Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Lineage of Influence, From Catch 22 to Scrubs

I'm currently on a bit of a classics kick lately in my reading, having read The Man in the High Tower, then All Quiet On the Western Front and now Catch-22. I've enjoyed all three quite a bit so far even though I am only about a third of the way through Catch. One of the things that struck me about it how similar it is to the TV version of M.A.S.H.

MASH itself has a bit of a confusing legacy. It's best know as the TV show that ran from 1972 to 1983 about surgeons serving in the Korean War, a TV show that was an adaptation of a largely forgotten movie that was itself and adaptation of an even more forgotten book, overshadowed by the TV show that bares their name. And for good reason, MASH is unquestionably one of the greatest TV shows of all time, a personal favorite and one I re-watched in its entirety early this year. So what does all this have to do with a novel written in 1960 that no one really remember outside the phrase that it gave its name to?

Turns out quite a lot. You see, Catch 22 is about a pilot in World War Two who's only goal in life is not to die. Drafted and thrown into a war zone he spends as much of time trying to get out of fighting as he does getting thrown in to it. Surrounding him are a group of wacky, crazy characters who get into their own antics and adventures. The whole book is basically one long, incredibly manic episode of MASH, even though it came out over a decade before MASH the TV show and a whole seven years before the book that inspired the movie that inspired the show. Confused yet?

Don't be, cause they're all rather similar from a bird's eye view. You see MASH the TV show is about a surgeon drafted into the Korean War who's only goal in life is not to die. He spends a great deal of time roaming the camp and getting into trouble with his hair brained, psychotic cast of background characters until the shells start flying and the casualties start coming in. Then he's up to his elbows in blood and guts trying to save the lives of kids who should be making out at drive in theaters instead of dying in a war zone.

Both of these stories are about people trying to stay sane in living hells, in the worst places on earth and craziest of all, both stories are meant to be funny. They are comedies through and through. They exists to make you laugh. Cause what's funnier than war?


I cannot say for certain what inspired the collective writers of MASH over the years because I have never met them, but I think the influence of the novel on the show is fairly clear to anyone who has witnessed both works. And there's nothing wrong with that, taking influences from what came before is how we grow as writers, it's how we push the medium forward.

I think too, that a novel like Catch 22, itself coming out to mix reception at release and then going on to becoming one of the classics of American literature helped pave the way for shows like MASH, itself a risky and boundary pushing show of the time. MASH, the show, had an enormous challenge ahead of it. This was a show about Korea, the last great American War coming out in a time of America's current greatest war, Vietnam. The show was meant to serve not just as comedy, but as a political statement. That was hard enough to do at the time, hell it's hard enough to do now. But to go the extra step and say we want this to be a comedy, to go even further and say we want this to be a comedy with a message, with dramatic intent, with a political will, well that's damn near impossible. Even if you can pull it off on paper, even if you get a studio to green light it, getting an audience to ride the emotional waves as you crest and crash from comedy to casualties, from laughter to tragedy is a challenge for any writer in any medium.

But they pull it off. Both Catch 22 and MASH are able to pull off this effortless drift along the spectrum in a way that somehow feels natural, maybe because that's how real wars are, laughing one minute and running for your life the next. Catch 22 tends to be more blunt, punctuating sentence after sentence of jokes with an off hand, casual mention of a characters death. MASH tends to play its focus tighter, sometimes pushing its downer moments to the climax of an episode or separating the antics in the Swamp from those in Surgery.  In the end they manage to strike a balance that allows the reader and viewer to experience the whole range of emotions intended, to be pulled to and fro without ever getting ripped from the story completely. 

Which brings me to Scrubs.






Scrubs is also, in my opinion, one of the greatest half hour sitcoms to ever grace a television set. "My Screw Up" and "My Lunch" are two of the greatest episodes of television period and ones I think back to often. The show as a whole, while largely a goofy comedy was able to, seemingly effortlessly, slide into more dramatic and sometimes tragic moments. It walked a path laid down before it by shows like MASH, by books like Catch 22.

