09 May, 2011

Wellsprings of Inspiration III: Guest Appearance from the Past!


When I was a wee lad of 16, I met our awesome host Dana Hunter in, of all places, one of those online writer forums that was all the rage before short-spoken birds and facial literature. I felt like I was in a shifty bar; a dingy, shady place where the real world threw back a few drinks and threw the bottles off-camera, because real men didn't care about littering. It was almost like Luke entering Mos Eisley, with all the naivety I could fit into my farm boy shoes. And it was there I met Dana Hunter.

Dana Hunter, you are my Kenobi.

Ahem, er, sorry, my nerd was showing there for a bit.

So Dana found me, and we quickly high-tailed it out of the forum like the Falcon with a squad of stormtroopers on our tail (Last one, I promise). We went on to have long talks about our creative endeavors, but while I just talked about it, Dana actually had the guts to do something with it. Hence why she has a blog with thousands of posts and I have, well, not much.

The reason I bring all this up is that once upon a time, I was Dana's co-blogger. I wrote a whopping three, maybe four, articles for En Tequila Es Verdad. Then I fell off the face of the Earth for a while. Well, I'm back, and I thought I'd introduce myself a bit as I step back into old shoes and walk along a path long forgotten.

I'll try to throw something out here every now and then. At the end is a link to my own little corner of the blogosphere, that I'm currently using to work on my personal project.

A sidenote: My previous entries were under "Kaden", a penname that once belonged to my main character who has since been renamed. The Elusive Muse (my corner) and all related posts will simply be under Jacob. And yes, I thought Kaden was cooler too.

So, without further ado, let's go to writing...

Wellsprings of Inspiration

How Video Games Tell Stories

Books, movies, television shows, video games, board games, paintings, pictures, music, that quilt your grandmother knit for you that's still in the closet, almost everything that surrounds us is about telling a story. And, really, you can find inspiration in anything. I've seen into the lives of my characters while watching a softball game. While listening to music. Overhearing two people in conversation. You can find meaning in everything, and story is about meaning. However, I'm focusing on a particular area.

Aw yeah. Video games.

My gaming career began around 1992-1993, a young spratling of about 3 or 4 years. It was Sonic The Hedgehog, and while it didn't inspire me to do much other than run around in circles really fast, it was the start of what would be a brilliant gaming career.

The first real inspiration came from playing Chrono Cross, a masterpiece released in the late 90's. The story was a bit convoluted, but I was at a young enough age I wasn't paying that much attention anyway. It had 45 separate playable characters and multiple endings. You literally could not encounter and unlock every character by playing just once. You had to play it multiple times to fully experience it. Sadly, the copy I owned was flawed, with a scratch on the disc that prevented me from getting past a scene that you cannot bypass. So I never actually completed the game...though it remains one of my life goals to do so. However, it wasn't the characters that made the most impact. Even though, at one point in the game, one of your party gets injured, and you have to make the choice to brave a dangerous swamp to find her a cure or, you know, don't and go pursue the storyline on your own. This sense of having to make a choice in the story will come up later, so remember it.

Actually it was the music that inspired me the most. Chrono Cross has a wonderful score, and in particular the main theme, "Scars of Time". This is, simply put, my favorite piece of music. From pretty much anything. Ever. And I like music scores. I love the Dragonheart theme, and if I can appreciate The Phantom Menace for anything it's one of my favorite Star Wars piece. But Scars of Time...when I hear that, I hear soul. I see epic battles illustrated in flashes of light, I feel how it must feel to soar above the clouds.

But I digress. Somewhere along the line I was introduced to Metal Gear Solid, which reigns supreme as High King of Convoluted Plotlines. I can't begin to explain the plot, but let me explain this: the main character, codename Solid Snake, is a genetic clone of a legendary super soldier, who throughout the course of the games repeatedly foils the plots set in motion by his other "genetic siblings", often involving the use of various bipedal nuclear-equipped mech known as "Metal Gear", for which the series is named. Nevermind that at one point you are lead to believe that the dismembered hand from his brother (Liquid Snake) has taken over the body of your ongoing nemesis, Revolver Ocelot, which is only possible because Ocelot's father is a spiritual medium. Oh, and Ocelot's mother is the mentor of the original Solid Snake of whom the main character is a clone of.

