Aaron Yells at Clouds: Narrative Ownership in Games

Perhaps it’s because I grew up playing video games in the era of consoles, where you had no choice in anything, and didn’t play a game where you had a choice in anything until after grad school, but there’s been something happening in comment sections of games journalism sites lately that’s really bothered me. (No, not the whole Gamergate thing. That’s not even worth flippantly talking about.) The issue I’m talking about is that there seem to be a very vocal group of gamers who demand that developers be constantly open with their development processes, that they—the gamers—have full choice within games, and, before the games are made, have a voice in what the game is and what it becomes. Now, it also may be the fact that, primarily, when I think of narrative, the thing that pops into my head is the novel or short story. In that, it would be patently absurd for readers to make the same kinds of demands. (Granted, that doesn’t seem to stop some rabid fanbases like the A Song of Ice and Fire crowd from doing just that.) Why? Because novels and short stories are, ostensibly, one-way media. Setting aside the idea that you should be interacting with text, we’re left with the notion that games are the only true interactive art form. Thus, goes the thinking, shouldn’t gamers have more of a say in things?

It probably won’t surprise you to see that, no. I don’t think that’s the case at all.

Backing up, though, there are a few things that prompted this. The first being the comment section on a Polygon article inspired by our second thing, this post on Ask a Game Dev. As a summary, a game developer talked about developers’ practices of being tight-lipped on details about anticipated games, and what the gaming public’s reaction usually means for them. Third, posts and comment threads like this on the SWTOR subreddit. We’re getting super nerdy here, so a little description might be worthwhile: Bioware, maker of the game Star Wars: The Old Republic, are releasing a new expansion that, they say, will drastically change the way the game is played. Beyond that, and some hints about changes to the way your companions will be handled, the way in-game professions will be handled, and a few other things, they’ve not been forthcoming with information. The subreddit has been reacting exactly like you’d think they would: Stopping just short of calling BioWare fascists. The fourth is the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle which probably prompted BioWare to not share many details on things in the future. There are tons of thinkpieces about that floating around online, so feel free to do your research on that. I’d rather not revisit it in this space.

The running theme in all of this has been that the vocal gaming public has shouted for more knowledge of games that they want to play. They say, in a commonly-held idea, that they pay a lot for games, and so they should be entitled to more say than, for example, someone who goes to see a movie. (In my mind, this is an example of some pretty faulty logic. A movie is $12 and a game is $60 because of a lot of reasons, scale among them. Paying more money for media does not mean you get more say, otherwise Comcast would have millions of shareholders.)

Growing up when I did, and playing the games that I did, this strikes me as utterly insane. If developers want to bring the public into the creative process, then that’s fine, but they must have a much higher regard for the public than I do. I’ve tried to think of what Blizzard’s games would be like if the fans had any say in it, and all I can think of now is that World of Warcraft would oscillate wildly between the easiest thing in the world, and something you have to turn into a job where you put in doctor hours.

But at the heart of it all, I think there’s a simple misunderstanding: When people talk about “investing” in a game, they’re misunderstanding the metaphor. You are not investing money in a game. You are investing money in the chance to be entertained. You are paying for a product, and when you pay for a product, you get whatever the product is. Sure, you can change the way future products are made, but you have to open a sane dialog with the manufacturer, or boycott, or any number of post-purchase actions.

Investing in something, on the other hand, is very different. You give an organization a large amount of money beforehand with the expectation that a) you will see a return on that money and b) you may have the chance to steer the company—usually in the form of being involved in shareholders’ meetings or, if you have enough money, at the start of the company. I’m making an assumption here, but something tells me that gamers are not bankrolling BioWare or EA in order to fund wide releases.