There were many, many medical shows before Scrubs and even medical comedies. MASH even had its own ill fated spin off set in a normal  hospital back in the states, so it was by no means the first. But the works that came before helped inspire it, they helped lay the ground work for future shows to follow in their footsteps, for future creators to point back and show a precedent for when it was successful.

Through works as these we can see the lineages of our own works, of those that came before. I think we often spend a lot of time looking at and thinking about our direct influences, on our creative idols and the altars upon which we worship them. Perhaps we should take more time to consider those who paved the roads we now use, rather than those who walked them.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Missed Opportunities - Final Fantasy 7 and the Death of Aerith

Missed Opportunities is a series dedicated to looking at narrative and mechanical choices in games.  It is not an indictment of a game's quality, nor is it it a look at mediocre games that could have been better. It is a discussion of differing paths, of choice in design.

Final Fantasy VII is a great game. While it is not my Final Fantasy of choice (that honor would go to VI) it is unquestionably one of the most influential JRPG's in video game history. It was, for many, their first major  JRPG and one of the first to tackle major themes and ideas. I came late to the FF VII party, not owning a playstation until well into its life cycle. By the time I got around to cracking open the multi disc case of Final Fantasy VII, it was already one of the most well regarded games around. It was raved about, not just in magazines, not just in playgrounds but among the entire spectrum of video game enthusiast. It was a phenomenon within the industry and made a wide impact on gamers.

FF VII was not my first JRPG. It was not even close to my first JRPG, and VI, the previous entry in the series, had left a high water mark to overcome. The 2D, sprite based predecessor of this newer game, with its expansive cast of characters, memorable story sequences and amazing soundtrack had left an impression on me that would be hard to beat. I have to admit, going into VII, I was skeptical.

This newer game, this latest in a long series was a departure. It was the first Final Fantasy to be 3D, using primitive polygons and textures over the handcrafted look of sprites exhibited by the game's predecessors. It was the first on a disk based platform, complete with loading times and impressive, pre-rendered cut scenes. But those were only surface differences. A deeper, more meaningful change was waiting.

This of course, was the materia system.  The previous Final Fantasy games were class based with the familiar mixes of Fighters, Thieves and Mages. Black Mages cast powerful destruction magic while the ever useful White Mages healed the party and kept your characters in the fight. There were Red Mages and Monks, Bards and Knights. Each character had their role to fill in the party. While they may level up, earn new abilities or change to advanced classes, their roles were largely the same. The brave knight hitting hard and soaking up damage, the wizardly black mage hanging back and casting fireballs or calling down lighting bolts and the battlefield medic of a white mage, curing poisons and patching up wounds.

In Final Fantasy VII, this all changes. Now, instead of classes or jobs, characters had materia. These little, spherical items of magic were slotted into the characters equipment and gave them special abilities. You no long had to be a Black Mage to cast a fireball, or a White Mage to heal, now all you had to do was equip the fireball materia to whichever character you wanted to be able to use the ability and it was theirs, enabling them to sling balls of fire with the best of the them.

And this is where I think they missed an opportunity, not from a game play perspective, but from a narrative one.

The story of Final Fantasy VII is not what one would call simple. There are the familiar tropes of the series for sure, oppressive governments out to put down the little guys and evil masterminds seizing powerful magics to destroy the world and become a god. A rag tag band of heroes who have to come together to stop it. This is not just well worn territory for the series, but the fantasy genre as a whole. Final Fantasy VII mixes their magic with technological elements, a terrorist with a cybernetic gun for an arm, energy reactors controlled by evil corporations, and cloned cells from an alien specimen known as Jenova.

