This Season’s Christmas Nails

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.

Christmas nails!

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:

Christmas nails!

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.

Christmas nails!

Yay for Christmas nails!

Dragon Age: Inquisition – The Final Review

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.

Dullness ensues.

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.

The 2014 Annual Greed List!

The time has come for my Annual Greed List – the large (and, yes, uncut) list of things I desire for Christmas in 2014. Why do I do this? If you’re really interested, here’s a brief history of the Greed List.

The briefer version, however, is that I think “What you want” is a reflection of “Who you are” at this moment – your music, your hobbies, your fandoms, who you are as a person.  I find it fascinating as a history, watching how what I’ve desired has mutated (the shifts away from physical objects is so bizarre – I don’t want DVDs any more, as I get most of that through Netflix streaming, and CDs have disappeared into the Spotify void), and remembering what I thought I wanted so badly but turned out to be too much effort to turn into a hobby (*cough cough* fire poi), and the things I did want that became habit (*cut cut* straight razor), and the stuff that sort of straddled the void (*cut cut* woodworking).

And while I guess I could just toss all this on an Amazon Wishlist and send you over, that doesn’t tell you why I want things, which is at least as interesting as my desires.

So here it is.  Here’s who I am this year, expressed in what I want, in descending order of most-lust to least-lust.

Flex: A Novel, by Ferrett SteinmetzBuy My Bok: Flex, by Ferrett Steinmetz ($7.99)
So I’m pretty goddamned sure you’ve heard that I sold a book this year.  And if for some bizarre reason you’re all like, “I’d like to buy Ferrett a gift!” and you have yet to advance-purchase a copy of my book, well, that’ll help me more than anything else.

Books are, sadly, heavily driven by advance sales.  Most of the sales a book will ever get come in the first six weeks of release, I’m told – which is a goddamned terrifying thought.  But based on my old job buyin’ books for Waldenbooks, that’s probably true.  So if you feel like doin’ a brother a favor, and you haven’t sunk your cash into this quagmire of a book, well, you can help me earn out the lovely advance the folks at Angry Robot paid me.  (And if you have, hey, thanks!)

(As a side note, later in the year I will be posting an essay on What To Do If You Like Ferrett And Thought His Book Was Bleah, along with a side helping of What To Do If You Like Ferrett And Have Not Read His Book.  The short answer: It’s cool.  I have authors I love personally, and whose books leave me cold.  I will never get mad if you have not read me.  Or if you have and were filled with ennui.  That ain’t how I work.)

Dewalt Table Saw ($577.99)
So my woodworking career has been going pretty suboptimally.  Gini bought me a ton of woodworking equipment back in, I think, 2010, which sat in my garage in boxes for three years.  Then Erin and I went out and unboxed and set up everything, which was awesome, and we set to working making cabinets.

…and we failed abysmally.

The problem is that Gini bought me a very tiny table saw.  It’s got a 10″ rip fence.  Which is miniscule.  That basically means if there’s any piece of wood I need to saw that’s over 10″, I… can’t cut it.

Okay, I can.  Kind of.  But doing so means about seven to nine measurements and calculations to set up all sorts of manual rip fences, then hope like hell none of our clamps shift, and then hope my arms don’t shake as I use the circular saw.  And I thought it was just that I was bad with envisoning measurements – which I very much am – until I spent two weekends building an inset bookcase with my friend Eric, who is a goddamned savant when it comes to visualizing spaces.  And Eric would spend about forty minutes setting up a perfect cut, making all sorts of pencil marks along the sides and muttering under his breath as he did all the math, and then the clamp slipped and I watched Eric give the Glare of Death at the now-angled board.

But this truly expensive table saw has a gigantic rip capacity!  Thirty-two inches!  And if I need something bigger than thirty-two inches, hell, I don’t need to cut it!

Gini looked at me when I suggested this.  She said, “You realize that’d be the only gift you’re getting this Christmas.  Everyone would have to donate.”  And if so, that’s cool!  I’m full up on books to read.  The things I’m going to play, I’ve pretty much got.  So if this was my only gift, well, okay.  Because it means I could make all sorts of bookcases come Spring.

