The Means of Narration

We need more stories, because stories are power.

Stories change norms just by existing, and centering a perspective as real and heroic. Authoritarians have always understood this. This is how they keep dragging public opinion over the line of absurdity over and over.

Yet for all that, look how quickly opinions shifted once the protests started, and people got a new story, with new heroes.

Stories outlive civilization. They’re all we’ve got of what came before, and who knows what they leave out.

They’re the most powerful weapons and the most powerful shields, because they’re a statement of value. Every story serves to set terms for what we hold normal and right. They shape reality more than stones, because our reality is us. It’s just people.

The very nature of stories is people over property. Stories themselves are made to be comrades. Intellectual property is a sinister concept, that could only exist under capitalism. It’s a form of servitude of the human spirit.

Control the means of narration. Assert your stories. Make them real in the telling.

Tool Theory

This blog is slowly devolving into a forum for unfocused reposts of my rants from other outlets. Here is my attempt to cleanse my Twitter feed of a hour-long vent. Don’t expect a particularly cogent or well-structured argument.

Neither do I intend this as the last word on the subject; this is just me, trying to get a hold of my own perspective on a thing. Once I’ve got that nailed down, I can start to cross reference and see how it measures against other perspectives. Until that point I’m just caught in the mire of my own reactions.

So. Here we go. Down the tunnel, 140 characters at a time.

I have real trouble appreciating anything in its own right. I always think, what is it in aid of? What does it help me to do or understand? What is the larger implication of the thing? What constructive role does it play as a part of the whole? What does it say, that this exists?

If the answer is nothing, that it’s just special because it exists, and someone worked really hard at it, and I couldn’t do it myself, well. I guess that’s nice for the person who did the thing. Must have been exhilarating. If I know the person well, then maybe I can empathize.

An original creative work — to create something lasting, for people to use and interpret forever — will always be somewhat meaningful. But the more that performance creeps in and trumps the raw, formal architecture of the thing, clouding it in the ephemeral, the less I care.

This may be in part why I so enjoy forms like animation and videogames, where performance is minimized in favor of raw, original creation. Here, I think, a person has built something — from the ground up, measuring every brick. Every part is there because it suits the whole. Nothing is left to chance, without that accident in turn being caught and measured and carefully incorporated into the final message.

I love a carefully built studio album, especially by a single author or small creative team. A live performance…it’s a fleeting variation. It’s special because someone trained really hard to perform it without flaws, or to put a fleeting creative spin on it, in that one moment. And I guess that’s great for that person. But how is this performance useful or innately interesting? What does it do for, or say to, me?

Something like Trent Reznor’s live show I can get behind, because it’s a show; through his set pieces he layers a new meaning on every song. It’s something he has thought through on every level to give his audience a new and original experience. It’s not just special because it is. It’s not special because, wow, listen to Robin Finck’s guitar solo! Didn’t he nail it tonight! Or wow, listen to Reznor’s vocal range!

By the same measure I have trouble singling out skilled acting performances as meaningful in their own right. If they help the whole, great! If that performance is a useful piece of the overall architecture of the film or TV show, then I can appreciate its contribution to that.

That is, I appreciate it to the extent that it serves the message of the thing, which I appreciate to the extent that it enlightens me. And in turn I appreciate that specific enlightenment to the extent that it affects my broader understanding of life and my own observations; to the extent that a thing contributes to something, that contributes to something, that contributes to making life more meaningful for me.

I guess it comes down to subjectivity in the end, which everything has got to when all we can ever know for sure is what we sense ourselves. And by that extension I guess you could call this a relative self-centered perspective, on a grade of these things.

But that’s the thing. You don’t have to care about my self-centered perspective except to the extent that it helps you to understand your own. But neither do I. I have no reason to care about something that exists just for its own sake, to appreciate in its own right, because someone accomplished it.

It’s great when people accomplish things. I don’t begrudge them that. I’m all for meaningless little private victories. When they’re private.

If I’m going to appreciate something, by the selfish nature of my existing as a person, I’m going to appreciate it because it affects me. And the things that have the most meaningful effect on a person are the things constructed with the most care and thought, for that effect.

The things that are most useful are the things that are built especially for that use. They are tools, whatever form they might take.

I like a tool. I appreciate a tool. I can use a tool. A tool is constructive, or more accurately is built to facilitate my construction. I’m not going to fetishize a tool or put it on a pedestal for its craftsmanship. I’m going to appreciate a tool by how well it works for me.

Everything good that we do as a people is part of an overall mission to build a better environment, a better understanding for our future. It’s not a linear path because the world is too complex, but everything that is built to aid in building something good is itself virtuous.