The counter to all of this is Kickstarter, or Indiegogo, or a new thing called Fig. Fig seems to be a combination of Steam and Kickstarter, but with a little less communication between creator and backer. I don’t know what to think about that, mainly because the linked Polygon article is so gushing in tone that I come away deeply skeptical. However, the article does point out something important that should keep at bay the hordes of gamers shouting about gamer agency:

“The reason why they were coming in and providing that money was because they trusted so much the creative control brought by the developer. We love getting our community involved in these games, but it’s community-informed. I don’t think you want a community-designed game.”

A community-designed game, I think would be a deeply post-modern thing. A chimera so hideous that none would be able to look upon it without their faces melting a la Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that’s not just me being elitist. When you have an entire community designing something, it becomes a game of telephone, or one of those writing exercises where people write a sentence or a paragraph and pass it along. Occasionally, you might get a good plot, but by and large, it’s going to be absurdism without the art.

Who, then, owns the games? Well, the artist. The same answer as you find in novels or films. It’s their narrative, and while they may be willing to ask for input, they get the final say. Why? Because they’re doing the work in creating something. Compromises may be made along the way, and the finished product may be vastly different than what comes out at the end, but when it’s all said and done, it’s the artist who created the world and they get to say where it’s going to go from here.

The best example of this in non-games, I think, is Star Wars. Here’s a series that started off with three movies that were wildly different from their original inception, then expanded upon with three prequels that people over the age of 8 hated. The movies may completely ignore the language of film, storytelling, and any number of other, important things, but George Lucas stood by his creation, and you have to respect him for that.

So, what? What am I saying to people who are frustrated that they’re not receiving information about things at a steady enough pace for them to feel okay with the future of a game franchise?

Partially, I’m saying that these people should calm the hell down. We live in a time where, if you binge-watched an entire season of a scripted show a day, you would not be able to watch all of the new television shows in a year. And that’s just scripted TV! That’s not counting reality TV, talk shows, sports, or the news! Not to mention movies! Books! Magazines! Other games! We, in fact, live in a rough approximation of the world built in Huxley’s Brave New World, except for the fact that our government is not nearly as benign as theirs. My point being: If you want to do something other than rend your hair and grind your teeth in anticipation of not having a flawless gaming experience, you have other options. You have so many other options. You have, I think, too many other options, to the point where, if we, as a society, were smart, we’d say, “No. That is enough, thank you. I do not need any more; I’m just fine as it is.”

But we’re not. So we’ll keep making media, and in the case of games, you’ll continue to see baffling statistics like this: From May 12 to June 12, people who played Witcher 3 just on PC logged 1,770 years‘ worth of playtime. What that means is if you made that a real life block of time, and placed it chronologically in the continuum of human history, a very unfortunate strawman Witcher 3 would have started when a Roman Emperor named Philip (yeah, good luck finding people who knew about him without looking up the year 245 on Wikipedia) did… well, Imperial stuff, would have continued through the fall of Rome, onward through Charlemagne, the Inquisition, the Reformation, the colonization of the New World, the Enlightenment, the Napoleonic Wars, both World Wars, the Cold War, the Iraq wars, and then, stepping outside for a Doritos and Mountain Dew break, would have been sunburned immediately, as his skin would have become translucent and Gollum-like.

My point to gamers is this: You have other options. Calm down. If you’re dead set on playing games, then find something else until more information is released. Shouting about not being respected just makes people who aren’t you respect you less. You would, rather, probably be better off if you went and read a book.

I Announce My Candidacy for Presidency of the United States of America

It’s about that time, friends. The 24-hour news networks are visibly salivating, Iowa and New Hampshire are laying down sandbags and preparing safe spaces for politicians and their entourages, and the Internet is getting to be even more unbearable and vitriolic than it usually is. That’s right: Election season is upon us once more, and, though we may not be prepared for it, we have no say in the matter. Like a great tidal wave of feces and bodily fluids, we’re forced to endure another year and a half of talking points that shift endlessly like the sands, attempting to catch and ride the zeitgeist and fervor for whatever minor issue the public thinks they want to hear people in suits shout about.

