Planet EVN - English Visual Novels

December 28, 2018

Kinetic Literature

Intelligent characters and the “brains vs brawn” fallacy

There’s a huge audience for stories that involve characters who solve problems using wit and intelligence rather than force and physical strength, particularly in written fiction. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that the audience for written fiction mainly consists of people who enjoy and spend time reading books, which is usually seen as an intellectual pursuit. People who read books for entertainment are usually the kind of people who identify more with Bruce Banner than with Hulk. We’d like to solve our problems by being clever and adroit, rather than transforming into a giant green monster and solving our problems by smashing them.

We have an easier time empathizing with characters who are like us, and a story about character who solves problems using the same skills that we possess feels validating. The issue is that there are a lot of situations where Hulk is better at solving problems than Bruce Banner, and if you want to construct a story where every problem can be solved with wit (and no problem can be better solved with brute force), then you’re going to have to warp the events (and sometimes the logic) of the story in the service of that goal, because that’s not always the way the real world works. And a lot of times, this has the effect of making stories more about using a very narrow idea of intelligence, rather than actual approaching problems rationally.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from a scene in the movie Sneakers (a delightful 1992 thriller and heist movie about cryptography and espionage) where Robert Redford’s character goes to steal a cipher device from a researcher’s office. After socially engineering himself past the front desk, he finds his caper brought to a halt when the door to the office is protected with an electronic keypad. He radios the guys in the surveillance van and says, “Anybody remember how to defeat an electronic keypad?” Because this is a thriller about computers and cryptography, we expect them to come up with some kind of backdoor solution to breaking this lock, the cyberpunk equivalent of “recite this magical incantation and the lock will open for you.” The audience waits in tense silence as Robert listens to the voice of the computer guys speaking into his earpiece and mutters to himself, “Alright, that might work.” And then he takes a step back and kicks down the door.

This is what actual intelligent problem-solving actually looks like. In this scene, the crew identifies the fact that when snooping around in an old academic research building, it’s easier to kick an old wooden door off its hinges than to try and defeat an electronic keypad. They do the smart thing, which in this case is to use physical force. And I (and most viewers) are delighted by this moment, in part because you see the thought process behind it: Robert Redford encounters a problem, asks the computer guys to solve it for him, and they realize that real problem is not “How do I hack this electronic keypad,” but “How do I get to what’s on the other side of this door.” This moment of hesitation is important, because if he had just marched up to the door and kicked it down without taking the time to consider the optimal solution, he would feel less like a smooth operator executing the perfect heist, and more like a Jack Bauer who just charges into situations and resolves them with force.

It can be easy for stories to fall into the trap of breaking things down into a dichotomy of “brains vs brawn,” as if any energy spent doing physical tasks subtracts from the energy that would otherwise power your brain, but in fact a lot of the times the smartest thing to do is to punch the bad guy, or kick down the door.

The dichotomy of “brain vs brawn” suggests that these two are somehow mutually exclusive, and it feels like an example of a common fallacy where people see real-life skills and talents like some kind of tabletop RPG stat sheet where you have a finite number of points to distribute, which means that any points invested into things like charisma and strength necessarily subtract from stats like wisdom and intelligence. In reality, “talent” is not an evenly distributed thing; at best, it seems like athleticism and intellect are orthogonal, as plenty of people seem to have both in great abundance. (At my high school, the class valedictorian was also a star player on the high school baseball team.) There are also lots of smart people who have realized that investing time in their health and fitness is a smart use of their time, and usually the most fit people are the ones who treat optimizing their health as a worthwhile undertaking. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that physical fitness and mental performance are positively correlated in a number of ways: for example, cardiovascular health affects brain function, and so engaging in physical exercise increases your mental fitness, rather than draining away a finite number of stat points from intelligence to boost your physique.

