A Review & Analysis of Storytelling in Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

I’m not always a huge fan of Disney’s policies. They’re a massive corporation, and their pursuit of increasingly restrictive copyright laws is something that is a major concern of mine.

However, I’m also an advocate for storytelling, and occasionally I have to go to the theater with my family and see something solid, and Disney usually delivers that.

Anyway, despite the fact that it’s not even Thanksgiving yet, Disney has already released its version of The Nutcracker, an interesting take on the classic ballet.

For those who are totally oblivious to its existence, here’s a quick trailer:

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms trailer, courtesy of Disney.

I’ve sort of settled into a review/analysis format when I talk about movies (see my previous Christopher Robin and Incredibles overviews on the Loreshaper Games blog), so let’s start with my review, which I will keep free of spoilers.

The Review

Disney taking fairy tales and turning them into franchises is not new, nor is their big-budget live-action formula.

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” takes that approach to the classic Nutcracker story, with a fairly large departure from the standard format in which the story is told. These do not get in the way of the general conceit, but do make it substantially more complicated.

As a result, it is impossible to say that the film is a faithful adaptation of the ballet or the short stories that inspired it, even though it includes both musical interludes and plot devices (such as many of the characters) who are drawn directly from the original.

The film centers itself around a young protagonist, Clara Stahlbaum, who is experiencing her first Christmas after the loss of her mother and coming to terms with the whole ordeal and moving on with her life. Along the way she enters a fantastical realm and does the standard Hero’s Journey stuff, but that’s pretty much all stories so don’t count it out just because it’s orthodox.

I’d classify it as being fairly character driven, and this is one of the strongest strengths, due to the incredibly solid acting delivered throughout the whole film.

Clara is striving to come to terms with her mother’s death and reunite their family. Loss and coping seems to be something of a common theme for children’s movies, with the Incredibles 2 taking a much milder approach to this in the form of coping with Helen Parr’s new job as opposed to the literal death of Clara’s mother, and in the analysis section I’ll give some theories as to why. However, I will say that there is a good connection between her internal struggles and the struggles unfolding around her, which makes the plot flow really quickly without being too confusing (of course, I am not the film’s target audience).

This film is part of a recent trend of Disney movies aimed at younger audiences that treat their viewers as intelligent, like Christopher Robin was earlier this year.

In general, I thought it was solidly executed in all counts. The acting was solid, the music was quite on point (I’m not even a fan of most of the parts Tchaikovsky’s ballet, despite generally liking his other work, but they don’t over-use the Sugar Plum Fairies motif until you’re sick and tired of it, so I count that as a win), and the CGI was flawless.

The characters are sometimes a little flawed. The character of Clara was fantastic and is a great example of showing heroic growth in a film protagonist, but the main villain (who is revealed in a twist that isn’t incredibly surprising, but this is a movie made for children) comes across as a little shallow (albeit reasonably shallow, as I’ll get into more detail about in the analysis).

One of the things that I do have to say here is that Disney does a good job of paying homage to many of the elements of the original tale, including ballet sequences and set-dressing that is iconic and recognizable. The storyline itself is quite different than the original fairy tale, so don’t expect anything similar in terms of that.

The Four Realms as a setting element is something of a weakness. While Clara’s travels into a Narnia-esque realm set a good window-dressing, there’s an odd feeling that we didn’t really get a good look at the setting, but we also know more than we need to know about it.

Mid-movie setting exposition is tricky, and they did about as good a job as they could, but there were places mentioned and briefly explored that didn’t matter to the plot, and that’s one of the sins of the newer Star Wars movies that Disney should have learned from.

Also, there is literally a character named Sugar Plum in this movie. Sure, I get it, Sugar Plum Fairies, but do you have to name one Sugar Plum? Too saccharine for my tastes.

The Verdict

All-in-all, I’d say that this is a good movie. A star-studded cast delivers a PG-rated performance that’s not going to go down in history as great, but is also not the worst use of your time.

I’ll be honest; I think that this could be a good teaching movie because of the fact that it has fairly little objectionable content and is really rich in symbolism and depth, not to mention the fact that it ties in naturally to a short story that you could read and therefore allows you to use the film as an educational enrichment.

It’s not a Christopher Robin or Lion King tier movie, where it’ll be something worth returning to, but I wouldn’t dismiss it as a cynical cash-grab. If you’re going to the movies anyway, consider it.

Also, it’s not a musical. Misty Copeland is in the film, and she’s fantastic, but you see as much of her in the credits sequence as in the movie itself.

Basically, I watched this movie because I was tagging along, but I thought it was quite good. If I had to quantify it, I’d give it a well-earned four out of five stars.

A Star Wars Rant

This film’s storyline should have been used in The Last Jedi or The Force Awakens to establish Rey’s character.

It’s really strong and ties into all the places that you could want it to go. Change all the set dressing and actors, and you’ve got a perfect setup here.

