Saturday, July 31, 2010

THE LIMITS OF STORIES IN VIDEO GAMES? PART I: CHARACTER


So I used to play a lot of video games as a kid. I had an Atari console I hooked up to a black-and-white TV that I'd picked out of the trash. But mostly I played in arcades and pizza places around Boston. I was pretty-to-very good at Pac Man, Asteroids, Galaga, and Lunar Lander, oh, and also Defender, which at the time was no small accomplishment, since it had a joystick plus five control buttons. Oh sure, the kids nowadays have games with more buttons than that, but this was a big step forward in the 1980s. I'll also have you know I was frequently a top-10 ranking player of Missile Command at one of the pizza places I went to in Kenmore Square, under the impressive neon glow of the huge Citgo sign across the street. You'll permit me to add that I mastered an obscure game called Star Castle, a fact which I fantasized would attract the attention of talent scouts (of video games?) and a score of fans who would huddle around me as I racked up millions of points, all of this winning me scholarships and friendships alike. No such luck.

For me, the sense of accomplishment was not just in getting a high score, but in puzzling out patterns in how your electronic "opponents," such as the ghosts in Pac Man, would respond to one or another move. (I'm speaking mostly of eat-shoot-bomb-hit games, rather than the scenario games in which, say, you might explore a castle for hidden treasure.) Most of the games I played did not present substantially new challenges with each screen, the ghosts just got faster or the bombs multiplied in number. I never thought of these games as telling stories. They were just situations, that was all. True, some games offered a sense of exploration that paralleled that of literature: you might discover new screens or shortcuts as you advanced in the game. But while there was a nominal conflict -- you vs. the asteroids, you vs. the aliens, you vs. ghosts or kung-fu fighters or robots or whatever other pixelated opponent might appear -- the closest thing to dramatic tension was an addictive buzz. And there was certainly no character, just a "guy," little multicolored blob to stand in for you, the player. Even the scenarios that came up between screens -- for example, Pac Man falling in love with Ms. Pac Man, then being separated from her by the monsters -- did not constitute a plot, as far as I was concerned, but rather a chance to stretch my arms and fingers for the next round of play. 

Maybe, however, this was a failure of the imagination on my part. Maybe I just never bothered to think of my "guy" -- the yellow chomp-monster in Pac Man or my spaceship in Defender -- as a marker for a more fully-formed being, engaged in struggles worthy of the name "literature." But someone recently did just that. Last month, as part of its Game Play series, the Brick Theater in New York presented "Theater of the Arcade," a collection of five short plays based on classic arcade games (NY Times story).  Written by Jeff Lewonczyk and directed by Gyda Arber, this clever and often funny show imagined the frog trying to cross the car-choked freeway in Frogger as locked in futile Beckettian task, or the gorilla from Donkey Kong as a Stanley Kowalski-like brute, or Pac Man as still being chased by his ghosts, only now out of a video game screen and tossed into a Brecht-Weill musical. (A shout-out for the low-budget but well-done costume and set design.)

These classic games may have been popular because they highlighted an existential condition in which many people found themselves -- making heroic efforts in defense of self or love or city, and besieged by relentless attackers. In other words, players might have felt, "that's the story of my life!" Bummer of a life, to be sure, but maybe they reenacted the struggle of the besieged everyman (or everyteenageboy). However lightly sketched the video game character might have been, then, he/she/it was really an invitation for the player to fill in the blanks. In this respect, the first-person shooter video games are not unlike novels, which present only limited information -- much more information than a video game, but still limited -- and leave the reader to do the rest. "The rest" was to envision the scenes, to dream up the back-story, to connect emotionally with the characters, or to see these games as portals into other worlds. 

