A Video Game Should Be FUN

Last night, I finished a major rewrite of the most problematic chapter in The Veil. I decided to unwind by playing some Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (Number 1. I just picked it up for a bargain).

I’m a child of the 70’s. Star Wars was the first film I recall seeing in a theatre. The toys were the only thing every kid in our neighborhood could agree to playing with. There’s a very special memory of my mom tied to the Star Wars series. When I say Star Wars is important to me, I’m making an understatement.

So it’s natural that a game that supposedly ties into the Star Wars story should intrigue me, yes? And since I can now play it with the glorious graphic capabilities of the PS3, it’s even better.

So I sit down and start to play. I confess, it kept me up until 3:45am. But here’s the thing, I didn’t have fun. Yes, the story was engaging. In particular a certain plot twist early on that changes your perception of the whole original trilogy was pretty sweet. But the story was the ONLY reason I kept going (that and I’m cheap & don’t want to waste $20).

The most annoying aspect is that you can fall anywhere. I mean, if you’re standing next to a river and 20 enemies attack you, they can push you to your death into the water. WHAT? Since when did an action RPG do such a thing? I played the far superior Castlevania Lords of Shadow and it never allowed for you to die so easily. It understood that when you involve combos, jumping and enemies that can push you back, it’s pretty unfair for you to die just cause of a ledge. Especially maddening in Force Unleashed because you have to start a hella long way back. It gets frustrating that you can complete all these tasks, battle hordes of enemies and then you get hit with a laser blast and since you were too close to the ledge, kiss your ass goodbye. The frustration level elevates more when you consider that if you do get hit, your character is useless and takes some time before he’s responsive to the controls.

I only stopped because it was the fourth time I had been pushed into water and died and I was about to do harm to my PS3.

As I stomped up to bed (OK, not stomp exactly, didn’t want to wake the kids) I thought this was a good lesson about writing. Story is important. Hell, it’s why we write, but what if it isn’t fun for the reader? Yes, I know, we don’t always want the reader to have fun, but the reader should be having an emotional experience that is complementary to the story. They shouldn’t be frustrated with odd language usage or poor formatting, or for us indies, poor editing. Playing that game last night reinforced in my mind what I said yesterday about needing patience. I have to make it right. I have to ensure my audience feels what they should be feeling. I don’t want them throwing the book because it’s needlessly frustrating to get through and they got pushed in the water again.

Author Intention or Audience Intervention?

Last week I saw the movie Sucker Punch.

The movie focuses on Babydoll, a girl committed to an asylum when she accidentally kills her sister.

Once in the asylum, Babydoll’s evil stepfather pays off an orderly to have the girl lobotomized. Babydoll, knowing her time is short, devises a plan to escape.

The thing about Sucker Punch is that it tells the majority of Babydoll’s experiences in the asylum in dreamlike sequences that are like fevered geek-boy fantasies. Dragons, zombies, killer robots and more all become obstacles Babydoll and her friends must overcome in gaining items needed for escape. Add into the mix a group of attractive young girls dressed scantily with guns, and well, you can see the demographic this one is gunning for.

My wife and I both enjoyed it. Yes, we are those kind of geeks.

We started talking about the film and the various imagined worlds Babydoll & co. encountered. At one point I said to my wife, and yes this is the point of this post, “Do you think he really meant it to be that deep, or are we just putting our own ideas into it?”

The question that still lingers in my mind is, did the writer intend for us to interpret things the way we did, or are we seeing those themes and ideas because we brought them to the movie ourselves?

How much control should writers exert over the audience experience? How clear should we make our thematic intentions?

When your audience completes the tale you’ve written, do you want them to think a specific way, or do you want to leave it open for numerous interpretations?

Sometimes this can work. When a story has enough layers, enough emotional power, leaving room for audience interpretation makes the story more personal for each person that experiences it.

Years ago, an anime called Neon Genesis Evangelion caught my attention. Evangelion left so much open for debate and interpretation that even today, more than a decade after it’s run completed, people still debate various plot and philosophy points. It’s given the work a staying power that is rare in our consume and toss society.

