4 July 2014

Assassin's Creed III - Vision vs. Reality

Kotaku is, obviously, following the chequered alt-history of the Assassin’s Creed franchise as it stumbles from episode to episode trying to give the players what they want. It hasn’t always worked out, as the largely negative reaction to Assassin’s Creed III demonstrated.

There’s been some early speculation about the anticipated awesomeness of this year’s AC:Unity which I shall be commenting on anon. However the article telling us all the things that would be awesome in Unity made the mistake of linking to a previous article that told us all the things that would be awesome with ACIII.

Some of these features were there, but not really all that awesome either way; some were not there, but nearly there and this article just seems to highlight how not awesome the finished product is in comparison to the brash assurances of the pre-finish dev team; or just not even there at all in the end and hence a bit irrelevant, leading to the obvious question “why lie?”

Before we go any further I should point out that I ended up rather enjoying ACIII, although the story team had been given, maybe, way too loose a leash and ended up in a self-indulgent land called “The Land of Let’s Do Things In A Video Game Story That People Never Do In Video Game Stories”.

Unfortunately their excursion deep into this dark continent did not produce a clever, immersive story that thrilled its way to an epic conclusion. Instead it produced a lumpy, slightly pretentious, difficult but ambitious story that was lovable but, tragically, hard to love.

I provide this short list of gripes about promise versus reality as a counterpoint both to the giddy anticipatory tone of the linked article but also as a counterpoint to a similar article looking forward to the next major chapter in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, comments on which will follow shortly. In the end I just find it curious that a laundry list of broad general aims can have been missed in so many different ways. The first and most obvious misdirect in the linked article is a simple picture of Connor in a canoe.

*Canoes not included.
Connor never uses a canoe in ACIII. Aveline uses a canoe in Liberation but the code and whatnot never made the transition. I can kind of forgive this, the canoe stuff in the bayou wasn’t really all that fantastic and there was no real point to it honestly. Still, it seems strange that as they had an engine lying about for it that they didn’t just shove it in.

Except, of course, most memorable bodies of water in the game were rivers and maybe the physics of white-water canoeing just weren’t feasible. It is a great shame because being able to leave the reservation at the beginning by canoe instead of hoofing it across the unmapped frontier would have been pretty cool. Also it might have made more fast travel options possible.

In the rest of the article there are a few more things that are just plain wrong, many are trivial but then you get the odd one like:

There is some sort of system involving ice, possibly involving hiding below it to ambush troops, but the developers aren't getting specific about it yet.

Nor, indeed, do they ever, because I never once encountered ice. Snow, yes, loads of bloody terrible snow, but ice, I believe it is possible that ice maybe never made it into the game? Not sure. At the very least it would appear that if you wanted to use the ice mechanic, if such exists, you will need to seek it out. A quick google reveals that no-one particularly has.

Mmm... Connor loves snow. Press O to build a snowman in this
winter wonderland. Lies.
This is most probably because wading through snow was one of the most irritating frontier experiences of ACIII. Winter on the Eastern Seaboard was no fun at all. I get that I was supposed to be tarzanning my way through the trees but the environment did not always support that. Indeed that whole aspect existed and was pretty good fun but when it comes to statements like this:

"Our goal with the assassin was to make him as capable in the wilderness as Ezio and Altair were in cities, to do this for a forest," [the game's creative director, Alex] Hutchinson said. "For us, trees are 3D navigable space. You'll be able to go up trees, along that branch level, moving around. Some of the early fantasies we were talking about—it's fun to reference movies to get the team to paint a picture in their mind-if you think of the Predator, the original movie, not being [Arnold Schwarzenegger's soldier character] but being the Predator and the Redcoats being Arnie and [his] guys. This unseen force picking them off one-by-one from the trees? This is what we wanted. We want you to be a terrifying force of nature in that spot."

This points to a place where there was such fail, much desultory, terrible fail. I don’t know whether this was because of my mistrust of the enemy AI but I always assumed that if I picked off a guy in a column of redcoats from the trees the AI engine would have all the others see me, start shooting me etc. Maybe I’m wrong. Trees, though, are not stalking zones. You aren’t hard to spot up there, at all. Maybe if they had introuduced the idea of a tree-level stalking zone this would have worked a lot better.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: Of course, to date I have not actually tried to do this. I may pop the disc in over the weekend, head off to the frontier and see what happens... I will, of course, report back here.)