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali: The Deluxe Version, by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams ($13.99)
If you were to ask me about the comic that had the most influence upon me, well, I might say it was Alan Moore’s critically-acclaimed run on Swamp Thing.  Or maybe some of the early runs (heh) of the Barry Allen Flash.  Or perhaps the complete revamp of Batman that Frank Miller engendered with The Dark Knight Returns.

But really? It’s fucking Superman versus Muhammad Ali.  That’s it.  Some of my best scenes in fiction come from trying to emulate this.

I will not have you judging me.

The thing is, this comic hits all my high points: two men, stripped of all hope, making a valiant stand against insurmountable forces?  (There is one point where Muhammad Ali calls out the nine-foot-tall alien genetically-engineered warlord he’s about to fight, knowing if he fails that Earth will be destroyed – and he fucking is unstoppable.)  Vast scope?  Shit, look at that cover, where every celebrity of the 1970s shows up.  A situation I’ve never seen before?  Oh God, say what you will about how silly the concept is, but O’Neil and Adams fucking sell it, devising a solid reason where, yes, Superman has to fight Ali under a red sun – and guess what?  You take out the super-strength, and Superman is not equipped to deal with the heavyweight champion of the world.

And okay, I have my battered original version, bought at the Corner Store in Norwalk in the days before there were comic stores, but this crisp version has behind-the-scenes versions of it.  And I gotta tell you:

Muhammad Ali will destroy Hun’ya.

What Makes This Book So Great, by Jo Walton ($22.99)
Jo Walton is one of my favorite writers – seriously, try Tooth and Claw, which is a flawless melding of Jane Austen and cannibalistic dragons – and she made me feel tremendously underread with her book Among Others, which was about an obsessive reader of books in the 1970s.  I did not read nearly as much science fiction as I should have back then, and as a result I feel like I know practically no good books.

Fortunately, she wrote several essays discussing her favorite book and dissecting them with all of her wisdom!  And yes!  They’re available for free online!  I don’t care!  I want to hand Jo Walton some money directly!  So Buy Her Bok and send her words straight to me!

inFamous: Second Son (Playstation 4, $35)
As part of my reward for selling my first novel, I got a Playstation 4. But the two games I got for it?  Disappointing.  Shadows of Mordor and The Last Of Us were both sneak-fests… and I don’t want to creep around a map, trying to optimize my approach so I can strike from the shadows with one of my three remaining bullets – I’m here to destroy things!  And inFamous: Second Son is pretty much superhero power-plays – you fly around a sandboxed town and destroy things with your overpowered laser-beams.

I like destroying things.  Let’s hope it’s better than frickin’ Mordor.

Miscellaneous Old James Bond Movies On Blu-Ray ($5)
Talk with Gini about this one, but….

I don’t know old James Bond at all. I watched ‘em as a kid, but I had no idea what was going on, and I didn’t remember them.  So Connery? Moore? They’re foreign lands to me.

Yet when Best Buy had a sale where you could pick up all sorts of old Bond movies for cheap, we picked up a lot of them – and it has been a hoot watching them with Amy and Gini and them explaining to me why this is Very James Bond, and me spluttering that this is a moronic plot, things don’t work that way, and it’s still kinda fun watching all the sexual harassment lawsuits pile up. Having more of these around would be a lot of fun.

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie ($13)
My small claim to fame is that I remember when Ann Leckie told me she sold her trilogy.  We were at a con, and she’d published a story of mine, and I met her at the con and discovered she was a great human being.  We hung.  We laughed.  We cried.  We exchanged gift baskets.

And so when her book came out, I read it.

And it was fucking awesome.

Seriously, Ancillary Justice was one of my favorite books of last year, a space opera told from the perspective of a warship who doesn’t understand gender all that well. It was both groundbreakingly new and familiar – a dangerous combination.  And then I didn’t buy the sequel – or, rather, I did, but I was boycotting Amazon at the time because of the dickishness they were doing with Hachette, and Books-A-Million across the street didn’t have it, and now I still don’t have it.

So I want it.  Because I am truly excited about this, but now it’s a Christmas gift.

Eraserhead: The Criterion Collection ($27)
I have such a love/hate relationship with Eraserhead.  The first time I watched it, I hated it.  The second time I watched it at a film festival, I hated it.  The third time I watched it at my house during a film marathon, I despised it.

