Mass Effect and Engagement

I remember when I first played Dragon Age: Inquisition, on the recommendation of a friend, and that friend told me that the devs had had to tell people to move along from the first section to advance the plot, because there was such a huge volume of side quests in the first area that people were hanging around there and getting frustrated that the story wasn’t advancing. Continue reading

YA and Splitting Genres

Once upon a time, books were written for either children or adults. And mostly this was fine, and some of the children’s books were better suited to teenage readers and that was OK, and some of the teenage readers who liked reading a lot turned to the adult books for their reading material, and mostly the system sort of worked itself out.

Then a series known as the Harry Potter series was published, and 90% of the reading world sort of lost the plot. As these books were released, it became clear that there was another type of reader that the publishing industry had not accounted for, Soon, a new label appeared on bookshelves in stores. “Young Adult”.

That, of course, is grossly oversimplified. Harry Potter wasn’t written in a vacuum, though it was the right thing at the right time to trigger a change. Before Harry Potter, that demographic was reading books like The Belgariad, by David Eddings (a parody I didn’t realise was a parody until much later in life, similar to how many people read Gulliver’s Travels at a young age without realising it’s satirical). But those books were still very clearly modelled on books for adults, that happened to be accessible to teen readers, rather than books aimed specifically at teenagers.

I actually couldn’t tell you how old I was when I started reading Harry Potter. I know I got the book in 1997, soon after its release, because a friend of my mother’s had said her kids enjoyed it. However, at the time I was perhaps a bit young, because I read the first 20 pages and didn’t like it enough to continue. Later, once it started to become very popular, my mother convinced me to try it again and thus began my introduction to what may well have been my first ever fandom. Of course, whether this was when the story really became popular or whether it was just that myself and my peers just matured into the target demographic, I couldn’t tell you.

I can, however, say that it was four years later, in 2001, when other big-name YA titles started to be released. Artemis Fowl was released in 2001, so was the first book in The Bartimaeus Trilogy, and Eragon. The year before, the first Deltora Quest book was published. All fantasy or speculative fiction books, and all of them aimed at the same group of readers: teenagers (and some preteens) who had read Harry Potter and were looking for something else to read between books. We needed a name for the genre. So we called it YA.

Now, the early Harry Potter books, and some others in the genre at that time, were probably closer to what is now labelled, at least by publishers, as middle-grade fiction. That is, for young teens and pre-teens, where YA these days generally means for audiences of 15 to 18 years, depending on whom you ask. YA seems to have aged with the Harry Potter series a bit, and after the series was finished, it started to diversify. First, there was Twilight, which was also fantasy, but then The Hunger Games hit shelves, and suddenly YA was dystopian science fiction, and then The Fault in Our Stars spread the genre into straight-up fiction. Clearly, the genre is no longer “Harry Potter fans looking for more books to read”. The question now is whether it’s time to redefine or split the genre again.

Back when the genre was following on from the Harry Potter trend, it was basically all speculative fiction, and mostly fantasy at that. So, splitting it up into different ‘genres’ really didn’t matter. Twilight came and went and spawned a subgenre (teen paranormal romance), but that really didn’t disturb the YA monolith, even though there have been a few tropes working their way between the groups. But mostly the paranormal romance genre kept to itself. It really hasn’t been until the advent of The Fault in Our Stars (and many other books in its niche, both before and after) that the idea of splitting the genre became a serious consideration, at least for me.

For a long time, I’ve heard this argument: YA isn’t a genre, it’s a demographic! It doesn’t tell you anything about the book content! It shouldn’t be the label for the genre! We should split this demographic up by genre just like the adult fiction section, for clarity!

This is fundamentally missing the point of genres in the first place, and to some extent, of language itself. See, most people would get a very clear idea of what sort of story I’m talking about if I said I read a YA novel last weekend. It’s probably dystopian science-fiction or fantasy, or otherwise in a bleak setting. The main character is between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, and is probably female. There is probably a male Love Interest, and their romance is probably in some way Rebellious in their culture. The main character’s goal is, in one way or another, to destabilise or alter the fabric of society to right some systemic injustice. The themes of the story are probably something to do with corruption and unfair distribution of power, the injustice of treating groups of people like a lesser or separate species, and how passion (not necessarily romantic) overcomes obstacles.

That’s pretty specific, honestly. And at the moment (or, equally likely, the moment a few months ago when I last had a grasp on what was happening in the genre; I’m not discounting the possibility that the genre has now moved on without me), the trendy sections of the YA genre look much like that. That’s hardly “YA is a demographic that could contain anything!”

This is because YA has become jargon, and jargon is a funny thing. If I say to an accountant, “that table is a liability”, it would mean something very different than if I said it to a carpenter. The accountant, if they had reason to believe I was using their jargon, would assume I meant that I owed someone money for the table. The carpenter would probably assume I meant the table was broken or defective in a way likely to injure someone, and thus I would like the table fixed or replaced.

YA is the term for the genre now, because when we first came up with the term, it meant “for Harry Potter readers”, but you can’t use that as a genre title, and given the sheer number of people reading Harry Potter, “it’s everyone between these ages” was probably the only meaningful demographic label it was possible to give. But now the genre isn’t tied up with Harry Potter anymore, the name is a jargon term for a genre of literature that now means something different to the literal translation of the words.

The only reason we’d be looking into splitting the genre up would be if YA has become a useless term – if the category is now too broad. For all that I just described a typical YA novel of the mid-2010s, that really doesn’t describe nearly half the books on the shelf. For all that The Fault In Our Stars has a bleakness to it that wouldn’t be out of place in dystopian fiction, there’s a huge gulf of difference between it and Divergent. Skulduggery Pleasant, though in the YA genre, bears little to no resemblance to The Hunger Games.

The question is: Is the genre a restriction for either readers or writers? That is, would a reader get overwhelmed or confused by the variety on a YA bookshelf, and find it difficult to locate a book they wanted. In this case, this is particularly pertinent, since the readers of the genre aren’t assumed to be the ones buying the books themselves, like in adult fiction. The YA bookshelf doesn’t actually cater to the fifteen-year-old who devours books, has strong opinions on Four versus Gus, and knows how to recognise a particular subgenre from the cover art. That fifteen-year-old will sort themselves out just fine. The YA bookshelf has to cater to the middle-aged relative who walks in looking for a birthday present for that fifteen-year-old, who just knows they’ve seen the kid walking around with Maze Runner and Divergent, and still wants to find something that kid will like. Too much variety on the shelves will definitely be a problem for that relative.

On the other side of the equation, are writers going to find it difficult to find a “market” for books if the YA genre becomes too broad. YA trends, after all,  will still happen, and if the numbers say that YA readers like The Hunger Games, would a series like The Belgariad get overlooked by publishers as “not marketable in this environment”? Would those publishers be right?

For now, I would say that the YA genre is fine as it is. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts splitting up soon. It’s only getting more diverse, and this will become a problem in the future.

Me, I’m starting the betting pool on where we draw the divisions.

In Defense of the Novel

In which I completely and utterly fail to defend the honour of even the worthiest novels.

More than once, I’ve gotten myself into an argument online about whether the novel is “better” than a television show or movie.

I often find myself in these arguments with other writers, which usually means that the vast majority come down on the side of ‘yes’. For a long time, I was among them – anyone who said otherwise was clearly mistaken.

Nowadays, I’m not so sure.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I will love novels until the day I die. I want to be a writer, not a director or an actor or a special effects artist or any of the hundred jobs that goes into filmmaking. I very definitely and unequivocally think that novels have strengths that television and movies do not.

But better than?

Let’s examine the arguments.

Usually the arguments I see fall into one of several categories. First and foremost, in a book, you can write things you simply can’t show on screen. Second, that watching rather than reading stories is inherently a less cognitive activity, and therefore the book is better on an intellectual level. Third, that books can contain more depth, and thus, more substance, because they are longer, even if only in terms of hours spent consuming media. Fourth, that books are more portable, and not dependent on battery life or other technological circumstances. Fifth, the tactile experience of a book is superior.

