c.e. taillefer

September 30, 2016

Get your mind into the gutter: Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics

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If you’re into comics even the least little bit, chances are good the name Scott McCloud has crossed your radar. He’s better known for his comics about comics rather than the franchises he’s worked on, and for good reason – Understanding Comics is something I’d consider required reading for anyone working in a creative field.

Of particular interest to me is the concept of the “gutter” – the liminal space in comics (and arguably, in writing and games as well, and films and TV to a lesser extent) where the reader supplies the details of events between panels/sentences/scenes.

"Now you die!"

“I may have drawn an axe being raised in this example, but I’m not the one who let it drop, or decided how hard the blow, or who screamed, or why. That, dear reader, was your special crime, each of you committing it in your own style.”

This focus on reader participation in Understanding Comics began to highlight the ways in which I exploit similar stylistic choices in my chosen mediums of short and novel-length fiction, and games.  For example, from “Haven of the Waveless Sea”, where Fandral Staghelm relives the death of his son:

   “Again.”
       The meaty rip, the buzzing song, the sound of hope dying.
In fact, once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop noticing how often I used a similar “fade to black” style – as a cover for my own inexperience with elves being torn-apart by giant insect lords, or to give reuniting characters some privacy, a la William Goldman but also to poke fun at the reader’s own sense of imagination. All it takes is the narrator stating, “you can imagine the rest” after the beginning of a gory or erotic scene to get the readers actually thinking about it. (Don’t think of the pink elephant!) It’s a great way to pretend you’re a better writer than you are, since the readers are going to imagine whatever suits them best. It’s also one of the reasons why, a friend pointed out, that good tweets work so well as comic strips: they both make effective use to of the gutter to be funny or scary or poignant.
On the other hand, like any stylistic choice, it can be too often relied on.  One of the storytelling experiments I hope to use in my current Twine project is to write the whole story, regardless of how nonsensical or unreal it may seem, to get at the heart of a personal experience through the nitty gritty details. If the goal of a game is to promote both empathy and the sense of helplessness inherent in being trapped in an abusive relationship, going through the painful details with a fine tooth comb seems to be far more effective than letting the reader imagine for themselves, particularly if the project’s intent is to break down stereotypical media portrayals of abusive relationships.
In particular, I’m thinking of the ending of Watchmen by Alan Moore.  How much of a double gut punch is it for Ozymandias to admit his plan was already completed before the heroes ever arrived to stop him, and then to show, in explicit, bloody detail, what that plan entailed?  Moore’s goal was to play on tropes and stereotypes of superhero comics, and it’s effective both in thumbing its nose at the big Villain monologue (quite literally, Adrian says “I’m not some republic serial villain”!) and the amount of destruction that many superheroes cause in the process of saving the world. (Age of Ultron/Civil War in the Marvel cinematic universe tries this also, to lukewarm effect.) Moore’s got an explicit vision to sell in Watchmen, and sets it up via the non-linear transitions, where the reader can partake in their own version of Adrian’s plan before being exposed to the reality.
April 17, 2013

Let’s Learn Twine!

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(Or: Is that a <<print $game.PC.inventory[$item])>> in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?)

A few weeks ago (right around GDC) I took some time in my professional life to mortar up a shameful gap in my clerical history – total ignorance of using excel.  I found learning it was a lot like playing euchre: you can observe someone doing it for years and be totally baffled, but as soon as someone teaches you the basics, it ends up being incredibly simple.

A few months prior to that, a lot of game critics and devs on my twitter feed had been talking a lot about Twine, a game creation tool.  I sort of paid attention in the same way I do to any game item I see repeatedly, but figured most programming tools were outside my limited scope.

Cue one of the biggest and coolest stories out of GDC, in which award-winner Richard Hofmeier vandalized his own expo-floor booth to promote and allow attendees to play Porpentine’s Howling Dogs. Charmed by the story, I gave the interactive novel cum text adventure game a try. An hour of reading and clicking left me with an experience I found  haunting and poetic. Then I noticed the fine print: Built in Twine. “WHAT IS TWINE?” I screamed at my screen, “TO MAKE SUCH THINGS?”

I hit the google machine, and found anna anthropy’s intro to building games with Twine. Twine, to my delight, dovetailed neatly with my new knowledge of Excel.  It also, to my exceeding delight, lit up nodes of my brain that are tickled by choose your own adventure novels and text RPGs.  It’s a simple tool than can create elaborate results with infinite possibility.

I don’t want to reinvent the wheel – guides to twine are plentiful and both anna’s information and the info included in the official Twine FAQ are more than adequate for a beginner, and a great deal of the appeal of Twine lies in both its simplicity and the desire to figure out why something didn’t work the way you wanted to.

I started with a text adventure played straight where you play as… my cat Gary!

a small white and tabby cat with his tongue hanging out on a green blanket

Gary: cats love him and humans want to be him

The visual mapping made it easy to lay out the general flow of the idea (which mimicked the general flow of my house!), and create places for Gary to level up – the scratching post in the basement to sharpen his mighty hunter’s claws, the toy mousie for agility, the litter box to level up his … uh dignity.  The roadblock? I couldn’t figure out how to get the game to save the randomly generated stats using these items gave him, which meant he couldn’t progress to fighting monsters (my fat beast of a cat, Minnow) or the next level (portal to fairyland) (because naturally GARY IS AN IMMORTAL BEING OF SUPREME POWER)

I was, I think, trying to run before learning to walk, and furthermore, not being true to my own personal strength (storytelling) or the medium’s personal strength (the human experience)(also hilarious hacker adventures). Some day, Gary’s story will be told and everyone will know he’s an immortal being oF SUPREME POWER. But today is not that day.

Instead, I started a twine game about the walled city of Mzandrei, where women are the strength, the leaders and knowledge holders. Men circle the city gates at night, baying to be let in. You can play as the Queen and try to juggle resources for a city caged and besieged; a soldier, hunting a killer before they kill again, or a librarian, struggling with a secret that may be killing you.

Of course, that’s where the game has stalled so far because I am nothing if not consistent with procrastination. But fun things are always funner together and twine can literally be for anyone – check out the #pphsjam column on twitter, and see how people can take a small idea (dating) and turn it into all kinds of stories whimsical and sad and terribly joyful. You can leave your project simple and sparse, or with the use of custom spreadsheets, have all kinds of blinking, jiggling, flashing text mayhem at your disposal. You can use colours. You can use art. You can use music.

In a way, Twine is exhilarating because you can do anything. In a more visceral way, Twine is absolutely terrifying because you can do anything. When people talk about the interactivity of gaming, Twine is a good hard look at what a slog through someone else’s shoes can be like, without anything between you and your gut but the words. Sometimes that experience is a pastoral life herding sheep. Sometimes that experience is somewhat more harrowing.

It’s communal. Take a look at the aforementioned game jam. How about the active Google group?  It’s not just communal, it’s open-handedly community oriented. porpentine shares the twine map for Howling Dogs, so you can see how it’s done. People share custom spreadsheets and scripting phrases for the less computer literate among us (Bless you!).

Anything and everything can be an inspiration. Anyone can develop the kind of game that causes a man to graffiti the booth of his own award-winning video game. It could be you. If you let it.

Let’s learn Twine, together.