Friday, August 3, 2012

What Total Recall Taught Me About Storytelling and Gaming

I just came home after seeing the new version of Total Recall. I will avoid spoilers and will avoid specific commentary on the film, but before I go into what the movie taught me, I'd like to make a few points:

* I tire of the idea that the only way to demonstrate a "strong female character" is to give them a gun, get them bloody and occasionally make them grunt. There are many kinds of strength, and I am eagerly waiting for the next batch of media creators who realize that "strong women" aren't limited to action beats.

* I do not like Kate Beckinsale's nose. It seems quite shaved and pinched, and I'm concerned that she's not taking in enough oxygen. It was rather hard to look away from it, since 90% of her shots were facial close-up. (That's not a spoiler, just look at the trailers)
Note - for those who think the above point was too dysmorphic or sexist, my intent was just to point out that  it bothered me, much the same way people pointed out Christian Bale's moles in Batman.

* I'm beginning to conclude that lens flares are used to conceal green screen composite shots - and are used to distract from what I call "blurry CGI motion syndrome", those parts of scenes where suddenly a character moves too fluidly and hurriedly, seems to bleed a little (colorwise) on film and looks...sometimes cartoony. (See: Legolas in LOTR, several stunt-beats in the early Harry Potter movies and some parts of Twilight.)

Now, onto what I learned.

I. Subjective Reality

At its heart this movie (and the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale) plays heavily with the questionable nature of reality, of what's real and what isn't, and what/who you can or can't trust. This concept is often a goldmine when done well and lazy writing when executed poorly.

In writing, this idea is explored most often as an unreliable narrator, so that it is more often the audience and not the narrator who must navigate the blurred lines of truth and untruth. (In film this task often falls to the protagonist who is also the audience surrogate.)

In gaming, it's a lot harder to pull this off, because most people want to play characters that have much of their facets already in place and seek only to improve upon them. Reality is expected to be somewhat dictated as a response to mechanics, as well as what (if any) expectations the players have based on what they bring to the table in terms of character ideas, themes or concepts.

A game that toys with this idea to my great satisfaction is Rite Publishing's The Demolished Ones - a game that takes the idea of "I don't know my character" (thanks amnesia!) and allows you to have an absolutely present-tense experience because you "remember" things in order to put them on your character sheet. So at once, the player is co-conspirator in the unreliability, having to choose whether or not a particular item, idea or moment is one they will use to their advantage for character improvement.

In my own writing and gaming, I tend to avoid explorations into what is and isn't the case - this is in part because I doubt my ability to keep a daisy chain of misdirections going long term, and also I find it grating trying to figure out just how long a narrator is supposed to be unreliable, or if the degree I'm being uncertain is strong enough. Too many questions cross it off the writing list. In gaming, my players, well they get testy when they can't figure out what is and isn't happening.

The strength of subjective reality is not the adversarial nature of I-know-something-and-you-don't, but rather the idea that whatever story you're telling, you can throw a wrench into the chronology. Changing the "when" component of an event allows you to constantly reshuffle the order of development around, freeing you up to tell the best story possible.

Also, it allows you to play with the nature of expectation...but we'll talk about that next.

II. Expectations

Expectation is one of the three E's that you manipulate to create tension (the other two being Emotion and Excitement). Expectation what drives play and storytelling forward. We expect the protagonist to win, we expect the "boss fight" to be at the end of the film, book or adventure, and we expect three-act structure to permeate our experience.

In same cases there's a spin on it (Nolan's Memento presents the end of a story at the beginning, so the Third-First Act creates a sort of mobius loop, Leverage presents a heist or caper through flashbacks that bend the Second Act into the Third Act based on the lead-out of the First Act).

But expectations are not just macro views of story development. You can change expectations in-scene as well. The most common version of this is the betraying-character, who turns against the protagonist(s) when either the reasons are valid or when the story gets tired and needs a perk (I'm looking at you, Crystal Skull)

The same is true of objects. A gun can malfunction at the worst possible moment, the bomb could fail to detonate (or detonate too soon) or the printer could run out of paper just when you need it the most.

No expectation should be permanently set in concrete - it's your story, do all that you have to make it the best story you can.

III. Psychic Distance

I talk a lot about Psychic Distance in Workshops. It's the imagined camera between audience and character - zooming in for close-ups and emotional display, pulling back for exposition and demonstrations of scope.

Understanding that as a creator (author, game designer, GM, Storyteller, Director, etc) you control the speed of the "camera" by parceling out what and how much detail you give to your characters and non-player characters makes storytelling that much more a richer experience.

Remember too that players (and the audience, for you book types) will respond sympathetically rather than quantitatively -- they'll respond to a positive emotion positively and a negative emotion empathetically -- rather than assess the situation mathematically and end up with emotions going to 11 as if to complete an equation of solving for X.

* * * 

Think of these elements as sliders, with the creator of the story able to ramp them up and play with them throughout the experience of the story (don't think this is something you set once and then walk away from) - in fact, I would go so far to say that 'riding the levels' will keep the story experience fresh and evocative for the audience/players/readers.

Happy writing.