And, as with every other election season, I hereby announce my candidacy for President of the United States of America under the Iron Fist Party. Though we have not won office yet, we, like Trump, will not give up. For we know more than anyone else that it is our policies and our zeal that will lead this country to glory. Not the fleeting, transient glory promised by the Republicans or the Democrats, but a strong, thousand-year reign that shall stand unchallenged until the inevitable heat-death of the universe.

Now, we don’t expect the good folks of the United States to take our word for the fact that we’ll bring the country to glory unheard of. No, Americans are a strong, stiff-necked people who demand proof – or, barring that, shouting that’s loud enough to cow them into submission and allow the strong to break their stiff necks. Not that the Iron Fist Party would ever dream of doing such a thing. No, we love and value peace more than anything else in this wide world, and do not plan to rule by coercion. That is the method of the weak, and the Iron Fist Party is the Party of the Strong.

The Iron Fist Party is strong. Stronger than any party seen on the face of the Earth, or imagined by the most opium-addled mind born out of the angst and pre-World War climate of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Where many political institutions have, in the past, attempted to attain Godhood for their chiefs of state, or complete and utter rule of their committees, the Iron Fist Party shall successfully maintain such a state, secured by a fully indoctrinated armed forces and the love of a cowed populace.

What we hope to accomplish is simple: Complete and utter hegemony of the governmental functionings of the United States. We will overhaul the Constitution so much that no one will quite be able to recognize it. The President shall be the Premier, the Prime Minister, the Commander-In-Chief, and The Supreme Dictator – and, within ten years of being elected, shall be known as The Godhead Whom All Revere and Love.

But, you ask, what will we do with that power? Well, as the Iron Fist is not yet in power, you are in your rights to ask such a question. What’s more, we shall answer: First off, and with no hesitation, there shall be the complete outlawing of the ability to make a profit in the United States. Yes, anyone who establishes a business shall turn over all profits to the State, which shall redistribute the profits as it sees fit, with no oversight. Any company found to attempt to flee overseas in order to escape this initiative shall be brought under the control of the State, and its executives executed publicly as a reminder that the State is all-powerful. However, it should be noted that the Iron Fist Party is in favor of a free market. You, as a citizen, have the right to establish whatever business you see fit, just as long as that business turns its profits over to the State. Once the Iron Fist Party is in power, rest assured, there will be no restrictions on what sort of business may operate in the borders of the United States – unless, that is, your business name annoys the Head of the Party, or uses “disruptive” in its company biography. If that is the case, you will be sent to a work camp.

Speaking of work camps, the Iron Fist Party knows that the best way for a nation to lead the world is to have an employed populace. Thus, any citizen who, after searching six months for a job, cannot find a job, will be placed in a work camp to be guaranteed a living wage and living for the benefit of the State. At these work camps, citizens will be able to enjoy all the conveniences of a modern life, including State-approved television,[1] State-approved novels,[2] and State-approved music.[3] Internet access will be limited to the Hamster Dance page and Leek Spin. Citizens will be able to leave the work camp once they have attained a set level of benefit to the State, at which point they will undergo a thorough check-up and, if healthy enough, may be eligible to remain in the work camps for as long as they desire.

The Iron Fist Party, like many groups in the nation, is very concerned about the growing influence of consumerism in the world. We view this shift from culture to consumption as the greatest of all ills that savage capitalism has brought upon the world, and, as such, will force boutique stores, malls, and all other stores deemed “decadent” by the Committee to Obliterate Capitalism to be shuttered and their executives sent to work camps. Any citizen whose buying habits are deemed excessive shall be sent to reeducation camps where they will see the glory of a life of asceticism. Their progress shall be monitored by State observers who, when satisfied with the progress of the citizens, shall be in charge of assigning the citizen to a rehabilitation center where, in stages, they shall learn to glorify the State.