Yeah, that's right biznatches I am your hidden doom and...
NO! Don't look up! That's not fair *cries*
I can actually see the mechanics now. Tree level stalking zones, vantage points for clear visibility and swing/climb only zones, making a forest canopy fun zone from which you can take out the guys below.

Of course, then you’d have to tweak the enemy AI. You’d have to program these guys so when you took out the first one they huddled and grouped. Scanning the forest for signs of your approach. Then once you’d managed to pick off a couple more they would scatter. Many panicking running off through the trees, another couple trying to watch one another’s backs. What would be even better there would be if, in their panick, they got turned around, running in circles. Then you drop in or whatever and pick them off. Alternating high stalking zones with low, dividing, conquering, becoming one with the forest.

Needless to say, none of this is the case. You can clumsily slaughter a bunch of soldiers, you can run across pre-determined canopy obstacle courses and, as long as you don’t draw attention to yourself, you can stalk to a degree. But it’s nothing like the stated aim of the development team.

I had to loose a chuckle when I continued on to read:

Connor has a rope dart that he can use to hang people from trees with. It's more of a lure than a projectile weapon. An earlier, more aggressive version was more of tethered knife that was thrown from a standing position and then reeled in. "It felt too fantasy, " Hutchinson said. "It started to feel like Scorpion in Mortal Kombat."

But then the rope dart was pretty much just that in the finished product. You could lose them, and they made a mess of hunting kills, but they were pretty fantastic in their operation. They were a fun weapon, ruined partially by the unimaginative way the enemy AI reacted to them e.g. you could rope one sucker but then a sword fight was bound to follow.

Oh goodie... I've managed to provoke yet another
un-stealthy bloodbath...
The Batman: Arkham series did a much better job of this stuff, building in a panic aspect to enemies, so they changed their behaviour when they knew you were near. So I know such a thing is possible. It just seems like a lot of fluff in a game when it’s added with no real consequence.

Finally, there was this gem:

The highlight of the Boston section is what is called a chase-breaker. Connor has barged past some Redcoat guards, who give chase. What would be a standard run through an Assassin's Creed city's street changes radically when a woman in a second-story window opens some shutters to breath in the fresh air. Connor, clambering over a stall in the middle of the road, turns 90 degrees to his right and runs through the open window, shocking the woman. He zips through the interior of her house and out the window on other side, losing his predecessors in one of the coolest moments an Assassin's Creed development team has ever shown to the press.

Ahem, yeah, whatever. I never zipped through an upstairs room, I did see women in second story windows but in forty hours of game play I never got the impression that they, you know, did anything other than provide scenery. I did occasionally trigger a ground floor cut-through, but never in an actual chase. The mechanic was definitely there (at least on the ground floor) but ultimately not useful for much.

The problem here is the old “accidentally run up a wall” thing that has always been the unpleasant side effect of the parkour mechanics. As a seasoned AC player during a chase you attempt to do precisely nothing that will lead to your assassin accidentally running up a wall by accident, bouncing off an unclimbable arch and hastily drawn into combat that you really just wanted to avoid.

Eyes front, avoid the walls... avoid the walls...
OOOH Pretty wall! (attempts to scale, gets shot, desync)
Over the franchise’s development time the notion of running away almost seems to have become more and more shameful to the development team. In ACI the whoosh of the successful escape signal was as much of a victory as slaughtering a dogpile of city guards. Over time it’s come to feel more and more like a sort of grudging shrug as the game puts away its fighting mechanics and slopes off into the background again.

Overall the reasons one might eventually end up liking ACIII are nothing to do with these supposed innovations many of which were half-baked or simply non-existent. As to why, despite these misdirects, I did like ACIII is a topic for another day.

All images are (c) Ubisoft of course and are used for illustrative purposes.

30 June 2014

Weird Magical Items and Narrative Reactivity

So, to take a break from podcasts or talking about Assassin’s Creed I recently caught up with an article on io9 called “The 20 Most WTF Magical Items in Dungeons & Dragons”. The intention of this article was to poke fun at some of the more apparently ridiculous items to be found in D&D’s extensive back catalogue of quest minutiae. I don’t know quite how this all works, as in, I’m not sure how these ideas come to be included in official D&D stuff.

Are D&D coast wizards constantly scribbling down ideas for these things in notebooks they keep close at hand day and night? Or do they, in fact, create new items in their own campaigns and then submit the best ones for inclusion in whatever volume of stuff they’re currently compiling? I tend to think the latter as the vast majority of insanely detailed plots, locations, NPCs etc. rise out of play sessions, response to, you know, actual players and the like.

