Stewart Hemingson

Writing and Marketing

Swords Against!

I recently talked about a fantasy series I finished, Malazan, which is well noted for its usage of “dynamic duos”, having characters appear frequently in pairs who bring out the most interesting in each other. This heavily reminded me of a sadly often forgotten part of the formation of fantasy – the author Fritz Leiber.

Fritz Leiber is one of my all-time favourite authors, who ranged across fantasy, science fiction and horror in his writing, and his most famous creations are certainly Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a pair of warriors who engage in sword and sorcery type adventures across the world of Nehwon, particularly in and around the great city of Lankhmar. Leiber began writing the stories as early as the late 1930s, but only began organizing the short stories into collections in the 60s and 70s. The concept behind the characters was to create more “human” variations on the archetypical pulp heroes, such as Conan and Tarzan. Fafhrd is a gigantic northern barbarian with a straightforward view on life, while the Gray Mouser is a sly and more cynical thief.

While we might take these kinds of “odd couple” pairings for granted in modern fantasy, at the time, this must have been quite revolutionary. The difference is that with two different characters, there is ample chance for them to discuss and reflect upon the strange occurrences and peoples they encounter. This is where Leiber’s writing can really shine, because the man was a true wit. Where Conan and Tarzan may have been taciturn, Fafhrd and Mouser often pass the time with hilarious conversation, when not getting into adventures that deftly mix horror, exoticism, comedy and action. The two are often sent on absurd and dangerous missions by their wizardly patrons, Ninguable and Sheelba, who have a bickering relationship with their chosen heroes that also reminded my greatly of Malazan – Ninguable in particular always makes me think of the character of Shadowthrone.

While not having the impact of Conan, the pair have left an indelible mark on the fantasy genre, as seen by the many games and comics (including a fantastic rendition by Mike Mignola) based on them and their world, and the countless nods and references in other fantasy works. Indeed, Leiber seems a favourite among fantasy authors, and its not hard to see why given the charm with which he writes.

Of course, Leiber went far beyond sword and sorcery, writing some of my favourite science fiction stories, and perhaps the greatest urban fantasy story ever written, “Our Lady of Darkness”.  Just focusing on his sword and sorcery (a genre he helped name) accomplishments would be selling him short. I might return in the future to give some of his other works more love. Still, if you love old fashioned fantasy adventure and witty dialogue, there’s none better.

Inland Empire

I recently watched David Lynch’s Inland Empire, which had been sitting on my list for quite some time. When looking into Lynch’s work I’m always assured that the next film for me to watch is “the really incomprehensible one”, or where his surrealist style finally “goes to far”. As with the rest of his works, that was far from my experience with Inland Empire, which I very much enjoyed. One could view Inland Empire as the last of an “LA Trilogy”, also including Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, which is among my absolute favourite films. All of these films feature neo-noir elements, denial or distortion dof reality, some aspect of filmmaking within the story, and the city of LA itself. Inland Empire is unique in a few ways. Most immediately noticeable is that the entire film is shot on handheld digital, giving it a deliberately low budget feel that adds to the surrealistic tone – one feels like they are watching uncomfortable home movies or obscure pornography. Much of the film is also set in Poland, adding a very different visual style to much of the backdrops.

Like many of Lynch’s later works, the film does not have a linear plot, but in general, it is about an actress who takes a role in a “cursed film”, interweaving abuses both old and new. Lynch is perhaps my favourite director because he, more than anyone else, understands that film is a visual medium, and every frame could be used as a strange and surrealist painting. This is what always frustrates me about discussions regarding Lynch, with many complaining that without a cohesive narrative there can be no plot to tell, or those who claim to love his work but assert that it “doesn’t need to make sense.”

Just because Lynch relies much more on the visual (and auditory, for that matter) parts of filmmaking does not automatically mean that he is not a storyteller. One can get a clear sense of story from a single image, and series of images. Why I love Lynch so much is he understands that as visuals are much more open to interpretation, it gives free reign to the filmmaker to start speaking in their own unique languages.

But, in the end, I have to unfortunately agree with the rest of the discussion and admit that LA trilogy films are much a matter of taste. If you love Lynch and haven’t seen it, don’t be scared off – Inland Empire is engrossing to follow along its twisting path. I just want to voice my appreciation here for a filmmaker who is so willing to offer something that very few others are.

Endless Space 2

I’ve never had too much skill at the more complicated sort of strategy games. I’ve not had much luck with Paradox games, for examples. However, I’ve been having far too much of my time sucked up by Endless Space 2, so I figure I should give it a positive review.

