I’m proud of modern gaming and its ability to tell real stories. This is why I feel it is important to approach these tales on their own terms: to settle yourself within the shell created by the story’s plot and look at the point it demonstrates within.

This “Part II” post is in truth the third part of a sequence that began here talking mostly about Star Wars. Despite appearances, not everything in life is about blowing up the Death Star. There are lessons to be learned: per my abuse of Shakespeare’s quote on brevity, the “point” is the soul of the story, and the “plot,” genre, setting, and million-dollar-budget special effects are the limbs and outward flourishes. Getting stuck on blowing up the Death Star is foolish when an important lesson about family is waiting for you.

This is particularly relevant to videogames, where, among other things, the player might personally be trying to blow things up. Videogames are more than just entertainment (games are culture), and the example from my last post, Paul Gresty and The Frankenstein Wars, was the “Part I” to set up today’s “Part II.” It was a story about second-class citizens (stitched-together Frankensteinian soldiers), with the added hook that you the first-class general could become one of them. This should be chilling.

Let’s start a bit earlier than that.

I used to think it a shame we couldn’t program things like “personality” on top of Doom. These games were little more than straightforward violence when they came out. However, as I’ve mentioned before, this changed when technology advanced and games like Looking Glass Studios’ Thief (fan site here) became possible. As the latter creators discussed in their “making-of” material, they had many ways of transmitting little packets of information to the player, like written notes and overheard conversations. These weren’t possible in a Doom world of grunting monsters and painted-texture walls.

I was proud for stealthy games. Years later, I came to be proud for horror games: not only could a game tell a story, it could tell a story that affected you. I developed a larger library of horror games than I would have expected, given that I made it all the way through the 80’s and 90’s without owning a single horror movie. And games have only advanced since then.

So they can affect you, but what does this say about getting real meaning? If Star Wars has messages for us, what about the next super-horrifying first-person shooter? I like this section of interview with Ken Levine from the development of Bioshock, which can be found within the Cult of Rapture’s podcast section:

“I always think there are three ways that gamers deal with games that have a lot of story in them. There’s the way that a lot of gamers deal with them, which is like ‘Dude, where’s the next thing I’m gonna shoot, you know?’ And that’s cool and we totally support that, you know, people want to play the game and, like ‘Oh, Ryan, he’s the bad guy I guess, he’s this, you know, dude.’
“Then you have the people who want to listen to what he says, and get the vibe of what he says, and say ‘Oh, he’s trying to kill me because X, Y, and Z’ where the first type of gamer would just be like ‘Oh, this dude’s my enemy and I want to kill him. And he wants to kill me.’
“And then you have that third level kind of gamer who really wants to find every audio diary, and analyse every ghost sequence, and look at every scene in the world, visual scene, read every poster, read all the story text that comes (we have a whole encyclopedia as it were in the game of all the objects), think about all the connections between all the characters. And we really support all those levels. There’s a huge amount of depth of story, an almost novelistic depth of story in the game if you really want to get into it. But also if you just want to get in there and shoot, you know, that’s cool too, but I think especially the people listening to this podcast might be interested in some more of the deeper aspects of the story, and it’s there in spades.”

That’s one thing. Notice how well it overlaps with Jonathan Blow’s speech titled “Design Reboot” (which I keep linking with the lovely animation of choice quotes by Superbrothers):

“Why do people play games? . . .
“1. Games can provide entertainment/fantasy/escapism. . . .
“2. Meaningful artistic expression. . . .
“3. A means of exploring the universe.

Ken Levine’s first level of gamer deals only with Jonathan Blow’s first point of gaming. The first level of gamer needs nothing other than Doom, needs to do nothing more than blow up the Death Star.

Which is not as good a thing as Ken Levine implies.

I’ve argued before about morality in game design. Jonathan Blow is also known for saying:

“When millions of people buy our game, we are pumping a (mental) substance into the (mental) environment. This is a public mental health issue. We have the power to shape humanity. How will we use it?”