Kicking down the door may be intelligent, but it does not always live up to the romantic ideal of intelligence, which is less about actually making the best choice in any given situation, and more about believing “reading books is a better use of your time than sports, scientists are always better at solving problems and winning conflicts than linebackers.” This partly feels a bit like concession to the fact that the crowd of people who read for recreation tend to be the same kind of people who spent much of their youth indoors reading books rather than flipping tires on the football field, and people like reading stories that serve and flatter their own sensibilities. But to be charitable to this line of thinking, it is true in the aggregate that people who engage in intellectual pursuits tend to do better: education is correlated with things like higher income, longer lifespan, most of the things that we’d define as “higher quality of life,” and more generally, “winning.” The issue is when you take that general idea (“the person who had a good SAT score tends to have a better life outcome than the person who spent high school playing sports associated with head trauma”) and try to apply it universally to every situation, you wind up in bizarre situations where people would rather try to hack the keypad instead of kick down the door.

The convenient thing about fiction is that the author can simply fail to introduce the sort of problems that would be best solved by a well-placed kick. (If you want to have a story about hacking the electronic keypad lock, just make the door out of some kind of reinforced material that can’t easily be kicked down.) In fact, it’s possible for an author to create an entire setting based on the idea that people who are more intelligent (here defined as “reading lots of books”) always win. I suspect that a major reason why “kid goes to wizard school” is so popular as a trope of fantasy that is that it’s essentially created a genre where studying and reading books makes you more capable of dealing with violent conflict. In general, bookish and studious people rarely intersect with violence, and when they do they tend to find their skills poorly matched for dealing with violent conflict, but a wizard school setting allows for a logically consistent story about a character who is a brainy academic who also solves their conflicts with with superior force. In this case, we don’t have to choose between being Bruce Banner or being the Hulk. The wizard doesn’t have to trade their intelligence for strength; the wizard becomes a powerful combatant by burying their nose in books.

The issue with a character who solves their problem just by studying is that when they acquire that skill and then apply it to solve a problem, they’re not really demonstrating intelligence, they’re demonstrating expertise. The wizard’s power appears to be the triumph of brain over brawn, but this is true only in the most superficial sense of what is meant by “brains.” A wizard who defeats his enemies by throwing fireballs at them is not really showcasing his intelligence, even if his method for learning to throw fireballs involved reading a lot of books.

Intelligence is powerful because it transcends expertise within a single domain. It’s also narratively useful, because it would feel unrealistic for a character to be an expert on every single problem that they encounter. You can mitigate this somewhat by creating a story about an ensemble cast of experts who are capable of dealing with anything that comes at them (which is the level on which heist stories like Sneakers operate), but there’s something about the ability to solve a problem in a simple and elegant way that just sings to us, precisely because it bypasses the need for expertise. You could spend hundreds of hours studying this field to become expert enough to overcome problems in the conventional way, or you could be clever, think outside the box, redefine the problem into terms that you’re equipped to deal with, and kick down the door.

by Kuiper at December 28, 2018 10:16 PM

Träumendes Mädchen Devblog

2018 review & 2019 plans

Happy Holidays everyone! In order to properly bring a close to the year, here’s the traditional look back on Träumendes Mädchen’s activities. After a more than stormy period in 2017, was 2018 more merciful? Find out right away!

NewYear 2018 en

2018, a year of many new developments

I won’t hide that this year looked a lot like an emotional roller coaster! The first few months were the logical extension of 2017: not only did we made progress on Chronotopia very slowly but on top of that the first financial issues related to that slow speed started to rear their head. My goal of simply surviving had never been so realist considering the atmosphere in the team was deteriorating more and more and my own mental state was pretty weakened. It’s quite simple, I was on the verge of ruin. I kept working, of course, but it was clear that I could not hold much longer, and neither would the company. And it’s precisely when I had hit rock bottom, that the situation was taking a disastrous turn (the game’s development stopping dead and almost no more money) that something unexpected happened.

