Friday, September 26, 2014

The Problem With Video Game Writing

Video Games are not well written stories.

To be fair, an awful lot of them are not trying to be. I played a game recently called Farm For Your Life. It's fun. You build a farm, you harvest crops, you use those crops to make food, you serve that food in a restaurant, you use the funds from that farm to make your farm better and build walls and and build turrets to defend your farm and restaurant from ZOMBIE HORDES!!!

It's a lot of fun. It's one of those games I like to play when I'm listening to an audiobook.

But there's not really much of a narrative in Farm For Your Life. That's not a criticism. It doesn't need a narrative. It has a set up and then it can pretty much go forever. I think you can solve the zombie problem. You meet this scientist guy looking for a cure and you can help him, but I haven't done that because I'm not interested in ending the game. I like the farming and the restaurant and the killing zombies. It's a token and mostly pointless story that, as it should, plays second fiddle to cooking food and killing zombies. Good times.

There's a lot of games like that. In fact, that sort of 'writing' is where video games began. Did Pong or Pacman had a narrative? No, it just had dots and things you did with those dots. Did Mario and The Legend of Zelda have a narrative? No.

No, don't try and argue with me, they didn't. There is no story in The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros. It's two video games where a princess is missing and you go through a series of challenges (levels in Mario and puzzles and dungeons in Zelda) and then you achieve your goal. They had as much story as a game of Monopoly.

However, that began to change pretty rapidly. Now we have a lot more story telling going on in Video Games. For some games, the story is everything (I'm looking at you, Heavy Rain) but for the vast majority of games, there's a story, but it's not really what we're there for. The story exists to string together a bunch of set pieces and things to shoot or hack of blast. Some games are commendable for their efforts - I was always particularly fond of the story telling in inFamous. Other games, like that one "based on" The Divine Comedy," well, their attempts at story telling are laughable. So there's a spectrum.

But they're all flawed. You see the problem is, Video Games are stories with padding. They're essentially pillows wrapped in pages from a Doc Savage novel. The plot has to frequently take long pauses for the player to play the game and overcome challenges and kill some enemies and jump over snake pits. All of these are dramatic as long as the player can see them, and then they're gone. That guy you shot in the tutorial? The third one from the left that looks exactly the same as the two guys next to him? You'll never hear about him again.

The majority of what you do in a video game is meaningless in terms of how it affects the plot.

Listen, plot has a structure. Some people cringe at the thought, but it does and it's almost unavoidable if you want to write a good plot. Basically, a plot looks like this:

- Something happens to make a protagonist act
- Protagonist begins working towards some kind of goal
- Protagonist has early victory
- Things begin to go wrong just as the Protagonist loses the option of turning back
- Protagonist struggles forward, but he suffers multiple set backs. His chances of success dwindle and the stakes keep going up.
- Protagonist confronts source of problems or final obstacle before his goal and succeeds or fails, either way he is forever changed.

That's not exactly set in stone but that's more or less how it works in every story. And we keep doing it like that because it works. But the key to drama is that part where the protagonist suffers set backs and fails multiple times. That's how you build excitement and tension. You can't have a story without it!

Unless you're a video game. Players don't want to fail. Players want to feel awesome and move forward and video games are written to accommodate this desire. Video game writers work around this by ever padding out the story and ever extending and changing the goals. Sometimes it works really well. I loved the hell out of 'Far Cry 3' because of its story telling. But these games that are "well written" are the exception and not the rule. Video game writing is, for the most part, pants.

But I struggle to hold that against video games. All this is measuring video games by old standards for a different medium. It's the only set of standards we have for now, so it will have to do. But because video games are interactive, they're a very new means of story telling. We're still figuring out the best way to make video game writing work.

We're not sure what, exactly, the rules are just yet. So for the moment, I still cut video games a lot of slack and often give them a free pass entirely. The medium is evolving and our ideas about story telling must evolve with it. So even though video game story telling is, right now, largely sucky and full of unfamiliar and uncomfortable ground, we're only seeing the adolescence of video games and the future is bright ahead of us.

All right, so now that I've made my position clear and all the gamer fanboys and putting away their torches and pitchforks, we can come back to what this means for you, oh writers of things that are not video games. In my last blog entry I said that there is a lot to be learned about story telling from comic books and movies and television, even if you want to write prose.

Well the same just can't be said of video games. There's nothing you can get from video games that you can't get from those other mediums I mentioned. But you can pick up a lot of had habits and incorrect ideas about story telling from video games. So, honestly, unless you're planning to write for video games, maybe just play video games for fun. There's plenty of other things to study. Switch the writer brain off for a while and just enjoy.

Okay kids, that's it. I'll catch you next time.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Story is A Story is A Story

Watch movies. Watch a lot of movies. Watch mostly good movies. Movies are good study. There's a lot to be learned from watching films and paying close attention. You, as a writer, can benefit from watching movies. That's true, obviously, if you want to write for film. But if you want to write books (Hell, if you want to write anything) then you can benefit from watching movies.