Notice what happens when we go above Ken Levine’s first level, up to where “people want to listen to what [the villain] says”:

Luke Skywalker listens to the Emperor on the Death Star and you understand the conflict now: in truth, it comes down to how your family problems are losing you all of your friends. The player in Bioshock listens to Andrew Ryan and you understand the interplay of power, corruption, freedom, and tyranny. (Jonathan Blow criticized the latter’s success, but at least they tried.) In The Frankenstein Wars, the “villain” is the sibling: care to understand your sibling any?

It makes it all the more clear why we need games like The Frankenstein Wars: the player of Doom kills hordes of enemy soldiers, but have you ever considered being the one to send soldiers to their death? Is it a justifiable cause that makes you do it, or is it pride?

What about being sent to war yourself? What about becoming the expendable grunt that will be slaughtered with hyper-realistic 3-D-modeled armament?

What if life and death mattered to you?

Which brings me to a final point in gaming that makes me proud. One would think that big-budget explosions and hyper-realistic weaponry meant the death of real storytelling; obviously we would all be distracted by the explosions. But in today’s world of gaming the storytellers continue to make the push. There were stealth games, there was the horror genre, and now . . . there’s the “walking simulator.”

This term was coined for Dear Esther, by thechineseroom. By labeling it with the joke-that’s-also-serious of “walking simulator,” it’s made clear that there’s nothing to do in the ordinary sense: the entire experience is immersion. You absolutely and without a doubt cannot play these games and expect surface-level escapist excitement to sustain you.

So gaming is getting us about as far as possible as it can from Ken Levine’s first level of gamer; or, at least, the independent game developers are. And even Bioshock had a real point to convey, even if it had its flaws.

If Star Wars still speaks to us beneath the special effects, it’s good that videogames — which have become one of the biggest sources of media for public consumption these days — are just as capable in their own ways. The viewers just need to understand that the story is there at all, that when they get beyond their opinions about the outer shell — the plot — they might gather an important point that makes their life all the better.

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I said before — no, wait, I said it over and over — that there is a distinction between the point and the plot. The novel you are writing may have a surface structure with a complex plot, but underneath it you still have some point you’re trying to get across. Or, perhaps, one you do get across, whether you’re astute enough an author to manage it or not.

The same logic applies to giant pop-culture stories like Star Wars: there are familiar, yet important, lessons about family to be learned beneath all the blaster fire. Goodness, the same logic applies to videogames. You may not like faerie tales, or big special effects movie extravaganzas, or big special effects videogame extravaganzas, but there’s still a point underneath that you could learn.

But why do it this way? I argue that it’s important to approach a tale on its own terms: to settle yourself within the shell created by the story’s plot and look at the point it makes within.

You’ve been in this situation: you’re enthusiastic about a story you just read/watched/heard, you want to tell somebody else, and the person you’re telling shoots you down with “I didn’t like it; it’s just about [insert quality here],” such as “it’s just about stupid dragons,” or “it’s just about the special effects,” or “it’s just about blowing up the Death Star.” Here your associate is getting hung up on the surface. And you try, goodness but you try: “It’s not about that! Once you get into it, you see it’s about so much more!”

Well, the issue is that it has all these layers; it has both a plot and a point. So, why place all this complex structure on top of the point? Why build a Death Star? Why not . . . make literally every movie into a realistic depiction of modern people in your hometown having family trouble like the Skywalkers do?

It should be obvious from that alone why the abstraction.

But here I’d like to reference the words of Paul Gresty. Followers of my blog know about my work on Kickstarter projects. Paul Gresty is the author of Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories, and, most recently, I’ve been working with him on Fabled Lands: The Serpent King’s Domain.

He has other projects including The Frankenstein Wars. You can guess “what this one’s about.” Obviously, as the creators put in their tagline, it’s about:

. . . war and horror, heroes and villains, and the soul of humanity at stake!

But I also like to keep quoting Neil Gaiman, who once put in The Sandman:

“Never trust the storyteller. Only trust the story.”

