2013: Scoring Round

By | January 1, 2014

Well, that was 2013. It was an odd year for me. Heavily focused on school, but still interesting and enjoyable. I saw some more great bands in concert (Keane, The Killers, Airborne Toxic Event, Muse, Depeche Mode), rode a camel, learned a little guitar, a little Italian, and a little sleight of hand magic. I took some amazing classes, and accepted it when I got a less-than-perfect grade in one. And I hosted some fantastic events with my many friends, chief among them a ridiculously huge go-kart and karaoke birthday party with its own bartender who called me “Boss”, and a super fancy New Year’s Eve get-together involving Dom Perignon and a luxury hotel suite that I am still recovering from today.

Most importantly, though, is that it might have been the most creative year of my life thus far. Every semester of the year, I’ve been in one class that has provided me the opportunity to tell stories. In the spring, my digital media class saw me writing a piece of hypertext fiction. Then for my writing class over the summer, I wrote two of the longest pieces I’ve ever done, which I’m immensely pleased with. Finally, this fall I took a course on writing for video games, a fascinating class in which I was able to take a story idea I’d been toying with and turn it into an outline for a full 7 chapter video game complete with a demo and some wicked-cool character art done by a friend. Collectively, it’s the most content I’ve ever produced in a 12-month period.

But it’s not nearly enough. In 2014, I want to get into a creative habit again, beyond just what I need to produce for classes. I’ll be taking screenwriting in the spring and I’m looking forward to that, but I also have a new story that I’ve started developing in the past few weeks that I really want to explore further. With writing, starting is always the hardest part for me: once I sit down and begin, it feels like it was all there all along, just out of sight, and all I had to do was look for it. Of course, with my summer program this year, I’m taking on more schoolwork than ever before, but I think I can manage to carve out some time to write.

I also need to take better care of myself. All too often I ignore any possible issues with myself physically until they actually come up. I can’t remember the last time I went to a doctor, and considering that I’ll have insurance soon, I really should look into it. And I know this is the most clichéd new years post thing ever, but…I need to work out. I do. For multiple reasons, not just my weight, but my energy and mood as well. I’d set a reasonable weight-loss goal for myself last summer to meet by the end of the year, and I ended up attaining it in mid-December, mainly due to skipping a lot of meals around finals time. That’s not how I wanted to attain it though, and just eating a lot less food is not necessarily healthy.

And that’s why I’m avoiding setting any concrete goals for the new year. All too often I can succeed under the pressure of a specific goal, as my grades can attest. But what motivates me then isn’t the desire to succeed, but the fear of failing. And that same fear can keep me from even trying things I don’t know for sure I can do. I’m a raging perfectionist, and tend to be hard on myself over any mistakes or failures. Often even in my best accomplishments, I’ll remember the things I got wrong. It makes it very hard to give myself credit for my successes, and instead lands me in a cycle of setting progressively more demanding goals for myself, and never attempting anything that might be too far outside my comfort zone. So if I could be said to have a new year’s resolution, it would be to try more, and succeed less. To focus a little more on the journey instead of the destination, and not judge myself as harshly if I don’t quite make it sometimes. And to appreciate it more when I do.

 

-Tim

Lines and Triforces

By | December 31, 2013

I’m going to talk about video games in this post. If that is not your jam, you can safely skip it.

In keeping with my tradition of being woefully late to the party on video games, I’ve taken my holiday break thus far to beat three games, only one of which was released this year. Specifically, Spec Ops: The Line, Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and the most recent Zelda, A Link Between Worlds. These are experiences I had some impressions on, and in my efforts to put some actual content up here, I thought I would jot them down.

First of all, Spec Ops…wow. Let me start by saying I am not a player of military shooters. I’ve never played a Call of Duty or Battlefield game. I’m not sure if that makes me this game’s target audience or not. I knew going in that it was not the typical shooter, that it was more of a deconstruction. But I was not prepared for just how viscerally the game conveys the horrors of war and the effects on the people who have to do those things. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the game strikes an amazing balance between the mechanics glorifying the violence, and then the realistic effects of that violence on the characters and the world around them. Usually in a game I’m used to two kinds of moral choices: either I get action justified by generally noble reasons, or a choice between noble and ignoble actions. But in Spec Ops, there were multiple times where I was forced into making the character do things I absolutely did not want to do, yet under the circumstances I couldn’t see any alternate course of action. It’s probably the most uncomfortable I’ve been playing a game. I eventually reached a point where I had to tell myself that there was no good outcome, and I was just going to see the story through. I felt guilty playing it every second of the latter half of the game. There’s even a moment where in the middle of making us feel guilty about the glorified video game violence, it slyly calls attention to its status as an ultraviolent video game. Anytime a story manages a good bit of intelligent metafiction, it gets my attention. The gameplay is nothing to write home about, but it serves the function of the narrative, which is what’s important here.

