Dissecting Rogue One – A Writing Exercise

Disclaimer: This post will contain *heavy* spoilers for Rogue One, summarizing the plot from start to finish. Do not read this if you haven’t seen the movie.

jyn

[Our heroine.]

I loved Rogue One, as did many people. However, different people had different experiences, and even those who liked the movie have called out flaws. One of the most common flaws I hear is that the main characters didn’t have a decent arc, and that the characters weren’t well-developed, particularly Jyn Erso.

I have the opposite opinion. I loved the characters (especially Jyn!) and I saw clear character arcs. Many feel differently, and I want to be clear I’m not looking for an argument. I was simply fascinated that people could experience a movie so differently, and wanted to explore why it worked so well for me. For purposes of brevity, I’m only going through Jyn’s arc, though I feel the others have arcs as well.

Before we get started, we need to talk about how Rogue One tells its story. Rogue One relies heavily on what I call the “iceberg” method of storytelling. Rather than having character motivations and backstories spelled out (here’s a flashback that shows everything, or characters monologuing their innermost feelings!) all we are shown is the tip of a (figurative) iceberg. The rest is left for us to infer from character action and dialogue.

troopersblog

[Taking cover is for chumps. Stormtroopers charge the laser fire.]

A writer using the iceberg method sees the entire iceberg, of course. They know their character well, but choose to feed us only small clues. They show us things about their characters, rather than telling us, and let us put the pieces together. They raise questions we want to answer.

The writer lets us connect the dots (like a detective) instead of connecting them for us, and personally, I find this really fun. What follows is my recollection of what happens in the movie and how it built Jyn’s character and gave her a great character arc – for me, at least.

We begin with Jyn as a child, with two parents who seem to love her very much. This doesn’t last, obviously, because Krennic arrives. Jyn has known something like this might happen for some time – we see this when she busts into the house and says “They’re coming!” Yet Jyn arrives before the shuttle, and is ready to grab her “bug out bag” and run. This shows us Jyn is already a level-headed person, even as a child.

deathtroopers

[Don’t run. We just want to borrow some milk.]

While Galen goes to try to trick Krennic into leaving, Jyn flees with her mother. Yet the scenes with Jyn’s parents aren’t really about Galen and Lyra, but clues as to what they were like as parents. We start developing Jyn’s character by seeing who raised her.

As Galen confronts Krennic, we learn Galen was once a scientist working on an Imperial project who later left because he opposed the project on moral grounds. Galen is so brilliant that the work can’t be continued without him. So, now I know Jyn was raised by a father who was a brilliant scientist, but who also has a strong moral compass.

This tells me a lot about her character, even in this first scene. I imagine Jyn has been exposed to logic, critical thinking, and pragmatism, as well as being taught a strong sense of right and wrong. So Jyn is already pragmatic, smart, and moral.

We then cut to Jyn with her mother, a scene that couldn’t be more different from Krennic and Galen. Lyra seems to be a very spiritual woman, as demonstrated by her talk to Jyn about trusting the Force and by gifting her the Force crystal. So now I know Jyn’s other parent was a very spiritual woman with a strong belief in justice, goodness, and the Force.

So five minutes into the movie, I already know Jyn was raised by a critically thinking, moral scientist and a spiritual and free-thinking mother. That’s a great contrast, meaning she’s been exposed to many perspectives. So Jyn probably has a strong pragmatic side but is also open to the more touchy-feely spiritual side as well. Neat!

youngjyn

[Unfortunately for Jyn’s mother, she’s in a Disney movie.]

Now, what happens next? Jyn sees her mother killed, then gets chased by Death Troopers. She manages to hide and waits. There’s a storytelling cue Jyn was hiding for a *long* time … her light is almost dead. For all that time (Hours? Days?) Jyn was stuck in the dark, alone, having just seen her mother murdered, waiting for a father who doesn’t come.

Now consider what we’ve just learned about Jyn. As a child, after she witnessed her mother’s murder, she locked herself in a dark hole for an eternity while guys literally called DEATH TROOPERS hunted for her. That’ll mess any kid up. Finally, Saw arrives, the man who we saw Galen call earlier. He opens the door and looks down at Jyn.

And then, the flashback ENDS.

If we weren’t using the iceberg method, we’d have a montage here. We’d see a succession of scenes where Jyn grows up. First, Jyn’s a child distracting Stormtroopers. Next she’s a young teen planting a thermal detonator. Next she’s an older teen, in a firefight besides Saw’s revolutionaries. It would be annoyingly obvious Saw raised her as a freedom fighter.

But we don’t see that montage, because that’s BORING. We don’t beat you over the head with “Hey, this is how Jyn becomes a rebel!” because that’s been done to death. Instead, Saw opens that door … and we quick cut to Jyn, now an adult, locked in an Imperial prison.

It’s at this moment I’m hooked. Instead of a montage, I got a mystery! There’s a story here, and I don’t know that story yet, but I want to know it. I am intrigued!

adultjyn

[That cute child is now this woman, and trust me, she’s seen some ****.]

Somehow, the events I just saw led to adult Jyn stuck in an Imperial prison. Her cellmate, the one person she might connect with given her situation, snorts obnoxiously, and Jyn wrinkles her nose – no sympathy or interest, just distaste. Jyn isn’t interested in making friends, but why? What made her this way? I’m trying to puzzle it out.

The next time we see Jyn, she’s in an Imperial prison transport. She doesn’t seem scared, just resigned. Maybe she’s been on the run so long that she has lost the will to fight. Or maybe she’s biding her time. I don’t know, but it is obvious she’s been knocked around and is world-weary. More character development.

The transport stops. Rebels bust in and blast the Stormtroopers. One rebel turns to Jyn and says “You want to be free?” Jyn nods eagerly, smiling.

“Oh!” I think. Her rebel alliance buddies came to save her! So Jyn must be a hardcore rebel (maybe recruited by Saw?) and this is her rescue by her buddies.

Actually no. The moment the rebel frees her, Jyn clocks her rebel “rescuer” in the face. I sit up and go “What?” Jyn decks the next guy too, taking both out with unarmed precision before K-2SO clotheslines her on the way out, WWF style.

k2so

[Reprogrammed Imperial droid / Pro-Wrestler.]

After that scene I’m thinking, damn, this woman can fight, but more importantly, she has zero love for the rebel alliance, even though they just rescued her from the Empire. But why would she hate the rebels? What turned the child I saw in the first scene into this embittered loner? I want to solve this mystery!

Cut to Yavin Four. Jyn is being escorted to meet with the rebel leaders. General Draven lists her crimes: stealing, resisting arrest, assaulting Imperials. He also says she is “currently” using a specific alias, implying Jyn has had more than one alias. Now I know why Jyn was in that Imperial prison. I can fill in what happened between the flashback and now, which is fun.

At some point, Jyn probably had to resort to stealing (for shelter or food) and eventually got caught by Imperials. She was probably in hiding for a long time, unable to use her real name, scraping by on nothing to stay hidden. So why? What’s she running from? Krennic?

Mon Mothma arrives and tries to appeal to Jyn’s sense of patriotism and morality. It’s obvious from Jyn’s expression that she’s having none of that, reinforcing her disillusionment with the rebels. She’s obviously just biding her time until she can escape. She only perks up when Cassian enters the conversation and mentions her father, Galen.

Suddenly, Jyn’s interested in the conversation, but not just that. She’s visibly thrown off balance. Is she scared? Worried? Whatever it is, it’s obvious that Jyn still has feelings for Galen Erso, good or bad, even after all this time. So how does she feel about the father who abandoned her? I want to know! And we continue to add new facets to her character.

We learn the rebels want Jyn to connect them to Saw Gerrera (the man who rescued her in the first scene). They need Jyn to get them an introduction so they can retrieve a defecting Imperial pilot with plans to something very big – and Jyn agrees to help! Why?

