The Story Within the Story

So, for a while now, I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a piece that does a close reading of the FAB lore focused on the technical elements (like the prose itself as opposed to the broader narrative themes and plot details). But, I’ve been struggling to figure out a productive way to do it. That may sound weird because I’ve written pieces before critiquing things like how FAB underutilizes the actual cards to develop their characters and storylines. And elsewhere in this Mega Update, I critique how FAB uses certain tropes and stumbles on characterization. But what I haven’t done is look at any individual piece of lore and given a critical reading of it as text. This is a little odd, insofar as that sort of close reading, analysis, and critique of texts was essentially what I did professionally before I left academia. While I’m very comfortable performing such an analysis, I’m not actually sure how to do it in a useful way here.

That sentiment is sort of fiddly to explain, so bear with me here because we’re going to need some contextualization. There are a lot of reasons to analyze texts, and different goals tend to structure how you approach that process. I’ve written countless comments on student papers over the years, and some of that involved pointing out things people did poorly and explaining why they’re not working (ideally, you also try to highlight the parts that are good so that the writer knows what is working). Now, the goal of this process is to make students into better writers. Yes, it sucks to hear that you did something bad, but having someone explain why it was bad is a useful tool in helping you improve. Before that, I worked as a tutor in my university’s writing center when I was in undergrad, and that role involved talking people through the problems with their writing so that they could learn and improve. It’s been a long time since I was in a creative writing class (creative writing has always been more of a thing I do on my own time, whereas my academic writing was essay, not narrative, focused), but that’s one more venue where I was used to this sort of critique. In that context, you usually read other people’s work, they read yours, and then you spend a bunch of time talking about what things worked or didn’t work in each other’s pieces and try to suss out why that is. What’s consistent in these examples is that everyone, at least implicitly, agreed to be there. So, the purpose of critique is pretty clear here; you’re trying to improve someone’s writing, and they’re coming to you specifically for that service.

That isn’t to say that you can only critique media when you’re asked to or there is a clear path to improving the original text. Reviews of movies, books, comics, etc. all serve a purpose as well. The immediately obvious one is to help people figure out if a particular piece of media is worth their time and/or money. Is Pig a film that showcases a dimension of Nicolas Cage’s acting that I didn’t know existed, and was it just this strange, and quietly beautiful film that was among the best releases on 2021? Yeah, yeah it was. But I only went to see it because I read a review that made it sound like more interesting then the initial summary made it our to be.

Analysis can also help to deepen your appreciation of something you already like by showing you new dimensions, or it can show you new perspectives that make you reevaluate something you’d written off as either bad or average. Sometimes the analysis itself becomes the object of interest. I’ve seen some really compelling analyses of texts that I had no interest in consuming either before or after taking in the critique, but I’m entirely happy I went along for the ride. A great example of that last case is hbomberguy’s massive “RWBY Is Disappointing, And Here’s Why” video. I wasn’t planning to watch RWBY before I saw it, and I’m definitely not going to watch it now, but I’ve watched the critique three times since it came out because it’s such a well-composed and interesting analysis. In looking at that text, you can see how much a couple key people not being up to the task can make such a giant endeavor into a bad show.

Sometimes good critiques can be mean, and that can actually be a good thing in certain contexts. I really love this review of The Wise Man’s Fear that I’m very glad was saved for posterity by the Wayback Machine, because it’s a pretty bad book that is nevertheless incredibly popular and well-regarded for reasons that continue to baffle me to this day. It’s nice to be able to point to that review and say “These! These are the problems! How are you not seeing this?!” (Rothfuss fans, don’t @ me. You’re wrong, and I’m just going to ignore you anyway). What I like about this review (beyond the fact that I agree with almost all of its takes) is that it makes fun of the book for things the book deserves to be made fun of for. The paragraph that goes:

“Of course you can’t ever really say, for certain, how a book would have been received if you reversed the genders of its author and protagonist, but something tells me that a book about a red-haired girl who plays the lute and becomes the most powerful sorceress who ever lived by the time she’s seventeen, and who has a series of exciting sexy encounters with supernatural creatures, would not have been quite so readily inducted into the canon of a genre still very uncertain about its mainstream reputation.”