So I guess that we can be comfortable in the notion that these things were not just summoned wholesale from the basement of imagination, made, as it were, from whole cloth. While some of the items seem, quite clearly, to be cursed objects intended to provoke a particular howl of simultaneous disbelief, horror and delight from players others, maybe, bore the marks of a thing I’m going to call “Narrative Reactivity”.

What is this new thing that I have created? Well, it’s less of a creation and more of an observation really. It’s about the nature of lazy creation when it comes to problems where your characters won’t behave in a story. Many times when this happens in role play it comes from the feeling the host has that managing the demands of the players is somewhat akin to herding cats. Maybe that feeling demands some more time in another post at another time, but right now we shall move swiftly on.

In writing the same thing can happen, and is possibly more upsetting for featuring characters dreamed up within your very living brain itself as opposed to being centred in the brains of other people who might be forgiven for not psychically understanding what you want to achieve in the story world you have built for them.

If the characters who come from your own mind start misbehaving, though, that can be, well, troubling. It puts forth the notion that you are not quite in control of parts of your mind, that people you dreamed up can have their own agendas. There’s something dark and mystical about your characters engaging in acts of sabotage against your story. In those cases you might find that the solutions the inexperienced or desperate author comes up with to fight against the tide of mutiny are more desperate, leading to the lazy introduction of plot-hole tearing technologies and surprise deus ex machinas and the like. So my hope with considering a few of these D&D items is to reveal something of the wiring under the board with regards to such incidents in the hope of guarding against such lazy story making.

Exhibit One: The Ring of Contrariness This “forces the wearer to disagree with everything anyone says” the author of the linked argument concludes that given the difficulty of forging magical artifacts this represents “a prime example of some wizard wasting his time.”

This is actually quite an easy one to unpick. It smells like a GM consulting on a D&D expansion met a player who was quiet and unassuming, someone who just appeared to tag along behind in every session. So in a GM ambush this player ends up with this ring on their finger and is magically required to stir up trouble, the peacemaker has become the agitator. Was this fun, or torture, for the player targetted? We will never know.

So, yes, the idea of a wizard inside the narrative bothering to make such an apparently useless artifact is troublesome. So much so that the meta-purpose of the item appears for more clearly than an in-story reason for someone to forge such an irritating artifact. However, the existence of such an item would appear to be a great opportunity for a budding story teller. How did this ring come to be? That is a tale to be told.

From a gamer’s perspective, of course, the item is a curiosity, leading to some sort of game outcome of no major import. If the reasons for its inclusion were indeed as stated above it may have arisen out of a misplaced desire to see all players fully participate in the game. GMs feel that if someone seems not to quite be in the game that this is necessarily a problem in need of resolution when, in reality, some people just like to be along for the ride.

The up front way to deal with a player who doesn’t appear to be participating to the fullest would be to just ask them if they’re happy with the way things are going and only try to change things if they are not. Of course, role playing is a particularly delicate form of social contract so your mileage in such circumstances may vary.

Exhibit Two: Bell's Palette of Identity
Bell the Wizard [made] this magic art palette, which, when used to paint a self-portrait, allows all status effects — basically anything you'd make a saving throw for — get transferred to the portrait instead. Users of the Palette must carry their self-portraits around wherever they go; if they don't have the paintings literally on their body, its powers are useless.
The linked article’s author speculates as to why the portrait must be kept in the possession of the character, tied around their left leg with fishing twine or whatever (rolled up around the inside of a knee-high boot?). The conclusion is that the Wizard Bell was just a bit rubbish not to have fully embraced this offshoot of the Picture of Dorian Gray.

There is, however, a simpler explanation for the item’s strange properties. Firstly, D&D characters have no real homes, they live in campsites and sleep in taverns. The party must never be split and must never stop moving. So the idea of an item that only works when placed on a shelf in the character’s home might lead to some awkwardness.

Also, what is the risk of an item that will make someone immune to whole swathes of rules in the game that cannot be accidentally ruined by a sword slash in the wrong place or accidentally landing up to the waist in swamp water? The properties of the magic palette are a quite obvious trade off of utility and plot convenience.