The story weaves itself through these tropes, beginning with the main character, Cloud Strife, acting as a mercenary for hire to a group of eco terrorist trying to save the world by destroying a city's energy reactors. The job goes sideways, the reactor explodes and Cloud falls down into the city's slums, separated from the rest of his party. It is here that he is found by Aerith, a lowly flower girl with a pretty face and a pure heart.

Aerith is who the player would presume to be the love interest. A sweet, idyllic young lady living in the slums, making a living selling flowers to passers by. She is also who one would presume to be the White Mage of the party. The healer, the nurturing hand to bring the party back to life. She even gets Cloud back on his feet after he crashes on to her flower bed from above. In true fantasy fashion, bad guys show up for the girl and Cloud agrees to be her bodyguard. All the pieces are in place for a grand adventure, for the hero to save the world and woo the girl and live happily ever after.

But this is Final Fantasy VII, and in Final Fantasy VII, Aerith dies.

Her death, more than any other in video games up to that point had a profound effect on those playing the game. Even knowing her fate before I ever started the game, her death was an impactful and meaningful scene. This wasn't a one off character, this wasn't some living piece of the background with a generic name and a few lines of dialogue. This was a major character, one the player's party had spent significant time with. Aerith was the sage of the story, the Zelda to Could's Link. She, with the help and protection of the hero was supposed to save the world, not get stabbed in the back and be left dying his arms.

This was a video game, and characters aren't supposed to die in games. Well, at least not permanently. Mario might fall down a pit, Link might need a fairy to get him back on his feet, but in Final Fantasy the death of a single character was never game over. A trip to an Inn or a Phoenix Down would bring them back to life as if they only needed a little rest, a little time to get their strength back. It was only when the entire party went down would you be faced with a game over, forced to restart from your last save point and continue as if the defeat had never happened, as if it was part of some aborted timeline that no longer held impact on the rest of the world.

There would be no Phoenix Down for Aerith, no bandage for her wounds. Our hero carries her to a pool beneath the city and lays her to rest beneath the water. You could restart from a previous save, but it wouldn't matter. There was no avoiding this fate. This is how the story goes. Aerith dies and there's nothing you can do but swear vengeance and chase after the villain who killed her.

Vengeance was not what I was thinking about when Aerith died. It wasn't anger at the game's villain who killed her, or how I was going to stop his plot to end the world. I wasn't shocked, or horrified. I wasn't stunned by the lost of the pretty flower girl or a potential love interest. I was worried about my materia.

You see, Aerith was my White Mage. She held all my healing magic, all my spells that I used to keep my fighters fighting. And when she died, those spells were lodged in her inventory. An inventory that was now floating at the bottom of a pool around Aerith's lifeless corpse. How was I going to continue without a White Mage, without a healer? Would I be able to get enough potions? Would I find new materia that would allow me to heal? How was I going to stop the bad guy, to fight through his army of minions and save the world without the ability to heal my party?

Here was an idea that I had never encountered before in a JRPG. Killing a character is one thing, killing the love interest even more shocking, but to kill the white mage, to kill the healer. This was unheard of. Remove a character from a story and you're left with one less character. Remove a class from a]the party and you're left with an entirely different game.

Video games, the best of them anyway, are not just stories, they aren't just game play, they are the marriage of the two, each supporting and enhancing the other. This is where, to me, Final Fantasy VII fails, where it misses its opportunity. Because the healing materia, the spell I needed most, was safely moved to Cloud's inventory after Aerith's death.

All gameplay consequences were removed from her demise. Now another member of the party could be the healer, could be the defacto White Mage as we traveled across the world in search of an evil man and his evil plans. Aerith, while fondly remembered, would no longer be missed. Instead she would fade into the background as the party pushed on, meeting new characters and finding new spells.

How often would one have thought of her, had FF VII kept their class structure, had removed their White Mage from the game half way through? How often would you have missed her when neck deep in a dungeon, when in the final stretch of a tough boss battle?

