I am, apparently, a very flirty guy. I’m told by women that I have a habit of sending playful signals that tell them that I am, if not actively interested, at least amenable to smooching.
I don’t necessarily mind this, but there are days I would like to know exactly what the hell I’m doing.
For I rarely intend to flirt. It’s just sort of this radio signal I emit, occasionally broadcasting at women I didn’t actually have any interest in, which makes things awkward on occasion. I suspect it’s even more awkward for the women who have negative interest in me, who I don’t necessarily intend to smother in flirt-pollen… but as noted, I have zero idea how to turn it off if I’m comfortable around you. So, you know, sorry about that.
Yet the truth remains I am not cloistered in my usual straight-jacket of social anxiety, then I am probably exuding some flirtiness. At least according to the women I deal with.
I’ve tried to break it down, but the interesting thing about being naturally flirty is that it also makes one remarkably oblivious to being flirted at. The only flirt-receptors I completely, 100% get are the moves that I don’t do – if someone repeatedly touches my arm, I know that it is on like Donkey Kong. Or they’re Southern. I’ve been repeatedly convinced a Southern Girl totally wants this Ferrett-bod, and have prepared to make my excuses as to why this coupling would be unwise at this moment in time, and then saw them interact with someone else and had that deflating realization of Oh, okay.
(Because it’s nice to be attractive to someone, even if they’re not your type. I’m always baffled when dudes are all like, “WHAT IF THAT GAY GUY LIKES ME?!??” as if merely being the target of someone’s affection will corrode your sexuality. I’ve been flattered by some attentions, expressed respectfully, even as I did not reciprocate.)
But anyway, like many people, women will flirt with me and I’ll just be obliviously happy. “How friendly they are!” I think. “What lovely people, to compliment me so effusively! What a brotherly gesture, to kiss me on the cheek! What wondrous companionship, that she’s touching my… oh, wait.”
Which, again, is often compounded by the fact that they’re getting my flirtatious signals, and now we are caught in an inadvertent feedback loop. Thankfully, I like people on the whole, so I’ve rarely inadvertently stumbled into smooching with people I’m opposed to – but it’s sort of like being caught in a warm summer storm: pleasant, a little moist, but this might have been enjoyable if I’d known it was incoming.
Then again, I know flirt-blindness is a chronic thing. I like Neil Gaiman’s idea of inviting someone to a seduction. “Wear the kind of clothes you would like to be seduced in.”
But my point is, it’s disconcerting to be exuding an aura that you have no idea where the kill-switch is located. I’m doing something. I don’t know what the mechanics of it are, I can’t give you advice on it, it’s just… there. Whether I want it or not. And it’s a positive thing on the whole, but there are days I wish I at least knew how this process worked so I could excuse or refine it.
I’ve mentioned before that polyamory should start with a series of a genteel negotiations, but more often begins with a dramasplosion of cheating and boundary violations that settles down into “Well, actually, I’m… more okay with you fucking them than I thought I was.”
That isn’t fun. It isn’t fair. But quite often, the need for polyamory just sort of surges out and surprises everyone. It happens so often it’s a pretty identifiable pattern.
Yet it gets worse when they’re not really okay with what happened, and you still need whatever triggered the cheating.
The central problem with polyamory is that yes, it’s about loving all your partners. But self-love counts, too: you can’t keep yourself trapped in a relationship that’s destroying your soul just because it makes someone else happy.
And so though it’s severely counterintuitive, sometimes the best way to show love in a poly relationship is by an abrupt breakup. You love them. You love them so much that you realize that the relationship you’re able to have right now cannot possibly make both of you happy. And when you have talked enough to realize that this is indeed the inevitable conclusion, the kindest thing you can possibly do for everyone involved is to end that relationship as quickly as possible.
What frequently happens in the beginnings of “polyamory” is that the partner cheats because they have a need – often it’s D/s, finding that online master who they have hot email exchanges with. (And yes, an emotional/sexual commitment without a physical component is cheating in most monogamous relationships. It’s still giving a part of your heart to someone else.)
The relationship is uncovered. Hearts are broken. The cheated-upon partner feels shattered, because here is their husband/wife exchanging intimacies with another person – intimacies they cannot fathom, because they don’t get this whole BDSM thing, they feel icky about hitting their partner, they have an actual negative interest in going to any kind of club.
Yet as it turns out, once uncorked, it turns out their husband/wife really fucking needs this shit. They have for years. They’ve been quietly starving for this experience all along, and now that they’ve had a taste of what fulfills them, they realize how shitty their life is going to be without it.
And that’s the toughest thing of all. To say, “Yes, I cheated on you to get this thing. That’s inexcusable, and condemnable, and I owe it to you to do better. I want you in my life more than anything… Yet for all of that, I still need this thing.”