Narrative is also what I appreciated most about Skyward Sword. Though the series has been running for 25 years, this is the first time they’ve ever tried to tie it together into a coherent mythology. I read the ridiculously complex three-stream timeline put forth in last year’s Hyrule Historia, but I avoided reading anything that would spoil Skyward for me. And I’m glad I did. They actually establish a credible, easy to understand background for why all these other things happen over several thousand years. It makes sense! And yet, even as they establish a “beginning” to the Zelda mythos, with what is pretty concretely established as the second Link and Zelda (the first are introduced in the manga included in Historia)… they also pose some really intriguing questions about what came before. Even though this is the farthest back we’ve been in that universe, there are ancient ruins of civilizations that came before. What’s more, they had advanced technology! Enough to create cybernetic organisms, levitating platforms, huge mining facilities, and even time travel devices. Even though it’s established as long before the time of the games…the series is no stranger to playing with time. So while I doubt it’s a direction they’ll go, it’s extremely interesting to me from a world-building perspective.

Now I’m a pretty big fan of the Legend of Zelda series. I wouldn’t say that I’m the biggest fan I know, because I know some very devout Zelda fans. But I don’t think I necessarily know anyone who likes it more than me. So when I say that Skyward Sword might be my least favorite of the series thus far, I want you to understand that I’m still placing it head and shoulders above a majority of other games. It’s a fine entry to the series in most respects, but I feel like it’s ultimately held back by the platform. While Twilight Princess was developed for the Gamecube and had Wii features tacked on, Skyward Sword was developed wholly for the Wii, and it shows. Every item is designed to utilize motion controls. This makes them clunky to use in combat, and fortunately the game doesn’t make you do so often. Unfortunately, it instead bases the combat almost entirely around precision directional sword strikes make by swinging the wiimote in certain directions, which makes for the least enjoyable combat I’ve ever experienced in the series. It’s incredibly frustrating to know what you want to do and try to get the game to recognize it, but repeatedly die because you swung your arm wrong or drew back too fast to make your swing, causing the game to read a swing in the opposite direction. As I worked through it I gradually got better at it, but I never reached a point where I was truly comfortable with the swordplay, and even to the end I was dying due to not being able to make Link do what I wanted. And don’t even get me started on bomb-rolling.

Thankfully, I can praise almost everything else about the game. The art design is a fantastic melding of the colorful cel-shading of Wind Waker with the more realistic designs of Twilight Princess. By blending the art styles of previous Zelda games, this one somehow manages to look incredibly iconic. While Skies of Arcadia may have done the sky-exploration gimmick better, it still feels sufficiently fresh for the series. I also have to give special mention to the puzzle design: the cleverness and variety of them was some of the finest I’ve seen in any adventure game. While I didn’t like the emphasis on swordplay in the combat, it opened them up to create some unique new items that were really there to facilitate puzzles first, instead of just being another way to attack enemies. Ultimately, I can forgive Skyward Sword its flaws. It’s a really good game, but only an okay Zelda game. It has great parts and not-so-great parts, but it doesn’t manage to be more than the some of them. I think that’s why it took me almost a year to get around to beating it. I might have thought it was just fatigue with the Zelda series, or being too busy with school… were it not for A Link Between Worlds.

In contrast to Skyward Sword, I think I beat A Link Between Worlds like three weeks after I got it. Which was the day it came out, as part of a bundle with my glorious new gold 3DS. I just could not put this one down. It’s a little lighter on narrative than Skyward Sword, though it does have a good bit for a mobile Zelda game. And it more than makes up for it in gameplay. I was extremely leery when Nintendo first announced that this game would be a “sequel” to A Link to the Past, one of my favorite games from my childhood. Having played it, I can now remove the quote marks. This is a sequel to A Link to the Past. They have somehow managed to recapture perfectly the essence of a game twenty years old, then iterate and improve on it, without losing the core spirit. As with Skyward the puzzles are once again excellent, and if anything the combat is a little too easy here, though not offensively so- there’s still a good steady challenge. I’m not sure I can come up with any way of really criticizing it, aside from the fact that the villain is stupid. There’s just no getting around that. He is, and yet the point where you defeat him is one of my favorite gaming moments of the year. If you like Zelda games, you’ll love this one. If you liked A Link to the Past, you’ll adore it.

