Smashing Toward Story

I’m moderately familiar with Harry Potter; it’s hard not to be, these days! I’ve read the books twice, and I finally watched all of the movies just this year. Yes, I know who Blaise Zabini is, but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an expert.

I am, however, completely freaking obsessed with the Traveller’s Tales LEGO Harry Potter games. My husband bought me the second one for my birthday and it’s the only thing I’ve played in the last week.

“Can you call this research,” he asked me, “or do you just like smashing things?”

“Research!” I answered indignantly. “Narrative research!” Since Hermione was smashing her way through the Room of Requirement at the time, I’m not sure he believed me – but I actually meant it.

Don’t get me wrong – smashing things is awesome. You play as minifig Harry and his minifig friends, in a world in which most items are destructible and produce studs (the game’s currency) when you shoot them with your wand. The smash interaction is very nearly perfect*, from the zap of your wand to the satisfying sound to the effect on the environment. The studs burst out from the destroyed object and roll across the screen. If you don’t pick them up fast enough they fade away, in which case you might not get enough studs on the level to earn the True Wizard designation. It’s a lovely tension between goal-oriented action and the pure pleasure of destruction.

The problem is, of course, that I can’t turn off my researcher brain when I’m playing, even when I’m playing for fun – and that means I notice things. This time, I noticed that my husband kept asking me what was happening in the cut-scenes.  I was surprised at how often he was confused. I’d thought the cut-scenes were incredibly witty, and not hard to follow at all! Then I remembered: he’d read the books just once, back in 2007 when the final volume came out.

Watching the cut-scenes with more scholarly eyes, I realized just how interesting the Traveller’s Tales approach to story is. The minifigs don’t speak, so the designers were restricted to a language of gesture and physical comedy. It means that all the reasons why things happen have to be painted in very broad strokes. For example, the designers had to express the idea of “horcruxes” – and identify which quest objects were horcruxes – without using a single word. Instead of laboriously trying to explain, they created a visual element that makes sense to someone literate in Rowling’s world. A simple picture with six items on it, shown by Dumbledore to Harry in a private conversation, says “horcruxes” to the educated viewer – and leaves the novice completely lost.

Similarly, each cut-scene has to leave the story in a place where exploration, problem-solving, and blowing things up makes sense. This means they’re often compressing large portions of the story into a short cut-scene, and expanding or inventing sections that are more playable. For example, the dramatic confrontation between the Trio and Umbridge is elided, while their subsequent trip into the Forbidden Forest is filled with obstacles and puzzles. The balance in the book is, need I say, the opposite. Once again, the cut-scene briefly references the book’s events (Hermione waggles a picture of Dumbledore in front of Umbridge, temptingly) but can’t actually attempt to tell that story on its own.

At the same time, the games go beyond re-telling the story of the books, and develop their own visual and narrative language. Of course, there’s an instrumental aspect to this: if something is metallic and shiny, it can only be blown up by the Reducto spell. However, sometimes it’s just for narrative pleasure. Carrots and pumpkins are always funny. Ditto enormous versions of common household objects, like the shears you build to cut down a hedge blocking your path. The minifig faces and bodies are shockingly expressive, even outside the cut-scenes. It isn’t just a retelling of Harry Potter – it’s a retelling with its own particular style, one that’s been developed across the entire Traveller’s Tale LEGO line.

To “read” the Harry Potter games, therefore, you have to be fluent both with the source material and with the LEGO video game line. For my husband, who regularly watches me play, the LEGO elements were effectively comic, while the narrative elements often left him wondering what had just happened. I expect that my friend Abby, who knows the Potterverse quite well but has never played a LEGO game, would have the reverse experience.

I’m sometimes deeply bothered by the practice of shallow symbolic referencing, but the LEGO games do it with wit, craft, and charm. Unlike, say, Wil Wheaton referencing one meme after another, these games don’t just make references to reinforce group identity – they use Harry Potter in order to do an actual retelling of the story, with its own strengths and weaknesses and point of view. I’d go so far as to call these games a very successful parody series, and I recommend them highly to anyone who likes Harry Potter, smashing things, or both.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to smash my way to the bottom of a frozen lake and retrieve the sword of Godric Gryffindor!

* There are occasional auto-target problems when you’re trying to shoot an object that’s too close to you, but the game provides a manual targeting option for these situations.

