Storytelling

Queen Seon Duk: The Worst Soldier

I've been watching K-drama a lot lately, and I think it's about time I talk about it somewhere besides Twitter. Lucky you! 

As with with my Bollywood binges, I'm transfixed by what I'm seeing because the stories feel gorgeously fresh and unexpected to me. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is that Korean storytelling just doesn't use all the tropes I've been trained to expect. There are tropes, absolutely—just a different set. This means I can be taken by surprise more often and more deeply than in Western media. 

Right now my show is Queen Seon Duk, which you can stream on Drama Fever. It takes place in roughly the year 700 and is absolutely and amusingly anachronistic—just as a starter, the show has featured crystal water goblets, French hook earrings, and endless tall chairs and tables, which I am about 99% sure were not things that existed in Shilla at that time. And that's not even starting in on the subtitle translation, which is fodder for a whole different post.

Forgive me, but I'm going to spoil roughly how the first third of the show goes to give you an example of what I mean about this whole "different tropes" thing. 

See, early on in the series, a young woman disguises herself as a man and becomes a soldier. I've seen this story a hundred times before, and I know how it goes: the young woman struggles at first, but she's all heart. She works harder than all of the men. She gradually earns their grudging respect, and in the end, she becomes the very best soldier of them all.

You've seen that story too, right?

Except that's not what happens in Queen Seon Duk. Our young woman absolutely tries harder than anyone else, yes! She is all heart. But despite all of that, she is a shitty soldier. She's slower than the rest. She's weaker. When the time comes for a real battle, her commander looks at her with pity and contempt and says, "Just stay behind me so you don't get killed."

I kept expecting a crowning moment of glory and physical prowess, where all of her hard work would pay off. And yes, she's smart and cunning. Yes, she performs heroic actions. But all of them are through cleverness, and not battle strength. She is just a really bad soldier, and she never really gets better.

Here I was all primed for a story that it turns out I wasn't going to get. The wrong trope. And it had never even occurred to me that it could go a different way—that all of that heart and trying might not be enough to actually become good at something, much less the best. I kept fighting with myself: "Well of course the GIRL has to be a bad soldier, because SEXISM" vs. "But... actually that's not entirely unrealistic, and it's not like she isn't proving her leadership value at every turn, so why do I need her to be also very physically fast and strong?"

I'm a strong believer that creative people need to feed their brains a very careful diet of interesting ideas and experiences. Part of that means going off the beaten path of your peer group. I could be watching Stranger Things and Luke Cage right now, sure. But then I'd be thinking mostly the same thoughts as all of my friends and colleagues who are watching those shows.

The kind of dissonance I get from K-drama is exactly what I need right now. It's good for me as a writer, because my brain is opening up to a much broader and more interesting array of possible narratives than I could see before. And it's good for me as a human being who needs down time, because I can more easily shut off the part of my brain that analyzes and rewrites the show as we go along so I can enjoy the experience as actual entertainment in a deeper and more genuine fashion.

It's pretty great on basically every possible level. And you're going to be hearing much, much more about K-drama from me over the next few weeks. Brace yourselves!


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Announcing The Walk Game

You know what I haven't done in a while? A proper project launch announcement. But GET READY, because this one is awesome.

I'd like to (somewhat belatedly) announce I was involved in a game called The Walk, a fitness game along the general lines of Zombies, Run! --Which should be no surprise, because as with that game, it's a production of Naomi Alderman and Six to Start. Here's a description from the press kit:

The Walk is a smartphone fitness game and audio adventure released on 11 December 2013. It combines exciting gameplay with a high-octane thriller story, encouraging players to walk more every day. When you're playing The Walk, every single step counts in a journey that will save the world.

...

The Walk begins in Inverness station. Through a case of mistaken identity, you the player are given a vital package which must be couriered to Edinburgh, but as you're about to board the train, terrorists blow it up and set off an electromagnetic pulse! None of the cars or trains are working - you'll have to walk - but now the terrorists are on your trail because they want the device you're carrying, and the police are after you as a suspect in the bombing. To survive, you'll have to join up with other escapers from the city - but how many of them can you trust, and are they really who they say?