Exhibit Three: Ring of Bureaucratic Wizardry
When a wizard casts any spell while wearing the ring, a sheaf of papers and a quill pen suddenly appear in his hand. The papers are forms that must be filled out in triplicate explaining the effects of the spell, why the wizard wishes to cast it, whether it is for business or pleasure, and so on. The forms must be filled out before the effects of the spell will occur. The higher the level of the spell cast, the more complicated the forms become. Filling out the forms requires one round per level of spell.
This must have seemed like a cracking gag when it was dreamed up. Indeed it is a very good joke, it works on both a narrative and a ludic level. The joke transfers through the intra-digetic up to the meta level and actually means more things the more levels on which you appreciate it. If I understand correctly the advantage of the artifact would appear to be that the spell being cast is not subject to failure, just to bureaucratic delay.

To make a super-powerful spell operate guaranteed if the rest of the party can just hold off the enemy whilst the wizard does the necessary paperwork is a fantastic mental image. This leaves only one question. How did this item come to be? As I noted I imagine the sudden appearance of artifacts like these is likely to be reactive.

Maybe there was a wizard who was pretty pedantic and always cast low-risk spells leading to a situation where they just weren’t pulling their weight in the party (plus annoying pedants are annoying). This item seems like a cracking way to help address the balance in a way that gets people laughing about the situation.

Exhibit Four: Druid's Yoke
If you're in a D&D campaign where you need to do any kind of farming, you have bigger problems than any magical item can fix. But this yoke allows characters to — when they put it on themselves — turn into an ox. Not a magical ox; a regular ox. Then you can till your field yourself! You can't do it any faster, because again, you're just a goddamned ox, but it does allow you to… do the horrible manual labor… instead of the animal you've bred for this exact purpose. So that's… something someone would totally want. The best part? Once you've put it on, you can't take the yoke off; someone else has to do it for you. Because you're a goddamned ox.
Of all the artifacts that seem to have been created in reaction to a particular situation this one would appear to be the most specific. I can picture a campaign where, in order to get access to a particular bad guy, the players had to get access to a cattle market but the entry is restricted to people who had something to trade. They have money, but of course, the only place to buy a cow in time for the market is, unfortunately, the market: catch 22.

So they do find this Druid’s Yoke thingie which leads to an argument as to which team member will be, er, beefing up, for the market. After all anyone who can’t see the clear downsides to this not-so-genius plan must be a bit dense.

Obviously the plan goes sideways, how could it not? Now the rest of the team have to fight to reclaim their en-oxened party member in order to remove the yoke. Meanwhile the ox itself is trying to shake the yoke, or get it removed, by any means necessary. Hilarity is all but guaranteed to ensue.

Anyone who doesn’t see the narrative potential of this item isn’t thinking very hard. All you need to do is manufacture a reason for someone to put it on and let the rest of the plot flow from that circumstance.

Exhibit Five: Puchezma's Powder of Edible Objects
Interestingly, this odd item is one of the few D&D magical items that does have a back-story; apparently the unfortunately named Puchezma was a cheapskate who inadvertently created a powder that allowed him to eat any chewable material while trying to make a spice that would allow him to eat cheaper and cheaper food. With it, people can eat anything from cotton to tree leaves instead of bread and salted beef! Now, I would say if you're carrying around cotton, you might as well be carrying food. I would also say that if you plan on your player-character eating tree leaves to save fictional money you are very much missing the greater point of D&D.
This, along with another item called “fish dust” seem most obviously created in order to solve a pernickity problem. How to expediate the delivery of food to the players in unusual circumstances or, without exhaustive checks for success in a given activity.

Fish dust is a dust you sprinkle on water and it stuns the fish it touches causing them to float to the surface. Essentially it’s a kind of quiet way of dynamiting fish.

I can just see, in either case, that a party were either a) able to fish but the GM did not want to waste time on having them do so instead of getting on with the story or b) wandering through an ancient tomb of stuff with no food and in danger of starving to death. In each case the GM produced an item which mitigated the immediate problem and allowed the story to move on. No big mystery.

Exhibit Six: Mirror of Simple Order
"When a character steps in front of this mirror, he sees a strangely distorted image of himself. … There are eyes, a mouth, and a nose, but all lack character. Although the figure moves as the character does, it is shorter or taller than he is, adjusted in whatever direction approaches the average height of the character's race. Any clothing worn by the character is altered as well. Bright colors will be muted, appearing to be shades of grey. Any ornamental work on armor, weapons, or clothing will be gone. … He retains his level and class, but is not as exceptional as he might have been. He is bland and boring. The character's alignment changes to lawful neutral, and he becomes interested in little else other than setting order to the world." So there's a magical item that turns you into a soulless bureaucrat. I guess that's whose making those damn rings.
This is a fascinating artifact as, like the Ring of Contrariness, I can see it having been created as a “trap” for a particularly flair heavy and flamboyant player character, but the implications of the device reach far beyond this one usage. In fact, coming to think about it I cannot help but wonder if this is a reaction to a group losing a player who turned in a “unique” performance as an extrovert exhibitionist with bags of charisma.

