Rhythm Heaven reminded me why I love video games

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To get into the mood, it’s best to read this entry with this tune in the background.

About time I showcased something from one of my favourite video game genres, rhythm games. Given that I’ve dedicated a whole chapter of Fake Geek Girl Adventures to these quirky Japanese creations, I may as well go ahead and say why I love them so much.

Rhythm games, at heart, distill video games to their simplest mechanics. The screen puts up a prompt, and you press a button to react. It’s a testament to designers’ skill at audio and visual sleight-of-hand, with incredibly catchy and often surreal tunes and art styles, that this imitation game manages to be as fun and addictive as it is. People often talk of interactive novel games. Well, rhythm games are like interactive MP3 Players or juke boxes.

Rhythm Heaven looks unassuming at first, with a cover like this. But it is a good example of looks being deceiving. Like its sister series, WarioWare, its simplistic art style is used to portray an outrageously wacky world with a variegated cast of characters. Throughout the game, you’ll take on roles from relatively normal (e.g. Naive chorus kid, Idol singer, Karate man), to the surreal (Cephalopod-faced DJ trainee, frog dancer with large, sexy hips, singing Moai). The whole thing plays out like some bizarre slice-of-life variety show (hence the awesome, awesome theme I mentioned at the beginning). It’s weird to say a game with no explicit plot and simple characters has clever writing, but really, these oddballs are surprisingly endearing due to the direction the music and scenarios take in the sequel games and remixes. Also, by getting Perfects on certain games, you unlock reading material that gives you additional insight into the characters’ backgrounds and what goes on in their heads. Particularly cute are the scientists in love, which touches me on a personal level, and also goes to show just how much the game gives the impression of being for everyone.

But what makes Rhythm Heaven in particular stand out from the crowd gameplay-wise? Well, from the producer Tsunku himself,

In Japan, with games that use rhythm and sound, it’s long been the case that the placement of accents and the timing of button-presses has had nothing to do with music. For someone like myself, whose work revolves around music, this has never seemed right, and I wrote up my proposal in hopes of doing away with this.

The cleverness of the writing extends to the gameplay mechanics themselves. Sure, it’s not as intense as the highest levels of Bemani (though Rhythm Rally 2 comes close), but it comes with its own tricks not commonly found in other rhythm games. The second game, the Glee Club with the adorable Chorus Kids, makes you match the timing and duration of the other two singers’ voices, a common mechanic throughout the game. Without any button cues, I admit, it took me a while to get Superb on that game despite being a veteran of the genre. Later notable games include Big Rock Finish, in which you are given one fixed pattern, but need to match it to the tempo of various ending motifs, and Lockstep, which makes you switch between on and offbeats (the sequel making it even trickier by using a rarely heard swing beat; 1 _ 3 1 _ 3 instead of 1 2 1 2). Both of them are a pain in the butt at first, but satisfying once you get used to them (well, for me at least, my musical background made me appreciate these obscure mechanics).

Perfect mechanics are also handled in an interesting way. One game is randomly selected at a time, and if a game you achieved Superb on is that game, you have three shots at a Perfect before the cursor moves to another game. This discourages simply brute force practicing your way through a game, and encourages developing a sense of rhythm in general. The system sounds tedious and stressful, but in practice, I found it kept me moving forward through the games rather than getting stuck trying to get the Perfect so I didn’t get burned out as fast. Ironically, the way Perfects are recorded isn’t actually perfect or intuitive,* but it’s still a satisfying feat to get them all, especially because of the neat reading material I mentioned earlier that you can win.

Even if rhythm games seem to fundamentally play the same way, this game still manages to be an experience like no other. Why do I consider it a reminder of why I love video games? Because, aside from loving music in general, it’s because of its simplicity. It’s proof that you don’t need an AAA budget, just a lot of cleverness, charm, and heart. Rhythm Heaven‘s cute characters and unique gameplay, heck, even the cheesy idol songs, resonate close to my heart just as much as an epic RPG (in many cases, even more so), and it has that slice-of-life optimism that just makes me see the world in a better light.

Another thing that makes the game special? You can literally play the game with your eyes closed because the main cues are all auditory, and the visual cues are primarily for show (heck, a few games have such confusing visuals that not paying attention to them may actually be beneficial). Remember what I said about the game being for everyone? Well, Nintendo actually responded to a blind Japanese boy who loved that it was one of the few games he could play. That’s as good an endorsement of the game as any.

*Some games can be incredibly forgiving (the aforementioned Lockstep, for instance, has a very wide timing window for Perfect, while for Rockers, you can constantly stop your guitar too early and still get Perfect), while others have tight and awkward timing windows (usually that tapping even a millisecond before the beat is considered a failure, but you can tap slightly later and still count, but this is notably reversed for Rhythm Rally).

I hate the phrase “Bros before hoes”

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The reason why should be self-evident, but unfortunately, the phrase and attitude behind it have become so culturally entrenched that many people don’t realize just how sexist it is. It is a prime example of casual misogyny; if you object to it, someone will insist it’s totally not sexist and they’re just joking.* However, joke or not, it still sends a negative message. Let’s see what Urban Dictionary has to say.

The unwritten law that your bros (male friends) should always become before hoes (female with whom you are/hoping to have a relationship with). Most used as a trump card by your bros when they feel you are becoming whipped or that your hoe is a slut and a bitch.

First, using “ho” as a stand-in for woman already sets off a red flag.** Why would you refer a significant other as a degrading term that implies she only exists for sex? One might say that it’s a defense mechanism, but the phrase is often use pre-emptively. How does one build a relationship on paranoia and suspicion?

The phrase also implies that male friends are inherently better than female friends, whether romantic or platonic. Okay, this is where I take personal issue. First off, I have gone through life with male and female friends or acquaintances, and am comfortable around people of all genders, being gender-fluid myself. I do not understand why anyone would actively choose to only surround oneself with those of the same gender and only see the opposite through romantic or sexual lenses. You’re missing out on a lot of potential friends that way.

Second, my best friend, the person I trust to always have my back through all of life’s experiences, good or bad, is female. Neither of us cared much for gender roles, we just acted as ourselves. I wouldn’t give up such a sincere friendship for anything, least of all some arbitrary, restrictive, made-up rule.

The phrase also assumes that every man (or male-born person) has a male support network, and I can tell you, that wasn’t true of me. I had plenty of negative experience with boys and men. People often talk of mean girls, but two-faced mean boys are just as prevalent (think frat culture). Many guys put on a nice front, but I was mocked when I tried to get closer to them, both behind my back and to my face. This is one reason why sincerity became my most important virtue and I’m still wary of two-faced people to this day.

In particular, my junior high school years (which I am not proud of) had me putting down girls while trying to impress boys, which was a mistake I sorely regret as the girls tended to be more cordial and friendly towards me in the long run. Even those that were rude to me were nowhere near as bad as the two-faced boys, since at least they were upfront about it (and I was genuinely an ass back then). But because I internalized “bros before hoes,” even before I heard the term directly, I was blinded to that reality. Fortunately, I learned my lesson by the time I reached grad school.

So yes, “bros before hoes” is a bullshit phrase that panders to rigid gender boundaries. Even if it’s unlikely to be banished to catchphrase purgatory, I’d like people to at least think about the implications of what they’re saying. Because aside from the obvious misogyny, I’ve gone into detail about how it hurts men too.

*Even ignoring the fact that “just a joke” tends to be an excuse, it irritates me when people say things they don’t mean. If I can’t take your insults seriously, then how can I take anything else you say seriously?

**Of course, context matters, and I do acknowledge that some people use such words as endearment terms, but that requires people to know each other well enough to understand that, and in the context of the phrase, it is definitely not meant to be endearing.

Memories of Cardcaptors

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It was the turn of the millennium. Japanese anime was becoming increasingly popular, with big names such as Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Pokemon. Naturally, we were all excited to see what else was coming from Japan. Two iconic shows that came out in this era revolved around magical cards: Yu-Gi-Oh! and Cardcaptors. Like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon before them, they formed sort of a male/female pair, but of course, that never stopped anyone of a certain gender from liking the other show, not back then, and definitely not now. Still, they were quite different in tone. Yu-Gi-Oh was a shonen sports anime (way before esports made it big) that just happened to put people’s souls at stake, while Cardcaptors was more of a slice-of-life show that just happened to have magical trickster tarot card spirits causing trouble every so often. Both were about self-discovery and coming of age, themes that transcend gender boundaries even if they manifest themselves in different ways.

But wait, this post isn’t about Yu-Gi-Oh, is it? Funny how that became intertwined into how I view Cardcaptors anyway. Yes, I’m aware that a lot of people don’t like that name. It was an attempt to make the title more gender-neutral as opposed to the true name, Cardcaptor Sakura. Apparently, in the US, the entire thing was rewritten to appeal to boys; with more of an action focus and scenes edited to make it look like Li Syaoran (or Xiăoláng, as its spelled in Chinese pinyin) was the main character. Well, in Canada, I never got that impression that the main character was anyone but Sakura, probably because we actually got all the episodes. I understand the frustration with the edits, and indeed, I’m not really going to defend the needless censorship. Still, a highly edited dub didn’t stop 4Kids’s version of Yu-Gi-Oh from specifically having fans and defenders, one reason being the witty dialogue spouted by everyone that is actually closer to the Abridged Series than one might think.

Okay, now I’ll stop talking about Yu-Gi-Oh.* But it is strange that when I tracked down the original Japanese Cardcaptor Sakura, I ended up preferring the English version. It felt a lot like the subplot of the Simpsons episode The Haw-Hawed Couple, in which Lisa decides her dad’s made-up ending to avoid mentioning Greystash’s death in the Harry Potter parody she was reading was actually better than canon. But why? It took a while for me to figure that out, but with the increasing celebration of gender fluidity in modern times, it finally hit me.

Sakura in the English version was one of the rare tomboy magical girls who had the coveted protagonist status. I mean, sure, Japanese Sakura was into sports and wore her hair short, but she was still your typical cutesy girly girl. In contrast, the English dub played up her tomboyish traits. Her voice was low-pitched and often had a more assertive tone, and she could be quite sassy in multiple instances. Yet, she still wore miniskirts and dresses and had a fondness for cute things. And the best part? Here was a girl who was quite androgynous in presentation, and no one questioned it. No one treated it as strange, no one tried to convince her to be more masculine or feminine. She was just comfortable being herself. In her world, androgyny was perfectly normal and unremarkable, and so too did it become so in my world.

It was a stark contrast to most other characters I had seen at the time, and even until now. Buttercup from the Powerpuff Girls, Helga Pataki from Hey Arnold!, Jade Chan from Jackie Chan Adventures, Rika from Digimon Tamers, all very cool and interesting characters, but they were clearly on the tomboyish side of the spectrum. Sakura and Meilin, on the other hand, were closer to the middle (heck, Meilin was a lot like the other tomboy characters, except more cutesy and girly in appearance and attitude). They taught me that, no, wearing a short skirt doesn’t automatically disqualify you from being assertive, hanging out with boys, or having masculine-coded interests. Expressions of femininity are just as valid as masculine expression coming from anyone. I know that Sakura’s personality change was probably done to appeal to boys, but in that case, her androgyny was a happy accident. Indeed, I have fond memories of the Nelvana dub precisely because I rarely ever get to see an androgynous character like her. It’s similar to why Power Rangers has such enduring popularity. Sure, the original season had corny dialogue and people in rubber suits, but a wide demographic of kids could look at those teenagers and think, “Hey, I can role play a Power Ranger too!”

