It’s Not Length We’re Looking For

Make your jokes now, people. I’ll give you a moment.

I’m admittedly a little biased on this one. I come from the fantasy genre (which hardly needs re-stating by this point but years of English essays drilled this stuff into me, so bear with me), so my genre has a long tradition with epics. Continue reading

Video Games and the Final Third Problem

I’ve been playing some video games recently. Mostly they’ve been online games (since I actually have a group I like to play with now, I’ve been playing an MMO, which I thought I’d never actually do), but I’ve been diving back into one of the games that has given me a lot of joy over the years: The Bioshock series. Continue reading

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.

Video Games for the Narrative

You guys, I get so excited about video games.

No, really, games are very exciting.  I might not be one of those people who’s totally behind the gamification movement (I think a lot of it is really, really cool, except when it’s suddenly not), and I’m not convinced that the game will replace non-interactive media entirely (though I like the idea of transmedia storytelling), but I really do get excited over video games – how they work, how they integrate gameplay and narrative, how they allow the interactive elements to alter the experience from playthrough to playthrough … particularly how player choice and player input shapes the medium.

That’s the bit that really fascinates me – the player input.  It’s alright to do in tabletop RPGs, but the Game Master is infinitely flexible, unlike the code on a computer.  A player can really surprise me as a GM, and all I have to do is fix my notes and keep going, with maybe a slightly different plot.

A video game can’t do that – it can’t suddenly change the plot because a player never talked to a certain person, or killed someone they shouldn’t have, or just decided to go to the wrong town first.  Unless, of course, this was written into the game to begin with.

But that’s an entirely different blog post, and one I’m definitely not yet qualified to write.
This blog post is about personal preference, and why I feel a little bad about my choice in video games.

I do consider myself a writer, even if I’m not published.  I love the feeling of agency in games, the idea that I’m really affecting things in the game world as I play.

And yet, here’s a list of some of my favourite games:
Psychonauts.
Mass Effect.
King’s Quest series
Quest for Glory Series
Bioshock trilogy
Portals 1 and 2

I have played some Skyrim, but it doesn’t really make me stop everything and just play Skyrim like Mass Effect did.
I’ve also played FTL: Faster Than Light, and it didn’t really appeal to me, either.

I’ve been told by friends that they got really into their FTL characters, even though there are no real characters, no personality – it’s just a group of icons on a ship with stats.  Though the characters themselves had no lines and no backstories, my friends assigned personalities and goals to them, and were genuinely sad when they were painfully suffocated aboard their own ships.

Same thing with a lot of those kinds of games, I find – I don’t assign personalities to icons on a ship.  Skyrim is certainly easier – I am fairly able to care about the character I’m playing, generate motivations for them, all that sort of thing.
But I don’t get captivated by them.  Particularly with Skyrim – it really does just put you in a world and tell you to go from there.  I have a couple other issues with Skyrim, which I’ll address later (and for which you’ll have to bear with me, because I have only played for about an hour, total, and not very far into the game.

And I think it’s really a shame – I feel like I’m really missing out on a lot not liking some of these sandbox/open-world games.  I watched a friend play Skyrim once, and he killed a wolf, then jumped into a river carrying it, and the game happened to process this in such a way that he was, suddenly, waltzing with the wolf through the river.
I’d like to see Commander Shepard waltz with a wolf just because the player happened to feel like it.
I feel like there is, objectively, a depth of experience that you wouldn’t get in a linear story.  You certainly get the idea of a whole world, one that doesn’t all care about the plot of the game, and doesn’t entirely hinge on the protagonist.  It’s a great thing, and really exciting for anyone interested in the worldbuilding aspects of story.

But like I said, it just didn’t grab me.
Is that a bad thing, I wonder?  I’m an author, after all, isn’t creating stories what I’m supposed to be good at?  Am I too lazy to make up a “proper story” in these games?  Am I not willing to work for my fun?
Am I just unwilling to abandon my grounding in novels?  Is my brain too feeble to comprehend media that fall outside my limited view?

I’d like to think not.  So here’s how I justify this to myself.

First off, I like characters.  I like getting to play with new people.  I like getting inside their heads and meeting them over the course of a game.  I just don’t get that same experience when I’m the one assigning personality traits.  I can’t be surprised, for one, and one of my favourite experiences in a book or game is having my expectations subverted by a character.
Secondly, if there isn’t a true goal or a sense of character motivation, there’s no sense of urgency.  I’m not saying that the universe has to be in grave danger before I start to care (and there are some issues with this description, since Chell in Portal 1 can’t be said to have much motivation – though the player has ‘find out what’s up with these tests).  But mostly it holds – if Skyrim tells me there are dragons, but then leaves me alone in the mountains to do whatever, without ever giving me a reason that the dragons are my problem, or my issue – if FTL tells me “get a bigger ship” … well, sure, it’ll be diverting, but you’re never going to make me feel as hard as Mass Effect 2 made me feel when Joker did that thing that he did, or … “I am the very model …”.  I’ve yet to, in my time watching Skyrim or Minecraft, or talking to people who have played those games, seen any talk or mention of a Bioshock-level kick in the teeth.  They might have ups and downs, but impact in a narrative relies very heavily on timing, and removing the ability to time (and even the abillity to control what order a player receives information, in games like Skyrim) removes a whole lot of narrative tricks you can pull.

But here’s the main problem, for me.  I often find that an open game world feels a lot less real to me, because of the concessions the developers are forced to make to keep it open.  It’s just a matter of budget and time.  The variation you get in a game like Skyrim is admirable – you can annoy groups of characters and ingratiate yourself to others.  But it still feels very potted.  All elves hate you, or all people of a certain town.  You get a change of dialogue tree when you complete a person’s mission, but otherwise they offer you pretty much the same thing.  You can talk to every NPC, but you can’t really get to know them beyond a few broad character brush strokes.
You also can’t let the world change too much.  You can’t have a particular quest irrevocably change things on a grand scale, in case it’s one of the first ones the characters do, by accident, and they lose a lot of content.
Actually, that is entirely possible and pretty awesome, but it’s probably pretty bad design, and I’m too inexperienced to know why.  I’ve not really seen it.
On the technical side, try developing a motif or symbolism without being able to control the order the player experiences something in, or while allowing that any part of the whole thing may be skipped.  I’m sure it can be done (and I’d love to try someday), but you just can’t achieve the same effect.

I realise that, for all of the things I’ve said here, there are technicalities that can be argued.  I’m sure that, in open world games, you could show me a whole bunch with a “point of no return” section where you complete a quest and everything is changed.  I’m sure you could show me ones with intelligent NPC development, and a plot that holds up through any amount of faffing around between plot points.  Unfortunately, it’s not really going to change my mind.  There’s just something that doesn’t grab me so much about an open world to explore in as a really gripping, dense story with crafted characters and symbolism.

What about you fine folks?  Any staunch open-world fans out there?  Got one to recommend that’ll completely change my mind, make me see the potential of the medium?  Anyone dislike open-world games, but for a completely different reason?

And yeah, I’m not going to even try and pretend that was all intelligent and objective.  But hey, expressing personal preference is a difficult thing to articulate.