Fictional Railroading

Of late, there have been a bit of kerfuffle on the interwebs about the last season of everyone’s favourite weekly dose of sex, violence, and intrigue (not necessarily in that order)1. It kind of reminded me of something:

Fans’ reactions to the last two Harry Potter books (“Half-Blood Prince” and “Deathly Hallows“).

There’s the same division where some felt everything made sense, and others felt cheated, and that some characters were suddenly behaving differently. I’ve previously opined that the issue was due to every reader (or viewer, in the case of Game of Thrones) filling in the blanks of characters with their own experiences/perspectives, and not taking it well when their assumptions prove false.

Recently, though, I read an interesting twitter thread by Daniel Silvermint2.

For those who can’t be bothered reading the whole thing, the gist is that, while writers can allow stories to develop organically based on what the characters would do in their current circumstances, eventually they need to be steered towards and ending. This is what makes the audience feel like the characters have suddenly changed.

Personally, I feel it’s unfair to judge until you’ve read/seen the whole story, but I can understand people’s dissatisfaction. It takes a lot of skill to draw all the plot and character threads together for an ending, and even if a character’s actions have been properly set-up and foreshadowed, it can still feel like it happened too quickly.

It’s hard enough to get one book’s worth of plot to come together neatly, so I admire anyone who manages it with an epic, sprawling fantasy world.

Oh, and if you’re still not happy after the season finale: there’s always fanfiction. 😉

0 For those unfamiliar, “railroading” is a gaming term for when players feel they are forced to take particular actions chosen by the game designer(s), even if it’s not what they want to do, or how they think their character would behave.

1 I refer of course to “Jane the Virgin”.

2 Quoted in full here (for easier reading):

Want to know why Game of Thrones *feels* so different now? I think I can explain. Without spoilers.

It has to do with the behind-the-scenes process of plotters vs. pantsers. If you’re not familiar with the distinction, plotters create a fairly detailed outline before they commit a single word to the page.

Pantsers discover the story as they write it, often treating the first draft like one big elaborate outline. Neither approach is ‘right’ – it’s just a way to characterize the writing process. But the two approaches do tend to have different advantages.

Because they have the whole story in mind, it’s usually easier for plotters to deliver tighter stories and stick the landing when it comes to endings, but their characters can sometimes feel stiff, like they’re just plot devices.

Pantsers have an easier time writing realistic characters, because they generate the plot by asking themselves what this fully-realized person would do or think next in the dramatic situation the writer has dropped them in.

But because pantsers are making it up as they go along (hence the name: they’re flying by the seat of their pants), they’re prone to meandering plots and can struggle to bring everything together in a satisfying conclusion.

That’s why a lot of writers plot their stories but pants their characters, and use the second draft to reconcile conflicts between the two.

What does this have to do with Game of Thrones?

Well, GRRM is one of the most epic pantsers around. He talks about writing like cultivating a garden. He plants character seeds and carefully lets them grow and grow.

That’s why every plot point and fair-in-hindsight surprise landed with such devastating weight: everything that happened to these characters happened because of their past choices. But it’s also the reason why the narrative momentum of the books slowed over time.

After the first big plot arc, book four was originally going to skip ahead five years. But GRRM didn’t know how to make the gap in action feel true to the characters or the world, so he eventually decided to just write his way through those five years instead.

Which meant planting more seeds, and watching those grow. And suddenly his garden was overgrown, and hard to prune without abrupt or forced resolutions. He had no choice but to follow each and every one of those plot threads, even when they didn’t really matter to the story.

And now that the plants were fully in control, he struggled to get some of the characters that had grown one way to go where they needed to be for the story. (Dany getting stuck in Meereen is the example he frequently cites.)

And because he had all this story to cover and pay off, some of which was growing in the wrong directions and needed enough narrative space to come back around, he started increasing the number of books he thought it would take him to complete the series. And, well.

So the books the showrunners were adapting ran out. What now? People assume the show suffered because they didn’t have GRRM’s rich material to draw on anymore, as if the problem was that he’s simply better at generating new plots than they are. But that’s not what happened.

For a season or two, the showrunners actually tried to take over management of GRRM’s sprawling garden, with understandably mixed results. When that didn’t work, they shifted their focus to trying to bring this huge beast in for a landing.

They gave themselves a fixed endpoint – 13 episodes to the finale, and no more – and set about reverse-engineering the rest of the story they wanted to tell.

You see, I think the showrunners are not only plotters, they’re ending-focused plotters by design.

They want to deliver an ultimately satisfying experience. So with only two seasons to work with, they started asking themselves what was left to do. What could they build with the pieces left in the box? What beats did they just have to include?