Because yeah. Here’s one partner, tattered and shamed, hungering for two things: BDSM, and their vanilla partner. And here’s the cuckolded partner, stung seriously because BDSM has come to symbolize everything that’s wrong with their marriage, and yet their partner is telling them that they can’t live without the thing that just shattered their heart.
Sometimes they bridge that gap. Sometimes, the cheated-upon partner is extremely fucking brave and manages to transition to a working polyamory where they get their needs met too, and a healthy newer relationship blossoms.
But more often, it falls apart, because the BDSM is now this hot-button, where the partner says “NO. You had BDSM once, and that was what made you cheat on me. We’re never having BDSM because I don’t want it, and it made you crazy, and this isn’t anything we’re discussing.” And the cheater becomes a penitent monk, having glimpsed the promised lands just long enough to ache to the end of their days.
Or relationship shambles along a different power dynamic, with the new partner saying “I’m getting this BDSM or I’m leaving you,” and so the cheated-upon partner’s ego implodes and they stay at home, feeling like shit that they can’t give their lovers the thing they need so badly, sacrificing their self-esteem on the altar of keeping their loved one in their lives. Just endless lonely nights at the apartment, imagining what they’re doing that you can’t give.
It’s actually a mercy if they break up. But they often don’t. Sometimes, they shamble to the grave hand-in-hand, one of them having given up something vital to keep the other.
That’s understandable. And it’s sad. Because the saddest thing in not just poly, but relationships everywhere, is where one partner has to lop off the best parts of their lives in order to stay with the person they love.
And when it starts with the sin of cheating, it’s so much harder to compromise. So much harder.
When I wrote about how The Fish In The Pond Are Not For You To Eat, I argued that it wasn’t wrong to put filters in place to screen people out of your dating pool because you don’t think they’ll make you happy.
And it isn’t wrong. You don’t have to date everyone.
The problem is that some of your filters can get weaponized.
Which is to say that if someone said, “Sorry, I don’t date people who won’t meet me at a munch first,” the potential dater might see that as a silly hurdle to jump, and refuse to do so- but it probably wouldn’t get their hackles up.
But if someone said, “Sorry, I don’t date trans women,” the hackles would start to rise.
And if someone said, “Sorry, I don’t date fat women,” the hackles would be up and teeth firmly bared.
Thing is, under the right circumstances, all of these can be valid filtering criteria. Yes, some are behaviors, while some are inherent traits, but all of them can be things that someone would not want in a partner.
I’m a straight dude.+ Very few rational people would expect me to date a gay man, because they acknowledge that’s not where my kinks lie.
Likewise, it’s entirely legitimate if someone isn’t attracted to fat people! (And mind you, I speak as one. Check my pics; you’ll find an abundance of adipose.) Nobody is obligated to find anyone else desirable; “attraction” is an ephemeral thing that’s not fully under most people’s control. If someone doesn’t get turned on by fat people, it’s as unfair to them to demand that they must date you as it would be for a gay guy to demand to date me.
The desire for skinny people frequently gets weaponized into insults at fat people. And that shit is *trouble*.
You can see some of that in the FetLife comments to my fish in the pond post.
RIGHT: “If someone doesn’t want to meet me at a munch, they are likely to lack the characteristics I want in a partner.”
WRONG: “If someone doesn’t want to meet me at a munch, they’re probably some furtive creeper. Something’s wrong with a dude like that.”
Aaaaaaand weaponization is complete. We have now taken a desire on our part, and turned its absence into a character flaw that should be corrected.
The thing I didn’t mention in my previous essay is, “Would I meet up with a first date at a munch?” And the answer’s no. I’m not particularly good at meeting strangers. And I’d have some valid concerns about going to a munch to get to know a potential date, and finding that she didn’t have the time to talk to me.
The fact that I would not go does not indicate an objective flaw in me. It means that I have certain priorities and desires of my own, and they don’t mesh with yours.
But that’s how you weaponize a filter: you make it into something objectively wrong with everyone who has that trait. It’s not that you don’t find fat people attractive: it’s that fat is evidence of some slovenly laziness, and walking around with all that weight is an offense they’re perpetrating upon the world. (This fat dude is a workaholic who spends fourteen-hour days writing and programming. Lazy, I ain’t. And my wife, who is fifty pounds overweight, did three triathalons this summer.)
And so some of those filters get really tricky. Because many people do use them as legitimate filters – as in, “I’m not usually attracted to super-skinny women, so I generally refuse dates from them because I know that doesn’t do it for me personally. But I think they’re fine people, and they don’t need to ‘eat a sammich’.”
Yet many more people do use those filters as weapons. They don’t like skinny, so shit, why aren’t those women fattening up? They find trans people unsettling, so shit, why don’t those people give it up? They don’t find brats appealing, so what the fuck is wrong with brats?++
The core trait of all of these weaponizations is “I have a preference, and the hubris to demand that the world must bend to my desires.”
