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Culture War Roundup for the week of April 15, 2024

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This is based off a comment I made to a group of friends, and it was suggested I post it here; I've edited it to be more approachable but please forgive any poorly explained references.

I am continuously boggled by how bad the drop off in video game writing has been. Inversely, it’s shocking how passable and even good it is coming from (mostly text based) games in the 90s and early 2000s. The people making those stories were often programmers with no creative history, so it’s surprising to me that they were able to put out such quality writing with any level of consistency.

Take the Mac game Marathon. There are definitely duds in the writing, mostly Durandal (a recently gone-insane AI) being wacky, but the majority of the writing is pretty good. Even the “computer being crazy” was a somewhat fresher concept, so I’ll excuse the missteps. More than that, the writers Jason Jones and Greg Kirkpatrick were still in/barely out of college when they made Marathon. That’s just astounding to me given the quality of some of the terminals.

The other example is Ares, another 90s Mac game (guess when and how I grew up). It's a much smaller game, with a less sprawling story, but what is there is pretty good quality. It’s not Marathon level writing, but its development was even smaller scale - basically a one man show. One guy was able to code an entire game, write the music, and write the story, and it’s all passable at absolute worst. Even more than the overall story, the quality of the writing on a basal level is quite good.

My question is how did this happen? Thinking on it has given me three main possibilities:

The first is just that the people making games - and particularly their stories - have changed. As the coding and graphics and scale get more complex, you can’t juggle everything as the project lead and reasonably be able to produce anything above indie level. I definitely think this is the majority of it. But I also think culture has an effect on this, and my second and third theories touch on that.

Second is that I think it’s an indicator of the quality of education, and especially higher education, falling significantly. I have no evidence for this, but the amount of knowledge the creators of old had in their back pockets to make their stories feel genuinely vast and deep, not entirely myopic.

That leads me into my third theory, which is nerd culture at large falling apart completely. This isn’t a new idea, but it used to be that being a nerd required you to be immersed in whatever passion you had, often alone. Greg Kirkpatrick admitted he read a ton of sci-fi and played a ton of DnD, and he drew on both of those for Marathon. As a personal anecdote, my recently deceased grandfather is universally considered to have had Asperger’s. The breadth of how he lived is astounding, though. He built a house, engineered rockets, became computer literate on his own (well past when he'd have been expected to do so), raced bikes, and played music. Absolutely a renaissance man in every way. In all I don’t see nerds and the autistic (they’re correlated) having near as comprehensive an upbringing. Maybe it’s the death of reading, maybe it’s being terminally online. It's all just sadly lacking. I don't think I have to illustrate that the barrier of entry to "being a nerd" is basically just saying you are. On that note, there's a trend of “nerds” that are just English majors who played games, which might explain how a lot of dedicated professional AAA video game writers are so bad.

As a counterpoint, Prey 2017 had its story written by its lead developer, as well as some of the music. I think the fact that it’s so good is a testament to the need for a game to have its own solid vision, even as the scale increases. Maybe that’s the root cause more than anything else.

Some additional considerations (and my responses to them):

  1. Video games have exploded in popularity. The amount of quality writing (and writers themselves) may have actually increased, but the signal-to-noise ratio has increased exponentially. I often find myself completely blindsided by games that I find quality, in that I've never heard of them before either being told via word-of-mouth or essentially stumbling upon them. I find this very much to be like music. If you look at the most popular music, I'd argue that it's in an awful spot, being borderline unlistenable while also being more popular than ever before. However, if you take the time to look for a niche, you can find some amazing stuff, even today, and it's all at your fingertips on YouTube. This of course torpedoes a bit of my thesis that quality has gone down, but I'll similarly pivot it as I do with music: Why is it impossible for games at the highest level of production and scale to have quality stories?
  2. I've noticed that sci-fi games are far more likely to qualify as "quality writing" for me. Even my contemporary examples (such as Prey) are sci-fi as well. That's not to say I can't enjoy other types, but I'm wondering if I either have a bias; if sci-fi lends itself to deeper writing, or attracts writers who can do so; or both. Note that I can give some very bad sci-fi examples of games (I am outspoken in how much I find Mass Effect completely awful in almost every way).
  3. I mentioned that my best examples are games with text-based dialogue and story. Perhaps those are easier to write, given that the player can mentally fill in lines in a way that makes sense to him. If you've ever looked up videos about Marathon, you have most definitely run into people reading the lines from the story out loud. I've yet to find a reading that hasn't made me cringe. I'm wondering if voice acted dialogue is just harder to write (and harder to fill with competent performances). But even then, a game I really love called Alpha Centauri has both written and voiced dialogue, and the voice lines are so good that they are literally chilling at times. That's a game from a group of about eight people, so that's an indicator that they just had to have the direction, wherewithal, and talent to see through their stories properly.