Meilin also deserves a paragraph to herself, because of how much she changed in my view from a superfluous character I expected to totally hate into one of my all-time favourite anime characters. She didn’t give the best first impression, being whiny, mostly useless in capturing cards, seemingly only cared about crushing on Xiăoláng, and just came of as your typical unlikable third wheel character. But I was surprised just how much I ended up liking her. For all her faults, she tries really hard at everything she does and when it really matters, she’s ready to rush in to help her friends. Plus, when I realized why she was such a bitch (she had a massive inferiority complex over being screwed by destiny and not being the almighty Chosen One with bullshit main character powers), I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. Besides, her sarcastic dialogue was simply so hilarious (“How can I be so perfect at everything else, yet I am lousy at baking a stupid cake?”; “Is hypothermia part of the curriculum?”; (in response to Sakura saying she’s happy to see everyone together again) “Really, you mean that’s it?”; and so much more) that I’m glad that she remained a bitch to the very end. Especially considering just how much girls are socialized to be passive and polite, seeing someone who doesn’t give a damn about any of that and just speaks her mind is very refreshing. And yes, while the whole secondary Asian love interest getting dumped for the default race lead character (in this case, Chinese rather than the default Japanese) is a grating trend in general, in this case, Meilin is likable enough that I can forgive it just this once. Sort of.

Meilin is also special to me for another reason. I began to imagine what it would be like to be around someone like her, someone not afraid to chew me out when I deserved it, but I knew I could count on when I needed a friend the most. In essence, I made a subconscious wish for a friend like her. Years later, I would meet a girl in my lab group who also had a cute face and a hyperactive and cheerful, but blunt and sarcastic attitude. We eventually became best friends, sharing our successes, eccentricities, and inferiority complexes. One time, we had a discussion on what role we’d play as TV show characters, and months, I realized, she acted a lot like an anime character. Slowly, I made the connection to Meilin, and was amazed. Never did I imagine my wish would actually come true, but it did!

To some extent, I’ve outgrown Cardcaptor Sakura. My tastes have shifted darker (like Grimm Fairy Tales or even Simpsons / Hey Arnold! dark), and the series overall is a bit too saccharine for me nowadays. The manga continuation doesn’t seem to be doing much for me either. Still, it’s a fond memory for me, and I feel compelled to preserve the memory of the English dub. It’s weird to want to keep alive the memory of something most would rather forget, but it’s one of those cases where one fan’s worthless trash is another fan’s beloved Garbodor. If I got to see another magical series with an androgynous protagonist, I may join in the chorus of hate, but not likely. Besides, the Nelvana dub also has some amazingly memorable music, most of all Guardian of the Cards. That, definitely, is worth remembering.

*By the way, my favourite Yu-Gi-Oh! character is the camp, androgynous manchild Maximillion Pegasus. Okay, now I’m done.

Memories of Spore

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Time to write about another Maxis game. I remember when Spore was first announced. It was going to boldly go where no game had gone before. You thought SimCity and Civilization were cool, being able to control cities and empires? Well, how about the entire universe, from the microscale all the way to the macroscale? It was the grandest scale game ever promised at the time, a SimEverything! And it was going to make science fun!

Of course, we all know that the end result was, less than promised. Instead of an organically flowing life simulation, we got an awkward, barely-connected mismash of 5 stages which play more like simplified role-playing or real-time strategy games. Instead of a natural progression of creatures and buildings, the features were cosmetic, and evolution was more like Pokémon than Darwin.

Apparently, the development team had a conflict between scientific and cute, the latter won, and it shows. And it shouldn’t be surprising; with such a grandiose concept, inevitably, people were going to butt heads regarding the direction the game should take. Should we make stat spreads more scientifically realistic, at the cost of potentially inhibiting creativity in aesthetics? (after all, so many RPGs with custom equipment end up making the player character look ridiculous when optimized) How would we accurately program limb placement and environmental interactions to such a complex degree? Would we have to take 50 years to finish the game if we truly tried to simulate everything? The game was destined to be below expectations, since most developers still face challenges trying to make games based around just one of the individual gameplay components, let alone all of them at once. Like I just said in my previous post, SimCity had enough trouble being true to life, despite its pedigree, so imagine that inaccuracy multipled tenfold and you have this game.

In the end, Spore became, effectively, a 3D modelling program, and indeed, that’s what the player base used it as. The creatures, buildings, and vehicles everyone created were supposed to be the window dressing for the simulation game itself, but in fact, it was the inverse; the traditional game elements were the window dressing; simply an excuse to show off the community’s creations. And this was where the real fun of the game came from.

I remember starting off on the official forums. My early creations were either overdesigned creatures with too many body parts or hastily put together coloured blocks with no regards for aesthetics. And yet, many of the users were pushing the modelling software to its limits. You had people making elaborate towers, mascot characters, beautiful exotic animals, eggs, even portraits and many other things you wouldn’t expect the software to be capable of at first glance. I was inspired to do better, to go beyond the initial boundaries, and was proud of my first green smiley face (the maximum rating a creation can receive). I participated more in the community, reveling in its willingness to help and support each other, and my mind was whirring with ideas (my Gravatar in fact is one of my Spore creations). I was proud, to discover a creative side of me that I never knew existed, to admire and support others’ boundless creativity, to also be praised for coming up with unexpected things, and to be a part of one of the most positive gaming communities I had ever experienced. Sure, the main forum was full of complaining about the game (which was somewhat justified), but for us creators, we had little time for that, and we made do with the many tools we had.

And, it was through Spore that I met my first crush. She was something of a leader in the community, having written a guide about buildings, several showcase trophies, and her amazing, beautiful creations were frequently featured on the front page. I was honoured to see her happy for one of my compliments, and that she would regularly leave comments on my own creations. Even if I never saw her face, I knew she was very pretty, since her kind, supportive personality shone through her messages (and it helped she had a pretty username that became one of my go-to names for video game characters).

In the end, she moved on from the game, and so did I and much of the community. Spore would never be the same, or as exciting as it was at its peak, because it was the people who made the game what it was. But even if I stopped playing, I would never forget my experience. Years later, I would continue creating things and being inspired by people. I would make custom greeting cards for my friends. I would join the university craft club, and indulge in my love of biology and creepy things. I would transcribe songs from online by ear, and later, try creating music of my own. And I would try my hand at fiction writing (which I hope people enjoy, even if it’s full of stilted early draft dialogue that I have yet to fix). I hope, too, that the friends I’ve met from the game, however short-lived it was, are also too still out there making things for the world to enjoy.

So for a game that has brought me so much joy and life-changing experiences, could I really call it a bad game, or a disappointing one? Sure, it failed at its overly ambitious primary goal, and perhaps other games do what it does better. However, for all its shortcomings to the scientifically-inclined and students of RPG and strategy games, it succeeded in appealing to a different audience, the artistic types, for which the universe was their canvas. There’s a simple joy in beaming down a hologram of the creature you spent hours crafting, and having it walk around your decorated, terraformed planet; simply soaking in all the sights of land and sky, your magnificent buildings juxtaposed against the splendid randomly-generated scenery.

Memories of SimCity and its Legacy

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I remember when I first booted up SimCity 3000 at the age of 6 or so. I was instantly blown away by the sheer scale of the simulation. At the time, a video game to me was something like Super Mario Bros., a fixed game with a set challenge. But instead of bite-sized levels, SimCity had you building an entire magnificent metropolis! And the soundtrack wasn’t just 8-bit chirps, but an grand collection of jazz and New Age which I still play fondly to this day. For the longest time, I considered it my favourite game, along with Super Mario 64, because of how ambitious and imaginative both games were for their time.

Of course, being young and stupid, I didn’t understand financial management yet, so my early games consisted of me constantly running my cities bankrupt with loans. But when I tried again at age 11, I was able to build a decently sized city with a population of 600,000. It was disorganized and a prime example of urban sprawl, but I was proud of it. Still, I looked on in envy at that perfectly organized Metropolis example city with 2.1 million residents and Astronomical land values (even destroying it a few times).

Speaking of financial management, I would also get a hold of SimCity 2000 later in my life, which had quite a nasty Hard mode in which you had no money except for a $10000 loan which kept draining money from you until you raised $10000 to pay it off. It was much more restrictive than SimCity 3000’s Hard mode, which had loans that expired after 10 years and the ability to offset them with Business Deals. At first, I tried playing the budget cautiously, but the money kept draining. It was only after I went all in that I was able to raise enough taxes to stay in the green and eventually pay off the loan. At that moment, I finally understood how Keynesian economics worked, despite how counter-intuitive it seemed, and why economists consider austerity bad policy.

Naturally, when I heard they were reviving SimCity for a new generation in 2013, I was thrilled. It was going to be online, and each city was going to be part of an entire interconnected region! It was an immediate purchase decision for me…and most of us know how that game turned out. I tried convincing myself I was having fun, but it didn’t work out, and each time I made a city, I quickly hit a ceiling in which I had no desire to expand any further.

I could blame the small city sizes, the myriad glitches that constantly gridlocked the roads and limited what you could actually accomplish in the game, and various other forms of mismanagement. But looking back, I hit a similar ceiling with the other SimCity games as well, despite the series’ promise of endless gameplay and no true end goal. I’d build up my population and land value numbers, and that was it.

Part of the shift in my opinion of SimCity came with a similar shift in my own life. No longer did I spend my life alone in the outskirts of some isolated small town, through which SimCity fulfilled my urban fantasies. Now having moved to major urban environments, I have come to understand city life a lot better, and realized just how simplistic SimCity’s model truly is. It’s not segregated Residential-Commercial-Industrial indicators that make people passionate about the city, and in fact, dense cities like Vancouver routinely blend those sectors. Nor is it about ever-increasing land values. In fact, such gentrification has been a detriment to the culture of cities like Vancouver and San Francisco, and citizens routinely protest this favoured treatment of the rich while depriving lower-income residents of homes. Yet you’ll never realize this from SimCity, which treats gentrification as merely a gaming ideal to aspire to.

No, city life is about interaction, about the ingenuity of the quirky folk displaying offbeat clothing and personalized artwork in East Vancouver and Edmonton-Strathcona. It’s about architecture, open markets, walking and soaking in the sights. SimCity is so focused on the macro-management that it doesn’t consider the micro-scale of the human experience. Indeed, the city structure portrayed in the 2013 game seems firmly stuck in the past. It’s dependent entirely on roads, with few transit options, and relies on resource extraction as a primary source of income. This urban planning vision looks less appealing in the environmentally conscious post-recession age, even more so in Canada as it came out during the notorious reign of Stephen Harper and his own backwards addiction to natural resources as the backbone of Canada’s economy.

Some say we shouldn’t talk politics in video games, that it’s purely escapism. But as George Orwell said, all issues are political issues, and when you’re dealing with something as real as city planning, discussing a game’s politics is inevitable. SimCity may be great in scale by video game standards (aside, funny how we as a gaming community tend to set such low standards for ourselves), but it’s lacking as a city simulator and its vision is overly conservative. I’m grateful for the game for introducing me to budget management, serving as the impetus for my passion for city planning, and expanding my horizon when stuck in small town life, but I’ve outgrown the game and am now looking for a more in-depth city simulation game that more accurately represents the joys of urban life. I’ve heard the SimCity 4 community has modded the game far beyond its original scope, and if so, good for them. Other titles have also popped up, and it’d be good to know where to start.

Misunderstood Holiday Classics: Ron Howard’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas

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Blast this Christmas music! It’s joyful…and triumphant!

Most know the story of the Grinch; the green recluse who hates Christmas and steals everything, only to have a change of heart at the end when the Whos celebrated Christmas all the same. At the turn of the millennium, Hollywood made a full-length movie out of it. To say the least, a lot of people didn’t like it. More accurately, they were pissed, and to this day, it’s popularly remembered as a disgrace to the original children’s book and cartoon. And yet, a lot of other people sit down to watch it every year and dedicate Twitter accounts to quoting Jim Carrey. Yep. It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it movies. Well, looks like I’m gonna have to shift the public opinion barometer closer to the love side.

Here goes. Five reasons why the Grinch movie is totally, indisputably not a terrible film, and actually pretty freaking awesome:

(Obviously, spoilers, as well as an alert that this post is going to delve into discussing mental illness. Also, “totally, indisputably” is tongue-in-cheek.)