Not wanting to kill the character or pass it along to another player the Mirror accomplishes the job of leaving the character largely as was but removing all of their individuality. Possibly there was a chance that the player would return, making the restoration of the player’s “true” character a subject for a twist in the narrative.

Essentially, in game terms, this artifact would seem like the perfect tool for turning an individual character into a bland back-up NPC for an uncertain duration and for this reason it is an object that only has its true meaning revealed in its meta-purpose. Intra-digetically to the narrative, of course, the effect of this mirror would be a terrible, subtle and deeply unsettling curse.

25 June 2014

Editing, Outlining and the thin line between.

It's not often, like, once or twice before to my memory, that I feature other people's writing tips but sometimes you come across something that you just have to share because it nails some kind of process or whatever.

This post on io9 about editing is one such tip. Enjoy.

Archived Podcasts Galore!

Episode 47 - A Trip down the Playstation Memory Card Solid

20 years ago the Playstation was a new thing and the 80's Kids suddenly found themselves to be console owners and felt very pleased with themselves about being at the forefront of contemporary popular gaming. The PSX (for this was what it was called back then) was a wonderful unassuming grey box that dispensed 3D polygon entertainment and also played your CDs.

It's dizzying host of games came in charming square boxes that went 'clack' when you thumbed your way through the second hand bin at "Electronic Boutique". The controller was an iconic friendly grey colour and third party peripheries where everywhere. Who didn't own a play station back in the day other than really bitter people who clung on to the Saga Saturns or N64s?

It was a revolution in popular gaming and everyone, everywhere seemed to be having fun and SONY was a magical, wonderful company. This week Leo and Ian look back on those times and games through their rose tinted glasses and gush over the games that sucked time away from doing something productive with themselves in the 90s.

Incidental Music "Basement Floor" is composed by Kevin Macleod of incompetech.com "Codec sounds" and "MGS Game over theme" Copywrite Konami and used under fair use.



Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/047ATripDownThePlaystationMemoryCardSolid/047-a-trip-down-the-playstation-memory-card-solid.mp3

Episode 48 - Raiders of the Lost Fridge

With Justin freshly rescued from his Tomb the 80's Kids reckon this is fine time time to discuss that most prolific of grave robbers and his exploits on the silver screen. That's right, Indiana Jones! So shake the dust off your hat, throw on your brown leather jackets and act like you really do know how to use a bull whip. This week is like an out of control Mine cart and it stops for no one.

'Raiders' might belong in a museum but that doesn't stop Justin and Ian stealing it and gushing over it with nostalgia saturated love . Then Leo breaks up the party by informing them he doesn't quite "get it" causing many heads to explode. The powers of Spielberg and Ford are mused on as well as 'Raiders' rolling bolder like impact on the films and culture that came afterwards. Then comes 'Temple of Doom' and it's many traps made from political correctness gone mad. While Ian might have found it a bit grim its eat your heart out time for Justin. Then it's off to rescue Dad in 'Last Crusade' where deep and meaningful questions are asked like ... should Nazis be funny? You know, with the holocaust and everything. Whatever you might think we all agree it was a fine end to the series.

Only it wasn't ... yes ... we talk about that other film too.

Once again Lucas proves there is no part of your childhood you can possess, that he cannot take away. "Labeouf, I hate that guy."



Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/048RaidersOfTheLostFridge/048-raiders-of-the-lost-fridge.mp3

Episode 49 - 1992 Reservoir Kids

There can be no clearer symptom of 90s rot that to examine the sad turn the Alien franchise took this year with it's bleak, nihilistic descent into death. A further example of a beloved 80s film series going off the boil would be "Batman Returns" although a more appropriate title might have been "Penguin Arrives".

Fortunately the 80s kids are here and more than ready to mete out some well deserved revenge. Lurching out blinking into the moonlight comes "Bram Stoker's Dracula", presumably named such to avoid confusion with all the other Dracula films based on the same book. Despite fleeting moments of brilliance the Prince of Darkness staggers disappointingly back to it's crypt once again, allowing younger, fresher vampires a stab at the jugular. They sadly ran headlong into "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and much like how Buffy deals with Vampires this film is badly executed.