So, I’ll get the quick one out of the way first: Books are more portable and convenient. It is a fact that a power outage or connection issue will kill your ability to watch television, phones are battery powered and can run out of charge, as can laptops, and streaming is dependent on an Internet connection. However, if we’re talking about books and movies as media, we kind of have to acknowledge that e-readers run out of battery, too. So, it’s not like battery life is a restriction inherent to only movies and TV shows. But let’s narrow the field to just paper-and-ink books for a moment. It’s not like paper-and-ink books don’t have portability issues. A single book can sometimes be the size (and approximately the weight of) a household brick – compared to a phone you can fit in a pocket or small bag. Your phone might run out of battery, but you also might forget your book. A power outage might kill your television, but the same power outage will leave probably two things: A torch to read your book by and the battery life on your laptop – often enough for at least one movie.

On another note: Why is portability a reflection of the medium? Why does a book have inherent worth over a TV show or a movie just because you can experience it in different places? The ability to travel with a book doesn’t change its content, its writing, or its thematic discourse So this argument can safely be discarded – there’s too little difference and it’s beside the point of quality of the medium.

The other quick one – tactile experience – is similarly dismissible. If we’re talking just about the quality of the medium, then the tactile experience has absolutely no bearing on the content. Now, I’m in no way arguing that it’s wrong to prefer books over TV shows because of the tactile experience. That’s your prerogative as a human being with opinions. But to say that the smell of a book (new or old) or the feel of turning pages makes the book a superior overall experience to all people? To say a book conveys tone or message or theme better because it smells better? I’ll have to see some pretty compelling evidence before I take that one seriously.

The third point I have discussed before – books can definitely contain more plot, and therefore have more opportunities for depth than a movie (whether or not they capitalise on this is up to the individual book and the individual reader). But a TV show? I tend to equate one novel with one season of a television show, in general, so we’ll use that as an estimate. Even one season of a show (using American standards: half-hour to 40-minute episodes and a 22-episode season) will take the viewer at minimum 11 hours to watch; a TV show with six episodes per season and 45-minute episodes takes 4.5 hours to watch. Contrast this with the average novel: Take the average reading speed to be 300wpm (estimates I have seen range from 200wpm to 350wpm, with a few instances of “250-350wpm”), and the average book to be 90,000 words long (a very short fantasy novel, but a very long thriller).  That works out to the average book taking the average reader 5 hours to read. So, really, a TV show has more time in which to introduce concepts to the reader, more time in which to flesh out motif and symbolism, and more time to develop characters and plot. Sorry, kids – I think the TV shows are overtaking us on this one.

Now, the thorny issue. Books are inherently more cognitive than movies or TV shows.

Hoo boy. Where do you even start?

Usually this is presented somewhere along the lines of “But in a book, you have to use the words to imagine what the characters and places look like! In a movie you just watch it all handed to you on screen!”

To which I say OK, yes, alright. You got me – it’s harder to use your imagination on a TV show or movie. But at the same time … is imagining a character’s face really the only thing that’s going on in a story that makes you think? And isn’t that really just a trick – arranging letters into things that mean specific images to make your brain display those images?

It sounds a bit odd to say, but isn’t saying “Alice had blue eyes and red hair, in sharp comparison to Bob, whose hair was dark brown and whose eyes were nearly black” pulling exactly the same trick as “Quick, don’t think of a pink rhinoceros!”?

If we want to talk about tricks that make our brain fill in the blanks of an image or sequence, let’s go ahead and talk about montages for a bit. Montages are an amazing and fascinating piece of cinematography, simply because it’s a series of barely-connected images threaded together in such a way as to trick our brains into implying chronological sequence. Think about it – in any other situation, showing the same person one day, then suddenly two months later after one cut would be cause for adding some sort of explanation for why so much time has passed, or some sort of explanation of what happened during that time. But string enough of them together in a row, and the audience gets the impression that we’re watching time pass. Similarly, add music to that, and you give the idea of what the end goal is – is this a Rocky montage, where we’re training on the way to achieving victory? Or is this a montage of someone spiralling further and further away from victory? Add a different song in the background, and Rocky could very well be losing himself in his training until he forgets the real world, only to realise that no amount of training could prepare him, and his last hope is shattered. On that note, imagine a montage where there was no music, or the music changed throughout the montage, with each cut, just like scene music. Wouldn’t it get choppy and confusing? But adding music makes the brain make the association that this whole stretch of jump cuts is actually one scene in and of itself, and then infers that it is a scene designed to show large amounts of time passing.

Cinema tricks like that are the cinema’s version of describing a character’s “eyes darting around the room and finger tapping on the side of their coffee mug” and expecting the audience to infer that the character is either nervous or impatient. Varied sentence and paragraph length, and prose style are to novels what colour and lighting, and camera angle are to movies and TV shows. Cinema has a very different set of tricks for conveying implied information, but they still imply and use shorthand just like a novel. So, no, I don’t think a novel is actually more cognitive. In fact, if your TV show isn’t a cognitive experience, then you’re probably missing something. Whether or not you consider that a good thing is between you and your DVD shelf/Netflix subscription.

Which brings us on to the final point, and by far the most common: You can show things in a book that you can’t show on screen. This is by far the most common, and the most vehemently argued. But it misses the point in a similar way to the point above.

A great example of this I saw on the Absolute Write forums (unfortunately the username of the poster has been lost to the imperfection of the human memory and the search function) was “the same colour as the sound of breaking glass”. Is that technically a colour? No. But did a colour spring to mind when you read that? It’s quite possible that yes, it did. For me, it’s a very pale, almost translucent, blue in a summer sky shade.

In a movie, you’d have to actually colour the thing blue. You’d have to make that decision, rather than letting the reader make it for you.

But here the question is begged – why would you want to use language that way? What does “the same colour as the sound of breaking glass” suggest that “pale, almost translucent blue the shade of summer sky” not suggest?

Well, first of all, it suggests that the colour is not really a colour – that the senses are getting their wires crossed. On a very practical level, this may be an excellent way of demonstrating a character has synaesthesia. On a more fantastical level, it could be a way of demonstrating that the situation the character is in has transcended the laws of physics, or that a particular stimulus has overwhelmed them so much that they are no longer able to distinguish their senses, or entirely make sense of what they are experiencing.

Similarly, a book need not worry about a special effects budget – when I discussed limitations and rushing, I listed this as one of the advantages of a novel: That the novel has no special equipment or effects budgets to worry about, and thus won’t be limited or restricted on those fronts. This remains true, and it remains an advantage to novels. However, it is getting steadily less true as CGI becomes cheaper and more sophisticated.

But let’s think how a movie might show that same thing. Say what you will about the ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it did an excellent job of demonstrating that whatever Dave was experiencing, it was not within the realm of his comprehension. Swirling colours and close-ups of his eyes darting around, looking for something that made sense all came together to create a sense of chaos. It did this by showing the audience chaos and then interspersing it with shots of the character reacting, indicating Dave was just as confused as we were.

Side note: I invite anyone who believes that a movie can’t achieve the same sense of a fantastical world as a novel to watch any Terry Gilliam movie.

So, I’m not sure that the book has the edge in ability to indicate things without stating them outright, either. I’m not even sure books will have the edge in special effects for long, either.

This does sort of paint a bleak picture of the future of the humble novel, which is why I think a lot of writers tend to reject the idea. If a book isn’t any better than movies or TV shows, then what is to stop people from reading books altogether? After all, movies and TV shows are in chunks more suited to today’s generation who can’t concentrate for as long as it takes to read a whole book, and contributing to the decline of literacy!

More seriously, and on a less extreme level, what’s to stop all the classics and the pieces of culture that make up our understanding of the world from being lost, if nobody wants to read them anymore?

Well, whether or not that’s a bad thing is a whole ‘nother debate, but let’s just slow down for a second.

