Mar 5, 2009

On Storytelling.

Part of the appeal of studying the sciences is the immutability of the physical laws. There's the hope (or perhaps fantasy) that contributions to the field will last as long as the physical laws themselves, to be applied universally by mankind, years and millenia down the road. Like how Einstein's theory of relativity is still constantly applied to physics and astronomy. The arts on the other hand, are subject to fashion, politics, and the capricious winds of humanity's trends. One man's epic may be another's satire; a woman's fashion statement may be the laughingstock to the next generation; a failed artist can die in poverty - either to be hailed a master posthumously, or to remain in the obscurity for the rest of history.

Perhaps unchanged over the millenia of human existence is the enjoyment of a good story. The intriguing characters, the rise and turn of the plot, the ideas and commentary all serve to play upon both the intellect and emotions. Story after story, fact or fiction or some combination of the two, have been repeated across the globe and through the ages. The story's taken many forms, spoken by a grandparent, sang by a bard, a puppet show, a play, a dance.

Today's most popular medium is probably film or television. But the video games industry is already bigger than Hollywood. I still recall playing "Grim Fandango" a decade ago; the story there was entirely captivating, in a way few following games have succeeded. Some recent titles, "Dead Space", "Mirror's Edge", and "Need for Speed: Underground", all from EA, all shared the same story. You do task after task (kill zombies/jump across buildings/drive your fast car) to get to some goal, just to realize that the character who's been giving you directions is a traitor and you have to defeat them.

There was no great storytelling, but all three games attempted to create some sort of cinematic atmosphere, and it's just an indicator that the industry is moving beyond twitch-based entertainment to a real storytelling medium.

After reading "Watchmen" a month ago (after having heard about it for years), I was struck by the stupendous storytelling genius behind it. In my mind, Dostoyevsky was literature, comic books cheap entertainment, and graphic novels somewhere in between. "Watchmen" firmly put itself into my literature category, with its allusions to religion, discussion of humanity and exploration of (anti-)(super-)heroes buried in the plot. And compared to your standard novel, it was rendered two-fold, in both the text and the symbolism in the art. Perhaps four-fold if you include the comic-book-within-the-comic book.

Just as the comic-book matured into something like "Watchmen", I suspect it'll just be a matter of time before a game of such epic proportions would be created - provided game creators aim above the teenage male demographic (just like graphic novelists).

That being said, I'm skeptical of how well the "Watchmen" will translate to film. I'm sure there's plenty like me out there. It would be extremely difficult for some of the nuanced symbolism to come across in a moving picture. Plus, let's face it, comic book text bubbles just need to have that little extra bravado and flair. Speaking it aloud in a leotard onscreen would be just - cheezy.

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