Category Archives: Storytelling

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.

Hitchhiker’s, Part 2: Chaos

I’m going to have to talk about reading-the-process and reading-this-book together this time, since I was a bit lost.

As before, spoilers ahead.

* * *

So… they actually have a cataclysmic, it-came-from-outer-space world destruction thing going on here. I really wasn’t sure that was going to happen.

And it’s all, omg omg drink this muscle-relaxant! There’s some random drunkard! There’s some random girlfriend, though I don’t know if she’s the girlfriend of previous random drunkard, but it doesn’t matter, because there are things in space! There are random people on the ground looking at the things in space! And there’s… a towel? A whole page about the importance of towels and earlier, a bit about why this-galactic-travel-guide is better than that-galactic-encyclopedia?

I had a bit of trouble following all that.

But maybe that’s ok, because the world is blowing up and if the author’s intent is to convey that chaos by giving me information overload, then he certainly succeeded. So while I’m a little stressy about not being up to the task of processing all that, I’m not too worried about it.

My favorite lines:

“Energize the demolition beams.”

Light poured out into the hatchways.

”I don’t know,” said the voice on the PA, ”apathetic bloody planet, I’ve no sympathy at all.” It cut off.

There was a terrible ghastly silence.
There was a terrible ghastly noise.
There was a terrible ghastly silence.

The Vogon Constructor fleet coasted away into the inky starry void. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, I love writing that consciously uses repetition and rhythm to convey ideas — writing that, while made of words of course, is meant to be read in a way that is not strictly about verbal comprehension.

In addition to seeing the world destroyed, Ive met Zaphod Beeblebrox, been introduced to the Heart of Gold, and got a bit about fish who translate things. It’s all stuff that seems vaguely familiar, but that vague familiarity with some of these names and concepts somehow manages to be not at all distracting. It’s like… you’re watching a Clint Eastwood movie, and you know full well what kinds of characters Clint Eastwood is wont to play, but that doesn’t mean you know what he’s going to do, right here, in this particular movie.

Looking forward to hearing what the Vogons have to say in the next chapter.

Isolating Werewolves

My wife, brother and I have been watching both the UK and US versions of Being Human, shows about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing an apartment, just trying to lead normal lives. I love comparing the two shows, though I’m not interested so much in the US/UK cultural differences… and while it’s interesting that, stylistically, the two shows are very different, I’m not that interested in analyzing that, either.

Which I find fascinating about this is when the shows are almost exactly the same — but not quite.

For example, we recently watched episodes where, in both versions of the show:

  1. Werewolf #1 befriends a fellow, more experienced Werewolf #2, who tries to teach him how to manage this whole werewolf thing.
  2. Werewolf #1 is insulted by a Nurse in the hospital where he works.
  3. Werewolves #1 and #2 go to a bar, and Werewolf #2 shows Werewolf #1 how he can use his magic powers of werewolfishness to get a date with the waitress.
  4.  Werewolf #1 bumps into Nurse again. She tries to apologize, and Werewolf #1 makes an embarrasingly awful attempt to seduce her, which completely fails.

There are some major changes in the feel of plot point #3 in the US and UK versions; the former has Werewolf #2 coming off totally creepy, and the latter’s werewolf comes off more believably attractive. But I was most intrigued by plot point #4.

The only real difference between versions is the presence of Werewolf #2 in the scene. In the UK version, he’s there with Werewolf #1 and Nurse, goading Werewolf #1 on through a seduction attempt that Werewolf #1 doesn’t really want to commit to. Werewolf #2 doesn’t say much at all; his mere presence is causing some peer pressure.

In the US version, Werewolf #2 isn’t in this scene at all. Werewolf #1 takes it upon himself to try out the magical seduction thing on Nurse, and it completely changes the dynamic of the scene. We see Werewolf #1’s actions as bad handling of his relationship with Nurse, instead of seeing it in terms of  trying to impress his new werewolf mentor. We see how Werewolf #1 is already starting to internalize Werewolf #2’s teachings, instead of getting dragged through his education.

I like how in the US version, Werewolf #1 owns his own failure. I think it made his story more interesting.

It’s a small difference, but it changes a lot. And that’s why I like watching both versions of this show simultaneously. It’s like you’re getting to isolate your variables in a controlled experiment, and you’re going to learn the most from such experiments when the isolation is clean. It’s a great way to learn about writing.