Hot take: D&D 5e gets Charisma dead wrong. 5e only acknowledges a tiny slice of the greater whole: Charisma isn’t about being likable, it’s about being compelling. It’s about being a metaphysical Mack truck on a highway full of smart cars.Continue reading
Circles of Belief, Quick Thoughts
I first heard the phrase “circle of belief” as a young teen, and have found it to be a useful mental model ever since. I thought I’d written about it here before, and was wrong. While looking for other sourcing for this post I found a lot of Slayer lyrics and not much else, so… here goes.
Someone’s circle of belief governs what they see as plausible, something they can follow along with, versus what they see as implausible or alien. There’s a lot of overlap with genre expectations or something similar, but they’re not quite the same. The key is that everyone has a circle of belief for any given context. When I’m trying to shape someone’s circle of belief I’m not trying to alter their genre expectations writ large—just their specific assumptions for a given story or game.
Note: this is more or less how propaganda and political messaging works. Here, though, I’m going to focus on fun fiction and story games.
Expected and accepted elements exist inside the circle of belief—they do not require any additional suspension of disbelief from the audience. Working inside a circle of belief is relatively low effort. Inside the circle of belief, you don’t have to convince the audience to agree with you. You don’t risk alienating your audience by including an element that doesn’t fit. Breaking an established circle of belief, however, may push someone out of the story.
When reading a fantasy story, elements like dwarves and elves probably fit inside most people’s circle of belief, while giant killer robots probably don’t. Similarly, a sober spy novel has lots of room within most readers’ circles of belief for skullduggery and betrayal. But if that spy story suddenly featured a goblin going on air and declaring herself a prophet, that might break the audience’s circle of belief and create cognitive dissonance. That cognitive dissonance can lead to confusion and disenchantment. Breaking the circle of belief can break audience members’ emotional investment in a story or their suspension of disbelief, and a story which had been fun could become too bizarre to enjoy.
This isn’t to say that those examples above would be inherently bad stories. Each of those examples could exist and be done well. The audience’s circle of belief could be shaped to include them. But shaping that circle of belief requires specific work, and it takes more work the further the new circle of belief is from the audience’s existing circles of belief.
That work could involve carefully laying out clues and hints before some surprise reveal, a genre twist. Alternately, that work could require laying out the future story elements as early and blatantly as possible to prepare the audience for later. Tropes and foreshadowing, for example, offer more options for manipulating circles of belief—as does marketing copy. If I describe a story as “Harry Potter but ___,” the audience will probably assume they know large chunks of what to expect.
Each person’s expectations will be a little different, of course. Everyone has their own circles of belief.
In many ways, this laying-out-the-elements is what worldbuilding is about. Every little detail can build context for the larger story, and thereby shape the audience’s expectations. But it’s easiest to do this work at the very start of a story. That’s because, in general, the longer a given circle of belief remains static the more work you must do to change it.
In RPGs, and any time that you’re in a shared narrative space, it’s important to know what is inside and what is outside of your fellow players’ circles of belief. That could be for the structure of the game itself: I might assume that my character could die, or that the storyteller is my adversary, while someone else might assume that we’re playing a collaborative narrative game. It could also be for the fiction within the game: I presume that we’re playing a hard fantasy game, while the storyteller thinks this is a magical post-apocalypse full of the ruins of ancient civilizations. These assumptions aren’t all incompatible with each other, but you can probably see how they might cause trouble if unaddressed.
The simplest way to handle this is to talk about the story elements everyone wants to play with (or avoid) before you play. You can also check back in about these things, and see whether there are any pieces people want to add or remove after any given session. I recommend checking in every once in a while. You’re less likely to be unhappily surprised that way, and more likely to make stories that everyone finds fun.
D&D & Disease (in 5e)
There are a lot of topics that D&D isn’t ready-made to explore. As best as I can tell, disease (chronic or acute) is one of them.
This line of thought came up for me while talking with my sib about dangerous encounters in a weird fantasy / sci-fi / horror adventure campaign I’m running for some friends. It’s a roughly post-apocalyptic setting, based in The Hub, in which the apocalypse(s) in question took place a variable amount of time ago and in different fashions, depending on where the PCs explore. Some of the perils the PCs face include radiological disasters, and radioactive environments or threats.
My sib, naturally, asked what I’d done on the topic of cancer.Continue reading
Why do I get bored during dungeon crawls?
Dungeon crawls. Creeping step by step through a dangerous maze, never knowing whether the next monster is lurking in ambush just around the corner. The bubbling pit of anxiety and paranoia simmering in my guts, asking, “Are we being careful enough? Are we being too careful? Do we need to push forward faster now?”
Sounds exciting, right? An invigorating gamble, as the delvers push their luck to its limits. Or maybe it sounds like a challenging adventure full of both risk and reward.
