Friday, November 28, 2008

The Clone Saga Finally Makes Sense! (Sort Of...)

So recently, MightyGodKing.com did a post on the aftermath of "One More Day", and that got me thinking about that controversial storyline once again. You know, the one where Aunt May was on her deathbed, and Peter and Mary Jane made a deal with Mephisto; save her life, and we'll agree to forget that our marriage ever happened. And apparently, MJ added a rider to the deal that caused everyone to forget that Peter Parker was Spider-Man. And also, apparently, Mephisto added a twist of his own, bringing back long-time Spidey ally/villain/supporting cast member Harry Osborn, who believes himself to have been "in Europe" all this time. (Although Marvel is claiming that there's a "completely logical, non-magical, and totally plausible way he came back from the dead", they said that about Norman, too.)

Which is where the thunderbolt hit. Doesn't this all sound a bit...familiar? Peter's in a disastrous situation in his life due to a recent shocking personal revelation that he (and the editors) regret, there's a life-changing event that seems to age the character, and Aunt May dies. Then, suddenly, that life-changing event is spontaneously undone, the recent shocking revelation is reversed, Aunt May comes back to life...and an Osborn wanders in, saying, "Oh, I've been in Europe all this time. But I certainly was alive!"

What if Peter and MJ made a deal with Mephisto off-panel during the Clone Saga? It'd be after "Maximum Clonage", at a point where Aunt May was dead, MJ was pregnant, and Peter had been definitively proved to be the clone and Ben Reilly the original article. Mephisto shows up, offering a deal: He'll resurrect Aunt May, bring her back to life hale and hearty, but in return, Peter and MJ aren't allowed to know their child exists. She'll live, she'll grow up happy and healthy and hearty with a good foster family, but her parents will never know of it.

After a long, grim discussion, they agree, but MJ secretly adds her own twist to the deal: If he can alter reality to make Aunt May live, he can alter it to make Peter the original and Ben the clone. "Sure," Mephisto says, grinning from ear to ear...

And he changes reality by bringing back Norman, and making him the agency of all the alterations. Suddenly, Peter's the original, Aunt May's death was faked, the baby is stolen and claimed as stillborn, and there's the Green Goblin, behind it all. And Mephisto expects to get all the pain and misery he can reap out of the deal, as Peter is tormented by loss after loss and the Green Goblin gets his revenge.

But it doesn't work as well as he'd hoped, because Peter and MJ lean on each other as a source of strength through it all. Mephisto realizes that to really crush Peter's spirit, it's not enough to take away his daughter; he needs to take away his wife, too. And so he arranges things in such a way that Aunt May winds up on her deathbed again...

Am I crazy, or does this actually make a ton of sense?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Storytelling Engines: James Bond

(or "The Dreaded Reboot")

Even its detractors would have to admit that the James Bond film series is a genuinely astonishing achievement. Even the most popular movies die off after five or six sequels (horror icons like Freddy and Jason managed eight to ten), but James Bond's 22nd "official" film is in theaters now, and they're already getting started on Number 23. The series really does seem to be an "evergreen" franchise, having outlasted five of the actors who played the part (not counting the Niven Bond, the Sellers Bond, the Woody Allen Bond...) and the author who wrote the series of books it was based on.

Of course, those same detractors might also argue that the Bond movies are more of a formula than a storytelling engine; after an exciting opening set-piece, Bond meets with M and learns of some threat to the free world, then goes and gets interesting gadgets from Q (an element played down in recent movies, as the real-world spy technology has essentially caught up with Bond's MI6 boffins). He goes off and investigates, meeting beautiful women, getting into an exciting chase and evading at least one elaborate death-trap, before fighting the villain in an action-packed climax. That sums up the plot of most Bond movies and books (although it should be noted that Ian Fleming's novels were far less gadget-heavy and more cerebral, playing to the strengths of the printed page instead of the big screen.)

