Monday, January 30, 2017

5 More Things I Hate about Being a Writer

Sorry about the late post! I had family over all weekend. It was pretty booked! Maybe I'll write about it in a future post. :P

Anyway, especially with all these distractions in everyday life, being a writer is hard!

And just like a lot of difficult things, I think part of the difficulty is that most people don't realize just how hard it can be. There's not much more frustrating than having trouble with something only for somebody to say, "Why are you complaining? It's not that hard"--Especially when it is, in fact, that hard.

But fellow writers get how hard writing can be.

If you're struggling with your writing too (or if you just liked hearing about 5 Things I Hate About Being a Writer), maybe you'll find a little company for your misery here. I think it's about time I talk about five more of my writing pet peeves...

6. When I think something is awesome, but it's actually cheesier than cheddar

Much like this caption.

I think this is one that a lot of writers struggle with. The fact is that tastes can vary from person to person (gasp). For instance, I adore what most would consider groan-worthy puns. I think they're hilarious. Other people... not so much.

In some cases, differences in opinion are exacerbated by the fact that I'm not always my own worst critic. I might think that moment when Zaelor unsheathes his sword and hollers his battle-cry to the sky is amazingly epic... but other people... not so much.

The tricky thing too is that I won't have any idea if something is cheesy without running the scene by several different readers. And even then, it's not guaranteed to be received well by a larger reader base.

There's not much worse than writing a scene and worrying it may not get perceived the way you want it to be, which leads to...

7. Needing to worry about unfortunate implications


Unfortunate implications - when a story seems to suggest something inappropriate through the way a character acts, the context of a situation, or some other unhappy accident. For instance, implying that all women are weak because there isn't a single female that does anything proactive throughout the whole story.

Unfortunate implications are usually accidents--things the story implies that the author didn't even intend to be there in the first place. In fact, often the implication is actually opposite of an author's beliefs. It's not a Freudian slip; it's nothing more than an oversight.

And that's what makes these things so terrifying for me... and what makes me hate them so much.

Because they're just accidents, it's very unlikely I'll detect unfortunate implications in my own story. I never intended them to be there in the first place, after all. You need another pair of eyes--or, in some cases, multiple pairs of eyes--to catch unfortunate implications.

I also hate the fact that unfortunate implications can absolutely wreck a story. I worked so hard to make this book. And for someone's interpretation to shatter immersion and ruin their experience--well, that just straight-up sucks.

As if ruining the book isn't bad enough, unfortunate implications have even tarnished an author's entire reputation and career. Quite frankly, that's unfair. People shouldn't be blackballed for what is, by definition, an accident--an accident that is only there because of differences in interpretation. Think about it. That's like saying making a mistake on a school paper could tarnish your reputation as a worker for the rest of your life. The crime just doesn't fit the punishment.

This is one of the big reasons why I absolutely hate literary analysis--I feel more often than not, it tends to shove meaning onto a story that was never there, and never meant to be there, to begin with. It would make me feel so angry to hear that people were trying to pin meaning onto my story that has no business there.

8. Discipline to write regularly


Oh boy. Unlike the previous two, which are more worries about "what if's," this one is something I hate about writing that I need to deal with on a regular basis. If you've read my previous post on  being a disciplined writer, you'll already know a bit about this struggle of mine.

I'll admit, it's an oscillating thing. Some days will be a huge struggle, but some days stuff will fly onto the page. The really frustrating thing is knowing that the stuff I tend to force myself to write... well, it just isn't as good as the stuff that comes easily. Stuff you write, the stuff that you're really enjoying writing, will usually end up better. I can't explain it. It's more exciting, more vibrant, more... alive. You can read the difference (or at least I can).

But I've also learned from experience that I can't just wait for inspiration to hit. That's how TVB has taken fifteen years and counting.

Sometimes you need to slog through a hard day of rough drafting to eventually edit your way to the really good stuff. It's like carving in that sense--you start with a rough block, and each time you edit, you chip off another little piece of roughness until you've got a smooth and beautiful carving. I've had plenty of one-off stories that started kind of "eh" but, after three revisions or so, turned into something I was really proud of.

It's just exercising that daily discipline that's hard. And wanting that very first draft to be perfect sure doesn't help putting things down on paper each and every day.

