Regression

In the last few days, I have been working to finalize the details of my Tinselfly story. For the most part, it’s going well. I have many more concrete plans for scenes and puzzles and environments than I had before, and am generally feeling good about the story as a whole.

However, I’m having trouble with the beginning. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense, thematically.

* * *

In programming, a regression issue is where you update one part of your program, only to find out that your update broke something that was working previously.

It happens all the time, sadly. Most recently, an attempt I made to streamline the object interaction UI resulted in a broken action menu on certain objects.

Tinselfly’s story has some regression issues.

* * *

In an old version of the story, space-dwelling aliens lay eggs in the main star in humanity’s civilization. When the eggs hatch centuries later, the star collapses, giving up all its energy to millions upon millions of baby aliens who will live thousands of years each, growing up to build planet-sized megastructures humans could only dream of. To the aliens, humans are little more than bugs in a nest. The humans flee to another star system upon realizing what’s going to happen, and everything the humans built is lost.

At least, I think that’s how it went; that version of the story is well over a decade old.

The artwork I produced during this period was all meant to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and fragility and profound loss.

The player would start in the ruins of the old world, picking up some items of personal significance before the story proper–told in flashback–started.

The story changed, but the designs remained the same, and I was still planning on starting the player in floating ruins.

I just forgot why I was doing it.

* * *

Spoiler alert: human civilization isn’t demolished in the new story. It’s just not that bleak anymore. Sure, there’s a little bit of destruction. But it’s not exactly on a huge scale.

In many ways this is a good thing, which is probably why I changed the story in the first place: damaging something small of great personal significance to the protagonist will be far more affecting than obliterating whole planets.

So… I think I can keep the ruins. I think, thematically, it can still work and set the mood; there’s still a theme of loss going on here–a sort of loss of innocence, expressed via the loss of just a handful of structures in this world.

I think I just need to be more specific about what specifically is getting reduced to ruins here.

Thoughts on Star Trek: Discovery

I like Star Trek: Discovery.

But… I don’t love it. I really want to love it.

As with many other pieces of entertainment I’ve consumed lately, it’s taking real work to engage with the show on its own terms. Specifically, I’m having trouble with the long-format storytelling. I want my TV episodes to end. That doesn’t mean I only want happy endings and simplistic morals and the bridge crew telling jokes before the credits roll. It means I want each episode to feel like a story, not a sequence of events with no beginning or end.

My wife and niece have been watching some of the early-ish seasons of Supernatural and I’m really impressed with how many of those episodes feel like self-contained monster-of-the-week stories with emotionally satisfying endings, and move the whole-season arc along.

But.. I don’t get the impression Discovery is going for that approach. Most episodes just feel like… chapters in a book.

Which is ok I suppose, if the season as a whole ends up being a satisfying story when viewed as a whole. I’ve never felt like a whole-season-story arc was any more satisfying or interesting than my favorite self-contained tv episodes (A Series of Unfortunate Events and the one season of American Horror Story came close)… but I’m willing to entertain the possibility that if any show is going to sell me on long-form storytelling, it’s going to be Star Trek.

Structured Dialogue

Chances are, I will not be writing the dialogue for Tinselfly, or any of my other games, for that matter. My wife, dialogue-writer-extraordinaire, will be fielding that.

Still, I think it behooves me to learn about dialogue writing, if only to figure out what I’d want, ideally. And I think what I want is dialogue like this one Doctor Who scene.

CLARA

So you actually live up here, on a cloud, in a box?

DOCTOR

I have done for a long time now.

CLARA

Blimey! You really know how to sulk, don’t you?

DOCTOR

I’m not sulking.

CLARA

You live in a box.

DOCTOR

That’s no more a box than you are a governess.

CLARA

Oh, spoken like a man! You know, you’re the same as all the rest: “Sweet little Clara, works at the Rose and Crown, ideas above their station”. Well, for your information, I’m not sweet on the inside, and I’m certainly not —

Clara walks into the Tardis and the Doctor turns the lights on.

CLARA

— little.

DOCTOR

It’s called the Tardis. It can travel anywhere in time and space. And it’s mine.

CLARA

It’s… look at it…

DOCTOR

Go on, say it. Most people do.

Clara runs around the outside of the Tardis.

CLARA

It’s smaller on the outside.

DOCTOR

Okay. That is a first.

CLARA

Is it magic? Is it a machine?

DOCTOR

It’s a ship.