1. It’s a fractured fairy tale.

Don’t forget the Grinch. I know he’s mean and hairy and smelly. His hands might be cold and clammy, but I think he’s actually kinda… sweet.

SWEET? You think he’s sweet?

[nods] Merry Christmas, Santa.

Nice kid…baaad judge of character!

The major point of contention with the film seems to be that it’s not a faithful adaptation of the original Dr. Seuss story. The Whos are jerks, the Grinch has an unnecessary backstory, and so on. Well, yeah, from reading the original, Seuss didn’t seem to have all that in mind. However, remember all those revisionist fairy tales in which the villain is actually misunderstood and has their own reasons for being a jerk (one of the most popular ones being Shrek)? The whole concept of the Grinch becoming a misanthropic asshole because he was ostracized by the Whos is standard for that kind of adaptation. I honestly believe that a good deal of the hate comes from people not realizing it’s a fractured fairy tale, but expecting a straighter adaptation, and if it was properly advertised as the former, it would have been better received.

Of course, just because it’s a fractured fairy tale doesn’t automatically make it good, but that’s what the other reasons are for.

2. The Grinch is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of mental illness.

The nerve of those Whos. Inviting me down there – on such short notice! Even if I wanted to go my schedule wouldn’t allow it.
4:00, wallow in self pity

4:30, stare into the abyss
5:00, solve world hunger, tell no one
5:30, jazzercize
6:30, dinner with me – I can’t cancel that again
7:00, wrestle with my self-loathing… I’m booked!
Of course, if I bump the loathing to 9, I could still be done in time to lay in bed, stare at the ceiling and slip slowly into madness. But what would I wear?

This is what goes through the mind of us socially anxious people whenever we get told to go out and meet people, come out of our shell and socialize. Also, the Grinch debating with himself whether to go to the Whobilation or not, coming close to stepping out the door before turning back and insisting he’s not going? We do that too, at least in our heads. Maybe out loud, but where no one can hear. And then getting humiliated with the reminder of the ostracism that made us socially anxious in the first place, causing us to retreat back to our secret lair and give up on ever fitting in (hopefully temporarily)? Well, we hope it doesn’t happen, but it’s expected.

Heck, most of the Grinch’s lair scenes show him clearly being depressed. Yeah, I know, he looks like a manic jerk. Believe it or not, that’s one way depression manifests itself. The word implies a sad sack, but that’s not how it always looks. Outwardly, he performs anger and sarcasm, but his words give him away:

  • I tell you Max, I don’t know why I ever leave this place. I’ve got all the company I need right here.
  • Am I just eating because I’m bored?
  • And of course, his schedule.

He also gets frustrated and in denial when Cindy Lou ends up seeing through his performance. This is because society tends to frown upon people being open with their troubles and appearing weak as a result. So he tries to cover it up the best way he can: by playing the role of the villain and pretending he doesn’t care about his or anyone’s feelings. That’s why when his heart goes three sizes, he has a nervous breakdown. His emotions are almost literally exploding out of him. When you’re finally free of depression, uncontrolled crying fits, at least inwardly, are to be expected as you reflect back on your depression, likely regretting how much of a jerk you’ve been to people in the process.

His unusual birth, both in appearance and behaviour, also serves as an applicable metaphor for physical or mental abnormalities. Most of the conversation focuses on his appearance, but there’s still a clear subtext of being unable to fit in because he doesn’t act normal.

Also worth noting, anime fans will recognize the Grinch as that manic-depressive character archetype known as a tsundere. Best example is his “Oh Max, I love you,” followed by telling him to scram. Opening up to people takes time, after all.

3. Cindy Lou Who is an amazing heroine.

But the book does say the Cheermeister is the one who deserves a backslap or a toast. And it goes to the soul at Christmas who needs it most. And I believe that soul is the Grinch. And if you’re the Whos I hope you are, you will too!

The whole “Mayor Augustus Maywho gets owned by kid” scene is great. And if you don’t believe this is realistic for a girl her age, well, try listening to Severn Cullis-Suzuki at the Rio 1992 Environmental Summit, or reading Madison Kimrey’s essay to Phyllis Schlafly. For the namesake of “gets owned by kid,” albeit older, try Jesse Lange vs Bill O’Reilly.

Seriously, Cindy Lou Who is astonishingly underrated, especially considering she’s from a big name movie that grossed more than $300 million worldwide. People often think “Strong female character” means a girl or woman who excels in punching people, but as child activists show, that’s not the only form of strength. And just because someone looks “girly” doesn’t mean they’re weak.

Cindy is brave. In the face of condescension from the mayor, disbelief from the town’s populace, and the frightening legends, she presses on regardless, determined to learn the truth about the Grinch.

Cindy is smart. She actively goes out to research the Grinch’s history and to put the pieces together. She read the Book of Who enough that the Mayor can’t bullshit her in the debate to nominate the Grinch as Cheermeister. Heck, she’s the only one aside from the green man himself to question why everyone is making themselves miserable in their gift obsession in an ostensibly cheerful season.

Cindy is kind. She knows the Grinch isn’t exactly right in the head, but sees the good side of him he so desperately disguises, and tries to help him unconditionally. And while that sounds like the typical manic pixie dream girl, she’s not doing it out of any obsession with him. She’d do that for anyone in need, which includes herself. By helping the Grinch, she helps herself realize the joy of being there for someone in need and rediscovers the Christmas spirit.

And anyone who ever tried to make a difference, anyone who’s constantly underestimated by society, especially little girls, will recognize this:

Did anyone listen to me? No, you choose…to listen to a little, not to be taken seriously, GIRL!

This pretty much sums up the main argument from a lot of conservative adults. But in the end, because she stuck to her convictions, her timid father came to her defense, and so did the entire town. She’s been my inspiration ever since I saw this movie as a kid, and as an adult who’s been around the political scene for a while, even more so.

4. The movie doesn’t contradict the original message. It expands it.

I’m glad he took our presents. I, well, I, I’m glad.

He’s glad! You’re glad! You’re glad everything is, is gone. Heh hah heh. You’re glad, that the Grinch virtually wrecked, no no no, not wrecked, pulverized Christmas! Is that what I’m hearing from you, Lou?

You can’t hurt Christmas, Mr. Mayor, because it isn’t about the…the gifts or the contest, or the fancy lights. That’s what Cindy’s been trying to tell everyone…and me….

I don’t need anything more for Christmas than this right here: my family.

In the tradition of a good fractured fairy tale, this movie adds another dimension to the original story. I mean, the Grinch didn’t have a particularly developed motive before, and people are naturally going to ask (just like Cindy did!). Heck, psychologists have essentially detailed the plot of this movie as a possible explanation for why anyone would steal Christmas. (If that’s not vindication, well, I still have one more reason to go). Telling the audience to look beyond the materialistic trappings of the holiday season is a natural extension of “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes, or bags!” It may take creative liberties with the original story, but it still carries the same spirit.

5. It essentially has the same plot as Frozen.

 

Let’s see: emotionally repressed main characters have some aspect of themselves that they cannot control, and shut themselves out from the world as a result. Eventually, they are found out, and run away to a snowy mountain where they hide for an extended period of time, building impressive abodes in the process. The other main characters: brave, headstrong girls, come over to their lairs to get them to open up and overcome their social anxieties. Both the Grinch and Elsa have scenes where they go out in public just to feel rejected. And in the end, they find the inner strength to rescue Cindy and Anna respectively. Heck, all four of them even have their own theme tune, which are recurring for the latter two.

And yet one is regarded as a Disney classic (despite having little to do with The Snow Queen), while the other is scorned as a butchery of a Seuss classic. What the hell, people? Yes, I know Frozen is itself controversial, but it just goes to show how much the context in which a movie comes out can inherently change audience opinion.

—-

I mean, sure, the movie isn’t perfect. There are some logical inconsistencies in the movie’s story, such as why the Grinch’s caretakers didn’t seem to care that he was gone for so long. But it does so many things right, and uncommonly for a Hollywood movie to boot, that it doesn’t deserve the negative reception it got. It’s like Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Once upon a time, people hated it because it took a lot of liberties with the source material, the gargoyles were jarring, Quasimodo didn’t get the girl, etc. But now, people appreciate just how awesome it is for taking on Christian fundamentalism, slut shaming, male entitlement, prejudice and racism, and so much more while reaffirming the ideals of Christianity itself (not to mention the beautiful animation). For us Grinch movie fans, there’s hope that people will eventually come around to it in a similar fashion.

Plus, it’s extremely quotable.

The appeal of horror; why choose to be frightened?

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 Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don’t wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and antiestablishment.

Guillermo del Toro

As a niche genre, horror is often misunderstood. It is often vilified as ultraviolent, misogynistic exploitation or mocked for cheap costumes and overdone fairground tricks, associated with schlocky, lowest common denominator fare churned out just to make a profit. However, like anything, horror has its gems, and there are many things that horror accomplishes that few other genres can match.

Horror is fundamentally psychological

What causes fear? Uncertainty. A lack of control. Being subject to the whims of fate. These are the feelings that horror thrives on. In fact, Psycho is essentially a psychological study of Norman Bates and his struggle for control over the memory of his abusive mother, showing also how horror gives insight into the darker aspects of humanity, parts of it that many of us do not experience and thus have trouble comprehending.

It’s also worth noting that the common jump scare is rooted in the fear of the unknown, not knowing when it will strike. Many do not understand this, thinking the jump is what causes the scare rather than its context, and this is why it has become such a derided narrative technique.

Horror is a depowerment fantasy

What distinguishes horror from other genres is the power of the protagonist, our proxy character. In a typical hero story, the protagonist is able to conquer any foe by the tale’s conclusion. Despite all the pressures imposed by the narrative, applied just enough to cause suspense, the outcome is rarely uncertain. In contrast, the protagonist of a horror story is far weaker than their adversary, again lacking control over their situation. You genuinely feel that the hero is outmatched in a way that cannot be overcome by training and experience against weaker foes. When faced with an invincible man or monster, or some strange environment not subject to the protagonist’s rules, the goal is often not to win, but simply to survive.

A good example is the original Wicker Man. The protagonist, a police officer, believes himself in a position of power and thus acts aggressively towards the islanders. However, he does not triumph in the end, for his heroic bravado merely played right into the cult’s hands. In the end, he was defeated by a force more powerful than himself. (as an aside, I must admit that the Nicolas Cage remake parodies this aspect pretty well. “I’m a police man! See my badge?”)

This is also why people often consider Resident Evil 4 the point at which the series started to shift from horror to action. The more powerful the protagonists become, the less scary the adversary is.

Paradoxically, this makes horror empowering

Because horror is so willing to explore issues to a depth that few other genres dare descend, we gain a better understanding of those issues, and knowledge is power. Whether it’s growing up in a broken home or living in fear of sexual assault while people around you blow off your concerns, seeing your experience on screen says that yes, someone understands you. Yes, your concerns are valid. And it is possible to overcome them.

It’s no surprise that the faces of horror protagonists are typically female. Society treats women as the weaker gender, less capable of fending off evil presences. But passive characters like the typical love interests in action movies don’t make compelling protagonists, because people want to see themselves as more active than that. The very choice of making a girl or woman the viewpoint character gives insight into her mindset, so that even male viewers come to understand her story. And in the realm of horror, where masculine strength means nothing in the face of a much more powerful enemy, it is female cleverness, ingenuity, and determination that succeeds over evil.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is nothing if not corny, with byzantine death sequences (a weightlifter turned into a bug! A guy eaten by his own motorcycle!) and a villain who seems to have a dayjob as a Catskills comedian. But it’s also explicitly about female empowerment, as its final girls learn not just how to control their dreams but to control their lives as well, and overcome such obstacles as alcoholic parents, insecurity, and being ignored by those in power. It also establishes what can only be described as a final girl matriarchy, with myths, rituals, and a strong bond of friendship uniting its heroines.

