Inception and how to tell a great story

I was just thinking about a funny quote from my favorite movie Inception, and it occured to me that in addition to the joke there is probably a piece of very good and very well considered writing advice in it.

It’s easy to miss when you watch it once or twice, but once someone points it out, it’s really obvious that the whole movie is not about heists or dreams, but really just about storytelling. (Don’t tell the audience what they are supposed to think and learn, make them come to the conclusion themselves. Don’t take too many liberties with the rules of the world, or the audience gets reminded that its all made up and then reject the fiction. Really, the whole movie is like that.)

The quote is:

Ariadne: And why don’t you approve?
Arthur: Because it involves telling the mark that he’s dreaming. Which involves attracting a lot of attention to us.
Ariadne: Didn’t Cobb say never to do that?
Arthur: So now you’ve noticed how much time Cobb spends doing things he says never to do.

All the characters in the movie stand for the different members of a film making team (with the man they trying to trick representing for the audience), and the character Cobb represents Nolan himself as the director and scriptwriter. And through the first half of the movie Cobb/Nolan explains how you tell a good story well and also points out what things are dangerous as they risk losing the audience.

And I think the line “So now you’ve noticed how much time Cobb spends doing things he says never to do.” is not just a joke. Because in the end, breaking lots of the rules works out very well for them.

Perhaps it’s even the most important line in the whole movie. Know the rules, understand the rules, but trust your instinct when you think it might be a good idea to break them.

Movie Review: Reign of Assassins

Reign of Assassins is a Chinese fantasy movie from 2010. It’s a pretty classic wuxia movie (as far as I can tell as a casual viewer) with lots of deception, secret societies, doomed lovers, and of course lots of swords and kung fu!

f885e07de0b0a327b4248f49048246ceThe story is about a woman who was one of the most feared assassins of the Black Stones, a secret society of kung fu masters, who not only made the bad descision of trying to leave the order behind and start a new life, but also take with her a sacred relic which all the assassin groups are after: Half the body of the ancient monk Bodhi, the founder of kung fu. He is said to have been such a great master that even studying his mumified remains would allow anyone to reach nirvana, become the greatest master of kung fu in the whole world, and also gain all kind of other supernatural powers. When the Black Stones found the hiding place of one half of the body and attacked the people who had it, the heroine Drizzle snatches it away and disappears with the help of a surgeon who alters her face. Of course, her former master very much wants the body back and see her dead for betraying the Black Stones, and all the assassins of the society go out to hunt for her.

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I love 80’s Action Movies

I was born in the mid-80s, and for a very long time I associated the culture of that time primarily with horrible hairsytles and an absolutely appaling sense of fashion. During the 90s everything was so much cooler, but looking back at those years now, I again have to ask “what where we thinking?!” Also, when I got older, I associated 80s movies primarily with dumb, ridiculous action movies. You know, Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Just stupid explosions and lame jokes, with poor excuses for a plot. At that time, I was still too young to watch them and when I finally got around to see them 10 years or so later, but my oppinion of them was not very high.

But now that I am older, and therefore wiser, I see things quite different. Part of it might be simply nostalgia. It reminds me of when I was a kid, and we always kind of like that, even if we were not big fans of it back then. Another factor is plain and simple, that we only remember the best things. Those that were outstanding and so influential that their legacy survived to this day. I am certain there probably hundreds of action movies that were actually really stupid and nothing but explosions and excuse plots. But there also were some really good ones, which now pretty much make up my favorite movies of all time.

  • Alien (1979)
  • The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  • Outland (1981)
  • Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981)
  • Blade Runner (1982)
  • Conan the Barbarian (1982)
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
  • The Thing (1982)
  • Dune (1984)
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
  • The Terminator (1984)
  • Enemy Mine (1985)
  • Aliens (1986)
  • Lethal Weapon (1987)
  • Predator (1987)
  • Die Hard (1988)
  • Total Recall (1990)
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

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Heroes, villains, and proactivity

It seems to have become some kind of common wisdom that great villains are often much cooler and more interesting than the heroes of their stories because they have actual goals and plans, and working towards accomplishing something. In contrast, the heroes tend to simply try to prevent that plan from succeeding. This is true both in fiction and in roleplaying games, where people seem to frequently have trouble with coming up with adventures and campaigns in which the players can be more proactive.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot these days, and I think it’s essentially correct, but also missing some quite important things. The appearance that villains act while heroes react is to a great deal caused by an overuse of the Heroes Journey and typical action movie plots, where the action hero is called in to deal with a criminal in 120 minutes or less.