9. Taking constructive criticism

Speaking of perfectionism, I want my story to be the best it can be--but I don't take it well when someone tells me it's not. It's sooooo hard for me not to get angry and defensive. I've bitten off more critics' heads than I care to recount.

It's hard for me not to take it personally. In fact, the best (and so far only) thing I've tried to tell myself is that they are indeed trying to help me make my story as good as it possibly can be--whether that's the critic's actual intent or not!


But it also helps to know I don't need to take every single person's advice. Respectfully take the criticism, but don't feel you need to act on every one. After all, some criticism is either A) not constructive but destructive (which usually means it won't actually help your story at all) or B) it just doesn't match your vision for the story. It's good to look at all your feedback, but sometimes you need to shrug and say, "I see what they're saying, but that's not what I'm going for in my book."

You're never going to please everyone. And I need to get better at realizing that.

10. Promoting myself

Ughhhhhhh.

I don't like to brag about myself. I've been taught not to do that, I can't stand people who do that, and frankly, I just don't want to do it. But promotion is exactly that--attracting attention to myself by bragging about just how good my writing is. It's the thing I've hated most about applying for jobs, and it's one of the things I hate most about being a writer.


Unfortunately, writers need to get their names out there. They need to make sure they're being heard and that people not only acknowledge them, but that people are saying, "Wow, you're awesome!"

I'd much rather just do something well and let people notice; not try to get people to notice by pointing a flashing light at my head and going "HEY NOTICE ME I'M AMAZING." That just isn't the kind of person I am. I'm an introvert and kind of shy by nature unless I'm literally performing on stage (singing or acting)--and I'm only comfortable on stage now because I've had so much experience up there.

Not only does promoting myself not come naturally, I don't really know the first place to start. Not knowing how to do it doesn't exactly ease my anxiety about it. And I know usually the first place is to start with social media, but have I mentioned before how much I loathe social media? I haven't? (Remind me to write about that sometime...)

Maybe if I just practice promoting myself, it'll come easier, just like singing on stage.

...Ughhhhh.

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Well, if you're anything like me, you could use some more positivity after all that rant. Want to check out Five Things I Love About Being a Writer? After all, it's not all doom and gloom, I swear!

Pictures (in order of appearance): 
From Pixabay.com:
By Myriams Fotos
By Anemone123
From Unsplash.com:
By Anna Vander Stel

By Jason Briscoe
"Paper plane" by Andrey Larin

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Extended First Impressions: Final Fantasy XV

Ahh! Real life got in the way of plans, so today's post is a day late! Apologies!

So my "extended first impressions" of Final Fantasy XV are a bit of a mess. See, I have this nasty habit of pretty much never finishing video games... so I've still barely started the main storyline.

HOWEVER, I've got lots of gameplay under my belt and lots of things to say about it.

I mean, this game has so many elements. I almost wonder if the development process was like...

"So, we want to make a fun game. What do you find fun in a video game?"

And every time a person answered, the lead developer just pointed to them and said, "That. That's now going into our game. Make it happen."

This game has fishing, cooking, traveling (by foot, vehicle, or animal), hunting monsters, crafting magic spells, teaming up with special moves... and probably more I haven't even gotten to yet.

Yeah. There's a lot of ground to cover.

Let's get started.

Combat

There's no FFXV without combat. Heck, about 80% of the beginning (optional) tutorial is all about how to fight in this game.

This game doesn't have the best tutorial, but the tutorial is optional, and it does what a combat tutorial should: throw you in a room to practice without suffering any real repercussions. However, they throw a lot at you at once. Attacking, dodging, blocking and countering, warp-strikes, and point-warping come one after the other, peppering you like a machine gun spewing out bullets. The game introduces each new item with a pretty boring dialogue box and then throws you into battle to practice the new move.

This game proclaims it's a Final Fantasy for long-time fans and newcomers alike, and the combat reflects that.

For instance, instead of requiring trigger-finger timing to attack and defend, FFXV heavily relies on holding down buttons. This is great for someone who's not real comfortable with video game combat. Buuuut, this mechanic also makes for a bizarre "UN-learning curve" for more experienced gamers like me. Holding down a button to attack sounds way too easy, and when you first start out, it feels unnatural. It was actually pretty hard for me to get used to holding down a button when I wanted to push it just before the enemy attacked--and then I'd get punished for it!