This movie proves that a lot of the complaints about Disney’s perceived practices are invalid; the film has an incredible diverse cast, all of whom are talented. It has enough development in each of the central characters to make them stand out, without detracting from Clara’s growth. It has comedic relief. It has moments that hit on deep sadness and fear.

The Last Jedi could have had these things too, but it didn’t follow the Disney formula.

The Analysis

There’s a lot to analyze here, and I really thought that this movie was really good at working the Disney magic, even if they didn’t always get the payoff they desired.

Most people are probably aware of the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, but I think that we can take a step back to just plain Jungian interpretation of many of the archetypal symbols that show up in this film.

I’m not sure what Disney’s in-house writing guide says about storytelling; I know that they have something like the Hero’s Journey as an in-house document that they use to crank-out award winning screenplays, but I’d be willing to bet that it’s really in-depth, and that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is going all-in on that symbolism.

And, really, it should. The Nutcracker as a fairy tale has clear and evident symbolic importance to most of its elements, and Disney’s version plays with that a little while being conservative in many ways.

The Known and the Unknown

A large part of any good story is knitting together the known and the unknown. Without having the known world represented, you lack any connection to humanity, but failing to enter the unknown leaves the storytelling exercise pointless.

Stories about people going to work, coming back home, and going to bed, then repeating the process, tend to be boring unless there’s some struggle that makes that process difficult.

This is because, as Jordan Peterson describes in his Maps of Meaning, the storytelling process is about mediating decisions that come about when the unbearable present meets the unknown future.

To put it in simpler Jungian dichotomies, there is the known and the unknown, and a liminal bridge between them. To bring balance between these two things is to bring the mind into wholeness.

Clara’s Animus

The story starts off with Clara’s life in chaos. Her family is beginning to celebrate her first Christmas after her mother’s death, and Clara is clearly not emotionally prepared for this.

She is told that she must keep up appearances, or that certain behavior is expected, or that it is important to maintain traditions. This is the immature animus–the avatar of order–failing to speak to her.

She is lost and drowning in the unknown; she doesn’t know what to do now that her mother is lost.

The feminine often symbolizes opportunity, especially in Jungian interpretations. While the full reasons for this are beyond the scope of this analysis, it is relatively simple to claim that the death of Clara’s mother represents the loss of this optimism about the unknown. It is an end to the positive perceived valance of the unknown that fosters turning the unknowable spaces around us into knowable spaces.

The conflict, therefore, stems from having an imbalance; the world is chaotic and this chaos confronts Clara on account of her mother’s demise. The loss of her mother has stripped Clara of any optimistic worldview about the future; the unknown now represents, quite reasonably, only death to her, because she has lost sight of the potential for a positive unknown.

Entering the Four Realms is an opportunity for Clara to undergo a Hero’s Journey, initiating a growth of character that could also be classified as a bildungsroman.

This controlled and willing encounter with the unknown represents the formation of an animus within Clara’s psyche; she goes after the prize of knowledge, of being able to open a gift left behind by her mother in an egg (symbolic of fertile potential) which can only be opened by a key which has been lost in the Four Realms.

This animus is a means of structuring the world into order once again; by encountering the Four Realms, which were brought to life by her mother and exist in a sort of magical space, she is able to put her thoughts into perspective.

It can also be said that the magical Four Realms have a parallel in similar stories such as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, which is that they carry deep symbolism related to introspection and reflection; they are not only literal places that the characters are able to visit, but a place where the objective reality that filters into consciousness is no longer the governing force and instead the mythic symbolism of the subconscious can filter in.

Rodents and Owls

One of the interesting symbols in the film is that of the rodent. The Mouse King is a key figure in the film, but he winds up being a help rather than a hindrance. The counterpart to them is an owl, an assistant of Drosselmeyer, who is to look over Clara, and who provides her with guidance in a couple points throughout the film.

Rodents are vermin, and typically symbolize chaos and the unknown. However, the owl represents a counterpoint in both representing order and wisdom but also preying upon vermin. Despite this, Drosselmeyer’s owl ignores the rodents throughout the film (for a reason that becomes symbolically important near the film’s conclusion).

Near the opening of a film Clara and her brother try futilely to capture a mouse in their attic, which is significant because it reflects Clara’s inability to adapt her psyche to the uncertainty of her new life devoid of maternal care.

Later in the film, but  still in an early scene, Clara passes down a hallway lined with owl mosaics (I believe on both sides of the hallway, though I only noticed the mosaics half-way through the scene and the far side was obscured in such a manner that I cannot be 100% positive). However, in a brief shot the owl mosaics on one side have been replaced with mouse mosaics. At the end of this passageway, she is brought into the Four Realms.

Over the course of the film, the owl plays a relatively minor role but appears in key scenes in which Clara is experiencing doubt. It reflects the return of the known world’s relevance to Clara’s psyche, allowing her to return to a mental state of order that has been difficult to find since her mother’s death.