What big moments did they want to deliver? Where should the characters end up? What did they think we, the audience, wanted to see on screen before the show came to an end? It was a Game of Thrones bucket list.

And once they had that list, it was time to connect the dots to make it all happen. So they started maneuvering the characters into the emotional and literal places they needed to be for all those dots to connect up in the right way.

That’s why Game of Thrones feels different now. A show that had been about the weight of the past became about the spectacle of the present. Characters with incredible depth and agency – all the more rope with which to hang themselves – became pieces on a giant war map.

Where once the characters authored their own, terrible destinies, now they were forced to take uncharacteristic actions and make uncharacteristically bad decisions so the necessary plot points could happen and the appropriate stakes could be felt.

Organic developments gave way to contrivance. Naturally-paced character arcs were rushed. Living plants became puppets of the plot. The characters just weren’t in charge anymore. The ending was.

No one’s to blame. Keeping a million plates spinning the way GRRM did is hard. And setting those plates down without breaking too many, which the showrunners had to do, is also really hard. Creation in general is hard.

There’s a reason writers have haunted eyes and always seem like they need a hug. Give everyone a break. But: the shift in approach did have consequences.

Is pantsing better than plotting? No. And this has nothing to do with which approach is ‘right’, anyway. It’s about the approach changing in the third act. That’s the sort of thing an audience can feel happening, even if they can’t put their finger on exactly why.

The audience fell in love with one kind of show, but the ending is being imported from a different kind of show. Now, I happen to think the finale will stick the landing. It’s what the showrunners have been building toward these past two seasons, after all.

But to be satisfying, it matters how we get there, too. Treating the journey as equally important is how you get endings that feel earned. And it’s how characters keep feeling real the whole way through, even though they’re completing arcs some writer has chosen for them.

By placing so much emphasis on the ending, the showrunners changed the nature of the story they were telling, meaning the original story and the original characters aren’t the ones getting an ending. Their substitutes are.

That’s why no amount of spectacle or fan service can make this ending as satisfying as it should be. Resolutions invite us to consider the story as a whole; where it all started, where it all ended up. And we can feel the discontinuity in this one.
Daniel Silvermint, 7 May 2019


Infinity and Beyond

NB: This post contains spoilers for “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (if you’re one of the few who haven’t seen and/or read them).

I came out of Infinity War with mixed feelings. It’s exciting, non-stop entertainment. There’s been a lot of hard work put into it, and it shows. I didn’t see any blatant plot-holes, bad acting, or boom-mikes hitting Iron Man in the noggin.

Yet I also feel like saying it’s not a good film. And it’s taking me a while to parse out why I feel like that. Even reviewers seem undecided as to whether it’s a nuanced story told from the villain’s perspective, or an action ronp1 with the emotional depth of a teaspoon.

Quite a few people have compared it to the Harry Potter series. I agree that it’s similar; in particular to the first Deathly Hallows movie: there’s a “collect them all!” MacGuffin fetch-quest; chaotic, reactive action with little time for proper plans; magic, especially illusions2; the villain causes pain by touching the last MacGuffin in a hero’s forehead; a thrown weapon, and its target teleporting away; the heroes are left slumped, mourning their losses; and the final shot is of the successful villain.

It’s a downer ending, leaving you wondering “How are they going to come back from this?!”. It worked pretty well for Harry Potter, so why not here?

Because the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not the Harry Potter series. I think where they differ is in tone and expectations. Harry Potter had been gradually becoming darker and more mature; the most recent Marvel films (Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther3) have been comparatively light-hearted and fun (even though dealing with weighty issues). There were plenty of fun moments in Infinity War, but as things progressed they were either too mild to lighten the increasingly bleak tone, or they felt awkward and out-of-place.

It’s an unexpected and significant darkening of the tone, especially with the tragic cliffhanger ending. The difference with Deathly Hallows part 1 is that a) everybody already knew (roughly) what was going to happen next, and b) the movie adaptation stuck fairly closely to the books. Infinity War is (afaik) a new plot loosely based on elements of a few different storylines from the comics. Even avid comic-readers don’t know what’s going to happen in the next Avengers movie (though they have more references to back up their speculation)4.

This is a common problem with the second-book/movie-in-a-trilogy. Inspired by The Empire Strikes Back5, things go bad and it seems like the villain(s) have won, only for the heroes to rally and turn things around in the third book/movie. This works a lot better if you can immediately move on to the next one; when you have to wait a year, not so much6.

