Friday, 25 March 2011

Game Week 3: Dungeons and Dragons

There's a game that actually improves your abilities as a writer immensely...and it's not Scrabble. Nor does it have a Mensa sticker or proudly exclaim that it's "educational."

In fact, it in no way advertises its helpfulness in this field. However, the sheer number of successful people who played this game in their youth speaks for itself.

Yes, yes. I'm that much of a geek. Dungeons and Dragons is a recent love of mine. I always wanted to get into it, but it seemed like such a...time investment. And it is. Getting started in a game is enough to deter most people from playing...setting up a character and learning the mechanics is frustrating. It took me several sessions to get the hang of the fighting and when to roll dice and which dice to roll. During that time, the game was frustrating and difficult. I wasn't really having a ton of fun and I was so busy with the rules I wasn't getting into my character properly.

Once I had the mechanics down though? Just trust me on this...if you stick with it through the learning curve, you will have a great time.

I'm off topic though. You didn't come here to have me tell you to play this game - you came here to see what literary merit the game has.

I have always thought that there is no way I could be a teacher, because my method of teaching would be totally bizarre. My students would watch the BeeGees's "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in order to teach them the concept of deus ex machina.

I would totally make a creative writing class play Dungeons and Dragons.

I'm not kidding.

(Now tell me I should be a teacher. Parents would riot.)

It would work. I believe this fully. I just don't think the people in charge of curriculums would give me a chance to explain. You, my captive audience, have no choice. ( do. But I assume that, if you're still reading, you're willing to hear it anyway.)

Here's why my students would be forced to spend each class period making perception checks and my budget would include an invoice for 20-sided dice.

Dungeons and Dragons is literally creative story-telling by committee...and possibly the greatest exercise ever for enforcing character-driven plots.

For those of you whose knowledge of D&D is limited to, as a comedic animation put it "a shit ton of rules and a lot of funny shaped dice"...a bunch of nerds in their parents' basement eating Cheetos and drinking Mountain Dew and never having girlfriends...and dressed up in silly medieval outfits holding foam swords...let me explain it to you.

First of all, most of the stereotypes, whether they've been true in the past or not, are pretty much untrue or exaggerated. My group has two girls, (including myself). Our DM (Dungeon Master...I'll explain later) hosts the games in his own apartment. Sometimes there's mountain dew...but typically we go out to eat as a group and sometimes we have alcohol (depending on the age of the players and who's driving). All of us have had a significant other at some point, whether we're currently attached or not. And the dressing up and foam weapon thing? Completely incorrect, that's a different thing altogether. That's called "LARP" or Live Action Role Play. It's a small subset of D&D, which is a table-top role playing game, that combines the game with theater. I've never played, but imagine that it's vaguely similar to working at RenFest.

Ok, that's out of the way. Here's how you actually play.

The best way to explain D&D, which just proves my point, is that you are writing a story. It's not a competitive game. There's no "winning" or "losing" the game.

Gameplay breaks down into two roles: you are either the DM in charge of the plot, or you are a player in charge of a character.

To begin a game, the DM prepares a basic story construct. The DM decides what the world looks like, how it works, generally what's going to happen and what has been happening...Meanwhile, the players create characters.

Everyone who writes a story should make a D&D character. You don't simply come up with a name and looks. You have to decide all of the backstory of your character and ok it with the DM to make sure it fits the world he's created. You have to decide what your character's strengths are. Are they highly intelligent but a little naive? Strong and intimidating but not very charming? No character can be perfect...and your abilities have to match your backstory. If your character grew up studying extensively but didn't interact with other kids much, your "charisma" points are going to be low while your "intelligence" points will be high. Which means if you need to lie convincingly, you're not going to do well...but if you need to remember some random bit of history you'll do just fine.

If you decide that you character is really big, they'll be stronger but they'll also be slower.

If your character has distinctive looks, they will have trouble being inconspicuous.

EVERY decision you make has to make sense, and will have logical consequences.

Game play simply involves the DM relaying the story in the guise of narrator and the minor characters. The players, however, are responsible for the individual decisions of their characters.

Sometimes, this has unintended consequences that the DM was not expecting.

I will give you an example from the game I currently play.