It is the rodent, however, as an avatar of the unknown, that is perhaps more important to consider.

The Mouse King is a frequent adversary throughout the earlier parts of the film, but in the latter parts of the film he turns into an ally for Clara and the Nutcracker (whose role is much less relevant to this analysis; he exists primarily to support Clara, but he still provides some deeply symbolic elements to the story).

This transition from enemy to ally–paralleled by the character of Mama Ginger, who is in league with the Rat King–provides the psychological counterweight to the undesirable elements of chaos.

By discovering that the unknown does not necessarily need to be feared, Clara develops as a character into a heroic figure, fulfilling the type that has been set out before her.

The Triumph Over Doubt

In the film, it is clear that the main enemy is not necessarily the unknown, but rather fear and doubt. This is a core Jungian psychological concept. This uncertainty is created by an inability to balance the psyche, something that Clara overcomes.

But it also provides the basis for the main villain’s motivations; Sugar Plum (ugh, that name), who was “abandoned” like Clara upon Marie’s death, is incapable of overcoming that doubt and fear.

This imbalance leads to her seeking to become a tyrant; an out-of-balance representation of Jung’s “dreadful father”, whose role in the universe is to pursue order above all else, even at the expense of change.

The usurpation of Clara’s rightful place as Queen of the Four Realms and the oppression of the populace that comes alongside Sugar Plum’s ascension, as she creates an army of tin soldiers who lack individual agency and awareness, is a classic example of this archetype playing out.

At one point, Sugar Plum explains clearly that with her army, she will never be hurt again.

This symbolizes the key message of the story: It is necessary to accept reality to move on with one’s life, but that process requires self-discovery and acceptance of agency.

Wrapping Up

There’s other things that can be said here, but I’m not necessarily the person to say them and I have constraints on my time, so they’ll have to go unsaid for now.

Basically, I felt like the cinematography was well-done, the characters were generally vivid, and the storytelling had that Disney magic that comes from a deep understanding of the psychology of stories.

Were there missteps? Yes. But I don’t think they grew to the point of detracting from the journey, and Nutcracker is an interesting example of how the Hero’s Journey can manifest, albeit one wrapped in silly window dressing.

Being a Good Reviewer

Before I started making games, I reviewed them. I see a lot of novice mistakes in reviews I read, and I made them too. Heck, sometimes I still do.

However, at a certain point people started evidently caring about my reviews, including to the point where I started not just getting regular reviews but actually wound up writing for publication from time to time.

At a certain point I hit burnout and stopped reviewing as frequently, and now I’ve got a conflict of interest for reviewing games (so I mostly just review the biggest names around or things I really like), but I still feel the reviewing itch from time to time.

I’m also testing the water for doing a whole series on this, so let me know if you have any feedback, concerns, or good thoughts. I’m going to outline a number of different things here

Professionalism

The first rule of reviewing is “Don’t be a jerk.”

As a reviewer, you are obligated to both the audience and the creator of anything you are reviewing.

Your first commitment is to your audience. You want to treat them with respect and dignity. Don’t inflate value to drive sales (ah, affiliate programs!), and make sure to respect their intelligence.

Some of this just comes down to writing good reviews. Be detailed but not manipulative. That’s basic stuff.

The part of professionalism that doesn’t come across as often is your obligation to the creator of anything you’re reviewing.

You can call out garbage, that’s one-hundred percent fine. One of my greatest regrets as a reviewer is not calling out a particular product enough on some of its flaws, in part because I wound up going a little too soft on it, and while my voice probably won’t change the universe, it’s worth noting that a person who shared my preferences and followed my reviews may not have realized my true feelings about the game.

However, you also want to respect the effort and time that a creator put into their work. If it’s fundamentally flawed or entirely schlocky, then that’s the sort of situation where you come down hard (the example I mention above was fundamentally flawed in execution), but a good reviewer is not an internet troll.

Can you be colorful?

Yes.

Should you be mean-spirited?

No.

The general rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t be okay with someone saying it about the product if you made it, don’t say it about something someone else made. Speak critically, but not rudely.

Communication

I struggle with clarity.

I’m a fan of long sentences and weasel words. I studied English in college.

As much as I used to make fun of communications majors, there is something to be said for the art of effective communication, especially in a review.

Make sure to format your review in such a way that you have clear points.

Always start with an introduction that talks about the product and makes clear which genre it’s in. I don’t suggest assigning a target audience (I occasionally see reviewers do this; it’s usually either unnecessary or patronizing). Give an initial first impression if doing so isn’t prejudicial to your later review content.

Wrap up with a clear conclusion. Make it clear whether you recommend the product, and if you have any concerns with it.

Remember that your most important part is the conclusion. If you whine about something for 80% of your review, then give a glowing conclusion, the people who skip to the end will see the glowing conclusion.

Though, generally, whining is not a good idea, which brings us to our next big topic…

Rapport

 You want to build a connection with your audience. Let people know what you think and how you feel; give them an insight into your judgments.