The way we remember experiences (particularly negative ones) is based on a combination the most intense part and the end part7. By forcing the audience to stop at the most tragic beat of the story (half of the people in the universe have just been disintegrated), we remember the gut punch of “No, not Groot!”, “No, not Spider-Man!”, “No, not T’Challa!”, “No, not <insert applicable>!”.

I don’t know how I’d change Infinity War to fix this, but there needs to be a hope spot. Empire doesn’t end with Luke alone and bloodied, hanging off the bottom of Cloud City: it ends with him in the hospital, with a new hand, watching his friends set off to try to find Han. That moment is what’s missing.

1 Misspelling intentional. 🙂

2 A detail I noticed is that Loki and Dr. Strange hand over their infinity stones in the same manner. I’m not sure what it means, but it feels intentional.

3 It seems like everybody came out of Black Panther feeling psyched. Then, he gets disappeared.

4 I find it an interesting titbit that they consider the intended title of the next Avengers movie to be a spoiler. For what? I don’t know enough to speculate, so we’ll have to wait and see.

5 Star Wars seems to be the go-to series for cribbing a structure for your epic fantasy/adventure.

6 I do suspect that Infinity War will seem better if watched back-to-back with its sequel (for the reason explained in the next footnote, if nothing else).

7 This is called the peak-end rule.

Back and Forward

Criticism is a difficult arena.

It can be hard to give a critique; the intent should always be to identify an issue you have with a story1. There’s all the usual difficulties of communication and potential misunderstandings2, and it’s all to easy to drift into unhelpful negativity (“this book sucks!”), or ad hominem (“this author sucks!”). You (as the critic) have to recognise that not everyone will feel the same way, and that maybe you’re not part of the target audience.

But it is also very hard to receive a critique, and especially to not take it personally. Ideally, there needs to be a level of trust between author and critic that both share the goal of improving the story.

This makes the internet both boon and bane. An author can submit their work to a site3, allowing others to read it and make comments. Anyone can give feedback. Unfortunately, anyone can give feedback. I don’t have any figures to back it up, but it seems a truth universally acknowledged that a writer who allows anonymous reviews must be in want of abuse.

I was reading a story the other day, and the author’s response (to comments they4 had gotten) caught my eye. As context, one of the main characters was attacked, and had to spend time in hospital recovering, and the authorities didn’t take the investigation seriously until her friends kicked up a fuss. The author later explained why they had this happen: to give that character a reason to not be around, giving focus to the relationship between the other two protagonists; to demonstrate that the other characters cared (i.e. when she was hurt they looked after her); to provide conflict between the protagonists and the authorities; and to have an incident be punished, thus showing that the local hooligans weren’t going to have free rein any more.

A repeated piece of writing advice is to ensure that there is a reason why every part of the story is there (whether it’s a scene, a subplot, or an entire character), and if there isn’t a good reason, remove it. Like a lot of advice, though, in being distilled to a bullet point, it loses some nuance and explanation. How good a reason do you need? What sort of reason do you need?

Now, all the reasons given above are perfectly valid to justify the inclusion of this incident. But what I realised when I thought about it some more, is that the reasons are all looking forward. Basically, the attack creates a situation that allows later things to happen; as another piece of writing advice puts it, events should be linked by “therefore” or “but” (not just “and then”). Here, the real issue is not that the incident does not link to later plot/character developments, but that it doesn’t have clear enough links backward to previous things that have happened in the story, so it seemed to come out of nowhere. In animation, this is called Anticipation—preparing the audience for what is about to happen5.

For my third, and final, piece of writing advice: “earn it”. You can include whatever dramatic plot twist, sudden reveal, or clichéd trope you like, but you have to make it work. Put in the foreshadowing, so that the reader reacts with “I should have seen it coming!” rather than “Wait, what?!?”. Establish how dangerous an enemy is so it doesn’t throw people out of the story when the enemies savagely attack. The bigger/more clichéd the trope, the more work you need to do to ensure that it meshes well with the rest of your story.

1 I’m going to be focusing on the context of writing a story, but the challenge is similar for any type of work, whether focusing on the subjective elements (the art—e.g. “this sculpture fills me with optimism”), or the objective ones (the craft—e.g. “the left sleeve came unstitched when the model turned at the end of the runway”).

2 “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” (Attributed to various people, original unknown.)

3 Of which there are more than I can keep track of, whether you’re writing fanfiction or original works.

4 I think they’d given their name as “Paul”, which implies male, but this is the internet, where no-one knows whether you’re a sentient allium.

