The Curse of Writer’s Block

Nearly slipping on the fancy red rug, he stumbles around the corner of the hallway.  The chandeliers rock back and forth eerily, shoved from rest by unknown forces.  A low cackling echoes from everywhere at once, yet seems to be behind him as he runs.  Whispering fills his ears.  The lights click off one by one, trying to catch up to him.  Panting, sweating, his stomach twisted into knots, he stumbles around another corner and finds himself face to face with a heavy oak door.  The cackling and whispering cease abruptly as his eyes lock onto the faded brown door.  The door is incredibly old, and seems unremarkable.  But he feels something, something strange, yet oddly familiar.  In a flash he knows that the answers he has been seeking lie beyond the door.  The explanation to the creatures stalking him in the night, the ceaseless nightmares, the inexplicable feeling he had whenever he looked at this old mansion, all of these would be explained the moment he stepped across the threshold.

He lays a sweaty and shaking hand on the brass knob.  It feels cold, far too cold.  As he turns the knob, it seems almost reluctant, like it’s trying to protect him.  But whatever was behind that door, he had to know.  Slowly, slowly, slowly he turns the knob, and the door pops open.  A draft of cool air billows forth, ruffling his clothing.  Steeling himself, he pulls open the door and steps inside.

It feels much cooler in here than anywhere else in the mansion.  The moon shines in through a large window in the back, casting a dim light on the far end, the only source of illumination in the entire room.  He’s about to take a step further when suddenly a silhouetted figure darts past the window, casting a misshapen shadow.  He gasps, and turns around only to watch the door he entered from slam shut.  He turns back toward the window, and sees the blinds descend, casting the room into total darkness.

Instinctively he knows something is staring at him, mere inches from his face.  He can feel its breath.  Shakily, he pulls a tiny pocket flashlight out of his pants.  He points it directly in front of him, and clicks it on.

And there, standing in front of him is the specter of someone who should not there.  The phantom of the past.  The emblem of all his troubles.  Slowly his mind starts to unravel.  How, how could this be?

Standing in front him was none other than…than…

And then you realize, your fingers stopping mid-sentence, and you stare at the words before you.  You have no idea where this is going.  It all leads up to this one pivotal, essential moment, but you don’t know how it should end.  You stare down at your immovable hands.  And then it hits you.  Writer’s block.  It happens to many writers somewhere down the line.  You just didn’t expect it to happen to you.

 

How many of you have encountered a situation like this before?  A situation where you simply cannot write, or even think of anything.  Where your creative energy just leaves you, flies away like a bird escaping captivity.  If you answered “no”, you’re probably lying to yourself.

Writer’s block can happen, and will happen at some point in your writing.  It’s pretty much inevitable.  It’s best not to try to avoid it, because in most cases you will simply hasten its coming.  You can only fight it once it arrives.

AND HERE IS MY THREE-STEP PROGRAM FOR DEALING WITH WRITER’S BLOCK.  FEEL TRAPPED NO MORE!  EXPERIENCE PURE CREATIVE ENERGY!  STEP RIGHT UP AND FEEL THE WORDS FLOW!

Just kidding.  In reality there really is no hard and fast solution (like many of the things in our craft) to writer’s block.  It just happens, and you have to find your own path through it.  So then, why am I telling you all this?  Why am I even talking about the problem of writer’s block?  The answer is simple: you’re not alone.

One of the things that tends to happen to people who experience this is that they withdraw into themselves, and feel like they’re all alone in the world.  The truth is, you’re not.  So many young writers and even older, acclaimed writers will experience this from time to time.  Writing is not a science.  You can’t just draw up a formula for producing lengthy, quality writing and use it every single time you want to write a story.  You stumble forth, blindly following your inspiration wherever it takes you.  Then, once you finish a piece of work, you begin the process of hammering it out into something you can be proud of.

Sometimes just looking at an image or a place can help spark your imagination and creativity.  It's often those times when we don't think about it that we get past our block.

