Category Archives: For Further Comment

For further comment–Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

Bio of a nerd

1977 was a good year for me. First, it’s the year that I was born, which makes it a banner year in my personal history. It’s also the year that the United States launched the two Voyager probes into deep space.

It’s also the year that Star Wars was released.

I grew up with Star Wars. I’m told that my parents saw it for the first time when I was six weeks old. They went to a drive-in theater, and I was asleep in the back seat. My earliest memory of going to a movie theater was seeing Star Wars. I also remember being scared of the Jawas, so much so that I started crying and my mom ended up taking me out of the theater. (I think that my younger brother has forgiven me for this….) We had Star Wars toys. Of course we pretended to fight with light sabers.

Of course, over time, the obsession with Star Wars faded. The trilogy was complete, and people moved on to other things. That’s right; there was a stretch of time during the late 1980s that Star Wars was largely dead as a brand. (Apparently West End Games’ Star Wars roleplaying game kept the flame alive. But I digress.)

The spark was reignited in 1991 with the release of Heir to the Empire, the beginning of a Star Wars novel trilogy by Timothy Zahn. I devoured that series and found myself reconnecting with the new flood of Star Wars material that began to be released.

And then, of course, the prequels.

My wife arranged for us to go to a midnight viewing of The Phantom Menace when it came out.

When Yoda drew his light saber in Attack of the Clones, I cheered with the rest of the theater.

And, I’ll be honest: when Amidala died in childbirth in Revenge of the Sith, I cried.

The mythology of Star Wars has been a central part of my life. And so, when I heard that a new sequel trilogy was coming out, I was thrilled.

We dodged spoilers. We watched The Force Awakens in 3D at the local big screen theater. It should have been awesome!

But it wasn’t. I really, really didn’t like it.

More recently, I rewatched it with the family, and I decided to give the movie another chance.

And I still didn’t like it.

I know I represent the minority, and it feels like questioning a geek sacrament of some sort, but I think that The Force Awakens is a fundamentally flawed film that betrays its legacy as a Star Wars movie.

Now, I could have just kept this opinion to myself, but I decided to admit this on social media. The response was interesting. Of course, some folk disagreed with me–I would expect nothing less–but I discovered a thread of agreement and support. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. So I figured that it would be good for me to outline my thinking on this matter. I won’t lie; some of this is probably just thinly disguised nerd rage, and I’m trying to keep that in mind to give this issue some needed perspective. But some of this also spills out into larger issues of social commentary, responsible storytelling, and even the business of geek culture. So, hopefully, somewhere in the midst of all of this discussion, you will find something valuable, even if you disagree.

Star Wars as myth making

Let me start by outlining one of my underlying assumptions: Star Wars isn’t science fiction. This isn’t an idea unique to me by any stretch. I’ve heard Star Wars called “galactic fantasy”, which seems closer to the truth. But I’m going to go all literary theorist here and argue that Star Wars is best understood as existing in the tradition of epic myth. When I say “epic”, I don’t mean the scale of the action–though there’s certainly that–but rather I’m referring to the subject material, Over here at Wikipedia, an epic poem is defined as “a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation.” The article goes on to note that “[c]lassical epic employs dactylic hexameter and recounts a journey, either physical (as typified by Odysseus in the Odyssey) or mental (as typified by Achilles in the Iliad) or both. Epics also tend to highlight cultural norms and to define or call into question cultural values, particularly as they pertain to heroism.”

This isn’t surprising. Anyone who has spent time around Star Wars knows that George Lucas relied heavily on Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth theory, first laid out in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, especially the idea of the “hero’s journey”. Campbell’s theory is not universally accepted, but it’s fair to say that the hero’s journey as he outlines it has deep roots, at least in Western culture, and taps certain fundamental storytelling archetypes.

Here’s where I admit something that I’ve secretly thought for a while: Star Wars is a terrible example of world-building, at least as an alternate reality. I cannot look at the world of Star Wars and envision “normal life” or the like happening outside the frame of the film. I don’t believe any of the planets that are shown (e.g. Tatooine or Hoth) being actual places.