Nobody said that novels are going away. They probably will eventually, but they’re not going away anytime soon, that’s for sure. They are still a vastly different medium from the TV show or the movie, and they have a different metalanguage and always will, so it’s highly unlikely that TV shows and movies will ever replace the experience, though they may eventually grow more popular than it, just like short stories and poems haven’t disappeared, but they are much less commonly read than the novel nowadays, when previously poetry or verse was the primary form of literature (at least in Western civilisations). Even if novels aren’t ‘better’ than newer media, they’re for damn sure still ‘different’, and that’s enough to keep them going.

I, for one, am glad to have different options available for telling stories and conveying theme and message, and different vehicles for different stories.

But I’m just as glad that, for now, I won’t need to learn how to properly compose a camera shot in order to tell stories myself.

Reading Between the Development Lines

I talk a lot about the differences between novels, video games and TV shows/movies. Honestly, it’s one of the most interesting questions I have about studying media. Every time I think about the differences between them I find something else to take into account when thinking about their stories and construction.

There’s one difference that I think not a lot of people take into account when they’re considering the differences between the groups, though. And again, it’s one that sets novels apart from the other groups.

Writing a novel is usually a solitary act. It also takes a long time – it’s hard to find exact statistics on how long it takes books to be written and published, but I’ve heard people talking about two books per year (six months for a book seems fairly reasonable for a full-time author). On the other hand, most of the writers I follow tend to have books released once every two to three years – no word on whether that’s just a publication issue or whether that’s for writing as well.

And then, of course, there are writers like Pat Rothfuss and George R.R. Martin, versus some self-published authors who bring out books at a staggering rate. I really don’t have accurate numbers here.

But there we are – for the sake of argument, let’s say six to nine months is a reasonable time frame to write a book in. That’s from go to woe, outlining to first draft to edited version, through beta readers, everything. It’s also imagining that the author works on only one project through the whole time they’re writing, without taking, say, the time beta readers spend reading the project to work on outlining another book. Let’s also imagine that the book is roughly 90,000 words long.

That’s a very large time commitment. And any author will tell you that they never quite feel like the book is ready by the time it’s released; you eventually have to just let it go. You’ll also probably hear about deadlines, especially for editing.

So keep in mind that I’m in no way saying that novel writers are never pressed for time or never having to sacrifice completion due to time constraints.

However, the visual media very clearly suffer from production restraints in a way that books simply don’t. It’s not uncommon, watching shows (especially animated ones) to be able to tell where the budget was allocated throughout the show – there are often one or two episodes where the animation just isn’t as smooth, where the characters go off-model more frequently, or where the writers just didn’t have time to think the script through, so it feels lazy and phoned-in. One of the problems very common for producers of video games is deciding on what features need to be cut so that the game can make it out on launch day.

Novels tend to be much more uniform. When they’re rushed, the book as a whole suffers, not just one aspect of it. You can tell a rushed story because it has plot holes and poor plotting all the way through it, not in just one or two scenes, or in one or two aspects.

This is because of two things. First, there’s only one person writing a novel, and there is no budget. While fundamentally, the process of getting paid for a novel is pretty similar to getting paid for being part of a video game development team or the crew of a TV show, the novel is much simpler. Both work on the “I’ll spend a certain amount of time and effort on this, and when I’m done, I’ll hope people pay me back enough money to make this a good investment of my time” principle, but an author is usually a sole trader, or part of a very small group. You don’t need to ensure that an author gets paid up front, and a certain wage before you start making money on the venture. You’re also usually dealing with less money and fewer overheads – you don’t need to pay for software licences with writing (you can, but you don’t have to), or expensive equipment – cameras and so forth. A writer can afford to take more of a risk, and operate on a smaller profit margin, and to write at the same time as doing other paying work, but the film crew simply isn’t self-sustaining unless they make a profit from their films. A producer has to be more budget conscious, because it’s much easier to lose enough money to make filmmaking or video game development an unviable option than it is to lose enough money on a book to make writing no longer a viable pursuit (especially now in the days of open self-publishing).

Second, a novel has fewer ‘moving parts’, so to speak, than either a movie or a video game. A novel has writing, and that’s about it. A movie or TV show, on the other hand, has the writing, the camerawork, the actors, the sound design (both the soundtrack and the sound within the show), any animation, CGI or special effects that might be present, the set design and probably a hundred and one other things that I haven’t remembered. When you make a video game, add to that the character design, character movement animations (they get special mention because they have to be calibrated so they look right from any angle the player angles the camera at, and be set motions responding to any input the player gives, as well as more “standard” cutscene animation), all the design and balance of game mechanics, coding, level design, and again, probably many more things I’m missing.

Simply put, when you’re writing a novel, really the only thing that can go wrong is the writing. Poor plotting, shoddy spelling and grammar, inelegant sentence construction, and muddy themes. That’s about all that can go wrong when you’re writing a novel. A TV show, movie, or video game has a whole lot of other things that can go wrong completely independent of each other, and because of the amount of money it takes to create pieces in any of those media, it’s basically a given that you’ll have to drop one in order to serve the other.

What makes this topic magical, though, is that you don’t actually have to do this badly. The standard example I see given of this is in video games, because up until recently the medium was extremely limited in what it could do, and it doesn’t yet have a set of shorthands like movies and TV shows can use to convey information or story without having to spend lots of money and time (tricks like montages, which don’t even feel like tricks anymore). Stuff like the Silent Hill games – they had technical limitations that meant that beyond a certain distance, their rendering stopped working so well, and it looked bad. But it was a horror game, so they put a fog around everything, which reduced the amount that the game needed to render at any given time, and stopped the environments looking aesthetically unattractive.

When you get a creator who really knows and understands the limitations of the medium they work in, that’s when you start to get really interesting content. One of the most interesting things is looking at a story (and TV shows and video games are best for this, because they’re usually forced to cut more corners than novels or movies) and seeing where they chose to cut corners in order to serve the things they felt were more important.

To The Moon was everywhere a little while back. I loved it. I started playing in the evening and didn’t stop until the whole thing was finished – it must have been 3am. There was so much care and attention to detail put into the character designs and the aesthetics – even though it did have pixelated retro-style graphics, they made sure to render quite sombre locations (none of the garish colours of a lot of that style of game art … mostly) without making the environments indistinct, or making it hard to figure out what a particular texture is. And they definitely put a lot of attention into the thematic cohesion, and the plot and the logical consequences of their world (despite the qualms I have with the plot, it was clear that they put a lot of time and effort into it). But the gameplay … now that’s where things started to fall through. The gameplay was the minimum necessary to get you from Point A to Point B. It wasn’t badly done, mind you – they made the mechanics fit the mood of the piece, and they were very intuitive mechanics, but there was nothing to them except find some things, use them on another thing. It was a game, I suppose, but the mechanics obviously weren’t the focus.

Contrast this with HALO 4 – like other HALO games, it pays close attention to its mechanics, to making the guns feel satisfying to fire, and that they get the guns as close to balanced as possible to support a variety of playstyles. But the story was nothing to write home about – it was the minimum possible to get you from firefight to firefight with a sense of escalating tension. Their audience wasn’t there for the story as much as they were for the HALO game (and for many, the multiplayer and social play, where the story is completely irrelevant). They could certainly have spent more time and effort on the story, just like To The Moon could have spent more time and effort on the gameplay. But working on the schedule they had, and the budget they had, they would both have had to take away from the core reason (in their opinion) that their audience would play the games.

TV shows run recap episodes for the same reason – they want more budget held back for the huge plot-relevant episodes (especially season finales) to make the best parts of the show as good as possible. I’m convinced this is why Code Geass ran so many school drama episodes – because they were far easier to animate and write than huge mecha battles. But the creators were smart – instead of running recap episodes, they offered the audience breather episodes that were more lighthearted and silly than the main plot, to keep the tension from escalating too far too fast, or the mood from getting too dark, and incidentally saved some budget that they could then use to avoid other shortcuts like ‘action lines’ (common in anime fights where they didn’t have the budget to animate the background, so they just animated a simple colour with moving lines on it in between punches to save costs).

So next time you’re watching something, or reading something – ask yourself where they took shortcuts, and what they used that shortcut to accomplish elsewhere. Did you notice that shortcut the first time around? Is something that you didn’t even think was a shortcut until you stopped to think about it?