Or maybe it sounds exhausting. Grueling. A long, undifferentiated grind of tension gradually giving way to player-fatigue as you weary of the prolonged stress and lethal stakes.
I’ve experienced all those things while playing dungeon crawls, often within the same game. And after talking with my sib about the experience, I have some better-structured observations to share. So, how can I make dungeon crawls more fun for myself? What parallels exist, what narrative structures can storytellers build on?
First up, let’s talk about stress.Continue reading
Mass layoffs, squandered investments
Sometimes there’s a story circulating in the zeitgeist and I have to write about it. Today I’m actually publishing those thoughts instead of shelving them.
There’s a story going around the tech-world (and the people who invest in the tech-world) that laying off staff right now is important, necessary, and a sign of good judgment. It goes hand-in-hand with messages about having over-hired during the pandemic, and messages about an expected recession. I suspect it’s misguided, even if the other connected messages are true and accurate.
Honestly, this current layoff-streak looks to me like companies chasing each other, trying to convince investors that they’re serious and diligent. Better yet, that they’re responsible.
Turns out James Surowiecki sees the same pattern. He has an article on this here. He thinks this looks like a parallel to stories about “downsizing” from decades ago. I see any number of connections to other stories about austerity and responsibility.
I might judge this differently if it seemed like the tech companies involved were firing according to a plan or a consistent basis for judgement. Instead, it looks like they’re firing willy-nilly at all levels. Beyond that Business Insider article, the reports I’ve heard from people working in the affected companies all suggest that this current wave of layoffs is haphazard at best: one reported that the company was still hiring, often for the very positions they just opened by firing experienced workers. It seemed their company paid little attention to the composition of the teams they were firing from, or the relevant experience of the people they fired.
All of that makes me think that this move, firing roughly 6% of a company’s workforce, is more about needing to be seen as doing something rather than about doing the right thing.
So what are the costs incurred by this? If these companies are firing at scale, firing 6% of their employees while still making profit and while still sitting on war chests of as-yet uninvested funds (e.g. Ruth Porat’s segment of Google’s Q4 2022 call)—is that actually a sign of good judgment? Or are these companies shooting themselves in the foot?
In other words, is that story about firing people being the diligent, serious thing to do either true or accurate?
For argument’s sake, I’m going to accept as given that the other two stories are true. I’ll agree that these companies over-hired during the pandemic, and that the economy will either experience a recession this year or at least perform worse than hoped.
I’m not going to dispute any of that.
But what price do these companies pay with these firings? Does it make sense to fire these workers?
Let’s step back. When does it make sense to fire someone?
I posit two general cases:
1) It makes sense to fire someone when they hurt a company more by staying than they do by leaving.
2) It could makes sense to fire someone if their role is no longer relevant to the tasks performed by a company—but that ignores the benefit of reassigning them to a different role and saving on onboarding costs.
I admit, there may be other cases. But I think these two cover the majority of reasonable firing situations.
#2 is probably easiest to understand as a company-wide refocusing of effort. If a company totally shuts down an operation, stops trying to make or support a certain product, etc., it might make sense that some of the staff involved would no longer be relevant to the company’s goals. In that case, firing could make sense.
In counterpoint, I maintain that the company is probably better served by retaining whatever staff it can and assigning them new work in whatever the company’s area of focus may be. Onboarding staff takes time. Training staff takes time. Even if you have to retrain reassigned staff, you’re probably still saving money by conserving your staff pool.
Also, I haven’t seen a dramatic shift in stated plans among the various tech companies that are so eager to fire people. Thus, I don’t think these layoffs fall into case #2.
As for #1… what does it take for an employee to hurt a company more by staying than by leaving?
I’m going to ignore the case of an employee being a toxic piece of shit who harms others around them. That seems like a very clear cut entry in case #1, and it doesn’t match what I’ve heard about the current wave of tech layoffs. If that’s the reason for these firings, they’re firing a lot of the wrong people.
So. How does one calculate the costs of someone staying? How does one calculate the costs of someone leaving?
The costs of keeping an employee can be loosely summed up as “pay, benefits, and overhead.” Employees cost salary or wage, they cost payroll tax, they cost whatever is offered as benefits… there are probably other things I’m missing here: I’m not an expert and this is not intended to be professionally rigorous. But a lot of the costs associated with employee benefits and overhead are reduced by economies of scale: the more X you’re buying, the more efficient that purchase is likely to be. It costs less to offer a ridiculously nice physical work environment for your Nth employee than it does to offer that for your first ten. Based on what I know about negotiating power, etc., I’m willing to bet that those economies of scale remain true to some extent across other realms of company overhead and employee benefits.
Basically, cutting X% of a workforce will reduce a company’s costs. But it will probably reduce those costs by less than X%. Pay isn’t evenly spread around a company’s employees: the C-suite is far more generously compensated than other employees are. And trimming away the costs of benefits offered to that X% likely won’t reduce the total price of those benefits on a 1-to-1 basis, due to the aforementioned economies of scale.