But that’s fine, because Star Wars isn’t trying to set up an alternate reality. Instead, it is creating a collection of environments as different set dressings to bring vibrancy to the grand theater that it is creating for us. Hoth isn’t really a planet; it’s an environment for our characters to stand on. Viewed from this angle, Star Wars does a fabulous job of creating archetypal environments for its characters to inhabit.

The characters are also archetypes. Luke, Leia, and Han aren’t merely interesting characters in a clever setting. Each of them are resonant with fundamental Western storytelling archetypes. Han is the Rogue and Trickster–thus the whole brouhaha about Han shooting first. Leia isn’t just a princess; she is The Princess. And Luke is the Chosen One, who follows a classic arc: starting in obscurity, his destiny is revealed to him by an ancient wizard (Kenobi) who gives him his father’s sword and ushers him onto the pathway of destiny, where he rescues the princess from the evil fortress and conquers the villain…at least for now.

This isn’t just the sketch of A New Hope; it’s a sketch of one of the West’s core stories.

The complexity and nuance of this story only increases with the release of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, by tying in the themes of family, temptation, sacrifice, dedication, and redemption. By the end of the original trilogy, we have received a story that has highlighted and celebrated a variety of cultural values, especially around heroism. Star Wars is our culture’s epic.

I think that it’s valuable to consider the prequels through this lens. If the original trilogy was about redemption, the prequels were about corruption. They had to be, and we all knew it. Rather than being a heroic epic, they were a tragic epic, again using the Greek definition: a hero overcome by his fatal flaw.

Consider that there are two tragic heroes in the prequels: Anakin and Kenobi. Kenobi is tragic, because he allows his dedication to his dead master to blind him to the emerging problems with Anakin. Anakin is tragic because his desire to love ultimately leads him to betray the Jedi Order and bring about so much evil.

I think that the prequels were attempting to set this up, but they failed in execution. I think that Lucas focused too much on the idea that his audience was children and therefore watered down what he was doing. Jar Jar Binks is the obvious example, but even the use of slapstick robots as the enemy reduced the dramatic tension of the story. And, yeah, the romance between Anakin and Amidala just wasn’t handled well.

The ideas were there. It could have worked. Instead, the prequels represent a flawed attempt to tell another epic on the same stage. It should have worked, but it didn’t.

That all said, I do want to defend the prequels by noting that they felt like another epic story. They felt like Star Wars, even when they were tripping over their own feet.

And this is what I think was missing from The Force Awakens: epic storytelling. Unlike the original trilogy and, to a lesser extend, the prequels, the characters in The Force Awakens did not hearken back to culturally accepted archetypes, nor did the storytelling highlight particular cultural norms.

Or, maybe this is a more precise way of stating the point: the culture from which The Force Awakens drew its archetypes had changed. The previous movies were drawing on archetypes derived from classic storytelling.

The Force Awakens derived its archetypes from Star Wars.

So, for example, I’d argue that Rey is intended to be a new Luke Skywalker character. She is cut from the same cloth: mysterious parentage, desert upbringing, Force empowered. She even wears the same kinds of clothing as Luke does in A New Hope.

There are other correspondences. Poe is the new Han Solo. Finn is arguably the new Princess Leia. There’s even a new R2-D2 in BB-8. We are supposed to read their characters through the lens of prior Star Wars lore and make these connections.

There’s another term for this approach: nostalgia. The Force Awakens is not an epic film; it is a nostalgic film. It is an attempt to recapture the original feeling of watching A New Hope for the first time while introducing the new characters necessary to extend the brand into a new generation. All the trappings are present, but the mythic power of the original is gone. And that makes all the difference in the world.

More on The Force Awakens and nostalgia

Here’s my next objection to The Force Awakens. Not only did the movie trade mythic power for nostalgia, but then it did failed to do nostalgia well. Let me explain what I mean.