What’s hiding in the story? Regrettably, neither Paul nor I can find the exact quote anymore, but Paul once described The Frankenstein Wars like this:

[You ask the implications of a world where soldiers are stitched together from corpses. Soldiers become second-class citizens, eminently expendable, and so treated as “lesser.” However, the terror has another layer: with a single bullet, you could join them. You too could be the second-class citizen.]

There you have it.

By stepping into the story world — which is to say, literally any world other than a realistic depiction of modern people in your hometown — you can explore ideas beyond your expectations. If you in the real world are a “first-class person all the way,” how could you possibly be a second-class citizen? Why would you care? Goodness, why would you read a realistic depiction of real-world second-class citizens? Too depressing — or, if you are an egotist, too irrelevant.

But then you read The Frankenstein Wars and you are forced to think about it from a perspective you’ve never known.

Let us pause for a moment to appreciate the reason all fantastic literature in all of history exists.

No, really. By this mark we have justified all fiction, all theater, all campfire stories, all make-believe, if only you listened closely enough to find a point. The theatrics enable you to learn life lessons and develop empathy in situations that would be impossible if you restricted yourself to your existing down-to-earth life.

Hence I encourage approaching a tale on its own terms.

This applies to other things, too.

I’ve said before that I bought Unreal Tournament for the story. It sounds impossible, since surely all gaming is about the flashy special effects, and first-person shooters even moreso. Not so; and I just might have another entire post to make about how proud I am of today’s gaming and its ability to express story.

Which I believe will be my next post.

When you approach a story, such as Star Wars in my post title or anything else, the common way to understand it is “this story is about war” or “runaway technology” or “dragons” or “school competitions” or “piracy on the high seas with historically-inappropriate accents.” As that, it can be compelling. It can compel you never to look at the story again, if, e.g., you hate pirate stories.

This is a darn shame.

To a large extent, it is because the reader/viewer/listener missed the point. Star Wars is a helpful example because it is so well-known and people typically have a clear like-or-dislike attitude toward it. It’s difficult to avoid forming an opinion when culture shoves it down your throat every day . . .

But thanks to that suffusion, the ideas in it are everywhere. You know what the “Death Star” is. Some real-world people claim to be “Jedi.” And all these people seem to forgive that the movies were fallible creations like any other; they just wanna play with a light saber woo!!!

That’s all the surface.

Neil Gaiman had a helpful observation:

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

The Death Star is your “dragon.” Or maybe Governor Tarkin is, who knows. Is anybody surprised — anybody — when the hero(es) win(s) and the Death Star is destroyed? Of course not. So why would anybody — anybody — read another fairy tale, or watch another space-fairy tale like Star Wars, when you know how it’s going to end?

Because there is something else behind it. How did you get to that end?

I have repeated over and over across these posts, starting when first I observed Sir Terry Pratchett’s words on it, that there is a distinction between the point and the plot. Sir Terry mentioned how fans tried to give him ideas for stories. “You should do a pirate story!” they’d say. “Alright,” Sir Terry would reply, “what would it be about?”

He couldn’t just do a pirate story. Saying “pirates!” would tell you the plot, but what was the point? What would the life of piracy reveal? What moral, message, feeling, would you the reader take away in the end?

It’s as with those quotes from Jonathan Blow I referenced when discussing games as culture:

“Why do people [enjoy stories]? We already know one of the answers is pretty obvious.
“1. [Stories] can provide entertainment/fantasy/escapism. . . . But if this is all that [stories] were, I would be intensely dissatisfied. Because fantasy and escapism is not fulfilling to me. At the end of the day, I want to feel like my life has meaning.”

Sir Terry never just did a pirate story, as there was no point. He couldn’t just write escapism.

I like the structure of Shakespeare’s quote about brevity, so let me make this overlong. The “point” is the soul of the story, and the “plot,” genre, setting, and million-dollar-budget special effects are the limbs and outward flourishes.

Blowing up the Death Star is essential to the plot. As is beating the dragon. How do you, the hero of your own story, get there? By believing in yourself; letting go; reaching out with your feelings. Funny how that lesson sounds like it can be applied elsewhere. Where else?

Well . . .