As with any narrative medium, then, the video game player has to use his (usually his) imagination. But the "Theater of the Arcade," in its flights of fancy, only pointed up some of the limits of the classic video games from which it drew inspiration. The "story" in these games always ends the same: you die and have to put in another quarter. (Or, in the more merciful home console, you simply press the "new game" button.) Either way, the situations are too limited, and the choices you as a character in these games can make are too restricted. You can go left or right or shoot faster or slower, but you can't file a lawsuit, break down crying, plan a surprise birthday party, have an Oedipal complex, go hunting white whales, flee the country on a train, or respond with any number of the other countless actions you could spontaneously take in real life, or be scripted to take in the theater. You can dream up a back-story for even the most sparsely "plotted" video game, but the back-story isn't in the game, it's in you. The games themselves don't offer any sustained conflict for players to respond to -- except, perhaps, for killing and being killed -- and thereby fail to establish the characters, or what kind of creatures they are. Unless a game provides a sufficiently rich environment and set of choices, the characters will never be able to escape the two dimensions in which they are trapped.

Tom Bissell has some interesting things to say about video games and narrative in his book "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter," which I'll be writing about in Part II of this miniseries on video games. 

Sunday, July 25, 2010

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 23: STORYCORPS' MEMORY LOSS INITIATIVE

(Photo of inside of a StoryCorps MobileBooth from the organization's press page.) 

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST EPISODE ONLINE HERE, OR SUBSCRIBE TO THE PODCAST IN iTUNES BY CLICKING HERE.

"There's a time there where I will forget everybody's name, but inside I'm still here. I'm still me. Inside I'm thinking how much fun I'm having with them. And I, as much as possible, would like to be treated as had been treated before." That's Charles Jackson speaking about his Alzheimer's diagnosis, in a conversation documented by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit dedicated to recording and collecting stories of everyday people. Jackson was speaking for the organization's Memory Loss Initiative, which has recorded more than 1,700 stories of people affected by memory loss due to Alzheimer's, other forms of dementia, or other causes. On this episode of the podcast, I play clips from a couple StoryCorps recordings, and talk with the initiative's senior coordinator, Perri Chinalai. (Visit Perri's website for info about her film "Auntie," which concerns memory loss and the dynamics of kin.)  

According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's is a progressive and fatal brain disease that affects as many as 5.3 million Americans, and currently has no cure. It is the most common form of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive disabilities serious enough to interfere with daily life.

Alzheimer's has of course prompted a great deal of medical research, but it also inspires plenty of philosophical inquiry. What happens to the life stories of someone who is forgetting them? Is the story of an experience the same thing as the experience itself? Is a life just the sum total of life stories as remembered by the person who lives it? Are the emotions connected with experiences remembered even after the experience is forgotten? How do family and friends of someone with dementia carry on the stories that their loved one is losing? Do stories really matter that much in the end?

The nature of memory has, of course, fascinated for millennia. Consider St. Augustine's ruminations in his Confessions, Book X, as translated by Edward Pusey: "Great is the power of memory, a fearful thing, O my God, a deep and boundless manifoldness; and this thing is the mind, and this am I myself. What am I then, O my God? What nature am I?" Here, Augustine equates memory and self, even as he is baffled by them both. This equation is part of what makes Alzheimer's Disease so painful for so many -- if a loved one loses his memory, it would follow that his self is lost, too. But what Charles Jackson says above seems to argue against such simple math. Or at least, seems to argue that some memory does remain, or some essential piece of self that Alzheimer's cannot erase. And Jackson is not just speculating about his own future; he was caregiver for his mother, who also had the disease.

What remains beyond memory? There is still emotion, sensation, there is still touch, there may yet be language, there is still the community memory of those around the person who is forgetting, and there is still legacy. Beyond that, mystery. And perhaps those of us whose memories remain intact (for the moment) can sound out that mystery in relationship with people who are losing theirs. Or, as Charles Jackson reminds us, maybe we can just have some fun. Whatever the case, StoryCorps' Memory Loss Initiative reminds us, powerfully, to communicate.


