Bridging

February 9, 2017

A tale occurred to me. Inspired in no small part by scenes from Ursula Vernon’s Digger, I give you a short framework for the opening to a story, straight from the top of my head. The premise is something like this . . .

Two wagons, each drawn by two horses and laden with goods for sale, clatter along an unfamiliar road. Ahead the wagoneers see a bridge suspended across a ravine. It is a sturdy bridge, but strange and rough. The strangest is that the ropes are looped around thick polished beams, as though someone were to hook and unhook the ropes every day.

Over the noise of the wagons comes a deep sound as of a giant walking through water. One hand appears on the cliff edge, then another, and the horses rear in panic to see a troll heave itself over the edge, sopping wet from the waist down. The wagoneers struggle to calm the animals, and themselves, as the troll unhooks one of the ropes of the suspension bridge without a word. The bridge sways. The troll goes still.

“I’m hungry.” the troll says, its voice reverberating from cliff to cliff.

As the horses nicker, the people speak with each other in hasty high-pitched tones. They talk of money, and animals, and imbalanced loads. One of them eagerly volunteers to shift goods between one wagon and the next. The other wagoneer, with some hesitation, looks to the troll, standing without motion in a puddle of river water.

“We’ll give you a horse.” the wagoneer says.

The troll watches as the wagoneer undoes and drags over the struggling horse. At last it raises a hand and pulls the beast straight out of the human’s grasp. The wagoneers cannot watch as the horse’s cries end in a snap.

With joint urgency, they finish rebalancing the wagons and look to the troll once again. It continues to stand between them and the bridge, yet now it appears almost thoughtful, dangling a horse by the neck in one hand.

“I have a little one to feed.” the troll says.

At first the wagoneers do nothing. Then they confer, in even hastier tones, of money, and animals, and how they aren’t going to carry boxes on their back, and why they couldn’t just float across the ravine on clouds of optimism if they think they’re getting by this one without trouble, and the one yet to speak to the troll bursts out to it.

“Well why not give us your little one, then?!” the wagoneer says.

The troll staggers, dropping the horse’s remains and ending upright as a tree. The wagoneers are frozen just the same, watching the tremendous creature. Water drips off it unheeded. The wind blows across the ravine.

“Asbjørn!” the troll calls, its voice even louder than before.

There is silence, then a deep sound of water, then one hand appears on the cliff edge, then another, and a troll heaves itself over the edge. It is still the size of a human giant, but smaller than its parent, sopping wet from the chest down.

“Good, you brought your club.” the larger troll says.

“Is it time to eat?” asks the child.

“It is time for you to leave.” answers the troll. With one hand it hooks the rope of the suspension bridge back on its beam, and with the other it takes its meal of horse and begins walking back to the cliff edge.

“What?” asks the child. Its parent says nothing, only climbing down the cliff with its toll.

The three horses struggle against their handlers. The wagoneers are speechless. The troll child looks to them blankly. But the bridge is clear.

. . . So that’s just the start. Obviously it isn’t written out in proper final draft (with, you know, “engaging bits”); perhaps it works best as a script, i.e., for the beginning to a roleplay experience. I know that I want to be there when a bridge troll meets human civilization . . . and harvest festivals . . . and muggers . . .

Anyway, the usual statement applies. If you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

The last time I tried to write several brief tidbits from arbitrary story worlds, I proclaimed it too difficult to give “a point” to each one. Now I will do better.

As I said a post prior, I am taking one step into the meta above my own writing. I have filled this blog with writing exercises using randomly-generated features such as gender of character, number of character traits or dimensions, specific traits from a list of 100, names from my Space Trader game, equipment from my non-published loot tables, and story genre. Typically I would designate a point or theme to give a purpose to this writing. Now I have enough “points” that I can randomize these as well and have a writing exercise that, to use technical terminology, shall be completely whacked out.

So to begin.

I will use RANDOM.ORG as usual. All the above will be allowed to vary, including character geometry from one to three dimensions. The loot tables were generated for a post-apocalyptic setting, so I will need to rewrite their content and meaning basically every time, but the process of doing so may be helpful in establishing the character’s role. Of course, everything gets blurry anyway when doing these things: I’m reminded that the names from my Space Trader game are a mass of mixed-culture references.

For fun, after preparing each 2-D or 3-D character, I will flip a virtual coin to see if I follow up with a “1-D creature class” in the same story world, like those I did in my first character design exercise and others that took after it. I get:

Paranormal story world. “Don’t betray all of your friends, or else you’ll be a nasty person and you might die.”
Two-dimensional character. Male. Traitorous, noble. Craft materials.
One-dimensional creature class. Doomsaying. Bandages.

Mechs story world. “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?”
Three-dimensional character. Male. Scoundrel, depressed, disgruntled. Hammers and wrenches.
One-dimensional creature class. Formal. Fists.

Fantasy story world. “Pride goeth before a fall.”
Three-dimensional character. Female. Bookish, restless, sarcastic. Spell components.

Science horror story world. “One fears the unknown.”
One-dimensional character. Male. Desperately hopeful. Mutant fungus and herbology.