Sometimes just looking at an image or a place can help spark your imagination and creativity. It’s often those times when we don’t think about it that we get past our block. Enjoy this scenic image of Duluth.

As for actually dealing with writer’s block itself, like I said there is no clear perfect way to do it.  It all depends on who you are as a person.  Some might just need to take a break from writing.  Some people might like to read a book to get their creativity flowing again.  Others might play a video game.  Another possibility is taking a walk.  Studies have shown that walking does help provide that creative jolt.

Regardless of what your method is, you do what you have to do.  Because we are all imperfect beings with flaws and issues, who have our own unique quirks and personalities.  We have our own ways of coping with the world and its problems.  We have our own hopes and dreams, our own paths through life.  We are not just machines that can effortlessly crank out writing whenever we feel like it.  We are unpredictable.  We are often cranky when things don’t go the way we want it to.  We are mellow.  We are loud.  We are who we are, and there’s no better way to put it.

 

That’s all I’ve got for you this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post.  Until then, have a wonderful week.

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Myst: The Game Everyone Played, But Few Beat

I talk about video games a lot on this blog.  That much is a given.  But I can’t help myself.  Games are a big part of my life, and one of the most effective ways for me to relax and blow off steam.  I firmly believe that they are capable of offering so many unique and interesting experiences that cannot be offered by any other medium.  Games are still very young in comparison to movies and books, but they’ve come a long way in such a short time.

But there’s one game I want to talk about in particular today, a game that I’ve mentioned many times before.  It turned twenty years old just last year, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential video games ever.  It helped propel the CD-ROM format to new heights, showcasing its potential for all to see.  A game that still pops up from time to time, whether in the form of a re-release or just a nostalgic forum post.  A game that changed the adventure genre forever.  I’m talking, of course, about Myst.

But this isn’t just the story of Myst.  This is my story as well.

 

History

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the adventure game reigned supreme.  There were plenty of adventure games to choose from, including the well-known King’s Quest series.  To put it simply, there was no shortage of adventure games on the market.  The problem?  Many of these games were constrained by the format they came on.  At this point in history, games and software came on floppy disks that only held up to around one megabyte of data.

But then, a revelation of technology came to the forefront.  It might seem so silly to us now, but back in the day the invention of the CD-ROM was a huge leap forward.  Instead of being confined to a floppy disk with only one megabyte of storage capacity, the CD-ROM brought that number up to six hundred and fifty.  So you can see, it was a game-changer (pardon the pun).

This drastic step up lead to people going a little technology crazy for a while, with plenty of random and frivolous things making it onto the CD-ROM format.  A similar thing happens every time technology takes a leap forward.  It takes a while for it to settle in, and for people to use it intelligently.  So the question for video games was which one would become the one to define the CD-ROM era?  The answer was probably not what most people expected.

The first screen of the game in its original glory.  It doesn't look like much today, but it blew people's minds back then.

The first screen of the game in its original glory. It doesn’t look like much today, but it blew people’s minds back then (picture taken from IGN).

 

Compare that original image to this one from the realMyst Masterpiece Edition.  Myst has come a long way.

Compare that original image to this one from realMyst Masterpiece Edition. Myst has come a long way.

An Island of Mystery

Myst was a passion product of two brothers, Rand and Robyn Miller.  It was a surreal adventure game that focused more on exploration than straight telling you a story.  In fact, the beginning of the game tells you almost nothing at all.  There’s a brief, half-minute introduction by an unknown narrator who talks about throwing a book into something called “the fissure”.  The book lands, and you pick it up.  Opening the book whisks you away to the island of Myst, planting you squarely on the dock.  Immediately at the start, you’re left to your own devices.  There’s no hints telling you where to go, or a compass pointing you in the right direction.  It’s all up to you to find and reveal the story.

