So, I didn't expect to get very much response to my creative endeavors here, but someone pointed out that my comment settings made it impossible for anyone without a registered account to post comments. So that has been remedied...we'll see if it changes the post traffic.
Also, I apologize for any formatting issues - Blogger and I have a shaky relationship at best, and it seems to be fond of putting large gaps between paragraphs when I only want one space.
Anyone who knows more about these contraptions, feel free to point out any further tips. Darn kids and them Blag-o-whats-its.
Monday, May 9, 2011
Wellsprings of Inspiration
How Video Games Tell Stories
Books, movies, television shows, video games, board games, paintings, pictures, music, that quilt your grandmother knit for you that's still in the closet, almost everything that surrounds us is about telling a story. And, really, you can find inspiration in anything. I've seen into the lives of my characters while watching a softball game. While listening to music. Overhearing two people in conversation. You can find meaning in everything, and story is about meaning. However, I'm focusing on a particular area.
Aw yeah. Video games.
My gaming career began around 1992-1993, a young spratling of about 3 or 4 years. It was Sonic The Hedgehog, and while it didn't inspire me to do much other than run around in circles really fast, it was the start of what would be a brilliant gaming career.
The first real inspiration came from playing Chrono Cross, a masterpiece released in the late 90's. The story was a bit convoluted, but I was at a young enough age I wasn't paying that much attention anyway. It had 45 separate playable characters and multiple endings. You literally could not encounter and unlock every character by playing just once. You had to play it multiple times to fully experience it. Sadly, the copy I owned was flawed, with a scratch on the disc that prevented me from getting past a scene that you cannot bypass. So I never actually completed the game...though it remains one of my life goals to do so. However, it wasn't the characters that made the most impact. Even though, at one point in the game, one of your party gets injured, and you have to make the choice to brave a dangerous swamp to find her a cure or, you know,don't and go pursue the storyline on your own. This sense of having to make a choice in the story will come up later, so remember it.
Actually it was the music that inspired me the most. Chrono Cross has a wonderful score, and in particular the main theme, "Scars of Time". This is, simply put, my favorite piece of music. From pretty much anything. Ever. And I like music scores. I love the Dragonheart Theme, and if I can appreciate The Phantom Menace for anything it's one of my favorite Star Wars piece. But Scars of Time...when I hear that, I hear soul. I see epic battles illustrated in flashes of light, I feel how it must feel to soar above the clouds.
But I digress. Somewhere along the line I was introduced to Metal Gear Solid, which reigns supreme as High King of Convoluted Plotlines. I can't begin to explain the plot, but let me explain this: the main character, codename Solid Snake, is a genetic clone of a legendary super soldier, who throughout the course of the games repeatedly foils the plots set in motion by his other "genetic siblings", often involving the use of various bipedal nuclear-equipped mech known as "Metal Gear", for which the series is named. Nevermind that at one point you are lead to believe that the dismembered hand from his brother (Liquid Snake) has taken over the body of your ongoing nemesis, Revolver Ocelot, which is only possible because Ocelot's father is a spiritual medium. Oh, and Ocelot's mother is the mentor of the original Solid Snake of whom the main character is a clone of.
Oh, and there are cyber ninjas. Shit is crazy.
Incomprehensible story aside, the games actually have several plot lines that have continued to inspire me. In particular, the apparent antagonist in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is one of my favorite game characters to date. It would take too much space to get into the story, and it would be a disservice; you have to play it to understand. However, let me explain one moment. You are facing off against The Boss, the aptly named opponent you are struggling to face throughout the game. A former mentor turned traitor against her country, you are sent to kill the only woman Snake really loves. At the end of the final battle, she reveals all to you. Her sacrifice, and why she has done these things, and why you must end it here and now. She knows she is going to die. She knows you are going to kill her. It's all part of the mission, one far grander than you ever realized, and you have your part to play. Here's the kicker.
You have to pull the trigger.
In most games, climactic story-changing moments in the game are told through "cutscenes", moments where you no longer have any control over what happens. Here, you have to consciously take the action. After playing up to this point, I literally stared at the controller for at least three minutes, refusing to continue. Eventually I did, because I had to, but it made the echo of gunfire that much more real.
Let's take a step into another game, shall we? This franchise has quickly overtaken all others as my favorite game series of all time. For me, it is the epitome of what story-driven games should be. The series is called Mass Effect. A wonderful piece of science fiction, story-telling driven gameplay. You play the main character, "Commander Shephard", a soldier of your own design. You choose if you are male or female, one of various backstory options, and a few different gameplay choices. Throughout the game you encounter humans, aliens, robots. Soldier, citizens, and creatures with intelligence beyond mortal comprehension. Yet the game is steered largely by choices you make. Some seemingly inconsequential - you can bribe a shopowner to get a discount. Give a fanboy an autograph, or tell him to go jump out a window. Let a criminal live to see justice, or take justice into your own hands. You were making these choices, and each had meaning. Near the end of the game, I was facing off against the main adversary, Saren. He was corrupt, taken hostage by the insidious mechanisms of a being who could influence your thoughts. For most of the game Saren is hellbent on carrying out the wishes of the one commanding him. However, based on the choices I made, the things I said, I was able to get through to him. Leading up to one of the final boss fights, I showed him that he still has a chance to make a difference and to fight back. Saren took his gun, put it against his head, and fired. It bypassed the entire fight. Unable to fight the influence, Saren decided to try to make his final stand, by removing himself from its control. A final sacrifice.