The year may be over, but I’ve still got a couple of weeks before school starts again! What’s next in my gaming? Well, I still have Pokémon Y, which has been interesting considering that I haven’t played any of those since the beginning. I set it aside the minute Zelda turned up, but I plan to get back to it. As for non-mobile games, I’m not sure. I have dozens of games I haven’t played yet, between my console backlog and my humiliatingly large stack of impulse Steam sale purchases. Just at a glance I’ve got Dead Island, Darksiders I & II, Dishonored, Fez, Metro: Last Light, ZombiU, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, DKCR, and a proverbial clown-car full of indie games. Not to mention saves I already have in progress on Assassin’s Creed III, Mark of the Ninja, my replay of Final Fantasy VII and *sigh* Eternal Darkness. Speaking of Final Fantasy, VIII just came out on Steam, which I never played, so I’m interested in that. Then there’s season 2 of Walking Dead, but I can probably afford to let that sit until Telltale finishes it. I think that I’m going to be playing Brothers first, followed by Dragon Age Origins, to scratch my Bioware itch. Although what I –really- want to do is replay the glory that is Mass Effect 3, with all that DLC I never saw. And between other things, I’ll probably renew my addiction to the Gamecube Harvest Moon, as my save from earlier this year still lingers in mid-winter.  And all that? That’s just the stuff I can –think- of. That I have right now. You can see why I have no interest in purchasing any of the new consoles at this time. Since becoming a full time student, my leisure hobbies have slowly but surely slipped away from me. I’m a good year behind on my gaming, at least.

Oh. And I also completed Bioshock Infinite relatively recently. Eff that game, man.

 

-Tim

On the subject of Christmas

By | December 25, 2013

It’s been a quiet holiday. Due to one of my little sisters not flying into Texas until late tonight, I’m not getting together with any family until the 26th. So I’ve just been sitting about my apartment for the past couple of days, playing video games, catching up on my Wheel of Time reread, and doing some much needed cleaning that got neglected during finals. Christmas is exactly the sort of holiday a single guy who lives alone and whose family is scattered around the country should not like. And yet, I love it. I am the biggest Christmas fan around. I love the music, I love the decorations, the cookies, the movies, the traditions, the hot cocoa by the fireplace; everything. My tree and decorations go up immediately after Thanksgiving, and stay up through New Year’s Day. My cubicle at work is all decked out in holiday cheer, even though I’m only there a few hours a day. I literally wear a Santa hat throughout December.

And I love shopping for presents. While I deeply treasure and appreciate every gift I receive from others, my passion lies more in giving than receiving. Whenever I have occasion to get a gift for someone, I get excited. By mid-November every year, I have a spreadsheet with everyone I’m getting gifts for, ideas and URLs, and lists of things I know they like or have mentioned wanting or needing. I’m good at remembering that type of thing, and aside from the odd birthday here or there, Christmas is the one time of year I really get to do it. I will review people’s Facebook profiles, check for Amazon wishlists, talk to friends and family, and subtlety bring things up in conversation to try and find the perfect gift. I don’t always knock it out of the park: sometimes I just don’t have a lot of information, or there isn’t a lot in the price range I’m looking at. But I enjoy the search, and I’m usually able to come up with something good for even the hard to shop for people. I like wrapping the presents also, even though I’m miserable at it and my perfectionist streak means I’m never satisfied with the results. And once they’re all wrapped in paper and ribbon and addressed to the recipient, I love setting my gifts all up in a big pile under the tree. Sometimes I’ll look at that pile and just feel giddy, waiting for when my friends and family can open them.

I dearly wish I had more presents to buy. Instead, I took up offering my gift-choosing help to friends earlier this month, and even that was fun. If I had the time and budget for it, I’d get something for everyone I knew, and couldn’t care less if they got me anything. As it is, I have to cut it off at mostly my parents, siblings and younger cousins. Kids are the best to shop for; there are so many options and they’re more excited about the whole affair. God help any children I have occasion to go all out in shopping for. Which, given my romantic prospects, will probably be after one of my younger sisters gets married and has kids. Get to it, ladies.

I’m not a churchgoer, but I grew up in a somewhat religious family and so I’m not blind to the spiritual significance of Christmas. But for me, personally, the holiday season is really about something simpler. I’ve used the word “love” a lot in this post, and I think that’s telling. However you want to explain the ideals behind the holiday, “love” is the simplest, purest expression of it. It’s a time to acknowledge how much the people we care about mean to us, to be a little kinder and more understanding toward strangers, and to reflect back on the past year and love ourselves for everything we’ve accomplished and the people we’ve become. I think a large part of that comes from our experiences with the holidays as children. It was just always such a happy time for me as a kid that I can’t help but still feel that cheer every year, even on years like this where my personal holiday is a little more low-key. So if there are children in your life, please do what you can to make their holiday, be it Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or any other, a little more magical. It could make a difference for the rest of their lives.

Happy Christmas, from me to all.

 

-Tim

Wherein I talk about school and PAX

By | August 29, 2013

Today marked the first day of my Fall semester of classes, after a whole week off following the end of my summer course on fiction writing. Which was awesome, I wrote some stories such as this one and this other one which you should check out. Still may be revising them some, but for now they exist. I need to write more! Especially since I may have agreed to give away all my books if I don’t write another 20 or so short pieces of fiction between now and the end of the year. I don’t know why I did that. I suppose because I need the motivation. I’m in the fortunate yet dangerous position of having a lot that I want to do yet not a lot I need to do. I’m comfortable enough in my life that I really don’t have to do anything, which is like having enough rope to hang yourself, for an artist. I have to force it if I want to create, there’s nothing external pushing me save for the goals I set for myself.

