Dansky Macabre
General Update

I swear, I’m writing serious stuff that will show up here eventually. If nothing else, there’s thing thing on Fargo, and there’s something else on…you know what? Never mind. In the meantime…

Saturday, ConGregate in Winston-Salem will host the initial Manly Wade Wellman Award ceremony. My novel VAPORWARE had the honor of being nominated, along with 5 other sincerely kickass books, and it’s an honor to be in their company. So if you’re going to be at the con Saturday, look for me there - I’ll have my dad with me as my date for the festivities.

Next week, NECON. Staggering Squirrels for everyone! I’m also moderating the 9 AM panel on Saturday. These two things may not mix.

Just got my e-copy of the astounding War Stories anthology, which contains my story “NonStandard Deviation”. Working my way through the book now, and it is, no pun intended, a killer lineup. 

I’ve started blogging on game writery topics over at Gamasutra. Expect more content there soon, too.

Lots of book reviews have gone live in the last week. Here’s where to go if you’re curious about new stuff from James P. Blaylock or Richard Chizmar’s Turn Down The Lights anthology or the new Nancy Kress

Things are rolling on Wraith: The Oblivion 20th Anniversary edition. I have been putting together the team of writers, and it’s a walloping good ones. The task is daunting, but the folks I’m working with - I couldn’t ask for better. And if you want updates on the project or just want to pester me about it, I drop in regularly over at the Onyx Path forums

 Had some good conversations with the mighty Hal Mangold, who will be doing layout on Squatches and Scotches. So that will be a thing sooner rather than later. A squatchy, scotchy thing.

And speaking of which, if you want to read an interview with me conducted by the marvelous Minerva Zimmerman wherein we discuss sasquatches, among other things.

That’s all for now, I suppose. Funny how it looks like a lot when you put it all together like that…

X-Men And The Failure of the Facepunch

The most interesting thing about the superhero fights in X-Men: Days of Future Past is that they are all abject failures. 

In fact, the best possible outcome for one of these fights - which, as we all know, are mandatory for a summer blockbuster - is that they never happened in the first place. Consider the opening sequence of the film. It’s a thrilling, brutal battle between a bunch of surviving X-Men - Sunspot, Colossus, Iceman, a few others - and a bunch of shape-shifting, power-absorbing, Odin’s-Destroyer-looking Sentinels. It’s thrilling, it’s kinetic, and it goes very, very badly for our heroes (note: significant portions of this movie are spent basically turning Colossus into Lt. Worf, the tough guy who gets the snot kicked out of him repeatedly to prove how goddamn tough the bad guys really are), but then again, the whole point of the scene is that the best possible outcome is that it never happens. That’s the whole point of the movie, after all - that the future that allows for these gonzo over-the-top fights with the Sentinels never comes to pass.

Super-powered punchiminnaface, in other words, is a flop. That’s what the movie is trying to tell us. Get to the point where it’s a mutant throwdown and you’ve already failed. And it’s not just with the Sentinels - the sequence where Magneto decides to “improvise” Mystique’s capture goes bad pretty much from the get-go, providing valuable intel (and some of Raven’s DNA) to the one guy who nobody wants to have it. The fight with Beast provides frightening video footage that’s used to stampede Nixon into backing Trask’s Sentinel play.

And yes, there’s a place for super-smashing. It’s great for hooking us in the trailer until we make noises like a bunch of marmosets who just found a pile of fermented fruit. It’s great for commercials. It’s glorious spectacle, and it’s gorgeous, and as someone who grew up reading the Claremont-Cockrum run on X-Men, I freely admit I love it. (Though I confess, I felt terrible watching poor Sunspot get waxed over and over again.)