Video game writing is one thing. Have you seen Hollywood recently?

I went to the cinema recently and saw two movies. One is Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. It's Kaiju Wrestlemania, the monster fights are pretty fun, Kong at one point beats a monkey with another monkey. Entertainment. And in between it all is some of the most agonizing, painfully bad human-scale plots, characters and exposition I've seen. Granted, it's a movie about a nuclear dinosaur fighting a giant monkey, it's not exactly somewhere people look for good writing. It's going to make a lot of money.

The other was a matinee showing, I woke up early, offset a healthy morning walk with some unhealthy breakfast, went to an AM showing of the only flick that still had the discount pricing. Some anime flick called Haikyuu: The Dumpster Battle. It's an animated movie about high school volleyball featuring two teams playing a single best-of-3 match in the lower bracket of a tournament.

After finishing that movie, I came out of it gobsmacked. Not because it was great or anything, but because this nothing anime movie from a series I don't think is any good managed to clear the what seems like a ridiculous bar, these days, of being a human story about humans doing human things. You know, a story featuring characters who drink water and breathe air. Humans.

It's not that Japan is somehow exceptional at this, it just seems like Hollywood has entirely forgotten what humans are like. How they talk, how they think, how they react around other people. What they care about. It seems like the ability to model human beings, or write from their perspectives, is completely missing.

When Hollywood writes characters these days, they almost inevitably end up as one of the following:

  1. Cliches
  2. Cartoon characters
  3. Obnoxious

Or some combination of the above.

To go back to GxK: the cast of characters in that movie exploring Hollow Earth are as follows. The adoptive mother of a mute child, who is having trouble connecting to her adoptive daughter (probably the closest to an actual person, cliche). Angry security man who is rough, tough, and angry at everyone for no apparent reason (cliche, cartoon character). Weird surfer Australian hippie kaiju vet heavily implied to be adoptive mother's ex boyfriend (cartoon character). Mute girl who can talk to Kong (plot device). Chubby black podcast conspiracy nerd trying to get views on a podcast and complaining about trolls (cartoon character, obnoxious, cliche).

None of these people are people. I don't know if they drink water or breathe air. The podcast guy looked and acted like if you cut him he'd bleed Monster Energy. None of them talk like human beings. Their dialogue is either snappy oneliners, built for movie trailers, or clunky exposition. It's telling that the movie's best sequences featured exclusively kaiju, had no dialogue whatsoever, and props to the special effects team - Kong was capable of emoting and communicating who he was and his thoughts and feelings to the audience far better than any of these cardboard cutouts in the shape of human actors.

Haikyuu: The Dumpster Battle opens with a slow, almost arthouse-movie-esque sequence, with things framed off center or slightly out of frame, where a dispassionate character who doesn't care about the sport of volleyball at all is lost on his way getting to a practice bootcamp and doesn't consider it a big deal. His phone is out of power. And instead of trying to find his way to bootcamp with any urgency, he sits down and we hear the sound of a handheld video game console powering up.

I almost wanted to jump up in my chair and point at the fucking screen, as if Hollywood were watching: It do be like that. In a sequence that's two minutes long at maximum we have established who this kid is, what he's like, his attitude, and what he cares about. Why does it seem impossible for Hollywood to write stories about people? Regular people, working-class salt-of-the-earth human beings? Are they just bad at modeling what those people are like? Do they know any? In lieu of this, I have to conclude that the writers genuinely do believe human beings are either cliches, cartoon characters, or obnoxious.

My working theory is that the ability of western writers to model other human beings seems stunted. The current crop are narcissists, incompetent, or incapable of basic human empathy. Either that, or whatever they put down doesn't survive peer and funding review.

