From Rockstars to Sleuths: Has 3D Game Storytelling Matured?

Have gaming and interactive storytelling finally matured to a new level? This is the impression I’m left with after reading reviews and watching clips from Rockstar/Team Bondi’s impressive new game, “L.A. Noire”.

Granted, I’m no gamer. Hell, I’m practically a neophyte. In the last year, I’ve probably spent more time playing Bejewelled and Angry Birds on my Palm Pre than I have playing any 3D first-person shooter on any platform in the past ten years. Remember Doom, Jedi Knight? I played those a fair bit, back in the nineties. I also spent hours exploring Second Life. That’s about as immersed as I ever got. Good times, but a bit meager compared to active gamers, but that’s pretty much my gamer cred.

Convergence of Pulp Fiction, Cinema and Gaming

Seeing a game that looks like a cross between an animated Raymond Chandler novel and the movie L.A. Confidential really piqued my curiosity. I think that the nature of the content – the hard-boiled detective genre and the quality of presentation – is what has drawn my attention to L.A. Noire. I love social realist authors like John Steinbeck and I’ve been reading classic hard-boiled detective fiction for years too.

From golden-age masters like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and cold-war veterans like Ian Fleming, John D. McDonald, and John LeCarre, through to modern crime writers like Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin – the crime fiction genre is still alive and well in the written word. TV has, of course, made it even more prevalent. Is there anyone in the western world who hasn’t watched an episode of “Law and Order” on TV by now? I doubt it.

I’m probably the new audience that the game creators were hoping to attract, along with the folks who already play 3D games. I think that L.A. Noire is definitely a “crossover” game – an attempt to draw readers and cinema-goers into gaming. From a marketing perspective, the ads I’ve seen for L.A. Noire definitely emphasize the action-adventure aspect, showing lots of gun-play and violence, obviously aimed at existing gamers who are still at the core of its potential market.

However, the “How-to” videos I’ve seen of L.A. Noire remind me of the behind-the-scenes extras you’d get on a special edition DVD of your favourite movie. Here, production values, innovation and name-brand performers are all promoted and explained, which adds a new level of credibility. Overall, L.A. Noire and its marketing and promotion seem to have a very strong cinematic feel.

A More Mature Approach?

If 3D gaming were a coin with GTA on one side, Noire could be the other side, opposite in goals and attitude. In Noire, you play a cop fighting corruption and lawlessness, instead of embracing it as in GTA. The major emphasis of Noire seems to be on strategy, deduction, and observation, and not just action, although it still has a good deal of that. The soundtrack is different too, made up of period jazz and swing music that probably wouldn’t appeal to many younger gamers. Overall, it feels like this is a gaming experience that was designed as a cinematic period piece, for a more patient, mature audience.

From the promo clips and walk-throughs that I’ve seen so far, there also seems to be a higher-level of artistic maturity and (IMHO) name-brand performance involved in L.A. Noire than in previous Rockstar games, like GTA. (Set me straight if I’m wrong about that, GTA players. You know better than me.)

The creators of L.A. Noire say that the ability to use your emotional intelligence is a major factor in succeeding in this game. Because of the effectiveness with which characters in L.A. Noire portray realistic facial expressions and body motion, you can actually decide if a character is lying to you or is telling the truth based upon their facial ticks, dodgy eyes, or body language.

Aren’t these all emotional intelligence and empathetic skills? I remember reading about how the military would use 3D gaming platforms to develop combat training scenarios for young soldiers? Are sensitivity, social skills and good judgement now the skills that gamers will require to win? Can games now help a gamer develop those skills? I find that possibility totally fascinating.

Similar to how comic books shrugged off their childish associations from the 1940s to evolve into complex, challenging graphic novels written for a college crowd, 3D gaming may be evolving closer to cinema. At least in the case of  L.A. Noire, 3D gaming seems to be growing up.

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On Reading: Raymond Chandler, a Biography

It seems like the last few times I’ve read certain authors, their names have become prefixed with “Uncle” in my mind. Is that weird? Well, maybe. It’s human though.

I guess I want to identify with, or feel connected to good storytellers.

When I read Einstein’s book on Relativity, his voice was so distinctively heard in my head, that it felt as if I were sitting on Uncle’s lap, with his voice speaking in my ear. It may have started there, I’m not sure.