But does it always work? Well, let’s look at Sucker Punch. Fact is, this movie has the world pretty divided. Some see it as having a deeper psychological message about trying to overcome feeling owned and trapped. Other people see it as a pointless story that exists only to satisfy an orgasmic display of anime and video game inspired imagery. Even those who recommend Sucker Punch do it more for the visual appeal as opposed to the story.

Simple fact is, Sucker Punch doesn’t have enough meat to allow the audience a deep level of participation. It’s too easy to see the film as exploitation as opposed to being a statement against it. It’s far too easy to walk away with no message at all.

So how do you do it? How do you strike a chord that unites the audience, yet leaves them enough room to make the story their own?

I think the trick is balance. First of all, you need a good hook. This should be clear, no room for interpretation.

Take Inception.

What’s the hook? Crooks break into people’s dreams to steal information.

It’s clear, no one is going to debate that their interpretation is any different.

But as Inception continues, it starts to throw ideas out that ask more of us. The deeper we go, the more the film allows multiple interpretations, but only a handful.

For instance, the ending presents us with a simple is he or isn’t he? type conundrum. The writer has still controlled our experience. He knows we will walk out thinking one of two things. There is room for personal thought, yet it’s still been controlled and manipulated.

When I watch Inception, I know the writer intends to leave us hanging. I know he intends to leave us slightly disoriented and questioning. But one reason it still worked was that it made perfect sense in context of the story we had watched. Either possibility was plausible.

In Sucker Punch, Babydoll’s delusions, while being visually engaging, leave us wondering where the imagery came from. How does a girl in what appears to be the 1950s or 60s have visions of giant samurai or killer robots? Instead of fitting in with the story, it takes us away from it. Instead of Babydoll’s experiences informing her delusions, it is the author who is informing the visuals. This robs the film of a genuine voice of its own.

But I liked it, so I start peeling at the nasty rind to find the juicy orange inside. I see the movie how I would’ve written it. I have no idea if I see things for the reason the author meant, because I haven’t been given enough clues for guidance. I am intervening into the film as opposed to following the author’s intentions. And I’m doing it to justify my enjoyment of the movie.

Here’s what I’ve learned;

  • You can leave some things open for interpretation, but they must be informed by the story
  • You can’t just throw things in because you think they’re cool & expect the audience to buy it
  • You need to exert control over situations where multiple interpretations present themselves.
  • You should know the majority, if not all, of the ways people will view the story and its themes.
  • Don’t allow the audience to question your intentions. Mean everything you do.

The Hero’s Journey Part 12 – Return with the Elixir

Now we arrive at the end of the Journey.  There’s a few important things to consider.  The first one is, how is the Hero’s return going to change his ordinary world?  Who needs to be punished and who will find freedom?  What will our hero have learned about himself and the world?  Will the elixir the hero has returned with truly do what he thought it would, or will the outcome be a surprise?

As a writer, a more important consideration, this is where you will part ways with your reader.  What do you want to leave them with?  How do you want them to feel when they close the book?  So much consideration is given to how a book begins.  We agonise over opening paragraphs and first chapters because we want to hook our reader and get them to read on.  But don’t you also want to  ensure they come back for another of your future books?  So you need to give even greater consideration to how everything ends.

There are two major forms to endings, the Cyclical and Open.  I’ll discuss those first, then talk a bit about other pitfalls and things you can do to your ending.

Cyclical Endings

The Hero’s Journey really does reinforce this sort of ending.  If we look at the journey, the hero starts in his world, and in the end, returns to it.  There is a closed cycle of events.  Sometimes this is criticised as being a “too clean” sort of end.  All the loose ends are tied up, the character’s progression is clearly visible and the hero accomplishes precisely what he set out to do.  There’s no real surprises when this one is done.  We usually get exactly what we were looking for.  This is the sort of ending most commonly found in fairy tales and happy Disney movies.

The other point to make here is that this sort of ending will leave very little, if any, room for another tale featuring the same characters.  Ever watched a movie and the end was so final, so tidy, you couldn’t think for a second how anything else even needs to be told?  Yup, that’s a cyclical ending.

