Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Character Transformations and Vicissitudes

A good story is all about change. Without change, nothing happens, there's no excitement, no tension, no action. The whole structure of storytelling is to open with tension inherent in the situation--a combination of factors that means change is inevitable, and what we watch over the course of the story is how those factors and tensions resolve themselves into change.

What is not interesting is just jumping to the conclusion, and showing the results of the change without showing the process of the change.

This comes up a lot in discussions around portrayal of characters. I've been criticised at times, and had the criticism of other authors, that occasionally characters seem unbelievable because they do something, "out of character." The author's comeback is inevitably, "well, they changed! Isn't that the whole point of character growth?"

Yes and no... character growth does involve changes, but you need to bring the reader along on the ride. The reader doesn't just want to see the results of a change, they want to be there, pace by pace with the character as that character transforms.

Mark Kennedy, an artist and animator whose work I admire, wrote that the essence of humor is watching a character think. He cites the moment in classic cartoons when an animated character runs off a cliff, keeps running, slowly looks down, sees nothing underneath him, starts to look back up (legs still pumping) and then suddenly does a double take, eyes bugging out as he finally realizes he's about to fall. Only then does the character plummet downward. That moment of watching the character realize the predicament they're in, is the essence of the humor.

I would take this a step further, and say that watching a character think is the essence of drama as well.

Here's an example: imagine a supporting character shows up in one scene trying to help the hero, and shows up in the next scene trying to kill the hero, then (without any explanation), shows up in a still later scene trying to help again. Pretty wierd, right?

Now recall the moment from Buffy: The Musical Episode, when Spike, sitting alone, smoking and brooding, sings, "I hope she dies, I'm free if that bitch dies," then, tossing his cigarette away and standing up, immediately follows this with, "I better help her out."

Not only is that moment hilarious (called it, Kennedy) but it takes you into Spike's mind. You see the conflicting desires that rage in his heart, but what tells is the one that comes out on top in the end. It's a great moment of internal conflict. However, if he had acted on those words and *actually* tried to kill her, then turned around and tried to help her, that would have been wierd and deeply off-putting.

Another example is described by Kennedy in a recent post (go about halfway down to the part about the Detectorists) where he describes a quick series of shots that takes only seconds, but show the process of a character thinking and changing. A guy starts lonely because his girlfriend has moved out. While taking out the trash, he finds a positive pregnancy kit. There's a shot of his face, showing how much this rocks him. Then it cuts to a shot of a half-empty bottle. Then it cuts to him leaving a voicemail for her saying how much he loves her and wants her back.

If we hadn't been there along the way, seen the pregnancy kit, the shock, the alcohol, the implication of time passing due to how much of the bottle he's drunk, then the transformation in him would be strange to the point of being nonsensical. But we do have those things, and so you're there with the character as he transforms, you see the time it takes for him to come to this decision (the bottle's half-empty; he must have spent time thinking about it) without having to take all that time yourself (we don't have two hours of him drinking on screen, just cut to a half-empty bottle.)

All too often I see moments in movies or books where suddenly a character is behaving in a way that is very different from what I would expect, knowing them as I do. Once in a long while this can be used to great effect, to build tension (why is she doing this all of a sudden?), but that has to be used a special way: rarely and with a huge and unmistakeable change. Much more commonly it's a slight dissonance which leaves you feeling like maybe you just didn't know the character as well as you thought, and that detaches you from the character, and by extension, from the story.

The point is, when you're writing a character's transformations, don't show the change in action until you show the change in thought. Give the reader insight into the character's heart and mind as it changes. Only then will the change in action make sense.

As Kennedy says, cut to the face, and show the audience how the character is reacting.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Lost Cavern has returned!

Fantastic news, everyone! About four years ago, my computer was stolen, causing me to lose hundreds of hours of work, and prompting me to switch to cloud storage permanently. I JUST NOW discovered that I had actually emailed one of those projects to a friend right before the computer was lost. I HAVE IT BACK!

Of the two projects I lost, the one I had put more time into was an RPG Maker VX game which was very dear to my heart. Between losing 3/4 of the progress I'd made on it, and finding myself dismayed by how time consuming building games in RPGmaker is, I abandoned the project after losing it.

But ever since then, that story has remained in my mind. Recently, I've started writing it down (one scene each day, as a warmup... this is the story I posted about a couple days ago). Working on the written version of the story reminded me of the game, and I went back and played the original brief bit I still had.