Next were the memoirs of Groucho Marx, whose anecdotes, observations and humour seemed warmly self-deprecating. It wasn’t long before he became my “Uncle Groucho”. Likewise with his brother Harpo, whose long, detailed autobiography seemed to put me right into his early life in New York, and later, into the middle of his loving, idiosyncratic years as a devoted family man in California.

I think it’s the first-person narrative of an autobiography that makes it work so well. The “you” is replaced with an “I”, which we all have inside us, and which resonates one-to-one with similar “I”s.

That’s why pulp fiction author Raymond Chandler got under my skin more than, say, Ian Fleming. Like an autobiography, Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe novels are written in the first-person, so they each sound like Marlowe’s autobiography (although really, they are Chandler’s).

Raymond Chandler was highly intelligent, a keen observer of people and human nature, and also a major, chronic alcoholic who came to a sad and lonely end. He’s triumphant and tragic, all together.

So, he’d probably be a colourful “Uncle” who could spin tall tales and be witty as hell, but also could as easily fall down drunk into the tree and ruin a Christmas morning.

Been there.

Welcome to the family “Uncle Raymond”.

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On Writing: “Anatomy of a Writer”

This inspiring article by Valentina Nesci (from www.write-a-holic.com) offered me a “big picture” view on my pursuit of fiction writing…

This inspiring article by Valentina Nesci (from www.write-a-holic.com) offered me a “big picture” view on my pursuit of fiction writing…

“Because a real writer pours every inch of energy into his words. Because when he writes, he doesn’t only lay words down on paper; he becomes the page. He goes beyond the grounded reality and bends it, his illusions so strong that they would fool anyone into believing they are real; the emotions he exposes so true that readers instinctively recognize them as more fundamentally honest and true than any of the words they might read on a newspaper.”

Every so often, particularly if I’m returning to a project I haven’t developed in a while, it helps to have the “reset Button” pushed on one’s perspective and expectations. This article pushed it for me.

As they say, “Writers write.”

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On Writing: Motivating Characters (and their Author)

What is it that will drive a character to take an action?

By this, I mean to ask “What, in the character’s mind/worldview is the rationale that will cause them to do one thing instead of another? For the Author, this includes considering the underlying goal of driving the story in a believable way, consistent with the character’s behaviour as the reader understands it at that point in the story. An Author pulls a lot of strings and balances a lot of balls in order to get these goals to mesh.

For me, this requires either research into the elements that form a character: lifestyle, health issues, career or technical skills, values and religion, speech/vernacular and attitudes.

It sounds like a lot when I lay it all down at once here, but realistically, I only have to focus on one of those categories/areas at a time. In many cases, I can use my own experience to answer questions and narrow down the scope of research. Subjective elements (a character’s personal opinion, for example) is much easier to write – it requires little qualification via research.

Basically, whether I can immerse the reader in my character’s world by virtue of objective-seeming realism, or by using compelling and rich subjective “opinion” based on my own experience, it all boils down to creating an experience that the reader accepts and in which they want to immerse themself.

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Mourning Coughey (A story sketch)

The bagel gave its secrets to me limply and without a fight. I was hungry and it got what was coming to it. They always do, stupid bagels.

The sky was grey and overcast, threatening to rain. Large trucks blasted their horns irritably at little cars that were too slow to get out of their way. I knew I was going to end up trudging home in the rain again.

I blinked hard, trying to clear away the mental fog from a sleepless, sweaty night. I’d spent most of it fretting uselessly over problems belonging to other people – chasing stranger’s ghosts down unfamiliar alleys. How can you find something when you can’t even remember what you were looking for?

I went over the situation again, step-by-step: I hadn’t touched that golden writing project in around a year. It was the next big thing for me. Maybe it would buy me a seat at the published writers table. Back then, I knew it was going to be amazing – better than my last (first) book anyway. Way better.

But the momentum I’d held in my brain and hands when I’d last worked on it had long since seeped off, bled out, dried up and been swept away by the first-person drama that took hold of me in the real world. Trivial things like keeping a job, questioning my life, pitching a job into the dustbin, and then eventually finding a new one. It’s amazing how quickly the prospect of facing your own personal economic downturn can turn an impassioned dreamer into a practical, brim-wearing bean counter. That zero-line in the bank balance was getting a little closer each day. Brother, can you spare a thousand bucks?

This is your waking life, buddy. You can’t dream it away, but you’ll keep swimming upstream against its relentless oncoming pressure like the gallant little goldfish that you are, dragging your baggage behind you, hoping to turn old ballast into new fuel.