Yet there’s something weirdly sticky about it.  I think about this film.  Occasionally I want to take it out.  It’s a nightmare of a film – a literal nightmare, with only a vague plot that keeps shifting underfoot, and lurking fears in black-and-white, and God, that baby, that hideous baby who the titular Eraserhead has to take care of.  Nobody is really sure what it’s about – you float Jungian theories, but it doesn’t make any sense on a scene-to-scene level.

And Criterion is the best guardian of film love in America – their DVD extras are always over-the-top in terms of providing usefulness.  So I want to shoo Gini out of the house and watch this again, with all of the extras, and see what happens.

Wolfenstein: The New Order (Playstation 4, $39.99)
This is a videogame that is what I consider to be a dispensable videogame.  It got decent reviews when it came out.  It is a first-person shooter.  I will enjoy shooting my way through it, racking up achievements, burning up a week or so in murderous meditation, and then I will probably forget it until the sequel comes out.

But it involves shooting Nazis.  In the face.

You can’t beat shooting Nazis in the face.

The Chaplain’s War, Brad Torgersen ($13)
Brad is an author who I often find myself on the opposite political ends of the spectrum, but he is a talented writer.  And I’m curious to see how this book actually functions: from what I’m told, it’s a heavy Ender’s Game riff on a spacefaring war-chaplain dealing with some PTSD, and I suspect his religious background will tinge this in all the right ways for me.  I definitely wouldn’t mind having this in my pocket.

You Don’t Know Me, And That’s Okay

“Wanna pick me up at my house?” I ask my first-time date, who I met on The Internets.

“Can we meet at a restaurant instead?” she types back.  “I don’t know you.”

Thing is, I know that no assault is likely to happen at my house.  Even were I the kind of guy who was likely to sexually assault a random stranger on the first date, which I am distinctly not, I am polyamorous – and my wife lives with me.  She will most likely be in the living room, working when you arrive.  She is strong on consent, and would be severely – nay, violently – Not Okay if anything happened here.

Plus, my daughter’s currently living with us while she hunts for a new job, which means that any sort of sexy fun-times at La Casa McJuddMetz are Distinctly Out right now.  (She’s old enough where she has been dating on her own for years – but she’s been courteous not to bring her dates back to go face-suckin’ in her room while Gini and I sit awkwardly on the living room couch, and I feel I should equitably return that favor.)

So there are no dangers in picking me up at my house.  None.  Zero.  Worst that’ll happen is that Shasta will bark at you.  (Okay, that’s a guarantee.  Our dog is a frickin’ barkstorm.)


You don’t know that.

So that’s totally cool that you’re wary of me until you know me better.

That’s not a personal insult; how could it be?  You don’t fucking know me.  And while yeah, #notallmen are rapists and abusers, #notalleBaysellers rip me off.  But I’ve been burned enough times to check the user’s feedback rating before committing my money to that auction.  You’re committing your bodily safety to showing up alone at my house.  And given that there’s no particular feedback on me for you to scour, it’s your right to be a little cautious until you’re convinced that I am what my OKCupid profile says I am.

And what the fuck does that say about me if I get pissy when you don’t want to walk alone into a stranger’s house?  Yes, La Casa McJuddMetz is a nice comfortable suburban 1400 square-foot place – but for all you know it’s the brick-pit from Silence of the Lambs.

If I get mad, what that says about me is that I have so little fucking empathy for anyone else’s situation that you should not fucking date me under any circumstances.  Because if I can’t understand how dangerous this might be for you, getting bent out of joint because hey, I’m better than that, then I’m gonna be crappy about a hundred other things that any boyfriend should just parse immediately.

(That’s also being kind.  I could be the kind of manipulative sociopath who’s trying to lure you to his house with guilt and social pressure.  Guess what?  You don’t know that’s true, either.)

Look, if you date me for six months and still don’t trust me, we have an issue.  But we’ve never met face-to-face.  You have only seen my words, and some pictures I assure you are me.  And many of the women I’ve dated have come over to my house on the first date, because they made some judgment call that I was trustworthy – but some haven’t.

Good for them.

Good that they protected their safety in the way that they saw fit.

(Inspired by this knocks-it-out-of-the-park Robot Hugs cartoon.)