Meanwhile those things that are contrived only to be appreciated in their own right serve only to stunt and stymie that necessary progress. I’m not saying that a guitar solo is going to destroy the world. I’m saying that the lack of a forward momentum bogs us down in confusion.

The point isn’t that this person can or did play guitar really well. The point is the precise thing that he played, in its correct context. And if that specific series of notes and rests, as performed, does nothing to aid or constructively influence the message of the whole, then boo.

It’s showboating. It’s narcissism. And in most cases it’s probably not there to draw attention to these properties and make us question them. It’s saying, hey, look at me! I am innately special just because I exist and I’m doing a thing!

And, no you’re not. If you can help, great! If you’re just amusing yourself, then great! But I am not here to bow down and suck your toes because you’re so wonderful. If you’re doing a thing that helps me out, I will appreciate it. And that’s basically what it comes down to.

Okay, sorted that out for myself. Now I can go retract it from everyone else’s face. Sorry about that, people.

The Humanism of Verfremdungseffect

Objectively, most Doctor Who is pretty crap. So it seems silly to get particular about what’s more crap than what, when you can just be watching and enjoying it for what it is, and reading in what you want to read in.

It’s the spirit and the ideas behind any given serial that grab me. The execution is never even close to adequate in the best cases, so who cares if it’s a shade shabbier or shinier. You just have to be affectionate. It’s the only sane way to go.

Personally, I find the McCoy era warmer than any era since Troughton and more rich with ideas than just about any period since Hartnell. So it’s a winner in that regard.

Thing is, in the end objectivity is an absurd thing to take into account.

Rarely is Doctor Who directed well. Rarely is it acted particularly well. Rarely are the costumes or sets or effects close to convincing. When they are, the lighting gets in the way or the staging makes a mockery of any sense of verisimilitude. Only occasionally is it written with more than passable skill and the faintest inspiration to color outside the lines. Rarely does any story actually take advantage of the format.

Yet the show has heart, and sometimes it’s got some real ambition. Usually it’s in those moments that the practical elements all conspire to ensure failure. But so what?

You just have to watch the show as if you’re watching your local theater troupe. You know these people. You believe in them. You know the odds they’re up against, in portraying what they want to portray. So what if the lighting was a smidge more professional last week; it’ll never be Kubrick, and you’re only making an ass of yourself by expecting it. What you should be paying attention to is the humanity behind it all. And that’s where this show excels.

That’s also why I tend to find any flaws more hilarious than distracting. I’m not working under the bizarre notion that this show needs to meet any kind of objective standard to be worthwhile. All it has to do is engage my humanity — and there’s nothing more human than failure, or more funny than failure at something as unimportant as showmanship. Hell, Kurt Weill would be thrilled. Not all the praise for B-movies is ironic. See the affection in Burton’s Ed Wood.

The show’s abject failure at convincing showmanship is almost universal. It’s a bit more prominent in the late ’80s, but draw your own silly metaphor about degrees of gray. Again, I also find the same period warmer and more inspired than most. However poorly executed it is, it’s patently obvious that the show is being made with sincerity. And that’s the most important thing ever. That, there, is what life is all about.

The Chimney of Meaningless Abstraction

Ebert’s at it again. He’s such a brilliant man, but damned if he doesn’t have a mental block on this issue. He just can’t seem to understand the point of videogames. Then again, he hasn’t spent much time with them. And his arguments are pretty reasonable for someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

I sent him the following response, which I have no illusions he will actually read (as he is such a busy fellow, and has so many other things to worry about):

The thing is, videogames — like film, novels — are about establishing a particular perspective of the world. Whereas film and novels explore this perspective through a linear narrative, videogames define the world of the observer through a limited set of laws. The artist control is in defining the world, the laws that govern it, and thereby — critically — the potential consequences to action.

For that is what videogames explore, on a basic level: cause and effect, action and consequence. That few explore it well is beside the issue of the potential of the format. Imagine if you will a world defined by the rules of childhood — all of the little baseless paranoias and insecurities. Now imagine the issues an elaborately staged, highly psychological design could explore by taking into account, by playing the player’s responses to the game’s stimulation.

Hitchcock is considered master of his form in part because of his skill in playing the audience. The same is the key skill in a game designer; the craft just isn’t there yet. And the interface sucks. (The Wii is a nice step.) And maybe the technology isn’t where it needs to be yet, either.

The key issue, I think, is the difference between freedom and liberty. Sure, there’s no art in freedom — in being able to do anything you want at any time. Liberty, though — an allowance of choice, within a limited scope of options — now we’re getting somewhere. Especially if, within that narrow web, there is real, meaningful consequence to every action.