Space-based 4X Games (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) are one of the oldest genres of video game out there, or rather a subgenre that has a very well-defined formula. One would think that 4X games would have figured out all possible permutations of this approach, but they remain popular and ever evolving.

I’d tried Stellaris but found it a bit much and a little unintuitive. Endless Space 2 has a lot of options, don’t get me wrong. However, it’s presented in such an intuitive manner that I was able to figure out half of it on my own. The other half I quickly learned through trial and error. The UI is very clear, which helps you understand why you made the mistakes you did.

Presentation is a theme with the game, which boasts truly gorgeous artwork, graphics and music. Often the difference between one game and the next is just the polish, and Endless Space 2 sparkles and shines in all aspects. The only blotch I can see is a notoriously bad outsourced DLC, but that’s easily simply skipped.

The game features a variety of colourful and interesting spacefaring Empires to choose from, each with very unique visual motifs and playstyles. And that’s not even getting started on all the more minor races you run into. I won’t spoil them all as part of the fun is discovering all the love and attention that went into every corner of the game.

If you like science fiction, strategy and lovely art, I’d highly recommend it.

Gold Line

I want to share an article I did for Gold Line, courtesy of MarketOne. This was a great one to work on, and is interesting for anyone looking for mining investment advice in 2021 onwards.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1J7ZHx8zlz3yC9ovusO7QszktpC6QcmSu/view?usp=sharing

Dr. Who: Inferno

I while back I wrote up some reviews of the science fiction serials of Nigel Kneale – some wonderful relics of a bygone age. I do feel that it would be amiss to talk about the age of British science fiction serials without bringing up the franchise that reigned supreme over the grenre and format – Dr. Who.

Dr. Who is a British institution and global phenomenon, and I’m not going to try to do a summation of the franchise or talk about it as a whole. There are a lot of great videos and essays you can find on the topic. Instead I’m going to look at just one Dr. Who serial, Inferno. The reason for this is that it has often been compared to Kneale’s style of work, and is generally considered one of the best of its era. So, the question is, looking back – does it hold up?

I’ve watched some of early Dr. Who and I must say that while I have to applaud their imaginativeness, many of the early serials suffer from their format rather than benefit from it. Rarely does it occour that every moment in a multi-episode serial is used well, and the plots often suffer from recursion or stalling in order to fill out their run time. You get the feeling that often the writers were struggling to make their deadlines and fill the time, which I suppose is part of the charm. Inferno is so impressive, however, because it manages to keep its engagement over seven episodes.

The general idea is that the titular Doctor (the third incarnation of the character, played by John Pertwee), is performing experiments while sharing the power of a drilling project in England (in Dr. Who, all the most major scientific projects in the world naturally are located in England). The project in question is headed by the maniacally obsessive Professor Stahlman and seeks to pierce the Earth’s crust. There is a general sense of foreboding about the project, exacerbated when scientists exposed to some of the liquid dredged up by the drill start to turn into violent, heat loving mutants.  The Doctor’s experiments end up sending him “sideways” in time, visiting the same drill site in a dystopian alternate Britain.

The sequence in the dictatorial Britain forms a sort of “story within a story”, and is the reason Inferno works so well where other long serials falter – just as we might be losing interest in the “our world” plot, we get a new set of stakes to care about, as the Doctor must avoid being sent to the firing squad by less scrupulous versions of the cast from his Britain. The interior story also allows the serial to become shockingly grim, with not everyone escaping the fiery cataclysm that occours when the drill project is complete. The serial can have its apocalyptic bad ending, but the Doctor then gets to return to his own timeline and take another crack at stopping the disaster. The dark mood seems very much inspired by Kneale type serials, and with its rampaging mutants and flowing lava, it’s a great take on Armageddon.

The cast is all great, and I must give kudos to Pertwee as the Doctor. The Third Doctor is in somewhat of a unique situation in that the metaplot of the show has him stuck on Earth, instead of freely roaming the cosmos. Pertwee is excellent at playing the Doctor like a tense, cadged animal – he knows he’s smarter than everyone else on Earth, but for once, he can’t just leave.

Indeed, the serial is shocking prescient and captured some of the exact feeling of hopelessness and frustration that you might experience talking to a climate change denier. A blind focus on “results” and personal achievement leads to the destruction of one world. Even if his Britain isn’t a 1984 style dictatorship, the Doctor must struggle against much of the same sorts of stubborn insanity to save the day. The Third Doctor, who is a man of science and rationality, with the trappings of a genteel Victorian dandy, is the perfect foil to the forces of thuggery and irrationality. I give Inferno a solid recommendation if you enjoy 1970’s era sci-fi.

