meathook, it’s not any different than catching a loose animal so it can be dealt with later. And finally, when Jerry stumbles into the house, Leatherface dispatches the intruder in defense of his home. Three quick kills that were successful and done the way they should’ve been done.
It isn’t until after Jerry is killed that things start to go wrong for Leatherface. He is realizing that there may be more people coming to the house to look for their friends, and the prospect whets his appetite. In his mind, he’s being clever by laying in wait outside of the house and ambushing anyone who comes along. He also thinks that if he uses the chainsaw instead of a hammer, he’ll wound them so that they can’t run away, or possibly that he can butcher them on the spot and not have to clean up a mess in the kitchen again.
The only reason why this ambush is successful is because there’s an impaired victim present: Franklin, the wheelchair-bound brother of final girl Sally. Whereas Sally can easily run away, Franklin, in a wheelchair not made for going through the wilderness, is just an easy target to be disemboweled by Leatherface’s chainsaw. Sally flees, and she ultimately escapes because she’s able to outrun Leatherface and go somewhere that has been made out of bounds for him: his older brother’s gas station. He suspects that he’s going to be in trouble, so he hurries home to put away the meat of his recent kill, as well as get the house ready for dinnertime.
Leatherface’s fears are proven right: the Cook returns home with the escaped girl in tow and starts berating both brothers for their mistakes. It reinforces that if he doesn’t do as he’s been told, then bad things are going to happen. This repeats itself with the final scene where a feeble Grandpa is given the honors of killing Sally. Excited by stories of Grandpa’s efficiency as a slaughterer in his prime, the family manically watches as his weak form tries and tries again to strike a killing blow. But this time, it is the manic impatience and overexcitement of the Hitchhiker that leads him to try to take the hammer and do it, resulting in the intended victim gaining an opportunity to escape.
Both younger brothers pursue after the victim, Leatherface with his chainsaw behind the thin, wild and wiry Hitchhiker flailing about with a straight razor. While the Hitchhiker is able to get close and grab a hold of her hair, he has abandoned any sense of his surroundings and stumbles out into the path of an oncoming 18-wheeler. In a morbid way, the wicked little boy ran out into traffic to catch the escaped little animal he was busy torturing, and he died as a result.
Leatherface, on the other hand, is still a formidable threat and in full attack mode. He’s able to scare off the trucker who tries to help, and he causes both to flee. However, he fails to account for the possibility of someone being able to fight back, and is caught off-guard when the trucker hurls a wrench at Leatherface’s head. Leatherface’s poor choice of weapon literally comes back to bite him, wounding his leg and impairing his ability to catch the loose prey. His failure and frustration is palpable in the tantrum dance he has with a running chainsaw that serves as the final scene of the film.
The film is full of instances of things going wrong and warnings. The astrology references, not trusting intuition over altruism, the unheeded advice, and even the disobeyed orders of the Cook all lead to a disastrous end. And, of course, the ultimate taboo of cannibalism overarches the film. And there are such veins of thought that creep into the mondo films and cannibal films of the time: what would one expect but such horrible things to happen there?
In essence, rural Texas becomes the American stand-in for the untamed wilderness full of savages. It’s a trope used to disparage indigenous peoples for centuries, and now its focus has been placed on the isolated rural folk of our nation. A place that tends to trend more conservative than urban areas, and whose values and practices seem outdated or even cruel in comparison. This phenomena of rural savagery crops up in other media, whether the pagan practices of The Wicker Man and Midsommar, or the grim stonings featured in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or in countless other pieces such as the classic Two Thousand Maniacs! or Kevin Smith’s Red State.
However, TCM departs from the rest of this rural horror genre because it’s about the actions of a lone family driven to desperation, though out of sight and thus out of mind for the world at large. It does not have an entire community participating in the act, as in The Wicker Man or Two Thousand Maniacs!, since the dying community is part of the problem anyway for the outcast family in TCM. It’s not a condemnation of rural America, but a dreaded light shining on the evils possible there. However, though the family does wicked things, there’s no indication that they’ve been wicked from the outset, like many tales of Sawney Beane and his family of inbred cannibal bandits. In fact, I’d argue that Sawney Beane is better represented in The Hills Have Eyes rather than TCM, but that’s a whole other discussion.