So how much does it cost to fire someone?
In these layoffs, fired employees will receive severance pay. That’s a potentially squishy number, but according to Business Insider, Microsoft expects to pay $1.2 billion in severance for approximately 10,000 employees (averaging $120k per person). If you take Microsoft at their word about their severance package being generous—I’m reluctant to, but this’ll make my math easier—we could guess at a cost of $100k per fired employee.
We can also track how much work-time these companies are losing by firing these employees. What do I mean by that? I mean: there’s a time cost associated with bringing employees up to speed. It’s incurred at the start of any employee’s time at a company. To a lesser extent, it may be re-incurred with any shuffle of personnel.
Friends working in tech tell me it takes roughly six months for someone to be brought up to speed and usefully contribute to a highly specialized team, while ”a quarter or two” might be the normal range for other teams. At the six-month end, firing 6,000 people who’ve been at the company for six months or more is 3,000 wasted worker-years (for reference, Google has fired 12,000 people; Salesforce 7,000; Microsoft 10,000). Even if I assume everyone fired got up to speed in only one month (which isn’t borne out by the spread of teams that lost members), that still comes out to a cost of 500 worker-years for firing 6,000 people. That time was paid for already. Firing those employees, to me, looks like squandering that investment.
What is harder to quantify?
The above math assumes we only count the time of the employee being brought up to speed. It makes no accounting of the time and effort other people on their teams put into helping them catch up. I won’t try to account for that here. Any estimates there would be even more speculative than what I’ve done so far, and I think my assessment of the squandered time investment is already damning.
Another item I can’t quantify here is the cost of the institutional knowledge lost in this firing process. From others’ reporting, some of the people fired have been with their companies for up to 16 years. The company-specific and project-specific knowledge and expertise accrued over a decade-plus of work at a company can’t be understated; knowing who to speak to when seeking answers for specific problems, being able to tell others how older systems work, and having personal experience of previous solutions to prior crises all matter. As with the invested worker-time, all of that is being squandered.
Which brings me to another difficult-to-quantify cost which my friends in tech anticipate: decreased product resiliency. Because “automate yourself out of work” is the standard MO for many development teams, the repercussions of firing chunks of those development teams aren’t likely to be felt until a quarter or two from now when something inevitably breaks. When that happens, it’s a roll of the dice whether the person who designed the system and knew it best is still available within the company. The recent layoff wave, with its apparent scattershot approach, is well-designed to exacerbate those system failures by unpredictably removing the relevant expertise. Maintaining existing products and internal infrastructure will be harder, and that additional load will likely make future development more difficult as well.
All of this is exacerbated by the way in which the firings were carried out, which look a lot like intentional corporate self-harm from the outside.
Those laid off report learning of the firings by surprise. These people were frozen out of their ex-employers’ communication systems with no time given to pass on custody of any of their work to their coworkers. While many of these articles focus on Google, I’ve heard similar reports from people at Athenahealth. Any sane and competent organization—one that wants to preserve continuity of service, continuity of experience, and allow people to pass on custody of their projects to another person without leaving everything in a mysterious mess—would do this differently. Anyone picking up the projects of those who were fired will have to do their best to decrypt whatever notes made sense to the person who thought they’d return to their project the next day. It’s the opposite of good management.
Given that most investors look for companies that take advantage of market downturns to grow their business, this wave of firings seems short-sighted. It appears to have been conducted in a way that guarantees the erosion of product resiliency and handicaps meaningful transfer of projects from those fired to those who remain.
A final element I can’t quantify here: morale.
Companies, whether they like it or not, are communities. Communities function smoothly when their members are able to trust each other and predict each other’s actions. When a company fires 6% of its staff for no apparent reason, that damages any existing trust and puts the lie to predictability. It makes remaining experienced employees more likely to quit, or seek employment elsewhere.
Also, as a reminder, people may be friends with their coworkers. I am not in a position to quantify friendship. I can’t speak to what portion of the people fired had at least X friends, or whether they were real SOBs that everyone was glad to see leave (an ideal candidate for firing case #1). But seeing one’s friends lose their jobs for no apparent reason, seeing them suffer as a result, is disheartening, discouraging, and encourages anger and resentment—none of which are conducive to greater productivity.
Furthermore, I think this article about the pressure recessions exert on union organizing misses a critical point. Tech companies have been trying to quash union formation for years now. When tech companies show they are willing to fire people for no apparent reason, that may discourage and foster fear amongst their employees. But it can also be another incentive for workers to take actions their companies don’t approve of—like organizing. If they might be fired at random despite playing by the rules, what do they have to lose?
Scared people will certainly pay lip service to frightening authorities. But we have about two more years of Biden’s first term left to go. There’s no time in recent history when employees have been more likely to receive federal support in their unionization efforts. If these companies wanted to undercut pro-union sentiment, they chose a strange way to do so.
