Revisiting Inheritance

Stories, more often than not, are not about the endings.

This is especially true for epics and fantasies, as the ending can be predicted as soon as the main conflict is constructed. Frodo destroys the One Ring and defeats Sauron. Luke Skywalker rallies the Rebel Alliance and vanquishes the evil Empire. Katniss Everdeen survives the Hunger Games and is the point of the spear that overthrows the Capitol. Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, defeated the evil Lord Voldemort at great cost.

None of those endings are surprising, and while the fate of the good guys were dire in many situations, nobody thought those endings wouldn’t eventually come to be.

And that’s because stories, specifically epics and fantasies, are about the journey to the ending. What decisions do the characters make? How does the conflict affect the world or the characters? What are the consequences of the decisions? How do the relationships between characters progress? How do the main characters defeat the bad guy?

Harry Potter making the ultimate sacrifice

Harry Potter making the ultimate sacrifice

All of those questions are more important than what happens at the end. We don’t love specific stories because the good guys defeat the bad guys; we love specific stories because we become attached to the characters and become engrossed in their struggle.

So when I tell you that Eragon and Saphira topple King Galbatorix and bring peace to the land of Alagaesia, you should be as surprised as if I told you that water is wet. When I say that they left Alagaesia at the end of the series, that is not a stunner either. Those are not spoilers, and they are not surprising; they are telegraphed way ahead of time by Paolini’s choices and the genre itself.

In order to evaluate the book or series, therefore, you must look at the how, the why. Eragon’s journey is more important than the ending. To put it into one succinct thought: did the characters earn the ending?

Unfortunately for Inheritance, the answer is no.

Eragon leaves Alagaesia, ostensibly to never return, but there’s no justification that he would never return; it just is. When Frodo leaves Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, he is recognizing that his life can never be as it was, the burden of carrying the Ring too great. His journey justified the ending. Eragon primarily makes the decision to leave Alagaesia because of logistical reasons. His journey did not justify the ending, and so Paolini is left scrambling to legitimize Eragon’s decision.

And Eragon’s triumph over Galbatorix isn’t earned, either. Eragon is simply unable to defeat him at all without the help of Murtagh, who pulls a deus ex machina to give Eragon a chance at defeating Galbatorix. This is extremely important, as it neuters chapters and chapters and chapters of Eragon’s personal growth because it never mattered in the end. Yes, Eragon did eventually overcome Galbatorix in his own way a little later–which was extraordinarily clever on Paolini’s part–though he was only given the chance to do so by others.

But the biggest issue with Inheritance is that it does not earn the payoff with Eragon and Arya. For two books, Eragon pines for Arya with no reciprocity, actively damaging their friendship through pigheaded romanticism. In the third book, they start to finally settle into a friendship, the dynamic ending of the novel forging a deeper bond.

And yet the age-old romance mantra–will they or won’t they–is never a factor. Arya never shows no romantic intentions for Eragon, and Paolini’s greatest sin is that he never puts the characters in a position to make decisions about their relationship. It’s on a Calvinist path, a predetermined set of lines that never intersect. Arya becomes Queen as well as the newest Rider, insulating her from even the possibility of having a deeper relationship with Eragon.

Christopher Paolini author of Eragon

Christopher Paolini, author of the Inheritance Cycle (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

I want to make myself clear here: the problem is not any of the choices Paolini decided in the ending of the series. Arya becoming Queen and Rider is just fine, Eragon defeating Galbatorix is necessary, and Eragon leaving Alagaesia is just fine too.

The problem with Inheritance is more subtle. None of the characters make decisions that are reflected in their endings, or given the opportunity to make decisions given their ending. The problem is not that Arya and Eragon never ended up as a couple, but how they never ended up a couple.

Imagine this: Arya and Eragon admitted their feelings with one another before the final battle. They spent some intimate time together in their nervous state of mind. After the battle, everything happens just as it did in the book, including Arya’s return as Queen and Rider. Then, Eragon and Arya gingerly rekindle their relationship for a time, but they both know it can’t last. Just as in the book, Eragon decides to leave Alagaesia, and Arya decides to stay.

That’s a relatively minor change, but do you see how different everything is? Arya decides to accept becoming Queen knowing it would endanger a blossoming relationship with Eragon, and Eragon makes his decision knowing he’s giving up a realistic future with the woman he loves. It deepens both characters immensely, gives weight to their decisions, and makes the ending mean something.

Inheritance is not a bad book. Some people will encounter endings that don’t jive with them and figuratively burn the story to the ground in response, but I think that’s just silly overreaction. The Inheritance Cycle is still worth reading, and it’s still a fantastic achievement by Christopher Paolini.

