Peril of the Producer

A lot of creative types tend to give producers a bad rap. The suits. The MBAs. The squares. Those guys who take their SACRED and HOLY capital A Art and turn it into something profane in pursuit of that almighty dollar. Those who ruin everything that was good about the original creation. Those who cause all the bad things you ever hear about that one thing you like.

But no. In truth, producers, good producers, are usually very valuable to the creation. They may not be popular. People who impact the artistic vision of the creative types aren’t usually very welcome around the bullpen.

A producer’s job is to make sure the creative work is profitable. This means making sure it’s… you know… good. Also means making sure it’s going to be palatable to enough of an audience to support its cost plus margin. Sometimes, it means changing the vision of the creative folks heading the production. Sometimes it means making sure they have the free rein and the resources to thrive. Usually, they’re in charge of cultivating the material from the beginning either selecting the base and giving it the resources to grow or coming up with the source idea itself and putting the right people in place to build that seed up. Producers can be known by different terms in different mediums. Editors are more common for written form. But yeah, these are the people in charge of making sure this thing makes money.

A good producer can make the product. A bad producer ruins it. When a producer does their job well, you will rarely ever know what they did in the final product. When a producer doesn’t, well, that’s where we get all these stories from.

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Just look at Silicon Knights. When they had a good, strong, producer, they made magic. Much has been made of the quality of their work when they were a second-party developer under Nintendo. Let free of that arrangement, their work just fell apart. An article (admittedly, published by Kotaku, so, you know keep that garbage can handy) published a few years back sees an anonymous former Silicon Knights employee credit Nintendo’s very involved producing with the reason for the high quality behind those releases.

Likewise, you know all those Kickstarter games by proven developers that seem to keep crapping the bed. Most of their problems seem to stem from things a quality producer would help them avoid. Not to say that the creative types, people involved in the development, can’t be good producers in their own right. There’re plenty who can manage both the creative and the business needs of their projects. Most of the indie successes out there can attest to that.

But, at the same time, it takes a lot to be a good producer. You need good strong knowledge of the creative process, a great awareness of your team and what they’re capable of, and you need to be able to fit everything in with an ultimate vision for the project. Without all of those, it is really, really easy for a producer to have some strong adverse impacts on the project.

Much has been made of Shigeru Miyamoto’s ability to upend the table on any project Nintendo’s working on. If he sees you doing something, and he decides you need to change, you’re changing. Miyamoto’s also got a very distinct taste in what makes a good game. That’s one of the reasons Nintendo puts out games with a very unique flavor. Overall, it seems to have been a positive arrangement for Nintendo, overall.

But if you’re going to be changing the creative vision of something, you have to be choosing the right time to do it, and make sure the team has the time and resources to follow through and implement that new vision totally. Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures seems to be lacking for that. The game was originally designed as a direct prequel to A Link to the Past. In its original form, it told the tale of the war that led Ganon to the situation he was in in the middle of the SNES game.

Miyamoto wasn’t into that. He’s never been big on continuity and storytelling in games, and didn’t like the connections this game had with A Link to the Past. So he made sure the Links between the two were removed. In the end, Four Swords Adventures ended up in a completely different branch of the timeline than A Link to the Past.

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I don’t know when in the development cycle the change was made. But it was obvious it wasn’t near early enough, and once the change was made, the team didn’t have what they needed to implement it completely. In spite of having no story ties to a Link to the Past, Four Swords Adventures is LTTP as all hell. The art style mimics that of the former game, much of the music comes directly from the earlier game, and the overall feel is very, very much that of “Link to the Past callback”.

To the point that the lack of story elements and the insistence of telling a different tale caused me a huge amount of cognitive dissonance. Now, I don’t demand a great, in depth story in my Zelda games. The games are what they are, and while they do have a story, it’s not the most important part of their experience. But when you have the story actively running counter to everything the tone and atmosphere and visuals are telling me, it makes it really hard to get involved in either. Because of this change, elements were in strong conflict with each other, and it made it a lot harder to get myself involved in it.

Maybe the decision did lead to a better game. Maybe the tale about the Sealing War in Link to the Past’s backstory just wasn’t very good, and is one of those things that are better left to the imagination. Maybe the change was necessary. But it wasn’t handled effectively, and that really comes down to the producer. The change completely altered the game’s vision, and at the time it came around, there either wasn’t enough time or enough resources to make the necessary changes to the sound, art, and atmosphere to see that through. If that decision just came at a better time, or with more of a mind to what the team had to work with, Four Swords Adventures may have been a much better game for it.