5 Interestingly, if you do the anticipation and the follow through/reaction well, you can omit the actual action and the audience will still perceive it as happening. Think of a kids show where they don’t want to explicitly show a character punching another—you get the dramatic wind-up (pulling back a fist), and then the other character flies out the window.

Doctor Why

So, this morning I—like many others—woke to the announcement of who’s playing the next Doctor. Somewhat predictably, there has been online ranting from the extremes of the pro/anti spectrum1.

Am I the only one thinking “That’s interesting. I’ll have to see how they turn out.”?

But then, I tend to have that reaction to any new Doctor announcement2. Generally I haven’t heard of/encountered the new actor before, so I don’t have any particular preconceptions before I see them in action. It’s hard to judge how good a Doctor someone will be beforehand3, as it’s not just a matter of who the actor is, but what their “style” is going to be (both costume and manner), and where the writing team take them.

Doctor Who is at rather an advantage in this regard, having not just a built-in mechanism for cast changes, but an expectation of them. Companions come and go as their own stories are completed, and the main character regenerates to be the-same-but-different, allowing a new style, attitude, and perspective. Regardless of whether you like a particular Doctor and/or companion, the show will eventually move on, and even if you stop watching there’s always the incentive to come back to see what you think of the new one.

My theory is that with every new Doctor, the writers etc (whether they’ve worked with the previous Doctor(s) or not) will have a sense of what aspect of the character they want to explore, and will cast the part with that in mind. The general theme so far with the new series has been the Doctor coming to terms with past trauma (the Time War and all that), so…

  • The 9th Doctor started out a bit hardened and cynical, and gradually learned to open up to people again, to have fun, to “dance”. Christopher Eccleston was a good fit for being able to be a bit scary but also a bit goofy.
  • The 10th was somewhat mellower, but now that he’d opened up, had to deal with the previously-bottled emotions. Hence, manic energy, but also the angst. And David Tennant does good sad-puppy eyes.
  • 11 had moved on, wanting a fresh start. New, happy memories to replace the bad, old ones (10 and 11 are described at one point as “the man who regrets, and the man who forgets”). Hence the young Matt Smith, who never-the-less can convey an alienness and sense of age.
  • 12 (bearing in mind I’ve only seen his first season) had finally resolved a lot of his issues around the Time War, but had been uncertain about who he was without that focal point, making it difficult for him to relate to other people. Peter Capaldi made this unintentional abrasiveness work, and—in an odd reversal of the previous version—was an old-looking face who behaved like a teenager; still finding themselves, desperate for approval, but prone to being prickly.

So where does that leave 13, to be played by Jodie Whittaker? For one thing, she wouldn’t have been cast if they didn’t think she was capable of playing the part. My hope is that the Doctor being a woman has a purpose behind it, in terms of exploring a different side of the character.

But, as with all her predecessors, we’ll have to wait, and watch, to find out. As usual, I’m quietly hopeful.

1 “Yes!!! Another kick in the plums for the patriarchy!!”, “Ow, my entitlement!”, “About time! James (Jane) Bond next!”, “The show is ruined forever!”, etc. etc. All the stuff you encounter if you ever dare to read the comment section.

2 Though I do admit a little extra emphasis on the ‘that’s interesting’ this time.

3 Full disclosure: Of the “modern” Doctors, I’d heard of Christopher Eccleston and thought him a weird choice, but he was fine. I knew nothing about David Tennant, enjoyed his early stuff, but got a bit over him by the end. Matt Smith was the first Doctor younger than me, which was a strange feeling, but I thought he did well4. Peter Capaldi I didn’t know what to expect, and personally haven’t enjoyed his Doctor, but I wouldn’t say he’s done a bad job of it.

4 Plus, bow ties are cool. I’m undecided about fezzes though.

Know Your Medium, Part 2

Previously, I introduced the topic of linguistic relativity—how the choice of “language” affects what concepts are easy to think about.

Another wrinkle of linguistic relativity is that a language affects what you are obliged to think about. For example, when talking about an event in English, we need to consider when it happened (past/present/future tense). Other languages include what’s called evidentiality1: you need to consider how you know about the event; did you see it yourself, or did someone else tell you about it (first/second/etc. hand).

These considerations (what am I forced to convey? what is going to be difficult to convey?) are important when you are trying to tell a story, as the answers are different for a novel than they are for a screenplay.

For example, a common “bad writing” complaint is a book starting with the main character examining themselves in the mirror2 (thus providing a description). The reason this keeps cropping up is that—with only text—it’s not easy to show what a character looks like. Typically, one or two salient features will be mentioned about a character, and the rest will be left to the reader’s imagination3.