But the Bond formula offers plenty of flexibility; as a jet-setting spy, he has his choice of world locations from Jamaica to Russia to New Orleans, and "chase scenes" and "death-traps" and "gadgets" can mean anything from le parkour foot-races to elaborate space battles, depending on the particular era of the series. Bond films don't so much follow a formula as create one; our whole popular perception of the "spy movie" is moulded by the Bond films, whether imitating them, spoofing them (yes, hello, there, Austin, in the back) or reacting against them, as with John le Carre's spy novels (which have themselves been adapted for the screen.)

The flexibility of the Bond formula for the writer, though, is different from the flexibility of the Bond formula in the eyes of the audience. Writers might insist that there's always something new to be done with a glamorous super-spy who needs to save the world from a crazed madman's evil scheme, but when the audience stops being able to tell one Bond film apart from another, it's time to employ a strategy loved by some and hated by others: The "reboot".

Reboots are generally employed very late in the life of a storytelling engine, usually after the engine has been partially or totally ruined by bad writing decisions that have crippled its ability to function. Either so many elements have been added that only fanatical followers of the series can understand all the layers of complications obscuring the original, entertaining core concept (the Superman Emergency Squad, the bottle city of Kandor, New Krypton, super-pets, and a dozen types of Kryptonite) or else too many important elements have been destroyed/permanently altered due to a lack of foresight on the part of the writers and editors (the deaths of the Joker, the Green Goblin, Harry Osborn, and the lead character and entire supporting cast of 'Aquaman'.) Usually, the blame for this lies with the editors; writers tend to have their hands full thinking of story ideas (that is, after all, the point of a storytelling engine, to help the writers think of ideas) and it's the editor's job to evaluate their impact on the series.

The point is, when the series gets so completely written into a corner that you can't tell any more stories, you "reboot", starting over at the beginning, clearing the decks of all the baggage that's accumulated over the years, and going back to the core concept. Long-term fans tend to dislike it, because the root word of "fan" is "fanatic", and fanatical followers of a long-running series tend to enjoy all the baggage as much as they do the core concept, but a well-executed reboot can win over skeptical fans. It also tends to bring in new fans, who relish the chance to get in on the ground floor of the next generation of the series. (Of course, that next generation will usually have baggage of its own, not to mention the problem of new writers who try to bring back that old baggage because they're fans themselves--Ultimate Stryfe and Ultimate Onslaught, anyone?--but a reboot at least offers a chance at some fresh stories.)

But how does that relate to James Bond? After all, there's no complex continuity in the Bond films--they've changed lead actors five times, and nobody except George Lazenby noticed. There aren't any damaging decisions to undo; every Bond film is pretty self-contained, sharing very few recurring characters...unless you argue that the introduction of John Cleese as "R", or Felix Leiter losing a leg are "damaging decisions", really, any Bond film can serve as an introduction to the series. Even the chronology is loose, vague and unimportant to the films; Bond has moved from Cold War politics to a post 9/11 world, and all that's changed is what country the villain is working for.

A soft continuity demands a soft reboot, and that's exactly what "Casino Royale" is; it doesn't so much erase the previous movies as gently ignore them. It could be a flashback--after all, Bond movies seem to take place in a sort of ever-present "now", so a flashback film that seems to post-date the movies it's set before seems kind of appropos. It could be a reboot--sure, M is the same character as in 'Goldeneye', but Bond films have pretty short memories, so why not? It could just be another stylistic shift, the same as occurred from 'Moonraker' to 'For Your Eyes Only', or from 'A View To A Kill' to 'The Living Daylights'. Since the Bond films are fairly chameleonic in tone (as all long-running series tend to be), it's not too surprising to see shifts like that.