. . . This is going to be something else. Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

2-D character: Pygmalion Rama. (My random rolls said “Galatea,” but I figured on a male character at this time.)
Traits: Traitorous, noble.
Description: Once a figure on a mystical court of intrigue halfway between our world and the next, with the bearing to match. He is pale and his expensive attire has only the slightest rents and tears.
Dialogue: Written – “A walk of the grounds revealed three small children from a nearby school playing at the dead. I must send word to their parents.”
Written – “When I occasion to pass by the paintings I am reminded of old associates memorialized within. Or, in one case, immortalized.”
Written – “The advent of new arrivals has motivated me to put on my face and greet them with the aid of my assistants. They have agreed, quite reasonably, to undertake certain tasks for me. Perhaps it is time to revisit my crafts.”
Written – “It was clear that the new arrivals would rummage about my writings without decorum. They are a curious sort. It is for this reason that I have chosen the crafted word, not the blended paint, for my binding agent.”

1-D creature class: Bound Ghosts.
Trait: Doomsaying.
Description: If it made sense for a mummy also to be a ghost, then mummy ghosts is what these would be. Bound to their master by mystical cloth wrapped to a precise formula, these men and women now handle the material aspects of running Pygmalion’s property. Such as speaking with visitors whatsoever.
Dialogue: Intro – “Welcome, I regret, to the Edmund Estates. The master may be with you shortly, and we may have his word for you shortly thereafter.”
Idle – “Oh, not again.”
Idle – “The master surely has a plan for this one.”
Idle – “It is only a matter of time . . . ”
Idle – “When will they learn?”

3-D character: Itokawa Nyx.
Traits: Scoundrel, depressed, disgruntled.
Description: The rogue mechanic of the Western Wastes, a sturdy man with pencil-thin mustache and baggy clothes like an old martial arts gi. As a side project, he has over-crafted one oversized hammer to give him negotiating power when customers come calling.
Dialogue: Intro – “You want me to fix your ride. I know it. That’s the only reason you’re standing in my sunlight. Well, do you plan on trading fair and square, or is this one of those deals we have to beat out with a hammer?”
Idle – “Never seen a deal that didn’t go south. For somebody.”
Idle – “Still waiting for a real payout.”
Event – “Now you expect me to rebuild this whole thing, don’t you? Do you have the cash?”
Event – “Looks like you’re bleeding out real bad there. Oh, well. Scrap is scrap.”

1-D creature class: Gladiatorial Bots
Trait: Formal.
Description: The most polite blood sport competitors in the world, just without the blood. They are the unmanned combatant robots that round out a mech arena match against live pilots.
Dialogue: Idle – “Online now, sir or madam. Ready to mirror your most savage desires.”
Idle – “Battle is always invigorating! For whomever still stands at the end.”
Fight – “Pardon!”
Fight – “Like so!”
Fight – “Oof, good one!”

3-D character: Crescentia Pathin.
Traits: Bookish, restless, sarcastic.
Description: A retailer of spell components outside the schools of wizardry, robed and spectacled as proper. She has to deal with the college crowd just as with foolhardy adventurers.
Dialogue: Intro – “You there. What do you get when you know half the secrets of the arcane, have half the shares in a mana mine, and owe half a college tuition? Customers.”
Idle – “If you’re not buying, good for you.”
Idle – “A book or a walk: stick to the healthy choices, I say.”
Event – “Do you know how to use that?”
Event – “Don’t come to me when you blow it up in your face.”
Event – “I could demonstrate, but I’ll just let you break it yourself.”

1-D character: Igor Zeus. (I said that these names were a chaotic mix.)
Trait: Desperately hopeful.
Description: One more worker for Quadra Corp, the premier company in fungal hybrid technologies. He and his many labcoated colleagues can be found standing near computer terminals, banging on doors, or being menaced by unleashed fungoid horrors.
Dialogue: Intro – “I don’t care who you are. It’s just one more mystery to me. And to me, the only way to stay safe is to know as little as possible. Now get out of my way.”
Idle – “If I can reach command, I’ll be fine.”
Idle – “They’re sprouting. They’re sprouting!”
Idle – “We can stop these things, can’t we?”
Event – “The lights are out! And what’s that sound?”
Event – “Oh, no. They’re not my colleagues. Whatever they are now, start shooting!”

. . . There! Having only a small amount of space for each theme, I came to see where communicating the point of the story or game would take significantly more effort than I could provide: some dialogue wound up being about the character’s goals, some about the overall point, and then for anything else I was out of room. As was expressed in the talk on character geometry I’ve referenced throughout this blog, further dimensions require further space to express. You cannot fit a believable three- or four-dimensional person into a bit role with one speech. Likewise, conveying the point of the writing takes more than a few words.

Unless, I suppose, one were to take up poetry. That is its own topic for its own time.

This blog is intended to be about writing, and my dimensional character design exercises are a big part of what I have online. There are also pieces where I get ideas out of my head. I’ve referenced thoughts such as those of Sir Terry Pratchett on the point and the plot to try to give them meaning. And I’ve created content I can use into the future, including a list of 100 traits or dimensions for my characters, helpful alongside other tools like the random generators in my Space Trader game, and, of course, nothing’s stopping me from re-using elements like my brief genre generator list. Why not do the inevitable?