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Back to the Roots

Having the wisdom of a sage comes with its downsides. Namely, it’s a lot harder to broaden your horizons. There’s a certain joy in going outside your comfort zone. And when you’ve already got a knowledge of so much, it’s harder to find it. But lately, I’ve gotten that. I’ve found something that properly stretches my sphere.

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I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons.

Which is not a completely new thing. I’ve dabbled in it, with a group of friends who were all new to it with me. And I’ve done a fair bit of tabletop gaming in more structured games. This is my first time taking D&D seriously, however. I’ve got a ‘character’. I’m in the middle of a ‘campaign’. I am getting ‘involved’ with ‘other people’ to the point that they express disappointment when I’m not able to make it.

Yeah, I never thought I’d see the day.

There’s a lot of modern gaming that has its foundations in tabletop, of which the originator is good old D&D. The version I’ve been playing is a few editions removed from the classic that everything sprang root from, but even so, there’s a lot of familiar ground there. My gaming experience actually leaves me feeling relatively comfortable in D&D. I’m able to analyze the options available to me, navigate the rules in play, strategize, etc., the same way I would in a similarly-styled video game.

Almost like the good old Vidcons and D&D are cousins or something.

For that matter, I wonder how much they continue to influence each other. The similarities are way too strong for them to have been a straight divergent growth, two branches starting at one point then heading in two completely different directions. And I’m not educated enough in the matter of D&D to track its development. Hell, I haven’t played any of the ‘good’ versions of the game, which according to the internet, seems to be whatever one OP isn’t playing at the moment. Even so, there’s some cues, some balances I’m picking up that do seem to be remarkably familiar, specifically from video games that came out well after D&D had it’s big impact.
It’d be easy to say that D&D still continues to inspire video games. And honestly, that’s probably very true. I can’t imagine it’s a one way relationship, though. They may be in different mediums, but any developer worth it’s salt is going to be picking up inspiration whenever it arises, no matter whether it comes from within or without its sphere. I’d be very, very surprised if video games didn’t inspire tabletop the way tabletop has inspired videogames.

But then could you imagine if D&D was up for review in video game publications? The game millions have passionately enjoyed for decades? “The graphics leave much to be desired. Success or failure in any given move seems arbitrary, and player skill doesn’t seem to have much place here. Also, the main character is completely off putting. Who would think of putting someone like that in the game? 6 out of 10.”

I’m having a good time with it, though. Lame newbie though I am. It’s fun being out of your depth every once in a while.

Dark Souls was the first Let’s Play I finished, but not the first one I started.  No, even that ill-fated Recettear LP was not my first.  My first LP actually went on about five years ago, on the online forum I took part in at the time, covering good old Shin Megami Tensei.

There I was, trying baby’s first screenshot LP on a board that was already full of frankly excellent screenshot LPs by a lot of people far more eloquent, funny, and informed than I was.  That was one of the first online writing things I put so much effort into,, but reading over my stuff didn’t seem as good as what everyone else had, and frankly, I lost my confidence in the quality of my work.  I stopped the LP and quit the forum a few months down the road, which was really in large part because I was going through some big life changes and just didn’t have the time to keep up, but a not insignificant part of it was because I thought my work was poor and I just couldn’t hang.

Well blast from the past, on a lark, I just went back and read it yesterday.  And you know what?  It was great!  Five years gone, I’m divorced enough from the creation of it to actually enjoy it as I would something that anyone else did, and I really enjoyed it.  It’s like somebody who knew exactly what I like in a screenshot LP was putting it together!  Seriously, reading through it now, I am really proud of what I created.  And yet I was feeling nothing but uncertainty while I was creating.

It’s kind of a running joke among authors that everyone hates their own work.  There is no pride in a job well done, there’s no honest ego, there’s only all those flaws the artist can’t get their eyes away from.  There’s truth to that, though.  When you’re in the middle of creating something, you’re already committed to seeing it from a different perspective than the eventual reader will be, and that changes the way you look at it.  Necessitates a critical eye.  There’s still some things you can look for in the quality of your work, but once you’ve moved yourself that close to the source, you lose your perspective.  That’s why you get John Romero saying he’s going to make you his lady for the night when the game he proposed to do that with played like a migraine on wheels, because everyone involved in creating and marketing that game was just too close to the project to get proper perspective.  Although they realized Daikatana was falling down the tank towards the end of development, they still didn’t have the perspective required to take the steps necessary to either fix the game or at the least not make the marketing campaign a horrible embarrassment.

