When we were in the hotel in Austin, I caught part of a reality TV show called Work Out. Like most reality TV, it's an ensemble drama about a diverse group of personalities working toward a common goal, in this case the founder and staff of a high-class fitness center trying to run a successful business. The intrigue comes from the personal and cultural friction between the conflicting personalities types within the group, and to this end as many divergent characters as possible are brought together to put on a show. In Work Out, we're presented with the cast in such a way that their most outward traits are immediately caricatured: there's the tough, assertive lesbian entrepeneur and her crew of trainers composed of, as I remember them being portrayed, the 'funny-gay' guy, the 'butch-gay' guy, the Texan guy, the slutty girl, the vampy Posh Spice girl, the ex-Marine black guy, and possibly a couple of other less immediately-exaggerated members of the team. The top dog of the operation pushes them all to give 110%, and sparks fly; the minute-to-minute plot events of any given episode are an afterthought compared to the drama of the personality dynamics between individual group members.

When it comes to games, I'm very interested in single-player, character-based experiences. This isn't to be confused with my being "into games for the stories;" no, I normally find the author-dictated plotting of video games to be functional at best, regrettable at worst, but useful primarily for motivating the player's actions forward through the gamespace. However, I think that games can be extremely successful at presenting memorable supporting characters to the player, and allowing him to form strong bonds with these characters over the course of the experience. In almost any character-based game you care to mention, I can almost guarantee that three elements stand out above all else: the player's own actions (the "what,") the places the player visited (the "where,") and the people the player interacted with (the "who.") Coming in a far distant fourth might be the backstory and authored plot events themselves-- the specifics of the "why."

I'll take for example here No One Lives Forever 2. What do I remember about that game? First would be the "who"-- Cate Archer, Magnus Armstrong, the world-weary second-in-command at UNITY, the wheelchair-bound Dimitri, the foppish Director of H.A.R.M., and other colorful agents. I remember the "where"-- the UNITY offices, a mime school, India, Japan, Siberia, an undersea base, an artificial volcano, Akron Ohio. And the "what"-- shooting, sneaking, deploying clever devices to thwart foes, rifling through secret documents. But besides the broad strokes, I'm more hard-pressed to remember the "why"-- I know that H.A.R.M. has something to do with creating super soldiers, and Cate Archer has to stop them. This somehow involves a lot of globetrotting to exotic locales, killing bad guys and stealing interoffice memos. Eventually Archer defeats her foes at H.A.R.M. and saves the day.

How about another example? Metal Gear Solid 3. My first touchstone again is the "who"-- the fresh but tough Solid Snake, the support team of Major Tom and Para Medic back at the base, The Boss (The Boss!!) and her eccentric Cobras-- The Pain, The Fear, The End, The Fury, and The Sorrow; the heartless soviet Volkov, a young and naive Ocelot, Eva the double agent, and the Russian scientist who just wanted to build space rockets. The "where" is a series of jungles and covert facilities within Russia proper, mainly lush forested areas and concrete bunkers, perfect for infiltration. And the "what" is the meat of the stealth genre-- crawling, sidling along walls, creeping up behind enemies and interrogating them, firing silenced pistols, and hiding under cardboard boxes. Again the specifics of the "why" are harder to recall. Volkov is attempting to harness the power of Metal Ray, a supertank capable of firing an ICBM. He's employed Boss and the Cobras to help him, and Snake must stop his evil plan. So you meet the "who," do the "what" in the "where," and then beat the game. The noble and complex character of The Boss, the outlandish affectations of the Cobras, the duplicity of Eva, the amateurism and enthusiasm of a young Ocelot, and the menacing demeanor of Volkov are what leave the greatest lasting impression of any of the narrative elements, far before what order the events of the plot occured in or even what exactly they were at all. Games like this aren't short-- we spend a lot of time with these characters, get to know them, and form strong memories of just what sort of people they are. More than anything but the actual play mechanics and dynamics themselves, the strength of the supporting cast is what sustains the player of a narrative game; they are the game's lifeblood, the human conduit through which the player connects with the rest of the experience.

That said, I think that the majority of games suffer from the problem of integration. Like most overt narrative elements in games, interaction between and characterization of the PC and members of his supporting cast are kept entirely separate from the interactive elements of the experience; the player performs the "what," then is passively shown the "who" in a non-interactive scene. The potential as I see it lies in integrating the drama of the group dynamics into the central play experience itself, making it a part of the possibility space.