Reminded of how sad and frustrated I was by losing the rest of it that I had worked so hard on, I made one more attempt to search through email to see if I'd ever sent it to anyone. I don't know why I didn't find it four years ago, when I was desperate to recover this stuff, right after my computer was stolen. But somehow, I found it this time. WIN!

By the way, if anyone wants to play chapter one of a jrpg-style game I made, the files are linked below.

First, you have to download the game engine and install it, so you can play the game at all. Then you have to download my module.

Step 1: download the rtp (the game engine) here:
http://www.rpgmakerweb.com/download/additional/run-time-packages

Step 2: Unzip it and double-click Setup.exe to install it

Step 3: download my story module here:
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5ODM0C0gB6oMTJGNTIwRjJCRDBBMjMyNDowLjE/view?usp=sharing

Step 4: Unzip it and double Click Lost Cavern.exe to unpack those files

Step 5: Open the new Lost Cavern folder and click Game.exe to run it.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Proposal at the Edge of the World

For months I planned and waited, until the moment came for the two of us to get in a rental car and drive east, toward a city in the desert and family. We stopped first to spend the longest night of the year with dear friends. She charmed the children, gathering them to her flame like a pied piper, and she never looked more beautiful. I stood outside with the men while they smoked, and under the cold, bright winter moon, I told them my secret. They heartily cheered and clapped me on the back, and sent us off with many well-wishes.

In the mountains, we took refuge from the snow in the Cinnamon Bear Inn, where we opened each other's presents under a bright tree, sipping hot chocolate and warming ourselves in the glow of a merry fire and each other's affection.

Our next road took us through strange and uninhabited lands, through valleys untouched by man, over forests of stone, past lonely brothels and gas stations, and into that jewel of the wastes: Las Vegas. We walked the strip, sampling its delights (but not too deeply) and returned with gifts for friends and family.

The morning saw us back on the road, across the Hoover Damn, and swiftly out of the realm of civilization. My moment grew close now. It was with sweaty palms and a beating heart that I checked us in at the El Tovar Hotel, oldest and grandest of all inns at the Grand Canyon. She gasped like a child opening a present as she saw the grandeur of our suite. We stepped out together onto a balcony larger than my house, to look out at a world cloaked in white. We laughed together at the irony of coming this far to see nothing but the apparent edge of the world.

She dressed, and I dressed. From the bottom of my bag, I pulled a little package, pacing the room and muttering to myself (so I'm told). While she did her makeup, I slipped downstairs to claim our reservation at the most exclusive restaurant in the village. The staff gave me knowing winks and the best seat in the house, between a window and the fireplace. As she entered, one of them whispered to me, "She is lovely." And she was.

There, by the wood fire, I knelt and bared my soul. When she saw the ring, she burst into tears, nodding fiercely. My shaking hands reached for hers and slipped the ring onto it. A faceted Black Opal, glowing with all the colors under the rainbow in its dark depths, to those with the light to see it.

By the end of 2016, I will be a married man. I couldn't have found a better companion than Callie MacDonell to have by my side as we go through this journey we call life... together.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Sometimes I have overactive dreams

Night before last, I dreamed that I was a fighter in an army in this fantasy world. Our kingdom was under attack by a massive army of undead. At first, we went into the battle optimistic, certain that the outcome would be in our favor. But after the first few losses, we were no longer singing around the campfire at night.

We held our own, for a time, but then tragedy struck. In one disastrous battle, the spine of our army was broken. Nearly the entire army was wiped out, and those units which survived were separated from each other. My unit escaped with our lives, but as far as we knew, we were the next best thing to the last ones alive.

So it fell to us to hold the pass when the Undead army began to move to the heart of our kingdom, a great stone monolith that was our place of power. We fought with all the cleverness, courage and tactics we could muster. We fought, and we died. Soon it was just a few of us left. Then just me. And then I was injured, and could fight no more.

I was forced to watch, helpless, as the great hosts of the undead marched past. Only then, did I realize how hopeless our defense had been from the beginning. We had never stood a chance against their numbers and might.

But I refused to give up. Once the land was clear, I forced myself up, bandaged my wounds, and followed the skeletal host.

At the edge of the mountains, I came upon a terrible sight. The undead army had filled our most holy valley. They had taken the monolith, and the Skeleton King himself stepped onto its sacred grounds to perform the ritual that would taint it forever.