It’s obvious Jyn doesn’t care about the rebels, doesn’t care about the Empire, and certainly doesn’t care about the defector or these plans. But she *does* care about her father, and this may lead her to him. Jyn may be a loner who wants nothing to do with this war, but she’s still connected to her family. More character development!

jyn02blog

The next critical moment that defines Jyn for us happens on Jedha. As they’re exploring the market, Jyn has a moment where Chirrut calls to her, despite being blind. He mentions the hidden necklace she’s wearing (her mother’s, connected with the Force!) and Jyn, rather than dismissing him or continuing to snark, approaches him with what might be an almost reverent look.

She’s not dismissing this. She looks at Chirrut with wide eyes, almost as if she’s convinced there is something spiritual about this man. Is Jyn thinking about her mother?

We saw Lyra Erso tell Jyn to trust in the Force. In this scene, we see that Jyn hasn’t discounted the Force entirely – she has just buried it deep. More development. She’s not so closed off and hardened as we thought. She has a spiritual side as well, buried.

This is followed by another critical (to Jyn’s character) scene where Saw’s rebels attack the Imperial kyber crystal transport. We see more evidence that Jyn is a great fighter (reinforcing that *someone* trained her), but, more importantly, we see Jyn spot a screaming little girl, an innocent bystander caught up in the battle. And Jyn reacts.

Without hesitation, Jyn dives into the open, facing blaster fire and death, selflessly saving the little girl before someone can blow her up. Moments later Jyn hands the girl to her mother, and we’ve just learned something new. Jyn will still risk her life to help others.

This reinforces the fact that just because Jyn is guarded doesn’t mean she isn’t a moral person. Her father’s influence? Another puzzle piece. Perhaps she keeps to herself not because she doesn’t want to help people, but because she was hurt in the past.

Finally, we get the big reveal we’ve wanted since that first flashback. Jyn meets Saw. We knew Saw rescued Jyn after she lost her parents, but that’s it. We knew nothing else. And in a few lines of dialogue, we finally learn another huge piece of what made Jyn who she is.

saw

[I used to be CGI, but I got old.]

Jyn was Saw Gerrera’s best rebel fighter. She fought with him for almost a decade, likely treating him as a surrogate father. She probably idolized him, worshipped him, and then, at 16, Saw abandoned her.

We finally know why Jyn has so much distaste for the rebel alliance – the man who got her into the alliance, the man who taught her how to fight and survive, the man she trusted with her life — betrayed and abandoned her. Just like her father, or so Jyn must believe.

Jyn may have believed in the rebel cause, once. Saw did! But not anymore. Not after being abandoned twice. Now I know why Jyn keeps people at arm’s length. And the rebels? What must Jyn have thought about the people who used her and then abandoned her (as she saw it?) The rebel alliance betrayed her, and now all the pieces from before come together.

Yet finding Saw and learning why he left isn’t enough to draw Jyn back into the rebel alliance. She still resents them. Remember, when Saw asks her if she’s fine with the Imperial flag flying over the galaxy, Jyn tells him “It’s not a problem as long as you don’t look up”. This tells us Jyn’s still in it for herself … for now.

jynatsaws

[Seriously? That’s your excuse for abandoning me? Jerk.]

Yet shortly after, Saw shows Jyn the transmission from her father, and Jyn learns the truth. Galen Erso never came for her, because if he had, the Empire would have had abducted Jyn. Galen feared she was dead and hated himself for never finding her, but he stayed away to protect her, and thought about her every day. He loves her dearly.

Jyn must have questioned why Galen didn’t come back every day since he left her. Maybe he was a coward. Maybe he was dead. But now she learns far from being a coward, her father sacrificed everything to give the rebels a chance – just a chance! – of destroying the Empire’s super weapon. Galen knew the Empire would build the Death Star, with or without him, and gave up his whole life (and Jyn) to stop them and save others.

Now we must imagine everything Jyn learned from Galen flooding back. Galen demonstrating his altruism and love for her is the first crack in the “I’m out for myself” wall Jyn built to protect herself. Jyn is changing! This is character development!

Then Jedha blows up.

Obviously, Jyn doesn’t have a lot of time to process the death of her (other) father, Saw. Her real father is alive, and she knows where Galen is (on Edo). She also  knows he’s in danger. Finally, Jyn knows that her father has given up everything to give the rebels a way to defeat the Death Star. For better or worse, the events of Jedha have changed Jyn. She’s not in this for herself any longer. Now, she’s in it to save her father.

cassianandk2

[Yeah, trust us. We’re totally going to Edo to save your father.]

Onwards to Edo, where Jyn sees her father in the flesh, from a distance. She has to speak to Galen, and makes the decision to put herself at risk. The rebel attack happens before she can reach her father, and he dies in her arms – yet not before telling her how much he loves her, and how proud he is of her. And losing her father, at long last, breaks her.

Jyn, who has not cried the entire movie, suddenly sobs inconsolably. This strong woman who fought through a city being nuked has to be dragged away from her dead father, by Cassian. Jyn finally got her father back only to watch him die, and it has wounded her.

Finally, back on the shuttle, Jyn puts it all together and realizes the rebellion ordered Cassian to assassinate her father. She knows the rebel alliance dropped the bomb that killed him. Once again, the rebel alliance betrayed her.

Everything in the Jyn we met at the start of the movie tells us she should run again, yet Jyn doesn’t run. She doubles down, because she’s a different person now. Her arc has progressed. She doesn’t abandon the rebels. Instead, she swears she will convince the rebels of her father’s story and retrieve those Death Star plans.

Because it’s not just about Jyn Erso now. She has just seen Jedha obliterated by the Empire, and now knows her (murdered) father gave up everything to stop this massive superweapon that could literally murder billions. Jyn now sees it as her duty to stop the Empire, even if she despises the Rebellion.

This is character progression! Jyn has gone from looking out for herself, to looking out for her father, to fully embracing her role as the only person who could show the rebels how to defeat this evil (the Death Star). She has changed, and this is obvious from the speech she gives the hesitant rebel alliance leadership.

“Rebellions are built on hope!” Jyn says, parroting Cassian’s earlier line – not because she believes it, necessarily, but because she *does* believe she must convince these people to trust her father and retrieve the Death Star plans. The earlier Jyn would never have made such a speech. And despite her newfound belief in resistance, she fails utterly.

councilblog

[Rebellions. Built on hope. And really big belt buckles.]

The rebel alliance chooses not to attack Scarif, so Jyn makes the decision to go after the plans herself, a suicide mission. Yet she doesn’t have to go alone, because Cassian and a whole bunch of other rebels moved by Jyn’s speech do show up. Jyn’s words have made them willing to fight for her and, more importantly, to stop the Empire.

Once on the shuttle, Jyn changes a little more. She smiles at these men and says “May the Force be with us.” Is she sincere? Perhaps not. But she knows how to motivate them. She’s thinking like a leader, and now she’s changed again! She’s not just a rebel. She’s a rebel leader, truly committed, and a long way from the Jyn we met at the start of the story.

The third act is awesome and crazy and epic, and pretty much everyone dies. Jyn’s arc is almost finished, but not yet. Her last bit of character development is yet to come, a very small, very personal change. A quite denouement. After being betrayed so many times, after closing herself off from everyone, Jyn is finally going to learn to trust again.

jyn04blog

[BFFs]

At the end of everything, Jyn has transmitted the Death Star plans. She’s in the elevator with Cassian, a man who has been through hell with her, and he’s not just a soldier any longer. He’s someone Jyn trusts with her life, and for Jyn, trusting someone else with her life after being betrayed so many times a *huge* step. Her character arc concludes here.

On the beach, it is Jyn who throws her arms around Cassian. She isn’t the same person she was at the movie’s start. Jyn has changed from a loner, to a woman trying to save her father, to a committed rebel, to a committed rebel leader, to a committed rebel leader who can trust and love again … in the last moment before she’s incinerated.

Jyn dies making her parents proud. She helps save the galaxy, and dies knowing she completed both her father’s mission and her own. She dies a far different person than she was when the movie began, and that, I am happy to say, is a character arc I really enjoyed. The pieces are there for all to see.

jynfinal

[So long, Stardust.]