But whether it was due to the framework of the story being written by a teenager, the unforeseen split of the third book into two books, simple pigheadedness, or something else, Inheritance‘s ending doesn’t connect like it should. It doesn’t ruin the series–but it could be so, so much better.

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Let’s all admit that the story of Overwatch just doesn’t work

Overwatch, the colorful cross between a standard first person shooter and the hip multiplayer online battle arena (better known as MOBA), has a story and lore. It’s very lovingly-crafted, mostly told through gorgeous pre-rendered videos distributed outside the game by the developer, Blizzard.

Most of these shorts center around one or more of the characters in the game. The characters, or heroes, are the core of the game, and the intricate and varied play of each of the heroes is what gives Overwatch its fun and depth. Each hero is designed wonderfully, with fantastic voice actors and visual styles that make each hero feel individual and unique.

My favorite short that Blizzard has released was about Bastion, the robot turret/tank/salt factory with a cute bird friend. Bastion has no voice actor, instead beeping and whirring like a deranged R2-D2 as it unleashes relentless terror. Their wordless animated short about Bastion is a simply beautiful seven minutes, and it channels Pixar at its most transcendent.

It’s just too bad it doesn’t matter at all.

See, none of this painstaking characterization and storytelling is done in the game itself. It’s done through lore and video disseminated through other means–including both videos and comic books–and it gives the illusion of presenting a deep world while crippling the game’s ability to tell a good story.

Overwatch has no single player story mode. It has no in-game cutscenes that happen before you play a game. There is no readable history or lore a la the codex in Bioware’s Dragon Age or Mass Effect series. You get a few sentences of description for each of the characters and that’s pretty much it.

Don’t get me wrong: Overwatch does a ton of things right, and it is a phenomena for good reason. It’s a great game. But what it is not is a good narrative game. It has no narrative.

Somebody will likely argue whilst reading this that Overwatch does have a narrative. Overwatch is a group of heroes who defended the world in the Omnic crisis and then disbanded, only to be blah blah blah (cont’d).

Overwatch, the game, has no story. Period. There is a story that is vaguely told elsewhere, but even that isn’t cohesive at all. Ultimately, the franchise’s story and lore is not necessary and does not deepen the experience of the game itself. The matches of Overwatch are nonsensical in regards to the story, too.

Zenyatta from Overwatch

Zenyatta…and his balls (orbs, whatever)

It might sound that I’m hating on Overwatch for no reason, or that I’m being unnecessarily hipster about all this. I’m really not; I promise. While Rocket League is my one true multiplayer love, Overwatch is a secondary love, and it’s resulted in some truly spectacular evenings and moments. I don’t hate it at all (well, not until somebody insta-locks Hanzo on attack and then complains about team comp in the chat).

My point is this: Blizzard has done a tremendous job of crafting great pieces of narrative content but a terrible job of making that content relevant in relation to its core piece of media. That’s partially due to how Overwatch is constructed, but that was Blizzard’s idea, too. There’s nothing stopping them from creating some more expansive single player that, you know, actually works through some of the story.

I only have a vague idea of what’s going on in the universe, and when I sit down at my keyboard and mouse to select Bastion and apologetically destroy things, what story there is does not matter at all. Furthermore, just playing the game does not make me want to go out an learn more about what’s going on.

Ultimately, I care because the story elements of Overwatch are simply empty calories to the gameplay experience. The game deserves so much more.

Birbiglia, Burnham, and the oddity of comedy

Comedy is, on its face, pretty simple. We laugh at funny things and enjoy ourselves. BOOM.

*packs up, publishes article, goes home*

……….

Well, you didn’t think it was that easy, did you?

Comedy, while on its face being pretty simple, is bizarre and definitely not simple. The concept of what you find ‘funny’ and what I find ‘funny’ and what humans in general find ‘funny’ is extraordinarily intricate and personal. If I put a gun to your head (a NERF gun, now, I’m not a monster) and told you to define what makes something funny, I’m guessing that you probably couldn’t find a clear and suitable definition before a pink foam bullet hammered into your skull.

I think good comedy is about pushing boundaries, deliberate timing, presenting the unexpected, and acute self-awareness. Regardless the subject, good jokes always follow those four guidelines.

But the subject matter is extremely important. Why focus on one subject over the other? Are certain subjects ripe for comedy and others taboo?