Ultimately, the much-debated Bond reboot is really just another way for the series to adapt in order to stay relevant, something all truly effective storytelling engines do. Times change, and a timeless series isn't so much one that fits the changing times as one that changes with the times. Daniel Craig is the Bond that fits this era; he's a rebooted Bond, yes, but in a sense, they all are.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Essential Update '08

That's right, it's that time of year again, time for me to pick my favorite series that Marvel needs to collect in big five-hundred page chunks for our viewing pleasure. (Because I sincerely hope I've managed to infect at least one or two people with my love of great big cheap "readers' editions" of Marvel's classic series.)

So how did Marvel do, off of last year's picks? Um...not so much of the good, really. In the sense that they didn't print very many new series at all. We got plenty of continuations of older stuff, like more Hulk, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, but the only new series to be printed were the 'Rampaging Hulk' and 'Captain Marvel' collections, and while I won't knock those, they weren't on my list. So let's go over the list again, with extra special begging and pleading this time...

15. The Champions. I suspect that this one won't ever get a release, since it's out in the "Classic" format, and since the rights situation is so confusing, and since 'The Order' got canceled (does that prove that there's no viability to the 'Champions' franchise, since it got canned, or that there is, because they couldn't call it 'Champions' for rights purposes?) Still, with a Hercules series and a Ghost Rider series running right now, there's a slim chance we could see a collection of a book that contains both characters.

14. Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. Another one where the ship might have sailed; Shang-Chi did pop back up again in 'Heroes for Hire', but that book didn't even last a year, so the character's returned to comic book limbo for a time. Still, with Brian Michael Bendis' crush on the 70s being what it is, I wouldn't be surprised if he joined the Avengers along with Spider-Woman, Luke Cage, and Howard the Duck.

13. Micronauts. Again, I don't even know who has the rights to the Micronauts right now, so this could be a plea to Devil's Due or Dynamite for all I know. But hey, Dark Horse is reprinting 'Savage Sword of Conan', so clearly the "giant reprint book" idea is catching on industry-wide...

12. Adam Warlock. He's back, he's in the new Guardians of the Galaxy (which seems to be fairly popular), why not reprint his older stuff? This is the kind of synergy that a company with a large backlist should be taking advantage of, reprinting their older material to build interest in their new stuff, and simultaneously getting fans of the new stuff to buy reprints of the backlist (which are low cost to produce, since you've already paid the writers and artists.)

11. New Warriors. They really should have done this one last year, in order to maybe build up some sort of buzz for the new 'New Warriors' title (actually, it's the fourth 'New Warriors' series--the New New New New Warriors?) Now they're canceling that series, so that dims the chances of seeing any old 'New Warriors' for the upcoming year. Oh, well. Any title that's had three relaunches is bound to have a fourth.

10. Spider-Man 2099. Really, all the 2099 series should probably be collected, but Spidey 2099 was the best of the lot; Peter David really enjoyed his time writing this one, and it shows. Sure, it's a little bit obscure, but can it really be any more obscure than the Living Mummy, Brother Voodoo, or Gabriel the Devil Hunter? (I don't even know who that last one is, and I've got every single volume of the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe.)

9. Power Pack. The lack of this one continues to surprise the heck out of me. It's got name recognition, it's got plenty of guest-stars, it's a relatively self-contained and popular title with a long run...really, I honestly don't know what they're waiting for here. It's easily the most obvious choice on this list, even if there are others I'd want more.

8. West Coast Avengers. I can only assume Marvel's trade paperback department is currently committing ritual seppuku for knowing that there is a comic book series out there in which Hawkeye leads a team of Wonder Man, Iron Man, Tigra and Mockingbird, and not releasing it in collected format for the American reading public to enjoy. Shame, really. They were nice people.

7. Alpha Flight. Sure, we all know that Marvel has never been able to successfully recreate the popularity of the early 1980s Alpha Flight, despite attempted relaunch after attempted relaunch. But really, isn't that actually an even better argument in favor of reprinting the classic John Byrne-era series?

