Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Best-selling Books from the FUTURE

(On behalf of Team Beckett)

The following is a brief excerpt from an early draft of my best-selling book on writing from the FUTURE, whose title will be revealed at a later date... in the FUTURE.


Though much is said of conflicts and the necessity of conflict for any basic work of storytelling, regardless of medium, to convey a plot or idea, it is necessary to remember that conflict does not give a story its intrigue or any merit as a story. The broadest conflicts can seem incredibly tedious and the smallest trials can be astoundingly interesting depending on the depth of the story itself.

Take the fate of an entire planet at the hands of a spacefaring empire for instance; though extraordinarily massive and serious in scope can be completely and utterly uncompelling. Take the writing of any given video game set in space: Star Fox Armada, amongst cries of disappointment as a lackluster game, was detested for having such extraordinarily overdramatic cutscenes for a plot that was so genuinely silly. To be honest, who really plays these games for the plots? In video games, the trick to a good plot is having one that gives you a better idea of what the gameplay means to you. Still, with a lot of outright crappy gameplay (Damn you, Landmaster tank!), attention turned to the fact that players basically don't give a bucket of spit whether the spacefaring "aparoid" hivemind species takes over an entire solar system, just as long as none of the interesting characters (i.e. the ones with the best designs) are killed off. Video games have yet to flourish as a truly fine storytelling medium, because most games try to pass off graphics and the fact that it's basically you beating the crap out of whatever they come up with as a story.

By contrast, the small agricultural dispute of Sherman's Planet in the Star Trek episode, "The Trouble with Tribbles" retains a legendary status. Kirk doesn't fire a laser at anything, there are no characters die, and there certainly isn't a fucking Landmaster tank every other fucking level! No, the plot of "Tribbles" is a parable about ecological awareness and a brief and surprising episode in an agricultural conflict between two spacefaring empires in a civil disagreement. Yet still, Star Trek, in all its not-being-a-video-game-or-having-any-CGI-at-all gloriness continues to amaze while most copies of Armada collect dust. Why?

Levels! And I don't mean bonus levels (which Armada has none of, by the way) or levels where you play as the piece-of-shit Landmaster tank (which Armada has too much of, by the way); I mean levels and layers of conflict which give the story more depth than A vs. B. A good work of fiction (or even non-fiction), though it might be described in brief by focusing on one basic conflict, tends to be a plethora of basic conflicts between different parties who, depending on their own alliances, are perhaps involved in bigger fights or governing smaller potatoes than that which the protaganist(s) might even recognize.

The "Tribbles" episode is wonderful because there are interpersonal conflicts far and wide, most involving Kirk, as well as larger difficulties which greater parties are engaged in. The major conflict of the episode (and indeed the series) is between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, this time involving a relatively small conflict over the ownership of Sherman's planet, an agricultural haven, under the confines of a treaty. Kirk and his crew find themselves at odds with the Klingons, who they must, due to the treaty, act cordially amongst on the cooperative space-station they are defending. This friction means Kirk is at odds with the Klingons, an acknowledged danger, Nilz Baris, a captain in search of protection of a wealthy payload of grain, and Starfleet Command, which insists that Kirk remain at the station despite his own ego. Meanwhile, the character of Cyrano Jones introduces the quickly reproducing and payload-reducing Tribbles, creating a battle against unnatural insertion of a natural predator, while humiliating Kirk and initiating a search for the Klingon Spy.

"Tribbles" is dizzying in the amount of sheer stuff going on, produced for one of the most classically camp shows of all time, and yet it can still imbue the viewer with a sense of position on the relevant conflicts the show addresses, such as man's effect on the environment through unnatural insertion of species into different environments. Meanwhile, Star Fox Armada only ever introduces the concept of Space Furries versus Space Bugs, and maybe Good Furries versus Weirder Furries when Star Wolf is introduced. The only greater conflict the game really arouses is all its confused players versus the fucking Landmaster tank.

Perhaps if one totalled out all the cutscenes, dialog, and cinematic sequences in Star Fox Armada it would be relatively the same length, if not longer than the "Tribbles" thing. This can only prove that length of a work or scale of conflict addressed does not determine whether the story is good or not, nor should you be mislead by my evaluations so far to think that I value "denser" works more than others or that quantity of conflicts means quality. I would actually have prefered "Tribbles" to be a bit less wordy, a bit better acted, and perhaps make the characters not just a bunch of dudes with shallow quirks.

What I admire, however, is when a work gives me something that I find myself involved in, to where I continue sitting and watching or reading or playing because something about it is compelling and thought-provoking, not in any particular sense, just that I will have many, many thoughts when I consume it. And the thoughts will surprise me and I will find something new in them, even if it might be age old conflicts. Because Star Fox Armada relied simply on finding new ways to explore Star Fox versus Things Not Yet Exploding, the only new or surprising thoughts I have when playing Star Fox Armada are "How much longer will I have to play in the Landmaster tank?" or "Is there something I can do other than play as the Landmaster tank?" or "Why does the Landmaster tank suck donkey balls?"

The trick is not that one strive for any particular conflict, be it the most meaningful or unique or intense or broad or whatever. The point is that one explore it to such an extent that we find meanings beyond the most obvious and the directions that such a conflict could truly encompass. Where space adventures can be nothing more than a romp of gratification for a truly perserverant cadet, they can also be the exploration of conflicts interpersonal and interplanetary through the display of what the conquest of a planet has the potential to truly entail. For Fox, this entails wallowing around in the crappiest tank ever devised by furry or man alike. For Kirk it entails learning to both cooperate and remain true to one's ideals in a time of great deception.

A fine example I can give of such bizarre relationships between conflicts on different levels is the music video for the "Revolution 909" single by Daft Punk. In it, a woman flees a party which is being busted by local police, only to find herself mesmerized by a spot of tomato sauce on the pursuing officer's undershirt. From there, we see a massive sequence entailing the life cycle, cultivation, sale, and preparation of the very tomato that stained said shirt, a thought which appears to visibly mesmerize the woman. The officer, wondering what she is staring at, glances down at his shirt, only for the woman to make her escape.

The conflict is brief and lasted perhaps a few seconds: the girl and the officer square off, and the girl escapes. But the means by which she escaped create the true journey of the video, set on the backdrop of a completely contrasting inner-city conflict between cops and the unruly youth of the era. Such imaginative explorations are provocative and compelling, even despite the lack very much actually happenning, proving that the power doesn't lie in simply having a conflict, but discovering what that conflicts means for your story.

In conclusion, I really really really hate the Landmaster tank.

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