Reflection on Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

I have a tendency to read books which make me deeply uncomfortable with the world. I’m not sure what impulse drives me to this, but Ordinary Men (affiliate link) is one of these books.

It would be both fair and unfair to call my thoughts on this book a review. I am not qualified to critique the historical methods, factual accuracy, or mass appeal of such a book, but I can say that it is a compelling, necessary read, in the vein of Solzhenitsyn’s work.

Continue reading “Reflection on Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland”

How to Write Every Day

I don’t update this blog as often as I perhaps should; I’m trending toward a post on at least a bi-weekly basis, but I do update the Loreshaper Games blog for my company every day.

It’s something that requires a lot of discipline and time, but I think it’s worth it in the long run for the practice it gives in becoming a better writer and the social networking that it builds.

One of the hardest parts of writing daily is just figuring out stuff to write. I keep Loreshaper Games on-brand as much as possible by sticking to gaming; not always our own products but always something that is industry-significant.

However, when worst comes to worst it’s just important to write every day. A lot of the posts that go up here are products of weeks of development, and writing so much tends to burn through all your inspiration quick.

You need a way to replenish that if you want to keep your creative juices flowing.

Be Creative On Demand

As I was reading the Harvard Business Review the other day, I came across an article that touched on some productivity techniques, and one of the quotes stuck with me.

Do things that don’t interest you. Early in my career, Will Marre, the founding president of the Stephen Covey’s training company, admonished me to subscribe to a handful of business journals he listed, then added, “And every time you read one, be sure to read at least one article that holds no interest for you.” I’ve been rewarded time and again for doing so. Many things that end of up in my shoebox have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things “boring” simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.

Harvard Business Review

I try to keep up with a certain amount of news every day. I’m a subscriber to Foreign Policy, for instance, and I follow a couple video-based news outlets every day.

These, however, rarely give me any meaningful inspiration.

You find that a lot of things repeat. While news is great for having a conversation starter, it’s not great at giving us a whole ton of inspiration.

It’s also a matter of lacking an ability to comprehend things that you need to explore to move past your current stage of understanding. Being a good writer is part of an evolutionary process: every time you write you should reflect and improve, but you can’t do that if you’re not giving yourself fertile soil in which to plant roots.

Varied reading goes a lot further in giving that inspiration and opportunity

How-To

One of the things that I’ve been using a lot is the Recommended by Pocket function in Firefox (which I use both on my desktop and smartphone). It pops up some interesting stuff, and whenever I’m tempted to “waste time”, I go there and read. I think I’ve probably had more “eureka” moments as a result of little articles I’ve read in the past year than from any conscious attempts to seek out inspiration (and, probably, improved my writing style by osmosis).

However, I’m also an Audible (affiliate link) subscriber, and I get two credits each month. I use one for something that interests me or something that I’ve been recommended, and the other for something more or less “random”.

One of my best experiences last year came when I accidentally purchased a copy of Educated (affiliate link), Tara Westover’s memoir; a consequence of having too many tabs open and not enough attention. Amazon One-Click is the bane of my existence, apparently.

However, I decided that my penance for carelessness would be to read a book that I had actually ruled out of the running for a late-night book search, and I was really glad that I did (you can read my review of Educated here).

New Horizons

One of the advantages of this more hap-hazard selection of readings is that you have an opportunity to broaden your experiential horizons.

The brain is funny in the way it works: it’s not a computer with neatly categorized information in separate files. Everything that it experiences and records goes in a sort of soup, and while our consciousness is fairly good at putting the most important stuff at the forefront, anything learned can resurface at a later date in an unexpected way.

It’s also just good practice. I don’t think I put Educated down for more than a few hours to sleep from the time I purchased it to the time that I finished reading it, and that’s an experience I’ve had over and over again with these random things.

Learning new stuff is, frankly, fun, something that we’ve drilled out of ourselves with our industrialized education system and its love of meaningless tasks.

Improve yourself, broaden your horizons, and give yourself something to write about. Not everything that inspires me makes it to public view, but if you write even a little about something every day you’re more likely to write something that goes out to the public.

Right now I’ve got my Loreshaper Games blog, this blog, and freelance writing on the side, and having a little bit of everything in my literary diet makes doing all that writing (and maintaining a day job) a whole lot easier

Understanding the Lotus: An Analysis of Psycho-Mythic Storytelling in Warframe

It’s not a great secret that I’m a fan of the game Warframe, published by Digital Extremes. I haven’t played it very much, but I’ve been stuck listening to “We All Lift Together”, a song created to promote a large addition to the game, and as a result I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve been playing Warframe on-and-off since it was in beta, and while I don’t consider it my favorite game, I think it has some of the best (if not the outright best) storytelling in a game with a single linear storyline, despite being very minimalist in how it develops that story.