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If you haven't heard it already, I hope you'll also check out the last episode of the podcast, in which I explored some similar themes with Anne Basting, author of "Forget Memory: Creating Better Lives for People With Dementia." Anne tends to create wholly imaginative stories with people at middle- and late-stage Alzheimer's, whereas the Memory Loss Initiative more often attracts people who are in the early stages of losing their memory, and who tell their own life stories. Both, however, have a flexible approach that Anne says meets people "where they are."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

LISTENING ON FILM: "WHAT WOMEN WANT"



I'm going to go out on a limb here, but it sounds like Mel Gibson -- audio of the actor screaming at his girlfriend over the phone was recently released online -- might have saved himself some trouble if he'd bothered to learn from a character he played 10 years ago. I don't know, maybe he doesn't have a DVD player at home, or there's a long wait on Netflix for this particular film, so he's got something else queued up.

Anyway, in "What Women Want," (2000) Mel plays lothario Nick Marshall, an advertising exec who gets passed over for a much-expected promotion -- by a woman! Sorry, his boss tells him, but we need to tap into women's markets; you can get inside women's pants better than anyone on earth, but you certainly can't get inside their psyches. Nick's face falls when he learns the new creative director will not be him, but rather the reputed ball-buster Darcy Maguire (played by Helen Hunt). 

While trying on pantyhose and other feminine products to get into women's heads, Nick slips and falls and gets electrocuted in the shower, which magically doesn't kill him, but rather enables him to hear what women are thinking. At first, he uses his new skill to his own advantage -- he beds a local barista, and steals ad ideas from Darcy -- but finally learns to listen to women, and care about what they say, which is what, the movie has it, they wanted all along. Naturally, Nick falls in love with Darcy, which he could only do by listening to her, and appreciating her for who she is, rather than strictly for what she has to offer him. Darcy has of course been falling for him, too. 

Conveniently, having learned to listen, Nick gets a repeat electric charge (this time from a lightning bolt), and is freed of the special power he no longer needs. One last thing remains to seal their love. Feeling guilty of conscience, Nick confesses to Darcy that he's been taking advantage of her, lifting her ideas. So she fires him. But this being a romantic comedy, she forgives him right away, and they're stronger than ever before and on track to live happily ever after.

Again, I may be overreaching here, but something tells me that Mel Gibson neglected to review this important lesson -- listen to people, appreciate them, open yourself to love -- before he told his girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva that she looked like a whore and threatened to burn her house down. Perhaps Mel never had the advantage of actually being able to hear what women think, but a simple replay of his own two-hour movie, or maybe reading up on active listening would have done the trick!

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As an aside, I'd like to add a note about the ending. "What Women Want" follows a certain romantic comedy structure. The romantic comedy genre practically demands that the romantic leads hook up in the end; from the conventions of film, we know pretty much for a fact that the story will end happily ever after. And yet the filmmakers have to inject just enough doubt about the outcome, in order to keep us in suspense, and keep us watching the whole film. Often, the very last obstacle to the couple comes about 5-10 minutes before the ending. In the case of "What Women Want," it's when Darcy fires Nick. The producers could have made me happy by lobbing off the last 5-7 minutes. In my version, then, Nick would have paid the consequences of his betrayal, and Darcy would remain on the job and move on from her heartache. How I'd love it if more filmmakers just chopped off the last few redemptive minutes of their films, and see how that changes things.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 22: "FORGET MEMORY" AUTHOR ANNE BASTING

LISTEN TO THE NEW PODCAST EPISODE ONLINE HERE, OR SUBSCRIBE TO THE FREE PODCAST ON iTUNES HERE

"Act your age!" There are all kinds of ways that people are "supposed" to act at one or another time of life. For their part, seniors are expected to quiet down and wear sensible orthopedic shoes, right? 