I knew everything I need to know about Jyn by the end of the movie. I was able to glean it from the events as shown to me and saw Jyn change for reasons that are clearly laid out in a way I enjoyed. So was this planned? (I think it was)  Or am I just adding my own story to what’s there? Either way, it’s okay. Good writing doesn’t always require that you explain everything. You just have to explain enough for the reader/viewer to fill in the blanks.

And Jyn’s arc and character development are one of many reasons I loved Rogue One.

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Dealing with a Bad Book Review

Background: This blog post was inspired when I learned that an indie author who received a “bad” review from a book reviewer actually attacked that reviewer, and encouraged their fans to do the same. Don’t ever do that. It’s petty, unprofessional, bad for your career, and honestly, bad for other indie authors’ careers as well. Do what’s suggested here instead.

Do you want to be an author? Are you an author already? If so, I have some shocking and terrible news for you. Someone, at some point, is going to dislike one of your books. And they’ll tell other people.

So how do you deal with this? Before we move further, we need to define some vocabulary words.

Subjective: existing in the mind (essentially, one’s personal opinion)

Objective: Unbiased and provable (based on facts, not opinion)

So, how do you make a bad review hurt less?

The biggest and most important way to lessen the sting is to remember that all reviews of your books are subjective (see definition above). Reviews of your books are people’s opinions, not indisputable facts. If someone says of your book “This book sucks!” that is an opinion, not a fact. It is not objective.

Everyone has opinions. Guess what? You also have opinions! And getting angry at someone for having an opinion is unprofessional, unfair to that person, and, frankly, a waste of your time.

Imagine if the author of a book you disliked came after you, and said you were a terrible person. How would you feel about that? Is it fair for the person who wrote the book you disliked to blame you for disliking it? Is it your fault for not recognizing their creative genius?

Now flip that around and tell me you can find any way to justify lashing out due to a poor review.

An opinion is one person communicating how they felt about something. You cannot control the opinions of others, and you should not stress over doing so. Learn what you can and move on.

This may be enough to let that bad review roll off your back. If it isn’t, try the steps below.

Step 1: Remember, you are not your book.

When someone dislikes your book, that’s all they are disliking … your book, not you. How can they dislike you? They don’t even know you, certainly not well enough to form an opinion about you. It’s highly doubtful that when they posted their review, they thought “This author is a terrible person and I hate them”. It’s far more likely they thought “Eh, I didn’t really enjoy this book.”

You remain an awesome person whether someone likes your book or not, and even the person who disliked your book would almost certainly agree! (And if they don’t, that’s their problem, not yours).

Step 2: Remember that everyone likes different things.

Think back on every book you’ve ever read. Can you think of a book you disliked? You can? Guess what that proves? You are not the only person who ever wrote a book someone disliked!

Remember, not even the most successful author in the entire world has ever achieved a 100% “I love this” score, for their entire body of work, from everyone in the world. Don’t despair because you didn’t achieve the impossible. No one ever has, even the most successful authors in the history of everything.

Whether or not a person likes your book is always going to be subjective, and we’ve already talked about what subjective means above. A book you love, another may hate, and a book you hate, another may love. Whether or not someone loves your book is entirely out of your control.

Accept that you can control only the objective quality of your book, not how people react to it. If you plan to continue to write books, someone will eventually dislike one. Accept this, and accept that opinions about your work are opinions, not facts, and it hurts less.

Step 3: Remember that you’re going to write more than one book.

This can be especially difficult when you’re just starting out. If you’ve only had one book published, ever, and someone dislikes that book … that’s rough. As authors grow more established, they have an increasing number of books for people to like and dislike, and an increasing number of good reviews to balance out the bad ones. The more reviews you have, and the more books you have, the easier it gets.

Think of it like completing a college class. If your entire grade is based on a single test, it feels like your whole world rests on that one test. Fail, and you fail forever. But if you recognize that you’re eventually going to take two tests, and three, and eight, and your “grade” as an author will become the average of all of those tests … well then it’s not so scary, is it? You can do poorly on a few tests out of many. Your success is not tied to a single book, and a person who disliked one book may love another of your books.

Celebrate because you actually finished a book. You actually created an entire world, its characters, and tumultuous events in their lives, from scratch. You, with almost godlike power, created this thing in the confines of your mind and made it possible for others to experience it. Congratulations!

Not everyone gets that far.

Step 4: Understand the Responsibilities of Authors, Reviewers, and Readers

So let’s say you’ve tried all this, and you still hurt. Even knowing that all book reviews (including bad ones) are subjective hasn’t erased the hurt. You still really want to contact the person who questioned your amazing creation and punish them for not liking it. Well, here’s what you should do.

Don’t.

By making your book available for sale to others, or asking a book reviewer to review your book, you have made a promise to be a professional. Professionals don’t respond to bad reviews by unfairly attacking the reviewer. A professional reads the reviewer’s feedback, considers what the reviewer didn’t like, looks for clues as to how they might improve their next book, and moves on to that next book.

Professionals are professionals because they can handle subjective criticism. If you can’t handle that, you are not a professional, and you should not be publishing books. Full stop.

The information below is fact, not opinion, and as a professional creative person, you are required to acknowledge these facts. If you can’t do this, you have no business ever selling your work to anyone.

An Author Is Responsible For:

  • Writing the best book they can, every time. Each book should be readable, immersive, and entertaining. Recognize that opinions regarding success will always be subjective.
  • Working with an editor to ensure their book is as polished as possible in its intended language. This includes clear language, no typos (or close), and proper formatting (for both print and e-books). This is actually objective feedback, but that’s good, because you control it!
  • Recognizing that feedback they receive is about their book, not about them, as a person.
  • Behaving and interacting professionally with others at all times, both in-person and online.

An Author is Not Responsible For:

  • Writing a book everyone in the history of everything loves.
  • Correcting the “incorrect” opinions of those who just “don’t get” their work.
  • Being infallible.

A Book Reviewer is Responsible For:

  • Reading an author’s book, then telling their readers what they thought about it.

A Book Reviewer is Not Responsible For:

  • Making the author of the book feel like the most amazing author in the world.
  • Refusing to mention things about the book they disliked because others might like those things.
  • Selling the book for the author.
  • Sparing the author’s “feelings”.
  • “Proving” their subjective opinion of the book is “correct” with “indisputable facts”.

A Reader is Responsible For:

  • Paying an author for their book.

A Reader is Not Responsible For:

  • Liking it.

These are objective facts you must accept if you wish to become a creative professional. And if you can’t accept these facts, actually, that’s perfectly okay! Just recognize that in that case, you shouldn’t be selling your work.

Find something else that fulfills you and makes you happy, because if you can’t accept that someone, somewhere, may eventually dislike your book, you will never be happy writing books. Ever.

Revel in the characters and world you’ve created, bask in the glory of the good reviews, and most importantly, improve, improve, improve. Keep writing, keep getting better at writing, and keep creating new worlds and new books because you love doing so … not because you need everyone to like them.

Going “Hands On” With VR Controllers

This past weekend, at the local Baltimore VR meet up, I got the chance to try out two devices I’d been aching to get my hands on for quite some time: the HTC Vive, and the Leap Motion system. Although I’ve been using the Oculus Rift DK2 and Samsung Gear VR for some time now, this was my first chance to try a physical VR controller. While the HOTAS system I bought specifically for Elite: Dangerous is something I can touch, it only has a cursory equivalent in the virtual world. Placement doesn’t precisely match up.

I started the night by putting on an HTC Vive headset and playing a VR game called Budget Cuts. The game puts you in the role of a hapless first day employee, searching for your job application while trying not to get murdered by robots with guns. It’s about as silly and interesting as it sounds, but the first really cool discovery I made came after putting on the headset and asking for the motion controllers.

BudgetCuts

[A shot of Budget Cuts, in which a robot is about to have a very bad day.]

I expected to need the person running the station to hand me the controllers, being now blind to the physical world, but that’s not what happened. Instead, thanks to the tracking inherent in the Vive’s Lighthouse system, I looked down and saw the physical controllers sitting on the ground, inside the virtual world of Budget Cuts. An object I could touch was represented in real-time in virtual reality!