School is a big part of that, which is why I’m taking all of these writing courses. I actually started one today on Writing for Interactive Games! It’s taught by Sheldon Pacotti, who did the writing on the original Deus Ex, among other things. Thus far it seems like a really cool course, and after the interactive fiction project I did for my digital media course last spring, I’m interested to see what kind of narrative possibilities there are in an interactive space.

But Tim, you say! What’s all this nonsense about stories and video games? Aren’t you a film major? Well, yes. And I still like film very much, and plan to take courses in screenwriting next year. In fact these digital and game-related courses are a part of UT’s Radio/Television/Film program, which is pretty broad. And I plan to pursue a minor in English with all of these writing classes I’ve been taking. The fact of the matter is I like telling stories, and as I’m passionate about all of these mediums as reader/viewer/gamer, I see no reason to tie myself down to any of them. You can tell very different types of stories with all of them, and some stories can only be told as a novel, a short story, a TV series, a film, an action game, an RPG…I’m a writer, a teller of tales, a crafter of experiences. I hope to be able to do that while being open to as many different mediums as possible. Luckily I’m in a position to learn about all of them, and I’m trying to take full advantage of it.

And speaking of learning things, the first half of my summer was not a waste either. I took some welding and metalworking classes, with an eye toward possibly making some improvements to my desk at some point. I took an afternoon course in magic, and another in first aid, because they seemed like cool things to learn. And I finally started taking guitar lessons, after letting my left-handed Ibanez hang on the wall collecting dust for a solid year. And as if that weren’t enough, the other class I started today was Beginning Italian. I’ve been interested in the Italian language for several years now, starting with reading John Berendt’s excellent The City of Falling Angels, then strengthened when I started seeing some excellent Italian films in different film classes. And, I won’t lie, Assassin’s Creed II may have stoked the fires a bit. It’s a beautiful tongue that I think gets overlooked a bit compared to the more popular romance languages of French and Spanish. I’ve never really tried to learn another language before so it’s a bit daunting, but I’m excited.

I’ve got one other class this semester that doesn’t start until Friday, so I don’t have much to say about it yet. It’s a media studies course that looks to be focused a bit more on the business/marketing side of media, which is definitely knowledge that should come in handy. And straight from school on Friday I leave for the airport, because it’s time for PAX Prime in Seattle! There are so many fantastic panels this year, and I’m only going for two days so I imagine I’ll be really busy. I also want to get out to the showfloor and see a couple of things I Kickstarted earlier on, namely Story War and Delver’s Drop. I’m also making a point to stop by and see Michael Todd‘s excellent Electronic Super Joy, which you should check out if you have the chance. The developer is a friend of a friend who I was fortunate to meet on a trip to Toronto a couple of years ago, and a hell of a juggler as I recall.

Then there are all of the big developers that will be showing games as well, and the board games, and… well, PAX is always a whirlwind. I’ve been fortunate to go almost every year since the first one in 2004 (only missed 05, 09 and 10), and I don’t plan to stop attending if I can help it. This year I had to squeeze it inbetween classes which is why I’m only making Saturday and Sunday, but I’ll still be there, and I plan to make the most of it.

Man, I need to use this blog more. I feel like there are so many other things I ought to talk about at some point. But I’ve dumped enough info and links for tonight, and I’ve a thousand other things to do this week. Check my Twitter this weekend for lots of PAX goodness!

-Tim

Kick is a funny word if you say it enough.

By | March 9, 2013

I’ve been on a bit of a Kickstarter spree recently, largely due to getting my tax return this month. And since most of these get better the more people donate to them, I want to take a minute to point out each of them and talk about why they’re exciting to me.
 

Enemy


 

 

This one actually just ended, so I’m a terrible promoter. I found out about it pretty late though, and luckily it did meet its goal. Still well worth checking out. I love turn-based tactical games like this, and when you add retro-gaming nostalgia and destructible physics-based environments, I’m paying attention. It’s definitely the smallest project I’ve backed, but the developer seems devoted, the game seems pretty far along, and the price was pretty reasonable, so I took a shot. Really looking forward to getting to play it.

 

Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey


 

 

I never played the original Longest Journey, but I enjoyed the heck out of Dreamfall on the original Xbox. These are intelligently designed adventure games with really original, intricate and mature storytelling behind them, and I’m pleased as proverbial punch that the series is getting continued. As you can probably tell by the over million dollars raised for it so far, many others are as well. The Kickstarter has a little over a day left to go, and around $150,000 to go before reaching a stretch goal that adds back in a lot of content they had to cut from their plan for budget reasons. Hoping they meet that, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy the final product regardless.