Star Wars movies continued beyond just the first one, and a casual plot point about Luke Skywalker’s father became more involved. Seriously involved. An entire prequel trilogy addressed the Skywalker family ancestry, and these days a new sequel trilogy is being released to follow them further. Not to mention Rogue One (Optional Subtitle) A Star Wars Story. And they keep blowing up the Death Star. How does this work?

In a sense, every Star Wars movie is about blowing up the Death Star (or its equivalent). But that’s not what it’s about, i.e., that’s not the point. Really, every Star Wars movie is about family.

In the original trilogy, reconciliation with the lost parent becomes key to the Skywalkers. Lo and behold, a new Death Star shows up just in time to be the one thing keeping them apart. Conveniently, the most personal heart-to-heart conversation is held while standing in the thing — this giant unfeeling monstrosity that is “destroying all your friends.” Reconciliation saves the relationship (all of them!), and, as a pleasant bonus, halts the hero’s own journey to “the dark side.” Pretty good deal when we thought we were talking about space stations.

In Rogue One, yet again, the story is about the loss of a parent. What’s getting in the way? The Death Star. What’s it doing there? Well, it’s kinda the parent’s fault. Sorry about that. “But I was doing it all to protect you!”

Those words . . . huh. I thought we were talking about space stations.

Plot, genre, setting, and multi-million-dollar-budget special effects? Not nearly as important as the people in the audience noticing those key words and remembering them when somebody off the screen says them. Somebody like themselves.

So Star Wars is about believing in yourself to surmount your obstacles; about family in all its conflict; heck, it’s about faith, too, and we could talk a lot about world religion in its relationship to the Jedi. And therefore someone could ask a reasonable question:

“Why didn’t you SAY SO?”

Why all the fantasy? Why all the special effects? Why didn’t you “just” make a story about those things that you’re saying are oh-so-important?

I will address this . . . in my next post.

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 . . .

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.

It is interesting and tricky to put so much on Kickstarter. Important to remember is that there are many ways to raise money and they are not all equal. For instance, the biggest Kickstarter videogame projects make millions of dollars, yet they need to warn backers that a million-dollar budget . . . is a small videogame budget. Then there are other sorts of productions, such as the books we in Megara Entertainment keep making. Author Dave Morris has a post on the Fabled Lands blog about Kickstarter and the impractical costs in publishing: to make enough Kickstarter profit off of books to pay everyone, you’ll need tremendous numbers of people to pledge for your books.

Recently, we started collaborating with Greywood Publishing to make Lone Wolf – The Board Game. That’s a domain change from game-in-a-book to game-on-a-board. How it is different? Mostly in that we are collaborating now and therefore communication needs to go through yet more people. The question of expenses is the same: per Dave, great masses of money would go into paying people for months of effort. It is fortunate that Gary Chalk personally wants to make the game, while Jamie Wallis of Greywood personally wants to prepare layout and publish it, and thus neither is a salaried employee. And then there’s me, the one who personally wants to share the excitement of Lone Wolf.

So we succeeded with what should be our bare monetary needs. We’ve said “thank you” all over the place, put together most everything for the final product, and kept posting project updates, not all of which really belong on this blog. The most relevant is my traditional “lessons learned” post.

I’ve posted these before: The Way of the Tiger I copied onto this blog while Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories can be seen on the original Kickstarter. As per usual, I’m writing all this for people who want to go forth with a similar project. Who are those? Anyone for whom Dave’s words are a wake-up call, sure, but I like to think any reasonable reader can see where the principles are universal. Reading posts like these was incredibly helpful as I tried to understand Kickstarter, so I pass it along in case somebody in the future is saved some hassle. The post is online here and I copy it below:

Lessons learned

Let me start with . . .

A recap

I didn’t make up the stuff in those other two essays: almost all of it came from known Kickstarter and/or business principles. And it all applied to Lone Wolf:

Publicity is a full-time job. Kickstarter consumes your life and you will have no time to do anything else.

