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In Medias Res

Cover of "Dark City (New Line Platinum Se...

Cover of Dark City (New Line Platinum Series)

I hate it when sci-fi movies and games feel compelled to dump a bunch of information on me before the story begins.  As if I’m not going to figure out the rules of the world over the course of the story.  Doesn’t matter if it’s via narration or text crawl. (Sorry, Star Wars, you’re just as guilty.)  When you pour a bunch of information on me, you’re spoiling discoveries I want to make on my own.  There’s also a bit of an implied insult there—you, the audience member, won’t be able to figure this out; hence, I have to tell you now so you can follow along.

I contend that a well-told story needs no introduction.  I think you can begin in medias res, in the middle of things, and the audience will not only be able to figure out the rules governing the world as the narrative unfolds, but will actually be more involved in the story because of it.

One of the great joys of science fiction and fantasy is discovering how the world works.  Not knowing anything about the world you’ve entered lends an immediacy to the story that’s simply not there when you have a broader sense of what’s going on.  You’re along for the ride with the protagonist, struggling to figure out what’s normal and what isn’t.  You don’t know where the dangers are, where the monsters hide.  And that’s exciting.  But when you tell me what the dangers are ahead of time, you’re stealing that discovery from me.

Let’s take as an example one of the favorite movies at the Chromed office: Dark City, a starkly unique sc-fi noir.  I love every part of this movie but one—the opening narration.

*SPOILER ALERT*

As the movie begins, we are told that a race of aliens known as Strangers are conducting weird experiments on kidnapped people to determine what makes us human.  This is conveyed to us by Dr. Schreber, a major player in the story, though not the protagonist.  After the narration, we cut to where the movie really begins—the dark and dreary bathroom wherein John Murdoch awakens in a panic, with no memory.

Hurl insults and/or feces in my direction if you must, but I think Dark City would have been even better had it opened in the bathroom, had frame one been Murdoch gasping back to consciousness, totally lost and freaked.  Since we know that aliens are involved when he wakes up, we assume they must have something to do with the odd tableau Murdoch is born into.  And when Schreber reveals the nature of the Strangers later in the film, it’s not a revelation to us.  If we hadn’t been told ahead of time, imagine how much we would have enjoyed wondering who those corpsey-lookin’ dudes in the black cloaks were. (The director’s cut of Dark City now on DVD, I note with satisfaction, omits the opening voiceover entirely.)

If you think I’m exaggerating, imagine if The Matrix had opened with a comparable narration.  If the movie began with Morpheus explaining how — do I really have to issue a *SPOILER ALERT*? — in the future, humans have been conquered by intelligent machines and turned into bioelectric batteries, and that the world we think is real is a computer program meant to keep us docile, would you have been as involved in Neo’s journey?  When Neo touched the mirror and it bled onto his fingers and he fell down the rabbit hole into the far darker reality of his existence, that was the only time I said “What the fuck?” aloud in a theater.  I doubt I’d have said it if I knew how the world worked at that time—probably would have said something more along the lines of “Oh, I bet he’s being extracted to the real world.”  Not quite as visceral a reaction.

A well-written story doesn’t need to give its viewers a primer before things begin.  Neither does a well-crafted game.

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