This is one of the reasons why I adore this game so much, that sense of mystery.  When you start the game for the first time, you have no idea what’s going on or what this world is all about.  It’s the thrill of discovery, pure and simple.  Myst operates by its own set of rules, rules that you need to learn to be able to progress.  That’s probably why it was the game everyone played, but few beat.

Myst’s primary gameplay consists of solving puzzles.  These puzzles quickly garnered a reputation for being incredibly difficult and occasionally convoluted.  Here’s an example.  One puzzle in the game has you entering dates into a machine to get an image of stars.  You then have to associate those star images with pictures of constellations in one of the library’s books.  You then have to associate those constellations with the correct square pedestals sitting outside in the courtyard.  Once you put that together, and activate the correct ones (and ONLY the correct ones), a ship in the harbor will rise out of the water.  And all that does is allow you access to another level in the game.

I remember this mine track puzzle stumped me as a kid.  I only understood it much later when I played the game as an adult, and that was still with some help.

I remember this mine track puzzle stumped me as a kid. I only understood it much later when I played the game as an adult, and that was still with some help.

However, the difficulty of the puzzles was also a strong point.  They kept players coming back for more, waiting for that eventual “eureka” moment.  It kept the game planted firmly in your mind as you went throughout your day, always leaving you thinking about that one puzzle you hadn’t solved yet.  Few games since have managed to foster such a sense of discovery and timeless wonder.  And that feeling of satisfaction you get when you finally put the pieces together and solve a puzzle?  Pure ecstasy.

 

Atmosphere

Perhaps the strongest part of Myst was its atmosphere.  It seems to me that so many people who played it were simply content to wander around its world and lose themselves in it.  The atmosphere still stands today, despite the fact that the original game was in 640 x 480 resolution (for contrast, my monitor runs at 1920 x 1080).  Of course, now there’s the realMyst Masterpiece Edition, which rebuilds the game in the Unity engine replete with new graphical features (such as a day night cycle) for the nostalgic fan to once again wander the worlds of Myst.

Despite its age, there’s something to be said for standing on the shores of Myst island, listening to the gentle lapping of the water as it hits land, or the gentle breeze that blows across the island.  Or walking among the treetops in Channelwood, listening to the wooden bridges creak as you cross them.  Or sitting in the little lighthouse in the Stoneship age, gazing out at the scenery and soaking it all in.

The Stoneship Age was my favorite age in the game, and a lot of it had to do with this room.  I mean come on, it's a freaking bay window underwater.  How cool is that?  And when the room lights up later on...

The Stoneship Age was my favorite age in the game, and a lot of it had to do with this room. I mean come on, it’s a freaking underwater bay window. How cool is that? And when the room lights up later on…

...it's even more spectacular looking.  These fantastic locales helped make Myst so memorable.

…it’s even more spectacular looking. Such fantastic locales helped make Myst so memorable.

Whether it was through sound design, music, or just aesthetics, Myst created a lasting impression.  It might look really old now, but it’s hard to deny that Myst has a charm to it, a lasting quality that’ll make every repeat trip a trip down memory lane.  Some critics decry that the game is pretentious and boring, but others call it visionary and timeless.  One thing is for certain,  Myst was the result of two people building something they wanted to build.  It was the culmination of creativity and motivation, a creation bound not by trends and corporate oversight, but by imagination.

 

A Game That Forever Stays

It’s hard to really explain why I love Myst so much to people.  I remember once a long time ago I was installing it onto my family’s first laptop, and my brother asked me why of all the games I could choose did I choose that one.  And I remember I didn’t have a definitive answer, except that I wanted to play it.

I don’t remember for sure when I first played the game, but I remember that I kept coming back to it in some way.  I’ve even had dreams that involved Myst island.  It was one of the first video games I ever laid my eyes on, and I didn’t even beat it until much later in life.

But I remember the abandoned tree huts in Channelwood.  I remember the mysterious golden spaceship on Myst island..  I remember the compass rose puzzle in the Stoneship Age, and solving it by pure luck.  The serene music started playing, and I was on top of the world.