CLARA

A ship?

DOCTOR

Best ship in the universe.

CLARA

Is there a kitchen?

DOCTOR

Another first.

CLARA

I don’t know why I asked that; it’s just… I like making souffles.

DOCTOR

Souffles?

CLARA

Why are you showing me all this?

DOCTOR

You followed me, remember? I didn’t invite you.

CLARA

You’re nearly a foot taller than I am. You could have reached the ladder without this. You took it for me. Why?

DOCTOR

I never know why. I only know who.

CLARA

What is this?

DOCTOR

Me. Giving in.

CLARA

I don’t know why I’m crying.

DOCTOR

I do. Remember this. Remember this, right now, all of it. Because this is the day. This is the day! This is the day everything begins!

So if I want dialogue like this, I need to tear it apart and figure out what makes it tick.

Structure

The most obvious thing is… there is nothing naturalistic about it. It’s very carefully paced and structured, and it’s as much about the repetition of certain words and phrases as it is about the meaning of the words themselves.

In songs and poetry, we talk about rhyming schemes and structures, like, this song has an ABABCB structure where A is the verse, B is the chorus, and C is a bridge.

  • Consider the first six lines: the words ‘box’ and ‘sulk’ form a sort of A-B-C-C-A-A structure: box-time-sulk-sulk-box-box.
  • The exchange from Okay, that is a first to another first is also highly structured and repetitive: first is of course used twice, ship three times in rapid succession, and the Is it magic? Is it a machine?… It’s a ship bit is almost like It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Superman! in its rhythm.

 

Double Meanings

  • When the Doctor says That’s no more a box than you are a governess, he’s pretty much explicity saying there’s more to Clara than she’s letting on, just as the Tardis is small on the outside and bigger on the inside.
  • Back to Clara saying I’m not sweet on the inside, and I’m certainly not little: the line is also as much about the Tardis as it is about Clara.
  • Previous watchers of the show will know when Clara says the word souffle, that single word is packed with meaning.

 

Odd Transitions / Subverting Expectations

Jumping from subject to subject keeps the audience on their toes.

  • When Clara walks in the Tardis, she doesn’t ask what’s going on. The dialogue just goes straight from Clara protesting I’m not sweet on the inside, and I’m certainly not little to the Doctor interjecting It’s called the Tardis. Makes the exchange punchier, I think. The what is this? question is implied.
  • Anyone familiar with Doctor Who will expect Clara to say it’s bigger on the inside, just as the Doctor himself expects her to say it. But instead, she flips that common phrase around to it’s smaller on the outside.
  • When Clara asks about the kitchen, it’s quite unexpected — but it’s doesn’t lead to a discussion of souffles. As soon as the Doctor realizes something is wrong, the conversation switches to Clara asking why she’s been led here.

 

Not Answering Questions

Questions are rarely answered directly.

  • The Doctor doesn’t say if there’s a kitchen.
  • Clara doesn’t respond when the Doctor questions her about souffles.
  • When Clara asks why are you showing me all this?, the Doctor turns the question back on Clara.
  • When Clara asks about the ladder, the Doctor answers a different question.
  • When Clara asks what the Doctor’s key is for, the Doctor responds by talking about himself.

 

Overall

Overall, I think I’d say that this style of dialogue is all about favoring thematic flow over conversational flow. Every unanswered question and every odd transition makes sense if you look at the themes of the answer in relation to the themes of the question. It’s like subtext? But it’s not about what the characters are thinking so much as the narrative intent.

Catch ’em All

I love sets of things. On some level, perhaps we all do.

When I was growing up, my family had those Time-Life book collections. 23 books talking about the history of flight. 20 books about different countries of the world. 20 volumes on astronomy. Every now and then, we would get a new book in one of these sets in the mail, and excitedly add the book to its collection. I remember scouring flea markets many weekends with my dad, trying to find the last few records in some Time-Life music collection we’d gotten used. Our set was incomplete.

This could not stand.

Sets are fun. Sometimes, it’s infuriatingly difficult to know when you’re done with something. You wonder if you’re definition of complete isn’t complete enough. You want to add one more thing. You worry that there might be something out there you need, something that you don’t know you don’t know exists. But with well-defined sets… you know what you’re missing. You know what to look for. Most importantly, you know when you’re done. And it’s just such a satisfying feeling to know that, finally, something of yours is complete. Finished. And you can move on with your life.

I have started thinking about game developments in terms of set collection.