Dragon Age Inquisition Review: Mountain In Your Face

One of my less-defensible pleasures is a show called Dude, You’re Screwed, a show so insignificant it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.  But the pitch is this: a group of hardcore survivalists drop each other in various hostile environments – deserts, ice fields, mountains – with no survival tools.  They have 100 hours to survive, and find other people.

The trick is, the hardcore survivalists know how other hardcore survivalists think, and they’re out to screw their friends.  So they pick the trickiest locations.

The classic screw is this: “I dropped him off high on a mountain so he can see the river.  Most experienced survivalists will head towards the water, knowing rivers lead to civilization.  Except this river goes thirty miles in the wrong direction!  Then it drops into an underground cave at the base of an impassable mountain!  He’ll waste days!”

This is what it’s like playing Dragon Age Inquisition.

Many people have noted that Dragon Age has stolen some techniques from Skyrim.  Unfortunately, they’ve stolen Skyrim’s utterly-useless map system, which consists of a constant stream of “Great, the quest target point is over here, and… oh, wait, no.  There’s a chasm blocking the way.  So how do you get there from here?  I guess I’ll have to wander around in random directions until I find the pass that leads there.”

All the mini-map gives us is a blinking dot and a compass point.  Which would be useful if “Traveling in a straight line” was a viable strategy at any point.  But it isn’t.  They’ve gone very far out of their way to make it an unviable strategy.  The map folds in and over on itself, creating eddies and alcoves.

I understand why they do that: they only have so much space they can pack into a given rectangle.  They want to make it rewarding for people who explore.  And I support that!

But can you give us poor lost bastards, who don’t enjoy exploring, some tools to find the next fucking quest point?

I’ve played Dragon Age for about 50 hours at this point, and I would say roughly 5 of those hours have consisted of “Fuck, I know the wolf camp is around here somewhere, but… oh, god, another mountain in the way.  Let’s backtrack and try again.”  Which means for me, roughly 10% of my time spent on this game has been tedium verging on frustration.  It’s like the fucking designers don’t want me to find all the cool things I’m supposed to do, and instead desire me to go on combat-free, quest-free journeys through the same goddamned valleys I’ve cleared out before.

Now, I’m a special case, as I have no head for directions.  I have lived in the same house for fifteen years, and I literally cannot tell you the names of our cross-streets.  I get lost going everywhere.  So the game is particularly punishing for me, because I’m not going to pick up on their visual cues.

But I’ve talked with others, and they too would like to spend less time fighting mountains and more time fighting monsters.

The reason we want to spend less time wandering is because it kills the story.  All your quests are variations on “Go here and kill a monster / get a foozle / kill a monster and get its foozle.”  The only thing that stops this from being repetitive is the tale behind it!  It’s not a foozle – there’s a grieving widower who wants to leave flowers on his wife’s grave!  And Bioware, you’re great at constructing moving mini-stories that capture my attention.

But those stories evaporate after twenty minutes of wandering around, yelling, “Goddammit, I have to get to the yellow dot, how the fuck do I get to the yellow dot?”  The widower gets forgotten.  The reasons I’m supposed to do this get forgotten.

You have reduced all this emotional impact to a yellow dot and pressing X when I get to the dot, and that does your narrative a disservice.

Look, there has to be a balance.  It wouldn’t be that hard to have an option that puts more details into the mini-map, so we can see that this straight-line travel actually needs to veer west.  Hell, make it a character option that I have to pay XP for!  You already do that with an Inquisition Perk that reveals more locations on the map.  I would give up so much fighting power to have a glowing yellow arrow that points me towards the major battles.  (And hell, I’d even understand if you said you could provide no arrows to optional gotta-catch-’em-all quests like the shards and the Red Lyrium.)

As it is, what I hope I’ll remember about Dragon Age is the sweeping storyline you’ve constructed.  What I fear I’ll remember is wandering around another fucking hillock in the Hinterlands, having long forgotten what I was supposed to do at the glowing dot, endlessly backtracking because it’s here somewhere, I just don’t know how to find it.

Help me find your cool shit.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

On Eternal Vigilance

Long-time commenter Bunny42 had this to say:

It feels like a crappy way to live, to anticipate negativity everywhere. That seems to encourage a victim mentality. I’ve always believed there’s a kind of aura around people who live in fear, and baddies can home in on that state of mind. A strong, confident woman is much less likely to be accosted than a retiring little mousy woman.