When A New Hope came out, the slate was blank. There were no previous films or stories that needed to be honored. This was the beginning. By the time that The Force Awakens hits the scene, though, this is no longer true. There are six movies’ worth of previous story that need to be honored. Okay, if you want to leave out the prequels, then there are still three movies’ of previous story that need to be honored. And I don’t believe that they were.

Before I proceed, let me admit a couple of things up front. First, this is definitely where the nerd rage is hitting. Second, some of this is surprisingly emotional for me. In fact, I will organize the following section along those lines.

First, some nerd rage.

I know that The Force Awakens is trying to replicate A New Hope. However, this ends up producing nonsensical results. For instance, consider the entire political situation sketched out in the opening crawl of The Force Awakens. We have the First Order, which is the heir to the old Empire, doubtless underfunded and reduced to guerilla action in the wake of the loss of leadership and resources in the decisive Battle of Endor. Oh wait. No, it’s not. The First Order is depicted as having the same reach, organization, and power as the old Empire…somehow.

But no matter! The Republic, seeing this threat emerging, masses its sizeable fleets and goes on the offensive, crushing the upstart First Order before it can become established…or maybe instead, it’ll set up a guerilla group with a secret base, equipped with only X-wing fighters because…um…I don’t really know.

No, really! Think about it! How does any of that make any sense at all. The Republic won, remember? They are the government now, not the First Order. That means that they don’t need to lead an insurgency. They have an army! So why don’t they use it?

For that matter, to get really picky here for a second, why does the Resistance only send X-wings after Starkiller Base? I’m thinking that some B-wing bombers or Y-wing torpedo fighters would have been pretty useful, especially in attacking a fixed position like that. I mean, if you’ve decided to leave all your MC80 star cruisers home for some reason.

The situation simply doesn’t make sense, given what has come before. We know that the Rebellion was able to field a substantive armada at the Battle of Endor, and that’s while it’s still an insurgency. The entire Resistance strategy makes no sense at all.

Furthermore, I object to the ongoing withholding of information that the movie trafficked in. Despite its unfortunate clickbait title, this video outlines the issue pretty well. None of the previous Star Wars movies created tension by withholding information. Certainly, we were surprised by revelations (“No, Luke. I am your father!”), but we were not teased with hints that would be paid off in a later installment. Why aren’t even we told who Snokes is? Or why are we teased with Rey’s backstory? To put it bluntly (and a little petulantly), Star Wars isn’t Lost. Yet The Force Awakens seems to delight in dangling information just out of reach.

Now, I’m going to pivot into more emotional space. But this is fair, I think. Nostalgia is an appeal to the emotions by drawing on treasured symbols. So, it’s only fair to ask: how did The Force Awakens do at handling treasured symbols? We did get to see many of the previous Star Wars characters. How did that go?

Now, remember my own history. I am squarely in the target audience for this movie. The Force Awakens is hearkening back to the stories of my childhood. Add to this my prior discussion of the archetypal aspects of the original characters. The Force Awakens is conjuring with powerful magic.

And, in my opinion, this is perhaps the most profound place that the movie fails.

The last time we saw all these characters was at the victory celebration on Endor after the destruction of the second Death Star. Luke has become a Jedi. Han and Leia have finally figured out their relationship. The Emperor is dead, and the Empire is defeated. All is right with the world.

Until the beginning of The Force Awakens, when each one of these items is systematically destroyed.

Every single one of the original characters are failures. Luke has failed as a Jedi Master, so badly, in fact, that he has fled into exile. The Empire is resurgent, and Snokes is functionally a new Emperor. The movie is particularly hard on Han. He’s really only had two loves in his life: the Millennium Falcon and Leia. And, at the beginning of the movie, he has lost both of them.

What’s worse, these failures are off-screen. We don’t experience them as the story unfolds. No, we are just informed that all of these characters’ previous victories have been negated. Instead, we find the original cast as broken shells of what they once were. Even the droids are not immune, as R2-D2 has shut down in apparent mourning after Luke disappeared.