I am stupendously proud of the work that I did on this game (and in fact that the whole team did.) And I'd like to share a little bit of behind-the-scenes on The Walk, the production process, and various things that influenced me during writing.

What Did You Do, Andrea?

My credits are a little clunky; they read "Storylining, character creation, early drafts and additional writing." So what does this mean, exactly?

The process of writing the game was like this: Naomi Alderman and Adrian Hon came to me with a general seed for a story. Some things were clear from the beginning: it would be a walk beginning in Inverness; there had to be a reason you had to walk rather than taking any automotive transportation. We threw around a lot of ideas (fuel-eating nanobots!) and ultimately settled on an EMP blast that's disabled meaningful mechanized transportation.

Then Naomi and I talked generally about characters and overarching plot, and she set me free to write the first draft of about a dozen initial scripts. After I delivered that first draft, she went in and did a revising pass in which she changed almost every single word (literally!)

...Which sounds horrible, but I promise you wasn't at all. Most of the heavy lifting I did was preserved; the characters are roughly the same, the shape of the plot is the same; Naomi fine-tuned to add in additional depth and emotion, to revoice for authentic Britishism, turn some dials up to eleven, and so on. Her mid-season finale is soooo much better than as originally written, I can't even tell you. The combined result is, in her words, finely layered like a croissant, a blending of our talents that is arguably much better than either of us might've done on our own.

Naomi and I, we're a great team, is what I'm saying.

The rest of the scripts worked mostly the same way, except that the absolutely amazing Bex Levine stepped in to break story with me for the scripts on a scene-by-scene basis. She is brilliant and absurdly good at this, and I wish I could keep her to help me outline everything ever from now on. Also, I've become an evangelist convert to outlining; the scripts that were written from this tight outline were so much easier to write. (And indeed, I prefer writing in this kind of team-based collaborative environment, as well; I wish I could work with other talented writers on everything ever.)

Finally, I wrote a few of the extra pieces of story you can find along your journey -- the odd newspaper clipping or postcard. No surprise, this kind of storytelling-through-documentation is always one of my most favorite things.

So basically: I did a lot of writing but I wasn't a solo writer. Whew!

Living in an EMP

They say you should write what you know. In high school, I went to Scotland with friends for a week one fine April, and actually did a lot of walking through the countryside. (Freezing my tail off and listening to Pretty Hate Machine on repeat, as a matter of fact.) Alas it was not as thrilling as The Walk needed to be -- you can only make so many jokes about fields of sheep watching you pass by. Clearly my personal experience wasn't going to cut it.

So in the run-up to initial writing for The Walk, I did a lot of thinking about what it would be like to live through an EMP blast zone, and working through the logic. Some older cars would work, to be sure, but the roads would be clogged with electronics-driven cars stopped wherever they were when the pulse hit. Some electronics might be shielded, somehow -- cell phones, cameras, radios -- but a lot of the infrastructure to run them might be functionally dead: cell phone towers, radio stations, power plants and substations.

And then I had an experience uncomfortably close to what I'd been writing -- my delivery of the first batch of scripts for The Walk was cut short by Hurricane Sandy. Suddenly I got to see exactly what it was like when a major urban region didn't have power; we were out for nearly two weeks in my town.

As a result, I think the later scripts are richer in lived-experience-of-power-loss. I suddenly knew what it felt like to be cut off from the world, how lonely and isolated that feels. How local communities banded together for mutual good. How hard it is to do simple things you take for granted -- showering, washing dishes. That modern gas pumps need electricity to operate even if you could find a working car. How generators fail horrifyingly often, and how short a battery life seems when it's all you have. What happens when calling an ambulance or police for help isn't an option anymore. 

And that wasn't even an EMP.