 

Delver’s Drop


 

 

This is a game I saw briefly at PAX Prime last year and resolved to keep an eye on, so I was on board early once they started their Kickstarter campaign. The art style is charming and the gameplay is a lot of fun for anyone that likes top-down dungeon crawlers like the classic Zelda games. I really like that they’ve got puzzles in the mix, so it’s not just combat and avoiding traps. What impressed me most though is how much more polished the Kickstarter footage looks compared to the build I saw last August, which already looked quite good. Excited to see what the finished game will be if this is how much they’ve accomplished on their own without funding.

 

Story War


 

 

I am so super excited about this one. Cards Against Humanity has been a mainstay at parties I’ve been too recently, because that’s just my crowd. I love the social atmosphere and discussions that such games generate, and Story War takes that a step further by actually building the discussion over which card is best into the gameplay. Not to mention that it’s a game about telling a fun, creative story with comical fantasy motifs, which taken all together seems like a card game custom-designed for me. I actually put quite a bit of cash into my backing of this one, and I’m comfortable with my decision to invest in it because I know from what I’ve seen that I’m going to get a lot of enjoyment out of this game. In fact, I don’t want to wait for my physical set, and will be printing out the PDF version as soon as it becomes available!

 

Orc Wars


 

 

Well, I mean, come on. This movie just looks like good fun.

 
-Tim

Video Games, Narrative, and the Russian Post-Apocalypse

By | December 9, 2012

This is a short research article I wrote for an eBook one of my courses is publishing. It’s basically me on a soapbox for a couple of pages arguing that video games can be used to tell good stories, which is something I happen to believe fairly strongly in, being both a writer and a gamer. I’m mostly posting it here to give me an excuse to plug the Humble THQ Bundle, where you can currently still get Metro 2033, along with several other excellent games, for as low as $1, which then goes to charity. It’s a very good deal, as the Humble Bundle always is. I encourage you to take advantage of it while it’s still available.

 

There is considerable debate as to whether or not video games can be considered a narrative medium. Media scholar Henry Jenkins comments, “One gets rid of narrative as a framework for thinking about games only at one’s own risk.” On the other side of the debate between analytical focus on narrative vs. interactive elements, game theorist Jesper Juul states that “You can’t have narration and interactivity at the same time.” One of his primary arguments cites Seymour Chatman’s principle of a story’s transposability between different mediums, giving Atari’s 1983 Star Wars arcade game as an example of a narrative that fails to translate recognizably to video game form (Chatman 20). However, by examining more narratively complex video games as well as the definitions of some key terms, it is possible to gain a better understanding of the potential of games to convey a story.

Much of the disagreement over the narrative capabilities of video games results from differing interpretations of the concepts involved. Therefore, in the course of any discussion on the topic, it is helpful to first define some of the more important terms. So what is a video game? The Oxford English Dictionary provides this basic definition: “a game played by electronically manipulating images displayed on a television screen.” Games are, first and foremost, “played,” that is to say interactive. Anyone who has ever played with muted volume can attest that the game is still a game without sound, and text-only adventures suggest that visual elements are also optional. Simple games like Atari’s Pong allow that the inclusion of narrative elements is likewise not required. Even the presence of difficulty or opposition is not universal, as demonstrated in atmospheric games like Tale of Tales’ The Graveyard, where the entirety of the gameplay consists of walking an elderly woman to a bench. But control is always required on some level: a video game without interactivity is just a video. The only other firm distinguishing feature can be found in the other word, “video”: these games are always displayed via an electronic platform of some sort, be it a PC, a console, or a mobile device. Thus, any interactive game on an electronic display can be said at the base level to be a video game, with sound, graphics, narrative, and difficulty being optional components.

Having established the definition of the medium, it is equally important to determine the nature of narrative in order to examine their relationship. The OED defines a narrative as, “an account of a series of events, facts, etc., given in order and with the establishing of connections between them; a narration, a story, an account.” Can games fit this definition? In 4A Games’ Metro 2033, a series of events and facts is indeed depicted in a variety of ways: the game opens with a video, presenting the voiceover of the main character, Artyom, describing his life and the post-apocalyptic underground he inhabits. While not many specific events are depicted in the video, it does convey facts (within the game’s fictional context) which provide the setting for the rest of the game’s action. Within the game, more narrative information is conveyed in a variety of ways. Spoken dialogue is often used to explain elements of the world or to establish new goals, such as when the character Khan instructs Artyom to go to Armory station and meet with a man named Smith. This then becomes Artyom’s new short-term goal and the driving narrative objective of the next segment of the game. Information is also conveyed visually: when the player sees a floating electrical Anomaly sweep through a tunnel and clear it of mutants, it both removes that obstacle from Artyom’s journey, and communicates knowledge about this new hazard.

