Let’s Talk About Plot Twists

The Sixth Sense

 

Warning: spoilers for multiple stories lie ahead.  Read at your own risk.

Love ’em or hate ’em, plot twists are an integral part of modern storytelling.  You know what I’m talking about…those moments in stories that make you go “HOLY CRAP” or “WHAT THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!”  But the question is: when is a plot twist good and when is it bad?

For my personal taste, a good plot twist is one that makes you reevaluate what came before.  To start with, I’m going to use an example from something I’m betting not all that many people know about: the television show “Fringe”.

For those who’ve maybe never watched the show, it’s similar to “X-Files”, only instead of investigating weird, far-fetched supernatural stuff they investigate weird, far-fetched science stuff.  The basic premise is this: FBI agent Olivia Dunham investigates after everyone aboard a commercial airline flight is killed by a strange contagion that caused their skin to fall off (in spectacular, gooey fashion).  The case leads her to Dr. Walter Bishop, a man known for extreme experiments in science…who is also now in a mental health facility.  Because of the facility’s rule allowing only family members to visit, Olivia must track down Walter Bishop’s estranged son Peter.

 

Over the course of the first season, the three deal with bizarre and terrifying cases, ranging from killer computer viruses to a bio-engineered monstrous animal.  As the season progresses, an overarching plot involving parallel universes starts to unfold.  In the season finale, the trio stop a bad guy from crossing over into another universe to do bad things.  As things come to a close, we realize that the three have grown close together.  Peter finally starts to accept his father despite his failures.  And Walter has a poignant moment standing in front of-

 

 

…hi-his son’s grave.

……

Wait what?!

And this is where, if the twist is good, your mind goes into overdrive.  You start seeing the clues, putting the pieces together, realizing that certain little things you initially thought were innocuous actually hinted at a bigger truth.  In this case, the truth is that the Peter we know in the show actually belongs to a parallel universe.  And, in this case, your mind is likely to go back to a scene earlier in the season where Walter is talking to Peter and mentions a time when Peter was deathly ill.  Walter says he became consumed with saving him, but that Peter eventually just got better.  Obviously, with the twist at the end of season one, we know that’s not what happened and Walter’s version of Peter died.

There are also other, smaller hints throughout the season that you’d probably never catch on your first viewing.  For example, during one very early episode, Walter is rambling about eye color when he says Peter’s eyes are green.  But when we cut to Peter, we can clearly see that his eyes are blue.  Initially, you likely brushed it off as just Walter being not altogether there.  However, with the added information we get at the season’s close, it takes on a newer significance.  Same with another scene where Peter is holding a G.I. Joe toy and says something like “weird…I always remembered the scar being on the other side”.  Again, innocuous on its face, but hinting at a greater truth.

Another great instance of this kind of plot twist comes from “The Sixth Sense”.  I’m sure most, if not all of you, know the story by now: Bruce Willis plays a psychiatrist who helps a young boy that claims he can see ghosts.  Spoiler alert: Bruce Willis is actually dead the entire time.  He’s just another ghost that the kid can see.  But what’s genius about this twist is that unlike “Fringe”, where most of the clues are only really recognizable upon re-watching the first season, “Sixth Sense” actually replays snippets of scenes from earlier in the movie during the climactic reveal, giving them new meaning and context.  That scene with his wife in the restaurant?  It shifts from being the portrayal of a couple falling out of love to that of a widow grieving for her lost husband.

And it doesn’t even show all the clues the movie had in it.  There’s actually a scene where Bruce Willis is standing behind the kid as the kid reaches for a doorknob.  There’s a quick close-up shot of the knob that shows that Willis has no reflection.  It’s truly crazy how much foreshadowing the movie does right under your nose.

Now let’s move on to the other side of things.  When is a twist bad?  For my money, it’s simple: when the twist is done for pure shock value and offers very little payoff.  For example, one of the seasons of “24” reveals that the president of the United States (or former president at that point…I can’t remember for sure) is in league with the bad guys to do…something I guess.  I don’t remember if there was a good explanation for it.  What little I remember tells me it was more done for shock value than anything else.

Another example comes from the video game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”.  In the game, a character named General Shepherd sends one of the playable characters to an estate in the middle of a forest somewhere to retrieve data on the enemies operations and help stop World War III.  Only, at the end of the mission, Shepherd shoots and burns the playable character alive upon receiving the data, revealing that he was the mastermind behind it all and was just covering his tracks.  It’s a moment that screams “epic” at first, but once Shepherd reveals his motivation later on things fall apart quickly.

It’s as if the writers had to hamstring together an explanation last-minute.  Basically, there was a nuke that went off in the previous game, killing a whole bunch of soldiers.  This made General Shepherd mad or something, so he came up with a convoluted plan to start World War III in an effort to drive up recruitment and get more soldiers…

…who will then more than likely die in the ensuing global conflict, leaving General Shepherd with a far larger body count than he would have had otherwise.

It’s best not to think about it too much.

(If you’re curious, I did write an entire story analysis of Modern Warfare 2 over two years ago.)

Another example of a twist that underperforms is in “The Village”, another movie by M. Night Shyamalan.  For my part, I actually liked the twist itself.  But at the same time, I admit that it does have a lack of payoff for the story.