* * *

My still-in-development Global Game Jam game is all about finding new ways to traverse a world that doesn’t make walking from place to place very easy. So my first job, as I saw it, was to design a complete set of power-ups that let you move in new ways. I will know if my set is complete if you ways ways to:

Move, laterally, farther than normal, across chasms.

Jump up higher than normal.

Fall down greater distances without dying.

Move through things you couldn’t move through before.

Walk on things that were once hazardous to touch.

Skirt around and below things that were once dangerous to approach.

In very general terms — if you think in terms of what axes you can move on and where hazards are in relation to you — there are a finite number of ways one can move around one’s environment. I will know I have a workable, complete set of player upgrades if my upgrades cover all of these movement cases. And once I have those upgrades designed, I will be able to move on — because at that point, I will be done. And while I may tweak my upgrades throughout the development of this game, I will feel confident knowing that the vast majority of my conceptual work is done. I finished my set.

* * *

My wife recently alerted me to a simple approach to figuring out what scenes you need in your story:

Write down every major character, setting and concept in your story, in a big circle:

Then connect all of them.

Every one of those lines is a possible scene.

Write a scene developing Rey and Kylo’s relationship.

Write something exploring what Finn thinks about this whole Force thing.

Write a scene showing how Poe and Finn meet.

Write scenes with each of the characters doing something interesting in or around Starkiller Base.

Once you have scenes for each of those lines, each of those relationships, you have a good start of a story. You have a complete set.

* * *

I am working on a board game where you wander around a fantasy world exploring fun and interesting locations. I’ve been having the hardest time figuring out what those locations should be. So I forced myself to think about it in terms of set collection.

I made a list of everything I wanted the players to be able to do in the game, in general: they should be able to find clues about the main plot somewhere. They should be able to buy and sell items somewhere. They should be able to heal up somewhere, and investigate suspicious characters somewhere.

I ended up with some 15 items: a complete set of things I wanted players to be able to do. Then I shuffled them and put them in groups of three. No matter what ended up in what group, my groups would represent a complete set. Each group would become one location. Some of them were… odd.

What kind of place would you go to heal up, sell your old gear, and get clues about the main plot?

I don’t know, but that sounds like a really interesting place.

* * *

I tend to express my design requirements in terms of feelings. I want my players to feel like they’re excitedly exploring a fantastic world. I want my players to feel nostalgia. I want my players to feel like they can fly.

This doesn’t really help me find the specifics I need to do real development work.

Expressing my requirements in terms of sets has been immensely helpful. I have a specific destination: a filled bucket. I know what I’ve done towards reaching that destination: what’s in my bucket. I know what I have left to do: the empty slots in the bucket.

The bucket is filled, or it isn’t. I’m done, or I’m not. I have real requirements with concrete, measurable criteria for completion.

And if it’s not measurable, it doesn’t exist.

I am not Robin

Of my lead character in Tinselfly, I have often said, well, she’s basically me.

And while that is still true in many ways, it’s time to start thinking about how she’s not me. It’s said that you can only understand things in opposition to other, similar things; in this case, I will gain a better understanding of my character by asking myself how she and I are different.

And as long as I’ve been defining the character as me, it’s been too easy to blithely ignore any criticism that I might not treating the character with respect, saying, or thinking, of course I understand her experience; her experience is my experience!

And that’s just not true.

It’s time to remove that safety net.

* * *

I thought it would be useful to express this as a handy-dandy Venn diagram:

Robin…

is somewhat physically active

is not afraid to get self, clothes dirty

likes dressing up on occasion

occasionally drinks

thinks about career (later in story)

might enjoy a discussion about which comic book character would win in a fight

doesn’t mind being called nerdy or geeky

self-identifies as a woman

went to public school

Both of us…

are shy and quiet

don’t use profanity

like soda pop

like sci-fi stories

grew up in small town where many people (including one parent) worked in air/space-craft type industry

spent lots of time stuck in air/space-ports

remain somewhat childlike well into adulthood

like fixing, creating things

like exploring new places

I…

like creature comforts

don’t like touching my food, much less getting dirty

go out of my way to wear plain clothes

can’t stand alcohol

think fandom is frequently obsessive and silly

find this whole idea of binary gender identification kind of weird

wore uniforms to middle/high school

don’t really have career goals

* * *

Well, that was fun.

So what does this get me?