So it gets really hard to put up some sorts of filters, because you try to say “Sorry, fat people aren’t my thing,” and what people hear is that hurricane roar of condemnation that fat people are bad, fat people are wrong, fat people are all horrible failures at life who should be shunned by every righteous person that every idiot with a weaponized filter spews, and they assume you’re just another hater. When you’re not a hater, you’re just someone who finds that trait not to be a turnon.
(This would be a good time to reference @Manic_pixie’s excellent essay Don’t Tell People Why You’re Rejecting Them. Often, it’s kinder not to get into specifics. Also, despite what either side may say, nobody owes anyone any explanation as to why you don’t want to date them.)
How do you fix this? Well, you can go to lengths not to weaponize your own filters. Just because you want something doesn’t mean that other people are somehow deficient in lacking that quality.
More importantly, when you speak, speak with the knowledge that the default is often to assume that this lack is a character defect, and specifically correct that. Seinfeld made a running gag out of “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” but that sort of caveat is often necessary. When you say “I don’t like old men,” you may well mean it in the sense that this is a personal preference, but the weaponized elderly-haters around you are taking this as agreement that yeah, all those old dudes are just wastes of flesh. Putting that disagreement in there helps stop the spread, even as it often feels ludicrous.
And then apply that filter thoughtfully. One of the problems with dislikes is that you’ve settled upon them long ago, and they’ve crystallized. After a while, you start snap-dismissing people because they don’t fit a very elaborate set of criteria, and that snap-dismissal often leads to irritation – goddammit, yet another person who failed to fulfill my needs!
Yet just as you’re not here to fulfill their desires, they’re not here to fulfill yours. Them failing to live up to your standards doesn’t make your standards objectively good, it just means that they’re not compatible with what you need. That doesn’t make them failures at life, it just makes them not good dating material for you – and the minute you start conflating “Not good for me” with “Bad at life,” you have written your preferences into the fabric of the universe.
And that’s always a sin.
+ – This isn’t strictly true, but it might as well be. I’ve written about the difficulties I have in finding dudes to date in a fairly explicit post over on Fet, making me effectively straight if not actually so, and one of the problem is that I’m not attracted to men who look like me. I see all the me I can get in the mirrors, man. If I’m gonna be dating a guy and taking some radically new genitalia for a spin, my partner’s body needs to be radically different from what I’m actually toting around.
++ – It gets super-tricky when you do actually believe it’s a character flaw and it’s a character flaw that someone’s chosen to believe – what the hell do you do when you think that believing in MRA/feminism/Republican/Democrat/libertarian/Christian/atheist/brat/flying Spaghetti Monster issues is, in fact, something that’s perpetrating injustice upon the world and needs to be corrected? What happens when a group is in fact carrying out subtle wrongs upon the world thanks to their philosophy? But that’s an essay for another time, kids.
“Hi. I’m poly. And since I’m poly, you can expect at least five essays on my profile detailing how I do polyamory.”
We poly folks are kind of infamous, like vegans and hipsters and the much-feared vegan hipsters, because we talk about being polyamorous. A lot. We talk about how we do poly, and we talk about bad ways other people do poly, and we discuss poly in the media, and I have heard some befuddled monogamous folks wondering why we’re so damn self-centered that we can’t shut up about this relationship choice that we’ve made.
Alas, we are not discussing polyamory because we wish to be walking billboards for the lifestyle.
We’re discussing it because we haven’t had this conversation before.
Look, by the time you were eighteen, you’d seen at least a hundred movies showing you how monogamous people met and fell in love. They were simplified and often stupid versions of monogamous love, usually leaning heavily on the trope of “the moment you fall in love is the most critical part of the relationship,” but you got taught how to do this.
And if you watched enough television shows, you saw all the ways that monogamous love could go wrong: all the events that triggered fights, all the personality conflicts that caused breakups, all the neglects that caused love to die. Again, most of ‘em were simplified… but oversimplification is often a necessary tool when you’re setting out.
Add that to the fact that you probably had a ton of personal experiences in high school and college, watching how couples formed and spun apart, and by the time you were twenty, well, you had a good solid idea of what made for a good relationship and what didn’t.
Whether you know it or not, you’ve benefited from a decades-spanning discussion on how monogamy works, and what the best practices are for healthy monogamous relationships, and who’s good to date monogamously and who isn’t.
Polyamorous people have not had this discussion.
We’re starting from scratch here, because polyamory in a Western culture is pretty much unheard of. Not that it hasn’t happened, but it’s a lot like homosexuality in that our records tend to get smeared muddy or just outright washed away. (There were, I’m told, a lot of gay cowboys, but hoo boy you wouldn’t know that from listening to any of the traditional historical narratives.)
We literally don’t know how to do this. The Ethical Slut, the bible for many people, was written less than twenty years ago. You won’t find polyamorous relationships in blockbuster movies. If you see three people in a love triangle on the WB, that triangle is going to end in disaster because damn, people, monogamy!
So we lack examples.