The rural isolation of the family allows for dysfunction in the family to flourish and fester for generations. The rural nature of the community enables the family to stay out of sight and keep to their business because it’s what’s expected within the community: keep to one’s own business to stay neighborly. Then, the stresses of job loss through a changing economy and the trend of vanishing small communities through innovation and technological progress pile on top of these bad variables and create the perfect storm for the dreaded horror that is the TCM family to take shape. And it’s the desperation felt from experiencing true bone-gnawing hunger that drives the extreme actions taken by the family in the film. These murders were for survival.
And that’s the key to the horror of TCM. It’s about survival; necessary evils. Imagine what America would be like if it went through a famine like the ones that wracked the fledgling Soviet Union. The rural Americans are Americans like every other American, but their realities and circumstances are very different from those in suburban or urban centers. Options are limited. Regulation seems to come from afar and just serves to hamper one’s ability to get by. In short, any American family could have wound up becoming Leatherface’s family. The only difference is that it isn’t some massive apocalypse like a zombie pandemic or a global blight that drove the family to get to this point, but everyday events and circumstances that can occur in our everyday world.
Think of the global warming issue: this issue can lead to food insecurity in the future, and societal instability as a result. But the problem of global warming is not abandoning meat as a food source in an effort to reduce emissions. In fact, that would be a historically poor choice for humanity, because it assumes that agricultural food sources will always be reliable and never sparse or lost. The Irish Potato Famine should stand as a key monument to why an omnivorous diet is the optimal diet. And, though the desire to be a localvore is admirable, that is built on the assumption that being a localvore is possible. Even pre-industrial communities traded food and fare, and didn’t limit themselves to “local” produce. In fact, it was vital to survival that food trade and transportation was possible because of potential food loss due to disaster, famine, drought, disease, war, or any number of reasons.
The “ethical diets” of today are, to be blunt, snobbery. I am not discounting individuals adopting a diet that’s best for their health, but rather those who praise their diet over the dietary practices of others. Their assumptions are based on countless unseen networks and advances in agriculture that makes their “ethical” diet possible. Just a handful of serious compromises to these systems could negate those diets as viable options altogether. Food access and abundance is great, but it desensitizes people to the actual struggle that is getting and maintaining a regular food source, much less a specific type of food source.
The “ethical diets” also fail to genuinely consider the diverse array of dietary needs that are out there. I’m not just talking about kosher or halal foods, nor foods lacking particular allergens. I’m talking about health issues that render people unable to eat particular foods at all. As much as going meatless might be a good idea for my health, a lot of the meat-substitute options out there that are palatable to me are bad for me due to my thyroid issues. So what about me? Get used to eating unenjoyable food for the sake of everyone else for the rest of your existence? Is that the answer for everyone who faces certain food challenges because they are the few instead of the many? How about saying that to a parent whose child has to ensure these dietary restrictions?
And, in the end, it all doesn’t matter because nature can lay low human achievement, pride, technology, and confidence in a literal heartbeat. If global warming renders conditions for agriculture worse, then it won’t matter if we reduced our meat intake because we’d have starved to death waiting for all that plant food intake that didn’t flourish and grow enough to feed us. Delicacies would still be around, but the euphemisms would fall away and the practicality and necessity laid bare. Our thriving era would be gone, and the era of surviving would be back face-to-face with us again, as it was for several generations beforehand.
That is the pragmatic terror of hunger, which TCM works with so well. It’s seeing the predatory stare of the person across the table from you, no different from that of a slavering wolf or lion. It’s the possibility that we may revert to a stage like that ourselves in the name of survival, and then become so accustomed to it that we no longer bother questioning why we do it or if we should still do it. By having the family be abusive and inbred and insane we minimize the humanity of the family, and do our best to otherize them in a blatant effort of denial. It’s not the self-aware shame shown regarding the cannibalism in Snowpiercer. It’s gone well beyond past acceptance into the dreaded realm of commonplace regularity. It’s not just you seeing yourself in the beast, but the beast seeing itself in you. And the beast killing and eating you anyway.