My group was hired by the government to investigate a mysterious group that had been causing some trouble. Our investigations led us to leave the city...which we had not been authorized to do. When events led us to return to the city we had warrants out for our arrest. We fell into a trap and were captured by bounty hunters.

This is where things get interesting.

We have in our group a character played by my good friend Alex. Alex's character is a changeling who, while being useless in a fight, is an incredible liar. He has impressive magical abilities and a great deal of when he lies he not only makes them believe him, it makes them believe him passionately. As with all skills, this depends on the roll of a this case a 20-sided one. The idea is that you have a certain amount of natural and trained ability in something...which creates a "modifier". However, any endeavor also depends on your luck and the ability of others to resist you. Now Pique (Alex's character) has a ridiculously high "bluff" modifier...something like +20. The bounty hunters had an unfortunately average ability to sense the motives of others...such as when they are lying, (a stat known as "passive insight"). Alex then made the situation even more interesting by rolling really well.

What was the result?

"Pique" decided to distract the bounty hunters by getting them interested in a "new" God, (something we'd been investigating at the time and therefore was fresh in his mind.) However, he lied so well that he not only got them to let us go...he started a new religion.

Which meant that the next time we entered the city (a few months later in game time) the religion that he had started had become a major force and the followers hailed him as a prophet and offered us all kinds of aid.

The DM did not create that story line...Alex did through his decisions.

That is the essence of a character-driven story. I prefer character-driven stories over plot-driven stories any day...and you probably do as well. In a character driven story, the events unfold based on the decisions of a character. In order for this to work, the character has to be well-written and function like a real person. They make decisions that are logical given the knowledge, background and personality of the character. An impulsive character will act impulsively. A character that does not know he's walking into a trap will continue doing so regardless of what the reader and author know, etc. etc. etc.

An event-driven plot, however, will force a character into the sequence of events the author has already come up with. This is not a bad thing necessarily. As long as the character reacts in a logical way based on the events and it still works then it's perfectly fine.

There are downsides to each style. Character-driven plots have more chance of derailing on the author as the character reacts to events in a way the author doesn't expect and makes the ending impossible or boring...necessitating a re-write. (e.g. a timid character may decide to stay at home and do nothing in reaction to scary things happening...and therefore not be in the right place for the plot to continue and completely throw the author off as they try to think of a legitimate reason to place the character back in harm's reach.) Event-driven plots, on the other hand, have a much higher chance of deus ex machina style events...plot points that come out of nowhere for no clear reason for the sole purpose of moving the plot along.

Between the two, I prefer character-driven plots because they force the author to rewrite the story until it logically works rather than taking a shortcut.

Playing D&D is literally practice in creating character-driven plots in game form. It's wonderful.

So, yes...if I was a creative writing teacher my poor students would be forced to play.

They would also have a required unit on grammar and sentence diagramming, know the difference between intransitive and transitive verbs (or know my wrath) and would suffer dire consequences for mixing up your/you're.

They would hate me.

This is my D&D group, minus the DM who is taking the picture. You may notice that we are all having an awesome time. You may also notice that we are huge dorks.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Bonus Post - to make up for Radio Week's demise

Just a quickie post to give you something to think about.

Have you ever listened to older songs and realized that modern songs are ripping them off?

Ok, stupid question. Let me be more specific.

Have you ever listened to older songs and realize that there is a modern song that has the same plot and theme, it's just a little less...subtle? I'm not talking about literally ripping off...sampling, covering or outright stealing of lyrics or riffs. I'm just talking about perfectly innocent coincidence. It's just weird to realize clean-cut older songs are talking about the exact same thing as modern obscene songs. It makes you want to take the modern music industry by the shoulders, shake them roughly, and remind them what metaphors and euphemisms are for.

So, I have two examples for your enjoyment. Listen to the lyrics, compare, and be amazed.

Example One: The Foundations' "Build Me Up Buttercup" and The Offsprings' "Self-Esteem". Two songs about a man who is pathetically devoted to a girl who manipulates and uses him. Note how both songs reference waiting for phone calls and being stood up for dates. The latter is particularly funny because it shows how much times have Build Me Up Buttercup they make plans for 10. In Self Esteem, they make plans for "night" and he waits for her until 2am.