Beyond that, the other takeaway I had is that Hollywood seems to have completely lost the ability to impose any sort of meaning on their stories. I don't mean in a didactic or parable like sense, but I mean in the sort of literal 'here are the story stakes' meaning.

GxK, spoilers, has stakes like the world ending in a new potential ice age. H:TDB is a sports movie about a single lower bracket game in a high school tournament. Somehow, the latter was a story that felt like it had higher stakes. Every hard rally meant something, every small micro-victory and every way characters and their ideologies were tested felt impactful and meaningful.

The culprit is overprofessionalization. Writters are now expected to go to film school then try to break into Hollywood.

Back when things were less competitive it was common for writers to serve in the military, travel around the US or overseas, and read a lot of random books.

Now they do professional schooling and then spend years dealing with obnoxious people in LA.

This is especially noticable in sci fi genre writting. The writers of new Star Wars and Star Trek have seen all the space battle movies but don't have any relatives with military experience and haven't watch many war documentaries. So all the commanding officers come off as a mix of incompetent and unbeliveable.

Writing engaging characters requires a broad mix of lived experience and reading.

Of course studio executives are similarly isolated from big chunks of human experience. They spent their lives viciously clawing their way to the top.

I'm pretty late seeing this but Haikyuu is a pretty well regarded anime based off a manga that was top 5 in sales in 2020 and top 10 a few other times.

Its also in the well worn Japanese sports genre where the artists and writers have really honed their craft as to how to make something as mundane as high school sports interesting.

I really liked your breakdowns of the characterization. I agree that blockbusters are absolutely willing to toss in stock characters and skimp on realistic human dialogue.

Thing is, stock characters have worked since at least the commedia dell’arte. They’re a very efficient way to skip exposition and set expectations for a character. Anime examples abound. Clearly, a script can have familiar archetypes alongside human dialogue…Can.

My working theory is that the ability of western writers to model other human beings seems stunted. The current crop are narcissists, incompetent, or incapable of basic human empathy.

This feels Too Good To Check. It would be convenient if we could write off the people who produce bad entertainment as moral mutants, but is it likely?

Either that, or whatever they put down doesn't survive peer and funding review.

Now this is probably true. No matter the capabilities of individual writers, there’s got to be some mechanism keeping blockbusters from having good characters. Here’s a few possibilities.

  1. Scriptwriting is democratic, and the narcissism/incompetence/bias of the modal writers means most scripts end up with bad characterization.
  2. It’s totalitarian, and the n/i/b of the leading writers blocks off any quality contributions from the proles.
  3. It doesn’t matter how it’s governed, because everyone involved wants the same thing, but that thing isn’t “good characters.” It’s money, and what looks like n/i/b is actually more cost-effective.
  4. As any of the above, but laggy: decision-makers still haven’t figured out that their decisions are actually n/i/b. If they knew, they’d choose something else.

I lean towards 3 or 4. It would suck if quality (as we understand it) was different than quality (as the market understands it), but…it also wouldn’t really be unique. If you can’t put a price on it, the market isn’t going to take it into account. Option 4 is more optimistic; maybe that makes it cope? Still, I can’t rule out the idea that these people really want to make something good, and are only temporarily barking up the wrong tree.

My working theory is that the ability of western writers to model other human beings seems stunted. The current crop are narcissists, incompetent, or incapable of basic human empathy.

This feels Too Good To Check. It would be convenient if we could write off the people who produce bad entertainment as moral mutants, but is it likely?

My comment here mentions Dead Space, which I find to be possibly the best example of the bizarre shit coming out of writing teams now. To reiterate, the people making the Dead Space Remake clearly loved the original game and endeavored to remake it in about as respectful-to-the-source-content a way they could, and I think that it was a resounding success - except for the writing. Not only did they make significant additions to the story that dilute the original formula and make it feel not nearly as tight, they started radically changing what was already there, to wit: One of the characters you see in game has been made a hypergamous bisexual, evidenced by the fact that he refers to several of the necromorphs (monsters born from the crew of this ship that's only been together a few months at most) as "old boyfriends". None of this existed in the original game. Many characters are changed in how they look to the point where they're unrecognizable. Furthermore, many of their styles look like they belong on people from Los Angeles marketing firms. I will note it's not literally everyone - the main character, Isaac Clarke, is completely changed in his appearance from the original series, apparently to match the face of the voice actor, and he looks like a more generic looking white guy. That aside, his characterization is still different (rather than being aware of his breaking sanity and fighting it, he's instead rewritten as a deranged lunatic).