But I think if a story spends some time on characterizing the villain and giving him motives, he actually is also simply reacting and not actually that proactive at all. My claim here is, that all characters ary trying to “reastablish the status quo” or “return things to normal”. For heroes this seems obvious and easy to see: Something went really bad and the hero now has to fix it so everything can go back to the way it should be. A villain who has a motive other than some quick money usually seems to believe that he has been wronged in some way and that his actions only serve to give him what he believes to be deserving all along. To the villain, the current state of things seems unfair and he is denied something that should be rightfully his. There are countless great villains who believe that they have been robbed of their legacy if they come from a rich and powerful background; or that society has denied them their share of a good life if they come from poverty. Very rarely do you see villains who want to rule the world or the kingdom simply because they think that would be pretty sweet. Instead they feel that they have to. And heroes motivations are usually very similar. A hero isn’t normally looking for trouble, but ends up in a situation where he’s the only one who can do something, whether he likes it or not.

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3 Acts and no End in sight

Yesterday I saw an article about the pacing in RPGs and 3-act story-arcs at Run a Game, which made me think of something that has been on my mind several times before. I actually think it’s a really good explaination of the subject and I don’t mean to criticize the authors views, but I think there’s something fundamentally flawed, or at least problematic with the whole premise of the subject.

The first sentence of the main article goes “Most western stories are structured around three acts”. And that’s the whole problem with it.

Three act story structure may be a classic and considered tried and true, and I think when it comes to theatre plays and movies, it’s still a valid approach. There are only two or maybe three hours to tell the whole story and that really isn’t that much time to have an elaborate beginning and end, as well as a good deal of additional action between them in the middle. But when we’re dealing with both literature, roleplaying games, and also video games, this is usually not a restriction the writer has to work with. And there is a serious downside to this approach. Because three act structure is comon in most western stories, things tend to become fairly formulaic. Not only do we have a pretty good idea what will happen, but also when it will happen. Things are getting too predictable. The first act twist and second act twist are not twists, and the third act revelation is not a revalation. Because we already know that they are coming, often long in advance.

A great example of this would be the Mass Effect series. In my oppinion, Mass Effect 2 is the greatest video game ever made. It actually beats everything else that is out there. But when I finished the game for the first time and the credits were playing, my first thought was “Wow, what a great ending. But what room is there really to continue from here?” While each game may have its own three act structure, the series as a whole is three acts as well. The first game introduces the great threat, and while it is contained for now at the end, we still know that this was just a first taste of the real trouble to come. In the second game, it is where the protagonists make progress toward solving the story problem, coming up with a goal and plans to address it, then gathering resources to achieve their goal: knowledge, skills, allies, and equipment. The stakes rise in the second act.” This was quoted directly from the Run a Game article (which again, does a really good job at examining the subject). But as soon as the credits ran, I know immediately what the next game would be like. Because there could only be one way the third game could be like. Things start to get much, much worse and it’s looking really bad for the heroes, but all hope rests on a newly introduced superweapon that may have the power to destroy the enemy, but will only be able to be deployed right at the brink of total annihilation when everything comes down to a massive final battle.

And that’s exactly what happened. Because it could not have happened in any other way. The conventions of the three act structure and the action hero genre demand it. Mass Effect 3 is now famous for being one of the most despised endings of any video game series with a backlash rivaled by few, if any, other things in the business. But as many problems as I have with the game, and there are a lot, I do give the writers a lot of credit for their attempt to break out of the overused cliches and do something different at the very end. They completely blew it in the execution, but I have great respect for them for at least trying.