The big idea behind this is that you want to give your audience a feel for what you generally like or don’t like.

If I were to review a wargame of incredible complexity tomorrow, I’d have to be really clear about where I’m coming into my review from. Yeah, I work with games all the time, and I also have a decent interest in military history, but I won’t be describing anything for which I have a giant corpus of experience.

I always suggest drawing a lot of comparisons to other similar products to draw a line between what you like and how the product you’re reviewing either does it well or doesn’t. You want to be careful here (you are, after all, not reviewing every product simultaneously).

However, if you look at any major serious review (Consumer Reports stands out to me for this), you’ll see that a few references to other products slip through.

This is because the reviewer needs to build a rapport with their audience, and that’s including shared experiences. I’ve played more video games than I care to admit, so if I review a video game I share my experiences with seminal works that are similar to it (if possible), or otherwise draw comparisons to literature or film as I can.

You also need to be clear about what you like and don’t like. I’m not a huge fan of death spirals and complicated resource management that leads into death spirals. I’m the sort of guy who plays Forza Horizon with the rewind mechanic turned off to build up the challenge and I just restart a race if I’m doing poorly (in single-player, of course), to get practice in doing it right. That tells you a lot about my gaming preferences; I’m skill-driven, but I hate losing.

If I’m playing a survival game with really onerous resource mechanics, I need to make it clear in my review that a lot of my criticism comes from the fact that I don’t enjoy playing a game where eating becomes a concern every three minutes.

Qualification and Quantification

Qualification and quantification are two of the hardest parts in reviews, and I generally don’t like doing them unless I have to.

Qualification involves categorizing, tagging, and describing things, and it’s going to make up the majority of your review in a broad sense.

More particularly, however, the act of qualification in a review is boiling down whatever you’re reviewing into coherent units.

The big problem I see most people do with qualification is treating all products the same. If I took a roleplaying game like Rowan, Rook, and Decard’s Spire (link leads to my review) and compared it to GURPS Lite, I’d have a hard time qualifying them in the same way, even though they’re nominally in the same genre.

I like them both, but I am forced to confront the fact that different audiences will like each, and that I can’t do an apples-to-apples comparison with them.

In other terms, it would be like comparing Monopoly to Sim City. Yes, both offer play experiences, but they are very different experiences.

For this purpose, I suggest simply finding the four or five main “selling points” of the product and then trying to qualify them. For instance, in Spire I love the dice mechanics, the narrative-game interactions, the setting, the artwork and layout, and the prose. In GURPS Lite, I love the dice mechanics, characters, flexibility, speed, and robustness.

Quantification is something I have gotten much less fond of over the years. I used to try to do 1-5 scale ratings on multiple categories, now I do a 1-5 star scale overall if I’m required to do so.

Honestly, quantification is a bit dangerous. It can lead you into a lot of issues with practice; a 10/10 from one reviewer is meaningless, while a 7/10 may be high praise.

Notwithstanding all the controversies about games journalism, the problem with such a quantification is that it is entirely subjective in most cases, or too complex for the audience to appreciate in others.

Remember that reading a review is not a major investment. People are looking for guidance, not scientific dissertations on other things.

The one thing that I would even care to quantify is when that is an integral part of the experience. Cars have a lot of good quantifiable elements: how likely is it to break down in the first year, how much fuel does it consume, what is its resale value?

Games and literature, the two things I tend to review, have nothing like this. You can describe their general length, but that’s not necessarily going to reflect individuals’ experiences (or, for that matter, whether the time is well spent).

Cost can be mentioned, but I find this to be more important in tabletop roleplaying where pricing schemes are less standardized and value tends to be more wildly fluctuating than in video games, where costs are pretty standardized.

Even here, I tend to qualify. Does it offer more value than any other game?

Wrapping Up

I have more to say on each of these points if people are interested, but I think I’m beginning to go outside the bounds of a general overview.

Reviewing is a process of determining value, and estimating how the value you find applies to other people. I’m not a giant economics buff (though I am a bit of a dilettante and my interests have led me to that a little), but value assessment is one of the most important skills to have in daily life, to say nothing of difficulty.

A good reviewer is careful to make judgements, rather than emotional decisions. They can’t just follow a formula, but they need to make their ideas clear.



Reflections of a Game Designer: Velotha’s Flock and Hwaet

I haven’t been writing as much about game design on my personal blog since I started writing daily for Loreshaper Games, but I’ve been thinking on what I’ve been doing with some of the content for my games and in particular how the context of previous experiences is shaping my current work as a designer.

Continue reading “Reflections of a Game Designer: Velotha’s Flock and Hwaet”

Review of Educated: A Memoir

I have a bad habit of accidentally purchasing things for Kindle, a side-effect of having the one-click purchase set up and too many tabs open at any given time.

The reason this is important is because I accidentally purchased Educated: A Memoir (affiliate link), as well as about a half-dozen other Kindle books over the course of the years.

