Telltale and Choice

Telltale and Choice

Last month out of seemingly nowhere, Telltale games announced that they were shutting down. Like many gamers I was stunned. While far from its height of relevance after releasing the amazing Walking Dead Season 1, the studio was still working with some of the biggest properties out there: Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman. They had also inked a deal with Netflix to make a Stranger Things game. They seemed to have carved out their own niche in the industry, a bridge between TV and video games.

The internet has been a buzz of blame and think pieces on the closure. Polygon’s Ben Kuchera has a well-researched, scathing take-down where he levels the blame at the company’s technology, stale game design and poor working conditions. The working conditions argument is Kuchera’s strongest. It’s depressing to see that Telltale suffered crunches and poor management. But some of Kuchera points, while well argued, feel overly harsh.

Telltale’s engine did feel wobbly, creating stiff character animations and bugs, but Bethesda has been using a version of the same janky engine since Morrowood and people still eat up their games. And I’ve yet to bump into a video game where character animations make it all the way through the uncanny valley. Even the Witcher 3, a god damn masterpiece and my favorite game of all time, has some awkward animations and character model. Any game that’s going to be as story focused as Telltales is going to have issues.

Kuchera’s game design argument is even harsher and I feel like it ignores a depressing truth. Telling stories in video games is hard, making storytelling the sole focus of your game is even harder. And to be fair to Telltale they did try. I played three Telltale games, The Walking Dead Season 1, Tales of Borderlands, and Batman Seasons 1 and 2. And did all three games have a similar vibe? Sure. Where they as Kuchera claims, cookie cutter knocks of the Walking Dead Season 1 with choices and twists I saw coming miles away, no, not at all.

The Walking Dead Season 1 was bleak, shocking and touching. Tales of Borderlands was far better than it had any right to be, hilarious and surprisingly emotional. I would have been happy if the Borderlands series dropped the main games and continued as a Telltale series. Telltale’s Batman did some of the best reinterpretation and deconstruction on comics most reinterpreted and deconstructed character (even wrote a post about the first season). To say the games were all boring, retreads is just unfair.

If Kuchera’s argument is less that the games themselves were all cookie cutter and more that Telltale’s choice system often felt the same regardless of the game you were playing, that I can see. Looking back, I only remember a handful of choices I made in any of the series and very few of the choices changed the outcome to a season. But choice in Telltale game wasn’t about changing the story.

In the moment, while playing a Telltale game, choices felt important. They spiked the drama, gave weight to the scene and helped immerse me in the story. Deciding whether or not to cut Clementine’s hair didn’t save anyone, but it helped establish a bond between Clementine and Lee. Choice was a mechanic, an action to help tell the story rather than a means to change it.

The more impact a studio gives to particular choice means the more work they have to do. A big enough divergence would mean creating two or more wholly different stories, different games even, that might sound exciting, but that means that most players will only experience half of the work a studio puts in. And the more changes you have and the more radical you let those changes be, the less control you have over your story and characters. You might easily end up with some very unsatisfying narratives.

From Mass Effect on, we’ve debated the naked ‘choices’ we bump into in narrative heavy games. Players try to weigh the value of them, becoming upset if they realize their ‘choices don’t matter’. But in truth these choices, never matter. Sure, they might mean that one character lives while another dies, or that you get a good ending as opposed to a bad. At best they are divergent points in the narrative, giving a slightly different journey, but one that will eventually lead to the same end. The player is like a switch operator at a station deciding which ‘track’ the train will go down, but there’s only ever so many tracks.

What Telltale understood best was that choice isn’t about how the story reacts to the player, so much as how the player reacts to the story. Choices often effected dialogue and a particular scene rather than the aggregated season. You choose to be cruel or kind, serious or brooding and other reacted. Your choice was the emotion, not the outcome. You were engaging with the narrative and not deciding it. Telltale was far from perfect, but I’ll miss them and their use of choice.

The Importance of Journaling

The Importance of Journaling

Over the weekend I hung out with a friend who wants to write a play. She asked for writing suggestions. I told her to start a journal.

Journaling is the most important thing that any writer or anyone who wants to start writing can do. I’ve been writing short stories and novels since I was twelve, but I didn’t consider myself a writer until after college when I started a journal. Thanks that journal I write every day. I’ve improved in all elements of my writing and have six hundred-page novels to share.

