Friday, July 2, 2010

The world of a story

Do you remember, back when Avatar was released, how it polarized people?  Some loved it, some hated it.  Personally I didn't see it.  I didn't really find much about it that was compelling enough to spend my money on. 

What I find interesting, though, is the people who loved or hated it. More interesting is that they had different reasons for doing so.  The critics (and others) who panned it did so because it was the same old story, it was The Matrix, Fern Gully, Battle for Terra, and many other stories rolled into one. 

But what about the people who liked it?  You know, the people who were 'stupid' because they liked a movie with a 'bad' script.  They didn't like the movie because of the script.  There were many who really liked the 3D of the movie, but what really got most people excited was the world of Pandora.  The details of the world, of which 3D simply took to the next level, were what people were really excited about.

What other worlds get people excited?  I know after playing Warcraft III I almost want to play World of Warcraft, the prospect of exploring the vast, detailed world shown in it is a tempting one.  Then of course, I remember all the stories about people getting lost spend hours, days, or weeks at a time playing the game.

What is it about Lord of the Rings that gets everyone so excited to the point that the one book series literally created the fantasy genre? It is the rich detail of Middle Earth.  What about the Wheel of Time, which shaped the modern fantasy genre?  Eragon?  Twilight? They are all the same.  It is the world.  It is the content. I know that fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson spends much of his time in building a world for his stories to take place in before he even starts writing the novel.  The world of his Mistborn trilogy has vast amounts of content which is barely hinted at (if mentioned at all) within the books themselves.

Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series has not only vast amounts of content, but the strength of Mythos on its side.  The world has cyclical time, history literally comes back around and repeats itself with the same people over and over again (with a few variations, however).  The aim of The Dark One is to break the cycle, break the calendar, and remake it in his image.  The age of legends ended thousands of years prior, an age which had incomprehensible technology and lost magics.  Relics from this time are still being discovered, and many of them are unknown as to their use.  The age of legends ended with a great disaster that greatly changed the face of the whole earth. 

Brandon Sanderson's books also have some element of Mythos to them.

Now, to take a look at the Malstrom Post that inspired all this.  Why?  because he ends up saying the exact same things that I just said.

Warren Spector has a great new interview. I laughed at this part:

There’s a point in every project where I beat my head on my desk and say “why I do I always do things the hard way? Why don’t I just make a shooter?” With this game it was like, “Wow, why am I making a thirdperson game in which the player can determine where the walls and floors go? Oh my God!”
Listen to this quote:
One of the great challenges for videogames is that we have to stop building movie sets and start building worlds. Back in the old days, Origin’s motto was ‘We create worlds’. Somewhere along the line we lost that, and started building movie sets. And so for years I’ve been looking for an excuse to build a world that’s more dynamic. But it would have been a radically different game without Mickey as its beating creative heart.
One of the reasons why I think video games are seeing serious decline is that there is no interest or talent focused on creating content, or the ‘continuum’ or ‘world’ the game exists in. Content creation skills are very different than game making skills.

This is as far as I got before I had to take a break and write what all that up there. I was unaware of the rest of this:
What does Mario, Metroid, and Zelda have in common? They are all unique worlds. I remember when the games came out. People were not fascinated by the characters of Mario, Samus, and Link, they were really fascinated by the worlds and wanted to remain in that world.
What I said with books, he said with games.
Fantasy and science-fiction authors have no problem creating ‘accessible writing’. The big, big problem is the world creation, ultimately the content of the book. They agonizingly spend years creating the fictional world. Much of this fictional world won’t even appear in the book! And much of the fictional world somehow ‘appears’ in the middle of the writing process!
Fantasy and science-fiction authors have no problem creating ‘accessible writing’. The big, big problem is the world creation, ultimately the content of the book. They agonizingly spend years creating the fictional world. Much of this fictional world won’t even appear in the book! And much of the fictional world somehow ‘appears’ in the middle of the writing process!
And What did I say earlier?