Eleven from 2011, Fiction Edition

My friends Danielle and Kaitlin suggested I do a best-of list from 2011. Without further ado, here’s my favorite fiction of the past year!

Okay, okay, a little bit of ado. I just want to point out that I re-read some really wonderful things this past year, including Vanity Fair and The Three Musketeers, which are among my favorite books of all time. For this list, though, I’m only including books I read this year for the first time.

1. Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra [buy]
Notable gangster Ganesh Gaitonde is cornered by the police – and found dead of a gunshot wound with an unknown woman beside him. Discovering why leads the reader into a huge, ambitious, and totally compelling multi-layered story. If you read just one book off this list, make it this one.

2. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel [buy]
Meet Thomas Cromwell, right-hand-man to cardinals and kings. Even if you don’t like historical novels, Mantel’s masterful balance between the personal and the political will keep you guessing how Cromwell’s story will turn out.

3. Stone’s Fall, Iain Pears [buy]
When arms dealer and financier John Stone falls out a window, the investigator hired to find out what happened uncovers a huge historical mystery. Starts slow, but gets harder and harder to put down.

4. The Leftovers, Tom Perotta [buy]
Three years after Rapture-like mass disappearances, the survivors are walking wounded, and Perotta lets you watch as they succeed (or fail!) at putting their lives back together. This novel takes a fantastic premise and makes it ring emotionally true. By far his best work.

5. The Engineer Trilogy, K. J. Parker [1, 2, 3]
A no-magic fantasy that deals with themes of economic imperialism, consequentialism, and love. Plus, the characters aren’t your usual bunch of fantasy meatheads; they’re smart, skilled, and deeply flawed. The female characters don’t get much agency, but the fact that I loved this series anyhow should tell you just how good it is. Parker, please write me some amazing ladies next time!

6. Big Machine, Victor Lavalle [buy]
A down-on-his-luck former addict is recruited to join a band of paranormal investigators looking for evidence of God’s existence. Murakami meets Denis Johnson, except that you’ll actually be able to follow the (very entertaining) plot.

7. The Silent Land, Graham Joyce [buy]
A young married couple finds themselves isolated at a ski resort after a flash avalanche. As their situation becomes stranger, they turn both to and away from each other. A sad, haunting love story that doesn’t sentimentalize the relationship at its core.

8. The Lecturer’s Tale, James Hynes [buy]
An adjunct professor of English gains the power to force others to do his bidding with a touch of his right index finger. Chaos in the academy ensues! It’s got the inevitable build of a great horror story, but spends plenty of time exploring scholarly ideas through biting satire.

9. The Devotion of Suspect X, Keigo Higashino [buy]
A young single mother accidentally kills her ex-husband – and her next-door neighbor decides to protect her from the consequences. Will his plan succeed, or will the police track her down and find out the truth?

10. Headhunters, Jo Nesbo [buy]
A high-level corporate recruiter uses his position to run elaborate scams. When he encounters a client doing the same, he ends up on the run and trying to survive. Tightly plotted and tricky, it’ll be an entirely different experience the second time around!

11. The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10]
A huge, sprawling, ambitious, messy fantasy epic, following dozens of characters across a multi-continent war and building on thousands of years of history. While it’s sometimes hard to follow, any book that has dinosaurs fighting zombies – and manages to make it dramatic rather than ridiculous – gets my vote.

Bonus, Graphic Novel Edition: Finder, Carla Speed McNeil [1, 2]
The art is gorgeous, the characters are realistic, the far-future world is compelling and genuinely strange. Buy the collected Library editions linked above for extensive commentary on the creative choices McNeil made. Highly recommended.

Happy reading, and let me know if any of these delight you!

You’re Not Making Marriage Look Any Better

New York magazine interviewed “economist Joseph Stieglitz” and “his wife Anya Schiffrin” about why marriage rates are so low.

Anya makes an excellent point about the practical implications of marriage for women:

A.S.: Obviously for women getting married also means a hell of a lot more work.

J.S.: Is that right?

A.S.: [Laughs.] Well, of course, we divide things up 50-50.

So, okay, she’s probably used to being “his wife” – I imagine that’s part for the course if you’re married to a Nobel Laureate. But it’s great to hear that, despite his fame, they’ve developed an equal partnership.

Oh, wait.

