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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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A Level Plot
I went to a talk about computer games - which was very interesting, but of course I mention it here only to nitpick. At one point the speaker showed a graphic representation of the structure of a classic Mario-style "level" game, and remarked that it was quite different from the plot of a novel, such as (his example) The Hobbit.

In one sense, this is quite right - The Hobbit's structure amounts to a lot more than the idea of getting through "levels" (trolls, goblins, wargs, spiders) to reach an ultimate Boss-Level Baddy (Smaug). On the other hand, you can see how people who have learned about narrative through computer games might try to fit it to that template - and even be annoyed at the way it doesn't quite work ("Battle of the Five Armies and Moral Complexity wtf?"). Besides, one can't deny that Tolkien and computer games share an interest in quest structure, or that Tolkien has been directly influential on games designers, which may seem to invite the comparison.

This has got me to wondering more generally about the mutual influence of computer games, literature and television. The monster-of-the-week + Seaonal Big Bad structure was popularized on television by Buffy, I gather, though it crops up earlier - in Sailor Moon for example: was this an example of the Gameboy aesthetic filtering through to television? It now seems almost obligatory for some kinds of show - not least any that Steven Moffat is involved with. But the influence, if it exists, is on reading as much as on writing - and it feels like that structure could be read back into - well, not just The Hobbit but, say, most books of The Faerie Queene, the myth of Perseus, etc. etc., or any story where the protagonist overcomes a series of (perhaps increasingly tough) obstacles en route to the main encounter. In Bruce Lee's Game of Death the fights take place literally at different levels as he works his way up the pagoda: it's hard to believe it wasn't made with computer games in mind (though for reasons of chronology it clearly wasn't). Dante's Inferno seems equally ripe for pixellation.

In its purest form we'd have to see in the early adventures of the protagonist not just a kind of "training" or toughening up in preparation for the Big Battle at the end; those earlier antagonists ought in some sense agents of the Big Bad. So, just as Wario and Moriarty have a hand in many of encounters of Mario and Sherlock even when they're not on stage, so we might be inclined to expect, or demand, the same of Medusa, Smaug or Acrasia (and in Acrasia's case we wouldn't be disappointed).

Personally I love loose-jointed, picaresque plots as much as I like tightly constructed ones, and I'd hate it if anyone thought less of, say, Theseus's journey to Athens because Procrustes didn't turn out to be in the pay of Medea. I don't play many computer games these days, but a lot of them, from Animal Crossing to Grand Theft Auto, seem to be far more open-ended and exploratory than the Mario-style games of old. I wonder if this style of narrative will find its way into fiction and TV, and by what indirect crook'd ways?

This is stuff I think I should think about and plan to.

But, yes: of course the Odyssey and the Aeneid are also monster-of-the-week plus big bad.

I think there's an issue (I am thinking about this wrt Orphan Black, e.g.) with open-ended TV shows that nevertheless assign a long term goal (the ten year seasonal goal), vs. the year, the six week plot arc, and the individual week.

So in The Fugitive, e.g., the main (Dr. Richard Kimble) is looking for the one-armed-man, and no way he's going to find him till the series is canceled. In Time Tunnel, the two protagonists are trying to get home, but can't while the series is underway. And it may be underway for a while.

But that's okay, I guess: the final goal doesn't govern plot so much as offer a beacon to navigate by.

But in Orphan Black or Lost or Homeland (or Life on Mars or Flashforward, to point to disappointments), there is something structuring the plot, part of its incident-to-incident structure. The MacGuffin matters, as it always should (which is what makes Hitchcock so good). But it's also endlessly deferred, reconceptualized by writers and producers who just want the show to go on, so that the significant plot moments, the sense that you're advancing towards a goal, always turns out to be a mirage. And that's vexing. Life on Mars and Flashforward bring out what's disappointing about this: they didn't end; they were canceled, and the didn't end because in fact there was no ending that underlay the whole plot structure. And that is, alas, true, of successful series as well.

Whereas I guess the point about a game is there is an end, when you finally get there. I suspect gamers wouldn't play games without an ending. So something that television series (and before that radio soap operas, and before that daily narrative comic strips) eroded in narrative experience may be coming back in games? I hope so.

wolodymyr would certainly have something interesting to say about these issues. I'll flag this post for her.

Edited at 2014-05-02 01:22 pm (UTC)

Excellent points all. (I'm curious - are you thinking of the US version of Life on Mars or the original, or both?)

Lee's Game of Death - which was, ironically, cancelled midway through production by Lee's own death - is an interesting case here. The original plot had him working his way up the pagoda, on the top floor of which was something of great value (unidentified, but think of it as an exquisitely carved jade McGuffin). However, once he's finally defeated all his opponents he leaves the pagoda without going to fetch it. To travel is better than to arrive.

When the fragmentary footage was later cobbled into a film in 1978 the pagoda was written out of the story, and Lee was shown as fighting to rescue Princess Peach his fiancee from some mobsters - which he does, in what is obviously a far more conventional story.


I watched both Lives on Mars, though I didn't get to the end of the original. (I should.)

I am not concerned about the question of novels which, with sufficient reductionism, may be reduced to descriptions of computer games.

But the first-published novel I've ever read that read like a transcript of a role-playing game, that had that ethos and atmosphere to it, was Arthur Rex by Thomas Berger. It was the relentless seeding and re-seeding of the knights which did it.

I'd not heard of Arthur Rex, so scurried off to Google Books to see if I could find out what it means by seeding. I don't think I found what I was looking for, but this is hilarious:

"Sire," said Merlin, "not all women are your kinsfolks."
"Yet," said Arthur, "who might tell, with all the seed my father did broadcast?"
"But," Merlin said, "Uther Pendragon did bed in the main the female issue of churls or defeated paynims, generally virgins of very tender age, as is so often the taste of kings."

"Seeding" as with tennis players or US college football teams: incessant calculating and recalculating of relevant standings. Knights keep track of who's the third, fourth, fifteenth, etc. best knight in the Round Table, meaning their fighting prowess, and every time they hold a tournament it's recalculated.

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