Brandon Sanderson – The Well of Ascension

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Just like that, Brandon Sanderson has turned into George R. R. Martin. A more appropriate title would’ve been ‘The Hell of Continuaton’. There’s no excuse to write such a dull, plodding sequel to a fairly exciting fantasy adventure. What happened? Imagine if a Grindcore band released a twinkly Post-Rock album but kept the noise and the screaming. Actually, that sounds too ambitious. If a Grindcore band did that, it’ll be a push towards new territories. Sanderson had no money for an editor.

Static paragraphs are a disease, especially in adventure stories. These are paragraphs in which literally nothing happens. All we get is the rambling of the narrator or of the character. Since the narrator is often 3rd-person omniscient, we don’t really care about its thoughts. This narrator doesn’t even exist. If it’s the rambling of the characters, a question arises. Why not just write in first person?

It’s a symptom I see in many rookie writers who lack confidence. They don’t see the reader’s point of view or understand what is necessary to them. They don’t understand art is an experience, not a collection of facts. Paragraphs teasing what will happen, what could have happened, what the characters are like litter the pages. As notes, they might be useful. By writing down who your characters are, you have a solid idea of what you should be writing. By writing down what might happen, you have a solid idea of what routes you can take. As a technique to avoid ‘just write the next scene’ writing, it’s brilliant.

These are just notes for a novel, not a novel itself. Bands don’t put all their jam sessions and demos smack in the middle of a song. Imagine if, in the middle of “One Step Closer”, Linkin Park put a random jam session that later gave birth to the chorus of “Numb”. Sure, it’s interesting but what is it doing in the middle of a punchy Nu Metal song? Any time an author puts rhetorical questions in a 3rd person narrative, he’s being a horrible author.

Narrative questions are always answered, so asking us ‘will he be able to save her’ is pointless. We’ll see in a few pages. As for philosophical questions, they must not appear since fiction is expression of philosophy, not an essay about it. I did put some rhetorical questions in this review. The purpose was to make you imagine, to focus your attention by varying sentence structure and expressing disdain at such techniques. In narrative prose, they make zero sense.

What’s odd is that it’s the only bad technique Sanderson falls into. In all other aspects, he remains fine. His story is still shallow, but he avoids the long-winding descriptions of Martin or his misogyny, or his multiple plot threads that go nowhere. Sanderson describes rooms using, at best, 3 sentences. It’s never profound, but he emphasizes the right details. The plot is also tightly focused, with a small arc inside the gigantic save-the-world one. The book was padded to 700 solely because of these static paragraphs. If Sanderson got rid of them, we would’ve been had 300-400 pages of a shallow but exciting story. Did Sanderson pad it so it would look cool on the Fantasy shelf?

As for the story itself, it’s just as shallow as the previous one. All hints of something deeper, more original are gone. As a role-player, I noticed there’s a scale between games heavy on playing a pesonality and games playing on skill. The latter are elaborate puzzle games with a bit of pretending, whereas the former are an improvised theater. The former are more fun, since they’re more emotionally engrossing and memorable. Whenever I jump into a game I always aim for that direction and find myself not doing anything. My character has a lot of skills which I’m supposed to use but forget about. I don’t care how good the paper says I am with a sword. I want to understand my character, get into his mindset and interact with other characters.

Sanderson comes from the opposite tradition. His magic system exists solely for RPG’s, with instruction manuals and technical information but little meaning. This is a world where people can influence emotions, store attributes yet the psychology of this never appears. I don’t buy the excuse that they all had to go into hiding. That’s just Sanderson avoiding confronting the meaning behind his magic. As a role-playing system, it seems exciting. Reading about it is dull.

All these details about what they push, how they push, how they recover strength is so dull. When someone tells you their character in their RPG has 80 STR, do you care? Does it make you want to play the game? The problem with writing about fictional fighting is that it’s so arbitrary. Sanderson dispenses a lot of physical facts about non-physical objects. Non-physical objects don’t have physical traits. All fiction is symbolic since in the end it’s just some ink on the page. The action scenes consist of unimportant physical information with nothing symbolic. Conflicts are elaborate chess games, with enemies having a weak point you need to use V.A.T.S. to target. One scene even features a dungeon crawl. To his credit, the final confrontation had some emotional depth.

