September 2008

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I do not generally consider myself to be a gamer. Sure, I can play “Freebird” on Guitar Hero, and I’m pretty mean with Kirby in Super Smash Bros. 64, but neither of those games have a real story to invest oneself in and do not require much commitment from the player. Then I came across Final Fantasy X, which is simply bursting with plots and characters.  After only a few hours playing I’m beginning to see the strategies the game employs to create an engaging and interactive narrative.

The story itself is epic, for as far as I can tell, my quest is nothing short of vanquishing Sin from the world.  Even in a fantasy world, this epic sense of what is at stake certainly helps motivate the player’s emotional investment in the game. If you are going to devote hours and hours to a project, it might as well be saving the world.

One aspect that surprised me was how Final Fantasy X blurs the boundary between video game and film. Many major story events or turning points are told through cut scenes that, while animated, are truly cinematic and beautiful. Also, some of them are long – five or six minutes – and evoke a sensation that I’m watching a film and not playing a game at all. In fact it often seems like my actions in the game fill in the gaps between these shorts, almost as if Final Fantasy X is not a video game at all but rather an interactive film.

A couple interesting notes about character. While the game certainly goes to great lengths to establish complex and “realistic” characters (with backstories, inner conflict, and complex motivations), it also seems to use simple and generic cues to place someone in “good” or “bad” category.  Take, for example, this character Seymour (pictured below). Granted, he did save my butt when I was ambushed by Machina at the Blitzball Tournament, and yes, all the other characters love him, but I’m convinced he’s evil incarnate. Perhaps it is the hair style that vaguely resembles a pair of horns, or perhaps it’s because his voice sounds like Mr. Burns’ from The Simpsons, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to be trouble later on…

He just looks like a bad dude...

The point is, Seymour’s character illustrates some of the various methods that can be used to tip off the viewer/gamer as to one’s true identity. Building upon societal (let alone genre) conventions, Seymour’s devil-horn hair-do and serpentine voice belie a character that otherwise seems like swell guy. This also elicits a greater investment from the gamer, as it prompts me to keep playing to find out whether or not my instincts are correct, how he will show his treachery, etc.

Another facet of character in the game, and one that appears somewhat unique to Final Fantasy X (at least in my somewhat limited experience), is the notion of the “Sphere grid.” Throughout the game, your character finds and wins various “spheres” that can be used on the grid to make the different playable characters more powerful and learn new abilities. All seven characters that comprise my team have the ability to access all the spheres on the grid. This means that I can completely customize each character’s strengths, weaknesses, and abilities as I see fit. The same characters that are terrible at magic in one game file are incredibly powerful in another.  The result, again, is that the player is more likely to be invested in the story as it involves characters they (the player) have helped to shape.

That’s all for now, but I can tell from my little in-game map that I have hours and hours still to play before I eradicate Sin from Spira (the fantasy world). Maybe I’ll be a gamer after all.

Character as Celebrity

Following our (brief) discussion of character in class today (9/23), I came across Maureen Dowd’s Op-ed column in the New York Times. Dowd enlisted The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin to write a scene, a dialogue, between Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama and Fictional Democratic President Jed Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen).

You can read the full article here.

Politics aside, the column appears to me as an example of how a fictional character can gain celebrity status in its own right. As fans of the show will recognize, Jed not only analyzes the current campaign situation, but does so in bona fide Bartlet style. This is clearly Bartlet speaking. Not Sorkin, not Sheen. Bartlet.

In a strange synergy of fiction and reality he discusses Sarah Palin with classic Bartlet wit and sarcasm, and even relates Obama’s image-issues to those he experienced in his own (fictional) campaign. It is a rare and oddly satisfying occurrence in which a character has breached the divide between reality and its own story-world.

Last week, Matt Damon ran the talk-show gauntlet and gave the world his take on the campaign. This week, it’s Jed Bartlet — “living” proof that a character can achieve celebrity status.

I’m sorry, but when did a film’s “indie” status allow for the justification and use of Deus ex Machina? Surely there are better ways to run counter to dominant cinema’s conventions?

Let’s take a look at two of the three films we’ve seen thus far: Stranger than Paradise and Simple Men.  I’d like to focus on these two in particular because they both operate within a “natural” or “realistic” story-world (as supposed to Delicatessen, which is explicitly fantastic). I find it odd that both of these films, despite their realistic story-world, employ deus ex machina, the favorable coincidence that I believe to be characteristically unrealistic.