Yes, videogames are toys.

I don’t think anyone’s saying that there isn’t human potential to videogames. It’s just that they aren’t really living up to that potential yet. Even in the best cases. Give ’em a couple of decades.

Ebert hasn’t spent much time with them. He hasn’t really thought about them. Freeman’s basically on mark in saying the problem is, we don’t really have the vocabulary down.

I responded to Ebert, telling him that although he was essentially right as far as he went with his argument, he was a little off base in what he was using to judge. He says the main problem with videogames is that they ask for user input, so there isn’t any “authorial control” to them. Well, sure there is. The control is, as with film or novels, in the rules that the fictional world goes by. The difference is really just in what the different media study.

Film is about the juxtaposition of imagery over time, and what that can do to us. Videogames are about cause and effect, and what that ultimately can do to us.

The reason most videogames are kind of trivial right now is that few games really bother with the idea of consequences. I don’t even necessarily mean within the gameworld itself, although in some cases that could be a good step. I just mean emotional consequences. Given that almost all videogames are based on physical violence, you can see how they’re a little hard to take seriously.

This is the problem with the whole “videogames are supposed to be fun!” argument. Not really. Videogames are supposed to elicit some kind of emotion in the player. It’s the quality of that emotion which the medium and indeed the game must be judged on. That, and the elegance with which the emotion is elicited.

This is not to imply that every videogame must be “serious” — meaning Important or Dark or Thoughtful or Artsy or what-have-you. Or that most should be. Or that any should be, really. I still can’t bring myself to play killer7 because the beginning annoyed me so much. I’m just saying that they should try to be a little more human, is all.

Ideally, every videogame offers us a unique perspective of the Way Things Are. The way life works. What the rules are, what the possibilities are.

Are there any videogames out there that revolve around the bizarre way rules work when you’re a child? I don’t mean the invisible walls that don’t let you explore that part of a level just “because I said so”. I mean all of the little lies and half-truths and simplifications that are handed to us, either to get us to obey or to shut up or to mask that our parents don’t really know the answer — or just to toy with us. What about a game that explores that world, and the fear that comes along with potentially violating a rule by accident. The fear that comes with being called in that certain tone of voice, even if you don’t remember doing anything bad.

There are so many interesting things to explore. Instead we’re mostly just collecting trinkets and shooting things. See something, shoot it, get points. Cause and effect. We’ve still yet to progress past Space Invaders.

I guess maybe the reason I like older games so much, especially things like scrolling shooters and fighting games, is how honest they are. Somewhere in the last fifteen years, between the RPG explosion and the SNES and 3D and full-motion video, things have gotten kind of distracted. There’s this idea that videogames are better than they ever have been, that because people have (in some cases) learned how to put together the old pieces rather more competently than before, we’re at the heights of the craft and the art of game design. It’s all inbred bullshit. A group hug about how great Videogames are for their own sake. It’s a lie, like William Gibson’s computer-generated pop stars. Or like pop music as a genre and an industry, really.

Everyone’s been so busy looking down that something’s gotten lost and no one’s much noticed: the justification for any of this shit being here to begin with. Why are we doing this? Why are we playing videogames? Why are they being made? The only answer is that it’s because they’re videogames!

Now. This is real, and it’s a real problem. Most people just don’t have a name for it yet. They don’t know how to describe it. The industry’s getting restless. People are always complaining about sequels and about EA and about lack of good IP. Japan’s gaming industry has been imploding for a while. People keep predicting crashes. People keep talking about how jaded they’re getting, and about how much better videogames used to be. To shrug off any of that, no matter how much you might be thrilled with things as they are now, is pretty hard to excuse.

For all the talk about how healthy the industry is, how much money it’s making, as a percentage of the population videogames have exactly the same market saturation they did twenty years ago, during the NES era. There’s just more on the market, and the people who buy videogames are getting older and buying more. New people aren’t really playing videogames. And if they are, they’re doing it at about the same rate as existing players grow disillusioned.

If modern videogames tend to take the player for granted, I guess it’s because they take videogames for granted. Everyone does, really. Videogames are videogames. They’re Mario and Pokemon and Grand Theft Auto and everything we’ve ever seen. That’s all kind of poisonous. It’s best we just put it out of our heads. Those are examples of what has been done with videogames. Most of them are very well-done, for what they are. They’re just sketches, though. Videogames can be so much more interesting. So much more relevant. To see how, don’t look at videogames; look into yourself. Look at your life. Look around your town. Look at the news. Society. Look at why you like anything. Look at what makes Catch-22 such a great work and not just a funny story about World War II.

For those of you have attained enlightenment from widget-gathering, feel free to ignore this whole argument.