Finding the right audience means looking both outside and inside Kickstarter. Outside, there are communities dedicated to your areas of interest, and your challenge is to convince them to sign up for Kickstarter to pay you money. Inside, people have already taken the first step, and your job is to find the ones that care about your areas of interest.

All of this outreach requires politeness and care on your part. Many people will ignore you anyway (who wants to listen to ads?), but if you don’t care about the people you contact then they have even less reason to care about you.

Both “big name” recommendations and individual forum posters matter. Both big pledges and small pledges matter.

Early communication (like a soft launch) is important. Regular communication (including responding to feedback) is important.

And the mechanics of Kickstarter still matter: the natural flow from a “beginning rush” to a “final rush”; the attention from user profiles, the “Popular” category, or “Staff Picks” (though we didn’t get into the last one); the importance of a project video; and so on.

What happened this time: finding people

It was difficult and remarkable. First remember that Kickstarter is a publicity campaign, not a storefront. For each project I’ve kept a file of all “promotional material” I’ve posted on forums, e-mails I’ve sent to reviewers, and so on. Some pieces were applied with copy-and-paste to ten or twenty places. Even with that compression, it’s almost a hundred pages (single-spaced). We were featured (sometimes multiple times) on thirty-to-forty forums, blogs, and fellow Kickstarter projects, and an equal number said “sorry, not interested.” And this doesn’t even include Twitter and Facebook.

As I’ve said before, every single time we got a surge in new pledges I could point to somebody who posted about us. It was very predictable and precise. If, say, a new mention meant an extra $500 on the day it went live, then we reached almost 2/3 of our funding goal this way, with lingering effects as future visitors came by to see the posts. (And wow are we grateful: thanks again for spreading the word, everyone.)

Giving them a good welcome

I probably don’t have to tell you that having a professional artist helps in making a page attractive. We also took a lot of feedback from fans during our soft launch to improve the content.

One thing went better than it did in our last two projects: the project video. Kickstarter emphasizes this for making a connection with potential backers. For Arcana Agency, site stats showed only about 15% of people who started watching the video bothered to finish it. That went up to 20% for The Way of the Tiger. At its best, Lone Wolf saw 25% of plays complete, which sure says something.

One thing went worse: communication. At the base I mean internal communication within the team, but of course that hampered communication with you, the readers. Normally, working with Mikaël Louys online (this is Richard S. Hetley, here), we have to deal with a difference in time zones. Anything I needed urgently for The Way of the Tiger would suffer a one-day delay. That’s annoying but okay if you’re planning a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule of posting new material on Kickstarter.

When we started working with Jamie Wallis and Gary Chalk, it got worse. We all have full-time jobs. As noted, Gary has been suffering from fluctuating internet access. Anything urgent faced a two-to-three-day delay, and that just made things difficult. We were saved only by our advance planning (hooray, soft launch) and that fact that half of us were experienced in Kickstarter enough to keep posting anyway. (So, sorry for the delays in communication, and we’re grateful for your patience.)

What they gave in response

Elementary economics tells us that different people have different budgets, and if you sell products or services you’d be wise to offer choice to match. On Kickstarter, that means offering pledge rewards from just a few dollars up into the high reaches: if someone WANTS to pledge $1000, you’d jolly well better be ready for it.

What you kind backers gave to us was unexpected . . . inasmuch as I’ve never seen such a clear demonstration of the principle. The $3000 reward level accounted for around a sixth of total funding. The $50 reward accounted for around a sixth of total backers. The $65 reward accounted for around a sixth of both. The numbers go on and every pledge mattered. What if we’d left out one of those levels? If people couldn’t find something to match their interest (and budget) then we would have earned ourselves a nasty hole in funding.

Today and into the future

How do you think about project success? Unless you’re one of those lucky few who makes a million dollars, you measure “success” as “we made enough to cover our first guess for how much money we’ll need.” That’s what we did and now we can afford the first print run, covering backer rewards and providing stock to sell in a proper storefront in the future.

