Dansky Macabre
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.

With the niece and nephew on the shores of the mighty Lake Crabtree. 

With the niece and nephew on the shores of the mighty Lake Crabtree. 

Several years ago, I wrote a story called “The Mad Eyes of the Heron King” for the anthology Dark Faith. The story was later reprinted in my short fiction collection, Snowbird Gothic. 
This is, give or take a few feet, the location that inspired it. If you look carefully, you can see the Heron King himself in the tall grass.

Several years ago, I wrote a story called “The Mad Eyes of the Heron King” for the anthology Dark Faith. The story was later reprinted in my short fiction collection, Snowbird Gothic

This is, give or take a few feet, the location that inspired it. If you look carefully, you can see the Heron King himself in the tall grass.

For those of you who have missed it, I have another Tumblr, called People Doing Terrible Things To My Book. It is about - wait for it - images of people doing terrible things to my book Vaporware. Why? Because everyone else I know takes loving pictures of their beautiful new books, and I just felt contrary. So, if you’re curious to see what best-selling authors, world-renowned game developers, and people with a copy of the book and a certain amount of dastardly creativity might do, take a peek. 

And if you really get inspired, well, there’s always room for another pic…

This is Alcatraz.
In all the years I’ve gone out to San Francisco, for GDC or other meetings or once, God help me, for a press tour, I’ve never been. This picture is quite literally the closest I’ve ever gotten.
Now everyone tells me I should go, of course, largely because A)everyone goes, sooner or later and B)it’s supposed to be haunted, and everyone knows I’m a morbid little son of a gun. I mean, hey, I went to Eastern State Pentitentiary, after all, and if you want to talk “supposedly haunted prisons that occupy a seminal place in American penal history”, that joint’s kind of the mother lode.
And yet.
Alcatraz holds no interest for me. Not the history, not the ghost stories, not the over-dramaticized tales of attempted escapes. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Like I said, it should be right down my alley
Maybe it’s overexposure. There are a million documentaries on the place, after all, historical and “supernatural”. There’s the mock Ken Burns stuff and there’s the stuff that’s dripping with woo. Damn near every detail of the place has been diagrammed, exposed, recreated in blocky CGI, and analyzed to death. The famous inmates, the famous stories, the notorious cells and events from opening to the day the last prisoner left, it’s been told. Left behind are only little scraps of mystery, of things undiscovered that the imagination still maintains are lurking out on that rock.
If I go out there, maybe those scraps get swept away. Maybe it becomes all fact and memory and picture and plaque and tour guide lecture. Maybe there’s no place left on that island for the ghosts of my imagination to hide. And all things considered, that would be a sad thing indeed.
So I won’t get any closer than this. I’ll take the picture. I’ll think about what it shows, and what it doesn’t. And for that last bit, I’ll be thankful. 

This is Alcatraz.

In all the years I’ve gone out to San Francisco, for GDC or other meetings or once, God help me, for a press tour, I’ve never been. This picture is quite literally the closest I’ve ever gotten.

Now everyone tells me I should go, of course, largely because A)everyone goes, sooner or later and B)it’s supposed to be haunted, and everyone knows I’m a morbid little son of a gun. I mean, hey, I went to Eastern State Pentitentiary, after all, and if you want to talk “supposedly haunted prisons that occupy a seminal place in American penal history”, that joint’s kind of the mother lode.

And yet.

Alcatraz holds no interest for me. Not the history, not the ghost stories, not the over-dramaticized tales of attempted escapes. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Like I said, it should be right down my alley

Maybe it’s overexposure. There are a million documentaries on the place, after all, historical and “supernatural”. There’s the mock Ken Burns stuff and there’s the stuff that’s dripping with woo. Damn near every detail of the place has been diagrammed, exposed, recreated in blocky CGI, and analyzed to death. The famous inmates, the famous stories, the notorious cells and events from opening to the day the last prisoner left, it’s been told. Left behind are only little scraps of mystery, of things undiscovered that the imagination still maintains are lurking out on that rock.

If I go out there, maybe those scraps get swept away. Maybe it becomes all fact and memory and picture and plaque and tour guide lecture. Maybe there’s no place left on that island for the ghosts of my imagination to hide. And all things considered, that would be a sad thing indeed.

So I won’t get any closer than this. I’ll take the picture. I’ll think about what it shows, and what it doesn’t. And for that last bit, I’ll be thankful. 