Open Endings

This one should be pretty obvious.  The story ends, but there’s wiggle room.  Remember the ending of the original Star Wars: A New Hope?  It felt like the movie was over.  The heroes had won, there was joy, the threat destroyed.  But, we didn’t see the Empire destroyed completely.  In fact, we saw Darth Vader very much alive flying away to safety.  There was closure, but we knew that there was more to be done.

The ultimate pitfall of the open ending; how do you make your reader feel like they’ve reached a satisfying end, yet leave enough loose ends that they are enticed back for more?  As best as I can tell, the threat needs to be so large in part 1, that even if the story doesn’t continue, the reader can see that the hero will still succeed.  Naturally that brings you to the pitfall that future stories will need to be as big, if not bigger, in their threats as part 1.

Surprise Endings

If you’ve set up a certain ending, be very careful if you decide to pull a gotcha and surprise your reader.  While this is not always a bad thing, such as the Sixth Sense, you need to ensure everything that has happened to this point still leaves your surprise possible.  When you go back and watch the Sixth Sense knowing the ending, you realise that everything you thought you saw was a misdirection.  When Bruce Willis’s wife looks at him at the dinner table, she is in reality looking at the man coughing behind him.  Bruce wears various combinations of the clothes he was shot in, etc.  When viewed again, you realise that the truth was staring you in the face but you missed it.  Be careful to ensure the seeds of the surprise get planted along the route.  It’ll make the ending more fulfilling and make you look super clever!

Things To Avoid

Unresolved Subplots

A good story has subplots. Make sure all of these are resolved by the end of your hero’s journey.  I talked about leaving some carrots dangling if you’re writing an open ending, but you need to be very critical ,and careful, about what you leave teasing your audience.  Ask yourself, would I be angry if this subplot didn’t get resolved here and now?  Is this subplot really part of a larger story, or is it something I could, and should, wrap up now?  The items we leave an audience wondering about should make them hunger for more, not think you dropped the ball and forgot to tie a few loose ends up.

Too Many Endings

The end should be the summation of the hero’s major quest.  Subplots should be resolved, for the most part, by now.  Keep your ending simple, clear and to the point.  I recall the movie Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.  The way Peter Jackson chose to end that film, with numerous fades that suggested the film was over, only to return for more.  After about the third time, the audience started to groan.  While everything he showed was valid, and in a work so large it seemed fitting to show the end of the many characters, it was done in a way that audiences found tedious.  If you get to a point where the book could be closed with satisfaction, yet you keep writing, chances are you’ve gone too far.

Abrupt Endings

Your hero has been on a long journey.  As people who have become emotionally invested in your hero’s plight, your audience needs some time to bid your characters farewell.  Ending in a manner that seems you couldn’t be bothered to finish the character’s journey will seem ignorant and leave your audience less likely to pick up your next book.

To Sum Up

  • Your hero has returned with the elixir.  What does that mean for the world and the hero?
  • Is your ending cyclical or open? If cyclical, make sure you tie everything up. If open, ensure your open questions don’t make the current journey feel unfinished. They should only suggest future journeys.
  • Consider that this is where you and your reader part ways. How do you want them to feel?  Are there questions you want them to be wondering about?
  • Surprises are great if they make sense in context with the rest of the story.  Pulling a surprise out of thin air will make your reader feel cheated.
  • Your story should end, period. Not end, then end, then end, then end.
  • Allow your reader to say goodbye. Don’t just hang the phone up in their ear.

Thanks for following along.  This is the end of the Hero’s Journey cycle.  There’s still much to be said, but these are the main steps of the journey.  Bear in mind that not every step needs to be included and some steps can be repeated.  This is a tried and true story format that when done properly can create a satisfying tale.  Audiences relate, because so much of the Hero’s Journey is a reflection of life.  It’s one of the greatest reasons we love to see the hero win.

The Hero’s Journey Part 11 – Resurrection

Our hero is running back to his ordinary world.  Before he returns, there is one last threshold that must be crossed.