– Sarah Marshall: Beyond Clarice: Underrated Horror Heroines

Like life, horror does not always resolve neatly

But of course, true evil takes more than a punch to the face to disappear. No, the cackling slasher will always return again and again. The spirit will always find a new host. Even after escaping, the legacy of her terror will always come back to haunt the hero. Such is life, where we must always remain vigilant, for real-life horrors such as racism are not simply resolved by one civil rights movement.

—-

By no means are these aspects limited to stories specifically made to invoke fear in the audience. Horror elements often overlap with other genres, such as in dark fantasy or psychological thrillers. Even if you are not interested in reading or writing horror, it is worth understanding the genre. Again, knowledge is power. To conquer fear, you must first learn its roots.

Like romance and comedy, horror is a difficult subject to get right, since all three involve manipulating people to achieve a specific emotional reaction. Doing them badly is like failing at a magic trick; the production ends up being incredibly awkward (if not unintentionally hilarious). But the insight into humanity horror can provide makes it a genre worth respecting.

Fake Geek Girl Adventures 1-9: For Cedar and County

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(previous)

Saturday afternoon at the Fish N Stuff was a quiet day. Oliver was savouring his lunch break with his friends.

“Can’t believe you’d decide to eat here, of all places,” Oliver whispered.

“Oh c’mon,” Stacy snapped. “Do we look like food snobs? This is infinitely better than some crappy TV dinner.”

“Yeah, the food’s great,” Ren added. “Besides, we owe ya, buddy.”

Oliver was taken aback. “For what?”

“For your essay, of course!” Ren said.

“We’re gonna be tipping extra generously today,” Cheryl explained. “So you can still claim your 100 dollar prize.”

“You definitely deserve it more than that Prince guy,” Stacy added.

Oliver smiled. He was about to insist that they totally didn’t have to do it, but he knew they would insist on it anyway, especially Stacy. In between bites of his Super Salmon Burger, he took a look at today’s paper. He groaned at yet another Rob Smith article, but upon seeing Stacy’s eager eyes watching him, he quickly flipped the page.

“Say, Olly,” Stacy said, grinning. “Whatcha looking at?”

“Nothing,” he replied nervously.

“Nothing, you say? Was it the swimsuit page?”

Oliver shook his head in embarrassment. “The editorials.”

Stacy frowned. “Really, Oliver?”

He said nothing, scanning the papers for something to change the subject. “Hey, there’s an article on one of the roller derby teams from the city! Didn’t know it was getting so popular.”

The rest of the table became excited, except for Cheryl. “Yeah, it’s one of those niche subcultures they feature every so often. I’ve heard of the team from Sofia,” she replied calmly. “They’ve been training in the East End for years, and have become quite a formidable team.”

She suddenly paused, with the table hanging on in suspense. “The Axel Rangers.”

Everyone’s eyes widened, impressed.

“Why is their name so much cooler than ours?” Stacy asked.

Cheryl shrugged. “Guess someone really loves Power Rangers.”

Oliver lowered the paper as everyone gathered around to see. Posing in the picture were five girls all skating in a row, sporting outfits in red, yellow, green, blue, and pink respectively. Upon seeing the photo, Stacy was ecstatic.

“Just think, if we beat them and win…Fame! Glory! Everyone in Cedar Grove will be grovelling at our feet! The little Beemobile that could, standing in triumph! Our town, no longer under the big city’s shadow! We’d be…”

“Uh, Stacy…” Cheryl interrupted. “You do realize they’re way more experienced than us, right?”

“I knew that,” Stacy answered sheepishly. “But it would be nice to see how we measure up, at least.”

Cheryl smiled. “I know what you mean. It’s great that you’re eager to challenge yourself. But remember, we’ve got our own league to worry about first.”

Stacy sighed. “Yeah, I know,” she said dreamily, still obsessing over her David vs Goliath fantasy.

“Say, can I have the paper now?” Ren interjected.

Oliver promptly handed over the paper as Ren quickly flipped to the end of the Sports section, staring in awe. Cheryl looked on in amusement, while Stacy snickered. As her eyes wavered, she noticed Tori merely staring at them, having said nothing until now.

“Say, Tori, what’s up?” she asked.

Tori looked back at her. “Um….”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Oliver’s mom coming.

“Did you kids enjoy the meal?” she asked.

Everyone nodded in approval, reaching for their wallets.

“Your total comes to $63.21. Are you all paying together…”

Before she could finish, everyone had already slapped down more almost three times that amount. Oliver was ready to contribute his fair share, but Ren gestured for him to stop. His mother looked pleasantly bewildered.

“Thank you very much….” Ms. Palmiero said, trying to catch her breath.

“Don’t worry, Oliver,” Ren said. “Like we said, we got you covered.”

—-

It was lunch time, and the Games for Everyone club was meeting in their usual haunt. Oliver was catching up with Memories of the Sleeping Village while Cheryl and Tori looked over his laptop screen.

“Separate and unbroken, four lines make up the seal,” Oliver muttered. “Through the square of nine, a secret it will reveal…‘Think outside the box.’”

Stacy, who just got up after trying to stay still on her wobbly chair, overheard her friend’s thoughts. Oliver saw her approach with a weird grin on her face, still trying to connect all the dots together.

“Ugh, only four lines? There’s no way!”

“Got any ideas?” Cheryl asked. “I’ve been stuck on this one too.”

Stacy continued to smile. “Oh, this one.”

She gestured at Oliver to move over, and he obliged. Stacy began drawing a line from the bottom right corner to the bottom left just as Oliver did. Smirking, she paused for a second, and then continued the line just one space outside the square. The other three gasped as Stacy continued to move diagonally right to just above the top right corner, and then reconnected the lines to form a right triangle. She finished connecting the last two dots with another diagonal. The seal began to glow as she returned the seat to Oliver.

“Wait, the veiled lady meant literally outside the box?” Oliver exclaimed. “God, I feel stupid.”

“Hey,” Stacy said. “It’s not exactly intuitive if you’ve never seen the puzzle before. But now you know!”

The other three were impressed to see the solution revealed in plain sight. But after a few seconds, they noticed the seal was still glowing, and were confused.

“The seal’s not doing anything,” Oliver remarked.

Stacy merely flashed another smile and pointed at the region where the arrow pattern was pointing. Oliver noticed that the background was a map of the apothecary, and proceeded to click on the jar it was pointing at.

“Remarkable!” Abd-al Malik told the player character. “That’s where the Rosetta Stone must be hidden! We’re one step closer to uncovering the King’s message!”

“Wow,” Oliver told Stacy, overwhelmed. “Lydia sure is sneaky. How would we ever know it was supposed to be in that specific direction too?”

“Well, if you drew the pattern in the other directions,” Stacy explained. “It wouldn’t point to anything. Took a while for me to figure that one out too.”

Oliver shook his head. “How did she ever expect anyone to get through this without writing up a guide?”

“Well, you and Tori helped Stacy last time,” Cheryl pointed out. “I think we can get through this if we work as a team.”

“Yeah, perhaps that’s what she was going for,” Stacy concurred. “Four heads are better than one, after all. Speaking of which, how’s your game coming along, Tori?”

“Um, I’ve noticed this ragged-looking girl show up every so often,” Tori said. “She’s always smiling despite being so alone. When I see her, I try to give whatever I have to make her feel better.”

“Oh yeah, her,” Cheryl said. “Gave her something once, but it didn’t seem to do anything.”

“Yeah, same,” Stacy added. “Who knows? She’s probably just an item sink.”

“I just wanted to be nice,” Tori replied.

“Yeah, but don’t you think you might need the items later on?” Oliver suggested.

“Maybe,” Tori replied. “But it’s so sad to see her try to get by with no one to talk to.”

Stacy was concerned. “It’s just a video game.”

Tori paused, wondering if she was being too sensitive. She didn’t have much time to think about it, though, as Cheryl looked at her watch, and gasped. Lunch hour was ending soon. She didn’t realize time flew by so quickly, since the room’s clock was frozen in the same position. Somehow, it’s been that way since her first class in the room.

“So anyway,” she said, with a huge smile on her face. “Everyone excited for the Spirit Day presentation?”

Stacy and Oliver were silent, looking unenthusiastic at the prospect.

“I guess so,” Tori replied. “I’m curious to see what it’s all about, even though they didn’t seem to put much effort in drawing the ads.”

Cheryl frowned. “See, Tori’s excited…sort of. What’s wrong with you two?”

“Nothing,” Stacy said. “Trust us, it’s really nothing.”

“Aside from cheesy speeches,” Oliver added.

Cheryl was astonished to see the others brush it off so casually. “C’mon, where’s your school spirit?”

“What spirit?” Oliver protested. “We’re one of the worst schools in the province, we lose almost every competition we’re in, we’re a laughingstock compared to Cedar Valley…”

“Wait,” Cheryl interjected. “What’s up with Cedar Valley anyway?”

Oliver searched his laptop, pulling out a picture of an alleyway in downtown Cedar Grove, featuring a graffiti-plastered wall saying “Class of ’99. Cedar Was Here, Pollock Are Losers.”

“That’s how it all started,” Oliver explained while Stacy nodded.

“Aw, c’mon,” Cheryl retorted. “I’m sure not everyone from Cedar Valley is like that. I mean, your cousins go there, right Stace?”

“Yeah, there are exceptions,” Stacy replied. “But we’re talking the collective student body here.”

Cheryl looked to Tori, hoping she’d back her up. “What about you, Tori? What do you think of Cedar Valley?”

“Honestly, I don’t have very fond memories of that place,” Tori answered nervously.

The school bell rang, and the foursome started heading out the door. Cheryl grinned. “Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready for Spirit Day! And for class off!”

“Yeah, I guess we have that going for us,” Oliver said, cracking a weak smile.

—-

The students of Pollock Secondary had all gathered in the gym. Unlike the spacious auditorium from Cedar Valley Secondary, Pollock’s was small and basic. The bleachers were worn and easy to wobble, making a lot of students feel uneasy. At Tori’s request, the Games for Everyone group came early to sit near the front. Lucas, Abigail, and the Gamer Club also wanted front seats, but upon seeing the foursome, they decided to go higher.

“So, happy to be out of class?” Ren asked Lucas.

“Hmph,” Lucas responded. “For what? Some stupid cheerleading routine? Even English class is better than this clown show.”

“Well, Dad’s in it,” Ren pointed out.

“Whatever. I’m not interested in another lecture here of all places.”

Ren grinned. “It’s not a lecture.”

Suddenly, a giant windsock fish came swishing into the gym, carried by multiple pairs of legs and accompanied by a group of cheerleaders in school girl uniforms. The pollock costume twisted and turned to the cheerleaders’ chants:

“Pollock School is the best! Send a message to the rest! P! S! We’re Pollock Secondary!”

The large fish came closer, pushing its big goofy grin in front of the students. When it was Stacy’s turn, the pollock looked like it was about to give her a kiss, and she recoiled in disgust.

“I’ve heard of lion dances, but this is ridiculous,” Stacy whispered to her friends, relieved that the fish left.

“Tell me about it,” Oliver concurred.

Cheryl paid the two no mind as she was strangely enraptured by the show. Soon afterwards, the students were greeted to the sound of bagpipes. Mr. Stewart, dressed in a traditional Scottish kilt, sounded out the peppy tune of I’se the B’y. The giggling cheerleaders grabbed each other’s armed and danced the jig to the music. Even the fish was invited along. Ren was amused by the sight.

“Woo-hoo! Go Dad!” he yelled while the Smith siblings stared at him awkwardly, rolling their eyes.

The rest of the crowd had mixed emotions about the sight in front of them. Some were dozing off, just happy to be out of class. Others were cringing at the bizarre sight in front of them. The cheerleaders and Mr. Stewart broke out into chants once again.

“P! S! Pollock Secondary! P! S! Pollock Secondary!”

“P. S. Pollock Secondary,” Cheryl said, following along. She was quiet at first, but her voice started growing louder. “P! S! Pollock Secondary! P! S! Pollock Secondary!”

Her friends were astonished to see her so deeply invested in this circus. Stacy and Oliver looked at each other with shocked expressions, then decided to join in.