On the new episode of the podcast, I speak with Anne Basting, the Executive Director of the Center on Age & Community, and an Associate Professor in the theatre department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has thought a lot about the "social performance" of age in everyday life, as well as the heightened performance of age by senior theatre companies around the country -- of which there are hundreds, she says. She wrote a book about the topic, actually, called "The Stages of Age: Performing Age in Contemporary American Culture." Later, she got to wondering how the theatrical work of such companies -- storytelling, improvisation, and so on -- might apply to people with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. She devised a method she calls TimeSlips, in which she dispenses with reminiscing -- because people with dementia have difficulties with just that -- and instead uses pictures from magazines and elsewhere to prompt people to create stories of their own imagining. The process helps people with dementia exercise their imaginations, helps their families connect with them, and, I think, might lead to creative new forms of storytelling that can extend beyond clinical practice. Hers is an imaginative, thoughtful, and loving approach.     
Anne's latest book explores these and other matters in fascinating detail, and is called "Forget Memory: Creating Better Lives for People with Dementia." Also check her blog, which has timely and insightful things to say about theater, storytelling, and people with dementia.

Friday, July 16, 2010

ACT OF FAITH: THE HILL CUMORAH PAGEANT

I'd hoped to attend, but couldn't make it to the Hill Cumorah Pageant this weekend. (Photo is from the Pageant website.) Produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints every year since 1937, the Pageant story draws from the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and features high-tech special effects, a script by Orson Scott Card, and a cast of over 650 people. Upwards of 80,000 people attend every year over the course of seven performances in mid-July. It all takes place in the sacred site where Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claims to have unearthed the golden tablets whose contents he rendered into English as "The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ." 

The book tells the story of how a Hebrew tribe came to the Americas in 600 B.C.E., split into rival factions, and made peace thanks to the intercession of Jesus Christ shortly after his resurrection. That peace endured for centuries, before devolving into war and genocide -- the dark-skinned Lamanites killed off all the light-skinned and pious Nephites, but not before the last Nephite survivor, Moroni, managed to write a testament on golden tablets which he buried, and, returning as an angel in the 1820s, revealed to Joseph Smith, who translated them into English.

The story told in "The Book of Mormon" doesn't square with the archaeological or historical evidence, but it's still the basis for one of the fastest-growing Christian denominations today. And, as with other faiths, stories play an important role in Mormonism. At the pageant, the performers literally act out their faith. Attendees swap stories of their own faith journeys. And the whole experience, I imagine, serves to reinforce the founding legends of this most American religious tradition.  I'm going to do my best to attend next year. Here's a New York Times article and slide show about the pageant, and the nearby visitors' center.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"THE SCRIPT REMAINS UNWRITTEN..." -- AN EXPERIMENT IN STORYTELLING

"The script remains unwritten..." Or so says the website of the Jejune Institute, a San Francisco-based project which seeks to "maximize human potential" -- really an interesting experiment in storytelling that combines scavenger hunt and mystery game. As you'll see on the website, the Institute says they have products and services such as the "Memory-to-Media Center," which renders your memories into video, a "Time Camera" that takes pictures from the past and future, and the "Aquatic Thought Foundation," which explores dolphin-human interaction. 

Don't ask. Just go to a free "introductory session" at their office in San Francisco. You may or may not be directed to a room where you will watch a roughly 10-minute video, at which point you may or may not be given a card of clues which may or may not direct you to various public locations within a few block radius of their building. You may or may not visit these locations to pursue the mystery they have sent you out to explore. You may or may not be instructed to make a phone call, or later, to listen in on a secret broadcast. 

Any or all of this may or may not happen. After all, you help write the script as you go. It's an intriguing little experience, takes 1.5 - 2.5 hours. Bring an open mind and a couple bucks with you. You may find your experience of everyday life turned ever so slightly, like the blind boy in Flannery O'Connor's story "Parker's Back," who does not know his destination has been changed.  

Monday, July 12, 2010

21st-CENTURY STORIES

Penguin UK publishers did this cool digital storytelling project a couple years ago, called "We Tell Stories." They invited six of their authors to draw inspiration from one of the classic novels in the publisher's catalog, and create "tales that take full advantage of the immediacy, connectivity and interactivity that is now possible" online. The website adds, "These stories could not have been written 200, 20 or even 2 years ago." Old meets new, that sort of thing.