If you recall, back when our hero crossed into this mysterious world, he was another person.  Perhaps he was more naive, or weak, or egotistical.  Through the trials he has endured in the other world, he has learned valuable lessons and been transformed.  This penultimate stage is the final test of what our hero has learned.  It can be considered a form of purification, or a final shedding of what he was before.  By facing this final moment of death and rebirth, the hero transcends who he was before and can finally return to his old world.

Another consideration in regards to resurrection is what role it plays in the character arc.  In researching plot, the statement “your plot is your characters” or some version thereof, will often be encountered.  Most plot, including those based on the hero’s journey, are about a character moving from ignorance to enlightenment.  Think of the number of romantic comedies that start with a main character who is self-absorbed and a terror in relationships.  By story’s end, this character realises their faults and is “reborn” as a new man/woman who is capable of having a meaningful relationship.  The resurrection point is where the character becomes self-aware.  As an audience, we have watched the hero change.  We know who the hero has become, but for them to truly make that new persona last, the hero must become aware of it themselves.  This moment of self-awareness, where the character realises their own transformation, gives birth to the new persona that will become the hero’s truth.

Remember, there was a reason the hero set out to begin with.  In that time, the hero was not capable of achieving his goals.  He had to train, defeat threshold guardians, face ordeals and in general, transform himself to accomplish his quest.  Now that the quest has essentially been complete, the hero needs to truly realise who he has become so that he can live in the world as this new person.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow put Self-Actualisation as the highest point in his heirarchy of needs.  Resurrection is the moment of your hero’s self-actualisation.

The Hero’s Journey Part 10 – The Road Back

Our hero has crossed two major thresholds so far.  The first brought him to the other world.  The second delivered him to his ordeal.  Now, he needs to cross a third.

After the ordeal, our hero seized his reward and felt pretty good about himself.  He celebrated, became a man, found love, recounted his amazing tale to the delight of his companions and generally let himself forget that maybe, just perhaps, he wasn’t finished yet.  The third threshold that needs to be crossed here is rededicating oneself to the quest.  What our hero has endured might be believed by no one when he returns home, he might be called a liar or never have his accomplishments fully appreciated, but he set out on this course to accomplish something.  Perhaps the village is starving, or a magical illness is running its course.  The hero has the cure for what ailed his ordinary world, and now he must return with it.

So what makes this interesting?  How does this fill an entire third act of a film?  Well, if the road to hell is a downward slope, the road back is an upward climb.

Our hero’s decision to return to the ordinary world could be made for him by a vengeful force rising from the ashes of the ordeal.  Our hero might start on the road back at a healthy run, with evil in fast pursuit.

Much of what puts our hero on the road back is going to relate to a) Why he started the quest or b) How he obtained his treasure after the ordeal.

If the hero started his quest to save his ordinary world, he will take the road back because that is part of the quest.

If the hero had to steal his end goal (an elixir or treasure) chances are he needs to get back to the safety of his ordinary world to avoid the owner of said item.

Here’s some events that might kick off the road back stage.

  • The villain appears to avenge his main henchman
  • The villain was only faking death and reveals he is much stronger than thought
  • The “elixir” is stolen from the hero
  • The hero’s love interest (or loved one in general) is kidnapped
  • The owner of the “elixir” returns to take it from the hero
  • The hero receives word conditions in his ordinary world are worsening

If any single image sticks in your head about this stage, it should be of a chase.  The celebration after the ordeal has caused a lull in the action of our story and the road back hits the ground and throws evil at our backs so we get running.

Next, our hero receives a symbolic, or maybe literal, resurrection.

The Hero’s Journey Part 9 – Reward

The hero has survived death.  He is forever changed.  Luckily, it’s time he was allowed to breathe.

As I stated last time, the ordeal occurs about midway through the story.  It often represents the hero’s opportunity to obtain the thing he has been seeking in the special world.  Perhaps he came seeking a restorative elixir, or a magical sword.  The ordeal represents a test for the hero.  Now that he has survived the test, he receives his reward.