As a result, we have to become our own examples, sharing our stories so that we can understand what works for us and what doesn’t. (Polyamory is also far more complex than monogamy, because “traditional” monogamy has a clear line of succession – date, fall in love, move in, get engaged, get married – and polyamory has a lot of “Well, we’re dating, and we’re happy, but how can we tell whether this is healthy stasis or just mashing the ‘pause’ button on all the problems we’re not addressing?”)
Sometimes we get sick of rehashing our issues, too. But the truth is that we talk about polyamory means to us because we have to. We need to figure out what it means to us, because there’s no largely accepted definition that we can start with and then pare away details or add them to.
We’re trying to figure out what our own narratives are. And sometimes that sounds a lot like boasting, or needless head-up-our-ass meanderings, or even attention-seeking behavior – but often, the core is just that question of “How do we do this? Bueller? Bueller?” And realizing that Ferris Bueller isn’t going to appear in this class, he nipped off to steal a car and will not be providing the answers today, so we’re gonna have to sit down and have our own discussion before we figure out how this is gonna make us all happy.
It’s fine. But we’re gonna have to be a little loud about it sometimes. And you don’t think of your rom-coms as yammering on about monogamy, but really, they kinda are.
Gentle reminder that the ennobled Starving Artist is an invention of the people who profit most from the exploitation of creative people.
— Iron Spike (@Iron_Spike) December 12, 2014
As usual, I think things are a little more complex than that.
The Noble Starving Artist is certainly used by those who profit from creative exploitation – and for that, I’ll point you towards Yog’s Law, which is “Money flows towards the writer.”
But the people I’ve known most who hammered on the Noble Starving Artists were, sadly, unsuccessful artists. Note that I do not say failed artists; were you to ask me at any time between 1987 and say, 2010, I would have characterized myself as unsuccessful. Most artists have a period where they’re unsuccessful, which is usually a good sign: it means they have taste, and they’re not living up to their own taste. In time, with effort, hopefully you’ll get closer to your own values. And usually, “Getting closer to your own values” has a strong(ish) correlation with “getting people to hand you cash for your efforts.”
Unfortunately, a lot of those guys who were traversing the wastelands felt really embarrassed by that lack of success. You can’t not be successful in America, man; that’s the main sin. And so rather than go “Yeah, I’m not doing well, I wish I was better off,” they wrapped that lack of success around their shoulders. People who were successful had sold out. They must have wanted to make money. In fact, people who optimized their artistic transactions to make money were sellouts, too!
You could only really do art if you were suffering for it financially. Like, purely by coincidence, the art they were making now was doing.
And look, that’s bullshit. There’s nothing wrong with trying to earn cash for your art. That gives you more time to make art, more cash to pay doctors’ bills so you can stay healthy, better equipment for you to make art with. If you can make some cash for doing what you love, then do it.
Unfortunately, I don’t often see the content purchasers making claims about the wonderfulness of starving. (They usually talk about how it’s about exposure, as if this free shit you give away so they can make money off of you will somehow chain into money pouring through your windows.) For me, at least, it’s other artists who tell me about the nobility of starving. Usually because it’s a lot easier on their egos, saying this is what they were aiming for.
Honestly, though, I don’t care who does it. Shit needs to stop regardless of sourcing. If you’re an artist, make buck. Don’t compromise your vision – but when you find someone who likes whatever the fuck it is you do, negotiate like a fiend, and value yourself.
Art’s all about personality. Nobody else can make the art you do.
I got asked recently how I felt about women only agreeing to meet new dates at BDSM munches. It’s problematic, they said, because some people in the community don’t want to risk being outed by being at a public place with a bunch of openly-kinky people.
The thing is, on one level that’s an entirely legitimate question: What happens if the people you want to date are only willing to meet you in ways that you’re uncomfortable with? And the answer is, “Then you shouldn’t date those people.”
Which is sad. It’s always sad when you can’t date someone because they have criteria in place that filter you out. I have a huge crush on a porn star who never dates outside of the business, and that makes for Sad Ferretts. I have a huge crush on a femdom who can only date submissive men; that makes for Sad Ferretts. I have at least two women who I’ve had wonderful scenes with at conventions who don’t do long-distance relationships, and that makes for Sad Ferretts.
But there was something about the question that rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve read that question over five times (and I’m specifically not pointing you at it because I don’t feel like having this poor dude’s words dissected by a potentially-hostile crowd). But…
…I felt a certain outrage buried in that question.
I felt like there was an entitlement lurking within his words. As though women? Existed to date him. And like they were committing some sort of crime by filtering him out before they even gave him a shot.
And even if I’m misreading him (which I could be), I know a fair amount of guys who do actually believe that. The older dudes being upset that they can’t circulate at the young people’s munches. The guys seriously upset that nobody at the swingers’ clubs are interested in meeting up with unknowns. The MRAs who are furious at the model-quality bitches who aren’t interested in talking to them.