The plot of “The Village” is as follows: a colonial era village lives in fear of monsters that lurk in the woods around the town.  But later on, it’s revealed that the monsters are nothing more than the village elders wearing outfits in an effort to keep people from moving away from the village.  And the noises they keep hearing in the woods are made by things like wind chimes.  Then, at the very end, it is revealed that the movie actually takes place in modern times, with the village elders starting the village in the 1970’s as a way to escape the traumas they experienced in modern society.  They’re basically an Amish-like cult.

While the twist is cool, there’s very little payoff for it.  We already know that the spooky noises are fake and that the monsters are just old people in costume.  It does give us an explanation for why the elders did all those things, but it doesn’t feel very satisfying.  It feels…anti-climactic in a way.  Not only that, but the twist has some serious explanations with plausibility, the most notable of which being how did no one ever see a plane flying over the area?  The movie tries to explain this away by saying they set up a no-fly zone over the area the village is set in, but it still seems far-fetched.

I could talk about more plot twists, but that would make this post go on longer than it needs to.  And it’s already long as it is.  So to recap, for a plot twist to be good, it needs to redefine or alter the arc of the story in a way that makes sense.  Twists that are thrown in there for shock value (which is something broadcast television shows seem obsessed with these days) tend to collapse under the weight of their own implausibility.  The quality of twists can be highly subjective, but in the end I think most people would agree that it needs to be logical.  It needs to follow some sort of common sense.  Otherwise, its artificial nature is plainly obvious for everyone to see.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Advertisements

5 Statements About Video Games I Disagree With

Anybody who’s followed my blog probably knows that I’m a big fan of video games, with them being one of the primary ways I spend my free time.  Now, there’s a lot of different thoughts and ideas floating around out there about video games and how they relate to us.

Here are five of those thoughts that I disagree with.

 

5. Violent games are corrupting our youth

This is something I heard a lot when I was growing up.  Violent video games were desensitizing kids and making them more prone to commit violent acts.  And considering the brutal nature of games like Mortal Kombat (which made a name for itself solely on how gory and violent it was), the idea made a certain kind of sense.  So why do I disagree with it?  Two main reasons:

  1. Television shows and movies have plenty of violence, yet they don’t get nearly as much criticism.
  2. There is no scientific study or literature that conclusively shows that playing violent games leads to a higher chance of committing violent acts.

In regards to the first one, I understand that one of the primary concerns with video games is the interactive nature of it.  Instead of passively watching the main character shoot a few dozen dudes, you are actively participating.  But like I said with point number two, no study has ever proven anything beyond the fact that playing video games may lead to increased aggression.

The other main issue with scientific studies into violent games is that many of them are flawed.  I remember reading about a study that took place while I was in high school (around 2005 or so I believe).  Basically they had two groups of people, one playing Wolfenstein 3D and another playing Myst.  After about an hour or so of playtime, they brought these two groups together and gave them air horns.  What they found was that the group that played Wolfenstein 3D would honk the air horn for longer periods of time than the people who played Myst would.

I think you can already spot some of the flaws here.  This study took place in roughly 2005, which means that at that time, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had already been released the year before.  And even if the study took place before it, there were other Grand Theft Auto games they could have used.  So then, why did they choose two games that were released a decade earlier in the 1990’s?

The other issue is the air horns.  Using an air horn does not translate to intent to commit violent acts.  Now, you can’t take a group of people and hand them guns (because that would be really REALLY bad), but air horns do not strike me as a good metaphor for increased aggression.

And this is the problem with most studies into the subject.  They don’t have a good way of interpreting the effects of games because they usually study subjects in a one-off manner, having them play a game and then seeing how they act immediately after.  It doesn’t take into account other factors that could contribute to this alleged aggression increase.

Besides, the juvenile crime rate in the 1990’s was on the decline, which is the same decade that video games began their rise to prominence.  So there’s no solid evidence to support the idea that violent games cause more real life violence.

 

4. Video games are mindless entertainment

This is another one I heard when I was growing up.  And while it is true for certain games (the Call of Duty franchise comes to mind), there are plenty of games out there that are more than just “mindless”.

Myst is one of the games I had growing up that was anything but mindless.  There were no enemies to fight.  All you had were your wits to solve the many puzzles laid around the island and uncover more of its secrets.  In fact, I remember my brother actually had a notebook journal dedicated to writing down clues for the game.  But Myst is not the only game that serves as a counter to the mindless argument.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game I have yet to play, but one that I want to get around to at some point.  It’s a game about a soldier who goes to a far off country to deal with what seems like a normal mission.  But when he gets there, things start going Apocalypse Now, with the main character’s sanity slowly degrading throughout the story.  The game is supposed to feature some of the most interesting and complex moral choices of any game ever.  For example, there’s one scene where you’re tasked with shooting someone who’s running away.  Now the two choices are clear: shoot him or don’t.  But apparently, there’s a third choice to be made in there.  You can shoot at the person but miss on purpose, making it look like you were fulfilling your orders but allowing the man to live.  And the game doesn’t tell you that this exists.  You just find that out on your own.

There’s also Journey, a game where you play as a nameless, faceless figure wandering a surreal desert landscape.  But it’s more than just that.  Journey is also a bit of a social experiment in that as you wander through the game, occasionally another player will be inserted into your game.  You can’t talk to each other or communicate (aside from gestures I believe), and you can’t identify each other either.  You can only make the decision to work together or ignore each other.