In summary, I don’t think these layoffs make much sense. The story tech executives are telling, of these layoffs being a sign of their seriousness and diligence and responsibility, simply doesn’t hold water. Even if dramatically reducing costs right now were necessary for these companies, the way in which these companies went through this firing process verges on self-harm.
My reasoning is as follows:
If a company over-hired, and there’s a recession coming, it makes sense to slow down hiring. It makes sense to reduce expenses. If the company were operating on thin margins and had little cash in reserve, that might require drastic measures and targeted cuts.
When a company is still making profit, and is sitting on a war chest of a hundred-billion-plus dollars, it can afford to eat into that reserve in order to conserve its existing expertise and expand its future capabilities.
Instead, Google spent $59 billion on buying back shares (see Ruth Porat’s segment of that Q4 2022 call). That increases stock price. It does nothing to improve a company’s fundamental performance.
Firing a swathe of employees largely at random has considerable costs. It incurs severance pay. It squanders prior investments of time and money. When firing at random, the money it saves in expenses does not match the proportional impact on institutional knowledge and capability. The firings damage worker morale and foster resentment. And the future cost of time lost to fixing broken systems without the people who knew them best, alongside the associated reputational costs when those systems’ failures impact the company’s customers, are injurious.
As far as I can tell, the only way that these firings make sense is if the companies involved expect a dramatic drop in revenue. In a moment of grim comedy, these firings may create the environment for those losses, and make weathering them more difficult.
But this brings me back to my suspicion that these firings weren’t about actual diligence and responsibility. The alternative is that these firings have little to do with the companies’ future performance, and everything to do with signaling to investors.
In response to lower than expected earnings over the last quarter, some investors are pushing for cost-cutting measures. This is fairly normal behavior. Investors who expect a recession are also pushing for companies to prepare, or at least to be ready for slower growth against economic headwinds.
How do companies show that they’re taking these concerns seriously?
By firing lots of staff, by creating a narrative of responsibility and seriousness, these companies are attempting to communicate that they’re sober, clear-headed, business-minded. As with the stock buybacks, this message is a reassurance that the company cares about their investors and will do what it must to improve their stock value. But this privileges short-term behavior over long-term investment.
As someone who owns some shares in some of these companies, this is disheartening. These are bad decisions. They’re bad decisions that have been executed poorly in the most injurious ways. They look to me like a surgeon grinning, hands smeared with blood and full of mostly healthy freshly-excised tissue, reassuring the audience that the cuts they just made were all well thought out. I can only hope the audience is not convinced, and doesn’t reward this behavior.
I have few doubts that these companies will weather our next economic storms mostly intact. They have many billions of dollars in reserve, they can afford to choose poorly again and again. But this? This was a mess.
It’s also an opportunity. Those workers still employed by these companies can make their voices heard. Even if they still believe that the company they work for earnestly shares their best interests, they can organize and push their companies to focus on long-term planning instead of the market-rewarded sugar-high of quick fixes and flashy cuts.
Palm Springs (2020)
So, look, Palm Springs checks a lot of boxes for me.
Palm Springs could have been half as good and would still have entertained me. Instead, this movie had me cackling and murmuring appreciatively by turns.
It’s a deeply philosophical character study wrapped up in a semi-absurdist grim comedy about life, and what it means to be a part of it. It’s my kind of good movie.
It’s got time loops. It has characters who feel believably human throughout the situations they’re stuck in. It takes the opportunity offered by playing with time loops to delve into what makes those characters tick, what they believe about the world, and how that drives the decisions that they make. There’s some love, there’re plenty of personal realizations and comedic moments, there’s a bit of enlightenment, and there’s a whole lot of dying (with very little gore).
I loved this movie.
First off, I’m a sucker for time travel. I’m even more of a sucker for time loops. I’ll enjoy stories built on either of those things, because they delight me even when other parts of a story aren’t as good.
Another thing I like: I like stories with characters who feel believably human. I like characters who feel internally consistent. I like characters who—even if they disavow this—have personal philosophies and worldviews that I can understand through observing the characters interacting with each other and their world.
Watching believably human characters play off each other and struggle with their beliefs about the world and life, seeing that done well, that’s a treat. It’s even better when I recognize some of the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of the perspectives in play.
Now, I don’t want all of my movies to be about people struggling with those perspectives on life. Nor do I want every movie I watch to be about people struggling with their worldviews as they intersect with others’. Someone no doubt argues that every story is that, probably Truby, but that’s missing my point.
Besides which, Palm Springs does all that without making it feel cumbersome. I say that it’s deeply philosophical, but none of that gets in the way of enjoying anything else going on in the movie. It’s the perfect approach to an “all-ages” philosophical text; much like those exemplary Pixar movies designed to entertain children and adults simultaneously, Palm Springs is accessible at any one of a variety of levels.