And that happens all the time.  Every creative work you’ve experienced.  Every game, every book, every movie, every work of art.  For someone to have created something worth experiencing, they would have needed to have improve their craft, and improving  requires the critical eye that leads one to doubt their own work.  All but the most arrogant of creators, everyone from my fellow bloggers to the highest paid content producers, go through this every time they make something.  And even the arrogant creators lose perspective on their work.  Hell, even now, calling my first LP something I can be proud of may stem from a complete lack of perspective.

This lack of perspective does go a long way to explain why studios spend so much on making bad things.  That’s why Disney un-cancelled the Lone Ranger film and spent $375 million in production and marketing only for it to fail so, so hardcore.  That’s why Marvel so often announces these big events, their authors putting so much spirit behind their works, only for them to actually come out and be infuriating.  That’s the reason for almost everything Silicon Knights has produced and failed to produce since Nintendo stopped overseeing them.

Creation is hard.  And it gets even harder just by the fact it’s next to impossible to get the consumer’s perspective on your work, after you’ve gotten so involved in building it.  Even the stuff I put up on this blog, although entertaining to me, I have no idea how good it is to anybody else.  But that’s the way it goes.  There are a set of skills you can develop to overcome this, to start getting a sense of what is going to translate well for the reviewers, but oddly enough, overcoming that gap in perception is not always necessary.  Sometimes, the greatest works come out of letting that risk be, out of ignoring the focus testers and going your own route.

That’s just something to keep in mind the next time you play something and start wondering what the developer was thinking.  And hey, the next time I write something that sucks, just keep in mind it’s all because you don’t have my obviously proper perspective.

The Fantasy Prejudice Problem

Fantasy.  Science Fiction.  The whole Speculative Fiction umbrella.  A genre or genres that are very much apart from this lame boring realistic world were you have to get a job and not all the lasses are buxom and not all the dudes are hunky and you only get to hunt dragons a few times a year.  These stories present their own worlds, with their own rules, that can be as separate from meatspace as the writer’s skills can stretch believability.  At the same time, though, they’re close enough that they can actually speak to the real world.  Allegory and metaphor are powerful tools available to this medium, with the writer offering familiar situations in an unfamiliar setting to help the reader see them from completely new perspectives and in a completely new light.  Lots of authors feel strongly about lots of things, lots of authors write speculative fiction, so lots of authors bring these two great tastes together.

But lots of authors don’t think things out the whole way through.  And therein lies the problem.

So, racism is bad.  Sexism is bad.  There’s a whole lot of –isms out there that are bad.  You know what?  Let’s just go ahead and say screw prejudice as a whole.  That will be our platform.  Screw Prejudice 2024.  Then if anyone argues with us, we can prove that they’re really a racist elf.  That’s how you win politics, people.  Anyways, the roots, causes, and impacts of it are an incredibly complex subject, far more than any self-proclaimed expert can just pick up from Tumblr, but we can still go out on a limb and say prejudice is a bad thing.  We all on the same page here?  Good.

Lots of other people think prejudice is a bad thing, too.  So they decide to use their medium of choice to change hearts and minds around it.  Get people to understand it better, look at it from a new perspective.  Make the world a bit of a better place.  Speculative Fiction is a ripe ground for metaphor, so it seems to fit right in.

But in the process, it’s easy to change too much, and tie a whole lot of other implications into that metaphor as well.  It’s easy to inadvertently give ammunition to the counter-point.

Elves and dwarves just hate each other.  You can find entire slave races all over the place.  So many people have to deal with a world that hates and fears them for having powers they never asked for and can’t control.  And all too often, these aren’t meant to just make a plot point in and of themselves, but to remind you of the plight of a specific strain of humanity.

Real world prejudice is a blight because it assigns poor treatment to people because of traits that really don’t matter.  A lot of speculative fiction prejudice impacts people with real, tangible, physical differences that set them apart from other races.  That weakens the metaphor drastically.  Having races with different capabilities and stats makes them interesting, but if you’re trying to use them to create a real world analog for racial treatment, making them differently capable just starts implying that there’s maybe a reason for that prejudice.  Like, you remember in the Elder Scrolls, where Khajiit just get treated like an entire race of thieves but that’s what their stats lay out?  And you know, that was all fine, until they started brushing, lightly brushing, but still brushing, against the real world “racism is bad” metaphor in Skyrim, where wasn’t it such a shame that all the Nordic cities treated all Khajiit like thieves even though EVERY SINGLE FREAKING KHAJIIT NPC WAS A MEMBER OF THE THIEVE’S GUILD!

