Archive for the ‘Criticism and Theory’ Category

Fantasy Round 50: Wizard School Reform

2017/01/15 1 comment

There’s an element that commonly appears in fantasy novels.  In some cases, as in Harry Potter, it’s explicitly constructed as a school.  In many others, it’s more of a master-apprentice system.

But the bottom line is this: none of the improved pedagogical methods that are used in modern-day Muggle classrooms are making it into the magical community.  Worse, many of the methods of magical instruction are downright abusive.

Since I just gave up on watching a show that was supposedly about a graduate school in magic, let’s talk about this mess.

Hogwarts: It looks nice, but it's not everything that it's cracked up to be.

Hogwarts: It looks nice, but there’s a lot of ugly on the inside.

Read more…


Criticism and Theory Round 1: An Aesthetic of Play

2015/07/04 Leave a comment

I’m adding a new category, since I think we need it.  This is for all the sort of meta, literary criticism, or analysis kinds of things.

I’ll start by addressing The Aesthetic of Play, a book by Brian Upton.

You’re A Bit Verbose

I feel a need to quote Doctor Who: “That one got away from you there, didn’t it?”

Upton’s piece has some excellent insights, but I really feel that he took his sweet time in getting there.  Especially in the first section, he could have been much more succinct. He meanders quite a bit even in the parts discussing semiotics and styles of criticism, but those portions (in my opinion) do a better job of being more interesting than repetitive.

In the first portion, he wends through numerous examples and, well, repeats himself. Repetitively.

But Once You Get To The Point

Once he does get to the point, though, it’s a good one. He ties games to other forms of media, such as music and literature, and considers how this is similar to the experience of a game.

The basic framework is as follows: a person playing a game or taking in some other media is never experiencing only the present part of it, but also considering the past and predicting into the future. Puzzling over this prediction, and then (depending on medium and the item) trying to solve puzzles, or changing your assumptions about the story’s plot. This may not happen at a fully conscious level, either – whether it’s trying to figure out how to get through then next level of Mario based on what previous levels were like, or wondering what’s going to happen to Harry Potter, or listening for the surprise in the Surprise Symphony. These experiences and expectations, and the consumer’s predictions, are dependent on the consumer’s prior experiences and ideas. (Note: Yes, I am leaving out a lot of other ideas and nuances.)

This exactly hits upon one of the things I love most about reading a novel – it’s not just reading, it’s understanding standing all the characters and trying to see how well I can predict what comes next. (I note that this is also why I, personally, have an intense hatred of spoilers.) Yes, I do like to re-read good stories, but the experience just isn’t the same the second time around.

Additionally, Upton also discusses the different types of attitudes that game-players may have. They’re a little different from the stereotypes on TVTropes, so let’s see how they line up.

One group, which he labels the “gamist” group, is absolutely Munchkins. They’re in it for the game and the loot and the winning. Why play if you can’t win? He also notes that this shows up in other media as well, with mystery novels as an example. The “win” condition is correctly predicting whodunit before the reveal.

His other two main categories are the situationist and the narritivist. The situationist is someone who’s in it for the world-building – do vampires with flamethrowers make sense? Is this Civil War reenactment actually period? Is that how rockets actually work? These people are looking for self-consistency in the story, or accuracy if it’s supposedly historical or scientific. (That’s kind of the name of this blog, actually.) The narritivist is similar, except for characters. What drama will unfold next, since Bob is too shy to tell Sally anything? While playing as Sir Percival, I am too honorable to sneak up, and will confront the brigand direct. I think the TVTropes bunch would put both under the Roleplayer category.

TVTropes has one group that Upton doesn’t mention at all – the Real Man, who is in it for the power trip and the rush of I WILL KILL ALL THE THINGS AND STRANGLE THE DRAGON WITH ITS OWN TAIL RAWR. This is a bit more visceral than most of what Upton covers.

Finally, while Upton discusses it but does not elevate it to the level of a category, there’s the Loonie. This is the person who ignores the game’s official goals, and just does random stuff, because it’s fun. Like tying the sleeping dragon’s shoelaces together. (If you’re thinking, “Since when do dragons have shoelaces?”, that’s pretty much the point.)  Upton isn’t terribly supportive of this category – in a worst case, this is the kid who takes the ball and goes home. But, sometimes, a bit of levity and a reminder that this is a game, it doesn’t matter, we can do what we want, is just what everyone needs. He does also discuss cases when someone plays a game you make… but they plays it with goals other than intended, and emphasizes that this is an entirely legitimate way to enjoy and experience a game. He also says that as a designer, seeing these unexpected play modes can be a learning experience.

Of course, Upton notes that all people may play in all three of his categories – despite my Real Roleplayer leanings, I still like winning.

What About Choose-Your-Own-Adventure?

While Upton covers game-related material quite well, he repeatedly emphasizes that reading is not an interactive medium.

I would beg to differ. He’s omitting CYOA books. Those have an interactive aspect, which sometimes approaches tabletop RPGs, including random number generation (if you choose the play by the rules). Of course, if you want, you can read all of the different branches (I usually would), but this can be similar to “replay value” in a video game, where you make different choices about what to explore or who to be friends with in different runs.

Then there’s the case that someone writing a series, or more than one book, may be influenced by feedback from the audience when writing the next one.  (For instance, Sherlock Holmes was un-killed when Arthur Conan Doyle got too much fan mail.)

There is also the phenomenon of hyperlink text, where choosing what links to follow defines the story.

That Got Meta

At the end, Upton examines the basis of critical analysis of media, and considers that his analysis approach could be used to analyze methods of literary criticism, and proceeds to do so for a little while, discussing the possibilities for analysis within such criticism – what opportunities there are to play the game of deconstruction, for instance. (Wow, I’m suddenly actually glad I paid attention in English Lit back in high school.)

Thus, he ends on the thought that this framework can be used for metacriticism, and suggests that it could be applied in as many layers as desired.

Regardless (since I think too many layers of such would start getting… strange, fast), that would make this post a meta-meta-criticism. Whoa.