All the same, this is the year of "Reservoir Dogs", the film that put Quentin Tarantino on our map. Sadly the passing years have not been kind to his once loyal 80s kids fanboys who do little but stand and watch while Sue and Leo give our once loved writer director a real ear full. And not in the Mr Blonde way.

The dark connection between Steven Seagal and Wesley Snipes its mused on but really everyone was far too distracted by Sharon Stone crossing her legs in "Basic Instinct". Then things go a little surreal as David Lynch proves beyond any doubt that Twin Peaks fans have in fact been wasting their time all along. And thus the "Candy Man" was summoned to dispense his usual hook/bee based justice upon the transgressing films of 1992!

Incidental Music "Cool Vibes" by Kevin Macleod of incompetech.com



Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/0491992ReservoirKids/049-1992-reservoir-kids.mp3

Episode 50 - The Aniversary Behemoth!

Yee Gawds! Has it been a year since the 80's Kids began this odyssey? Apparently it has. Oh well any excuse for a party. And the theme of this one is marvellous, wonderful favourite things. And in this weeks double length bumper podcast we tackle THREE each. So let the speculation begin! What are our Number one choices?

Sue's first choice involves a prolonged tea break, Justin will gush over the joy of nepotism, Ian's will either kill your or dive you insane and Leo's first favourite thing involves many happy memories reading the Shakespearean obituaries.

Our second batch of much loved things ups the game. Sue's choice is very heavy, Justin is delighted about his gateway drug that left him spoiled for choice, Ian speaks at length about his love for convoluted time travel plots NOT involving Dr Who but rather something else with more bite and Leo proudly unleashes his wheel of fate powered by cogs.

And the Third? Well... Sue likes playing god with the lives of ordinary people, Justin has famous last words to the puzzlement of many, Ian decides to end it in a bloody shoot out in which all our heroes die and Leo's final choice sends the surviving 80's kids to sleep. Really. What more could you ask for?

Incidental music composed or available from Kevin Macleod's invaluable website incompetech.com



Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/050TheAnniversaryBehemoth/050-the-anniversary-behemoth.mp3

18 June 2014

Working On Your Characters - An Approach (Mine)

I put this as an answer to a question Writer's Stack Exchange

First, crack dialogue.
Why? There's this weird ouroboros effect between characterisation and dialogue. Dialogue establishes character BUT dialogue emerges FROM character. Weirdly, you can exploit this by swimming a little against the tide.
Take two character stubs that you have in mind. They really don't need to be all that developed, could be as little as:
Jake: Fussy, lazy, prim.
Tony: Sharp, fidgety, sarcastic.
Then put them in a room and make them wait for something. This is an exercise I like to call "Rosencrantz and the Dumb Godot in Bruges" after scripts in which a pair of characters famously fill in time whilst waiting for something (note that in three out of the four the characters are spies/hitmen).
Now your brain is marinated in that free association space where you can let the dialogue flow. Two characters is enough to just get the focus right and allow them freedom to express themselves a bit better than in a crowd.
Tony is clearly going to be the one most ill-at-ease with waiting around so we'll give him something to do:
TONY is looking at his shoes. (NOTE: Why is he looking at his shoes? Well, he's fidgety. So I could have decided to have him be prepared and to bring a small rubber ball with him or something, or lucky and have him find a set up for a small gallery of targets at which to pitch rocks. I decided to make him both unprepared and unlucky so he is reduced to examining his shoes for inspiration.)
JAKE is laid out with a newspaper over his face, as if napping. (NOTE: So JAKE is more prepared than TONY. He brought a newspaper. He can probably tell that TONY is uncomfortable with nothing to do but is using his newspaper as an eyeshield. This indicates that JAKE is selfish.)
TONY: I think my shoes need cleaning.
JAKE (Under the newspaper): So get them cleaned.
TONY: I will. Not now, obviously, but I will, as soon as we get back to the city.
JAKE (Under the newspaper): Good idea.
TONY: I'd do it myself. I'd do it now. But, one, I don't think I do as good a job as a professional shoe shiner and two, I don't have any polish. I mean, who'd bring polish along on a job like this.
JAKE (Under the newspaper): Only a lunatic, for sure.
TONY: That's a terrible job... shoe shiner. Of course, there hasn't been the type of war that puts shoe shiners on the streets in a while. It's hard to find someone who'll shine your shoes. I think people regard the job as menial and humiliating. It's a shame. Most shoes just go around scuffed and dirty these days.
JAKE: Shoes are a lot cheaper than they used to be.
TONY: I know, right? I'm not sure that's a good thing. Shoes are important. They cushion you as you walk. Walking is vital to communication. If we couldn't walk then we couldn't have got here.
JAKE: We could have teleconferenced.
TONY: Mister Black didn't want to teleconference, he wanted face to face. He's old school, Mister Black.
And just pootle on like that for as long as you can. There are even dialogue writing exercises that can help you out with that.
Next, mix it up a bit.
Repeat the first process for a number of natural character pairs. The character pair is the basic atom of show-don't-tell character development and revelation.
Your next stage is to mix up the characters you have paired and put them in new situations. You might want to generate or acquire a number of situations where the two characters could be forced to wait. Also change up the pre-existent relationships between them. Make a male and a female character husband and wife (even if you don't intend that they end up that way in your proposed novel), have two characters who know each other well talk as if they have never met. Note that there is, in any two-handed conversation, an actor (the person who proposes the topic and trajectory of the conversation) and a reactor (the person who fills in with their own reactions to the actors actions).
After that you want to start widening the circle. The number of people involved in a scene up to about eight largely dictates what will happen between them due to the rules governing permutations thus:

  1. A person alone: with a completely dedicated and individual agenda. By default an unreliable narrator.
  2. Actor and Reactor: feeding off each other, pressing one another on, seeking companionship for its own end. A partnership is, by default, accepts a level of intimate intensity. Most prosaically this manifests as romantic love, but could equally well be obsessive hatred, or any other kind of odd thing in between. Each partner in a duo will tend to reveal more of themselves to the other than they intend as neither of them can be distracted by anyone else.
  3. The couple and the lodger: Always two people will be united in purpose and the last will be identified as "other", "outsider" or "leader".
  4. The double date: People pair off and a love of symmetery makes two couples who police each other's status for some kind of equilibrium obsessively. Unlike a couple left to their own devices any point of conflict will be deflated or defeated by the other unit. Subtext begins to become a thing.
  5. The troublemaker: As this is an odd number the "spare" character is free to sow chaos among the other four people's stable set up. The "outsider" can prevent couple A from stabilising couple "B" or vice versa. The fifth party is always likely to be a source of contention.
  6. The dinner party: Three couples mean that each person in any de facto couple takes an opportunity to stand on their own, the number of permutations of one-to-one interaction here is large but finite. Although friction in certain actions may lead to much ado about very little this party is ultimately static in its bonds.
  7. The King or The Fool: Here the odd person, introduced into the dinner party scenario, has an opportunity to unite everyone (either in ordered placidity or in terrifying hatred of them), or to sew the seeds of ultimate chaos splitting the party into smaller subdivisions.
  8. The Gathering: A bigger dinner party. The larger the group from this point the more that each person present has to shout louder and be clearer to "control" or "own" the conversation. Now people will be very careful about things like social norms projecting an image of someone as "the type of person they want to be", idiosyncrasy in character will decrease, the wisdom and madness of groupthink will emerge, interaction becomes increasingly pageant like. There may be a "leader" but instead of emerging naturally through personality and charismatic dominance the leader is more likely to be, in some sense, elected and therefore take on the mantle of governmental power rather than personal charisma.

From that point on the behaviour of crowds and leaders just multiplies. Two leaders and a crowd make a war, three leaders and a crowd suggests a courtroom, four leaders and a crowd suggest some kind of cold war. Always, the more people are added the more difficult it becomes for people to be established as "leaders". The tendency of large mobs is always towards chaos.
Given that overview I would tend to practice with scenes involving up to five characters. After that you're entering the realm of "crowd scenes" which are easier tackled when you have a lot of context.
Finally, to the matter of plot.
Some people, Elmore Leonard famously, have a very woolly idea of what the plot actually is, they like to assemble patchworks of character scenes into a narrative and leave it at that. This could be your thing.
If not, you should work out how your characters, who you should know quite a bit about by now, will achieve the ends of your initial plot. Some "plot problems" may seem intractable but I have never yet found one that can't be thought about until it is tweaked out of existence.
Anyway, the first two parts of this answer will probably get you going in the right direction. After that it's all about sewing up the plot holes.

12 June 2014

That Ubisoft Thing

If there's one thing I don't blow nearly enough then it's probably my own trumpet (NOISES OFF: Friends and family ROFLTAO). It is certainly true that if you are related to me, or you are in my circle of trust, then there is really no space for doubt regarding how boss the thing I'm working on right now is. Despite this I don't tend to wander into random gatherings spouting off about how great my stuff is, often because that's frowned upon as a social faux pas, but also because it's a tricky thing to get right.

