Commonality

Listen.  It isn’t easy.  Fuck the platitudes and positivity.  You are not amazing.  You are not perfect.  You are not blessed.  You are a fuck up.  A mistake-maker.

The thing is, we all are.  We are all of us on this planet a bunch of fuck ups with cockamamie ideas and big plans.  Sometimes we see them to fruition.  Sometimes we become skilled at hiding our catastrophes, or sometimes we actually learn from the disasters we incite.  We call each other cowards in order to feel better, look on in horror at the new ways other people fuck up in order to hide our shame.

But it doesn’t matter.  We are all of us fuck ups.  It is a precondition of humanness.  Recognition of it is not:  Some of us will wander around feeling like we’re impostors, knowing that we’re fuck ups, and imagining that we’ll be found out; some of us will wander around thinking we’re royalty in the universe when we’re really just Charlie Sheen.  We are fuck ups.

In the majesty of time and space, all life on this rock is a single microscopic blip, if that.  We are fuck ups, and it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we’re here right now, on this dirtball together.  What matters is that we each have stories, and we can share them.  What matters is that we are sleeping children, cradled softly in the arms of an uncaring universe.  We are fuck ups.  We are glorious fuck ups.

Unexpected Friends

When I was little in New England, I had a clear sense that you could live off the land.  As a result, I knew the location and season for a number of interesting wild plants.  I could track down wild blueberries, knew where all the blackberry brambles were, had at least theoretical knowledge of how to blanch acorns, and then there were the wild onions: spicy little pearls announced by curled green tubes.  When I came home from school hungry one spring only to find the door locked, my sister may have cried, but I ate wild onions.

I never gardened up north.  Or, I never grew anything besides a child’s first flowers, the giant yellow disk of sunflowers, taller than my mother (who was tallest being in my small universe outside of my father).  I never learned the northern gardener’s curious habit of putting plants in these “cold frame” things.  Frost kill orange trees, yes, but we grow oranges outside here, and most years there is no frost.  Summer is a heat blight.  Start only basil, and watch the okra and sweet potatoes you planted in May do their thing. 

The idea of eating wild plants in Florida, then, seemed strange.  On one level, I knew it was not only possible but that for thousands of years, people had been doing just that, as well as cultivating plants, and using coastal resources.  On another level, it just didn’t stick.  I knew the plants up north.  New England was my backyard, and if you turned me loose among the stitched hills and granite outcroppings, I’d be thinner by the time you caught up with me, yes, but I’d be fed on something at least.

Now, picture this: a shady Tallahassee yard, tomatoes in buckets, unable to set fruit because there just isn’t enough light, and one girl, driven mad by the fact that she can’t seem to find anywhere to set her plants so that they happily photosynthesize.  Enter http://www.fallingfruit.org.  In Fort Lauderdale, I was already a mango thief, scouting abandoned trees or ones that overhung the road.  Why should I change my fruit thieving ways just because I’d skipped town?

I went with my boyfriend on an epic quest for figs, marked clearly on the map, and hitting the midpoint of their season.  I found none.  Or rather, I am fairly certain I found the plants talked about, but they weren’t figs.  They were some kind of stone fruit, fig-like in shape, but they did not smell in the least edible, oozing a white rubbery sap from the fruit itself.  Disappointed, my eyes were cast down.  My mosquito-bitten love did likewise.  It wasn’t long before I heard him call out, a little behind me, “Hey!  These are chanterelles!”

Sure enough, fringed orange fungi poked their damp and gill-less heads from among the tree roots.  And then it struck like lightning: I can feed myself from the woods.  We picked as much as the basket would hold, and carried our find home for dinner.  Turns out the boy-creature is no fan of mushrooms, but I found them rich and satisfying.

After that. I took up my research tools, looking for more plants I could identify and eat.  I stumbled on an old friend: the wild onion.  They grow here.  They grow all over North Florida.  I hadn’t seen them in Sarasota or Miami because that’s too far south, but here?  Here they grow!

Now all that remains is finding them…

The Dancing Ox-Mouse, or: How to Ask a Writer about Their Work

1.  Creativity is a different beast in every brain, but there are similarities in process no matter the brain into which you look.

2.  The youth and size of a project correspond to its delicacy.

3.  Writers are vain little creatures, and awkwardly uncertain besides.  I should know.

Given these statements (the truth value of which we will not be examining) I propose a set of terms to help poor blundering writers and their long-suffering well-meaning friends discuss the state of any given narrative project before its completion: mouse feet and oxen.  During the beginning phases of creating a narrative, the writer is often chasing after smoke rings with butterfly nets, casting about for unifying notions, trying to link odd scenes that haven’t yet been set into words.  This is when the narrative is all kinds of mouse feet.  It is soft and delicate work, highly tentative, and much of the process here will not be evident in the final product.  The writer’s faith in their own ability in this phase of development may also be said to be mouse feet.  In this stage, then, it is easy to send the ideas skittering for their hidey-holes, sometimes simply by discussing them too openly.  The other state is as straightforward as its name would imply.  Oxen is the stage in which the tale proceeds, and the work on it is steady and directed, though not necessarily without snags.  Note the types of plural in each of these states: A whole team of sturdy oxen pull the story along once notions are firm, but everything rests on the tiny feet of one mouse in the beginning!