In contrast, a scriptwriter would have to tie themselves in some very uncomfortable knots in order to not present a character’s appearance to the audience. It happens the instant the actor emerges. What is difficult is revealing a character’s name. If they are being introduced, that’s easy enough, but there are bound to be characters the protagonist already knows (but the audience doesn’t). Naming is comparatively trivial in a novel.

There’s a deeper significance to this movie-appearance/book-name difference, though, which becomes apparent when it comes to a certain type of twist ending: a character (especially the protagonist) is not be who they have seemed to be. Sometimes, this is accomplished by having the character masked, in the shadows4, or otherwise hidden until a dramatic reveal at the end. This can be very effective if done well, like in the original Metroid game where the main character, bounty hunter Samus Aran, is unexpectedly revealed to be female, smashing players’ preconceptions.

This sort of twist crops up more often in sci-fi/fantasy settings, where hand-waves like “life-like androids”, “clones”, “plastic surgery”, or good old-fashioned “magic” allow for a character to not be who they appear to be. But it’s success is not dependant on the justification (if the rest is done well, the audience are more forgiving). There’s a couple of ways in which the writer can trip themselves up with this trope, which requires some detailed examples.

(Cue spoiler warnings for the films “The Tourist” and “Self/Less”.)

In The Tourist, Johnny Depp’s main character seems to be an everyman caught up in the hunt for a vanished criminal mastermind. Interpol want to catch the baddie. The other crooks want his loot stash. The femme fatale has made everyone think Johnny is the crook (post plastic surgery). After many hijinks, the cops shoot/arrest the other crooks, and Johnny is free to go. But wait! He knows how to get at the crook’s secret safe (he is the criminal mastermind after all), so he gets the money and the leading lady, and lives happily ever after.

Based on the presentation (i.e. the cinematic language), this is a happy ending. Emotionally, we go along with it, because the face we’ve been following/rooting for throughout has won. But when you pause a moment, you feel discomfited: the character you’re attached to is a cunning criminal, who changed his entire appearance to escape the police. This made for an awkward ending.

In Self/Less, old, rich, and ailing Ben Kingsley undergoes a black-market medical procedure to transfer his consciousness to a younger, healthier body (Ryan Reynolds). We follow Ryan as his initial carefree hedonism turns to concern over the weird dreams/flashbacks he starts having (especially when he forgets to take his meds). Eventually, he discovers his new body is not “vat grown”, but originally belonged to someone else, who sold it to pay his family’s debts. Ultimately, Ryan brings down the immoral scientist doing the mind transfers, stops taking the medication (so “Ben Kingsley” fades away), and reunites with his family in traditional hollywood-happy-ending fashion. But wait! Though we’re attached to his face, we know basically nothing about this Ryan Reynolds. Again, there’s something slightly awkward about the ending.

Both movies kind of got away with it (though neither were especially critically successful), but it wouldn’t have worked at all in a novel. There we’re attached to a name, not a face, and it would be more obvious that we’re actually dealing with a different person, but in a movie we’re not obliged to think about that.

The point is to know the medium you’re working in. What is easy? What is hard? What do you need to think about? And most importantly, what do you not need to think about but might trip you up later?

1 Several languages are mentioned in the wikipedia page; the impression I got (which may be inaccurate, I’m no expert on languages) was that a lot of them were from eastern-europe, the middle east, or america.

2 As with all writing “rules”, there are exceptions: Divergent gets away with it, as the scene also reveals details about the world, i.e. that these people restrict the use of mirrors.

3 An interesting example of this cropped up with the casting of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione, sparking much debate. JK Rowling pointed out that the character’s race was never specified. (Did the author envision Hermione like that to begin with? Your guess is as good as mine.)

4 Easy in a novel, requires lots of tricky lighting to make it work in a movie.

Real, True, or Plausible?

People sometimes make the distinction about whether aspects of fiction are “realistic” or not. Generally, I feel fiction doesn’t have to be (it is fiction after all), and that it’s more important that it be “true”.

What I mean is that some aspect of the scene has to be presented truthfully. The reader/audience’s reaction should be “that’s how that character would behave”, “people are like that”, or “that’s what would happen”. It’s about resonance, often on an emotional level. If you (the writer) have achieved that, then the audience will be following you, even if events are not realistic.

It does help, though, if events are also plausible. They don’t need to match how things behave in the “real world”, but they should fit with the way things work in the fictional world that is presented. If a fantasy novel establishes how magic works, then it’s cheating to have it suddenly do something different, and smacks of a writer who has painted themselves into a corner.

Alternatively, you can focus too much on making a scene work on an emotional level, so the audience/reader goes along with it, but later on thinks that something seemed not quite right1.

