Monday, January 10, 2011

Meter Shtick - The Art of Structure and Meter

Normally, I'm pretty free form with my writing. Almost all of my structure is uniquely specific to whichever sentence or paragraph I happen to be writing. However, lately, I've been stuck in a personal argument as to whether or not works have better features when structure driven, like Shakespeare's infamous iambic pentameter, or the heroics' dactylic hexameter. Given that the heroics were better suited for Hebrew and Greek, I doubt that's a meter I'll take to immediately, but the concept of meter hasn't been eluding my thought of late.

The draw behind meter makes it easier to which it can be related, as well as more memorable. However, I find that trying to write to a specific meter will often injure the language as much as it would improve it for rhetorical or nmemonic devices. That certainly does speak to a lack of particular quality of my writing, but doesn't necessarily speak to the pure benefit of meter.

It's really hard to validate with myself whether or not my mode of thinking is better, or better left behind in favor of improvement. Then again, given that Shakespeare himself is considered not only The Bard in terms of general talent, but also a nigh-perfect example of English poetry and playwriting, one may think it has some merit. Perhaps I know a hawk from a handsaw! Alas, poor talent, I knew it well...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On Writing: Details, Characterization, and Word Counts

The trickiest part of writing, for me, is figuring out exactly how much is too much. Stories are often made or broken in the details, and the details also command how the reader reads the piece, how the piece translates in terms of atmosphere, and also commands the pace at which the reader can go. Higher word counts affect the pacing and structure of syntax depending on the density of words to paragraphs, and also factor into how penetrable the prose is to varying reading skill levels. Word choice and placement also factor into how pressing the prose becomes, by modifying how the reader is meant to read each sentence, and how those sentences interact within the paragraph. Connotation states not only how the character is feeling, but also what sorts of sights a character or atmosphere will transmit, and that affects the feeling of the reader.

In short, it's a terribly complicated and overly complex series of variables that will on a very small level effect how a piece is taken at any given step. Granted, this is taking word theory to an entirely too precise level to even be manageable, but it doesn't hurt to have a relative idea of this in mind when approaching how a part of a story is going to be laid out. The end result becomes its own monster, once the very finite processes are to be addressed individually.

Although, a point of some debate I often have with other writers, and avid readers, is in the details. Specifically, how much is too much? Seeing as detail density has a subtle effect on the pace and atmosphere, but it also has a direct control on how much the reader can see and interact with.

In my experience, details exist either as a form of setting formation, or as a form of characterization. My experience stems almost exclusively from the first person, so it tends to favor the detail level of the character in question. A narrator like Psych's Shawn Spencer will often key into as many details as possible, covering both a wide range of rough items while being very specific about certain key details. The opposite would be a narrator like The Doctor, from Doctor Who, who would likely key into the most pointless items in the room, and find a use for them in the most haphazard and unlikely way possible. This serves not only for scene setting, but also a very finite point of characterization.

Though that's only a small part of how narration and detail play a role within prose. Another outlook is on adjective and adverbs - descriptor words. These could season a single word or pepper an entire sentence, each piece having both specific and broad changes throughout the narrative, on individual and universal levels.

Although the question still remains. Over-detail a piece, and it could cause a number of problems. Purple prose is always a likely outcome, either reaching professional infamy or simply an interesting concept selling poorly due to format. For example, Eragon for the former, and Dune for the latter. Under-detail a piece, and it will often become either an airplane book, or too unfulfilling for the reader. Although acceptable levels will vary drastically from reader to reader.

In my opinion, the level of detail should be unique to the narrator, and beyond that, establish as loose a setting as possible. Any particular time a setting is filled in too heavily, it will often domineer the bulk of the text, commanding more attention than necessary, and leaving a relative short list for the actual goings-on, which is usually what I find preferable to read. That means establishing a scene through atmospheric particulars (colors, lighting, sounds, nearby moods), and rough overviews (diner, public park, cafe), and leaving the rest to the reader's imagination. Any more I find begins to become a little smothering, and any less is only used whenever the tone is intentionally left ambiguous and unstated.

The more detailed scenes are specifically designed to provide key details for future reference and later plot points. This could include a character noticing a heavy object is missing from a haunted house, which will later be dropped on/around said character, or simply taking notice that there is a flashlight in the cabinet for when the power goes out later. It shows forethought on the part of the character, and reduces the feeling of deus ex machina when the item comes into play later.