Though, uh, it’s not exactly a kid’s movie.
Still. If you want to watch Palm Springs as a romance, that’s available. If you want to watch it as an exploration of the Hindu and Buddhist teachings on reincarnation, proper action, suffering, and enlightenment, that’s there too! And if you’re looking for a grim comedy where some hooligans make a bunch of regrettable choices and suffer (somewhat) for them, that’s there in spades.
This movie will inevitably be compared with Groundhog Day, because… time loops. And because they’re so similar. Also, heh, this post is going up on Groundhog Day despite me having watched the movie maybe a month ago.
What I mean is, Groundhog Day is *the* present cultural touchstone for anything like Palm Springs. Hell, Groundhog Day digs through a lot of the same material and wrestles with many of the same philosophical questions. I doubt Palm Springs would exist without Groundhog Day. In a number of ways, Palm Springs feels like a modern update to the older story.
That modern update makes a huge difference for me. In a good way.
Annnnnnd here we hit the *SPOILERS*.
For all that Groundhog Day and Palm Springs cover similar ground, Groundhog Day is trapped in a romance story’s paradigm. Winning the love (and belief) of someone not stuck in the time loop through engaging in proper moral action—and through showing off whatever skill you’ve developed over your eternity in this time loop—is the path out. That conclusion isn’t stated explicitly, but it’s sure as hell implied by the movie.
It’s a romance story. Love saves the day. Being a more moral human helps, and is important, but love saves the day.
Palm Springs offers that conclusion, and then explicitly rejects it. Right action, doing the right thing, atoning for previous faults or doing good wherever you can… don’t get you out of the loop. Being in love also doesn’t let you escape. Not even reaching peace and acceptance will bring you out.
But… they’re all important.
Escaping the time loop takes significant, hard work. And escaping the loop is important to the film’s plot. But it’s not achieved because “love saves the day,” it’s not “following the romantic plot brings escape from misery.” It’s something orthogonal to any of that.
No, the experience of finding peace, and of (mostly) doing the right thing by others, and of being able to love one another, those are all important for their own reasons. They have their own value. They can make existence better. And, critically for how this film compares to Groundhog Day, they ultimately aren’t the key to escaping the eternal time loop which is such an easy metaphor for existence.
Basically, Groundhog Day is a story about a trapped guy growing enough that he finally gets the girl and thereby finds freedom. Palm Springs is about people reaching enlightenment and finding joy—together, and as individuals.
I love that change. It means that Palm Springs doesn’t fall into the same Hollywood romance-logic trap. So many romance-genre stories build up romantic attachment into an impossible ideal that leaves any human relationship feeling flawed or inevitably doomed by comparison. Palm Springs nimbly vaults across that yawning chasm of bad writing which plagues so many genre stories, and feels more real and more human as a result. Because of that, I can enjoy the romance storyline without wanting to tear my hair out. I love it.
Another thing: Groundhog Day focused solely on one person. No one else was in the loop as well. That meant that there was no way for anyone else’s perspective on the world, on life, to respond to and adapt to any internal shift experienced by Bill Murray’s character. Yes, he could talk to other people, and yes they could share their whole perspective with him, and sure, he could come back and talk to them again another day with a different perspective. But everyone else was stuck in one place and time in their lives.
Palm Springs doesn’t do that. With multiple characters caught in the loop, it gives us a richer connection, more byplay between characters. The other people in the loop can come to their own realizations, they can grow and change and travel their own personal courses. They aren’t static.
That makes a phenomenal difference. What’s more, it means that when we’re given a deeper look at the life of these characters, their jumping off point for each repetition of the day, we can see how they’re trapped in turn by their own circumstances, their own pain. That, in turn, recontextualizes everything that’s come before. Laying bare the private sufferings of the characters, peeling back the layers for the audience throughout the movie, lends nuance. It makes them feel more human, and more comprehensible.
It also makes their growth, their changes, and the ways they play off each other so much richer. Those slow revelations feed neatly into how the characters’ perspectives bounce off each other over and over, changing a bit every time. It’s a well-established screenwriting technique—Truby loves it, see The Anatomy of Story—but this might be the clearest depiction of it that I’ve seen yet. It’s part of what had me muttering appreciatively, or just saying “wow,” throughout the film.
Yes, I think you should watch it. I’m sure there are people who will see this movie and feel nothing, or be frustrated by things that I didn’t notice. Maybe if I watched it again I’d have a more critical perspective. But if you, like me, enjoy time loops and good human characters and dark comedy and a bit of romance and some philosophy… watch it.
Palm Springs is my kind of good movie.
Poker Face (Peacock 2023), by Rian Johnson
I feel odd using this promo image: I think they airbrushed Natasha Lyonne’s face, and erased some of Charlie as they did.
