Complexity and User Generated Stories

February 12, 2009

Some months ago I spent an inordinate amount of time playing Sim City 4. This game is a wonder of OCD micromanagement, with every second spent poring over tiny tax increments, the specific funding of your passenger rail station, and exactly how much money to put into each of your twelve hospitals.

I loved it not in spite of this micromanagerial aspect, but because of it.  It absorbs every tiny mote of brainpower that your head produces with a bajillion tasks to constantly consider.  According to the wikipedia entry on SC4, this complexity was a major issue with many – not least EA who published SimCity Societies in 2007 (which was widely reviled for being too simple and generally terrible).

While I think this path of game development is sad and often leads to terrible mistakes, I understand the need to move away from absurdly complex games to attract a broader market.  These companies need to make money, and don’t believe that they will with frighteningly difficult games.  The resounding success of the Wii is a perfect example of the intelligence in pursuing the casual games market.

However, this approach to publishing (whether it be books or games or movies) leads to tragedies like the cancellation of Arrested Development.  Arrested Development was deemed too complex and innaccessible for new viewers (which it often was – when I worked at a video store I refused to let people rent the second season without having seen the first), and was cancelled.  And moved around, and cancelled again.

And now I’m completely off-track.  It’s far too easy to get me on an AD rant – I feel like the survivor of a tragedy, my mind recalled to the shock-inducing horror through any slightly related subject (there I go again, woefully belittling the survivors of tragedies).  I like complex things (sometimes – my recent obsession with Heroes, which really only very surficially pretends to be a complex thing, doesn’t exactly demonstrate this).  This is why I’ve recently become attracted to two games: Dwarf Fortress and EVE Online.

Both of these games are absurdly complex.  I haven’t played EVE yet, but it seems to  have all the complexity of real life human relationships (without the usual dumbed-down MMORPG aspects).  Dwarf Fortress has possibly the most insanely difficult learning curve I’ve ever encountered, but this is possibly mirrored by an inverse and as steep satisfaction curve, eventually joining up with some understanding of the game and an unparalleled level of satisfaction.  One thing that joins these three games, Sim City 4, Dwarf Fortress, and EVE Online, beyond their complexity and learning curves, is the lack of any official, designated story.  The game presents you with a world, and allows you a fairly huge amount of space in which to carve out your own tale.

I saw Will Wright (the creator behind Sim City, the Sims, and the recent Spore) speaking here in Vancouver in the summer about exactly this.  He talked about how he loves seeing the narrative his players create, with elaborate life stories told entirely within The Sims.  I later found out he supports the Republicans, so I was forced to discount everything he said.

Regardless of Will Wright’s political affiliations, these games all do share this broad sense of user-generated narrative.  They avoid one of the chief issues that has plagued games since the dawn of Pong – terrible stories, and worse writing.  Some games have gotten this right and nailed down a great story, or been filled with delightful prose that brings the world to life, but most have fallen atrociously short.  If a game allows its users to create their own stories – whether through the game itself or in interactions with other players, and if it does it right (as Sim City 4 does, at times), it can be the medium for many brilliant things.

Now, as this post has wandered completely off topic several times, I’ll end it.  Next time: more on my attempts to figure what the hell is going on with Dwarf Fortress, and why EVE looks so appealing (regardless of its comparison to a 3D spreadsheet simulator).

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February 4, 2009

I just started watching Heroes (oh god, oh god, I need a job), and find it incredibly addictive.  Also kinda terrible, in the same way that Lost and Prison Break are terrible even though I watched two full seasons of each.

One interesting thing I’ve noticed, three episodes in, is the subtitling of the Japanese characters.  The subtitles reflect comic subtitling in their proximity to the characters.  These aren’t static, always resting on the bottom of the screen.  They generally sit on top of or above whoever is speaking.  What I wonder, with all the Canadian stereotypes about Americans in mind, is whether these aren’t also placed this way to make it easier for NBC’s gigantic audience to read them.  Now, these aren’t exactly American stereotypes, but rather North American, extremely-broad-audience stereotypes.  In which, of course, you’ll find people who don’t particularly like to read.  So not really stereotypes at all. Whatever.

