Evolution of Process

I've written before about how I've come to see politics as a game, and now I'd like to introspect a little on the gamification of story -- or to be more accurate, the way that my creation of stories and my creation of games have come to use the same general process.

Time was, I thought a character was a collection of attributes: Brown eyes, shaggy hair, a tattoo. And a story was a collection of things that happened to that character: A phone call, a car chase, an explosion. But now that my eyes see everything in the same way I see games, characters and plots have become dynamic webs of possibility.

When I design a game, I think a lot about balance. That manifests in a lot of different ways. In Floating City, for example, it meant ensuring a steady flow of new items into the game over the course of the run. Making sure that positive behaviors like trading and being sociable on the forums were rewarded enough to be encouraging, but not so rewarding that any one action became exploitable to the detriment of the big picture. Devising a formula that struck a balance between individual achievement and collective action that could theoretically allow a tribe of any size to win. 

And now I don't see a character as an empty vessel with brown eyes and shaggy hair, either. Now I see those same patterns of cause-and-effect relationships. If we give 10 points for posting to the forum, people will spam the forums; so to prevent that, let's cap those points after a few posts. 

By that same thinking, this brown-eyed, shaggy-haired character doesn't have a lot of money, so maybe they're skimping on haircuts. Or maybe that trait manifests as something else: sneakers with the soles falling off, or a lack of awareness of current TV because they've cut cable service and are working double shifts anyhow. The specific signifiers are all but irrelevant to me, except insofar as they communicate that tension.

Plots, too, aren't so much about the stuff that happens for me anymore (or they aren't at first, anyway). Instead I begin with a completely abstract rise and fall of tension and stakes. Here there will be a dramatic setback, which might be a betrayal or a missed deadline. There is a new hope for a happy ending -- the last-minute call from the governor, the discovered loophole.

The net result isn't so much a collection of stuff that happens, the way I once thought of it. Instead, as with game design, I wind up with an intricate web of cause and effect relationships. Events aren't important for what they are so much as for the work that they do in shifting the flow of the whole.

As a result, I find I understand my own stories and how they fit together in a much clearer fashion than I did lo these many years ago, when I was a less experienced writer (and a less skilled one, or so one hopes.) I can run my fingers down a thread and understand that if I twist it a little here, it'll pull a little harder there, and the whole thing will look just a little different. 

It affects how I see the stories of others, too, sometimes -- I watch plots coming apart in my hands like clockwork. I play a fun game with my friends imagining how else we might have assembled the same cogs and gears to make it run faster or quieter or keep time better. It's the same part of my brain that engages when I analyze gameplay.

This shift didn't happen all at once -- it took place over many years, and started a bit backwards: first I would think "a character with brown eyes is in a car chase." Then I got a little better, and thought "A character with brown eyes is being pursued in a car chase, so they must be afraid and maybe a little angry. Maybe that's because they have some issues with authority figures." Over time that has gone even another step: "A character with a cavalier attitude toward authority is afraid of something -- maybe the police are after them, then." 

Maybe it's a sign of growing maturity as a writer; maybe I started out backwards; or maybe it doesn't matter either way, and my brain is simply adapting to the conditions I usually work in. It's interesting, though, to get a front-row seat on such a pronounced change in my own cognition. That's not something you can observe much after you've grown up, and not something you notice much when it happens while you're a kid.

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