Final Fantasy VII could have shown just how important a single character can be to a party, just how important of a role one person can play among a larger narrative, among a war. Instead they chose to build a system around materia, around spells that can be transferred from character to character with little consequence.

And in the process, missed and excellent opportunity. 


Monday, June 27, 2016

Fallout 4 and Missed Opportunity


Disclaimer #1: The following contains minor spoilers for the beginning of Fallout 4.
 
Disclaimer #2: I have not finished Fallout 4 and am only a few hours into the campaign, thus if there are any late game revelations about the following, I have not yet seen them.

Fallout 4 has a fantastic intro. It's an intro that I believe lives up to the studio's pedigree despite what I'm going to talk about. Waking up on a storm battered ship in Morrowind, escaping from prison along side a king, being saved from execution by the timely arrival of a dragon, seeing the early years of your life as you grow up deep underground. The studio has always had a knack for openings that draw the player into the world while setting up the grand adventures to come.

Fallout 4's intro is no different. The game opens with you, the player, standing in front of the mirror, getting ready for another pleasant morning in the idyllic Sanctuary Hills. Your beautiful wife stands behind you, lovingly commenting as you alter your character's appearance. When you're finished, she takes her turn getting ready and the player is free to roam their simple house awash in Fallout's altered version of 1950's America. 

Your infant son, Shawn, lies in a crib with a rocket ship mobile, his wooden blocks scattered around the room. A forgotten board game sits in a closet. Your household robot is waiting for you in the kitchen with a steaming cup of coffee. You spend the morning watching TV with your wife, calming your crying son and dealing with a pushy door to door salesman. It's the American dream bottled down into a short, ten minute experience and it works wonderfully.

Then the world ends and you're running. Where to or why you're not so sure. You just know that's it's safety, saftey for your wife and child in a world suddenly changed, in a world forever lost. You make it, one of the last to reach the Vault as the bombs fall. You watch as the mushroom cloud grows in the distance, as the elevator starts to descend into the earth. Technicians waiting for you at the bottom assure you that everything's going to be alright, that you, your wife and your child are going to be safe and sound and provided for. You relax, trying to figure out what this new life will entail. You finally let your guard down and let yourself breathe, right before they stick you in a tank that cryogenically freezes you.

And here's where I think Fallout misses a great opportunity, while you're there in the tank. I love the idea of freezing the player, of taking the fish out water approach with the vault dweller. Like the player, the character didn't grow up in this wasteland. They're use to fast food, the nightly news and all American apple pie, not super mutants, rad roaches and Synths. It's a great way to marry what the character is going through to what the player experiences. My problem is what happens while you're in the tank.

They shoot your wife in the head. 

They shoot her right in the damn head and they take your baby and then you go back on ice like the world's worst Captain America impression.

You wake up, cold and alone and venture out into the world. Into your neighborhood shattered by the bomb. Into the ashes of your once perfect house. You wander off into the wasteland in search of a son you may not even recognize, unsure of how long you've been asleep.

And I know why they do it. They want to motivate the player. What better motivation than kidnapping your only child and shooting your pretty, lovely, complimenting you while you fix your hair in the mirror, wife. They do it because they don't want to deal with the baggage, they don't want to anchor the player with this nagging wife whining about her missing son. They want to motivate the player while simultaneously giving him the freedom to conquer the wasteland however they want.

They know what they're doing. They put her in that classic 1950's dress, give her that pleasant, homely voice and the slender figure and then they shoot her in the head. You can't do anything to stop it. You can't fix it. All you can do is take her wedding ring off her cold dead finger and swear revenge like some 80's action hero.

I hate it because it's easy, because it's cheap and easy. And I hate it because it caused them to miss something with so much more depth, with so much more reason.

Imagine what would have happened if they hadn't shot your wife in her adorable little temple. Instead, they kidnap your kid and push her back in the ice box and the two of you thaw slowly out together. She panicking, crying. You wrap your arms around her and tell her everything's going to be all right. The two of you emerge into the wasteland together. You pick through the ruins of your shattered house, comfort your house robot that's been slowly going insane from two hundred years without anyone to talk to. Try to put the pieces of your lives back together.