And then when you go further than that, start giving races access to weapons and tools that others don’t have, that they can’t even control themselves, and yet isn’t it such a shame that everyone else is so phobic to them?  X-Men is a big offender here.  Back in the day, it just made itself more realistic by grounding itself in the more recent civil rights movement rather than directly confronting it.  The struggle of mutants was something that the team was working on, was a major focus of the plot, but they didn’t start trying to make the real world parallels right away.  And when they did get around to it, did start saying that “these are your blacks!  These are your gays!”, the whole comparison rang a little unfortunate, because really, by that point the humans were at least partially justified in their fear.  The comics have spent story upon story detailing characters with little control of their deadly, dangerous, powers, showing people who first realized they had these mutant powers in the first place by nearly murdering those around them, and have spent years showcasing mutant characters who were unabashedly, openly evil.  Trying to make that analogy, trying to say you have no reason to treat a population that way, just makes things worse when you give the people in your story plenty of reason to fear and be wary of them in the first place.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a good reason or a good way to handle this topic in media.  Honestly, there’s a lot of works that do it well.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Final Fantasy X, and Tales of Symphonia all hit those notes quite well, for example.  Just, when you’re dealing with it, keep in mind that you’re walking into a very complex subject, and make sure you’re paying attention to all the elements you’re bringing to it, as such.

Random Thoughts on Avengers: Age of Ultron

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I had the opportunity to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron last night, a whole four hours before it was officially supposed to be released.  I know, I know, it’s galling, such a thing.  Releasing movies early ranks among the level of software pirates, parking meter tricksters, and spree murderers on the scale of ethical lapses.  As you all know, I am a just and righteous man, so I was just going to stay home.  Unfortunately, I hang out with the wrong crowd, and my so-called friends kidnapped me and forced me to watch it.  How vile!  I am absolutely aghast that they would force me to counteract my morals like that.

But, while I’m at it, I figured I’d at least put my thoughts down on the film.  Not so much a review, no, with a film release this big, you can get those anywhere, and I like to think that people come to Lost to the Aether for something a bit different.  And also, they come here because I am so smart, handsome, and interesting.  Anyways, if you want the bottom line, I enjoyed it a little less than I did the first film, but it’s still a good movie.  Beyond that, well, here are some completely random and unconnected reflections I have on the movie.

  • So, a big change in the way the film delivers its story, whereas the first movie was all about the individuals coming together as a group, then the big, bad, world invasion, the second film breaks things down to a human level.  It’s more about how each character is as a human.  The first act sees a good amount of the team just goofing around with each other.  It’s a film about personalities, rather than the group as a cohesive whole.  The central conflict comes about because of a few character’s personal choices, the film goes out of its way to round out some of the characters who haven’t gotten much spotlight on them, and everyone gets their little moments to let their guard down and show who they are.  It’s a more human-level experience, that I think really works for the sequel.
  • Unfortunately, this is tempered by the characters still being really flat.  I think that just comes from the age we’re in.  Big budget films need international markets to find success, and deep, complex characters are a lot more difficult to effectively translate between languages and cultures.  Still makes for a worse experience overall, no matter how necessary it is.
  • Hawkeye has himself a long-term relationship.  I’m pretty sure that only came about to remove him as a candidate for Black Widow, after all the teases in the first film.
  • Instead, Widow’s with the Hulk.  I never bought their relationship.  Their actors are really lacking in chemistry.
  • For that matter, I don’t really jive with the way they handled the Black Widow in this film.  The past movies she’s been in, like the Winter Soldier, Iron Man 2, the First Avenger, she really added to it.  She had her own unique part in the conflict, she dealt with things in a unique way, and she actively contributed to the plot.  Moreover, she was distinct.  Irreplaceable.  In this film, Black Widow’s just here to be the woman.  She has two scenes offering some brief glimpses into her backstory, sure, but other than that, her point in the movie is the play the traditional feminine roles.  She’s the matching girlfriend, the emotional support, and the damsel in distress.  Her character has degenerated.  She was once a distinct figure in her own right, now she’s just the Smurfette of the crew.
  • I’ve never read an Ultron story.  I have no idea what his personality’s like.  I’m pretty sure it’s not like this.  But that’s not a bad thing.  It would have been pretty easy to have him be the big generic death robot.  Having him like evil Iron Man adds a bit more to the character.
  • I don’t think you can call something an ‘Age’ when it’s pretty much wrapped up within the week or so this film covers.
  • There’s deaths in the film.  I won’t say who or when or how, but yeah, people die.  The movie gets absolutely no mileage out of it.
  • And you know, I never thought I’d be complaining about this, but I think I’m just getting tired of the Whedonistic snark.  It’s all nice and funny when you sprinkle the dialogue with clever quips.  When everyone’s doing it, and they do it anytime anyone does anything?  It gets a little old.
  • The creators did some nice work in building some leads for future movies.  And not just the next Avengers, either.  I’m pretty sure we saw the creation of a villain for the upcoming Black Panther, for instance, and I didn’t even notice until I slept on it.