The drama of group dynamics is central to more significant fiction than reality TV, and demonstrates what aspects might be useful to games. For instance, I recently watched Oliver Stone's Platoon for the first time. Here is a story that's fueled not by the specific plot points of the timeline, but by the pressures of the setting and a diverse group of characters with conflicting morals. The young, naive Charlie Sheen character, the "player character" as it would be, is the viewer's link to the experience; we lose our innocence along with him. The rest of the drama blooms from the squad bending under the pressure of war: Barnes' frighteningly calculated wielding of death, DaFoe's warm and compassionate manner with Sheen and his desire to reign in Barnes, the gung-ho sociopath on the squad who wants to "do'em all-- do the whole village," their well-meaning but ineffectual C.O., and the rest of the characters who just want to get home to their sweethearts.

Central scenes of the film revolve around two conflicting approaches to war, as embodied by the strongest personalities in the squad. Barnes has been turned into a machine, focused on his objective regardless of the human suffering it causes. DaFoe's character is the liberal voice of reason that tries to hold Barnes back and do things "the right way," morally and according to protocol. Sheen's character lies in between, an observer more often than not but a mediator when emboldened by DaFoe, as in the scene where Sheen drives away a group of GI's who are attempting to rape a villager. These three characters might embody the id, superego and ego as did the three Sellers in Dr. Strangelove; they are the three forces pulling all the characters' meta-actions back and forth across the line from humanity to animalism. More than any objective to "clear X village for VC supplies" or "get to the checkpoint," the events generated through the squad's group dynamics under pressure are themselves the drama.

Thinking of it this way, grouping the player of a video game with NPCs of strong character types that hold their own goalsets and carry them out according to their AI desires would be one approach to generating dynamic narrative through the group's and player's actions themselves-- how the group of NPCs interacts between themselves, the world, and the player. If Platoon were a game, and a well-defined Barnes and DaFoe (I should really look up his character's name) were grouped with the player, and then the group was given an objective to search a village for hidden weapons, the drama would follow based on the actions they dynamically performed in reaction to the obstacles in the gameworld that they happened to encounter while trying to achieve that goal. Barnes might tend to kill civilians who tried to impede his goal, while DaFoe might tend to block the killing of civilians. This might affect the allegiance of Barnes to DaFoe; if Barnes' allegiance to DaFoe dropped from "friendly" to "threat," Barnes might gain the internal goal of isolating DaFoe from witnesses and killing him. This might be true of any GI character that became a threat to Barnes, including the player. The player's decisions, based on the NPCs' actions, which in turn would be based on their own ingrained personalities and received stimuli from the gameworld, would itself define the "what" and "why" of the gameplay experience.

There have been games that play with the idea of dynamic squad interactions. I'm thinking of Bioware's games such as Baldur's Gate II and KOTOR, or the Jagged Alliance games. These games feature interpersonal dynamics between individual group members that occur during and at times tangibly affect gameplay-- mixing certain squad members in Jagged Alliance can raise or lower the morale of your squad, causing some members to perform better or to desert entirely. However, as far as I know it's as yet unheard of for the NPCs' desire sets and available actions to dynamically define the meat of the narrative and the gameplay. I would love to see a game where the concrete authored narrative is restricted to only the broadest objectives, and the drama and tension grew from the meaningful interactions between the human player, the richly-defined cast of NPCs, and the gameworld that they shared.




This weekend, Rachel and I went to Austin, TX. It was a lovely town that reminded me very much of Portland. There were a lot of vintage shops and a lot of tattoos. We even got to see March Fourth, the Portland goth-freak marching band/sideshow act play along with Austin's own White Ghost Shivers at Antone's on 5th Street downtown. It was a hell of a show. Day to day, we ate some of the best food I've had in what seems like ages. Seeing the trailers for the special events at the Alamo Drafthouse made me wish I could attend their screenings all year round. Our time in Austin was a wonderful few days, over too soon.

Also this weekend, Austin put on a "City-Wide Garage Sale" at the local convention center, which ended up being much more of a flea market or vintage bazaar in practice. There were a lot of tchotzkies and knick-knacks, jewelry, beads, old clothes and the like, but one booth in particular caught my attention: it was a seller of old magazine pages, from the earliest decades of the 20th century to the 70's. Full-page ads, illustrations, celebrity photos... and one section labeled "Bizarre." I came to it last and as I flipped through the selection I was presented with an array of shockingly morbid and sensational images, apparently clipped from Life magazine's Picture of the Week section in the 40's.

One picture of the week was a still of a woman's body falling through the air in front of a New York storefront-- according to the caption, she'd been perched on a ledge eight stories above, threatening to jump, and the photographer snapped the photo only a second before she met the earth. Another jumper was a black man who had been interrupted in his suicide attempt at the edge of the Washington bridge. He was being held from falling by a police officer and a priest; the photograph showed him only a moment after he wrenched free, his face twisted in a grimace as he began his descent to the river below. Another was of an overturned semi truck, the cab set aflame; through a small mangled gap in the carriage a young man's pleading face could be seen. The caption read something like, "as the flames roar about him, a truck driver pinned inside his vehicle begs for onlookers to find a gun and shoot him." Another was of a drowned boy being carried from a river bank.