Mike Birbiglia in Netflix special Thank God for Jokes

Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia’s Netflix special Thank God for Jokes wrestles with that question. Birbiglia is adept at witty self-depreciation and wields an impressive knack for compelling storytelling. Early on in the special, Birbiglia says that “you should never tell jokes to the people the jokes are about.” One of the key parts about jokes is that they have to be about something, as he explains. You can never truly avoid making people angry forever. The point of jokes is the comedy of somebody or something being funny, and that fact is inescapable.

Extending from that is comedy’s inherent enigma: its purpose is to offer an escape and a laugh at the same time as it directly references the things from which we try to escape in the first place. We joke about the mundane, yes, but the best jokes are about what’s important. The comedy that resonates with people is often about the most important things because it reveals what’s true about those things in a unique and incisive way.

Bo Burnham’s eccentric musicality and penchant for absurdity, channeled through his Netflix special Make Happy, stares directly at the duality of performance and comedy. Burnham is unique, as far removed from mainstream comedy as you can get whilst still being extraordinarily popular. But he uses his uniqueness to great effect in Make Happy, questioning how a performer and audience connect over comedy, both parties interested in something different.

While a lot of comedians explore the full reaches of comedy, Birbiglia and Burnham are fascinating because their work is expressly aware of the oddity of comedy. They know and address comedy itself, and it’s refreshing to see two talented and funny people with fresh and important opinions on comedy itself.

I find commedy immensely important in my life. Often times, we have only two choices: we can either stew about something or make jokes about it. Comedy is a way of finding joy out of nothing, and these days that’s an extremely valuable commodity. Not everything is joyful, or fun, or great. Comedy can help do that in even the darkest situations.

In the words of Birbiglia in his special: jokes are important. They will always be important.

 

Revisiting Brisingr

The Inheritance Cycle was only supposed to be a trilogy.

After Eragon and Eldest were released, author Christopher Paolini went to work on the third, unnamed book. The dominant thought on message boards devoted to the series was that the third book would follow the six-letter, starts-with-‘e’ format of the first two and be titled Empire. It was a fitting cap to a trilogy, as Eragon was presumably going to take down the Empire.

But about a year before the book was to be released, Knopf Publishing and Paolini issued an announcement–there would now be two more books.

Here is Paolini’s comment in the press release (emphasis mine):

I plotted out the Inheritance series as a trilogy nine years ago, when I was fifteen. At that time, I never imagined I’d write all three books, much less that they would be published. When I finally delved into Book Three, it soon became obvious that the remainder of the story was far too big to fit in one volume. Having spent so long thinking about the series as a trilogy, it was difficult for me to realize that, in order to be true to my characters and to address all of the plot points and unanswered questions Eragon and Eldest raised, I needed to split the end of the series into two books.

Splitting the series is not something that Paolini wanted, nor was it something that came naturally. He begrudgingly did it because it needed to happen in order to serve the story.

It comes through in the book. Eragon and Eldest had clear plot arcs: Eragon was the story of a young man who started his hero’s journey, grew along the way, and finally triumphed in a battle with the forces of evil; Eldest was the story of the hero’s continuing knowledge and deepening of character while simultaneously detailing the gripping escape of a group of relatable everymen.

I’ve read Brisingr three times and I can’t tell you the overall plot of the thing. It wanders here and there, lingering in odd places and moving along at a glacial pace. Ultimately, it seems as if it doesn’t have much of a purpose.

And there’s good reason for that! Remember, Brisingr, which is a terrible title for a book by the way, was made partway through its writing from the concluding book into a middle book. There wasn’t supposed to be a third book that didn’t end the story.

I think that it was a smart move to extend the trilogy into a cycle. Knowing the events of the fourth book, I think that having another book of development gives weight to the ending.

But unfortunately, the book doesn’t really do its job that well. And its a shame. Of particular note is the lack of development in the relationship between Eragon and Arya. There’s enough history and room for a good romance–even one that doesn’t end well–but Paolini doesn’t go there. There’s also not any movement with the Eragon and Saphira vs. Murtagh and Thorn rivalry, for a series of stalemates does not progress anything.

Brisingr does end with a bang–its climax is a brilliantly-written escalation of stress and action–and that does propel the momentum to the next book. But it’s too little, too late for the book.

It all hinges on Inheritance.

 

 

Revisiting Eldest

To make a compelling first entry in a series is hard enough. It’s often the second release that makes or breaks a series. The term ‘sophomore slump’ is widespread for a reason: it is extremely difficult to repeat a strong beginning.

This is especially true for novels, even moreso for fantasy or sci-fi novels. A great concept can yield a great first go, but not every good idea is a scalable one, and not every character or set of conflicts can continue to be interesting.

However, author Christopher Paolini did have one thing up his sleeve on “Eldest,” which is why it succeeds in such a tricky spot: experience.

