I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing (Amazon affiliate link), and I just had an epiphany that I figured I’d write about. Obviously a lot of it is inspired by King’s ideas, and I just hit a section about two-fifths of the way into the book where he talks about paragraph structure (of all things).
I’m in the process of going back and getting my Master’s degree, a MFA in creative writing. I don’t think I’m a great writer, at least not in the traditional sense. I write a lot, certainly. My output is good, probably in the top 1%, maybe in the top 10% of the top 1%, if you just look at words published over time that aren’t about myself (though I’m not sure that you can count anything as being written about anyone but the author).
Creative writing kills me.
I’m just not a novelist. I’ve written a ton of shorter stuff, but there’s a reason why the longest thing I can recall writing that was pure creative writing (i.e. not a game) capped out at twenty-thousand words.
It’s because I don’t tell stories well.
Not for lack of trying, mind you. I love telling stories.
But I also love writing in general.
And if I may toot my own horn, I write pretty well. I don’t always hold myself to a high standard on my blogs, but I taught writing and I learned writing and if I have to get down in the dirt and seriously write I can turn out some stuff that you wouldn’t expect.
That doesn’t mean I can write anything.
My most painful writing experience, and one of my greatest triumphs, wasn’t rejection in the traditional sense. It came in an English class in my freshman year of college, ENG 104 (yeah, I’m an honors student, I do the combine two-semesters-in-one and try to over-achieve thing).
I forget what exactly the prompt for the essay was, but the professor had already made clear to me that she thought I had a lot of potential (this is the academic way of saying that you’re giving someone an A but don’t think they should get cocky).
This is not surprising. I probably write up to a million words a year, even if a lot of my output gets thrown out (metaphorically; I keep everything unless I lose it) or winds up little tiny things that don’t go anywhere.
One of the reasons why creative writing slays me is that I don’t do it very often relative to everything else. I like blogging and writing about stuff in general. I suppose in school we’d call it “expository writing” or “descriptive writing”, though in reality those terms mean about as much as a liar’s promise.
And that’s where my epiphany comes in. I was pacing around reading (gotta get those step goals for the fitness tracker), and I had a sudden realization that the secret to mastering creative writing is the same as the secret to mastering the sort of writing that I feel pretty comfortable with.
You get your butt in seat and you do it.
I realized while reading about paragraph length of all things that there was some truth here.
You see, other than when I fret over an intro paragraph (always the most important point of your work) or a conclusion containing or not containing something, I’ve put any thoughts of proper paragraph length aside for a very long time.
This is technically untrue; as a teacher I’d lecture students on how to write a formula paragraph, but I never had to think about it when I was writing. I just knew whether I’d said what had to be said in a paragraph.
And that’s something that I need to figure out about creative writing. I’m comfortable with my paragraphs, but I’m not comfortable with my stories. Yet.
So that’s what I’m working toward. The only way there is to do, to keep doing, and to do again.
Today was a less productive day than I had hoped, but at least I got more physical activity (though not tremendously much so) and was able to get a little more writing done than I was able to do yesterday. Listened to a lot of audiobook stuff too, so that’s at least a sign that I didn’t just waste my time (though there was more of that than I’d care to admit to).
Few people know death, we only endure it, usually from determination, and even from stupidity and custom; and most men only die because they know not how to prevent dying.
François de La Rochefoucauld
I can say without deceit that I have entered the happiest time of my life so far, yet I think that if I were to be faced with my mortality I would be more willing to let go of life now than I have ever been.
I think that there is something about being miserable that makes everything else less bearable.
I’ve been thinking a lot about archetypal stories recently, and one thing struck me as funny.
This might be controversial, but I’ve decided to be radically honest and I’m not going to apologize for saying it.
There are a lot of stories where the characters can be either men or women without causing a change, and a lot of stories where the characters are locked into their gender. In the latter case, if you change the characters’ roles around they feel different.
And I think I’ve finally figured out what the reason for this is.