But what the movie does is subvert that. The stuff we’re most excited about, the stuff that gets the most play in the trailers? That’s the stuff that the characters describe as worthless. Where the super-powered action works is where it’s used collaboratively. Or where it’s used non-aggressively, or defensively, or on behalf of others. Or where it’s used to facilitate communication. Or where it’s used preemptively, as when Magneto sabotages the Sentinels, in one of the coolest, tensest scenes in the whole movie. In short, anywhere but cape-on-cape facepunching, 

The best part of all this, of course, is that director Bryan Singer never calls attention to it. For all the showy moments - think “Magneto picking up a stadium” levels of showy - nobody comes out and calls bullshit on the hyperkinetics. It’s left to the viewer - still bemused from Quicksilver’s run through the guards where he gets them to take themselves out, still realizing that it’s human technology and human mercy that resolve the crisis, not mutant frippery - to dope all this out.

Which, in retrospect, is kind of nice. To have a summer blockbuster that willfully undercuts its own spectacle, and which leaves it for the viewer to figure that out instead of having it spoon-fed in painful exposition so that every test audience member gets it, that’s a rare thing these days. Far more likely that we get something that appears smart and gets progressively dumber as you unpack it - Dark Knight Rises, I’m looking at you - than the other way around.

So as you may or may not know, I’m once again climbing into the saddle of RPG development to take up the reins of Wraith: The Oblivion 20th anniversary edition. Wraith was my labor of love back in the White Wolf days, and I’m very pleased that Rich Thomas at Onyx Path has offered me the opportunity to resurrect it. Err, so to speak.

This is the first interview I’ve done on the project, more or less. In it, we touch on horror games, whether Wraith is cosmic horror, what I’ve got planned, and, well, for the rest you’ll have to read it.

The Manly Wade Wellman Award

I’m pleased and proud to announce that my novel VAPORWARE has been nominated for the inaugural Manly Wade Wellman Award, to be given out this year at Congregate. This is a big deal to me because A)it’s an honor to be nominated alongside folks like David Drake, Gail Z. Martin, and the mighty Mur Lafferty and B)I have always been a huge fan of Mr. Wellman’s work, and so it means a lot to be nominated for something bearing his name. It was a great year for speculative fiction in North Carolina, and to have VAPORWARE considered one of the best novels to come out of it, well, that’s humbling.

All the gory details on the award are here, along with the rules for voting.  If you’re eligible, I urge you to vote, and if you’re interested in picking up a copy of VAPORWARE, you can do it through amazon, B&N, or directly from the fine folks at JournalStone

Screw Narrative Wrappers

And here is why I hate the term “narrative wrapper”.

What is a wrapper? It’s something that’s put around an object, not intrinsically part of the object. It’s something that’s taken apart to get to the good stuff. It’s something that’s discarded as unimportant. It’s something that, 9 times out of 10, has disgusting congealed faux-cheese on it. 

And so when we talk about the “narrative wrapper” of a game, we’re implicitly stating that the narrative is not of the game itself. It’s something we’re supposed to wrap around the gameplay to make it transportable and attractive, and keep the targeting reticule from dripping burger grease on our fingers, but it’s ultimately unattached and disposable.

Which, to be blunt, irritates me to no end.

Because yes, you can have a narrative wrapper on a game, one that you discard as soon as it’s time to start blasting or moving geometric shapes around or whatever. But I’d like to think we’ve moved past that. That we understand that narrative and gameplay are part of a unified whole that, when combined with a player’s choices, creates the play experience. That a game doesn’t have to have a lot of narrative to have an appropriate amount of narrative for what it presents, in order to provide context to the player actions and create a satisfying arc to their progression. 

But Rich, I hear you say, not every game has a narrative element. Not every game needs a narrative element. Take, for example, tower defense games. Or Minecraft. Completely narrative free!

To which I say, cunningly (because this is my blog and I win all the arguments here), that’s absolutely not the case. Because when most people think of game narrative, they think of the explicit narrative - the story of getting from point A to point B, and probably slaughtering a zillion hapless orcs/enemy soldiers/terrorists/space aliens/zombies/geometric shapes infused with dubstep along the way. 