I like to think this experience adds quite a lot to The Walk, especially as the season goes on and the impact of the EMP really sets in. 

In Conclusion

In the coming weeks, I'm planning on playing through The Walk myself with fresh ears. I've only just heard the first couple of episodes -- I have a lot of trouble listening to recordings of things I've worked on, performers making the story come to life makes me weirdly emotional and weepy.

I'd really love to hear what you think about The Walk, too. It's always a joy to see when an audience picks up on something small you put in, and an even bigger joy when they find things you didn't even know you'd left there. And... hey, I hope you love it.


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TEDx Transmedia

In September of last year, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at TEDx Transmedia in Rome. The talk, "The Ethics and Responsibilities of Fiction," was a new one for me. I covered some of my usual ethics-of-transmedia concerns, of course. But I also took it in the same direction as my GOOD piece, pointing out how the stories we tell fundamentally change society.

I think it was a good talk. I hope you like it.


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Occupied Walt Disney World

Last week, I enjoyed a lovely family vacation to Orlando, Florida. And as one does, I shared my, ah, my adventures on social media. Plus a little embroidery, because apparently I can't stop making stuff up even on vacation.

Aggregated here for your amusement, then, is...


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Games and Romance: Made For Each Other

It's no secret that I have an enormous crush on Alistair from Dragon Age. Enormous. 

I've also developed a few secondary crushes on some of the characters in the Mass Effect series in recent months. Now that I've about run out of single-player Bioware games, though, I find myself longing for more: more banter, more awkward or urgent or heartfelt moments. More obstacles to overcome together, more emotional drama. More romance.

Unfortunately, the state of romance in games is pretty dreadful. The closest you get as a standalone genre are dating sims, some of which are more like sex sims. (The latter are almost invariably designed only for male players.) But whether you're talking about the mild Princess Debut or the explicit Ganguro Girl, both types of game follow a similar pattern: the player makes choices about how to spend time and money in order to develop a romantic or sexual relationship.

If there is any element of effort to these games, it is in solving the puzzle of what words or objects might be necessary to begin (or consummate) a relationship with the would-be object of your virtual affection. Mechanical elements of the game typically require minimal skill or knowledge. They're meant to be wish-fulfilment and not challenges.

On the surface, these love sims look like they're adequate at modeling how relationships are formed. You meet, you try your best to make a good impression, find out how to please your would-be love, finally bust a move, happiness. There's just one thing missing. But it's a pretty big thing: feelings.

Games and the Emotional Journey

As an art form, video games have the corner on an incredible and under-rated market. In the discussion about are-video-games-art (and peace be with you, Mr. Ebert), we talk about whether games can make you cry as if that were some unassailable and objective benchmark for quality. But that's selling short games and what they're best at. Games can do something books and film can't: evoke emotions of agency. These are feelings you only feel when you've had a hand in causing a situation.

Books, movies, plays, TV shows can make you laugh and cry. (Well, the good ones can.) But a game can -- and probably has -- made you feel frustrated or proud. Games can also make you feel guilty (Shadow of the Colossus.) Or betrayed (Dragon Age 2.) That's because you're the one calling the shots. You're the star, the protagonist, the hero. When there is a difficult decision to make about how to treat Little Sisters or which squad member to send to death or which suspect to finger for the crime... the one making it is you, and the one who has to live with the consequences? Also you.

When well-written -- and without a doubt Bioware sports some of the best writers in the business right now -- that also means that interactions with a character feel like an actual relationship is forming between the character and you, the player. You become teammates. Allies. Friends. And maybe... maybe more.

Romance Novels Aren't As Good

Don't get me wrong. I loves me a good trashy romance novel. Even a mediocre one, if I'm honest. My Kindle is full of 'em. There's something primal about the story of one human being making a connection with another, falling in love, making it work despite the odds. That story speaks to a desire in all of us to not be alone, the hope that no obstacle is insurmountable.