A.S.: I’d love to comment on that study, but everything I know about it comes from you. One thing that definitely happens in a marriage, speaking of division of labor, is a division of information. When I was a journalist, I had to pay attention to where the dollar was and what the stock market was doing. Now I can always ask you. And there are a million things you don’t have to pay attention to because you can ask me. All domestic matters, for example.

J.S.: I would say more broadly that it’s everything except economics. Movies, plays, culture …

A.S.: Who’s who, and why do we recognize that person. It really is everything but economics. [Laughs.] It’s dynamic comparative advantage.

So, he specializes in being an award-winning economist, and she specializes in household affairs and their social life? All of a sudden it’s looking a lot less like 50-50 to me – particularly since only one of those roles is lucrative and high-status. (And asking “Is that right?” about whether marriage means more work for women? That’s just adding insult to injury.)

What’s going on here? Was Schiffrin making a bitter joke about the division of labor in their marriage? Are they exaggerating the degree to which he abdicates from everything but economic excellence? How can they possibly hold both those points of view?

I’m guessing this is an example of value conflict. Steiglitz and Schiffrin likely value fairness, equality, mutuality, and all those other good things – and no one wants to admit that their life violates the values they hold dear. This is what Maushart calls “pseudomutuality” – a facade of equality covering an unequal and highly gendered division of labor. What’s fascinating is that pseudomutual couples don’t just fool other people; they often genuinely fool themselves into believing their marriage is fair, because they can’t bear the alternative. No one wants to think of themselves as an exploiter, or to admit that they allow themselves to be exploited and abused.

This not-even-very-close reading shows the ugly reality of many marriages, which fall far short of our collective ideals and values. Wondering why marriage rates are at an all-time low? I think that’s a pretty good answer.

Reading List 2011 (11/276)

The last of the 2011 reading!

  • The Head of the House of Coombe, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Robin, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Marriage Shock: The Transformation of Women into Wives, Dalma Heyn
  • Wifework, Susan Maushart
  • A Lady of Quality, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Duke of Osborne, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • In Connection with the De Willoughby Claim, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Vicious Little Darlings, Katherine Easer
  • The Information Diet, Clay Johnson
  • The Mammoth Book of the Best of the Best New Horror, ed. Stephen Jones
  • The Shuttle, Frances Hodgson Burnett

tl;dr – Burnett continues to entertain; Maushart says brilliant things about marriage and Heyn says uneven ones; Jones collects some excellent stories, but errs toward fame; Johnson provides a thoughtful take on media consumption, and connects it directly to action.

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Reading List 2011 (10/265)

Almost there!

  • The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
  • Twenty Years After, Alexandre Dumas
  • The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Alexandre Dumas
  • Ten Years Later, Alexandre Dumas
  • Louise de la Valliere, Alexandre Dumas
  • The Man in the Iron Mask, Alexandre Dumas
  • Ark, Charles McCarry
  • The Complete Ghost Stories of M. R. James, M. R. James
  • The Tree of Hands, Ruth Rendell
  • A Kiss Before Dying, Ira Levin

tl;dr – Dumas remains a phenomenal storyteller; James, Levin and Rendell are masters of careful, inevitable construction; McCarry goes way out of his comfort zone with reasonable success.

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Reading List 2011 (9/255)

Getting there, slowly but surely!

  • What We Eat When We Eat Alone, Deborah Madison
  • She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tales of Biblical Terror, ed. Gerri Leen
  • Mildred Pierce, James M. Cain
  • Mr. Chartwell, Rebecca Hunt
  • The White People, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Dawn of a To-Morrow, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Emily Fox-Seton, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Esmeralda, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • A Fair Barbarian, Frances Hodgson Burnett

tl;dr – Mildred Pierce is my favorite Cain, and it should be yours too; Hunt’s novel will haunt you; Burnett grows up; Leen collects some great stories and a few duds; Madison does second-rate things with a first-rate topic.

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Skin in the Game

Matt Taibbi gets very upset about bankers claiming they’re the ones with skin in the game:

But it seems to me that if you’re broke enough that you’re not paying any income tax, you’ve got nothing but skin in the game. You’ve got it all riding on how well America works.

You can’t afford private security: you need to depend on the police. You can’t afford private health care: Medicare is all you have. You get arrested, you’re not hiring Davis, Polk to get you out of jail: you rely on a public defender to negotiate a court system you’d better pray deals with everyone from the same deck. And you can’t hire landscapers to manicure your lawn and trim your trees: you need the garbage man to come on time and you need the city to patch the potholes in your street.

