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Friday 27 September 2019

Connecting with stories

Dramatic irony occurs when the viewer or reader of a story knows more than the characters. It can be an effective way of making you connect with the story (“Look behind you!”) though if sustained for too long it tends to distance you from the characters (“Doesn’t that numbskull realise the danger?”) and then you've got the opposite effect.

A less immediate form of dramatic irony might plant a seed that will build over time. For example, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe we learn about Thanos’s behind-the-scenes involvement long before the Avengers even know his name. That doesn’t create emotional distance because for most of the saga he’s not the problem they have to face right away. He’s an oncoming storm, but it’s his proxies and allies who present the immediate threat.

Most film and television dramas aren't like first-person novels. There are scenes that don't feature any of the protagonists -- like those early tease moments with Thanos, for example. But when you're telling an interactive story, jumping away from our heroes to another viewpoint gets tricky. The characters expect us to advise and guide them, and the story really only works if we pick a side. (Even if that side might change.) We form a bond with our viewpoint character and that tends to frame how we expect to see events in the story -- not first-person, exactly, but close third. Under those conditions can dramatic irony serve any useful purpose?

An example: in the opening episode of Mirabilis, I cut within the first three pages between Jack Ember and Estelle Meadowvane, both lead characters, and inserted a scene (above) in which we see series baddie the Kind Gentleman in his true devilish form. The Kind Gentleman closes a web of dangers and intrigues around Jack’s life, but it’s nearly two episodes – that’s 50 pages – before they meet face to face. If we’d been interacting with Jack all that time, and knew what we know in the comic, and hadn’t warned him then he’d legitimately want to know why.

Well, let’s think about how we would interact with Jack and Estelle in an interactive version of Mirabilis. We wouldn’t want to do a lot of head-hopping, because interactivity favours a close relationship with one character, so probably you’d let the reader/viewer choose which of our heroes to follow each episode. The more the reader sticks to the same viewpoint character, the more they'll bond with them – but at the expense of not knowing everything the other one has been up to.

What kind of interaction would this be? The “Bandersnatch” episode of Black Mirror reportedly entailed shooting more than five hours of story content. If you’re working in a medium where extra scenes cost money (anything but radio or prose, basically) then you’ll want to steer clear of that Choose Your Own Adventure model – oh, and don’t call it CYOA unless you want to get sued.

Luckily there are more rewarding ways to interact with characters than telling them what to do next. You can chat to them, get them to reveal their backstory (cf Lost), find out how they feel about each other, make subtle hints about what they should say or how they should behave that will influence other characters’ attitude towards them over time. These are the kind of subtle nudges and inputs that we get from interacting with people in real life.

To make that model of interactivity work, you’d have most backstory strands only accessible when cued by something that happens in the story. Jack, thrown in prison, talks about how he used books to escape loneliness and poverty as a child – and that leads him to a realisation that feeds into the plot. In the interactive version, there might be several breakthrough moments when you could get him to talk about that, and several different eureka plot developments as possible outcomes.

So the plot as it is in the comic remains largely unaffected by the player's choices. That's not only to avoid drawing the thousands of extra panels needed for a diverging story, but also because interacting with plot is not what's really interesting. The linear surface story is fine as it is. The interactivity can instead be about exploring interiority, discovering more about the character, and building a closer relationship with them so that they start to share their hopes and fears.

In other words, we can't (and don't want to) change the plot, but we can enrich it with foreshadowing. For instance, maybe Jack confides in the player that, "If anything were to happen to Estelle I'd die." When Estelle is captured by the Big Bad, that moment will now land with even more impact. And, yes, you could do that in a linear story too: Jack just tells somebody else how much Estelle means to him. But in the interactive version it’s a shared secret. It’s something you earned from your relationship with the character. Maybe you even encouraged him in those feelings, and because of that he’s now more vulnerable. Now you’re not just watching the story; you’re part of it. And that's what interactive storytelling is all about.

Friday 13 September 2019

The personal touch

Gamebook maven John Jones was in touch with the Fabled Lands team recently with an intriguing suggestion – indeed, a creative challenge – that occurred to him while watching Jessica Jones:
“What is interesting about the conflict between Jessica and Kilgrave is the personal nature of it. Unlike other villains, Kilgrave has only one very goal he wants to achieve and any effect he has on the larger world comes in service to that goal. At the same time Jessica has her own very personal goal. I mention this to contrast it with the main conflict in The Serpent King's Domain. To Namagal it's a very personal situation involving his death and/or humbling. To the viewpoint character playing the book, it is (or can be) little more than an item on a to-do list toward achieving a different goal. I make that contrast because one thing I'd like to see in The Lone and Level Sands or perhaps a later book is for an important quest to be personal and important to the viewpoint character.”
Of course, conflict is almost always more interesting when it’s personal. After a love story, perhaps the most compelling of narratives is a war in the family:

It only works when it’s earned, of course. Batman v Superman did nothing but lay popcorn-brained waste to the surprising-yet-inevitable showdown which in Frank Miller’s original story came at the endpoint of a difficult friendship that had struggled on against the odds for decades.

The point of the personal conflict is to up the stakes. The story has more bite, more pain, more inner struggle. We, the readers or viewers, feel more strongly involved. But writing rules are no substitute for commonsense. All those screenwriters who feel the need to make Robin the Sheriff of Nottingham’s half-brother, take note. And let’s also point an accusatory finger at the recent Harry Potterization of the 007 franchise, in which every adversary must be tied to Bond’s angsty childhood. Puh-lease. It’s more Charlie Higson than Ian Fleming.

The sharpening effect of personal conflict is why I don’t object to a little PvP in my roleplaying games. The civil war that happened in our Tekumel campaign was a classic tragedy in the making, with the player group splitting right down the middle. Jamie told his wife that the Tsolyani civil war was the most important thing in his life at the time. I can believe it. Think of any time you and somebody you care about have ended up on opposite sides on an issue of passionate importance. There’s a wrench in the gut that goes far beyond mere difference of opinion.

The Tsolyani example reminded me of a letter I got from Professor MAR Barker back in November 1985:
"Eyloa the Wizard of the Tlashte Heights, played by Mike Callahan, just discovered that the Pariah Deities' chief agent in his sector, Torsu, is in reality his own father. I was told later that this is a rip-off of the Star Wars plots, but then I have been running this particular campaign since before The Empire Strikes Back and all along the storyline has been the same."
So you can pull off the same trick between player and NPC. I must have been aiming for something like that in my second-ever gamebook, The Temple of Flame, which begins by establishing the backstory between the lead character and their former colleague Damontir the Mad, who is the book’s antagonist. Players of Heart of Ice have remarked that though the possible endings include saving the world and seizing ultimate power, nothing compares to meting out just deserts to the weaselly Kyle Boche. And even in Fabled Lands we have recurring adversaries like Talanexor the Fire Wizard and your persistent frenemy Lauria. You want to see more of them, don’t you?

Which brings us back to John Jones’s suggestion. I’m not going to reveal what he proposed because it was really cool and maybe Paul Gresty will want to run with it in future books. All I will say is that it made me think of Fritz Leiber Jr, and that’s never a bad thing.