6. ROM. I've heard some rumors recently that we might see a ROM revival, spearheaded by Hasbro. Could this mean that the adventures of the Greatest Spaceknight will no longer languish in Marvel's forgotten vaults, but will instead be told in glory? We can but hope.

(Seriously, these were some great comics. It really did feel like an epic war, complete with a grand conclusion that spread through all of Marvel's books that month as the Dire Wraiths made their last great attack on the human race. It's a shame that rights issues have held reprints of this series up.)

5. Quasar. Another character who's currently in the Guardians of the Galaxy...umm, sort of. It's actually a lesbian alien daughter of Captain Marvel with the same name and powers as the Quasar whose book I want to see reprinted. That's not, um, convoluted or anything, is it?

4. New Mutants. Okay, remember what I said about 'Power Pack' being the most obvious title for an Essential edition? Kidding. It's actually 'New Mutants', which was as popular as any of the mutant books, tied into the other X-series frequently, and formed a cornerstone of mutant continuity for almost a decade. Let me put it this way--the Essentials of X-Men and X-Factor are already up to about issue #75 of where 'New Mutants' would be, complete with numerous dangling plotlines that get resolved within that book's pages. This one is a frustrating missing chapter for any X-fan.

3. Excalibur. This one is a lot less necessary than 'New Mutants', because it was pitched at the time as a "casual" book for X-fans who were sick of having to follow three series' worth of continuity. But that's exactly what would make it so nice for the purposes of reprinting; there's a nice, clean through-line of story that involves very little tying-in and crossing-over. (There's also a long, ugly stretch of fill-ins and weak writing between Claremont's departure and Alan Davis' run as writer, but hey, that's why they're cheap, folks.)

2. Guardians of the Galaxy. Look, there is a 'Guardians of the Galaxy' series going right now! It is very popular! It features numerous references to the classic series that I want to see reprinted! This is about as easy a decision as you can make, Marvel! Heck, you can start with the 70s origins of the team to keep Bendis happy! Please!

1. What If...? This is clearly pretty popular, as there are 190 issues available for collection already and they still do one-shots, specials, and limited series based around the concept to this day. I know I'd love to see them collected in big 500-page chunks, and I hope that I'm not alone. Because if I am, you'll see this one again next year in the top spot.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Firefly

(or "The Real World Tells Stories Too")

(And a hearty "welcome back!" to all the Joss Whedon fans who visited my blog!)

Whenever people try to describe Joss Whedon's 'Firefly' to someone who hasn't seen the series yet, the inevitable term they use is, "It's a Western in space." Which is true enough as far as it goes; any series that has an episode with the heroes smuggling cattle to another planet definitely earns the title "Western in space" pretty definitively. But when he came up with the idea for 'Firefly' and its storytelling engine (TV series are always very concerned with storytelling engines, because TV series look at 100 episodes as a minimum benchmark for success), Whedon didn't just decide to combine the tropes of the Western genre with the tropes of the science-fiction genre. He used the reality of the American frontier, rather than the fiction of the Old West, as his model to create a storytelling engine.

Noticing how involves a quick history lesson. What we think of as "the Old West", with gunslingers and bank robbers and grizzled settlers and sheriffs who were the only law in their town and madams with a heart of gold, et cetera, was a product primarily of the Civil War. There was settlement of the West prior to the Civil War, of course, but when the Confederacy collapsed, many of the former Confederate soldiers who didn't want to live under a government they'd just spent four years fighting drifted westward, where the United States' authority was minimal and they could use their military experience to make a living in a lot of not-particularly-legitimate ways. This meant living a lot rougher, but again, four years of being in a war had left them with different standards as to "civilized life" than the average person.

These semi-lawless veterans flooded into an already not particularly lawful part of the country that was still awash with gold prospectors and settlers who were also leaving the civilized parts of America for their own reasons (the Mormons also moved west into Utah during this period.) This created an unusually anti-authoritarian, sometimes violent society...one which was within the borders of the United States, and which the federal government had to tame if they wanted to truly become a continental government. (And one which, arguably, they never managed to completely conquer--many states in the western part of the US remain firmly libertarian and anti-authority, although the streak seems to have been put to positive uses for the most part.)

