Fantasy Spotlight – The Lord of the Mountain | The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

So, a few weeks ago, I wrote about how much The Legend of Zelda has inspired my writing. In short, the series kindled my preference for uniqueness . . . and weirdness.

Because, man is The Legend of Zelda weird.

Now, to be totally honest, I’m still playing Breath of the Wild and still absolutely loving it. Loving it so much that I know it’s going to be my last adventure in gaming. I started with Zelda II, I’m ending with BotW. Because I know that it isn’t ever going to get better for me; there will never be a more cathartic experience than having my favorite series rally back against stagnation and massive criticism . . . by becoming a game I’ve wanted since I was 12. I got the unique, open-world, combat-heavy adventure I’ve always wanted, + Zelda. I’m actually quitting after this.

But, the one thing that disappoints me about BotW . . . is that it plays it safe with the series’ weirdness. As a huge fan of Majora’s Mask, I’m sad that there’s no terrifying mask salesman. No moon with giant, human eyes and a snarl.

However, there is one . . . creature in the game that absolutely brings the weirdness.

And for that reason, and a bunch of others, I wanted to highlight it here on the site. Because I feel that this one creature is a beautiful, perfect encapsulation of the entire Legend of Zelda series. That achievement, intentional or not, deserves attention on a tiny blog.

So, everyone, let me start at the beginning . . .  and explain how I found the thing called the Lord of the Mountain.

~~~

As is the point in Breath of the Wild, I was exploring Hyrule one night, setting out into a region I hadn’t explored yet. I’m not sure how many other people get neurotic about exploring every bit of Hyrule, but I’m obsessive enough that I get lost for hours just walking through fields, exploring canyons, etc.

So I was excited to find that this new region had a small mountain on it. Calm and quiet, I started hiking up its southern side.

And almost immediately found that its sandy ledges were home to crows. It stuck out to me, because I hadn’t seen crows anywhere else in Hyrule. Ultimately though, I dismissed it, figuring that the crows were just a bit of the region’s identity.

 

Further up the mountain, it began to rain, the world taking on a mantle of blooming fog. Normal too.

Until I reached the top of the mountain . . . and the fog became thicker. Brighter. The music began to change, and I became excited, thinking I’d found a fun, new secret.

But that was before I listened . . . and heard the creepy discordance of the fog’s song. I followed it through a cleft of stone at the top of the mountain . . .

. . . and came out onto a ledge full of spectral rabbits.

Something’s wrong.

I didn’t move. I’d seen one and only one of these small sprites before–little, long-eared blooms of blue-white light. When a villager spoke about that one rabbit, he’d spoken of a myth. Now, there were at least fifteen of them, foraging around a pond, beneath a tree of pale leaves. All of it was silent in the fog.

I shouldn’t be here.

I tried shifting closer, but one of the spirits saw me and bolted, setting off a chain reaction. The rest of them bolted too, and I jumped to my feet, drawing my sword, expecting an attack.

And that’s when I saw it.

Among the rabbits, a larger beast dashed into the mist, vanishing with them before the fog faded. The pale tree turned dun, the clearing suddenly mundane. No attack came . . .

But I wanted to know what I’d seen.

The next night, I came back. Found the clearing again, made sure I spotted the beast first. A spectral horse, glowing just as the rabbits did. It was facing away from me.

I sneaked close, realizing this was a creature I could ride. Thinking that taming a mythical beast was meant to be part of my adventure.

I jumped on, soothing the phantom horse until it calmed down, smiling when it finally stopped bucking. Eager to get a better look at its golden horns, I turned to see its face.

BotW_Lord_of_the_Mountain_Model

And I saw this.

To be clear, that is one side of its face. On the other side, there’s another set of tilted, golden eyes, staring into the distance. Those eyes are eerily out of place–too far to the side and too high on tandem faces that don’t move. What looks like a trunk is actually a cloth–or maybe a veil–hanging off of that face of masks.

I’ve learned about the medieval fear of the forest, a very real cultural trend that Susanna Clarke conveyed beautifully in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It was a practical fear of wild animals that turned into myths of terrible creatures and gods who liked to trick and punish those who trespassed in their woods. The wild was a place that no one could control, better left alone, for everyone’s safety.

This creature’s face finally drove home that fear for me. The crows. The feeling that I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. The music. My exact words were, “Oh God. I don’t like this.”

Afraid and confused, I rode this thing down its mountain, thinking that maybe the game would confirm that it was a good idea–that there would be a cutscene somewhere, or maybe that the man running the nearby stable would compliment me on taming it.

That stable master’s words were, “Is that . . . Is that the . . . Lord of the Mountain!?

“Why would you bring that thing here?

“We’ll all be cursed!”

I galloped the entire way back up that mountain. I brought the Lord back up to its clearing and dismounted the moment we reached its pond.

The Lord looked at me, and then galloped off into the fog, becoming nothing again.

I never once went back to that mountain top.

But I know the curse is there. That I’ve incurred it. That there’s some consequence; a tax for fool-heartiness, meted out by a thing I’ll never understand–with a face of masks.

And that terror is a beautiful reminder. Those strange, terrible things that I love about the series are still there. If anything, they’re more horrifying now.

But, in part, because they’re also a great secret now, easily missed in a series that is all about secrets.

With barely any dialogue, this one creature made me feel all of these complex things. I had a personal reflection about the entire series and what it means to me, coming to a head with one simple, vague warning. A warning given substance by setting cues and major shifts in tone.

But also purely by character design. The Lord’s face, the ringing of its hooves as it walks, the fact that its horns are branches . . . it sells every facet of the series. The mystery, the strangeness, the lack of answers, the sense that we don’t deserve answers.

I can’t talk enough about how in awe I am of this one beast. I know a lot of its majesty in my story dependents on my extremely variable experience with it.

But I also realize that, as a writer, I have the ability to control a similar experience, making it uniform for everyone.

So now, creating a beast that achieves the same goals as the Lord is something I aspire to.

Because I want to give readers a moment this emotionally complex in one encounter with a silent beast.

~~~

Wow. I am sorry that went so long. TL;DR: man, that Lord on the Mountain sure is something.

Really though, thank you for reading, and I hope this one at least conveyed the experience I had, and made it clear how intensely the right design can make someone feel.

PS–The attempts to get on a better schedule and trim down longer posts will continue, I promise (sorry for this 1000+ word beast).

But, for now, my name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was recently published in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out. Part of that means posting on here every weekday, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting an email every weekday–a new post from me delivered right to your inbox–then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Again though, thank you just for dropping by. And, as always, write well.

PAX East 2017 – A Brief Summary of The Last Night on Earth

I’m closing out the week with another brief story from PAX.

Only, this time, actually a story.

One of the things I love about board games is the way they sometimes yield cohesive plots. Reading between the die rolls, you can find narratives that are accidentally perfect.