On equal rights for all: The Iron Fist Party is of the belief that all citizens are equal. Thus, the Party shall establish guidelines for monitoring the speech of all citizens in all public or private areas. If a citizen is found to be using language that does not conform to these guidelines, they shall be sent to a work camp, no matter their sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, or other identifier. As above, there shall be stages of rehabilitation into society, determined at the camps by State-approved psychologists.

On sports and entertainment: The Iron Fist Party joins many Americans in enjoying sports. To ensure cultural solidarity, the Party has decreed that, once in power, the only legal sport shall be baseball. The current commissioner shall be sent to a work camp. Anyone found playing a sport other than baseball shall be sent to a remote, isolated work camp and will not be able to rejoin society. Entertainment shall be restricted to the forms mentioned above, and, on holidays, the public shall be able to listen to Beethoven. At most other times, the public shall listen to Xenakis’s “Metastasis” as a reminder the the world is a dissonant chamber where no comfort may be found. Any individual found to be listening to anything other than Xenakis or Beethoven (on holidays), shall be publicly executed.

On language: As with the free market, the State shall not stand in the way of individuals speaking whatever language they like. However: All business, governmental work, and public discussion shall take place in either English or Yiddish. Anyone found to be speaking in languages other than those two languages shall be sent to a reeducation camp for betterment of the self and the State. This is for the eternal betterment of the Iron Fist Party, the citizenry of the United States of America and, ultimately, the world. For though some of you may be reading this and think that you do not want to be under the heel of such an organization, we of the Iron Fist Party know that you, in fact, want that.

How do we know that?

Because, like ants, you scramble your entire lives, looking for peace in the things that you buy, or the places that you go – anywhere but where you are at that very moment. You look for peace by trying to find it in the beck and call of a religion of a God who is so alien to you that you know nothing of Him, but, because of the wiring in your brain, you delude yourself into thinking that you do. Or, conversely, because you have reasoned yourself into a corner, thinking that since you are an intelligent person, and have not been conned by the fraudsters, why should you be conned by the priests? So you’ve marched out into the Internet and looked for reassurance, and, having found it, willfully accept nihilism. We of the Iron Fist know that you are just looking for belonging. And we shall give you that belonging. All you must do is kneel.

And that is why, in November 2016, when you vote in the election, you’ll look at the ballot in front of you, at the names of the people who say that they know what it is that you want from life, and you’ll think to yourself that there must be an alternative.

Friends, we are that alternative.

The Iron Fist Party: Kneel.


[1] The Golden Girls and The Bob Newhard Show

[2] Thus Spake Zarathustra and The Stranger

[3] Xenakis

So You’ve Become Addicted To Mad Max

Now you’ve done it. You’ve ignored Immortan Joe’s advice to not become addicted to things, because they will take hold of you and you will begin to resent their absence.

You’ve gone and gotten addicted to the best-crafted film of the last ever. It’s understandable: Mad Max: Fury Road is amazing and, like Immortan Joe’s brand, sears itself onto your brain. While you sit through mediocre action movies, and a car or something flips after a sad excuse for a stunt, Coma the Doof Warrior will continue to shred and you may be tempted to be witnessed to the gates of Valhalla, where you will ride shiny and chrome for all eternity.

But fret not, friends, for there are things you can do to tide yourself over to the home video release—and this thing has to have a Steelbox edition coming out; otherwise, what the hell is the point of that stuff?

The first thing you can do, obviously, is to keep seeing the movie in theaters. To continue attempting to slam it directly into your eyes as it’s projected onto the big screen and, at the end of the run, when it’s just you and the other psychos who have seen the movie ten times, you will know that you have done all that you can in order to get the most out of the theatrical run.

Truly, that’s not the worst thing you could do with your money. It’s surely better than going thrift shopping, or buying ironic clothes, or whatever it is people do with the money when they’re not spending it on going to see Mad Max: Fury Road. However, is that the best thing you can do? What about other options?