I was shocked that any of these would be in the back pages of Life magazine-- how could images so raw and grim see national print? Was Life a different magazine sixty years ago? But one image of all of them stopped me cold and wouldn't leave my head:

The small caption, inset onto the photo itself, reads, "AT THE BOTTOM OF EMPIRE STATE BUILDING THE BODY OF EVELYN McHALE REPOSES CALMLY IN GROTESQUE BIER HER FALLING BODY PUNCHED INTO THE TOP OF A CAR" An excerpt from the facing page elaborates: "On May Day, just after leaving her fiancé, 23-year-old Evelyn McHale wrote a note. 'He is much better off without me ... I wouldn't make a good wife for anybody,' ... Then she crossed it out. She went to the observation platform of the Empire State Building. Through the mist she gazed at the street, 86 floors below. Then she jumped. In her desperate determination she leaped clear of the setbacks and hit a United Nations limousine parked at the curb. Across the street photography student Robert Wiles heard an explosive crash. Just four minutes after Evelyn McHale's death Wiles got this picture of death's violence and its composure."

I was instantly awed by the photo, transfixed. It's incredibly dramatic, and fraught with contradictions; I was amazed at how beautiful and elegant Evelyn looks, so peaceful, at rest. But of course the reminders of her state are unavoidable: the twisted metal and granulated glass that envelops her; the shoes lost and stockings tattered about her ankle; the way her hand grips her necklace, desperately, with a permanence. But her appearance is so delicate-- she's made up, with lipstick, and her dainty white gloves. There's no physical signs of bodily trauma, no blood, or limbs at tortured angles. Somehow it is an image of peace in a death where there should be none.

All that afternoon and the next morning I was thinking of her. I had to return to the garage sale and buy it. I couldn't explain why, and I still don't know. For some reason I felt that I needed to take it with me. The image is powerful.

Looking for an attachment for this post, I put her name into google. A grad student's homepage features the same image, and a story of the author being touched by the photo at a young age. She also shares that Evelyn was turned into Pop art by Warhol; the caption to Warhol's appropriation of the image reads much differently from both Life's and my own interpretation: "The repleated image of the body of a suicide, crumpled, twisted and almost unrecognisable within the near-abstract forms surround it, presents one more disturbing vision of disaster." This text, in my opinion, is utterly removed from the image itself, and what makes it so affecting. Evelyn is not crumpled, twisted, or unrecognizable; quite the opposite in fact is central to why her picture holds such power. She is whole, composed, graceful in death, almost as if not in death at all, but at rest, asleep, as the evidence of trauma billows around her, seemingly kept at bay by her own defiance of its chaos.

In any case, it's clear that I'm not the only one who's been moved by this photo over the years, and a copy of it is now in my home. It was an odd purchase, one I can't necessarily rationalize-- I haven't got anything to do with this picture but keep it in a drawer. But it was something I couldn't leave in that box in Austin, for whatever reason. I wonder what Evelyn would think if she knew that people born 35 years after her death would be touched by the image of her final sad, defiant act.




I'd been aware off and on that Hideo Kojima keeps (or I should
say, kept) a public blog, but had never taken the time to read through it. Today I started digging into his posts from the beginning, and I think they're quite fascinating. His posts focus very little on game design or theory in any way-- at most he mentions in passing the goings-on of the development process at Kojima Studios. Instead, his blog entries are heavily diaristic, and demonstrate that he is an extremely observant and reflective person. The detail of his descriptions of everyday occurences and abstractions of reasoning are interesting to follow; he has a unique viewpoint, and while I find game-based writing to be useful, I think I enjoy Kojima's observations on life at large more interesting than I would his notes on game design. It's a shame his blog didn't even last four months (late Sept. 05 to early Jan. 06) but the volume of writing during that time is generous.

Upon reading his blog, I felt jealous of Kojima. Not for any of the prestige aspects of his career, but for the simple daily amenities he describes. I miss living in a city where I can walk to anywhere I care to visit. I miss having trains to ride on. I miss ducking into a cafe or record shop on a whim, just because I'm passing-- of seeing people, masses, milling about the sidewalks. I miss the corridors of the city streets. Tokyo and San Francisco are an ocean apart, but the rhythms of the lifestyle aren't so distant. Living in Sugar Land is an exercise in isolation-- when I walk to a shop, it's down long, curved, four-laned streets, lined with nothing but fences until you reach the highway. The sidewalks are empty; there are no other people around, just cars with mirrored windows streaming by. Passing the occasional jogger feels like crossing paths with another nomad in the desert. A city like San Francisco is alive-- the streets are there to be walked by me. The streets here are just for the cars to get to a house or a store. Maybe one reason I like being in the office so much is because I'm surrounded by people there.

