Song of the Day: Project 86’s Evil (A Chorus of Resistance)

When I was younger, I listened to Project 86 a lot. I still listen to them quite a bit (my daily wake-up alarm is a random song from a playlist of all their work), but a lot of their mid-00’s stuff is stuff that I remember well from my days in high school (you know, back before streaming music when we had to actually buy albums, as uncivilized as that sounds).

Continue reading “Song of the Day: Project 86’s Evil (A Chorus of Resistance)”

On Being Everything

Recently, I have been reading Montaigne.

The full ramifications of this have yet to be seen; he is an interesting figure, and his writings are even more so, full of anecdotes and ramblings. His works are deep and profound, but they’re also shallow and lighthearted. Simultaneously with contradicting himself, Montaigne seems to be right about everything, which is infuriating.

I have also been working on the aspirational identification of myself with the heroic individual; I feel that this is a necessary step for me to improve my own life and the world.

Undergoing this process is something that is painful, often difficult, and also requires equally painful and difficult soul-searching.

One thing that I will do is consider maxims and then decide whether they are true or not. I try to come up with these as creatively as possible, or use what I read as an inspiration.

Today, one of these maxims popped into my head, and it was rather troubling for me:

I am everything in the universe.

Now, I don’t know how much I trust the random thoughts that pop into my head. In fact, I actually trust them very little. My brain is very good at free association and wandering aimlessly and without purpose. Most of the maxims I try to apply to myself are true only in part, which is perhaps the fundamental element of the human condition.

In any case, to the extent that the above statement is true, I don’t believe that it is necessarily a positive. At least, I do not interpret it in a sort of heliocentric egoism.

Rather, I think there is something to be said for the human spirit as a tabula rasa. Not necessarily in Rousseau’s noble savage conception of it, but rather in the sense that a person undeveloped can turn into anything.

I grew up in a traditional Christian upbringing, though I was not really acquainted as closely with theological traditions until I became older.

Two important traditions within Christianity, or at least the sect of Christianity that I find myself within, are those of original sin and total depravity.

Pairing this with the seemingly blasphemous maxim that popped into my head, it becomes immediately apparent that there are limitations to this, but it holds some truth.

This gives birth to a truer maxim, one which is more measured:

I am capable of becoming everything within my limitations.

The problem with this is that it is not necessarily a positive statement.

I’ve read a fair deal of Jung, though not as much as I would like. One of Jung’s most influential concepts in my life is that of the Shadow, the darker inner side of the subconscious that is hidden from our waking life.

In my life, I have the luxury of being relatively moral. I have made, generally, decisions which I can look back upon with at least a veneer of respectability, though I would say that I have made decisions that have generally benefited the world. I might be barely breaking even, all things considered, but I am at least not dragging everything down.

But I could be.

When I was a young adult, I had my first experience with holding a gun. My mother had paid for my brother and I to go to a firing range (I do not remember the circumstances that led up to this), and we had a rental lined up.

I remember relatively few of the details; I was able to piece many of them together later from the benefit of reflection, but they are not as important as the general experience.

When holding that gun, I had the realization that the power of life and death was in my hands. Perhaps, it would be appropriate to point out, it was only the power of death in my hands.

Barring my initial anxiety–my knowledge of guns came only from the movies, and while we had gone through the basic safety guidelines my brother and I were left to our own devices on the range–the event passed without incident. I was not a good shot, and remain mediocre at best to this day despite a few more trips to the range, but the sensation was familiar.

A similar sensation washes over me when I drive a car, a knowledge that I have within my capacity a great deal of harm.

For a while, I lived in terror of this feeling. I could not put it in words, but my own danger, that is, the danger I posed to the world around me, scared me.

The result was internal conflict. In the Jungian sense, I had awoken a dragon within my Shadow, but I had not figured out how to confront it.

Later, when I was reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (affiliate link), I would discover that this is a common ailment.

I had not considered the fact that everything resides inside me.

This is not to be interpreted as a manifestation of hubris, because the everything within is not manifest in a complex form. Rather, it is as if the elemental motives that make up reality, matter in the sense that the things that matter are matter, all exist within me. They are latent, but awaken in tune with my spirit.

To overcome the dissonance within my psyche, I had to reach the realization that I was not just a good person. The notion of a good person is so vague by definition that it is easy for us to categorize ourselves as such. I often witness children ask if they have been good or bad, as if seeking exculpation. The truth of the matter is that nobody can make that assessment on a reasoned basis. The complexities of reality are such that judgment to the point of condemnation (though not judgment to the point of discernment) is impossible.

The truth is more complex. As I mentioned earlier, I have begun to better envision what a “good person” is; I have begun a process of alignment with the heroic individual who embodies those virtues that I wish to embody.

