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Gold efficiency

Today I’m going to write a post on a gaming topic, and how I think it is applicable in real life.

That topic is gold efficiency (also known as cost efficiency, or just simply the topic of efficiency).

Gold efficiency is a concept I’ve encountered primarily while playing the game League of Legends.  It compares an item’s purchase price in the in-game shop to the amount of gold that item is actually worth, based on the stats it provides.  Items that are considered “gold efficient” give a better return than other items with similar costs and stats.  Buying efficient items maximizes gold as a resource and allows players to gain an edge over opponents who do not purchase as efficiently.

So what does this all mean with respect to life outside video games?

The concept of gold efficiency works with the concept of “min/maxing” resources.  The jobs we work earn us money, which we then in turn spend.  If you look at tags in grocery stores, you may notice the price per volumes listed ($1.38/oz for example) and larger amounts of a product tend to cost less per volume.  So it’s more cost efficient to purchase food in bulk, provided you can use it all before any spoils.

I think about this concept with my writing, both the cost efficiency of individual posts and the value overall.

When people talk about online metrics, they often use the measure of something called “engagement”.  Engagement is the percentage of your total followers or subscribers that interact with content.  That percentage varies based on which social media platform we’re looking at, but the basic values I’ve heard are that 1% – 3% engagement is a good number.  I hit that consistently with the majority of my posts.

So where does the efficiency come in?

It comes down to time commitment.  If I spend an hour writing a poem (which is normal for a longer style), I get a return of 1% engagement.  But if I write a blog post (which can take two or three hours, or even longer), I still get the same 1% engagement.  In terms of efficiency, blogging doesn’t return an engagement equivalent to the time invested.  It’s less cost efficient with my time.

So what does that mean for me and my writing?

Well, it means I need to look at things differently.  I started writing blog posts as a means of practicing longer-style content, and many blog posts have 1000 or more words.  Some even have close to 2000 words.  That’s fulfilling my goal, but not in a way that’s efficient with my time.  I now spend so much time working on blog posts that I don’t work on other writing content.  I don’t write short stories or flash fiction because I’m spending so much time on the blog posts, and that frustrates me.

So I may start experimenting with shorter blog posts, or different styles of storytelling.  I’ve looked into options for recording audio, and while that’s not a method with which I have much experience, it could be a viable new option for storytelling.  The past few months have shown me that while blogging can be good, it’s not the be-all end-all solution to my writing needs.  I have to keep looking, and my writing will grow and be better for the journey.

On Endings – The Neverending Story

Long-running serializations are popular these days – maybe they always have been.  We the viewers and/or readers get to watch our favorite characters come back time after time, and the businesses that produce those stories make a great deal of money off of those stories.  But do those things make these good stories?  Do they make these stories good?

What about stories that seem to run on forever?  What about stories that seem to end, but then continue?  What does it mean for a story or series if an earlier ending was more satisfying than the eventual Ending?

The first series I want to discuss is Supernatural, a highly successful series that has run for ten seasons. The show is about a pair of brothers who hunt ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural creatures. The first season of the show is focused on the brothers’ search for their father, who disappeared while hunting for the creature that killed their mother. They eventually find their father, the demon who killed their mother (as well as one brother’s lover), and they have the means to kill the demon, but they fail. The younger brother, Sam, refuses to kill the demon because it was possessing their father at the time. The season ends with Sam gathering his injured family and driving to a hospital, only to have a truck t-bone their car. The final shot has the camera panning up the front of the truck to show the driver, whose eyes are black with the tell-tale mark of demonic possession.

And I know it sounds weird, but I actually like that ending as an Ending for the series.

It’s not a happy Ending, but it tells an interesting story if the Story would have ended there. The brothers’ story is one of revenge: they’re trying to kill the thing that killed their mom. They have been doing that their entire lives. They never had a childhood; they spent their time training for when they got older and would be able to help their father hunt monsters. The series actually starts with Sam having broken with his family, and his older brother Dean brings him back into the family business to help find their father. But when they return, Sam’s lover is killed by supernatural causes, and he leaves with his brother to continue hunting.

At the end of the season, Sam is the one in the position to get revenge for all of them.  However, to do it he not only has to kill the monster that killed his mother, but also his father (whom Sam “dislikes”, to put it mildly). But he doesn’t – he can’t. He’s there, with his father fighting the possession and urging Sam to kill him and get revenge for them all, and Sam cannot do it. And the demon not only gets away, but the weakened and injured family is seemingly killed by one of the demon’s minions.