Given the fact that these changes were made across the board for everyone except the most central characters, I actually don't find a Sweet Baby-esque motive to making these changes - namely, an ulterior pandering or cover-your-ass angle to it. I don't think they're people who hate the hobby, and want to destroy it because it didn't appeal to them, as is often the indictment of culture warriors talking about video games. The passion exuded from this project in every other aspect, and the way they changed the characters so universally, makes me think they're "true believers" of the fact that their way of viewing the world right now is objectively correct and would simply be a boring fact of the future.

In a way, it makes me hate it a lot less, because it feels like I'm seeing how these people genuinely view the world. In another, it's a lot worse than it simply being a grift, because how myopic do you have to be to think everyone in the future will hold your exact belief system, straight down to the hair styles that are so often correlated with it? Pair that with most of the new voice actors really really sucking, and sounding like mid-20s kids, and it really makes me think something has gone very very wrong with creatives, insulating them from having a realistic sampling of the world. This, I think, was my deeper thesis, and my original comment sort of obfuscated it while trying to control for other changes in the gaming landscape that have affected game writing. Contrast that with the original Dead Space character designs, which I think are a lot more timeless (maybe Kendra Daniels's hair looks a bit early 2000s, but everyone else has very utilitarian, timeless styles that are certainly not indicative of the subset of "creatives" of the time).

I've written off the entire sector.

If it's AAA, I'll play it if you pay me. Unless it's from Japan ofc.

Is Indie really better in that respect? I'm currently playing Outward and enjoying the gameplay, but in terms of setting it has quite a few insufferably woke moments. Before, it was Battletech, which is also very woke. It just seems to be in the water supply at the moment.

Being non AAA is no guarantee of not being woke, because a lot of devs are normies, and woke is in the air.

Better odds: non-western developers who aren't woke. There's a few RW or die-hard liberal guys making games in the West. Also Outward was published by a major studio, so..

AAA, or published by a big publisher almost guarantees it's going to be woke. For this reason people are worried about new Kingdome Come game.

There may even be devs barely aware of 'woke'. E.g. the guys who developed Dyson Space Program, a 3d riff on Factorio are likely Chinese who grind code all the time and may not even be aware of it.

I guess Outward was a worse example than i thought. It definitely "feels" indie in many ways, but probably is more like A game instead of AAA.

Nevertheless, even if I think about "true" Indie such as Trese Brothers, I struggle to think of examples that aren't noticably woke unless they literally have no story involving humanoids whatsoever (and even then, they sometimes somehow manage).

Well, non-woke story having games I know of are Highfleet (made by a single Russian orthodox programmer) and Underrail (from Serbia).

There's also Starsector, a spaceship tactical/RPG game with a storyline. Russians, again.

Also there's the Colony Ship RPG. Made by 'Irontower Studio' whose website says this:

Iron Tower Studio is a premier destination for all your hardcore RPG needs. Proudly serving 0.003% of the Global Gaming Market since 2015. The remaining 99.997% need not apply.

And so on.

More comments

Their dialogue is either snappy oneliners, built for movie trailers, or clunky exposition.

That's the main problem today; movies aren't written to tell stories, they're written to reference other movies/TV shows. They're written as pitches: "Imagine X and Y, but it's like Z!" The script is one-liners punctuated by the Big CGI Scenes (be those explosions, fights, battles, whatever). There isn't plot to speak of, the purpose of the plot is to get the characters from point A to point B (quipping and one-lining all the way) so they can do Big Thing, then move on to do Next Big Thing.

I've excoriated Rings of Power enough on here before, but that was the major problem with the showrunners: they haven't done anything. They have a writing credit on a reboot Trek script, they've worked on other projects that never went anywhere, and they've been around as rewriters for other scripts. That's it.

So they don't know how to make a show by telling a story. They throw together stock tropes for the characters ("Galadriel, but back when she's, like, young and feisty and full of fight, GirlBoss!") and have big set-piece scenes in mind, but they don't make connections or care about filling in the holes.

