February 06, 2013

What Makes A Good Story

I'm crossing a bit of my philosophy today with the more factual side of things. I'm deeply considering what makes a good story. Some might argue the best story is the most memorable regardless of quality or detail. I say that it's engagement. Regardless if your story is interactive, musical, literature, or movies if you can't connect with your audience it's just never going to be considered great. That's not to say it won't have commercial success or win awards but in the annals of history it'll be quickly forgotten and not many people will likely claim it changed their lives or is an eternal classic worthy of being shared for generations to come.

So the question of what is engagement comes about and what kind works best. Is it possible to have bad engagement? I for one think it's possible. I've been so involved with a story sometimes that just one piece out of place or slightly overlooked can drive me absolutely insane. I will also clarify I don't mean frustrated or annoyed I literally mean absolutely insane. For example if you watched the Showtime series Dexter when Rita was murdered while all the pieces fit something just didn't sit right. They pushed it off on trinity and it felt like it was someone pretending to be trinity, in particular someone with inside information on dexter himself and I seriously spun off into conspiracy land and probably wrote an entire book worth of possible theories before the next story came out and to this day it's an unresolved issue in my mind that I've simply had to move past. That kind of negative push on my engagement with the series has forever changed my views on it and I would say it might have even cost a very small number of viewers, outside of the viewers lost for cutting Rita from the show as julie benz does have quite the following and was a great character for the show though I understand she was removed out of necessity.

Really to me the best kind of engagement is personal investments in the story and characters if you can get the viewer, reader, or player to actually care about what's going on in the story or to the character then it doesn't really matter what it is that's going on. That's a major focus of many bioware games for example. The mass effect series focuses heavily on character development and they offer as many ways to connect the player with their character so that they create an emotional bond with the character which is how they're creating your engagement. Each choice gives you the sense of power that you are the one changing the galaxy and the party members you travel with have these rich backstories which are more easily absorbed when you get involved with the larger codex of information on the history or mythology of the game universe. It's an interesting psychological trick on how when you're overwhelmed with new information how the mind reacts. Then there's the common method used in movies and books of slowly revealing the history of the character usually in sympathetic situations so you feel for the character, really all the most successful media is probably playing with your emotions which they then use to manipulate you later on. One of the most brilliant and most powerful examples of this for me was Metal Gear Solid 3. You learn about your character John/Snake while you learn about these members of your team who for the most part are new to you. The game deprives you of most of your connections and forces you to rely on them for help in the form of information such as how to handle your current medical situation, information on enemies, tactics, mission objectives, and more during each time of which you tend to learn a little something else about the characters. In the end you have a comprehensive sense of who they are and a deep level of trust for them. Meanwhile the only person on the ground you're on friendly terms with you know you can't completely trust even though you're forced to and you know they're using you as much as you're using them. Your struggle has a measurable sense of progress in each part and you know your final objective for the majority of the game, however during the first section of the game when you're inclined to chat the most you spend a lot of that time building up a broken relationship with the only character that claims to know you. The cutscenes also reveal that you're both acting out of a sense of duty more than anything suggesting neither of you really want to do what you're doing. All of this culminates to a single moment in the game with such emotion and a regrettable sense of costly success out of absolute necessity. The game then proceeds to use the final cutscene to absolutely guilt trip you then with an ultimate sense of betrayal and reflection on how your greatest success is also your greatest failure. It's a very complex set of delicate emotions perfectly tied together in one of the greatest masterpieces of entertainment ever conceived.

Understanding how this was done is key to understanding how to create engagement with your target audience. I'm not talking about simply replicating it or anything of that nature rather I'm suggesting the underlying mechanisms of creating smaller attachments one at a time that build into a collective set which is in turn part of another set and how large manipulations of these sets can be used to create a very specific emotional state and that emotional connections with a story are a significant factor in engaging your targets.  The important thing to remember during this though of course is also that while my dexter scenario is backlash really it is possible to create engagements that have your targets actively hating the experience, the most prominent example of a negative engagement is when your villian is more sypmathetic than your hero in which the targets then are rooting for your hero to fail and the villain to win.

Emotional is certainly not the only form however I would argue that it is likely the most powerful and among the easiest once you understand the principals. Creating a series of smaller connections however takes a lot of time and investment from your target which makes it one of the most difficult to pull off. Instead it's likely easier to go the movie route of larger chunks spread out or the bioware approach of blinding you with a see of new information so you cling to the bright and shining beacons of your allies. The quick and dirty is simply to provide sympathetic characters and situations the forcing them into positions where they must overcome adversity, potentially with an internal conflict on the nature of how they overcome the adversity presented. A more advanced tactic of that same scenario is where the internal conflict is the primary adversity. The simplest way to learn these sorts of things is actually something most films students have probably been told for decades. Simply watch everything and pick it apart, for gamers it's the same way, and even writers. It's easier to pick apart something that's already clearly broken so you can start with the bad stuff then work your way up. Part of what makes some of the better movies or games so great is that everything is so well blended where nothing stands out so you can't really grab at anything and pull it all apart because it's all interconnected.

Clearly I underestimated how lengthy this post would be. I'll have to make a part 2 discussing it further. Till then reflect on the above, not to end so abruptly however as I said I did not anticipate how much more I would have to cover and I can't really proceed further. If this seems broken it's because it is, I need a better transition. Something to consider....

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