The point being made is solid, but it’s enhanced by being sarcastic and catty. The reason this works is because The Wise Man’s Fear was very successful commercially despite being not particularly good. Sometimes it’s bold to observing the emperor’s lack of clothing. That said, this sort of approach would read in a fundamentally different way if the reviewers’ target had been some random fifteen year old fan fiction writer. It only works because of the power/influence imbalance between the reviewer and the author is so tipped in the author’s favor that being mean is clearing not an act of punching down, or even across. Anyway, there are a lot of good reasons to be critical of the texts we consume.

Thus Ends the Prologue

The reason I went through all of that set up is so that you can start to understand me when I say that I’m not entirely sure what the goal of critiquing specific pieces of FAB lore would be. Here’s the thing, all of those texts I talked about above? The media was something that was its own thing. FAB lore is fundamentally different in that it exists as scaffolding for the game that is Flesh and Blood. It’s support structure as opposed to being the primary focus. So, it’s not just existing to tell a story, it’s doing it as part of a larger media assemblage that is the FAB IP, which is spearheaded by a card game. Evaluating it as though it were a book or short story doesn’t take that context into consideration.

That isn’t to say that media that exists in relationship to a primary text can’t break out of its orbit and take on a life of its own. I know I talk about Arcane a lot, but it’s a great example of this. While it is based on the lore of League of Legends, and is supposed to, at least partially, drive interest to Riot’s video games, it’s taken on a life of its own as a related media property that can be profitably evaluated outside of the context of the game that spawned it. You don’t really need to play Riot’s games to get all of the important things that show has to offer. Oh sure, there are little Easter eggs hidden here and there for the hardcore fans, but the things that make it a great series allow it to succeed divorced from its source material. However, these sorts of texts are generally outliers, and not the norm, particularly when it comes to writing that supports games which aren’t themselves narrative-driven.

To be blunt, FAB’s lore is not the product LSS is selling you. It’s an added feature. It exists as a supplement to the game itself and isn’t really structured to be able to stand on it’s own. This isn’t to say that there couldn’t be a FAB novel written in the future that goes on to blow everyone out of the water and get widespread recognition beyond FAB’s fan base. It would certainly be a major challenge (plenty of games have had novels, but most never gain traction beyond the audience for the game itself), but it could happen. However, in the current state of affairs, LSS is a company focused on making a game first and foremost.

So that brings us to the real core of my struggle: I think the quality of the FAB lore ranges a lot. Nothing would land among the best things I’ve ever read. But, to be fair, I’ve never written anything that I would count amongst the best things I’ve ever read either. What I’m saying is that there’s a lot of room below that high bar where you can still be doing good work. I think FAB has a few pieces of fiction that are pretty good. Then there are a lot that are average fantasy writing (which, again, I want to emphasize, is perfectly fine for what the writing is trying to accomplish for FAB), and then there are pieces of writing that I think are kind of bad. My dilemma comes from asking what I’d hope to accomplish with a critique. It wouldn’t be reasonable to say that I’m trying to help the writers improve because I have no idea if they’d be reading my criticism or, even if they’d want the feedback in the first place.

If you’re reading this, you’re already a Flesh and Blood fan, so it would have no real use to you in deciding that you’re going to get into FAB or not -they already got you. Nor is it the case that the Lore Book is unjustly being heralded as one of the greatest books of the decade, and I’d be stepping in to challenge an accepted belief that I feel overrates a text. Spending a lot of time thinking about media and picking it apart is pretty much how I’ve lived my life since I was a kid, and I don’t think that’s going to go away, but does sharing those thoughts accomplish anything in this case? What are the outcomes of me writing an analysis? I guess that’s a sort of dishonest framing. What I really mean is, “what are the outcomes of me writing an analysis of one of the pieces that I think is below average or bad?” If I wrote an article about something I liked and talked about why it was good, I would get zero pushback on that, and it would likely actively make some people happy. I know that’s true, because I’ve written articles about things I like about FAB before (some of them are in this very Mega Update), and people always post comments with “yay, FAB!” sentiments on the Facebook links. But what would happen if I wrote the negative one?

The Heart of Things

Serious question: why is this a problem for me? It’s not exactly like I shy away from critiquing LSS. Whereas I feel like so many content creators are these fonts of positivity, I’d probably situate myself as fairly neutral with maybe a critical leaning. That’s not a knock on those upbeat people; the community very clearly likes to see that sort of energy. It’s just not who I am. But yeah, I’ve put out pieces where I sort of casually wonder “is this the one that’s going to get me blacklisted by LSS?” (I’ve seen The Professor get snubbed for less, and he’s a staggeringly more important content creator for WotC than I am for LSS. Although I should probably note that LSS treats their content creators far better than WotC does). That thought doesn’t mean that I’m not writing criticism because I think I’ll piss off someone at LSS, it’s actually the opposite. While I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to be involved with game to the degree that I have thus far, I’m not going to pull punches because I’m afraid that if I say, “Everfest was awful EV” LSS won’t give me a preview card for Uprising. If I was, I probably wouldn’t have said that very thing here and in like five other articles.