In the stories where characters can change without issue, it’s generally the story of the Hero, a completely actualized self. Look at Star Wars. A New Hope and The Force Awakens are basically the same storyline, and there is relatively little difference between Luke and Rey represent complete people, and despite the strong parallels (and differences, but generally parallels) between the two they are almost entirely undefined by their gender.
I’d compare this to the characters in Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello goes through a breakdown of his psyche, and he becomes disintegrated. He becomes the pure essence of this wayward masculine element, and ultimately destroys his wife, his feminine counterpart, and thereby completes his tragic fall.
I think of the classic story of Sleeping Beauty, who is a very feminine figure in the archetypal sense. I think you could tell the story with a male character in the protagonist’s spot, but you’d wind up with some real difficulties as you go onward because it’s not the archetypal role of the masculine to do the things that Sleeping Beauty does. You couldn’t replace Maleficent with a man, either, because she represents the destructive feminine, the force that destroys that which intrudes into the unknown without being prepared, whereas the destructive masculine force is that of the tyrant and the destroyer within society who rejects change and the unknown.
But I’ve gone on a tangent. Let us return to Rochefoucauld.
Montaigne (he’s French too, so he counts as Rochefoucauld, right?) draws a contrast between the philosophers and the peasants. Philosophers spend countless hours trying to figure out how to live and how to die. Peasants have their lots assigned to them by birth. The philosophers struggle, toil, and despair. Peasants live with quiet dignity.
Of course, I think Montaigne oversimplifies and romanticizes matters.
But when Rochefoucauld says that most men die only because they don’t know how not to, I think it ties into this notion that most of us live deeply unfulfilling lives. At least when your life is set out ahead of you by an external force, you have the ability to follow a path set by someone other than yourself.
Death used to terrify me. I wouldn’t go outside because I was afraid of what I may find. I’ve got this lovely neurotic personality that hates going outside for a whole sort of reasons, I have terrible seasonal allergies (which flare up during both of the seasons that we get in Arizona), and I’m always capable of conjuring up the worst nightmare hell scenario that could possibly happen. I was never particularly prone to separation anxiety in the sense of being a whiny infant (by all accounts, my brother and I were pleasant children to be around), but I would worry and obsess over every possible woe that could befall my family members when they weren’t in my watchful care.
I still do, from time to time, especially when I’m putting things off and not using my time well.
But one of the things that has come to me as I’ve grown and particularly as I’ve dedicated myself to the study of philosophy and the mind is that it’s best to let go of most things.
If I step outside tomorrow and get hit by a falling airplane (or get hit by a falling airplane while asleep tonight), what flaw does it reflect in myself?
I’d much rather worry about taking one step forward than obsess over the past and the worst that could happen. When death comes for me, which I’m not planning on any time soon (by the grace of God), I don’t plan to grovel before it. Instead I’ll focus on what I’ve done, and what I can do with the time I have left.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. (Hey, I’m even willing to punctuate emotionally raw reflections with cliches, and I’m not trying to be flippantly dismissive. Judge me as you wish!)
Become the full human, whatever that takes.
There is a lot to regret, but no reason to spend time doing so.
The author must keep his mouth shut when his work starts to speak.
Nietzsche is often overlooked as a novelist. Admittedly, I’m not terribly familiar with his work, but I think that one of the things that Nietzsche does really well is to write without preaching in novels like Thus Spake Zarathustra.
Of course, Nietzsche was somewhat unbalanced, and there are definitely places where he doesn’t seem to follow his own advice (perhaps out of frustration), but there is something to be said for the idea that a story should tell itself.
One of the things that I’ve always been bothered by is the morality play.
Even in my youth I found myself being critical of contrived plots and deliberate lessons in stories (barring Scripture, where I considered it justified for its religious purposes though not necessarily satisfying as a storytelling method), even though I did not have what could be described as a sophisticated manner of interpretation.
Pretty much the only work of this sort which escaped my ire was Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, although this could perhaps be forgiven because the preachy interludes were part of a framing narrative directed toward the ruler.