I'm not sure if this is connected, but boss battles have also been pretty difficult for me so far. I'm not sure if that's due to my lack of skill or the un-learning curve. Later on you can purchase a skill that rewards you for timing your blocks, so maybe that will help my boss battle performance? It's certainly something to entice the seasoned gamers.

That said, combat doesn't feel dumbed-down. In fact, I love that it lets you jump in and do some awesome-looking (and awesome-feeling) moves right off the bat. It's easy to look cool while fighting in this game. And for the veteran gamer, there's lots of elements that add nuances, challenges, and rewards to combat.

One of those elements is your three best friends who fight with you.

I admit, I was really worried about the companions. Fighting AI has plenty of frustrating moments in video game history. Some games are notorious for healers that won't heal you or for companions so lousy you constantly need to babysit them to keep them from dying.

Final Fantasy XV isn't usually one of those games. Basically, get your guys good gear and they shouldn't constantly be dying on you. And they're generally pretty good about keeping you alive.

But the best part about fighting with your companions is the awesome, flashy tag-team attacks they'll do with you. All it takes is to stand near one of them and attack a nearby enemy. It looks awesome, and sometimes even the characters will comment on it.

That said, it'd be great to have more commands for your companions. Wide-range magic attacks are a thing in this game, and your companions can and will get hurt if they're caught in your cross-fire. I'd love to be able to tell them to stay back while throwing down a giant lighting strike, but no dice. It's especially frustrating since there's already a command system built into the game, as you can tell your individual companions to use their special attacks.

Complaints

I mean, it's pretty clear from aesthetics and gameplay alone that this isn't the same game that was advertised in 2006. Rather than driving around a rainy palatial city built in the Renaissance and ruled by kings in pinstripe suits, you're more often going to be watching the protagonist, Prince Noctis, dozing off in his convertible as his three friends goof off in the seats surrounding him. Maybe the aesthetics from the original trailer just have yet to rear their head. I'll have to wait and see.

Aesthetics aside, I've got a lot of minor complaints about this game.

Like the fact that there are a lot of random encounters. Now, this is a mixed bag. I like having lots of random encounters to spice up traveling from place to place... depending on what I'm doing. But when I just want to take a quick car trip to the next town to complete this last quest of the day, the last thing I want is for the game to pull the car over and demand I fight this millionth batch of enemies that drop out of the literal sky--and the game does exactly that. My brother found himself getting ambushed every third time he got in the car as he was going back and forth doing side quests. That's too many disruptive random encounters. That's frustrating. Now, most of the random encounters will happen while you're on foot, which allows you to run away. But since many happen while you're in the car--and since driving around in the car is a key, frequent feature of the game--and since these random encounters almost always STOP your car (and some even prevent you from driving any further)... it'd be nice to have a work-around. Something that allowed you to tell the game "I want to travel around without interruptions right now." It's not new to have an item in a Final Fantasy that wards off enemies.

But maybe that absurd encounter rate is just a glitch. I've experienced a few glitches, mostly graphical ones (seeing inside some models upon zooming in, NPCs getting stuck on your party members when trying to run away, a sound glitch that abruptly stopped music when you hauled in a fish), but most have been negligible and none have affected my gameplay.

Speaking of fishing, fishing is fun, but only once you know how to do it. And, as with the tutorial, the game sucks at explaining things. You mostly have to trial and error your first twenty or thirty fish and hope you're actually understanding how it works.

One of the worst offenders though is the user interface (UI). Everything on the screen, from your health and magic bars to the text and minimap, is tiny and very hard to see. And did I mention there is absolutely no way to adjust it? I don't have a large television to begin with, but once while fishing, I got so frustrated with the tiny minimap that I had to stand up, walk across the living room, and stand two feet away from the screen just to see if I was casting near a fish.

Annnnd the menu system of FFXV could be organized better. I have no trouble finding essentials like my gear, the map, or the skill tree, but other additions like the in-game photos are a nightmare to try and find.

But... 

...Everything else about this game is amazing.

They must have poured years of labor into developing this world, because despite its combined elements of fantasy and reality, this world feels real and completely cohesive. There isn't just one or two paths to get somewhere; there's a system of highways and dirt roads to drive down and lots of places to hoof it and explore on foot. There are tons of little one-gas-station towns, and at the point I'm at, there's the hope of bigger cities yet to come. In fact, the full map was designed to look like a satellite image, and it just subtly adds to the realism. Whether driving or walking, the landscapes are beautiful and interesting to look at while you're traveling. NPCs--including your own friends--worry about going out at night, and the game quickly shows you why they're so scared of it!