His characters remain his strong point. Even if by this point they won’t ever have a complex psychology, they have personalities and distinct dialogues. His dialogues are the most excited parts and not just because dialogues are exciting by nature. He gives his characters obvious quirks that affect all of their speech patterns. Even when Ham isn’t musing philosophically, he has a more thoughtful tone. Breeze’s conceit is always apparent, sometime more and sometimes less. That’s why even if Sanderson’s story is, at its heart, shallow his characters are alive enough to make it exciting.

His story mode also eschew the typical long journey story mode for a more static one. Most of it is spent waiting for the big climax, but by sealing our characters in a small area he gives them a lot of room to interact. His story is less driven by action and more by character interaction. If there was any opportunity to launch his story into something truly special, it was here. Sadly, it padded by a lot of static paragraphs. The ending is also disconnected from the main story. Whereas the novel’s center is the siege, the ending brings back the Hero of Ages myth. Sanderson isn’t very good at splitting his books and dividing them into individual stories. That’s sad since they are here. He only needed to finish the book when the siege was over.

Sanderson doesn’t deliver on the promise of Mistborn. Then again, I heard this was typical, run-of-the-mill fantasy. Sanderson’s storytelling is more energetic, more character driven and his writing isn’t so stiff. It helped make the first book an exciting adventure, but this one is a good writer in search of an editor to help his writing give shape. I’ll still tackle the final book but I’m worried.

1.5 failed ascensions out of 5

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Hyperdimension Neptunia: The Animation

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The problem with Neptunia isn’t that the source material doesn’t translate well to anime. The problem is in the process after translation. The content translates smoothly, but there’s just too much of it and the creators can’t make sense of it.

They did make some brilliant decisions. The anime jumps headfirst into the story without exposition. It doesn’t need to. Introducing characters is pointless. If your characters are developed enough, just show them walking around, talking and doing things. We will learn about them as the plot goes on.

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That movie is brilliant and works. The cast is wonderful. Most of them are archetypes, but they’re deliberate. The key to making these archetypes work is how they relate to their environment. Blanc is your flat-chested stoic girl, but in a happy-go-lucky world she sticks out. Vert’s breasts are an extension of her motherly persona, which sticks out when everyone around her are children. Neptune is the embodiment of the franchise and, in a satirical way, the audience. She’s a lazy airhead who just wants to play games and can’t take anything seriously.

Even when characters are similar to each other, there are differences. Uni ┬áis a tsundere like Noire, but she doesn’t have her position of power. So she’s more friendly and easier to get along with. These personalities constantly clash and interact. Although the anime throws all kinds of external challenges at our cast, it never feels like they drive it. Every line of dialogue, every act is modified by the personalities.

That’s why the move to more serious ground isn’t stupid. You don’t need realism for effective drama, but characters who feel real enough. The cast of Neptunia is strong, but the poor pacing throws drama way too early.

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As developed as they are, we still need some time to get to know the cast. There are about 8 characters so, and you can’t make the audience know them in just 6 episodes (especially when there are plenty of action scenes). Already around episode 5 or so, we get dramatic scenes, the world on the brink of extinction and nobody laughing.

The drama is ineffective both because of its placement, and how it’s handled. The drama is too serious for its own good. The creators forget they’re dealing with a world inspired by gaming consoles. It’s not like the introduction of seriousness also comes with extra thematic depth. If your drama doesn’t add any depth, just make it as over-the-top as the show itself. It also appears too early, way before the viewer can get a basic understanding of these characters.

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A departure scene later in the series is great, but that’s because it doesn’t rely on the characters being serious. By the time it arrives we know the characters much better. We saw them on various adventures and learned how their relationships work. It’s also more subdued. The previous drama scenes were overly serious but not over-the-top. Since this one is more subdued by nature, it can tone the ridiculousness down without losing any effect.

The franchise’s premise doesn’t sound like it’ll be friendly with tonal shifts. Still, it’s easier to make you care about a bunch of weirdos than it seems. The pacing is too brisk though. The show keeps throwing events and interaction and jokes at you and there’s never time to take it in.

There are no build-ups. The story doesn’t build towards a single conclusion. Rather, it follows a collection of arcs that end with the a Huge Dangerous Object. If the series built up towards that conclusion, then the fast pacing would have been easier to take. Since the arcs aren’t really connect, it’s like a show is constantly on fast forward, jumping from one idea to next and showing only beginnings and conclusions.