Everything fell apart in the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

Yes, I know that there needs to be conflict for the story to exist. But the conflict could have built on the characters’ successes as they try to wage the peace. However, in their zeal to remake A New Hope, the filmmakers essentially undid all the previous characters’ successes.

Just think of that victory scene at the end of Return of the Jedi. Then think, “Meaningless. It didn’t matter.”

Because, remember, these aren’t “realistic” characters. They are archetypes. Negating their victories is like negating the “happily ever after” at the end of a fairy tale.

Or, for certain, that’s what it felt like to me. As I’m writing this, I’m discovering (a little uncomfortably, to be honest) how much this story is tied up in my identity. These characters have been a really big deal to me for a really long time. And, rooted deeply in these stories, is the simple idea that good prevails over evil through acts of love and courage.

But, according to The Force Awakens, apparently not. It was all futile. Which means that love and courage in the face of evil are futile.

I need to put in a particular word here about Han and Leia’s divorce, because this hit me particularly hard. In classic storytelling, a happy ending often includes a marriage. And that’s what you see at the end of Return of the Jedi. Sure, the marriage happens off-screen, but you know it will happen. And they all lived happily ever after.

Except that no one believes in that anymore, especially about marriage.

Divorce is endemic in our society. It’s gotten to the point that we’ve grown accustomed to it, like marriage is a long-term lease instead of a lifelong commitment. Broken families are becoming the norm, and the fallout is apparent in the children.

But still, our myths point towards something better. Towards lifelong fidelity and the beauty of family and childrearing. And yes, we all know that “happily ever after” takes a lot of work, but the stories hold up the ideal as something to be embraced, pursued, and achieved.

Even Star Wars adopted this view. I know that the Extended Universe has been ruled non-canonical, but it was really neat seeing Han and Leia try to work out how to be married and be parents. It wasn’t always easy, but they worked hard at being married.

But The Force Awakens destroyed that. No “happily ever after” for Han and Leia. And that hurt me deeply. It felt like a denial, at a fundamental level, of the possibility of wedded bliss for anyone. Because if the hero and the princess can’t stay married, what hope do the rest of us have?

Some thoughts from the real world

Okay. That got pretty heavy. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I consider The Force Awakens to be a conscious assault on my childhood. But that’s not actually fair to Disney. I understand that all of this is actually about brand management.

Here’s the deal. Despite everything I outlined above, Star Wars is not a cultural treasure held in the public domain, like The Odyssey or Shakespeare’s plays. Star Wars is an intellectual property, owned by a corporation, that intends on leveraging its IP for profit.

As an outsider observer, here’s what I see. Star Wars still has a lot of power as an IP. However, the perception is that brand loyalty took a serious hit after the prequels. So, in order to revitalize the brand, Disney needed to restore fan confidence. Making a seventh Star Wars movie makes all kinds of sense. There were always hints that there was supposed to be a trilogy after the original trilogy. By making this trilogy, Disney leverages this expectation, drawing a lot of fan attention. Then, by successfully executing on the first release, they lay the foundations for a host of other movies, including, of course, all the attendant merchandizing and the like.

However, the original cast members are getting old. So, for this all to work, Disney needs to introduce new characters for a new generation of Star Wars stories. Thus Rey, Finn, Poe, and the others.

Furthermore, Disney has already seen a lot of success with a shared cinematic universe in its Marvel superhero films. (Remember that Disney also owns Marvel.) So, they are executing the same strategy here. For example, there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out in December 2016: Rogue One. It’s not actually part of any trilogy. Instead, it’s a standalone story set in the Rebellion era of the Star Wars continuity, focusing on the spies that stole the plans for the original Death Star. There’s also a forthcoming movie starring a young Han Solo. (See this article for more details on Disney’s strategy.)

But it all hinges on the first movie out of the gate being solid. Have to get it right, or everything else collapses. So, given all the money that’s at stake, best to play it safe. A functional soft reboot of the franchise is a great way to get everything going. And, yeah, be sure to include a trench run, just like in A New Hope. The audience will love it.