Educated: A Memoir cover courtesy of Amazon.

I have no regrets.

Tara Westover tells her story in a deep, personal, no-holds-barred fashion, and that in and of itself would be enough to make it compelling if it didn’t also deal with a dysfunctional family dynamic that puts King Lear to shame (or, rather, would make him look well-adjusted).

It is impossible to truly describe what Westover manages to convey without taking so many words that it would be unconscionable to suggest reading the description rather than the source it mirrors, so I’ll have to fall back to a more basic description of my response.

Continue reading “Review of Educated: A Memoir”

The End of Silence (and Roll20)

“We don’t need more white male teachers.”

That was the moment I lost six months of my life. Thousands of dollars. I began keeping a secret, hiding in shame.

I was a student teacher at a local school, the one I graduated from. My mentor teacher was a new teacher there, one I hadn’t known as a student, and over the course of three or four weeks everything fell apart. My memory of the incidents erodes; from the start of the weeks where I was cheerfully walking to and from the school, poorly-sung words pouring from my mouth to the end, where the only singing was in celebration of the end.

For three and a half years I had been studying to become a teacher.

In three and a half weeks, it was almost undone. When it ended, I was glad for it.

We don’t really need to delve into the details that got me back on track to become a teacher, or the experiences I went through when it all started to fall apart. I stopped sleeping except when crushed by fatigue, stopped eating except to keep up appearances, and stopped living until the storm had passed.

Not all of the troubles I experienced were unjustified; I had been poorly prepared by a program that hadn’t challenged me and hadn’t given me any hands-on exposure to my future trade until after I had “mastered” the theory; something which I have come to understand, on the basis of cognitive theory, does students no favors: the knowledge decays before it can be applied.

But the scariest part of the whole ordeal is the fact that the cataclysmic blow that shook me–the statement by a (white) teacher that we didn’t need people like me to be teachers (this amidst a massive shortage)–was met with a response that looked something like this:

“Well, yes, it would be ideal to have diverse teachers, but I’m the exception.”

The only reason I bring this up at all is that I see echoes of my experiences everywhere.

I’m not an extremist. I’m pretty politically moderate, and shy away from it.

But, at the same time, people don’t talk about this. When they do it meets two responses:

1. Changing the Subject

Polite laughter, minor discomfort. The victim of very real discrimination is written off as an extremist or as having a grudge:

This is what has kept me silent all these years, because simply saying “I experienced discrimination as a white straight male” is capable of serving as a death sentence for your career and your hopes.

I want to make it clear: I faced this discrimination, to my knowledge, exactly once.

The consequences, however, were no less real for me than the consequences of any discrimination against anyone. I was perhaps “privileged” in the fact that I was permitted to recover some of my standing and do the (supposedly) rare feat of acquiring a second student teaching position after leaving a first.

However, I was certainly not privileged by fair treatment and an ability to think of myself as just another person.

Prior to this incident, I had never thought of myself as white, at least not as my whiteness being a distinguishing factor setting me apart from anyone else.

2. Not “Real” Discrimination

The other response is simple:

“You’re not part of an oppressed class, so it’s not real discrimination.”

Where is the line drawn?

At what point is discrimination acceptable before it becomes a problem?

When can you condemn one person for another’s sins and not tarnish your own soul?

When can you take a class and judge an individual by it?

The nefarious element of all discrimination isn’t when it’s seen as awful and unacceptable. I’m glad that people are willing to stand up against people who discriminate; we need to do this.

We need to stand united on all fronts. We can’t just say “It’s never okay to discriminate” and have an unspoken clause of “unless it’s people we don’t feel need protection.”

Ending the Lie

This is what happens when white men don’t get what they want.

I had originally intended to include links to a variety of articles and examples of this statement on social media, but I don’t want to come off as attacking anyone. This is an exact quote that followed the Parkland shootings.

Traditionally, the argument that there can be no “racism against whites” is that there aren’t social hierarchies that oppose them.

However, there are so many memes floating around (in the Dawkins-esque sense) like the one above that they’re far from difficult to find.

I recall a time not too long ago when one of my relatives posted, in response to something political involving some sort of natural disaster or terror attack that she was “more afraid of young white men with guns” than whatever had caused the tragedy at hand.

Is it any surprise that young white men feel afraid when they are characterized in such a way? The only way to steer people away from violence is to show them an alternative. The act of feeding a narrative that white men are perceived more prone to violence is a self-fulfilling prophecy, much as similar narratives devastated minority communities.

What about Roll20?

Gaming is a passion for me.

I’ve been pretty negative so far in this essay, so I want to take a moment to affirm something positive that I believe:

Gaming is a tool to bring humans together. It transcends race, creed, gender, sexuality, and every other divisive category. Not everyone plays the same games, but play is a part of the human psyche.

Yesterday, I learned about something that moved me to end my silence.