And, because I love those stories, here’s a rendering of my run in The Last Night on Earth, during lunch at PAX today. I made small adjustments only to increase humor (or because I couldn’t remember exact details–it was 12 hours ago, which is an incredibly long time in PAX hours). Enjoy!

~~~

When the zombies clawed their way out of the ground, Sheriff Anderson was in the barn, with Jenny, the farmer’s daughter.

Hearing them just outside, the sheriff spun. “Jenny, you any good with a gun?”

“Uh . . . Yeah.”

The sheriff, without another word, handed her his revolver, certain he could find another one in the barn. He knew the farmer well enough–had feared a gun the man kept somewhere in this barn.

But only a moment into his search, Jenny pulled at the front door. “It’s locked!”

A sentence punctuated by a window shattering. Before the sheriff could blink, a zombie was on her, biting first, going down second, the revolver roaring in Jenny’s hand.

“I’m bit,” she winced. “Here, sheriff, take this . . . pitchfork.”

The sheriff blinked. “I . . . What?” he asked, finding it impossible not to eye the revolver he’d just given her.

“Here,” she said, pushing the pitchfork at him, eyes so earnest it hurt.

Sheriff Anderson took the pitchfork, began to run outside.

But Jenny called after him, wistful. “Sheriff . . . If I can heal this disease . . . If I survive . . . I’ll want that pitchfork back.”

Sheriff Anderson stared. “Uh . . .”

And Jenny looked out the window. “I gotta get to the high school.”

Anderson grumbled. “I’m gonna just . . . keep lookin’ for that gun.”

#

Moments later, Sheriff Anderson was outside, sparing Jenny only a glance. She was running into the cornfields. Of course she was.

It didn’t matter; the mansion in the middle of town was being overrun, and the sheriff knew that if they could keep enough zombies out, he and the other survivors could fortify–survive.

The sheriff, spitting, sweating, ran up to the side of the mansion and fired in through a window, taking down one of the zombies attacking the pastor inside.

Missing the zombie that came up from behind, clawing at his neck.

The pastor called for him to come inside, but maybe it was the pain. The fever. Maybe it was the zombie, still ambling toward him. The fact that the lights had gone out in the mansion.

Maybe it was Jenny, still headed toward the cornfields.

“Can’t trust ’em!” he shouted over the moaning and screaming. “Can’t trust no one!”

Grabbing a fire extinguisher and running into a pile of zombies felt like the best idea.

For a moment, it was. He managed to fend off five of them, pushing them away from the mansion.

But then, a moment later, all five were on him. He went down brawling, shouting like the maniac he’d immediately become.

And, not a second later, I was allowed to pick a new character from two possibilities . . . one of whom was Billy, Sheriff Anderson’s son. I had to pick him.

He was randomly given an item, which happened to be a shotgun (we immediately decided it was his father’s). Ready for vengeance, Billy entered the field, screaming a super typical, overdramatic, “Paw! No-o-o-o!”

Unfortunately, the game ended there, but I loved finding that story in a bunch of random die rolls.

And Sheriff Anderson, fist fighting zombies in a cloud of fire extinguisher smoke, already having gone totally insane after about ten in-game seconds, got the biggest laugh of the game.

~~~

Well, I hope you enjoyed this one.

Technically, the spree is over–I didn’t even start this post until Saturday. But, eh, it’s still my fifth post for the week, so I’ll take it.

If you’re a regular, thank you for the support. I’m gonna go enjoy the rest of my vacation, but I’ll be back bright and early Monday morning.

If you’re new, my name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was recently published in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out. Part of that means posting on here every weekday, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting an email every weekday–a new post from me delivered right to your inbox–then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Either way though, thank you for passing by! I hope that you have an awesome weekend, wherever you are!

And, of course, as always, write well.

 

PAX East 2017 – The Road to Betrayal

So . . . posting from PAX . . . is a nightmare.

It’s not impossible though, so I thought I’d drop an easy post, at least.

The easiest thing to write about? PAX.

So, for tonight, I thought I’d share the best moments from my journey to PAX East 2017. A little bloggier than I like to make my posts.

But I felt like sharing today.

~~~

It was only a few hours between waking up and reaching Boston. A quick road trip with friends–Final Fantasy XV in real time.

PAX started in a lounge on the 20th floor of our hotel though.

First when a stranger, Sarah, walked up in the middle of our game of Star Wars: Rebellion.

She was doing a Pokemon themed bar crawl later that night, she explained. She also sat with us, shared a few drinks, and laughed as my friend Josh and I lost to the rebels. We blew up Bothawui (many Bothans died), but the game came to a canonical end when their Han Solo showed up at the last second to save Luke Skywalker from Darth Vader. Somehow, we genuinely didn’t see it coming.

After that, I jumped in on a game of Betrayal at House on the Hill, a game where you and your friends explore a haunted mansion that inevitably drives one of your friends insane, making them the Traitor. Our Traitor found a box that took away everyone’s voice . . . which meant that we, as players, couldn’t speak.

Betrayal turned into all of us flailing, trying to help each other, largely failing.

“Wait–I’ll send my dog in there!” became a pantomime with a beer cap.

At one point, a friend who wasn’t playing asked us how the game was going. We awkwardly gave thumbs up–at the same time, in complete silence.

I laughed hysterically. Repeatedly.

At one point, I realized, Holy shit . . . We haven’t even gone to PAX yet. The convention hasn’t actually started.

And, after working a ton of overtime, struggling through a rough start with H&T, and interviewing for a promotion at work . . . man did I need this breather.

~~~

Forgive me for the short salutations, but I have a game of Risk: Legacy to jump in on.

I’ll be back tomorrow with another short post about the floor itself.

Until then, thank you everyone for reading.

And, as always, write well.

Muse Tuesday – Blood He Couldn’t Feel | Warframe

Welcome back to Muse Tuesday.

This week, I’m doing a little fanfiction.

If you haven’t heard of Warframe, it’s a sci-fi, free-to-play online shooter, the selling point of which is that you’re an insanely powerful space ninja–one of many known as “Tenno.” As such, you wear a selection of armors called Warframes that adhere to certain motifs and allow you unique abilities. All of which add up to you killing hordes and hordes of enemies.

I thought I’d take that . . . and try to do something incredibly serious with it. So, apologies if any of this is lost on you; the challenge here was definitely on explaining without over-explaining.