I almost dropped my controller.
You may be asking, Why are you boring us with this? We weren't looking for a corporate sponsor. Hear me out, though. The reason these games are a source of inspiration to me is that video games, truly good games, succeed when they create experiences. That's how they inspire me. Experiences. Moments in a story. Video games have a unique advantage over other mediums. Unlike movies, a game can take between four to over 30 or more hours of gameplay to complete. You are not restricted to 112 minutes to meet the characters, connect with them emotionally, and understand their choices. Books, of course, can go even farther and more in-depth, but video games also have the appeal of being a visual medium. While there is something to be said for painting characters in your mind with a good book, but in a game they can present scenes and ideas that are simply more difficult to convey in writing. And, above all, in video games you have a choice that you simply don't with books or 'teevee' shows.
These choices are the defining moments when you realize a game steps over the threshold. When you have an emotional, personal reaction. In the sequel, Mass Effect 2, you are tasked with spearheading a suicide mission into enemy territory. You have to choose a squad leader to lead the second group while you lead the first. My choice was not made according to stats, or gameplay mechanics. Garrus was one of the characters from the first game, and the choices I made kept him by my side throughout the mission. I chose Garrus to lead them because I knowGarrus, the way a Browncoat knows Malcolm Reynolds, the way a Tolkien fan knows the hobbits. It's a choice based on experience.
It also helps that games like this are often accompanied with amazing musical scores and in Mass Effect's case, stunning voice acting and camera work. Yeah, camera work. The way they "filmed" the scenes in mass effect give it a truly cinematic feel, as good as any movie.
As I start my own writing project, heading into the Great Unknown of writing fiction, I remember these games, these moments. That is what I want my readers to remember. I want them to remember the experiences. When, just for this one moment in time, they are doingmore than just reading.
If I ever manage to accomplish this even once, I will call myself an Author.
[Also, for further insights into writing, art, science, politics, and everything else under the sun, visit Dana Hunter and her blog Es Tequila Es Verdad. Well worth reading.]
Saturday, May 7, 2011
Foreword from the Writer
So here we are again. This time I thought I'd put my two cents at the beginning. Seems to make rather more sense that way. Below is the first iteration of Amara's story from the first attempt. I scrapped the second one entirely. I was in a bad place when I wrote that, please don't judge me for it. So I took the first one, filled in the gaps, wrote around it, and tweaked some wording here and there. It's still not perfect, but it actually has something resembling a structure and meaning. Now that it is more or less a complete thought, it opens up the floodgates for all the feedback, criticisms, and ideas on how I can improve this. I'm open to everything and anything you would like to share. I'm a big boy, I can take whatever you want to throw at me. The fact that I actually wrote something is a victory enough for me.
It's interesting, I had a much easier time rewriting than I did with the original draft. This is unusual because most of my early writing, such as for school assigments or my own little projects, rarely consisted of revisions or multiple drafts. My senior project was a 16 page report I wrote in one sitting and I didn't change before I submitted it. When absolutely required to submit multiple drafts I would write it up and delete pieces here and there to make it incomplete. Sorry, teachers.
So I thought it was interesting that writing the first time around was like pulling teeth with rusted pliers, but this time it felt much more like how I imagine writing should feel. Until I got to the end of the original material and had to start the conclusion - then it started feeling a little more difficult. I could feel a palpable heaviness to pushing past the end of my draft, a weight I had to be able to shift in order to continue.
Apparently, writing for me is, at this time in my career, like sculpting. Except that I have to extract the clay surgically from somewhere around my ribcage. Once I have the material I can work to shape it, but getting it in the first place is a little painful.
On the actual story below, a few disclaimers. It deals, even if only briefly, with parental dynamics. I don't want anything I write to give the impression that there is anything wrong with step-parents or 'split' households. I have no living memory of a time when my parents were still together, but they are both wonderful, amazing people that I love very much and whom have a healthy respect for one another. I have had 4 step-parents over the years, and I have loved each of them in turn. I often joke that I don't have a family tree - a shape with a strong origin, a central foundation upon which the branches sprout from - rather that I have a family shrubbery. It all just kind of goes every which way. Aunts, uncles, step-relatives and cousins I've rarely, if ever, met. It's a mess of a family, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
My actual writing 'voice' is still a work in progress, I'm still developing how I as a writer sound. So I encourage any feedback, especially having to do with how it sounds. If there are any pieces that work particularly well, or lines that could use a little more polish, please point them out.