 

Journey

Journey

 

There’s also Papa & Yo, a game about a boy and his monster friend which was an allegory for the creator’s experience with an alcoholic, abusive father.  There’s Neverending Nightmares, a psychological horror game in which the creator drew upon his own personal experiences with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder to replicate a sense of bleakness in the game similar to what he felt in real life.  And there’s Gone Home, a game about a girl returning home and discovering all that has happened with her family in the year she’s been studying abroad.

So no, games are not just mindless entertainment.  They have plenty of potential to talk about complex and difficult subjects.

 

3. Games aren’t stories

This is one I ran into fairly recently, and is what inspired me to write this post.  It comes from a Cracked.com article entitled “4 Things Gamers Think Are Important (But Aren’t)”.  In the article, the writer talks about people who play games have come to expect movie-quality stories from their games.

From the article:

“The reason video games don’t have great stories is that they’re games. Games are different from stories. The first goal of a video game is always to be fun, but somewhere along the line, we decided that the only way to have games be taken seriously is to give them Serious Stories. So we decided to splice in cutscenes — whole chunks of the game in which instead of “playing,” we’re watching a CGI movie. This is the equivalent of playing chess with your friends, but taking five minutes before your turn to explain the motivation of your rook, and the tragic injury in his youth that prevents him from moving diagonally.”

Now, I get what he’s saying here.  Often the gameplay and the story of a video game can feel like they’re in separate worlds.  When the story world appears, control is usually taken away from the player as they watch a small movie within the game.  It creates this disconnect that sometimes hampers the experience of the game overall.  But while the author complains that calling the stories of games “stories” is simplistic, reductive thinking, I would argue that his reasoning is simplistic as well.

It is certainly true that many games with quote unquote “deep stories” tend to have their story sections get in the way of playing the game, but there are plenty of other ways games can tell a story.  For example, when two people who play games talk to each other, you’ll sometimes get these stories that start with “well this one time I was playing (insert game here) and this totally crazy thing happened”.  This is something fundamentally unique to the video game medium.  You don’t read a book and have some totally unexpected thing happen that didn’t happen to anyone else reading the book.  But in a video game, there is the potential to create events and stories that even the people making the game might not see coming.

I talked about a game called Salt in a recent post, and I think that serves as a good example of this.  Salt is all about the player’s journey.  There’s very little overarching story created by the developers (although that could change as it is still in development).  In the post I made a joke about how you could use the game’s journal feature to write a diary of a man going slowly insane.  But isn’t it cool that you are even allowed to do that?  You can literally tell your own story within the game, because it’s all about the things you discover and experience.  And considering that the world is procedurally generated, no two player’s experiences will be exactly the same.  They won’t discover the exact same island as each other (well, until they add multiplayer that is).

In short, games have story possibilities that no other medium has to date.

 

2. PC/Console gaming is superior

Oh boy, haven’t I heard this one more times than I can count.  In much the same way as rival sports teams have fans that will incessantly fight each other  over which team is better, video games have fans of formats that will fight each other over which is superior.

Let me get something out of the way.  For most of my life, I have been a console gamer (meaning that I played on things like the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, and so on).  It’s what I grew up with, not to mention the fact that I prefer sitting back with a controller to being hunched over a keyboard and mouse.  Yes, I understand that keyboard and mouse is more precise.  Yes, I understand that PC games have better graphics than console games.  I just don’t care.

Now, I will admit that for the last few years I have used my desktop computer to play games far more often than I have consoles.  I bought an Xbox One a couple of years ago, but I barely use it these days.  There just aren’t enough interesting games coming out for it, not to mention that I can get more games for cheaper prices on my computer.  But in the end, I will always prefer the feel of a controller over the feel of a keyboard and mouse.  It’s just more relaxing to me.

Besides, isn’t personal preference what it all comes down to in the end?  Why are we gamers constantly fighting over this nonsense?  Just play what you want to play and be happy with that.  Arguing over which format is better just sounds pretentious.

And speaking of pretentious…

 

1. Games are/aren’t art

If you ask Google to define art, this is what you get:

“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

Do you see what the issue with this definition is?  It’s too nebulous.  It doesn’t have a clear definition for what can and can’t be considered art.

And that’s exactly the point.

Look, this might sound funny coming from someone who wants to write books, but I don’t care if video games are art or not.  It doesn’t matter to me.  Because regardless of everything else, I consider games to be a form of expression, art or not.  And besides, hasn’t it always been said that art is in the eye of the beholder?

Do you consider games to be art?  Good for you.

Do you consider games to not be art?  That’s fine too.  In a way, you’re both right.

To me, art has always been a matter of perspective.  The definition from Google talks about how art is appreciated for its beauty and emotional power, but these two things are incredibly subjective.  I can’t hold up a painting and say “this painting has emotional power” because for some people it might not have that power.  To some people it might seem boring or uninspired.  To others, it might even be deemed offensive or insulting.  The fact of the matter is that whenever I look at something I am seeing it through my own eyes, through my own experience.  And while I play Gone Home and see it as a touching, emotional experience, others play the game and see it as boring and stupid.

Trying to nail art down to a concrete, scientific definition ignores one of the fundamentally great things about being human: we are all different in our own unique ways.  We all have our own perspectives, our own experiences.  And we use these things to shape our own unique path through life, our own unique story.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Silly Realism, Video Games are for Fun

I’ve never been a big fan of people who complain that something isn’t realistic when it comes to a story.  At some point we have to recognize that a story constructed by an author isn’t going to be entirely realistic.  They’re written for the express purpose of entertainment or enjoyment on the part of the audience.  But I think the complaint gets even more ridiculous when it’s leveled at a video game.