None of these elements, however, address Juul’s purported contradiction between narration and interactivity. Can gameplay mechanics themselves be used to further a narrative? In fact, an excellent example of this can be found in Metro 2033‘s “Child” chapter. In it, Artyom meets Sasha, a young boy who has been left alone after his uncle was killed by mutants. Artyom agrees to escort Sasha to the other survivors of his station, and at the end of the section’s opening cut scene, Sasha runs toward Artyom, passing out of the field of view. Once control is returned to the player, they find that the boy is nowhere to be seen, though he can still be heard speaking. This could be mistaken for a glitch if not for the fact that the game’s controls are also altered here: turning suddenly becomes slower and more ungainly, hampering both navigation and combat. The gameplay here thus conveys, without it being explicitly stated (until the boy is returned to his mother later), that Sasha is now riding on Artyom’s back. By itself this would be considered poor gameplay; the “floaty” controls could be derided as sloppy design. It is only when given its narrative context that this episode makes sense: the change in gameplay signals how Artyom gets Sasha back to his people, sacrificing his own maneuverability and safety in the process. The very interactivity of this segment is used to convey information about the character as well as how the narrative is moved forward.

Returning to Juul’s statement that narratives cannot translate to video games in a recognizable form, it is helpful to examine one final concept: medium. Media scholar Marshall McLuhan explains that, “it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (McLuhan 9). Therefore, it follows that an individual’s experience of a narrative in any medium will always be altered by the format in which it is presented, making a perfect translation impossible. This can be seen often in translations between novels and films: movies made from books will remove scenes or entire storylines and characters in order to present a more concise narrative, while novelizations will take advantage of their greater length and depth of material to actually expand on events and concepts only touched upon in a film. A change of medium can also affect a story after its creation: consider the way in which commercials break the narrative flow of a film on broadcast television, altering the viewer’s perception in comparison to theatrical presentation. The manner in which a narrative is presented will always change its form in relation to the audience.

The issue, therefore, becomes not whether narratives can translate perfectly to video games, but whether they are still recognizable as the same narrative after the transition. Juul argues that Atari’s Star Wars arcade game fails this test, but it is possible to turn to Metro 2033 for a far more robust model. In the game, Artyom leaves his home station after being charged by Hunter with carrying a message to Polis, along the way encountering dangers including monsters, environmental hazards, and other humans. He is helped by several characters during his journey and eventually reaches Polis, joining with a group of elite warriors there to destroy the “Dark Ones” plaguing his home station. In Dmitry Glukhovsky’s novel on which the game is based, many of the events are different. Artyom visits different stations and at times encounters different characters. The dangers in the novel are more psychological, eschewing the mutated enemies which fill out the first-person shooter interactivity of the video game.

For instance, in one early portion of the story Artyom is a member of a party traveling one of the metro tunnels, and finds himself the only man not rendered helpless by a mysterious noise that only he can hear. In the novel Artyom rallies his compatriots against various psychological afflictions (one man falls unconscious, another breaks down sobbing, a third wanders forward into the darkness aimlessly.) In the game, all of the other characters exhibit similar signs of psychological disturbance, with one man muttering about an undefined “them” as ghostly shadows appear along the walls of the tunnel. The entire party is then knocked unconscious after being enveloped by a strange light. Artyom awakes in time to fight off a horde of mutant enemies while he guards his helpless companions. This narrative event occurs differently in ways that suit the respective mediums: communicating with a delusional, weeping man would not make for exciting gameplay, while the harrowing battle against the pursuing creatures would feel repetitive and dull in the novel without the excitement of interactivity. But in both versions of the story the same basic event occurs: Artyom’s party is disabled while in transit between his home and the next nearest station, bringing him face to face with the mysterious dangers of the tunnels. He is the sole member of his party to retain his ability to resist, and is seen as the hero of the hour by the other men after he delivers them from danger.

The same principle holds true of the story as a whole: despite changes to accommodate the differing mediums, the basic structure of the narrative remains the same in both versions. Artyom journeys through the Metro for Polis, seeking to save his home station from the encroaching Dark Ones. The setting, beginning, end, and many of the major characters all survive the transition from one medium to another largely intact. Were all mention of the title “Metro 2033to be removed from the game, no one who had read the novel could fail to recognize it as the same story, any less than, to return to Juul’s argument, the events of a Pride and Prejudice movie can be recognized by those who have read the novel.

Although McLuhan’s oft-quoted catchphrase declares that “The Medium is the Message,” what is less often cited is his accompanying statement that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (McLuhan 7, 8). Video game software can thus be viewed as a medium of communication filled with both implicit and optional elements including interactive gameplay, graphics, and narrative, each of which is a medium in itself and carries its own message which interweaves with others to contribute to the meanings created by the video game as a whole. Games are not, intrinsically, narratives, any more than a film or a book is. But they are a valid and unique platform for telling stories.

 

Sources:

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse : Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978. Print.

Glukovsky, Dmitry. Metro 2033. Trans. Natasha Randall. London: Gollancz, 2011. Print.