I know that J.J. Abrams wasn’t trying to ruin my childhood. It’s just a series of business decisions that led to this approach to the story.

Which brings me to my last thought. I’ll admit that this is a bit unformed, but I think it’s worth consideration.

A while ago, I came across the article “On Geek Culture”. In it, the author argues that geek culture has become just another form of brand loyalty. Here’s an extended quote from the article:

Most alarming is that, almost exclusively, the media being so strongly identified with is corporate and ruthlessly capitalist in nature. Star Trek might present an optimistic and inspiring vision of the future, which any American liberal would like to see, but it’s a vision wholly owned and operated by CBS. Star Wars is now held by Disney and all of their attendant copyright shenanigans. So, too, is Marvel Comics — a company recently focused to an alarming degree on denying ownership rights to its content creators (watching comic book fans contorting themselves in order to justify continuing to support Marvel while admitting their favorite creators are left destitute by the company’s practices is depressing). Even Dungeons and Dragons — market leader in a dwindling cottage industry — is run by a subsidiary of toy behemoth Hasbro.

As a thought experiment, imagine brand loyalty that doesn’t have people nearly coming to blows over Doctor Who and Star Wars; think, instead, of the argument in question being over Disney and BBC. Or, for a starker contrast, instead of people dressed as Marvel characters at ComicCon, imagine Geico geckos or Progressive Insurance Flos. This is essentially already happening: what is Superman in the twenty-first century but a corporate mascot, albeit one with a lavish backstory? It’s no wonder that non-geeky media desperately tries to cultivate geek cred in the form of viral commercials or a presence at conventions. Having brand loyalty so intense that it can incite real or simulated violence would be a remarkable windfall for any company able to harness it.

The author’s premise wasn’t universally accepted. Indeed, there were a couple of responses (here and here) which are worth reading.

But it did get me thinking. Something seems a bit off in our current relationship with stories, if the primary influences that shape them are profit motive and not a desire to tell the truth.

In addition, are my fellow nerds and I being exploited for corporate gain? This is a subculture that has traditionally had a serious inferiority complex. Witness this music video to get an idea of what I’m talking about. But now, our interests have become mainstream. In our thrill of being accepted, are we being taken for a ride?

Or am I overthinking this one? “Corporate” doesn’t have to equal “evil”, right? And certainly, without a large bankroll, the quality and production values of movies would be less. I do still love a good spectacle.

Yet still, I’m left wondering if we’ve allowed ourselves to become merely consumers of stories and not producers. Surely our own communities, be they local or interest-based, could benefit from stories created for our benefit, and not merely for an outsider’s profit. Is it time to strike out on our own and make our own stories? And what would that look like?

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! I appreciate your willingness to read through my thoughts. I don’t know if I’ve managed to persuade you, but I hope you can understand my perspective on this matter. Honestly, now that I’ve finished writing this article, perhaps I can consider the matter properly exorcised from my mind, letting me move on to other things.

I do know one thing, though.

They should have just made Timothy Zahn’s “Thrawn” trilogy into the new Star Wars trilogy. That would have been so much better!

Thanks for reading.


For Further Comment: Loops and Arcs

I would hope that none of you are surprised that I’m a geek about game design and related topics. I mean, you do read the blog, right? Many of the people I follow on Twitter are similar, so I pick up various articles about game design and the like in my feed. All of this preface is really to say that I don’t remember who originally posted the link to the article I’m going to discuss.

So, without further ado, Loops and Arcs.

This article prompted a bunch of ideas, but I’m going to keep it focused to just one. (You’re welcome.) But first, a summary.

In the article, a loop is a repeating sequence of learning in the game. To quote the article:

*The player starts with a mental model that prompts them to…
*Apply an action to…
*The game system and in return…
*Receives feedback that…
*Updates their mental model and starts the loop all over again. Or kicks off a new loop.