So today let’s look at several reasons why video games aren’t realistic (and never should be).

 

1. Getting Hurt

You get shot.  What do you do?  It’s easy.  You just crouch behind a wall for a few seconds and wait for the wound to heal.

Oh…wait a second…I don’t think that’s how it works.

In real life, when you get shot, you can’t just magically heal the damage seconds later.  Neither can you pick up a medical kit and not suffer from a bullet wound immediately after its use.  Instead, getting shot usually involves a trip to the hospital and a lot of pain.  And if there’s no exit wound that means the bullet or bullets are still in your body and need to be extracted, which means even more pain.  And after all of that, you still need to spend days, even weeks in the hospital to recuperate.  The human body isn’t an instantaneous healer.  It needs time to do its thing.

Can you imagine if a game actually did that?  You get shot and you’re not allowed to play for several days because your character needs to heal.  Sounds boring right?

Exactly.

 

2. Wanton Death and Destruction

Like, holy crap, there’s so much death.  THERE’S SO MUCH DEATH.

Ever heard of the game Dead Rising?  It’s a game about the dead, and how they rise.  Pretty self-explanatory.

Well there’s an achievement in the game called Zombie Genocider which you unlock after killing 53,594 zombies in a single playthrough of the story mode.  Why such a specific number?

Because it’s the total population of the town the game takes place in.

Yep, that’s right.  When you unlock this achievement the game is literally saying “hey congratulations, you just slaughtered an entire town!”  And not only that, but there’s still zombies running around.  What, are the zombies having zombie babies or something?

Nope.  It’s just the game developers cheeky way of pointing out that games aren’t realistic.  If you could completely depopulate the game world of enemies it would not only make the game too easy, but it would be boring as well.  And that’s not even mentioning how unrealistically violent and over the top Dead Rising is.  This is a game where you fight zombies with items including but not limited to: katanas, water guns, beach balls, televisions, guitars, pistols, assault rifles, cars, hockey sticks, footballs, grenades, and cash registers.  The hyper violent nature shows us that it was never meant to emulate real life.

And then there’s Grand Theft Auto.  Oh boy…Grand Theft Auto.

Despite how the games try to re-create a real life city, the games themselves are not realistic in the slightest.  I mean imagine you’re driving down a road, just going to the grocery store or something, when suddenly some jerk in a military helicopter (which he somehow managed to steal from a HEAVILY GUARDED MILITARY COMPOUND) flies by and blows you up with rockets.  No reason, no provocation…just mindless violence.  And now you’re dead.

Real life is not this dangerous (despite what the media might want you to think).  People don’t just break out into wanton rampages of death and destruction while carrying multiple pistols, assault rifles, a rocket launcher, a minigun and dozens of grenades.  It just doesn’t happen.  And furthermore, when they’re finally stopped, they don’t just get out of the hospital or jail six hours later.  They’re either dead or on death row.

Video games are meant as escapist fantasies.  They’re meant to be unrealistic.  People have the ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality.  Sorry Jack Thompson but it’s true, no matter how vigorously you crusade against video games or how antagonistic you are towards people who disagree with you.

Maybe that’s why you got disbarred from practicing law.  Just a thought.

 

3. Scripted

I mentioned this before, but real life is not scripted in the same way as a story is in a video game, book, or movie.  You don’t run into, say, some homeless guy and think to yourself “I bet this character will show up later on in my life.  Is he the antagonist in disguise?  A mentor of sorts?  Some strange alien being trying to guide me to the right path?”  You’re far more likely to think to yourself “man that guy looks lazy…why doesn’t he just get a job?”  Well, far more likely if you’re an uptight jerk that is.

In real life people enter and exit your life without rhyme or reason.  In a carefully constructed story crafted by an author, every little thing has some significance or purpose.  The aforementioned homeless guy provides us with a good example.  If he appears in a story, the author likely wants you to pay attention to how the character interacts with him.  Does the interaction hint at some kind of development down the line.  Is the character someone else in disguise, and if so how does the author foreshadow this?  It might not even be something as large-scale as that.  The homeless guy might just serve as a character building tool.  Does the main character stop and give him money?  Does he continue on his way but regret his decision later?  Does he spurn the man, calling him a “lazy piece of trash”?  Moments like this can tell us much about the protagonist’s state of mind and his way of viewing the world.

In real life only you know your inner thoughts.  Well…you and the Illuminati.  Because the Illuminati knows all.

No I didn’t make a post about conspiracy theories a couple of weeks ago.  I have no idea what you’re talking about.

 

4. Real World Needs Don’t Matter

In life you need to eat.  You need to drink.  You need to use the bathroom.  You need to sleep.  And so on and so forth.

But when I make my character in Fallout 4 stay up for an entire week exploring the dystopian ruins of Boston, he doesn’t complain.  He doesn’t fall asleep on his feet.  His stomach doesn’t grumble and he doesn’t die from dehydration.  Because he’s dead inside…a soulless husk…a puppet controlled by my whims and commands.  Maybe he doesn’t want to kill those people.  Maybe he doesn’t like using guns.  It doesn’t matter.  I am in control.

Because I AM GOD.

Take a deep breath…going mad with power again…deep breath, deep breath…

In all seriousness though games usually don’t bother making you tend to real world needs of your characters (unless you’re playing survival games, but even then the requirements for eating and drinking are usually skewed for the sake of making the game fun to play).  You don’t want to be blowing things up and causing chaos when suddenly your character says “man…I could really use a burger”.  Ain’t nobody got time for your burger man.  We got stuff to explode.