This lets me make a final point. If you had any doubt, the project and components will go on general sale in 2015. It’s alarming to note how, for all three of our Kickstarter projects, people have asked persistently “will there be any way to buy it after the project is over?” The answer is “of course.” My alarm comes in that some of these people are seasoned Kickstarter backers, and therefore there must be enough other projects where the answer is “no” for them to feel this doubt.

What kind of businessperson engages in a massive and stressful publicity effort for a retail product only to STOP selling the product? Ostensibly, on this site, your product just needs a “kickstart” and then it will live on. For some people this life is defined differently, such as those funding a theater renovation which has a discrete endpoint, but even then they intend to use their efforts to do yet further business in the future (in this example, doing productions in the theater).

We hope Lone Wolf will live on now that you’ve “kickstarted” it, that the remaining stock will find good homes in 2015, and that the game will be popular and profitable enough that all the expansions we’d started detailing in stretch goals (but didn’t yet reach) can be produced someday. That’s the plan.

So thank you, again, for helping make it all work thus far.

A bit of reading material came out of the Lone Wolf – The Board Game Kickstarter project. Actually, I can be more precise: a lot of material came out, and I can hope that people read a word or two. Back when we did Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories, I observed that we on the team wrote more words in promo than are in the book we were trying to sell.

So, yes, I have a “lessons learned” post just like that last one from The Way of the Tiger, but before that I have an extra essay. This came when I tried to find something to say about the project to an unfamiliar audience. It’s long-since been posted online. And . . . I liked it. This is the sort of essay I want on my blog.

So here you go:

I love a good game. It could be anything. Clever little custom-dice game? Awesome. Social game with no props whatsoever? Cool.

Same goes for a good book or a good story. Who cares how many style buzzwords it has? Is it any good? Then it’s a good game, book, or story, and I’m glad I had a chance to meet it.

Which is why I was glad to be raised by gamebooks. You know, those Choose Your Own Adventure books where you flip back and forth between different pages based on where you want the plot to go? “Choose Your Own Adventure” is a brand name, and maybe you’ve heard more about Fighting Fantasy if you grew up in Europe. But hopefully, if you know about gamebooks at all, you’ve heard of Lone Wolf.

The Lone Wolf gamebooks, more than anything else, taught me how fantasy was supposed to be. Thanks to them I still think “armour” should be spelled with a “u” despite a lack of recent and personal British ancestry. In those books, heroes weren’t championed by “fighters” and “magic-users” — no, they called on monks and border rangers. There was a shocking minimum of green dragons, green-skinned goblins, and trolls with green blood that regenerated for no clear reason — instead there were shapeshifters, dark knights, and ships of drowned sailors that rose in undeath.

When I was a kid, I played gamebooks on the same days that I would play videogames. Now, why play an “interactive book,” filled with mechanisms and hacks to pretend it had the complexity of a computer, when I could play a game on the computer? Oh, I don’t know: maybe I just said I played both. Maybe you just read that sentence a moment ago.

“Why are you playing that?” Because if it’s good then it doesn’t matter how flashy it is. You enjoy it on its own terms.

It’s just like the specific microcosm of videogames. Computer technology advances, and each year there are ads for “the latest in cutting edge graphics!!!” One day we passed the threshold where default technology could power 3-D games, not just sprite-based games, and it’s only gone up from there. But if that’s true, then why are there any 2-D games still in existence? Why would Bioshock come out with its stunning 3-D world in 2007, and Aquaria come out in 2-D at the end of that same year?

Oh, I don’t know: maybe drop-dead gorgeous 2-D art is still drop-dead gorgeous, and Aquaria is still a “good game” just as Bioshock is. The invention of the car has not halted the advancement of the bicycle.

So to this day I enjoy a good gamebook, because, by definition, they’re “the good ones.” That’s why I and my buddies have been doing contemporary gamebook projects. Then, a few months ago, I heard chatter coming through about something different: Lone Wolf in a board game. A wargame, in fact, played on a board.

Hey, really? I like Warhammer 40,000. Is this like that? And made from Lone Wolf?

