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A Question of Scale

When a man who has saved the world — hell, the universe — more than once says that you’re laying it on a little thick, you are obliged to listen. I give you the words of Harrison Ford:

I think what a lot of action movies lose these days, especially the ones that deal with fantasy, is you stop caring at some point because you’ve lost human scale. With the CGI, suddenly there’s a thousand enemies instead of six – the army goes off into the horizon. You don’t need that. The audience loses its relationship with the threat on the screen. That’s something that’s consistently happening and it makes these movies like video games and that’s a soulless enterprise. It’s all kinetics without emotion. I don’t have time for that.

Ford isn’t alone. Designer Jonathan Blow decried “importance gigantism” in games. But it’s worth remembering that the phenomenon began in movies, and has only gotten worse.

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Reinventing the Wheel

It’s spring, and I’ve been thinking about “newness” and originality in terms of playwriting, and more generally, storytelling.  In a world where we are constantly bombarded by story through all kinds of mediums, how can a writer create anything original or new?

I had a playwriting student once who told me he didn’t read plays because he wanted his work to be completely original.  The more I consider this, the more convinced I am that putting one’s creative head in the sand is not going to help anybody be original.  If anything, it would have the opposite effect.  A writer who is not aware of what’s going on now or what came before is going to be much more prone to cliché–they just won’t know it.

On the other end of the spectrum, in my years of graduate school, I too was on a quest to come up with an idea truly original.  My method was to scour NPR news and podcasts, watch Ted Talks online, and find quirky news articles or nonfiction books that would surely lead to a play that nobody had ever thought of—so unusual, so quirky, so new!  I came across a book called The Wandering Womb with all of this strange and compelling information about Victorian era vibrators and doctors treating hysteria in women by bringing them to “paroxysm.”  Well, any of you subscribers to ACT know, Sarah Ruhl beat me to that punch with her brilliant and moving Vibrator Play, which is part of ACT Theatre’s 2011 Season.

I’m starting to think this whole “originality” thing is really beside the point.  Ambrose Bierce says “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are many old things we do not know.”  We are, each of us, original without even trying.  No two people have the exact same set of experiences or have the exact same set of predilections or the exact same world view.  Maybe there are no new stories—only retellings of old ones.  And maybe, as writers, it is our duty to translate these old stories using the language of our experiences for contemporary audiences.

As I live my life moment to moment this spring, I’m already collecting new experiences that will allow me to render the next story in an original, unique way.  Maybe the way to chip away at universal truth is one salient, personal detail at a time.

…And THAT is why I’m not studying, Mother.

It may be better, but mine is FREE. (Image via Wikipedia)

Video games make you smarter.

I have no proof and no desire to collect the necessary data, which is why I’m a writer and not a scientist. (If you want a bit more academic rigor than a 500-word blog post, check out Everything Bad is Good For You, by Steven Johnson.)

In any video game, the player must learn and master a system of logic—some systems being more complex than others. In a Zelda game, you quickly learn that you should break everything you see, be on the lookout for obstacles you can’t yet pass (they’ll tell you what you need to procure next, from bombs to hookshots to boomerangs), and never, ever piss off a chicken.

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Reliable story telling

Recently, aspiring game designer Eric Schwarz posted an article in which he argues that an unreliable narrator is inappropriate for interactive fiction. As March 32nd‘s protagonist is very much an unreliable narrator, and its story dependent on the choices of the player, I feel the need to defend the use of this literary device in video games. This post does not contain spoilers for March32nd.

Should I stay or should I go?
Creative Commons License photo credit: My Buffo

A narrator-protagonist is an avatar through which the player experiences the world of the game. Like the player, the avatar lacks perfect knowledge of the game world. Given this situation, skilled narrative designers can match the options for discovery available to the player to those available to the protagonist, and in so doing allow the player to express his or natural curiosity in a way that doesn’t cause the character to take incongruous actions.

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Wandering with the Fool

The Fool’s Errand is arguably the greatest puzzle game ever made. It’s an argument I’m making, at least. I count the evenings and weekends spent scratching my head over the mysteries of the sun’s map among the highlights of my childhood.

Released in 1987 by designer Cliff Johnson, the game is a collection of increasingly maddening puzzles wrapped around a disjointed narrative featuring characters from the Tarot deck. The game’s protagonist is the Fool. The story is arranged into five chapters of a dozen or so passages each. As you progress new passages become available, so you get a grander sense of the story going on within the game. But the new passages do not unlock in any semblance of order; in fact, you reach the passage at the end of the last chapter far before the end of the game. The challenge was to go back over the story, again and again, and find the clues that would make the narrative (and the games buried therein) make sense.

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