I want to stress that the allegations that have been made are not necessarily verified. I have been through a similar experience, and it rings true to me. I haven’t seen a denial or a contradictory account, and several of the people involved have corroborated the same account.

Roll20 is an online service for playing roleplaying games. I’ve used them a lot in the past, though my use has dwindled because of having more personal obligations now that I’ve gotten more serious about making games.

It’s an okay service, though many people have gotten frustrated with the lack of meaningful changes in some areas of the platform (including, coincidentally, the user whose undeserved ban set off the whole incident). I definitely fall in that camp; I don’t feel Roll20 is as far ahead of some of the alternatives as it used to be, and I feel more and more like it’s outdated every time I use it.

The problem, however, isn’t the quality of the service, but allegations that have come to light about the treatment given to a group of content creators by one of its founders, Nolan T. Jones.

The story as I understand it goes along these lines: a number of roleplaying game content creators, among them Jim Davis and Cody Lewis, wanted to get together to do a show and asked Roll20 if they could get sponsored to do the show with them.

The response was that they wouldn’t, because Roll20 didn’t want to sponsor “five white men,” but Nolan was willing to go into detail about how the company would sponsor minorities (and bragged about a previous instance where doing so made a previously unknown talent famous).

Did Davis and Lewis deserve an endorsement and sponsorship? I don’t know. However, there are so many things wrong with Nolan’s actions, and by extension Roll20’s actions.

The problem lies in the question of why the decision was made. Roll20 can, theoretically, sponsor as many people as it likes, subject to budget concerns. However, the key decision making factor here, as Lewis states, is skin color and gender.

Part of me originally wanted to say that it’s okay in some contexts; Roll20 has the right to brand themselves as diverse, after all, but that argument doesn’t seem internally consistent.

  1. Their own policies don’t allow for people to recruit on those lines when setting up games on their platform, so there’s a hypocritical double standard.
  2. Would that argument hold up if tried with any other demographic and go without at least some condemnation? If they’d flipped the tables and said “Whites wouldn’t like a diverse broadcaster lineup”, wouldn’t they be seen at least as cowardly or bigoted in their justification of how potential talent would appeal (or not) to certain demographics?
  3. The whole issue goes against Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous admonition that people be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by their character”

Many of them prefer not to use the term discrimination to refer to the incident, but Cody Lewis of Taking20 has come forward with a statement involving what happened.

https://i.redd.it/obyrl2tzd2p11.png
Image courtesy of u/takingd20

I won’t be using Roll20 again. I’ve canceled my subscription, more because this incident reminded me that I don’t use it than any sense of offense.

At the same time, it would be nice to have a chance to get some clarification from Roll20. Unfortunately, they have not released any official statements, other than deciding to stop moderating the subreddit on which the allegations were revealed.

I don’t think they owed anyone anything, but if the accounts that I’ve heard were accurate, it sounds like Jones took glee in the revelation that he was willing to do business with some people but not others because they weren’t “different” from the mainstream roleplaying community.

Why It Matters

I’m a believer in the value of principle over expedience.

We want a future where everyone has a chance to participate on an equal playing field. That means moving beyond zero-sum game and identitarian ways of thinking, because these worldviews only lead to conflict.

One day, I will have kids of my own. They will be at least 50% white, and have an even chance of being male. They will have their own dreams, their own hopes.

I want them to live in King’s dream, a world where their character, and their choices, define them more than the color they may wind up being or the biology they may have.

The carte blanche denial that whites can be discriminated against fuels the very extremists that the denial is supposed to restrain. Left without validation for your experiences, it is very easy to walk the road of bitterness and hate. Only God saved me from bearing a grudge against a person who discarded my dreams, who took my hopes and tore them up because I didn’t fit the demographic that she desired to see.

You don’t have to go very far to create resentment. It starts with a drop, but it’s a bucket that fills quick because people only see their own experiences.

Unfortunately, it’s become expedient to blame a class rather than a person, to seek correlation rather than causation. We don’t want to confront the things that lead to evil, because they can be found in us.

The truth is that we should evaluate everyone on their merits. That means moving beyond simple explanations like “privilege” and “hierarchies”, and embracing individuals for who they are.

I think we can all agree on that.

Finally Reviewing the Samsung HMD Odyssey

Samsung HMD promotional image courtesy of Amazon (affiliate link).

Alright, I’ve been using my VR headset for months now, so it’s time to review the Samsung HMD Odyssey.

This is something that was an incredibly expensive “impulse” purchase for me, in the sense that I was planning to eventually get a VR headset, and I’d been saving up money for one, but I basically tried it out in the store and then knew I had to have it.

First things first, you need to understand where Windows Mixed Reality stands on the VR Headset market.

What is Windows Mixed Reality?

Windows Mixed Reality is basically what you would call a VR headset.

The Mixed Reality term is something of a misnomer; the system doesn’t support any AR or MR features, like interacting simultaneously with physical and digital objects. The outward cameras are apparently IR-only, though I haven’t heard much about this or checked it out myself, so don’t expect further support in a software update.