And that sucks as a happy ending, but what about as a parable for revenge? Their family’s quest for revenge took everything from them: their childhood, their sense of “normalcy”, any romantic relationship – everything. It’s not that they lost their lives – they never had lives to begin with. They had a mission, a quest. And that quest defined their lives, and stole everything else from them. Revenge defined and ruined their lives. And on top of all that, they still failed. They “died” in the end (The following 9 seasons show that they, of course, did not die. But for the sake of the discussion of this ending being the Ending, they die.)

And to top it all off, they failed because the only person in a position to get that revenge was the brother who wanted nothing to do with it anymore. He wanted a normal life, and his father’s love. They failed because Sam wanted his father more than he wanted revenge. That quest for revenge took everything from them, until Sam drew a line in the sand and refused to give any more.

Was Sam right? Is family more important than a quest for revenge? Must we draw the line when life asks us to give too much, even when it ends in tragedy? Or was Sam wrong? Did they fail because he was weak-willed and choked at the critical moment? Must we be willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the things we want the most? The Ending of season one is ambiguous to me with regards to those questions, and I like the ambiguity of it. I like Endings that make us think.

I still like the later seasons of the show, and the characters who appear in those seasons. Castiel is a personal favorite of mine, as well as the character development of Bobby, another hunter and family friend. But for the sake of the story, it would have set a hell of a tone for the show had it ended there. It would have said something; it would have asked some hard questions. But the following seasons each set their own tones, and the brothers deal with different moral themes as the show progresses. I feel like the message and questions of season one are muddied over the following decade. I like the ending of season one, and I enjoy the Story that Ends there, even as I enjoy the Story that continues past that point.

My next example for this topic is the Japanese animated show Sword Art Online.  To those who are unfamiliar, the premise of the story is that a newly released online virtual reality game, Sword Art Online (or SAO for short) traps the players inside it, preventing them from logging off.  The only way for them to return to the real world is to beat the game – however, anyone who dies in the game dies in real life.  The first season of the show is 25 episodes long and the first 14 are the story of the players’ adventures in SAO which occur over a period of two years.

In episode 14, the players defeat a difficult boss monster, but suffer numerous casualties.  The protagonist, a swordsman named Kirito, discovers that the mastermind behind trapping them in the game is one of the people traveling with them.  He challenges the villain to a duel, on two conditions.  First, all the players would be freed if Kirito won the duel.  Second, if Kirito lost, the villain would prevent Asuna, Kirito’s wife, from killing herself.  However, Asuna interrupts the duel and is killed.  In grief, Kirito attacks again, and the two kill each other.

Kirito is transported to a new zone to hear the announcement that the game has been cleared, and sees his wife there.  The two share a moment, while the world falls apart around them as the game ends.  Thinking that they died, Kirito is surprised when he awakens in a hospital bed.  Realizing he is alive, he thinks of his wife, slowly pulls his atrophied body from the hospital bed, and shambles down a hallway that fades into white, whispering her name.  The episode ends to soft music and the closing credits playing as he disappears into the hallway, looking for Asuna.

And DAMN that is satisfying.  The problem is:  that is episode 14 of 25.  There are nine more episodes to the show.  What happens in them?  Another fantasy adventure in another game, his cousin’s incestuous attraction towards him, and fairies.  Yes, they play a game where they are fucking fairies.  And while the eventual ending to the season is satisfying in many ways, it’s still inferior to the ending of episode 14 in my opinion – especially considering the eleven episodes the viewer must trudge through in order to get there.  The two story arcs feel so different, they might as well be two different seasons of the show, or even two completely different series.

I love that first ending.  I love watching him wake up and wondering for a moment if this was all a dream.  I love seeing determination drive someone with two years of muscle atrophy to struggle to stand, but stand anyway.  And he does it because he wants to see her again – he NEEDS to see her again, and see that she survived too.  And when he fades into white, I imagine a happy ending, one where he finds her safe, one where he makes a life with her, one where their two years of trials and suffering are rewarded.

Instead, we find out in the next episode that she, as well as a small percentage of other players, still have not woken up.  And there is a new quest, but what do we have to show for it?  Incest and fairies?  No, that is fucking unsatisfying.  Even the eventual ending of the season does not wash the bad taste out of my mouth.

I prefer the Ending that does not show me everything.  I prefer thinking that the death game these people played is the worst thing they would ever have to face.  But happy Endings at episode 14 does not make as much money as continuing the story for another eleven episodes.  They do not make as much money as bringing back the show for a second 25-episode season.  To me, the climax of that story has always been and will always be the end of episode 14.  The 36 episodes that follow…  I would sacrifice them all to have episode 14 as the Ending, and I would do so without a second thought.

