Shiva's Consort

Here's a little Christmas gift for everyone:

In VS Ramachandran's books A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness and Phantoms in the Brain, he attempts to begin to tackle the question of the neurological basis of art. A tall order indeed...

One of the subjects he suggests is called “Peak Shift”. A caricature is created by overplaying everything that is unique about someone's face, and downplaying everything that is not. A caricature of Richard Nixon has a huge nose and jowls, but his chin and eyes are downplayed, while a Buster Keaton caricature would have huge eyes.

Our emotional or instinctive reaction to something that we see is based on the recognition of a small number of salient characteristics. When those characteristics that we look for (consciously or not) are exaggerated, it looks more and more like the thing that we look for, even to the point where a caricature of Richard Nixon can be said to look more like Nixon than he does.

Permit me, if you will, an extended example: The basis of this concept in Ramachandran's book started with an experiment with a bird that, when it hatched, identified its mother by a red spot on its yellow beak. It was quickly discovered that the spot on the beak was the salient characteristic that the bird was looking for. It would respond equally to a disembodied fake beak as it would to an actual bird. In fact, the experimenter was able to create a short yellow stick with three red stripes on it that, in a sense, looked more like a beak than an actual beak. It had the salient characteristic the baby bird was looking for, “yellow thing with some red stuff on the end”, but it had no other characteristics to distract from that, so the birds went nuts over it. He had created, in Ramachandran's words, a “super beak”.

This applies to human endeavors as well. Again, using Ramachandran's examples, the Hindu goddess Parvati:

Parvati, Shiva's consort, is modeled to be the epitome of all things feminine. She has a small waist, huge breasts, wide hips, all the stereotypically feminine physical qualities taken to a large degree. Supposedly, when confronted with statues like this, most Victorian westerners complained that it was primitive and worthless because it didn't look like a real person. What they didn't realize is that the creator had, consciously or unconsciously, emphasized the salient qualities of the character (femininity, sensuality, poise and so forth) and tried to abstract away everything that is common to the larger category (the human form), but not a part of the specific form they were creating. The end result is, as Ramachandran puts it, “one anatomically incorrect but very sexy goddess”.

If you look at the anime style of drawing, you have, generally, very large eyes, mouths that vary in size hugely, and small/downplayed noses. The keys to emotional expression (mouth, eyes, eyebrows) are overplayed, and the less expressive features of faces (noses, chins) are minimized. Anime characters aren't supposed to look realistic, they're caricatures designed for maximum expression of emotion.

This concept, I submit, applies to narrative as well. If I want to write a story about a character who is particularly brave, I will write a story in which that character does things that show bravery. If in the story, my character spends time doing things like eating, shopping, using the bathroom, and so forth, it diminishes the effect of the story.

This is a pretty simple lesson to learn as a writer. In any given story you write, you need to go through every single event, and ask “What purpose does this serve in shaping the overall narrative?” If you don't have a good answer, it needs to go.

Even beyond that, though, Western storytelling, cinema in particular, has a long love affair with movies in which your enjoyment of the film hinges almost exclusively on understanding precisely what is going on. Memento, The Prestige, The Usual Suspects, Murder on the Orient Express... even the entire first season of Lost is predicated on cascading character (learning a new piece of information about a character which makes you reevaluate all your previously acquired information). Even beyond that,

Here's where it gets interesting, however. Take “Kino's Journey”, a 2003 anime series based on a short series of Japanese novellas by Keiichi Sigsawa, and consists of 13 episodes, each detailing their own independent story, designed to raise serious metaphysical and ethical questions. In the second episode, the main character helps a team of people stranded in the snow, and ponders the ethics of hunting rabbits to save the traders who are snowed in, only to discover in the end that the traders are actually slavers. The show has no interest in placing this story as part of a larger world, or convincing you that these characters are real people with real problems. The show is only interested in posing the ethical question of taking a creature's life to preserve the life of another creature, so it doesn't go into things like the names of the slavers, and it only focuses on their humanity in as much as it serves to make the ethical dilemma more engaging.

This kind of convention is rampant in anime in particular. One of the reasons Neon Genesis Evangelion is so enduring is that all of the robots doing their thing is, as Stephen Notely puts it, “a psychological puppet show”. As tongue-in-cheek as the cartoon is, the destroying is largely incidental. Figuring out what's going on, because it's less important than the emotional angle of the show, is downplayed. The “salient characteristic” (to possibly coin a term) is the study in dysfunctional personalities, particularly Shinji, Asuka, and Misato. Everything that isn't in service of that is absent or minimized, which leads to the strong emotional reactions that many people have to the show.

It's important to note that this is slightly different from the “Everything that isn't in service of your story needs to be cut” axiom. In Chinatown, a movie widely praised for its screenplay, everything that happens happens for a reason, but understanding what happens is at least as important, if not more important that how it makes you feel. Or, more accurately, feeling the way that the filmmaker wants you to feel is predicated on a full understanding of the events of the film.

To give another example, Revolutionary Girl Utena, another anime, love it or hate it, will frequently feature scenes with characters talking, with action going on in the background that you obviously know is not actually occuring, (baseball games on balconies, trains running through classrooms, etc.) but assist you in interpreting the things being said by the characters. You are very clearly coached on how to feel about the conversation, and things not in service of the feel of the conversation (where the characters are) are dropped in favor of further emphasis on the emotional content of the scene.

But, you ask, isn't the heart of good cinematography to reinforce the message of the film with every available outlet? Well, yes. However, there's a limit to that that the japanese anime style frequently leaps over entirely. You can have an area and weather that reinforces the general feeling of a conversation, but it's kind of difficult to cram an entire conversations worth of changing opinions, facts, and alliances into a weather formation, which is suddenly possible when you have a baseball game going on amongst the characters.