The counterpart to that is recognizing that there is a fraud, a war criminal, a traitor in every heart. Each step taken toward virtue means a step taken away from blind convention. Peterson would describe this as going from order to chaos, and this is a good conceptualization of the process.

There’s a Nietzsche-like element to the process. Stepping away from habit and toward a place where one can develop virtue also leaves one prone to stepping into darkness. The pursuit of light does not come without a risk of hypocrisy, of bringing the wrong elements of the self into dominance.

This is the Jungian Shadow: you are sheltered from your weaknesses by sticking to the rut, but to move beyond you must confront the worst elements of yourself and risk disaster.

The dragon I had to fight–the adversary I am still facing–is that the potential for great disaster lies within my own self, within my best intentions and the potential for me to give into baser desires.

I am everything in the universe, in its basest form, and that’s not as good as it might seem. I strive to inflect myself in such a way that I develop into the ideal; to pick up my cross and follow the righteous path.

Music of the Day: Elgar’s Enigma Variations

Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations are perhaps one of the best examples of classical music that can evoke strong emotions. Based on a common element, each individual variation inflects upon the theme in a variety of interesting ways, and throughout the overarching work each piece has its own specific role.

At times dark, and at times hopeful, the Enigma Variations are an attempt to capture various moments and individuals and Elgar’s life. Perhaps the greatest strength of the variations is their flexibility: many of the pieces are very short, but can make their identity clear in a minute or less. Others, like the famous Nimrod variation, build upon a single notion and develop it into a larger distinct piece. The sheer versatility is staggering.

Elgar’s variations reflect the entire range of human emotion. They are almost as much a biography of the spirit as they are of his subjects.

I had the pleasure once of attending a performance of the Enigma Variations in concert. The experience of doing nothing but simply listening to music is stunning. I have heard it said that Elgar’s Enigma Variations is for modern British identity what Arne’s Rule Britannia was for Imperial Britain. Not being British myself I cannot vouch for this, but it is worth noting that the Enigma Variations served as a central source for Hans Zimmer’s score of the movie Dunkirk. Indeed, it was Elgar’s work more so than Zimmer’s that carried the film’s soundtrack, and it was well received by modern audiences around the world for its emotional poignancy.

I am rarely captured by music so strongly as to be enraptured by it. The Works of Arvo Pärt are a good example of this, and Elgar manages to achieve the same appeal for me. However, there is something more authentic in Elgar’s work. Much of Pärt’s work is sacred music, and his minimalist style serves itself misses certain elements of the emotional life: they are majestic and transcendental, but much of Part’s work overlooks everyday, common, events.

Elgar leaves no such gap in his work. The Variations can be playful or down to earth as well as being majestic, and as a result a person’s mood can be fitted to one of the Variations at any point. Overall, I would say that the whole collection is playful, but is punctuated by triumphant and somber moments. Listening to the Variations in their entirety as a larger whole is cathartic in the same sense that a play or film written and performed by masters might be. I can think of no other musical work that progresses so elegantly through the entire range of human emotion.

As a layman, I am far from the best person to describe Elgar’s work, but it needs no in-depth description. From the soaring triumphant strains rising from the sorrowful depths of the Nimrod variation, to more playful and cheerful elements (Elgar made one of the variations after being inspired by a dog at play), even without knowledge of the scenes and pictures that they are supposed to represent the Variations provide the essence of their subjects. They are worth listening to individually, even if one does not listen to the whole work: there is something sublime in the collection, but also something beautiful in each individual part of the whole.

Much as an actor or writer may put themselves into the heads of their characters, Elgar seems to jump into each song with audacity. Each movement is honest, and that allows it to be perhaps unparalleled and its ability to form direct connections with the listener.

Explaining why the Enigma Variations are so wonderful is beyond my ability. However, an apt starting point would be to compare them to the works of Montaigne: listening to the Variations is like listening to a friend tell a story in the same way that one reading Montaigne’s essays finds that are they listening to a friend mull over thoughts.

Mandala in Context

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of Jung recently, and I’ve been in a section of a book called Man and His Symbols (affiliate link).

Before I go further, I should point out that I’m not much of an artist. I have an appreciation for art, and some basic theory, but not much in the way of practice or (barring some rare instances) interest in creating art. I have aphantasia, meaning that I cannot consciously evoke an image in my mind (though I can contemplate concepts and have vivid dreams, which I can often recall images from in waking).

As I have been reading Man and His Symbols, I have recently reached a section by Aniela Jaffé entitled “Symbolism in the Visual Arts” which talks about the use of symbolism in images.

As someone who is not “a visual person” to steal the language of laypeople, I have often been fascinated by abstract art (though I have a philosophical distaste for postmodern denials of the presence meaning in art), and I’ve been spending some time contemplating the role and presence of symbols in visual works.