Eventually I got to playtest their print-and-play scenario. I was amazed. Here on my tabletop was a simulation of the game world I knew. And it played faster than any game of Warhammer 40k! Once I knew the rules, I was plowing (excuse me, “ploughing”) through a battle just as I’d read a book.

It felt just like my childhood. Sure, the setup was more “traditional” for a fantasy realm, involving the grey-skinned “Giaks” of Lone Wolf, who bear certain parallels to green-skinned “goblins.” Nevertheless I loved fighting Giaks, and I’d seen the art that said one day there might come Drakkarim (dark knights) and maybe even Helghast (undead shapeshifters).

And moreso, it was all drawn in 2-D art on stand-up figures!

Oh, I see where this is going. Oldstyle art for an oldstyle game world, right? Yup, that’s something I love. But when we started sharing this project online, we realized we would bump into the age-old question: “Why are you playing that?”

Of course, gaming technology advances, and one day we passed the threshold where gamers expected games to have 3-D miniatures by default. Well, sure, I’ve played Warhammer 40,000 — maybe even on the same day that I played a gamebook or a videogame. But what’s special here was that Gary Chalk, the artist who had brought life to the pages of Lone Wolf during my childhood — and, for that matter, to Redwall, and to HeroQuest, and to many other worlds that were richer for it — had spent 30 years becoming an even better artist. Bioshock . . . meet Aquaria. (Psst: my touchscreen tablet plays Aquaria. Think it would take Bioshock?)

I love a good game. Same goes for a good book or a good story. And the same goes for a good piece of art. It does not matter that I could buy some plastic miniatures from a gaming store downtown: there is a beauty to the hand-drawn art of someone who loves what he does. If it’s good, then it doesn’t matter if it meets the expectations . . . for some other type of art. You enjoy it on its own terms.

We are now trying to fund Lone Wolf – The Board Game via Kickstarter [ed.: obviously we’re done now] on the basis of a good game design at its core, a history of good gamebooks behind it, and a good artist at its helm. Think anybody will play it?

So far, looks like there are a few takers. And you’re welcome at my table when you’re in town.

Variety is – Part II

August 9, 2014

As I explained, variety is the fundamental substrate of human experience. There is nothing to discuss if there is no variety. Adding the right amount of variety and “visual interest” to a piece of art can make it better. If videogames are art (a part of culture), surely variety has some sort of role in game design.

For today, I had planned to describe its importance across a sample of games, but then wound up with a post mostly about Thief. I’m not talking about Thief‘s more recently-released reboot of the series; no, I’m talking about the original games that left such an impression on gamers that they continue to rank highly in “best of all time” lists, and prompted the recent reboot. The original Thief, and then Thief II, are excellent examples.

But let me start with two others. One day I was interested to see gamers comparing Hellgate: London and Diablo II. The Diablo series made an impact on gaming history, and the first sequel arguably improved on many aspects of the original. When Hellgate: London was presented, it was as an amazing new game from some of the original Diablo creators. Surely it should have been a competitor or even replacement for Diablo II. Why wasn’t it?

The comparison looked to variety, and it’s sinister counterpart “boredom.” In Hellgate: London everything was gray. Gray concrete, gray pavement. Travel from one place to another and you hardly could tell anything had happened. But in Diablo II there was always something of interest. Across the four regions of the game you went from green and brown, to brilliant yellow, to dark green, blue, and gray, to brilliant red and black. Even if you didn’t play the game and simply saw it on someone else’s computer screen, things were always changing.

So in that light let me talk about Thief and Thief II. (Fan site here.)

When it was being developed and released, the original Thief offered two demos, both of which allowing you to do a little housebreaking. My long-term gaming consultant, my brother, played these with me and in the end we knew we wanted the full version. Then we got it and I, for one, was stunned: every single level introduced something new, sometimes drastically new, extending far beyond housebreaking.

My brother and I came to divide it into “thievery” levels, with normal housebreaking, and “Indiana Jones-style” levels, where you found yourself leaping around and mantling surfaces in a 3-D dungeon avoiding traps and nightmares. So, taking just the first four levels, there came “thievery / Indiana Jones / Indiana Jones / thievery” with each teaching the player new game mechanics. This is important: a progression of content matters not just for the sake of interest, but for player learning. The beloved game Portal is studied — yes, studied — for its ability to guide the player through learning tasks in an engaging and enjoyable way, introducing new content at the right speed and with the right tools for understanding.