So this was the model that Whedon used for 'Firefly'. The conflict between the Sino-American Alliance and the "Browncoats" (and note that Whedon has always been vague about the exact causes and ideals of the Browncoats--Mal, of course, simply says they were for "freedom", but just about everyone thinks they're fighting on the right side) is an analogy for the Civil War, and Mal is one of the many disaffected veterans of that war who moves out to the frontier. The societal model for 'Firefly' feels real because it is real. It's got the kind of logic that's been tested by history. Writers should never feel afraid to borrow from history, because it's the only kind of plagarism that audiences admire. *rimshot*

Other elements of the Western in 'Firefly' are born out of economic logic. Sure, you could probably use a futuristic hover-buggy to ride around in, but if fuel is short, a horse is cheaper to feed. Laser pistols? A fancy toy for the rich, and a bullet kills just as sure as amplified and focused light. Why build tables out of wood instead of synthetics? Because it's cheap and plentiful and we've been working with it for the entire length of human history, and we know how to do it. The tropes of the Western aren't just there because Whedon thought they would look cool, they're there because they make sense within the story. (The only real "Western trope" is the idea of the Reavers as frontier savages, and Whedon deliberately subverts the idea in order to avoid the uncomfortable subtext of racism that's frequently present in Westerns.)

I've talked a lot about storytelling engines in this column (mainly because that's what it's about), but 'Firefly' does remind us that one of the quickest, easiest, most reliable storytelling engines comes from the world around us. Because the world is always full of stories, more than can ever possibly be told.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Long, Difficult Task Of Recycling My Old Ideas

So every so often, I think to myself, "Hey! Remember that 'Captain Action' open submissions call that Moonstone Books put out? Although my idea didn't win, being beaten out by longtime industry veteran Fabian Nicieza, I thought it was a pretty good concept. I should put the pitch up on my blog."

And then I can never find it on my hard drive, and I give up. So today, I'm not giving up! Today, you will hear about my idea for Captain Action: The Comic!

Obviously, this is based on the classic Captain Action toy from the 1960s, which was a superhero action figure that you could buy additional outfits for, with each outfit being the outfit of another superhero. So you'd buy the one figure, but you could make him look like Batman, Superman, the Lone Ranger, Aquaman, Buck Rogers...

I took this idea and ran with it for my series pitch. The idea was that it was set in a "developed" comics universe, one with lots of existing superheroes and supervillains, and that there was kind of a social connection between the superheroes. If you proved yourself, you were accepted into the superhero "community". And if you really proved yourself, you were put in touch with the superheroes' secret weapon--Captain Action. Nobody knew who he really was, but he was a master of disguise so brilliant that he could impersonate any superhero, powers and all.

Each issue would be a sort of superhero version of Mission: Impossible combined with the Unknown Soldier. One of the characters would be Captain Action, but the readers wouldn't necessarily know any more than the characters. Always, he'd have to impersonate his target flawlessly, lest he give away his own existence to the supervillain community. (One sample plot involved him having to impersonate a Superman-type hero in order to foil a death-trap that takes advantage of that hero's specific weaknesses...not only does he have to survive it, but he has to do so in a way that doesn't reveal that he's not that other hero.)

With each story, a few tiny clues as to Captain Action's real identity would be revealed, until about five years in, the readers would learn the truth: He's actually the future self of this world's most nefarious supervillain, a Doctor Doom/Lex Luthor megalomaniac who's constantly trying to rule the world. In the future, he would have tried to blackmail the world with a device that could shift the Earth out of its orbit...but in the resultant battle with Earth's heroes, he wound up actually using it, sending Earth spinning into space. In the slow, bitter apocalypse of the Earth's cooling off that followed, he realized the folly of his ways and spent his time as the last survivor building a time machine to undo his mistake by helping the heroes out.