I'm looking forward to leveling up to the point where I no longer have to camp for the night and can just run around killing monsters as infinitum. It gives you something to look forward to. But camping is also fun and brings its own rewards, so it doesn't feel inhibiting.

The soundtrack is wonderful. There are beautiful songs for wandering through lush landscapes and epic, inspiring electric guitar tunes when you're fighting enemies. And did I mention the theme song? Both the [main title theme] as well as its [lyric counterpart] are haunting and lovely.

And you even get in-game mementos of the day's events; one of your friends is a photographer, and the computer will take pictures of key places and cool combat moments. It doesn't always capture the best angles, but it's fun going through the pictures each time your characters settle down for the night, and sometimes you may even end up with some pretty cool shots to save or share online.

Speaking of your friends and their hi-jinks, the characters are by far the best part of this game. The dialogue and the way they interact makes them feel so organic and real. Randomly got a rainy, dreary day? The characters may comment on the bad weather. Walking around in the early morning? Someone might comment how cold they are if you didn't equip them with their warmer outfit. They reference previous random conversations, like when Noctis nearly loses a button on his shirt and one of his pals chastises him for forgetting to mend it. They tease each other in that ferocious, warm way that only guy friends can. Sometimes they'll go off on a string of quest-related puns, which always gets me giggling like a little kid. And in one fight my brother encountered, he issued one of the characters an order... and the protagonist said the wrong name before correcting himself! The fact that they recorded this kind of dialogue, which fits so naturally into the game, makes these characters feel like they're friends sitting on the couch commenting on your playthrough.

Conclusion

Even if you take out the flashy fighting animations, the gorgeous soundtrack, the lovely vistas, the complex combat, and the clever writing and the impressive intertwining of gameplay with character interactions, there's still one trump card Final Fantasy XV has to offer:
 
This game is just plain fun.

I have had more fun running around doing side quests than I remember having with another game in a very long time.

There's just so many details of this game that scream what a labor of love it was. I think it's these details that make this game as pure fun as it is.

When you open the Day One version of this game, you'll find an insert that simply says, "Thank you for your support"--and covered with the development team's signatures.

I'm so glad that was one of the first things I saw as I started Final Fantasy XV. I think that's a great picture of what this game is.

It was a big venture, a huge one. It was a labor of intimate detail and love that took lots of time and people to pull off. And that's what makes it such a great game.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Extended First Impressions: The Last Guardian

Waiting ten years for anything is a harrowing experience.

Think about it. That's ten entire years to get excited. Three-thousand six-hundred and fifty days (plus leap days) for daydreaming about it, for wondering what it'll be like, for worrying it won't be what you expected or as good as you hoped.

And if, at the end of those ten years, that thing you've been waiting for ends up failing--if it isn't everything you hoped for--then all that waiting suddenly feels meaningless. Wasted.

That's a crushing feeling.

And that's the very reason why I was both thrilled and terrified when I heard The Last Guardian was releasing last month. It's also why I was almost hesitant to put the game in my PS4 and start playing. I was haunted by that fear:

What if it isn't as great as I hoped it would be?

I've purposefully tried to stay away from any media surrounding The Last Guardian to avoid spoilers and bias, but I did hear mixed reviews about the game, including lots of frustration with the controls. I tried not to let this bother me; after all, I'd heard lots of people complaining about Yorda's behavior in ICO, but I'd never had a problem with her. She felt like a real person to me in the way she moved and acted; I assumed your animal companion in The Last Guardian, Trico, would do the same.

At least, that's what I was saying over and over again to try and reassure myself as I finally started up the game.
 
Now, I admit that I haven't finished the game yet, so rather than this being a full review, think of it more as an "extended first impression" (second impression?). However, at least some of my initial impressions of the game still stand: The Last Guardian is the ambitious hybrid child of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. It has elements of both games while possessing its own unique qualities, too: qualities that involve pushing the boundaries of a modern video game. To summarize, if you enjoyed either of the previous two Team ICO games,* you will probably like this one also.

I can say that pretty confidently because this game does the same thing ICO and SotC did: tell a mysterious story in an atmospheric setting while challenging you to think about how to overcome the obstacles in your path.