My state of mind at the beginning of the year

My state of mind at the beginning of the year

If you follow our Kickstarter updates, you must already know it but we had to change our main artist in May. This decision seemed like suicide at first glance, and I would have never imagined taking it only a few days before, but it turned out to be a life-saving one. Inevitably, Chronotopia fell behind yet again until Mae, our new artist, joined us and got used to our organization. But the change has been overall very positive as, overnight, the toxic and heavy atmosphere that had made any work unbearable has purely and solely vanished. It felt like I was breathing again. Of course, this doesn’t meant that the rest of the year has been a walk in the park for all that but I finally regained my motivation. I’m not dragging my feets anymore when it comes to taking care of my own projects and that’s just incredible because it’s so basic!

There's nothing better than an adorable ball of fur to cheer you up!

There’s nothing better than an adorable ball of fur to cheer you up!

The team was finally raring to go but bankrupcy was increasingly close, so I decided to stake it all and launch a new Kickstarter campaign in the hope of saving the project. It was once again a time full of learning opportunities since it’s been far easier than the first time for me, notably because I had prepared a great amount of updates in advances and because I had enough assets available to do something nice and clean. Even the fact that I had to focus on marketing non-stop for about a month was beneficial as it allowed to find what I loved in that project again and share it. Rekindling the flame was, I believe, more than necessary. The fact remains that you came forward once more and that thanks to that little extra campaign (and more importantly your support !), the project could start again on a sound basis. And for that I cannot thank you enough!

Paradoxically, after this Kickstarter I chose to limit my communication to the bare minimum and above all not yield as much to external pressures (personal and professional alike). Until now I had the tendency to feel guilty because I could not be very active in the community, publish a lot of articles on the devblog or reply to the messages I regularly receive. If I still appreciate all those little things, from now on I would rather spare myself and keep my energy to work on Chronotopia, even if it means not replying at all. It’s a bit silly but people need to establish their priorities and finishing this project is mine.

Chronotopia EN

Our new promotional illustration for those of you who missed it~

The end of 2018 also marked the achievement of an important milestone for Chronotopia: the completion of the scenario’s writing. That simple act completely changed how I look at my own work. Since 2016, I did not understand why I was spending so much time writing yet never seemed to arrive at the end of the story and I had, stupidly, assumed that I was not writing fast enough. In truth I’ve written a fair number of words in 2017 just as in 2018, it’s just that the project itself is gigantic compared to my original estimations. From a medium 100-150k game, Chronotopia turned into a monster of 230k words and that changes everything. In short, let’s just say that we would have never been able to release the game this year even with the best will in the world…

Alternative version of the fairy kingdom

Alternative version of the fairy kingdom

This revelation is double-edged: I admittedly regained some confidence in my work but I’m all the more depressed now that I finaly have a clear overview of what’s left to do (in other words too much). The mass of text is such that it inevitably impacts programming in turn, as well as translation editing which unfortunately is going to take me even more time than expected. Since I’m headed for working on Chronotopia for months just on these tasks alone, may as well make that waiting time productive! It was the other goal of the Kickstarter campaign: make the most out of the fact development is not done to add a few extra illustrations and I must that I don’t regret that for now. Not only does it give me some company but the result is clearly worth going out of your way to see~

2019, the year-of-all-wishes

Once this has been said, what are our expectations for 2019? The biggest one is, once again, to finally release Chronotopia: Second Skin! We’ve never been this close: the music is done, the art is quite advanced, the writing is done, the translation is almost done. In short ‘only’ programing and translation edit are remaining…which are the most boring and time-consuming tasks. But I do have a new strategy which is to focus on making the routes playable (and releasing them on Patreon in order to test them). The first two ones are almost ready so the finish line is finally starting to appear on the horizon!

Wbw promo art

But we won’t have just that to offer in 2019 as we still have to release the Steam edition of Wounded by Words by then! I must say that I intended to work on it right after Garden of Oblivion (available since March) but I finally preferred to focus on our main game instead. It will be an opportunity to correct that. And then, I should also work on other projects from Lupiesoft so I can’t wait to show you all that~

by Helia at December 28, 2018 04:50 PM