And in the bigger picture, of course, you need the state and the private sector both to be functioning well enough to provide you with regular work, and a safe place to raise your children, and clean water and clean air.

The entire ethos of modern Wall Street, on the other hand, is complete indifference to all of these matters. The very rich on today’s Wall Street are now so rich that they buy their own social infrastructure. They hire private security, they live on gated mansions on islands and other tax havens, and most notably, they buy their own justice and their own government.

Perhaps I’m slightly less cynical than Taibbi, but I don’t think it’s just that the very rich can opt out of our shared social goods. Don’t get me wrong – all of them can some of the time, and some of them can all of the time. But I don’t think that’s the core problem.

I think, rather, that it’s easy to take these shared social goods for granted, to assume they’ll always be there no matter how many pension funds get plundered or how much budgets get cut. The human mind is weirdly conservative. We tend to assume that the way things are is the way they must always be, particularly when they are deeply embedded into our institutions, our social rhetoric, and our values. They become nearly invisible, unless you’re one of the people encountering them day to day.

I don’t think Schwartzman wants to destroy, say, the police. I think he assumes the police will magically continue to exist, because that’s how America works. Because he doesn’t have to engage with the police, because he’s got enough money to buy himself out, he never sees the reality of the police – only the stories we tell about them.

I think it’s analogous to how a lot of men see housework; clean clothes magically appear, and if they ever bother to think about the process, they assume that’s just how life works. They keep throwing dirty clothes on the floor*, knowing that the clean clothes will just keep coming – until the day their wife walks out on them, because actually they have no idea of the work they are creating or the person who is doing it.

In my analysis, Schwartzman and his ilk are in a similar situation. They think the way things are is the way they’ll always be. They can keep acting just as they like, because a functioning society is just how things work. And because their social bubble keeps them away from people who have to engage with those social goods more directly, they’ll keep thinking it, right up until the day things stop working for them.

* I do feel the need to say that if anyone throws clothes on the floor in my relationship, it’s me – but laundry remains a job primarily done by women, so I’m using it as the example here.

Reading List 2011 (9/246)

Relatively recent reading! What a delight!

  • Darwin’s Radio, Greg Bear
  • Devices and Desires, K. J. Parker
  • Evil for Evil, K. J. Parker
  • The Escapement, K. J. Parker
  • House Lust, Daniel McGinn
  • For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage, Tara Parker-Pope
  • 11/22/63, Stephen King
  • Hothouse Kids: How the Pressure to Succeed Threatens Childhood, Alissa Quart
  • Evelina, Or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, Fanny Burney

tl;dr – Parker does no-magic, very smart fantasy; King and time travel are a great fit; Hothouse Kids delivers good insights; the title character of Evelina may strike you as sickly-sweet, but the story stands the test of time.

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Reading List 2011 (11/237)

Getting close to done – with the year and the reading list!

  • Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain
  • Double Indemnity, James M. Cain
  • Against a Dark Background, Iain M. Banks
  • The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1, M. T. Anderson
  • The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 2, M. T. Anderson
  • The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson
  • The Grifters, Jim Thompson
  • The Sibling Effect, Jeffrey Kluger
  • The Crossroads of Time, Andre Norton
  • Quest Crosstime, Andre Norton

tl;dr – Anderson produces some genuinely astonishing work; Cain, Thompson and Hill duke it out for the dark-corners-of-the-soul award; read Kluger as a memoir, not for the science writing.

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Reading List 2011 (12/226)

Getting closer to the end of the list!

  • Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, Christian Smith, Kari Christofferson, Hilary Davidson & Patricia Snell Herzog
  • Think, Lisa Bloom
  • A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, Margaret Drabble
  • Indigara, Tanith Lee
  • The Affair, Lee Child
  • The Wandering Falcon, Jamil Ahmad
  • The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Little Lord Fauntleroy, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Lost Prince, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Finder Library Vol. 1, Carla Speed McNeil
  • Finder Library Vol. 2, Carla Speed McNeil

tl;dr – Think is full of great advice for young women, Burnett’s books are charming (classics and obscurer titles alike), and Finder will blow your mind. Borrow Lost in Transition – you don’t need to read the whole thing.

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