Anything in the blue Robin-only section is stuff I’ll have to be extra-careful about. They range from behaviors I simply don’t engage in, to mindsets I find outright alien.

So, moving forward, what I should probably do here is start thinking, not about how Robin’s individual behaviors are different than mine but about Robin’s overall mindset and how it’s informing those behaviors.

As I type this, the following example comes to mind:

behaviors root cause
likes dressing up on occasion

is not afraid to get self, clothes dirty

Robin sees that there are times when looking nice is important, and other times when it doesn’t matter even slightly. This is a sharp contrast to myself; I want to be clean, but casual all of the time if I can help it, even if nobody is looking or cares, and even if the situation demands more formal attire.

So… from my point of view, the first two behaviors listed here seem contradictory at first glance, despite my gut feeling that both belonged in the list. But I know many people who exhibit those behaviors, and thinking about it some more, it makes perfect sense — one you get to the single root cause of those behaviors.

Similarly:

behaviors root cause
thinks about career

self-identifies as a woman

doesn’t mind being called nerdy or geeky

Robin has stronger concepts of social, gender and sexual identity than I do. She consciously sees herself as a member of a variety of groups and will work (consciously or not) to preserve her feeling of membership of said groups, and will, if only in a small way, conflate herself with the group as a whole.

Et cetera, et cetera.

Well, I think this has been a useful exercise. Looking forward to doing more of it, but hopefully you get the idea. 🙂

Test Driven Storytelling

At work-work, we’ve started experimenting with something called Test Driven Development.   It’s where you start a new program by writing some tests for it. Since your program proper hasn’t been written yet, your tests will fail.

After failing, you then write your program, and run your tests again. And hopefully some or all or the tests will pass. And you keep working on your program until all your tests pass.

It sounds a little backwards, and I wasn’t really sold on the whole idea at first, but it’s growing on me.

* * *

So I was gonna enter this co-op board game contest.

And then I didn’t.

I could write up a whole postmortem, but mostly what it comes down to is, I chose not to devote a lot of time to this project.  I’m still going to work on the game design. It’s deeply flawed, but I think there’s potential here. In many ways, failing this first test has been a good way to start.

* * *

Video games are filled with tests. Boss battles especially are very test-like. After grinding for hours and hours, you’ll suddenly find yourself in a situation where you have to use all the new equipment you’ve gained and defeat a screen-filling monster in an intensely concentrated test of your skills as a player.

For Tinselfly, I want tests, but more character driven. You can’t progress if you don’t get the characters you’re playing. Their assorted emotional baggage, their strengths, what things make them totally freak out for no rational reason. The story won’t continue if it thinks you’ve missed some of it.

* * *

It’s getting harder and harder to avoid working on actual playable levels for Tinselfly. I’ve done lots of setup, written lots of outlines; the visuals so far are nice… but a decade into this, I still haven’t figured out the details of where to begin, with this whole character-and-story-through-game-mechanics thing.

But it occurs to me that the answer lies in Test Driven Development. In an odd sort of way, a great many conventional stories are test driven.

You start with a hero. The hero is presented with a test in one of the first scenes of the story, and they fail the test. The exact way the hero fails should tell you a lot about them as a person. And then the hero gains new skills, has various emotional epiphanies, improves as a person, and finally passes the test they were originally confronted with. Roll credits.

Lots and lots of action movies follow this sort of template.

So without knowing the details of my first level, I can write the test for it, and just make it up as I go along, which is nice because I hate planning this sort of stuff.  And then I can build the rest of the level around that test, making sure the player has ways to gain the items and area unlocks they need to complete the test, and I can keep iterating until the test is actually completable.

Larger Than Life

I’ve been working on my Hortensia model (a spaceship for Tinselfly), just roughing out the basic shapes for it. Here’s what it looks like from the front right now:

And from the back:

My main goals were to have it look absurdly fragile and have a sort of nautical feel, what with these sail-like structures and all, and I think this is finally getting there.

It’s a bit Tron-ish, but I’m ok with that; whatever I make, it’s going to be something-ish, and Tron-ish feels like a better fit for this story than Star Trek-ish, Star Wars-ish, or a realistic NASA-ish.

Besides nailing down the silhouette, I’ve also been trying to decide how big this thing is, and I’ve finally settled on that, too.

To give you a sense of the scale I picked, here’s an overlay of random things in comparison:

(The ‘me’ bit seems to have been completely obliterated by compression artifacts… you can click on the image to see a larger version.)