As Spector noted, video games are not interested in making worlds. This ‘world’ is the biggest reason why people go off and buy the sequel. They want to return to that world! People will buy Starcraft 2, for example, to see what happens in that game world. “No,” says the reader. “They will buy it for the multiplayer gameplay.” But Blizzard, themselves, say that half of their customers do not even play multiplayer.
 I've been replaying Warcraft III for the second or third time, I've never touched the multiplayer.  This is also a main reason I only played Starcraft 2 beta, I don't really have interest in playing the multiplayer.  I've talked with my brother; he feels the same way.

I certainly didn't read Eragon (and the rest of the Inheritance Trilogy Cycle) because I expected it to be 'new' or to blow me away, I read it because I expected it to be everything fantasy is, and it turned out to be Star Wars set in Middle Earth.  I don't know how much more 'everything fantasy' than that.  Again, I stress that it's the world, not the Star Wars plot (seriously, almost scene for scene) or the horrible writing (written by a 15 year old, what did you expect?) but the world that kept me reading.

When Blizzard designs units for their RTS games, they go with what unit has the most interesting story, the one that best fleshes out this ‘continuum’ or ‘world’ they are in.

I remember how shockingly awesome World of warcraft was when it released because it felt incredible to explore the world of Azeroth in such a way. Blizzard was busy building up the ‘Warcraft’ continuum bit by bit since the original Warcraft came out. (The biggest complaint against World of Warcraft is that Blizzard has put in so many strange things that the Warcraft continuum no longer makes sense.)
This is getting surreal, I think I'm reading too much Malstrom. 

Gameplay is not enough. You must create an interesting game world to go with it. The best way to create an interesting game world is to STEAL IT from another medium or from real life. Sports games are great at this since the world of sports is time tested and exists outside of gaming. Licensed games also do this. Early video game makers would put in cliches of their favorite books and TV shows. Contra has something like a cross between Rambo and Aliens in it.

And I was about to go off on gameplay but got distracted by the last one.  It's like I can predict what he's going to say before I even know he's said it!

Another funny story, I just had a conversation with my brother (and sister) and I realized something about movies based on other mediums, such as the Prince of Persia movie.  The key is not to get the story or characters right, but to get the world right.  The world of Pirates of the Caribbean is remarkably similar to the world of Monkey Island (I mean more than just that they're pirates, with pirate lore, in the Caribbean.)  This is something that I think, for example, the Eragon movie didn't do quite right.  It didn't really feel like Star Wars in Middle Earth, in fact the world felt more like the Dungeons and Dragons movie. (which to be fair I never saw)

Back to Malstrom:

When Mario Mania was around, it wasn’t so much about the character of Mario but the fantastical Mushroom Land that everyone wanted to be in. Mario was around in Donkey Kong. Mario even had his own game in Mario Brothers. But the difference is that Mushroom Land did not exist yet.
In order to illustrate the game world, I must separate it from the gameplay. How do we do this? Well, people have already done it. Things like cartoons and all would revel in the game world even though there was no gameplay.

Seriously, I can't describe how surreal this is.  I am honestly just reading through his post and as soon as I have a thought about something I read I stop, quote it, and write my thoughts.  Maybe I am just subliminally seeing something down the page and not knowing it, but it is just plain weird to type my thoughts about something he's said, and then scroll down to see him say the exact same thing.

Maybe I invent time travel in 15 or so years and then have to come back in time, set up myself in Texas, and start writing a blog since knowledge of disruption is somehow vitally important to saving the world.

Or maybe I'm just reading too much into this coincidence.