I say, when it comes to the pacing for a campaign, stay well away from the standard three act structure. It’s just too predictable. In a minor spoiler for Mass Effect 3, there is a moment at the very end when the hero presses the button on the Phlebotinum Device and collapses from her injuries (female Shepard is the only true Shepard), having come all this way to do what nobody else could have done, overcoming countless obstacles that defy what should be possible. And nothing happens. You even get a radio call from your allies, asking frantically if you have already activated it. Now in the game, there comes one more thing the hero needs to do to save the galaxy, but imagine if it didn’t. Imagine everyone put everything on one card… and it’s a dud. What happens then? Is it all over? Well the battle might have been lost, but turns out it wasn’t so final at all. What now? Do we have a Plan B? We really need to come up with a Plan B now! And that’s when things are getting really interesting and exciting! The players are in a situation they don’t know, in which there is no default way to continue on. And that means that at this points, the players have actually more freedom to take control of the game than they did at any other point of the campaign. But you don’t have to wait until the very end to do this, you can start with it from the very beginning. Have NPCs switch sides, have people change their mind about important things, let people make mistakes, and let good plans end in failure. Don’t have the players simply going through the motions and performing their role. It may be called roleplaying game, but it’s not about performing a role in a script, but take free control over a character. In recent years I’ve come to love Japanese and Chinese movies because they are telling stories I have not heard before. Things are happening that I didn’t anticpiate and not just because it’s an obligatory sudden twist that was unforseeable. There probably will be a cool fight scene in the end, but usually I don’t know who will win and who will get the girl. Maybe the girl wins?!

So yeah… Three act story arcs are bad, mkay…?

Watching Star Wars and the Machete Order

I recently noticed that I havn’t been watching Star Wars in quite some time, and having been thinking a lot about running a Star Wars campaign, it felt like the time to do it once more. In these days, that always raises the question in what order you should watch them. There’s the Release Order (4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3) and the Narrative Order (1, 2, 3, 4, ,5, 6). By now a few years ago, someone sugested another order, that you could call the Flashback Order (I think it has gained an actual commonly used term, but I can’t remember it now), which is “4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 6”. The main issue with the movies is that Episode 3 spoils Episode 5 (Anakin becomes Vader and is not killed by him), and Episode 6 spoils Episode 3 (by telling us that in the end Vaders turn to the Dark Side will be reversed and the Emperor defeated). Not only does the Narrative Order solve this problem by putting the prequel trilogy between Episodes 5 and 6, it also makes quite a bit of sense. After the end of Episode 5, Luke has to come to terms with the revelation of Vader and wants to better understand how that situation could have happened. Then Episode 6 comes along and it seems that Luke has put the shock behind him and becomes stronger in the process. The prequel trilogy are basically an elaboration on the short talk Luke has with Obi-Wan after Yoda dies at the beginning of Episode 6. It’s not a perfect match, but for the rest of the movies Luke could have learned from Obi-Wan what happened in the prequels, so it makes sense for the audience to get that knowledge at roughly the same time.

Now some guy at No Machete Juggling suggested a variation of that order, which is known as the Machete Order, and goes 4, 5, 2, 3, 6. It’s skipping Episode 1 completely, on the grounds that it’s not a good movie and doesn’t actually contribute anything to the rest of the story. All that really happens and becomes relevant is that there’s a seperatist uprising (which we are told by the opening crawl of Episode 2) and that Anakin and Padme once met each other for three days or so when Anakin was a kid (which Episode 2 also tells us, and doesn’t really matter).

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Movie Review: John Carter of Mars

I saw the movie yesterday and prior to it I really didn’t know anything about it other than it was based on a novel, which in turn is about a man from Earth ending up on Mars and having great adventures, and that it includes the green martians, which have obviously been adapted into AD&D as three-kreen. Actually, the whole thing looks like it was the inspiration for 80% of Dark Sun.

johncarter-redposter-fullOppinions about the movie seem to be quite mixed. I’ve heard and read that it’s both a quite good movie and a rather crappy one. But Dark Sun is awesome and so are Conan and Cthulhu, which originated in the same cultural environment and period. So I went to watch it anyway, but not expecting much. If all I would get would have been some pretty visuals that provide me with a few inspirations for my homebrew setting, it wouldn’t have been a complete waste of time.

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