Movies are stories. In terms of length and content, movies are similar to novellas. They've got to be very tight and they've got to tell a story in a limited space. The dialogue, of course, has to be good. Dialogue is important. But there's a lot in movies that needs to be set in the picture. Movies - good movies - are all about the showing because they do not have the space to tell.

Movies get across so much in such comparatively little time that you can benefit from studying how a movie tells its story. Because they're so short, you can also watch a lot of them to get a broad range of ideas.

And while you're at it, watch television, too. Now is a pretty bloody good time to be watching the old idiot box. The age of sitcoms, monsters of the week and reality TV is coming to a close and, right now, TV serials are big fish. There's some very good story telling happening in TV right now and it's worth taking a look. Every episode is like its own self-contained chapter in a book and every season builds to a massive climax with a season finale that blows you away and leaves you wanting more. A good TV serial might be the closest thing to a novel that isn't a novel.

The story telling in a TV serial, where every episode connects and there is one plot, one arc that extends over a whole season and the whole series, is worth studying. You can learn a lot about how to keep your audience keen. There's a lot more room to breathe and tell more complex plots in a TV serial, too. You should definitely be watching TV.

And you should read comics. A lot of comics are really stupid, but there's something to be gained from seeing how people go wrong. But there's a whole mess of really good comics out there, too. Go get some and read. Like movies and TV, a comic has to tell its story visually and use imagery to carry a lot of the subtlety prose allows. People are highly visual creatures and by thinking visually when you write, it helps you create better imagery in your own writing. And what better way to learn than to study those who succeeded before you?

Comics are different to film and TV, though, because they also use text. All that speech in text and all those sound effects in big, bold lettering are done by people called Letterers and it's not a little job. Lettering is an art to be respected and bad lettering can kill not just a comic but the story that comic wants to tell. This is almost unique, except that the shape of prose also affects how a story is told in a novel.

Comics come in all shapes and sizes. So even if you're all about sophisticated character drama novels, reading comics and studying how the story is told can benefit you greatly.

And, most of all, more important than any of the above, if you want to kick it old school and (like most writers) focus on the classic prose novel, then you should be reading novels. Read all kinds of novels. Read books of all shapes and sizes. Read books in your favourite genre and, from time to time, read a book outside the normal. Read new books and old books and serious books and silly books.

Honestly, it's not so important what you read, but how you read. This goes for every type of story telling medium I've described above. The key is to be active in how you engage with the story. Don't just read and don't just watch, but study. Look at what works and ask why it works, ask yourself how you would write it differently, consider why the author chose a certain word or why a particular chapter took place when and where it does so.

Right now, I am revoking your lisence to be a passive member of the audience. You want to write, you need to start paying attention to how other writers are practicing their craft. Read, watch, study.

A story is a story is a story, so from now on, when you're watching or reading a story, study it. Work to improve your own story telling.

"Hey Carl, what about video games? Do they count? They're stories."

Um... Well... Uh... No. Not really. Well, sort of. Sometimes. Look, that's not an easy question so I'll come back to that next time.

Monday, September 8, 2014

10 Books That Have Stayed With Me

So this meme is making the rounds at the moment and it is called "10 Books That Have Stayed With Me." I've always gotten kind of a kick from doing lists like this, much because it's another opportunity to opine on something and I am nothing if not opinionated. So, it's been on facebook and some bloggers, (most recently, the fantastic Chuck Wendig) have even given their list. So now I'm going to play the trend whore and throw my thoughts out there.

First, a couple of points worth clarifying.
1 - This is not a list of favourite books. These are books that, having read, constantly come to mind and that, no matter how much I enjoyed them, I can't get them out of my head. These aren't just good books, these are books with impact.
2 - They're not in any order. I'm writing about them as I think of them. Any lasting impact a book has is high praise and it doesn't need to be ranked more than that.

1. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
I wish I'd never read this book. I regret reading this book. It was nothing short of brilliant. It's one of the best books I've ever read and I hated every moment of it. While I read American Psycho, I only wanted to stop. When I stopped, I could hardly think of anything but reading what happened next. It's horrific and gory and frightening and tragic and funny - actually, it's damned funny. It's the sickest, darkest comedy I know. This book made me physically sick. My stomach churned as I read. I will never read it again and I hate that this book is so damned well written and so damned intelligent.

2. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & 3. Watchmen by Alan Moore
I'm going to lump these two together and talk about them at the same time. These are the kinds of comics every aspiring comic writer needs to read. They're full of superhero tropes and fairly typical superhero characters and settings. But they use those familiar ideas to get you comfortable before they hit you with some of the most intense and engaging political and personal dramas ever seen in the pages of comic books. We could all aspire to put words onto the page that are this intelligent. Alan Moore practically invented the deconstruction of superheroes and we'd never have had books like Kick Ass or films like Super without Alan Moore. It's also telling that nobody has done it quite as well as he did, either.