It may have been shear luck that I solved the compass puzzle, but it felt damn amazing.

It may have been sheer luck that I solved the compass puzzle, but it felt damn amazing.

Playing Myst for me is a zen-like experience.  It washes over me, and I lose myself in its world, even though I know most of its puzzle solutions by heart.  And now, with the twentieth anniversary edition, I can experience it with full three-dimensional movement, seeing the game from any viewpoint I wish.

Part of Myst’s charm for me is that there are no enemies or time constraints.  I can meander around the game at my own pace without having to be worried that a big, nasty alien is around the next corner waiting to sink its claws into me if I don’t pull the trigger on my gun fast enough.

Myst might not have been the first game I ever played, but it was the first game that was a true experience for me.  Myst is one of those games that can make a compelling argument for video games being art.  It stirs people’s emotions in a very complicated way, despite the bare-bones story and lack of any real player character to identify with.  It’s an experience that would lose something if it were made as a book or a movie rather than a game.

But the thing that always stands out for me is when I walk around the island of Myst, listening to the water and the wind,  I feel warm inside.  So when I fire up realMyst Masterpiece Edition, it’s like a homecoming.  That familiar ethereal woosh when you first click on the book that transports you to another age.  That eerie, mysterious music in the tower on Myst island.  The gigantic Channelwood forest surrounded by water as far as the eye can see.  It’s all old, yet new.  I can literally just enter a room, close my eyes, and just sit there listening to the ambient noise.  It’s like meditation, a calming of the soul.  It’s a feeling that stays.

Myst island at night.

Myst island at night.

 

Myst’s Legacy

Myst spawned a number of sequels as time went on.  It was inevitable, considering Myst was the top-selling computer game for nearly ten years when The Sims finally took the crown from it in the early 2000’s.  But despite the fact that the sequels may not have sold nearly as well or have been remembered as fondly, Myst still left its impact.  Point and click adventure games didn’t simply die out.  They went underground.

I’ve spoken before about the Dark Fall games, which deal heavily with ghosts and the supernatural.  These games wouldn’t exist without Myst.  It laid the groundwork for games like these to come along, games focused more on an atmosphere and a story than anything else.  These are the games that I love the most.  Atmosphere to me is a crucial part of a game’s memorability.  I won’t remember Bioshock for the gameplay (because it was honestly only decent), but I will remember it for its atmosphere.  Every time I looked out a window and saw the shimmering water lit up by the city lights, I felt happy inside.

And now more than ever, experiential games are making a bit of a comeback.  Gone Home is a game I mentioned once or twice, an exploratory game that focuses on the player character coming home after a year away and finding the house deserted.  The entire game is just you walking around and finding important objects which trigger a diary entry from the character’s sister.  To some, it sounds dreadfully boring (as you can see from the Steam user reviews, who almost universally panned the game).  But it was one of those games that wasn’t so focused on being a challenge or making you feel powerful, but rather on telling a grounded story about a girl with realistic issues.  And it can trace its lineage back to the days of Myst.

Plenty of adventure games out there are still defined in terms of Myst.  Steam describes the original Dark Fall as being a “Myst-style adventure”, so you can see the lasting impact the game had.  The mechanics may not have aged well, and the puzzles may be overwhelming and convoluted at times, but there’s something to be said it.  As I stand on the shores of Myst island, gazing out at the endless blue horizon, I realize what it is.  And I can finally put my infatuation with the game into words.

realMyst ME (22)

The golden rocket ship.

Playing Myst feels like time travel in a way.  It feels like becoming a child again, when my worries weren’t more than just getting homework done for the next day and what I was going to eat for supper.  It feels like a part of my very being, an essential piece of who I am.  Myst helped define me.  It is the game I will remember for the rest of my life.

 

And that’s a wrap on this week’s post.  I would like to thank all those reading for indulging me on this one.  I just wanted to get it all out so to speak.  Myst has been in my brain for a long time, waiting to get out.  This post was…therapeutic in a way.