Now, please understand, this is not about a value judgment. Is Michelangelo's David “better” than the aforementioned statue of Parvati? It's a nonsense question, but Michelangelo's David is a made in the Greek representational mindset, while the Parvati is not, but it seems like a valuable idea to stop and point out the differences between the representational and the intuitive mindset when it comes to both art and narrative. More on this later.


Children's Movies

Just earlier today, I was looking through an old copy of Entertainment Weekly, and inside was a review of the Clone Wars movie, which had just come out at the time. The positive elements of it were listed as that while the plot was kind of dumb, and the characters were described as... I believe "bombastic" was the word, the reviewers kids loved it, and they didn't know any children who saw it and didn't. I mean, it was just a kids movie, right?

I'd just like to say "Thanks, PIXAR, for proving once and for all that 'It's just a kids movie' just isn't good enough."


Check it

And by "it", I mean the side bar, for my most recent WoWhead post.


Gaming Brands cont.

Question: How many of you have seen the Gametap commercials on Adult Swim?

Do these commercials piss you off too?

Okay, maybe that's a little strong for it, but let's face it, 90% of ad agencies just don't “get” video games. What do I mean by “getting” video games?

Example: The Bubble Bobble commercial which many of you may have seen. Come on people! Everyone under 30 knows that the dragons in Bubble Bobble are going to the Cave of Monsters to rescue their girlfriends, not to eat things! Or look at the Deus Ex commercial too. Whoever wrote the copy for that clearly didn't know very much about the game. Anything they say could go for 70% of video games set in the future ever.

I'm well aware that “copywriters not knowing much about the product they need to write copy for” is not a new practice, and it's not limited to video games, but imagine this for a moment:

Instead of their current Bubble Bobble commercial, imagine if you just had a twenty-something guy in a cubicle, wearing a white, short sleeved button down shirt with a tie, hunched over, typing away at a computer, looking bored. The sounds of a modern office buzz around him. Phone rings, people talking, fax machines running, and just barely audible in the background is the Bubble Bobble music. The guy keeps plugging away at his computer, seemingly unaware, as the music slowly gets louder and louder. After 12 seconds or so, the guy has not reacted in any way to the music, and it's gotten quite loud by now, at which point the guy looks up, a little away from the camera, smiles, then nods knowingly. Immediately cut to the Gametap logo and slogan.

I'm not an ad exec, I'm not a copywriter, and I don't have too much of a directorial eye, but I swear, that commercial would kill. Why would it kill? Because everyone who played too much Bubble Bobble as a kid has incredibly fond memories of that music. I know this because I was one of those kids.

Frankly, I'm just calling out Gametap for being clueless, at least they're not patronizing. Penny Arcade already took care of that one better than I ever could.

Okay, how many of you have seen the WoW “What's your game?” commercials? These commercials, I feel, “get it”. As Malgayne has pointed out in his wowhead blog about them, in one fell swoop, they hit the Adult Swim sense of humor by picking a format and spokespeople ripe for parody, but also hit on popular enough spokespeople to scratch the itch for validation most gamers still have. I don't know who does Blizzard's ads, but either the agency themselves get it, or somebody at Blizzard is making them get it.


Gaming Brands

I've been talking about core fantasies and branding a fair amount recently (when I'm not riffing on terrible games), but I think it represents a significant failure in my logic that I haven't spent more time talking about what the connection is here to games. Afterall, Bethesda isn't a brand, it's a company. A good test to see if something is a brand, and therefore has a core fantasy (not all things with core fantasies are brands, but all brands have a core fantasy) is to ask “If I wore a shirt with their logo on it, what would I be saying about myself?” If the message is unclear or non-existent, then either it's not a brand, or it's a poorly managed one.

If I wear a shirt that says “Secret of Mana”, I'm saying... I guess that I like Secret of Mana? I'm not really saying anything else, certainly not compared to the classic Harley Davidson example, or even something as mundane as In'n'Out: In'n'Out is all about the retro feel, and the quality of the good old days. Harley Davidson makes a much clearer statement, and therefore has a much clearer fantasy associated with it, but we can all agree that Squareenix or Blizzard don't have a core fantasy to speak of.

So what if a game company wanted to make themselves a brand? In order to do that, they would need to stand for something more than just great games. If I founded a company that made consistently great games (companies that could be brands without a consistently high level of quality are beyond the pale of this discussion) that also consistently promoted social reform, I'd have a brand on my hands. If you wear a hat with this company's logo on it, you'd be saying, “I'm a gamer with a social conscience”.

When I was first thinking about this, it occurred to me that part of the lifeblood of the game industry is the variety of experiences it can deliver. Bethesda does sandbox RPGs, Blizzard used to stand for a great RTS, Squareenix is RPGs, but within these categories, there's a huge amount of variation, not to mention a huge variety of catagories. On the opposite hand, part of building a recognizable brand is to specialize as much as possible, and deliver the same experience as much as possible. This seemed, at first glance, kind of at odds with the game industry. If you keep making the same game over and over again, that's a recipe for failure, but can you make a bunch of games with varied particulars that deliver on the same feeling over and over again? And more importantly, if you make them, will they continue to be fun/entertaining/edifying?

The is answer is “Of course you can”, and I think Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki are the perfect example. Studio Ghibli in general, but Miyazaki in particular, deliver on the same themes and feeling over and over again. Every single one of Miyazaki's movies (and yes, I've seen them all) are about the essential goodness of mankind, the awe-inspiring complexity of nature, and the magical innocence of childhood. Studio Ghibli isn't a brand because no one in the western world is selling it as such (can't speak to Japan), but it has all of the important characteristics, and movies that meet a high standard of quality and all stand for virtually the same thing are clearly all you need to be successful. So why not games?

Next: Why Gaming Brands Suck