When the subtitles sit further up on the screen, dynamically placed so as to be near the action, the viewer isn’t forced to look down and miss what’s going on.  They also very clearly demonstrate who is speaking by sitting on or near that character.  This defeats most of the standard complaints about subtitles*,  (which aren’t entirely lacking in validity.  I saw a subtitled version of Cache, or Hidden, that used entirely white font.  The film often had a fully white background, which resulted in unreadable subtitles.  I was also sitting right at the front of the theatre, and was forced to choose between watching the subtitles or craning my neck up to see the screen.), and broadens the possible audience of the show.

Just some thoughts.

*I’m really just thinking people who don’t like to read.

Workin’ at a bookstore

February 3, 2009

In the past two years I’ve worked at both a video store and a bookstore. At the video store, people rarely wanted advice. Occasionally they’d come up to the counter with two movies, ask what I thought of them, then completely ignore my advice and rent a third movie. I ended up watching a lot of free movies that summer, but mostly became completely miserable working with one insufferably smug hipster. My hatred for specific ex-coworkers aside, the job was mostly bland and boring, involving little more than straightening endless shelves of DVDs (or old, cracked VHS cases that refuse to stay in box-shape).

What it lacked, I’ve come to realize, is any sense of narrative. The questions I was (rarely) asked fell into two categories: a. have you seen it? and if yes b. was it good? Never was I asked for an explanation beyond the most cursory ‘good acting’ or ‘interesting visuals.’ I never had a chance to share with the customers my love of stories, whether of the film itself or the history surrounding it.

I realize that this is a completely selfish complaint. People in a video store have usually seen the trailers, read a review, scanned the jacket, or simply recognized an actor’s name, providing some stimulation of their curiosity. These names and external sources give the film some credibility, thus requiring little more of me than a yes or no. On top of this, they’re renting something for a day or two – there isn’t quite the same level of commitment as spending $15 on a book that’ll take a week to read.

Fully indulging in my own selfishness, I still felt this job lacked in some fundamental aspect and I quit. A boring and cold stint in construction (accompanied by a boring and cold semester at school) brought me to my bookstore job. This job had its issues – money, general boredom, but it had a wonderful customer service aspect. I loved, and still love, selling books. I quit recently, but not because of bookselling.

I still had the occasional customer who simply wanted a yes or no, many customers who completely ignored my suggestions, and many more who just wanted to browse (which I completely understand. I hate being bothered in bookstores). There were, however, a few customers who made the job worth it. People who would come in and ask for something good to read, and list off a series of my favourite books as ones they’d liked. I enjoyed giving these people books that I loved, but this wasn’t the best part. The best part involved the actual salespitch.

This is where the narrative that I wrote about above comes in. Each of these cherished books, books that I’ve read over and over again, has its own little sales pitch, a story that often relates very little to the tale inside. I’ll take a customer to Jeff Smith’s Bone and describe how I give this book to everyone from my fourteen year old sister to the eighty year old who just walked out. I’d go to A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole and tell them the story surrounding its publication. I love wrapping each story in its own narrative, hoping that my own enthusiasm for to book comes across in my breathless presentation of the physical object into their hands. If they still aren’t convinced, then I switch to synopses of the stories. Which is also kinda fun.
On the flip side, when I’m forced to sell The Power of Now or The Secret or, god forbid, The Game (none of which I’ll link to, sorry) I generally just say “it’s a big seller,” or the ultimate tool, “it’s an Oprah pick.”

Alas, I barely made enough money there to live, and I need something new (being all freshly graduated ‘n all). Upon finishing this post, I think I’ll make it a goal of mine to find a job that incorporates narrative in some form or another, enough to keep the part of my brain that loves stories from going insane.

Or I’ll enter data. You know, whatever.


February 3, 2009

The awfulness of blogspot’s layout drove me out, so here I am.  Welcome, readers that I do not have!