To which I replied:

Seems like a crappy way not to live.

I have many good friends. The reason I have many good friends is that I constantly have a filter up of, “Are these people taking advantage of me? Are they involving me in unwise decisions? Are they hurting people unnecessarily?”

You’re all like, “But you must be a mousy woman!” No. I’m actually the strong, confident person who’s much less likely to be accosted by drama-freaks – and I am that way because I continually check. I’d be mousy if I did as you suggested and didn’t actually interrogate reality on a regular basis, and then got abused at what seemed like random intervals because I didn’t bother to look. I’d feel uncertain because life would feel out of control, thinking why are some of my friends so crazy? and feeling like drama was like thunder, just appearing sporadically with no warning at all. I’d be afraid, because bad shit would happen and I’d have no incoming radar at all to see it coming.

I don’t live in fear. I live in honesty. And yes, I’m watchful, but I think it’s the sheerest foolhardiness to abandon safety just so you can relax.

There is a distinct difference.

I am constantly on-guard for some things.  But that doesn’t make me a negative person, because one can be on-guard for relevant questions such as, say, “Am I about to be fired from work?” without letting that become a fearful future.  I can acknowledge that yeah, being fired is a possibility, and as such keep checking in with my bosses to make sure I’m doing my job to their liking.

That’s not living in fear of an uncertain future: that’s gathering feedback, and reacting appropriately.  Because there have been a couple of times I’ve displeased by bosses mightily by not doing the work they expected of me.  Staying aware let me get back in the groove.

I think that one of the keys to good relationships is to always keep in mind that your friends can fuck you over, whether they mean to or not, and patrolling that boundary to ensure that things don’t get out of hand.  That’s not a negative thing.  I don’t expect them to do it, because they’re my friends.  But if something makes me go “Hrm,” then I follow up on that.

It doesn’t make me continually afraid.  It makes me one of those confident people.  I’m confident if something starts to slide south, I’m ready for it.  Which makes me enjoy the good times – which are the bulk of my time with my friends – all the more.

“So Why Didn’t You Do Anything?”

The other day, I wrote about an incident with my goddaughter, wherein we were at a restaurant when a strange dude asked “Aren’t you the cutest girl?”, patted her belly, and moved on.  And a fair number of people asked:

“Why didn’t you yell at the dude for touching the kid?”

Good question.

The strict answer is, “I totally should have” – and before anyone attempts to frame this essay otherwise, let me be crystal clear: going, “Hey, dude, don’t touch her without asking first!” would have been the right thing to do.  It’s a failure on my part that I didn’t.  I screwed up by not setting a good example of how to police appropriate boundaries.

Yet the question I’m going to field here is, “Why did I screw up?”  And the answer is simple:

Because I was shocked, and the incident was quick.

Had I been braced for incoming belly-patters, I would have absolutely done the right thing here.  But like a lot of incidents of harassment, this arrived when I was waiting in line to get breakfast, prepping for a nice day with a kid I loved, having a nice conversation.  If you’d asked me, “So is a random person going to invade your private space?” I probably would have been so surprised by the question that I would have asked you to repeat yourself.

So when this happened, I acted suboptimally.  By the time my brain had processed Wait a minute, this is pretty crazy, this shouldn’t be happening, dude was already out the door.

And so it was that I fucked up.

Problem is, “Fucking up when presented with surprising new situations” is actually a chronic human behavior.  It’s why purse snatchers are so effective – by the time someone registers Wait, did somebody just yank my purse off my shoulder?, the snatcher is long gone.  It’s why you don’t have a good retort when a stranger says something nasty to you in public.  It’s why, despite machismo gun-owners telling everyone how they’d drop a gunman if they saw one, in fact most people (gun-owners included) don’t react heroically to a public shooting; they’re still shocked by all of this new and horrifying input.

We’re all awesome quarterbacks come Monday morning.  But when you experience something weird for the first time, your brain is often locked up trying to figure out what’s happening – and by the time the brain gets around to determining how you should react, the moment has passed.

Now, there are people who are really good at handling purse snatchers, and really excellent at snarking back to mean strangers.  Sadly, most of them are good at it because of  experience.  They’re not gifted with natural instincts; they have, instead, been abused enough times that a) this is not new to them, and b) they have developed coping mechanisms.  This is why we train soldiers – you can get a guy to be a very good shot at a gun range, but that’s very different from maintaining accuracy when the target is shooting back.  We put people through combat training because we need them to have that adrenaline rush not be a surprise.