On a sidenote, Amara's father's name is never mentioned. partly because I haven't been able to given him one yet (Though their surname is "Langward"). However, I also like to think it reflects how he is thought of as Dad or Father, not by his name. Gives him kind of a mystique.
Well, without further delay, I humbly present some words precariously arranged into something I hope resembles meaning..
* * *
Outside, it was a gray afternoon with a broken sky. The rain fell at an angle, but uniformly so as if someone took the clouds and tilted them to one side. Inside the biodome park, however, it was high noon with clear skies. One of three basic settings for the park, those being morning, afternoon, and closed. Artificial sunlight filtered through artificial trees (branches waving in an artificial breeze), threw dancing shadows on artificial grass. Contained, sustainable, and completely fake. Not that the act fooled anyone, but when the alternative was walking in the rain across what would otherwise be a parking structure or office building, no one complained.
"How was school today, Amara?"
Amara had absolutely no complaints. She had an ice cream cone, which made today an exceptional day, and she was more focused on her treat than any academic inquiries. She scrutinized it carefully, quick to delicately lick up any errant drips of ice cream.
"Amara?" Sterner, this time. Her father glided alongside her, a towering figure even without the contrast of a small child. He was empty handed; after taking care of Amara's crippling list of school supplies an ice cream cone was almost a stretch.
"What?" The top of her cone was licked to a near perfect dome of dessert. A work of art. Adults couldn't appreciate this kind of fine detail.
"School? I assume you went to class, or how could you be complaining of having homework from a chemistry class you didn’t attend? That would be rather impressive." A thin hand fell on her shoulder, applying gentle pressure to hold Amara back as a man in a suit ran through the exact space she was about to enter. The man, jogging swiftly down a path to an exit, opened a door and momentarily the sound of the outside downpour raced inside the park, determined to get as far as it could before the door shut again, instantly cutting off any notion of rain.
“Of course I went to class, Daddy.” What a stupid question, and ultimately irrelevant compared to the question at hand: lick the dome down to a flat surface, or take a solid bite out of the cone? Her expression was one of a painter deciding where to put the brush next.
"And what?" Her brow wrinkled in exasperation as she saw a line of ice cream had very nearly ran over the back of her hand. As she lifted the cone for a better angle to stop it in its tracks, her small blue eyes met the grey-blue orbs of her father’s. He lifted one eyebrow. Barely.
Amara sighed, with only a slight roll of her eyes that she didn't quite try to conceal. She straightened up, adjusted her backpack – standard for her class, white with a red cross – and gave him the most serious look a twelve year old could muster, “One Thing I Learned In School Today was the toxsticity levels of all pre-op medications used in a standard hospital environment.”
That's what I said, she retorted. Or would have, except her mouth was full and her cone now had a mysteriously girl-shaped bite taken out of the side. Her attention had shifted immediately back to the cone as soon as she answered the question.
He laughed and ruffled her hair, earning himself a withering glare from the girl, "Always learning, my little genius. I think Carrie will be really good for you. She's a teacher."
It was partway through talking about what it was that Carrie taught when he realized that Amara was no longer beside him. He stopped, looking back down the path where she had stopped. She stared at the ground, as if intense concentration alone could teleport herself somewhere far away from the biodome. As he approached, each step with a cat's grace, she remained resolutely still, only speaking when his shadow eclipsed her. He knelt down in front of her so they were eye-level, or as close as was practical.
"I thought I didn't have to meet her." If the words were any heavier, they would have cracked the stones set in the path upon landing. A line of ice cream streaked down the side of her cone and over her hand, dripping down off her fingers.
"Not immediatly. I just thought you would eventually want-"
"I don't want to meet her! I didn't want to meet the last one. I still have Mom, even if you don't. So you can find yourself a new wife but I don't need another new mom!" She pushed past him and ran down the path, keeping her head low so he couldn't see her tears. Mom never cried in front of anyone.
Just like her mother. He stood up, ran a hand through his hair, and turned to follow her. She was waiting at the far exit to the park, not quite angry enough to storm out of the park entirely. When he reached her, neither spoke. The words of an apology began forming on his tongue but he held them back, unsure how or where to start. His daughter's thoughts were a mirror of his own.
He felt her hand slide into his, their fingers intertwining and squeezing briefly. His free hand conjured an umbrella as they walked through the short hallway from the shining midday sun to the torrential storm outside. He did his best to keep them both dry or, failing that, at least Amara. The rain, slanted as it was, made for a difficult task. So they braved the storm together, hand in hand, a silent truce.
Meanwhile, inside the park, beneath an unmoving sun, an ice cream cone melted on the path.