Thursday, 8 March 2012

PPC Crusade/The Crusader King

Well, I've been issued an informal warning by the R&R Division. Apparently my justification for breaking the structure of my last review was insufficient, and I failed to mention sufficient items. I'll try to do better this time. I'm going to be using a primarily chronological structure, with one alteration to fit the recommended Good-Bad-Good pattern.

Mission: PPC Crusade/The Crusader King
Agents: Arthur Briggs and Lynn Gillies, DMS
Continuum: Belgariad

Straight off the mark, this mission was highly immersive. Just after the agents receive their mission, we see the following exchange:

You’re the only one in this RC with canon knowledge, which makes you primary agent for this mission.”

“Me?” Gillies squeaked. She cleared her throat and tried again. “But I’m not a full agent yet.”

“That doesn’t matter. The Duty is what’s important, and in this case you’re best suited to perform it."

This simple dialogue gives me a perfect feel for the agents. I could immediately contrast Gillies, squeaking and uncertain, with Briggs, saying 'the Duty is what's important'. The former is still settling into the PPC, while the latter, with his military background, is right at home. I immediately felt I knew the pair of them - and that I cared about what happened to them. All from a few lines of dialogue that let character flow through.

I also found myself drawn in in a different manner. This mission didn't feel like it took place in isolation: it was firmly part of a larger world. Two examples:

“In that case, you program the disguises while I visit the Canon Library."


[Present Tense Detected. Revert Agents To Past Tense Y/N?]

Briggs sighed as the reset took effect. “Much better. Once you make full Agent, see if you can talk DoSAT into adding a tense stabiliser to your CAD.”

Now, I'm not just quoting these because of my affection for the subjects of them, although that certainly plays a part. The Canon Librarian is a lot like me, insofar as I know anything about him, so it's good to see him getting some attention. The tense stabiliser first appeared on DOGA-modified CADs - I didn't realise it had gone into mass production. But that's not the point here.

The point is, I really get a feel for how the wider world of HQ impacts on this agent pair. I can now imagine them having friends and enemies, favourite haunts and secret shortcuts - not because of anything I know about them, but because their narrative so casually drops in pieces of their - our - world. This is clearly something they are intimately involved with, not just sitting on the outskirts of.

Oh, and it helps that they mention DOGA later by name. Pyro Department, getting the love.

Unfortunately, not everything is positive. While character-defining moments like my first quote exist, they are swamped by the fact that much of the dialogue can be split into two categories: charges, and infodumps.

Charges are important, we all know that, but there is more to a mission than the charge list. What I want to see is the agents' reactions to what happens, not simply the pigeonhole they slot it into. At its worst, this report descends into merely ticking boxes - literally, in fact, since Briggs is described as 'checking off' Thesaurus Abuse. This does not make for fascinating reading, unfortunately, and it foreshadows another problem: the entire list is quotes at the end, in massive block quotes.

There are two issues here. Firstly, how to deal with charges? I believe they don't all need to be mentioned. It is assumed that there is a list - that's a PPC Agent's job, after all - so it doesn't particularly need mentioning. Certainly the more amusing ones should be brought up - there is a scene where Briggs and Gillies discuss with evident satisfaction a pair of charges raised in a single time-jump, and it is entertaining to say the least - but the majority can pass unmarked.

Then there is the recitation. I know it's fashionable among some agents to create the largest list possible, but really, we don't need to see it. Read it to the 'Sue, by all means, but don't make me sit through it. Rather, edit what actually happened a little. Give me the highlights, the interesting bits, the collated and condensed version, and I'll read it. Give me the whole thing, and I'll skip ahead.

Then there are the infodumps. On the one hand, one agent is unfamiliar with the canon - and since this is the only Belgariad mission report I've ever seen, I imagine many casual readers are too. In that respect, a certain amount of information has to be provided. And, I must admit, Gillies handles it better than some - she breaks her dumps into small sections, allowing me time to recover in between, and theoretically absorb what I'm given. However, there are so many of them. Is all the information necessary? I don't know. Could it be condensed, cut down to the bare essentials and the funny parts? I suspect so.

But overall, I did enjoy this report. Possibly my favourite moment came near the end: in order to research something, Agent Briggs sent a letter to the Medical Department - using one of the lanterns said to be 'filing the room'. Not everyone would even have caught the typo (and as we know, agent observation has a massive effect on badfic canon), but Briggs used it to his advantage. Once again I gained insight into him, and saw his place in the larger world of the PPC - all through a simple piece of utility.

-T. Ryan, Dept. of Personnel, DOGA Archivist

Suebusters/For Gondor and Rohan

Everyone in DOGA (or DoGA, or DGA, or the Pyro Department, or whatever we're calling it this week) keeps telling me I need to get a hobby. Actually they usually tell me I need to get a life, but since I spend every waking hour filing their mission reports, complaints and sundries (a word I have come to detest), a hobby is the best I can do. Actually I shouldn't even be doing this, but I have an excuse. A package of old mission reports from across the PPC was delivered to the Archives this morning for some unknown reason, and I need to read them all to figure out what's going on. Since I'm doing that, I figure I might as well review them too.