For most people journal writing conjures up images of mole skin notebooks with dear diary written in looping cursive, but that’s not exactly, what I mean. When I say journal, I mean a space, be it a word processor or notebook, where you sit down for at least twenty minutes and write. It doesn’t matter what you write in that space, it just matters that you do it and do it every day.

Writing, like exercising or learning a musical instrument, is hard. It requires practice and that’s what the journal is, your practice. You have to force yourself to do it, especially when you’re first starting. After a long day of work, you’re not going to want to do anything, even write, same is true if you get up at five am and try to squeeze in a writing secession before work. You have to make it a habit.

I write at least a paragraph in my journal every day before I start a writing secession. It’s how I limber up my creative muscles. My journal is freeing, I write whatever I want. I don’t care about quality or the mistakes I make. I write as fast as the thoughts come to me and I write down all my thoughts, no matter how bad, or lazy or mean they are. Most of my thoughts are just boring. 90% of my journals start with the phrase, ‘I’m tired and I don’t want to write.’

When I journal I don’t tend to write fiction. Instead, it’s more like a compressed dairy. I’ll write a summary of my day or talk about something that’s bothering me. I use the journal to plan a lot: review goals and progress. I will talk about writing ideas I have as well as what I liked or didn’t like about the book I’m reading or game I’m playing. It’s a lot like a less polished, more personal version of this blog.

My journal is also home to some of my best writing, entries that I love stumbling over again and remind me that I can actually do this thing! But it’s also home to my absolute worse writing, a reminder that I need to stay sharp and edit. Because I have horrible penmanship and spelling, I keep my journal in google docs which makes revisiting old entries easy. I can trace my progression as a writer, as well as other goals, see where I’ve succeeded or fallen behind.

There are also wellness benefits to keeping a journal, so many in fact that even if I didn’t want to be a novelist I would still journal. It let’s me slow down and organize my thoughts. I can dissect what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that way. It also helps me vent. I can write my roommate a nasty letter without ruining our friendship or formulate what I’m going to say at my next work review. I always feel better after I journal, even if I write nonsense or something I wouldn’t say out loud.

Journaling alone won’t write your novel or script, but it gives you tools you need to accomplish those dream projects. It teaches you about your own writing, about setting habits and enhances your critical thinking. It also does the important work of letting you know yourself better. Journaling doesn’t just improve your writing, it improves you too.

A Novel Process

A Novel Process

I started this blog writing about being a failed novelist,( Here.) And I’m proud to say that I’m still very much one. I’m currently working on my next possibly failed project ‘Ghets’ and thought it might be insightful, or at least interesting, to talk a little bit about my novel writing process.

I just got done with my rough draft of Ghets. It took me almost fifteen months from February 15th 2016-April 8th 2017 and clocks in at 162,040 words. Fifteen months is a long time and novel drafts usually don’t take me so long. Dex’s four drafts were each about nine months, but Dex largely took place in the modern world and didn’t require much world building. Ghets takes place in its own world, so there were pauses to settle on cultures and creatures.

When I started writing, rough drafts like ‘Ghets’ were torture. I’d begin with energy and optimism. There’s a thrill in creating something new, like beginning a journey, you have no idea where you’re going. But that’s also its biggest challenge. I’d hit a stride and quickly make it through the first third of the story. But when it was time to shift from the first to the second act I would hit problems.

I would have forgotten to write a vital scene or would realize too late that the surprise I was setting up all first act wasn’t going to work. Like many creators, I suffered from perfectionism. I would go back and add those scenes or fix the surprise and that’s the exact opposite of what you should be doing.

Rough drafts are supposed to be rough. You’re there to throw down all your ideas about the story and keep going. You realize that you need an extra scene to explain something? Pretend you wrote it. You decide your villain should be someone else? He was never the villain, it was always the new guy. The subplot about opening a café isn’t working? Forget it, it didn’t happen, keep writing.

The idea is to run, to not let missed chapters or poor writing stop you. You’re going to be editing this thing for at least the next year you can worry about your mistakes then. Besides you might end up deleting half the story, or going in a completely new direction, don’t get attached. It’s hard a lesson to learn, but it’s vital one.

If you want to be good at anything, then you must first accept that you’re going to be bad at it. No one begins great and very few of us end up great. You must be willing to make mistakes and fail. Writing a rough draft is a great way to do that.

Think of rough drafts like a marathon, how quickly can you make it to the end, while still hitting all your story beats and getting out all the scenes you wanted? It takes grit, but with enough perseverance you’ll get it done. The real complicated stuff happens next.