On Endings – Risk and Reward

Today I want to shift the discussion of Endings to a more economical aspect: risk and reward. In short, what are the heroes or heroines sacrificing and what do they obtain in exchange? What do they receive for what they gave up?

Are the protagonists reaping rewards they have not earned? Are they altruists who do not mourn the sacrifices necessary to save the day (or the world)? Or has the story found that sweet-spot where we the audience ask those very questions ourselves?

Was it all worth it, in the End?

For my first example, I would like to use an American classic:  The Lone Ranger.  In every episode, The Lone Ranger has a grand adventure, saves the day, and rides off into the sunset.  It’s all nice and pretty:  the eternal hero is always there to fight, to save the day.  But what does he get for his time and trouble?  Nothing, but the chance to serve again.  The eternal hero asks for nothing and gives everything.  And while that is a lovely dream, it’s hardly real.

What about a hero like Dr. Who?  He is another example of the “eternal hero”, but his story is very different from The Lone Ranger.  The Doctor’s story has tragedy. It has fear.  It has death.  The character himself is based on the premise that he can die, but he will regenerate and be reborn as someone new.  (I’m highly paraphrasing, of course.  It’s more complicated than that, but that is outside the scope of this conversation.)  But he can, he does, and he will die – time and time again.  What does that mean for him as a character?  What does that mean for us as an audience?

For all The Doctor has done, loving and losing, suffering tragedy and celebrating victory, is he really any more than a gladiator fighting in our television Colosseum?  Are we really any better than a vulgar mob, salivating in anticipation at his next victory, his next tragedy, his next loss or death?  The mythology of the character says that he can only regenerate a limited number of times, and (if I recall correctly) he has used his last one.  What happens to him now?  What will his next death bring?  Do we, as an audience, even care?

The character seems so tragic to me.  He is so widely popular, but we love him with such malicious glee.  But the Greeks explained that the difference between a comedy and a tragedy is whether or not the hero in question resolves the conflict that originally lead to their quest, and if the hero can reharmonize with the world.  If so, it is a comedy.  If not, it is a tragedy.  And since The Doctor’s story is yet unfinished, calling it tragic may be premature.  But there will be tears – I would bet on that.

Will it be worth it all in the End? Will everything he’s sacrificed and lost be balanced by all the joy he has gained – all the good he has done? Maybe it’s not even that kind of story. We must wait to see.

Finally, I want to discuss the Ending of Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film: The Dark Knight Rises. I won’t argue it is a perfect film – far from it. There are plot holes, and plenty of times when I wish things had been executed better. But I love the way the ending of the film ties the overarching storyline from all three movies together.

In the first film, Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s life is destroyed. His family is killed, and he wanders the world – lost and without purpose. He wants to fight evil, but does not know how to do so constructively. And by the end of the film, he discovers how to do that: become Batman. It’s a great origin story.

In the second film, The Dark Knight, we are shown the consequences of Wayne’s choice. We see how criminals are reacting now that they’re cornered, and the lengths some of them will go to in order to beat him. The Joker is especially of note – not merely because of the late Heath Ledger’s amazing portrayal of the character, but because The Joker GETS Batman. The only way to beat someone who has become a symbol is to fight them symbolically. It reminds me of a line from the movie The 13th Warrior: “War is in the will.” The Joker gets that, and proceeds to try and destroy Batman the best way he knows how. But he loses at the end of the film, because Batman makes the sacrifices necessary to protect the city and still maintain his ideals, even if they make him a pariah.

Then there is the third film.

And here we see the cost of the decisions made in “The Dark Knight”: Wayne is crippled from the physical exertions of his exploits as Batman, his company (his parents’ legacy) is in shambles, and he has become a recluse – holding parties which he does not even attend. But when a new threat appears, Wayne becomes Batman again, even though he no longer has the strength to fill the role. And he loses because of that. But he rediscovers that strength and returns to save the day at the end of the film. However, it seemingly costs him everything: his money, his company, his home…he even fakes his death at the end of the film so he metaphorically loses his life.

But what does he gain?

Batman is another version of the “eternal hero”, and his story is often told in a very similar way to The Lone Ranger. No matter how dire the straits, Batman saves the day, rides off into “the sunset”, and will return next time to save the city. But that is the way Nolan’s film differs from the other tellings of the story.

In Nolan’s story, Wayne’s final reward for being Batman is that he no longer HAS to be Batman.