So the Númenorean army can set sail on three small ships that get to Middle-earth in a matter of days, to unload a huge cavalry charge (ripping off the ride of the Rohirrim, what us?) that ends up in precisely the right place at precisely the right moment to save the day, and never mind how unlikely this is, how much time is supposed to have passed (not helped by cutting between 'scenes happening at night in this place' and 'scenes happening during the day in that place'), or where all those horses and soldiers fit on the three small ships.

And it shows. That's what got the show the most criticism: a lot of nothing happened at great length, then they crammed in the very necessary parts in the last fifteen minutes.

This is their idea for season two Sauron: "He'll be like Walter White or Tony Soprano". No originality of their own, just copying successful properties. And that's what modern movie and TV scripts are: copy what went before and was successful. So they end up not writing humans as they really behave, but copies of characters that are copies of characters that are copies of characters from TV and movies.

I've excoriated Rings of Power enough on here before...

I'm not convinced that there is such a thing as "enough" in this case. Please keep it coming. :D

I'm waiting for Season Two. We may possibly get it by the end of the year, or not. They're giving us two Saurons - first season original character Halbrand "bet you never saw this twist coming! oh, you did..." Sauron and finally because they blinkin' have to, Annatar Sauron (played by a different character, naturally, and I don't actually mind that they cast a British-Indian actor in the role because at least in canon, the Valar and Maiar can be any shape or form they please). Crazier rumours give us a possible third Sauron in the shape of "Remember Celeborn, Galadriel's husband? Well never mind, she didn't remember him either, but now he's back! Except in another stunning plot twist, it's Sauron in disguise yet again!!"

I'm not sure I believe that one, not because it's beyond the bounds of possibility (the showrunners seem to still be in charge and Eru knows they're idiotic enough to think this is an amazing ploy) but that it's too good to be true. I want to see the dumpster fire they make out of season two (no way this turkey is going to five seasons). Can they go even better than "The knife ears are taking our jerbs"?

Fools be talkin' 'bout darker, grittier season two but I want to know: will they give us Orc War Banner Celebrimbor? Huh? Huh? Have they the guts to do that? (Given what they've already done to the character, being tortured to death by Annatar would be a merciful release).

Payne compares Season 1 to “Batman Begins” and Season 2 to “The Dark Knight,” “with Sauron maneuvering out in the open.”

“We’re really excited,” Payne continued. “Season 2 has a canonical story.”

See what I mean about no originality, just copying older, successful properties? Though at least he's implicitly admitting season one was not canonical and they finally, reluctantly, have to give the fans what they want: tell the dang story as it stands, not with your mystery box twists.

Gosh dang it, I want to see the Dwarves of Khazad-dum marching out, by their intervention saving Elrond and Celeborn, fighting a withdrawal back to Khazad-dum and then slamming the doors shut right in Sauron's face, but will we get it? Nah, they'll probably decide that Galadriel needs to one-shot the lake monster instead or something.

Why does it seem impossible for Hollywood to write stories about people? Regular people, working-class salt-of-the-earth human beings?

The theory I've heard is that they can't sell the stories afterward.

Currently they're making their profits off blockbusters, where after putting a quarter billion dollars into production and marketing you've got too much on the line to risk your dialogue not being trailer-worthy and lowest-common-denominator approved, and if you know your best sequences are going to be CGI kaiju fighting, why would you shorten those just to buy time to make a side character slightly more well-rounded? But mid-budget films, the ones where they used to spend a few tens of millions of dollars to get back a few more tens of millions, aren't working out so well as they used to ... and yet it's the mid-budget range that used to occasionally spiral into massive box office successes and Oscar takeaways for the biggest winners, because they were in the sweet spot where they were cheap enough for directors to take risks, too cheap to replace characterization with special effects, and yet expensive enough to exhibit real production quality behind the risky ideas that worked out.

I have no idea whether this theory is actually true; there doesn't seem to be nearly as much overlap as I'd like between "people who actually know something about the movie industry" and "people who back up their theories with quantitative analyses".

Here’s Matt Damon explaining that the death of DVD sales killed mid budget movies that took risks.

He doesn’t give quantitative analysis.

He also doesn't explain how come those movies were getting made before DVDs ever became a thing. It's funny how he talks about the 90s when the DVD only became a thing in 1997 and took 2-3 years to really get popular.

Why wouldn't it apply to all home video sales rather than specifically DVDs and only DVDs?