Just a some food for thought.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Persistent World - A Question of a Universe without a Protagonist

Part of my problem with BioShock is that the world seems so haphazardly placed. It's a beautiful, well designed stage through which we see the events of BioShock unfold in beautiful form. The problem within this enclosed bubble of Rapture is that nothing ever happens. The game's events are so specifically tied to the player's actions that the world doesn't breathe, turn, or exist were it not for the player's hand. Which is odd, given that the player's actions cannot in any way affect the outcome of the story.

The problem is the world seems to have no soul outside of the specific events in the game. Little Sisters arbitrarily patrol to steal ADAM, as do Big Daddies, and Splicers are always out looking for... non-splicers to kill for... uh... ADAM? I guess? Blood lust? It's that everyone is in such endless want for this narcotic that they serve no other functions for themselves. One splicer is up-turning an office, two splicers are dancing, one or two may hack a sentry or too, but never are they feeding themselves, going to the john, or anything. Their world, in its entirety, is waiting to ambush the player for access to some lovely, lovely ADAM. They serve no other purpose, have no other point, and outside of that, have absolutely no life. They serve only as Elite Mooks, to serve as serviceable but weak antagonists to the protagonist. After they're killed, there's no harm because they had no lives, and the protagonist moves on with his day. What's worse is that the bosses also fall into this trope, being palette-swaps of regular enemies, and to the Research Camera, appearing as regular Splicers themselves.

Granted, the Little Sisters seem to have some kind of soul. They scream in fear, recoil in horror, and hide behind their Big Daddy overlords. The problem is given the recycled animations and mirror perfect recreations of actions every time one is harvested/saved/separated, the life is swiftly lost to the feeling that it's all been done before, and will be done again. The entire feeling is lost, and pre-scripted events are the only thing they have to look forward to.
However, BioShock is just a recent example to the problem I'm trying to address, which is a world that doesn't even feel real external to the events of a game. This was my driving point in a different piece I did, but the point still stands. Although not from an NPC point of view, but also from a universal level. Why don't games have a persistent world that feels persistent when playing.

Buildings don't seem to serve a function except to the protagonist. Granted, this shouldn't be a surprise, as their creation was unique to the circumstances they were created for. The problem is that it ends up feeling like a set. The life ends up being bled out of the framework, and can at times leave the player feeling like it's all just a little too convenient.
However, unlike the daily lives of the game's AI, this can be rectified with good stage design, art direction, and overall setting design and atmosphere. Games like BioShock are bad examples of design, handling the in-game setting to be brilliant set pieces, but terrible worlds. To contrast, have a look at Bioware's Mass Effect series, or Dragon Age. The towns and settings in this game feel like the world breathes, are persistent. This can be in the small details of the townspeople, or even the town layout managing to convince the player that they're unimportant to the grand scheme because the game can go without them. It's details like these that really set the world apart from the player, without excluding the player entirely.

Granted, this isn't the only mark of a good game. Fallout 2, a wonderful game by many accounts, really hinges all of its narratives on the workings of the Chosen One, and manages to be enjoyable despite that. However, when it's used to good effect, the results can be just as good, if not better.

Games need to have a little more ambition with their settings. Though not the only feature necessary in a game, its often in the details where the big picture comes to fruition.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

BioShock (PC) Review

(Original post found and formatted for the Escapist Magazine forums. Found here.)

Shakespear's Romeo and Juliet is one of the more interesting ways to start a piece in that there is no drawn out exposition, spoken narration, or any scenery description. It starts out with a fight. Two men less than two sentences from animalistic violence, and visceral combat. After the fists have flown and a man murdered is the audience let in on the context of the brawl. It's a powerful way to start a piece, letting the emotions serve as the introduction, leaving details to experience rather than narration.

BioShock has a similar plan, starting with a plane crash. Oil-slick waters hissing with flame, and a lighthouse entrance advertising relative safety from the burning waters around. From there, the protagonist, whose eyes the player inhabit, goes on an emotional rollercoaster through the artistic wonder that is Rapture. Every inch of society dripping with the expense and extravagance of excellence, a better society nestled among the octopuses' gardens, in a towering city hundreds of leagues under the sea, and coming apart at the seams. The artistry, architecture, and cityscapes are beautifully rendered and catastrophically destroyed. It's a bit like looking at the modern Colosseum, a testament to the beauty of man and the harshness of nature.