I took a deep drink from my mug and thanked the Benevolent Hand That Had Created It. Thank god the coffee was good, and still hot. And the sun was peeking out now. That was something. Okay, smart guy – it’s time to try and scribble down that next big idea.

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On Writing: Having Uncommon Thoughts in Common

To observe and comment on your life and world, you need to have a certain amount of objectivity – detachment – from it. If you’re too-comfortably living inside your world, you really can’t see the outside shape of it.

To observe and comment on your life and world, you need to have a certain amount of objectivity – detachment – from it. If you’re too-comfortably living inside your world, I don’t think that you really can see the outside shape of it. You’re too close to it.

On Having an Outsiders View of Things

By outsider, I’m thinking of someone who goes against societal norms, conventions or values, especially in cases where they wish to help someone else who is less fortunate.

Dickens and David Copperfield

I tried to read Copperfield back when I was about twelve. We had inherited a few classics in old hardcover editions, which I’m guessing could have been from the early teens of the century. Being something of a fetishist for old things, I took David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn to my bookshelf, like a thief in the night. I wish I still had those old books. I got through Huck Finn without any trouble, but Dickens’ complex, florid style stopped me cold after a few pages, and I never went back, until recently. Thirty years later.

Anyway, Dickens had really gotten to me when I finished reading Copperfield last month. It struck me just how much I felt in agreement with the social values that he communicated through his characters. He boldly ran counter to the class-snobbery of his day, imbuing the poorest folk with the purest ethics and strongest character. David felt compassion for others, and tried to help them even when he himself would suffer because of it. Especially, Dickens seemed to care for the suffering of children living in poverty.

I recall one character (maybe Wilkins Macawber?) stating that you cannot judge a book by its cover. As a young lad, David was not well-off at all, and went out of his way to demonstrate character traits that one wouldn’t expect from such a young person. I heard David’s voice in my head, throughout the course of his “life” in the novel, and identified with his ethics, humanity, strengths and weaknesses.

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep, and More…

The two Raymond characters who stand out in my mind the most are probably his most famous: Phillip Marlowe, and The Continental Op. Marlowe’s clear-minded, almost weary cynicism, and keen observations of the weaknesses in the ethics of others fascinates me. At first, I found some of Chandler’s use of period vernacular to be too frequent (almost to the point of obscuring meaning, rather than accentuating the colour of it), although I’ve come to appreciate how skilled he was at it, and how difficult it is to create punchy, compelling and rich dialogue that portrays the personalities, motivations and world of each character. Chandler wrote as if he was having fun with his colourful, smirking, almost expressionistic similes. You were allowed to accept his artistic license with tongue in cheek. Marlowe seemed a bit too flipant or devil-may-care, but he was no chump, and neither were you, thanks to Chandler. (I think the makers of the James Bond movies used this same kind of flippant tone. Ian Fleming did not, in his original novels, although he admitted to being a big fan of Raymond Chandler.)

Jeff Lindsay’s “Darkly Dreaming Dexter”

Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan (you know – from that TV series?) is a unique mix of cold-blooded serial killer and objective observer of the human condition. He’s bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the emotions of his friends (and his victims), and searching to validate  his own existence. He kind of sees himself as the trash collector of the universe, killing those most despicable monsters – child killers, rapists, pedophile priests – whom he decides deserve it, according to The Code of Harry.

Dexter is highly intelligent, wryly funny, and in many ways, truly superior, and yet, he is bereft of real emotional reactions (i.e. sociopathic), so plays an elaborate game of pretend in order to pass as normal to his coworkers and the rest of the waking world.

Something in Common with Uncommon Voices?

What is it that makes me feel kinship to someone who died well before I was born? I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed David Copperfield, and hearing Dickens’ voice. Chandler’s voice acts on me similarly: I feel a familiar personality at work in my head, some recognizable territory that I’ve visited in the past, but remains a little fresh each time I see it again.

I think that the intimate, personal sense of recognition that I have with these two authors has a lot to do with their characters’ first-person perspective: David Copperfield, The Big Sleep (and all the other Phillip Marlowe stories I’ve read by Chandler), and Darkly Dreaming Dexter are all written in the first person. It’s incredibly personal, intimate and effective – putting the reader right into the protagonist’s point of view.

Perhaps because I live in my head so much of the time, I enjoy living in someone else’s head in the same way.