After I complete the rough draft I reread it. It’s a painful process because now I’m being critical and looking for what doesn’t work. What characters are unnecessary, annoying or otherwise problematic? What scenes are confusing? Where do I lost the thread? I try to nail down themes, figure out with the story is about. I also do my first outline at this point.

When I start a rough draft I have an idea of where I’m starting and where I’m ending. (Always know your endings!) But the parts in between are murky. Once the rough draft is done and I have those parts fleshed out I start to rearrange and evaluate them. Some writers are more orderly, with outlines from the start. But I don’t like things to be too neat going in. I want to surprise myself.

After the reread and outline is done I start the real work and rewrite. This is my new obstacle, were my perfectionism now shows itself. I want to do too much, add too many scenes or do too much editing. The second draft isn’t supposed to be perfect either. It’s just supposed to make your novel workable.

If you were to read ‘Ghets’ right now large portions of it wouldn’t make any sense. There’s a ton of locations or characters with place holders for names. There’s scenes and character arcs that get completely abandoned and one of the villains changes his name mid book. My second draft is meant to clean that gunk up so that someone who isn’t me can actually read the story and give their input.

A second draft shouldn’t be polished, just have the main plot and characters largely formed with as little chaff as possible. The idea is to invite other people to read and have them give big picture critiques. Point out if your plot has too many holes or what they think of your main character. The second draft should have the form of the story, but still some of that nebulousness rough draft in it. Your story might need a major edit, one you can’t see. If enough readers come to you and tell you they love the end of the book but it was slog to get there. You’re going to have a lot you’ll need to cut or change.

After I gather all those critiques I try to digest them. I target the parts that most people hated or found confusing because if just one person hates a story then ‘that’s just like your opinion man’, but if most people do, you’ve got some sort of problem on your hands. I do another reread, or two, chopping off as much as I can and then start draft three.

Draft three is much closer to the finished story. You’ve hopefully fixed most of your plot holes (you’ll never get them all) and have characters that all work and who you understand. Your story should be ‘readable’ at this point. I don’t mean that every sentence is polished and perfect, but that people can read and comprehend what you’re looking to be comprehended.

At this point I hit my beta-readers up for more insights and more granular critiques. After I have that it’s on to draft four which will hopefully be the draft I seek an agent or a publisher for. Even draft four won’t be the end. I’ll still be rereading and editing, chipping away at this or that until I publish it. Or I never stop pecking at it, and leave it to wither out of exhaustion, because art is never finished it’s only abandon.

Either way this has been my process for my last couple of projects. I’ve heard every novel is different and they feel that way. Every writer is different too, some people publish two novels in about the span it takes me to eek out one rough draft (it’s impressive). Regardless, expect to see more posts about Ghets in the future as well as a call for beta-readers in the next 6-9 months!

Why we Time Travel

*Warning Spoilers for ’11/22/63′, ‘Erased’ and ‘Steins;Gate’*

Time Travel is one of those sci-fi concepts that has become so ubiquitous it’s essentially its own genre at this point. There’s even three different time travel shows coming to TV next season (that I’m aware of). A comedy called ‘Making History’, an action series called ‘Timeless’ and an adaption of the crime, ‘fish out of water’ novel, and later movie, ‘Time after Time,’ which stars the father of time travel stories himself, H.G Wells.

So what’s the appeal? I mean time travel plots can be some of the most confusing science fiction out there. They have all these difficult rules and concepts like alternative dimensions, time phantoms, becoming your own grandfather, the list goes on. So why do we enjoy them so much that we need yet another adaptation of ‘Time after Time’? (wasn’t the excellent 1979 movie enough?)

Before I answer that let’s break down the genre of Time Travel a bit. Most time travel stories are not about well, time. Our concept of time is basic necessity of modern life. We wouldn’t have a global society if we didn’t agree on things like time zones and Greenwich mean time. Sure America can get away with measuring length and weight differently than most the rest of the world, but imagine if we did the same with time? No, everyone has to agree that a minute is sixty seconds or everything falls apart.

And yet Einstein has taught us that time is relative; things like gravity and distance radically change the speed at which time passes. A minute on a planet circling a black hole might be closer to a year on earth. That is mind blowing; I can barely grasp it. And most time travel stories don’t want to touch it. Instead what Time Travel stories are really interested in is causality. The idea that our actions matter and led to certain outcomes. Are things destined to be the way they are? Or could they have happened differently?