I apologise in advance for any favourite things I ruined by making you think about them like this.

Escalation vs Soul-Crushing

A little while back, I talked about The Dark Knight Rises.  And I’ve been thinking a lot about pacing recently.

Pacing is one of those bugbears for me.  Three out of my last four novels have had absolutely atrocious pacing.  I waffle at the beginning, my stakes don’t work properly.  Endings just fizzle, feel abrupt and unsatisfying.  And since I’m in an editing phase at the moment, pacing is one of those things I’ve been especially careful of.

So, back to that Dark Knight Rises comment.  When I talked about it, I talked about pacing, how it absolutely ruined the main character by just piling on difficulty after difficulty.  There was a real sense of escalation, of things getting difficult and hard.
But at the same time, there was never a sense that Wayne couldn’t get up and get through it.  It always felt like Wayne was getting things he had to get up and punch his way through.  This isn’t a comment on the quality or ‘highbrowness’ of the movie (because exactly how Deep and Meaningful the movie is would be a whole ‘nother post…).  I’m just saying, it’s one way of escalating – putting things in the protagonist’s way for them to overcome.

Then, a little later, I watched Code Geass, and I noticed something that may have been exactly the same thing, except that it wasn’t really the same thing at all.

Excuse me while I try to explain this.  In tDKR, Wayne is dragged through mud and brambles and lava.  He’s physically broken, mentally pretty shabby, loses everything from his best friend to his mansion to very nearly his life.  But like I said, it always feels like it’s something for him to get up and work through, something to be overcome, even when it seems very unlikely he will, in fact, overcome it.  They worked very hard to get a sense of Bruce Wayne being pushed to breaking point.

That was the easy part.  Now, to attempt to explain why Code Geass is different.  In terms of how the pacing is organised, it’s roughly the same.  It comes from the ‘kick them down, then kick them when they’re down’ school of character struggles.  But at the same time, it does feel very different to tDKR.  Lelouch also loses just about everything in his life (friends, family, country, sanity…).  I guess they’re also presented as challenges for him to overcome.

But there’s a very different feel about them.  Here’s about as close as I can get it: Bruce Wayne is given challenges to move past and over, Lelouch is given challenges to move through.  Bruce Wayne is thrown in the water, and his goal is to swim to the edge.
Lelouch is thrown in the water and told to just try not to drown.
Obligatory joke about Lelouch’s nonexistent fitness or physical competence.

Pacing-wise, they look quite similar.  Tone-wise, they achieve entirely different goals.  This is the kind of thing I need to think more about in my pacing.  Am I trying to make the characters suffer and work for their happy ending, or am I trying to break them and destroy them?  Or is it a little bit of both?  And in order to do that, where do the knocks come, and how?  Wayne goes through that whole jail thing two-thirds of the way through the movie as his ‘welcome to what you’re going to need to do to win’ moment.  Lelouch murders someone close to him three episodes in.  One is intended to forge, the other to break.

It’s mostly about looking at what the challenges are, and what the stakes are, I guess.  But as I said, this is definitely something I need work on.

So what about you fine folks?  What are your pacing challenges?  What’s your ultimate pacing tip?

Treasure Planet: Overthinking Animation

H’okay.  This post actually popped into my head, like, a week ago.  But then, mannequins happened, and there was always something else to write about that seemed more conducive to being written immediately after the event.
This is, in fact, the “different post” referenced in “I Posted This Because Reasons”.

Hold onto your butts, kids, this one’s long.

I watch Treasure Planet fairly often.  Some might call it ‘repeatedly’.  It, is the movie going when I’m studying and don’t want to listen to any of my songs for the umpteen billionth time.  It’s the movie I watch at the end of the day while I drink tea and pretend to be working.  It’s not the only one – the first two Mummy movies, both Hellboy movies, Dead Poet’s Society, Cabin in the Woods and How to Train Your Dragon also hold this honour, but Treasure Planet, until last week, was the only one I had on my computer, so it was the only one that was truly portable, and was just there when I needed it.

In short, it is kind of embarrassing how many times I’ve watched this movie.  Quite honestly, I’m a little bit in awe of how much thought the artists and designers and just everybody put into it.

I’m not talking about the space whales.
I’m not talking about the breathable air in space, or the fact that space apparently has day and night.
I’m not talking about the failures in how gravity works.
I’m not talking about any of the science failures.  Or questions about the society, or the aliens, or the linguistics.

Because yeah, they’re not the best science.  The aesthetics of the show require a few things to be hand-waved, and I’m OK with this.  I mock the ever-loving heck out of it, but I’m OK with it.

No, the bit that really gets me to watch closely is the animation.  Holy crap did they ever put some effort into this.  Like, characters anticipate others’ actions and flinch before the blows or the pain actually hit.  Looking at where the background characters are looking is in some ways more fascinating than the actual plot.  Facial expressions are insanely detailed, and so much information is carried in the minutiae.

Frankly, I could sit down with a video of the movie and point out all the fascinating stuff moment-to-moment, but I’ll relegate that one to annoying the crap out of the people I know in real life, who still seem to stick around me even when I do annoying stuff like that.  There was one scene I desperately wanted to discuss, but it doesn’t work in still image form, so it looks like that won’t be happening.  I’ve had to leave enough stuff out of this already.

Mild spoilers will almost certainly occur – no major plot points will be spoiled, but I’ll be talking about Jim’s character arc (not like you couldn’t have figured out where that was going anyway) and his relationship with Silver (which gets complex), so read on or not as you deem fit.  I’ll try not to write anything you couldn’t hear in a spoiler-less or spoiler-light review.

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Let’s start with Jim at the beginning of the film.  Surface level: Rebellious Teen (TM), from the mullet-rat-tail love child on his head to the oversize jacket and black shirt.
The two robots are immediately recognisable as policemen.  Look at ’em.  Everything down to the shade of blue screams Law-Enforcement.  Look at how their design enhances the shoulders and chest.  They’re polished.  They shine.

But anyone who knows me will by now know that that’s not really enough.  Let’s look at the jacket for a second.  At least, what you can see of it in this picture.
You’ll see it better later, but that thing is huge on him.  It disguses pretty much the shape of everything about him (arms, torso), and he constantly has his hands shoved in his pockets.
It’s basically the best coat possible to hide in.  Look at the difference in posture between him and the policemen.  They’re heads-up-chest-out-shoulders-back.  Classic ‘I am in charge’ pose.  He’s retreated into that coat so far he does turtles proud.  His eyes are down, his shoulders are up.  He is so not in charge of this situation, and he’s not even trying to fake it.  He’s just waiting for it to be over.

Also, the fangirls are going to have my neck for this one, but dude is freaking tiny!  What’s he supposed to be, seventeen?  My maths says seventeen (five years in the prologue thing, twelve year timeskip).  How many seventeen-year-old boys do you know that are a head shorter than their mothers?  And head and shoulders shorter than the weedy professor character?  Just compare the size of the hand on his shoulder to his torso.  I’m pretty sure, had the movie taken a much weirder bent, he could have been that policeman’s shoulder parrot, without too much effort.
Size emphasises power.  That’s why movies use the huge, muscle-bound dude as the intimidating one.  It’s why the Gentle Giant is a subversion of expectations.  In real life, it’s why you get better results talking to a child if you kneel down so you can look them in the eye.  This movie takes this concept, runs with it, and does not let it go.
Jim is always shorter than the other important characters, because he is the underdog.  It means that Silver can be simultaneously a father figure and a legitimate threat.  It means that the Captain always has the psychological advantage when giving him orders.  Threats seem more threatening, and the win seems more satisfying.

Let’s have a look at another picture of Jim, a little further along.

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In this scene, Jim and Dilbert are getting pulled up for mouthing off about the Captain.  Jim is used to getting in trouble.  Dilbert is not.  This is definitely a different scale of trouble than before (‘stop talking’, rather than ‘legal repercussions imminent’).  But still.
So, starting with Arrow.  Again, much bigger than everyone else involved in this picture.  Tall, broad shoulders.  And as if that wasn’t subtle enough, literally made of rock.