That’s actually a good thing to focus in on. I’m totally fine talking about a product being bad value. I’ll talk about why I think certain game design decisions are bad. I’ll critique press releases and policies. In the article I wrote about the Taylor promo, I’m pretty scathing about how LSS handled the whole thing, and I talk specifically about how the composition of the release at the textual level was bad. I get into the rhetorical framing of it, and look at specific word choices. I’m normally not afraid of ruffling feathers with my criticism, So what makes critiquing the writing of the lore different?

Hmmm… Well, with the question of value, it’s an objective matter. You can do some math and pretty easily deduce that opening a random box of Everfest will probably leave you with significantly less money in singles than you paid to get the box. As someone who discusses the financial end of the game, I feel that it’s actually my responsibility to try to objectively assess new products so that the community can make informed decisions on how to spend their money (it’s like explicitly what my job is at The Rathe Times).

Critiquing game design choices also feels very natural for me, and not particularly malicious. I’m a game-designer at a board game co-op, and if you spend time in that sort of space, you get used to hearing that certain design choices you made are bad. People are generally nice in how they frame it, but at the heart of things, they’re usually saying the element in question is bad. And sometimes when you’re working with people you have a good working relationship with, they’ll just straight up tell you that they hate a mechanic or other aspect of a project you’re working on. (Sometimes you’ll still think they’re good choices anyway, and then you’ll start public playtests and die a little inside when the play testers flag the exact issues your colleagues warned you about but you obstinately refused to change).

In the case of the Taylor announcement criticism, it was easy to see a purpose there: I thought what LSS did was harmful to the ethos of the cosplay community, and I felt like it was important to call that out firmly because there’s a non-zero chance it could influence conversations about how LSS treat’s cosplay going forward. There was a pretty clear cut objective there of trying to affect a specific change.

Hell, as I think about it more, I realize that I’m also OK critiquing plotting and themes or characterization, but I pull back when it comes to picking apart the actual writing at a granular level. I think maybe it feels to, I’m not sure, too intimate?

I think it’s partially about my own relationship to writing fiction, which is a topic I go into in more detail in the personal reflection part of the Mega Update. (That piece sort of connects up with what I’m about to say here.) I’m very comfortable writing in an essay/media analysis/critical reading format. People might like or dislike my style, but I know that I’m pretty good at writing in those genres. –START EXISTENTIAL CRISIS: I’m really struggling not to, for the sixth time, delete the previous line, because I need it to scaffold this contrast I’m going to be doing in the next paragraph. I keep trying to minimize it so it sounds less self-congratulatory. It’s something I kind of have to construct a logical proof for myself to justify. Like, I once got accepted with tuition waivers and stipends/fellowships to a whole bunch of very good English PhD programs. So, either A.) I am a truly spectacular con artist and fleeced a bunch of the top people in the field, or B.) I’m probably pretty decent at writing this sort of thing. Blerg, this is awful. FINISH EXISTENTIAL CRISIS— Anyway, I personally feel like my writing in those areas isn’t particularly special because I am good at it, and I find it relatively easy to do.  

Then we have fiction. Fiction is very hard to do. Most of the articles in this drop were written across five days, four of which were also work days. They may be a bit higher in grammatical mistakes and typos than a normal article, but if these were being done for professional publication, an editor would address that. All together, they total somewhere around 40,000 words. And, to be totally honest, if I had had taken the week off work, I could have probably written twice as much without a problem. Do you want to know what my weekly target is for writing fiction? 3000 words. That’s it. And it’s hard. Articles though? I can do a full day’s work, cook dinner, talk to my wife for a bit, and then just sit down and write 4,000 words with relative ease. And, at the end of that, I’m just stopping because there’s something else I want to do. If I wanted to write more, I could. With fiction, I need to focus so much more. That means that getting into a mental state where I feel like I can write something worthwhile is hard if work sucked. But, even when it’s been a relaxing day, the amount of mental effort that it takes me to compose fiction is so much more taxing. When it comes to writing essays, I could just go on for as long as I was awake if I felt like it. But with fiction? I get worn out. Sessions wind down with me writing notes to my future self about what she needs to figure out or why everything is bad and she needs to make it better. I feel drained when I finish. Even when I feel like I made good progress, the sensation is akin to doing hard exercise. Like, once you get off the bike after two hours, and you’re like “fuck yeah, I did the sort of thing a healthy person would do!” you’re still wiped out, even if you’re happy you did it. It is hard to write fiction, which makes it seem more deserving of deference to me.