But that’s just the explicit narrative. There’s also implicit narrative built into every game though the choice of setting, items, character design - the assets of the game tell a story, if only by their very existence. Or, to put it another way, think about the archetypal tool you get in Minecraft. It’s a pickaxe. It’s not a tricorder. It’s not a Black and Decker multi-tool. It’s a pickaxe, and through it’s very pickaxe-ness - low tech, implied manual labor, etc. - it tells part of the story of the world it exists in. Ditto for those towers in tower defense games that everyone claims come narrative free - they’re shaped like something, they’re shooting something, and those choices frame a story before word one of any dialog or plot gets written. If you’re shooting aliens in a tower defense game, you’ve established genre (science fiction) and technology (aliens with enough tech to invade, you with enough tech to fight back); your backdrop implies the course of the conflict so far, and so on. As soon as you decide what a game asset is, you’re implying the narrative that allows it to exist and function. 

Which is another way of saying that narrative is baked in, blood and marrow, to games. It’s not a wrapper, though God knows enough people have tried to separate story and gameplay like one of them has to walk home across the quad in last night’s jeans. Yes, you can divorce narrative elements from gameplay (Or as we used to call it, “put it in the cut scene”) but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the narrative elements of a game are, and how they interact, inextricably, with gameplay. If you think of narrative as something external to the game - a wrapper, perhaps - then you’re missing the point, and your game will be the worse for it.

And that’s why I hate the term “narrative wrapper” - because it damages narratives and it damages games, and it damages the understanding of how narrative works in games. And it gets crappy congealed cheese all over my deliverables, and we just can’t have that sort of thing.

Father, Sons and Guns - A Few Spoilery Thoughts On Cold In July

Note: Contains some spoilers

The main thrust of the reviews on the Joe Lansdale adaptation Cold In July all seem to focus on notions of masculinity, which, in my opinion, is completely missing the point of the movie.

I mean, I can see why they do it. There’s an easy, visible progression there, as nebbishy Richard Dane accidentally plugs an intruder in his living room, gradually gets more decisive (sometimes disastrously so), and ends up in the middle of a scene of horrific gunplay that would have caused his start-of-movie self to piddle in his boxers.

But the easy reading is the wrong one. Because the movie’s not about nebulously macho masculinity, per se, and the acquiring thereof. It’s about fathers and sons, and everything else is peripheral.

Dane, played with sweaty indecision by Michael C. Hall, lets us know very early on that he’s a bad father. It’s not that he’s not loving; he clearly loves his little boy and will do anything to keep him safe. But he’s bad at the actual parenting stuff. He snaps, he yells, he knocks things over, he curses in front of the kid, and he has no patience for normal small kid behavior. Yes, he’s under a lot of strain, but even so, the portrait of Richard Dane as father is not a flattering one.

Then Sam Shepard’s Ben Russell rolls onto the scene. It’s his son Freddie that Dane shot and killed, and he’s looking for payback. Not because he and his son were particularly close - he hadn’t seen him since he was about the same age as Dane’s little boy - but because in his ethos, that’s what fathers do. And so he goes about terrorizing Dane by means of threats to the boy - a mutilated teddy bear with bullets all around, a late-night visit to the boy’s bedroom - and by extension, to Dane’s ability to be a father. To protect his son in the way that Ben couldn’t.

And then something happens, and Dane ends up with a chained-up Russell in the cabin left to him by his father, and things snap into focus. 

Because what Dane’s looking for, really, isn’t protection or masculinity. He’s looking for a father figure, someone to show him how to do a job he doesn’t feel capable of doing. And so, in two quick exchanges, director Jim Mickie lays it all out. When asked by his long-suffering wife how he got mud on his shoes (as he’s surreptitiously slipping extra items into their shopping cart), Dane responds that the night before, he’d gone up to check on the cabin his father had left them. “Dad didn’t leave much,” he says.

Then when he gets there, Russell complains that he’s missing one of his boots. Without a word, Dane goes to the closet, fetches a pair of his father’s boots, and hands them over. Literally, the man who terrorized him is now stepping into his father’s shoes, because that’s the best role model for fatherhood that he’s got.