Let’s move to Jim.  We already know a little about Jim.  Well, this time he’s not  pulling his turtle impression, but he’s not exactly standing tall, either.  One of Arrow’s hands is holding that shoulder up (and does it amuse anyone else that Arrow literally cannot even fit half his hand on Jim’s shoulder?), but the other is shrinking away from him.  He’s also turning away from Arrow.  And he’s not looking particularly guilty, either – his expression, the hand at his face, say “whoops” more than anything else.  This isn’t humiliating, or confronting for him – it’s just mildly awkward.  He’s learned what not to say in front of Arrow, and yeah, he doesn’t necessarily want to make Arrow mad, but he’s not that bothered.

Dilbert, on the other hand?  He is incredibly uncomfortable right now.  He seems to be caught somewhere between wanting to stand up for himself and being intimidated, so he’s leaning backwards to kind of split the difference.  His arms are up protectively, and even though he’s looking up at Arrow, his face is angled down from where his eyes are actually pointing – classic sign of suspicion or discomfort.  He’s frowning.  He’s also turned to face Arrow, as opposed to Jim’s turning away.  He looks like a man presented with an unfamiliar situation.  He’s getting ready to stand up for himself, but he’s too intimidated to just up and do it.  He’s a bit resentful, possibly a bit angry.

Neither of them do stand up for themselves, but it’s very easy to tell the different reasons.  Jim knows he’s done something wrong, and he knows it’s not worth his time and the possible repercussions to do it.  He’s just waiting for the lecture to be over.  He’s used to this.
Dilbert is too intimidated to defend himself, and unsure of what to do.  One screenshot. Volumes of character.

Before we hit up Jim and Silver, I want to take a brief pit-stop by Dilbert and the Captain, showcasing exactly how one uses height advantages.  Two shots:

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Photo one: Dilbert looms over the Captain, intent on venting his frustration and proving to the Captain that he’s unhappy with being pushed around.  Essentially, he’s trying to gain back a portion of the status or dominance he’s used to having in conversations.

Photo two: Captain stands up, Dilbert is suddenly shorter, he has lost the upper hand.  The argument ends very shortly after, with Dilbert as the beta in the relationship.

Politics of height. Boom.

Right, so let’s dig into the meat of Jim and Silver now, and look a little closer at size differences.

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Jim and Silver first meet.  I’ll cover Jim pretty quickly, then dive right into Silver.

Jim: Head down, eyes down, hand in jacket pocket, other hand hidden by massive sleeves. Turtle mode activated..  When Silver’s standing straight, he doesn’t even reach Silver’s chest.  Shoulders hunched over, perpetual frown right in place.  Again, he’s hiding in his clothes, making himself as small as possible.  I said before that the jacket is huge on him, now you see what I mean.  The sleeves are too long, the shoulders are too broad.  Nothing here that we haven’t looked at already.

Now.  Silver.

First thing I want to say isn’t necessarily in this picture, but it’s worth saying anyway: Silver’s face is basically pudding.  He’s the animator’s squash-and-stretch model come to life and given a funny hat.  This works so much in the animators’ favour, for several reasons, which I won’t list here, but trust me, we’ll be coming back to this.

Now, on to this picture.  He takes up so much space.  He’s leaning back, but it’s a tall lean.  Not like Dilbert’s – it’s a way of taking up even more space.  Everything about his posture is open, too.  Legs apart, shoulders straight, arms to his sides rather than in front of him.  Silver is a character who spreads to fill any space he’s put in.  Here’s the first part of where the putty-face comes in – everything about Silver is big, and that includes his expressions and mannerisms.  Unlike Jim, or even Dilbert, that malleability of his face means that everything can move about as much as the animators need it to, to make him larger than life, without him ever looking ‘unrealistic’ or ‘off-model’.

So now that we’ve got the comparison out of the way, a little bit about how they interact.

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This is a few hours after they meet for the first time.  At this point, Jim really isn’t too sure about Silver, and is still very wrapped up in his rebellious-teenager mindset.  Also, in this scene, or this part of it, Silver is very definitely asserting his dominance.

Height comes in here, though Silver’s not really emphasising that, here.  Actually, that’s quite interesting.  Sure, he’s obviously the one with authority in this scene, but he’s addressing Jim almost eye-to-eye.  It’s actually almost a friendly dominance here (though Jim doesn’t necessarily see it that way).  Silver’s informing Jim that Jim will follow Silver’s orders from now on, but he’s kind of having fun.  It’s a mock display of dominance, it’s not a true expression of authority.  Jim doesn’t necessarily see it this way, but the audience is probably seeing Silver closer to Silver’s ‘real intentions’ than Jim is right now.

So, if he’s not using height to intimidate, what is he using?  Again, he’s taking up way more space, but then, that’s just Silver.  No, he’s actually using personal space here.  He’s poking Jim in the face with fingers thicker than Jim’s arms, speaking right into his face.  Invading personal space is a powerful sign of authority here.

And it’s not the only time Silver uses it to his advantage, when he doesn’t actually have the size advantage.  Picture to follow may contain spoilers.

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So, who’s taller, Silver, or the guy he’s talking to/at?  Absolutely the other guy.  By a significant margin.  Silver is to him as Jim is to Silver.

But who’s in charge?  It’s Silver.  Notice that the other guy is actually making himself taller … but to try and get away from Silver.  Silver’s just getting all up in his personal space and it’s intimidating as heck.  Look at the differences in stances – Silver is grounded, he’s set and square, his stance is strong.  The other guy would probably fall over if Silver shoved him.  He’s ‘on the back foot’, as it were.  He’s not making eye contact with Silver, and his arms are in front of him, protectively.  SIlver is absolutely the dominant one here.

Actually, this is the other place where Silver’s Play-Doh face comes in handy.  Because his face is so malleable, he can shift from quite a soft, paternal vibe to an intimidating, hard vibe without either feeling at odds with his character design.  His character design is whatever the artist needs it to be.

SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT

Jim actually uses this trick against Silver quite late in the movie, too – same difference: he’s shorter, but grounded and stable, while Silver is taller, but visibly unbalanced on his back foot.  I won’t post a picture, because it’s much harder to avoid those if you don’t want spoilers.  Just trust me when I say it’s there.

BACK TO SAFETY.

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This is what happens when Jim and Silver have an actual confrontation.  Silver’s still kind of mocking Jim (facial expression), but this is the best body-language example I found.

Look at Jim.  He’s doing his gosh-darned best to be tall, but he’s just not winning that battle.  It’s not a thing that’s happening for him.

Yes, I derive endless amusement from this.  Shush.

Note how Silver looms here.  Even bent over, he takes up more space.

Jim’s doing his level best, though.  Really, he is.  Poor baby.

So then, we get a heap of scenes in the rest of the movie where Jim and Silver talk on equal terms.
This is what that looks like:

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Here, Silver is consciously trying to make Jim like him.  They’re negotiating, after things have gone wrong.  Silver’s intentionally dropped himself to Jim’s level.  He’s keeping eye contact.  Someone better versed than me in body language can probably tell you more about the hand-on-back thing, but it’s quite a common one used for subtle control.  Ever seen a father walking with a son or daughter, and usher them through a door first with a hand on their back?  It’s both a familiar thing and a dominance/control thing.
As far as my understanding goes at least – feel free to tell me if I’m way off with this one.

Silver’s also in Jim’s space, but he’s not forcing his way into it, he’s actually using it to insinuate friendship.  He’s actually made himself a little lower than Jim, to make Jim feel like he’s in the position of power, and again, very open body language – universal symbol for “trust me”.

This isn’t a true equality, though – this is Silver using these tricks to make friendly with Jim for his own benefit.  What does true equality look like?

Like this.

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There’s no artificial lowering here – Silver is very much still taller.  But that’s not actually an issue.  They’re standing close, but not uncomfortably close.  Open body language, angling towards each other.  Eye contact.  This is a pair of friends talking.