So tune in next Wednesday at noon for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week everybody.

"Perhaps the ending has not yet been written."

“Perhaps the ending has not yet been written.”

The Ills of a Two Party Dynamic

Recently on Facebook I saw this post titled “Liberal Idiot Caught on Tape”.  I watched the video, and yes, it makes the woman in it look rude and obnoxious.  She essentially walks up to the guy holding the camera and cusses him out for driving a pickup truck, telling him that he’s polluting the environment.  The problem I have with this video is two-fold.  My first issue is with its implication.

This video is deliberately set up as a “look how dumb these people are” kind of video.  It creates this false generalization of who liberals are, and is part of the reason why so many people see the word “liberal” as dirty.  It has a toxic effect, further widening the gap between people of different beliefs in a country that is supposedly progressive and accepting.  It breeds hatred in conservatives toward a group of people that encompasses far more than just one obnoxious lady who drives a Prius.  “But wait,” you may ask, “how do you know that’s the effect it’ll have?”  It’s not going to have that effect.  It already has.

I looked at the comments on the website the post linked to, and it’s pretty scary stuff.  It was full of people saying things like “liberals are fat and ugly” and “haha look at those dumb liberals, they know nothing”.  It’s rather disheartening, because it just shows how caught up in this two-party dynamic people truly are.  It seems like in so many people’s heads, it’s either one way or the other, and there is no middle ground.  You’re either conservative or you’re liberal.  This type of thinking is incredibly dangerous, because it becomes so easy to just shut out people from different viewpoints.

And besides, I bet I could just as easily look up a video of some rude and obnoxious conservative person and pass it off as a “look how dumb conservatives are” video.  I would probably get the same type of comments too.  “Conservatives are obnoxious and stupid” they’d say, or “all conservatives care about is getting drunk and shooting guns”.  Because you obviously have to be part of one group or the other.  You can’t hold your own thoughts and beliefs.  You have to align yourself to one side (hint: massive amounts of sarcasm).

It’s sad, because what this means is that people on both sides become unwilling to even talk to one another because they’ve driven this gigantic wedge between them.  I’ve known plenty of conservative people in my life, and I tend to be much more of a liberal.  It’s not like one side is smart and the other is dumb.  They’re all just different shades, different ways of looking at the same world.

Letting your political views run your life and your relationships with people?  Now THAT’S dumb.

My second issue with this video is that we don’t get good context.  It just starts up, and immediately this obnoxious lady is in our face.  She yells and cusses this guy out, who for all intents and purposes in the video seems like a perfectly nice and reasonable guy.  Here’s my problem with this though.  We can’t be sure this is one hundred percent true.

Think about it.  What happens before the camera starts rolling?  What happens once the video is done?  Both are unknowns.  For all we know before the video started rolling this guy sat there and revved his engine over and over again just trying to get a rise out of the lady.  Then he turned on the camera once he got her attention and basically made a laughingstock of her.  He sounds all nice and calm in the video, but again, he could just go completely ballistic once the camera cuts and cuss her out.  The video does end in the middle of one of her diatribes after all.

But does anyone actually question that?  No, they all just seize their chance to poke fun at her and inflate their own egos.  “Hurr hurr hurr look at this dumb liberal,” they say.  “She’s so fat and ugly, just like all liberal women.”  Thank god she wasn’t a blonde, or I’m sure we would have gotten a bunch of dumb blonde comments in there too.

It reminds me of an event that happened at college a few years back.  A student (who happened to be one of my roommates from my first year at college in Duluth) confronted a representative from a group that reads very much like a white supremacist organization.  They’ll say they’re not if you ask them, but honestly, who would actually admit to that these days?  Anyway, a video recorded by the group’s representative comes out, and it makes the student look plain antagonistic.  The problem here?  The video was very obviously and intentionally edited.  After the story broke the representative claimed that the video wasn’t edited at all.  Sure man, I totally believe that the black screens with white text just ended up in there by random happenstance.  Please, how dumb do you think we are?

