Monday, March 9, 2015

Leigh Brackett Understands Drama

I wanted to finish Leigh Brackett's Skaith Trilogy (The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, The Reavers of Skaith) before writing about it, but The Hounds of Skaith is so well-written I need to unload right now before my brain swells up.

Here's the situation: our hero is Stark, a Tarzan-like wild man raised in civilization to be a sort of interstellar troubleshooter for an ersatz United Federation of Planets. With his mentor kidnapped, he visits the dying low-tech world of Skaith. The world's rulers, fearing his presence will overthrow the existing order, attack Stark in a way that begins unraveling the world's existing order.

Having slain the leader of a pack of psychic wolves whose powers only he can withstand, Stark asserts dominance over the wolves as he races back to the planet's only starport, which is located deep within the territory of the planet's rulers and his enemies--the Wandsmen.

Now, here's the clever thing. The psychic wolves exist to protect the Wandsmen and will not harm them. They serve Stark (he is Strongest, so they follow), and they do not necessarily serve the Wandsmen, but every time Stark fights the Wandsmen's allies, his control over the wolves erodes a bit more. Yet he cannot abandon them--their mind-reading powers have already saved his life more than once, even as they articulate a growing dissatisfaction that will, it's obvious, culminate in the same challenge for dominance that let Stark take control of the pack. They are simple creatures, and cannot comprehend Stark's goals and actions, and each encounter with the Wandsmen pushes the pack closer to a betrayal that is not really a betrayal at all--more of a return to the creatures' natural existence.

This structure reminds me of good modern television: the system is inherently unstable, and now the writer's job becomes to shove the hero from every direction until everything falls apart. I never really understood the writer's adage "put your hero in a tree and throw rocks at him" until I saw the trick used here. This is the exact opposite of Marvel-style comic book writing--where the trick is to produce a dynamic-seeming situation that always springs back to normal--and reminds me of Steven King, where you know the bad stuff is coming (you know from The Shining's first interview scene that Torrance is going to go after his kid, Danny, with an axe), but you don't know when it's coming.

Adding to the drama is the realism of everyone's motivations: Stark just wants to escape Skaith, the wolves are beasts who cannot change their natures, and the Wandsmen are portrayed as sympathetic antagonists who can no more fathom what Stark represents than the wolves can. There are no "villains" here, only agendas that cannot be brought into harmony.

And through that tension Brackett weaves a thrilling action story. The situation's inherent instability lends excitement to what, in lesser novels, would just be a bunch of "random encounters": here's Stark fighting cannibals, okay; here's Stark facing a sandstorm. Even today many SF/F novels still rely on a picaresque structure like this (when they're not cut-and-pasting the plot of Star Wars). The best writers (Jack Vance, Poul Anderson) bring their worlds and characters to life with such skill that they don't need the dynamic instability of a plot like Hounds of Skaith's, but most lesser writers don't bother, and their stories are just one damn thing after another. Brackett understands how to combine picaresque encounters with unstable dynamic situations in a way that creates a story that is both exciting and nail-biting. So far the Skaith trilogy has been an exhausting, thrilling read.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Villain Agency vs. Player Agency

So I finished Dragon Age: Inquisition a few days ago and here come the spoilers. I keep thinking about Corypheus, the game's villain, because he's the weakest element in an otherwise excellent game. In fact it's rare to see any piece of fantasy media so good where the villain is so mediocre.

Corypheus isn't scary, and he's not scary because he waits around to lose. His repeated losses, and the crumbling of his power base from its high point at Haven (the first time he appears in person), remind me of Warcraft 2. Each fight in Warcraft 2 pits you against an enemy army, and you either win or you try it again. There's no branching mission structure like in some of the old Wing Commander games. Your steamrolling victories undercut any sense of tension, because as you keep winning, it's increasingly obvious that your enemy is getting its ass kicked on every front. The final battles feel less like a death-defying victory against impossible odds and more like mopping up the last remnants of an already-defeated foe.

That works fine for Warcraft 2, which is a strategy game with a light sprinkling of narration, but it feels anticlimactic and somewhat pathetic in DA:I. But the interesting thing to me is how Corypheus' weakness ties into one of the game's primary selling points: Dragon Age: Inquisition gives you all the time in the world to be a hero. It lacks many of the irrevocable decisions and half-blind choices of previous Dragon Age and Mass Effect games and permits you to revel in a kind of timeless fantasy of heroism. Refugees are starving? You can feed them whenever; they're not going to actually starve. Cultists are causing trouble up north? Send someone to deal with them whenever you have a moment. DA: I combines the wide-open structure of Skyrim with the solution-oriented storytelling of other BioWare games; the result feels almost like a casual game in that it's structured to make you feel really good about accomplishing really simple tasks. And that's not an insult: the game feels great.

But that villain! Man, Corypheus has nothing going on. He's allowed to lash out once, at Haven—to devastating effect—and then he hangs around in the background waiting for you to level up enough to fight him. Letting him lash out at the player a second or even a third time, or being able to see the inevitable growth of his armies on the Battle Map, would have helped. Back when I ran tabletop games, I'd often interject free-roaming exploration (let's say ten areas that need to be explored) with villain-activated scenes. For example, the villain would attack when 25% of the areas had been explored, again at 50%, and again when the characters accomplished a major goal. It's a simple but effective trick for making the NPCs come alive. BioWare has used that trick with party-NPCs since Baldur's Gate; I would have love to have seen Corypheus “activate” the same way, for example, Iron Bull's “I want to kill dragons” plot activates the first time you kill a high dragon.

Corypheus got me thinking about Sephiroth, since they—and their games—are such opposites. Final Fantasy 7 is a straight-line slalom run where the protagonist's lack of control is so fundamental to the game it's an aspect of the story, and the joke about FF7 is that you spend the whole game chasing after Sephiroth, always missing him by five minutes. And by almost every standard FF7 is inferior to DA:I. Except I've been watching a longplay of Final Fantasy 7 on YouTube and...Sephiroth is scary! I've played the game and Sephiroth is still scary! Every time his music plays I sit up straight because the guy is so unpredictable. History has allowed Sephiroth's long-haired pretty-boy image to eclipse his half-smashed spider behavior. He's a fucking nightmare! He tears the setting apart, runs all over the place, kills your friends, kills your enemies, messes with your mind, and he's nuttier than a shithouse chipmunk, which means that even when you understand his plan, you don't really understand his plan.

It's been fascinating watching BioWare since for the past 5-10 years they've been interrogating themselves about how to balance player agency with the emotional needs of a good drama. Their previous offerings often punched up the emotional impact of their stories by denying us meaningful choice, which culminated in the clumsy ending of the Mass Effect trilogy. DA:I is the closest I've ever seen them come yet to a perfect balance. It gave us all the agency we could ever want, though here and there the drama fell flat. But every game seems to bring them closer to some elusive and perhaps asymptotic ideal; I cannot wait to see what they try next.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to that longplay and try to hide whenever Sephiroth's spooky-tolling-bell music starts up.