For an (extended) example, I recently was watching a scene described as a “spies goodbye”. A couple of agents had been captured, their covers were blown2, and their only option was to “retire” from the game and never make contact with their former allies/co-workers. The two are morosely drowning their sorrows in a dimly-lit bar. The waitress brings over a drink, saying it’s a gift from another table. They glance around, and spot one of their (former) colleagues at another table in the corner. This happens several more times, as they realise their whole team are lurking in various parts of the room3. One by one, they make (tearful) eye contact, raise their glasses, then quietly leave.

Emotionally, it hits the mark. It’s fiction, so it doesn’t matter that in the real world this would be a blatant violation of the “cannot make any contact” restriction, but on reflection, it still feels a bit implausible. My main issue is that it breaks one of the cardinal rules of subterfuge: have a reason for being there4.

Is this fixable? A similar effect could be achieved by having the team members nabbing a nearby table and loudly sharing a toast to absent friends—they’re all wearing black (or at least dark colours), anyway, so they’ll give other patrons the impression that they’ve come from a funeral. Far less likely to draw unwanted attention than several people buying drinks for and saluting an otherwise inconspicuous couple. You can still use largely the same camera angles, but without the sense that people are staring at those they supposedly don’t know.

The advantage of being a writer is that any painted corner is escapable. And, if you do it right, you can reinforce other aspects of character/world, without the audience ever realising you were in a pickle to start with.

1 TvTropes refers to this sort of thing as “fridge” moments. As well as the “wait, how does that work?” they also note things that seem brilliant, or horrifying, when thought about later.

2 You know the drill—a mission goes wrong, agents have to improvise, “if you are captured, the Agency will disavow any knowledge of your actions (or even existence)”, etc.

3 And clearly want to get them really drunk.

4 It’s been frequently shown that people (only) remember things they focus on. Details that “fit” an expected pattern, that don’t stand out, will likely be forgotten.

Crime and Punishment

I was shown an interesting blog article talking about the Game of Thrones tv series, and the conflicting drives (in the audience) of empathy and vengeance. You can read it here, but in summary it was addressing the way characters do horrible things, so we want them to be punished, but then get penalised brutally, so we feel bad for them.

At this point, I should clarify that I’m not a fan of GoT—it’s too … intense … for my tastes1. Given the popularity of revenge-based stories throughout history (as in, they usually inspire catharsis, not ambivalence), I suspect the makers of the show are trying to portray the acts of retribution in such a way as to emphasise their brutality and engender empathy in the audience. It would certainly fit with the theme of “everyone is equally nasty (and those that aren’t tend to get killed off quickly)”.

It does raise an interesting thought, though. When we see another human suffering, we feel sympathy. If we see someone wronged, we feel anger: we want justice. But what do we mean by “justice”? Sure, revenge is viscerally satisfying, but only if we dissociate from the other party (usually either through seeing them as somehow inhuman—monstrously evil and unredeemable—or by otherwise distancing them—they are from a rival clan/group).

Many stories of vengeance also convey the idea of “‘an eye for an eye’ leaves the world blind”. Our desire for punishment can be defused by seeing the humanity of the perpetrator. Some political parties like to focus on “tougher sentences for crime” as though it would help, but evidence suggests it does not: likelihood of punishment (“Will I get caught?”) matters more than severity of punishment in deterring lawbreaking.

This is all focusing on the penalties of wrongdoing, however (whether via an individual avenger, or state sanctions). And while the presence of these can mitigate our sense of injustice, I do wonder if they are ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff measures.

Perhaps the way to make the world a more just place would be to try and ensure there were no benefits to breaking the rules.

But we could go further. It’s also known that people are more likely to take risks to avoid a loss than to gain a bonus. So maybe the real problem (and the real injustice) is that following the rules doesn’t mean you’ll be successful.

1 I do know enough bits and pieces of history to recognise the reality of the political machinations; it’s been said2 that democracy doesn’t guarantee you the best ruler, but allows you to change them without bloodshed. It’s worth remembering. We don’t know how propitious are the circumstances, Frederick. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, a new sultan would have his extended family killed off to prevent the possibility of civil war over heirship.

2 I seem to recall a specific quote along these lines, but I cannot remember the wording, or who said it. If anyone does know, please enlighten me!

Better Game Stories In One Step

…it’s just not a very simple one.

A note to start with: This is focused on games where the story is an important component. Not all games are like this. Assume that we’re talking about action/adventure/rpg/etc. games with a significant narrative.