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On Design: Fulfilling the Urge to Learn and Create

As usual, I’m in the midst of a few different processes at the same time, all self-imposed. I moved on from my last full-time job in March, and in the past couple of months, I’ve been going through a personal re-evaluation of my skills as well as my professional identity. It’s that whole “changing my job/career/identity” mental anguish process wherein, periodically, I rattle my own cage and see what settles out from the upheaval.

As usual, I’m in the midst of a few different processes at the same time, all self-imposed.

I moved on from my last full-time job in March, and in the past couple of months, I’ve been going through a personal re-evaluation of my skills as well as my professional identity. It’s that whole “changing my job/career/identity” mental anguish process wherein,  periodically, I rattle my own cage and see what settles out from the upheaval.

My inner pragmatist has a very strong voice, compelling me to be practical and look for employment opportunities which allow me to use my familiar skills, or to cast a diverse search, in the hopes that I’ll have the right skills in the areas that a prospective employer wants.

“Update or Risk Being Left Behind” – Technical Skills

I started out in computer graphics over 20 years ago, back when the adjective “computer” actually distinguished you from the airbrush artists and print illustrators who were using photo-mechanical processes to create their graphics. I began creating 2D and 3D animation and titles for video, and then got into graphics, icon design and screen layouts for software projects. From these experiences, I always wondered about and cared about the viewer – who they were and what they needed from my work.

Any print design work (business cards, letterhead, and other stock) seemed to come about incidentally from the needs of my current employer or from some freelance opportunity. I wanted to become a good designer, and I especially wanted to know how print design was executed. I became interested in design as an exercise to see how the principles of visual literacy that I’d studied at Emily Carr College were involved, and how style and society influence design.

Overall though, being a child of the TV era, motion, animation and interactivity have always seemed to stimulate me more than static imagery. Over the years, my curiosity about my audience became more and more informed through experience, and began to transform into an interest in usability, and user-centred design.

Gradually, my interest in the user’s experience (the front end) blended into an interest in web site programming (the back end), and so I took opportunities to learn (or at least hack around in) languages like Rexx, Perl, Cold Fusion, Javascript and PHP.

So, my deal is that I’ve been a kind of a Swiss Army Knife of design – I can do (and have done) a little bit of everything. This is also called a Jack of all Trades. I struggle against the corollary of that old chestnut, the dreaded “Master of None”. However, at the 20 year mark in my professional career as a visual designer, I must admit that my skill-set does now feel rather idiosyncratic and in need of a refresh.

In the early days of my career, there weren’t the same dominant players in terms of software tools or computing platforms. I started out building web pages using text editors on Unix, so if I had nothing more than Pico (or, heaven forbid, vi) and a simple Paint program, I could still build a web site. I still tend to be biased towards getting my hands dirty in HTML source code, but as technology has changed over the years and become more complicated and abstract, working solely at the source code level has become more and more difficult.

Nowadays, Adobe is the undisputed “big dog” in the world of print and interactive design tools. I knew that I needed to upgrade my toolkit and skills, so after some online research and reading, I decided to bite the bullet and buy Adobe CS5 Web Edition. With the exception of a video editing suite from Corel and an animation program from another vendor, my whole digital studio will be powered by Adobe.

The challenge for me now is to get up to speed on the current generation of tools, and relearn how to do things in a new, more integrated design environment. For example, a lot of the different tasks that I used to do with four different tools can now all be done within Dreamweaver.

Many Things to Learn

From a practical and creative challenge standpoint, I’ve found that combining a number of related goals into a common, over-arching activity makes a lot of sense for me. Translation: I like to kill lots of birds with as few stones as possible, and my learning opportunities work best when they have a practical goal.

Case(es) in point:

  • When rebuilding my online portfolio, I learned Flash Catalyst in order to create a Flash-based portfolio application that presented a richer user-experience than a straight HTML site, and allowed for fade transitions and nicer graphics.
  • …however, because I now had a larger portfolio with more projects to present, the above project became too complex for a first Catalyst project (which is meant more as a Flash prototyping tool), so I abandoned the Catalyst approach in favour of a new HTML design that used the Lightbox Javascript library, with which I was already familiar. I was still able to use most of previous design and almost all of the production graphics that I’d already created. I’m still satisfied with the end result.
  • I needed to learn about prototyping web pages using Adobe Fireworks. When my ex-employer asked me to update their website and change some of their menu structure, I used it as an opportunity to learn how to create a site wire-frame in PDF format, using Fireworks.
  • For years, I’ve wanted to update “True Life” (one of my personal websites), and change its design from a framed layout (yeah, I know – ancient) to a modern, non-framed layout that used Divs and CSS instead of tables and font tags (again,  ancient). I’m using this project as an opportunity to refresh my skills in Dreamweaver, starting with a pre-made Dreamweaver PHP template and its built-in tools to rebuild the entire site.