“P! S! Pollock Secondary!”

Stacy tapped Tori’s shoulder, and she too began chanting. Sofia, seeing the foursome chant, got her friends to join in. Ren too managed to convince Eric and several others aside from Lucas and Abby to chant. Eventually, the Smith siblings were some of the few students left that weren’t going along with it.

“P! S! Pollock Secondary! P! S! Pollock Secondary!”

Few people knew why they were chanting. But nearly everyone else was doing it, so why not?

—-

Sofia and her friend Melanie, otherwise known as Quadrachromia Iridis, joined up with Cheryl and friends as everyone cleared out of the gym.

“Well,” Sofia remarked. “I never knew Spirit Day could be this fun.”

“Yeah,” Mel agreed. “I can’t remember the last time Pollock actually went along with the cheer.”

The other students nodded as Sofia gestured towards Cheryl. “It’s all thanks to Cherie here.”

“Aw, it was nothing,” Cheryl replied.

“Nothing?” Stacy told her. “You got the whole school going!”

“First time in years!” Oliver added. “Why’d you do it, anyway?”

“No reason,” Cheryl answered. “The whole thing was silly fun, and everyone worked hard to put it together. I guess if you’ve seen it year after year, it wouldn’t be as impressive, but even so, don’t they deserve some appreciation for trying to cheer the school up?”

Everyone nodded.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Oliver said.

“It does take a lot of guts to do all that in public,” Stacy added.

“Exactly!” Cheryl replied.

Just then, Ren and his dad left the auditorium, both with huge grins on their faces. The sight of Cheryl caught Mr. Stewart’s attention and he briskly walked over.

“I must say, I can’t express enough just how thankful I am that you led the cheer,” Mr. Stewart told her as they shook hands. “It’s nice for the students to actually appreciate Spirit Day for once.”

“No problem,” Cheryl said.

“Say,” Ren added. “Ever thought of becoming a cheerleader?”

Cheryl paused, anxious at the prospect of parading around in a miniskirt. “Um…maybe. I’ll think about it.”

“In any case, you’ve got the heart of one, and that’s what matters,” Mr. Stewart remarked. “Anyway, I’d love to stay and chat more, but I’ve got a staff meeting to get to. See you again sometime!”

“Bye, Mr. Stewart!” the older students replied while Tori and Sofia merely nodded. As father and son walked away, Sofia turned towards Oliver.

“So, how have you been?” she asked.

“Fine,” Oliver said. “I’ve been thinking, maybe I should get more involved in some Spirit Day event.”

“In what way?”

“Well, I remember a lot of kids here sharing some cool urban legends about Pollock Secondary. It’d be neat to talk about Old Mabel, or the Pollock Secondary ghost.”

Tori flinched. “G-ghost?”

Oliver smirked. “It’s just something we use to scare the 8th graders. It’s as real as the house hippo.”

“Wait, it’s not real?!” Stacy shrieked.

The others glanced at Stacy awkwardly.

“I guess someone had to break it to her eventually,” Sofia remarked. “Anyway, how’s life been treating you, lil sis?”

“Aside from having my childhood dreams crushed?” Stacy answered. She was glum at first, but suddenly became cheerful again. “Actually, I’ve been thinking. If the Axel Rangers were to come to Cedar Grove, hypothetically speaking of course, would you be willing to challenge them to a game?”

Sofia and Mel looked at Stacy in shock. “Really? You think they’d even give us the time of day?” Sofia said. “We’re only juniors!”

“Well, Stacy thinks we’ll be town heroes if we beat them,” Cheryl added. “To be honest, I’d like to see how we measure up ourselves.”

“Hmm….” Sofia pondered. “I guess you can’t fault a girl for being ambitious. Mel, what do you think?”

“I’m game,” Mel replied.

“Alrighty then. I doubt they’d even look at us, but if you see them, let me know and we’ll try to arrange something.”

—-

It was a bright Saturday morning. Two of the Axel Rangers had arrived early in Cedar Grove to do some sightseeing. One girl was sitting on the rock, admiring the extended family of ducks geese that gathered in the lake this morning, with no other people in site. Another was returning from her lap around the lake, and out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a pair of other visitors trying to catch some photos of a pileated woodpecker. Suddenly, the bespectacled girl noticed her, and she was looking awfully eager for some reason.

“Hi!” Stacy greeted the girl. She had short black hair, matching eyeliner, and was wearing a black tank top over white pants.

“Um…, hello,” she replied, taken aback by her cheerfulness.

“Nice day, isn’t it?” Stacy asked.

“Yes,” the girl replied, unsure of what she was getting at. “Very peaceful here. Sometimes, it’s nice to get away from city life.”

“Oh, you’re not from here?” Stacy said curiously. “Well, this place doesn’t have much going for it, but hey, if you like it here, that’s cool! What’s your name, anyway?”

“Sayaka.”

Both Stacy and Cheryl gasped. “Are you Sayaka Akihara? Citrine Tsunami?” Cheryl asked.

“Yes.”

Both Stacy and Cheryl looked at each other in excitement. “Pleased to meet you. My name’s Cheryl. We’ve been looking forward to meeting fellow roller derby players.”

“Oh, you guys play too?” asked the other girl on the rock, who was wearing a red dress with a floral headband. “Well, if you’re familiar with Saya here, I guess you know my name?”

Stacy was ecstatic. “The glorious Red leader, Xuân Phan, otherwise known as Trini Vermilli, right? I’m finally glad to meet you at last. My name’s Stacy.”

Xuân smiled at Sayaka. “Looks like we got fans.”

“Ever since I heard of you guys, I’ve been dreaming of the fateful day we’d meet,” Stacy declared. “Us, the lowly Beemobile of Cedar Grove, up against the great Axel Ranger titans from the city! A chance to bask in greatness, hoping some of your brilliant moves will shine down upon us! It is for this reason that I, Stacy Nazarenko, challenge you to this clash of quads!”

The other three just stared at each other blankly.

“Someone’s been watching too much shounen anime,” Sayaka remarked.

Xuân gave a nervous giggle. “Well, it’s good to see her be so passionate about the sport, at least.”

“What Stacy here is trying to say,” Cheryl explained. “Aside from being really excited to meet you, is that we’d like to play a few rounds of roller derby with you guys. We know we’re only rookies, but, just a fun match. Please?”

Sayaka looked at them curiously. “I don’t know. It’s going to be hard to just find a place.”

“That’s okay. We’ll do whatever it takes to find one!” Stacy exclaimed.

“Well, if you insist,” Xuân said. “I’ll contact the rest of the gang and see what we can do.”

“I’ll do the same!” Cheryl said.

“Awesome, can’t wait!” Stacy exclaimed.

Sayaka was less enthusiastic about the prospective game, deciding to instead focus on the scenery from the park. She scanned the environment, admiring the tall enclave of Douglas firs, and smiled. Stacy, initially disappointed by her lack of response, noticed her peaceful expression, and got an idea.

“Hey, since you’re here,” Stacy said, grinning. “How about we show you around town?”

Sayaka turned towards Stacy. “I’d love that, thank you.”

—-

And so they were off. Bald eagles were soaring high above them, with one eventually coming down close and fast. Luckily, Cheryl had her camera ready and got a shot. Stacy was impressed at her accuracy, and everyone huddled around to admire the photo. After they had their fill of nature, they left for the bus downtown. On the way, they passed by Cedar Valley Secondary School and its immaculate lawn.

“Is this your school?” Xuân asked.

“Nah,” Cheryl said. “We go to Pollock Secondary. It’s pretty far from here.”

“In the middle of nowhere,” Stacy remarked. “Honestly, you’re not missing much.”

“Hey,” Cheryl remarked defensively. “It’s not that bad. We do have a nice maple tree that everyone likes to relax under.”

She showed a photo of Pollock Secondary’s front entrance. Xuân and Sayaka both huddled around her phone, impressed by the large and multicoloured leaves.

“We call it Old Mabel. According to our friend Oliver, it was planted by one of the town founders himself, Joseph Pollock, and every generation of students since then has worshipped her as a fixture of our school. Even the elementary students come to cool off under her leaves during summer.”

“Wow!” Xuân replied. “So the tree’s like everyone’s grandmother?”

Cheryl smiled. “Yeah.”

They arrived at the gate of the nearby Farmer’s Market. Before, Stacy came as a vendor. Now, the four of them came as visitors.

“This is our local Farmers’ Market,” she explained as they walked past the stalls. “It’s great if you want to pick up some cheap apples, and they’ve got all sorts of neat crafts!”

As Xuân admired some of the dresses, Cheryl added, “Stacy actually had a booth here once selling arts and crafts from video games. That’s how we met and became friends.”

“Ooh, that’s amazing!” Xuân remarked. “Do you have any crafts you could show us?”

Stacy was nervous. “It wasn’t me actually. The art was done by Tori, who was the only one to actually sell anything. My stuff kind of sucked.”

“Don’t say that,” Xuân said. “Crafting is a lot easier than you think.”

“You get the hang of it after a few tries,” Sayaka added. “I wasn’t good at first either, but I’ve got a couple of friends who make their own clothes, including cosplay, and they’ve helped me a lot.”

“Wow!” Cheryl replied. “I’d like to get into cosplay.”

“Me too,” Stacy added.

They arrived at a stall showcasing felt and glass. At the centre was a winter scene with snow-capped evergreens, glass snowflakes, penguins in the snow, and a rustic cabin, all lovingly hand-crafted by its owner, Mme. Morin. She was wearing a black star-patterned cloak and had a focused expression on her face. Stacy immediately requested the felt penguin, and she graciously obliged.

“I heard you were interested in crafts,” Mme. Morin said. “Would you be interested in lessons? I’m teaching some classes later this month.”

“Yes, please!” Stacy exclaimed.

“Count me in, too!” Cheryl added.

Sayaka was intrigued by the glass snowflake hanging near where the penguin used to stand.

“May I have the snowflake pendant?” she asked.

“Certainly, dear,” Mme. Morin responded. “That’ll be $25, please.”

—-

Leaving the Farmer’s Market, Stacy adored her penguin while Sayaka wore her snowflake pendant proudly. After walking down the street, they arrived at the nearby Cedar Grove Mall.

“Honestly, it’s kind of boring,” Stacy told everyone. “Mostly big chain stores that are in every small city. But there are some cool places around here.”

They stopped at the Chinese antiques store, stopping to admire the walls filled with precious stones and statues.

“They’re really pretty,” Cheryl said as she and the Axel Rangers duo went in.

“Yeah,” Stacy replied dreamily, looking at the jade fenghuang. “If only they didn’t cost so much….”

“I know,” Xuân said sympathetically. “It’s like they’re taunting you.”

“At least the rest of us have the Farmers’ Market,” Cheryl concurred.

Sayaka, noticing Stacy stand outdoors, asked, “Aren’t you coming in?”

“Nah,” Stacy said. “The store owner got mad at me for constantly coming in without buying anything.”

“I see,” Sayaka replied. “Well, let me know if you do want anything.”

—-

“And this is the arcade,” Stacy said after they arrived upstairs. “You guys probably have better ones, but we have DDR! That’s gotta count for something.”

“It does,” Sayaka explained. “We have a few other rhythm games nearby. Have you tried Taiko no Tatsujin?”

“No, but I always wanted to,” Stacy said.

Sayaka smiled, bringing out some coins. “Up for some games?”

“Sure!” Stacy replied.

They played a few round robin DDR games. Stacy managed to defeat both Xuân and Cheryl, leaving her to face Sayaka. Though she held her own, she stumbled a few times, which allowed Sayaka to edge her out for victory.

“Good game,” Stacy told Sayaka.

“Indeed,” she responded. “You’re pretty good.”

“Yeah, well, you should meet Tori. She’s a beast at this game.”

“Well, maybe if we meet again, you can introduce us to her.”

—-

The foursome took a stroll through downtown. Cheryl was in awe at the old buildings.

“You’ve never been here before?” Stacy asked.