The way that it pulls this off is by managing to tell a story that combines deep psychology and mythical elements on a very fundamental level to make a narrative so compelling that player choices, generally absent except in the most superficial forms, are irrelevant.

There are practical considerations of this as well–much of the story takes place as flashbacks or responses to critical incidents–but this would be frustrating to the audience were it not tied to strong principles of storytelling.

Understanding Psycho-Mythic Storytelling

Psycho-mythic storytelling ties into Jungian notions of the subconscious and other elements of the human psyche, which is derived from while simultaneously informing stories that have emerged across the entire range of human society and experiences.

It is important to realize that many of these elements are archetypal; that is, that they do not have any single manifestation that can be pointed to as a source. Nonetheless, many of these factors are still universal.

As I work through examples of these events across Warframe’s storyline, I will introduce these as needed, however, an understanding of Jungian dichotomies is important.

Jungian dichotomies draw from the fundamental notion of paired elements (e.g. order and chaos, masculine and feminine, known and unknown) being represented both within and as an extension of all things.

Balance between the two extremes in a dichotomy reflects a more reasonable approach to the universe, one which is likely to meet with objective reality in such a manner that produces positive outcomes.

For instance, considering the very most basic of the possible responses, you have the conflict between known and unknown.

The known, generally, is not exciting. While there may be some contentment in the present, at some point the known gets boring; change is a natural state, and to remain in the known is to embrace stagnation.

However, the intrusion of the unknown is a terrible thing, because it represents the risk of loss, or more accurately the possibility that the subjective self will be harmed in some way.

The unknown is also the source of anything better than what is currently had, however. This makes it desirable; one who is able to frame an encounter with the unknown in such a way that they are able to approach it to their advantage is going to wind up having success in their endeavors, and their prize will be either what they desire or something that transcends that which they originally wanted.

Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, from which the Hero’s Journey is derived, draws upon this relationship with the unknown: the Hero must find it within themselves to find a subjectively greater future by entering the unknown and confronting it. You can find more in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Amazon affiliate link).

Much of what I am applying to Warframe is also based on the mythological analyses modeled by Jordan Peterson in his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Amazon affiliate link). I’ve been listening to it on-and-off for the past few weeks, and I’ve been finding it incredibly interesting.

Tiers of Cosmogony

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I also want to talk about cosmogonic tiers.

There is a distinction in cosmogony based on the “depth” of experiences, and we can see this in classical myth as well. The concept of cosmogony centers around the idea that everything started as chaos, and then became more structured and ordered as things go along. Each generation overthrows its predecessors in a heroic revolution, although this eventually stops when we reach the current generation–the one in which humanity resides.

This can be distilled into tiers and generations. There’s not always a clear descent between generations (i.e. two generations may fit one cosmogonic tier in some places), but these figures can be generalized by category.

A good example from this comes from Greek myth, where we see Chaos, which is the first entity in existence.

At this point existence is beyond comprehension, and beyond anything that is relevant to our audience, and it is only through filtering down to further levels of experience that we reach anything that has relevance in human life.

Chaos’ cohorts and children (some of the distinctions here are blurred based on the telling) represent universal entities: Gaia, land; Tartarus, the underworld; Eros, the sexual drive; and so forth. These are primordial deities–they exist before the world that is known does.

These are personified entities (and, in some cases, Chaos is as well), but they are not directly interfaced with the human world. To humanity they are alien, and even when personified their motivations and drives are not necessarily comprehensible.

From this initial generation come the Titans, a second generation of the divine. These figures now have their own clear families, and by extension a clear role in the universe. More heavily personified, they are portrayed as the creators of humankind, but are themselves still more defined by their differences than their similarities.

The third generation, the traditional Greek gods as we would know them, represent archetypal figures. They have a particular divine domain, but otherwise they are human in motivation and depiction. They obey the rules which apply to humanity (albeit frequently with special privileges; these rules often apply only to their interactions with each other) and face consequences when they fail to do so.

The gods serve as representations of tradition and upright action.

It is in the fourth or later generations that we see mortals and demigods appear. These figures are defined by their vulnerability; where the earlier cosmogonic forces develop from existing outside the world to eventually become a mere part of it.

Onward to Warframe

The psycho-mythic nature of Warframe’s narrative contributes to its emotional power. It takes place in a universe where the players take on the role of the heroic individual–one born into the fourth generation of the cosmogony in the same place that humans would fall in the Greek mythosphere–but one which relies on symbolism and psychological establishment of the cosmogony that unfolds.