Narratively, it's a far stronger option. But that's not the only reason I thought they should have gone that way. You see, Fallout 4 has a problem. It has the same problem every Bethesda open world game has. The player has to find their son, it's the only thing that matters to them, the only thing on their mind, a singular goal to motivate them through the trials ahead. Except it isn't. There's the minutemen to rebuild. There settlements to grow. The Brotherhood of Steel to join or fight. The question of the Synths and what should happen to them. The wasteland of the commonwealth is a complex and ever evolving place that the player is asked to weigh in on. Hours into the game I haven't even begun to look for my son. But my settlement has defensive turrets and some pretty sick lights, so clearly my priorities are in order.

This isn't a new problem for open world games, even outside of Bethesda's. So often the player is tasked to save the world, to close the Oblivion gates, to find Ciri and prevent the endless winter. Yet all around them are distractions. Races and card games, companions and damsels in distress. What bothers me so much about Fallout 4's opening is that the player's spouse gives the perfect solution for this problem.

Why does my character, who wants only to rescue their son, give a damn about the minuteman or their settlements, why does he care whether or not they are safe? I think the player would care a lot if their wife was still alive, if she was back at Sanctuary Hills, trying to pick up their life while the player was out trying to rescue their son. Why does my character team up with these random companions, often after only a simple conversation when they could walk through the wasteland side by side with the person they swore to spend the rest of their life with? Shooting side by side against super mutants and the like? Why does my character care about the food supply of settlements, of rebuilding society when there's no one to rebuild it for?

Even the two areas of growth for the character, their moral alignment and their relationship with companions would be made deeper by the presence of the player's spouse. In the beginning of the game, while your player is looking at their eyes in the mirror, your wife remarks that was on the reason she fell in love you, because of those eyes. Wouldn't it be better to have her comment on those same eyes hours into the game, how they've hardened thanks to the horrors of the wasteland, or how, even after everything they've been through they still have that same kindness she fell in love with?

The same applies to companions. Maybe she's supportive of the synths, or doesn't trust you bringing one around the house. There's a throwaway line in the beginning about her taking time to trust the handyman with your son, how does she react to a walking, talking Synth in the house? What about your female companions? Is she jealous? Does the player feel more drawn to a tough woman of the wasteland than to his sheltered wife back home?

There's so much room to explore, so many avenues to go down with these characters that would enhance the experience while simultaneously helping to ground the player in the accomplishments around him, that give the player reason for their actions. Instead they took the easy way out.They took the simple route. Why worry about any of this, why give this person character, give them hopes and dreams when they could shoot her in the head and be done?

The last thing I'll say is this, one of the first things you get after waking up is a recording your wife made for you, safeguarded all this time by your trusty house robot. It's a tear jerking tape of your wife and laughing son telling you what a great father you are, of how much your wife is looking forward to the two of you spending more time together as your try and raise your son in a rapidly changing world.

It's a great tape, one of the rare instances in games when audio logs actually have a meaningful impact. It's shame, cause I would have like to see far more of that interaction between wife and husband.

Instead I'm left with only a corpse sitting in a Cryo tank. With a wedding band in my inventory to symbolize all the conversations that were lost. All I'm left with is a wife that was shot in the head.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Self Publishing Experiment and a Short Story: Already Dead

Earlier this week I published a short story called Already Dead. It's a story I originally got the idea for two years ago to the month before re-discovering it. I started writing it, got about a quarter of the way through and then gave up. I got stuck, realized I had no idea where I was going with it and moved on to something else.

A few months ago I decided to embark on an experiment with self publishing, to put some of my work out there and see if it could gain any traction. To see if I could muster up some feedback from the public on where I was as a writer. I didn't have any novels or other projects ready to go, so I turned back to my old short stories to give them a good polish and put them out in the wild to live or die on their own.