“A few times,” Cheryl answered. “But it’s just fun to see those decade-old shops that managed to withstand the test of time.”

They stopped at one of the local coffee shops, Silver Leaf Organic. After ordering some coffee and scones, they sat down to relax and absorb the atmosphere of the cedar-filled building. Luckily for them, it was a relatively quiet time this afternoon.

“Thanks for the tour, Stacy,” Sayaka told her.

“Yeah, you’re really quite the tour guide,” Xuân added.

“Aw, shucks,” Stacy remarked. “Honestly, we don’t have much, but I guess you gotta appreciate what you got, right?”

“It’s not much, but it’s home,” Cheryl agreed. “I enjoyed the tour too. It’s amazing how much you know about this place.”

Stacy was surprised to see how enthusiastic her friend was. “Say, how was life in Brisling?”

Cheryl paused, gathering her memories. “It was nice. Kind of quiet, actually very similar to here.”

“Do you miss your old place?”

“Sometimes. Actually, Mom lived in Cedar Grove for a few years now. Parents got divorced, and she decided to move here. After a few years, Dad and I both agreed I should spend some time with her, so here I am. I may end up moving back to Ontario for university, but I’m not sure yet.”

Stacy was surprised to hear that, especially at how well Cheryl was taking it. Noticing her amazed expression, Cheryl added, “It happens. After some point, my parents didn’t see eye-to-eye on things anymore, so they decided it was best for all of us. And I know that Cedar Grove may not seem all that exciting if you’ve been here for years, but it’s new to me, and I want to make the best of my time here.”

“I understand,” Sayaka told her. “My family moved to the East End when I was a kid. I had trouble adjusting at first, but people there are really nice. It’s not as pretty as the West End, but it has its own charm.

“In a way,” Xuân continued. “That’s why we play; to make our region proud.”

“Wow, we feel the same way about Cedar Grove!” Cheryl exclaimed. “Speaking of which, we got a game tomorrow, and we’re gonna win, right Stacy?”

“Indeed!” Stacy replied.

The four of them got up, paid their bills, and left for the bus.

“By the way,” Xuân said. “The rest of our team is busy, so we won’t be able to play together in the near future. Sorry about that.”

“That’s alright,” Cheryl said. “We’ll just keep training until then.”

“Besides,” Stacy added. “It’s something to look forward to the next time we meet!”

“Indeed,” Sayaka replied. “Anyway, it was nice meeting you both. Good luck at the game! Until we meet again, maybe!”

“Bye!”

They hugged each other, then went their separate ways.

—-

“And after a successful block led by Sakura Bladerunner, Camellia’s Kiss takes the lead! It’s over! The Beemobile wins over Delta Psiforce!”

Mrs. Zhao was ecstatic. “I’m so proud of you girls!”

“Thanks for saving our butts back there,” Stacy told Cheryl as they high-fived.

“Hey, you did good too,” she replied.

“Indeed, lil sis,” Sofia added. “By the way, I’m still jealous that you two got to meet Xuân and Sayaka. Try to invite me next time, okay?”

“Sure thing, Sofie,” Cheryl replied.

“Job well done, team!” Mrs. Zhao told them. “How about we take you girls out for dinner to celebrate?”

The entire team yelled in approval.

“All right, I know just the place,” Mrs. Jackson told everyone.

“Say, Auntie, we we get there, can I have a beer?” Stacy asked as they walked out onto the street.

“Anastasia, you’re 17.”

“Aw, c’mon. You have no problem chugging litres of that stuff.”

“Tell you what. In a couple of years, when you get to university, you can have all the beer you want.”

“Lian!” Mrs. Jackson cried disapprovingly.

Mrs. Zhao suddenly frowned, her tone becoming harsher. “But drink responsibly, or else you’ll have us to answer to!”

(table of contents)

The many faces of storytelling

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The Illusionist

Sleight of hand. Distraction. Misdirection. Drawing attention to what’s hidden in plain sight. In fiction, we call these plot twists or hidden depths, but the mentality is the same. Just as the magician tricks the audience into believing their improbable feats, so to does the writer manipulate their audience into believing the reality they created. Joy, anger, sadness. All directed towards that which is not real, but feels so.

How effective the manipulation depends on the interplay between illusionist and audience. It is easiest to impress those who have never seen the tricks before; less so the jaded who have seen the tricks a hundred times.* And yet, they can still be won over; for instance, by introducing the standard trick merely as a set-up for a new spin on the classic (as Penn and Teller show). Knowing the audience is key to manipulation.

Of course, though, manipulation can also be used to unscrupulous ends. If you have someone capable of making coins disappear, you can probably imagine what other applications that could have. It would be absurd to comment on how artistically done a pickpocketing job was, and yet so many art critics take that approach to writing; attempting to detach the art from the propaganda. This is not possible. All issues are political issues; all art attempts to convey a point of view.

*As a personal example, while many were overjoyed at the nostalgia trip that was Toy Story 3, I was unimpressed soon afterwards. Why? Because I’ve already seen The Brave Little Toaster.

The Engineer

Now we consider the more savvy audience members. The kind who enjoy taking things apart to see how they work. The kind who closely and analytically observe the illusion to identify the realism behind the magic. Some of them even enter the creative process themselves, calling themselves postmodern.

The engineers consider their work a response to the magicians. Indeed, their style appeals to the critics who dedicate their lives to taking media apart and analyzing it. However, these techniques: metafiction, fourth wall awareness, intertextuality, unreliable narrators, are tricks in themselves reminiscent of the Penn and Teller approach to magic. And as such, they primarily impress those that have never seen the tricks before. But these are classic tricks, at least as old as the 1600s and Don Quixote.

Nonetheless, since fiction is a reflection of reality, it is natural to ask questions of where to draw the line. When you willingly let yourself fall under the creators’, it is useful to ask, to what end? The analytical approach can offer valuable insight into plot conventions or character archetypes that would otherwise be neglected, and every writer worth their salt should at least be thinking about the implications of their work. In addition, the engineer is the type of person who places particular emphasis on novelty, brainstorming ideas to set themselves apart from the crowd.* However, just remember; all this too is part of the illusionist’s show.

*Worth noting, my graduate studies are in a scientific field, and figuring out what makes your paper different from everyone else is the most important part of getting published.

The Anthropologist

Whether it be the manga collecting nerd, or the European classic collecting academic, this is the audience who has an extensive breadth of experience with their devotion of choice. They know, for instance, the historical popularity of certain plot tricks, the influences across time from ancient mythology to the then-modern popular culture, how such works differ across cultures and audiences, and the interplay between media and the real world.* Like the engineers, they bring a similar “seen it all” mentality to the show.

Naturally, one that has devoted so much of their time to one thing would often be motivated towards the creative process to pay homage to their favourite things. Or perhaps they prefer to mock the more absurd conventions, though even parody requires one to have some appreciation for their target if they are to expend so much effort lampooning it. A well-informed, well-read creator can enrich their work with history or take their creations in bold new directions by combining multiple influences from fiction and real life. In a sense, they are like the engineers, but with a different background.

*Incidentally, I’m a huge fan of bad movies because of how fun it is to analyze why in particular something is bad; for instance, the sheer depth of critical analysis dedicated to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Anyone who wants a taste of that can check out Greg Sestero’s autobiography The Disaster Artist. You’ll be amused as to how the bizarre scenes came to be.

The Actor

What is the purpose of escapism? To imagine yourself as someone else, somewhere else. To imagine a life without prejudice or pain, or to be reminded that you are not alone in your experiences. By immersing yourself in a story, you become an actor in your own imagination, taking on the role of a character closest to your own. This is most obvious online, taking the form of Tumblr role-play blogs and the like, where even minor characters take on a life of their own.

Naturally, it is easiest to come up with stories that you have personally experienced. How then, does one imagine that which is different from them? It’s definitely possible; you have young directors telling compelling stories about the elderly, for instance. And people have experiences told every day: from friends divulging their inner secrets, from family reminding you what life was life back in their day, even conversation on the bus. Observation, listening, empathy, those go a long way towards creating compelling illusions that feel like the real thing. Stories can be a powerful way of reaching out to the audience, both through the show itself and directly interacting with fandom.

A lot has been said about representation. Here’s my take: as mentioned, the audience often uses stories as a form of role playing. They want to see themselves. So even if a minority character is underdeveloped, even if a female character is ignored, people will cling to them because they want an avatar.* They want to be a part of that world. They don’t want to be left out. So if you’re a creator, shouldn’t you treat your characters with respect? Shouldn’t you give your audience the opportunity to live out their dreams, whoever they are?

*Worth noting, the reason why I enjoy the Nelvana dub of Cardcaptors, even despite all the edits? It’s because Sakura is portrayed as braver and more of a tomboy. To my knowledge, that’s not particularly common for magical girl shows, let alone for a character to be so comfortably androgynous without comment. I also enjoy the live-action Grinch movie because Jim Carrey’s Grinch is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of my own struggles with depression. Yeah, it’s an weird take on it, but it works. Those are a few examples of why I may deviate from the consensus opinion on things.

Conclusion

Who owns stories, the creator or the audience? Obviously, I spent this entire blog post arguing for both of them, that it’s a false dichotomy, but it’s still worth examining the underlying mentality between possible answers. One might say that a creator’s work is art that must be carefully preserved; that any changes to it are akin to vandalizing the creator’s vision. Others might say that the story belongs to the one telling it; that even if a previous storyteller did not tell it the same way, the next one brings their own perspective and interpretation.

Personally, I lean towards the latter response, because I see storytelling in the vein of the oral tradition in which stories would be passed from generation to generation. In addition, the audience often sees a story differently from its original creator. A character that may seem sympathetic to a writer may not come off that way to a reader due to their differing life experiences. So I’m not a fan of literalism. But it is an open question, so others may have different arguments. After all, everyone approaches stories differently, and acknowledging those different faces makes them all the more compelling.

Fake Geek Girl Adventures 1-8: To Write, Perchance To Geek

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(previous)

“Oliver, may I see you after class?”

Mr. Stewart was walking around the room, handing back everyone’s English essays. Stacy sulked when she saw her grade, while Cheryl breathed a sigh of relief. Oliver, on the other hand, was now embarrassed to be the centre of attention.

“Oh, I knew I should have wrote about something else,” he whispered to his friends, as Mr. Stewart walked away. The rest of the class was abuzz with anticipation, wanting to know what Oliver got in trouble for.

“Heh,” Lucas smirked to his Gamer Club buddies. “That loser probably wrote about some stupid kiddy thing like Pokémon.”

Ren attempted to stifle a nervous giggle, hoping Oliver didn’t notice. “Say, Lucas, how’d you do?”

“Do you even need to ask?”

“Ah, of course, another A+,” he chuckled. “I wish it was that easy for me.”

“Don’t worry about it. Your only competition is dunces, after all. This school is a joke.”

Mr. Stewart looked sternly at the chatty class. “I know you’re all dying to hear the latest gossip, but don’t you all have lunch to get to?”

The class, disappointed, began to pack up and leave.

“Good luck, Olly,” Stacy whispered back to him.

Lucas threw a smug glare at Oliver on his way out. “Enjoy detention, loser.”

Eventually, Oliver was left alone with Mr. Stewart

“So,” Mr. Stewart began. “You chose to write about Pokémon?”

“Um, yes sir,” Oliver replied

“Oh come on, why the long face?” Mr. Stewart said, suddenly beaming in excitement. “Aren’t you happy with your A?”

Oliver was shocked. “Wait, you liked it? Then why did you keep me here?”

Mr. Stewart smiled. “As you may be aware, the Cedar Grove Essay Competition is in a few weeks,” Mr. Stewart explained. “I thought it would be great if you could share your insight with the town.”

Oliver’s jaw dropped. “You serious?”

“Yes! It’s such a fascinating world you kids have become caught up in, this Pokémon. I’d love to learn more!”

Oliver was still unsure of the idea.

“Besides,” Mr. Stewart added. “It’s less expected a topic, and standing out from the crowd might be the deciding factor in the competition.”