Anyway, Malstrom reminded me of the Super Mario Brothers movie, which if you know about it, had nothing to do with Mushroom Kingdom, and the Super Show Malstrom shows did a much better job.  I think that the zany nature very nicely represented a game where you could shoot fireballs at walking mushroom animals and flying turtles and walk on top of the ceiling while underground. In fact, I think that's the problem with many video game to movie adaptations; they don't transition the world very well. (characters are part of the world, by the way)

My point is that Mario Mania existed only when the Game World was expanding and fleshing out. Since then, Nintendo has refused to expand this world. The Mario Universe has been in a stasis for decades as it keeps being re-used and re-used for various sports games, racing games, RPG games, or whatever game Mario appears in. In Mario 5, there was no real expansion of the game world (however, this probably didn’t matter since people hadn’t seen a console 2d Mario in 18 years).
 I get the feeling that people who criticize it for being 'just another 2D Mario' are meaning this, that it doesn't really bring many new things to the table.  In fact, one of my concerns about Donkey Kong Country Returns is that it feels like just Donkey Kong Country, but with Tikis. (which feels as out of place as the stuff in Banjo & Kazooie Nuts & Bolts)

In Mario Sunshine, well, that game took place in a very different place than Mushroom Land. In the Mario Galaxies, Mushroom Land existed only through a blender. The worlds were in pieces and nothing had any cohesion. In the Galaxies, it was as if the Game World was sacrificed on the altar of gameplay.
 (...Or the Piantas in Super Mario Sunshine.)

Look at the Zelda fan. They love to talk about the timeline of Zelda games. They do this because they enjoy the Game World that is Zelda. The drive for Zelda fans to purchase the new Zelda game clearly goes beyond gameplay to include seeing how the Zelda Game World has expanded. Games like Spirit Tracks not only failed to truly expand the Game World, they destablized the ‘continuum’ by putting in elements that didn’t make any sense in the Zelda world (i.e. trains). One of the biggest complaints about Twilight Princess was that it felt like it was Ocarina of Time. This complain was both gameplay based (on the formula) and on the game world itself (do we really need to keep seeing Kariko Village and the same exact Link To The Past map?).
 Hey, he's talking about me!  I am the Zelda fan, after all. (or something like that)  I only have to say, yes.  But my main problem with Twilight Princess was not only that it felt like it was Ocarina of Time, but that when it didn't, the 'new' stuff felt as out of place (i.e. "destabilized the continuum") as the train of Spirit Tracks.  While a novel concept, I really don't think "shootout in an old west town" when I think "Legend of Zelda"  For all its Pirates (who don't do anything) and cutesy themes, Wind Waker actually did manage to expand the universe somewhat without breaking it with the bird-people (they've got fish people, why not?  except that the fish people...became the bird people) and the sailing which has been shown in games such as Link's Awakening.

The 'exact same Link to the Past map'  is actually something I've been thinking about, and I've got an article planned on Hylian Geography, where I'll try to piece together (or at least make some sense of) the various maps..  To go with the theme of this post (and Malstrom's), maybe what Nintendo needs is a full map of Hyrule more so than a mysterious word document with the entire Time line.
People love their Game Worlds. This is why maps are extremely popular in video games whether they appear as a stage selection technique in Super Mario Brothers 3 and Super Mario World or if they are a cloth map for a RPG.

Above: Awesome map is awesome.
Indeed it is, and goes right along with what I just said.

Did you know that maps are extremely popular in the book medium? It’s true! Crack open your Lord of the Rings books, and you will find maps. Tolkien didn’t so much as create a story, he crafted a very detailed world. Why do you think Dune became popular? It wasn’t because it was the best written book. It is because it had a very fleshed out world. The very popular Star Wars and Star Trek also have very fleshed out universes.
 And of course he mentions Tolkein. (I think I got that from on of his older posts, though.)