Again: That sucks. I’ve been in shallow dating pools. I’ve been the guy who can’t get a date because nobody wanted to date the pudgy weirdo. I’ve experienced your pain. And still….
Women do not exist for you to date.
A person does not exist to maximize your shot at fucking them. Treating them as though they’re committing some sort of violation by refusing to give you *your* shot reduces them to an object; they exist as some sort of sexy wrench to unstick your pipes, and by failing to carry out that function they have invalidated themselves.
No. What people exist for is to maximize their happiness.
The way they do that is by filtering out things that are unlikely to make them happy.
When I go to the movies, I don’t watch foreign dramas because past experience has shown I find them boring; I go to Guardians of the Galaxy instead. When I go out to a restaurant, I don’t go to fast food places because I find them greasy and uncomfortable.
Which isn’t to say that I’m correct! There’s definitely some foreign dramas I might enjoy! (Try Oldboy. Those Korean directors are magnificently fucked up.) And maybe somewhere there’s an awesome McDonald’s with comfortable chairs and waiters and a menu with hamburgers that don’t taste like old cardboard.
Yet the question is not, “Would I enjoy some foreign dramas?”
The question is, “If I am spending my time watching movies, what movie category is most likely to deliver me a movie I enjoy?”
I can watch a hundred hours of French drama and like maybe one movie. But I can watch a hundred hours of guys in skin-tight suits punching aliens and love thirty of them.
Call me shallow.
Yet based on those preferences, it’s an entirely sane move for me to go, “Yeah, I’m not watching French drama. It’s just not productive for me.” Which is unfair to the makers of French dramas, who rely to some extent on my paycheck, and may never be able to make a drama again if I can’t rally my friends to buy tickets to see *Le Frottage: The Master Of Rubby-Orlais.*
But you know what?
I am not obligated to make anyone happy but me.
And it is not wrong for me to say, “I don’t want to bother giving your French drama two hours of my life. It might be as awesome as you claim. But I have better leads, and an awful lot of French dramatists battering at my door telling me how different they are.
“Furthermore, you telling me, ‘But you owe me this shot!’ tells me that you don’t think of me as a person – you think of me as a medium to fulfill your desires.”
Likewise, women in the dating pool? They do not exist for you to empty your semen into, or onto. They exist because they’re trying to make themselves happy, and what makes them happy may be Not You. Furthermore, they may have tried a lot of men who are like you, and found your kind to be not the most efficient method of finding happiness.
Them screening you out is not a crime. For it to be a crime, they would have had some natural obligation to date anyone who felt like they had a shot at them – which they don’t, any more than you are obligated to go on a tedious date with every person, male or female, who finds you desirable. You can both say “No.” That’s the glory of this system: you get to choose where to put your best efforts.
(Even if, as I noted, those efforts may be wrong. People make dumbass mistakes. Considering they’re usually the ones who bear the brunt of the punishment for it, that’s their right as well.)
And yeah. Sometimes that means you get screened by lots of people, and go home lonelier more of the time than you’d like. As a guy pushing his late forties, I feel that pressure: looking at OKC, there’s precious few women I find attractive who want to date someone in their fifties, and soon I’ll cross that barrier. It’ll be lonelier. It’ll be a little less fulfilling, being me.
I’ll have to accept that reality. And, if I wish to keep dating, find new ways to make myself a compelling person. Because believing that “all women owe me a shot!” often comes with a healthy dosage of “I don’t have to do anything interesting to be worthy of attention!” and oh, my friend, you’d be far better served finding ways to make yourself more desirable than you are by seething with injustice over the fact that they wouldn’t even look at you.
But life? Is not always fair. And the best you can do personally is to try to find ways to mitigate that unfairness. Don’t complain that women have filtered you out; find some way to widen your personal pool of interest, so other women will find you intriguing.
Maybe by directing a French drama? No, no, a terrible idea: direct a superhero film instead.
(Cross-posted from an essay at FetLife.)
As I’ve evolved as a writer, it’s taking me longer and longer to write books. The reason for that is simple:
I can fix shitty scenes.
That sounds awesome, but it’s actually a huge problem. Because… well, let me show you a real-life example.
The book I am currently writing now is about a poor kid who stumbles into a job working at the greatest restaurant in the universe. (Yes, a classic variant on that ol “Willy Wonka” plot, but with more gay sex and molecular gastronomy.) And after he got the job, I had this great scene:
He would be sitting in front of five glasses of olive oil that the owner of the restaurant had given him to taste, as a preliminary test of how refined his palate is. (Hint: it isn’t.) He’d be worried about his future at the restaurant – but then a crazy cook would yank him aside, try to sucker him into looking after her hard-to-maintain starter dough while she went off to get drugs. She would succeed, and while she was off doing her drugs, our hero would meet his love interest.
Except that scene wasn’t working.