I knelt down and reached for the HTC Vive controllers, half-expecting my hands to clip through them. Yet Budget Cuts uses in-game models for the HTC Vive controllers that match quite well with the physical version. I had no problems picking up this virtual/physical object and using it to play the game.

The virtual model matched the physical model in my hands, and this was shockingly immersive. Everything felt real – the shape, the heft, the weight – and simply holding and moving these physical controllers, and seeing their movements reflected in VR, dramatically increased my sense of presence. Rather than simply viewing this virtual world, I was now an active participant within it.

HTCViveController

[ The consumer version of the HTC Vive’s Motion Controllers ]

Budget Cuts does a lot of things right – such as using a “portal gun” mechanic to allow you to travel distances much longer than the space you’ve set aside for VR, and making your other controller into a vacuum that sucks up knives (to kill robots, of course!) and pulls aside grates – but I think the best decision they made was to accurately represent the HTC Vive controllers in game, including the shape.

As strange as it sounds, using my vacuum controller to suck out a virtual grate (which then remained stuck to the business end of the vacuum until released ) felt really immersive, as did sucking up knives. Basically, by treating the physical HTC Vive controller as a “bridge” between the physical world and the virtual one, I bought that these virtual objects were, in fact, quite real.

Had I tried to pick up those knives with my hands, I’d have caught nothing but air. Yet by sucking the knifes onto the business end of a vacuum controller I could physically hold in my hand, I felt as if those knives were real, tangible objects. The vacuum controller was real, therefore, so were the knives.

There was a good line of people waiting to try the Vive, so I only got to play for a few minutes (eventually, I limp wristed a knife throw and got shot by a robot) but even those few minutes were probably the most immersive experience I’ve had in VR, simply thanks to the Vive’s controllers. Everything felt intuitive and, combined with the fact that the Vive allowed me to walk about freely in addition to ducking, crouching, and leaning, made the world of Budget Cuts feel very, very real.

The next station I went to had a Leap Motion camera hooked up to an Oculus Rift, and having seen the Leap Motion: Orion demo on Youtube, I was really excited to try it out. My initial thought was that actually being able to see my hands in VR and use them to manipulate objects would be even more immersive than the Vive. This is why I was so surprised when the opposite turned out to be true.

To start, the tracking on the Leap Motion was excellent. I simply raised my real hands before me, and wireframe hands (or what was really more like bones) appeared in front of me, rendered in real time. Not all motions were tracked (oddly, the Leap Motion would detect me flexing my pinky, but not my index finger) but I could easily wave, give a thumbs up, turn my hands palms up or palms down, and, in general, feel like the virtual environment was actually representing my real, floating hands.

The Orion demo lets you do a number of interesting things: you start by batting around blocks, then picking them up and stacking them. Eventually, you can create new blocks (as seen in this video), stack them, and even turn gravity off and on. All of it was very cool, but after playing the Vive, none of it really felt immersive. After playing with the system for a while, I figured out why. The objects I was interacting with had no physical presence. They were literally ghosts, offering no physical feedback.

LeapMotion

[This is how your actual hands look in a VR Headset with a Leap Motion Camera]

Quite often, I tried to put down a block and couldn’t, because I couldn’t feel it. It was like having an incredibly light paper box stuck to my fingers, yet I didn’t even have that sensation. Throughout the simulation, I never could settle on how tightly I should clench my fingers to pick something up, or how wide I should open them to release it. It was frustrating, rather than being immersive.

While actually seeing my hands represented was incredibly cool, as a method for interacting with virtual objects, it was inconsistent and difficult to master. Obviously, we’re only seeing the nascent stages of technology like the Leap Motion, but the lack of physical feedback is a real problem. It just didn’t work as well as the Vive’s hand controllers, and the sense of presence I’d expected simply wasn’t there.

In summary, it seems to me that the approaches taken by Vive and Oculus (hand controllers ship with the Vive, and will arrive for the Oculus Rift later this year) is by far the superior approach to interaction with virtual reality, when compared with your own bare hands. Having a single level of separation between your physical sensations and the virtual environment (the “bridge” of the physical controller) helps tremendously in maintaining presence. It keeps you from failing to touch intangible objects.

As VR experiences continue to evolve, I think it will behoove developers incorporating motion controllers to build the virtual models for their input devices to match the physical models. I simply hadn’t encountered anything as convincing as seeing those virtual Vive controllers on the virtual floor of that room in Budget Cuts, then reaching down and physically picking up what I saw in the virtual world. It sells the experience.

While it absolutely makes sense for developers to change details such as texture (you could make the controllers metallic, or rusted, or formed of glass) and to add virtual additions to them (such as a long gun barrel you don’t actually touch) I now believe matching the virtual model of the controller you see in game as closely as possible to the physical model you hold is ideal for maintaining presence.

I’ve always planned to only buy one VR solution. With both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive now announced, I made the decision to go for the Vive, and I doubt I’ll regret it. Even my short experience at the Baltimore VR meetup was incredibly fun. I really think Vive has the perfect recipe for immersive experiences, because it allows you to walk around and ships with motion controllers at launch.

I also have no doubt the Oculus Touch controllers are amazing, and I suspect that if Oculus developers follow these same rules (representing those controllers accurately in virtual reality) they’ll provide the same massive boost to presence that the Vive controllers do. For now, however, I’m simply surprised to say that the most immersive VR experience involves a physical controller, and not using your own hands.

I think this just goes to show that, as game developers, we’re still learning how best to develop for VR, and I hope other games follow the lead of Budget Cuts and accurately represent the physical controllers that ship with the Vive or Rift. It seems like the best way to sell interactions with otherwise intangible objects.

Why a Standalone Character Creator Would Be Awesome

When I first started working to promote my books, I focused on the things that made me, personally, more interested in a story. One of those things, as with all entertainment, is artwork of the characters. I could describe my characters with words, sure, but there’s something special about having a picture of them. Having visual representations of characters has always, for me, made them feel more real.

SeraPainting

[Sera Valence, as rendered in Black Desert]

I was fortunate that the Internet makes it easy to find talented creative folks, many of whom don’t live in the same state or even the same country I do. First, I found the talented Greg Taylor to do my book covers (his cover for Demonkin is particularly epic) and, for my author website, I found another talented artist in Jin Kim, who also, coincidentally, does contract work for the videogame industry (my day job).

I contracted Jin to create black and white images of my characters and loved the results, but professional art, as with the other costs of indie publishing (hiring an editor, buying advertising space, booking convention flights and stays, and so on) is expensive, and unless you have a day job to support your author aspirations, paying for art can be hard to justify. So what other options do authors have?

KaraSketchBW

[Kara Honuron, as sketched by Jin Kim]

Interestingly, the ability to create unique, visually striking characters has been around for decades now – in videogames. Games going back all the way to the original Everquest and forward to the latest Mass Effect have provided detailed customization options to allow you to create your unique avatar, which is then rendered using the game’s graphic engine. These days, such images have become truly striking.

JyllithPainting

[Jyllith Malconen, as rendered in Black Desert]

This image and all the other color images in this post were made in the character creator for Black Desert, a popular MMORPG coming soon to the US. I did absolutely nothing to this image in Photoshop or anywhere else. It’s a straight screenshot from the game, and it looks stunning. Better yet, creating this required nothing more (from me) than selecting some options and tweaking some sliders.

Naturally, with a snow day on the horizon, the first thing I did with Black Desert’s character creation tool was to try to recreate, as closely as possible, the characters from my books in glorious CGI. Even in cases where I didn’t recreate Jin’s sketches precisely, I still feel like I was able to get the “feel” about right.

CrossReference

[Sketches of my characters, with similar shots of them in Black Desert]

Better yet, the CGI artwork makes so many of the more subtle details clear. Kara’s orange eyes. The fact that Tania is blind. Jyllith’s striking red hair. All of these graphical details come out far more vividly in color artwork, and this artwork is completely computer generated. Each unique avatar took maybe 20 minutes to create.