Oliver smiled. “Yeah, it’d be cool to win by writing about video games.”

“Great! I look forward to seeing what you come up with in two weeks.”

—-

“Alright, class dismissed!” Ms. Rama called out.

The 11th grade Math class was grateful for the lunch bell as they hurriedly scattered out. Tori, who now sat beside Sofia in class, reached for her sketchbook as they walked out the door.

“Did you hear about the essay competition?” Sofia asked.

“Yeah,” Tori replied. “I’d love to enter, but I’m not sure what to write about.”

“Don’t waste your time!” a familiar voice yelled out from behind.

Tori recoiled. It was Abigail again.

“I mean, we all know what you’re going to write anyway,” she continued, in a mocking tone. “‘Hi! I’m Tori! I like to draw! Sure, my drawings are as worthless as everything else about me, but…I like to draw! Tee-hee!’”

Sofia walked in front of Tori to face Abigail. “And what’s your essay about?”

Abigail paused. “Um, well, it’s a secret.”

“Oh,” Sofia replied sarcastically to a nervous Abigail. “You sounded eager to share.”

She glared at Sofia. “Mind your own business!” she demanded.

She quickly turned around and walked away. Sofia could hear her muttering in frustration, “What does she see in that little air-brain anyway? What does anybody see in her?”

Tori looked at Sofia gratefully. “T-Thank you.”

Sofia sighed. “I really should have said something before. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Tori replied cheerfully. “I’m glad we’re friends now.”

She smiled. “Say, may I see your sketchbook?”

Tori reached into her bag and handed it over. With a curious expression, Sofia glanced over a drawing of the titular witch from Kiki’s Delivery Service, particularly impressed by Tori’s kanji signature.

“You did this all by hand?”

“Yeah.”

“Wouldn’t be easier to use a computer or tablet?”

“Maybe. It’s just not the same as pencil and paper, though.”

“I see. Wait, I never see you around art class. Who taught you?”

Tori paused nervously. “No one.”

Sofia gasped. “Really? You learned all by yourself?”

“Um…yeah.” Tori did her best to avoid Sofia’s eyes. “My mom would never let me take any classes, so I read whatever I could and practiced with manga drawings. I know it’s not very good, but…”

“Not good?” Sofia retorted incredulously. “You’re amazing! I mean, you even wrote you name in calligraphy!”

Tori gave a weak smile. “Thank you!” she replied. “I always liked cursive writing backed in third grade, and hoped we could do more of it.”

Sofia stared at her in disbelief. “You’re the first person I’ve met who actually liked cursive writing class. I hated it.”

“I know we don’t use it much, but it would be a shame if everyone forgot how to do it. It’s such a nice writing style. So elegant and pretty.”

The girls suddenly stared at each other, surprised by the other’s expression, as if a burst of inspiration shined on their faces.

“Hey, were you thinking about making that your essay topic?” Sofia suggested.

Tori thought about it, beaming. “I’d love to!”

—-

The Grade 12 students gathered later that day for biology class. Cheryl was finishing up her run on the microscope as Stacy stood by, waiting eagerly for her turn. Nearby, Oliver was savouring his chance to look at plant cells while Ren dutifully took notes. Lucas was not happy with his best friend ditching him, and he simply sat cross-armed and frowning while Eric, another member of the Gamer Club, fiddled with trying to get the microscope focused.

“All right, you’re up,” Cheryl said, removing the slides.

“Finally,” Stacy grinned, placing some fresh samples on the stand. “Thanks for covering the bugs for us.”

“Sure thing. Why are you so scared of them, anyway? You’re bigger than them.”

“I’m not scared. They just look so, ugly, and wrong.”

Cheryl half-frowned. “They’re not ugly. Once you get used to them, they’re fascinating!”

Stacy shrugged while chasing a floating cell with her eyes. “Sure, I guess. I suppose you’re going to spend your essay arguing about how important they are to the ecosystem, right?”

“Actually,” Cheryl grinned. “I’m doing mine on Steve Irwin, my childhood hero.”

Stacy beamed. “Wow, he’s mine too!”

“I love how he made even the most dangerous animals look cute.” Cheryl looked outside the window dreamily. “Imagine, spending every day outdoors, getting to meet all sorts of creatures for science! Someday, I’d like to follow in his footsteps.”

“Yeah, that would be an awesome career,” Stacy concurred.

“Say, what’s your essay about?” Cheryl asked.

Stacy paused, looking up from the microscope. “I’m not doing one. I suck at English.”

Oliver overhead her. “Really, Stace? You’ve spent hours ranting about Yu Yevon.”

“I know,” Stacy replied. “But all that stuff we read in class is a lot more confusing than Final Fantasy.”

Ren suppressed a giggle. “That’s saying something.”

Cheryl looked at Stacy in confusion. “You got a B today. That’s not bad.”

“Not bad?” Stacy exclaimed. “How am I going to compete with the city students with a B in English, or even Cedar Valley Secondary?”

The other three gazed at Stacy disapprovingly. She had A’s in all her other subjects throughout secondary school, while the rest of them were grateful for a B in English. Oliver said nothing, having already become accustomed to her melodrama, while Ren slowly looked away and went back to his notes, not wanting to get involved.

“Hey, English isn’t my strong suit either,” Cheryl replied. “I’m probably not going to win this. But I’m still entering just for fun.”

“Yeah, who can’t have fun writing about a guy who wrestles crocs for a living?” Oliver added. “C’mon Stace, there’s gotta be something you want to write about.”

Stacy drew a blank. “But what?”

“Oh, anything,” Cheryl answered. “Maybe one of your childhood heroes? Or you could think about your heritage. Just some suggestions.”

Stacy lit up at the last idea. “Hmm…,” she pondered.

Meanwhile, Lucas was bored with the experiment, so he looked towards Stacy and company for entertainment. “Well, lookie here, Fake Geek Girl’s thinking about entering the essay competition,” he told his partner.

“Imagine what she’d come up with,” Eric replied in a mockingly high pitched voice. “’Oh, look at me, I’m a girl, and I play video games! Don’t underestimate me, silly boys!’”

“Heh, imagine if she had to read that in front of the entire class,” Lucas chuckled.

Eric laughed, nearly toppling over the samples.

“Careful, you idiot,” Lucas snapped.

“Sorry, Luke. Say, how’s your essay coming along?”

“Oh, I’m already done,” Lucas bragged. “All 60 pages of it.”

“Wow, that’s amazing,” Eric said, jealous of his president’s work ethic.

“I know,” Lucas said, smugly basking in his partner’s admiration.

Suddenly, Eric got confused. “Wait, isn’t the essay supposed to be 5 pages long?”

Lucas gasped, quickly looking away so that Eric couldn’t see his nervous face. “Uh, I’m…doing revision right now. Yeah, um, I just wanted to get all my ideas down first.”

“Well, good luck with that,” said Eric, none the wiser. “Though I’m sure you won’t need it.”

“Yeah, whatever,” he replied, unamused by his flattery.

—-

The Games for Everyone club met up in their usual place a few days later. Oliver and Tori were frantically looking over their respective essays, trying to find any imperfections, while Cheryl was more relaxed, having fun watching videos of crocodiles hunting. Stacy too was staring intently at her computer, deep in thought.

“They say long ago, his body had decayed. Yet, within these halls lie his vital remains,” she mumbled. “If you would sate your curiosity, find the secret to immortality.”

“What’s up, Stace?” Oliver asked, as both Cheryl and Tori also gathered around the computer.

“Ugh, this riddle,” she replied. “Searched everywhere, thought about it for hours, still nothing.”

“Did the game give you another hint?”

“Well, the hooded lady asked me, ‘How does one preserve their memory long after death?’ Thought it would be a portrait, or a precious keepsake, but nope. No ghost, nothing.”

“Hmm…” Oliver pondered. “Have you tried….”

“A diary?” Tori softly interjected.

“I was going to say that,” Oliver grumbled.

Tori opened her mouth to apologize, but stopped when she remembered she was trying to break that habit. Stacy, ready to try anything, looked in the library and moved her cursor across the books. Her cursor changed midway, letting her read the book’s contents.

“Well, what do you know,” Stacy said. “Don’t know how you figured that out, but thanks a lot.”

“You’re welcome,” Tori replied. “I guess…”

“It reminded me of Voldemort and his soul diary,” Oliver interrupted, shrugging.

Tori stared at him briefly, annoyed by him not letting her finish.

“Anyway, how’s everyone’s essays coming along?” Stacy asked.

“Still working on it,” Cheryl replied. “I’ve been getting some inspiration in the meantime.”

“By watching online videos?” Stacy asked, puzzled. “Well, if it works, maybe I should try that too. How about you, Oliver? Tori?”

“We sent each other our essays a while ago,” Oliver said.

“Yeah,” Tori added.

She wondered what she should say. She tried helping as much as she could, but then she remembered, there was only one prize. “Oliver, your essay is…um…it’s very interesting. But…couldn’t you use, um, bigger words, er, to express your feelings better?”

Oliver grimaced. He spent hours checking the grade level of his writing, and he thought it was good enough. “I’ll look into it. But Tori, regarding your essay, uh, don’t you think you have too many ideas in it? It’s a bit…unfocused.”

Tori was flustered. She looked over her writing so many times, trying to organize it neatly, and did not look forward to doing it again. “Maybe. I’ll see.”

Seeing Oliver and Tori look and talk to each other so awkwardly, Cheryl was perplexed. “Does that sound like critique to you?” she asked Stacy.

Stacy shrugged. “Dunno.”

—-

Lucas and Ren were walking out of the Gamer Club room. Flushed with confidence, Lucas asked, “So, ready to see me become $100 richer next week?”

Ren looked back at Lucas anxiously. “Um, sure.”

Lucas stared at his friend. “What do you mean, sure?”

Just then, Mr. Stewart approached the boys.

“Lucas,” he said, putting on a falsely cheerful disposition. “We need to talk.”

“About what?” Lucas asked impatiently.

“Oh, I don’t know. Something just sounded familiar about your essay. Like that part about never living for the sake of another man.”

Ren gasped, but Lucas was looking bored.

His expression turned stern. “Look, this contest is supposed to be a chance to show off your talents, your passions. To show the town who you are. But how can you do that with someone else’s words?”

Ren’s expression sunk. “Is it true?” he asked desperately. “Did you really just copy your essay?”

Lucas was looking annoyed. “Yes.”

Ren was worried. “But…why?”

“Because I never wanted to write some stupid touchy-feely essay,” Lucas snapped. “I only wrote something because Father wanted to show off to the other Cedar Valley families.”

He turned to a disapproving Mr. Stewart with a defiant expression in his face. “So, aren’t you going to disqualify me?”

Mr. Stewart paused. “No. That would be too easy. Instead, you’re going to have to come in every lunch hour until you do the job properly. And I’ll be watching so you don’t do anything else funny.”

Lucas grimaced, upset that he couldn’t escape his obligation. Unwilling to say anything more, he stormed off while Ren looked at him, concerned.

“You let him off easy,” he remarked.

“Well, I wanted this to be a learning experience for him,” his dad replied, smiling. “To show him the joys of writing.”

Ren was unconvinced. “Is that it?”

“Well, that, and I’d rather not deal with his parents’ endless complaints. You know how Rob and Mary are.”

—-

Lucas dejectedly walked into the detention room the next morning. He was unsure how he’d ever get this essay done with no ideas in his head. He imagined staring at his computer for an entire hour doing nothing while being glared at by Mr. Stewart’s watchful eyes. Stewart himself said nothing, other than gesturing him towards his desk. Meanwhile, two girls were also present, having a conversation.

“Sure am glad to have some peace for once,” said a black haired girl with glasses. “Maybe now I can finally get this thing done.”

“I know,” replied a larger girl in a striped shirt. “Oliver and Tori had been sniping at each other for the whole week.”

Lucas stared at the pair in disbelief. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“Oh, just getting some essay help,” Stacy answered nonchalantly. “And you?”

