Wednesday, May 11, 2011


I want to talk a bit about my aesthetic sense, something I’ve previously touched on here (when my tone was less subdued, I guess). This isn’t meant to be definitive, and I might continue to build on it when the fancy strikes me. It’s also not exclusionary - it’s entirely possible for something to be pleasing to me without necessarily following these elements.

Tiny Fey recently spoke at Google. She was explaining comedic improv, and said, "when you are creating something out of nothing - agree". This is a common principle, more often applied as "yes, and":

1: "Let's go to the beach!"
2: "Yes, and let's bring the children!"
1: "Yes, and let's make some additional children!"
2: "Yes, and let's raise them to worship the sun"
1: "Yes, and make them foot soldiers in our cult!"

This works as a principle because each line adds something to the world as opposed to the following:
1: “Let’s go to the beach.”
2: “No, I’m going to the amusement park.”
1: “No.”

In the first example, the relationship between the characters is clear. Their immediate goal is clear. Each line develops them further. They are sexual partners. They are nature-worshippers. They are founding a cult. In the second example, no relationship comes forth. No goals are set. No world is built around these two people. In the first scene, the players are agreeing and therefore building. In the second scene, they are negating and therefore destroying.

All premises, at their base, are cliche and overdone (nothing new under the sun &c.) and that's fine. But truly impressive works start from a cliche and agree with it. They build on it--sculpt additional layers until it is something new entirely. Less impressive works never seem to settle on what they are saying. They negate their own premises and destroy.

Community acknowledges its own cliches openly, much like Glee. Glee reverses course as soon as the acknowledgement is made (Sue’s attitude towards bullying is one of the most obnoxiously inconsistent things I’ve ever seen on TV - “I hate bullying”, “I love bullying”, “Being gay is okay”, “...but I’m going to call you ‘lady’ even though you don’t like it, because you’re gay”), essentially disagreeing with itself. Community embraces its cliches, makes it part of the story, expands on the cliche. The Paintball episode, “Modern Warfare”, layers cliche on top of cliche to create an aggregate of action movie cliches that tell a story that lacks originality. However, the story does have emotional resonance since each character's cliches reflect something particular to that character--Shirley speaks a line from The Boondock Saints which reflects her religious views--and the interactions between these cliche characters end up building into an experience they share, which ultimately alters the nature of their relationship. This, in turn, draws in the viewer.

Video games are very susceptible to negating themselves. One form of this is ludonarrative dissonance, essentially a fancy way of saying the game play (ludo) disagrees with the story (narrative). In the Dragon Age mythos, templars are responsible for leashing mages, yet players using magic in front of templars during combat suffer no consequences. More generally, in many games when a party member “dies” in battle, they can be revived by an item or magic, but when Aerith* dies in a cutscene, oops! No backsies! Ludonarrative dissonance is far from the only form of disagreement for a game. Games are made, after all, with a large collection of different layers--music, textures, voice, music, as well as game mechanics and narrative. All these elements can disagree with each other as well as themselves. It’s a huge clusterfuck.

At some point, it becomes cliche to trot this out over and over again, but Planescape: Torment does a fucking great job of agreeing with itself. It starts with the ultimate RPG cliche--awakening in an isolated room with amnesia--and builds on that premise. This isn't the first time you've had your memory wiped. You burned instructions into your flesh. Each amnesia onset resets your personality as well as your memory. Other revelations build as well. You're immortal. Your companions have been with you longer than you remember. Your body parts become game objects. Your gameplay stats allow you to recall memories. Dying is (mostly) temporary. All of these revelations are not unique to this game by a long shot, but the depth to which they are implemented and to which they interact with each other is unique. Your party members might be cliches--the sullen warrior, the power-hungry mage, the whore with a troubled past--but when they react to each other’s cliches, they are building relationships with each other, giving the player a reason to invest in them.

(*) trollbait.