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On Reviews: How NOT to Respond (or “Do this, and sink your writing career”)

When I read this exchange between an author and a reviewer on a public community blog, I was stunned, and a little fascinated:

http://booksandpals.blogspot.com/2011/03/greek-seaman-jacqueline-howett.html

The author refuses to acknowledge the points the reviewer (a volunteer) made, and soon became combative and even verbally abusive! It was a fascinating example of an emotional meltdown by a (fragile) author, and the resulting wave of community support for the attacked reviewer. Some commentators also worried that the tenor of the exchanges would reflect poorly on the perception of self-published authors in general, and reinforce a stigma against “indies” by the publishing industry.

I do not revel in the pain of others, but this author’s reaction to what seems to be fair criticism fascinated me in the same way that I’m fascinated by videos of fools injuring themselves undertaking ridiculously dangerous stunts, crashing their ATVs, or taking golf balls to the crotch. All these self-inflicted injuries to the ego and the flesh fall under the category of “EPIC FAIL”.

Now, it’s gone viral on Twitter…

So here are a couple of lessons that you can take away from the above example:

  1. If you can’t say something professional, say nothing at all: If you voluntarily submit your work to any kind of critique, always take reviews calmly and professionally! Learn from them. If you can’t do this, it’s better not to respond at all.
  2. Take responsibility for your words: Information and commentary published online may remain there indefinitely, or may be republished or syndicated continually. You words (or words that are electronically associated with your content or online identity) will be indexed by Google or any number of other search engines and propagation methods.

Bottom line: act like a pro, and you’ll be treated like one.

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On Writing: Visualization and Collage in Storytelling…

For me, writing is a lot like an act of integration. Taking disparate chunks of experience and combining them into an assemblage or collage gives them added meaning. I think that this is what is intended by the word “juxtaposition” in art/design terminology. It boils down the creating a new whole out of a bunch of summed-up parts.

For me, writing is a lot like an act of integration. Taking disparate chunks of experience and combining them into an assemblage or collage gives them added meaning.

I think that this is what is intended by the word “juxtaposition” in art/design terminology. It boils down the creating a new whole out of a bunch of summed-up parts. The relationships that are created by placing elements next to each other create new contexts and meanings that each element did not originally possess individually.

As I write, I’m transcribing visual scenes in my head into words. Sometimes, I’m acting like a court reporter sitting in a movie theatre, watching my characters speak, smelling what they smell, listening to the sounds of their surroundings, and feeling their emotions. In my head, I’ve already shot the scene as a movie, and now the challenge is to get that scene down on paper in a way that will be powerful and will resonate in my reader’s mind.

Many scenes can be drawn out of snippets of personal experience, opinions, current events, and one’s own worldview or inner monologue. Each of these elements is a small scrap of paper with an image on it, waiting to be pasted down on a board along with other scraps, to contribute a piece to an overall theme.

I often think up the elements or “little scraps” first: an intriguing personality, a moment of tension, despair, or heroism, or a mysterious moment or place. A story is made up of many such individual scenes, each of which must have its own internal logic, beginning, middle and end, and each of which must work within the context of the greater story or plot.

If I can’t see how to use them, a lot of these elements get filed away somewhere for later use. It’s tough to know which elements to bring out of the drawer and place on the table, and which ones need to be kept in the file. Every little scrap is a piece of life experience.

We all have experiences, and some of us have had similar experiences. The challenge for me as a storyteller is to find and create the scraps that will seem familiar to someone else (because I want to know that I can reach my audience emotionally and culturally), and to combine the scraps into a collage of pieces that says these things to my reader: you may know this story, my friend. You’ve read it many times before in different guises. Some things are universal to human experience. You may have heard the story before, but you haven’t heard it from this storyteller in this way before.

Universal things happen to all of us, but come to each of us in a different way. That’s why the story is interesting, and why the collection of parts makes a unique picture on the page.

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