So, as I proceed through a loop, I start with my understanding of the world, which leads to action, which leads to feedback on my action, which leads to learning on my part. Those of you who know your continuous quality improvement probably recognize PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) here. This is a very common construct. And, as the article notes, the loop is a good model for the building of wisdom. I iterate over a series of experiences, improving my understanding each time. Or, at least, we hope so, right?

The article also defines an arc:

‘Arcs’ have similar elements to a loop, but are not built for repeated usage. The player still starts with a mental model, they apply an action to a system and receive feedback. This arc of interaction could be reading a book or watching a movie. However, the mental model that is updated rarely results in the player returning to the same interaction. The movie is watched. The book consumed. An arc is a broken loop you exit immediately.

(Emphasis in original.)

I might quibble a bit on this–I do rewatch movies and reread books–but the basic point stands. After all, I don’t immediately reread a book once I’ve finished it. That particular reading has done all the work it’s going to do, and time will need to pass, allowing external factors to operate on my mental model, before I will be able to profitably re-engage.

So, loops and arcs. Who cares, right?

Well, the article goes on to discuss a couple of interesting implications of designing with loops and arcs, including a brief but fascinating excursus into evaluating religion through this lens. But what earned this article a blog post was the article’s discussion of how loops and arcs impact the economics of game design.

Hey, you! I see you edging out the back door! Hang on a sec. If you’re a creator of any kind, this applies to you.

See, from one perspective, economics is how we answer the question “How can I do what I’d like to do and still be able to eat?” For all that we laud the nobility of the starving artist, the fact still remains that the artist is starving.

So, how can you make games (or whatever) and be able to get paid enough to eat?

As the article notes, the classic boardgames are all loops. You don’t “finish” Chess or “beat” Go. Each instance of playing the game becomes part of the larger loop of ongoing mastery of the game. I’ll note that early videogames were also loops. Again, there’s no way to “beat” Asteroids or Space Invaders. Over time, though, computer games became more arc-focused. Consider most of the AAA games that are released. There’s a story line that you play through and, eventually, you beat the game–if you’re any good, at any rate.

Why is this? Why the change? One answer is economic. How did the makers of Asteroids make their money? The player paid 25 cents per game instance. Thus the loop makes sense. The player continues to return to the game to develop mastery and therefore continues to fund the game maker. This is why the leaderboard was such an important part of the design of these games. Those high scores represented milestones of mastery, providing aspirational goals to drive consumption. Your skill would be publicly acknowledged by the community of play that formed around a particular game cabinet.

With the advent of the home computer and game console, the economic model changes from paying per instance to paying for the entire game. Now, instead of having to pump quarters into a game cabinet, you could pay once for a game and play it as much as you wanted! Pretty awesome for the players, but how did the game makers make their money?

Thus, the rise of games that could be beaten. Games move away from being loops of mastery to being consumable arcs of content. This leads quickly into the place of the sequel in game design. If I’ve beaten Dragon Warrior and am now casting about for another game to consume, Dragon Warrior II seems like a safe bet. So now, the game makers have to be thinking about franchises and game series and staying out in front of the players enough so that new content can be released to feed the consumption habits of the audience.

The advent of the Internet provided another possible tool to solve the economic problem: the DLC. Rather than having to make an entirely new game, you just release little expansions of downloadable content (DLC) that provide additional content. Maybe a new character class or a special level or even a new mini-campaign that can work within the context of the current game. Handled correctly, this strategy of expansion could allow you to milk a given game release for a long time.

Now, where I get interested is how these economic forces act on the hobby game market, both in boardgames and roleplaying games. As I’ve been thinking about all of this, I’ve arrived at some interesting preliminary conclusions.

I think that boardgame makers are finding themselves in the place of selling loops while marketing them as arcs. Let me explain. The buying pattern of boardgamers seems to be driven by a lot of novelty. What’s the newest game? I must have it! There doesn’t seem to be a lot of exploration of the game space or the establishing of communities of play around specific games in the same way that there is around games like Poker, Bridge, Chess, or Go.