The reason why I define this as psycho-mythic, instead of simply psychological or symbolic storytelling, is that it relies both on the more modern storytelling methods and approaches while also building heavily (and not unintentionally) on the mythology of ancient times.

The layering of the cosmogonic process is a key part of this: the players’ characters (collectively known as the Tenno) are children of the old age, but living after its fall.

Children of the Unknown

The Tenno fit the role as the heroic individuals of the mythical saga very well; they are a sort of Horus figure (Peterson elaborates on this mythical type in his book Maps of Meaning) who must bear a sacrifice of themselves to make the world whole.

This sacrifice is not literal death, but it does entail suffering and pain. The Tenno are children who have known nothing but war, and while they have deific powers, they are also exiles.

Hunted by the Orokin, their own society playing the role of mythic progenitors, due to the threat that they posed, the Tenno are awakened by their protector, the Lotus, in the current time of the game.

They are hunted and hounded by forces that are generally their inferiors: as representations of the fourth-generation heroic individual (i.e. a cosmically significant figure that has been personified enough to lack a deific cosmological significance and instead adopt personal motives) they face the Grineer, Corpus, and Infested factions within the game, each of which represent monstrous figures that are themselves the product of the Orokin but also the inferiors of the Tenno.

The hallmark of the Tenno, however, is also their outward identity, the Warframe.

The Warframe as Protective Father

One step up the generational chain from the Tenno is the warframe. In-universe, the warframes were created for the Tenno, but when the Tenno awaken the warframes are out of their control–at least, most of them are.

Each warframe is based on a theme, and these themes often tie into great symbols. While they are not innately sentient (with the exception of the Excalibur Umbra, which was created by fusing an Orokin with the infestation that spawns every warframe), they are the first experience that the player has with the Tenno, and are defined by their impersonal relationship with the universe.

This is not to imply that the warframe has no personality unto itself, but rather that it has a role in the third generation of the cosmogonic structure. Each of the individual warframes is an example of something that has a deific role in the universe: the Excalibur represents mastery of the blade, the Volt represents power over lightning, and the Loki represents trickery and deception.

Each warframe plays a deific role, rather than a personal one, and while they are merely tools to an end they are simultaneously idols to concepts that play an important role in the life of the Tenno and in the universe of Warframe, assuming the role of protector gods among primitive civilizations that have begun to spring up in the ashes of the Orokin world.

In this sense, the warframe serves as a sort of archetypal father, who in a psychological sense is often thought of as a bringer of order.

The Titanic Lotus

It is the Lotus who searches for and awakens the warframe and the Tenno, however.

To draw a parallel to the Egyptian myth of Osiris, it is Osiris’ wife who finds the parts of Osiris after he is murdered by Set and reassembles them, giving birth to the mythical figure Horus, who is a fourth-generation cosmogonic figure representing humankind.

The Lotus fills this void in the psycho-mythic framework of Warframe; she is the one who awakens the Tenno, and also plays a key role in mentoring them and directing them toward solving the problems with their universe.

However, the Lotus’ origins are shrouded in mystery, and as the world is revealed through the storyline of the game it is clear that she is not necessarily who she seems.

At first, the Lotus is associated with Margulis, an Orokin woman who raised the Tenno after they encountered the void (both of these are first generational figures in the cosmogony), but it is later revealed that she is actually a Sentient, one of the creations of the Orokin.

The Sentients have a clear parallel to the Titans of Greek mythology; the first gods to have been purified and complicated to the extent that they can represent natural forces, rather than abstract spheres of existence, the Titans are often portrayed as rebelling against or usurping their precursors, only to be usurped in turn by the third-generation deities.

When the Sentients turn against their creators, the Orokin, the warframes are created to destroy them; the warframes skip to the third cosmogonic generation but it is the Lotus, a second-generation figure, who preserves them from both her fellow Sentients and the Orokin themselves, mimicking the myth of Zeus being given to Amalthea for safekeeping. The fact that both the Lotus and Amalthea are feminine figures is important in a Jungian psychoanalysis; the archetypal father can bring order but also tyranny, while the archetypal mother brings promise but also risk.

The Orokin and the Void

The Tenno gain their power from the Void, a sort of ur-chaos. The Void is an extradimensional space, one that requires special means to access.

The Void is the palace of the Orokin, the grand civilization that spawned the Tenno (again, we see the generational nature of mythology resurfacing), though they were unable to reach it without significant sacrifices and even for their technologically advanced civilization it was something of an outlier; when they fell, so did their dwellings in the Void, which exist in the current day of the game as either derelicts or uninhabited, but still active, stations.