“Eldest” was published in August 2005, three years after author Christopher Paolini self-published “Eragon” and two years after that novel’s international Knopf-published release. Paolini was 15 years old when he began writing “Eragon,” and while his talent was clearly on display there was evidence he was a green writer.

So when Paolini started “Eldest,” he was about 20. Five years is a lot of time when it represents a quarter of your life, you’re not a teenager anymore, and you’ve published a booming success of a first novel.

Paolini rather smartly expands the story’s reach, following three stories: Eragon and Saphira, Roran, and Nasuada. He builds each small arc to a climax before switching to a different story, making the book an easy pageturner.

I’ve probably read “Eldest” four or five times before this time, and I’ve experienced all the major story beats, and I still anticipate and enjoy reading them. To create something that is re-readable is a feat, and the book begins with a bang and ends in a glorious cliffhanger that slaps an exclamation point on the novel, which sees major characters undergo significant strife.

Still, “Eldest” is not perfect. If “Eragon” was Star Wars, “Eldest” is Empire Strikes Back. After helping the rebellion, the main character achieves important status within the rebellion. After an initial conflict, the young adventurer goes to complete his training with a hidden member of his magical order in his secret lair. Meanwhile, his friends endure much hardship in an attempt to flee the empire. Finally, the main character takes his leave of his master before completing the training to help his friends in their struggle against the empire. There, he faces and is defeated by a fearsome foe. The foe attempts to convince the main character to join him on behalf of his master the emperor. The main character escapes, but not before being told a terrible and surprising piece of familial information by his foe. The story ends on a cliffhanger, as though total defeat did not occur all is not well.

Am I describing “Eldest” or Empire there? It could be either!

However derivitve its overarching plot, “Eldest” knows what it is and carries out its purpose magnificently. It is not a transcendentally great novel by any means. But it continues and expands the story, propelling the story along to the halfway point in the Inheritance Cycle. That is no small feat.

The mad brilliance of Hans Zimmer

Tony Zhou, professional video editor from Vancouver, runs a fantastic Youtube series called Every Frame a Painting. His video essay on Marvel’s cinematic universe begins with a great demonstration about the blandness of Marvel’s music. Everyone can sing Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or James Bond. Marvel, on the other hand, is totally different.

It’s in the first two minutes:

Zhou hits upon a lot of important things in his video. He criticizes Marvel’s music for lacking to invoke an emotional response, its existence as something that’s not supposed to be noticed, and the downward spiral of the use of temp tracks.

But Zhou is not a musician and misses the core part of why we can sing Harry Potter and not Iron Man, and it really has nothing to do with temp tracks: Harry Potter uses melodic letimotifs and Iron Man does not.

It’s easy to conflate an easily hum-able, melodic approach with ‘good’ scoring. That’s what Zhou does, in part. But it’s just not accurate. A good score does not necessarily need to be melodic, or have a recurring motif, or even consist of an orchestra.

Indeed, none of those things were requirements for film music, according to legendary American composer Aaron Copland in a 1949 article for the New York Times titled “Tip to Moviegoers: Take off those Ear-Muffs.” Copland wrote that film music serves the screen by

Creating a more convincing atmosphere of time and place, underlining psychological refinements—the unspoken thoughts of a character or the unseen implications of a situation, serving as a kind of neutral background filler, building a sense of continuity, [and] underpinning the theatrical build-up of a scene, and rounding it off with a sense of finality.

Couching each of those ideas in a repeating melody or melodic structure is a simple way to do so, but it is not necessary.

Enter Hans Zimmer, the Academy Award-winning German composer of film and television.

If you conducted similar interviews to Zhou’s and subbed out Marvel’s movies for Zimmer’s, you could come up with a similar result. Singing Zimmer’s scores requires one to actually be a trombone with a synthesizer fused to your face; melody isn’t exactly a focus for him.

But unlike Marvel’s unmemorable melodies, Zimmer’s scores are memorable. Why is that?

It’s certainly not because of subtlety. Subtlety is technically a tool in Zimmer’s arsenal inasmuch as tact is a tool in Donald Trump’s arsenal. Zimmer approaches subtlety the same way most people approach and deal with spiders. Subtlety once dated Zimmer but then dumped him for another composer, and Zimmer has never forgiven her.

I mean, come on:

For years, I poo-poo’d Zimmer for this reason. John Williams and his style was so obviously better. I can sing Williams tunes. I can sing Howard Shore melodies from Middle-Earth. Zimmer is bleeehhhh.