I have my favorites among the stories, but overall the results are enlightening and inventive. In order of their appearance: Charles Cumming pays homage to "The 39 Steps" in his story "The 21 Steps," which uses Google maps to chart the mysterious course of a man who gets caught up in an international conspiracy. In the form of a blog by a girl and another by her parents, Toby Litt takes off from "The Haunted Dolls' House" to document a family's move into a possibly haunted old house. Kevin Brooks allows users to customize their own fairy tale, not unlike those old "choose your own adventure" books, by letting them name characters or select personal characteristics they embody or what actions they take. The duo of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French (who cutely call themselves Nicci French) allowed readers to watch as they wrote a story live and in real-time for an hour each night over the course of a week. In "Hard Times," authors Matt Nelson and Nicholas Felton take inspiration from the Dickens novel of the same name as they document the media-saturated lives of today's teenagers. And finally, Mohsin Hamid draws from the "Tales from the Thousand and One Nights" (a personal favorite of mine), and readers direct a former general around a labyrinth of memory and stories.

These are not retellings of old stories or novels, but modern-day interpretations for the web that take off from classic novels. Several of the stories created a kind of physical space -- or at least a digital representation of a physical space, like on Google Maps, or the labyrinth in the "1001 Nights"-inspired story. Such spaces allow the reader to poke around the geography of the story in a different way than they might in a book. Readers of novels can always revisit favorite passages or even places described in a book, but here the presentation is more like a map, and readers are somewhat more like players or participants.


Now here's where I play the grumpy skeptic for a second. These stories were entertaining in content and clever in format, but I'm still not convinced that they engage the imagination any better than a good novel or short story does. Sure, we get to name the characters, or click one or other button to determine a character's direction in the labyrinth, or read a story as it's being written. These are clever experiments that I'm sure will bear fruit. I'm excited to see more like them in the future. But a story is only as good as its ability to plant a seed in the reader's mind. In the coming week, I'll be exploring this matter a bit more with posts about some books I'm reading -- one on the brain science of reading, and another one on video games.


Images are from the project website. I first caught wind of this project here on the website of Rahaf Harfoush, a communications and media strategist who wrote a fine book called "Yes We Did!" summarizing the new media lessons of the Obama campaign. Check out her site for other examples of effective web-based campaigns, and more.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

WILL BLANCHE DUBOIS EVER HAVE HER HAPPY ENDING?
























Poor Blanche DuBois! She is caught in a never-ending cycle of fragile hope followed by terrible disillusionment. Blanche, the protagonist of Tennessee Williams' play "A Streetcar Named Desire," has lost the family plantation and is on the edge of a nervous breakdown, so she goes to New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella and Stella's husband Stanley. There she maintains grand illusions about the illustrious life she has led, and about how a great love will come to her someday soon. Stanley's friend Mitch starts courting Blanche, and she receives him enthusiastically. 

In a beautiful scene, Mitch vulnerably says to Blanche: "You need somebody. I need somebody, too. Could it be -- you and me, Blanche?" They embrace, and Blanche says, 'Sometimes, there's god, so quickly." For a moment, we think that they might make it as a couple. But soon after, Mitch learns of the dissolute life that Blanche has led, and cruelly rejects her. Stanley then rapes her, which prompts her breakdown. Every time I see the play or movie, I can't help but feel that perhaps the outcome will be different, as if each performance is a chance for the characters to try out a different scenario than the one that is scripted for them -- say, if Blanche revealed her true age and didn't deceive Mitch about it, or if Mitch responded positively to Blanche's show of personal strength in the last act, or whatever it may be. Anything other than the misery that befalls the characters. Each performance, in this way, is a bit like a rehearsal for the characters, who, stuck in a theatrical time loop, have a chance to act out a happier ending for themselves. These alternative stories hover around the actual ending of the play, giving form to the disillusionment that Blanche suffers.