Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 17:45 on 21-07-2015, Cheriola
Moving this to the playpen because it's got nothing to do with "The Wizard of Oz":

Could you please clarify how you personally interpret the term "grimdark"? 'Cause I'm having a hard time not to side-eye you right now for mocking a drama about historical institutionalised slavery and large-scale murder, and the tragic death of tens of thousands of people in a war that really happened as "needlessly serious and depressing". I mean, of course they took some narrative liberties with history and we can't know the actual personalities of the people involved, but almost all of the male characters on "Spartacus" stand in for and share the names of people who really existed (the Romans weren't very interested in documenting the fate of women). Does their suffering not deserve a serious and empathetically heartbreaking depiction just because they've been dead 2000 years? This isn't "Game of Thrones" or "Warhammer 40.000" where the darkness of the setting is an arbitrary style choice by the author. Would you call "12 Years a Slave" or "Nothing New on the Western Front" grimdark as well?

That said, what the show undoubtedly is, is hyper-violent. But the violence is depicted just over-the-top and unrealistic enough (i.e. dull Roman swords that work as well as katanas for cutting limbs off; high-pressure spurts of GGI blood that is just a shade too purple to look real; etc.) so that it doesn't faze me - and I can't bear to watch splatter horror movies like "Scream" or "Saw". I don't particularly enjoy the testosterone-overdosed arena fights in the first season, but I can just roll my eyes and wait a few minutes for the show to get back to the interpersonal drama. I do appreciate the strange subversiveness with which the show used said larger-than-life violence and all the sex to draw in the stereotypical straight male aged 18-49 audience (and then served up a drama plot that's surprisingly feminist, gay-inclusive, tenderly romantic, character-development-driven, and almost Shakespearean in terms of challenging lyrical speech patterns and intrigue-based subplots), as well as making the audience kind of complicit in the exploitation of the slaves, which the gladiator slave characters really come to resent only when their brainwashing wears off at the end of the first season. The show doesn't go so far as to openly shame its audience for liking the violence, of course, but it does lure you in for a while to act just like the frothing in-show audience in the arena and cheer the gladiators on in their contest to become 'champion' - to forget what the bloodsport really means for those forced to be involved, and that the title really is meaningless. Which I found an interesting tactic to make the viewer understand how the system persisted in the first place, given that not all Romans can be psychopaths. (And they aren't, on the show. Except for a few minor characters and an upper-class couple who actually are borderline psychopathic, the villains are presented in a way that makes you want to root for them at least in their struggle to with the social class system and with the patriarchy.)

And in the later seasons, the show sometimes uses the violence for good, such as in this amazing scene that subverts the usual plot of harm done to female characters primarily to give the male characters motivation for revenge, instead providing catharsis to female rape survivors:

(A little note: The actor who plays the lover of the woman fighting in this scene, the one who looks like a bit of a jarhead, turned out to be a real revelation. His character starts out as the gladiator equivalent of a jerk jock, so the depth the actor lends him through eye-acting comes as a real surprise. Case in point: that look on his face when the woman's opponent, who had a long-standing personal vendetta with him, taunts him with how he 'ruined her' and that she'll never forget it - that look means a lot more when you remember that the lover had been sexually abused for years as well. Not violently, and not by a man, but still. The show never has the male characters talk about the sexual abuse they suffered (which is almost all the major straight male slave characters, in one way or another), because macho culture, but you can see how it informs their treatment of female rape survivors, and their romantic relationships, which are refreshingly free from any pushy or abusive behaviour or other creepiness that normally keeps me from rooting for romantic couples in shows.)

And while history dictates that the ending be a tragedy since the slave revolt failed and most of the historical characters are only known from the death reports, the show creators did manage to make the final episode one of the most emotionally satisfying series finales I have ever seen, partly because you really come to care about those characters (I rarely cry at movies, but here I spent the last 15 minutes sobbing), partly for meta reasons (
a lovely subversion of the old Bury Your Gays trope as a Take That! to all the haters who'd told the show creator to "Cut out the gay shit."
- yes, this is a show where telling you who survives is considered a major spoiler), and partly because the slave characters do get a sort of moral victory in the end, and because the main character himself dies covered in blood but at peace in the tender embrace of loving friends. Which nicely encapsulated the general feel of the show - all that outside violence and everpresent threat in the setting just means that there's little need for in-group nastiness to make things interesting to watch. Contrast with the Romans, who are constantly stabbing each other in the back, because that's the kind of society you get if you base the whole thing on violent exploitation of a massive underclass and need to raise the privileged to be capable of cruelty in order to maintain the system.
at 14:05 on 16-07-2015, Orion
So, the much-vaunted MRA-directed "documentary" "expose" of Anita Sarkeesian's alleged perfidy is finally out, kind of. The filmmakers had a falling out, but one of them has released a 40-minute mockup containing a few actual interviews, some clips from her videos and from the mainstream media, plus minutes on end of MRAs rambling over a blank screen. The title sequence is a still picture labeled "animated title sequence."