Example Two: Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave" and Bloodhound Gang's "Bad Touch (Discovery Channel)". Two songs about ignoring social niceties and just having sex. Note how both songs justify the idea by claiming that humans are mammals and that makes it natural. Also note that the Discovery Channel song is extremely (amusingly) disgusting and should be considered NSFW.

I was going to make a pun about there being nothing new under the sung...but figured that I'd get the gong for it.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Game Week 2: Portal

Sorry folks! I have limited computer access for the foreseeable future. Will update regularly, just probably not daily. To make up for's an absurdly long post. more video game post and then we'll move on to other games.

"Portal" is a short video game produced by Valve available on the XBox360 and for the computer. You play a woman named Chel (although how I know that is beyond me, as she remains unnamed throughout the game) who is testing out a new technology in a science facility.

It is also one of the funniest games I have ever played. The grasp of dystopian themes, horror elements, and dark humor is absurdly impressive for such a limited game.

So what about Portal gives it such strong elements? As always, we turn to the world of literary analysis. The game employs several writing strategies employed by the greatest books.

First, let's look at the horror elements they implement.

Bleak settings are creepy.

Portal is by no means "basic" in the way Pac-Man is basic. The graphics are everything you could hope for in this effects-glutted modern society. They should be - there is not much to the game. The walls are almost uniformly white and flat. The lighting is florescent and corporate. All of the tech looks like it was developed by Apple - smooth, curved and white. It is the epitome of the science lab.

It's sterile and cold and wonderfully chilling. The first time you see blood smeared on the walls, the bright redness of it after the unending white and grey is that much more striking.

The other thing about the setting that strikes a chord is that it's mostly empty. There are the few necessary devices that make each level playable, but for the most part you are dealing with large rooms with high ceilings that are mostly empty. As humans, we like to fill our space with stuff. We buy silly nicknacks, collect things, and hang art on the walls to inject personality into a space and feel comfortable. Rooms devoid of these things, like college classrooms, are vaguely unsettling to us. This is why waiting rooms in Doctor's offices have ugly art pieces and boring magazines...the clutter is comforting.

Starkness + loneliness = discomfort and anxiety.


There is a book called "The Haunting". I think it was made into a movie but I don't particularly care. The reason I bring it up here is because there was one thing in the book that truly made me scared while I read it: the description of the house. As the characters walk through it the first time, they realize it's all built on angles that are off by only one or two degrees. They're close enough to the standard 45 and 90 degree angles that you don't notice on a conscious level...but as you turn corners, they throw you off just enough that when you look out a window the view is completely wrong based on your orientation. You've made a certain number of right turns and are expecting to see the front lawn and instead you see the side driveway. This, believe it or not, set the tone for the book and was scarier than all the gore and psychological torment that followed...combined.

Most films and art implement this basic strategy. If a scene is meant to freak you out, nine times out of ten you will notice that your point of view is skewed...either by viewing from below or above or by having the screen off kilter.

The story of "Portal" is similarly designed to keep you on your toes at all times. You are never fully aware of where you are, how you got there, what your purpose is or any other basic information.

You begin the game "waking up" in a small space with no doors. A quick glance around reveals a radio that plays one song, a toilet, and a pod thing in which you were apparently sleeping. The tone is set immediately. You are alone, you are trapped, and you have no idea how you got there. Many of the rooms in the game are similar. Since you are working with portals (essentially wormholes that connect to each other) many rooms are impossible to escape from without this physics-defying technology.

At every level you are alone except for the voice of GLaDOS, a computer that guides you through the game and an awesome character. But more on her later. Sometimes, empty boardrooms can be seen or entered. You gain the impression that you are not the only one who has tested this tech through comments made by GLaDOS, usually through the fact that most of her comments to you sound like form letters.

"You [subject name here] must be the pride of [subject hometown here]"

Yet you never encounter these other testers until you reach the level where laser turrets are introduced. When the threat of death is introduced to the game, you suddenly start finding these bright red bloody handprints. Follow them, you may find a cubbyhole marked by a bloody scrawled "help". In these cubbies you see these mad scrawlings and pictures indicating death and torture. It is, frankly, hilarious.