The problem was that there was no forward momentum – not only was there no tension to string us along through this (note that the hero does absolutely nothing in this scene – he’s a balloon, a patsy, the recipient of decisions as opposed to the maker of them), but it has no emotional rise and fall. What does Our Hero learn during this chapter? Our Hero needs to learn something in every chapter, so we can propel him forward in this boy-to-man storyline!
So after some analysis, I decided what he would learn would be the value of an Inevitable Philosophy. Our Hero is, as of yet, not particularly focused – but the crazy cook is. So the scene becomes about Our Hero learning that the crazy cook is incredibly devoted to her craft, and how he is inspired by her.
Wait. Then why is the crazy cook sneaking off to buy drugs?
Okay, so we change the crazy cook’s motivations. She is not just crazy for cuisine – she’s a cook because she’s obsessed with the concept of novelty, needing to try everything in the world! What better place to try every rare ingredient than in a wildly experimental kitchen like this? And while she loves cooking there’s a crazy new experience in some other part of the space station that she can only experience right now, and she needs Our Hero to watch her starter dough while she nips off to do this incredibly dangerous thing.
But why would Our Hero be inspired by that?
Okay, so we insert a flashback while he is pondering tasting the five glasses of olive oil – Our Hero’s stern parents have been established as religious zealots, but now we see the exact shape of their zealotry. They have an Inevitable Philosophy – a guiding goal that consumes them, has them take great risks to restore the fallen state of a once-great empire. (This is why Our Hero is poor – they’ve been dragging him from starship freighter to starship freighter, living in squalor because they will sacrifice anything to help their lost people.)
But Our Hero? Does not have an Inevitable Philosophy. This is a great disappointment to his parents.
And in meeting the crazy cook, Our Hero comes to realize that Inevitable Philosophies come in more variations than he knew. The crazy cook is absolutely devoted to the pursuit of new things. And if the crazy cook can have that kind of dedication, then maybe Our Hero can have an Inevitable Philosophy that’s different from what his parents can provide….
But even then, it makes the kitchen look a little dickish, if some random cook can sucker Our Hero in. We want the restaurant to be a place that Our Hero wants to stay, not some place where the unwary are preyed upon. So I tweak crazy cook’s approach – she’s not trying to rip him off per se, she’s just so consumed with her own need to get to this New Thing that she doesn’t quite think about what it would do to Our Hero.
So I fix that. And in the end, what now happens is that Our Hero and the crazy cook get into a furious debate about how selfish crazy cook is, and Our Hero realizes that her pursuit of new things is what gives her an unstoppable drive that Our Hero lacks. He is shamed, because she’s running off to risk her life to try some new and dangerous adventure, and he is so scared he’s unable to taste the glasses of olive oil, lest he discover he’s a failure. Crazy cook tells him that he’s not a failure, helps him try the newness of the olive oil.
Not a bad scene. Could use some more tweaking. But it’s good enough to plop down and move ahead in this first draft.
This chapter is supposed to be about the joy of discovering what it’s like to work in the most glorious restaurant in the world.
For the overall story to work, this chapter needs to actually be that first electric jolt of being escorted into Willy Wonka’s factory, because the kid needs to absolutely fall in love with this lifestyle. And what I have provided, in a chapter that I worked on for two weeks, is a maudlin scene about the kid’s sense of reluctance, and what a failure the kid is.
And the reason I kept scratching my head and going “No, no, this isn’t good enough” was because the scene was completely the wrong scene. What I need is a scene that plays to Our Hero’s strengths, one where he uses the kitchen to discover something really wonderful about himself, so we can go “Oh, yes, God, I want to be at this restaurant, look at how good it is for Our Hero!”
But because I’m a “good” writer, I kept fixing the scene, adding all the little mechanical beats to it that would make it work. As it stands, it’s a pretty good chapter. Maybe one of the best I’ve written. It’s got some of the best detail work I’ve ever done, some of the finest characterization, some of the best prose. But in the end, what we have here is an extremely good scene that shows a kid coming to a painful realization that he’s flawed – and what the book needs is a happy discovery of what he does well.
When they say “Kill your darlings,” this is what that means, my friends. All things serve the beam. And because I’m good enough to polish turds with extremely fine-grained paper, I wasted two weeks adding structural fixes to a scene that was never going to do what it should have.
That chapter’s in the kill file now. And God willing, I’ll learn the lesson that before I start tweaking, I should ask whether this scene would do what I wanted if and when I repaired it.
“Disney’s character actors are required to stay in character at all times. When asked about anything outside of Disney, like current events or characters from non-Disney movies, they’re supposed to act like they don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Dammit. I so wanted to hear Goofy’s take on Guantanamo Bay.
So my mad manicurist Ashley has moved down to Posh in Strongsville, if you want to have some ridiculously painted nails. But this time, I took my friend Jen down for a Saturday Nail Date – which, as it turns out, was precisely the kind of relaxation I needed.
(Yes, I spent Saturday getting my nails done and beating Dragon Age. Pretty sure that’s not #GamerGate-approved-behavior, but there it is.)
