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Monthly Archives: July 2018

We operate by symbols. Everything we think we see is, by the time we perceive it, converted from the light that enters our eyes into a collection of ideas, into symbols for objects and creatures we know – or, for those things we cannot readily categorize, into a vague description of form and color and behavior. Everything we think we hear is, as well, converted into discrete sounds and music, as best as we can wrap them with understanding. All this happened in our minds long before we ever came up with actual words to describe things: Only much later did we create verbal language to be another set of symbols, verbal symbols we could readily convert to and from these symbolic perceptions of objects and creatures in the world around us.

We navigate by analogy. That is, we have no contact with the world that isn’t mediated by our brain’s model of it, which is constructed out from symbols – we are in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, manipulating our reality at one layer of removal, always.

These verbal languages are fairly effective at describing the things we can perceive with our senses, but struggle to describe more abstract and ambiguous concepts and systems – so we have other languages and methods to approach these. We created mathematics, a whole new language, to describe the abstract idea of multiple discrete identical objects and how these operate in relationship to each other – when, really, no such ideal differentiated objects actually exist. And, in the same vein, we created fiction to be a meta-language, a language made out of our verbal language, to describe the social, cultural, and technological systems that quietly control our lives.

I’m using fiction in a very broad sense, here. One thing I would include under this heading, for example, is history: The main difference between history and fiction is that the former purports to portray the reality of a thing that has happened. However, this claim to reality is one that anyone can make, and which many spuriously try to. Even when the historical facts are well known and established, the interpretation of those facts – that is, the portrayal of the underlying systems that generated that particular chain of events – is very much a product of the author. Even an author attempting in all good faith to avoid influencing their interpretation with preexisting biases cannot possibly manage to do so: Our assumptions run too deep. Nevertheless, no matter how much empty space the author fills in, no matter how questionable the systems implied by their interpretation, the history takes on the authority of indisputable fact, suitable only to be challenged by other equally authoritative historians.

At one step removed from history, we have fiction that is intended to be ‘realistic’. The underlying systems of reality that govern the fiction are presumed to be the same as the ones that govern our lives, with the only difference being that the characters and situations are invented. In other words, the system, the machine, is intended to be a replica of the original, while the data set it operates upon is wholly fabricated. At another layer of remove there are science-fiction and other alternate reality stories, where the system of the world departs from reality in major ways – though also, usually, remains the same in several vital ways. Humans, or something very much like them, generally still exist in these stories, and they have cultures and laws and societies like ours. They still need to eat and to breathe, they still like to play and to fuck.

How much people tend to enjoy these stories tends to rest a great deal on how plausible they find these systems – that is, once we discount the obviously and acknowledged fantastical elements (suspension of disbelief), how closely does the remainder mirror what we understand reality to be? By replacing elements of the systems of reality with obviously fantastical ones, we can examine the remaining systems more closely, a way of holding a magnifying glass up to some aspect of our world, a way of color-coding the gears of reality. If the rest of the system that drives the fiction is shoddy, though, or if it otherwise fails to be plausible, the reader will reject it. Of course, this is the same situation as the external tensions I mentioned last week: What’s plausible and what isn’t plausible depends as much on the reader as the content. For some people, all robots being sapient is plausible. For some others, all humans being sapient is not.

Every fiction, though, carries an implicit argument: The systems portrayed in this story would create the results portrayed in this story. Because of this implicit argument, all art presents an idea of what the world is, could be, or should be.

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A few weeks ago I wrote about how insufficient the idea of all stories being rooted in conflict is – actually, I mostly wrote about how our assumption that conflict is the core of stories affects the way we design games, but most readers seemed more interested in whether stories inherently need to be about conflict. While I never claimed the conflict model of storytelling was worthless, I raised questions about why it was assumed that conflict was regarded as inherently and uniquely necessary to create and tell a story. Discussing and thinking about this afterwards, I think we tend to focus on conflict because it’s the most readily available way to create tension, which is, perhaps, a necessary component of storytelling – or, at least, we can define tension in such a way that that’s a defensible assertion. And, reading this, you might say “okay, conflict, tension, same thing right? A rose by any other name yada yada yada,” and for many kinds of tension that’s basically true. In many cases, even if we split hairs about conflict and tension and which arises from the other and which is a better word for the thing we’re describing, it’s entirely a semantic argument. The reasons why I choose to say ‘tension’, though, are twofold: First, because ‘conflict’, though it can broadly describe any two forces in a story that work against each other, tends to push us towards the idea of interpersonal conflict – so the choice of words matters here. Tension is an inherently vaguer term with less power to dictate the form the action of the story takes. Second, because there are forms of tension that simply cannot be readily described as conflict – foremost among these are what I’m going to call external tensions.