Anyway, enjoy.

~~~

There was blood on the Tenno’s knees.

Not only a spot–a pool that he knelt in. A dark splash that glowed with sunlight. He’d watched it slowly roll toward him from the pile of dead Grineer meters away–had done nothing but blink as it reached him, kneeling there. Blink and listen to a chorus of birdsong and rushing water.

It all made the overgrown forests of Earth strangely empty for him, listening to a language he couldn’t understand, being touched by warm blood he couldn’t feel.

Another moment more and he would be done with this ritual of his. He’d lost count of the times he’d done it, but the exercise was always the same; he knelt near a group of Grineer he’d just killed and tried his best to feel something for them–before their blood reached him.

He hoped for anything. Regret. Sadness. Because they were still people.

Just cloned–so often that it’d driven them insane and ruined their genetics. Many of them were more machine now–men and women with complex prostheses, living in alloy shells.

Who terrorized the galaxy. Who killed without mercy.

The only reason the Tenno was planetside in the first place was to stop a Grineer plot to poison the forests of Earth, making it easier to terraform–a new planet of factories to process their weapons of war.

No. It’s impossible, he thought. I can’t feel sorry for them. They’re savages. Killers.

And as he thought it, the blood reached his feet.

Suddenly desperate, the Tenno closed his eyes, willing himself to try again. To try to be better than the things he’d just killed.

Angrily punching the ground when he still couldn’t feel anything.

“Whoa.”

He spun around and found another Tenno behind him–another lost child of space, this one in her Warframe: a birdlike Zephyr, her carbon composite feathers and metal skin regal in shades of white and gold.

“Are you . . . okay?” she asked, lowering her weapon, oddly tender as her clawed hand reached for him.

The Tenno closed his eyes, activating Transferrence, pulling himself back into his own Warframe–an Ash that he’d left standing on a Grineer structure a half mile away, just in case he needed to vanish.

Since he’d left, a new platoon of clones had arrived, cleaning up the mess he’d left behind. Already restarting the machines the Tenno had just shut down, repairing those he’d destroyed. They shouted at each other, angry only then. Careless when they pushed their dead into the river nearby.

The sword in Ash’s hand twitched.

Time to try again.

~~~

Thanks for reading.

A quick notice: I’m going to be at PAX this weekend, but my journey to get there starts tomorrow night. I’ll still be posting tomorrow, for sure, but whether or not I post Thursday and Friday depends on how much of a pain it’ll be to post from PAX.

Anyway, if you’re a regular, thanks again for the read. I’ve tried my best to make it easier to comment on my posts, so if you’d like to drop any criticism down below, please feel free. Writing this often is starting to make some of my writing habits stand out and I want to take care of those immediately.

If you’re new, my name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was recently published in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out. Part of that means posting on here every weekday, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting an email every weekday–a new post from me delivered right to your inbox–then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Regardless, thank you for stopping by, and, as always, write well.

Monday, AM #3 – The PAX Rush

Welcome back, everyone. Another brief Monday, AM–made particularly short by the fact that my entire weekend was devoured by Breath of the Wild.

I mean, I wrote and did a few other things, but when it came to going outside–catching Logan or Get Out, I passed. In my defense, I’ve always been a huge Zelda fan, so whatever. Sacrifices were made.

Anyway, getting into my biz . . .

PAX East Is This Weekend

My first Pax East was in 2014. I went with an old friend and his buddies, and it was one of the best experiences of my recent life. Got to go to a few panels, be incredibly awkward while grabbing drinks with some of my favorite streamers, try out a bunch of awesome indies (Titan Souls and Enter the Gungeon were there that year), and–most importantly–I got to hang out and game with a bunch of friends for a few days.

Unfortunately, money issues didn’t let me go last year.

But this year, I made absolutely sure to have enough saved up for another PAX trip.

If you’ve never been, I’d like to convey the experience with a summary of one moment:

Partway through the convention, one of my friends mentioned a “retro room,” a single room at the convention where anyone could come in, request a game from a list of titles, and play that game on of many ancient consoles (from the NES to the Sega CD).

Immediately intrigued, I checked it out on my own. There were a bunch of tables arranged at the front of the room, a check-in counter at the back, where they kept the aforementioned list of games.

A list that I perused for maybe 20 seconds before realizing . . .

“Holy shit . . . They have Lunar: The Silver Star.”

Timid, as if the opportunity would somehow disappear, I went to the attendant at the check in desk. Mumbled, “Lunar for the Sega CD, please,” like I was a nervous little kid. They found it for me, told me I had 30 minutes with it.

And, in a strange moment for a grown man, I found a Sega CD, popped Lunar in . . .

. . . and then got teary eyed when the intro started.

Maybe it was because I’d loved Lunar when I was a kid.

But I think that it was actually because I’d forgotten Lunar. The intro, the music. No, that isn’t true; the moment the game started, I remembered all of it: the incredibly anime intro music, the dialogue, the characters.

But I had forgotten something. And, although this is going to sound cheesy . . . I think that what I forgot was how it felt to be happy.

The kind of happy that only a kid can experience when they get to do, watch, or play their favorite thing in the world. And Lunar, out of all the things I loved as a kid, is the only thing that I got to have completely to myself; no one else I knew played that game. No one in my family cared about it, so no one beat it and spoiled the ending for me, for example. I never got a chance to play the sequels either, so my love for the first in the series was never even challenged by its successors.

So sitting there, at PAX East, I realized that Lunar was a time capsule for me; one of pure love, planted in 1992, delivered 22 years later.

There’s so much else about PAX that my story doesn’t convey–the love of games in all of their media, the spirit of camaraderie–but that moment with Lunar is what it means to me.

Fingers crossed for Flashback in the retro room this year.

The Hand and the Tempest Progress

Last week, I said I had to bring it and finish chapter 4. Well, I didn’t finish it last Monday . . .

But I did finish it Tuesday.

And, somewhere in between, holy shit, did the muse come back.

I might want to write about the idea of the creative switch–the quest to find out what turns it on–because it feels like that’s what happened. One moment sparked a really fun scene with exciting world building . . .

And now, suddenly, I know what the next three chapters are going to be like. After months of slogging, I know how a character’s entire arc is going to work out, how many chapters it’ll take to get there. I’m almost done with chapter 5, and ready to roll into chapter 6.