Few would argue that a compelling story involves the following four elements:

  1. An interesting* protagonist
  2. …who wants something
  3. …but has to overcome obstacles to get it
  4. …and either succeeds or fails**

“Traditional” storytelling media (e.g. books, films) are pretty good at ticking these boxes (literally—for example, there’s a how-to book for movie scripts).

Following the same advice and patterns has worked … okay … for video games, but runs into the usual problem with an interactive medium. The player is the protagonist. This means you have a conflict between giving the player freedom to do what they want to do, and ensuring that the protagonist does what is needed for the next part of the story.

Different games manage this better or worse, and various techniques have been used (e.g. “gating” parts of the game to make sure the player experiences things in the right order). But players of some games have reacted loudly against being “railroaded”; feeling disconnected from the game, that their actions don’t matter, that the controls may as well be “Press X to see the next scene”.

Yet it should be easy, shouldn’t it? Games are all about the player/protagonist trying to overcome obstacles to achieve a goal. And games are pretty good at making the protagonist interesting—either through being a blank slate that the player can project themselves onto, or making appropriate use of pre-existing literary/filmic character design techniques.

Whether you refer to it as “ludo-narrative dissonance”, “lack of engagement”, “railroading”, or whatever else, I suspect the same underlying issue with the story. The problem is that the player and the protagonist have different goals. As such, story progress (related to the protagonist’s goal), makes the player feel disinterested (at best). If it gets in the way of the player achieving their goal, they may come to see the narrative as another obstacle.

An example of this is in open-world games where the player wants to muck about and explore, and becomes frustrated at the game trying to get them back to the main quest. Another example is a cut scene that presents a character the protagonist needs to rescue. The player is essentially told “this is your best friend”, but they’re thinking “no, Sam is my best friend****, this is just some random NPC that I’m going to be forced to rescue. Aw man, I hope this isn’t going to be one of those escort missions…”.

To fix this, we just need to make sure the player’s goal matches (or at least is compatible with) the protagonist’s. “Oh, is that all?” you might be thinking. The difficulty is how. To support my attempt at a general answer, I submit the following example.

Think of the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (What do you mean, you haven’t seen it?!?). Imagine playing through something like that in a game. You have to navigate various traps to obtain the magic +3 Sword of Wompage—a significant improvement over your -1 Blunt Twig of Equivocation. You then get a brief chance to use the Sword of Wompage before, just as you’ve escaped the collapsing dungeon by the skin of your teeth, the villainous Baron Smarmy Twirlmoustache shows up and takes your new toy away. I would suggest that at this point, the goals of you (the player) and the protagonist are in perfect alignment.

So what are some general principles we can draw from this?

  • Players won’t care about something just because they’re told to
  • They will care about something that affects gameplay
  • Cut scenes are better for introducing obstacles than goals
  • Baron Twirlmoustache is kind-of a jerk

Game developers already consider the various types of player motivation they want to tap into when designing gameplay (see the Bartle taxonomy, for a formal example); the next step is considering how to align the story with it as well.

* Note: “interesting”, not “likeable”. The main character doesn’t necessarily have to be someone the audience wants to be, or would like to meet, but the audience does have to be curious about what will happen to the character*** next.

** This doesn’t necessarily align with whether the story has a “happy ending”. Sometimes the best outcome for the protagonist is not getting the thing but realising they don’t actually want/need it.

*** One of the benefits of an ensemble cast is that different audience members may be intrigued by different characters, thus keeping a wider audience tuning in than if the focus was mainly on a single protagonist.

**** Few know that Frodo was an avid gamer. There had to be something to while away those quiet, lonely nights in Bag End.

Prequelitis (and Related Ailments)

And in a burst of cosmic irony (God must have a sense of humour), despite what I wrote yesterday, I get randomly inspired and a post leaps almost fully-formed into my head (*ouch*).

For a while I was following the tv-series Gotham (a prequel focusing on not-yet-Commissioner Gordon’s experiences dealing with the messed up and corrupt state of the system), but realised after a while that keeping up with it was seeming more chore than entertainment. It had its moments, but overall I was finding it boring*; events were presented as being significant and dramatic, but it felt like nothing was really going anywhere.

It suffers from prequelitis: the condition where you are unable to achieve significant depth of drama because everyone knows how things will work out eventually. Some non-prequels even subject themselves to some degree of this through their framing device (for example, the narrator is relating their past experiences, either to another character, or to the audience).

Another example would be the Star Wars prequels—whatever happens, the audience already knows that Anakin will become Darth Vader, the empire will take over the galaxy, and that things will generally end up how they are at the start of A New Hope**.