This is where the famous "the cake is a lie" quote comes from. Through the game, GLaDOS makes reference to "cake" being a reward for completing all of the tests. "Cake and grief counseling will be available." One of the cubbies simply has the line "the cake is a lie" scrawled over and over and over again on the walls.

It's jarring, it's freaky, and I love it.

Knowing it all is boring.

You know what kind of movies and books I really, truly love and never can seem to find?

The ones that don't answer all of your questions.

I'm not talking about major plot points remaining unresolved. You should always resolve the issues you raise in a story. (Apologies to fabulous tv series who are unjustly cancelled before they can address these issues. Next week will be all about you.) Deus ex machina? Not ok. Unexplained plot advance or character development? Bad.

(Science fiction authors, you are the most guilty of this. I'm happy for you that you've worked out how, exactly, your faster-than-light-speed drive works. Interrupting the plot to explain it for 5 pages is not ok.)

Minor characters should have back story. As an author, you should know why a character behaves the way they do. However, unless it's important to your reader to know, you should not insert it.

Ugh...this is getting way too long winded. I'll simplify.

There are two bad extremes and one happy medium in story telling when it comes to minor plot elements. Imagine you are an author. The protagonist of your story was betrayed by his estranged sister.

Extreme one: The sister did this because you needed a betrayal to move the plot along. You, the author, have no idea what her motivations are but it moves the plot. Problem: this will feel stilted, your reader will be confused, dissatisfaction follows etc.

Extreme two: The sister did this because of a complex series of circumstances...such as growing up resenting her missing brother and being seduced by the guy chasing him or whatever. Problem: If you explain all of this, even though the protagonist would have no knowledge of the circumstances and the book has until this point been in the third person limited. The plot screeches to a halt, the reader becomes bored and ultimately forgets what was happening before this tangent.

Happy medium: Same as above, except you, the author, know these motivations but do not share. It will make your writing of the sister more natural and the readers will notice. If you feel the urge to tell her story, you can do so in a sequel or a side book. (J.R.R. Tolkien is a good muse for this.)

Portal does this brilliantly. There are many things that are left unexplained. Winning the game, of course, comes with resolution of Chel's (I really have no idea how I know your character's name.) immediate problems.

Things that are not explained within the game:
Where all the scientists are
Who "Black Mesa" is...other than a rival company
Why Chel was there to begin with

Now...I think some of this is explained in the game "Half Life" which Portal was sold with. I'm fairly certain there is a company called Black Mesa anyway. I don't know. The missing scientists, however, are definitely a mystery. Did GLaDOS kill them?

Not knowing is much creepier and satisfying. It fires up my imagination. More importantly, it keeps me immersed in the story by not breaking the fourth wall. There is no way my character would know, so she doesn't.

And last but not least...

Dark Humor

I can not rave enough about how awesome a character GLaDOS is. She is the mainframe computer for the laboratories and guides you, more or less, through the game. Obviously inhuman, incapable of lying subtly, and utterly insane, her bits of speech are great.

This is good, because Chel doesn't talk at all, and the only other voices in the game are the turrets which talk in childlike voices asking where you are before shooting you.

All of GLaDOS's dialogue is stuffed with dark, dark humor. Here are a few of my favorite examples.

Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an unsatisfactory mark on your official testing record, followed by death.

Did you know you can donate one or all of your vital organs to the Aperture Science Self Esteem Fund for Girls? It's true!

Remember, the Aperture Science Bring Your Daughter to Work Day is the perfect time to have her tested.

As part of an optional test protocol, we are pleased to present an amusing fact: The device is now more valuable than the organs and combined incomes of everyone in *subject hometown here.*

Do you think I'm trying to trick you with reverse psychology? I mean, seriously, now.

We are pleased that you made it through the final challenge where we pretended we were going to murder you. We are very very happy for your success. We are throwing a party in honor of your tremendous success. Place the device on the ground, then lie on your stomach with your arms at your sides. A party associate will arrive shortly to collect you for your party. Make no further attempt to leave the testing area. Assume the Party Escort Submission Position, or you will miss the party.

Do I need to explain further?

The best part of the game by far is a level in which you are given a "companion cube". It's simply a heavy block of metal with a heart drawn on it. You use it to block deadly energy balls and weigh down buttons. However, throughout the level, GLaDOS makes weird comments about how it can not talk...but if it does you should ignore what it says.