Rian Johnson continues to be one of my favorite directors and writers. I was excited about this show as soon as I heard that he was working on it, and I knew the basic premise before I watched the first episode. That didn’t spoil anything. I’ll do my best to not spoil anything here either. Welcome to Poker Face.
Charlie, our protagonist played by Natasha Lyonne, is an itinerant human lie detector consistently ending up around yet another dead body or dastardly mystery. The show is intended to be episodic. While you should definitely watch the first episode first, I understand the later episodes are less reliant on any specific sequencing.
I wasn’t sure how this first episode would establish Charlie’s existence as an itinerant lie detector. Nor did I have any idea how it would establish stakes to give the rest of the show tension. But it’s great! The first episode gives us all the background we need, and doesn’t give us much more than that. We know why Charlie is on the road, and we know who she is: a basically decent human being, a mostly average person with an unusual talent, someone who absolutely has a sense of right and wrong but doesn’t have much power or influence to do anything about it.
She’s a marvelous average Jane.
I especially appreciate what feels like a tonal nod to Columbo: Charlie isn’t a genius, she’s not a detective, she just feels compelled to do the right thing and will catch when people are lying. And, as one might expect when watching a mystery show, she often pays attention to details and inconsistencies. And if you pay attention yourself, you can see her catch those details.
But this show isn’t adversarial.
That’s because Poker Face contines Rian Johnson’s embrace of showing us the story’s (the episode’s) central death. It’s not a question of who, or how, or even necessarily why; though we don’t have all the details, the show’s mystery isn’t a whodunnit. It’s a how’ll-Charlie-catch-it. Or a what’ll-Charlie-do-about-it.
As I said, the show isn’t adversarial. The writers aren’t trying to pull anything over on the audience (in episode one at least, I haven’t seen more yet). It’s even more generous than Knives Out, or Glass Onion: we aren’t kept in the dark, we don’t have to race to solve anything, we know more than our protagonist does. And because our enjoyment isn’t found in solving the case alongside of, or before our protagonist can, Johnson doesn’t have to plant red herrings or mislead us about the death.
I admire this approach! Instead of obsessing over the mystery, we can delight in the way our main character approaches things, the way she lives her life while surrounded by lies and mysteries. And we can enjoy the choices she makes, and see her bear up under the consequences.
Now, because we know more than our protagonist does, I suspect there will be a great many times when Johnson borrows tension from classic horror genre tropes. We in the audience will be yelling “Don’t go in the basement!” or “Stay away from him, he’s the killer!” while Charlie sits and chats and smiles and nods. It’s marvelous.
Of course, this show might not be for you if that sort of tension isn’t your jam. If you aren’t willing to stew like that while Charlie fumbles through life, just trying to be a decent person in the midst of potentially scary people… I don’t know.
Try the first episode. See if it’s for you. You can do that much for free.
Back to the show… I think Charlie’s desire to just live, and her competing desire to do what seems right, is part of what makes her so magnificent. She’s just a normal person (I mean, apart from being able to suss out lies), choosing to do the right thing as best she can. I love it.
Anyway. If you want some good TV, if you crave murder mystery, if you’re looking for something that hasn’t been worn into an axle-breaking rut by the procedural genre… try Poker Face. I’m glad I did. I want to watch more.
The Recruit, season one (Netflix 2022)
I finished the first season of The Recruit a couple weeks back. Once I started, it was hard for me to look away. I’m a sucker for spy stories. I enjoyed the characters. And the “CIA lawyer” angle is fun.
The show also had a really tight hold on what I’ll call ”the train-wreck factor.” That kept me staring, with the same sort of guilty, morbid curiosity that goes into rubbernecking. Watching someone get in over their head and then desperately claw their way towards whatever safety they can find (while being incapable of acting on the recognition that they might be in too deep) is fascinating.
Yet as I wrote while I was watching it, the protagonist of the show feels like the wrong person. Spy stories ought to feature more leads who aren’t super-agents, and who aren’t young white men. The SOE understood this during WW2, and a different show will give you a taste of that. The Recruit gets partway there: the lead isn’t a super-agent, and the show has many characters who aren’t young white men… but the young white man is still the focus of the show.
Nothing against Noah Centineo, who plays the lead, but if his character Owen and Fivel Stewart’s Hannah had simply swapped roles I think the show would have been more interesting. Yes, there would no doubt have been more other characters and plot points to rewrite after that, but I think the basic bones of the show were solid. I just would have been more interested if the main character weren’t a young straight white man.
I think the writers knew this. They were self-aware enough, had perhaps heard enough critiques before, to call out the social positions some of the characters occupy and how that shapes their worldview or constrains their actions—especially in comparison with the possibilities open to other characters. Because of that, the show felt at times like it was implying that Owen was able to get away with some particularly stupid shit specifically because of his social position.