Thus, the best way for a non-writer to inquire about the current state of a story is to simply ask, “Is it mouse feet or oxen?”  To which the writer may then give an answer which contextualizes the state of their insecurity over the whole affair.

Now, this is not to say that these two states are absolute and opposing, or even that a story’s construction course will develop from one to the other in a linear progression.  Some days you’re just going to have oscillating moxen en pointe, so shut up and deal.  But now we have a means to label the infancy of creative ideas without upsetting the nest and a means to invite inquiry when work is proceeding apace!  Now when you ask me how the writing is going, and I tell you “mouse feet,” you won’t be offended when I slap you for inquiring further.

World Building: Coloring Inside the Lines

When building a playable world, there are a number of ways its creator can go about approaching plot and explorability.  In my first world building post, I pointed out that herding players into confined locations can feel a bit contrived.  Though this may be the case, there are reasons to do it, ways to disguise it, and different types of games simply demand this kind of approach. Why?  Because it’s in this arena that believable world building and game design mix.

There are three methods of going about the development of story in narrative driven games.  First, there is a linear style, which has a set beginning, middle, and end.  It progresses clearly from narrative point A to narrative point B without any available player choices that affect the story track itself, though the intrepid world-explorer can often choose how to approach set obstacles or has the pleasure of figuring out their one correct solution.  By and large, the player is along for the narrative ride.  Next, we have a branching structure, which allows the player a few very meaningful choices in directing the outcome of the plot.  Often, these choices open up alternate endings and change player access to certain quests, side stories, and resources at later parts of the game.  Branching narratives have the potential to increase player engagement with a story by giving them a feeling of greater control and importance in the process of progressing through the narrative.  Finally, there is the open structure, in which the player is truly able to explore the world, set their own goals and motivations, and is free to ignore plot points created by the world builder, or even invent their own.

Any of these modes can be used for creating and guiding a table top RPG; video games are overwhelmingly limited to the first two.  A strong example of linear and branching plot creation in tabletop RPGs are the published game modules put out for D&D, Pathfinder, or any other game system with a large enough player base to warrant such products.  By providing scenes, monster stats, NPC descriptions, and hooks for player goals, modules allow a GM to guide a player from A to B, and can provide scripted branches for significant player choices.  On the video game side of the fence, linear plots have often dominated, especially in classic JRPGs like the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series.  Branching stories and worlds are not unheard of in the earlier days of RPGs (take Chrono Trigger), and they have become increasingly common in the genre (aspects of Skyrim, for example, or Arcanum), but one can run into false examples of this structure, where players are herded into the same outcome despite the apparently significant choices they have made.  A discussion of the false branch linear style of game with examples, counter examples, and how they impact player engagement is a topic I’d like to save for another essay.

Open structure is a bit harder to achieve.  In video games, there may be edge cases which allow for this type of design, but in general, this kind of world is only available through human interaction: the province of tabletop gaming.  But even in a well-run tabletop gaming session with an attentive GM, it’s hard to tackle this kind of approach to plot and explorability.  In an open storyline, players have a real sense of co-creation, because this is literally the case.  They are actively participating in the construction of the narrative’s arc, not just moving through a story’s predetermined channel.  Here, players’ desires and goals can be telegraphed or openly expressed, but aren’t always, which then requires of the GM a degree of improvisation and on-the-spot creativity which the other two modes either disallow (as in video games) or discourage (as in the use of modules).  Handled poorly, an open narrative’s pressures on the GM are more likely to create belief-breaking scenarios and flimsy excuses to keep players out of unanticipated situations.

As humans are storytelling animals, most players engage with narrative quite readily.  Due to the programming constraints of video games, a linear narrative is often desirable because the built-in story readily conceals the boundaries placed on exploration.  No one questions linearity in books, film, or theater.  Branching narratives have potential to create a difficulty here: the more meaningful choices given to a player, the harder it is to bring alternate possible outcomes to a satisfying conclusion within the confines of a video game’s design.  That isn’t to say it’s not possible.  The reward for successfully achieving this justifies the attempt; since the basic notion of an RPG is that of an interactive story, the more meaningful choices given to a player increase their sense of engagement and ownership in the storyline— as long as those choices don’t spread the storyline too thin.  It’s a question of investment.  Linear games, which are essentially a translation of traditional storytelling into game format, often navigate the question of investment with challenge (can any of you say that the puzzles and boss fights in the early Zelda games are easy?).  Even in a tabletop game, a well constructed linear story can hook a player better than many other tactics.  It’s when this aspect of linearity is mishandled that it becomes restrictive and shatters the believability of a world.  It’s when the GM or game designer telegraphs the unfinished bits of their world by metaphorically placing large “keep out” signs all over their map that players can become frustrated with limitations.  Challenges and learning curves are often more effective boundaries than messages to turn around, teleports back to safer realms, or a GM’s “Gee, I dunno.”