TrellPainting

[Trell, as rendered in Black Desert]

While Black Desert includes one of the most flexible and gorgeous character creators I’ve ever seen (you can currently download it here and create your own characters, absolutely free!) the concept of creating customized characters using a toolset created by programmers and artists is nothing new. With the increase in the popularity of indie publishing and the number of people publishing their own work, there’s now increased demand for quality artwork for book covers and promotion. It makes me wonder if a properly robust character creation system, generating copyright free images, could provide those.

KaraPainting

[Kara Tanner, as rendered in Black Desert]

Many computer-generated image (CGI) tools already exist, of course (3DS Max, Maya, and Poser are examples) but the barrier to entry is steep, with some (such as 3D Studio Max) costing thousands of dollars, and requiring a significant amount of artistic training before you can generate anything remotely professional looking. Worse yet, these tools require quality 3D models and textures to generate anything approaching professional looking artwork. Hopefully, this won’t offend any independent authors out there, but I can spot a “Poser cover” a mile away. These covers don’t look professional at all.

TaniaPainting

[Tania, as rendered in Black Desert]

So why haven’t character creators like this become more freely available independent of the games for which they’re designed? It seems like a no brainer – if you charged people a small fee to buy a toolset that allowed them to create character images this striking on their home computer, simply by tweaking sliders and selecting options, why aren’t there already a number of toolsets out here? It seems ideal for traditional and independent authors, roleplayers, tabletop gamers, and a huge market of nerds.

BynPainting

[Byn Meris, as rendered in Black Desert]

Better yet, since Black Desert’s character creator was released, even those who might not be dedicated gamers or roleplayers have found the fun, by recreating celebrities in the engine (as seen here) or creating truly monstrous, nightmare inducing abominations by tweaking the sliders WRONG (as seen here). People did the same with Fallout 4’s character creator and many other character tools. So why aren’t there already a dozen reasonably priced character creation tools out there for use by anyone?

ArynPainting

[Aryn Locke, as rendered in Black Desert]

The simplest answer is that, like all game design these days, creating the artwork available in these tools and the tool itself is expensive – and in fact, far more expensive than even something like 3D Studio Max, when you add up all the developer salaries. The reason these character creators are so easy to use (for us) is because dozens of artists toiled away for weeks or months to create a huge library of high quality art that’s also used in the game. Talented programmers and UI designers then created an interface that allows us to “mix and match” this art into gorgeous images, dynamically rescaling models in real time.

JairPainting

[Jair Deymartin, as rendered in Black Desert]

Sadly, as much as I would love to see a character creation suite as powerful as Black Desert’s released for general use, I just don’t think there’s enough demand for it. Traditional publishers already have the money to contract professional artists to create their book covers, and indie publishers (and others who might be interested in quality CGI artwork, like roleplayers and tabletop gamers) aren’t a big enough market to justify the development cost of such a tool, at least as a standalone software package.

As striking as these images are, using them to create book covers would almost certainly run afoul of a significant number of copyright laws, and so for the moment, as great as they might look, they’re stuck in the same realm as fan art of copyrighted stories – fine, so long as you don’t try and sell it.

Despite this, I hold out hope that one day some enterprising company or Kickstarter will take a route similar to Heroforge or other 3D printed miniature makers, creating a toolset to create truly high-quality CGI artwork to the masses. For the time being, however, we can at least continue to play in Black Desert.

And, at least unofficially, bring the characters from our heads to gorgeous CGI life.

Writing Journal – 1/16/2016

I wrote less actual words on Bloodmender’s outline, but I did make some big breakthroughs in putting together the actual arc for Sera. I know what her arc will be and how it will take her through the book, and I know how the book ends. I’m excited to write it!

This week, I had one story rejected and one story I’ve marked as never responded. I’m going to send out a few more stories next week.

This week’s progress:

  • 2,087 words written on Bloodmender’s outline.
    • Sera’s arc is finalized!
    • I know how the book is going to end, which is a big relief. I’m excited about writing it now.

Submission Updates:

  • After 250 days with no response (and ignored queries) I’ve marked the market I submitted “Twenty Floors Up” to as DNF. The story’s going in the drawer for now (over 15 rejections) though I may pull it out again some day.
  • Received a rejection (as expected) from the large pro market to which I submitted “The Simworld Design Contest”, pretty much exactly where Duotrope said I would. So hooray for statistics being accurate!

Writing Journal – 1/8/2016

With the new year started, I decided it’d be fun to keep a journal of my progress on various projects for a year or so and see how that went. So, this is entry one of what will be a weekly summary of my progress on all sorts of things.

I hope to look back at this to get some idea how much I typically get done in a year. Also, for anyone interested in progress on my books, this may also provide some entertainment. Who knows?

This week’s progress:

  • 3,350~ words written on Bloodmender’s outline.
    • I’ve got may be 2/3s of book material outlined, but I’m still moving it around to see where it fits in the overall narrative, and debating what’s strong enough to keep and what’s weak enough to cut. It’s always a tough call in the planning stages.
    • I’ve left myself a number of plot threads to resolve and character arcs to plot, so I’ll be another week or two on this before I’m comfortable enough to start the first draft. Sera is absolutely going to be a driving force in this one (hence the title!) but I’m not yet sure how complicated her plot arc will be.
  • Wrote a new 1500 word writing experiment for the January Fantasy-Faction Writing Contest: “Sponge Riot”. It’s so far beyond my normal work I have no idea if it’s any good, but our prompt was “Breaking the Fourth Wall” and, at least, this story does that!
  • Submitted “Firesworn”, my short fantasy story set in Glyphbinder’s universe, to a pro market.
  • Submitted “Extraction”, one of my cyberpunk short stories, to a token market with a huge Twitter following.
  • Submitted “The Book of Codes”, one of my science-fiction short stories, to a pro market.

Submission Updates:

  • My science-fiction short story, “Twenty Floors Up”, has been at a token market for 244 days with no response. I doubt they’re going to respond, but the story’s been rejected pretty much everywhere else, so I’ll probably toss it in the drawer for the time being.
  • My cyberpunk short story, “The Simworld Design Contest”, has been with a pro market for 131 days. Given they usually reject stories a few days from now, I’m expecting a rejection next week sometime.

 

 

2015 In Review

It’s now been January 1, 2016 on the east coast for a good while, which means it’s time to review how I did in 2015!

Below are a complete list of my published novels, published short stories, short story experiments, and blog posts from last year.

Looking back on it now, I actually had a fairly productive 2015!

Looking forward to 2016, I don’t have anything set in stone (Bloodmender is slated for the first part of 2017) but I already know I’ll be querying Supremacy’s Shadow, revising Whispers of Murder, writing, revised, and editing Bloodmender, and probably writing some new short stories.

Also in 2016, expect more themed writing experiments for Fantasy-Faction’s monthly writing contest (one new 1500 word story each month!) and a yet unannounced short story sale I’ll talk more about soon.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Someone Else Got There First – Now What?

As authors, all of us draw our inspiration from somewhere. Whether it’s movies we’ve seen, books we’ve read, games we’ve played, or all three, the new stories we tell are unavoidably inspired by the stories we’ve consumed and enjoyed. Just as new artists look to established artists to hone their techniques, and musicians listen to bands they love to guide their own development, storytellers incorporate the stories they’ve consumed into new forms that draw upon and pay tribute to the originals.

Most of the time, this works just fine. Even though we might love the original Star Wars, we don’t rewrite it with the names changed. Instead, we take elements we enjoyed from Star Wars, and elements we enjoyed from Babylon 5, and elements we enjoyed from Battlestar Galactica or Robotech, and combine them with our own ideas into a new space opera of our own making. We throw the stories we’ve enjoyed into a blender and create a new story we love, with the hope others will enjoy it as well.

The author’s dilemma, of course, comes with another storyteller publishes “your” idea first.

Most books, shows, or movies are developed over a period of months or, often, years. Even finished books may languish for years unpublished, especially if the author is attempting the traditional publishing route. No matter how original an author’s idea might be, there is always the chance someone else might have the same idea or get the same inspiration … and they might publish their story first.