Most importantly though, I’m finally excited. Just . . . insanely excited to write more of this novel–this YA story that I finally love.

~~~

And, in that spirit, I’m gonna call it quits here.

If you’re a regular, welcome back to Monday. I hope you guys are having a good one, light on distractions, heavy on the words.

If you’re new, my name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was recently published in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out. Part of that means posting on here every weekday, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting an email every weekday–a new post from me delivered right to your inbox–then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Either way, thank you just for stopping by. Take care, and, as always, write well.

 

Fantasy Fandom: The Legend of Zelda

I’m writing this on the morning of March 3rd, 2017. Blessed with the day off, I woke up early to wait for my local Best Buy to open. Because then, and only then, can I go pick up The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Sitting here, waiting, I decided to at least start a series that I’ve been thinking of for a while. Fantasy Fandom will be a place where I talk briefly about some of the franchises that shaped my writing. How I found them, why I love them, and what I’ve learned from them.

The first installment was always going to be about The Legend of Zelda. But this morning, as I basically sit and stare at a wall, hands on my knees, waiting for 10AM, I decided, “Today’s the perfect day for this.”

My First Experience with The Legend of Zelda

I don’t remember the year, because I was in single digits–at an age where I wasn’t yet concerned what year it was.

But a friend of the family lived across the street, and one day, my mother brought us over to hang out. The parents quickly ushered us into their son’s room–a guy who greeted us, but then immediately turned back to a TV.

Back to a duel to the death with Dark Link in Zelda II.

At the time, I had no idea he was fighting the most difficult boss in the entire series–that he was at the end of the second game.

All I knew was, “Whoooaaa . . . He’s controlling the guy on screen. And fighting a shadow version of himself.” And, I’m absolutely giving voice to a thought I didn’t understand at the time, but I remember thinking something like, “What kind of meta, psychological struggle is this shit!? With this elf dude! And there are curtains! What is this!?”

I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the first time I’d ever experienced video games–I’d owned an Atari 2600 and played Super Mario Bros., Pitfall, and Duck Hunt at other friends’ places–but this was a turning point for me in gaming. When my family finally got an NES, I proceeded to annoy my mom by asking her to call a bunch of Funcolands and Toys ‘R’ Us’s, asking if they had Zelda.

Again, I don’t know how old I was, but the day when I came home with used copies of The Legend of Zelda and Metroid for the NES were good days. Even though that’s when I discovered that LoZ and Adventures of Link were extremely different.

Since then, The Legend of Zelda has been a staple of my life. I’ve bought and played nearly every one of them to completion. When I write a bio for myself, I always add that The Legend of Zelda was a huge influence for me.

Because it always has been and still is.

Why I Love It

What really grabbed me about that Dark Link fight was the strange pageantry of the whole thing. The fact that the world fell into silhouettes against a purple sky when you fought him. The fact that he was just a doppleganger of Link (this being my first experience with the concept of evil doubles).

That beautiful strangeness endures in all of Zelda, and that’s what I love about it.

Although the series uses some fantasy tropes, it gives them a unique, weird polish that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

For example, Hylians have long, pointed ears. But they are not elves–most certainly not Tolkien elves. Hylians are bizarre. They’re ugly–often comically so. They have strange body shapes that are exaggerated to illustrate their characters. They talk, but always with simple, guttural sounds. In a lot of cases, they’re blatantly, flat out terrifying in their words and actions, although it never seems like they’re being scary on purpose; in most cases, you’re just a kid who happens to hear them say the weirdest things.

Even the hero is strange. Link, we came to learn, is not a single, destined hero who goes on many adventures. He’s a . . . lineage? All of the Links are descendants of the first (and good luck figuring out which Link came first [I think Skyward Sword’s?]), which, on its own, is a bizarre turn for a fantasy hero. I can’t think of another franchise that spans thousands of years, following one bloodline of legendary heroes. Legendary heroes who always come to power . . . with a Princess named Zelda, sometimes a weirdo named Tingle, and always a cast of other staple characters, similar in appearance, but actually different. Zelda runs on a concept of history repeating itself, which allows it to go to strange new places.

All of this means that the only recurring character–who is always the same man as far as I can tell–is the series’ villain, Ganon. How strange for a fantasy series to have a new hero kill the one villain every time, instead of the one hero killing a new villain every time.

Whatever. The point is that Zelda is bizarre in many, many ways, and that’s why I love it.

What I’ve Learned from It

Because of its strangeness, I think Zelda taught me how to be independent with my fantasy. It taught me to write without bowing to established fantasy expectations. There are elves, but they’re not the famous kind of elves. There’s a hero, but, even though he looks similar, he’s a new person every time.

To be sure, Zelda is still pretty typical; it’s still the story of a young boy who inherits a legendary power and leaves his home to slay a great evil.

But Zelda’s strange take on that story made it possible for me to think beyond it altogether.

And, for that, I thank you, Legend of Zelda. I would not be the same writer without you.

~~~

Thanks for reading.

If you’re a regular, thank you for hanging out with me for another week. I forgot to ask last post because I got . . . super touchy feely, but if you liked this post, please drop a Like so I can keep track of how many people enjoyed it. If you didn’t like it, absolutely pass; I’m trying to sift through my series and focus on the ones people like the most, so negative votes also really help.

If you’re new, my name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was recently published in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out. Part of that means posting on here every weekday, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting an email every weekday–a new post from me delivered right to your inbox–then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Either way, thank you for stopping by, and I hope you have an awesome weekend. I know I will; halfway through this post, I a) scheduled an interview for a new job and b) went and picked up Breath of the Wild, cause 10AM came and I couldn’t contain myself.

I’ll see you next week, and, as always, write well!

Games for Writers: No Man’s Sky

Wow. It has been forever since I’ve written one of these.

And, of all games, I picked No Man’s Sky, hands down the least disappointing game of 2016. Why, I remember no one being upset about this one.

. . .

So, disclaimer first: I know. I know that No Man’s Sky was a huge, flaming disappointment. And, with this post, I’m not trying to say that you should run out and buy it. The only reason why I didn’t trade it in, in fact, was that I forgot it was on my shelf. The only reason why I still haven’t traded it in, is that the Foundation Update was pleasant. Maybe Hello Games’ll suddenly stop supporting this game in a few months, but, as I’d only get a few bucks for trading it in now anyway, I’m holding out for future updates, hoping I at least get my money’s worth that way.

Regardless though, none of that is why I’m writing about this game today.

Today, I’m writing about No Man’s Sky to give it props in one regard. Because there is one way in which it helped improve my writing.

The name game.

I’m a big believer in the power of video games. I don’t think they’re the ultimate form of entertainment, but I think they have an innate ability to provide experiences you would never have otherwise. On a most basic level, they have the power to make you feel that you’re, say, a pilot navigating his way through a space battle.

But, at this point, an idea like that is oddly quaint when it comes to gaming. Video games are far more specific and varied. They’re able to deliver more unique tones and feelings.

And No Man’s Sky delivers a feeling and experience that I have never encountered in any other video game. Ever.

And that feeling just so happens to be important for worldbuilding.

In this video game, in which you have to gather elements from plants, rocks, animals, and planetary bases, all to power and mod your ship so that you can fly to the heart of the universe, the sandbox that you’re in is planet-sized. There’s no one around to talk to you and, often, there isn’t much to interact with.

All there is to do, is walk around, explore, and name the creatures, plants, and locations that you find. And it’s that naming–of these tiny parts of a frighteningly massive universe–that is invaluable when it comes to worldbuilding.