Already Dead was the first one I picked out. I liked the opening, a man clawing his way out of his own coffin. It was immediate, primal, and a fear I think we all hold at some level. Of being buried alive. Of being forgotten. I new how to get the character out of the grave, how to get them home. But not where to go after. That was where I had gotten bogged down in the original draft. However, reading through it again I got a few ideas going and re-wrote it over the course of a few busy weeks.

This week I published it. It is the first story I have every really published, ever put out in the market place to be ripped apart by anyone who happens to pass by. So far I have sold one copy to some random person in the UK. Whoever they are, I hope they enjoyed it.

If you would like to take a look at Already Dead, you can find on Google and Kindle.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Some Thoughts On Achievements

I don't like achievements in games. What started out as an interesting idea to acknowledge and engage the player has instead grown to do the opposite. Achievements tend to come in two forms, narrative, thank you for playing style achievements and gameplay driven, blow up five enemies with a single grenade, achievements.

The first type is particularly bad, and is the style of achievement I think most people have a problem with when they complain about achievements. You started up the game, congrats have some points. Beat the first chapter? Here's some more points. Are you in the middle of a tense emotional scene that is the make or break moment for your character? How about a nice achievement to ruin the moment. Achievements of this style distract players from the experience, break up the flow of the narrative and with a single chime and pop up ruin your immersion and make you suddenly very aware that you are in fact not a galactic hero or post-apocalyptic wanderer of vengeance, but a person holding a controller and playing a video game. With a single mechanic the developer erodes in moments what they've spent the entire game building up.

The second type of achievements are better in that they serve as a way for the developer to acknowledge something particularly cool the player has done. Fifteen head shots in a row? Hey, that's pretty cool, have an achievement. Go through that entire boss fight without taking damage? Wow, that's impressive, have another achievement. While these work as a way for a player to feel cool and receive some outside validation for something they've done, the usage of these achievements has become perverted over time. Now players use them not as a way to receive feedback on the cool things they're doing, but as a checklist for things to do, for bragging rights and as a way to extend the experience.

Which on the surface is not a bad thing. Finding a way to give the player more enjoyment by adding a list of specific challenges has been in games a long time. This is even an improvement in some ways, integrating the challenges into the natural play experience instead of ripping them out into a separate menu. I personally found this useful when playing Civ V. After the standard gameplay became dull, I challenged myself to win a match with every civilization and used the achievements list as a handy checklist integrated within the software I was already using.

It's this that betrays the underlying problem. I went achievement hunting because I was bored with the overall experience but still wanted to play the game. We all get bored with games. They get too hard, or run out of content or the narrative no longer compels us to see what happens next. This is a natural part of all mediums. However, if we still want to play the game and enjoy its mechanics, but can no longer find motivation to play within the game, that I feel is a failure on the part of the developer. Instead of adding more quests, or missions or side activities to encourage the player to continue to engage with the mechanics they find so satisfying, they instead rely on an external checklist overlaid on the game experience.

There are two more points I'd like to make. First, one thing achievements actually do well is encourage the player to stretch outside of their normal play style or the mechanics they are comfortable with in order to get more out of the game. Again, the Civilization series does this by asking you to play as every Civ, beat the game with each victory condition, on each difficulty level and so on. Other games do this by encouraging you to use different weapons or abilities, or hinting at alternate endings and paths through the game that you can explore. Again though, I think there are better way to do this within the game without having to rely on achievements to motivate the player.

Second, achievements, at least on the major consoles, are mandatory. Games that go through the approval process to get on these platforms must include achievements, must award certain levels or points for these achievements and must implement them in certain ways. This may be the greatest problem of all, as developers who cannot or do not have the time to come up with interesting ways to implement them don't have the option to leave them out, but must instead force them into the experience anyway.