While the video I’m talking about has much less editing done to it than the one from the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) incident, it’s still worth bringing up the same questions.  What led up to this video?  What happened afterward?  Why was this guy carrying around a camera in the first place, and why did he even decide to record this encounter?  These are all questions that are worth asking, but few people seem to care about that.  They’ve got tunnel vision, and are too focused on making the other side look bad.

What it all comes down to is that people seem far more willing to ignore the possibilities in favor of making themselves feel good at the expense of others rather than ask any important questions.  It’s far easier to look at this video and say “man liberals are just annoying” than it is to say “I wonder what happened to make her so angry in the first place?”  These types of videos circulate around every once in a while, basically for the sole purpose of reinforcing one political side’s belief in their rightness.

And I’m not excusing this woman’s behavior or attitude.  I’m just trying to point out that we don’t have all the information to make a perfectly sound judgment on this event.  All we have is one video recorded by one guy from one side of the equation.  Our view at the event is certainly skewed to one end, and we have to be careful about what judgments we make then.

We seem to want to lump people into specific categories, so we can separate and define them.  But the problem is that humanity cannot be defined that easily.  We are rational and irrational.  We love and we hate.  We kill and we save.  We’re rich and we’re poor.  We’re happy and we’re angry.  The vast spectrum that is human existence cannot be assigned categories without blatantly ignoring large portions of it.  By creating this videos with the implication that “this is a prime example of a liberal”, we ignore the simple fact that there are always bad people within good groups, and vice versa.  It creates this ignorant dichotomy of black and white.  But as we know, humanity doesn’t easily fit into those terms.  The same species that will commit mass genocide will also rally to help people in need.  There are no rigid boundaries for us, and forcefully trying to create them is ultimately malicious and self-serving.

You can try to lump people together to make your own life easier, but you will find very quickly that people will resist being defined by anyone but themselves.

And that’s all I have for you.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a great week everyone.

Underused Story Settings

Going off of my last post about originality in writing, I figured I’d do another list of things.  So with that being said, here is my list of settings slash places that are underused, or that I wish were used more often

 

1. Lighthouse

Lighthouses aren’t necessarily underused in fiction, but rather are primarily utilized as symbols.  They usually function as a symbol of hope, or a beacon of safety.  The giant swinging beam of light that spirals out around the spire of the lighthouse becomes a powerful image.  Let’s take a look at an example of its use.  The outset of the video game Alan Wake features out titular protagonist experiencing a nightmare where darkness is consuming the entire world.  The only sanctuary this nightmare is a lighthouse on a cliff, cutting through the dark gloom with its beam of light.  This lighthouse becomes the protagonist’s objective during this nightmare, who tries his best to reach it before he is swallowed by the darkness.

Like I said, lighthouses may not be underused in fiction, but they almost never progress beyond their use as symbols.  Sure, you do reach the lighthouse in Alan Wake, but it only serves as an end point to the dream, when the light abruptly shuts off.  But very rarely to we get to see the inside of this fascinating buildings.  A lighthouse is a perfect emblem of the old melding with the new.  Here in Duluth, if you travel down to the Canal Park waterfront, you can see two small lighthouses sitting at the end of the pier.  But I would like to see them function as more than symbols.  They deserve to be explored, to have their old mysteries and inhabitants brought to life.

Besides, lighthouses are just cool.

Lighthouses. LIGHTHOUSES MAN!

For example, the game Dark Fall 2: Lights Out is set inside of a lighthouse for the majority of the game.  The story moves back and forth through time, as you explore the lighthouse first in 1912 and then in the modern era, experiencing it as it once was and then as the tourist attraction it becomes.  It’s an interesting meld of old versus new, a theme I don’t see often explored anymore.  And besides, a haunted lighthouse is much more intriguing than a haunted mansion or a haunted forest, wouldn’t you say?