I love The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I really do. But Elden Ring brings a whole new level of awesome to fantasy open-world games, along with the patented “Soulborne” style and difficulty! It’s more approachable than Dark Souls 3 was for new players and gives you a lot of options to play with but make no mistake: this isn’t an RPG that is going to hold your hand, and it expects you to WORK. Thankfully, the “work” is an absolute blast!
Let’s get the basics out of the way:
Does the game live up to the hype?
YES! It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played, and I’ve been playing video games since Pong was the best game available to gamers. I don’t want to make a guide or ruin anything about this game, though I am going to follow this up with a quick set of tips that YouTubers and gaming sites don’t want to tell you about this game. But I will say this: if you have the money to buy this game, DO IT. I’ve sunk in over 40 hours in a single weekend and feel like I’m still only scratching the surface!
Every location feels crafted, enemy types vary wildly from each other, and you never really reach a point where can just run on autopilot. You’re constantly engaged in this game, trying to piece together where to go, what you want to do, or what you’re trying to solve.
Is the game hard?
YES! But it’s not an insurmountable kind of hard. Instead, the difficulty is tied to your ability as a player to recognize what is presented in front of you and understand what options you have available. For instance, a mounted boss on horseback in the open world is a hard opponent, especially at the start of the game. In your bag of tricks, you have stealth to creep around, a horse to run away, and possibly a vast arsenal of spells, tools, weapons, and abilities to craft a battle plan. The choice is yours as to what you want to do.
There are many encounters I skipped in order to explore the world; in doing so, I found a lot of great weapons, spells, Ashes of War, (which tie special techniques to weapons; trust me, it’s amazing), and then I’d level up some, too. When I came back to earlier parts of the game, I was a wrecking machine on some of those early bosses!
A great example of how the difficulty adjusts to you is the map. Genre staples like map markers, directional pointers, or location pips on a compass are not given automatically. You have to find the map for the area you are in to see details, and on your map, you can place your own markers and location beacons to keep track of important places, quests, and NPCS. But the game doesn’t do it all for you. It’s harder than if it did, but not necessarily difficult because you can take more into your own hands.
Same thing with quests; Elden Ring may give you a line of dialogue about where a NPC is located for your quest; then that NPC might die. (This actually happened to me.) If you had a paper and pen handy and made notes about what they said, you’re good to go. If not, you might struggle to remember what that tip was.
How is the combat?
Flexible! If you’re a gamer who loves melee and has fast reflexes, you can put together playstyle that works to your strengths, making a melee damage dealer. On the other hand, if you’re like me and terrible at timing dodges and swordplay, you put together a ranged playstyle of bows, spells, incantations, and Ashes of War, (techniques) that let you dish out damage from a distance. There are a plethora of tools at your disposal, and you’ll likely find yourself, (like I did) experimenting and changing depending on where you are and what you’re fighting, even if you have a preferred style and flavor. This makes the game much more engaging than the, “lather, rinse, repeat” of many games with fixed combat systems.
Is it really Dark Souls + Open World?
YES! It’s very well done, and it makes me wonder why previous Dark Souls games didn’t include jump buttons and open maps. From Software NAILED IT!
The world is BIG. Spatially, it’s not nearly as large as something like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, but I think it’s way better crafted in terms of entertaining complexity. Due to the plot, the world is in the process of breaking, which means that many of the environments on the map are multi-level. Getting from one place to another isn’t as easy as just walking a straight line. But it’s crafted in such a way that you get used to exploring, and as you explore, you find a lot of hidden things naturally. Trying to find a way up a cliff face may lead you to a hidden door or dungeon. Checking out some building may have you finding an elevator that takes you to an underground city.
And just like other Soulsborne games, the team is the best in the business on showing a world that is bright and gorgeous on the surface but falling apart or rotting beneath. Many of the previews for the game show just the first area; believe me when I say that decrepit, poison filled areas or places strewn with rot, disease, or decay are to be found just like places of serene beauty.
Is it hard to know what to do or where to go?
YES… and a little NO.
This time around, the developers try to give you a little more guidance and hints on how to complete the game and complete particular quests. That said, there is a LOT that is hidden in this game!!! You will stumble onto some of the secrets on your own, while others might completely slip past.