It’s time to go meta.

This happens all the time. Sometimes it’s called divergent thinking; or at least I recall the label being applied to the Gordian knot in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. I know divergent thinking as the psychology term for “thinking creatively,” compared against convergent thinking. By divergent, we mean going from one situation out to all its possibilities; by convergent, we mean taking all different sources to bear on one situation.

But as I understand it, going “divergent” doesn’t always mean going “above” or “beyond” or “meta,” in the same way that a rectangle isn’t always a square. By going meta I speak of stepping above the situation. Going above the Gordian knot, we are led to ask why we ever tried to untie it; or, more broadly, why we ever approached a problem on the same level as it was posed.

Puzzles and legends often require a meta thought. You must make winning moves in a series of games, but are you even playing the correct games? You must see what has changed from one image to another, but see nothing; perhaps what has changed is yourself?

People “go meta” in comedy all the time. “A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says ‘What is this, some kind of joke?'”

If all of my writings have had “a point,” why don’t I go meta and consider the points?

Mini-essay-within-an-essay over, here are all the points I have presented online. Starting in my original essay (the “in principle” part), we have:

“Don’t betray all of your friends, or else you’ll be a nasty person and you might die.”

At least, that was my summary of much simple moviemaking. Then in the rest of that discussion (the “in practice” part), we have:

“One fears the unknown.”

“One must change or die.”

“One must grow up or die.”

“One overcomes anger through empathy.”

When I launched my creative posts with my very first character design exercise:

“Pride goeth before a fall.”

Then:

“You can’t choose your family.”

And then:

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

And then:

“Too much light leads to blindness.”

And then:

“Humanity is measured by action, not form.”

When I changed gears to get a whole game design out of my head:

“Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?”

And at last:

“Violence begets violence.”

In developing my Space Trader game, I have compiled points that the Game Master may find useful in developing game campaigns. Some are already cited above. Others are:

“Dehumanization is the first step in murder.”

“One cannot ignore the interconnectedness of all things.”

“Ignorance divides.”

“No one tradition is true.”

“Humanity is the cause of its own problems.”

“The best defense is cooperation.”

“Money is the root of all evil.”

“You cannot force others to perfection, least of all by your own definition.”

This happens to be 20 points. Excellent. I’m sure that I could create more variety in content, but what I have works well for a random generator.

So now that I am all glorious and “meta,” having quantized the point of my writing itself, what will I do on this level? Write a character design exercise where I randomize absolutely everything presented above. This I will do in my next post.

In my last post, I started a discussion that previously had remained un-discussed. Sadly, to conclude it I must make a post rife with opinions and preferences. I created this blog to explore storytelling and get out my creative thoughts, and thus it might surprise some that I complain about the present post as being “not concrete,” but that is the difference between building a story with a solid framework and arguing whether an actor did “a good job.”

One could say de gustibus non disputandum est, but that’s just too bad when all forms of entertainment are culture. And Star Wars is certainly culture.

Star Wars is a surprisingly divisive topic for such a beloved part of popular entertainment. But perhaps this ties well with my point: I argue that the Star Wars prequel trilogy was made with the same standards as, and with great fidelity to, the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s just that the reception of a story depends also on the audience. Many have words to say on this topic, from Avner the Eccentric to William Shakespeare:

“The kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing. / Our sport shall be to take what they mistake: / And what poor duty cannot do, noble respect / Takes it in might, not merit.”

Many felt disappointed by the then-new Star Wars prequels. In a time gone by, when I had only seen the first prequel, I was “not allowed to speak” in the grander conversation about the trilogies and did not get to explain these take/mistake matters to my associates. Surely the movies made mistakes: when watching the original trilogy a lifetime prior, I, as a child, simply didn’t notice mistakes in the originals. But then, I didn’t understand the movies anyway. Which shapes my segue back into the essay . . .

The legacy, the attempted legacy, and my grasp of the legacy

Consider how the six Star Wars movies have been received by children. Over the years, when I saw discussion on the internet about “my favorite movies” and “my children’s favorite movies,” there would be notes about “Well, my KIDS seem to like ALL the Star Wars movies, even the prequels.”

People said that the new trilogy was flawed, but, as I argued, the original trilogy was as flawed. The plot was as weak: things happened . . . just because they happened. You had to be charitable to overlook the mistakes and enjoy all the fun adventure. Charitable like a child. There are nonetheless some rare individuals who dislike the original trilogy, and I’d bet they just had different standards for what charity they’d give.

My conclusion was that people were feeling equally uncharitable after all the other stuff George Lucas had done. Remember that he had revised the original trilogy around then, which was fine when it came to certain visuals, but, well . . . the question of whether Han Solo or Greedo shot first has been so polarizing that it has been taken as a defining feature of George Lucas’s betrayal.

And then . . . the midi-chlorians.

This was one of the first and biggest complaints about the new prequels. In that era, I still hadn’t seen the other movies, so I still “couldn’t speak” to people who had formed such strong opinions. But I had my guesses as to what happened.