Video game characters don’t need to eat, drink, sleep, or even go to the bathroom most of the time.  They are but digital representations of people, bound only by the logic game developers create for them.  They might not even speak, as is the case for many a silent protagonist in video games.

So here’s the thing, if you’re going to be complaining about how it’s unrealistic that a character could survive some explosion and make it out alive, you might as well be complaining that they don’t eat, sleep, take a piss, and so on.  Realism for realism’s sake doesn’t really belong in a video game.  Realism should serve the purpose of fun for the game, tweaked and modified as necessary to keep the player engaged and enjoying the experience.  I can’t imagine how I would have felt playing Myst if the player character suddenly needed to pee.  Well guess what?  There are no bathrooms on the island of Myst.  Nope, not a single one.

Looks like you’re peeing in the ocean bro.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

Paid to Create: The Intersection of Money and Creativity

Here in the United States, we consider ourselves a capitalist society.  And what that means in the long run is that money makes the world go round.  In some ways, this can be a good thing.  It breeds competition, and the beauty of the human spirit is that competition can bring out the best in us.  To put it another way, we often do our best work under pressure.  I know that’s true.  I once wrote a seven-page paper in high school the night before it was due, and I received an A on it.  Not only that, but the teacher wanted to use it as an example for future classes.

Let’s just say I casually left out the part about writing it the night before…

But not everything is gumdrops and rainbows.  When it comes to any system, there are pros and cons.  While competition can inspire creativity, it can also breed a certain sort of staleness in the market.  Look at video games and movies, and you’ll often find trends.  A while back, it seemed like Hollywood was obsessed with making alien invasion movies.  Then it was dark re-imaginings of classic fairy tales.  And now it’s superheroes.  We can’t seem to go more than a couple of months without a new superhero movie hitting the market.  It’s not that superhero movies are a bad thing.  I happen to enjoy a few of them (although I am getting tired of them these days, especially after the disappointing Avengers: Age of Ultron).  But with success comes imitation, and that’s where my problem with the whole thing lies.

With the way our economy is doing right now, and people’s reluctance to spend a lot of money, we tend to see the same types of movies making all the money.  People like to see what they know they will enjoy.  It’s hard for them to justify going to watch a movie that’s outside their normal comfort zone or that they haven’t heard great praise about.  This is part of the reason why I think Hollywood has fallen into a trend of remaking old movies or adapting stories from books or other sources.  If the old movie or book has a big enough audience, then they can bank on people at least going to see it out of curiosity.

The problem is that this mode of thinking stifles creativity, in that we hardly ever see original plots in movies (by which I mean that we see a plot written exclusively to be a movie, not adapted form another source).  Sure, you could consider Star Wars: The Force Awakens to be an original movie.  But there are two problems with that assertion.  One, The Force Awakens is already part of a large, established franchise that has been around for decades.  And two (possible minor spoilers follow), the movie is steeped in nostalgia.  It hits a lot of the same story beats as A New Hope, meaning that while it features a new story and new characters, a lot of the plot points feel readily familiar.

You can observe the same phenomena in the video game world, although in a different form.  Video games don’t tend to adapt stories from other sources.  Instead, they can suffer from an overflow of sequels.  A good example of this is the Call of Duty franchise, which has been around for a long time and has spawned over two dozen different games.  The general complaint around the series is that most of the games feel the same.  But at the same time, there must be an incentive for them to be so similar.  At the end of the day, they want to turn a profit.  So many franchises get caught in this delicate balance between changing enough of the game to justify a sequel in the mind of gamers, but also leaving enough of its core intact so that people feel at home with it.  This is something franchises like Grand Theft Auto have gotten so good at.  They change with the times, getting more and more advanced in look and feel, but they are loaded with nostalgia, giving the hardcore fans little hints and nods at the older games in the series.

You see this in movie sequels as well.  They have to up the ante with each successive movie, making things bigger (like the explosions…always bigger explosions), but also keeping the core feel of their fictional universe intact.  This line of thinking can end up creating a feedback loop where the same few stories get told over and over again.

But sometimes this drive of competition and money can lead to good ideas in the long run.  Let’s again look to the video game world, specifically at Bethesda Game Studios.  Bethesda, most known for their Elder Scrolls series of video games, isn’t just a game development company.  They are a publisher as well, and one of the better ones to work for from what I’ve heard.  The developers of the game Dishonored were basically told by Bethesda to take all the time they needed to make the game as good as they desired.  Bethesda wasn’t on a time crunch.  They didn’t need money immediately.  The Elder Scrolls games sell like crazy every time they come out.  They’re one of the most trusted game developers in the market, so they can allow themselves to take chances on nontraditional ideas or unproven intellectual properties.

The same thing is true of books.  Unlike movies and games, books aren’t constantly driven by this idea of success and money, although it still plays a role.  Take Stephen King for example.  He may be known for his horror stories, but King has also written a fantasy series known as the Dark Tower series, which is a blend of different genres including western, dark fantasy, science fantasy, and horror (of course).  When you have a stable reputation and income, you can feel free to experiment and try new things.  But this experimental mindset is still tempered by the idea of competition, in that you want to make your creation as good as possible so that people will enjoy it.