And that’s why when Ben and his private eye/pig farmer buddy Jim Bob (played with devil-may-care abandon by Don Johnson) go looking for what happened to Freddie, Dane tags along. Not because he’s on a quest to find the fountain of macho. It’s because it’s what a good son does, even a son who’s in over his head. Even a son who drinks milk at home but Lone Star on the road when handed a beer by “dad”, even a son who fired a pistol by accident once and now finds himself having to go in strapped in a life-or-death situation that’s East Texas mud-level messy because he’s not letting “dad” go off without help he clearly needs. When Ben sees evidence of his kid’s horrific wrongdoing, it’s Dane who’s the first to go out to talk to him. When the evidence first comes to light, it’s Dane who doesn’t want Ben to see it, to protect him.

All this, for the man who broke into his home and stood over his sleeping boy, because sometimes you need a father figure just that bad.

And Ben, in his own way, reciprocates. Frankie’s the son he had but never knew, now Dane’s the son he’s got, more or less. By putting on those boots, he accepts the obligation. By not running the first chance he gets, he acknowledges the bond. And by stepping in when Dane’s about to get himself into a bar fight, he’s protecting this new son in the way both he and Dane have failed to protect their biological children earlier in the movie.

As for the movie’s climax, it’s ultimately a confrontation between Ben and Freddie. Ben hesitates in what he thinks is his duty toward his sun, which puts both Jim Bob and Dane (already bloodied) in the line of fire. Only then can he do what he needs to to, to do right by his son by his code. A gut-shot Freddie’s last words are “Are you really my dad?” spoken with surprise and wonder and maybe even a little bit of hope. And then Ben ends things the only way they can be ended.

As for Dane, he goes home. Bandages up that bloody ear, gets in the car and drives back to his house. Goes inside and climbs into bed with his wife and son and just lays there, eyes open. The apprenticeship is over. What comes next is uncertain. But he’s understands better what he’s up against, and maybe, a little bit of how to do better than either of his dads did.

On Godzillas Come and Gone

Let’s be honest: much of the excitement surrounding the new Godzilla film is pinned to the hope that it will help us forget about the last Hollywood Godzilla film, the Roland Emmerich late 90s disaster that remains a towering embarrassment nearly two decades later. (Do not, however, confuse “bad movie” with “unsuccessful one”. Between foreign box office, distribution rights, broadcast rights, merchandising deals and DVD sales, that movie more than made its pile back.)

And there are good reasons to hate that movie: It’s poorly written, it rips off Jurassic Park, it goes for cheap gags, and it gives us a Godzilla that looks like the unholy love child of an iguana and Pete Rose.

(Seriously. Check the chin.)

But, that’s not the real sin of the film. The reason it’s unforgivable i this: It makes Godzilla play hide and seek. At multiple points, the big G ducks and runs and hides among the skyscrapers of New York, and that’s the problem.

Godzilla, you see, doesn’t run. Godzilla doesn’t hide. And most of all, Godzilla doesn’t go wandering through buildings that dwarf him enough that he can hide among them.

Not our Godzilla, anyway. 

Caveat here: I am not a Godzilla fanatic, nor am I a purist. I’m just a guy who grew up with Creature Double Feature on local UHF stations on Saturdays, and the God-awful Godzilla cartoon with Gadzooky, and MST3K taking the piss out of every Godzilla moment ever. 

But.

My experience, give or take some Blue Oyster Cult live albums, is not unique. Sad as it is to say, the American love for Godzilla generally did not come from his status as a metaphor for nuclear devastation and the horrors of Hiroshima. No, we - and by we I mean my generation and the ones who came after us whom we forced to sit down and watch “Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster” - fell in love with Godzilla because to us he represented something else: the loved monster we all thought we were.

I mean, sure, the first time out he’s a bad guy, but in most of the classic rubber suit romps, he was pretty much a good guy. He got to show up, break tons of stuff, smash whatever he wanted, and everybody cheered him anyway because he eventually put the really bad monster down.

That’s us. That’s Max in Where the Wild Things Are, the senseless destroyer who still wants to be loved and to do the right thing, if only we could. I’m sure Godzilla would step over those power lines if he could, but he can’t, and then he makes a mess and gets embarrassed and things get worse, and….

