Sunday, July 27, 2008

It takes two - X-Files Season One

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Sometimes your memory of a film or TV show can be colored by so many things that when you go back and see it again you just shake your head and say "What was I thinking?" It makes the possibility of seeing old favorites in a new light a very scary thing. This time I got lucky and found that my memories of the show were pretty much right on. Yes the X-files still holds up.

I ended up re-watching the first season. We picked it up on DVD a few years ago (back when it was still in the huge boxes) but never really got around to watching all the episodes, mostly revisited our favorites. This time around I wanted to get a feel for the series in the order it was shown on TV and see how things developed. Sure time has affected some aspects of the series. The lack of cellphones and the size of the few you do see actually makes you wonder how this show would have played out if Mulder and Scully had tiny little phones to use at a moments notice with a handy camera to get pics of all those lovely spaceships, EBEs and monsters.

However everything else remained enjoyable and effectively moody. I realized how much shows like CSI borrowed their look from this series. The X-file was one of the first cinematic television series, bringing the look of the theatrical thriller to a small screen on a TV sized budget. The music is very atmospheric and atonal. It may not work well separated from the images on the screen, but while you are watching it really adds to the experience. The plots are usually very well written, balancing the supernatural, scientific, horrifying and paranoid very well. Even in this first season where things are just starting out, the threads that would drive the show later are laid out with enough depth to keep you interested but also keep you guessing.

However the linchpin for the show was the dynamic between Mulder and Scully. This was something that grew out of the writing, the acting and the chemistry between the leads. Without this chemistry the X-files wouldn't have survived more than a couple of seasons if it was lucky. The first season gives us these two characters, defines them and then starts screwing with them. Because the characters are defined well and the actors understood the characters, the writers are able to present situations that really explore the two agents and cause them to question and keep questioning. Tie this into the overall conspiracy plot and suddenly you have magic.

If I learned anything from rewatching this first season it was how important a good character dynamic is for a successful story. If you have partners they need to have some kind of difference to create conflict (Scully won't believe without proof, Mulder wants to believe it all). They need to have something that unites them (They both want to find the truth). They need to have strengths and weaknesses that compliment each other (Scully's analytical mind both blinds and aids the team). As a writer this is a great way to make a good team.
Do you think Scully and Mulder were a good team? From a writer's perspective would you have changed anything about their character dynamics? What other partner characters (in TV, film, books) do you think serve as good models of great character writing?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Two Sides of Truth- Shinju

I've always been interested in Japanese culture, history, films and animation. So when I went to my local mystery bookstore a very Japanese cover caught my eye. The novel was called "The Snow Empress". I read the back and it sounded interesting, but was obviously part of a series. I decided to check out the first book "Shinju" and see what it like.

I don't read mystery or thriller novels all that frequently, so I'm not the best critic when it comes to fresh new plot twists or refreshing characters for the genre. What I can say is that I enjoyed the book. It was a quick read, briskly paced, and fairly twisty. The main character and I were pretty much on the same page the whole book (I got slightly ahead of him near the end, but he caught up in a few pages).

The story concerns a samurai named Sano Ichiro, in the city of Edo in the year 1689. He recently obtains the position that is roughly the same as a head Lieutenant in the police force. It's a desk job, and Ichiro is more interested in actually stopping crime and upholding justice. He finds himself investigating a double suicide of two lovers, called a shinju. Very quickly Ichiro discovers that this is not a simple case. The two victims were probably murdered and the shinju was definitely staged. As he purses the case, Ichiro finds that many people would be very happy if he stopped investigating. Eventually not only is Ichiro's life on the line, but his honor and more importantly his family's honor is at stake.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Japanese culture knows that honor is one of the top priorities for a samurai. Family honor is even greater. A samurai will do anything to avoid sullying their families name. But what happens when the pursuit of truth forces a samurai to pick between his honor and solving the crime?

Author, Laura Joh Rowland, gave Ichiro an interesting character. He is obsessed with finding the truth and making sure that justice is met. This obsession not only fuels his investigation, but it ends up causing him to do things that would be completely against the code of the samurai. As the book moves forward Ichiro is constantly put into situations where the only way to retain his honor would be to drop the whole case. His obsession fights against it. The need for justice forces his hand with terrible results. This dichotomy creates an internal struggle that nearly destroys Ichiro.

The book houses an intriguing mystery as well as paints a world of Edo during the Takagawa Shogunate. Definitely recommended for anyone who is interested in that period of Japanese history and looking for a good mystery as well.

Can you think of another example of a character who's main good point works against them as well as for them? If you've read "Shinju" what did you think of it?