As I see it, every story has internal and external tension. Internal tensions are the places where the forces in the story aren’t aligned and push against each other in some way – sure, there’s good versus evil, but there’s also Denise trying to make an early appointment versus traffic and daylight savings, or Gordon trying to clean his apartment vs his apartment being extraordinarily gross and also he’s still kind of hung over. These map fairly readily, albeit in a somewhat tortuous way, to the idea of conflict – whether “man vs man”, “man vs nature”, or “man vs self”, these have been described as conflict. I would argue that that’s not a very good or intuitive description, but I wouldn’t bother writing about it if that was my only critique of the model.

External tensions, on the other hand, are those places where the story and the reader’s understanding of the world we live in do not agree with each other. It’s why portrayals of flawless beauty or a utopian world are almost painful to experience, because they scrape up against our understanding of the limits and expiration of beauty and our knowledge of the deep and ugly flaws of our world. External tension is how a story can be compelling with nothing approaching what we would call conflict, simply by pushing against our expectations or beliefs in some way. When we look at it this way, stories begin to look like physics energy diagrams, where tension is never really resolved, just converted. Happy endings don’t erase the internal tension of the story’s conflicts, just convert that tension into an external tension against our knowledge of how much rarer and more complicated happy endings are in our world – that they are seldom uncomplicatedly happy, and never really endings.

However, because external tension is contextual, its nature depends on the reader. If the values of the story and its understanding of the world line up fairly closely with your own, you won’t experience much external tension, and if they don’t then you will. Unlike internal tension, external tension produces an implicit demand on the audience to consider why they feel this way and whether to change their understanding of the world, or their understanding of the story, to resolve this tension. This is why stories can be powerful agents of change, because of this implicit demand for action. However, the author can’t know exactly where this tension will fall or how it will be perceived, so attempting to change minds this way can be a risky business – A tension against fascistic elements in a story can frequently be resolved just as easily by embracing as by opposing fascism, and the same story may lead different people to either or neither.

In all likelihood, this is still a flawed way of viewing a story, flawed in ways I haven’t yet noticed, but it still seems at least more encompassing and accurate than declaring that a story is based on its conflicts. It’s a lens, a way of viewing a story: What here generates internal tension? What here generates external tension? And these start to map pretty closely to genres: Drama and suspense and action stories are built on internal tension, on the conflicts between the characters and their aspirations and the world. Satire, science-fiction, and comedy rely more on the external tensions, absurdity and surprise and commentary on real things and events.

The conflict model is valid inasmuch as it’s a smaller version of this model, which encompasses more story possibilities. It’s highly likely that this, too, is a small part of a greater whole, that this still shuts out a great number of possible stories, stories without tension. I don’t know what those look like, yet.

Well, I’m back to working on EverEnding. That side-project ended up being exactly what I didn’t want it to be, an excuse to work on a whole bunch of tools without ever making an actual game to go with them. We’ll call it a learning experience. What did I learn? I learned that I have a habit of avoiding the scary unquantifiable parts of a project in favor of working on parts that feel like safe investments – that I feel, somewhere inside myself, that if I pour my efforts into making tools and systems that that’s a safer gamble to me than pouring them into the actual core of a game. Art is scary! The more time you have to put into making it, the scarier it gets – in the first place, making art is like putting a message in a bottle and letting it out to float on the sea, and it only gets more stressful when you spend more than a year creating that message. The solution is not, I think, to spend another year developing new bottle and paper and ink production facilities to make creating each message that tiny bit less terrifying, but it’s an appealing option to take whenever it presents itself.

Oh, also in addition to those big existential questions I guess I learned a lot about making a scripting system and working with OpenFL. So that’s good too.