Throughout the level it talks about how the cube is loyal to you and will be happy to do anything for you etc. etc. After not having met anyone throughout the entire game, these statements slowly start to freak you out. You imagine the cube is alive. That it somehow contains a human brain and heart or something along those lines. You at least get the impression that it is sentient and can feel pain. It never shows any indication of this. It is a box with a heart drawn on it.

At the end of the level, in order to move on, you have to throw it in an incinerator. There is no way around this without a cheat code. I literally spent 30 minutes trying to figure out a way around this. It was emotionally agitating. I was distraught over destroying a cube of metal, in a video game. That is a sign of good writing.

It probably didn't help that instead of saying "incinerating" or "destroying", GLaDOS called it "euthanizing".

Finally, there is the ending credits song. It was written by Jonathan Coulton, a geek rocker whose music is excellent. You should check him out if you've never heard of him. I like the song about taking pills for everything and "Code Monkey".

Jonathan Coulton's website - some MP3s are free to download!

He wrote "Still Alive" specifically for portal. It is sung by GLaDOS and is in the style of a report on the the events of the game addressed to Chel.

It's insane and excellent and the perfect I'm going to end my post with it.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Game Week 1: Call of Duty

Ok, obviously I have given up on Radio Week. It was a bust. It got me few comments and honestly was a pain. It's a cool concept I think, but obviously too strenuous to keep up for an entire week. I may make it a monthly thing.

In the meantime, it's been ages since I posted anything on the blog that I was determined would be updated every single weekday...which is just sad.

I could offer excuses galore, but essentially what happened is, I got sick, started to write again when my brain returned to functioning levels, and was so exhausted by the idea of doing another lyric analysis that I shoved it to the back of my brain. I felt like a jerk, because I really wanted to do one for my Grandma Jill, who took the time to actually mail me a mix CD and a package of lyrics. I was going to make her the finishing piece to my radio week with fanfare to thank her for her devotion. Instead, I entered a guilt/avoidance spiral that resulted in me disappearing from the face of the earth.

So radio week is tabled. The radio post I do will feature the inimitable Grandma Jill. Until that time, however, you get game week...much less stressful.

I'm going to ease myself back into posting with an easy one today: very little literary analysis and mostly observational humor. (Oh no.)

Let me start this by saying I am in no universe a video gamer. I lack the coordination to handle that first person shooter business. I can not get behind the mechanics of one joystick to control where you're going and one to control where you're looking and shooting. I end up putting bullets in the intangible clouds before I run off a cliff as the enemy soldiers just stare at me in bafflement.

My video gaming ability is securely in the 80s and 90s. I like Galaga, Super Mario Bros. 3, fighting games where button mashing results in hilarious over-blown deaths, Zelda games where I happily devote my time to fetch-quests and finding all of the empty bottles. My favorite bit of modern games are, often, the cut scenes. I like the story. (Shocker, I know)

The only shooting mechanism I'm comfortable with.

We will devote another day this week, probably tomorrow, to the only modern video game I not only enjoy, but have beaten and am breathlessly awaiting the sequel to.

In the meantime, I want to talk about something I've noticed by my bemused observations of my (not-so) little brother's gaming. Specifically, the villains in them.

Red Dead Redemption, the outlaw Western game for the Xbox 360, is hilarious. I am not going to try to make myself seem like a good person here: I will freely admit that I laughed like a lunatic when I found out he got an "achievement" by lassoing a Mexican hooker and tying her to the train rails and waiting for her to get splattered all over the desert. (Before any of you gamers correct me, I know that it didn't have to be a Mexican hooker you tied to the rails - but I think it proves that my brother has the same sense of humor I do by insisting that this was the proper way to get the achievement)

This is the same kind of dark humor that made me willingly spend money on a movie ticket to see Inglorious Basterds in theaters a second time. I enjoy it, frankly, when any form of media fully acknowledges that beyond political correctness, most people will still find that kind of thing funny. In fact, that movie was very aware of itself. The main point of the movie, as I understood it, is that however heroic we like to paint ourselves, Americans like violence...and then it proved it by making us laugh like loons as American soldiers shot so many bullets into Hitler that his face was reduced to bloody confetti.