Well, honestly, and I’m dropping some of the fever-pitch chrome-infused fanaticism, here: You should see at least Mad Max and The Road Warrior. Why? Surely they’re just disappointing. Surely they can’t explore the wastelands via the lens of a two-hour chase sequence interspersed with fluid characterization so well done that the engines barely have time to cool off. Well, you’d be right; they’re not high-octane crazy blood, but they are still fantastic movies in their own right. Let’s look at Mad Max.

Mad Max starts “a few years from now,” when society is perilously close to the edge of falling completely away from civilization. Max is a cop with the Main Force Patrol, an organization that may not be fully official, and whose officers are nearly as bloodthirsty and lawless as the bikers and murderers they hunt. But hey, they have the decency to drive brightly-colored cars and wear a uniform of bitchin leather jackets.

The movie opens with an intense chase scene that foreshadows Max’s end-movie tipping point as the MFP chases a criminal calling himself the Night Rider. As the Night Rider shakes off MFP pursuers, it looks like he’s going to get away, but, of course, Max chases him down and just with his sheer driving skill and with the help of his more-souped up Interceptor, literally drives the Night Rider insane, winding up with the villain dying in a car wreck.

After this, and before the movie turns into a Peckinpah Western, we get glimpses of the world at large. Max and his wife watch the news, with its just-out-of-clear-earshot reports of the world falling down a spiral of war and scarce resources, and you can see their hopes of a stable life on the coast of Australia start to fade in front of their eyes while they recline next to their toddler’s crib.

The next day, as a biker gang led by a man named Toecutter comes into town and the head of the Main Force Patrol gives Max and his partner, Goose—you probably know what’s going to happen to Goose, with that name—the task of taking down the gang. After a few tense scenes, Max resigns the force, the chief gives him the typical speech about how he’s a damn good cop and the people need him, and Max ends up going on holiday to take some time to think. He takes his family, and this is when the movie begins to become a combination of Western and thriller.

I’m not going to spoil it, but, generally speaking, Mad Max is George Miller working within the confines of a much smaller budget than his later Max films. He still has the same pacing, eye for detail, and sense of practical effects and what they mean for characters, but you see the action on a much smaller scale. Unlike Beyond Thunderdome or Fury Road, Mad Max focuses on a man and his family. The outside world, here, is not a character, but something that Max and fam need to avoid if they want to survive and keep some semblance of a normal lifestyle, even when the lawlessness of the outside world is roaring down on them in choppers. With Mad Max, we see Miller working with something approaching realism and sanity. Everyone in the world has not yet gone crazy, and it’s not until the final scenes, when Max rides off into a vague and threatening Restricted Area that the trappings of civilization are shed behind him.

Is it worth a watch? Hell yeah. Just don’t go into it expecting Fury Road. Go into it expecting Peckinpah meets Easy Rider and a splash of Dirty Harry and you’ll be happy.

Now, Road Warrior is a different story. Where Mad Max‘s strength is the intensity built up in honed-in sequences and focus on characters’ relationships, Road Warrior turns its focus to Max’s place in a post-apocalyptic world, the setting that would become synonymous with the Max franchise.

Now, here, I won’t go into a movie breakdown like I did with Mad Max. Road Warrior is the more well-known of the two, having started with good press, and not suffering from a bizarre production choice of dubbing over the original actors with American voice actors. (That was done in a time when studios were a little more blatant with their disregard for audiences’ intelligences.) It’s the movie that set the tone for the following films in the series, and it’s set up to be less about Max than it is the people Max runs into. If you haven’t seen the movie, then it’s best to go into it with a purely clean slate. It’s weird. It’s brilliantly shot. The plot is so minimally done, but rich, that you will cheat yourself by reading a synopsis before watching it—unlike Mad Max, which requires a bit of an explanation of what it’s all about, the themes it works with, and the cinematic vocabulary it has at its heart.