Once I decided I’d basically dead-ended, it was clearly time to head back to EverEnding. However, I’d left the project in uh… not a great place. I’d completed about half of the OpenFL port, and lots of systems weren’t running and I’d left lots of bugs in the systems that were running. Eventually, after lots of debugging and deliberation, I ended up rolling back a number of the changes I’d made and reverting back to Adobe AIR… for now. The reason for this is that switching to OpenFL would not only require me completely rewriting all my rendering systems, it would also make a couple of the special effects I’m planning extremely difficult. I really want to be actually working on a game now, so I figure rather than resolving all these issues right away I can defer them for a while. A big thing that enabled that is that OpenFL now supports Adobe AIR as a target platform, so with a few checks in my code to handle cases that are unique to OpenFL (most of which I’d already implemented) I can have something that can run on that version of OpenFL with no changes and, perhaps soon after, build to other OpenFL target platforms. Even if I’m not prepared to implement OpenFL just yet, with my experimentation here and with the side-project I think I have a pretty good idea how I’ll handle it when that time comes.

So, back to working on EverEnding: There were a few big design decisions I’d been deferring, one of which was specifically how to handle the narrative of the game and the other was creating some sort of special moves the player could unlock over the course of the game. I think I figured out a good system for creating a narrative in the style of sort of a story-book, with narration synced to music and text fading in – this is probably something I’ll want to prototype, though, to make sure it actually feels right. The special moves are like 75% figured out, but only the smallest slice of that stuff will be in the first chapter of the game, which is the one I’m focusing on right now, so I can figure out the last of that later. After I got that stuff basically sorted, I created a big task-list for creating chapter 1 of the game. I already had a task-list, but I made one that was bigger and more thorough, and had accompanying time estimates for each task. I tried to overshoot every estimate, but if they’re accurate than I have something in the region of 1300 hours to put into the project before the first chapter is complete. That’s a lot. Then again, I’ve put that much time into TF2, and I didn’t even make that game.

I have my work cut out for me. I’m going to start scheduling myself a bit more strictly again, though I may only get a few days to work to that schedule before I have to leave for a family thing, but with all this down and planned out I feel – well, not exactly optimistic, but determined I guess. I just turned 35, I’m starting to get the tiniest bit of grey in my beard, I got a blood pressure monitor for my birthday. I really do need to actually finish a project.

I’m uncomfortable with the passage of time. I dislike it, and because time flies when you’re having fun I retain a slight antipathy for having fun as well. I usually try to have fun anyway, but a bit begrudgingly, acutely aware of the cost. I suspect that this awareness makes my fun less fun.

At the end of the day I feel caught between two unpleasant sensations: One, the sensation of having not done enough, of having lived another day without achieving enough of a change in the state of the world to justify losing that day; two, the sensation of having not had any time, of the day ending prematurely before I had any chance to note its passing. The more I fight the first the more I feel the second: Time, of course, does not only fly when you’re having fun, but when you’re fully engrossed in any task. The inverse is also true: If I try to relax a little, take things slowly and enjoy them, I get to the end of the day and wonder how I got so little done.

This, probably, is part of the reason I persist in what I generously refer to as ‘self-employment’, which means that I don’t have a job but I still pay rent. A job would make things a lot easier, but the last time I had one time passed so quickly, and at the end of the year I felt like I could remember very little of it – and, as well, that everything I had achieved within it was for someone else’s benefit. Thus, I decided to pursue my own projects and work to my own schedule, and now I maybe don’t get as much done but all of what I get done belongs to me. I keep trying to push myself to be more productive and effective, but whenever I make strides forward I feel like time starts passing faster and I pull back. I frequently remind myself of the character Dunbar in Catch-22, who is constantly doing things he hates because it makes time go slower, since the more time passes the more missions he has to fly, since the more missions he has to fly the more likely he is to die.

There’s no real resolution to this conflict. The conflict is simply that a limited amount of things can happen in a given amount of time: I can try to do more of those things, but that doesn’t make more time, it just makes me busier, and the busier I get the less I’ll be able to perceive time that passes, the less I’ll feel like I can keep up. It’s perverse, the parts of my brain which keep me from working point to the longer days made by less work and say “see, isn’t this nicer? So much more time to work on important things”, and hide from me the fact that I only created that time by not doing those things.

What can I do? Do I go slow and enjoy the illusion of creating time? Do I push myself to work more and feel like the world is passing me by while I’m not paying attention? Am I capable of even making a decision here and sticking to it, or am I incapable of seeing past my subjective sense of more or less time, more or less productivity, to actually negotiate a path through the day that doesn’t make me feel like I’m living half of a life?