If you think about it there are essentially only two time travel plots (…well, maybe three, the third being whatever the hell is going on in ‘Dr. Who’). Each plot is a different answer to the question of causality. There’s the ‘alternative dimension’ story (‘Sound of Thunder’, ‘Back to the Future II’, etc) that says, ‘yes, things could have happened differently, here’s how:’. And the ‘Loop’ story (‘The Shinning Girls’, ‘Looper’,etc) that says ‘No, things were meant to be this way and there’s no changing it, and furthermore any attempt to change it is just going to make the that thing happen’. Most Time Travel stories are either one of those two, or more commonly these days a combination of both.

The ‘Loop’ story is particularly interesting because it’s wrestles with this idea of fate. It’s essentially a modern update on old ancient Greek tragedies like Oedipus. In the anime ‘Steins;Gate’ a group of eccentric college geeks discover a cache of time travel documents and use them to subtly change their current lives. Halfway through though it’s revealed that they ‘pushed’ themselves onto a different ‘timeline’ one where their friend Mayuri is destined to die. The main character Okabe travels back in time again and again to prevent Mayuri’s death only to cause it or change the location or prevent it for a matter of hours. Just as Oedipus is fated to kill his father and marry his mother, regardless of what action he takes or preexisting knowledge he possesses, Okabe is destined to watch his friend die.

Another recent example of this is the Hulu series ‘11/22/63’ based on the Stephen King book by the same name. In it James Franco’s character, Jake Epping, inherits a dinner that lets him travel back to 1960 for some reason. He also inherits a mission to prevent the assassination of JFK. In the series ‘Time pushes back’ against time travels; suggesting that time has some stock in making sure events happens a given way. It tries to dissuade Jake’s actions by creating obstacles and adversaries like throwing random cars at him or having a whiny manifestation of time moan at him ‘You shouldn’t be here’ . Whenever there’s a physical manifestation of time like that trying to prevent our heroes from time traveling, that’s a variation of the ‘loop’ story, a literal take on our struggle with fate.

In ‘11/22/63’ Jake ultimately must succumb to his loop which turns out has nothing to do with JFK. I won’t spoil it, but the loop is pretty mishandled, both an arbitrary plot point and key element at the same time. In fact ‘11/22/63’ is an example of how not to blend the loop and alternative dimension narratives. Jake never really wants to change the world, and in the end doesn’t, because the results of doing so are so horrible and because ‘time’ as a force always wins.

Acceptance like Jake’s is the most common way loop stories end. In ‘Steins;Gate’ Okabe escapes of his loop by putting back all the subtle changes he made to the timeline and thus accepting fate as it should be. But that’s not all he does. He also sacrifices himself, taking a stab wound for the girl he loves, so he could both perverse events and change the timeline (it works in context). This is the other more interesting way characters break the loop and achieve the ‘Alternative Dimension’, though noble sacrifice.

The Anime ‘Erased’ is all about changing fate through sacrifice. It’s also a great counter to ‘11/22/63’ because it deals with a lot the same themes. Like ‘11/22/63’ ‘Erased’s’ protagonist, Satoru Fujinuma, has the ability able to travel back in time for seemingly no reason. Also like ‘11/22/63’ ‘Erased’ is focused on accurately recreating a recent time period: in ‘Erased’ it’s 1980s Japan rather than 1960s America. Where ‘Erased’ diverges and improves on ‘11/22/63’ is intimate scope. ‘Erased’ is focused on only the life of it’s protagonist and not on changing history.

When we first meet Satoru in ‘Erased’ he’s a numb outcast who has difficulty connecting with people and is working as pizza deliveryman. His ability to time travel, known as ‘Revival’ is triggered only when something bad is about to happen and sends him back several minutes to prevent the event. However every time he acts, he pays a toll, like getting into a car accident while preventing a truck from hitting a little boy.

We find out that a series of child murders occurred in Satoru’s home town when he was a kid. It left him with a profound sense of guilt because he was the last person to see the first victim, a fellow classmate, alive. The consequences of these murders bleed into the present and Satoru breaks his ‘revival’ ability to send himself all the way back to middle school in the 80s, hoping to prevent the murders from ever happening

In the 80s Satoru sees his middle school life with the world weariness of adult. He notices problems that went over his head before, like the physical abuse of a quiet classmate and the sacrifices that his single mother made for him. Unlike Jake from ‘11/22/63’ Satoru has no road map for stopping the murders and is in the body of a middle schooler, so he’s unable to use force to prevent the crimes. Instead Satoru does his best to forage a community between the potential victims, hoping that if everyone stays together they won’t be isolated long enough for the murderer to act.