What I’m going to talk about, though, is that this is where Miller starts really playing with the ideas he started presenting in Mad Max. Dystopias find their meat in defining the world as it exists after a collapse, and with Road Warrior, we find that definition fully fleshed out. Where its predecessor was focused on exploring how a normal man would try to survive in a world on the brink, the second film in the series works with that man’s place in a world he’s not fully a part of. It’s the theme that’s prevalent in Thunderdome and Fury Road: Max is less the central character and more the audience stand-in. In Road Warrior, Max does not set out to be the hero of the movie; he’s just there for the gasoline. We’re there for the thrills.

The action in this movie is pared down from what we’re used to, especially in Fury Road. While Miller had a much bigger budget than the first film (Road Warrior: $4m AUD vs Mad Max: $400k AUD), there’s not a lot of explosions outside of the end of the film—and while that final chase scene is great and a thoroughly good precedent for Fury Road (not to mention interesting when you look at the implications it presents WHICH WE WILL!), it’s not quite the star. In my opinion, the star of Road Warrior is the world. It’s like a Bethesda game, for my gaming friends: You don’t go into an Elder Scrolls property for the overarching story, you go into it to learn about a new province. Much the same way, you go into a Mad Max movie to see how different groups have generated a society in this post-society world.

And, with that in mind, the gyrocopters and steel boomerangs are just flavors for the world that Miller created. Everything on the screen serves the purpose of finding out about the world, and it’s for that reason that, of the Mel Gibson trilogy, Road Warrior is definitely the most solid of the three.

Thunderdome is a divisive beast. It… well. It’s Thunderdome. Just… yeah.

Ahem.

Now that you’ve gone and watched all three of the original movies, let’s discuss narrative framing! That’s right! We’re now going to talk about a plotting device that you normally see discussed in depth in writing workshops and literature classes. However, never fear, because I’m writing this while in the office, and because they’re still in Nashville, I don’t have access to all my super smart books that talk about theory. Instead, for those of you who don’t know, narrative framing refers to stories that are framed by another narrative. A good example of this is The Princess Bride, which is a story told by a grandfather to his grandson.

But what does that have to do with Mad Max? Well, the Internet theorymill got going and pointed out that, since the second movie is framed by former Feral Child, is it not possible that Max is a folk hero of the wastes? Instead of Road Warrior and Thunderdome—and, possibly, Fury Road—being literal depictions of the adventures of Max, they’re stories told by, well, storytellers. The idea going that down the line, the stories about a guy who’s been roaming the wastes after the fall of society probably did some cool stuff for people, but in the great game of oral telephone that followed, Max is now hanging on to a souped-up dragster that’s hurtling into a wall of tornadoes, dust, and lightning.

Aside from what we see in Road Warrior, there’s some “textual” evidence to back this up. All of the movies end in roughly the same way. After eliminating the threat to a community, Max rejects joining a stable society, knowing that, on losing his wife and son, there’s no place for him in the world. (In Mad Max, the film ends with the death of Toecutter and Max’s self-exile to the Restricted Area; in Road Warrior, Max defeats Humungous and does not join the community on their journey to the coast; in Thunderdome, he helps the kids escape the more evil demons of Bartertown; in Fury Road, he chooses to leave the Citadel.) It’s a good way to end the story, very knight errant-y of Max to be a roaming do-gooder, a Road Warrior looking for a righteous cause, because without that cause, he has no reason to be.

Further, we have strong hints that each of the movies after the first one have been framed by some outside narrator. In the second one, it’s the former Feral Child; in the third, it’s probably one of the kids he helped; in Fury Road, it’s The First History Man, who only appears in on-screen text.

Does any of this have a strong effect on the movies? No, not really; but it is a pretty neat lens through which to watch the movies—or at least just Fury Road, because let’s face it: You’re going to see that movie again. It’s a level of meta that, usually, only the academics in their tower get to play around with while reading Borges or, I don’t know, Danielewski.