And, that’s about all I got right now.  ‘Till next time.

The Drops of God

So, we’ve covered a lot of things here at Lost to the Aether. As it turns out, I’m a pretty multi-faceted individual. We’ve got the video games going on pretty much all day every day, sure, but we’ve also talked about drawing, writing, visual novels, cake, films, books, my good looks, and pretty much anything else that struck me as being wordworthy on that given day. Sometimes, I feel like doing something new. And right now’s one of those times. Specifically, I’m going to talk about a manga. But not just any manga. Well, to anyone else, it’d be just any manga, but it’s one that actually means something for me. Today, I’m going to be putting my thoughts down about a work that actually has some importance in my life, however much that may be. I want to talk about The Drops of God.

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I’ve been saying for a while now that you can find a manga about anything. Just on my shelf, I’ve got manga about running a bakery, a used bookstore, a whole series about American football, maiding, and that’s just the pedestrian ones. The manga audience back in the form’s homeland is large enough that they can support material on pretty much every subject matter, from the most fantastic to the absolutely pedestrian, and you get a lot of good stories that way. So it is with Drops of God; it’s a manga series about an everyday subject you’d think would be really hard to get a good story out of. In this case, it’s all about wine.

I like a lot of things in life. I like video games, as should be obvious to anyone who’s been on this blog before. I like stories. I love my hair. Seriously, I’d marry my hair if the stupid establishment would just let me. And I also enjoy wine. That wasn’t always the case, though. Way back when I was a little cub Aether but still totally of drinking age (obey the law, kids) wine was just another drink to me. Something to get drunk off of, something that may have tasted good, but nothing much more than that. Eventually, because of the efforts of the rest of the family to give me some sort of traits they weren’t completely embarrassed about at parties, I started to appreciate it more. Wine is a really complex drink, and it’s that complexity that’s given rise to whole industries, and after having enough, I started seeing that complexity, and began respecting the depth in wine. I wanted to learn more about it. And there’s where my problems started.

The problem with learning more about wine is that you have to deal with the kind of people who like wine. And a lot of those people are great, don’t get me wrong. But there’s also a lot of people who are so strung up on wine being so super classy or the drink of the gods or treat it as if it’s somehow sacred, and when you’re just trying to get started on it those people can be really overwhelming. The world is full of people who insist that the one true way to enjoy wine is at a party trying to tell as many people as possible about mouthfeel, or closing your nostrils in sequence and smelling it one side at a time, or by loading it up into a syringe and injecting it straight into your eyebrow. Even the people who aren’t infected with all the bull honky that surrounds wine still tend to treat it as if it’s that one hot girl with all the money from high school, unapproachable without the right pedigree. Wine is an excellent drink with a lot to offer and a lot of layers, but man is its world inaccessible to someone trying to make the next step up from layman.

That’s where I was in life when the Drops of God started coming out in America. I was starting to view wine as something more than just a drunkmaker but was having difficulty getting any further than that, and was close to giving up on the drink altogether. Then here comes this silly little manga about this silly little substance. And you know what? It just worked for me. Something that, even though it treats wine as a super-serious matter as so many other people do, is still pretty humble and down-to-earth in it’s approach to the subject? Something that has enough substance to teach a bit about wine, but is actually entertaining? Drops of God was exactly what I needed to get me over the hump I had at the time. I really enjoy wine today, and I don’t think I’d be able to on the level I do if it wasn’t for this manga.

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