In the long run, money might be more of a detriment to creativity than anything, but like all things in the world it isn’t a simple black and white situation.  People won’t be inclined to try making something new when they can make something they know works.  But at the same time, trying new things can lead to unexpected success.

After all, trends have to start somewhere.

 

Well that’s all I have for this time.  Tune in next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

This blog just hit one hundred posts!  It’s an incredible milestone for me, one that I wish I had prepared for a little better.  I honestly didn’t realize I had hit it until I started writing this post.  It amazes me that I’ve come this far.  And I haven’t missed a single week since I began this blog.  Every week, on Wednesday, I have made a post.  They might not have all been good (I am particularly disappointed with my story analysis posts…I never did manage to shape those into something I was satisfied with), but consistency is one of the greatest habits you can get into.  You will only get better at something as long as you keep doing it.

So thank you all for following me this far and for reading my weekly ramblings.

Once again, have a wonderful week!  See you next Wednesday.

What’s in a Story? Part 2: Making the Story

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post called “What’s in a Story?  The Importance of Narrative Fiction” where I talked about, what else, the importance of fiction.  I decided I wanted to write a second part to it, specifically talking about what makes a story entertaining or engrossing to people.

The most obvious thing right out of the gate is characters.  Everyone loves a good character in a story, whether they’re good or bad.  Sometimes, we find that we may enjoy the villain’s side of things more than the hero’s.  This was definitely true of the first season of the Netflix show Daredevil.  This is not the say that the hero, Matthew Murdock, was any kind of slouch in the proceedings.  He had a very nice bit of conflict throughout the season where he was constantly confronting himself about how far he was willing to go.  But in the end, Wilson Fisk (the villain) stole the show for me.  I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen the show yet, but Fisk’s backstory is incredibly disturbing, depressing, and gripping.  He’s one of those villains that actually has a noble goal, but the means he is using to get there are very much a problem.  Without the conflicting nature of Fisk I doubt the show would have been nearly as engrossing of an experience for me.  It’s one of those strange experiences where you actually understand where the villain is coming from, which isn’t something we often get from modern superhero fare.

This is what characters can do for a story.  They inject it with life.  They give it a lasting impact, make it stay on your mind for a long time after its inevitable conclusion.  This is a big part of the reason why movies like Interstellar stay with me for so long, because the characters in it are so well written.  They give the world they reside in a certain believable quality that it otherwise wouldn’t have.  They are the people who you follow through the story, beginning to end.

But characters aren’t the only thing that can engage you in a story.  It’s the obvious thing to turn to when talking about books or movies, because they are by their nature scripted and focused.  But what about video games?  Games can have great characters and story on par with movies (just check out the Uncharted video game franchise for an example of an action movie turned video game), but there is also a sense of agency that the player of these games has.  He can choose where to go and what to do to a certain extent, depending on how the game itself is designed.  Some games, like Myst, take advantage of this agency, driving the player to explore and discover the story on their own.  But what makes the story of these types of games engrossing?  What makes them tick?  The answer lies in the setting.

Setting can have a major impact on any story, be it in a game, book, or movie.  But it can have special significance in a game, being that the interactive nature of the medium often immerses you in it in a way that books and movies can’t touch.  In a book, you imagine the setting in your mind.  In a movie, you follow the setting as the director and writer have envisioned it.  In a game, you decide what places to explore and what is important.  Of course, the game developer has to design the setting, so in essence you are still seeing exactly what the person who created it wanted you to see, but the little details the designer may not have found important might speak to you in a way that they didn’t anticipate.

Let’s look, for example, at Dark Fall: The Journal (I know, again right).  I’ve spoken about this game many a time on this blog, but here I want to call it out for a very specific reason.  Dark Fall has a strong sense of setting.  In the game itself, you interact with no physical characters (a ghostly voice belonging to a child guides you for the first few minutes, but you never see him of course).  You play as the brother of Pete Crowhurst, an architect redeveloping the old Dowerton train station and hotel.  After receiving a cryptic and alarming message on your answering machine, you travel to the station to find out what’s happening.  When you arrive, you find nothing and no one.  But you are not alone…

In Dark Fall‘s case, your character is merely a shell, a way to interact with the world and its characters.  The people in this game are no Walter White.  They won’t regale you with a gritty story of succumbing to greed and slowly transforming into a monster.  They’re just ordinary people who lived their lives.  But the way the game presents their stories is what makes it so interesting.

Take, for example, this letter you find in one of the hotel rooms:

 

Dark Fall The Journal (9)

 

 

If you are unable to see the picture for some reason, I will transcribe it for you:

“Betty,

Whats going on?  You told me no one would know I was in this room!  Someone tried the door a while back, I didn’t open it, course.

Then bout half hour ago someone knocked and whispered my name, it aint you, I would know your voice anytime.

If your mam finds out I’m in here she’ll blow her top!  She’ll tell me dad too, and then we’ll really be done for.

I’ll wait for a bit, and then leave this note in the storeroom.  Hopefully you’ll find it, before who ever it is finds me!

 

Thomas

XXXX

P.S. Bring us some more beer, love.”

 

It’s bits like this that made the game for me, these little snapshots of people’s lives that have been left sitting there.  Considering you never physically interact with any of these people (they did disappear after all), the little touches are what makes the game so interesting.  The style of writing clearly belies Thomas’ out of country origins, and his subdued manner hints at the idea that Betty is the dominant one in the relationship.