One of the reasons for this, as I’ve come to understand it over the past twenty years, is that the stories hold in themselves such great meaning that an explication is often needless. Carl Jung would say that this occurs in the expression of archetypal ideas: things so timeless and so inherent to the human condition that they’re immediately obvious to the reader.
Another hint here is the presence of polemical narratives.
Polemical narratives can be great when they’re not overt. I barely (but fondly) recall Machiavelli’s The Prince, and more solidly remember Par Lagerkvist’s The Dwarf and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich from my college days as examples of books that showed what not to do in life.
None of these stories (The Prince is not perhaps a story, but there’s a lot of deep subtext and it can be understood as a story through the right historical perspective) overtly condemns the subject of the story, and as a result they are able to make their point clear through a variety of methods.
The Prince is presented as a how-to guide to leadership, but has satirical and sardonic points throughout. The Dwarf shows us an example of the sort of horrid person who represents the worst parts of ourselves, and whose motivations and actions echo our own moral weakness. The Death of Ivan Ilyich decries a society that is corrupt and debased, which achieves an air of propriety without actually being morally decent.
They’re all great works.
Take, on the other hand, the works of Ayn Rand. Anthem is a tremendous expression of an important idea, but Rand never misses an opportunity to snipe at and belittle her opponents. In her fiction and her non-fiction, she diverts from the core of the issue to make sure that people know what she’s aiming at. She’s got a mind that could rival almost any other modern thinker, but is so consumed by this knowledge that her potential is left fallow most of the time.
I choose Rand as an example here, but that’s because Rand is actually a good writer whose weakness gets the better of her. You could look at half a dozen modern writers publishing books this year and see a lack of talent pumping out political or cultural screeds that attract people based on their appeal to their coreligionists (because even the secular works of such writers have a cultic quality), and that’s the sort of thing that Nietzsche decries.
A good work speaks for itself. I think of Harry Potter as an example of this; despite being a work intended for children it manages to include deeply heroic and archetypal themes that bind some of the meaning of reality within its pages.
At no point does Rowling stop to lecture the reader about personal faults or failings (with the possible exception of the Dudleys, but they’re more comedic figures than morality play villains), and the result is that there’s a little more nuance and a push to explore and examine the point behind the pages, instead of just consuming passively.
Tried to push myself harder today. Fell back into a rut with my same order versus chaos schtick that I need to get away from; I believe it’s very accurate, but it’s also not enough by itself to fully explain things and to delve deeper I will need to break out of the rut.
Art is a one-sided conversation with the unobserved.
Nicholas Nassim Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes
This is not my first attempt to reflect on this aphorism, put previously I have never been satisfied by the conclusions that I reach.
There’s a question of what is the “unobserved” subject of art. This is what has always been the sticking point for me when I try and think about this. Is the unobserved that which does not fit neatly into an empirical understanding of the universe? Is it that thing peculiar to the artist which they cannot fully explain? Is Taleb just blowing hot air?
There’s also another question of the unobserved. Is the unobserved that thing which we are striving to move toward? Is it that interstitial space between order and chaos that we spend much of our lives in? Personally, I like this as my interpretation, though I don’t think it’s the original point.
When I was in college, I study studied Romantic literature. No, that doesn’t mean literature about people falling in love with each other, though such events often happened in Romanticism’s key works. Rather, it was a sort of protomodern movement. It focused heavily on experience as the basis for understanding, but in an emotional sense. It wasn’t about being rational and calculating, but always focused on what people felt.
One of the great things emphasized in Romanticism is the notion of the sublime. The sublime can be beautiful, but it would be better described as terrible. Not in the sense that has a negative value for people, but rather in the sense that it defies our comfort. It should scare us. There’s a great painting of a man standing looking out over a valley from the top of the cliff, painted by Caspar David Friedrich. This is often used as the examplar of romantic art.
In this painting, the foggy valley represents an encounter with the sublime; anything could exist within the clouds, and the potential excites the mind. There is danger, too, in the potential to be lost in the fog.