And again, I’ll repeat: I should have called the dude out.  I had good excuses, but my goal in life is not to provide good excuses – it’s to emulate the kind of change I wanna see in the world.  In that, I failed.

Yet there are people – mostly women – who would have called this dude out instantly.  This is likely because they have lots of experience in handling creeper dudes, and are continually braced for moments like this, never relaxing no matter how joyous the day.  In other words, they’ve developed a healthy defense mechanism because they’re continually being assaulted.  Which is, you know, not awesome.

The danger is wandering into the trap of “should have done.”

In a lot of cases, “Should have done” provides a healthy way of modelling future behavior.  People saying, “You should have called the dude out!” helps me to create a mental model for the next time this happens, so if I encounter Creeper 2: Electric Boogaloo, I’ll have societal expectations backing me to go “Yeah, this what you should do in response to an abnormal situation, get ready to mix it up.”  Which means that next time, I’ll (hopefully) be prepared with a more helpful reaction.

Yet the danger is in conflating a substandard response with substandard intent.

I’m hip-deep in science-fiction conventions, where harassment charges are sadly routine.  And one of the most common reactions when someone says “This person harassed me at a party” is “Well, they didn’t say anything at the time – so they weren’t really offended!  They’re just making a fuss in retrospect!”

The problem is that when you are presented with a shocking situation, you often don’t do what you “should”.  You react in weird ways – and the more shocking the situation, the more time it may take you to figure out emotionally how to process this.

(This is why I tell people “There’s no right way to grieve for a death” – you’ve just run into a situation that few people encounter often enough to get used to, and you may react in super-odd ways.  All those people telling you how you should be sad is not helpful when you’re numb, or angry, or needing to get out and party.)

If someone ruins a party for you with some unexpected sexual pressure that comes out of nowhere, you might deal with that in ways that you’re unhappy with in retrospect – ways that seem bizarre to others, who “know” how they’d react if they were in that situation.

Except they don’t know how they’d react.  They know how they think they’d react when presented with a situation they read about in an essay, but that’s often very different from how they do react if and when it happens.  How they’d react when presented with Surprise Harassment is often very different from how they’d react if they had time to contemplate it in advance.  (Which is why harassers often use a lot of pressure to get what they want – they know that sometimes, the Surprise Harassment response that springs from politeness and not wanting to offend is much more positive than the studied negative reaction they’d get later.)

Now, in my case, I’ll state for the third time that there was a clear best-case scenario here, and I failed to achieve it.  I don’t excuse that failure.  Best I can do is take that lesson and be braced for future impact.  That’s the way I process failure, and I don’t claim that’s the best way for everyone, just me.

But all too often I see people conflating reaction with intent: “Well, they didn’t reject it violently at the time, so they clearly were okay with X happening!”  And no.  My point here is that people often react weirdly to weird situations.  How they react in that moment doesn’t necessarily reflect who they are or what they really believe, but rather reflects a brain that’s rapidly trying to piece together a big batch of WTF.

And by the time they are really good at handling the exceptional cases, they often forget that they live in a world that’s different from what other people experience.  I’m lucky enough not to live in a world where people routinely invade the personal space of people I love.  Others don’t get that.  That’s a thing we call “privilege.”

One downside of privilege is being potentially blind to the hazards that others routinely encounter.  Another is that we’re shocked when we step outside the bubble.

I stepped outside.  I got surprised.  And I’m not overly shamed by my reaction, because I wasn’t prepped for it – to be shamed by that is to agree that I did something shameful, when in reality it’s belly-rubbin’ dude who did the shameful thing.  I feel pretty thoroughly that the shame falls upon the shoulders of the jerks.

But the responsibility for fixing it?  That’s something I feel personally.  I can recognize I did something suboptimal that allowed that shameful behavior to continue, and vow to try to do better next time.  I don’t blame myself – but I do recognize an opportunity to model better behavior in the future, so that shameful jerks like that don’t walk away from other stunned people, thinking what they did was fine.

That’s not necessarily what everyone wants to do.  Nor would I expect it of them.

But I expect it of me.