So we return to the hog-tie-to-a-rail achievement. Would I think it funny if it happened in real life? Of course not. Would I be equally horrified if, in real life, this happened to an American banker as if it happened to a Mexican prostitute? Yes.

However, as a cowboy outlaw in the west, in a game that attempts to push all of the western cliche buttons down to hunting bears, robbing banks, getting wasted in saloons complete with swinging doors, and hog-tying people, I appreciate that you have the opportunity to grab a wench from a corner in Mexico and tie her to the rails like an old school villain. It tickles me in the way that it tickles me when super-hero stories go back to their roots and blame everything on the communists.

(Someday, I will post here the panel in the original Fantastic Four origin story where Ben Grimm's reasonable objection that they know nothing of the effects of gamma radiation is completely trumped by the counter argument that if they don't immediately go into space in their home-made space shuttle now the COMMUNISTS might get there first.)

So, yes, I enjoy the horribly politically-incorrect Red Dead Redemption. It suits its environment to the ground and has a kind of self-aware humor that makes me laugh.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the most politically "ok" killing spree in the history of ever in the game "Call of Duty".

The game series itself, as far as I can tell, just pits you against whichever nations the war in question involves. WWII you get Japanese, German, American etc. Vietnam you get Vietnamese, American and hilarious peace-sign spray paint on every bullet sprayed wall. Each nationality has a hilariously, and obviously American-produced, cliche accent and set of ten stereotypical phrases. The Brits all sound like Imperialists with Pith helmets and talk about tea. The Russians talk about the motherland and sound like Boris and Natasha.

This, in its own way, is hilarious and could say any number of things about our standards as a nation but mostly just speaks to the geniuses in the video game industry and how well they know their target audience of foul-mouthed thirteen year olds.

The most interesting portion of the games, however, is the side game my brother simply calls "nazi zombies".

In this game, the conglomerate of international stereotypes put aside their otherwise insurmountable differences to obliterate the one villain nobody could possibly regret killing.

Nazis have been the politically correct villains since Nuremberg. It is one of the few times in warfare where the "other" side did something so heinously evil that we can attack them without much objection from our fellow man. However, the problem with nazi soldiers as 100% approved bad guy is that they are, in fact, humans. It doesn't take more than a few seconds of logic to realize that not all nazis were involved with the concentration camps. Particularly enlightened individuals may even notice that it wouldn't be completely outside the realm of possibility for some soldiers to simply be enlisted men, with no more xenophobia than your average guy, who just want to defend their country.

Zombies, similarly, are the equivalent villain of the supernatural world. While teenage girls happily slip into the murky waters of necrophilia and bestiality by lusting after vampires and werewolves, respectively...zombies are just mindless killing machines that nobody will object to you mowing down with a chainsaw, machine gun, flame thrower, cricket bat or whatever your weapon of choice is. We are willing, as a fantasy-consuming populace, to attribute moral grey area and sympathetic backstory to any number of classic horror monsters. We haven't done so with zombies since Frankenstein fell to the mob.

So when you take nazi soldiers, resurrect them through whatever scientific or dark magic means necessary, and make them into undead, you remove any regret you could have had from killing either a living creature or a horribly misunderstood product of mad science.

A nazi is still a human being. If you unload a machine gun in one, you are directly responsible for the death of a fellow man.

A resurrected man may still contain remnants of its previous life in his reanimated heart. Shaun of the Dead chained his best undead friend in the shed and played video games with him.

A zombie nazi is an undead threat to your existence: in life it was part of the group that committed mass genocide, in death it is a flesh-eating shambling monster.

So thank you, Call of Duty. Unsatisfied with the moral ambiguity of killing zombies, (in case a Zombie-rights activist group protests,) or upsetting any neo-nazis (by claiming that the holocaust happened and that it was bad), you created the perfect villain.

A face not even a mother could love - she'd ok you shooting it too.

(Morality aside, if one of those zombies attacks you, you will shoot on reflex. The zombies in this game are fast. You barely have time to register that it is, in fact, trying to kill you before you are hitting that "shoot" button as many times as you can in blind panic.)