The Windows Mixed Reality platform works well on Windows, obviously. There are some third-party open source systems that claim to have some support for them, but the only experience I have is with OpenVR, which only works with WMR on Windows through the Mixed Reality Portal, which is a native Windows application.

However, once you have a WMR headset, you will find that 90% of the VR software out there is compatible with it. I haven’t had any issues with abject incompatibility, and while many experiences are designed with the outside-in tracking rather than the inside-out tracking of WMR that won’t be too much of an issue.

Inside-Out Tracking

The selling feature of WMR for me is that it has inside-out tracking. This can create a handful of issues (for instance, I find it hard to get height scaling correct at times), but it also means a vastly reduced setup and the ability to play in any environment.

I literally just push my chair back from my desk when I’m ready to use the headset, and then back up to it so that I have a frame of reference so I don’t start punching furniture.

This means that there aren’t any cables or battery-powered equipment required other than the headset and motion controllers. Low setup, low maintenance, and low clutter are the selling points of the WMR setup.

I have occasionally experienced some minor hiccups with tracking, but it’s not usually significant. The tracking FOV is pretty good, and you usually can figure out what went wrong and fix how you’re holding the controllers once you’ve spent as much time in VR as I have, which is not an astronomical amount of time.

An important note here is that not every VR device has the same controller, but the WMR controllers are pretty robust, with trackpads (that have touch sensitivity and d-pad style pressing functionality), thumbsticks (that click in), menu and grip buttons, triggers, and a Windows button, they really are as functional as a gamepad with the extra feature of motion tracking to add icing to the cake.

Why Samsung?

Well, I’m a little brand loyal to Samsung. I can’t really afford many Samsung products, or at least not cutting-edge ones, but I’ve always had good experiences with them.

However, the real selling point on the Samsung HMD Odyssey is that it’s got a little bit more cutting-edge technology in it than some of its competitors. This is marked by a higher price-tag, but it is made up for in a couple ways.

First, there’s a higher FOV and vertical resolution, which pays off. The 110 degree FOV is nice, though I don’t have experience with other headsets for a comparison. You’ve got about 160 more pixels of vertical resolution (1440×1600 panels), with AMOLED rather than LCD displays.

Let me just say this: looking through the lenses, the only obvious difference between reality and VR comes from how stuff is rendered and the occasional grid effect, which only happens when you’re really focused on certain things (I find it to matter only in rare cases where I’m closely examining distant objects).

Another feature is the integrated headphones and microphone. These weren’t necessarily deal-breakers, but certainly set Samsung apart from the other WMR headsets.

It’s worth noting that the headset is a little heavy. If you strap it down right, a lot of the weight balances well, but wearing it too loose will cause issues, something that I often encountered during play sessions when it was pushing 85 degrees in the room.

My Experiences

One of the things that I noticed about myself when I play in VR versus outside VR is that the experiences are a lot more personal. One of my favorite VR experiences is Skyrim VR, and it definitely feels more frenetic and emotionally charged than standard play (and I’ve got over 400 hours to compare to). Archery and gun-play cannot be approximated by traditional control schemes, but are really fun with motion controllers.

I haven’t really tried any of the VR setups that are intended for mouse and keyboard or gamepad play. I’m strictly using motion controller-based titles.

The motion controllers are pretty nice; I have some issues with the battery hatch coming loose on the right controller from time-to-time, but I also have large hands and tend to mash my grip down really hard, which means that I’m essentially pushing on them in exactly the way you’d want to open them. It’s not a huge issue, and being conscious of my posture when I hold the controllers mitigates this. Every game has a slightly different control scheme, which is a pain, but not insurmountable.

I’ve generally found that many of the “issues” with VR can be overcome if you’re willing to invest a little time in it.

Motion sickness, for instance, was an early issue. After a few hours, however, I found that it went away in 90% of cases. I also keep a physical frame of reference (the seat of my chair) and a fan blowing toward me, which helps as well. I’ve found that with this setup I don’t even need comfort settings in many games.

I did have an issue where one of the lenses of my display cut out while I was playing. Samsung was pretty easy to deal with and I was able to send it off for service and have it back in about a week (service was covered under warranty).

Wrapping Up

In general, do I recommend a VR headset?

Definitely. Maybe not yet; $500 is a little steep, but if you want a much more immersive experience and you’re going to use the headset a lot, then I think it could be a good investment.

The Samsung Odyssey has been treating me really well. Barring that one incident I described above, it’s functioned flawlessly. I use rechargeable batteries in the motion controllers (affiliate link), which reduces the cost of operating the system a little over the long run. Each charge lasts for about a week or two of fairly “heavy” use for me, or a month or so if I’m using the headset very intermittently (like, say, during July when it was too hot to wear the headset).