This is my copy of Taran Wanderer, by Lloyd Alexander. For a very long time it was perhaps my favorite book, and certainly my most often read one. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that a non-trivial portion of my younger self’s thoughts on life and creativity and all that good stuff was affected by this book. You will not necessarily succeed at your heart’s desire, the book says, though you will never know that unless you give it your best attempt. The easiest path isn’t always the best one. The best choice for others isn’t always the right one to make. Don’t find one thing you’re good at and stop there, or you’ll never find out what else you can do. Success is not achieved without hard work. Your early, unskilled efforts may well not be good enough, and that is reasonable and natural - learn from them and improve and the next ones may be better.
Heady stuff for a kid just figuring out that he was good with these “words” things and starting to get good at clarinet and trying his hand at some for-reals science and getting beaten up a lot and mainly trying to figure out who the hell he was and what he was supposed to do.
I confess, I didn’t take all of those lessons to heart, even the ones I knew were good ones. Some felt too hard. Some felt selfish to Much Younger Me. Some I didn’t necessarily have perspective on until later. But I always came back to Taran Wanderer, because my inner Assistant Pig-Keeper never let me forget where those bits of me had come from.
This copy is going to its final resting place soon. It is old, and the cover is gone, and the spine is going. The pages are yellowing and frankly, I don’t know how much longer it’s going to last as a physical artifact. And I have other copies of the Chronicles of Prydain, sturdier ones in better shape, and I suppose if I really wanted to I could get an eBook version as well, but, honestly, that’s not the point.
This is the one I read in third grade, after I’d chewed through Narnia during a bout of chicken pox and demanded more of the same. This is the one I went back to in fifth grade, and the year after, and the year after that. This is the one I’ve carried through my adult life, to where I sit now, and to where it sits next to me.
And yet.
It’s probably got one more read in it. At least one more.
We’ll see, won’t we.

This is my copy of Taran Wanderer, by Lloyd Alexander. For a very long time it was perhaps my favorite book, and certainly my most often read one. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that a non-trivial portion of my younger self’s thoughts on life and creativity and all that good stuff was affected by this book. You will not necessarily succeed at your heart’s desire, the book says, though you will never know that unless you give it your best attempt. The easiest path isn’t always the best one. The best choice for others isn’t always the right one to make. Don’t find one thing you’re good at and stop there, or you’ll never find out what else you can do. Success is not achieved without hard work. Your early, unskilled efforts may well not be good enough, and that is reasonable and natural - learn from them and improve and the next ones may be better.

Heady stuff for a kid just figuring out that he was good with these “words” things and starting to get good at clarinet and trying his hand at some for-reals science and getting beaten up a lot and mainly trying to figure out who the hell he was and what he was supposed to do.

I confess, I didn’t take all of those lessons to heart, even the ones I knew were good ones. Some felt too hard. Some felt selfish to Much Younger Me. Some I didn’t necessarily have perspective on until later. But I always came back to Taran Wanderer, because my inner Assistant Pig-Keeper never let me forget where those bits of me had come from.

This copy is going to its final resting place soon. It is old, and the cover is gone, and the spine is going. The pages are yellowing and frankly, I don’t know how much longer it’s going to last as a physical artifact. And I have other copies of the Chronicles of Prydain, sturdier ones in better shape, and I suppose if I really wanted to I could get an eBook version as well, but, honestly, that’s not the point.

This is the one I read in third grade, after I’d chewed through Narnia during a bout of chicken pox and demanded more of the same. This is the one I went back to in fifth grade, and the year after, and the year after that. This is the one I’ve carried through my adult life, to where I sit now, and to where it sits next to me.

And yet.

It’s probably got one more read in it. At least one more.

We’ll see, won’t we.

So there are a lot of things that I could write about here tonight. Serious stuff. GDC-related stuff. Writerly stuff. Maybe even a light-hearted recitation of the wacky misadventures that befell the brilliant and charming Melinda and myself when we went to buy a mattress for our guest bedroom today.

But instead, I’ll give you this. Because if Animal Planet isn’t going to give me grainy sasquatch-themed footage without any actual sasquatches on a Sunday night, by gum, I’m going to have to make it myself.

GDC Thoughts - The Unexpected Case Of the Round Table In The Night

Something funny happened at the Game Writers’ Round Tables I hosted this year at GDC.

