Wednesday, May 11, 2011

aesthetics

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.

10 comments:

  1. I'm on board except for two points: First, I try to pretend that Glee doesn't exist, so having it pop up here is like some kind of socio-emotional ambush. =D

    Second, I still think that "ludonarrative dissonance" is an obfuscating term. Its obfuscation is a function of its existence, quite apart from any intentionality; so this is not to suggest that you are using it with an agenda (i.e., to hide something that you can see but I cannot). Rather, I think its neutral use definitively hides something from both (or all) of us, inclusively.

    My own personal demons aside, the core concept, agreeing(,) to build, is marvelous. It's got my gears turning re: a project I've been knocking about for a while, so many thanks for that. Particularly, the first thought this pushed me toward was that games function well when players agree with them, essentially becoming part of the "yes, and..." cycle. But I'm not sure about that, because I think some great things can happen when either the game or the player says, "No, I'm going to the amusement park." I must think more on it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree 100% that it is possible to be compelling while disagreeing. However it is an advanced tactic and not recommended for beginners ;)

    I also feel weird about using the term "ludonarrative dissonance"! It's a big, invented word. However, it is the hot buzzword these days, and I understand what is meant by it and use it to signpost discussions around similar topics and to drive up my SEO around the word, as oppposed to trying to invent new vocabulary ;)

    glee is compelling only because it is so, so bad. it's a great learning example. however, as much as I love showtunes and high school parodies (which Glee started out as before devolving into just a high school drama), the show is srsly starting to wear on me...

    here are some books that were formative to my thinking in this area:
    "Impro for Storytellers" by Keith Johnston - this is the classic text.
    "Truth in Comedy: The Manual for Improvisation" by various authors including the legendary Del Close.

    tbh i was blocked on posting this for a long time because understanding how game mechanics can fit into this framework is... hard. there's a concept in improv about "The game of the scene" (which is... totally different) but talking it over with a buddy we agreed it's not the same as "committing" to a scene which in turn is not the same as "Agreeing" with a scene, which are all more components that I didn't fit in here... and in any case we couldn't figure out how mechanics can interact with narrative in a simple manner. which is, you know, fine. because it's a hard problem and not meant to be solved by two knuckleheads via text message.

    ReplyDelete
  3. STORYTIME: Blogger shit itself and died right after this was posted, changing the URL, the tags, and deleting comments. FORTUNATELY Blogger emails me the full text of every comment made, so I can at least save those:



    David Baker:

    I'm on board except for two points: First, I try to pretend that Glee doesn't exist, so having it pop up here is like some kind of socio-emotional ambush. =D

    Second, I still think that "ludonarrative dissonance" is an obfuscating term. Its obfuscation is a function of its existence, quite apart from any intentionality; so this is not to suggest that you are using it with an agenda (i.e., to hide something that you can see but I cannot). Rather, I think its neutral use definitively hides something from both (or all) of us, inclusively.

    My own personal demons aside, the core concept, agreeing(,) to build, is marvelous. It's got my gears turning re: a project I've been knocking about for a while, so many thanks for that. Particularly, the first thought this pushed me toward was that games function well when players agree with them, essentially becoming part of the "yes, and..." cycle. But I'm not sure about that, because I think some great things can happen when either the game or the player says, "No, I'm going to the amusement park." I must think more on it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. My reply:
    I agree 100% that it is possible to be compelling while disagreeing. However it is an advanced tactic and not recommended for beginners ;)

    I also feel weird about using the term "ludonarrative dissonance"! It's a big, invented word. However, it is the hot buzzword these days, and I understand what is meant by it and use it to signpost discussions around similar topics and to drive up my SEO around the word, as oppposed to trying to invent new vocabulary ;)

    glee is compelling only because it is so, so bad. it's a great learning example. however, as much as I love showtunes and high school parodies (which Glee started out as before devolving into just a high school drama), the show is srsly starting to wear on me...

    here are some books that were formative to my thinking in this area:
    "Impro for Storytellers" by Keith Johnston - this is the classic text.
    "Truth in Comedy: The Manual for Improvisation" by various authors including the legendary Del Close.

    tbh i was blocked on posting this for a long time because understanding how game mechanics can fit into this framework is... hard. there's a concept in improv about "The game of the scene" (which is... totally different) but talking it over with a buddy we agreed it's not the same as "committing" to a scene which in turn is not the same as "Agreeing" with a scene, which are all more components that I didn't fit in here... and in any case we couldn't figure out how mechanics can interact with narrative in a simple manner. which is, you know, fine. because it's a hard problem and not meant to be solved by two knuckleheads via text message.

    ReplyDelete
  5. this is not a test, this is the real thing:

    ReplyDelete
  6. does this shit blow?

    ReplyDelete
  7. trying allthe different accounts

    ReplyDelete
  8. @icepotato YOU'RE SUCH A COCK

    ReplyDelete
  9.  testing mentions of @a8b86f0fdbc169041a7686e42405225c  and @icepotato  and hey maybe i can bother  @92aeabbd88dcf23cd12f3206d3e741a9  ???? 

    ReplyDelete