When George Lucas told us about midi-chlorians in The Phantom Menace, people felt betrayed: “How could you explain away the Force?” Well, I doubt he was trying to. A generation ago, “the Force” spoke to our spiritual needs, and every religion in the world pointed to Star Wars and said “Look! Look! That’s how our religion works!” Since then . . . we have become obsessed with DNA.

What if he was trying to duplicate the reception of the original trilogy? What if he was trying to ride the wave of public sentiment and help us enjoy the Force MORE? Sure, yes, I agree that it didn’t work: we continue to want something spiritual that cannot be explained by the physical. But how could he know that a little insertion of science WOULDN’T go over well in a society that now revered science?

So these thoughts were bouncing through my head for years. YEARS. What truly happened in the other two prequels? Opinion seemed to be that the second one was pathetic, and the third was only interesting in that it was “darker.” Still, I wasn’t “allowed to speak” until I saw them.

In truth, what would I really have to say if I didn’t have specific examples to present from the whole prequel trilogy?

Time to watch the prequels.

So I watched the prequels

The Phantom Menace is still pretty bad and I don’t think I can bring myself to watch it again. The problem is that I don’t seem to care: the movie did not have content to engage me. Next up:

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. I am stunned. Here the trainwreck of negativity must come to an end: I ask the public why people complained about this movie. Is it the title? Let’s not forget that this was the same series that gave us “the Death Star.” And remember when Harrison Ford was in this other movie about “the Temple of Doom“? That’s right: this era gave us names that make us wince today. Now that we understand we are here to be charitable, to work WITH the movie, shall we see what happens?

The prequel starts off with a bang. No, I’m not making a joke about the explosive used for the assassination attempt: I’m talking about the second assassination attempt immediately thereafter. The scene engaged me, drew me in. It was only near the end that I realized I was watching a Star Wars-style re-enactment of a classic samurai/ninja scene: there was the loyal samurai (Jedi) protecting the sleeping noble lady by slicing the venomous creature away from her bedside. In the dark. Without hitting her.

And then Obi-Wan Kenobi jumped straight through Venetian blinds to catch a droid in midair. “Oh, that’s right: Jedi are amazing.”

It kept going. It also kept making direct parallels to the original trilogy. Do you remember Princess Leia in Jabba’s barge killing her captor with the very chains that bound her? Yeah, Padme got to fight her executor with the very chains that bound her. And it wasn’t just a blind repetition of the original, but a new event that fit within the scene, not looking out of place.

What was the problem? Apparently, one complaint was that Anakin and Padme had unrealistic interaction. I disagree. I feel that Anakin’s presentation was of somebody struggling with the Dark Side. My only complaint is that, when Padme said to stop looking at her like that, he should have been shamefaced: we have quite enough presentations of relationships as harmful to women (remember: Twilight) that we don’t need more casual disregard.

And if I were to complain about any acting, then it would be Christopher Lee’s. I’m led to understand that he is a movie legend, but in this movie? Not so much, despite being given the opportunity to do both a Darth Vader impression AND an Emperor Palpatine impression (yet more efforts to make the prequels parallel the originals). When he fired Force lightning, did his hand even shake? It’s like he was depending on the special effects to make him look good. I absolutely did not believe that he had the power.

On the other hand, Palpatine’s performance was suitably chilling. All he had to do was put up the hood and he was the Emperor (-to-be). I hope it was as much fun to reprise the role after all these years as it looked.

You don’t have to like Anakin and Padme’s acting; just as I don’t have to like Count Dooku’s. But this movie actually ENGAGED me, giving me reason to be charitable where it was weak. In other words, it was a normal movie, and I’d hope that we can stop whining now. What else?

Right, there’s another one

I’m writing this immediately after watching Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Yes, yes, per all the reviews, “it’s darker.” However, these words seem to have been said in an effort to make up for how “we all know that George Lucas is terrible at making movies and just had a fluke with how good the originals were.” Again, I have to say that’s not so: he’s ALWAYS been this bad/good at making movies.

And, again, the sheer number of parallels to the original trilogy is stunning. They even got John Williams to rip off more classical music for them. Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony? I recognized it; did you?

Lastly, it seems very likely that George Lucas reacted to the backlash against The Phantom Menace by minimizing the parts that didn’t go too well. When I heard reference to the midi-chlorians again toward the end, I realized that the whole of the two final prequels had been cleansed of the things. Further, the idea of the Dark Side being able to prevent death . . . and invoking the biology-based midi-chlorians to do so . . . well, follow me here. This is good storytelling:

For one part, we have a balance in the narrative: the Jedi are unaware that the Sith may have the power to cheat death, but the Sith are unaware that the Jedi may have “Force ghosts” (Palpatine expected Yoda to leave a corpse). For another part, the Sith may have biology, but the Jedi have spirituality. That is, after we were disappointed by the arrival of midi-chlorians in the first prequel, only the Sith came to care about them in the later prequels: the Jedi spoke only of the spiritual matters that we in the audience wanted in the first place.