Mission: Suebusters/For Gondor and Rohan
Agents: Cara Fielding & Miriam Collins, DMS
Continuum: Lord of the Rings

I have to say I found this mission a little dull to read about (although I note that one of the agents involved said much the same thing - I suppose boring is better than fatally exciting, right?). The main reason for this is that all the interesting moments appear to be glossed over. For example, during the Council I read that the entire courtyard turn[ed] gold when the 'Sue appeared. From Miriam's next line, I inferred that this was due to a line of bad narrative - but I am given no clue as to what it was. This happens every time Suvian prose is invoked. She gives a Sue-like description of the Lady Galadriel, but again, I don't get to find out what it says.

The main issue I have with this is that pure agent reaction doesn't hold my interest very well. I want to be entertained, and I want to be able to laugh at the badfic myself. There is little worse than seeing someone else in stitches over a joke I haven't heard. I understand the agents' purpose, I think - they want to be the focus, not simply characters in an MST - but I believe they would be more interesting if we knew what they were reacting to, not simply how.

Another issue I noticed is one I shall be passing on to the Department of Redundancy Department: lacking anything from the badfic to describe, the narrative sometimes takes to narrating the agents' dialogue. For example:
While it was understandable given the plagiarism, 0% OOC readings across the board (with the exception of the Sue, of course) were still unusual.

"Huh, everyone's totally in character so far," she noted, raising an eyebrow at the CAD with a small amount of disbelief. "That's strange."

The rule of 'Show, don't tell' seems to have been altered by these agents into 'show and tell'. Wait, was that too harsh? I've not exactly practiced this. I think the actual issue is one of 'Who knows what and how': the CAD informs one agent of an occurance, and that agent tells her partner. The problem is, both events didn't need to be narrated. It broke the flow of the mission for me. Even if this is what actually happened, to quote another rule, sometimes 'Less is more'. The dialogue would suffice, here and in other areas.

There is also an issue with narrative tension - or the lack thereof. Despite the agents' repeated warnings about the 'Sue possibly hearing them, there seems to be no danger of this happening. In one scene, Miriam taunts the Laws of Narrative Comedy - and wins. At a time when most of the Fellowship are on high alert due to approaching crebain, she sneaks into their camp, ignoring a warning from her partner, and steals their food with no consequences. Cara is alarmed, but does nothing, and nothing ever comes of the event.

Cara's warning was perfect foreshadowing, a Chekov's gun that simply didn't fire. Miriam wasn't seen. I understand that this is an accurate representation of events, but it left me feeling distinctly unsatisfied. There are two ways it could have been improved. The whole incident could have been downplayed, rather than building it up for no payoff. Alternately, and preferably, the tension could have been ramped up. If the narrative had followed Miriam rather than staying with Cara, we could have experienced her feelings: did that rock just move? I can't see Aragorn from here! What was that noise?

I hope I can be forgiven for my bad form in describing all the negatives first. I do not do this lightly - the structure of a review is practically a sacred trust - but as any member of the R&R Division of Personnel will tell you, sometimes structure must be sacrificed to dramatic necessity. The positives here are something rarely seen in mission reports, and in my opinion they far outweigh all that has gone before.

At the very beginning of the mission, we are shown Miriam's dislike for the cold. This seems to be a piece of scene-setting, with no lasting consequences - until the agents arrive at Caradhras. Here the cold issue resurfaces, and (without spoiling my second positive) leads to interaction that would not otherwise occur.

I admire the narrative consistancy shown here. A major issue with badfics is a failure to carry things forward: a wrist broken in one scene may be used to loose a bow a dozen chapters later. Here the agents, through careful use of the narrative structure, managed to create a small plot arc within their tale. It allowed me to connect more fully with the agents - to see them as people, not merely vessels for the plot. And then there's Ring Bearer...

Ring Bearer the mini-Balrog is almost a special case of the above, but he is even better used. These days minis are often ignored - they appear in one scene, then vanish, just like that broken wrist. Not Ring Bearer. I'll illustrate this with three paragraphs from widely-separated parts of the report:

Even though she wasn't usually fond of minis, Miriam almost squealed in relief, huddling just close enough to Ring Bearer for the convection to warm her without causing severe burns; warmth was one thing, being incinerated was another.

She looked around in concern for somewhere to put Ring Bearer, as - without meaning to - the mini-Balrog was starting to char the wood. In the end she asked him to wait at the bottom of the tree, where he wouldn't be able to set anything alight. Mournfully, the little Maia did as requested, though he was pacified with a promise of more bacon later.

A few clicks and whirrs and a bright flash of light later, Ring Bearer looked rather puzzled. In place of the Uruk-Hai that had picked him up, two female Elves - still wearing the same clothes - stood adjusting their backpacks. “Hey, it’s okay,” Cara grinned at him, throwing him their last piece of bacon to reassure him...

From his first appearence, this mini is not just something that happened: he becomes an integral part of the mission. The problems and advantages of dealing with a demi-angelic ball of flame are addressed: he is used for warmth on Caradhras, and later gently removed from the flet in Lorien - we even see his reactions to this. Later still, I read of his reaction to a change of disguise, and I realised this was what had been missing.

I read a mission for two reasons: to delight at the tale of agents cleaning out a badfic, and to see something new. The entertainment of the former was somewhat muted here, but, for the first time in a long time, something brand new appeared. I have never seen a mini become a character on its first appearance before - and I enjoyed it immensely. It shows how much respect the two agents have for the Word Worlds they enter, and for the creatures they encounter. By reading about their interactions with Ring Bearer, I came to truly believe that the authors were lovers of Canon, not just haters of 'Sues. And that is something I always treasure.

-T. Ryan, Dept. of Personnel, DOGA Archivist