Bruce begins his story of Batman from a place of vengeance and redemption. He’s trying take revenge on the kind of people who killed his parents, and make the world a better place (or counter the decline). His dedication to improving the world is what differentiates him from a mere avenger. He contrasts the violence he uses to fight with a rock-solid set of morals that allows him to operate honorably even as a vigilante. But he is still the “dark” knight. For all his virtues, he is not a paladin.

Bruce shackles himself to the past, a single tragedy that set the course of his life. But at the End of the Nolan films, Bruce escapes that cycle. Yes, he loses his money and social standing, but how much were they helping him? He used everything he had to further the mission of Batman. How much did he really care about those things in the first place? I doubt they meant much, since he walked away from them once already in the first film. Yes, Alfred leaves, but that is a positive event in the long term: his caretaker is gone, and Bruce has to grow up. He has to start living his life.

He also meets Selina Kyle in this film, and over the course of the film she gets to know him. At first, he’s a mark for one of her jobs. But by the end of the film, she becomes his ally, and knows some of his most guarded secrets. She is in fact the one to kill Bane, not Batman. She even argues with him in the final act of the movie, saying, “Come with me. Save yourself. You don’t owe these people any more. You’ve given them EVERYTHING.” She’s seen what he’s done, and is trying to save him from his self-imposed burden. How many people have tried to save Batman? And the final time we see her is with Bruce, when Alfred sees the two of them together at a cafe.

So what does Wayne lose? His money, his social standing, his mission, his surrogate parent – every keystone of his life.

But what does he gain? He gets…his life back. He’s free from the burdens of the things he lost – those obligations are gone. And in the last scene we see him, he’s with someone who sees him for who he is, knows his secrets, accepts his past, and is trying to build a life with him.

Batman was born when a young boy lost his family. Nolan’s story of Batman Ends when a man makes his own life and creates his own family. The story of Bruce Wayne goes full circle – and the wrongs that created an avenger are rectified. Bruce Wayne reharmonizes with the world. The story Ends, and he seems happy.

And I like that Ending. I like that the reward for a life’s work is not more work, but rest. Like a quote from the movie Hero starring Jet Lee, “A warrior’s ultimate act is to lay down his sword.” The war ends, the hero gets to go home.

Happy Ending.

On Endings – Happily Ever After

The concept of “Happily Ever After” is a common theme in stories.  The heroes or heroines complete their quest and are rewarded with long, happy lives.  Sometimes the viewers are shown the cliffsnotes of that happy future, while other times we are merely left to imagine what has happened to our protagonists.  The story trails off like a sentence whose completion we forget mid-speech.

But sometimes these fade-away Endings don’t leave us satisfied.  Sometimes they do not answer all of our questions (or any, in rare cases).  Sometimes the story trails off not because it is the End, but because the writers and producers want to give the viewers a reason to return the following season.  It’s not an Ending, nor an ending – it’s bait.

Are these proper Endings to stories?  Should we the viewers be given all of the answers?  Or must we earn the truth through critical thinking and analysis?  Do unpopular stories deserve to End without rewarding those who did stick with the show?

What the hell is up with Endings that are, and are not, Endings?

The first story I want to discuss is the movie Inception.  It’s the story of a group of people who dive into others’ minds and attempt to discover secrets.  The protagonist of the movie is a man named Cobb, who has been doing this work while on the run from the law as a suspect in his wife’s death.  He wants nothing more than to be able to return home and see his children.  The client for the final job in the film promises that he will clear the charges against Cobb if Cobb and his team perform an “inception”: the implanting of an idea in someone’s subconscious in such a way that they believe the idea to be original, not planted.

Those dream divers like Cobb carry something with them at all times called a totem, which they use to differentiate between reality and the fantasy of the dream world.  Throughout the film, Cobb is seen spinning a top to test whether or not he is dreaming.  If the top continues to spin endlessly, he knows he is dreaming.  If the top falls over, he knows he’s awake and in the real world.  At the end of the film, Cobb and his team complete their job, the charges against Cobb are cleared, and he is allowed to go home to see his children.  But just before he goes out to see them, he pulls out the top and spins it.  He then leaves the room, but the camera remains focused on the top.  And just when it appears that the top may be starting to slow down and fall, the screen goes to black, and the viewer is left wondering if the Ending is real or another dream.

This isn’t typically what we mean when we refer to the Ending of a story as “Happily Ever After”, but we, the viewers, are still left imagining what is in store for Cobb.  Did he finally get to go home to his family, or was it all a dream?  The Ending is left to our imagination – or is it?