Jen got her nails done first, with a Christmas-themed version thereof.
Which led to me being really super-happy when I discovered what happened when she texted with these nails:
I, on the other hand, literally, had decided on cool blue snowflake-nails. But as we were flipping through Jen’s Pinterest account (seriously, now I’m tempted to get a Pinterest account, if only to keep track of cool nails to try), I got distracted by a nebula technique that Ashley emulated:
This turned out to be not quite what was in the Pinterest, but still cool. Ashley tried her best to do a “flick” pattern for tiny stars spread across the spectrum, but her first four attempts weren’t working with her materials at hand. So she stippled with a spread-out paintbrush, making them still very pretty but not quite a nebula, in my opinion. But I love ‘em anyway, because they’re super-pretty.
Yay for Christmas nails!
If the new Dragon Age were an Elder Scrolls game, I’d crown it the best Elder Scrolls ever. Alas, this one feels more like Dragon Age Lite than Skyrim Plus to me. And while I finished it this weekend after sinking 75+ hours into the game, I feel vaguely sick, as though I’d binge-eaten Pringles potato chips for two weeks’ running: not high cuisine, but a greasy fast-food experience that was satisfying but somehow never filling.
The reason why is that past Dragon Ages were all about the story. The first Dragon Age was so amazingly rooted in character that it gave us six – six! – different opening sequences to get through, depending if you were a Dalish Elf or a Dwarf Noble or a Magi. There was an elaborate story that really rooted us into the events of the day.
And story is, for me, the most critical element of every game. Because every videogame is fundamentally, depressingly, repetitive. If I play Borderlands or Halo, I will be shooting infinite men in the face. If I play a Mario game, I will jumping on infinite Koopas in the face. If I play Skyrim or Dragon Age, I will be fireballing infinite men in the face. Videogames are an endless grind of doing the same task over and over again.
I had a friend, once, who told me that he couldn’t get into Arkham Asylum because of “All the cut-scenes.” He wanted to focus on the mechanics of the game, which is why Halo was so perfect for him: there was just enough story to justify him moving to a new map where he could shoot aliens in the face with increasing precision. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But for me, story provides the reason for the repetition. Yes, I’m going to fireball twenty thousand Darkspawn to the face over the course of this game. I am going to run across the map and fetch a foozle five hundred times. But why? I am an actor. I need motivation. If I know that I am fireballing this hundred Darkspawn to save the village of Trenzlor, then for me, I’ll do it – not because I like endlessly mashing the X button, but because I want to be the hero of goddamned Trenzlor. The more you can make me worry about the safety of Trenzlor, the more you give me a reward that feels like saving Trenzlor had an effect upon the game-world I live in, the more I will feel rewarded.
The previous two Dragon Ages had repetition, but they also had a story intertwined heavily with their quests. And when I finally collected the ten nug statues, I was frequently given more story – a sense that I’d helped push this Dwarf into a different career, the idea that the Grey Wardens now thought better of me, more conversational dialogues and cut-scenes. There was a reward system that was heavily intertwined with narrative.
Whereas this new Dragon Age, well… it has some of that. But the balance has shifted away from story rewards and towards game rewards. This is why a lot of essays have accused Dragon Age of having a filler problem – now I’d say about 65% of the quests have zero story reward at all.
Like the Rifts, one of the main story processes. There are about 125 Rifts you’re expected to close, and every damn one is the same: fight a wave of monsters that comes through the Rift, fight a second wave of monsters that comes through the Rift, close the Rift. In return for this, you gain +1 Power. “Power” is supposedly a measure of how potent your kingdom is – kind of a story thing, right? – but there’s no story reward aside from unlocking new missions. Nobody ever says, “Wow, thanks for saving me from all these Rifts!” Nothing ever happens to advance the plot: you can literally close all 125 rifts and still be in Act One of the game. The rifts never mutate in response to anything you do.
It feels really static.
And add that to the fact that you can have a story-based quest and then forget entirely what you were supposed to be doing because you got lost on the fucking terrible map, thus stripping away the story reward to leave you with a bare-bones “find the yellow dot” experience, and you wind up with a tale that feels very thin. Even some of the “ally” quests are reduced to foozle-finders – oh, Dorian! I’m supposed to win your love by killing these three groups of Venatori mages! And my reward for that is… +1 approval for each group killed. No new intimacy, no new cut-scenes, just +1 approval.
Maybe if the central tale was as rich as Dragon Age Origins or Dragon Age 2, both of which had super-strong narratives, this could be balanced out. But the central narrative is weirdly unbalanced. Inquisition actually starts out with a tabula rasa character – you have no idea who your dude is beyond a paragraph of boilerplate text – and then you’re given no opportunity to make meaningful choices until ten hours in. So you’re following a guy around who literally has no personality beyond what you choose from the Noble/Snarky/Greedy conversational wheel. (Trusting DA, I thought this purposeful emptiness was leading up to a Big Spoiler that would show me that my dude was Not What He Thought He Was, but – mild spoiler – no, it’s just narrative laziness.) So I didn’t care about my guy until the end of the first Act, and thanks to wandering around endlessly in the Hinterlands, that was 20 hours in.