But what I like more than all of that is this little bit: “I’ll wait for a bit, and then leave this note in the storeroom”.  Well, it appears the note never got there…

A little does indeed go a long way, especially where horror/ghost stories are concerned.  Dark Fall is effective not because it throws the ghostly nature of things directly into your face, but because of the feeling that these people were just going about their everyday lives, having fun and dealing with personal issues when suddenly they just up and vanished.  It’s the sense of a life interrupted.

I may have only talked about setting and characters when it comes to making a story tick, but they are by no means the be all end all.  There are plenty of ways to make a story engrossing.  You can even make a story that has no dialogue entertaining, like the movie Apocalypto (I have admittedly never watched it, but the lack of dialogue was one of its bigger selling points).  It all really comes down to knowing what is important in the type of story you are trying to tell.  If it’s a horror story, setting can often be more important than character.  If it’s a gritty crime story, characters are going to be the driving force.  It’s easy to say that a good story is one that’s believable, but harder to say what makes that story believable.

And in the end, it’s all about getting the reader/audience/player to be willing to suspend their disbelief, if just for a short period of time.

 

Well that’s all I’ve got for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post and as always, have a wonderful week everybody!

Also, don’t you just hate it when someone writes a sequel to something out of the blue?  Yeah…*eyes dart back and forth suspiciously*…me too……

Bye!

 

The Creative Process: Writing a Story

Anyone who likes to write has a process, a series of steps or phases that they go through when they want to tell a story.  Everyone’s process is different in some way, but we all go through the same basic series of steps from the initial idea all the way to the finished product.

But as anyone who has written a story will attest, the process can be difficult.  Some people get hung up on the initial idea, unable to come up with something or unable to turn their idea into a cohesive story.  Some people struggle with writing the story, finding it hard to begin their story, end their story, or even just get from point A to point B within the story.

So I thought for today that I’d give you a look into how I do things, my specific creative process.  If you do things differently than me, don’t worry about it.  Writing is not a formula or an equation.  There is no one correct way to do it.  I am showing my process merely as an example, with the hope that seeing it all laid bare might help you gather up your ideas and jump-start your own process.  So here we go.

 

Phase 1: Initial Idea

When an idea hits me, I usually don’t expect it.  It can come at any time: while I’m at work, taking a shower, watching a TV show, or even when I’m sleeping.  It doesn’t really matter when or where it pops up, just that it does.  I have brainstormed ideas before, but I feel that the best ideas come naturally, when you’re not trying to force it.  Once I have the idea, I begin the process of shaping it into a cohesive story.

But before I even get to the outlining part, I run the idea over in my head.  I ask myself some questions.  Would this idea make a good story?  Is there room for this idea to expand and change?  What kind of characters should I have? I ask myself these questions and more to make sure that the story I want to write is one that is worth writing and one that I feel strongly about.  Because if I don’t feel good about the story I’m writing, then who will want to read it?

 

Phase 2: Outline

Now we get to the outlining, which many people take for granted.  I used to never outline things at all when I wrote papers in high school and so on.  But over time, I learned that outlining generally makes a paper or a story go much smoother than it would otherwise.  An outline allows you to draw a road map of your project, showing where you want to start and where you want to go.  How deep you want your outline to be depends on you.

My outline consists of four parts: title, setting, synopsis, and major events.  The first part, title, is pretty obvious.  I use this part to write out what I want the title to be.  If I currently don’t have a title at the moment, I use this space to brainstorm until I pick one later.  Setting, the second component, is also pretty clear.  This is where I write the setting down that I plan on using for the story.  This is usually more of a check to make sure that I keep myself consistent.  I plan on expanding this section at some point, and use it for greater purposes than I do now.

The third part of my outline is the synopsis.  For this, I like to imagine that I’m writing a pitch or the description for the story.  It’s a brief overview of the story, introducing the main character(s) and the setup for events.  I write it like I’m trying to entice, like I’m trying to get someone to read my story.  That way, if I ever do pitch it somewhere, I have something written down that I can draw from.

The final part is the major events.  This is the meat of my outline.  This is where I write down all of the major events that I can think of in the story, and describe them in detail.  It also serves as a general chronology of the story, showing where it begins, where it goes, and where it ends.  Once I actually begin writing the story however, these things are subject to change, either slightly or completely.

You may outline your stories in a completely different fashion, yours more in-depth than mine or less.  It all depends on the person and the situation.  I have sometimes wished that my outlines were a little more in-depth, but I have trouble thinking of a good way to do that without creating excess busy work.  As for right now, I’m fine with my outlines.  I may change my method in the future, but that’s the nature of writing.  It is fluid and ever-changing.

 

Phase 3: First Draft

This is where most of the work for me takes place.  After outlining the story, I usually wait a day to let the outline sink in before I begin writing.  And then, I just write.  There’s not really much to say about this part, other than that it often takes a period of days, weeks, or even months depending on the size of the story.  The most recent story I finished took about a month to write, and ended up being nearly fifty pages.

The most important thing to remember during this section is that this is only your first attempt at the story.  When you read it back after you’re finished, it may and probably will seem very rough.  You’ll find spots that you don’t like, sentences that you can’t believe you thought sounded good.  You’ll find spelling errors, grammar mistakes, and just general logic issues abound.  If it makes you despair, just remember.  You will have a chance to fix things.  It’s not like this is the version people are going to read.  The next part of the process is where I make the version I want people to read.