You get the idea. He’s destruction paired with forgiveness, a license to smash paired with the knowledge that we’re needed and wanted. And Emmerich’s Godzilla was none of those things. It smashed very little of New York - the Army did most of the dirty work. It wasn’t a titan towering over the city it threatened - it was short enough to hide behind skyscrapers. And it wasn’t a carefree, happy-go-lucky destroyer whose only focus was on stepping on things. It was a parent, the ultimate buzzkill for what is ultimately a six-year-old’s fantasy.

That’s part of why I’m cautiously optimistic for the new film, directed by Gareth Edwards. And it’s part of the reason I worry, because all of the trailers so far have seemed Very, Very Serious, and part of the power of Godzilla is that kicking over power lines and stepping on buildings is, in its own way, fun. A damaged Vegas version of the Statue of Liberty looking like she’s about to cry? Less fun.

Really, the best western Godzilla movie of recent memory is Lilo and Stitch. It makes the comparison explicit at one point, when Lilo asks Stitch if he can do something constructive, and he responds by quickly building a mock San Francisco and then rampaging through it. In a very real sense, Stitch is Godzilla, the rampaging alien of unimaginable power and destructive capability who nonetheless reins itself in for the sake of a kid and a tiny sliver of belonging. It’s the uncontrolled force of destruction that means well (generally) but screws things up, resents being called on it but still wants to be loved. It’s the joyful destroyer, in or out of its Elvis outfit, but it always wants to be wanted in the end.

So if we’re lucky, we’ll get a Godzilla that carries off an impossible feat: it stands up to the excellent cast Edwards has assembled, and it doesn’t loose sight of why Western audiences fell in love with Godzilla, the 300-foot six year old, in the first place.

Game Thoughts: Attachment In Absence

Just finished playing Monument Valley, in which the most sympathetic character is indubitably the Totem, a sentient piece of masonry that looks suspiciously like a block of supermarket cheese but which selflessly assists  you in solving puzzles. You, being the protagonist of a  video game, cheerfully accept its help before moving on to the next level, at which point the Totem busts through a wall in order to follow you. The last you see of it, it’s sinking beneath the waves in a desperate attempt to keep pace with your magical floating platform, and while it’s less likely to generate filk than the death of the Weighted Companion Cube, it’s nearly as affecting.

(The player avatar, for her part, makes no effort to stop, turn around, warn, or assist the totem, which honestly diminished my pleasure at taking that role for the remainder of the game. Yes, I know it was a cut scene, but even a failed attempt would have been nice)

But that sequence got me thinking about the Totem, and the Weighted Companion Cube, and about how they and characters like them are generally beloved out of all proportion to their screen time and interaction with the player. And I think a lot of that can be put down to absence.

Specifically, it’s the absence of detail in player interactions with them. They engage in a few broad-brush behaviors, easily interpretable, and that’s it. What they don’t do are highly detailed, idiosyncratic things, and that’s the secret of their success.

Because as they’re designed now, they give us very few points of interaction, and the ones we have aren’t specific. So it’s comparatively easy - note the adverb, it’s kind of important - to create characters who will engage with players on all of those few points, earning for them clean, unreserved player affection.

Start adding more points, however, and things get trickier. The more points you add - a voice, specific anecdotes and mannerisms and phrasings, complex behaviors - the more likely it is that you’re going to add in something that isn’t going to ring true to a particular player’s conception of the character. And with that first “no way my Totem would do that”, the fantasy of the relationship with the character ruptures, suspension of disbelief is strained, and the magic starts to flee. 