The Graveyard. Dev. Harvey, Auriea and Michaël Samyn.  Tale of Tales. 2008. Video game.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person. Electronic Book Review, 2004. Web. 2 December 2012.

Juul, Jesper. “Games Telling Stories?Game Studies. 1.1 (2001). Web. 11 November 2012.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005. eBook.

Metro 2033. Vers. 1.0.0.1. Dev. 4A Games. THQ Inc. 2010. Video game.

“narrative.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. OED.com. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.

“video game.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. OED.com. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.

Technologie

By | November 14, 2012

I’ve been a good little consumer this month. Got my Starbucks gold card, got my Best Buy silver premier membership, opened a Newegg Preferred account. I haven’t gone credit crazy; I’m actually in considerably less debt than I was this time last year. But I was in a position this month to take care of a few tech upgrades I’ve been meaning to make. Let the technobabble begin.

First, I updated my main desktop PC to an SSD drive and Windows 7 64-bit, something long overdue. Honestly, the performance jump hasn’t been as much as I was hoping for, but the rest of my system is running on some slightly dated hardware, so I wasn’t able to get the newest drive. Within the next year or two I expect to be building a whole new system, so we’ll see what’s what then. I also updated my home media center PC into a blu-ray capable system, and promptly learned that finding software to play blu-ray is much more difficult than I might have imagined. It makes me wonder if Sony being too picky about the licensing of that technology will ultimately speed its abandonment in favor of all-digital video. At the very least, it may speed -my- abandonment of it. I do like special features though, so we’ll see.

Finally, I made the switch to an iPhone 5. So far I’m really enjoying it. I usually upgrade every generation, so my 4 was starting to show its age. The lighter weight and expanded screen size on the 5 are both nice, but the real killer feature for me so far is the LTE network, which really blows 3G speeds out of the water. And I know I’m a year late on this, but I’m actually really impressed with Siri. She’s no thinking AI assistant, but for the things she’s set up to do she actually works really well, and is a lot faster than doing it manually. I already regularly use Siri for setting reminders, keeping a shopping list, or just playing a certain artist or playlist. I’m excited to see where future iterations of this technology might go. I’ve always said that I hope to either talk with an AI or walk on another world in my lifetime, and so far science has been dragging its feet.

My life depends on my phone and my calendar right now. I’ve got every class, every due date, every study session in there, as well as my work hours, social obligations, etc. My full calendar with all the events is a terrifying thing to behold, an explosion of color and commitments. But just one more month, and my time should clear up. Oh, the things I’ll do then. The books I’ll read, the games I’ll play. I may finally get all my laundry put away. May even pick up the dust-covered guitar that I never learned to play, or the book of shadow puppets I’ve barely opened, or any of several other inane random talents that I’ve resolved to pick up at some point or another. May even get back to work on the novel that’s been hibernating on my hard drive for months, or, heaven forbid, visit the gym. For now, though, my focus is still on these final few weeks of the semester, on keeping up with the work, and especially with getting to sleep on time. It really makes a difference.

 

-Tim

November

By | November 8, 2012

I’m eight days in, and already it’s a choppy month. I’ve cut myself off from social media for the duration, which means no Twitter and no Facebook. So far this has had a positive effect on my free time and my work, although I haven’t gotten to where I’m consistently writing, studying or cleaning as much as I’d like yet. My main goal in the short term is to force myself to become more of a morning person. It’s proving difficult, but not yet impossible: even if I’m not yet full of energy in the morning, I’m now generally getting enough sleep that I’m not exhausted during the day. Hopefully by December I’ll have gotten used to going to bed at a reasonable hour, which in itself will be a victory. The other thing I’m coming to terms with is that I may in fact be trying to do too much, and reducing my leisure activities will not be enough to let me accomplish all the tasks I wish I was every day. By stripping myself down to basics, I can recognize the real limits of my own capabilities.

For all my concerns though, things are going well. Even if I’ve had to pull a couple of all-nighters to get things done, all of the feedback I’ve gotten from instructors has been positive. This past week I registered for my spring courses, which should be the last semester I’m stuck in lower division courses. I wasn’t able to get into a music class I wanted to take as an elective, but I found a different one on European folklore that fits my schedule well, is interesting for anyone who writes fantasy and mythic structure like myself, and even includes a friend from my ACC days in the bargain. As last minute substitutions go, I think it works out pretty great.

Being an undergraduate student at 26 is an interesting experience, although I’m not sure I’d recommend it. I’m just old enough that I can pass for a senior, but at the same time any time I mention I’m in school, people assume I’m a graduate student. I’ve got neither the energy of someone younger nor the knowledge of someone older, but a little bit of both. So far it’s been enough to get by on, and I hope that it continues to be.

This is not a very cohesive blog post. It’s more a substitute for tweeting than anything else. Reply to me with your favorite brand of toothpaste, and what you feel it says about you as a person.