Even though one of the friends is really freaking tiny.

Dialogue: A Soliloquy

If that title hasn’t convinced you that I have absolutely no life, nothing will.

So, here again we have a collision of two topics that have been on my mind recently.  One is dialogue – I’ve been chatting to people both online and in real life a bit about dialogue recently, just because the topic happened to come up by happenstance.  Then, I’ve been reading Grapes of Wrath (yes, the Steinbeck one), and synapses decided to go ahead and collide and therefore blog post.  Because I like unleashing my ramblings on the world.
Keep in mind that I have never been to Depression-era California, Depression-era Arkansas, Depression-era anywhere, or, for that matter, American anywhere.  

For me, the dialogue in Grapes of Wrath really stood out, and it’s been taking me a little while to figure out why.  At first, when I was reading Of Mice and Men for year 10 English, I was impressed by how ‘real’ the dialogue was, and how true he stuck to the accents of the characters.
Being 16 at the time, it was also somewhat of a revelation to my sheltered, private-school-girl mind that “literary classics” (here having the sole meaning of “books we study in school”) actually admitted that people swore when talking, and that it wasn’t always an indicator of anger.

Looking back on those books with a little more writing experience, and a lot more reading experience, under my belt, I think that was an … inaccurate assessment *ducks rotten tomatoes*

For me to explain what I mean, let’s have a look at common advice I’ve seen given to writers about good dialogue.

  1. It must ‘feel real’ to a reader.
  2. It must not contain any of the stops, pauses, ums and ahs of ‘real’ speech, because they are distracting.
  3. Every character should have their own speaking style, which in turn, helps to convey their own character.

Generally, what makes newbie writers tear their hair out (at least, the ones I’ve talked to about this) is the first two.  “How do you make a character speak like a real person if you’re not allowed to use the things that real people do?”
I find the problem here is actually one of defining terms.  The second one, I find, is fine as is.  Dialogue should, in most cases be an idealised version of real speech.  Ums, ahs, and hesitations work best as indicators of other things, like that a character is embarrassed, or hiding something, rather than something everyone does.  It does get very difficult for a reader to read through, and after a while, they’re liable to skim something important.
(Remind me to write a post about writing “rules” and the hodgepodge mess surrounding them someday)
That said, I’m betting pretty much everyone who reads this has read, at some point in their lives, dialogue that just doesn’t sound like something normal people would say.  It’s stilted, it’s clunky, it contracts where it shouldn’t and doesn’t contract where it should, and you get absolutely no sense of the characters from it.  Sometimes you can’t even put your finger on why it feels so bad, but you just know real people don’t talk like that. So, we generally put the label “oh, you have to write like real people speak” on it and leave it at that.  After all, we know what we mean, right?
But what do we actually mean?  Chances are, we probably mean the “flow” of the work.

I, personally, would put dialogue as tied with action in the places where flow is the most critical in a work, and requires the most attention.  For action, it’s to make sure the reader is pulled along at the pace you need them to be pulled along at, using sentence length to vary how the reader experiences each moment, and especially to convey the tone of the fighting (is this a green soldier’s first battle, and there are gunshots and cannons and people and maybe a horse and WHAT IS GOING ON??, or is this a martial arts match against two highly capable masters, where each movement flows from the next to conserve energy and momentum, and they’re constantly analysing the other for slip-ups and openings?).  However, in dialogue, you want a different type of flow altogether.  People naturally speak with a sort of cadence – they do hesitate, they um and ah, but generally speech flows from thought in a way that words on a page don’t.  So speech has a little more of a feel of stream-of-consciousness about it.  Compare: “Can you get some milk while you’re out?  Before you go, Sandra said she needs to see you soon.  You should probably stop there on your way home.”  with “Can you get some milk while you’re out?  Oh, which reminds me – I met Sandra at the shop, and she said she needs to see you. You should probably do that on your way home.”  If I’ve done my job right, the second feels like it has much less of a disconnect in it, and probably feels more like “real speech” than the first one.  Therefore, you get a certain type of flow in dialogue that is often very hard to put your finger on.

On a more technical note, and something I’d need to study far more into linguistics and psychology than I actually have to really be qualified to talk about this, but I can give the basic version, and it starts with a very, very obvious statement.
When two or more people are talking, their goal is not always to convey information to each other.
I know, right?  Duh.  Any author worth their ink will use dialogue to convey things like how a character feels towards another character (even on such a basic level as “do they engage and answer questions fully, or are they answering only what they have to, in monosyllables if at all possible?”).  But that’s not the only thing that statement means.
If you go into the psychology of linguistics at all (and it’s a fascinating area), you’ll come across conversational cues.  Think about this next time you’re chatting to a friend.  How do you know when your friend has finished what they were saying and you’re now going to take your turn to speak?  Sure, they stop, but you can tell whether they’re just stopping for a breath or if they’re finished speaking, right?  When someone else is speaking, do you ever find yourself saying “yeah” and “uh-huh” at exactly the right times?  Have you ever wondered why?  Or maybe you’ve used those things to pretend like you’re interested in something someone has to say, but you’re really just waiting until it’s polite to leave.
Those things are part of the natural give-and-take of a conversation.  During speech, humans are constantly signalling to each other things like interest and when we can and cannot interrupt.  Phrases like “you know” or “am I right?” aren’t there to annoy or be dialogue tics all the time; often what they actually signal is that the speaker is checking whether the listener is still listening, that they’re following the thread of the conversation and haven’t become lost.
If dialogue feels stilted or wrong, oftentimes it’s because characters are talking at each other, not to each other.  You can’t put your finger on why, but you never feel like they’re actually interacting, that they’re just making mouth-noises at each other.  Then, what the author has failed to capture is that sense of interaction in the dialogue, the sense that the two people are really listening to each other and responding not only to the physical words said, but the manner in which they’re said, and the accompanying spoken cues.  Yes, it’s very difficult without ‘filler’ like ‘ah’ and overuse of phrases like, as previously mentioned ‘you know’, but since my screen is looking like a black block of text, I might file away “how to make dialogue sound like real people” a topic for another day.

The third point is fairly self-explanatory.

OK, now that’s out of my system, here’s the point: I would say that John Steinbeck, in his novels, only really fulfills the first point on that list.

Does that make it bad dialogue?  No, absolutely not.  But it does create an interesting dilemma – often I see it put around that following the second two rules, and improving word choice and expression, will naturally lead to the first point.  However, this is definitely not what happens in Steinbeck’s case.

So, in order:

One.  Dialogue sounds real.  Yep, check for that one.  No stilted dialogue, no feeling that characters talk at, not to each other. Definitely got the thumbs up on this one.

Two.  Dialogue is an idealised version of speech that contains none of the hesitations and idiosyncrasies of ‘real’ speech.  Nope.  Steinbeck uses that all the time.  Only it’s not phrased as “um” or “ah” – characters say “Well”, or they repeat themselves.  The obvious ones come up, like “I wanta hear it, but if I was rich, if I was rich …”, but there are the less obvious ones where a character will repeat a phrase throughout a conversation, like “Jes’ nearly faints, that’s all”.  Profanity is used like this as well, from the “Well, hell, I’d do it”, to “Goddamn it, [sentence]”.  It doesn’t sound like an um or ah, and it’s kind of not.  All of the things listed here are used for emphasis, except perhaps for ‘Well’.  In the ‘if I was rich” example, the person might well be hesitating, trying to think of an example of what they’d do if they were rich, and it could be a sort of emphasis as well – by repeating that statement absently, they reveal that is the focus of their thoughts: being rich, and being able to buy some land and a house, and not have to let their children starve.  The emphasis of the swearing is obvious.
As for “Well”, I’m not sure what the term is, but it’s a part of speech that’s not quite a word, has no inherent meaning, but in speech, indicates either (or both) that the speaker would like the opportunity to speak (sort of testing the water before accidentally cutting someone off) and that the speaker would like to introduce new information to the conversation, and therefore the people they’re speaking to should listen closely.  It’s a bit more complex than that, but that’s the gist of it.  All these things violate rule 2, but since they carry so much extra meaning – swearing indicates social class and age, ‘well’ (or absence thereof) indicates how someone is approaching a conversation, and the repetition can often show exactly what’s on a character’s mind, while everyone speaks around the big issues and nobody admits to each other what’s worrying them.
So, rule 2 is pretty soundly broken.