I want to see lighthouse progress beyond being pure symbols and become actual fixtures of the setting they are in.  There’s nothing quite like the view of the water from the top of a lighthouse.  Or at least, I assume there isn’t.  I’ve never actually been inside a real lighthouse myself, as far as I can remember.  One of those things I plan on doing sometime.

But I can see it now, standing in the light room as the fog rolls in.  A foghorn sounds in the distance as the giant bulb cuts a swath through the fog, illuminating the way for hapless sailors lost in the thick foggy night.  The rain patters down on the windows, pinging off the glass.  Atmosphere, it’s all about atmosphere.

The lighthouse in Dark Fall 2.

The lighthouse in Dark Fall 2.

 

2. Small Coastal Town

We’ve all seen San Francisco and Los Angeles done to death in movies and television, so why not give somewhere smaller and off the beaten path a shot?  This past year I played through a game called The Lost Crown, which featured a small little harbor town known as Saxton for its setting.  More than anything, I enjoyed the constant presence of the water.  Almost everywhere you looked during the outside portions of the game, you would see the water.  Even the cottage that the main character takes up residence in has a small docking area below the foundation that was once used for shipping.  Again, that melding of old and new.

Small towns on the coast usually feature some non-standard architecture due to the demands of building next to a lake or an ocean.  Duluth I know has some curiosities in it, remnants of an earlier time.  Many people know of the concrete ruins that sit in the water along the lakefront, still standing the test of time.  Little details like that can really make a setting pop and stand out in your mind.  Of course, I may be biased because I live in Duluth (number one outdoor city in the country, wouldn’t you know), but I feel like stories tend to gravitate towards these larger places because they’re so much more iconic and recognizable to an audience.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

 

These places would be great for a mystery/adventure story because of the sense of discovery.  Many of these places tend to lie on the outskirts, far away from the hustle and bustle of modern city life.  They are nestled in nature, surrounded by wildlife, trees, and the water.  Because of that, there is this feeling of mystery that surrounds places like these, legends that tend to live on.  The Lost Crown for example, deals with the mystery of an ancient king’s crown.  The boundary between the normal and the supernatural blurs in this game, as much of the puzzles involve using ghost hunting equipment to uncover clues.  It creates an omnipresent sense of mystery and unease that few games or movies reach, and all without using obvious tropes or jump scares.

I’ve always thought these smaller places were much more interesting to look at than the skyscrapers of any modern metropolis.  They tend to have a much more vibrant and intriguing history.  I mean hey, Stephen King wrote plenty of stories taking place in small towns along the coast, so they’ve got to have something to them.

 

3. Boats/Ships

Seems like water is becoming a pretty prevalent theme in this post.  It’s a personal thing, I will admit.  I’ve always been fascinated with the ocean, and in particular, what is below it.  I was really big into the idea of shipwrecks when I was younger, reading up on ships like the Titanic and the Lusitania.

Ships at sea used to be a big story setting some time ago, but it has since faded away, replaced by the glamour of big cities and the like.  It’s sad now that one of the only modern analogues I can think of is the movie Battleship, which is based on the board game, but of course involves an alien invasion.  Because why not?

In all seriousness, ships are one of the more fascinating things to explore.  They were commonly used as settings for like ghost stories, with many of them involving a hapless crew coming upon a ship dead in the water with no sign of any visible crew.  The creepy ambiance of the area is commonly amplified by the fact that everything else seems to be in working order.  There’s just no one there…

The metal creaks as you walk through the dimly lit corridors.  The boat pitches back and forth as the deep blue waves lap at its bottom.  A clanking generator sounds in the distant, churning away at the gasoline that powers it.  The faint aroma of uneaten food enters your nostrils.  Everything is as it should be, but nothing is right.

This is one of my all time favorite settings for a story, just because of that sense of isolation.  Those that have followed my blog for a while now know that I am a big horror aficionado.  I also probably come off as a slight hipster, bemoaning the fact that so many modern horror movies and games depend on loud, in your face scary moments than developing any real sort of atmosphere.  You brace yourselves for these not because you’re scared, but because you don’t want something screaming in your ear, which is why we flinch at loud noises.

