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All The Stage Is A World

Small world, big stories

A few weeks ago I watched the extraordinary documentary Marwencol. It tells the story of Mark Hogancamp, who recovered from a brutal beating that almost claimed his life by immersing himself in an epic art project. He built a ⅙-scale model of a World War II era Belgian town in his yard, filling it with dolls representing people in his life — including his attackers. Hogancamp began telling stories about the inhabitants of the town that reflected his own struggles. More Inglourious Basterds than Band of Brothers, the stories are surprising, involving, and ultimately reflexive; Hogancamp’s fictional world, inspired by fact, was so well-imagined an environment that its characters started telling tales of their own.

Around the same time I read an interview in Kill Screen with Al Lowe. The creator of Leisure Suit Larry and other classic adventure games has a new passion:

When I retired I took up model railroading. It doesn’t seem like it would have anything in common with programming and music, and yet, amazingly it does. I’m creating little worlds and populating them with incidents and people and objects and animating them.

Lowe describes how he imagines and then builds his miniature sets, incorporating humor and narrative. He explains how hobbyists build them according to guidelines that allow them to be fitted together. At one recent event, 750 such modules were connected into a seamless whole so large that it took four hours to walk around the outside of it once.

Reading about it reminded me of visiting the Ringling Circus Museum in Florida and seeing the Howard Brothers Circus model, a ¾-inch-to-the-foot scale replica of the Ringling Circus during its heyday. Covering 3,800 square feet of museum floor, the model recreates not only every aspect of the traveling show but of the town where it will be camped for the next few days. The diorama is beautifully presented, with appropriate sounds pumped in and the sun rising and setting over the scene. As I took it in, I couldn’t help asking questions about both townspeople and performers — and then answering them. Any world so meticulously detailed doesn’t just tell its creator’s story, but invites others.

What’s true of miniatures is even more true of video games. In his memoir Mentor, Tom Grimes wrote, “Every author is required to use only those details that advance the story. If a detail is essential, keep it. If it isn’t, cut it.” But suppose you’re doing more than telling a story. Suppose you’re creating an environment where any number of stories can unfold. Which details are then essential?

The answer may be: all of them. If video games are to be considered an art form — as Uncle Sam says they are — they will out of necessity create their own vocabulary, their own standards, as every other art form has done. Verisimilitude will be one of the metrics used to measure a game’s effectiveness. How believable is your world? Is it so rich, so real, that players will invent their own stories?

Just this morning, I unwrapped my copy of L.A. Noire. The design team’s fidelity to archival material may well make the game the next best thing to traveling back to 1947 Los Angeles, which has long been my personal time machine destination. And while I’m itching to solve some cases and bust some heads, in truth I simply want to soak up the atmosphere. L.A. Noire’s production designer Simon Wood says one of his favorite things to do in the game is “go to Pershing Square and watch the secretaries eating lunch.” The prospect of doing that holds more appeal to me than crimebusting. Make me believe I’ve been set loose in the post-war City of Angels and you almost don’t need to give me a mission. I’ll happily come up with my own.

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