But there! One last, shining unit of the King's Knights, flying the banner of Lord Rhygar himself, stood to challenge the Dark King. As I watched, Lord Rhygar's man sounded the charge, his horn a clarion call across the battlefield. My heart sang to hear the music of their warhorns, the tramping of hooves.

And then I saw it... the Skeleton King stepped to the mystic boundary of the Holy Monolith, where ancient magics formed a protective barrier. With a word, he activated those magics, and a shimmering wall of force erupted around him. Absolutely impermeable.

I don't know why the Knights couldn't see it. No more did I understand why I could. But I knew it was there, and I knew how to destroy it--it's existence depended on the ancient sigil at the Skeleton King's feet.

That sigil must be destroyed, or the Knights' charge would break uselessly against the magic barrier, and they would be ground to oblivion by the unnumbered hordes of the undead already gathering behind them.

A strange power came over me. l began to run, faster than I had ever run before, faster than the Knights' horses. I had heard stories, on a time, of my people's Gods themselves stepping in, not to smite our enemies with lightning or the like, but to help individual heroes when they needed it most. Never had I expected such a blessing to fall on me, but I did not question it.

My legs pounded earth with power and agility I had never before known. My wounds did not hurt or slow me down, though I dared not ask what consequence this would have upon them. Slowly, I began to gain on the Knights. I would beat them to the barrier... but what then? I had no magical arts to break through the Skeleton King's dweomer.

Then my eye fell upon it. A sword, tall and mighty, stuck in the earth in its bearer's death throes. It was black and cold, as wide as my torso, longer than my height. Ice shimmered up and down its dark iron lengths. It had been the weapon of a champion, one of the Skeleton King's lieutenants. But that great brute had fallen now, and the weapon was mine.

I swept the sword up in one hand without breaking stride, marveling as my muscles were able to lift this titanic weapon with ease. And I ran. It's dark magics burned my hands with cold, and I ran. The knights approached the moment of their doom, and I ran.

I could see Lord Rhygar's face now, mouth wide in a battle cry, moustaches quivering as his lance lowered into striking position. It would shatter uselessly against the barrier... and his knights would have nothing to strike except the barrier, and him. Each wave of knights would pierce those who came before them, and all would be pinned and destroyed by the undead host coming hard on their heels. With them would die the last of our strength.

Fearing that I would be too late, I took a mighty leap. The Skeleton King saw me at last, his eyes widening. He was focused on maintaining his magical barrier, and helpless to interfere with me. Lord Rhygar saw me too, and checked his charge in amazement.

I raised the dark sword of iron and ice above me as I hurtled through the air. The sword was shrinking now, shifting in my grasp, trying to get away, or at least deny me its power. I wrestled the thing into submission, and held it above my head with both hands.

As the arc of my leap started to take me back down, my eyes locked on the ancient sigil at the Skeleton King's feet, the sigil he used to hold the barrier. That barrier should have been our last, best defense, by rights, but now it was our doom.

Right as I hit the ground, coming to one knee, I slammed the point of the sword into the sigil. A wave of power exploded from that collision, and my alarm went off.

I kept sleeping, refusing to let the Skeleton King win that easily. I pushed on the sword, willing it to overcome. Cracks began to appear in the sigil. I would win, I knew it, but in time? The vanguard of the undead forces were approaching my knights from the rear, and my alarm kept blaring.

I pushed, feeling the Skeleton King's weakness and mounting fear. But I was losing it. The cracks in the sigil, even Lord Rhygar and the Skeleton King himself, they all began to fade.

Callie stirred, and I woke. The dream was gone completely. I was left only with a fading question of whether I had faced impending victory... or complete and utter defeat. Hastily, we dressed to meet our taxi in the snowy New Mexico pre-dawn, which would take us to the airport and home.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Interactivity in Narrative Pt. 2

I've written a lot about interactivity in narrative, but I feel that I have a slightly different perspective on it now that I'm deeper into actually professionally writing interactive narratives. Last week I did some brainstorming about what makes good interactivity in narrative. In particular, we talked about the importance of meaningful consequences.

But having meaningful consequences is not the only thing important to a good choice. The other factor is that the choice itself presents as an interesting decision in the moment. There are a few pitfalls that could prevent that: having not enough information, having too much information, or one or the other choice is obviously better.