Every experience in Rapture has no context other than what the player brings to it. There's just a voice in the radio, a utopia turned insane, and an endless population of insanity dragging its claws into the player's heels. In that way, it's similar to Portal, a narrative so cleverly understated that the story capitalized on the details, and gave the player nothing else. In terms of using minimalism to convey a narrative, BioShock meets its mark, and manages to tell the tale of Rapture without speaking a word of it, and letting its inhabitants provide context to broken and lost city.

The problem with that is that there needs to be a certain amount of empathy for the scenario, or the atmosphere, to have life. BioShock has next to none. The splicers, some of whom had voices in various in-game audio diaries, their personalities and voices providing the player with a lens through which Rapture is made into the city it is, and was. However, for every splicer who has a voice, a brain, a soul, any amount of humanity, it is lost before the end of their stay in the player's perception. Every single splicer that once had a voice devolves into a traditional, standard enemy. It's nigh-impossible to empathize with a thug who does little more than run, swing, and shoot. However, it forced the player to understand through the narration of the major parts of the city, then devolves them rapidly into mindless enemies. The whole build-up seems wasted when it coalesces one of many cold, lifeless gunfights.

Worse still, there are a very limited number of character models in game. In fact, only two of the characters don't have their models reused. The worst part still is that the final boss of the game, the main antagonist, isn't one of them. It just feels lazy.

There are only two major characters in the whole game the player should have the smallest amount of care for, and the game forcibly removes one of them. Within the roughly 15-hour narrative, the player has so little to hold onto that going from goal to goal loses its luster. Like the city itself, the game just can't keep the player drawn in. Everything ceases to have the adrenaline-fueled drive, and instead felt like a cog in the machine. Perhaps it was in favor of the overall narrative, but that doesn't protect the game from its medium. As a game, BioShock drops the ball in a big way in terms of giving the player an actual playing experience.

Something that the actual gameplay doesn't help enforce. The gunplay and powers feel run of the mill. If anything, they keep the same life of their spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2. A game whose release was a nearly unforgivable eight years prior. Considering how little the system seems to have changed, it almost feels rushed. In comparison to how much time and effort seemed to ooze from the walls in the environment, writing, and voice-work. To feature gunplay and powers that allude to a time long since passed that it feels far too thrown together to even be worth the cost of entry, in compared to actually going back and playing System Shock 2. There are even some old-feeling FPSRPG conventions that seem to take away from the overall effect. The increased defense and life of late-game enemies isn't offset by late-game powers and upgrades. It ends up making the beginning feel a touch too easy, and the end a leap and bound too hard. It ends up making the cogs poke out of the sides of the machine, further hurting the play experience.

The only point of empathy and interest the experience maintains throughout is the Little Sisters, little girls whose fate is entirely on the player's choosing. These young girls seem so inhuman and unnatural at the worst of times. However they may appear at first, they become very, very human when separated from their protectors. It becomes very disquieting to see them alone, without anyone to protect them, in a world surrounded with psychos and sociopaths.

However, the game drops the ball in turning them very quickly into a mechanic. The first and second little sister to appear on her own own is a lost and frightened little girl. It's easy to care for her as an individual, but that quickly loses its touch by the fifth, and is completely gone by the tenth. By then, the girls are simply a growth mechanic. Fight a Big Daddy, harvest or save a little girl, and get benefits. The death of Big Daddies hit the Little Sisters in a very big way, but to the player, it's a goal. There's no mourning the loss of life, or the lifelong companion dead. Just a goal.

It's hard not to look at the stellar atmosphere in BioShock and not expect greater things from the rest of the game. However, the game simply does not deliver. Instead, we get a great idea and a beautiful setting that would be better left to novelization or cinematography. It's quite possible that BioShock, as a movie, could've been the next Citizen Kane in terms of commentary on the human condition. However, as a game, BioShock consistently fails to deliver. That's only made worse when games like Portal to the same type of story that much better, andFallout 3 do the game elements more justice. However, the absolute worst part of what BioShock is what it could have been.

Bottom Line: BioShock feels like the game System Shock 2 tried to be, but came out eight years too late, and didn't innovate enough to pull its weight. Neither a good nor bad game, but terrible compared to what it should have been.