…but while the first act is one of the best Dragon Age moments ever, with you facing down the Big Bad in a truly cinematic spectacle, the story dribbles to a close. Events are poorly explained. Promises are not kept. There is much talk of the Big Bad’s plans, which sound really magnificent, but he never gets close to doing that – and more importantly, after much blathering on about the nature of the Gods, you don’t get close to seeing any of the questions he raised answered. (First rule of writing: if you tell someone about a place extensively, the reader kind of expects to go there at some point.) The biggest and most interesting choice that gets made in the game has much more of an effect upon [CHARACTER REDACTED], who was my favorite character in a past game, than it does upon you – which just serves to make you wonder who the hero of this game actually was.
(Though I loved the post-credits ending. I did. And I loved seeing what happened with [CHARACTER REDACTED], who I hope is the hero of the next Dragon Age. I just wanted more answers.)
Don’t get me wrong; what they do, they do magnificently. I loved my romance quest so hard. And some of the others are great – in particular, the way they handle BDSM dynamics with Iron Bull’s romance is nuanced and expressive. Varric’s characterization is brilliant. The politics at Orlais were wonderful. What Bioware gets right, they get right better than anyone. But that rightness is like having the occasional act of Shakespeare buried in a massive tome of 50-Shades-of-Grey-fanfic – for every great moment I treasured, there were five fetchquests that I just killed time doing.
Which leads us to the weirdest action of Dragon Age: the War Council. Which I have such mixed feelings about.
At first, I thought the War Council was just an absolute waste of time. You have three agents, who you can assign to various tasks, which are completed by… waiting. If you hang around and do nothing for a small War Council quest of 12 minutes, the quest will complete and you’ll get a small reward. Or you can assign your agent to a big quest that takes five hours and get a big reward!
I thought “Christ, they’re just acknowledging that this game is to kill time.”
But as the game went on, I started to feel rewarded. I was going to spend four hours in the Exalted Plains anyway! It was nice to come home to something after grinding! It felt less like busywork and more like another layer of gratification, so I began to warm to it.
Then the weird thing happened. I was romancing [CHARACTER], and our story had progressed far enough that more options were appearing. And a new quest quietly appeared on the War Council: Get her family crest.
And I realized that I had people working for me now. The War Council wasn’t killing time; it was a way of setting the priorities of my new organization, which was pretty damn sweet. And so I could use it to do all sorts of favors for people I liked, having my assistants work on their needs, and that felt like a strange empowerment. As the all-powerful Inquisitor I was, strangely, lacking the power to call people in to talk to me – no, I had to spend five minutes manually running out to the edge of the damn parapets every time I wanted to talk to Cullen – but I could have my agents out doing my bidding while I was slaughtering Templars. So good! And I felt like it was a very potent tool that I wanted more of.
But then I had one story-based mission where I was investigating the weakness in a Big Bad’s armor. And I had to use the War Council to ferret that out. Except I’d assigned all my agents to super-long quests for max rewards, so I had no free agents. So I had to do meaningless filler quests for two hours until someone freed up – for no apparent reason, I couldn’t say “Wait, this is more important, come back.” (Which made even less sense since I could talk to my agents in independent conversations at the castle.) And then I finally got the agent free, and waited for half an hour – again, doing filler quests, though all I wanted to do was face down that Big Bad – and discovered that I had to do two more War Council missions, waiting around for another hour total before I finally got to unlock the Big Bad’s weakness.
….Which did, I admit, help considerably in that battle. But I’d gone from “Oh, I’m doing optional quests for my friends, how lovely!” to “Jesus, why do I have to wait another 12 minutes for Cullen to unlock this thing?” And so, in the end, I was totally weirded on the War Council. It’s a good idea. But it’s also a chokepoint. And that chokepoint got very frustrating at other times.
In the end, I’m harsher on DA than I could be. It was a good game – not Game of the Year Game, maybe, but good enough. But Dragon Age comes from a heritage of games that had strong story, which is why we played them, and what we got here was a good story interlaced with a lot of stuff that’s not story at all. It’s watered down. And putting the Dragon Age name on a game gives us expectations, and what I expect of DA is a narrative that locks me in.
The narrative didn’t. I gave it until the end. It had some nice moments. I’ll always remember you fondly, Act I. But I did what the game wanted me to and min/maxed with a Knight-Enchanter (thanks, Michael R. Underwood, for clueing me into how massively overpowered that class is), and took down the villain without ever even drinking a potion. And I got one nice moment of mystery and miracle at the absolute end – which, in the style of this game, nobody ever bothered to ask me how I felt about it.
I like it when they ask. I do.