Here are a few types of choices I've been thinking about that have potential...

Fog of War Choices: A choice should be informed, but not obvious. If you know exactly what the outcomes will be of each choice, then it better be a damn hard choice or there's no choice at all. You'll just pick whichever one is better for you. Similarly, if you have no clues at all as to what lies behind each door, or the clues you think you do have are totally unrelated to the actual results, then again, there's no choice at all. You might as well flip a coin.

Speaking as an English teacher, I also want to say this is a great opportunity to evoke the skill of using clues in the text to make inferences. The way I imagine it, the most fun way to be informed about a choice is to only have the roughest outline spelled out for you, but to have more clues buried in the text. The reader needs to read closely and apply the skills of observation and critical thinking. If done well, this rewards the reader with a positive outcome. If the reader fails to observe a critical detail, or misapplies her logic, then she may be in for a nasty surprise.

Of course, the down-side of this type of writing is that it's only exciting once--on a second read-through, the player will simply remember the correct choice and select it. Boooring!

Which leads us to...

Difficult Choices: In an ideal world, the choices you make should not be easy. You have to pick between priorities. Which is more important to you, the life of this one survivor, or the crate of food that could mean the survival of your whole team? Which is more important to you, protecting the honor of your clan, or showing mercy on a hapless transgressor? 

Of course, as a reader... I want it all! It's actually a serious problem I have, both as a player and in life. But I do think it's artificial to constantly enforce difficult choices. Not every choice should force a terrible decision on the player. Sometimes it's satisfying to have a "right answer," which can be deduced, giving the player the thrill of victory when it's discovered that his guess was correct. 

Or, alternately, you could write a double difficult choice: do you pick A or B--or do you try for both, with the chance that if you try for both, you could lose both? This sort of question works well with the...

Strategic Choices: One which my partner in Dwarf King is quite fond of is the strategic choice, in which the player is not dealing with absolutes but with chances. No choice has a guaranteed outcome, instead, it will be based on a semi-predictable random factor, such as a skill check. In these cases, you can make a statistics based best-guess, but it's not absolute, preserving the replay value. This is cool because it values your prior decisions. If you've previously made the decision to specialize in diplomacy, you'll be more likely to attempt the diplomatic option to resolve a conflict, rather than go straight for the fighting option. This feels very true to life, but...

It does have the pitfall that if one option is clearly better--even if it's only better because of the prior choices you've made--it's still not really a choice. Instead, you've encountered an if-then statement. If you've specialized in combat, go to the fight; else if you've specialized in diplomacy, go to the negotiations. You still don't have any real choice! 

However, strategic elements can be layered on to other choices to add factors for consideration, making a choice more interesting. Consider this: The orcs have taken your friend hostage, and will kill him if you attack. But taking this step constitutes an act of war, and they must be punished. Will you attack (utilizing your combat skills) knowing they will kill your friend, but determined to crush the orcs once and for all and claim their valuable treasure? Or will you negotiate (using your diplomacy skills), suffering the humiliation in order to hopefully save the life of your friend.

Neither option is certain; both are based on skill checks. In a simpler choice, it would be easy to just pick the skill check you're better at, but in this case, that's not the only factor. This is also a Difficult Choice: do you suffer humiliation to save your friend, or accept his heroic death to strike a blow against the orcs? This choice too might be easy if it stood alone. You probably have a tendency to go one way or the other; but it's complicated by the strategic factors--neither branch is guaranteed. In the end, you need to weigh which option you want more, and ALSO which option you are more likely to succeed at. Now that's an interesting choice to run into in your game.
In conclusion, two important factors to consider in writing interactivity in a narrative are the quality of the choice, and the meaningful consequences. First, any instance of a branch in the narrative should present to the player as an immediately interesting choice--one in which the player is at least partially informed about the options, but neither path is the obviously correct one (even on replay! at least if you're considering computer games.) Second, the decision the player makes should have real consequences. They can be small or huge, near or distant, but the experience of making a choice is most rewarding when you can see that, and how, your choice affected the world around you, in big or small ways. If it doesn't, why make that choice at all?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Interactivity in Narrative Pt. 1

A constant presence in the back of my mind somewhere is the question, "what makes good interactive fiction?" I mean, this is the angle I've chosen to pursue, and there's really a lot to untie in that one question.

