Friday, 30 November 2018
Inevitability doesn't have to mean jumping through story hoops
Victor Mature. With a loincloth and an ass’s jawbone he was the Conan of his day, but Arnie or Sly could never match the performance he gave in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine. Mature played Doc Holliday, consumed by self-loathing and taking refuge in a bourbon bottle. When Holliday’s girlfriend is shot, Wyatt Earp sobers him up long enough to dust off his black bag and operate. It seems to go all right. The girl is getting better. Holliday glimpses a ray of hope. Maybe he could yet go back.
Then she dies. It’s a throwaway event off-screen – we only learn about it when Earp finds Holliday back in his dark place with the whiskey. And (defying the old movie rule to “make a scene of it”) Ford thereby expresses the whole theme of fatalism that runs right through the movie. Holliday can’t change, he can’t escape his destiny. This is the gunfight at the OK Corral as Shakespearean tragedy.
Then I got to thinking about story-based games, of which gamebooks are an obvious example. I'm sure you've encountered episodes like this one. You race through, bludgeoning enemies who are trying to stop you, only to arrive at the dock a minute too late. The ship has sailed, the bad guy has the girl (or the cute guy, if you prefer) and he’s taunting you. The chapter or game level ends there, and after a long slog through many equally stage-managed scenarios, you’ll finally get the chance to confront him and make up for failing there at the docks.
The trouble with that is it's too artificial. If I’m being invited to interact with a story, surely I shouldn’t be just jumping through the author’s hoops?
Now imagine this scenario. You’re sent to either kill or rescue a character – your choice. But the story requires this character to die. For narrative reasons, she has to be missing from later episodes. So the author says to himself, “If you decide to rescue her, I’ll have a scene at the end of that section where you’re almost home free and a stray bullet kills her anyway.”
I don’t like designing gamebook stories that way. It smacks of authorial arrogance: “You’re only the player, so sit there and watch.” But what would John Ford have done with it? Most likely he’d build the gamebook around the theme of inevitability. He wouldn’t kill the character right there at the end of the chapter, he’d leave it till later. Crucially, he’d let your choice make a short-term difference even if not a long-term one. In the interim, after all, she might have fallen in love. Or got pregnant. Or betrayed you. Dying then comes with a different emotional heft.
The players don’t always have to be able to make a difference – just so long as they aren’t ignored.