Rainmaker

The following is an article prepared for Rainmaker, a company that is doing a lot of good in the world with its water purification technology.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1EIOJTHBKg1OHB_xwF5IB5v0zF1CtL2pH/view?usp=sharing

TaaT Beyond Tobacco

The following article I did for Taat Beyond Tobacco for Sundar Capital – a really cool company with a really cool idea.

 

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Qop1PkuvFz0sW9okfXlz1C0Payh6orgs/view?usp=sharing

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just in case anyone is following these posts, this is a heads up that there will not be a post made today, nor on Thursday. I’ll be busy traveling for Canadian Thanksgiving. Keep safe during the festive season!

(Fun fact – both American and Canadian Thanksgivings were put into place through progressive legislation at the end of the 19th Century. However, both were inspired by historical events. The American Thanksgiving traces its lineage back to the Pilgrims in the 17th Century. Canadian Thanksgiving, however, has its origin point in the explorations of Frobisher in the 16th Century. Guess that means the Canadian one can be argued to be the original!)

“Have You Tried Not Playing DnD?”

I might be going a little off the beaten path today, away from my usual ramblings about books, so I thank you for sticking with a vent out of left-field. However, as someone who greatly enjoys pen and paper Roleplaying Games, I’m constantly faced with the dreaded phrase “RPGs? Oh, you mean Dungeons and Dragons?”

It’s hard to think of any creative medium so deeply entwined with a singular product. In a way, this does make sense. Roleplaying games, tabletop or otherwise, are in many ways designed as a toolkit to help build story and gameplay, more akin to a method of creativity rather than a finished creative product. At the same time, they flirt with being a creative endeavour all of their own, when you take into account world-building material and adventure modules. Still, no matter how you view RPGs, this tight relationship is impressive. Imagine, if when the term “movie” or “book” came up, everyone thought of the single, same example. “You read a book? Oh, you mean Harry Potter?”

While I have nothing against Dungeons and Dragons as a game, nor against (most) of the people who have it as their first and only choice of RPG, it is frustrating to have something you enjoy being constantly boiled down to a singular talking point. This is only more frustrating because I feel that Dungeons and Dragons and its close derivatives (you can assume Pathfinder fits here as well) are not particularly good at their job – or are, at least, being forced into roles that they were never meant for.

At the moment, this total control probably just comes down to excellent marketing on the part of Hasbro and the lucky coincidence that “nerd chic” became a fashion statement. Everyone is desperate to seem a little bit quirky to avoid accusations of being “normal”, and Dungeons and Dragons instantly leaps to mind as that perfect offbeat fashion accessory. Once live streams of carefully scripted games became popular, Dungeons and Dragons roared back to life and seems destined to hold its dominant position in the market.

I think the reason why this dominance rubs me the wrong way is that it feels so fundamentally backward to me. For those with less experience with RPGs, I’ll do my best to explain my thought process. An RPG is, generally, a toolkit for collaborative storytelling or gameplay. I often say that it’s like telling a story, but you manage to trick your friends (and the element of chance) into helping you with your storytelling. The players take the role of the main characters of the story, and the chance is provided normally by dice or some other method of randomization. With the addition of independent agents and the uncertainty of the dice, the exact outcome of the story is a mystery when it starts. Good gamemasters simply create a stage with a determined setting and non-player characters (NPCs), perhaps with some prepared events to keep things moving. Then it’s up to the players to navigate this world and set things in motion. The fun of the RPG often comes from not knowing how things are ever going to exactly pan out or develop.

However, not all players and gamemasters enjoy interacting with their created worlds in the same ways. RPGs tend to fall into a spectrum from narrative to “simulationist”. More narrative games put more emphasis on freely telling the story and on discussion. The dice are only brought out when there is a question over how successful an action might be, or two characters are competing against each other. Simulationist games tend to have some portion of their gameplay expanded into a more robust gaming system. Normally this is the combat, as these kinds of situations are often of high risk to characters and are a great place to introduce more “gamist” content, the tactics of which are appealing to many players. Some games go so heavily into the simulationist angle that they become closer to wargames, with players taking the role of soldiers or commanders in a complex campaign.