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Writer’s New Home? - God of War

Being a fan of mythology can have strange side effects. I find myself drawn to myths in many of their diverse forms, merely to see what the retelling would be like. This can lead to some strange and unexpected discoveries. For example I found myself picking up a copy of the Playstation 2 game, "God of War". This game is set in a mythological Greek world, where the gods rule, monsters roam and heroes thrive. The main character is a Spartan warrior named Kratos. He is feared by men and cursed by the gods. However, he becomes the only one powerful enough to face Aries, the god of war. Looks like Aries decided that Olympus wasn't good enough and that he wanted to take the whole world. With the other gods guiding Kratos, you control the ghost of Sparta through his quest to find a way to defeat Aries and replace him as the new God of War.

The story was solid, the game play was fun, fast and furious, and the graphics captured a dark, bloody and nightmare version of Greek mythology that was refreshing (even if it was a bit messy. Got gore all over the screen). I especially liked the amoral nature of Kratos. Talk about an anti-hero!

The game did well enough to generate a sequel, and I ended up with that game too. In this story, Kratos finds himself unhappy as the new God of War. Things go really bad when the Olympians deem Kratos too dangerous and sap him of his powers and attempt to kill him. Well, Kratos isn't going to stand for it, so he aligns himself with the Titans (the original gods before the Olympians deposed them). Kratos mission is to take the reigns of fate and change history - this time, the Olympians will fail and the Titans will rule, with Kratos at their side.

It struck me as I having Kratos do battle with classic Greek heroes (Theseus, Jason and Perseus - played by Harry Hamlin no less!) that this revamp of mythology was ingenious and entertaining. It was something that I had been toying with for a while. My approach was not as graphic or bloody as this, but it was more modern than the classic approaches and still delivered the same thrills and themes that makes those stories timeless. To see it done in a game was something of a revelation.

This made me wonder - is this a new avenue for writers to explore? Could a story or series of stories that might not work so well in a novel form or screenplay form be used as a game instead. Suddenly the possibilities seemed very intriguing. God of War showed me that something I thought wouldn't really work so well as a novel, could be very effective if brought into a video game. Of course the flip side to this is that, like the movie industry, the video game industry is very much concerned with profit. It's a business and as such it might not be so open to radical departures. In addition a writer would find their work changed by programmers and graphic artists. But this wouldn't be any different from seeing a movie script changed by a director, actors and special effects. And at the moment it seems that the game industry (at least from my uniformed perspective) seems a bit more open to new ideas and directions than Hollywood.

What do you think of writers for games? Have you had any experiences with that industry? Do you have any ideas that might work for a game? Have you played God of War and what did you think of it?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

You got your sword in my sorcery - Lankhmar: Tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

In my continuing quest to read up on classic fantasy I ran into the works of Fritz Leiber. Turns out he is considered one of the great sword and sorcery writers of 50's and 60's. Like most writers of his time, Leiber's work appeared in fantasy and pulp magazines. Luckily for modern readers his stories have been collected in complete volumes and even arranged in chronological order.

I always approach writers from this time period with a little trepidation. I'm always afraid I'll find the style off-putting or uninteresting. Well, I didn't need to worry. Leiber tosses the reader right into his world and makes it click. The book I read was an older collection with a total of six stories (more resent collections contain four stories in the first book). The first story is really a short poem that teases the reader a bit. The second story "Snow Women", introduces the reader to the character Fafhrd, the world of Newhon, and a solid adventure all in one go.

In a way this world seems like a precursor to the world that was created for "Dungeons & Dragons" or "Forgotten Realms". It's filled with magic, ruins and dangers aplenty. Our heroes are really adventurers and soldiers of fortune. They don't want to save the world, they are only looking out for themselves and having a good time - with a little danger on the side. They battle sorcerers, meet lovely women, find themselves in mortal peril and get a taste of triumph and tragedy.

Of the stories I enjoyed the longer ones the most. "Ill Met in Lankmar" details an encounter between Fafhrd, the northern barbarian and Gray Mouser, a thief with a strange past. The story starts with a ambush on a group of thieves and ends up with our protagonists invading the Thieves Guild and getting in over their heads. I also enjoyed "The Jewels in the Forest". The task is as simple as the title, just enter some ruins and obtain the treasure. Of course it's not that easy and there is a deadly surprise for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser when they finally make it into the cursed ruins.

This book was a quick read and lots of fun. From a writers point of view, it was interesting to see how Leiber set up his characters, reintroduced them in each story (this was published in magazines after all) and avoided boring exposition. These are lean and mean tales, crafted to deliver a taste of a new and dangerous world to the reader.

I started my quest looking for the works of Robert E. Howard, but was happy to run into Leiber instead. I'm interested enough to try and find more of his stories and see just where he took his characters.

Have you ever ready Leibers work? What did you think of it? Are there any other Sword and Sorcery tales or writers you'd recommend? Is there any modern writers still working in this style or genre?