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My First Book (Covers)

June 20, 2012 8 comments

A friend of mine told me that this post had to be epic. No reason was given. I am accustomed to following arbitrary directives from my friends, however, so I began speculating how I might bring such epicness to bear. The speculation ended rather quickly with the realization that all of the hard work had already been done for me by the mighty Chris McGrath:

Epic post achieved.

I confess to complete and utter ignorance in the realm of cover art. Never having been particularly proficient at visual art, I didn’t study it much (only taking one class in high school). The massive, dynamic world of cover artists went subconsciously heeded at best except for the occasional gripe at an inconsistency. When I finished my first draft of The Dead of Winter, I slapped a picture of a moon over a snowy forest on the front page when I sent it out to friends for beta reading. I spent literally minutes combing through Google images for a perfect decent picture of wintry doom to accompany my manuscript. Little did I know that the perfect cover could only be had by signing on with a wrathful publisher and letting them bring in a AAA-caliber artist to breathe spirit and soul into the characters.

I say “spirit and soul” rather than “life” because Chris McGrath did more than fashion physical forms for characters that (in my mind) were visually nebulous. When the Robot Overlords asked for physical descriptions, I was able to trot them out in short order, but I didn’t envision them in my head. I never had, really. When I write, my characters are words and thoughts and actions and reactions. They interact, they murder, they weep, and they laugh. They do all this in my virtual headspace, mostly divorced from the physical forms they take therein. They are spirits, flitting briefly into the physical plane before returning to the great ether.

Which I keep in a can under the table.

In creating these covers, Chris McGrath captured those ethereal essences in a way I could never have imagined. When I first saw the proofs, my sense of wonder and excitement was augmented by something else, something almost eerie. For the first time since I brought them into the world, I was actually seeing Cora and Benjamin Oglesby. The ferocious determination sparking in Cora’s eyes, the way Ben cradles the book in his arm, the overpowering threat of coldness and death surrounding them…it was all perfect. I don’t know if Chris read the manuscript prior to completing the work or not (he says it varies from job to job). If he didn’t, I recommend the skeptics of the world start testing him for psychic powers. I can’t fathom how he so precisely captured my characters based solely on third-party description.

Then again, he’s just that good. Both proofs arrived in March, at which point only a handful of people–a subset excluding the Robot Overlords themselves–had read She Returns From War. In January, Marc asked for scenes from the book that might make for a good cover. I sent him a few possibilities (at least one of which I hadn’t written yet), frustrated by my own inability to adequately describe them. Chris somehow transformed those lackluster outlines into a singularly haunting image that captures the essence of the story in a way I myself hadn’t yet realized. If having my characters stare back at me from The Dead of Winter’s cover was eerie, seeing the art for a book I had only just finished drafting was downright unsettling.

Granted, some people probably wouldn’t find it all that strange.

So here’s to you, Chris McGrath. Thank you for capturing the essence of Cora Oglesby with such grace, precision, and beauty. You probably hear such sentiments a lot in your line of work; I hope the repetition fully reinforces the belief that you do damn fine work. If ever our paths should cross, dinner’s on me.

Categories: Books, Writing

Discussion: Tomb Raider, Video Games, and the Portrayal of Women Therein

June 12, 2012 2 comments

As the risk of alienating what little readership this blog possesses, I am going to weigh in on the recent Internet outrage regarding the new Tomb Raider title and the larger issue of how the video game industry portrays women. This is by no means an exhaustive post, and despite my intense passion for the medium, finite time and funding limit my knowledge of current gaming trends rather severely. Still, I will attempt to engage in what is meant to be thoughtful dialogue, and anyone stopping by is welcome to chime in.

Chuck Wendig’s post on the Tomb Raider reboot prompted a brief foray through other thoughts on the subject of violence against women in gaming culture. As a life-long gamer, the absurd level of female objectivization found in many games is nothing new to me. I’ve played games by Team Ninja and Capcom; I’ve chuckled at the ludicrous “real-life breast physics” of Dead or Alive 3; I’ve felt manly and heroic for rescuing Princess Zelda from Ganondorf’s clutches; I’ve run over hookers in Grand Theft Auto. Somewhat ironically, I’ve never played a Tomb Raider title precisely because marketing for those titles convinced me that Lara Croft was scarcely more than a vapid action hero with plus-sized assets. As a general rule, I eschew what Tori and I refer to as bro titles–games which promise little content beyond satisfying the violent and/or sexual fantasies of a stereotypical adolescent male. This inclination (which existed prior to my relationship for the cynical among you) doesn’t put me in the best position to comment on the hyper-sexualization of women in games, past or present. I’ve never bothered with XBL or PSN, either, and my forays into organized raiding guilds have always been with (more or less) mature individuals. Thus, I have insulated myself from the prevalent women-bashing attitudes of more vociferous, interactive gamers. The dregs of the industry and I are unpleasant acquaintances, and I acknowledge their existence only with crusty looks whenever our paths cross.

