Tag Archives: game design

Why not a Proust-themed transmedia work?

Why a Proust transmedia world

This semester, I am taking Jesse Schell’s Game Design class. He did a lecture on transmedia, which has recently become something of a buzzword. In his lecture, he mentioned several examples of transmedia worlds, like Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes or even Tolkien, that were created long before the concept of transmedia itself. Peter Pan is particularly notable, as it was first a short story, then a play and then a novel. It was transmedia in the nineteenth century. This is true of others works, but Peter Pan is very noticeable in this regard. As Jesse was explaining this, my mind went straight to Proust. Proust definitely created a world. It is deep, it if fictional, and it has another criterion that Jesse brought up: it makes some wishes come true. Most of all, it is huge. It may not seem like it at first, but it really is gigantic. A partial list of characters available on line just begins to show the depth and subletly of Proust’s world, how it is multilayered and how every small piece has meaning. Unlike the other worlds that Jesse showed, Proust’s world does not have supernatural elements, but, very much like Star Wars, or Tolkien, there is a deep, meaningful philosophy present throughout the whole narrative, the philosophy of the two “ways,” Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, what they mean, how they relate, who fits in which and how they can be applied.

The number of pages that compose The Remembrance of Things Past varies from one edition to the next, of course, but the estimate that’s given most of the time is three thousand pages. That’s if you stick to one version. The last three volumes, composed of the “Albertine novels,” The Captive and The Fugitive, as well as the seventh and final volume, Time Regained, are posthumous and unfinished, that’s why they’re only about two hundred pages each. What makes it into the final book depends on the editor, and of all the current French editions, each picks a slightly different variation. I’m not sure where to show sources for this assertion, as I personally stuck to the Gallimard versions, but I heard this from a Proust expert, Pascal Fouché. The Pleiade edition, also from Gallimard, is supposed to have all known variations.

But the variety of versions for a single, huge, coherent world does fit within Jesse’s definition of a world suitable for transmedia. At note about the “coherent” part: Proust’s story is notoriously incoherent, particularly when it comes to time. Time is basically “bent” in Proust. In the first volume, the narrator remembers seeing a woman whom he refers to as “the lady in pink” when he was about ten years old and was visiting a philandering uncle of his. Spoiler alert: the lady in pink is, a few volumes later, revealed to be none other than Mrs. Swann. But, by that time, it is also made clear that Gilberte Swann is the same age as narrator, so when the narrator saw the lady in pink at the age of 10, Gilberte was also 10 years old and at that time Mrs Swann was married and no longer called on single gentlemen at all. So really the narrator, at the age of ten, was visiting the version of Mrs Swann from several years before he was born. This point is never made explicitly, but such inconsistencies do not stand out it Proust. The story of The Rememberance of Things Past is made to be as vague as possible and these details, more than anything, give it an organic texture, like something you’d remember but that is on the tip of your tongue. And three thousand pages long.

The idea of a transmedia world that has in inconsistent story is not that unusual. The canon of Star Wars varies from one medium to the next: there are in fact several “levels of canon” for Star Wars. And Doctor Who has an immensely incoherent story. One of the writers, either Russel T Davies or Stephen Moffat (I’ll admit I don’t remember which one) actually recently said that it doesn’t really matter if the story of Doctor Who is consistent: you can always explain that the timeline has changed because of some sort of time travel. What was important was for the world to be consistent. And in that measure, Star Wars, Doctor Who and Proust all pass.

At the time of writing, the slides for last lecture were not up, and I was relying on them to see how much Proust followed Jesse’s guidelines for a good transmedia world. But at the time, when i was looking at the list on the screen, I was thinking, “That’s pretty much it.” So what’s missing?

Simplicity and transcedance

I’d say that what’s missing is simplicity and transcendance. Proust has neither of those. There are no situations in Proust where the social interactions or personal goals are streamlined to something that can be stated in one sentence. Anything in Proust requires explanations of several pages made of extremely long sentences. Some paragraphs go on for several pages. Proust is, if anything, complex. As for transcendence, there really isn’t any either. I don’t know if transcendence in that context actually means a supernatural element. I don’t think so. But whatever transcendence means, Proust’s world doesn’t have it. The greatest thing his characters can aspire to is some sort of underappreciated artistic achievement and a tiny bit of social mobility. M. Bontemps is gently mocked in the narration at some point because he is a simple diplomat and doesn’t know much about the finer things of life. An occupation that most people at the time as well as nowadays would consider a tremendous accomplishment is still no big thing in Proust’s world.

From then on, the question poses itself: is it a shortcoming of transmedia worlds that they require simplicity and transcendence? Pokémon definitely has it in every form. It is not a world as deep as Proust by any means. Harry Potter is a complex metaphor, but it falls short by the way it fails to address many important issues. The one that always disturbs me every time I think about it is that the wizards definitely have the ability to cure cancer and many other illnesses, they also have the ability to fix many of our social and economic problems. If the world of Harry Potter were to be taken literally, wouldn’t the whole wizard community be guilty of possibly criminal negligence towards muggles? That’s one of the attributes of simplicity and transcendence, the complexities of the real world don’t “map” into it. They do map into Proust.

So are such works, the transmedia works, the works that do embody the principles of simplicity and transcendence, are they inferior to more finite ones? If they are, is it by nature or only the current instances? And if it’s only the current instances, are deeper, more complex worlds about to come when the time is right and the public and maybe authors and technology ready for them?

That, I don’t know. Would Proust be making games today? Would Shakespeare? Maybe. It’s fun to extrapolate but not really useful. Maybe Proust, had he grown up in the seventies or eighties would have been reprimanded for being lazy and pretentious and given up on literature altogether and gone into banking. Who knows? But the question about how deeply simplicity and transcendence it tied to interaction is a serious one. And I have absolutely no clue as to where to start looking to answer it.