Although, as I said last week, The Last Guardian is not (and was probably never intended to be) a puzzle game. In fact, TLG tries to make you forget it's a game at all. Instead, it's built to be something you experience, something you feel. It's these "un-gamey" elements that set TLG apart because they go above and beyond what most modern games have to offer. In fact, I'd love to see more (not all, but more) games follow The Last Guardian's precedent and become less "game" and more "interactive story."

Now, yes, there have been some frustrating moments in this "interactive story..." but they're the exceptions to a great overall experience.

From the start, this game makes you feel like you ARE a little boy trying to befriend and work together with an animal--an animal that swiftly becomes your companion and best friend. There's a great deal of teamwork required to solve most of its puzzles, which makes solving each one incredibly rewarding. In fact, sometimes I almost forget Trico is a computer AI--mostly because this game has not once insulted my intelligence by constantly dropping hints or blinking waypoints in my face.

This game does 95% of its puzzles perfectly, gently guiding you through while making you feel smart for figuring them out.

How?

Trico literally points you in the right direction. Just like a hunting dog pointing out fallen prey, Trico will often look in the direction you're supposed to go. It's subtle, but clear to an observant player.

And when introducing new game mechanics, the narrator (an older version of the protagonist; The Last Guardian is technically a frame narrative) will often pipe up in an unobtrusive way.

Both are subtle. Both require you to be thinking, listening, looking, observing. And both add to the story AND progress the game without reminding you that this is a game.

But there is still that remaining 5%. One of the downsides of this "forget it's a game" design is that The Last Guardian doesn't teach its mechanics flawlessly. In fact, two of my four frustration moments were because the game never mentioned vital tools I needed in order to advance.

My other two frustrations? At this point, I'm not sure whether they were glitches or additional instances of me not knowing all the game's mechanics. Either way, when a puzzle game has you wondering whether YOU did something wrong or the game did... that's a pretty big flaw.

But for me, those few frustrating moments are vastly outweighed by the fun and, well... awe.

As with Final Fantasy XV, I can't help but recognize what a labor of love The Last Guardian is. There's just too many handcrafted details to ignore: the carefully-crafted dialogue of the narrator, the "un-gamely" removal of health bars and HUD's, the detailed architecture, the lovely level designs--even the sound of the protagonist's bare feet padding softly on the cold stone floors.

But all my favorite details are embodied in Trico. Trico's animations are phenomenal and only add to the realism of this fantastic creature. Despite Trico having ostrich legs, a rat tail, glowing antler nubs, and feathers all over his body, the way Trico acts and moves made him immediately believable. His mannerisms are just that lifelike. The developers even went so far as to make Trico respond differently depending on where you pet him: patting his hindquarters makes him fluff out his feathers and slightly arch his back, while petting him behind the ear makes him tilt his head into the scratches with delight--and probably many more I haven't even discovered yet.

And just from body language alone, you can nearly feel Trico's intense affection for you. He follows you as you run around the castle ruins. He curiously sticks his head through holes way too small for his body, grumbling in distress when he can't follow. Just the other day, I happened to set the controller down for a moment and glanced back up to see Trico nuzzling my character from behind. Trico isn't just a character when I play this game. This is my partner. This is my teammate. This is my baby and my best friend, and I will do whatever I can to keep him safe.

As you can probably tell, yes, I am biased toward this game. Yeah, I probably am being too gentle on its faults. But that's only because I value the good parts of it so much more than its flaws.

So to sum it all up, you want to know what I love the most about The Last Guardian?

The mystique of this misty world that sparks the imagination.

The refined attention to detail in the character designs, the castle designs, and the animation.

Those breathtaking moments when you make a leap of faith, when you watch your character falling... falling... falling... and you can only pray that Trico will catch you.

Those are the things I love most about The Last Guardian.

So no, this game is not quite as polished and perfect as I had hoped. It has some bugs and it has some flaws...

BUT--

The Last Guardian is definitely the game I hoped it would be. And if any of that sounds interesting to you, I'd recommend giving it a try to experience this story for yourself.

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*It was only while writing this article that I found out production of The Last Guardian shifted from Team ICO to genDESIGN (See Wikipedia's Article on Team ICO). However, since Trico was Fumito Ueda's brainchild, it'll always be another one of the Team ICO games in my reckoning. ;)