As I write and work, and break, and come back, and as I read over the latest crop of Windhammer entries, I find myself thinking of it again.

I think the real thing it comes back to is consequences. The choices you make should matter somehow. Something should happen because of the choice you made. It doesn't have to happen right away. In fact, it can be especially fun if a choice you made ages back comes up later to bite you somehow. One of the most rewarding and memorable choices I ever ran into actually came in the 2013 Windhammer entry by the excellent Andy Moonowl, in which stealing from the King's treasury goes off without a hitch in the moment (originally earning my frowning disapproval), but comes up later--all of a sudden you're a wanted man, with countless consequences that make the whole adventure more difficult. I loved it.

You can't always include that level of consequence. In The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, in particular, I've made the choice to include strictly nothing that breaks the immersion of the narrative. That means not even traits or keywords. Which means, unfortunately, there is no built in memory into the narrative. If you do something in Act I, there is no way for the story to remember that you made that choice later, in Act III. It really puts a damper on the possibilities.

So I've had to get creative. How can you include meaningful consequences of the reader's choices, without long-term memory?

There are a few kinds of choices you repeatedly run into. Which character do you want to tag along with through this scene? Maybe you get a different version of events depending on who you chose to go with as your POV character for the scene. Character-driven choices are also a big one: do you choose for the Marshal to be more sympathetic, or more hard-ass? You may run into half a dozen situations where you make a choice that's fundamentally between those same two options, but it gives the reader an interesting chance to explore his character. Do you pick the hardass option every time? Or the sympathetic option every time? If you break ranks from your habitually type of answer, when, and why? What happened in that scene that you think would cause the Marshal to break from his habit? 

There's also situational consequences. Maybe the book can't remember in Act III the choices made in Act I, but not everything has to be resolved two acts later. Say you rescue a survivor, but then you have to make a choice, in which balance hangs the life of that survivor. It may not technically matter two acts later, but you're going to remember whether you let that survivor die or not. And it will change your experience of the character and, ultimately, the whole story. 

But I also have another project on the back-burner, which is not constrained by the limits of dead-tree-format. Dwarf King is planned to be an Android game, rpg-strategy. It's been in slow production for a while now, but I believe we're reaching the point where Part 1 should come out in 2016. And in that game, I have no such limitations.

In fact, the reason I'm writing all this tonight is to take a moment to pause and reflect before planning some more adventures for Dwarf King. What do I want out of these storylines? What makes the difference between good interactivity in a narrative, or interactivity that falls flat? Have I made sure to include proper consequences for each of my mini-stories in Dwarf King?

Another element has to do with the quality of the choices themselves. I've written about this before, but it's been a while.

However, this is dragging on a bit already, so I'll put that off till next time.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Winding Road... leads to Bodie?

Today is the last day of the Kickstarter campaign for "The Good, the Bad, and the Undead," and it has been a long and rewarding road.

Coming up next, I find myself looking forward to the last stages of writing the novel and developing the rpg. Unfortunately, creative time has been in short supply lately, with my main project having become managing the Kickstarter campaign myself. Now I'm looking back at my story notes, looking at where I left off, and thinking about moving to the climactic finale of the book.

After all the excitement lately, we've been considering a vacation, and this may be the perfect opportunity to go soak in a little Old West atmosphere.

I've discovered an old ghost town here in California called Bodie. It's not Texas, but it's about the best I can do at the moment. Actually, it turns out that one of the inspirational images we've used for art for "The Good, the Bad, and the Undead," are actually pics that came from Bodie!

Recognize this?

That's a church in Bodie, CA. And I imagine the local saloon in Affliction, Texas looking a lot like this:



Once things calm down a bit, we'll be planning a trip out there, both to get away and to soak up some atmosphere before writing the final scenes. 

If you'd like to take a closer look at Bodie yourself, check out this video by a California local on visiting Bodie with his son. There's some really cool background info about the town there, including how killings occurred almost daily, and how the minister, Reverend Warrington, concluded, "Bodie is a sea of sin, because of greed, passion, and the overall lust of the civilians in the city."

Check out this video by youtube user moneybags73: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8v_BkxQuy1o

Also--there's still 10 hours left to contribute to the Kickstarter! The last of the Collector's Edition books have been claimed, but there's still room to name a character or to have an illustration of yourself as a cowboy vampire included in the book! Don't miss out! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ashtonsaylor/the-good-the-bad-and-the-undead