No Man’s Sky is a Game for Writers because the experience of being on unfamiliar territory, and not being able to go back–of having to walk around a bizarre landscape and, especially, naming things as you go–will improve your naming game tenfold.

Because now, you are the settler who founded Manhattan.

You’re the guy who’s standing there, on the spot, trying to decide what to call a place you’ve never been to.

You’re the person who’s all, “Uh . . . Fuck it. Louis Town. Wait, no, Louisville . . . : I This is exactly why there’s a Long Island in every state, isn’t it?”

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Because sometimes, you’ll just name ’em the first thing that comes to mind.

But you’re also the person who reaches a base at the top of a mountain, and, after hours of naming different locations, looks around and sees that there are two caves nearby that look like eyes. So you name the base “Rockmire’s Gaze” and then spiral into thinking of why the mountain is named “Rockmire” and what the people of this planet would think of the fact that it has eyes (if there were people–No Man’s Sky is beautiful but it’s still a pretty vacant resource collecting game).

My point is, after playing this game, I got a lot more heavily invested in naming trends, and I think all fantasy writers can stand to do that. And not just naming trends of landmarks or animals, but of everything; I’m finding that plant names are particularly interesting to me (“Why ‘foxglove’? And, wait, ‘ladyfinger’?. . . That’s just weird.”).

But, being put in a place to name things in quick succession also highlights your own naming trends and helps you slip away from them. In my case, I realized I love ending planets names with “-ulus” or “-os,” and as you can see from the picture above, “Prime.”

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Although I found I also go with single words, like “Amethyst,” for planets and other locations. It’s a bad habit in my writing that I know I have to break now.

With animals, I fall back on real suffixes mixed with appropriate sounds–“byparn” being a favorite example for a cow-like alien with two horns. I also go for direct descriptors with dashes though, particularly for plants; “bat-winged borp” and “arrow-leaf tree” for examples.

Again, I wouldn’t recommend buying No Man’s Sky; it’s still a little too sparse on the gameplay side for me to recommend it to anyone.

But, if you’re a writer, and if you already own it, or if you have a friend who owns it, maybe check it out for that one day–that one batch of hours–where you’re genuinely a pilgrim, naming a land you know nothing about.

~~~

Thanks for reading. I hope this was an interesting return to the Games for Writers series. You can check out these previous installments on Metroid Prime, Silent Hill 2, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One, and Dark Souls, but please be advised that they’re mostly terrible (I wrote the Silent Hill one nearly seven years ago; I was a much different writer back then). I also wrote a post about making sure your writing is free of completely unrealistic video game tropes, a pitfall that I called the CR Trap.

Regardless though, that’s all for this week. Thank you for dropping by, and, as always, write well.

Cliché Showcase – Cartoon Villains

If you know anything about me, it’s that I hate clichés. I always have; my personal slogan since the beginning of time has been “No old wizards, no dragons.”

But, that said… if there’s one thing that’s absolutely also true about me… it’s that I love certain clichés.

Because certain clichés, like certain formulas (the three act model for fiction) work when they’re used properly. In fact, in a lot of high Spirit, feel stories, you have to slather on particular elements to make the Happy Fun Time Jamboree cogs function properly. I suppose you could call those accepted elements Foundation Clichés; things as obvious as the sports team winning the big game with an impossible goal–all in slow motion–a moment that’s a prerequisite for the feel good sports movie. They’re clichés that make a formula work. I definitely do not love all of them–actually, I may love exactly one of them while just acknowledging that the others make sense and work well.

But, whether I like them or hate them, Cliché Showcase is all about throwing a spotlight on all clichés–calling glaring attention to them. Very, very likely to dish on how much I hate them.

But for right now, with this very first entry in the series… let’s start off with the love. Because the trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron just came out and it fits too well with one of the Showcases I had planned. So let’s both tune out for a moment and enjoy my very favorite Foundation Cliché!

The Cartoon Villain

By my definition, the Cartoon Villain is a villain who is unrealistically evil. They might be pushovers or they might be legitimately dangerous, but either way, it never makes sense how evil a Cartoon Villain is.

In appearance, they range anywhere from a massive, killer robot–that’s actually all black with (seriously?) red lights all over his body–to an Aryan superhuman who somehow looks less evil when he’s wearing black shades with his black trench coat (because there are crazy, comically insane red eyes under those glasses).

These are villains with little back story and just enough motivation to be vaguely understandable, but never so much motivation that you disagree when a protagonist inevitably calls them insane. They have these vague motivations, mind you, for plans that always center on destroying or taking over the entire world or universe. Or tri-state area.

Why I Love Them

They’re a Pantheon: A pantheon of ridiculousness, sure, but still a pantheon. One that is completely upheld, strictly, by the standards of their peers; you either create a new member who can stand beside the likes of Skeletor and the Joker or, congratulations, your comic, cartoon, or action story kind of sucks. Because, as a Foundation Cliché, the Cartoon Villain is insanely important to a lot of story formulas (for example, Saturday morning cartoons would be absolutely nothing without them and comic book movies suffer significantly when they’re not on par [you could’ve replaced Malekith with a piece of cardboard with “Malekith” scrawled on it and The Dark World would’ve been the same movie]).

Their Design Demands that You Throw Caution Out the Window: Because, in order to create a Cartoon Villain who’s awesome, you need to go for every possible extreme; making something tasteful is not an option. These are the most over-dramatic looking characters you will ever see and ones that follow almost no rules other than, “Should look eviler–don’t look evil enough.” Skeletor just has a skull for a head. A yellow skull on his muscular, blue body. Why?… Why? I’ll tell you why–check the one rule. What’s it say? “Should look eviler–don’t look evil enough.” Okay. Add a purple hood for good measure. We’re done here.

Their Enduring Simplicity: And maybe that’s what I really love about them–their bold-faced simplicity. You know Red Skull is evil when you look at him and see that his face is a red skull. But even if you didn’t know, Red Skull would be the very first person to tell you he’s evil because Cartoon Villains also usually don’t lie–because lying is a lesser evil, totally beneath them because they don’t care about petty things like saving face. In fact, in some strange way, when you consider how easily they open up about their plans, Cartoon Villains are almost… the most honest characters you will ever come across.

They’re Just So… Likeable: All of these details–the simple, understandable motivations; their strange honesty; and / or their insane, dramatic design–make for absolutely likeable people that you can relate to (except for the whole being crazy thing). Or, at least, they make for character quirks that you love watching and listening to.

For example, there’s the strange way that, in Captain America: The First Avenger, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is a fantastic supervisor who deals out positive reinforcement left and right(unless you really, really screw up [at which point he kills you]). Of course, an odd, really backwards incentive to liking Red Skull more is that he also thinks Hitler sucks. And sure, it’s because the Nazis aren’t evil enough for him anymore, but lines like, “Arrogance may not be a uniquely American trait, but I must say, you do it better than anyone,” makes it clear that his hatred isn’t based on… racial or national bigotry? That Red Skull. He’s… kind of an alright guy?

And, continuing on the Marvel front, the trailer for Age of Ultron very concisely makes you understand Ultron’s motivations; he’s throwing off what I can only assume is Tony Stark’s control, making his motivation… freedom? Retaliation for indentured servitude? “There are… no strings on me.” Why do I immediately want Ultron to win?

And, of course, on the shallower side of things, you want Skeletor or Albert Wesker around because they will just always–always–say the most amazing things in the best ways.

Ultimately, maybe I just want to write one of these villains so badly that I had to vent in this post. Maybe they are not the best clichés out there–maybe this love is all my own.

But, way more likely: you already have a favorite Cartoon Villain in mind, because you’ve had a favorite for years and years.