Satoru still finds himself stuck in loops, but through slowly trusting and revealing his insights to his childhood friends he creates connections that have ripple effects in the future. Furthermore middle school was the moment that Satoru’s social isolation began. He witnesses this trait in the little girl he’s trying to save and by befriending her he starts to change himself. By the end of the series Satoru still pays a terrible price for meddling with time, but one that he is now strong enough to survive and thrive after.

Ultimately that is what we seek with our time travel stories, the idea that our pasts our malleable. That we can change events and escape the ‘loops’ of fate we find in ourselves trapped in. ‘Erased’, like the best time travel stories though, show that it is not fate and the past that must be changed but ourselves. It takes years of sacrifice for Satoru to break his loop, but a better alternative world is waiting for him once he was does.

As Charles Yu points out in his beautiful novel ‘How to Live Safely in Science Fictional Universe’: “Everyone has a time machine. Everyone *is* a time machine. It’s just that most people’s time machines are broken. The strangest and hardest kind of time travel is the unaided kind. People get stuck, people get looped. People get trapped. But we are all time machines.”

 

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Image from abcnews.go.com

I’m writing this blog primarily to focus on storytelling; to dissect the mechanics different mediums and genres use to tell their stories. But before getting into that, let’s talk about why we tell stories in the first place. Yes, stories are fun, but they’re much more than the anecdotes you trade at parties or the plot to an entertaining film. They’re central to how we view the world. Take this election cycle for instance, you’ll often hear pundits discuss ‘controlling the narrative’, how our two political parties are fighting over which ‘story’ most Americans believe.

‘Narrative’ in politics is often presented as something other than fact; the ‘spinning’ of events to appear the way a politician wants them to vs the way they really are. But the truth is that everyone does this all the time in their own private lives. And I don’t mean actively ‘spin’ events your way, necessarily, but try to understand things through a narrative rather than facts.

I mean look back at own life, what do you see? Is it just a dry list of sense data, accumulated over a marked numbered of years? No, it’s a story. It has plots and characters and themes. There are days and nights you value more than others, like the night of your first kiss, or the day you received a cancer diagnose. You see these moments as defining you, as causing you to change your actions or values, as being different than the rest of your life.

And yet the most important day of your life had just as many hours as the least. And to an outside observer those two days could look identical. Even in the moment, a life defining event might have meant nothing to you. But when you looked back and organized your story, shaping the the events in your mind, you started to see the value and meaning within them.

This happens to us on a cultural scale too. Nations don’t just come into being by a bunch of people living on a land or moving to a new one. They rise up from epic origin stories, full of national heroes like Liu Bei or Aeneas or even George Washington. And beyond that there are creation myths found in every culture in human history, stories that tell us how the earth was made and why. We do this because we seek understanding and we find that within the narrative.

It’s the reason Jesus spoke in parables, and Plato wrote his philosophy down as series of dialogues. Stories are communication, the best way for humans to remember and process information. That’s not to say that facts and numbers aren’t important. Science and math definitely matter and should probably matter more. But fact is supposed to be like numbers, a hard immobile object that merely exist, having no value outside of context. The narrative is meant to be that context, to let us know what it all means.

But that’s not to say there aren’t inherent problems with processing information this way. As Stalin once pointed out: ‘The death of one man is tragedy, the death of millions, a statistic’ (and he definitely and killed enough people to know what he was talking about). We relate to the story of one person, while the lives of millions is too much for us to process.

And that’s not the only cognitive dissonance narratives cause. We often value two opposing stories as equal because they repeated from the same sources (looking at you global warming) and there’s also things like identity politics, were we hold onto a narrative because we believe it defines us even if it’s been proven inaccurate or damning, (Dinosaurs being taken out by ‘The biblical flood’, or the Southern fascination with the old confederacy are a couple examples)

So in the end does our narrative understanding of the world help us or hurt us? Well, probably neither, but it also doesn’t matter, because narratives are human. Stories are just how we understand and communicate and that’s not going to change. So when you understand how stories work, you start to understand how we work. And that’s true even of fun things like super hero origin stories or how video games use gameplay to convey themes, and I’m not just saying that so you’ll stick around for the next post.