The biblical commandment to “fear God” is possibly an injunction to view Him as a sublime being; to remember that there is not only beauty but also unlimited power contained within.
I think this is the sort of thing that Taleb is referring to. More earnestly than others of art (the Romantics valued honesty, even if they did not care about certainty), they represented the notion that their goal was the pursuit of the unknown. They never sought to hide this, indeed they professed it with great vigor.
The predominant difference between the Romantics and the modern is that what they sought to do with emotion, we do with reason.
I consider myself in some ways an artist. Much of my work is what I would describe as technical, in the sense that I am not pursuing anything outside what has already been done, but that I am merely trying to do it slightly better than the other guy.
However, I do try and pursue art as well. I don’t write prolifically in what we would call an artistic sense. I have written some poetry, I sometimes write stories, though not as much as I say I will (bringing my action in line with my word is a key priority for me), but I do often work on games that focus on storytelling.
I think that storytelling can lead to the greatest expressions of art. Some of that comes from the fact that it’s the form I do most, so I have perhaps a subtle bias in that direction. However, I think that storytelling doesn’t just refer to writing stories. It’s any creative endeavor which has as its purpose the act of communicating information.
This active communication extends Beyond what one does without intent. If someone asks me how my day was, I seldom tell them a story.
Embrace art as heroic.
See the act of creation as the act of discovery.
Don’t ignore the mysteries of life.
How good bad music and bad reasons sound when we march against an enemy.
Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms.
There is a concept of the other that is often talked about in humanities. I think that sometimes it is taken to a platonic ideal and not fully appreciated for its nuance, but the basic notion is this:
People consider others to be either part of the in-group, and therefore friends, or part of the out-group, and therefore enemies.
Nietzsche is keenly aware of this. He faced no small amount of ostracism in his personal life, in part because he was willing to challenge accepted norms.
I had to read some Nietzsche when I was in college, and it was some of this work that focused on moral development, that is, how morality developed in societies. I do not know how well did Nietzsche’s work actually follows what happened. At the time, I thought that he sounded quite bitter. I don’t think I understood anything of his biography, nor did I really understand what’s this work.
One of the interesting things that I read then that stuck with me was the idea of resentment.
I was familiar with the notion of resentment on a very basic level, but I never understood it philosophically. I believe that resentment is a fundamental part of human nature. That doesn’t make it good, and I think that if everyone were able to suppress their resentments we would live in a much better world.
The thing about an encounter with the other is that it is easy to tally up resentment when chances for civil contact are limited. People are already predisposed to fear that which is unfamiliar, so a mixture of resentment and fear can quickly create hatred.
We identify this process with chaos. I’m a believer in the idea that there is an association between order and chaos as parts of a diametrically opposed process. People don’t consciously appreciate this balance unless they have been made aware of it.
The other creates the sort of existential chaos, they are constant reminder of the unknown. Order is represented by that which is known as the in-group.
It is this that makes up Nietzsche’s bad music and bad reasons. Something which a rational person would reject may seem necessary when chaos intrudes on order.
This is not solely responsible for the totalitarianism that nearly killed us all in the 20th century, but I believe that it’s at least closely related. Both extremes breed fear, but in chaos this is associated with the unknown and in order this is associated with oppression.
The unexamined response is to pursue the opposite extreme. If everything seems chaotic, then surely more lot and Order must be the solution. Of course, this is a failure of reasoning. It is actually an induction into more chaos, as now further changes are being pursued instead of a better understanding of what is here already.
Governance does not make society.
In some ways, a totalitarian government creates more chaos with its arbitrary concentration of power into an individual. It may be dressed in the language and styles of tradition, but it creates no more certainty.
It is the society that swings dangerously back toward order. On an individual level, in countless day-to-day interactions, people begin to lose their tolerance for the unknown. It is as if there is a balance of order & chaos that must be preserved, and the centralization of power into one arbitrary figure or institution makes it so that no other uncertainty can be permitted.