I'm also jealous of Kojima for all the photographs of his meals:

I wish my diet were more like that. Here, I'm limited either to what I bring from the grocery store (I'm not big on cooking in the office) or what other guys in the office want to eat out or order in. My grocery stuff is either soup or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and restaurant food normally consists of something like fried meat with sauce and bread. But rice, fish and vegetables-- it's light, always tasty, relatively healthy, and won't weigh you down in the afternoon. It is not Texas cuisine.

Kojima also writes often about the dreams he has. I wish that I remembered dreaming more than I do. The last couple of nights I have had some dreams, but that's the exception. I don't know if I'd dreamt anything before that since I moved to Texas. If I dream, it's usually the dreams of a repressed mindstate-- images of violence, sex, taboo. The recurring dynamic is of movement contrained, and for a long time was of careening down a highway, out of control. Pair those together and the frequent image was of myself in the driver's seat of a car that's gone out of control, constrained to the point of being unable to reach the pedals or turn the wheel. These images make sense metaphorically, but the more visceral blood & sex stuff makes less sense to me. Is my id really so eager to exercise itself?

I'm going to try reading the rest of Kojima's blog entries today or this weekend. I also picked up Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance for the PC the other day at a used book store. I tried playing through it when it was first released and just couldn't make it. The complete absurdity of the plot and the extreme long-windedness of the exposition couldn't motivate me through the gameplay, sparse as it was. I hope I'll make it through this time. I think it deserves another chance.




I went to see Grindhouse last night. It was an awesomely over-the-top experience. I laughed, I cried, I got grossed out, I left satisfied. If you want pulp, this is pulp.

Partway through the second movie, I started to get a little impatient with the image of the Woman Imperiled driving the experience so hard. There's this narrative trope of the Woman Imperiled that's been around probably as long as men have been telling stories-- in movies anyway you could find it as far back as, appropriately, the Perils of Pauline, the innocent young woman tied to the railroad tracks as the villain looks on, twisting his mustache. There's a lot of that going on in Grindhouse, whether it's young women being imperiled by zombies, sadistic husbands, mutated rapists, or a psychopath with a deadly car. The only two possible outcomes of this situation are the villain being driven away or killed, or the young woman getting shredded to bits. Either way, it's not necessarily the outcome that's important as the source of the tension itself--young, vulnerable women being placed in great bodily peril by men for the viewer's entertainment.

Is it a domination fantasy on the part of the writer or director? Is the orchestrator of this kind of story subconsciously putting himself in a position of power over women? Is it a way of lashing out, excising all his psychological frustrations with women by focusing them onto a single fictional object of his own misogyny, under his complete control? I say 'his' because I can't imagine this trope being much employed by a female storyteller. Do women get off on seeing other young vulnerable women on the verge of rape or mutilation? Maybe it's telling, or maybe not, but Tarantino himself takes on the role of the mutated rapist in Planet Terror. Yes he gets his comeuppance, but is this part of the psychological play--the flipside of the aggression towards women, the need to be perpetually rebuffed--or a narrative concession? Lord knows not all the women in the films are as lucky as the ones in this particular scene. In the end, it is the retribution against the misogynist characters that drives the films and makes them satisfying, especially so for Death Proof. But something about the Woman Imperiled as a device for exciting the audience doesn't sit right with me. It feels so cheap.

The Woman Imperiled is an important part of video game history, from Super Mario Brothers to Double Dragon, Rolling Thunder, Ico, to Resident Evil 4. In games, the player takes on the role of the one saving the young woman, as opposed to that of either an impartial observer as per film or of the villain. So, doesn't this reinforce video games as a vehicle for young male power fantasies? Power over women, the ability to save them from harm as they can't save themselves. Does this dichotomy appeal to women? Can it? The nice thing about video games is that, as I've stated so many times, the gameplay mechanics themselves are more often than not completely detached from the narrative frame. Women can enjoy Super Mario Brothers for the jumping, stomping, and fireball-shooting without even acknowledging the narrative frame, but is that fair to the female player? A female player can enjoy Double Dragon for the fighting itself, but what of when they reach the conclusion, and are rewarded with a kiss from Marion, or alternately must fight their brother for her hand? Is that any kind of pay-off? Do women benefit from the sensation of male power associated with saving Yorda or Ashley Graham from peril? To necessarily detach oneself from half the game, especially in this day and age where story elements in games, if not more integrated with the gameplay, are still much more difficult to avoid while playing, cheats the female player out of the full experience.

The whole Woman Imperiled thing is human nature put on screen, the male/female conflict telling itself through fiction, but I wonder-- does this trope do anything more than reinforce the story, or the medium itself, as 'By Men, For Men?' If there's one thing that video games as a medium need, it's to be more inclusive, not less.