It's hilariously bad and everything, but mostly it makes me sad that I've never seen or participated in an actual critical review of her actual work.
at 12:59 on 12-07-2015, Arthur B
Meerkat works for me...
at 06:20 on 12-07-2015, Orion
What's the opposite of a reading canary? A reading meerkat? I'm thinking of a creature that slumbers through dull early seasons and set-up novels, then jumps to attention when a story gets good.
at 12:22 on 10-07-2015, Arthur B
The Warlord of the Air: Oswald Bastable returns from a humiliating military defeat in the Himalayas. The combination of the dishonour of losing his men and being subjected to the baroque superstitions of the locals drives him entirely insane, and his family lock him up in the attic to conceal their shame from polite society.

His nephew, young Jeremiah Cornelius, is the only member of the family who will talk to Bastable, slipping away from his governess in order to listen to Uncle Oswald's wild tales. Morally corrupted by Bastable's delusional ravings about time travel and airships and native chappies breaking away from the Empire and taking control of their own destiny, Cornelius becomes a decadent anarchist (first drafts also have him falling in with Uranian sorts, but the editors of All the Year Round put their foot down and refused to allow that subplot), and is eventually shot dead in the midst of a failed assassination attempt on a member of the Royal Family.

Due to Cornelius mumbling something about Bastable as he lay dying, a warrant is put out for Bastable's arrest as a co-conspirator. Still quite insane, Bastable doesn't even comprehend that he is headed for the gallows, making remarks about a bombing run on a British Navy base at Hiroshima just before he is hanged. The narrator closes the story with a long meditation about the dangers of imagination, and the moral that we must all live in the same world which we must learn to accept rather than seeking to change.
at 11:52 on 10-07-2015, Shim
Can we take it the other way, and add a Victorian twist to steampunk? You know, get rid of those unsightly steam-powered devices, add some hypocritical moralising and a bit of colonialism?

Girl Genius: the descendant of a long line of astonishingly gifted engineers and scientists, raised in secret by two of her family's servants, Agatha Heterodyne goes to work in a respectable household for a few years before marrying a fishmonger, since it never occurs to anyone that she could become an engineer. Denied the opportunity to build terrifying scientific marvels, and unable to understand her strange yearnings, she writes searing adventure novels under a pen name, earning enough to keep her out of poverty in her widowhood. After her own death, her children discover a treasure-trove of blueprints in the mysterious chest under her bed; ignorant of their importance, they use them as kindling, while the narrator lectures us on the importance of education.
at 14:11 on 09-07-2015, Axiomatic
I'm not sure you can really call it a "twist" when you add steampunk to something originally set in 1865.
at 06:16 on 09-07-2015, Michal
While "Alice in Wonderland with a steampunk twist" is not exactly the most inspiring tagline, I believe this Kickstarter may be of interest to certain ferrets.
at 06:30 on 07-07-2015, Melanie
Though, I have to say, being able to not have my character(s) actually be in any danger is practically always something I embrace, regardless of whether it's because:
 *there's nothing that actually kills/does damage,
 *I can micromanage equipment or strategy such that I either won't get hit or can negate all damage,
 *I patiently spent a lot of time leveling and now I'm big and bad enough that nothing poses a credible threat, or
 *cheat codes.
at 05:52 on 07-07-2015, Melanie
The "unviolent games aren't games" thing they mention is definitely the stupidest instance of that endless argument about what qualifies as a game that I can recall seeing, ever.

I'm not sure they really supported their thesis there, though. I mean:

There is a growing multitude of games that don’t utilize violence as a central mechanic. [...] Telltale Games’ entire catalogue since the release of season one of The Walking Dead has had conversation and social maneuvering as the central game mechanic. Animal Crossing, The Sims, and Minecraft are all worldwide sensations

...doesn't quite mesh with "limiting innovation". It seems like there's a specific subset of games they're really talking about: rpgs.