Now, I’ve been running these round tables for a while. This was, if my fuzzy memory serves, the eighth year the folks at GDC have kindly consented to let me gather up members of the scribblers’ tribe in a room to discuss techniques, concerns, process and other vagaries of game writing. They are generally well attended, and they are generally well reviewed (kayn-ahora for this year). 

This year, we talked about a lot of different things across the three days. Portfolio building. Character-driven narrative construction. Working with voice actors. You name it. I always take notes at these things; after the show I collate them and send them out to all of the attendees. When I started collating today, a rough word count for the three sessions’ worth of stuff was close to 5000 words. 

But what was just as interesting to me was what wasn’t talked about. In the early days of the round tables, there were a few topics we always zeroed in on. How do we convince teams that writing is important? How do we get a writer a seat at the table early on, so the narrative doesn’t feel tacked on? How do we start to interface with the rest of the team?

This year (and really, very little for the few years previously), there was none of that. The conversation we were having assumed narrative was important. It assumed that teams that wanted narrative would get writers on board and integrate them with the team. It assumed collaboration with level design and sound and creative direction. 

The goals we had aspired to had become part of the landscape, baked into the conversation as a given.

Which, in the vernacular, is freaking awesome. Because it means that we can move past the basics to discuss other things. Because it means game narratives are starting from a better place in the production cycle. Because it means the industry’s going to let us do better work.

So is this it? Are we done? Absolutely not. There’s still miles to go before we sleep, at least when it comes to creating interactive narratives. There’s so much still left to do. But as an industry, collectively, we’re closer than we used to be.

And to me, that feels like winning.

Things That Happened At GDC (Random Shuffle)

So these things happened at GDC…

  • Michelle Clough gave the blow-the-doors-off breakout talk of the Narrative Summit, and acquired the nickname “Atomic Ovaries” in the process. Go check out her talk on the Vault. I’ll wait. And you’ll understand.
  • I may have offered a sip from my flask to the honorable Mayor of Baton Rouge, LA.
  • Alexander Bevier did a great job of stepping up for the IGDA Writers’ SIG and ran a kick-ass edition of Write Club. The fact that the final question was about writing dialog for a gritty FPS about a vengeful cabbage whose family has been shredded (working title: Cole’s Law) is entirely beside the point. Bravo, Alex.
  • There was orange wine. Three kinds of orange wine.
  • Two of my favorite designers nearly got into a fight, and I’m not sure one of them even noticed.
  • Roughly 84 Californians, very few of them native, asked me “When are you moving out here?” When I said “I’m not,” they looked very surprised.
  • Over 70 people showed up for the last iteration of my Game Writers’ Round Table on Friday, during the last slot of the conference. I am humbly pleased that folks were that into the material.
  • There was a playtest of Squatches and Scotches, my home-brew card game. We did it in a bar. Because it was GDC.
  • The estimable Mark Nelson and I argued college basketball in front of internationally celebrated game designer Ken Rolston, whose transparent amusement at our hammer-and-tongs debate was one of the most genuine expressions of joy I saw all week. 
  • When it comes to college basketball, by the way, Mark Nelson is still wrong.
  • After innumerable years of saying “someday I’m going to…” I finally took a look around the Contemporary Jewish Museum, around the corner from the Moscone Center. It took maybe an hour. (But it was worth it for the Lobel exhibit alone.)
  • One of the security personnel at Moscone West told me, “I appreciate your enthusiasm.” Seriously.
  • Had breakfast with Nicole Lazzaro and Lee Sheldon, which made me feel a lot like the Sheriff character on Eureka, brain-wise. Wow. The smartness.
  • Many people whom I admire as professional peers did terrible things to my book.
  • The legendary Brenda Romero had multiple slides in her PPT presentation featuring asparagus.
  • I bought Hal Barwood’s book. You should, too.
  • There was a moment during an interview where I actually had to pull out the “I could tell you but I’d have to kill you” line. 
  • The game writing crowd found a new bar and promptly drank it out of most of its scotch. Monkey Shoulder, we hardly knew ye.
  • Some people did some really disturbing things with milkshakes.
  • I discovered the downside to staying at a hotel with hall bathrooms and showers is that it has hall bathrooms and showers. Especially if the shower is next to your room and two of your hall mates like showering together.
  • People ate the roast beef in the conference lunches. This was a mistake.
  • Steve Meretzky promised to show me 100 places with better drinks than the Tadich Grill. 98 to go. Next year, then…