“None of your business,” Lucas retorted.

Stacy shrugged. “Whatever you say.”

Lucas glared at Stacy, and Cheryl breathed a sigh of relief as he walked away towards Ren, who was in the middle of a conversation with his sister.

“I think it’s good,” he remarked. “You really put your heart into this.”

“If you say so,” Abigail told him, sighing. “You know, I don’t expect to win this. It’s probably going to be Lucas. He’s the brilliant one, after all. But, I can’t but wonder if I did. Mother and Father might be happy with me for once.”

“Hey,” Ren reassured her. “If anything, I should be the one worried about my chances against you.”

“Oh, you,” Abigail giggled. “Your essay is cute. I’m surprised you could be so open about your dolls.”

Ren blushed. “Well, if Oliver can write about Pokémon…”

Lucas was surprised. He never knew her sister felt that way. Feeling guilty, he left out a soft, “Abby?”

“Oh hi, big bro,” Abigail greeted him. “So, got in trouble, didn’t ya?”

“Whatever,” he said. “Just gotta get this thing done, is all.”

He sat down and turned on his laptop, while Ren and Abby observed his frustrated expression from the other side of the table. He stared at a blank document, but whenever he reached for the keys, he stopped. After a few minutes, Abby chimed in.

“Are you having trouble?” she asked.

“No,” Lucas said. “I’ll be done in no time. Just got to think of something, that’s all.”

Ren and Abby smiled. Lucas was being stubborn as usual. “You know,” Abby suggested. “If you hate essays so much, why don’t you just make that your topic?”

Lucas grinned. “Yeah, you’re right! I’ll write about how essays are stupid! That’ll show Mr. Stewart. Thanks, sis!”

Now with renewed inspiration, Lucas started frantically typing. Ren caught a glance at his dad, who smiled at them and looked as if he gave a wink in Abigail’s direction. Suddenly, he heard footsteps.

“Can’t you think of someone other than yourself?”

“What, I’m being selfish? While you’re obsessed about your manga publishing fantasies, I’m trying to save as much as I can.”

“Oh, so because you need money, I can’t think of my dreams?”

“Stop putting words in my mouth. I’m just saying, there are plenty of other contests. Stop worrying so much.”

“Why don’t you stop then?”

The rest of the students overheard Tori and Oliver arguing outside. Stacy sighed.

“Just what this place needed,” Lucas remarked. “More losers.”

Mr. Stewart ran to the door. “Both of you, what’s the problem?”

“Well, I just wanted to come for some help, because Oliver keeps trying to sabotage my work,” Tori replied, crying tears of frustration.

“Oh, there she goes again, playing all innocent. She started it!” Oliver snapped.

“Guys,” Mr. Stewart said, exasperated. “Look at yourselves.”

Oliver and Tori stared at each other, wondering where he was going with that remark.

“Is it really worth ruining each other’s essays over an award?”

“No,” they both replied.

“But only one us can win it,” Oliver protested.

“And how does fighting with each other help?”

Tori thought about it. “It doesn’t,” she answered.

“Exactly. I know you’re both concerned about your futures, but really, what you write reveals a lot more about you than some title. Years from now, what do you think you’d remember more, your essay or the award?”

Oliver and Tori paused, thinking it over. Oliver’s eyes idly gazed around the room, watching Stacy and Cheryl do their best to ignore their dispute and help each other. He remembered how Cheryl claimed she probably wouldn’t win, and that Stacy had trouble coming up with an essay topic at all. Tori was also looking in their direction, seeing how, despite being competitors, they supported each other. She was so caught up in winning, that she forgot just how much that meant to her. The two looked at each other awkwardly.

“I’m sorry,” she told Oliver. “I guess the contest brought out the worst in me.”

“Me too,” he replied. “I can’t believe how much I let that prize go to my head.”

“I know. But, I don’t want to win, if it means you have to miss out.”

“Hey, it wouldn’t be much of a contest if you went easy on me. Let’s just both do our best, okay? Whoever wins, wins.”

Tori nodded. “Okay. But, let’s help each other out for real this time. That way, both our essays will be even better than if we just worked alone.”

Oliver smiled. “Sounds like a plan to me!”

“Finally,” Stacy muttered while Cheryl nodded.

“Whatever,” Lucas remarked. “Even with two heads, you’re still going to lose.”

“If so, fine by me,” Oliver retorted. “We’re all trying to beat Cedar Valley, right?”

Everyone except for Cheryl and Mr. Stewart instinctively nodded at the remark. Cheryl was unaware of why the rivalry was such a big deal, while Mr. Stewart was simply embarrassed by it.

“That’s the spirit, I guess,” he remarked.

—-

For the awards ceremony, the students gathered in the grand, spacious Cedar Valley Secondary auditorium, eagerly reading through their compilation books.

“I didn’t know there were so many women soldiers in World War II,” Oliver told Stacy.

“Well, now you do,” Stacy replied contently. “Lyudmila Pavlichenko was my idol growing up. I mean, she’s our own Joan of Arc!”

Cheryl smiled. “Aren’t you glad you entered something after all?”

“Indeed.”

“Hey, weren’t you supposed to be bad at English?” Ian asked Stacy.

“Yeah, you’re making us feel inadequate,” Nick joked.

“Well, why didn’t you guys submit something, then?” Stacy playfully sneered to her cousins.

“And cut into our game time?” Nick protested. “No way. We’re very busy.”

Aunt Zhao smiled sarcastically. “Next time, I’ll lessen the burden for you boys.”

“Aw…” Nick and Ian groaned.

“Still, thanks for giving Pollock less competition,” Stacy said.

“No problem,” Ian replied while Uncle Zhao stared at the three disapprovingly.

Meanwhile, both Cheryl’s and Oliver’s mothers were flipping through the pages in amusement.

“Guess television was good for you after all,” Ms. Jackson laughed.

Ms. Palmiero joined in. “Yeah, it’s like Olly here learned a whole new language. If only he was that dedicated to math….”

Oliver blushed. “Aww, Mom….”

Tori gazed longingly at her friends’ parents. She felt she should be happy, or at least nervous. Sofia was the first to pick up on her sad expression.

“What’s wrong, Tori?” she asked.

Everyone suddenly stopped talking and looked towards her. They looked concerned at how depressed she was at a moment like this.

“I wish my mother was here right now,” she said quietly.

Oliver’s mom gave her a reassuring smile. “I’m sure she’s proud of you.”

Tori said nothing. How could she explain the truth? She didn’t even dare show her essay, because she knew how furious her mother would be to see her still writing about art. Suddenly, she looked at her open copy of the compendium. Weirdly enough, the one who wrote the essay seemed to be expressing her own feelings right now. She looked up, towards the Smiths and Stewarts.

“That was a great idea, Dad,” Ren said.

“You all worked hard on your writing,” his dad replied. “So why not preserve them?”

“Really, Colin?” Mr. Smith jeered. “Giving participation trophies, are you?”

“Hey,” Mr. Stewart argued. “They did a good job.”

Mr. Smith brushed him off. “You’re spoiling them. Kids need to learn not everyone is entitled to a prize.”

Abigail felt upset. Sure, her father was always saying that to her, yet she couldn’t help but feel it was unfair that Lucas kept getting them anyway. Her eyes wandering, she noticed Tori walking towards her. Abby was shocked.

“What do you want?” she demanded.

“Um…” Tori began. “I read your essay, and I just wanted to say, thank you.”

Abby was stunned. That whiny little brat was complimenting her?

“I know you don’t like me,” Tori continued, undeterred. “But, I understand how it feels, wanting to make people proud. You were very brave to share that with everyone.”

Abigail frantically looked around, embarrassed. She felt strangely touched by Tori’s words, and almost wanted to return her compliment. Then she remembered how much she hated her.

“What, you expect me to say something nice about your essay?” she retorted, suddenly frowning.

“Um…no,” Tori replied, surprised at her rebuke.

“Forget it,” Abby told her. “You’re still a talentless loser, and always will be.”

Tori expected this reaction, and bowed out, briskly walked back to her seat. Yet, when she looked back at Abby, she noticed a conflicted, but tiny smile on her face.

“You’ve got some guts, girl,” Sofia told her.

“I just wanted to be nice,” Tori replied. “It was a good essay, after all.”

Sofia patted her back. “That’s very kind of you. But don’t listen to her. Your essay was awesome.”

Everyone else nodded in agreement, while Tori smiled, comforted that she at least had friends to share her writing with.

“And now, it’s finally time to announce our winner!” announced the spokesperson from the Cedar Grove Chamber of Commerce. “Drum roll, please!”

The room fell silent as the participants eagerly awaited their name.

“This year’s winner of the Cedar Grove Essay competition is…Tori…”

Tori gasped. She really won?

“…Prince, from Cedar Valley Secondary.”

Many of the Pollock Secondary students groaned under their breath.

“Congratulations, Tory, for your essay, ‘I’m a Privileged Boy, and I’m Not Sorry.’”

A pale skinned boy with finely combed brown hair, wearing a fancy black suit, walked up to the stage, accompanied by his equally well dressed parents. Everyone applauded upon Tory receiving the award, though some, like the Pollock students, did so half-heartedly. The Smiths didn’t even clap at all. Tory smiled, flashing his brilliant white teeth, while sneering in Lucas’s direction.

“What?!” Lucas yelled.

“This is outrageous!” Mr. Smith exclaimed.

“How could they choose him?” Mrs. Smith screamed.

Mr. Stewart shrugged. “I wasn’t judging,” he remarked. “To say the least, I would have chosen differently.”

The Smiths weren’t the only ones upset by this upset.

“Are you kidding me?” Stacy yelled to her friends. “That essay won? This is ridiculous! The judges are so biased!”

The others were shocked to see Stacy all fired up, considering she didn’t even want to enter at first. They then looked towards Lucas, who was gritting his teeth at Tory, and then towards each other.

“Well,” Oliver said sheepishly. “It’s nice to finally see those two be so passionate.”

“Yeah,” Cheryl concurred. “Surprised to see them actually agree on something for once.”

—-

“Dear Lydia,

Hope university life is treating you well. All of us have been working hard on essays for a local competition. We had a few fights here and there, but everything worked out in the end. Well, except for some asshole winning by bragging about his privilege. I’ll let you judge for yourself who really deserved to win.

By the way, thanks for letting me try out your game. I’ve made it to the lunar festival so far, and for this run, I’ve went with the archaeologist family. Mona’s a downer, but her dad is fun. Your riddles are tough, though! I’m just glad the next puzzle is a cipher, since that’s more up my alley.

Speaking of which, do you have any tips for English class? I’m can never understand all those feeling questions.

Yours truly,

Stacy”

It had been a while since Lydia last replied, but Stacy didn’t mind. Right now, she was dodging lightning bolts in Final Fantasy X. Suddenly, she received a new email notification, causing her to miss the timing.

“Drat,” she said. There goes her streak.

She was annoyed at whoever interrupted her, but her frustration quickly subsided when she found out who the message was from.

“Hi Stacy,

Thanks for sharing your essay compendium with me. I’m impressed at how diverse your school’s writing is. In particular, Oliver’s essay brings back good memories. It reminds me of when I defended video games for IB English, and it even convinced my teacher to try them for herself.”

“Wow, that’s awesome,” Stacy remarked.

“I’m pleased that you’re enjoying the game and look forward to hearing more about your experiences. I’m not sure what specific advice you’d like regarding English, but reading comprehension is more similar to math than you might think. In algebra, for instance, you’re using logic to find the missing variables from the given equation. You can decode character motivations and the author’s message in the same way, by looking around in the text for clues.

Does that help? Maybe you can send me part of the assignments you are having problems with. I’ll do what I can.

Love,

Lydia Li

李雪芬”

“Heh, looking for clues, of course she’d make it sound like an adventure game,” Stacy remarked. Tired of dodging lightning for now, she scanned over her current reading assignment, and sighed, wondering how effective her advice would be.

(next)

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