Of course, now I just want to see Sith-powered “Force zombies.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In any case

I come back right where I began: it’s fairly obvious to an adult re-watching the original Star Wars trilogy that these movies are flawed, but we in the audience are charitable and actively make up for the flaws. Now that I’ve watched the remaining prequels, years after displeasure with George Lucas has broken from its fever pitch, I’d argue that they are fine. And flawed. And incredibly faithful to the original trilogy. And I like them.

Now we are on the brink of a new Star Wars movie (or more). Once again, we have preview material showing a menacing character with a modified light saber. Light quillons? Awesome, I can’t wait to see that in action. Other people seem cautiously optimistic as well.

I hope it turns out to be a good movie; and, particularly, because it will have a number of repeat actors, we can expect it to have a certain fidelity to the original. Perhaps with George Lucas holding less of a prominent role, it will even have fewer “blunders” and “betrayals.” But if, once it is released, it nonetheless does something weak or foolish, I ask that the audience keep a little perspective. Please remember that we’re talking about Star Wars here. Who’s more foolish, the fool . . . or the fool who STILL buys overpriced tickets and waits in long lines because “wow, it’s Star Wars“?

P.S.: Now that Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens has been released upon the galaxy, I am pleased to see that it meets all my hopes and expectations as outlined herein. It is a “perfect Star Wars movie.”

This is an essay perhaps 10 years in coming. Not so much about gaming as about storytelling in general. It turns out that there are many factors in the reception of a story: we in the audience might think of ourselves as objective viewers, but no, we too are part of the experience. Our expectations and understanding and more. Or as Avner the Eccentric said:

“You thought you could just come and sit and be the Broadway audience. No. You’re the audience, and you’ve got work to do.”

I’m prompted to speak because a new Star Wars movie is coming soon. Are you excited? Remember, though, that people were excited about the prequel movies, and that turned out a bit complicated. So here today’s essay begins.

It all started in conversation with friends somewhere 10 years ago. I had watched the first of the new Star Wars prequels–excuse me, I had watched Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. But I hadn’t watched any of the others. General public sentiment was that the prequels were terrible, and, going on The Phantom Menace alone, I had to say I was disappointed. Not disastrously, though, and I had hopes for the rest: after all, it was obvious the effort George Lucas had put in to making that first prequel match the original trilogy in style.

So my view was that the two trilogies were basically the same sort of movie. I spoke with the group about that. Then it happened:

“Have you seen the other two?” “Well, no.” “Then don’t talk about it until you have.”

Of course. What was I thinking? It is literally impossible to have an opinion as an outsider. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the advertisements, watched the “making of” material, read reviews from informed experts, and followed conversations from everyday people, you can neither think nor speak of a creative work unless you have absorbed it from start to finish.

You know, like Twilight.

. . . People, this is why the Vampirely blog exists. You don’t have to roll around in poison ivy to get the impression that it is poisonous. And once you’ve torn yourself away from horrified fascination at that blog (do check it out if you haven’t), you may recognize this sort of statement as part of a larger double standard: “You must be an insider/outsider to be ALLOWED to speak,” with either format used depending on whom is speaking. I could go on yet another essay about THAT.

But I want to have the conversation that I missed 10 years ago. Because hey, guess what just happened? That’s right. I WATCHED THE OTHER TWO PREQUELS.

Thesis: The Star Wars prequel trilogy was made with the same standards as, and with great fidelity to, the original Star Wars trilogy

I’m not trying to convince you, unknown reader, that the prequels were any good: just that, if you think they were flawed, be advised the original trilogy was just as crippled with flaws. And I’m not trying to convince you that your beloved original trilogy was any bad: just that, if you think it was wondrous, be advised that the prequels were filled with as many wonders.

Follow me on a journey of discovery.

The essayist in the days before the prequels

I loved the original Star Wars movies. Ta da! I’m already on your side, aren’t I?

Except there’s no guarantee that you love the original trilogy. There are quite a few people who believe they were terrible. How can this be? Simple: people have different tastes, different preferences, and different mistakes they will forgive.

Have you ever seen, read, or performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? The play ends with a remarkable play-within-a-play, a device for which William Shakespeare was rather famous, but one he put to surprising use here. He explicitly taught his audience the “right way” to deal with a play they didn’t like: to make it better in their head. To make excuses for the mistakes and help tell the story.

I was to find this important shortly.

On the arrival of The Phantom Menace

As with most people (except those who disliked the original trilogy; see above), I was excited to hear that George Lucas was going to fill out the trilogy of trilogies. And, wow! Look at that preview material! A light saber quarterstaff? Creative!

Somewhere around the release, I enjoyed a “making of” feature that they showed on TV, and it too was surprising. I was impressed–deeply impressed–with how dedicated they were on fidelity to the original trilogy. And there was a line about one specific detail of the movie that I only half-heard, and I’d really like to remember it better: something about “capturing the sneer.” I will return to this in a moment.

What did I think of the movie?

Wow, those computer animated characters were annoying. Yoda was so much more expressive as a puppet than as a 3-D model. There were stupid jokes where they didn’t belong and our beloved droids were just comic relief.