You know, like putting a female protagonist into a video game.

As any one nearby will attest I am a massive Assassin's Creed fan, the reasons for which actually have something to do with history. Although I fully accept that most of what happens in any given AC game is made up tosh there are nuggets of actual history in there, to the extent that the series has been accused of Forrest Gump-ing its way through swathes of history inserting Scowly McPointysleeves (as all AC protagonists are secretly named) into every major event in the historical era in which they existed.

So you do need to be able to discriminate what was made up from what is really true, the joy of it is that I'm not entirely sure some of the time where the history ends and the making stuff up begins. You get character bios for real historical figures (e.g. Paul Revere in ACIII) but you also get bios for people like the Assassin Recruits you conscript into your order. Are these people real? I don't actually know. How many of the main bad guys really existed, I would have to check. That's the delight for me... I would have to check. I can't clearly call some game artifacts lies without looking them up for myself. That's an effective blurring of fact and fiction right there.

So, anyway, apparently the publisher of the series, Ubisoft, are in a bit of bother regards their non-inclusion of female protagonists in two of their major franchises. You can read about the fuss in a sober, reflective tone here and in a more sarcastic and satirical one here. And a right mess it all is.

In The Elias Anomaly I imagined a artificial reality generated by a quantum super-computer as the ultimate open world theme park. I didn't realise that the most far-fetched part of that imagined scenario would be that my female protagonist would enter the game world in a female avatar. So, in short, check out The Elias Anomaly for a vision of an inclusive future to gaming.

Trumpet Blown.

Thoughts on the protagonists in AC games to follow in another post.

11 June 2014

Archived Podcasts

Episode 45 - 1990: Nineteen Eighty Ten!

Fleeing from the modern day tyranny of Michael Bay our three heroes finally arrive in the year 1990 and set about unraveling the mystery of why the 90's sucked so bad when it came to films. And yet the year is heady with the sweet after scent of the 80's with only a vague murmur of the horrors to come later. Could the rumors be true? Is this really the fabled year Nineteen Eighty Ten?

Things start out with Leo, Justin and Ian squeezing into the delorean and driving by the horde of sequels at 88 mph. "Robocop 2", "Predator 2", "Back to the Future 3", "Exorcist 3", etc ... before finally getting their ass to "Total Recall" were our trio gush once more over Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven. Memories restored Leo fondly invokes "Darkman" and the fact half the script is the name 'Julie'. Justin retreats into timeless fairy tale land with the bleak but emotional "Edward Sissorhands", whom is highly praised for not running.

Meanwhile Ian puts on a shell suit and wags his nunchucks excitedly about to the puzzlement of all. Near Death follows with "Flightliners", followed by everyone clambering over the furniture to stay off the ground for a "Tremors" discussion and general strangeness breaks out for "Wild at Heart". But in the end theirs no avoiding "Ghost" ... will the guys bless it as it ascends in a column of light or will they cast it down into the horde of shifting, howling shadows? Listen and find out.

Incidental music "Hit Man" composed by Kevin Macleod of incompetech.com



Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/0451990NineteenEightyTen/045-1990-Nineteen-Eighty-Ten.mp3

Episode 46 - 1991: Judgment Day For The Prince of Thieves

You know it's going to be one of those years when even Captain Kirk feels like calling it a day and retiring. Meanwhile on the planet Zeist the natives are restless and children are hallucinating Rik Mayall to the amusement of no one.

Even Peter Pan is a bit rubbish in 1991, having decided he wanted to leave Neverland and grow up to be the none zany version of Robin Williams, actually zany Robin Williams can't even be found in a Terry Gilliam movie. That's 1991 for you.

What else did this year have? LA Story? Naked Lunch? Oh dear … Lets pack it in all and go counter culture, bond with our friends over extreme sports and robbing banks with Keanu Reeves who for his crimes is killed a sent to hell, his only chance to escape is to beat Death a twister. Then the Rapture happens but no one saw it. But all is not lost, flying in to rescue the year is the Rocketeer and teleporting in from the future is a cyborg assassin reprogrammed to be a babysitter much to the joy of all.

Hannibal Lecter arrives to collect his academy award before taking Jodie Foster out for dinner. Don't tell me 1991 not worth fighting for! Because it's true, everything I do, I do it for you.



Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/0461991JudgmentDayForThePrinceOfTheives/046-1991-Judgment-Day-for-The-Prince-of-Theives.mp3