I’m looking at you, Duke Nukem.

In a way, this predisposition is a quiet admission that there has always been a large, rank streak of full-blown misogyny in the industry. I don’t publicly rage about it, but neither do I support it with my time or money. Given that the hobby was once the near-exclusive territory of shell-shocked social lepers, many of whom grew bitter at their rejections (warranted or not) by the female gender, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that this is one of the industry’s larger root clusters. Now that the target market has expanded to include all kinds of assholes, developers big-ticket investors are realizing that there isn’t much of a difference between a Sports Illustrated swimsuit spread and a “fantasy femmes” wall calendar. Creating a means by which both demographics can act out their pent-up rage at the female gender is a proven money-maker. Should we be upset that this is yet another vehicle enabling the spread of a digital rape culture? Yes. Should we be surprised? Perhaps not.

However, reactions to such issues as the Hitman trailer (that of a burly male MC thrashing BDSM-clad nuns) must be carefully controlled if one hopes to preserve the medium one claims to love. Yes, the whole scene is stupid and offensive, but such things are not the sole gruel upon which the gamer may feed. Whether or not such misogyny is fringe or mainstream is up for debate, but the fact remains that many games do feature a strong, un-hyper-sexualized female lead and are similarly devoid of grotesque hyper-violence targeted specifically against women. To name just a few: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (quick, which character is the most sexualized?), Silent Hill 3, Xenoblade Chronicles, Half-Life 2, Final Fantasy XIII, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Xenosaga, Eternal Sonata, Rule of Rose, Kingdom Hearts, StarCraft, Portal… I could go on, but I believe my point stands. There are plenty of story-rich games that don’t subjugate and objectify women. Flying off the handle at those that do can easily backfire into creating a “I sure would like to think that game companies will one day put some actual grown-up thought into the handling of female characters, but for a variety of reasons, I am not exactly holding my breath over here (@cmpriest)” paradigm in the public’s mind. Such games do exist; if you love the medium, you’ll find them.

Sometimes where you least expect them.

Regarding the Tomb Raider issue, I see where the outrage comes from. Rape is a thing too terrible for words. It should not happen, and those who commit the act are scum. No one is arguing this. Unfortunately, the world has its share of scum, and it does happen. If I correctly understand the situation into which the newly-rebooted Lara Croft is placed, she falls in with a group of scum scavengers. Realism being a priority (as in most “gritty” reboots), the developers must then confront the likelihood that a young woman in such a situation would face the threat of rape. Does it really stretch the imagination to think that facing such a threat and overpowering her attackers would be a formative event for a young woman unused to the crueler realities of life? Granted, I’m not sure I agree with the choice to make it an interactive cut scene, but it doesn’t strike me as bad writing. Showing Lara Croft at a place of weakness, especially early in the story, gives her somewhere to go. Making her vulnerable gives the strength and cunning she later comes to possess even more powerful. I believe that making characters victim of circumstance and brutality is a way to humanize them so long as they are not left in that place. By overcoming victimhood and taking control of their destinies, characters become more real, regardless of gender. Yes, the idea that players “should want to protect her” is a poor one to have when attempting to create a strong female lead, but bear in mind that Rosenberg is speaking to the same core audience that played Tomb Raider for years because they liked watching Lara Croft’s boobs solve puzzles and shoot things. The series panders to the lowest common denominator, and now Crystal Dynamics is trying to elevate it beyond that demographic. Their attempt may be terrible, laughable, or just plain offensive, but at least they’re trying.

Furthermore, despite Rachel Fogg’s tirade that Lara’s development “seemingly ONLY include[s] ‘rape’ because fuck all, that’s how women get character ladies in gentlemen, she has to be raped or attempted raped etc…no way in holy FUCKING hell is she going to gain that development through any other FUCKING means from being shot at, punched, attacked, survive a plane crash, betrayal, set on fire…nope, rape. Perfect, that’s the ‘Go to’ for female development to make her ‘Harder and badass'”, it has been revealed that the attempted rape will not be the sole characterizing event for our new Ms. Croft.  Rick Kim lists a series of events revealed by Crystal Dynamics that all conspire to make Lara Croft the gravity-defying, gun-toting murderess we’re all familiar with. So, while the decision to include attempted rape may be insensitive, shocking, or dehumanizing, it is by no means the ONLY FUCKING way her character is developed.

My point in all this? The video game medium has a myriad of problems. Sexism, hyper-sexuality, and misogyny are high up on that list for many, many titles. The online culture that has grown up around gaming is ridiculously, pointlessly hostile toward women. However, for the sake of the good developers, the mature writers, and the legions of egalitarian-minded players, don’t slight the whole for the wrongs of some. When ranting about the titles that offend, please mention ones that don’t. Pulling out the weeds is only half the battle; one must also plant flowers if one is to have a pleasant garden.

“Pleasant” is a relative term.

And for the love of God, stop treating the new Tomb Raider likes it’s the second coming of Custer’s Revenge.

Categories: Games
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