Another thing that Jung mentioned in Modern Man in Search of a Soul (affiliate link) is that it’s not uncommon for people to take up the pursuit of a creative endeavor as part of a program of self-discovery; not because of usefulness but precisely because it is a form of self-expression without any other utility to the individual. Since I don’t draw or do art in any meaningful sense, this makes some logical sense for me as an outlet.

For the past couple days, I’ve had an image in my mind of a mandala; these are representations of the self, cosmos, and universe.

The mandala takes the form of a sphere with two internal squares; one oriented as a diamond and the other smaller within it. The divisions are such that three “rings” of eight pieces are formed within.

In my mental image, the mandala is also colored and rotated off-kilter, but as I drew it out in Inkscape I did not think it to be important to start with this.

Each section of the mandala is colored red, yellow, black, or white. A Sunday School song comes to mind in which the lyrics go along the lines of the following:

“Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight: Jesus loves the little children of the world”

Growing up in America in the 1990’s, I always took the lyrics of this song to imply ethnic unity under the banner of the Protestant faith, but as an adult looking back to it decades later, an alternate symbolism occurs to me.

Red, yellow, black, and white are the colors of the four humors (depending on what coloration one assigns to phlegm; while phlegm is not usually depicted as white it was so in my own mental conception of the humors at the time of the image) and the processes of the alchemical magnum opus.

As the Hermetic perspective on alchemy is to bring the incomplete toward wholeness, there is a logical continuation of these elements within the mandala.

The organization of the mandala into sections like this runs against what I would normally picture; I would rotate each ring to be in the same general pattern as the first, yet in the mental image we see that the outer rings have the pairings in sequence with each other; instead of going yellow-red-white-black-yellow-red-white-black they go red-yellow-red-yellow-black-white-black-white in a clockwise manner.

It is worth noting that each of the internal colors is “impure” (e.g. not primary); both so that the dividing lines that separate them remain distinctive but also because this is proper: the transformative process is not instantaneous. I kind of feel like I have a Norton anthology from my college days whose cover has colors similar to these (or perhaps even a mandala or mandala-elements similar to these), but I can’t be bothered to dig it out to check.

However, the mandala in question is not the sole object in the mental image; I have the perception (albeit abstractly) that it is in some way on concrete, that it is at an angle, and that there is a sol symbol in one of the elements of the mandala.

To bring this into actualization, I used an image from Morguefile, a royalty free image repository. Uploaded by the user “scottglennie” it depicts a straight-on view of concrete. The presence of discordant elements within the concrete matches the mental image I have had.

In my image, the mandala is distressed, worn down by the presence of the world. In Krita, I imported the image that came from Inkscape and rotated it to its proper orientation, then penciled in the sol-image. The sol-image is not distressed like the other elements of the mandala, but the barriers between the mandala and the outside world are particularly distressed.

The final image looks like this:

I’m not sure what the reason for this image is (or, for that matter, if there is one), but I am certain that there are deep symbolic meanings to it.

Dividing the mandala into quadrants, we can see that there is an imbalance between the parts; each has two colors that appear only once, and two that appear twice.

Combined with the distress that occurs around the rim of the mandala and the imbalance, I think it is fair to say that these elements represent chaos, though it is also important to note that the mandala is balanced within the whole if not the parts.

The presence of the sol symbol is not something that I have any experience with; a purely abstract mandala would omit it, but it is also not part of a larger zodiac or associated group of elements. Its presence at the top of the mandala may indicate something like a steady course.

If pressed to rationally explain this, I feel like my life is in some semblance of order, even though I have a certain amount of stress and responsibilities, so it is possible that my unconscious mind is creating this image as a representation of the combination of chaos (responsibility and uncertainty) and order (preparation to meet that responsibility and guiding compass of plans, morality, and ethics) in my life.

The distress on the mandala represents the conflict between the individual self and the wider world. I tend to be introverted to an extreme, avoiding serious relationships outside of those governed by my livelihood. One of my goals as I pursue some psychological development and self-analysis is to break free of some of those self-imposed restrictions: to be more spontaneous, agreeable, and open within rational limits.

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.



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.

I Need a New Belt

I’ve fallen off of posting for a while, but I’m still planning to continue uploading my short story collection up here.

Today, however, I had another great weight loss milestone. I was wearing pants that I have to wear a belt with, and throughout the day I noticed that my belt was a little loose despite being configured as tightly as possible.

Long story short, my belt is no longer doing a great job of keeping my pants up, though I discovered this at home and not by having a tragic wardrobe malfunction in public.

I guess getting a new belt can be added to my list of things to do this weekend. I’m a little happy about this because I’ve been worried about not having as much gym time as I would normally get this last week and a half.