I say, don’t be afraid of wrong turns or going off the beaten path. There are actually a lot of times your ‘wrong turn’ actually puts you in a place to see something you can’t get to you yet, but tantalizes you into trying to figure out how. I had a glorious moment tackling an underground city; at one point, I could look off in the distance to something I couldn’t reach and saw a single figure standing on a ledge. It wasn’t till hours later I unlocked a teleport gateway on a different part of the world map that took me to that spot I couldn’t see. It was an amazing feeling, and the game is full of these surprises!
There will eventually be a ton of guides written about this game, but I think every first run for every player should be one where they only look at guides if they are seriously stuck. For the most part, the game gives you the essentials, if you follow the clues the devs have left for you.
Should I buy this game?
This game is phenomenal. If you like open world, if you like Dark Souls, or if you just like games with RPG elements, this game is for you!
I love Skyrim to death due to how it is approachable, fun, and customizable through mods, which have given the game a life far beyond what should have been expected. Elden Ring is Skyrim for masochists: it doesn’t hand you everything on a silver platter, enemies don’t scale to your level, and a lot more is in your hands. But that said, the highs you get from figuring out a quest, putting a plan together to defeat a boss, or finding something new and unexpected is way higher as well.
Last night, I went to the edge of the map, saw something weird, and found a way to platform down a cliff face and fight the hardest Golem I’ve found in the game yet. Just getting down there was challenge that lead to my death multiple times, and the Golem fight was ungodly difficult. But, my reward for beating him, (other than PRIDE), was a new Ashes of War that was very cool. There were no outward signs anything was there initially; I looked at a particular spot though a magnifying glass my character has from multiple locations. Then I died a LOT testing whether there was a way down, and then died more when I found the Golem. But I had an enormous swell of pride and ton of fun from the experience, because I felt like in a game loaded with secrets, this one feels like it’s just mine.
The game is FULL of these. This is a 100% recommend! Buy this game!
Due to the situation unfolding in Europe, I couldn’t help but think of the complex nature of war. Though we, as human beings, prefer a simple narrative of “us good, them bad” in such matters, reality doesn’t permit such clear-cut narratives. Many films on war show a broad view on the issue, from patriotic boosting fare that riles up the populace to fight the good fight, to the horrid nightmare that is warfare and the complex issues that ultimately lead to human beings to kill other human beings because what they wear or say leads us to believe they are a threat to us and our way of life because our side says so.
By the way, in absolutely no way am I making light of war, or the damage and devastation it creates as a result. I have my opinions on the real world issues, which are not favorable for a particular small bald autocrat, but I am not going to go into depth about that here. Also, to be honest, wargaming is the field that spawned roleplaying games, so addressing this topic is apropos to the medium, regardless of the current state of world affairs.
A fictional franchise that does touch on and depict these issues well is the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. It shows the details of the event that the prequel Star Wars films only hint at and bookend, and for events that get pretty serious, it does a great job. The clear-cut good guy/bad guy narrative can’t be trusted, especially for the audience who knows that it’s all an elaborate scheme orchestrated by Darth Sidious/Chancellor Palpatine. We see heroic and noble Separatists and vile Republic members. We see neutral parties that get pulled into the fight despite their best efforts, all due to their own past issues and opportunists who exploit the conflict. We are given a way to reconcile how the clone troopers execute Order 66 without negating the likable qualities they displayed throughout the series.
On the other hand, we also have Star Wars: Rebels and Star Wars: The Bad Batch to show us how things are during the Dark Times, when the war has ended but the struggle has begun, and how the seeds of rebellion were initially planted during the Clone Wars. That, along with the film Rogue One, provides a great view of the steps that needed to be taken to carry on the insurgency, and how different personalities and attitudes led to factions and conflict, as well as the measures taken to ensure the Empire’s dominance. We can also see what led to the “downgrade” of troopers from the Clone Wars era to the original trilogy era.
I mention this because, as usual, this is all great fodder for a game or campaign idea. Though the source material genre may vary from the examples I referred to, it doesn’t take much to sort out the core elements and apply them to the design of an adventure or a campaign setting for TTRPGs. There have been plenty of instances and elements where conflict has occurred in our own history that it’s not unreasonable to apply them to an adventure or campaign. But, there are some key points that you need to address if you choose to employ this element. I’m going to provide examples using a generic fantasy/D&D-style as I explore and elaborate on these questions.
