Monday, March 07, 2011

Mythological Sandbox: Dragon Age 2, and Global Conversation

By Mr. VI

Storytelling is about manipulating the audience; about leading them where they want to go and showing them something different. The old stories are familiar, like worn paths tracked through a dark forest, all pitted and uneven, but they are not paved roads. Here and there, the environment erupts and diverts them; trees have fallen or thickets have sprung up, and because they are paths, those who journey simply route around them and carry on.

The best storytellers and the best explorers don't just avoid these interruptions, they incorporate them into the journey, make them part of the experience. A good story is both inexorable and yet also allows you to move, to indulge in multiple divergences; switchbacks, digressions, stories within stories.

That's how Sheherazade kept her head in the epic of A Thousand and One Nights – by drawing the king further and further in. It went beyond cliff-hangers. She lead him so far down the twisting pathways that he simply forgot the route back to the place where he was going to kill her – he became so enamoured of the journey that the origin and destination were unimportant.

As Shakespeare says through the mouth of Hamlet:

I'll have grounds
More relative than this—the play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 603–605

Hamlet's play was designed to elicit visible proof from his audience. Proof that Claudius had killed his father, confirming what the ghost has to say. If that's not manipulation of your audience, I don't know what is.

As the saying goes: 'Give them enough rope to hang themselves.'

Again, there's the notion of space to move, space for things to 'play out'. And speaking of playing, those of us in Europe will soon be looking enviously at the US, because you get the eagerly anticipated Bioware epic, the fantasy RPG-sequel Dragon Age 2 three days earlier than us.

You bastards.

Still, I'm not that bitter. Come the 11th I shall be sitting down in front of my Xbox and entering a familiar world. I may not surface for a good long while, because frankly, I love the world they've created and want to see what happens next in it.

The arc of a character over from humble beginnings to world-shaking hero is a mythic theme which has been repeated over and over again, in various cultures. What's more, there are over a million downloads of the demo across all the platforms, because the publisher promised goodies if it happened.

Imagine that:

Even if there were duplications, and there most certainly were, hundreds of thousands of human beings downloaded and probably played through the same events. Given the research I highlighted in my previous post, that's frankly amazing, isn't it? Hundreds of thousands moving through the same play-space, experiencing the same world, albeit in slightly different ways.

And that's the key really – the thing about Bioware's recent games, as well as other publishers', is that the choices of the player affect the story. There is enough space for the player to move, to choose to build their character as they wish, to act as they might so as to imbue the character with a sense of personality which they can connect to, or at the very least wish to experience.

This isn't a new thing – in terms of shared gaming worlds, one has only to look at Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Games like EVE Online, or the almost ubiquitous World of Warcraft to see how easily the promise of interaction and effect draws people in.

There's also the idea of sandbox gaming, wherein there may be a plot but the world is fully explorable. You don't have to do the plot to experience the world.

Audience manipulation is a key part of politics and advertising too. Providing the audience with what they want almost always guarantees acceptance. The trick is to achieve congruency between your goals and their wants.

A good storyteller can make you empathise with the characters; perform a kind of sympathetic magic wherein the emotions and experiences of the characters become your own, and where their identity becomes mapped onto your own.

Cunning individuals then manipulate the characters to induce emotions and responses in you, manipulating your psyche so that you experience what's desired. The best part about this, is that you pay them to do this because you wanted it, because you want to know what happens next, and to feel more.

This is why soap operas, and latterly reality TV, have been so successful. They lurch from extreme to extreme. From murder to drug abuse to infidelity and family betrayal, all this extreme emotion bypasses the difference and connects us to these individuals.

The myths of a given people, even if they speak of gods and heroes far beyond mortal ken, still contain familiar things; whether it be geography, experience or emotion, their culture or experience of similar emotions. They still contain the fundamentals of humanity; sex and death, need and hunger, fear and hope. Times may change and nations come and go; the shadows of time may begin rendering the path dark and twisty, but this fundamental set of needs does not shift.

Dragon Age 2 and other RPG's offer a connection by their very nature because they are Role Playing Games.

There is an explicit identification between player and character, enhanced by the fact that the player has individualised the character further, whether by appearance or statistics. The more identification, the richer the experience.