But video game romance is way, way better.

In a game, one projects the self into the avatar being controlled. You're more likely to say "I died," or "Hey, watch me get that guy. BAM!" than to say "Lara died," or "Hey awesome, Chelle knocked down that turret." For the duration of the game, you're not playing the game so much as living it.

And by extension, when a character tells you not to die because they love you and can't live without you... the one they're speaking to, the one feeling that poignant brew of resolve and regret, is you. Novels? Hah. No romance novel in the world has ever -- could ever -- make me feel like I'm the one embroiled in the love story.

But... that's not so different from a dating sim, right...? Is is just a matter of better writing and clever relationship-status algorithms? No, no, a thousand times no. The reason the Bioware romances work so well is a function of excellent writing, to be sure, but also the fact that the games aren't fundamentally about the romances at all

The straightforward arc of a successful romance is somewhat dull and small. That's why every romance novel printed has some other plot going -- stories of espionage, engagements to the wrong person, opponents in the courtroom, enemies by circumstance or culture or tradition. Conflict is the engine of drama, and a dating sim doesn't generally have much conflict beyond "how do I make this person like me?" 

But because Bioware's romances are just the B-plot, the emotional dynamic winds up feeling deeper and truer than any shallow dating sim can. You're not just hanging out with the object of your affection on dates or at parties. You're risking your lives together in fighting for a common purpose. You're sharing horrors and triumphs. You're bonding through shared experience, the way human beings are wont to do.

Thus the quality of romantic drama on offer by Bioware winds up feeling richer, more complex, and truer than games that are supposed to be about love through and through. The relationships have more complexity and texture to them because the characters are all bigger than the love story. They have a place in the world that doesn't revolve around how much you want to date them.

It feels more genuine, more really real. It feels more sweeping and epic. Dating sims simply don't create the kind of romantic drama that makes you feel all of those powerful feelings. 

Bringing It Home

There is, alas, a stigma to simulated relationships, both in making them and in desiring them. No doubt some readers are speculating by now that I am a sad, lonesome spinster, probably homely and without prospect, whose only chance at true love lies in pretending. Hah, no, don't shed any tears for me, I'm OK over here.

It's true that I feel a little uncomfortable playing through romantic story beats with my husband in earshot. But regardless of embarrassment, I'd venture that a good romance subplot in a game has a halo effect that benefits him and our own very real and meaningful relationship.

Let's back up. I, at least, consume stories because of the emotional journeys that they allow me to have. I like to feel things, you know? Odds are I'm never going to save the world. I'm not likely to be initiated into an elite society of dragon-hunters, either, or be run through potentially fatal "experiments" by a crazed AI. But in a game I can pretend. I can feel all of those amazing things, those fears and hopes and so much more. I live those lives, and when the game is over, I put the memories safely away and happily carry on with the real business of living. (And I measure the success of a game's narrative based on how well it evoked those feelings... or any feelings, really.)

Romance is the same. I certainly hope I never fall in love again, because I couldn't be more delighted with my life and my marriage. But oh, those feelings when you first fall in love! The excitement, the uncertainty! It's nice to feel that again, for a little while, just to pretend. And later -- the dark moments when you have to make a difficult choice that decides the fate of your digital beloved. I'm just as happy for that to always be pretend, but the act of going on that emotional journey opens me to be more compassionate to the real experiences of others.

Yeah, it's dorky to have a crush on a video game character. But it's also a safe way to experience a dynamic range of emotions that are either unavailable or just a really, really bad idea in real life. This is something video games are uniquely suited to do among all media. Here is where we will earn our merit badge declaring that Games. Are. Art.

When a game is over, the drama ended, I return to my real life and relationship, and I am grateful for all of the feelings the game has let me experience -- and doubly grateful for all the ones I don't have to feel for real, because drama is fun for pretending, but it's a terrible way to live. And back in the real world, with my real and wonderful and safely drama-free husband, I fall in love just a little bit more.


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