Who is involved in the conflict?
Who are the belligerents involved in the conflict? Are they two powerful nations? Two large tribes? A massive free-for-all conflict in a region in order to secure power and resources? Is there anyone abstaining from joining the conflict for various reasons, such as neutrality, trade, stability, or the like? Are there any alliances or old rivalries that come into play?
For example, let’s say our conflict is between two large factions: an alliance between humans, goblins, and orcs (the Auburn Armies: AA), and another alliance between humans, elves, and dwarves (the Cerulean Concord: CC). The giants, gnomes, halflings, and one other human nation in the region refrains from joining the conflict, and have allied to maintain their neutrality (the Detached Dominions: DD). Furthermore, a neighboring human nation outside the immediate region is watching from the sidelines, trying to determine what side to back if their sovereignty is ever threatened by the conflict (the Beryl Barony: BB).
What is the conflict over?
Why are the belligerents fighting? Is it over a long-standing issue? Issues of sovereignty? A misunderstanding gone horribly wrong? A belief or prejudice? Predicated by a disaster? A mixture of the above?
The AA consists of expansionist and power-hungry groups that want to gain territory and conquer more lands. The human nation in the AA also stoked the long-held grudges of its goblin and orc allies against the dwarves and elves, and those humans who support them. Furthermore, a succession of droughts and natural disasters have pushed the goblins and orcs to the brink, and they are desperate for survival.
The CC, on the other hand, has tried diplomacy and other avenues to avert conflict, but the AA has been intent on causing conflict. The DD hopes that by staying out of the conflict they may keep their independence regardless if the AA conquered their neighbors or if the CC drove the invaders back. The BB simply is waiting to see how the situation develops.
What led up to the conflict?
Is this conflict a result of long-standing tensions that finally boiled over? Is it a sudden change of the state of affairs, brought about by a power shift in the region? Is it an attempt (or another attempt) at one group’s aspirations of empire? Has there been growing unrest in the region over the past years or decades?
As noted before, the goblins and orcs of the AA suffered years of drought and natural disasters, disrupting their normal means of subsistence. While they tended to raid each other as well as any neighbors before in times of scarcity, the widespread scarcity in their region means that they have to look beyond their lands for a solution.
Meanwhile, the human nation of the AA has an aging despotic ruler who seized power after the death of the last legitimate sovereign. This leader wants to establish a strong legacy for himself, and wants to be in a position of dominance in order to enable his groomed successor to effortlessly ascend to the throne, while ensuring the public accepts this change and rejects the underlying rebellion trying to restore the heir of the legitimate sovereign back to the throne.
In the regions of the CC, the elves were facing inner conflict due to a faction of isolationists urging them to withdraw from the world in order to protect themselves. The dwarves are eager for conflict since they are tired of the raids on their trade caravans and aggressive actions by the AA. The humans of the CC are responding to raids by the AA on their border settlements, and news of atrocities committed in these attacks.
How do those outside the conflict view it?
Are they nervous that the conflict will spill over into their lands? Are they waiting for the right moment to join the fight themselves? Do they want to remain neutral, but are being pressured by one or more sides to join a particular side of the conflict?
With our example, the DD are nervous about invasion by the AA, but they are also nervous about being punished by the CC if the DD determines to side with the AA. Therefore, they are purposefully acting as neutral parties, focusing on fair and even trade between both sides. As a result, a lot of agents of both sides are in the DD, trying to either perform espionage on the enemy or persuade the leadership of various factions in the DD to get them to join the conflict on their side.
The BB, on the other hand, officially is uninvolved in the conflict, but sees it as an opportunity for improved relations with the CC. Their leader plans to potentially join the conflict on the side of the CC when it is in danger of succumbing to the AA forces. First off, the BB hopes to be seen as saviors of the CC, and secondly, they hope such a good reputation may enable stronger alliances between the two and even potential unification of their respective lands (all under the crown of the BB, of course).
Who’s winning the conflict? Who’s losing the conflict? What does “win” and “loss” mean?