And three.  Steinbeck’s characters don’t actually speak that differently from each other, with some exceptions.  Women don’t swear (as much), so those constructions are out.  However, most of them use the same phrases as each other “You’ll make me crazy”, “Well, hell, I don’t know”, and “I’m jes’ so tar’d” (I’m just so tired, for those whose eyes tend to burn at transcribed dialects).  You’ll see the same sentence constructions, the same word choices, the same ways of expressing indignance or frustration across most people.
So how does he convey character?  Actually, entirely with what the characters talk about, not how they talk about it.  One character might always be talking about how he’s going to be a mechanic, one might never want to mention his time in jail, another might always be talking about how much he’s sinned.  And that’s how they get defined, as well as by their actions towards others.
So, rule three is broken – but the way it’s broken actually cements all the men in the book as part of a whole.  Instead of reading about Tom Joad and his family, you’re reading about A Family.  Yeah, it totally isn’t going to work just on its own, but as part of the whole experience of that book, it helps to convey that feeling.

And that’s why Steinbeck does not follow standard dialogue wisdom, but it works anyway.  For me, at least.  As with all books and authors, your mileage may and does vary.  And I’ve brought up about five more topics I need to write on in the future.  Dialogue is a big issue, apparently.

Fun in Narratives

Back to the usual blog stuff for a post or so, since nothing particularly interesting is happening on the holiday front.

I’ve just finished playing two games.  The first was Bioshock Infinite.  If you’ve been anywhere near the Internet since its release, you probably know what it’s like: gorgeously animated, meaningful, highly symbolic.  The phrase “mind blowing: tends to be used in its vicinity.
The other game was Dust: An Elysian Tail.  This one is a bit more obscure, but if you’ve heard about it, you’ve probably heard that it’s gorgeously animated, has great humour and is amazingly fun.

So, which one did I prefer?
That’s actually kind of the wrong question.

Being an English student and running a blog about analysing narrative media, I’m almost obligated to prefer Bioshock Infinite.  Hell, I’m probably obligated to prefer the original Bioshock as well.  And yeah, if you held a gun to my head, I would probably say I’d prefer the Bioshock series to Dust.  From a purely analytical point of view, Bioshock does things with narrative that Dust, for all its joys, kind of doesn’t.  Bioshock’s story is complex and mostly epistolary; it requires the player to be actively paying attention and searching to appreciate the entire thing.  The first one became famous mostly for playing with the expectations of the medium itself (and I’m trying so very, very hard not to spoil anything…).  2 I have … opinions on which will require a whole ‘nother post to discuss.  Infinite just makes you question life.
Dust, bless its little heart, is not precisely groundbreaking.  It is an homage to games like Metroidvania and the old 2-D sidescrollers, so I am keeping that in mind while I say this next sentence:  Its story is not very original, or very deep.  Yes, yes, homage, deliberately using tropes, limitations of the medium.  All fine.  I get that.  It’s mostly things like the villain.  What is his motivation?  Well, it’s never really discussed in-story.  He’s only a general, and it’s mentioned that he’s taking orders from higher up, but the game frames him as the main opponent, and that he really believes in the cause he’s fighting for … but the player never knows quite why.  And let’s just say it’s a cause that you really need a good reason for in order to have a 3-D character.
Then, you have the hero.  I’m using hero and villain here rather than antag and protag because there’s nothing really ambiguous about it.  The hero has a specific kind of ethical dilemma, but it’s not actually explored that much.  There’s a fun twist with your interactions with the villain in the end, and one instance in the beginning of ‘hints at larger things’ in this area specifically, (again, so trying not to spoil), but eventually you get a lot of talk about the choices the character needs to make, but no real sense within the game that this dilemma is actually affecting anything, or that it’s even really an issue for the character.  So much more could have been done with this.
Apart from that, I was basically picking up the cliches as I went along.  It’s not even that hard.

So, if the story of Dust is so simplistic and cliche, why, then, do I say things like “if you held a gun to my head” or “for all its joy”?

Because as I was playing those games, I could not have cared less that the story was simple, or the villain had no motivation. I was just having fun.  And that’s a very interesting concept.  It’s probably most stark in video games, where the medium was originally and still is often seen as about having fun, so the descriptor comes far more easily to mind.  I could choose two books for this (say, Of Mice and Men, as compared to an Eoin Colfer novel (except WARP)),  or two films (Citizen Kane as compared to How to Train Your Dragon), but I think the games will probably be easier to talk about.  The other two media have their own limitations, too, so I’d need to talk about them entirely separately.

Right, so down to brass tacks.  What actually makes a “fun” game fun?  What makes someone like me, who enjoys media by overanalysing it, just sit back and enjoy the ride?

Well, this is probably going to be quite personal, but for what it’s worth, here’s what made Dust so good that I told my brain to sit down and shut up?

First is absolutely, positively, without a doubt, the characters.  I am a character junkie, so seeing a game where I was truly delighted every time the hero and his sidekick (not so much the sword; the sword took itself too seriously) had a conversation?  That was brilliant for me.  I could have done with far less actual gameplay, just to have those characters interacting more.
But let’s break that down even further.  It’s one thing to say that two characters are fun to watch interact, but what does that mean?  Does it mean they sound like real people?  Does it mean they have a meaningful relationship?  Does it mean they say funny things to one another?
Well, yes and no, for each of those questions.  The foundation of good characterisation is making sure that the characters sound like real people; otherwise the reader/player/watcher will sense something is wrong.  So yes, part of it is making sure they sound like real people.  Meaningful relationships?  Well, there’s no real getting-to-know-you arc for the characters in Dust, so while I would normally say ‘yes’, I’m actually more inclined to say that if you have the first point, you’ll have the second (generally speaking).
Now, the third one is interesting.  Humour cannot survive on one-liners alone.  Both characters are quite snarky and sarcastic, especially the fluffy sidekick.  If they’d just been firing one-liners at each other, yeah, it might have been entertaining, but it takes more than that to evoke pure glee in me.
The answer, I think, lies in how they interact.  They aren’t just shooting one liners at each other, they’re actively taking on board what the other one has said and using it.  And not just their words, either – if the voice actors were any worse at their jobs, the script could easily have fallen flat.  But tone saves it from being ‘characters being sarcastic’, turning it into ‘friends ‘aving a larf’.  They’re always conscious of the other character, and it feels like they’re aware of where the limits are and how to push them without sounding mean-spirited.  This is what makes them witty, rather than just abrasive.
Could the game have been fun with a different dynamic?  Yeah, totally.  It could have pulled a far more straight man/funny man routine, both could have been serious … the game could have been fun with any dynamic.  But the dynamic that they do choose is worked into the dialogue, into the cutscenes, and into the story itself so well that it becomes “a delight to watch” rather than “a bit of a giggle”.