The Reward stage of the Hero’s Journey allows the hero and audience a temporary reprieve from the relentless pace of the journey.  The reward phase of the story can serve numerous purposes.

Celebration

Surviving death and seizing a prize is a major achievement. It’s not inconceivable that there would be a celebration.  Such a scene could be used to cement certain relationships, or secure a character’s position within their social group.  Perhaps the prize here allows for the hero to finalise a rite of passage.

Recap and Reflection

The hero and his allies may gather around a campfire, or in a restaurant.  They could recap their experiences so far, perhaps giving some important insight into what the events meant to them.  This could also be used to introduce themes that will play an important role during the Road Back phase.

Romance

Until the reward stage, the hero has struggled.  Chances are he hasn’t proved himself worthy of his heart’s desire until this point.  More likely, there’s been little time for love during the height of the quest.  Now that there is a moment to breathe, the hero might look to finally give himself to love.

New Knowledge

Surviving death can change how you perceive things.  The hero might gain new insight.  With this, he might

  • See through characters who have been deceiving him
  • Realise his true destiny and/or heritage (son of a god etc.)
  • Have a moment of clarity to see new paths for his quest

Downfalls of the Reward

People are far from perfect.  Having survived a great ordeal, the hero might become over-confident.  He might see himself as being stronger, smarter, or more valuable than he really is.  This can lead to a great downfall, perhaps setting up the conflicts that will carry through to the end of the story.

The Short and Long of it

The reward stage is about action.  Not the edge of your seat questioning-if-anyone-will-survive type of action, but the action of taking.  The hero must seize this moment.  He must take the elixir, draw the magic sword, take hold of his love, embrace his destiny or all of the above.  The hero has spent much time reacting and doubting.  Through conquering the ordeal, he has earned this moment to take the action he has desired since answering the call.

Next, our hero begins traveling the long road back.

The Hero’s Journey Part 8 – The Ordeal

Our hero has been through a lot.  Now, he faces the greatest and darkest of moments, The Ordeal.

The ordeal is about change.  When this is over, our hero will never be the same.  Often, the ordeal results in a symbolic death for our hero who is then reborn. Once the rebirth has occurred, he will begin the long journey home.

The ordeal should not be confused with being the climax of the story.  Instead, it is the mid point.  All roads travelled thus far have lead to this point, and all roads away will be forever altered because of it.

Consider the recent movie, How to Train Your Dragon.  The ordeal occurs when Hiccup first rides Toothless high into the sky and becomes separated from the dragon.  The two plummet toward the earth, their doom certain.  At the last moment, Hiccup grabs hold of Toothless and the two are in perfect sync, performing maneuvers impossible to this point.  The fireball Toothless shoots backfires and singes Hiccup.  This is symbolic of all his old fears and misconceptions being burned away.  After this point, he truly realises that the vikings are wrong about the dragons and he needs to show them.

Speaking of near midpoint ordeals, consider Harry Potter’s experiences at the end of Goblet of Fire.  He literally goes to a realm of death, is witness to the physical death of a classmate, and then conjures the spirits of the dead in order to flee.  From this point, Harry is changed.  So too are the books.  Both Harry and the audience know that nothing will ever be the same.  The horror of the possible consequences if Harry fails in his quest are far more clear.

The ordeal can take several forms as to the type of “death and rebirth”

  • The hero can face the main villain and nearly lose his life – the villain may live or die
  • The hero might face the main henchman of the villain, saving the villain for the final act
  • The hero might face a great fear and have to conquer it
  • The hero will have to face up to a parental figure
  • The hero will have to let some of his ego or pride go
  • The hero will have to learn how to work with others
  • The hero will give himself completely to a relationship

These are only a few permutations.  The simple fact is, the ordeal transforms the hero.  That transformation will inform every decision that he makes from this point forward.  Remember, while it seems we’ve come a long way, this isn’t the climax, we’re only halfway to the end.

Next, we finally cut our hero a break and he gets a Reward.  Have no fear, it’ll get sucky for him again before it’s all over!