Is one side clearly dominant over the other? Is it a stalemate? Will it be a quick conquest, or take several seasons or years for the conflict to resolve itself? Is it a multigenerational conflict, akin to the Hundred Years’ War? What does victory and defeat look like for each side involved?
Currently, the AA and CC are in a stalemate, stuck at key points along the frontline at critical junctions. The most notable area along the frontline is a major river crossing and trading hub that provides access to the interior of both nations. The once independent city-state that straddles that river is now a no-man’s land, with sorties frequently being made to gain or regain ground by each side. Said city-state was also once a member of the DD, but before it could establish itself as neutral ground it was attacked by the AA in an effort to seize control of this critical juncture.
What could turn the tables of the conflict at the point you’re starting at?
Could more forces joining the fight tip the scales of the conflict? Would a sudden game-changer, like a natural disaster or the surprising outcome of a key battle, disrupt the projected outcome of the conflict? Is such a game-changer possible or highly unlikely? Could such a game-changer be fulfilled by a small group, such as the players in your game?
The BB joining the battle could radically change the outcome of the conflict. As it stands, they are predisposed to align with the CC, though they are not directly threatened by the AA and see involvement in the conflict purely as a self-enrichment strategy at the moment. However, little do they know that the AA is near completion on its plans to gain the allegiance of the giants from the DD, and that the AA plans to have their giant allies attack the CC on their distant border with the BB. Furthermore, the BB has been “granted” as a gift to the giants by the AA as part of this deal. The revelation of this plot may cause the BB to enter the conflict earlier than planned, and even have the CC consider the lands of the DD as a future threat if they are not dealt with quickly. As such, the CC is seeking freelance operatives to go to the DD and find out what the AA is planning, and thwart it if they can.
What will the status quo be after the conflict ends?
Will things go back to normal, or will a new normal be established? Will there be any retaliation? Could the seeds for a future conflict be planted by the outcome of this current conflict?
Supposing that the players are successful in their task, they are able to relate to the CC the secret plans of the AA to gain an alliance with the giants of the DD, and the plans to allow the giants to take over the BB in the process. Upon discovering this, the BB enters the conflict on the side of the CC. Furthermore, the players also discover that the giants are not all behind the betrayal, but a growing faction within them was plotting to seize power and lead the giants into war. The players help the giants expose this plot, deal with the faction, and then get the giants, as well as the rest of the DD, to fully back and support the CC.
Continued action leads to the driving motivations of the goblins and orcs in the conflict, and a concerted effort to provide aid and treat prisoners of war and conquered territory kindly and fairly helps establish a movement among the goblins and orcs to switch sides. Now, the human nation of the AA is outmatched, and is driven to extreme measures to grab at victory. The end result is the ultimate conquest of the human nation of the AA by the allied forces of the BB and CC. As part of the peace process, lands taken from the goblins and orcs decades ago by the AA are given back to them, and a new ruler, legitimate by rules of succession but more inclined to peaceful relations with the CC and BB, takes the throne.
However, the grassroots movement present in the AA who was trying to install a more direct in line candidate to the throne does not approve of the “puppet ruler” installed under the “guidance” of the BB and CC. This force, along with bitter belligerents still angry at the loss of the war plot to seize power, and then get revenge against the orcs and goblins who betrayed them, the giants who lied to them, and the allied forces who defeated them.
The relations between the BB and CC are formalized, and the union between the human nations is strengthened by the marriage of the crown prince of CC to the crown princess of BB, since the unfortunate death of the crown prince of BB during the war. The conflict reminded the elves why staying involved in the affairs of the world is important, and the dwarves gained new trade partners in the orcs and goblins.
However, there is unrest in the lands of the victors as well. Old prejudices are exploited by scheming folk in an effort to empower themselves. Some speak of the unwillingness of the halflings and gnomes of the DD to enter the conflict, and suspicion of them grows. The human nation of the DD tries to rehabilitate its image, though growing pressure to join the young human empire evolving out of the BB and CC is present, especially as a way to show loyalty after the conflict.
All of these questions are meant to provide guidance for using this idea for narrative purposes. It can be rather simple or extremely complex, based on how much you want to delve into the theme or topic.