Achievements are going to be around for a long time. They remain in full force in this new generation of consoles and will likely survive long into the next. But I think it's time to take a long, big picture look at achievements and ask ourselves why we are still putting them in games, how we use them, how their use impacts the player, and what their roll is in the future.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Copyright and IP Ownership

I was on Reddit earlier today in this thread an u/paxillus_involutus brought up copyright law, specifically that copyright laws should be much shorter. The idea is that a company or creator should not be able to hold onto the rights of their intellectual property for decades or even centuries on end.

This comes up a lot in regards to Disney, since they argued that fairy tales should be kept in the public domain and used by all, only to then trademark and lock down many of those same fairy tales. Proponents of putting intellectual property into fair use argue that by letting the public have access to these ideas after the original creator has a chance to profit off them, creators have more tools available to them to create, culture can grow unimpeded and we'll all benefit from a greater amount of ideas and stories over all.

For instance, it would be pretty cool if once George Lucas passed away Star Wars passed into the public domain and could then be used by anyone, instead of being locked down by Disney until the end of time. Or if characters like Superman and Captain America could be used by anyone in whatever projects they want without fear of being sued.

The other point frequently argued is that copyright law was created to help spur creativity and culture by protecting the creators, allowing them to make a living off their creations for a time before it passes into the public domain. This way, everyone wins. The creator gets to make a living off his work, at least for a time, and once the allotted time expires that idea is put of for grabs, letting other people tinker it with it and make even more cool and interesting things.

But I'm not sure I buy it.

Now, I'm obviously at least a little biased here, being a writer after all I want to protect my intellectual property and creations as much as possible. They're pretty near and dear to my heart, but why should I be able to continue to hide them away even after I'm dead. After all I'm not around anymore so why should I care? And even if I passed it on to my decedents should they really have any more say in it than the public? They didn't create it  and how long can one be expected to profit off the idea before everyone should be able to take a crack at it.

I come at this from a different angle. Why does it need to pass into public domain at all? Does it really do that much for creativity and culture? For me, in a weird way, this all comes back to Dune.

The original six Dune books were written by Frank Herbert. They're wonderful and had a huge influence on me as writer and as a person and God Emperor of Dune is probably my favorite book of all time. Now Frank died before completing the seventh and final book of the Saga. Sometime later, his son Brian Herbert in collaboration with Kevin J Anderson wrote a bunch of new books in the Dune universe, having the writes passed on by Frank.

Now the new books aren't bad. The Butlerian Jihad trilogy is fine. They just aren't Dune. They don't have the same feel, the same style. My friends and I like to call them the apocrypha. Now, Brian had the rights passed down to him by his father, thus doing these works under the same system I'm techincally argueing for so maybe Dune isn't the best example, but my point is that the newer Dune books sort of cheapen the brand, or the universe. When I recommend the Dune books to a friend I always specify that I mean the core six and not any of the newer ones. The newer books have transformed the universe into a different thing.

Take Star Wars for example. A lot of people really dislike the prequels. I'm sort of middling on them myself. They were made by George Lucas, the original creator of Star Wars. But imagine if they weren't, imagine instead if they had passed into the public domain and been made by someone else. For many people the prequels cheapened the brand, they diluted the original story. Having anyone able to do that at anytime puts a lot of properties at risk.

The upside is that with ideas in the public domain the idea of canon would no longer exist, every version of the stories would be both equally valid and invalid, judged on its own merits, and that might actually lead to some truly wonderful stories.

But again we come back to this idea of more property in the public domain equals more creativity. And it's with this that I fundamentally disagree. Writers, and I think all creators to some extent, don't create in a vacuum. We take bits and pieces of things from all sort of places and experiences from throughout our entire lives and many times we don't even realize we're doing it. Thus, while Dune might be a rigid set of rules and characters, ideas from Dune show up all over the place. I don't know if Dune was the first to have a giant sandworm but they've since shown up in everything from Beetle Juice to Mass Effect.