As far as the different options go, I wholeheartedly recommend the Samsung offering, which is available at Amazon (affiliate link). When I got mine, I got it from a Microsoft store physical location and got a 10% educator discount, but if you’re not getting it in person I would strongly suggest Amazon; I haven’t had a bad experience with the Microsoft store online, but I don’t trust their shipping quite as much as I trust Amazon’s.

The Mere Wife Review

I’ve been perpetually struggling to keep up on my reading even as I double down on work and writing. Last week I read The Mere Wife, a novel (affiliate link) by Maria Dahvana Headley, and I found it quite interesting.

To borrow from the blurb on Amazon:

New York Times bestselling author Maria Dahvana Headley presents a modern retelling of the literary classic Beowulf, set in American suburbia as two mothers—a housewife and a battle-hardened veteran—fight to protect those they love in The Mere Wife.

I’d say that this is a bit of an understatement, but it’s a good summary of the book in the sense that you should get an idea of what it is so you can decide whether you’re interested in checking it out further.

If you’re not sold, however, I strongly suggest that you check it out. It’s an interesting, compelling read.

Image courtesy of Amazon and Macmillan.

The whole novel is told in this delightful style, something that falls nicely between stream-of-consciousness and more traditional styles. The result is a book that is occasionally confusing, but only so much so as the complications of reality are to its characters’ minds.

Most of the time, it manages to combine the sort of crisp and clear imagery that one rarely finds outside of epics; I found myself frequently thinking of Homer and Beowulf as I looked at the language and deep descriptions, which are tremendously indulgent but have a sense of action to them, something that you see with many works that belong to an oral tradition.

As far as craft goes, I don’t think I can recommend it enough. It’s rare to get such a great glimpse into characters’ heads,

Thematically, it’s heavy. Many of the themes discussed relate to PTSD, family drama and infidelity, and violence. It’d get a nice graphic R rating if it were made into a movie.

However, while The Mere Wife may occasionally veer into the realm of the grotesque, it does so no more than sacrosanct myths. Where it resorts to vulgarity it does so to depict life as it is, and while I wouldn’t be passing it out on a middle-school reading list, I’d definitely recommend it to a mature reader, especially one who has already become familiar with Beowulf.

Indeed, one of the things that struck me as I read The Mere Wife is how close it manages to feel to that epic. The three act structure is maintained, though it is different, and the characters are all closely drawn from the original myth, but given their own life and meaning.

Honestly, even if you haven’t read Beowulf, I can still recommend The Mere Wife. The protagonist, Dana, is based off of the character of Grendel’s mother, who is barely a footnote in the original epic but comes to life throughout the novel as a tragic figure.

The tragedy plays deeply into the American consciousness, but also in general to the world of the 21st century. The loss of mysticism, digital panopticon, paranoia in the war on terror, and racial tensions of our day all are developed into themes and touched upon, questions that are answered, unanswered, and explored.

Universally, The Mere Wife puts us into the shoes of its characters. Loathsome or ennobling, each gets a fair shake, and we are left feeling sympathy for all of them. It lives up to the legacy of sagas and epics, and I was able to get through all 320 pages of the tale in just a couple days, finding every excuse possible to read it.

I really cannot recommend the book enough. I will conclude with the first paragraph of the novel; it was all the preview I needed to be convinced that it was worth checking out:

Say it. The beginning and end at once. I’m face down in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead. I think about praying, but I’ve never been any good at asking for help. I try to sing. There aren’t any songs for this. All I have is a line I read in a library book. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

China’s At It Again

It’s that time of year again when China’s doing its human rights violations.

For those who aren’t quite clear on what time of year that is, it’s all the time.

A couple weeks ago I talked about how China was establishing gulags, but now we have some more information coming out of the Xinjiang province about the persecution of the Muslim minorities in that country.

Now a list of potential reasons why you can get sent to a re-education camp in Xinjiang has emerged, and I’ll give you a hint:

Most of the time, it’s not for actual subversive activity.

At least, not something that would be considered subversive outside of China’s totalitarian regime.

They’re things that are pretty simple. Little things like owning a tent, abstaining from alcohol (Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol), going to a mosque, having a beard, arguing with an official, or owning extra food.

Evidently, if you do any of these things, you’re a hidden radical.

Meanwhile, China’s persecution of Christians continues unabated. Since Xi Jinping has secured his power, he has had no reason to avoid doing this, since he knows for a fact that the rest of the world will do nothing.

Why?

The Chinese are bullies, fond of pointing out the fact that they can exercise power. They know that there’s nowhere with the will to stand up to them, and they’ve managed to acquire debts from a lot of countries and continue to place cultural agents (e.g. the Confucius Institute) in many other countries, and they coerce tech giants into bending their knees in order to access a lucrative market.

So what can you do about it?

Simple. Avoid Chinese goods, let your government officials (ineffective though they may be) know that you have concerns with close affairs with them, and use your influence to spread the word. Do not remain silent. Do not permit this abuse to be swept under the rug.