~~~

I hope you’ve enjoyed this first, very positive entry in my Cliché Showcase series. If you do have a favorite Cartoon Villain in mind, I’d love it if you dropped a comment below–I know I missed so many great villains here. It was in a serious effort to not go on forever.

Thanks for reading! And, as always, write well.

Games for Writers – Dark Souls

G4W-DarkSouls

Disclaimer: This article has been a long time coming. At this point, I’m actually a little reluctant to write about video games on here instead of just post straight writing talk, but, like I said last post, I feel I deserve a break and this post is ultimately about writing anyway. Still, just to start us off, apologies if you’re a writer but not a gamer.

This one is a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Because there’s a really, really great chance you’ve already played Dark Souls. I have to acknowledge immediately that last gen, I was incredibly close-minded about the series I played (for a long time, it was almost totally Playstation 1 era series or GTFO). So, forgive me, but I still haven’t played Mass Effect. I haven’t played any of the Dead Space’s except for the last one. I gave Assassin’s Creed two minutes before giving up on it.

And, until it was offered for free on XBL a few months ago, I’d never played Dark Souls. I’d never played Dark Souls and I was really, really tired of hearing people go on about how awesome Dark Souls is.

And now, of course, please humor me as I go on for way too long about how fucking awesome Dark Souls is and explain why it’s probably one of the best series a prospective Fantasy writer could ever play.

For the sake of not just ranting, I will do this in two direct points that support one bottom line: for a game with extremely little actual story, Dark Souls has a weirdly moving story exclusively because of really subtle but strong world-building.

Point 1: The Bosses Have So Much Charm / Mystique / Whatever That They’re Characters

So, I posted a link a while back on Twitter about the music I was using for a writing session. This is the song I linked. It’s the music that plays while you fight Gravelord Nito. And, really, if you haven’t played Dark Souls, just from reading this paragraph, you already know almost all there is to know about Gravelord Nito; his name, you fight him, he’s in Dark Souls. Here—I’ll round out your knowledge of him; he’s “the first of the undead.” He’s a god made of skeletons that are mashed together. He wears a cloak made out of darkness and he wields a big sword. There. That’s about 90% of all there is to know about him.

That said, I… love… Gravelord Nito. I definitely didn’t do him justice with my description in the last paragraph because I really can’t; I gave you hard facts and, as there are for most of the bosses in Dark Souls, there are next to no hard facts to be had about him. I can tell you as much about Gravelord Nito’s definitive personality as I could tell you about any other boss in Dark Souls—nothing.

But… there is a ton of characterization that I simply can’t explain because you’d have to experience it to understand. Gravelord Nito isn’t just awesome because he’s a (truly) awesome looking, giant skeleton(s) man with a sword; he’s awesome because it takes you, the player, many—many—hours of struggle to get to him. He’s awesome because you have to go through the Tomb of Giants to find him and the Tomb of Giants is incredibly dark, terrifying and dangerous. He’s awesome because, despite being Dark Souls’ god of death, he’s tucked at the back of a nondescript hole in a wall deep underground. He’s awesome because he’s sleeping in a giant coffin in that hole but he comes out to kill you when you show up; and because, at the start of his boss fight, he slowly walks out of the dark to face you.

And—before I keep just listing these minute, seemingly throw-a-way details—what do any of these details say?

Well, hours of struggle to even get the chance to be killed by him immediately gives him a huge degree of godly mystique—he’s so important that not just anyone can turn on the game and face him.

His being beyond the pitch black Tomb of Giants, with its giant skeletons (all untouched until you come along) says that no one has faced him in ages—it says that he is beyond an unfathomable depth.

That he’s tucked at the end of a weird, small hole in a cave says all kinds of potentially terrifying things about the mysteries of the unseen; according to Dark Souls, a god could be sleeping at the end of a cave in my local park, which is, immediately, more terrifying than placing him at the end of a huge, obviously evil castle. But, to bring this back to Nito, it says that he’s possibly beyond human trappings and flattery; he’s beyond needing a temple in his name somehow—a cave is fine for his slumber just as a grave is fine for any human.

And, of course, the fact that he’s sleeping when you find him and the way that he slowly walks around to face you speaks volumes about how ancient he is. The design choice to make him hunch-backed adds to this idea.

All of this… conveyed… with subtle detail. It blows my mind. It blows my mind even more because this is a fraction of what Dark Souls conveys about one boss. Just about all of the bosses in this game have that much silent detail worked into them. My reflex here is to just rattle off a bunch of boss names and a handful of their details, but it will mean absolutely nothing to you if you haven’t played it, so instead, I’ll just say this:

If you’re a Fantasy writer, I can honestly not think of a better lesson than Dark Souls on how to give your monsters and villains real, evocative mystique and story with almost no dialogue. In a really weird, writery kind of way, every boss in this game is beautiful. Seriously, for the first time in ages, even though I knew next to nothing about him, I actually got upset when I killed the last boss.

Phew… Okay. I have to move on now.

Point 2: The Settings Tell a Story

As you may have noticed, I got derailed on one of my points about Nito and started talking about how his cave was oddly terrifying in how normal it is. I didn’t take that out because, ya know, laziness, but that environmental element is one thread of the really dense tapestry of Lordran, the setting for Dark Souls.

I do not want to start the Ever-Rant again and I also don’t want to get spoilery, so I’ll cut my explanation down to this: at one point, you start to venture down beneath the starting area. The starting area is a town, so what’s beneath it winds up being, at first, a large, weird cellar. In that cellar, waiting around a collection of long tables, there is a large group of Hollows (feral undead [there are undead who aren’t feral, like your character]). In this same room with the Hollows, on a sub level, there’s a giant, undead butcher cutting large pieces of meat. If you defeat all of these enemies and then happen to explore the hole directly behind the butcher’s table, you’ll fall into a pit, landing directly onto a large pile of discarded bodies. It’s gross—I know. But not as gross as the huge, undead rat that’s on the level below, a spear sticking out of one of its eyes.