The show apparently sprang from the premise “What if Gordon was the one investigating the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents?”, which is an interesting thought, but again, doesn’t really change anything about the status quo. As the saying goes, “If you’re going to flash, flash hard”****. Upend the established order. Embrace the alternative-universe take on the material. Make the inciting question something like “What if only one of the Waynes was killed?”, or “What if Bruce was killed as well/instead?”, or even “What if Batman is an actual vampire? Even a sparkly one—can you imagine it?—his costume covered with sequins. That would be hilarious!”

Be brave. Sure, the audience may not like it, but they won’t know what’s coming next. Even if everything else largely turns out as normal, starting off on a wild tangent primes the audience to expect the unexpected.

* I freely acknowledge that other people’s opinions may differ. Rose Red found it too grim/gritty, which is sadly the modern audience’s expectation for anything related to el hombre murciélago. Sadly, I don’t think the Adam West goofy camp, or even the Burtonesque kooky gothic, would succeed in the current climes, where anything not sufficiently serious is labelled a “guilty pleasure” or is only enjoyed “ironically”.

** There are various other problems [with the Star Wars prequels] that other people have already gone into in great depth. The only one I will mention (predominantly related to films) is the phenomenon of success → more money. Often what makes a film great is the effort that goes into working with/around limitations; lack of budget/technology forces you to really think about what is needed to make the story work, and how to do it. After the first film is a success, the studio throws money at any ___quels, with the result that the crew can become indulgent, and the resulting films feel flashy but insubstantial. There may be amazing spectacles***, but like cheap takeaway food, half an hour later you’re hungry again.

*** No, I’m not specifically talking about the ones you get for watching in 3D (though that is another example of the issue).

**** A cliché from the world of cricket commentary. Essentially, if you’re going to play a risky shot, don’t make it even riskier by being half-hearted about it.

Are Lies Ever White?

For a long time I’ve been puzzled by the idea of lying. Various moral philosophies have fairly clear edicts on the matter (i.e. deceit = bad) and this seems to be the prevailing opinion. Sure, there are those who see absolutely no problem with lying, but they’re generally either fictional, psychopaths, or both.

But at the same time, this suggests that most people are hypocrites, in that they decry lying with one hand, and indulge in it with the other, justifying things as “social niceties” or “little white lies” (textbook denial-by-diminishing). But I tend to agree: there are plenty of times that to tell the truth would be impolite, unwise, in some way less good than not doing so.

So what’s the deal? Are we all filthy liars, or is lying not as bad as it’s portrayed?

Actually, I think there’s something else involved (from my perspective at least). Part of my confusion has been due to my perception of what a “lie” is, which has been influenced more than the average by “Knights and Knaves” logic puzzles (e.g. the two doors, two guards scene in the film Labyrinth).

The effect being that I had a very black-and-white view of lying: any false statement is a lie. More recently, harkening back to my thoughts on morality, I’ve realised that this neglects the “liar”‘s intentions. Do they realise what they’re saying is false? Or are they mistaken? Misinformed? Deluded? Why are they making a false statement?

Another distinction that should be made is between lying by commission (stating something false) and lying by omission (leaving out something true). It took me a while to come to grips with the idea that someone saying “How are you?” is just making conversation, and you don’t need to feel uncomfortable about saying that you’re fine even though you’re actually traumatised over yesterday’s episode of Days Of Our Lives. There’s nothing wrong with keeping private things private.

Another situation that seems, at face value, to be lying is the whole area of fiction: literature, theatre, comedy, etc. Knowingly asserting things that are not true, but without malice. Indeed, there is an implicit assumption that both parties know the story is false. Similarly in various types of games, deliberate deceit is a component (e.g. bluffing at poker, dummy passes in football), but it’s under specific conditions.

I don’t want to suggest by this that lying is a good thing; merely clarify the definition. Much of the function of society depends on there being a level of trust between people. What got me (back) onto this topic was an episode of the tv show Perception (another in the “abrasive, mentally-ill, but brilliant layman* helps solve crimes” genre – this time with a schizophrenic neuroscience professor) which mentioned that we react to lies with the same part of our brains that process pain: discovering you are being deceived literally feels uncomfortable. I also vaguely recollect reading (somewhere) that when we hear a statement, our brain processes it as though it were true (which I suspect is why rumours can hurt so much), and we have to actively refute it (literally have second thoughts about it).

To conclude with a metaphor (because I like metaphors**): tigers are dangerous, but we shouldn’t treat zebras the same way just because they’re stripey.

* Because they’re almost always men (which is a whole other kettle of worms).

** I’m rather fond of footnotes, too.