Similarly if I want to make a Star Wars movie (and if there is a God hopefully someday I will get my chance) I don't need the license to make a movie with the same themes and concepts. Change out Jedi for wizards and stormtroopers for samurai and off you go.  Look at Superman, how many times and how many ways have we seen that character re-done and re-imagined? True, if the property was put into the public domain we might have gotten the amazing Red Son a lot sooner or more stories like it, but under the current system we also get awesome things like the Plutonian from Irredeemable or Apollo and the Midnighter from the Authority.

My point is that whether an intellectual property goes into public domain or not creators are always going to take ideas and concepts from things and rework them into new ideas and new pieces of art because that's what creators do, whether they own the right to the material or not.

It's a complicated issue with no clear answer. Personally I think a hundred year rule starting from when the thing was originally created/released might be interesting.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Some Thoughts On Military History

I was thinking recently about how things have changed for nations over the course of military history, and what was required of them to fight and win wars.

In the days of ancient military history, wars often came down to a single climatic battle or a small series of such battles. While generals had their roles on the battlefield and in planning the fight, the winner was often determined by the training and courage of its soldiers. Casualties in those days were generally limited to the front lines. Once these lines were smashed the others would turn and run. The side that held out longer was usually the victor.

In the time of Rome war became one of campaigns. Multiple battles across wide territories decided the war. Generals and their strategies were the deciding factor. Consider the Punic Wars and Hannibal's march through Spain and across the Alps into Italy. Or his opponents brilliant strategy of avoiding combat until Hannibal's army died on the vine.

Then in the Feudal era war became a contest of money. Which king owned the most land, could raise the most levies, keep them in the field the longest or build the most castles. In the Industrial era war was won by production. Which side had the most railways. Could manufacturer the most rifles, ships, or planes. The American civil war, World War I and II were all ultimately decided by production, logistics and economic output.

These things of course all build upon the other. Factories won't run and goods won't flow without money. All the money and equipment in the world won't matter if you don't have capable commanders controlling them and good men using them.

But I think now, in the modern age, war is not decided by any of these things. War is now decided by people and their will to fight.

Take the United States for example. Right now the United States owns as many aircraft carriers as the rest of the world combined. They are economically and technologically the leading power on the planet. There is nothing, economically or military speaking, stopping them from conquering all of Central America and the Caribbean. Even if the other nations of the world streamed their combined navies against the United States, there would be no clear winner to that fight. The other nations could try and embargo the United States and move away from the dollar as the standard, but they'd be causing significant harm to their own economies in the process.

The only major roadblock to an American Empire, is the American people. They simply wouldn't allow it. Even given a call to action, a Pearl Harbor or 9/11, is no guarantee. How long until they decide that casualties are too high, that the cost isn't worth it? The Unites States has some 5,000 people on board a single aircraft carrier. If one were to be sunk with a total loss of personnel it would be equivalent to the casualties sustained during nine years of fighting in Iraq.

Compare that to the people of Iraq or Afghanistan who continue to fight long after their governments and military have surrendered, after their economic and industrial capabilities have been destroyed or removed. They fight against an economically, technologically, industrially and militarily superior foe out of sheer will. Whether or not they are "winning" that war is debatable, but it shows no matter what side you are considering, it all comes down to the people's will to fight or not.

The day in which a nation can rely on their propaganda, or a public determined to dig in and fight to the last breath is over. People no longer hold onto the purely racial or nationalistic motives to fight. A nation can't simply paint their adversary as being a rape thirsting barbarian without some kind of evidence to back it up. The inter connected nature of the world's communication simply won't allow for painting the enemy as some sick "other" that must be slain for the good of all mankind.

As the nation moves toward bigger, better and more sophisticated weaponry, toward making sure we can fight large conventional armies and insurgents alike, perhaps we should look toward our own people. What good are the world's best weapons, if no one is willing to use them?