Treasure Your Medium: Agatha Christie and Game Design

Spoilers ahead. Sorry.

I love Agatha Christie. I mean I don’t just really like her work, I LOVE what she does and how she does it. I don’t love all of her works, but when she does it right, she’s among the best the world has ever know.

There are many reasons why Agatha Christie was so good at what she did. But, as far as I could tell, one of the main reasons is that she treasured her medium. She did not write play-like books, or movie-like plays or novel-like plays. When she was working with a medium she took the best she could out of it. Others do this as well, but the topic of Agatha Christie’s novels make her efforts more visible than many others’.

Let me illustrate with a few examples. First of all, Appointment With Death. This is a famous novel of hers, adapted into a wonderful film, very faithful to the book. At the end, Poirot reveals that the murderer is (shock!) the last person anyone suspected. In both the novel and in the film it’s based on, Poirot explains in detail his reasoning and how and why he gets to his inevitable solution.

The first play Agatha Christie worked on was Alibi, based on what is arguably her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She was not satisfied at all with that play and proceeded to write her own stage adaptations from then on. For Appointment With Death, she realized that Poirot’s monologues and complex deductions were fascinated to her fans in the novel, but would be tedious to wach on stage: it would then be little more than people standing still while one of them was talking. So not only did she change the solution to the mystery (hint: the only even less likely suspect in the play) but she removed Poirot altogether. In the play, some of the remaining characters, a pair of romantically entangled young people in particular, figure the solution out by talking to each other and comparing views on the events. This is a dynamic, dramatic, visually and psychologically compelling way of presenting the solution, a way that is perfectly suited to the stage. A way that embraces the medium.

Why then did the story of the novel work on film? Films are in many ways closer to novels than to stage plays. Not in every way, of course, but certainly in way that matter here: they can punctuate long speeches with flashbacks (murder mysteries often do that) or with reaction shots. They can emphasize how dramatic a specific part of the speech is with close-ups or camera movements. Plays don’t have these tools. They have other advantages, but none of them would have allowed Agatha Christie to make Poirot’s monolgues enjoyable on stage. So she accepted the limitations of her medium.

Another work by Agatha Christie that stars a young couple as the detective character is one of my all-time favorites: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?. In that novel, at the very beginning, our young hero, Bobby, finds in the middle of a golf course (brace yourself) a dead body! In a panic, he searches the body and pulls out of a pocket a photograph of a woman. He finds her rather plain. Later on, there is a police examination and Bobby’s co-hero, Frankie, also gets to see the photograph that was in the dead body’s pocket. But she finds the woman in it beautiful. When the two of them try to figure out what is going on in this complicated story, they actually go so far as to argue over that detail. Frankie goes so far as to accuse Bobby of being too choosy when it came to women, an acccusation that Bobby has to take seriously given the tangled nature of his relationship with Frankie. Much later, it turns out that there were two photographs in the pocket. Bobby saw one and that same one got removed from the body before the police got to it. Frankie saw the other. The nature of the narrative text allowed Agatha Christie to describe both photograph in the same language while sounding specific but in fact being vague enough that her reader did not suspect that she was describing two distinct items.

Returning to the stage, Agatha Christie’s stage masterpiece is certainly The Mousetrap, the longest-running play in the world. In it, the main murder takes place on stage in front of everyone. The audience is in front of the whole thing without any visual obstacle between them and the very crime they’re a witness to, but not only can’t they communicate any of it to the characters, the stage is set in such a way that what the audience does see is no real help at all as who did it. The trick is so simple that I won’t ruin it by revealing it here, but it would not work on film, radio or in a novel: The Mousetrap is made for the stage only and only works on the stage.

As for Agatha Christie’s overall masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which has been adapted in movies, TV series, plays and comic books, it too uses its medium to the fullest. Most adaptations try to work around how Ms. Christie takes advantage of the narrated word, but often only attempt to do so in vain. It may work, but it cannot feel as smooth as with simple narration.

Agatha Christie did not just accept her medium but she treasured it. When she set herself up to write a play, she did not try to make it “cinematic” or “like an epic novel,” she made a play that would give her audience an experience that only a play can give. And she was right to do so.

When it comes to games and interactive media, for me, the master of that skill was and still is Ron Gilbert. The way he uses dialog trees creates humor that could not exist in any other way. The two games I enjoyed the most in the recent months, Portal and Braid do similar things. Would Portal, even just its story, work nearly as well in another medium? One trick that works in Portal — whether it is intentional or not — is that, unlike in film, in games we are really usually guided by pre-recorded voices. In that way, the way we are introduced to GLaDOS is perfectly believable. This would not be the case in a film: we would expect a film to polish everything Aperture’s AI says. At the beginning of Portal, the game, we may know that the audio problems of the GLaDOS AI are placed there by Valve, but we are ready to believe that, even within the story, they are just events triggered by Chell’s actions because, well, that’s how games work. The sort of metastory or metastructure that comes out of finding out that GLaDOS scrambles her own messages with static comes as a surprise in the game in a way that would not make sense in the same way in any other medium. Furthermore, this revelation is meaningful in the game: it’s an essential part of how we progressively learn the true nature of GLaDOS, but also, in part, the true nature of what Portal itself is.

If Agatha Christie knew how to accept the limitations of her media and to embrace what made them special, there is no reason why we should not do the same. We may be filmmakers and writers and musicians but when we’re making games, we’re making games and that’s the essence of what we’re doing, just not a cast made after the fact, or an afterthought, but, I repeat, the essence of what we must do.