In the plot, it seemed things happened . . . just because they happened. I couldn’t feel like anything important was going on. And then, however much importance was placed on the light saber quarterstaff in the previews, they killed its wielder and got rid of the element I liked! Hopefully they had plans to make things more interesting into the future, because they didn’t have much left going for them.

Still . . .

There was something about “the sneer.” Watto, that slaver . . . it looked like he had a sneer scanned straight from the face of the bartender of the Mos Eisley Cantina. Did he? I can’t find any evidence online that this was a fact, but it stuck with me. There were other similarities, too.

Huh.

Time to re-watch the originals.

On the realization that the original trilogy was not given to us from the heavens

I enjoyed the original trilogy, but of course I had seen it most when I was a child. Eventually I got around to re-watching those three movies.

It was remarkable. For one, I was reminded that the original had jokes throughout. As a child, I perhaps had taken it too seriously, just as many children from a slightly earlier generation mistakenly thought that Batman and Get Smart were all serious.

I also saw more parallels than I ever realized. There was even a bit of an embarrassing moment for me. At the end of Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, when Darth Vader had his helmet removed, I found myself at a loss for words and exclaimed “It’s Anakin!” Well, yes, of course it was Anakin: but what I meant was that I felt an instant visual connection between that actor and the young child that George Lucas carefully found to represent him in The Phantom Menace.

I also saw the problems.

. . . Wow, but the original movies were flawed. Did you realize that? Yes, you probably did . . . unless you took William Shakespeare’s advice and made up for their own failures.

Consider:

You are in a snowspeeder on Hoth. You want to shoot down an Imperial Walker. What do you do?

If you’re a fan, then I’m sure you’ll immediately have an answer like this: “Their armor’s too powerful to get through, so first you have to topple them, sort of stretch out their neck. When you do that, the strained neck is a weak point where you can blast through their armor.”

Great. Then it’s a darned shame this “neck” stuff was never explained in the movie, isn’t it?

Seriously, go watch Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. Do it. All you hear is somebody exclaim how their armor’s too powerful to get through, and then, a few moments later, someone blows up an Imperial Walker. If you blink at the wrong moment, you won’t even realize that the shot is fired at the stretched-out neck. YOU in the AUDIENCE have to piece together the explanation and make up for the flaws in the original. Or, as in the case for many of us, we small children never understood the plot anyway and we had to ask our parents why things happened.

Things happened . . . just because they happened.

Or how about content that not even fans can defend? Take Luke Skywalker’s training in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. You’ve heard this happen: the nervous laugh in the audience. Okay, so, he lowers the blast shield on his helmet and blocks the laser shots, but Mark Hamill’s acting is lacking. He just sort of wiggles the light saber prop around and then pops back up on his heels like a little child re-enacting the same scene. You simply cannot believe that he has learned anything about the Force, and, consistently, I’ve heard a disbelieving laugh from any audience with whom I shared the experience.

So where does this leave us?

At a good place for a break. I will allow a recess for you to digest the above, then it will be the return of the author in my next post. After all, there are a few more movies to consider together, and perhaps you need a moment to re-watch them before a new one comes out . . .

Last time, I discussed how character backgrounds defined the game experience for me even in a massively violence-focused game such as Unreal Tournament. Having the information exist at all created a living story world.

Now I will try to create some myself; perhaps they will be combatants for a first-person game, yes, but perhaps fighters for a Street Fighter-style one, heroes for any of the countless games out there with hireable characters (Shadowrun comes to mind), or otherwise. If I do it correctly, they’ll be more than just puppets waiting to live and die when a player presses a button.

The point of the game is “Violence begets violence.” Little surprise there, yes?

The most recent game I posted involved a post-apocalyptic world with individuals and gangs of looters, all given personality and equipment. I will use character geometry once more, creating one-dimensional or at most two-dimensional individuals as they will not have airtime to develop themselves further. As noted, I have a table of 100 traits now, and I will choose from them via RANDOM.ORG. I also will choose gender and number of dimensions that way.

Because this game is focused on action, what the characters do can be more important to the viability of the whole game than who they are. Therefore I will use the post-apocalyptic loot tables to select “defining equipment,” the tools of the trade brought into play when you select/meet/hire the character. I get:

One-dimensional character. Female, cruel, crowbar.
Two-dimensional character. Female, hopeless and hungry, axe.
Two-dimensional character. Male, sickly and persistent, metal pipe.
One-dimensional character. Female, damaged, flares.
Two-dimensional character. Male, zealous and insular, rifle.

The traits weren’t supposed to be gloomy themselves, but wow, that looks to be a coherent story right there. For the sake of transparency (not that it matters here in any way), I might note I refined the results a little, throwing out the traits of “dainty” and “bookish” because they didn’t fit with the theme. There are plenty of fighting games out there that have the “cutesy character,” someone who “looks weak” yet obviously is going to blow up the entire battlefield, and that’s not needed here.

With that in mind, I choose to duplicate the naming system I established once and again in the post-apocalyptic world: one descriptor for a nickname, and one normal name. Because I’m silly this way, I’ll derive names from my own Space Trader game, chosen at random. Why not?

Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

1-D character: “Heartless” Titania.
Trait: Cruel.
Background: A childhood in the Blasted Zones led Titania to understand survival as coming only at the expense of others. During an early raid on a desert lightning train, she wedged the weather doors partially open on the command crew’s cabin, leading to their death by exposure hours after her raiding party had departed. To this day she uses a crowbar as a tool of both blunt trauma and practical mischief-making.

2-D character: “Ravenous” Aednat.
Traits: Hopeless, hungry.
Background: Like other children of the Blasted Zones, Aednat got used to hardship in the silica pits. Unlike others, the one who came to be known as “Ravenous” got aid in the form of Yaroslava Consortium subdermal tonic implants. Now she outperforms her peers, swinging an axe with the strength of a rad-bull, but at the cost of constant need for nutrition. She will fall the instant she can no longer feed her tech, and she knows this.

2-D character: “Terminal” Proteus.
Traits: Sickly, persistent.
Background: Once buried in the depths of Tavon Mercantile’s research wing on a forced assistantship, Proteus found a way out during open warfare with Yaroslava Consortium. His circulatory system was crippled by a Yaroslava biologic, but he survived by repeated self-administered blood transfusions in the middle of the conflict. He thereafter eschewed high technology and beat his way to freedom with a metal pipe from the facility’s plumbing.

1-D character: “Broken” Emmeline.
Trait: Damaged.
Background: Citizens declared Non-Viable are typically exterminated in MilSec camps or exiled to the Blasted Zones, and Emmeline was no different. Miraculously surviving the same MilSec laser that cut down her brother and sister, Emmeline vanished from the waste carts to resurface years later in a street gang. Calling herself and her gang “Broken,” she is known to fight using incendiary flares despite the shocking burns she causes herself.

2-D character: “Iron” Arcadia.
Traits: Zealous, insular.
Background: MilSec task teams trained Arcadia to terminate rad-beasts that breached perimeter. When promoted to Inquisition, he retained the attitude and work ethic, being known at times not to speak a single word when on assignment. “Iron” is expert in using his rifle at range just as he is swinging it in melee, and reportedly was responsible for curtailing Yaroslava Consortium’s operations in United Galle.

. . . Why yes, I took the opportunity to use my Space Trader game’s random company generator and random location generator as well. What are all these places and how do they work? What’s up with the alleged “technology”? I don’t know, and by the science fiction logic of Unreal Tournament I am absolved of having to care. (Aside from being sure to maintain continuity.)

The key things are that they enrich the world with background and support a healthy plot. Games are culture, as I’ve expanded once already in another violent scenario, and game designers have an obligation to think of what they (designers or games) teach the players. Here we have five characters who would perpetuate violence if left to their own devices, and it sounds very much like the world will lead them nowhere else. Hopefully they are interesting enough that the player will want to bring them to a better resolution.

I love storytelling. I feel that other people should care about storytelling, too, because it is so very important to us: it is a fundamental substrate of human existence. A lesson I learned from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is that a story is a metaphor for life and life is a metaphor for a story. All our forms of entertainment, including the modern invention of videogames, are culture, and “culture” is just shorthand for (among other things) “who we are, what we do, and what we enjoy.” Stepping sideways into music, there are always the words of Amanda Palmer in her Ukulele Anthem:

You may think my approach is simple-minded and naïve
Like if you want to change the world then why not quit and feed the hungry
But people for millennia have needed music to survive
And that is why I promised John [Lennon] that I will not feel guilty

This sort of reasoning contributes to my general enjoyment of all sorts of games regardless of format. (Though I am aware that each medium has its own qualities that may be employed to good result in the artistic creation. But such brings its own discussion.) For years, when broaching this topic with people I would refer them to my videogame collection: most everything I owned was there because of the storytelling. This included an oddity or two . . . which will come in two paragraphs as the main reason I am posting today.

But before I get there, first let me note the timeframe of this collection. Around the turn of the century/millenium, videogame technology had advanced to the point where real storytelling was possible. I took particular note of Looking Glass Studios’ Thief (fan site here). Years prior, in seeing early first-person games and all their straightforward violence (see Wolfenstein 3D and Doom), I’d imagined the development of a game where enemies had personality, a real life. Your actions might be violent in the end, such as assassination, but this hypothetical game would have computer-controlled characters do such things as sleep, talk, and get angry. They’d HAVE background, instead of BEING background. Then Thief came along and did exactly so (minus much assassination).

The feeling that the world is not “just background,” but that it is alive and filled with living, breathing people, is what many gamers such as renowned author Sir Terry Pratchett enjoyed in the Thief series. I agreed. Thus it was that I bought Unreal Tournament for the story.

It sounds impossible. This is the first-person shooter that made “frag” into a (gaming-) household word. And to this day I have never met another human being who realized that Unreal Tournament HAS a story at all. But I did. Why? And how? Simple: I was the only human being I knew who bothered to read the character backgrounds presented before each match. Thus I saw that the world of Unreal Tournament is one filled with living, breathing people; one where the enemies have personality, a real life. There is even a little mystery about who and what the final enemy of the game is supposed to be. I liked this, and I felt that the background enriched my experience as I played through the high-quality first-person frag fest.