That's not the whole thing, of course; I actually had about ten paragraphs describing sample plots, various scenarios that I thought would highlight the possibilities of a hero who could be anyone. But it was a while ago, and my memory's not perfect. This should give you the gist, though.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Indiana Jones

(or "Know Thyself")

Indiana Jones' storytelling engine was worked out by two absolute masters of their form while both of them were (arguably) at their creative peak, and it shows. (Yes, let's just get the gushing out of the way now.) It's a brilliant idea, one that's so great that it was either ahead of its time or else just copied a lot--take a particular era (such as the 1930s), and then take the tropes of its fiction and apply them as though the era really was like that. So just as Doctor Who pastiched the fictional image of Victorian London in "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" instead of using the much duller actual London (hey, Doctor Who has always been ahead of its time, even for a time-travel show), George Lucas and Steven Spielberg decided to create a two-fisted pulp image of the times leading into World War II and make it seem real.

Part and parcel of this was their brilliant (again, gushing) decision to treat myths and legends as real (within the context of the entirely unreal 1930s they'd created for the series.) In the world of Indiana Jones, all the ancient relics and mysterious MacGuffins of all those pulps really did what they said they did, and a daring treasure hunter (let's face it, the "archaeology" thing is just a dodge) has to clash just as much with the supernatural as he does with fiendish death traps, cold-hearted Nazi seductresses, and decidedly unfriendly natives. (Which remains a problematic element for any story that pastiches the fictional tropes of another time--do you use story elements that have not aged well in terms of their racism and sexism, and hope that your audience is well-educated enough to understand the context of their usage, or do you eliminate them, cutting out a lot of the authenticity of your pastiche?)

So what we have in your basic Indiana Jones story, as generated by the engine, is a story set in the era of the pulps, using tropes and stock characters/settings generated by them, with supernatural elements usually added in (but not necessarily required)...and then overlaying that with a veneer of authenticity by a) researching the historical myths that are the basis for the supernatural elements (you'd be amazed at just how much work went into getting the bits about the Ark of the Covenant as close to "right" as they could), and b) having a lead character who's flawed and human in a way that pulp heroes tended not to be. (Anyone see Doc Savage whimpering in pain and saying, "It's not the years, it's the mileage?") And yet, it's important to note that for all of Indy's flaws, he's flawed in a human, likeable way. His original motivation for treasure hunting (he's a playboy professor who lives beyond his means and sells his finds to finance his lifestyle) is almost totally muted in the series as we see it on screen...and in books, comics, video games, et cetera.

Just a quick sampling of the books, comics, video games, et cetera bears this out. We see Indy searching for the fourth nail of Christ's cross, fighting zombi armies in Haiti, searching for Atlantis and the supposed lands inside a hollow Earth, fighting dragons, and duking it out with Tibetan telekinetics. He even met Dracula. This seems like a very sustainable engine.

So why is it that audiences seem so reluctant to embrace Indy's sequels? (For a given value of "reluctant"--it's not like the Indy movies don't make money.) Setting aside the books and comics and video games for the moment--those tend to be produced for the "fan", not the casual enthusiast--only two of the four movies have gotten a good critical response, and the "Young Indiana Jones" television series crashed and burned after just two seasons, a genuine shocker considering the high-profile talent working on it. The fourth movie, in particular, was thoroughly panned (despite, again, not having any problems making money.)

Looking at the movies that were loved and the ones that were merely tolerated, it's easy to spot why--just look for the ones that didn't use the storytelling engine. 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' skimped on its research, making up its MacGuffin (and not incidentally, falling on the wrong side of the "problematic" question mentioned above...all too often, it seems to use its pulp tropes as an excuse for racism, rather than attempting to examine the attitudes of the era it pastiches.) "Young Indiana Jones" skimps on the adventure--apart from one episode where Indy meets Dracula, most of the stories revolved around boringly educational meetings with historical figures and tame escapades in historical settings. There's no zip to them.