James has been writing about Method Acting in reference to the Clark Gonzomentary and...other things. Method acting is total inhabiting of the character, an assumption of identity in which there is no difference between the actor and character.

The ancestors of the wildly successful MMORPG's can be easily traced to the pen and paper RPG's and the Live Action Role-Playing games which began in the seventies and eighties and still continue today.

So here I call up the unquiet ghost, the spectre of social ostracism and geekhood, because I admit it: I'm a roleplayer. I'm one of the strange people who pretends to be someone else for fun, on a regular basis, because I want to experience and journey through different worlds.

I do it with my friends, my fellow players, and we interact and thread the stories of our individual characters together, and weave them into a larger larger story. Once a week, I also sit in my living room with a group of educated people in their twenties and thirties, and they play people other than themselves who exist in a world that I describe for them.

I am a DM, a GM, a Ref, whatever you want to call it, and I've been telling this story with them almost every Tuesday night for 3 years. Barring illness etc, that's roughly 150 sessions of 4-5 hrs each.

Back of the envelope maths means that I've been telling this story for 625 hours, which about 26 days. That's nearly a lunar month!

I've played in games that run far longer than 3 years, and I've stayed in character for over two days, day and night, being run through a Live Action Cthulhu Mythos scenario which ended up with several players sobbing like babies at the death of another character, and the other horrific events.

I'm telling you this, not as an attempt to to defend a hobby which many find strange and odd, but to trace the genealogy and implications of what it does to the human. It has its roots in the ancient storytelling, the ancient communication faculties of the human brain.

As I've said before, the brain appears not to care whether what it is simulating is real or not, it simply does so. So let me ask you this:

What if the character you were playing was yourself? The 'sympathetic magic' involved would be far easier, wouldn't it? What if you were drawn into an alternate world by a game, a book, or a film?

There are those who say that they play precisely not to be themselves, to escape somehow, and that's fine because we all understand the desire to escape the restrictions of everyday life, don't we?

And it's that understanding which is so important, because without it, community would not form. Without that empathy, that need to communicate and converse, much of what we consider to be 'human' simply would not exist.

Suppose then, that the entirety of human culture is built out of language, that everything we do, is a product of conversation - whether that conversation be verbal or non-verbal, built of conscious speech or unconscious cues.

Just imagine that for a moment, now. Take a few seconds to imagine, to comprehend the enormity of it; hear the crackle of the fire, the sharp indrawn breath at some surprise spun from the story told by voice and inflection, described by motion, action and followed by flickering shadow.

And the screen shifts and dances; dialogue and punctuation of gesture reach back to the actors upon the stage, artfully portraying themes in flesh. The dances and the laughter and the mimicry that bring mirth to your lips, the silences that give you space to hear the beating of your heart and the flow of emotions that run through it.

So feel all that, because the words conjure pictures, and trigger memories of times past and dreams yet to come, don't they? They always have - because otherwise you would not speak, you would not be reading – and certainly not reading this. You wouldn't have a name or a job title or understand what it means when somebody imbues that name with love, hate or indifference; just from their tone, just from their gaze or a touch of their hand, a gesture from a distance.

That of evocation, of laying down the words, and allowing you to feel an echo of understanding, is precisely why you click the link to bring you here. The internet, the web, the blog – all of these are conversations, on a global scale. What's more, you're not the only one to read this – our traffic stats can tell us that, let me assure you.

Which means that you are partaking of something, you are entering into dialogue with us here at Modern Mythology, even if you never comment, because you're sharing the thoughts of each of our contributors, and they are sharing with you.

We are all playing roles, all part of an assembly of voices, a conversation, and we invite you to join us, to bring yourself and your experience to help create something extraordinary. This is a game, a place to play, to think and dream. If it wasn't we wouldn't be here, engaged in this project.

If you'd like to step into an alternative space – well, you've come to the right place as can be seen by the variety of our content.

Do you feel the connect? The way your attention gets absorbed by something that intrigues you, that draws you in. You know it happens, but you rarely consider more than that right.

Welcome to the sandbox. Welcome to the alternative reality of mythology; let's play, eh?

Game on!


Be seeing you.

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...