But what I didn’t really realize until Marvel started crystallizing this thought was that most movie scores aren’t memorable nowadays. The traversal through temp track valley and background music bend yields a lot of those.

Zimmer’s music, though? It’s always been memorable. Despite his lack of subtlety, Zimmer works in the new framework of film music in a way no one else does.

We remember the crashing chords of Inception. We remember the thunderous organ of Interstellar. We remember the terrible tension of The Dark Knight. And we will remember the haunting Shepard tones of Dunkirk.

Zimmer isn’t usually particularly melodic, but he succeeds because his soundscapes are creative, unique, memorable, and match perfectly with the movie’s overall aesthetic. And we often remember Zimmer’s scores because they breathe within the film, playing a specific role that can’t be matched by anything else.

You wouldn’t think that a billion brass instruments, some percussion, and a mad German on the synth would come up with brilliant film scores, but that’s what happens. While the industry is zigging when it used to zag, Zimmer is zigging more than anyone else, and it’s a hoot to hear.

Revisiting Eragon

Before the national Knopf release of “Eragon” in 2003, Christopher Paolini’s family self-published the book in 2002. Paolini, author of the Inheritance Cycle, was 19 then, and began writing the novel and plotting the story’s overall arc when he was 15.

As I pointed out in a previous post, the Inheritance Cycle has been fantastically successful. “Eragon” sold one million copies within six months, a stunning achievement for a young adult novel written by a no-name author. Of course, that no-name author was a young adult himself, making it even more impressive.

I don’t know what you were doing at 15 years of age, but the only thing I remember from that time is being infatuated with my first serious crush. I say infatuated because I didn’t do anything about it. What I should have done, once I turned 16 and could drive, was ask her if she would like to go out to eat with me, because I liked her and that would be an easy and safe first date. I did not do that. I did not even think to do that, for some reason. Teenagers are idiots.

At this same age, Paolini was writing his first epic. Maybe Paolini struggled with interacting with girls like me, but he at least produced a New York Times Bestselling novel and began to embark on his dream career in one swoop of a dragon’s wing.

And it’s that dichotomy that explains “Eragon” so well. Paolini is a supremely talented creator, and his brilliance is easy to see. The book still holds up, its primary achievement creating a captivating narrative whilst also invisibly hoisting an excellent framework for the rest of the series.

But it’s pretty clear this is not written by a veteran author. For one, the book is basically Star Wars.

Don’t believe me?

A young orphan man yearning for adventure unintentionally gains possession of an item that is of extreme importance. After servants from the evil empire kill his family, the young man sets off on a quest with a wise old man who was not what he appeared to be. As the old man trained the young, they were captured by the enemy. The mentor died, leaving the trainee alone. The trainee and an odd friend met along the way, a roguish outlaw, brought the important item to the resistance. While there, the enemy attacked the resistance’s headquarters. When everything was almost lost, a distraction let the young adventurer destroy the cornerstone of the opposition, and the resistance rejoiced.

That’s the backbone of Star Wars. It’s also the backbone of “Eragon.” The plot could not possibly be more derivative.

There’s the dialogue, too. Paolini’s dialogue often reads like someone wrote it for the characters to say, with compound sentences and a constant lack of subtlety. Take a portion of what Brom said shortly before his death:

I am old, Eragon…so old. Though my dragon was killed, my life has been longer than most. You don’t know what it is to reach my age, look back, and realize that you don’t remember much of it; then to look forward and know that many years still lie ahead of you…After all this time I still grieve for my Saphira…and hate Galbatorix from what he tore from me.

(Those ellipses are written into the text; that was a full excerpt directly from the book.)

It’s not terrible by any means! But it doesn’t really read like what someone would say on their deathbed, and the driving point of this whole speech–that he still loved his dragon and hates Galbatorix–is just plopped right there.

Consider a similar (though obviously separate) scene from Harry Potter. Severus Snape is dying, instead of going on a speech of why he felt the way that he did or did what he did, he showed Harry with a memory.

“But this is touching, Severus,” said Dumbledore seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?” “For him?” shouted Snape. “Expecto Patronum!” From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe. She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears. “After all this time?” “Always,” said Snape.”

The doe was Lily Potter’s patronus. Snape never stopped loving her. It’s not only an extraordinarily powerful statement, but it’s presented perfectly, with an exactness that Paolini often lacks.

But, still, after reading “Eragon,” I was reminded why I loved it. Eragon and Saphira’s relationship is real and genuine. The world is well-constructed. The pace is quick and the book flows smoothly. Sure, it was written by a teenager with no prior writing experience, and it shows. However, creativity knows no age, and “Eragon” is as genuine as it comes.