This has happened to me multiple times, as I’m sure it has to all of my fellow authors. Clever lines, cool ideas, or even complete scenes from something we’ve written appear in a movie, or a TV show, or another book. These fellow storytellers didn’t copy us … how could they, since our work wasn’t published at the time? … but they had the same idea, and their idea was revealed to the public first. And even though we came up with “our” idea independently, we now wonder if we should toss it aside.

For the most part, I accepted the occasional “lost” idea as the cost of being unpublished, until the day one of my friends introduced me to one of my favorite shows ever – Avatar: The Last Airbender. I loved the show at once, but as much as I enjoyed it, it also left a sinking feeling in my stomach. Why? Because it took the core elements of the magic system from my finished book (which I’d started all the way back in 1998) and half of that book’s sequel, and it made those elements even cooler than my existing idea!

At the time I first watched Avatar, my first book was in the process of being edited by a small press. I’d finally gotten a publication offer, 13 years after I started writing my book. I was stoked! Yet here, taunting me, was Avatar: The Last Airbender. Not only did it use “my” idea, but it took my idea and made it better. It took the elements of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air and, instead of making them spells, had characters summon them using martial arts. Seriously! What’s cooler than elemental martial arts?

Granted, the magic system in my first book was far from original. It was inspired by JRPGs like Final Fantasy IV (the first JRPG I ever played) which introduced the spells Fire, Ice, Tornado, and Quake. I loved the themes of elemental magic introduced in Final Fantasy and ended up building my elemental magic around a similar idea: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. I had built the magic of my world and even its deities around the elemental theme and now, after seeing Avatar, I was depressed. Every time my characters scribed elemental glyphs, they’d be compared to Firebenders, Waterbenders, Earthbenders and Airbenders. So what now? What do I do with my completed, soon to be published book?

I eventually settled on a rather mundane fix. I’d simply change the names of my deities! Rather than Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, my deities would become Heat, Life, Land, and Breath. Yes, my characters still scribed blood glyphs to summon elemental power when they fought, but at least the names of the elements were different. Problem solved, right? Sure it was … until Avatar introduced me to Toph.

By the time I was introduced by Avatar, I had written about 60% of Glyphbinder’s sequel, Demonkin, and was in the home stretch of finishing up its first draft. I was expanding my ensemble with new characters, and one of the first new characters I created was Tania, introduced for a very specific purpose.

Over the course of Glyphbinder (warning: spoilers ahead!) one of my characters, Aryn, is tortured and left blind. As a student of magic, Aryn can summon the dream world (a mental view of the world similar to vector graphics) but that’s an imperfect solution. In the sequel, I wanted to pair Aryn up with a new character who could help him overcome his blindness, and so created Tania. Another student of magic, Tania went blind naturally at a young age, and thus had plenty of time to learn how to use the dream world to replace her imperfect eyes. During the book, she would teach Aryn to “see” again. A perfect companion character!

In addition, my original cast had covered most of my existing magic disciplines. I had shown off the powers of a Lifewarden (Kara), a Bloodmender (Sera), a Beastruler (Byn), an Aerial (Jyllith), a Firebrand (Aryn) and a Soulcaller (Jair). But an Earther? I didn’t have an Earther, and, just like when my favorite comics introduced a new mutant to the X-Men, I wanted the new addition to my ensemble to have a power that was unique on the team. If you’re an Avatar fan, you know where this is going.

To fill the hole in my ensemble, I made Tania an Earther – a blind woman who uses earth-based glyphs for attack and defense – and, because my other two female characters were heroic (Kara) and shy (Sera) I decided Tania should be snarky and humorous. And then, of course, with Tania well-established as my favorite new character and my second book over 60% done, I watched Avatar … and met Toph.

Toph and Tania remained different characters – Tania is much older than Toph (24), secretly a member of an order of assassins charged with hunting Demonkin (more spoilers!), and has far different motivations than Toph does in Avatar. I wrote Tania as a combination of Aeris (from Final Fantasy VII) and Stick (from Daredevil). Yet here Tania was – my blind, confident earth-wielding mage – and I was seriously considering altering her magic discipline, even changing her entire personality, because my favorite new show, Avatar, had introduced a confident, blind character who was an Earthbender.

Fortunately, this is where I caught myself. I considered the pros and cons of rewriting or removing Tania, and the cons outweighed the pros. Tania is central to Aryn’s character arc and the window into how my magic schools, monarchy, and world at large treat Demonkin. Removing her or changing her would require significant rewriting. After a week of handwringing, I kept Tania as she was, and even though people may inevitably consider her a “copy” of Toph, I haven’t regretted it.

Looking back at what I know now, I don’t think I would have even changed the names of my deities in Glyphbinder, if I had it to do again. Plenty of stories have centered around the elements of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air before Avatar, and plenty of stories will do so after. I got worried about being labeled “derivative” rather than telling the story I wanted to tell with ideas that interested me. Yet scrapping a fully developed character, because I’d just met one very similar, was where I drew the line.

Now, had I seen Avatar before starting Demonkin, would I have built Tania’s character the way she is? Probably not. Yet I created Tania before I met Toph, and decided I shouldn’t toss her on the junk pile just because someone else had independently developed a similar character (and I ❤ Toph). Rewriting Tania didn’t feel fair to her, my story, or myself. Avatar might have gotten published first, but Tania remained my character.

As I’ve been exposed to more and more media, I’ve grown increasingly cognizant that there are no truly original ideas out there. Every story, character, and idea we might have has, in some form or another, been created somewhere by someone, even if we haven’t encountered it yet. All we can do, as authors, is tell the best stories we can while using the ideas and themes that pop into our heads. We should obsess less about whether someone uses one of “our” ideas first, and instead focus on how we, as authors, can create an original story with the ideas that excite us.

Star Wars exists. Does that mean we can never write a story with laser swords? Harry Potter exists. Does that mean we can never write a story where students learn magic at a school? Walking Dead exists. Does that mean we can never write a story where heroes fight zombies?

As an author, forcing yourself to scrap one of your cool new ideas, just because someone has the same idea and publishes it first, is silly. We all draw from the same pool of inspiration, and it’s inevitable more than one of us will sometimes end up at the same place. Storytellers tell stories, and those stories are influenced by stories that came before. We should spend less time worrying about “has someone else done this?” and instead focus on “how can I make this element unique in my story?”

So authors, keep your laser swords and your zombies and your magic schools. Keep them and write the coolest story you can with them. You don’t own that idea, but neither does anyone else. Yes, people may sometimes assume you’re copying others and call you “derivative”, but that’s not a reason to junk your best ideas. Worry less about being labeled derivative and more about telling the story you love.

The Translator (Short Story)

This was another story I first posted over at the excellent Fantasy-Faction forums, submitted for their September writing contest. The theme this time was “politics”. As always, I encourage folks to check out the site and, if my fellow authors feel like joining in, all the more fun for everyone!

In this case, I wanted to play with dialogue tags in a different way. As might be evident from the story, I’m using two “types” of dialogue tags here for a very specific purpose. I have no idea if it works as I’d hoped, but it was a fun experiment.

 

The Translator (1,500 words)

Hana Varstow steeled herself as the doors to Prelate Garil’s council hall rolled open and a stench poured out: recent slaughter mixed with too much disinfectant. Hana’s gorge hopped but she dared not show weakness, not to the Confederate Elites who flanked her, not to the exhausted Kavil militiaman barely keeping his feet, and not, above all else, to Prelate Garil herself.

The unarmed soldier accompanying Garil was a concession to the Prelate’s station. Hana had suggested it. Their war was over – for now – but a treaty had yet to be signed. This meeting would finalize that surrender or the Confederacy would resume its orbital bombardment. Many more would die.

*Please, Prelate, be seated at the head of the negotiating table,* Hana said. *It befits your station.*

The Confederacy had already taken Garil’s husband, her son, and her army, and then slaughtered her council in this very room. Executed for refusing to surrender. Hana wouldn’t take Garil’s dignity, too.

Prelate Garil sat, soldier at her side. The Elites flanking Hana shouldered their rifles and took up position by the door, sending a clear message. No one left this room without the Confederacy’s permission.