Sounds like a lot of moving parts, doesn’t it? And that is exactly why there isn’t just one RPG on the market. For a good gamemaster, all the RPGs that he knows how to play are like tools in a toolkit. He thinks of the sort of story that he wants to tell and then picks out the tool closest to the kind of experience that he wants – the tool that will put more simulation on the parts of the game that will be focal points and less simulation on details that will be less necessary. If there is no specific tool appropriate, the gamemaster will instead look for a more flexible tool that he knows can be adapted for what he needs. Let’s say that our gamemaster has been watching a lot of old samurai films and thinks it would be fun to put his players in a similar situation – plenty of quick-draw swordfights and musings on duty and honour. He could then go to his set of RPG books and pick out, say, Legend of the Five Rings, a game that features rules specifically for simulating high-risk duels between samurai. The book also includes a lot of worldbuilding for a fictional faux-Japan setting, with useful information for gamemaster and player alike for gaming in such a world.

This gets to why Dungeons and Dragons is so strange to me, because so often people pick it up just to “play an RPG” and then try to make it do all kinds of things it was not designed for. If the gamemaster playing Legend of the Five Rings is analogous to a man who needs to turn a screw and pulls a screwdriver out of his toolkit, many Dungeons and Dragons players are like someone who takes a hammer out of their toolkit and then starts trying to think of things that might need hammering.

This is not to say that Dungeons and Dragons does not have its own role as a tool, although I do think that its purpose has become rather convoluted through age. Briefly, Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy game focused around simulationist combat, in which characters eventually rise to superhuman levels of durability and skill – think fantasy, but with superhero characters. If those are the kinds of games you want, that’s great, but why limit yourself to just that one experience? A long-running joke among the online RPG community is the refrain of “Have you tried not playing Dungeons and Dragons?” – the response given to those expressing frustration over problems that develop when they try making the system do something it was not meant to handle. In other words, trying to use that hammer to screw in screws or saw planks of wood.

I’ll also go out a little further and argue that Dungeons and Dragons isn’t even particularly good at what it sets out to do. This is mainly because it tries to expand its core set of ideas (e.g. differing classes) over a wide set of in-house worlds. Throughout the editions, this has always led to major issues of balancing between players, issues that aren’t considered when just looking at fantasy as a genre. Look at it this way – if you were playing something like Lord of the Rings as a game, how do you make everyone who isn’t Gandalf not feel redundant? How can a high fantasy style wizard be balanced against low fantasy style warriors in the same system? When things became very unbalanced players tended to complain that certain classes were essentially obsolete. When things were more balanced, players complained that everything felt too “similar”. A better game would either allow fantastical magic for all players or deny it to all of them. But Dungeons and Dragons has been around for so long, and become so iconic, that many odd game design choices have become enshrined as sacred and inviolate. (Compare this to the modern set of Star Wars games, which have separated out the mystical, superhuman Jedi into their own game, as the experience is on such a different scale.)

I think another problem is that Dungeons and Dragons has been so preeminent for so long that it’s starting to eat its own tail when it comes to style and themes. Historically, as far as fantasy roleplaying games went, people would read a particular sort of fantasy work, get inspired, and try to recreate that through a roleplaying game. However, Dungeons and Dragons has been massively influential on pop culture, especially video games, early iterations of which copied a lot of the gameplay concepts. This, combined with increasingly visible pop culture appearances, catapulted Dungeons and Dragons into the mainstream. The result is that many new players want to play Dungeons and Dragons to recreate the experience of…. Dungeons and Dragons. The process has not only become backward but circular – a trap that is difficult for many to break out of and allow themselves to enjoy the genre from different perspectives or enjoy a differing genre altogether. And, most frustrating from my point of view, they never get to enjoy the other wonderful systems, worlds, and adventures created by the dedicated and imaginative RPG designer community outside of Dungeons and Dragons. 

Of course, my goal isn’t to stop people from playing what they enjoy playing. I’ve heard a lot of people swear that the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons has fixed many of the balance issues mentioned, and if it’s working for them – great! I simply wanted to point out that there is a wide and diverse array of amazing content that should also be appreciated, even if it doesn’t have a massive corporation backing its marketing and advertising.

So, to end on a more positive note, I want to give a shout-out to what is becoming a favoured system of mine – Reign, by Greg Stolze, a variant of the One Roll Engine (ORE) system. A fantasy game with a focus on more narrative play, and on wielding more political power than your standard “murderhobo” Dungeons and Dragons campaign, I’ve found the system very flexible for adaptation into what I need it to do. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re a gamemaster who’s gotten some campaigns under their belt and wants a tool that they can modify and tinker with. It’s the most modern of the ORE systems as well, and the author has self-published a lot of fun additional content. If you are like me and enjoy games that are a bit heavier on politics and intrigue, I’d advise giving it a look.