 

Phase 4: Revisions

Once I’ve finished the first, or “rough”, draft of a story, I like to let it sit for at least a day before I go back to it.  Trying to immediately revise a story after you’ve finished it is a fool’s errand.  You will only glaze over obvious mistakes in your writing, because you’ve become too close to it and spent too much time with it.  The most important part of revising is to let some time pass before you take a look at your work again.  It gives your mind a chance to refresh itself and let go of innate biases.

I used to wonder how many different revisions of a story I should do, and the answer is simply that there is no answer.  Like I said, writing is ever-changing.  There is no concrete method or answer for it.  You have to make your own path, which I understand is incredibly difficult for some people.  Some people want a basic formula or an equation when they do things.  They want there to be one correct way of doing it, with the only obstacle being the journey to get to the predetermined end.  People like that usually don’t do too well with writing, not that they’re failures or anything for it.  They’re just built a different way.

I learned recently that when it comes to revising, it is a good idea to try to focus on one particular aspect of your work for each revision.  For example, on one revision you could focus on spelling and grammar.  On another you could focus on character consistencies.  On yet another, you could focus on logical issues with the story, asking yourself “does everything make sense within the world” and so on.  So that’s what I try to do now with revising.  I used to just read over the story and change anything that popped out as wrong or odd to me, but now I’m trying to do it differently.

Revising is a tough job, because you aren’t always sure how much you’re really doing to it.  This is the part of the process where it’s a good idea to get other eyes to read your work.  Send your story to a friend or two to read, and have them tell you what they think and point out anything they don’t like or that they think doesn’t make sense.  You don’t have to do everything they say (because then it would be more their story than yours), but do take their criticism to heart, and use it to create the best possible story that you can.

And sometimes, you may want to even scrap the story you have, and start all over.  I know I’ve done that with a couple of stories before.  But most of all, write what you feel and never apologize for it.

 

That’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for a new post, and until then, have a great week everybody.

Originality, Inspiration, and the Writer

It has been said that there are no original stories anymore, that everything borrows from something.  For the most part, this is a true statement.  If you look at the state of modern television and movies especially, you see the same tropes popping up over and over again.  Alien invasions, reality shows, crime procedural shows, and so on seem to typify the market these days.  I’m sure a lot of people would agree with the sentiment that seeing these shows over and over again gets tiring.

First off, I feel that I should say that I have no problem with repeated ideas.  It happens, and it is bound to happen time and time again.  But there is something to say about seeing the same alien invasion story and the same demonic possession story done so many different times.  Humans need variety.  While there is nothing wrong with these story lines, it gets repetitive after a certain amount of time.

While we may roll our eyes and groan at the mention of another one of these stories, there is something to be said for the struggle of creativity.  As many writers (myself included) can attest, crafting something truly unique or special is no easy undertaking.  And even if the mind latches on to a truly different idea, that’s no guarantee of success.  Ideas alone are not enough.  Writers have to spend so much time fine tuning their work to make sure that it flows well and it looks good.

And where do our ideas come from in the first place?  We writers don’t just sit around waiting for an idea to pop into our heads from somewhere in the ether.  We seek it out.  We look for inspiration in the mundane and the fantastic.  We look for ideas in places old and new.  And oftentimes, it’s difficult.

Inspiration is a fickle thing.  It comes and goes in spurts.  I’ve had days where I can sit down and write out ten pages of something on the spot.  Other days, I find it hard to even get down a single paragraph.  Some days I enter a sort of trance when I’m writing, completely losing myself in my work as my fingers flow effortlessly over the keyboard.  Other days, I just stare at that blinking “I” cursor on the screen, trying to will my brain into coming up with something, anything.

And often, inspiration comes when we’re not thinking about it.  It can come when we’re watching a television show.  It can come when we’re reading a book.  It can come when we’re at work, doing things that demand our attention.  It’s not hard science.  It’s the nature of artistry.

So when you think about it, our ideas generally come from things that have been done before, from story lines that have already existed for some time.  Even the attempt to create something unique often takes the form of doing something in the opposite manner of an already existing work.  A lot of indie movies seem to rely on that basic premise, with many independent romance flicks featuring a not so happy ending for the sole sake of being different.  But the idea for their difference came from something that was already there.  There had to be an established trope for there to be something different.

Humans may have only been around for a small portion of the Earth’s lifespan, but in that time we have told stories to people young and old.  These stories are passed down from generation to generation, and become an essential part of a culture.  These myths and legends help shape us, even if their impact is lessened through time.  Many of the movies or the games we make today feature stories informed by thoughts, beliefs, and fears older than their creators.  In a way, originality is overrated, because we have to find inspiration somewhere.  But there is still the creative spin, the twist on those things we’ve already seen.  A lot of the time, a story will get attention based solely on the fact that it’s a new and interesting twist on an old plot device or character archetype.

People who are good at the art of storytelling will twist and turn something familiar to make it their own.  They will borrow ideas from other works, but incorporate them in a way that seems new.  All great writers do this to some extent, some of them even borrowing from their own older works.  Take Stephen King for example.  He’s written so many different novels that he was bound to start treading on familiar territory at some point.

Originality isn’t some lofty, impossible idea that we hold above ourselves to keep reminding us that we’re never good enough.  Originality is an art, a tapestry spun by the mind.  It is an intangible concept, defined by a person’s perception of the word.  There is no objective test for originality.  There is no concrete measure of what is creative.  Creativity, is in many things, is in the eye of the beholder.

And that’s all for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post.  Until then, have a great week everyone.