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The brisk approach also works against the aesthetic. Neptunia‘s style is cutsie and bright, sometimes too much. The voice actors, especially Neptune’s/Peashy’s/Abnes’ are trapped with a pitch that’s too high. Their performance is suited well to the characters, but plenty of times I wished they’d put on some effect to lower the pitch. It was too much on the ears. Blank and Plutia are a blessing just because they speak in a calmer manner. If the series was a little slower, then the voices wouldn’t feel like an assault. It does get better in the second half though.

Despite this small bump, the aesthetics are still one of the franchise’s strong points. The character design is astounding. Every character looks distinct. Even characters who are meant to be similar have their clear and subtle differences which make them unique. The show is moe, of course, but it finds so many variations on it.

There’s also the aspect of fanservice. While there are a few uncomfortable moments, the fanservice is well-integrated most of the time. The character design is beautiful, and but the series rarely slows down just to remind us that. It always constructs scenes and shots that both advance the story/characters and let us enjoy the view. It’s also never too profane. The sexuality is elegant, never shoving itself in your face. The characters just happen to look good. The ‘fanservice episode’ is a great example how they do it, and also of the self-aware humor.

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One thing the anime lacks, compared to the source material is the self-aware humor. It surfaces occasionally and it’s always better than expected. The fanservice episode was great, poking fun at tropes but integrating the personalities into the humor. There isn’t enough of it though. I understand the fear of breaking the fourth wall. It can easily slip into trying too hard. Just look at Deadpool. Neptunia doesn’t have Deadpool‘s macho bullshit, though. It never pretends to be cool (It disregards coolness completely. That’s why everyone is feminine but also sexualized), so it can run wild with the self-awareness. It’ll just be a part of the general absurdity.

It’s a curious thing. Here in the West we want our heroines gritty and tough. We love Furiosa and Rey for how macho they are. They scream at men to stop holding their hand and don’t wear skirts. Yet here we have Neptunia, which is a big franchise where all the heroines are unbashedly feminine. There are no apologies here. How can they create a diverse cast of females with both great looks and great personalities while Hollywood directors struggle with one heroine? It’s so pathetic to praise Black Widow when we have the whole cast of Neptunia.

The anime is fun, but it feels like there’s more to do with the franchise.

3 plushies out of 5

 

The Fallout Series

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To the west, you can see a natural light. For the first time in your life, you are looking at the outside world.

I was introduced to the Fallout series via Bethesda’s entry. If your exposure to RPG’s consist of their fantasy series and Dragon Age, you were probably a little shocked by the angry vitriol aimed at Fallout 3. The cries went beyond Bethesda’s changing the gameplay. The series wasn’t known for its fantastic turn-based combat that’s based on luck. Bethesda were criticized with ruining the original spirit of Fallout, and New Vegas was praised with reviving it.

Playing the original Fallout‘s failed to convince me Bethesda did a disservice to the series. It did the complete opposite. Although New Vegas had plenty of references to the old games, and a lot of characters made a comeback, Fallout 3 felt like an actual continuation of the series, at least continuing what begun in the first game. New Vegas continues Fallout 2 and how it turns the wasteland into a wacky, fantastical world. That wasn’t the heart of the series though. No amount of name-dropping things from previous entries will help you capture the old spirit.

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“The Unity will bring about the master race. Master! Master! One able to survive, or even thrive, in the wasteland. As long as there are differences, we will tear ourselves apart fighting each other. We need one race. Race! Race! One goal. Goal! Goal! One people . . . to move forward to our destiny. Destiny.”

The forums in RPGCodex define players as either storyfags or combatfags. I’m deep in the storyfag party. Combat in video games is mostly for easy fun, something to do while checking out the latest records and thinking how overrated the canon is. Perhaps one day I’ll see the beauty of a million algorithims that decide whether my character dies or becomes a banana octopus, but until then it’s the storytelling that’s much more exciting. Fallout didn’t have an interesting combat system either, but its strength was always in its storytelling.

In the first game, you are not born in the wasteland, unlike 2 or New Vegas. You emerge from the vault into a world that’s completely alien to you. It’s not just alien because it’s supposed to be the first Fallout experience. The wasteland reveals itself slowly. You do not immidiately hear about the booming center. You do not meet fantastic events in the beginning. The game begins with a small, unremarkable town. Later, the towns’ size increases, which turns your first encounter unique.