*Where is your High General?* Garil stared at the silent Elites. *Or was this simply a pretense to reunite me with my council?* There might still be blood on her chair.

*The High General has been delayed,* Hana responded in perfect kavish, skating along a lie. *He appreciates your cooperation in avoiding further bloodshed, and will arrive soon.*

*You speak our language well.* Prelate Garil’s own kavish had a lyrical lilt to it, despite the fact she’d been up for over a day, and it was obvious she was a talented speaker. *Did they enslave you, too?*

*I am a loyal citizen of the Confederacy,* Hana said, because she wouldn’t put it pass the Confederacy’s infamous ISec squads to have installed archiving devices. *We better mankind.*

*Of course you do. You were courteous enough to shoot my husband in the head.*

Hana said nothing else. The Confederacy wanted loyal city states, not bombed worlds, and both Prelate Garil and High General Tourmaline would agree to that. So long as she reminded them, often.

The militia soldier standing by Garil, a towheaded man young enough to be Hana’s son, looked dead on his feet, but pride and rage kept him standing. Last night, the Confederacy had killed all his friends.

Finally, the room rumbled as Tourmaline’s shuttle landed – twenty minutes late. Shortly afterward the High General strode into the conference room, flanked by Golden Elites, and wrinkled his nose.

“What,” Tourmaline asked, in confederese, “is that godawful smell?”

*Took your time, didn’t you?* Garil said. *Massacres to conclude?*

“High General,” Hana said in confederese, “Prelate Garil of Kavil bids you welcome. She looks forward to negotiating Kavil’s surrender and incorporation into the Confederacy.”

“Tired of getting her ass kicked, is she?”

*Prelate Garil,* Hana said, *the High General apologizes for the delay. He wanted to personally assure our ceasefire agreement carried across our fleet.*

Garil scowled. *What are a few more bombs between friends? I think we still have a few hospitals.*

“The prelate only wishes to avoid further bloodshed,” Hana translated.

“Fine,” Tourmaline said. “Tell her to get out of my seat.”

“High General,” Hana said, “I should first clarify kavish customs. In kavish society, it is the supplicant who sits, to show humility. The victor stands in judgment.”

Tourmaline glowered. “You should have mentioned that earlier.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “Fine. The bitch can sit.”

*Wants me to move, does he?* Garil asked.

*In respect for the brave kavish who fell defending your planet,* Hana said, *our High General refuses to sit in judgment upon you. He will stand for these negotiations.*

Garil raised one elegant eyebrow. *A … surprising concession.*

“What did she say?” Tourmaline demanded.

“She looks forward to your terms.”

“Good.” Tourmaline crossed his arms and leaned forward. “Concession one. She disarms her people.”

*In the interest of avoiding any further bloodshed on both sides,* Hana said, “the High General asks that all private citizens turn over their guns.*

*So you can slaughter us face to face?* Garil scowled. *This is a rough planet. My people need guns to defend themselves.*

“High General,” Hana said, “the prelate does not refuse, but she does ask that Confederacy soldiers take over the defense of the kavish wheat farms. There are hundreds outside the walls.”

“Why do I give a shit about their wheat farms?”

“Local predators may otherwise devour their wheat, leading to famine,” Hana said. “The kavish shoot those that come near, but cannot protect their farms without their weapons.”

“I’m not tasking my Elites to guard a bunch of dirt-mucking farmers!”

“Then perhaps,” Hana said, “we could allow some kavish to keep their rifles? Outside the walls only, for protection from predators?”

“Fine.” Tourmaline waved her off. “Our new taxpayers can’t pay anything if they starve to death.”

*Prelate Garil, the High General understands your concern,* Hana said. *As a compromise, the Confederacy will allow your citizens to keep their rifles, so long as they carry them for defense and only outside city walls. You must not brandish them within the city.*

*He really agreed to that?* Garil narrowed her eyes.

*He understands your citizens must protect themselves.*

Garil considered, lips pursed. *Agreed.*

Hana nodded to Tourmaline. “The prelate appreciates your understanding of her people’s need to protect their farms, and offers thanks.”

“Concession two,” Tourmaline said. “She appoints an ambassador of my choosing as Protector of Kavil.”

*The High General asks you coordinate with our ambassador to ease your government’s transition into a partnership with ours,* Hana said. *So we can both benefit from your Confederacy membership.*

*So long as I pay my taxes?* Garil asked.

*Your taxes ensure the Confederacy protects your planet from pirates and skitterships, Prelate,* Hana reminded her, *and also grants you access to medical advances and gene therapy.*

Garil rolled her eyes. *I don’t think that’s what your High General said.*

“She’s refusing?” Tourmaline asked. “Remind her I have an orbital cannon pointed at her capital.”

“High General, she only worries for the ambassador. The kavish have a complex system of government, with ancient relationships and customs that can be difficult for outsiders to grasp.”

“I don’t care what the locals get up to,” Tourmaline said. “She can handle city law. Just make sure she recognizes my ambassador runs Kavil in all global matters, including Confederacy law.”

*Our new ambassador will facilitate communication within the Confederacy*, Hana told Garil, *while you continue to handle local matters of state. Is this acceptable?*

*Another concession I hadn’t expected,* Garil almost smiled. *Very well.*

“The prelate agrees to defer to the ambassador in all matters of Confederacy law, High General, and looks forward to educating him on the more delicate matters of kavish internal affairs.”

“Poor bastard.” Tourmaline chuckled. “That’s all I have, other than the boilerplate. You have the treaties?”

“Two copies,” Hana produced them, “in confederese and kavish.”

These treaties were nearly identical to those Hana had brokered – on High General Tourmaline’s orders, of course – with the last three planets the Confederacy had conquered. The people on those planets, unlike Hana’s now dead world, remained alive and fed, if not entirely happy.

“You verified she understands it?” Tourmaline demanded.

“Yes, High General.” Hana bowed. “The Prelate understands perfectly.”

“Then tell the bitch to sign away her planet.”

*Prelate Garil,* Hana said, *the High General appreciates your cooperation. Again, he honors the sacrifice of your soldiers. If you have no further concerns, he asks that you sign the treaties now.*

*So he does.* Garil stood, eyes hard, and for a moment Hana was terrified that she had failed. Garil would die rather than surrender and, with her death, doom Kavil’s people.

*Tell your general he is a skilled negotiator.* Garil walked over and signed one treaty, then the other.

“High General,” Hana said, “the prelate thanks you for your gracious invitation to the Confederacy.”

“Whatever.” Tourmaline signed both treaties. “Get these ratified, Hana. I’m heading back up.”

Hana bowed deep. “I will see it done.”

Tourmaline left and his Elites did too. The room emptied. Hana rolled and pocketed the treaties and then bowed to Garil. *The High General wishes you long life, and hopes you will soon come to understand the benefit of living under the Confederacy’s protective wing. You are free to leave.*

“it seems I’m having dinner after all,” Garil agreed, in perfect confederese. “Care to join me?”

Hana barely hid her shock. “I’m … not sure that would be wise, Prelate. Appearances-”

“Are important,” Garil agreed. “In fact, they’re everything.” She offered a slight nod, a gesture of sincere respect from one of her station, and headed out. *Thank you. For saving my people from my rage.*

Hana looked after her and swallowed, picturing her own dead world. *It was the least I could do.*

THE END

First Impressions of the Gear VR

Serendipity

Two weeks ago, my wife and I finally decided to upgrade our cellphones, which we do every three or four years. We don’t skimp on essential electronics we plan to keep for extended periods of time, and so bought ourselves a pair of Samsung Galaxy S6 phones. As you’d expect, they’re really nice phones!

Gear01-Phones

A week ago, at Capclave, one of my fantasy short stories won 2nd place in the Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s short story contest. The prize for 2nd place was an invitation to Capclave 2015, an invitation to Balticon 2016, and … $100 dollars. Which was awesome, but will also soon become important.

Two days ago, the Samsung Gear VR (basically, a super nice Google Cardboard VR headset designed exclusively for the Samsung Galaxy S6) went on sale on Amazon … for $100 dollars. I already have an Oculus DK2 and know what VR is like, so I’d never have bought a Gear VR otherwise. But the sale, plus the recent short story prize, plus hearing good things about Gear VR initiated an impulse buy.