My working hypothesis on bad writing is at least in part due to the hyper-professionalization of movies and games. In both cases, the people making them don’t come from all walks of life. They come from a rather insular world of people who have gone through specialized training at university, and they then go on to live in the same town and hang out mostly with other people like themselves who went to the same professional schools and so on. They’re rarely if ever outside that bubble. They rarely know anyone who came from outside that bubble. And as this goes on for generations, the lack of contact with the normie world makes it impossible to create movies and tv and games that feel realistic. Nobody in Hollywood shoots guns, and probably very rarely would they even know anyone who collects or uses them. When it comes to writing a story about the kind of person that owns or shoots guns, they aren’t referencing their own lived experience with gun owners. They’re referencing other works about the topic, they’re referencing their political views about guns and the people who own them, and maybe stereotyping they’ve seen about gun owners. That doesn’t allow for much depth. It’s like a copy of a copy of a copy — every step away from the real thing makes it less like a real person and thus less interesting.

You're onto something. The goal of fiction isn't to recreate reality, but I think the further the creative class gets from the working class the worse mass-market entertainment gets. You have to really dig around or look at niche works, or be able to swallow pretentiousness that hasn't been eclipsed by the creator's ego.

Ghostbusters (1984) is a story about schlubby guys getting jobs as supernatural firefighters and pest control. The villain of that story isn't Gozer, it's the EPA inspector who has no clue what they actually do. More and more, the creative class seem to be EPA inspectors.

See also this article. TL;DR: National Book Award winners (and American novelists in general, by extension) used to come from all walks of life, but in recent years winners and nominees have been dominated almost to the exclusion of all else by college-educated novelists who have completed MFAs. This has the effect of making recent acclaimed literary novels insular and hermetic, with little of the grit, colour or life experience of literary novels from decades past.

The classic story of Chuck Palahniuk being a diesel mechanic while writing Fight Club. Frankly a grittier man than some other authors.

I totally agree. The stuff that grabbed me about Fight Club, and The Martian is just how close Palahniuk and Weir seemed to be able to get the mindset of ordinary working class people stuck in extraordinary circumstances. A lot of sci-fi seems to assume that everyone is PMC and that ships in space or colonies are going to be large and clean and have lots of cool gear. They’re cruise ships built for luxury run by people who cry but rarely experience a real hardship.

Whenever I watch a film directed by John Carney, I'm left with this very unsettling feeling. Watching his films makes me feel like he's never actually met another human being in his life, that his entire knowledge of what people are like comes from watching other people's movies.

This wasn't always true of Christopher Nolan (the performances in Memento are remarkably naturalistic in spite of the contrived plot), but has become the case over time. No one in Inception, Interstellar, Tenet or Oppenheimer talks or acts like a real person (particularly damning in the latter case, given that 95% of the characters are based on real people who actually existed).

The weirdification of Nolan's films has always astounded me. How could someone who started so competently and strongly, and was given so much due to that success, essentially only go downward with regards to his portrayal of human beings on screen? You can even see it as early as The Dark Knight, where things happen for the convenience of the plot, and not because they make sense. Actually, as I detailed in one of my comments, I can forgive that as long as it's effective, and it was. However, by The Dark Knight Rises it really became a mess when you asked even one question about how things worked.

I will slightly disagree, in that a good few of the characters in Inception Interstellar feel very real, but it still does have that undercurrent of "Nolan thinks he's deeper than he is". I also, as my OP indicated, have a very strong space/sci-fi bias. Even with that, I think Memento and The Prestige are by far Nolan's best. What a triumph The Prestige is.

What a triumph The Prestige is.

That and Memento are probably the only films of his I'd put in the W column without major qualifications.

Oppenheimer was not evenly awful about this, which is the sadder part. A couple of the scientists (and notably Kitty) were fine. Oppenheimer was being portrayed as a weird autist. By far the worst thing about that movie was about how Nolan portrayed his relationship with Tatlock; it was like watching two wooden blocks rubbing together. The infamous Bhagavad Gita line is somehow... a seduction tactic? I vaguely remember some backlash over it.

I think this is my favorite comment I’ve yet read on this forum. You totally and succinctly understand that almost orgasmic feeling of relief when finding that one new piece of art that isn’t completely pathetic.