By any absolute measure, this is not a big ship. The distance from the front disc to the back of the rings is less than 100 meters. The main body isn’t so much bigger than the Mayflower.

I like that smallness. I like the idea that you could have the whole thing in frame, and see a character on deck or behind a window, and maybe even know which character you were looking at.

* * *

My lead character Robin is supposed to be in awe of the beauty and power of this thing. I could just scale it up; I could make it look big and massive and have it dwarf everything around it; I could make it comparable in size to popular fictional spaceships… but that sort of feels like a cheat. No matter what this ship looks like, Robin has to react to it in a way that expresses her feelings about it. And if I’m not communicating that in some sort of memorable, gameplay-driven way it’s sort of a lost cause anyway.

Here are some random ideas for doing that:

  • Robin occasionally glances back at the ship if it’s in view. (On its own, this isn’t really based on game mechanics, but imagine a scene where you’re talking to someone and keep glancing back at the ship and you fail to hear important information they’re trying to convey; the solution would be to talk to the character in a different location where the ship isn’t in view and distracting Robin.)
  • Robin can run a little faster towards the ship and a little slower when running away from it. (This could also be used to solve a puzzle of some sort.)
  • While near the ship, the camera rises really high, showing Robin dwarfed by the ship. Robin looks up constantly. From this point of view, Robin cannot interact with anything near her, that she needs to interact with; you need to literally get Robin back down to earth to continue.

That’s just a few ideas I thought of while writing this post. Hopefully you can have all sorts of little things that the player experiences, without words, without cutscenes, that tell you about this and other playable characters that don’t have anything to do with giving the player loads of verbal exposition.

Why I Liked Battleship More Than Star Trek

(Spoilers on both movies ahead.)

The other night, I saw the new Battleship movie. And, surprisingly enough, I kept comparing it to the latest Star Trek movie.

Star Trek was critically acclaimed. Battleship was universally panned. But they have lots of similarities:

  • We start with a protagonist who’s a bit of a screwball.
  • Said protagonist demonstrates his screwballness in a scene involving him in a bar trying to impress a girl he just met, and instead getting into trouble.
  • Protagonist gets a chewing out by someone in the military, is told that they have lots of wasted potential, and is urged to join the military.
  • Protagonist joins the military.
  • Protagonist develops a rival within the military, a person somewhat more by-the-book than himself.
  • Bad aliens attack. Good guys don’t fare so well.
  • Protagonist demonstrates his ability to command a ship in a pivotal scene involving his rival.
  • Good guys defeat aliens.

Now, admittedly, there’s a lot more to Star Trek than this possibly pedestrian screwball-does-good character arc, which has been done many times before. And the constraints that movie had to deal with, what with rebooting the franchise and all must have been crushing for anyone involved, But to the extent that I rather like pedestrian character arcs, and am going to focus on that aspect of any movie that has one, I kinda liked Battleship better than Star Trek.

exposition

Let’s start with the screwball. Star Trek’s Kirk gets in a bar fight while hitting on a girl who’d just as soon be left alone. There are nice moments, but it’s not that memorable a scene.

In contrast, Battleship’s Hopper is introduced in one of the funniest scenes in a movie I’ve seen in a while. Here, he girl wants something: a chicken burrito. The bar’s not serving food anymore, so our protagonist, in a desperate attempt to be helpful, runs to the nearest quickie mart to get a burrito. The mart is closed, so he breaks in, warms up a burrito, leaves some money on the counter, makes a huge mess of the place, gets chased by cops and gets tased just after delivering said burrito, falling unconscious at the feet of the girl he’s trying to impress.

It’s absurd, it’s funny, it’s memorable, and it’s strangely endearing. I’d go so far as to say it’s the best introduction of a screwball character I’ve seen.

the set-up

The next few scenes have one of those things where an unfortunate chain of events forces our unprepared, screwball hero into a situation where he suddenly has to prove his worth as a leader.

The captain of Kirk’s ship has to go do some super-dangerous stuff, leaves Kirk’s rival in command, and much to everybody’s surprise, makes Kirk the new second in command.

In contrast, in Battleship, the entire command staff of Hopper’s ship is killed, leaving Hopper as the senior ranking officer. Structurally, I like this set-up a little better. Hopper is completely blindsided by this. He goes from zero to captain in a single scene. We’re shown Hopper’s lack of fitness as a leader because he’s a really bad captain at first. He doesn’t have the trust of his crew at all, but he’s still captain and has to figure out what to do.