But it is very important to note that fictional universes, of whatever medium, must operate by the laws of that universe. If it does not, the audience will feel cheated and the universe will collapse in on itself. If you set up as a rule in your fictional universe that magic use will deplete mana, the novel becomes a sort of game with the reader wondering how is the character going to get out of this situation since he used up all his mana! But if the author makes the character use magic even though the mana is depleted, the reader will be furious and the universe will likely collapse if the reader doesn’t close the book in frustration. 
Movies and television shows also must obey the rules of their fictional universe. Later Star Trek shows began breaking their own universe rules which caused fans to turn away in disgust (the driving reason for Trekkies to keep watching Trek was to see how the new episodes would ‘flesh out’ the universe even more). The Battlestar Galactica remake caused a big backlash when the writers made a deus-ex-machina of angels appearing to solve the problems of the plot.
 This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately.  Especially with out of place things.  Is it possible to have these anachronisms without breaking your universe?  I think it is, as long as you make your universe such that it is possible.  Also notice how what he talks about with mana in  the novel is remarkably similar to what was done with Eragon (how does he do that?)  I think Tales of Monkey Island is one thing that contributed to this.

Suspension of disbelief is a curious thing.  If something is there out of place, and you know it, and you communicate this to the consumer (i.e. hanging a lantern or lampshading) then it doesn't feel so out of place.

But yes, any content makers out there, please make sure that if you want to something new with your series, make sure you won't break your universe.  This is a problem I've found with many comedies, for example, where they will break their entire universe just to tell a silly joke (which usually isn't all that good anyway) 

There are some examples of video games having this issue. Spirit Tracks is the one that readily comes to mind. Sure, the game tried to ‘explain’ the trains, but no one bought that it was an organic growth of the Zelda universe. This is why the Game World must be the master, not the gameplay. Gameplay is limited to what is in the Game World.
 The problem I have with Spirit Tracks (or really most Zelda games after Ocarina) is that each of them has new things which are not part of the 'organic growth'.  Not only is the world they set up inconsistent with earlier Zeldas, but much of it is inconsistent with itself. How many times are we going to have an 'origin' of Link's clothes, for example?  The older games simply had the tunic and hat getup as a somewhat normal garb of the time, as they had other people wearing similar clothes.  It was Ocarina that tried to attach some sort of meaning to it. 

The fictional world is exactly why people like the story.  The gameplay, cinematography, or writing style are all means to an end, they are all there to take the the consumer to the world.

You do not re-design the Universe just because you like train gameplay. Fans will reject it.
 Just like you don't break your world apart into little chunks just because you like gravity-based gameplay, I assume?

Do not confuse this with I.P. I.P., which stands for Intellectual Property, is a legal fiction. The ‘world’ is the beef of the game. If it isn’t enticing, people won’t care about the gameplay. Much of gaming’s history shows great consumer interest in increases in graphics and sound and computer technology to allow the larger creation of game worlds. How many people actually played GTA 3 the way the developers intended? I bet many people played GTA 3 just to experience the rich and detailed game world.
 When I first heard people talking about I.P.s I could only think "what does Internet Protocol have to do with anything?"  Once I figured it out, I was still confused why everyone insisted on calling them I.P.s  "Nintendo Needs a new I.P. this E3" for example.  I still don't think I really know what people mean when they say this.  If people mean they want a new series, then why don't they just say so?  Maybe it's just because games are so similar these days that "I.P." is the only thing distinguishing them from one another.  I think it just proves Malstrom's point and the attitudes of people that the focus is more on "I.P." than the game world.

The Generation Zero developers could create New Worlds because they did not grow up on video games (since they didn’t exist). They grew up on board games, on books like Lord of the Rings, on movies, and on television. So the first games used many concepts found in books and television and movies.All these other mediums provided rich soil for Game World plants to be seeded and to sprout and grow.

Today, game developers grew up on video games. Many of them do not even bother reading books, wondering about Nature, or other things outside of video games. The soil is no longer rich. All they know is to copy what came before. Games today feel like a photocopy of a photocopy. No game world is fresh. It feels like a copy from another game world.

No wonder video games have become boring!
 Maybe I should get into entertainment, since I think of myself as the former, rather than the latter.  It wouldn't be based solely on video games, but other things that I see when I look at the world.

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