But while that seems both honest and accurate, the recognition also feels almost like lampshading. Like, the writers decided to justify their choice of protagonist instead of trying a more interesting and possibly more difficult approach. And that only makes their focus on a very Hollywood-normal protagonist more perplexing to me.
Did the writers look at the option of having the lead be someone else, and then back off? Were they planning for the next season?
I have no idea what pushed the writers to make the choice they did. Perhaps they had well thought-out reasons. Maybe they chose to focus on a young straight white man because nearly anyone else would have been less clueless, or would have suffered greater consequences for their mistakes, or because the writers couldn’t imagine anyone else. Maybe they really wanted to play with specific character dynamics or story beats and didn’t believe they could explore those with anyone other than a straight white man. Or maybe they thought there was no way to have their script and their show greenlit if they chose a different protagonist.
Any of those could be true.
Or, maybe, they fell back on writing a young straight white male lead because they were comfortable with that. The show’s creator, Alexi Hawley, certainly has practice with writing for the straight white male lead, having written for Castle and The Rookie. I suspect he also has a decent idea of what he can get approved and what he can’t, so… yeah. Could be either.
Despite what feels like a missed opportunity, I’m still likely to watch the next season when it comes out.
I found the first season to be compulsive fun, despite not being quite what I wanted. I liked that it’s a spy story where the main character isn’t a highly trained badass. I enjoyed the characters involved. And I’m curious about where they’ll take those characters going forward. I can imagine several courses forward that would be a lot of fun, and would resolve many of my complaints. But that’s all speculation.
So, should you watch it?
If you don’t want to watch another show about a young straight white male protagonist who gets in way over his head and desperately flounders along, you should stay away. If you try the first episode and bounce off, or just feel the rising urge to scream because of the lead character… that isn’t likely to change much.
On the other hand, if you yearn for more spy fiction that doesn’t focus on the Bonds or the Bournes, this show and its frequently-punched main character will give you a little bit of what you want. If you don’t mind the lead character being yet another young white guy, and want internecine intra-department conflict and twisty loyalties, this will give you that too.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be contemplating the love/hate relationship between fanfic and the original text.
Characterization & Character Creation, WH40k Darktide
This is not a full-on review of the game. If you like the developer FatShark’s previous title Vermintide 2 (Vt2) or other games in the Left 4 Dead co-op genre, and you’re willing to experience the teething problems of a game that needs a few more updates for performance and stability, then you might enjoy this. It’s certainly the best L4D genre game I’ve played despite still feeling rough at times. I’m having fun playing it with friends.
Also, the setting is Warhammer 40K, which is such a powerfully cynical and dystopian flavor as to be nearly intolerable (it’s certainly intolerant). If you know you hate the fiction of 40K, you probably don’t want to engage with this either. I waffle on the topic of 40K: my enjoyment of it relies on knowing my fellow players aren’t actually unironic fash-enthusiasts.
But this post isn’t about all that. It’s about how Darktide’s character customization systems work, what they imply to me, and how they affect the game.
Darktide’s character creation is fascinating to me. But it’s especially fascinating because of how it differs from Vermintide 2, and from other games available right now.
Vt2 has five different basic characters to choose from. They’re distinguished from each other in many ways (gender, voice, appearance, play style), and each has a large number of voice lines—some one-liners, and some conversations which emerge when different characters are present in a given mission. All those things, and especially the voices, have a big impact on how the character is portrayed in my mind. I’ve played enough of the game, and heard enough of their conversations repeated across the missions, that I can talk along with them at times.
Honestly, that reminds me a little of how much I played the original GTA 3. I listened to GTA3’s radio for so long that I could sing along or talk along with all the different stations.
But like those radio stations, Vt2’s characters and their voice lines are static. They eventually repeat. Each mission, you pick from the several different character options, each one with a distinct voice. I’ve played enough—and their voices are distinct enough—that I can tell who’s talking whenever someone speaks. Sometimes the characters are amusing, sometimes they are awful, sometimes they tease each other in a ridiculous fashion. Anyone who’s played the game for a while knows who I am if I call someone else “lumberfeet.”
Other multiplayer FPS games have done similar things to Vt2 with their characters’ voice lines. Apex Legends has a host of different characters, each with a distinct personality and voice. They don’t have mid-game conversations per se, but they do have intro and outro lines and do automatically vocalize things that you’re doing (there are barks for your reloads, for you pointing out a location, for changes in the game state as the arena shrinks, etc.). Apex Legends’ in-game characterization is evocative and gradual, slowly revealing more details about them and their view of life as you play them longer and experience more of their barks. They also have tie-in comics sometimes, and little movies for each update. But the characters aren’t really conversing with each other much in-game, or building up the setting’s fiction mid-match.
And, as with Vt2, characters in Apex come pre-made. You choose the flavor you want, you don’t make your own.