Ken Levine, during the development of the game Bioshock (which is very violent but also has extensive story), discussed how the goal was to ensure the game worked on three levels. On one, the story could be ignored beyond “okay, so, that’s the boss” and it would be a good action game for people who wanted it. On another, the story would be integrated well enough that gamers could observe “oh, I see what motivates these people” intermixed with the gameplay. Then on yet another, of course, the story would be there for people to devour in its entirety, pouring over each log and line to understand the world.

The fact that a batch of “mindless enemies” can be so interesting leads me to now, where I’ve decided to run with this and develop a story world (the same thing as a game world) based around fighter background information. Part brainstorming, part game design, and part just having fun as always. And I will do it in my next post.

This blog is, ostensibly, to present online the writing and gaming musings of myself. As stated repeatedly, I possess spare material files on my computer where I get these ideas out of my head, and sometimes they provide also the inspiration for blog posts, like the lengthy four-parter lurking in that tag.

Once upon a time, I had a thought. It was prompted by one of my roommates. If it interests you enough to bring to greater fruition (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

My roommate saw online a discussion about warning future people that hazardous materials had been stored in a location. Given that the materials could remain hazardous for ages after the demise of all humanity, the warning would have to communicate to unknown civilizations with unknown standards.

One guess was to set massive durable metal spikes sticking at all angles out of the ground, hopefully communicating that nothing else should be built on the spot. Would this work? Who knew? Surely an entity could misunderstand anything. And then I started thinking . . .

Stonehenge.

What if we failed to understand the famous standing stones? Well, more than we already do. Imagine an ancient architect being transported to modern day, seeing the tourists pressing eagerly as close as they can, seeing the religious brethren performing ceremonies inside the rings, and recoiling in horror. “You fools! Horizontal repressing stones atop multiple uprising stones! What do you think we buried there?!”

I leave this thought with you.

Fabled Lands: The Serpent King's Domain Kickstarter project image

Following along inexorably from that last post, I and my associates in Megara Entertainment have brought our Kickstarter project to live-ness on the internet. I could have said “to life,” naturally (and grammatically), but granting the project such is the purpose of the funding. The project is “live.” Perhaps backers will bring it to life.

Yet I find myself speaking of contradictions once more: backers have already brought it to life. Whereas our project for The Way of the Tiger was funded in less than 48 hours, our current project has been funded in less than 45 minutes:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/57119387/fabled-lands-the-serpent-kings-domain

This is excellent and will allow us to focus on our main goals, which are to get extra funding to afford the needed art. Any such funding is a challenge when selling books, as discussed already by Dave Morris. Now I am dashing across the internet to talk with everyone, thank everyone, and catch up again with everyone when everyone does something behind my back. Business as usual for Kickstarter.

Fabled Lands: The Serpent King's Domain Kickstarter project image

Readers will have noticed by now that I post about Kickstarter on this blog. Among other things. But all that work with Megara Entertainment on Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories, The Way of the Tiger, and Lone Wolf – The Board Game lends itself to posting. Among other things, they’ve consistently been my only posts with images.

So today we have presented the world with the “soft launch” of our imminent Kickstarter project, Fabled Lands: The Serpent King’s Domain. Yet again we are adapting and expanding a classic gamebook series, and this time it looks like I have the pleasure of working with the entire original team of authors and illustrators.

See this link:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/57119387/2100439267?token=488bd8fd

As I wrote over there,

Fabled Lands is a gamebook series, that special sort of solo role-playing where you read a story paragraph, make a decision about what you would like the hero to do next, and turn to some other page to read the results. This series is the first in history to be non-linear: players proceed at will back and forth between books, and each book represents not a story but a region. The story is up to the player to tell.

You can strive to overcome villains and monsters, or spend the whole game as a merchant trader plying the seas. Ordinarily, this sort of description would mean an open-world videogame to tax your computer’s processors; but Fabled Lands is a BOOK ON PAPER.

This I think is noteworthy. It’s in much the same sense as that essay I wrote on gamebooks: playing these games, I found myself struck by the implementation of gaming principles I knew to exist in videogames. I felt the freedom of choice and consequence that comes from walking around an electronic overworld and entering the dungeons I wished. One might ask, then, why I’d play a print Fabled Lands gamebook when I could just play a videogame; I’d have multiple answers, but one, inevitably, would be that I’d play both. Why wouldn’t I want to play all “well-programmed” games? The medium doesn’t change the admiration.

As before, the purpose behind this whole post is to announce how I shall be busy come next month. In fact, I’ve been busy for quite some time.

Though it’s amusing to consider this further too. Just recently I attended the wedding of a friend from the Lesser Known Gods, hinted briefly in my about page and my writing samples page. In speaking with his gaming friends, I was given a new name for all my work on Kickstarter: producer.

Producer? Sounds like I need to look up a job description or two. But yes, I have spent months dividing tasks into logical groups, managing people, maintaining a focus on a goal or vision for a project, raising awareness and funds, and, in the end, writing a lot of reports. If that’s a management position of some sort, then I suppose that explains why I’ve been so busy. Especially when no one here actually reports to me.

But as stated it’s generally been a pleasure. I hope this gaming news is of interest, as with all the others.