I wish they'd gone into their argument about it being central to game engines a bit more, maybe with some examples or something. I mean, "animate a believable hug" is at least something that's possible--hugging, specifically, is something Sims can do. So, somebody "figured it out". Is there something about other game engines that makes that especially difficult to animate? (That is a sincere question; I know very little about animation. Though, if there are a variety of body types and/or a variety of shapes of visible wearable equipment, I can see how you'd have to deal with either 1)clipping errors/failure to match up properly (i.e. making a tall person hug a short one might lead to them hugging their head), or 2)the woes of combinatorial expansion as you make separate animations for every separate combination that might come up. Unless you can somehow use collision detection?)

It seems like their actual argument is more specific than the one in the title: that violence limits games that have it as a core mechanic. Which is, itself, an interesting argument.
at 23:21 on 06-07-2015, Arthur B
My only real quibble with the article is that it only makes passing reference to point-and-click adventure games - not only a genre which was in its time a major commercial force, but one which all but universally eschewed violence as a resolution mechanism (and even games which included a few puzzles with violent outcomes included a fair share of less violent ones). Heck, you're looking at a genre where the most famous example of violence is the swordfighting in Monkey Island - which was resolved through witty insults, not actual wounding and killing. This is the genre pioneered by Roberta Williams, who as boss of Sierra was arguably one of the first women to become really prominent figures in the games industry as simultaneously a creative talent and a businesswoman.

The big change over the years has been that point and click adventures used to boast some of the most impressive budgets in gaming, whereas now they are far, far away from the AAA-tier. It would be interesting to track over time how much more homogenised the top-budget tier of videogames has become over the years - and how much more homogenised the audience for and producers of such games have become with it.
at 22:02 on 06-07-2015, Jamie Johnston
What do we think about 'Fight Club: how masculine fragility is limiting innovation in games'? The thesis seems plausible but I'd sort of hoped it would be developed in more detail; also I have the difficulty of not having played enough games (especially not enough fighty games) to test the proposition against experience. Anyway thought it might be of interest. (Via portmanteaurian.)
at 16:59 on 02-07-2015, Shim
From prior experience, the fact that I disliked A Silent Voice means some other ferrets will probably be all over it, so I thought I should bring it up.

Wikipedia description: "The story revolves around Shōko Nishimiya, an elementary school student who has impaired hearing. She transfers into a new school, where she is bullied by her classmates. Shouya Ishida, one of the bullies, goes to the point that she transfers to another school. As a result, he is ostracized and bullied himself, with no friends to speak of and no plans for the future. Years later, he sets himself on a path to redemption."

That is... accurate in a very specific sense. Which is to say, the protagonist is Ishida, not Nishimiya. The story revolves around Nishimiya, in the sense that she is a plot device. The book is almost entirely about one or other of them being bullied. There is only one likeable character*, Ishida's mother; everyone else is a loathesome git of one or other variety.

It reminded me forcefully of the kind of stuff I was compelled to read for GCSE English. It may well be the Japanese equivalent.

The art's good!

*Nishimiya might be likeable, if she were a character.
at 03:25 on 02-07-2015, Melanie

...I wonder why that specific area was painted in the first place, when the rest wasn't.
at 21:45 on 01-07-2015, Arthur B permalink
at 09:51 on 28-06-2015, Ashimbabbar
re Korrasami: I understand Mako was meant as Korra's love interest, designed in order to cash in on the massive Zutara shipping.
The problem being he has all the personality of a tapeworm, and as for a B-like-Bolin plan… Bolin. Nuff said. So, it being a law that the heroine has to end up shacked with SOMEone, who else was left ?

( all right, I never watched LoK or AtlA either. I read the plots and followed enough fan comments and flaming to get a pretty good grip on what was happening, though )
at 18:00 on 24-06-2015, Robinson L
Alasdair: Also, guess who just got a review published in Strange Horizons? This guy.

Janne: Congrats for the Strange Horizons thing!