Contrast that all with Deep Rock Galactic. DRG makes frequent use of voice lines, with different voices for each of the four classes in game. But while you can customize your dwarf’s appearance in far more detail than is possible in Apex Legends (DRG pays a lot of attention to hair, facial and otherwise), your dwarf remains something of a cipher. You’re just another dwarf mining in space for the Company.
Darktide has taken a different approach here.
There are character classes, archetypal options a little like those that were baked into the characters of Vermintide 2. But there are so many more options to choose from during character creation. Choosing an archetype is just the first step, followed by choosing a childhood, a profession, a defining moment… you’re making a backstory for your RPG character.
And it’s not yet evident to me how they affect the final game.
Some of them, I think, play into what voice lines your character uses. Certainly your choice of voice is restricted by what planet your character comes from. But I can’t tell whether my choices have much impact in the game beyond that. Maybe in the future FatShark will introduce elements of the game that are dependent on characters’ backgrounds (presumably cosmetic, so that you needn’t pick a given background for mechanical reasons). I’d happily give my Ogryn a floppy hat specific to his youth on an agricultural world, where he spent all his time herding great big beasts. Or maybe FatShark will record more voice lines that have to do with those backgrounds, and my friendly Ogryn will opine on farming.
But while I’m fascinated by how customizable character creation is right now, it doesn’t yet feel like it’s living up to its full potential. The plethora of options available, and the considerable difference they imply, feel like they should have more impact in-game than I’ve found so far. And I suspect that developing that further is on FatShark’s todo list—somewhere behind all the technical fixes they’ve already pushed out, and whatever other fixes they’re still planning to implement.
A funny side-note: I almost do a double take whenever I hear the voice actors from Vt2 voicing new characters in Darktide. Vt2’s writers and voice actors did an excellent job of tying together voice and character, and I’m really glad the voice actors got more work in Darktide—it’s a little like hearing old friends. But it’ll take me a while to get used to hearing them without them being one of the Übersreik Five.
I also don’t want to downplay the value of Darktide’s character creation as it currently exists. I’ve made up little backstories for my two characters so far, and had great fun with that. Part of that is because of who I am, and my predilection for story-making. But it’s more possible because of the smart move on FatShark’s part of making that bit of background more accessible to players. I certainly feel like my Darktide characters are more “mine” than any character I played in Vt2 ever was.
This means that even if FatShark never does anything more with the character backgrounds, even if they leave them as-is, they’ll still have done more to make character creation feel personal than any other FPS I currently play. No, it’s not up to my expectations as storyteller. And yes, I see more they could do with it. But I like it, and we shouldn’t underestimate readers’ creative role and the value of head cannon.
Mrs. Pollifax, elderly women as spies cont.
As I was writing last week’s post, I knew that I was forgetting something. I’d read fun stories about an elderly woman involved in espionage before. Or more accurately, I’d listened to them: some of my childhood’s many long car rides were filled with hours of Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books on tape. Young Henry thought those books were both hilarious and excellent.
I haven’t read them since. But I want to. I want to read them again, find out whether or not they’re as fun as I remember them being. In my memory, they were a perfect storm of ridiculousness and good genre fiction.
That said, I’m a little hesitant too. The first books in the series (there are many of these books) were written in the 60s. The last one was published in 2000. Given the gulf of years, I bet I’m going to stub my toes on something.
But I’m willing to bet it’ll be worth it. At worst, they’ll give me a place to start in my hunt for similar genre fiction. And if they’re anywhere near as good as I recall, I’ll probably be guffawing my way through them.
Plus, for all the absurdity and narrative contrivances that I remember in the several Mrs. Pollifax books I listened to, I think they captured several very important points that flashier spy stories forget. It’s valuable to be overlooked and underestimated. And—maybe this was just my impressionable youth speaking, but—Dorothy Gilman was nearly of an age with my grandmother, and Mrs. Pollifax’s surprising skillset reminded me of my grandmother too.
I remember growing up with plenty of stories about my grandmother. She fixed a stranger’s broken car on the side of the road (in Uganda or Kenya I think), using safety pins and pantyhose to replace a timing belt. She reversed a van at speed down a dirt track while being chased by a bull elephant. She had other adventures too, but more regularly she would weigh and vaccinate hundreds of babies in an open-air clinic, or help local women establish clinics in their villages and towns. And when I knew her as an older woman, she kept a thriving thicket of a garden, pointing me to the various things she wanted me to cut or harvest, showing me the good berry brambles.
So when I read Mrs. Pollifax, I see a little bit of my grandmother. They’re not the same person at all, they’re not doing the same things, but… in some ways they’re cut from similarly capable cloth. And reading that in a piece of spy fiction, when the protagonist sometimes underestimates herself almost as badly as her opposition does, is simply a treat.
Anyway, yes, I’m looking forward to picking up those books again. Maybe I’ll have something more for you here when I do.