Beyond my own writing practices, there’s just my relationship with media in general. I don’t really believe in the sacred; I’ve never been religious. I’m not particularly deferential; from a very early age, I’ve always had a pretty healthy distrust for authority. But, if there is something I revere, I think it’s stories. Like, guys, I really fucking love them. I’ve even got rituals around them –The audio book of This is How You Lose the Time War fits perfectly in the time it takes me to drive from New York to Boston, and I listen to it in one direction or the other any time I make the back and forth trip solo. The local art theater seems to sneak Only Lovers Left Alive into its screening schedule every year, and I always go. I’ll never miss a chance to sit in front a giant screen while that film creates this moody, sad, but beautiful world that we see it through the eyes of this immortal couple, who so cherish the things of great beauty that humanity has produced while also just being submerged in this sense that it’s all headed downhill. And, the anchor for it all is their uncynical and enduring love for each other. Fuck, that film is so good. I’m not even a snob –OK, I just re-read those last two example. I am definitely a snob, but not all the time. When my wife is out of town on a trip, I go on a manic housecleaning spree and binge romance novels. She just got back from a week in California and I read four while she was gone. Four. Stories, and art generally, really matter to me, and I have tremendous empathy for anyone attempting to create art.

So, even though the people creating the FAB lore are doing it for their jobs and the FAB IP isn’t their story but rather a story they’ve been hired to help develop, there’s just something about creating stories that feels personal and important in a way that I don’t feel about my job. Like, my job is a job. I’ve had worse jobs, I’ve had better jobs (though those ones paid notably less and had terrible benefits). But I don’t have a lot of my self-worth tied up into my job. Even with the game design work on the side, while I care about making games –I’d certainly rather excel at that than doing what I do at work- it’s not the same. Maybe that’s just projection.

Like I said in the giant blog entry, my fixation is the novel. I feel like, if I went for it, like really went for it, and I just wrote a book and attempted to publish it, and just hit nothing but silence and total rejection, I might never recover. Better to never know what might be than to learn I can’t do it. When I think about writing something that boils down to “this isn’t very good” about something authored by someone who is invested enough in storytelling to be at the point where they’re doing it professionally, I kind of panic. I go back to the feeling of “I’d never recover,” and I have to ask, “Is the main outcome of this helpful, or am I just hurting someone’s feelings?” It’s amplified by the fact that there a fairly good chance they’d actually end reading my critique or at least hearing about it second hand. Like, I’m not worried about that dig I made on Rothfuss earlier, I’m the guy will never read it, and even if he did, what does he care, he’s already won in terms of success and praise. But like, a writer at LSS? There’s a decent chance they’re at least loosely aware of me. I mean, LSS keeps sending me preview cards for some reason, so, you know, it’s pretty clear that at least some people there read my content. Then again, maybe other people don’t really have all the hang ups I do. Maybe other writers would shrug off critiques of their fiction with as little care as I have when people complain about my content being political. Or, maybe those other writers just never went to grad school (the place where self-confidence goes to die), and they’re more well-adjusted human beings than I am. It’s been known to happen.

Plot Twist

So, uh, what happens now? It sure sounds like I’m not going to write an analysis of specific FAB stories at this time. Which is, indeed, the case. At least for now. I think I need more time to figure out what I want say and why, so that if I do write a critical piece it’s doing something beyond allowing me to be all, “hey, I have thoughts, and now you will listen to them!” So, why does this article exist? Well, I wanted to sort of convey my dilemma here because I feel like it helps explain what I, at least, perceive as an odd gap in my content. But that sounds like kind of a post hoc justification. It’s the kind of article I occasionally write and then throw away because it ends up being too much about me. But, because I can staple it onto my weird sudden urge to put out a bazillion articles in one go, that feels like less of a problem than it normally would. Honestly, if you dug down to the bottom of the Mega Update pile to find this, I assume you read the summary and knew what you were getting into. I guess, at the end of the day, I felt like this was something I need to put into words for my own sake.

*Header Image – Prism by Livia Prima

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