4. Brave New World by Alduous Huxley
The best book about dystopian utopias you'll ever read. While some of the themes and symbolism isn't exactly painted with a subtle brush, it certainly gets the point across. But I think what makes Huxley's novel such a unique exploration of these fairly common sci-fi and sociopolitical themes is that he seems to be writing from a position on the fence. Is the atheist, industrialist and totalitarian world so bad? Do we gain more than we lose as we distance ourselves from nature? Huxley is kind enough to let us make up our own mind, while he keeps trying to make up his. I'll let you know if I ever make up mine.

5. The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain
Mark Twain wrote a lot of his better works (in my opinion) late in his life, when he seemed to be struggling with the terrifying notion that he was going to die. He even quite accurately predicted the year he would die, so that couldn't have helped. The Mysterious Stranger reads like the culmination of his final years as a cynical and tired writer and philosopher. Comedy has been replaced by tragedy and satire has given way to angst. Mark Twain challenges death and religion and society and sanity in this book and, like Huxley, draws no obvious conclusions. It's not just an engaging and unique story, it is a fascinating insight into Twain's world view before death.

6. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
As with The Mysterious Stranger, I've written about Fear and Loathing before. This book is funny and confusing and frustrating and leaves your head spinning. It moves at a break-neck speed from one self inflicted disaster to the next and never gives you a moment to be bored. And that's impressive for a book in which nothing happens. It's the world's longest action scene about two guys walking around taking drugs and accomplishing nothing. Ultimately, it's Thompson's voice that makes this book work and once you hear it, it's hard to get it out of your head.

7. The Shining by Stephen King
I went through an awkward and misguided phase as a teenager in which I said to myself, "I don't need to read books. I write my own!" Of course I never finished any of those books and most of the stuff I wrote sucked. Then one day a friend bought a new Role Playing Game called World of Darkness. He bought it, but I inevitably ended up running the game and so I figured if I am going to write horror, I should read some. Not knowing any horror authors other than Stephen King, I picked up his short story collection, Night Shift, and started reading. By the end of the week, I'd bought The Shining and was reading that. This not only convinced me to read real books by real authors, it also convinced me to stop pretending I was Tolkein. Sadly I decided to pretend I was Stephen King for the next year and a bit, but eventually I outgrew that. There's not much to say about The Shining other than it is damned good and it did me a wonderful service by reminding me that reading is AWESOME. I'll forever love it for that.

8. Rowan of Rin by Emily Rodda
Much like The Shining, Rowan of Rin is just a good book. It's nothing particularly special or as intelligent as many of the books on this list, it's just fun. But also, like The Shining, it's a book that made me like books. A teacher handed it to me during a time when I was seriously starting to think I was incapable of enjoying literature. I loved it immediately and, being such a short and easily digestible book (it is for children, after all,) I still often pick it up and reread it. Without knowing that books could be this much fun, I may have given up on writing a long time ago.

9. MARS by Fuyumi Soryo
I think this is cheating. Okay, sorry, I'm cheating. MARS isn't actually a book, it's a series. A comic series that ran in Japan from 1996 to 2000 and is something of a guilty pleasure of mine. MARS is a high school romance story and plays out more than a little like a soap opera. But from the moment I picked up the book (on a whim, no less) I have been hooked on it. It's extremely melodramatic and, at times, it really pushes the boundaries of realism. But screw it, for a book written for teenage girls, it really hits on some hard topics and it gets downright dark in some places. But that darkness only serves to contrast just how powerful the love between the protagonists is. At the end of the day, I'm a romantic, and MARS speaks to that part of me like no other story ever has,

10. Loop by Koji Suzuki
All right, let's end on another intelligent note. Loop is the final installment of Koji Suzuki's Ring trilogy (Yes, that Ring, the horror movie one) and is actually probably my least favourite of the series. But, truth be told, it's the one I think about the most because it's just so damned weird. I honestly can't tell you how the Ring series went from being a supernatural thriller to a high concept science fiction story, but it did and I still can't make sense of it. Was Koji Suzuki making a point? Was he high? Was he just fucking with us? I don't know. Loop is weird but that really makes it one of a kind and it exists to ask a lot of big questions about humanity, the universe, the nature of our existence and the future of our species. Much like Huxley, Suzuki doesn't seem to have any answers, either. He poses the big questions, then just shrugs his shoulders and invites you to think it out with him. And perhaps that's the best thing an author can achieve. Our first goal should always be to entertain but if you can do that and make your audience really think about difficult ideas, without turning your story into a sermon, then you've gone from good to great.

Okay, your turn. Post your lists in the comments or your own blog and post the link below. I'd like to know what books got glued to your brain meats and wouldn't come off.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Good Reads

Are you on the website Goodreads? I am. It's a lot of fun. It's like facebook, but the only thing people talk about is books. That's 100% less religion, politics, George Lucas films and Selfies!

Also, you can like my book on Good Reads and see things about me! How awesome is that?

I think it's pretty cool...

Anyway, if you like books, Good Reads is a pretty cool way to find new stuff to read. It's made a number of good suggestions to me.

Go check it out (and add my book to your list!)

Carl Purcell's books on Goodreads
Sorceress' Blood Sorceress' Blood
reviews: 4
ratings: 11 (avg rating 3.09)