And 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'...the fourth Indiana Jones movie essentially tries to invent a brand-new storytelling engine built on the principles of the original, but using the tropes of 50s science-fiction films instead of 30s pulp films. Which is an interesting idea, and one that almost becomes necessary in order to continue using Harrison Ford as Indy (and let's face it, Ford's performance is 90% of what makes the character who he is; none of the other actors have ever managed to make the character work quite so well.)

But back when they were first considering the idea, Lucas and Spielberg had the option to use any era they wanted, and they chose the pulps of the 30s over the sci-fi 50s. Perhaps it was that Nazis made better bad guys than commies, perhaps it was because ancient relics were more exciting than flying saucers, perhaps it was just because Crash Corrigan was more fun than Flash Gordon, but for whatever reason, they saw that one era had more potential than the other for stories. Setting aside any question of whether Lucas and Spielberg have "lost it" over the decades, the storytelling engine they made the first time just worked in a way that the new one doesn't, which doesn't exactly bode well for attempts to make a fifth Indiana Jones movie. But the fundamental soundess of the original storytelling engine means that Indy books and comics, at least, can keep going strong for ages to come.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Trickle-Up Theory

I'm once again suffering from a head cold, which is my excuse this week for being a day late with my post (it's always nice when it's something tangible.) I'm going to just dip my toes into politics this week--I don't quite feel the need to wallow in it at the moment, because I think emotions are still running very high from a historic election and there's just no way to talk about it without someone being unhappy, but this is a bit more generic. Let's talk taxes.

We're all familiar with the "trickle-down" theory of economics, which is the idea that if you set government policies to benefit the rich (including, but not limited to tax rates), they'll have more money to invest in the economy, which creates jobs, which helps the poor make money. The benefits of the rich making more money "trickles down", you see.

But this ignores the basic rule of economics, which I am just now making up: In an environment of laissez-faire capitalism, money always flows from the poor to the rich, just like water always flows downhill. It's absolutely inexorable, because the rich have more money than they can ever spend, and the poor have to spend all the money they have.

This is really pretty obvious, easily supported by everyday observation and common sense. The richer you get, the more money you have, pretty much by definition. Income rises on an unlimited curve, whereas expenses don't--eventually, no matter how extravagant you are and how much you invest, you hit a point where new money you make just goes onto the pile. That money is removed from circulation--for all that it helps the economy, you might as well burn it.

Whereas on the low end of the curve, income matches or exceeds expenses all the time. This is what's known as "living paycheck to paycheck", and lots of middle and lower-class people do it, because there's always a car to fix or rent to pay or clothes to buy for the kids. And that money goes to the makers of the clothes...some of it to the individual workers who make them, who are themselves living paycheck to paycheck and spending money as fast as they make it, but some of it to the owner of the clothes factory, who is not living paycheck to paycheck. Everyone who's in the middle-class is spending money, everyone who is upper-class is hoarding money. Eventually, that money is bound to wind up in the hands of the rich, and pass out of circulation.

So what's needed is, yes, a "trickle-up" theory of economics. The rich need to be forced to get that money back into circulation, through policies that reward investment and punish large accumulations of capital. And yes, this does mean higher taxes on the rich, but the rich shouldn't care about this. That money will always come back to them. The government will spend that tax income to build roads (and who owns the construction companies?), make tanks and guns (and who owns the defense companies?), and aid banking, housing, and other industries (and yes, "industry" generally means someone well-off to own their own company.)