And, seriously, the point is not to gross you out. The point here is to give you a good example of the completely silent but weirdly detailed storytelling that’s all over Lordran. The butcher is preparing meals for all of the Hollows that are waiting above him. What the butcher doesn’t use, he throws downstairs, meaning that he’s serving humans or undead to the Hollows above for whatever reason. But regardless, downstairs is where the giant rat eats what he throws away (growing gigantic from left-overs its been scavenging for years, presumably). For bonus points, the spear in the rat’s eye implies that someone was thrown down here in fighting shape and tried to defend themselves.

This kind of detail is everywhere. And, sure, there are just strange, video gamey locations too that are clearly designed to get the player from point A to B. But then, there are little spots like the area directly before Nito, where a large group of ancient, lifeless skeletons are all kneeling in worship, facing the portal that leads to him, until they fall apart at your touch.

Despite having pretty much no dialogue or plot, Lordran is incredibly alive with story. And, of course, working in details like these shouldn’t compromise your writing (for example, I’m definitely not suggesting that you wedge the armory where your lizardmen make their giant lizard swords into a story just to show that, hey, this is how they get their swords [especially not when world-building like that is easiest in a medium like video games, where ambling and looking at everything is natural]). But it’s always a good thing to remember to make your world that alive.

As countless other areas in Dark Souls showed me, the setting is a place that exists without your character’s influence.

The Bottom Line: Even Though It Doesn’t Have a Story, Dark Souls Has Tons of Story

Even if you’re not convinced, you should still give Dark Souls a try if only because the very last area in the game is—I promise—beautifully evocative. It placed so much mystique on the final boss that, like I said, I was actually upset when I killed him, as if I was making a mistake. It was a feeling I’ve only gotten one other time—at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and that game had the benefit of a million cutscenes and tons of dialogue. The fact that Dark Souls got the same emotion from me with next to no dialogue, will always blow my mind.