One of the core principles of a totem is that you are supposed to keep yours with you at all times, and never give it to anyone.  The reasoning for this is that if someone else knows how a person’s totem works, they could influence it in the dream world.  They could make someone believe they are awake even though they are still dreaming.  But earlier in the film, it is shown that the top Cobb is using was previously used by his wife.  It violates that rule.  But I have read articles that suggest that the top is, in fact, not Cobb’s totem.

Throughout the film, Cobb also plays with his wedding ring, and the articles I read observed that Cobb only wears his ring in the dream world.  It is never present in the real world.  If that is true, then it is Cobb’s true totem, and the top is a deception – both to the viewer, and to the other members of his team.  And the question of whether or not Cobb is able to finally return home to his children at the End of the movie is answer by whether or not he’s wearing his ring.  The “Happily Ever After” Ending we are left to imagine is also deceptive – there is an Ending to the film, the final question is answered.

But I won’t tell you the answer – you’ll have to watch the Ending yourself.

The next kind of “Happily Ever After” I want to discuss is the kind of Ending that is left open in order to allow for a sequel to the story.  If it Ends there, we have our Story. We may have questions like with Inception, but we do have an “Ending”.  But if a sequel is financed, then we will have more story.  Otherwise, we are left with an open Ending, and must use our imagination to fill in the details.

This is often the case with television series.  Their seasons sometimes end with a hook that will keep viewers motivated to return for a following season.  And the show I would like to discuss is the BBC show Sherlock (a modern reimagining of Sherlock Holmes).  Specifically, I want to discuss the ending of season 2 (or series 2, as the British call it).

At the end of that series, Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty has cornered Sherlock and put him in a position where Moriarty tries to influence Holmes to kill himself.  If Holmes refuses or takes too long to decide, Moriarty will have Holmes’ closest friends killed.  Moriarty even goes so far as to kill HIMSELF to prevent Holmes from tricking him into revealing anything that would get Holmes out of the situation.  Holmes makes one last phone call to John Watson, his closest friend and partner, before leaping from the roof.  The last scene of the episode and series is that of Holmes’ friends standing over his grave, and John makes a final request for Sherlock to make one more miracle – to pull one more trick and not be dead.  With tears in his eyes, John walks away, and the camera shows a very alive Sherlock Holmes standing in the distance watching his friends as they stand over his “grave”.

Now, it was never in question that a show as popular as Sherlock would be getting a sequel.  We would see what happened.  But that is not always the case with stories.  There was an American vampire show called Moonlight which ended in a similar way: the loose ends of the season were tied up, only to have the final scene of the season, and ultimately the series, be one that hints that the story has just begun.  But that show was not renewed for another season, and the viewers never got a conclusion to the story.  That ending ended up being the Ending for the story.

And while I think it’s a good way to sell another season of a show, keeping the ending of a story hostage to the whims of television financing feels a bit cruel to the viewers.  Sometimes we find out what happens.  Other times, we never get a proper Ending.  We are left with only questions that our imaginations must struggle to answer.

And while that’s not very happy, it is our Ever After for these cut-short stories. It’s sometimes the only Ending we will ever get.  And isn’t that just a little sad?

On Endings

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting my musings on film and series Endings.  I’m a fan of Endings, and I think the final Ending to a series or franchise is incredibly important to the overarching story.  This discussion will be open to not only films and television series, but also books.

It should go without saying, but…  Since this is a discussion of Endings, there will be spoilers in these posts.  Understand that continuing to read could/will spoil the ending of a movie or series.  I will try to avoid discussing anything that ended within the past few months, but ANYTHING and EVERYTHING from 2014 and prior should be considered fair game.  You have been warned.

The topics I’ve decided on for my discussion of Endings are:  the Neverending Story (long-running serializations and their effect on Endings), Happily Ever After (open-Ended stories), and Risk and Reward (a discussion of the worth of an Ending based on what the protagonist/s gained and lost).

First things first though, why am I capitalizing the word “Ending”?  I’m doing that to distinguish it as the final Ending for a story.  I am referring not to season endings, but series endings.  I’ll be talking at length about the ending of the last movie of a trilogy, series, or franchise, though I may reference earlier endings in my discussion of the ending of the last film and the Ending of the story.

In short, I will use “ending” when referring to a singular ending, and I will use “Ending” for the final Ending of the story and its characters.

So why all the fuss about endings or Endings or whatever?  Well, frankly, it’s because I want to talk about it.  I have opinions on certain Endings, and I wanted to discuss them without dedicating a single post to each story. But~ I’m going to do that anyway.

Because I love stories, and I always have. So for the next few weeks I’m going to talk about a few of them, and I hope you enjoy.