Oh, and there are cyber ninjas. Shit is crazy.

Incomprehensible story aside, the games actually have several plot lines that have continued to inspire me. In particular, the apparent antagonist in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is one of my favorite game characters to date. It would take too much space to get into the story, and it would be a disservice; you have to play it to understand. However, let me explain one moment. You are facing off against The Boss, the aptly named opponent you are struggling to face throughout the game. A former mentor turned traitor against her country, you are sent to kill the only woman Snake really loves. At the end of the final battle, she reveals all to you. Her sacrifice, and why she has done these things, and why you must end it here and now. She knows she is going to die. She knows you are going to kill her. It's all part of the mission, one far grander than you ever realized, and you have your part to play. Here's the kicker.

You have to pull the trigger.

In most games, climactic story-changing moments in the game are told through "cutscenes", moments where you no longer have any control over what happens. Here, you have to consciously take the action. After playing up to this point, I literally stared at the controller for at least three minutes, refusing to continue. Eventually I did, because I had to, but it made the echo of gunfire that much more real.

Let's take a step into another game, shall we? This franchise has quickly overtaken all others as my favorite game series of all time. For me, it is the epitome of what story-driven games should be. The series is called Mass Effect. A wonderful piece of science fiction, story-telling driven gameplay. You play the main character, "Commander Shephard", a soldier of your own design. You choose if you are male or female, one of various backstory options, and a few different gameplay choices. Throughout the game you encounter humans, aliens, robots. Soldier, citizens, and creatures with intelligence beyond mortal comprehension. Yet the game is steered largely by choices you make. Some seemingly inconsequential - you can bribe a shopowner to get a discount. Give a fanboy an autograph, or tell him to go jump out a window. Let a criminal live to see justice, or take justice into your own hands. You were making these choices, and each had meaning. Near the end of the game, I was facing off against the main adversary, Saren. He was corrupt, taken hostage by the insidious mechanisms of a being who could influence your thoughts. For most of the game Saren is hellbent on carrying out the wishes of the one commanding him. However, based on the choices I made, the things I said, I was able to get through to him. Leading up to one of the final boss fights, I showed him that he still has a chance to make a difference and to fight back. Saren took his gun, put it against his head, and fired. It bypassed the entire fight. Unable to fight the influence, Saren decided to try to make his final stand, by removing himself from its control. A final sacrifice.

I almost dropped my controller.

You may be asking, Why are you boring us with this? We weren't looking for a corporate sponsor. Hear me out, though. The reason these games are a source of inspiration to me is that video games, truly good games, succeed when they create experiences. That's how they inspire me. Experiences. Moments in a story. Video games have a unique advantage over other mediums. Unlike movies, a game can take between four to over 30 or more hours of gameplay to complete. You are not restricted to 112 minutes to meet the characters, connect with them emotionally, and understand their choices. Books, of course, can go even farther and more in-depth, but video games also have the appeal of being a visual medium. While there is something to be said for painting characters in your mind with a good book, but in a game they can present scenes and ideas that are simply more difficult to convey in writing. And, above all, in video games you have a choice that you simply don't with books or 'teevee' shows.

These choices are the defining moments when you realize a game steps over the threshold. When you have an emotional, personal reaction. In the sequel, Mass Effect 2, you are tasked with spearheading a suicide mission into enemy territory. You have to choose a squad leader to lead the second group while you lead the first. My choice was not made according to stats, or gameplay mechanics. Garrus was one of the characters from the first game, and the choices I made kept him by my side throughout the mission. I chose Garrus to lead them because I know Garrus, the way a Browncoat knows Malcolm Reynolds, the way a Tolkien fan knows the hobbits. It's a choice based on experience.

It also helps that games like this are often accompanied with amazing musical scores and in Mass Effect's case, stunning voice acting and camera work. Yeah, camera work. The way they "filmed" the scenes in mass effect give it a truly cinematic feel, as good as any movie.

As I start my own writing project, heading into the Great Unknown of writing fiction, I remember these games, these moments. That is what I want my readers to remember. I want them to remember the experiences. When, just for this one moment in time, they are doing more than just reading.

If I ever manage to accomplish this even once, I will call myself an Author.

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