Yes, I’m aware that the hobby boardgame market isn’t as old as these games. But there are enough games that have a measure of age to them. For example, Tigris & Euphrates is generally considered to be one of Reiner Knizia’s greatest games, it is about 18 years old, and it certainly has a comparable depth to Bridge or Poker. But I do not see advanced level strategy discussions about T&E. Instead, it’s generally passed over as being an “older” game, pushed out by the flood of new games pouring into the market.

I think that this is the result of economics. The market for a game like Tigris & Euphrates is only so large. A company can’t sustain itself on sales of just that game. Eventually, it will need new revenue streams.

Another solution to this problem is the expansion, which is similar to the DLC approach in videogames. This approach has its own problems (e.g. your market is automatically smaller, because having the original game is a requirement), but it can be functional.

This all becomes particularly fascinating when coming to roleplaying games. A genre of game that is based on player creativity has additional complications when it comes to selling new product. How do I make money, if I’m selling you a toolkit for your imagination?

Again, the normal solution has been expansions in the form of new rules, pre-made adventures, and the like. But these approaches can sometimes reduce the approachability of a game, simply because there is too much material to take in. Are there other solutions?

Here’s one weird thought that has emerged in my thinking from reading this article. What if you designed a game that was intended to be a consumable? What if we embraced the arc-like nature of player engagement with these games and actually make some games that are intended for a one-shot use and then be done? System mastery wouldn’t be the point. Rather, it would be the creation of a particular experience in a particular moment. And when it’s done, then you’re done with the game.

I know that this could sound shocking and cynical, but isn’t that how we engage with most media? How many movies do you watch once and never view again? Why should games be different?

If you think about it, I just described those murder mystery dinner kits. If you consider the popularity of these dinners as opposed to the rest of the hobby…let’s just say there’s food for thought there.

Here’s a completely different approach: what if we approached game design as a fine art? What if we could decouple the economics from the game design? This would essentially require patronage, as those with money support not a product but a designer, freeing him or her to make games that are beautiful and well-crafted without also having to be economically viable.

So it’s not surprising that we see the growth of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Patreon. In fact, Patreon requires a little more attention, as it has this creator focus versus the product focus of Kickstarter.

I’ll be honest. When I design games, I don’t usually think about the economic impact of my design. I’m approaching it all as an artiste…and it shows in my economic success as a designer. But I’m starting to think about possibilities for the future. And, now, hopefully, so are you.


For Further Comment: “Interstellar” — Christopher Nolan’s Ode to Love

This morning, I received an email from my father with a link to this article. I’ve geeked about Interstellar in his direction, so he knew this would catch my interest. He was right.

So, because this gave me a chance to geek about Interstellar to all of you, I’m going to use it for my inaugural “For Further Comment” post.

SPOILER ALERT: I’m not going to bother trying to dance around spoilers in this post. I’m not doing a plot summary or anything, but if you haven’t seen the movie, maybe stash this post until you do.

First off, the link to the article:

“Interstellar” — Christopher Nolan’s Ode to Love

Also, I should disclose my biases. I love the work of Christopher Nolan. I’ve watched every single one of his movies at least once. Yes, including the obscure Following. And, I’ve loved each one. Yes, including The Prestige.[1]

So, when I saw that a new Nolan movie was coming out, I was already on board. And when I saw that Nolan was going to do a science fiction movie…well, I was enthralled.

Here I should distinguish: when I say that Interstellar is “science fiction” genre, I don’t mean the space opera of Star Wars or the Star Trek reboot, as much as I like space opera. Rather, I mean that Interstellar is part of a long tradition that uses stories like this to grapple with philosophical issues. Make no mistake: Interstellar definitely makes the appropriate genuflections in the direction of astrophysics and other appropriate sciences, as it was actually inspired by the theoretical of Dr. Kip Thorne, a physicist who was also an executive producer and the science consultant for the film. However, Interstellar is chasing down ideas.