This is not socialism, this is simply tending the garden of capitalism. Farmers don't just rely on rain to water their crops, because they understand that water always flows downhill. They pump the water to where it needs to go. We need to irrigate the middle-class and keep it healthy, because they in turn support the rich on a sustainable basis. The rich can stay rich, but the mindless accumulation of capital is disastrous, in the long run, to the health of the economy...and that means they gotta spend money to keep making it. And if they won't do that voluntarily, then the government should help them out a little.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Storytelling Engines: City of Heroes

(or "Echo Chambers Need To Be Empty")

Occasionally, I feel the need to open these columns up by reminding people of what a storytelling engine is, and the reasoning behind it. Not because I think that my readers have poor memories or don't know how to go through my archived columns, but just because there are times when I want to look at a very specific angle regarding storytelling engines, and it's useful to have the definition fresh. So I'll say it again, really quick: A "storytelling engine" is the set of those elements in an open-ended series (including but not limited to protagonists, antagonists, supporting characters, setting, and central concept) that help the writer(s) generate stories.

That last part is very important to a massively-multiplayer online video game like "City of Heroes", because there's a pretty strong demand for stories. Players of MMOs put years of their time into playing the game, and they're always looking for "content", storylines for their characters to follow that makes progression through the game more than simply "defeat the next bad guy and move on." (In City of Heroes, you don't "kill" bad guys, you "defeat" them. With your battle-axe, flame sword, katana, venomous spines...)

As a result, the developers of the game have designed a world that is filled with storytelling engine elements. There's an open-ended history to the game with loads of heroes and villains, from the mad scientists of the Vahzilok to the tyrants of Praetorian Earth, tons of evil schemes and mayhem always in progress for you to stop, and generally loads of things to see and do at any given moment. Why, there's a virtually endless amount of storytelling elements for writers!

So why have the tie-ins been such miserable failures commercially, despite the presence of talented writers like Mark Waid and Robin D Laws? (I should not have to explain to anyone why I idolize Robin D Laws. The man is a genius.)

The answer comes from the difference between video games and conventional narratives, and also serves to explain why video game movies, as a rule, suck rocks. The storytelling engine of a video game series always has one crucial and key difference from the storytelling engine of a book, movie, TV show, ballet, et cetera ad nauseum, and that comes from the protagonist. The protagonist of a conventional story drives that story with their decisions, their personality, their virtues and flaws and singular character. A good protagonist in a conventional narrative is always unique, doing things nobody else would do in that situation whether for good or ill.

Whereas in a video game, the protagonist is you. No other medium has this advantage, and no other medium can use it to make a story so totally immersive. In City of Heroes, you are the main character. You make those decisions, and you create the narrative around you. Simple things like getting into a fight with a couple of thugs with guns become thrilling, because you identify completely with your character to the point of feeling real fear when your health bar is in the red. A protagonist that's too defined and rigid actually works against the video game's strengths (who doesn't get tired of too many cut scenes in a video game? Those are the scenes that ostensibly tell the story, but we'd rather be the character than watch them.)

So when City of Heroes tries to translate itself into a conventional narrative, it runs headlong into this problem. The novels and the second series of comics tries to turn the Freedom Phalanx (the CoH equivalent of the Avengers or the Justice League) into a well-defined team of super-heroes, complete with personality conflicts and interpersonal struggles, but the audience that comes from the video game wants those people to be ciphers that they can project their own ideas and personalities into. Not to mention, in City of Heroes, those characters are supporting characters, not protagonists. They're mentors to the real heroes--the players. This is the ultimate difficulty for a City of Heroes comic/novel/TV show/ballet...for it to be really true to the video game, it'd need to be about you. And that's kind of tricky to pull off. (The first City of Heroes comic tried, by showing the adventures of a trio of street-level heroes. While it wasn't without its charms, it still couldn't manage to be "about you", by definition.)

Interestingly enough, it looks like we're soon to see the reverse problem: DC Comics will be launching an online game soon, where you can create your own hero and have them team up with Batman, Superman, et al, to fight the Joker, Lex Luthor, and the endless hordes of DC villains. Which sounds good as far as it goes, but it might find a translation problem the other direction: Who would want to just hang out with Batman, when they could immerse themselves in the world even more fully by being Batman?