But I digress.  These vessels are also a perfect emblem of the changes in technology.  Just looking at the history of naval ships can show you just how far and fast humanity has come.  From clunky wooden rafts to massive wooden war machines all the way up to gigantic metal beasts, boats have evolved and changed in ways people probably never expected.  This makes them great for a story setting, because the large number of variations means there’s a lot of leeway for creating new and interesting places to experience.

 

 

4. Underwater

In space, no one can hear you scream.  But underwater, your screams sound like “blrrrrrrrblrrrrrrblrrr blub blub blub”.

Was that last bit pointless?  Oh yes.  Do I care?  Not really.

I remember watching movies like The Abyss when I was younger and thinking about how cool and terrifying being deep underwater would be.  It’s a setting ripe with isolation and danger, not to mention mystery.  It’s been said that we know as little as ten percent of the creatures that live in the ocean.  This is because the underwater environment is just so dangerous for us.  Going beyond a certain point means subjecting yourself to immense amounts of pressure, so much so that it could crush an improperly shielded craft (just ask the bad guy from The Abyss).  But we humans are nothing if not curious and foolish in equal measure.

I imagine that, at least for a movie, making underwater scenes and getting them to look right must be a daunting task.  The potential for atmosphere is great, but it is incredibly tricky to pull off.  The Abyss was one of the more difficult movies for James Cameron to pull off because they had to shoot a lot of the scenes inside a giant tank of water.  There’s even a bit where they use this breathable liquid later on in the movie, and the actor actually had to have a helmet full of real liquid.  It made shooting that part of the movie dangerous and problematic, but the result was probably my favorite James Cameron movie.

Video games tend to have an easier time with this, because they don’t have to subject actors to things like that.  They do, however, have to focus a lot of graphical power on the water, which is why the water in the game Bioshock looks so gorgeous.  It had to, being a game set in an underwater city.  Ever since playing games like Myst, I’ve had a great fondness for atmosphere because it immerses me in a game like nothing else ever could.

An underwater setting brings new elements of danger and mystery to the table that not many others can.  It’s a singularly unique and unknown area, and we can often just look out the window and see the surface of it.  What lies beneath the surface?  What sits at the bottom depths of the sea?  Our natural curiosity drives us forward.

 

Closing Thoughts

Well it turns out that settings involving water became the primary theme of this post.  Being that we live on a planet that is three-quarters water, it’s not really that surprising.  It’s especially not surprising to me that my mind would trend in this direction, because I have been fascinated by the ocean for a long time.  As I said before, when I was young I was really into the idea of shipwrecks.  I read plenty of books about them and was especially into the Titanic story.  I even had a little model of the Titanic (probably still do) that sat on my bedroom bookshelf.

Other themes that I noticed popping up when I wrote this list were history and old versus new.  The first three settings in particular demonstrate that.  I’ve found that I love old things like lighthouses and ships, finding their stories to be intriguing.  But more than that, I love old, unsolved mysteries.  The disappearance of some ships on the water, never to be seen again, is a fascinating subject.  It’s always interesting to speculate as to what might have happened to them or where they ended up, because they might never be found again.

I went a little overboard with the water theme in this post.  So with that in mind, here's a picture of some water.

I went a little overboard with the water theme in this post. So here’s more water.

But more than anything, I like the little details in settings, those non-essential tiny things that just make a world stick out.  A little sign on the wall of a building.  The sound of a foghorn.  The creaking of a door as it opens to an old house.  These little details are often overlooked.  Never underestimate the power they have.  They can add so much to your setting, even if they don’t seem important.  It helps it stand out from all the other similar settings.  It’s all about the specifics.

And that’s all I have for this week.  Next week’s post will be shrouded in the fog of night.  Until then, have a great week everyone.