It can work for plot arcs, too. Consider the sneaky-good narrative arc of Rock Band 3: Go from the garage to the stadium. That’s it. That’s all there is to the A-story. There’s no mid-level to the story to trip you up with “my band wouldn’t have done that” or “God, my lead singer’s a jerkwad and if I actually had any narrative control, I would have fired his sorry lumberjack-looking ass back in Topeka”.  Yes, there are tiny grace notes of story - riding through the fast food drive-through in a limo, realizing just how little the band was getting paid for a gig - but these exist gloriously free of context. Self-contained, they’re there as seasoning, not indicators of any larger path the player must take against their will. And in the meantime, the main plot arc contains absolutely nothing that would ring false in its details. You play, you get better, you get bigger. That’s it, a story we can all aspire to and ride along with with no bumps or disconnects.

Obviously, it doesn’t work in all cases; part of Monument Valley's power is the way in which it stands out. And sometimes you need your supporting cast to talk and act in complex ways that don't always align perfectly with player desire, wherein momentary dissonance ultimately serves the larger fantasy. But in the right context, it draws out player attachment and emotion not through complexity, but through simplicity, elegance, and a lack of artifice. 

So hats off to the Totem. I don’t know much about you, Totem, but I know that I was sad when you were gone. And in a very real sense, that’s all I ever need to know.

Dents: Why The Winter Soldier Was So Good

If you want to understand what Captain America: The Winter Soldier is all about, watch the shield. Yes, it’s a very good movie, probably the best of the Marvel flicks so far. Yes, it’s a four-color take on a Seventies political thriller, which is why Robert Redford was so wonderfully cast. Yes, it had issues of moral complexity that, depending on where you sit were either painstakingly simplistic or deeply adventurous for a billion dollar tentpole flick. 

But what matters is the shield.

Because when Captain America’s shield hits something in this movie, there’s an impact. It slices into walls and stays there. It gets used to hack open padlocks and smash through things. When Cap takes a corner too fast and bounces off the wall, shield-first, it leaves a mark. 

And that’s what the movie’s about. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything makes ripples. Everything has unintended consequences. Even the purest thing on the planet - either Cap’s conscience or his vibranium alloy shield - can’t help leaving a trail of damage wherever it goes, even if it was put into play for what were presumably the best of reasons.

Which is why, and I know i’m getting all Film Critic Hulk here (maybe Film Critic Doc Samson? Film Critic Abomination? Whatever) it’s such a big deal when Cap throws his shield at the Winter Soldier and the Winter Soldier catches it before returning serve and knocking Cap on his ass. The purest thing in Cap’s arsenal just got turned around on him. Never mind what just happened to Nick Fury, this is the real signifier that the old rules don’t apply, and that your best efforts just might be what gets you killed.

So that, really, is why I loved the movie. Well acted, yup - it’s really an ensemble piece for Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie, and they play off each other beautifully. The deep cut easter eggs for the Marvel true believers are fun without requiring you to be Comic Book Guy. The action scenes feel like a comic book, Batroc the Leaper gets his fifteen minutes, and the Russo brothers do a superb job of melding the slippery camerawork of those 70s thrillers with the shiny CGI demanded of a Marvel blockbuster.

That being said, it all comes back to the shield. And every time it cut into sheetrock or metal, every time it left an imprint on the world I cheered a little. This was the first time a modern superhero film really interacted with its world. Talk all you want about the Nolan Batmans and the Manhattan carnage of The Avengers, their violence was all spectacle. Buildings explode. Stadiums crumble. Bridges go down. Cliffside mansions get knocked into the ocean by arrays of missiles. These are things beyond the scope of the everyday. They’re showy statements. (That, incidentally, was always the basic disconnect with Nolan’s Batman: he’s a street-level character without superpowers who exists on a plane of wealth so far beyond comprehension that his Batman-ing seems the least effective thing he could do. Better to buy up Gotham - real estate’s cheap - and rebuild it than squat on rooftops waiting for muggers.)

Cap, however, makes dents you can see. Maybe the ones in your office wall are a little smaller and not quite as deep, but that’s a difference of degree, not of kind. These are impacts we can understand. These are, to be brutally honest, the things we all leave behind in our lives as we struggle along, bouncing off people and things, and leaving indelible marks as we do so.

Even if we try not to. Just like Cap, and his shield. 