Tribute to The Venture Bros.

The word just came out that Adult Swim has cancelled their long running (if not exactly prolific) animated show, The Venture Bros. While in today’s day and age a cancellation doesn’t necessarily mean that something is gone forever, with the show in such a precarious position, I found myself thinking back to it over and over. It may be that myself, and others, simply took The Venture Bros. for granted. Due to a very slow release schedule, with new seasons coming out two or three years apart, it was perhaps too easy for the show to be put at the back of peoples’ minds. We should remember, however, that the slow release schedule was mostly due to the incredibly intricate scripts, plots and animation being worked on for every season.

Trying to talk about The Venture Bros is difficult for me without simply falling into trying to explain why so many scenes and characters are so memorable. The original premise of the show is an amusingly dark take on Hanna-Barbera era cartoons, particularly Jonny Quest. (A thinly disguised Johnny actually shows up in the show as a washed-up drug addict). The show focuses around the family and employees of Rusty Venture, who was a child adventurer with a “super-science” father, similar to Jonny. The constant encounters with danger, an impossible to live up to father figure and an emotionally abusive upbringing have left Rusty as a bitter, narcissistic underachiever with two dimwitted sons, coasting on his father’s achievements and money. While he shows little skill at the “super-scientist” life, he still goes through the motions with half-baked inventions, and suffering the attention of various super-villains, most notably the obsessive Monarch. Few of these villains ever manage to do much permanent damage, however, due to Rusty’s murder machine of an assigned bodyguard, Brock Sampson.

The show was famously described by its creators as being “about failure”, with the various characters inheriting the broken dreams of the optimistic Space Age cartoon era. And yet, if this was all the The Venture Bros. was, I don’t think it would have had as much charm as it did. Many shows present “incomplete” characters to attract audience sympathy, but then proceed to never give them any sort of development or growth, constantly retreading the same lessons and mistakes. The Venture Bros. manages to find meaning in failure, even if in small and incremental steps, and part of the fun of the series is watching the excellent character arcs play out. It’s not only the characters who get development however, but the world. The heroes and villains are shown to operate under a strict set of rules and guidelines, ensuring that their escapades can continue through to the modern day with minimal impact. The combination of comic book antics with the minutiae of awkward personal lives makes the series feel like a sweeter hearted Watchman at times.

These are the broad strokes of what makes the show so watchable, but the success is really in the details. Even with the great character development and worldbuilding aside, The Venture Bros. is flat out hilarious, especially once it hits its stride after a season or two. A stellar voice cast manages to make even minor characters memorable and often hilarious, and a hallmark of the show is gag characters turning into important parts of the series. It would be too long to explain all of the varied cast, but I have to say my favourite is the avuncularly villainous Dr. Henry Killinger, a demented but charming combination of his namesake (down to the accent) and an evil Mary Poppins.

The show thrives off of references like that but, unlike other “reference humour” based shows, they never feel like an impediment on plot or the humour of the script. The show might toss out visual, dialogue and scene replication gags at a mile a minute, but the story nearly never slows down to for a laborious explanation. The references feel more like Easter eggs for the attentive viewer, and range so widely as to have something for everyone. My personal favourite running gag is that the leader of the main villain organization is David Bowie, and the shows milks those lyrical references for all they are worth. The fact that the references go above and beyond obvious “nerd” ones are part of the charm. Sure, the show will pull out references to The Empire Strikes Back – but then blends in a healthy dose of Barbarella at the same time. It’s the perfect salve for the soul for those of us stuck with the pain of living in a post Big Bang Theory world.

This is all building up to the fact that the scripts and delivery are absolutely on point, and the comedy manages to feel both tightly designed and improvisational at the same time. When combined with the excellent voice actors, simple dialogue between characters becomes hilarious. This is aided by the fact that the characters are so endearing, even the side ones, and watching them play off of each other is fun in its own right.  You can tell that the slower release schedule is well used to get the comedic timing fine-tuned to perfection. This attention to detail also allows for very clever call backs and self-references, further rewarding the attentive viewer.

As far as adult animated television goes, I can confidently say that The Venture Bros. should stand up there with the like of The Simpsons and Futurama. Arguably it may be better than either of those overall, as it never really developed the issue of later seasonal rot. The biggest disappointment is that the cancelled eighth season was supposed to be the last, the one that would have brought closure to certain lingering questions and character arcs. Even without this final season, I would still heavily recommend the show. Hopefully my prayers will be answered, and the eighth season will find a platform for release. Here’s hoping!

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