Consider Stranger than Paradise: Eva, walking along the beach, is handed thousands of dollars in cash, because (as it’s revealed seconds after she exits) she is wearing the exact same outfit as the intended recipient.  J.J. Murphy discusses this scene on page 43 of his book, Me and You and Memento and Fargo, but seems to dismiss (or sidestep) it with “that the envelope would also contain the means for Eva to escape strains credibility even further.” (43) Now, I understand the argument that this event is permissible because the cash itself appears inconsequential to the characters. Nevertheless, the episode constitutes an overwhelmingly surreal experience in a film that otherwise strives for realism.

Similarly, in Simple Men, the two brothers’ motorcycle happens to break down by a diner full of people who are inextricably linked to their father. Had their bike not died in that exact spot, Bill would not have met Kate and it seems likely that they would have never have found their father.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for breaking dominant cinema’s conventions. But to turn to pure luck or chance seems to me to be a weak means of doing so. Can anyone provide me with a solid justification?

The HBO Factor

In her essay, “Narrative Theory and Television,” Sarah Kozloff puts forth the concept that narrative theory regarding television as a medium is a three-tiered system. That is, story (“what happens to whom”), discourse (“how the story is told”), and “a third layer, schedule, ‘how the story and discourse are affected by the text’s placement within the larger discourse of the station’s schedule.'” It is on this last layer, schedule, that I wish to focus.

Scheduling dominates the television narrative as programs are required to fit into precise blocks of time, and stories are expected to be repeatedly interrupted by commercials or other “breaks,” which dictate the way in which the story unfolds. Furthermore, the specific time of the programming block often dictates the nature of the content it contains. You won’t see children’s cartoons on the Sunday night prime-time schedule. But while Kozloff’s theory certainly appears to be valid for a wide variety of television programs, she fails to mention the material that does not seem to be under the influence of scheduling.

Granted, Kozloff published this paper in 1992, before the days of iTunes, web-shows, video-on-demand, DVRs, or any of the other marvelous devices that allow us to view our favorite programs at a time and place of our own choosing. But there is the issue of HBO (thriving at the time of the article’s publication), whose media seem to exist outside of Kozloff’s system.  HBO programs run without commercial interruption. Seasons rarely remain on the same schedule from year to year, but rather start and stop with an infuriating irregularity. In the midst of its third season, Entourage took nearly a year hiatus, then released seasons 3 (part 2) and 4 back to back without interruption. Moreover, it is not uncommon for episodes to run – not seconds but minutes – over it’s allotted slot in order to ensure the story could be told properly.

My question then is this: What can we make of this apparent HBO factor? HBO programs (and to a lesser extent those of Showtime, Starz, Cinemax, etc.) clearly don’t abide by the standard scheduling norms that characterize standard broadcast conventions. Does Kozloff’s model apply to this type of television? What does it say that these programs have some of the strongest critical acclaim and strongest fanbase? Would the televised narrative be “better off” without the scheduling factor? Given the recent surge of schedule-free means of viewing television programs, it is certainly an aspect of TV narrative that merits exploration.

Delicatessen is a good film. More than that though, it is a good narrative.

One of things I was most impressed by was how quickly I accepted the world of Delicatessen for what it was. I didn’t question the plausibility of the situation, and the characters appeared realistic as individuals operating within that fantastic world. The most interesting aspect though, revealed itself when I tried to summarize the film to my suitemates. I was half-way through rambling about a community of tenants led by a butcher that have turned to cannibalism to survive in a sort of post-apocalyptic society when I trailed off at their expressions. One of them politely clarified that I watched this film for a class. I realized that a simple summary (at least as I told it) of the film’s events sounds horrible, like some sort of low-budget, straight-to-video, waste of celluloid.

So standing there, sounding like an idiot in front my friends, I started to fully appreciate the full scope of narrative, that is, how a narrative is not simply the story per se, but rather a complex compilation of performance, visual elements, etc. that establish tone, create mood, and indeed conjure up a whole new world. Now that I write this, it all sounds obvious, but it took a crazed, post-apocalyptic group of cannibals to make me start to understand the distinction. That’s a good narrative.

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