Someone has noted that science fiction stories are ultimately about one of two issues: human identity or humans’ relationship with their tools. Interstellar is about human identity: specifically, what it means to love.

In the linked article, Rick Phillips does a good job of outlining this theme of the movie and positioning it relative to the current zeitgeist.[2] However, when I left the theater after watching Interstellar, I was fascinated by its positioning relative to the science fiction tradition. It seemed clear to me that Interstellar is in dialogue with certain ideas that have threaded through SF, demonstrated most aptly by Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001.[3]

Okay, yes, yes, I know about the eight-minute long light show and the weird ending of 2001. But I stand by my designation of “masterpiece”. In its story, 2001 manages to address both prongs of SF: it sets forth a comprehensive vision of human identity in the context of humans’ relationship with their tools. Even if you haven’t seen 2001, you know about the crazy computer HAL. And what are computers, but the pinnacle of human toolmaking?

I consider 2001 to be an example of what I’ll call “transcendent science fiction.” These are SF stories that use the outer reaches of space as a stand-in for God/The Ultimate/Destiny/whatever. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is another movie that would fit into this category, and I think that Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was trying to occupy this space, too, though not nearly as well. It’s the place where SF touches mysticism. And it’s definitely where Interstellar fits as well.

Here’s the thing. These stories often feel very epic in scale. For crying out loud, 2001 covers literally millions of years in only a couple of hours. And while there are characters at center stage, none of them are deeply engaged or even sketched thoroughly. Even Dave Bowman, the final survivor of the crew of the Discovery, isn’t a realized character. He is Everyman. He could be anyone. And that’s the point. The main character of 2001 isn’t any one person; it’s humanity as a whole.

And that’s where Interstellar is so very different.

Phillips phrases the theme of Interstellar in this way:

[L]ove is what propels human beings to sacrifice and provides a glimmer of hope for our race.

As wonderful as that statement is, I think that Nolan is being a bit more sophisticated than that. Because, after making that statement, Nolan asks a profound question: what is love? Is it just the sum of the evolutionary impulse to survive as a species? Or is love a transcendent force in the universe?

And you see both sides of this. The mission that is launched into space has, as its primary focus, the survival of the species. There are embryos on board the ship that are intended to be the first colonists of the new world. Humanity gets off the rock, even though the particular humans might not.

On the other hand, you get this great exchange, which I’m cribbing from IMDB:

Cooper: You’re a scientist, Brand.
Brand: So listen to me when I say love isn’t something that we invented. It’s observable. Powerful. It has to mean something.
Cooper: Love has meaning, yes. Social utility, social bonding, child rearing…
Brand: We love people who have died. Where’s the social utility in that?
Cooper: None.
Brand: Maybe it means something more – something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it. All right Cooper. Yes, the tiniest possibility of seeing Wolf again excites me. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
Cooper: Honestly, Amelia, it might.

“Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” Of course, all the interstellar travel and, well, astrophysical weirdness of the movie relies on gravity to transcend space and time. So, which is it? Is love or gravity the ultimate transcendent reality?

Or, put another way, is the physical realm all there is, or is there something more?

And I think that’s the point of Interstellar‘s weird ending. All the stuff about fifth dimensions and all that? Really just technobabble to allow a single reality to shine through: love brought Cooper back to his daughter.

2001 cares about the vast sweep of human history, but there’s not really any room for…you know…people. Interstellar ultimately insists that humanity in the abstract is less important than the particular humans that you love.

G.K. Chesterton seized on this theme when he wrote:

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation…. But we have to love our neighbour because he is there– a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident. (Emphasis mine)

Science fiction can sometimes get caught up in the questions of caring for humanity while neglecting the questions of caring for our neighbor. Interstellar is a beautiful corrective to this trend.

[1]That one is for my brother, who understands why.
[2]Because it’s my blog and I get to drop words like this from time to time.
[3]If you’re interested in a truly fabulous analysis of 2001, I direct you to this website, which forms the foundation for my understanding of 2001.