Game Story, Six Gilled Sharks and The Quest For the Narrative Fix-A-Flat

Every couple of years, we get one of these. And by “these”, I mean “some distinguished gentleman from outside the game industry announces that games aren’t/can’t be art”, and everyone goes nuts as a result. A couple of years ago it was the late Roger Ebert, whose argument could largely be summed up that games weren’t art because they were terrible movies (part of which, by and large, is true - most games are terrible movies, and most games that also make for good movies are terrible games because you’re watching them instead of playing them - thought the underlying assumption that form dictates artfulness is, I think, a faulty one. But I digress).

This time around, it’s noted screenplay seminar guru Robert McKee, who posted a video a couple of days ago wherein he declares that games aren’t and can’t be art because, among other things, art has to be received passively. He also makes a few unsupported statements and pulls out the usual Shakespeare appeal to authority (incorrectly, I might add - does not the prologue to Henry V explicitly invite the audience to on some level participate in the transformation of the stage?) and generally draws a line in the sand that the tides of history have already washed away.

But that’s not important, really. I mean, yes, I think McKee’s arguments are pretty weak, but I’m not interested in using them as a springboard into the “can games be Art with a capital A” argument. Let’s be honest here: if you do think that games can be Art, you’ve almost certainly already drafted a 750 word response referencing some combination of Gone Home, Papers Please, Monument Valley and (if you’re really old school) the death of Floyd the Robot in Planetfall. If you don’t think games can be art, you’ve no doubt already written something of equal and equally indignant length calling out Modern Warfare deathmatch gameplay, hookers in GTA, and the alien sexytime morning talk shows warned you against in Mass Effect.

Which gets us precisely nowhere. And I confess, I’m not particularly interested in the debate as it currently stands. I’d much rather make games, and if somebody taps me on the shoulder and informs me that the work I collaborated on was “Art”, well, my mother will probably be very happy. 

What I am interested in, though, is the argument underneath this argument, particularly as it pertains to McKee’s approach. And that’s talking about “solving the problem” of narrative in games. 

By “solving the problem”, I think, most people are thinking of an out of the box solution for narrative in interactive entertainment. Story as it stands is sorta-kinda-in-theory broken (depending on which game you’re talking about and who you’re asking), and there’s a desire from all quarters to fix it, in the same way we’ve fixed animation systems and particle physics and so forth.

Which, I think misses the point. Because games, at this point, are such a wide category of experiences that thinking a single narrative approach covers them all, from soup to nuts, is pure folly. Functionally, dialog-heavy extended gameplay monsters like Mass Effect bear the same relationship to visual storytelling games like Journey that a rhesus monkey does to a six-gilled shark: They’re related, if you go back far enough, and they share a few design basics, but their practical needs are very different.

Which is not to privilege one type of game above any other in terms of the narrative experience it offers, but rather just to say there are so many types of games with so many different ways they approach storytelling that the notion of liberally applying Narrative Fix-a-Flat and then saying “done” is a pipe dream. Mass Effect, which incorporates dialog choice into gameplay and encourages open world exploration, needs a different approach than Journey. Journey, done almost entirely through visual storytelling, needs a different approach than Burgertime. Burgertime, where the narrative is almost completely implied by the character design and props, needs a different approach than The Last of Us. The Last of Us, with its linear narrative, needs a different approach than Papers, Please. I could go on for hours. The variety - with fundamental differences right down to the core of player interaction and experience - is that wide. 

So what am I saying here? That improving narrative elements in games is impossible and we shouldn’t try? No. But it is time to abandon the quest for the narrative equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone (or the Sorceror’s Stone, if you read Harry Potter in the US) that will magically transform all it touches. Stop using the reductio ad absurdum announcements about GAME NARRATIVE (singular) that are really just lame clickbait. Instead, revel in the variety, and find ways to improve the narrative elements in the types of games you’re working on.

Because my game ain’t your game ain’t the game the three guys are making in a small office downtown. There is no universal panacea or descriptor for this stuff, and there never will be. 

And that’s OK. Or it will be, as soon as everyone stops Insisting otherwise.