Because people cannot trust their governance to provide order, they return to the trappings of order. Arguments that worked well for the past, the styles and social conventions that served that predecessors well, return to visit the sins of the fathers upon their children. These are representations of archetypal order, and the best tangible manifestation of order you can find if others are denied to you. They are also outdated, at least some of the time.
There’s also a second point here to be made entirely independent from the question of order and chaos. It is the question of “mine”. If there is one trait that humanity has perfected over the years, it is greed. We have managed to find an infinite capacity within ourselves for desire.
Desire is good at a fundamental level. Without it, we would never dream. Even a certain amount of self-serving greed can be helpful when channeled through the right lens. It is a balance against completely losing oneself in the collective or in apathetic nihilism.
The problem is that desire leads us to immorality. What we want to take is elevated to a higher value then our moral values. I call this the “mine” question. We’ve all seen children who will attach themselves to a particular object and fixate on it. Even if it belongs to someone else, they will consider it their personal property.
This is not necessarily worrying when they are at a young age, because it is a part of the process of psychological development to realize that such things are not true and would bear disastrous consequences.
The problem is that we grow up still believing that we know the answer to the “mine” question, and our preferred answer is that it’s all ours.
All that we need is a better pretense to satisfy our desire. If we are socialized to the point that we are willing to pretend to behave, but we do not really have the virtues that lead us to see the danger in our actions and desires, we will cling to anything that seems like it justifies our actions.
It sounds petty in light of the greater scope I’ve covered, but this topic makes me think about my diet.
I have a serious problem with willpower. Admittedly, I’m currently in a state for my diet is actually being followed, or at least mostly so. I’ve lost a few pounds I found in the previous few months, but not yet so far back on the routine that I am not tempted by every little thing.
Often, I will justify my decisions that I make to pursue what brings me the most pleasure immediately instead of follow the plan that I know the dogs to the best outcome. This generalizes all the way up, so my tendency to argue that going to the gym means that I can sneak a few chocolates throughout the day is mirrored by a similar tendency toward rationalizing decision-making in the big picture.
I think that it’s important that people lead examined lives as a defense against this. Of course, there’s always the danger that people who believe they are philosophizing are instead rationalizing. However, I believe that we’re better off striving than falling into laziness. Besides, failure is a common experience. To argue against trying to think may actually just be thinly-veiled rationalizations assuming that people cannot become more skilled at the process of thinking.
It is also important to consider what is good. I don’t just mean what we like, but rather what is good for us.
To continue the example, I only rarely feel any particular concern about my weight, since I don’t usually have any health issues or feel like I can’t accomplish what I want to accomplish because of my weight. However, I know that if I am disciplined about diet and exercise I will achieve a better potential than I can otherwise.
The seed which has sprouted into much rationalization is that I cannot be entirely certain about this.
As such, when I am out of breath or tired, I will say “but I am suffering from allergies” or “but I didn’t sleep well last night” to mask the symptoms of a less than ideal lifestyle. That’s a rationalization.
When I’m disciplined and at the top of my game, I am not out of breath or tired. It simply requires seeing beyond what I can immediately conceive as desirable and thinking to the second order consequences of things.
What are the consequences of what I am doing?
That is the question we should ask.
Learn to despise bad music when it comes has a comforter.
Never rationalize things that cannot stand on their own merit.
Don’t be afraid of others because they are different.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been trying to keep on top of writing recently, and while I’ve been fairly bad about actually writing anything fictional (at least on purpose), I’ve been doing some musing about why a lot of the stories that I’m coming up with the seeds for turn out to be non-starters.
One of the things that’s been entering my mind recently as I work on Hammercalled and playtesting is how differently I approach the topics of writing for a game versus writing for a published product. With a handful of exceptions, I’ve never published a setting that I’ve been playing in at the time of publication. That’s not because I’m against sharing my work (like this, the campaign I’m going to start running Hammercalled in in a couple days), it’s just that I don’t think it works as well.
And I have a few reasons why I choose to work on settings devoid of running a game in them, since I know this goes against the prevailing industry wisdom.