Second point.  Gameplay.
I’m not exactly what you’d call a ‘hardcore gamer’, in fact I’m quite new to the medium.  So, all I can really say about gameplay is this: It’s very accessible.
Let me explain that as best I’m able.  The last 2-D sidescroller I tried was Braid.  And that was … pretty much my first one.  I do not have a good grasp of either the controls or the mechanics native to sidescrollers, and I really don’t have the framework to understand the implications of the time-manipulation for the game.  So, I failed utterly at that one.  I used walkthroughs about once a level, and actually couldn’t finish the last level because I was under time pressure and my timing just wasn’t that good to get through the tiny tunnel at the exact moment it would be clear.  I watched the ending on YouTube and never touched the game again.
Dust, however, feels very powerful to play.  It’s partly the animation style: I was button-mashing, but everything I did looked like I’d pulled off a sweet combo in, say, Street Fighter.  I was jumping around, slamming monsters into the ground … it was awesome.  And once I started to level up, I deliberately ground levels to probably way higher than I needed to be.  Well, alright, I had trouble finding that one darned sheep, and that pesky treasure chest, and that one castle with the artifact in it, so I went through screens and screens of monsters that probably weren’t necessary.  Result?  I would get mobbed by unholy terrors and ruin their day.  I was like a little blue ball of doom with a bladed weapon.
Later on you get planes attacking you (it makes sense in context).  If you deal enough damage to them on a certain combo move, you will grab it by the wing, flip it, and throw it to the ground.  In slow motion.
At one point in the final boss fight, I grappled a plane and threw it at the boss’s head.
That feels good.  Because Dust was never actually about the gameplay; it was about the story around that.  The gameplay section could easily have become boring, but it didn’t, because every time you got into a fight, you felt like Bruce Lee.  Sure, it wasn’t hard, it wasn’t challenging, it wasn’t even particularly original (fight hordes, get to thing, fight boss, get meaningful cutscene, rinse, repeat), but it kept enough difficulty to feel empowering, and I got so caught up in looking cool and wrecking monsters that the parts of the game I might otherwise have found teeth-grindingly boring were just another part of the fun.

And finally … well, I kind of have to admit it.  This is going to be really difficult to articulate.
When you have a game, or a movie, or a book that just works for some reason.  It makes you love it despite its flaws, or it makes you really invested in it, or what have you.  You often hear it described in movies as “you can tell all the actors were having a ball”.  In books, it’s more like “It just made me keep turning pages”.
This is a quality I like to call ‘heart’.  It’s the feeling that most people working on the project truly loved it.  They loved it so much that they wanted everyone else to love it, too.
That’s not a perfect description; there are some things that fall flat anyway.  So, in this particular case (because a universal definition would be foolish to attempt), what is “heart”?

Heart is knowing that one person is responsible for all the visuals you see on the screen.
Heart is laughing along with the characters, rather than at them (most of the time).
Heart is having a huge, dramatic cutscene before the final boss and not even caring because you’re too invested in the characters to mind.
Heart is dramatic one-liners that come from the story and through the character, and so feel both righteous and awesome.
Heart is feeling emotionally satisfied at the end of the story, even if you found complaints along the way.

And that is why, although I might prefer, intellectually, games like Bioshock or To the Moon, games like Dust, or Psychonauts, will still always be on my list of great experiences.  These two are not mutually exclusive – I had boatloads of fun playing Bioshock, and definitely Psychonauts had a lot there for analysing as well.  But there is an overview – not the whole picture by a long shot, but perhaps a glimpse – of why “fun” games are fun, and why I would replay Dust, despite its simplistic story.

Plot Twists

Alright, after an absence-ish-thing, let’s have a post on narrative theory.  Since we’re talking about plot twists, spoiler warning ahead: I will be discussing endings/things meant to be surprising for the Matrix, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and Way of the Dragon (Bruce Lee movie).

So, I was having a discussion with someone the other day, and we got onto the subject of plot twists (because the people I know talk about that sort of thing).  She was saying that she prefers it when movies don’t give any hints as to their twist ending, because if there are any hints, then she’s likely to guess the twist.

This is something I’ve always been taught is sloppy writing, and something that is actually more likely to have ruined the ending for me than having guessed what was coming.  I know, I’ve been indoctrinated by the endless supplies of ‘good writing advice’ in books and on the Interwebs.  But is it just me?  Am I just thinking about this wrong?

I choose to believe that no, this is not a thing limited to me.  For one, the endless examples of writing advice agrees with me.

But on the flip side, those very same books like plot twists to be unexpected.  They like to be surprised by a book.

So, how do you reconcile those things?  And is it actually possible to please someone like me and someone like my mother at the same time?

Let’s start with the first question.  The trick to setting up a plot twist without making anything too obvious.  Unfortunately, the only real advice I can give for this one is “do it subtly”.  No, really.  That’s about it.  We’ll get onto a case study in a minute, but first, let me flail around trying to explain myself.  What I often hear is praise for a well-done plot twist is “I could have kicked myself for missing that” or “I thought it was really surprising, but when I went back and read it, I totally understood why it happened”.  The best plot twists require a second read-through to truly get.

Let’s start with the bad.  There are two kinds of bad: one is the didn’t see it coming bad, and one is the so obvious it’s boring bad.
For didn’t see it coming bad, let’s look at Way of the Dragon.  Spoilers start here.  The cook is working for the mob, and stabs two of the restaurant workers.  Throughout the movie, he’s been the voice of peace, telling people not to break the restaurant’s decor and giving everyone traditional money at New Year’s.  And then he up and stabs a couple of guys.  No lead-in, everything explained afterwards.  Sure, he had an understandable reason (wife and kids needed money), but he was never shown arguing for selling the restaurant and getting work elsewhere, he was never showing accidentally-on-purpose foiling any plans.  Always just encouraged the main characters, right up until he turned on them.  This is not a good use of your conflicted villain.

For the so-obvious-it’s-painful bad … well, honestly, I couldn’t come up with a good example for this.  Seen it a million times, can’t remember a single example.  But I’m betting you know who I’m talking about anyway.  It’s the character with shifty eyes that turns out to be “secretly” evil.  It’s the mysterious character in the corner of the room who turns out to be a trustworthy friend to the main characters.  This usually comes from the author telegraphing everything too early – giving characters “a weak chin”, “shifty eyes” – characteristics that tend to mean only one thing now, and then not playing with them enough to negate that.  Usually, these stories were trying their damndest, but the author just wasn’t subtle enough to weave in those clues.

So, how do you do it right?
The Matrix had an excellent plot twist.  Not the one about Neo actually being the One after the Oracle told him he wasn’t – that comes under obvious, not because it wasn’t done subtly, but because of narrative convention.  You don’t follow some complete nobody for an hour and a half without something special happening to them.  No, the one about – SPOILER – Cypher.  It’s possibly not a true plot twist, because it gets revealed halfway through the movie, but the first scene with the telephone took me three watchings to actually get.  You see a phone being tapped, and two voices.  One you recognise as Trinity.  The other, who assures her the phone isn’t bugged, is Cypher.  You kind of forget about that scene as you watch the rest of the movie, but it’s there, and you don’t even realise that it’s a deliberate lie until after you’ve watched it.  And for the parts he’s in, Cypher seems to be somewhat of a Sour Supporter – he’s doing his job, sure, but he jokes about wanting to have taken the blue pill, while appearing sympathetic to Neo.  Very easy to mistake the conversation for being just trying to make Neo feel welcome.  But once you see him in the restaurant with Agent Smith, suddenly it makes sense.

Now, is it possible to write a book or make a movie that pleases both people like me, who prefer non-obvious setup, and those who prefer no setup at all.

Well, yes.  Matrix telephone conversations.  Misdirection is the key.  Conversations that seem to be about one thing on the surface, but as you go, you realise they were about something else entirely.  Always give plausible reasons for someone acting oddly.  “I thought the character was upset about her father’s death, but it turned out she was also conflicted about selling out her friend to the villain”.
Always have characters act in character.  That includes for the misdirection and for the plot twist as well.  Sure, the shy, timid, compassionate one might actually be faking all that and be an axe murderer … but you can bet your last doughnut that you’d better have some good reasons for why they picked that particular cover, how they maintained that cover, and some foreshadowing that there might be something else to them.

Actually one of the best ways to do this is to use tropes, then subvert.  Puella Magi Madoka Magica has a plot twist only a handful of episodes into the show, which suddenly changes everything you thought you knew about the show.  How did they set that one up?  With the visuals alone.  Pastel colours, standard drawing style, very typical anime school uniforms, and character types you could pick out a mile away.  It conforms so exactly to its genre that when things get ugly, you’re forced to rethink everything.

So, at the end of this, that person who likes to have plot twists out of the blue?  I respect that view, and I see why you hold it.  But I’ll always prefer subtle setup.  It just feels more internally consistent, and less like sloppy writing.  And maybe I’m young and naive, but I still believe there’s a plot twist out there that even you wouldn’t see coming.