Kirk, as second in command, has to prove he’s better than his rival before he can take command and actually make command decisions. We don’t necessarily get a great sense of how exactly Kirk’s loose-cannon-ness might make him a bad captain and why nobody trusts him.

baggage

Both Hopper and Kirk have relatives in the military who die in combat early in the film, and Hopper and Kirk want to live up to these shining examples of military officers.

Kirk’s baggage is his father, who died saving a just-being-born Kirk. It’s noble and all, but you can’t really say Kirk and his father had an interesting relationship.

Hopper’s baggage is his brother, who he lived with well into adulthood, and who he works with in the Navy. We see them talking; we see Hopper’s brother trying to take care of him; we see the brother’s disappointment when things go badly. That relationship is the core of the first few scenes of the movie.

pay off

So finally we have our scene where our hero rises to the occasion and becomes the leader he needs to be, for the world to be saved.

Kirk does it by tearing down his rival. By proving that his rival, the current captain, is emotionally unfit for command.

A rival whose entire home planet just got swallowed by a black hole.

I find that pay off more than a little anticlimactic. If your home planet just got erased form existence, you might be a bad captain for a while, too.

In Battleship, Hopper proves his fitness by temporarily letting his rival run the ship, because his rival has come up with a brilliant plan for defeating the aliens. Hopper proves his fitness by acknowledging that command isn’t about doing everything yourself; it’s about  understanding the strengths of your crew and managing them well.

On an emotional level, I actually found this surprisingly satisfying. That arc really worked for me.

set piece

On a completely non-character-driven level, I liked the action scenes in Battleship more than Star Trek too. Being based on a board game, everything’s a bit more, shall we say, rules heavy. And I think any good set piece should have rules. Some people might groan at Hopper’s rival’s plan to chart the course of the aliens on a giant grid with letters on one axis and numbers on the other, but I rather liked that. It was better than watching starships flying at each other with guns blazing. There’s no structure to that.

And I rather like silly, overly abstract structures overlaid on my movies, whether you’re talking about set pieces or character development.

Mass Appeal

A while ago, I downloaded this app that lets me see how much time I’m spending playing games. I seem to get about an hour or two a week in. The most I’ve spent with any one game is Star Trek Online; I’ve played it for a total of 25 hours over the last 2 years.

Those felt like pretty big numbers to me. I showed the stats to my wife, and she was appalled that I’d given a full day of my life to this one game.

I showed those numbers to some people in the local game dev group, and later on to some other friends, and they were appalled at how low those numbers were.

It’s becoming quite clear that I don’t really have a grasp of how people who are really into this stuff engage with it.

* * *

So I started playing Mass Effect. As with most big, popular video games, I wouldn’t necessarily say I like it. But the act of playing and trying to figure out what it’s trying to do, who it’s trying to appeal to… that, I find fascinating.

It seems a lot of it is about world building. I’m really, really not at all into world building normally. Whenever people start gushing about the richness of this or that built world, it actually makes me angry. I feel like it’s a waste of time, concentrating on emotionally inert minutiae that has no real value outside the context of a narrative.

But if I’m playing this game to figure out the mindset of its target audience, a big part of that is figuring out the appeal of world building, really figuring it out without being dismissive of it.

* * *

So what is this whole world building thing about, anyway? Here are some guesses:

  • Historical context. Can add more layers of meaning to dialogue and events.
  • Suggesting unwritten scenes. I’m a big fan of this in general. Suggesting an unwritten scene can be used to gloss over something that would be boring if you actually saw it; it can create comedic how-did-they-get-here moments, or efficiently hint at where a relationship has been going. I can see something here where the more world you’ve got, the more you can suggest using the costume, iconography, etc of your world.
  • Sandbox. Fantasy/sci-fi worlds frequently exist just so the author can explore a what-if sort of scenario, and I suppose a good, robust world will also invite the audience to pose what-ifs of their own. At its worst, this can descend into self-indulgent wallowing in one’s favorite bits of a fantasy world, but I’ll admit there is real value in encouraging people to explore these kinds of things.
  • Suspension of disbelief. Some people will just get annoyed if you present them with an artificial feeling world. I don’t want to pander to those people just to get them to buy my stuff… but to look at it another way: while I’m not going to be taken out of a mass-market period movie because the costuming is inaccurate, many people will, and saying that it’s ok to be lazy about costume research because the masses as a whole aren’t that picky is making your work more insular, not less.