My PAX Prime 2012 report

By | September 11, 2012

It’s been over a week now, so this may not qualify as the timliest of blog posts. But I did attend PAX Prime again this summer, my sixth outing to that show since it started in 2004. It’s changed a lot in the past eight years, becoming both much larger and more organized. Being a regular attendee is nice because I sort of have my bearings at this point, and don’t feel like I’m missing out on everything, because I’ve had a lot of the experiences that PAX offers.

At the same time, every show is a little different. For instance, last year there were several new games coming out that I Was interested in, so I spent a lot of time in the expo hall. I wanted to get my hands on Mass Effect III, Skyrim, Knights of the Old Republic, Skyward Sword, and several other titles, before they came out in stores. The downside of that was that I missed out on a lot of panels and other events that were going on outside the expo hall. By contrast, there really aren’t that many games that interest me, and I spent a lot more of my time in the event theaters. A welcome addition to the programming at PAX this year were several panels focused on narrative and writing, specifically in a science fiction and fantasy context. There were panels on creating non-human races, magic systems, fight scenes, villains…this is all just candy to me, as in past years I’ve been stuck with a lot of panels on art and game design. A lot of what I heard at some of these panels has already affected my plans for current works I have in progress, and I was fortunate enough to get to participate in several Q&A sessions as well. In fact, one concept I came up with on the fly to illustrate a point ended up being returned to throughout much of the non-human races panel, and may now end up turning up in one of my stories.

None of this is to say that I didn’t spend any time in the expo hall, as there were still many great games to see there. Mostly I was checking out Assassin’s Creed III, as I’ve been invested in that particular series from the beginning. Sadly, there wasn’t much new to see of it. The demo they showed was almost identical to what’s been seen before, although they did drop a few gameplay tidbits here and there about bear-baiting and dog-petting. Also interesting to me is the impending launch of Nintendo’s Wii U console, so I made sure to get my hands on that and play a little Mario. Verdict- the game was kind of ho-hum! I was not impressed by the gameplay; it plays like a Mario game but I wasn’t feeling the charm. But that controller feels pretty nice. Much lighter than I expected. I’m not too worried about Nintendo delivering on amazing games later on; it’s kind of what they do. However, it is disappointing that they aren’t really coming out swinging on this launch.

One other difference in PAX this year was that I had friends from Austin along for the ride, and on Sunday we settled down for some low-key boardgaming in the tabletop freeplay area. We stumbled upon a card game called We Didn’t Playtest This At All, which ended up being the most immense fun I’ve had in awhile. It’s cheap and it’s super-easy to learn, so I can’t recommend it enough. The only problem is I’m informed that there’s a card stating that all players named Tim lose, which doesn’t really work for me.

Finally, I spent a bit of time browsing the merch. Now I’ve made no secret in the past for my love of Fangamer, they put out some fantastic designs based on classic games. If you haven’t seen their Kickstarter yet, check it out, it ends tomorrow so there’s still time to get some cool shirts. However, right next to the Fangamer booth was another apparel company that I hadn’t seen before, who also had some really great designs. SO if you have time, be sure to check out Sanshee. Just don’t buy the Deku Tree shirt because it will be awkward if we both wear it.

 

-Tim

Summer Streaming Gems

By | August 16, 2012

Just a quick post today to share some interesting films I’ve seen lately that might not be on your radar. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re all available for streaming on Netflix.

 

Lo

 

This film is weird and dark and weird and experimental and weird, but the experiment works. It accomplishes some very cool things within its limited setting, not the least of which was surprising me. That alone gets it a mention.

 

Bottle Shock

 

It’s got a fantastic cast and an intriguing premise, but this movie does suffer from a couple too many subplots, most especially the unnecessary love triangle. It’s really a symptom of focusing on too many characters, but they’re all quite well executed so it’s difficult to say which should be trimmed. Despite the bloated structure, this film made me laugh and made me want to know more about wine, both worthy feats.

 

Everything Must Go

 

Will Ferrell, why don’t you do more dramatic roles? You’re good in them. Stranger Than Fiction was a treasure, and this film was yet more proof that you can play more than just a buffoon. It’s slow and quiet and slightly depressing, but also very amusing and sympathetic. A movie about beginning some relationships and moving on from others.

 

Monsters

 

This film is just gorgeous. It’s got kind of an odd pace and not as much really happens in it as you might expect, but the visual style and sense of atmosphere are simply top-notch. If District 9 and Children of Men had a quiet, contemplative love child, this movie would be it. This is not a film about fighting aliens, but rather the character-focused drama of two people on a journey in a world that happens to be occupied by hostile creatures from another world. It’s a unique take on the genre and worth seeing.

 

When I finished my first draft of this post I realized I’d used the word “interesting” in all four descriptions and the opening. That just wouldn’t do, and I’m so glad I caught it. That’s all the films I have to recommend for now, but do let me know if you’ve seen any of these and liked or hated them, or if you have any other recommendations to share.

 

-Tim