The Void serves as a primordial first-generation figure in the cosmogony of Warframe; many ancient myths involve a later generation’s members returning to the originator of the world and slaying it, making its corpse into their home.

The Orokin serve as additional manifestations of this first level. Along with the Void, they are the ultimate progenitors of the Tenno, originally children who were lost in the Void following a failed expedition to that extra-dimensional space.

The fact that the Tenno, who ultimately are responsible in part for the eventual Orokin conquest of the Void, are able to draw power and shelter from the Void has mythic significance; it is common for a great heroic figure to slay a great threat and make use of its remains for sustenance, shelter, or both.

The Universe in Balance

The conflict that unfolds in Warframe is one of bringing the universe into balance. The Tenno, reawakened and representing humanity, face both other fourth-generation forces, like the Grineer, Corpus, and Infested and the Sentients.

The struggle against other “mortal” forces is not uncommon in mythology, and is a defining trait of some of the early mythic heroes like Odysseus, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh: their foes are not necessarily divine in nature, and they vanquish them using mortal might and cunning.

In this way, the Tenno are able to fight the Grineer, Corpus, and Infested with their own might. As joint members of the natural world, they are on the same playing field, though the Tenno as part-divine by nature of their connection to the primordial first-generation entity of the Void are at a distinct advantage, and as epic protagonists are therefore going to succeed in almost every challenge (even if doing so requires them to come to apotheosis first, something seen in the Second Dream and other storyline missions in Warframe).

It is worth noting that the Tenno is not automatically awoken fully to their abilities at the start of the game, but must instead acquire them during the storyline as they grow in knowledge of their true nature. Up until they achieve this divine apotheosis, it seems that the primary conflict is strictly between them and their worldly antagonists.

As the story progresses, the risks and dangers increase with it. The Tenno are not able to face the Sentients alone. While their warframes provide them with some divine power, the warframes are themselves very much natural; they have power drawn from the Void, but it has been distantly removed and is revealed to have always come from the energy flowing from the Tenno to a warframe, rather than being an intrinsic property of the warframe itself.

In the most recent story update, the Tenno encounters Ballas, an Orokin traitor who sided with the Sentients, but has been corrupted by them. He gives the Tenno a boon, a weapon with which to slay the Sentients, before the scene ends.

Wrapping Up

Warframe’s compelling story draws its weight from being designed with psychological and mythical archetypes that make every character and element more significant than it seems at first glance.

This powerful storytelling method means that although it has relatively little dialogue compared to many other games and almost no player choices, it manages to tell a story that is part of an epic cycle and put the player at the helm of a character who they can sympathize with.

The ensuing connection to the Hero’s Journey means that the player wants to do the same thing that their avatar does, without requiring coercion or massively branching narratives from the writing team.

Spire: My Game of the Year

Normally I don’t like talking about a game of the year because it’s hard to choose one, but this year is going to be different.

This year, I discovered Rowan, Rook & Decard’s Spire (affiliate link) on Kickstarter. I decided, mostly on a lark because I liked the art-style, to back it.

I played a lot of games that I liked this year, and since I consider games for my Game of the Year based on when I play them, not their release date, Spire had to compete with a lot of different games. It beat them all to such a degree that I didn’t have to question my choices.

However, my review of Spire is already out there, so I’ll recap what I like about it and be brief. This commentary applies to all the supplementary content that’s been released after the core rulebook as well, as it’s all been of really good quality and I’ve been enjoying it.

Spire combines humor (dark and zany, sometimes combined and sometimes independent of each other) with one of the most compelling core conflicts I’ve seen in a roleplaying game.

It also has a world that’s compellingly deep without requiring you to commit to any one interpretation of the setting. The sheer poignancy and inflection of culture found in Spire’s world allows for a setting that provides endless possibility, and honestly stands up well in comparison to any other game universe I can think of. I can compare it to the deep worlds of Shadowrun, Battletech, Avernum, Eclipse Phase, Faerun, Sryth, and Eberron that consumed the imagination of my youth, and I have no doubt that it will be a fond staple of my imagination for years to come.

Spire’s mechanics are so good that I’ve used them in my own games; Waystation Deimos is the only one that’s out now and uses a modified version of the system (which is itself borrowed from another developer), but there’s an elegant simplicity to them that allows them to blend narrative and mechanics without sacrificing anything to either.

The art is what first drew me into the world of Spire, and Adrian Stone has done a tremendous job at illustrating it in a way that reminds me of Failbetter Games’ style, but with its own twists. It’s evocative, dark, and colorful simultaneously, and unfortunately I’m not enough of an art critic to find the words to do it justice.

I cannot speak too highly of Spire. It’s a game that has earned its place among the greats.

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.