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The wasteland is neither depressive and gloomy nor a huge satire of humanity. It thrives on weirdness, but not weirdness for the sake of cheap amusement. The litany of absurd things – two-headed cows, an irradiated maniac with the name of an egyptian God and the various cults are here to show us the absurdity (and beauty) of still trying to make it through a wrecked world. It makes little sense to try to survive in the wasteland. Mutated animals, radiation, anarchy – the future doesn’t seem to exist, yet people are still trying to make it.

Fallout 3 continues in that vein. Worshipping an undetonated atomic bomb and people pretending to be superheroes makes perfect sense in the wasteland. It’s a place that will most likely break people down mentally, instead of keeping them normal. The gameplay and the actual fictional world are not the same thing. The gameplay always makes it easier to survive, but imagine if you were really there. The world that surrounds you is wrecked, most animals are distorted and you probably heard old tales of how bright the future could be. You might also be pretty lonely. Putting on a superhero suit makes sense in this setting. It will drive you crazy, and the suit might intimidate some people.

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New Vegas and Fallout 2 can’t keep this theme going. Fallout 2 actually starts fairly well, even if the tribes would have been more comfortable somewhere in Planescape (Unlike the cult in Megaton, Bright Brotherhood or the Unity Church, the tribes have little connection to the game’s themes). Broken Hills and Modoc are great places. The former is an experiment where the three races live together and the latter is a depressed, doomed community that the wasteland is bound to have hundreds of. Things start to get worse once you get to New Reno. The gang wars aren’t updated to fit the wasteland. This isn’t a case of taking an inspiration from something real and changing it to fit the wasteland. Instead, Black Isle lifted mafias with all their drama and visual style and just placed them in the wasteland. The bouncers wear fedoras. The families are powerful. The casinos are prospering. Later on, you’ll encounter a strange Chinese cult. Fallout 2 may be a frankenstein of sorts, consisting of parts from RPG’s buried in development hell.

New Vegas is slightly better, but it’s a western more than anything. Most of the people act like cowboys and ranchers. The whole look of the place relies on how we thing the wild west was. The Mojave is treated more as just a desert, instead of a wasteland. The general view of Fallout 3 is full of ruined buildings and dark skies. New Vegas has the great outdoors that are a common feature in country music. Again, we see here imagery lifted straight from an unrelated genre with little change to it. Obsidian did slightly more with the material they lifted up. This form of wild west does make sense in a post-apocalyptic world. Fallout‘s main source of inspiration, Mad Max, was a western in a post-apocalyptic setting. The people in the Mad Max films though were just as weird as those of the Fallout series, but they had their own culture and myth. New vegas’ culture is just a slightly altered western.

Fallout 2 and New Vegas are praised for their amount of choices, unlike Fallout 1&3. It’s a cool gameplay mechanic, but unless these choices are meaningful storywise, that’s all they end up. They become as meaningful as your choice between a shotgun or a submachine gun. Caesar’s Legion is a boring faction which consists of bad guys with no motive. At least the Enclave look like good guys as seen from their point of view. The NCR and Mr. House are much better, and represent ideas more complex than good and evil. New Vegas‘ plot doesn’t really develop these, though. There’s a point where you make your choice, and the main quest becomes a series of hoops to jump through in order to get to the big battle. At some point, the game stops delivering new informations about the factions. In Fallout 3, you keep learning about the wasteland throughout the various quests. It’s only the final one that is just one huge action scene. I won’t even start on Fallout 2. The terrible Scientology parody and the Chinese took me out, and I keep finding better games to play.

Video games are themselves all about choices. Something happens in a video game only if you choose to do it, even if it’s as dull as moving to the next level or keep hanging around this one. The choices mechanic in RPG’s is just an expansion of it. Good storytelling in video games doesn’t need choices, and choices only improve the storytelling if they help to develop more meaningful stories. The choices in Planescape: Torment are great not just because they add a bunch of different routes. These choices increase the number of meaningful and great stories that the game can tell, and that’s what increases the replay value. The choices in New Vegas don’t offer a particularly new story, and Fallout 2 is just a mess. It’s the first and the third just offer great stories, and if they have to be linear to do it then it’s a sacrifice worth making. They also both deal with the theme of race with more depth than most fiction, something I will elaborate on in a different post.

Pictures are taken from the Fallout Wiki