Ditto, great job; a very informative and entertaining review. Most of the way through it, I realized you (or somebody, anyway) were talking up this series in the Playpen a year or two ago; I'm glad to learn a bit more about it.
at 00:34 on 24-06-2015, Arthur B
This talk of supporting characters from early on in a show not having anything of substance to do in subsequent seasons reminds me of why I gave up on Dragonball Z.
at 20:15 on 23-06-2015, Janne Kirjasniemi
Congrats for the Strange Horizons thing! I also liked your analysis of Korra. While the problems with the series can be explained by the issues with the expansion into several seasons and all that, but it just seemed like they missed so many opportunities story-wise.

Like the equalists. It seemed like the problems between the benders and benderless were real enough, with the organized criminals being benders and the police force seemingly being comprised more of benders than not. So abandoning all that and focusing on Amon being just a bloodbending maniac was disappointing.

I still liked the show, it was just disappointing that they never had time to develop things fully. Zaheer was an interesting villain and his use in helping Korra in the end was a good development. That he was defeated in the end by not death, but being forced to recognise that he was wrong and his actions actually made the world demonstarbly worse from his point of view. And I too liked Tenzin and his stoic dignity in a world that was fundamentally too ridiculous for him.

Korra's spiritual development was supposed to be the red string that defined her arc through the seasons, but in the end it did not really work. Korra's discoveries rarely happened through her realising something important, but were too often just her discovering a new power. But this is perhaps a problem that was evident in Atla as well. Aang's chakra being closed and his fear that becoming the avatar meant losing those he loved was not really resolved, by him realising that it does not have to mean that, but his chakra was just opened by that rock hitting his back just right.

Soperhaps this is something the writers struggled with. Perhaps they did not want to make any strong statements that could be understood to be too religious for an adventure show? Curiously Zaheer's enlightenment of sorts was more believable in his villainous arc than anything that Korra worked through. I mean she did grow, but it all happened so abrubtly and was not written well.
at 01:02 on 23-06-2015, Alasdair Czyrnyj
Oh, please, go ahead and comment! I need all the traffic I can get!

With Korra the ballooning cast is definitely a side-effect of the show expanding from a miniseries to a full series. With ATLA, there was always a clear idea of where they wanted the show to go, so they were able to pick a model for their cast and stick to it. There really wasn't such a clear idea with Korra, so we got the season 1 supporting cast tagging along as more and more characters were heaped on, and there was never any satisfactory way of prioritizing the supporting cast.

That said, there was some pretty good stuff with some of the supporting characters. I might be getting old, but I just loved the storylines with Tenzin in seasons 2 and 3, with him dealing with his family, living up to his father's legacy, and trying to be the sole living authority on a culture that went extinct decades ago. Lin is someone who got lost in the shuffle, but once they get her with Suyin and Toph there's a lot of good ol' dysfunctional family drama to be had.

Also, guess who just got a review published in Strange Horizons? This guy.
at 19:25 on 20-06-2015, Orion
I mostly agree with you Alasdair. I may write you a longer comment to drive traffic on your blog. It hadn't occurred to me to think of the problem with the supporting characters in terms of the premise/format of the show. I would tempted to lay most of the blame on the size of the cast. The Gaang had 3 members in season 1, 4 in season 2, and 5 in season 3. The Korrps had 5 in season 1, 6 in season 2, ~8 in season 3, and no central cast in season 4. When you consider that the entire show was the length of 2 seasons of Aang, it was pretty much impossible to do anything terribly satisfying with the support staff.
at 04:59 on 19-06-2015, Melanie
Ooooo, that's informative. I've seen ATLA, but not Korra (it wasn't over yet when I finished ATLA, and that was plotty enough that I figured I'd want to watch the sequel more or less all at once, too. Then of course I forgot about it). Sounds like I'd have been a little disappointed, tbh.
at 04:25 on 18-06-2015, Alasdair Czyrnyj
Hi everyone. I have an announcement to make. A few months ago, I decided to start blogging to try and make myself more comfortable with writing, and it's been long enough that I'm ready to start showing to people.

So if any of you have missed by particular brand of logorrhea, you can enjoy some of it at I wrote a giant post about The Legend of Korra over the weekend, and I'd love for someone to come and tell me how wrong I am about everything.

P.S. If you haven't watched the Dishonored 2 reveal trailer yet, stop whatever it is you're doing and go watch the Dishonored 2 reveal trailer.

P.P.S. All hail the Great Uniter.
at 05:00 on 15-06-2015, Michal
Speaking of interactive fiction...