So, if you haven’t played Dark Souls, I promise it will positively impact your Fantasy writing. Even if you’ve already played it but didn’t pay attention to the fine details, play it again with a keener eye. Look out for all of the subtle things it does and, if you haven’t, just look up all of its secrets (because this is the kind of game that has huge, completely missable secrets). I promise that you will not regret at least seeing the subtlety of Lordran and its cast of silent characters.

~~~

Well, apologies if this post was a little short, but it was seriously an effort not to go on forever about this game and spoil everything for you. Still, I hope that you enjoyed! If you did, I’d appreciate a Like and a Follow!

In the middle of the month, I’ll come back to straight writing talk. In fact, I might—might—come back with the most difficult topic I possibly can. At least, it immediately feels like a difficult, dangerous topic. We’ll see. If you don’t want to miss a post about something I’m even reluctant to mention here, you should Subscribe! Cause I’m probably going to write about it anyway…! … Yay!

But, regardless, thanks for reading! And, as always, write well!

 

Tips for Games for Writers – The CR Trap

Disclaimer: I thought I’d take a new turn with this post. I’ve put out a handful of Games for Writers articles before in which I talk about specific games that promote good writing in large or small ways. However, I’ve never written any warnings to budding fantasy writers about the (many) bad influences gaming can have on their writing. Thus, here we are, with the first of my Tips for Games for Writers. Enjoy!

So, in this month between finishing War of Exiles and starting its content edit, I’ve pretty heavily picked up my gaming again. Not because I need to play video games, but because, in the comfortable glow of only having an outline for a different story to casually chip away at, why not?

As if I need to have goals now, however, I’m not playing anything new; I’ve instead gone back to super old games I never got 100% in (at least until Titanfall hits the 360). Examples of how I’ve been wasting my time: Fallout 3, Beyond Good & Evil, Half-Life 2. Essentially, I’m trying desperately to complete some of my favorites before this generation officially ends for me in September with Destiny.

But anyway, my current gaming goals aren’t the article here. The article—and my particular need to write it—came while playing Fallout 3. I was on an alien space ship, my character, Norman Osborn, discovering that he’d been made into a cyborg by his alien captors (I seriously just took the Cyborg perk [unnecessary roleplay FTW]), was raging, hurling Plasma Grenades everywhere. It was a good time.

Until I reached the higher level aliens. They clearly had shielding that made them stronger, and although it didn’t feel like it made perfect sense, they were so much more powerful than their unshielded buddies that they cut right into my grenade-hurling good times. Fun turned into plugging what felt like way, way too many shots into the same, stringy alien with my extremely powerful Firelance until it finally died.

Which absolutely made me reflect on countless other such moments—particularly in Bethesda games, but really present in any RPG; you encounter a level 20 enemy while you’re level 1 and, OMFG, you’d better run because that enemy, no matter how disarmingly huggable, is just not going down.

And this, of course, reminded me of when I started writing and how the phenomenon of the high level puppy dog not even feeling my rocket launcher shots—what I now present here as The CR Trap—impacted my work for the worse.

First, What’s “CR”?

If you’re unaware, “CR” stands for “Challenge Rating”; it’s a term I picked up from D&D and it’s the result of an equation that dictates how strong a monster is in relation to all of the players’ characters (a CR 5 is a well matched challenge for a team of four level 5 characters). To put it simply, they’re the decided strength of a monster or character, assigned to supplement a gaming experience.

And often found in every other kind of storied media. Movies? Comics? Books? They all have Challenge Ratings, intentionally or not.

Now, What’s the CR Trap?

It immediately sounds like I’m saying Challenge Ratings are bad; they’re not. They are, however, a gaming tool that doesn’t apply well to writing when they’re misused. When used well, Challenge Ratings are fantastic tools for making more enjoyable experiences (comics are notorious for having Challenge Ratings that dictate how much a normal human can withstand for the sake of being more enjoyable to readers [the Punisher and Batman are two great examples of characters who can take an unrealistic amount of punishment and still come out fine because the audience wants them to (and before you start raging, I’m sorry, but Batman would’ve died the very first time Solomon Grundy punched him 30 feet to smack into a wall JLU style; not being abrasive here—just realistic)]).

However, Challenge Ratings can very, very easily become a personal meta that feels unrealistic to everyone else and that cheapens your writing. To clarify here, establishing clear rules for your characters (they’re all vampires or some other race that has what I think of as “the durability suite” of super powers [moderate super strength, speed, agility and endurance]) isn’t what I mean. What I mean is (perhaps unwittingly) setting rules beyond that to further ensure the safety of your characters. What I mean is you’ve grown up with video games for so long that your human characters can illogically take more than a single gunshot wound and still be fine; against all reason, they can get shot eight times and still scurry behind a waste-high wall and meta-heal enough to rush on to some final objective before ultimately surviving. That is the CR Trap in its most basic and universal form.

However, it absolutely goes deeper than that and gets complex enough that I probably shouldn’t be presenting it here without way more explanation of its different facets, but whatever. Let’s have a good time instead!

The RPG-Forged CR Trap and Me

If you’re anything like me, you’re a fantasy writer who grew up on RPG’s. Even if they didn’t heavily influence your writing in any way, it’s a safe bet that you still carry accidental hints of your writing lineage in your work. Maybe your characters are more stylized. Maybe they have more elaborate weapons or you naturally gravitate to more action-oriented plots.

Or maybe… you’ve actually written the scene where the protagonist faces off against a giant monster and, against all logic, the protagonist comes out unscathed… and defeats the monster by hitting it only once. This is the CR Trap I grew up with, forged on the RPG’s inability to realistically portray violence.

And maybe you’re thinking, “What? Seriously? There’s tons of violence in the RPG’s I play.” Not debatable. However, think about a turn-based RPG like Bravely Default. Your characters have their turns—they run up, execute their attacks and then fall back. The enemy they hit reels for a moment, and then falls very cleanly back into the same stance they had before. It’s a small moment and the tiniest lack of realism, easy to keep out of your work.

Until you see it hundreds… of thousands of times without realizing it. It may sound silly, but consider that possibly, without realizing it was happening, you were trained by your turn-based RPG to see that moment—the waiting enemy, the perfect sword strike, the reel and recovery—as a reasonable approximation of a battle with a vicious monster. And, of course, you know that’s not how the fight would actually go, but it is, perhaps, the very first thing you think of when you try to picture said battle.

And now imagine that that single moment… is actually part of a suite of misconceptions video games have ingrained in you.

  • Like the misconception—provided by a truly awesome and high quality game like Skyrim, for example—that attacking a monster might not illicit any physical reaction whatsoever (because Stunning is tied to Critical Hits and certain moves to make it a gameplay feature).
  • Or the idea that an enemy would pose and act for visual flare, never attacking in a way that sacrificed aesthetics for brutal, logical efficiency.
  • Or the subliminal idea that when battles start, all environmental elements are stripped away and replaced with a large, flat expanse as to not impede the action.

I could go on until I round back to the concept of a Level 1 Barbarian fleeing from a Level 99 Tribble, but if you love video games as much as I do, you’ll know all of these incongruities yourself. Because you always have.

The CR Trap’s Effect on Your Fantasy Writing

I’ll be completely honest with you—I did not catch myself falling into the trap until I finished the first draft of War of Exiles. No lie, rereading the Prologue, in which my protagonist has an encounter with a monster (geez, I even used “encounter”), was actually what sparked the need to rewrite the entire book. It was a horrible, horrible mess of a fight because I basically wrote a turn-based RPG encounter. Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but… I’ll strike off a list for you.

  • The monster, though harmed, did not suffer any serious damage or react to said damage with anything more than a roar and reel before recovering all of its mobility and faculties. Essentially, it was only pretend harmed.
  • The monster, though intelligent, had a collection of visually impressive but extremely useless attacks and abilities that it used slowly and illogically (classically ensnaring my protagonist and slowly pulling him towards itself… instead of immediately running up and killing him while he was helpless on the ground).
  • The battle started in the center of town, perfectly and unrealistically large for a small town and absolutely devoid of any obstructions aside from one decorative fountain that was effectively cut out the moment the fight started.

The only thing I didn’t do was have Lethe and the monster stand facing each other, weapons ready, posed and breathing as action bars filled up.

It’s odd to remember how much I relished writing the original scene too; it wasn’t just that I thought it was passable—I thought it was cool and exciting.

And that’s what the CR Trap does; it ironically lowers the Challenge Rating of your fight scenes by scripting you with the familiar; you feel right at home and comfortable and successful as your character cuts a giant spider’s leg but doesn’t really cut it because reasons. The spider jumps back and strikes again even though it’s gigantic and this is happening in what was just described as a castle courtyard crowded with statues, the spider missing every now-ignored statue because reasons. When the spider strikes  again, it grazes or, despite what should probably be unreal agility, totally misses. Because reasons. Long-ingrained, comfortable reasons.

Getting Out of the Trap

If you feel like you’ve written these kinds of scenes and want to change them, it’s a not at all simple process of going back and thinking very clearly about what’s really happening in your fight scenes. In particular, think about whatever monster or threat your characters are facing and consider something that’s absolutely foreign to video game fodder—what this monster’s individual motivation is. Try to plot how it would advance and how it would attack and stay true to that even if you still come out with a simple “It wants to kill my protagonist,” and especially if you find a complicated, scene-ruining answer like, “This creature would absolutely run away or try to run away if confronted.”

Also, and probably even more essential for combat scenes, don’t simplify your arenas, whether that means not always putting fights in conveniently cleared out “boss rooms,” or not forgetting the table in the center of the room.

But, if there’s one thing I’d suggest above all of this, it’s to put your characters in reasonable, honest danger. If you want your character to fight a giant spider, alone, admit that there’s a fantastic chance that spider (or a reasonably scaled threat for those protagonists who can easily kill a giant spider) will absolutely, ruthlessly, and efficiently kill your protagonist. At the very least, admit and embrace the idea that your characters can face insurmountable dangers in your story, even if thise dangers are never on-screen; that your protagonist isn’t the untouchable badass you usually follow to the end of a video game. To put it simply, write legitimate, suspenseful danger.

And, hey, while you’re at it, also make sure that no other gaming contrivances are plaguing your work (i.e. no fall damage or extremely convenient, nonsensical inventory systems [in particular, none of last gen’s ridiculously standard, “He slipped the weapon onto his back.”]).

Balancing the Trap

It is incredibly comfortable to just stick with the CR Trap and, for the sake of being cool and more appropriate for more audiences, many, many people do stick to it by small degrees; professionally produced stories absolutely follow the mold for the sake of not challenging audiences, who usually don’t really want to be challenged by their favorite characters dying unceremoniously. And that absolutely makes sense.

But in the case of fantasy, even if the average reader doesn’t want a play-by-play on what parts of a monster are sheared off during a fight (and I think the general audience probably doesn’t), any Fantasy-loving adult would be far, far more engrossed with a realistic, high-stakes battle (or chase or hunt). And none of them really want to read the fantasy novel where characters are never actually in danger or where the environment is oddly cleared for every encounter. There’s obviously a balance here and, like all elements of writing, the Challenge Rating meta you set in your work is up to you. But that’s just it—always be mindful of what you’re doing and make it an intentional choice for your story whether or not characters can takes thousands of pounds of knuckled force to the face and still get up.

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 This wound up being… so much more involved and complicated of a post than I expected. But, if you enjoyed, I’d love a Comment, Like, and/or Subscription. Regardless, thanks for reading!