So, thanks to a once every four years phone upgrade, winning a short story contest, and 50% off on Amazon, I impulse bought a Gear VR and snapped my new phone inside. Here are my first impressions.

VR is Super Clear

VR, both for movies and videogames, is super clear on the Gear VR. It provides a sneak preview of what VR will look like on the final consumer versions of upcoming VR headsets, which is to say, amazing. This additional clarity makes the biggest difference in 3D movies, and I think passive 360 viewing experiences (like safaris and concerts) will be the bread and butter of “casual” VR adopters. The accessible hook.

Gear02-Headset

Even with the lower quality of VR movies available to on Gear VR at launch, flying over a city in a helicopter (and being able to look straight down) is now an awe-inspiring and memorable experience. Also, when gaming, even small UI elements are super crisp and easy to read. Which is great. Finally, there is no stutter, since all VR experiences are designed to fall within the Galaxy S6’s specifications.

Not Being Tethered to a Personal Computer Opens Up New Play Mechanics

When you think of peripherals to make VR more immersive, many come to mind: HOTAS flight sticks and throttles, Sixense motion trackers, steering wheels and pedal sets with force feedback, the Buttkicker. What don’t most people think of when considering VR peripherals? The humble swivel chair.

Gear03-SwivelChair

The game that proved this for me was Anshar Wars. The fact that such a simple game with a single level and perhaps four mechanics blew me away was a testament to smart and simple design. The best game ideas are massively intuitive and immediately fun, and Anshar Wars proves the swivel chair mechanic.

The game is simple. You watch your fighter fly out of your mothership (third person – you’re in a “chase cam” behind your fighter) and then enemy fighters attack your mothership. Your velocity is constant … you are always flying forward. To guide your ship and aim your crosshair, you just … look where you want to go. To put that alien ship in your crosshairs? Look at it. To thread the needle between two asteroids? Look between them. Look up to fly up, down to fly down, and finally, the best part.

To bank 180 and chase the enemy fighter that just blew by you, you swivel your chair around.

In concept, this seems silly. In practice, it’s awesome. For the thirty minutes straight I played Anshar Wars, I must have looked (to the average observer) rather ridiculous. Looking up and down, using measured presses of my feet to rotate my chair left and right at varying speeds. Yet in VR, I was flying in loops. Zooming around asteroids, locking on and firing missiles, and blowing past and then quickly banking around to evaporate enemy fighters. At least until I flew into that asteroid and went boom.

Gear04-AnsharWars

The swivel chair mechanic is something that simply won’t ever work with a “wired” headset (like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or Sony Morpheus) because the wire is going to get tangled. Because the Gear VR has NO wires – it’s just strapped to my face – I can spin any direction as far as I want as often as I want and never have any problems. Thus, the humble swivel chair goes from the thing that makes your butt hurt after a long gaming session to an input device as integral to gameplay as a keyboard or controller.

Never would have guessed!

The Features of a “Final” Consumer Device

The Oculus DK2 is a dev kit, not a consumer product, and technically, Samsung claims the Gear VR is not a consumer product either. Yet it already incorporates a number of useful features I feel must be in the final consumer version of the big boy headsets. These include:

Built-in Touchpad

This is one of the best features of the Gear VR. It has a touchpad and “Back” button built into the side of the headset. For my X-Men fans, remember how Cyclops would touch the side of his visor to unleash optic blasts? Well, that’s pretty much what it feels like to interact with the Gear VR, and the touchpad is the controller for many games (sidenote: Someone make a Gear VR game where I’m Cyclops).

Look at Menus to Select Them

I first noticed this mechanic in the excellent Titans of Space, and called it out as the ideal way to navigate menus in VR. Well, Oculus apparently agrees. Every menu button within the Gear VR highlights when you “look” at it (you have a crosshair that shows you exactly where you are looking, in VR, and can look past the crosshair when not using it). Clicking the touchpad when looking at an option selects it.

Pass Through Camera

Simple, but super useful! Without removing the headset, a quick menu selection allows me to activate the camera on my phone. I then see the real world through my phone’s camera, with the video image projected inside the headset. Thus, I can pause my game to grab a drink off my desk, check on what the dog is eating (that she probably shouldn’t be eating) and talk to my wife without removing the headset.

Focus Wheel

This huge win is a wheel on top of the Gear VR, similar to that on top of a pair of binoculars. Scrolling it left or right subtly moves the plastic sheet behind the goggles strapped to your face forward or back to bring your phone’s split screen into focus. In early headsets like the DK2, getting the focus right is troublesome and requires putting the headset on, booting up an app in VR (no “Oculus Home Menu” for the DK2), pulling the headset off, adjusting, and repeating. With the focus wheel, you just don the headset, adjust it like a pair of binoculars, and focus in seconds. Intuitive, efficient and easy.

Wireless VR!

The consumer versions of the Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus (seated experiences) and the HTC Vive (standing experience – possibly) will have massive cables running from each headset to a computer. So, while you can tiptoe around these, you must be careful not to get your cables twisted. The Gear VR is entirely wireless (you wear the computer!) and the feeling of freedom is vastly superior. Swivel chair!

Downsides

Your Phone May Literally Melt

Obviously, there are tradeoffs for wireless VR freedom. First, your phone gets super hot when used for VR. And by super hot, I mean the Oculus app you use for VR literally includes a function that measures the heat level of your phone and, when your phone is approaching its melting point, shuts off what you’re doing. It then displays a prompt along the lines of “Your phone is too hot. Please allow your phone to cool before continuing your VR experience”. You can’t play again until your phone cools down.


Heat tracking and application shutdown is an integral component of Gear VR. It’s actually called out in the instruction manual. This suggests that Oculus and Samsung know a computer in a tiny plastic case running lots of calculations inside another plastic case gets hot, and they can’t fix this. Your phone overheating is inevitable, and occurs after anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour in VR. This will not be a problem with the Rift, Vive, or Morpheus headsets, but is a problem with current generation phones playing games for extended periods or even watching movies. This limits VR playtime.

You Are a Head on a Flagpole

The biggest thing missing from the Gear VR is what the Oculus DK2 does beautifully: moving your head with your body. With the Gear VR (as with the Oculus DK1) you can look up, down, left, right, and so on, but if you straighten, slouch, or lean, your view doesn’t change and your head remains “locked” to default X Y Z coordinates. This ruins VR and gets nauseating very quickly if you don’t force yourself to *not* move while using Gear VR, because what you “see” in VR doesn’t match what your body is doing.

Like any other sort of motion sickness, moving your torso too much or too often and not seeing that reflected in VR can quickly nauseate you to the point of quitting. Most people shouldn’t have a problem if they have a high-backed chair and sit straight against it for the entire time, but this requires discipline. Most people instinctively slouch or shift while sitting, and the Gear VR can’t account for this.

Despite this, games like Anshar Wars play beautifully in the Gear VR because of their clever incorporation of swivel chairs. So long as you press your back to the chair and spin the chair, not your body, you can play intuitively for extended periods with no motion sickness. So there’s that!

Summary

The Gear VR, and other devices like it, feel like the equivalent of a handheld game console. If a powerful computer with an HTC Vive is your PS4, then a Samsung Gear is your PS Vita. Lighter, self-contained, easy to transport, limited by battery, and designed for shorter, snappier experiences on the road. In exchange for giving up computing power and longer play times, you gain portability and ease of use.

In my opinion, that’s a decent tradeoff. I think the best thing about the Gear VR and similar devices will be VR evangelism. The Gear VR is something you can take anywhere, adjust to a new user in seconds, and use to initiate those who’ve never tried VR into the fold. People who use it will “get” VR quickly.

The next generation of VR headsets will be, in my opinion, wireless versions of the Oculus Rift, HTV Vive, or Sony Morpheus, or Gear VR-like devices that track torso movement and don’t threaten to melt during use. If you already have a compatible phone, the Gear VR is a fun supplement to your home VR setup.