* * *

It has always been my intention to make Tinselfly appealing to people who didn’t normally play games, or only played casual stuff. But it occurred to me the other day that the last thing I want to do is be too opinionated about what sort of audience I want to reach.

It’s about depth. Being appealing to a casual audience shouldn’t be about finding that lowest-common-denominator, simplistic presentation of Stuff That Common People Like.

I think it should be more about the union, rather than the intersection, of appealing things. It’s about having most everything that’s appealing about your product in most every scene, but also letting those things stand on their own and shine once in a while.

So if you’ve got one person who’s just into the visuals (say, me 😉 ) and one person who’s just into the snappy dialogue (totally not me), you’ve got a good chance of getting both of those people. But that’s not the important part. The important thing is that any audience member has a variety of things to latch onto at any given moment, and can experience the work on multiple levels simultaneously, if they so desire.

* * *

This new, vignette-filled structure I’ve hit upon for Tinselfly opens up some opportunities for world-building. I was gonna pepper my main plot with these little, tangential, fairy-tale style stories set in little fairy-tale style universes, but I could just as easily package these up as little bits of history, set a hundred or a thousand years before the story proper.

If there’s an organic opportunity to give world-building fans something to play with, I should probably do it.  I would do well to go ahead and put real effort into those dimensions  of my product that I’m not the biggest fan of, like the dialogue and the world building; as long as it doesn’t interfere with the visuals and the story structure that I want, it can only make this better.

All the City’s a Stage

Apparently, there’s this YA, vampirey series of books set in a prep school in my childhood home town of Tulsa — not the prep school I went to, mind you, but a big rival of ours; and much of the action in the books takes place in places I’ve been. I’m tempted to give it a shot. I vaguely remember getting a kick out of Dragons of the Cuyahoga because it’s set in my current home of Cleveland; it’s kind of a different way of engaging with ficton.

* * *

Saw The Avengers last night. Much of it was filmed in Cleveland, though Cleveland is standing in for New York City and, in one scene, some place in Germany. I was afraid that would be kind of distracting, but it wasn’t, really; most of the time, everything’s going by so fast you could really be anywhere.

There’s one part, though — no spoilers, just talking about locations here — where they’re outside in this square downtown, and all these dressy people are happily walking on red carpets going into this shopping center/skyscraper I know as Tower City… and when they switch to an interior shot, it’s not Tower City, it’s some gallery. (Marie and I were thinking it might be the Cleveland Museum of Art, but we can’t confirm that.)

I found that kind of fascinating, because I didn’t find it at all jarring. It just kind of made sense.

Also, there’s this exterior shot looking up at the skyscraper part of Tower City, and it just works so well because of the way that place is lit with ominous red lights even when they’re not filming movies there.

There was another shot of a random street with some scaffolding over a sidewalk, and some Lion King and other Broadway posters on the wall behind the scaffolding, and nothing said New York City to me like that little section of street. That could have been any street in Cleveland I guess; just make it look like it’s under construction and add a zillion musical ads and boom, it’s New York. That sold me on the location better than the aerial shots, better than the view of the Chrysler building outside of someone’s office. Probably because that’s a view of New York City I’ve actually seen myself. It’s interesting, the details you latch onto. I don’t really think of the skyscrapers when I think of Manhattan.

Marie has this one football friend who was in the background of a scene, playing a random scientist. I didn’t see her, but I found myself paying a lot of attention to the extras, thinking about those here in Cleveland who were lucky enough to be a part of this and see how this all gets put together and meet the stars of the movie.

It’s funny, the last movie we saw was The Cabin in the Woods, also written by Joss Whedon, also starring Chris Hemsworth… and that, plus the enthusiastic midnight showing audience, plus it being in Cleveland, plus Marie’s friend who I’ve given water to on the football field, all that kind of added up to this unique way of engaging with the movie, like you’re watching a school play put on by a bunch of people you know already in other contexts. And it’s comforting and familiar and you’re not just there to consume something made by some faceless studio; you’re there to be supportive and see how it turned out and it’s a strangely personal thing at that point.

I like that. I like a big dose of artificiality with my fiction, and I kind of like the idea of being aware of the craft of the movie while watching it, just so long as that awareness doesn’t break you out of the story being told.

In an odd sort of way, the occasional familiar Cleveland building made it easier to imagine that this was all happening right here; it made it more immediate — not less.