Even when Thief got back to “normal thievery” in level 4, it struck a high point of artistry with a complex and memorable cityscape — that is, variety in sights, sounds, and setup. (And if you really want variety, I haven’t even mentioned the Escher level yet.) I adored all of this and I hold up Thief as the prime example of variety in a videogame.

Enough so that it could be too much. Note that levels 1 and 4 as I just described . . . were the demo levels. Between the two in the full version is a system shock (mildly-punful joke intended) of dungeon-diving. My brother observed it’s a good thing he played the demos first, as the knowledge that “more normal thievery levels are coming” is the only thing that got him through having to completely recalibrate his expectations for 2 and 3. Nowhere in all the advertisement for Thief did the developers prepare the audience for such variety.

Still, I loved it. When a demo for Thief II came available almost immediately afterward, I played that too. I personally wasn’t impressed by the new mechanics so I didn’t push to play the full version. But then I came to see people listing Thief II, not Thief, as their pick for “best of all time.” An endorsement by Sir Terry Pratchett of all people (a fellow who enjoys playing videogames while writing) finally compelled me to try Thief II.

Now . . .

I could dive into the level design in Thief II. An entire level of picking up tiny coins two by two? Waste of the player’s time.

But I was struck by something else: the developers eliminated variety. Instead of engaging in “normal thievery” and “Indiana Jones” in alternation, you go from levels 1 through 8 robbing from the same human guards in the same geometric buildings over and over again, with a little variation as the Mechanists increase in prominence. Any monsters are just for flavor, entire mechanics (“holy water”) are absent, and even new mechanics (“secrets”) are largely ignored. Despite the standard fantasy concept of “trapped treasures,” for almost the entire game you need not worry about traps. You almost never mantle a wall or climb a rope. You almost never see magic. You never see the light of the sun, period.

Even as Thief II attempted to mimic the original with an explorable “cityscape,” the streets had none of the variety. Buildings were all the same color and architecture, regions made all the same sounds.

At the start of this essay, I discussed the “visual interest” that the successful Diablo II has while the struggling Hellgate: London does not. Doesn’t this mean that Thief II, by visuals alone, should have been a flop?

It would seem that “breaking into houses and beating up on human guards” itself scratched an itch. The popularity of Thief with Actual Killing (I mean, Assassin’s Creed) makes it obvious that people will buy such games anyway, and so variety isn’t everything. But even so, I’ve kept shaking my head and wondering about Thief II: what do people like so much?

Well, I’ve spoken with people on that — people like Sir Terry Pratchett. At the 2009 North American Discworld Convention, he discussed what Thief games give us: an immersive experience. A sensation of being in a living world, where you can look out over the city and watch the people going about their evening. As such, he and his friends hold up one level as the prime example: all Thief II players will immediately recognize level 10, the “Angelwatch” level, as the one where you cross the roofs of the vibrant city and feel life around you. This isn’t the low-variety “cityscape” I mentioned above: Angelwatch is the cityscape concept done correctly.

Okay, follow me here:

Angelwatch was the demo level released shortly after the original Thief. Full of buildings with vastly different colors and architecture. Spread with different types of humans and peppered with different monsters; not for flavor, but where they belong. As far as I could tell, it was designed when the creators were still using the principles from the original Thief, and as such exhibited more variety than any other level in Thief II.

“And so variety isn’t everything,” because apparently people-who-aren’t-me think that Thief II surpassed the original. But what people remember about it isn’t the boring picking-up-two-coins-at-a-time level: it’s the living city level, imbuing the whole experience with a vibrance it would lack otherwise.

Isn’t it funny how variety improves even the “best of all time”? Thus, yes, variety has a valuable role in the storytelling and artistry of modern games, just as it does in any other aspect of life. A lesson to remember.