My next big focus has to be on getting rid of some of this belly fat. I’ve made really good losses elsewhere, but I’m not as concerned about them for health reasons and otherwise.

I’m thinking that some good core exercises will help, but I’m a little bit of a procrastinator, so I’ll start tomorrow.

Getting more disciplined with exercise overall is a good idea. I’m pretty disciplined (though not perfect, by any means) with my diet, but my exercise routine is anything but.

God as Provider Against Fear

One of the things that has been a repeated source of God-centered conviction in my life is my own struggles with anxieties and fears of what lies in store for my future.

I have no doubt that many of these fears constitute a spiritual weakness of mine, a failure to appreciate what I have been given and a blindness to the charity of Providence. Although I deserve nothing, I fear that my comforts and worldly position will be lost, when in reality these are the least of my treasures.

Foremost among all fears is the fear of death. Other than fears of inadequacy and questions of our own identity, nothing can drive us more than the question of what will happen once we die.

God gives us eternal life because God provides the tools to resist any fears. We can overcome anything with the right help, and God will provide for our needs. It’s not that we should focus on the concept of eternal life because of what it offers us; having an eternity with God is pointless if you don’t have a now with God.

The role of eternal life is to give believers a reminder that we have a relationship with God through Christ that cannot be ended by any worldly force. It is only by choice, by the intentional rejection of God, that we can lose our salvation.

The degree to which one has to act in violation of godly principles to lose salvation is unclear. God is love and forgiveness, even when it is not deserved. Merely sinning is therefore likely insufficient to jeopardize salvation, but a lifestyle of depravity illustrates priorities that lie outside God’s kingdom, and it would be foolish to live in such a way that virtues extolled by God and the saints are lacking and expect to have one’s name in the Book of Life.

Paul’s famous musings on this matter in Romans come to mind:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?”
*Romans 6:1, NASB*

One of the things that I’ve noticed in my faith walk is that many of my fellow believers worry about their salvation; this is not necessarily always wrong, but I think that it overlooks the main point of life.

God wants us to succeed, but to do so in accordance with His will.

We may not appreciate those successes, since they do not always follow the paths that we want to follow. However, this development leads us to improved character, and from there we find ourselves bettered by God’s plan, so long as we follow the direction of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

When we are following God, we are earning our salvation; even though we will have moments of worldly weakness, we can strive to work toward our goals. An analogy for this is the notion of industry: not everyone can be successful, but people who strive for it are much more likely to do so.

Certainty can come in the form of an industrious pursuit of God.

If we do this, we will not automatically enjoy worldly success. This is a common heresy that has spread throughout the modern church, especially in America. However, as we follow faithfully we deepen our relationship with God, the loving Father, who will reward us with an eternal connection to Him. We also learn right principles of action from the virtues that come from that relationship with God, like self-control, being a good neighbor, and loyalty.

While these are not enough on their own to ensure worldly success, they are things that are important to have to avoid bringing destruction down upon oneself.

God’s support for us is found in both boldness and tranquility. We need fear nothing, for we are His children and servants. Through our service we can shine the light of the divine in the world, and while we may never have wealth or worldly success we can count on the auspices of God and trust that we will never be tested beyond what we can bear by the trials of the world. These difficulties do not come from God, and with the omnipotent Creator at our side not even death can take our hope.

Dream big and follow boldly.

Music for Today: Tobias Lilja’s “There Is No Other”

Since I’ve been writing about classical music here from time to time, now it’s time to go and ruin that by choosing entirely different sorts of music.

One of the more interesting musicians that I’ve found in my various musical dalliances is Tobias Lilja. He has an interesting mix between electronic, industrial, and just plain weird styles that I find incredibly appealing, not the least because of the incredibly deep layers of sound and the mix between dichotomous harmonic and heavily distorted/natural and synthetic sounds.

I find that the music that Lilja makes is both compelling and primal. It succeeds in running the gamut from highly intense to the surprisingly somber, and in his Medicine Sings Triptych he manages to create a driving, almost hypnotic experience with both incredibly intense elements and at times serene and wistful lyrics and instrumentation.

The particular song that I find myself revisiting most often, however, is “There Is No Other”. This was the song that I discovered Tobias Lilja from, in the form of a trailer for the roleplaying game Degenesis, which I’m including below.

However, I think the real strength of “There Is No Other” comes in the way that it showcases a mixture of intensity and sort of mystical, surreal tone. It opens one’s mind to wander, but also drives one forward, almost triggering a physiological response to the intensity of the effects.

You can find the original song on Spotify or on SoundCloud. Lilja also made a special mix for Degenesis, a tabletop roleplaying game, which can be found on SoundCloud, and another remix is available at his BandCamp page.

I think that listening to and comparing the different versions is very interesting as a highlight for the different ways that Lilja can use the same elements with different dressings to create an engaging listening experience.