What Makes a Game?

I’ve always been strangely fond of any art that challenges my ideas about its medium. And this isn’t an easy thing to do with me. I’m the sort of person who walks past a painting called “Red Rectangle on White Canvas” and thinks there’s a sucker born every minute. Still I’ve seen art, read poetry and stories, and heard music that challenged my definitions of art, poetry, stories, and music. But never before have I had this kind of experience with a game. Yes, a game.

DearEsther

I can’t recall how I first heard about Dear Esther, but I understand it began as a mod for Half-Life 2 (which I still need to play). The version I played is the revamped 2012 version. And oh. my. god. is this game gorgeous. I can’t even begin to go into it. The caves. If you start this game and don’t at least get to the caves, you’ve not even begun to play.

Okay, so I’ve heard the complaints about Dear Esther. I had them, too, at first. No, really. I finished the thing in one night, got to the infamous black screen, and said, “Wait. That’s it? That’s it! You just walk through it and look at stuff, and you don’t even get any answers? Oh, no you don’t, game. I’m getting SOMETHING out of this—a story, at the very least, since you couldn’t even give me the (admittedly false) sense of accomplishment I usually get from finishing a game. Bad game. Bad. I payed how much for this? Oh, for the love of…” Yeah, I get emotional about things.

Lately, my answer to infuriating art is to find out as much as I can about author intention, reader interpretation, and the process of creation. I often end up doing this with David Lynch films (which will become relevant a few paragraphs down). And I learned some things when I read up on Dear Esther. So when it came time for The Other Lamm to play, I was ready with hard-won insight. He reached the black screen, fiddled around because he was sure the thing had a glitch, and when he discovered it didn’t, he said the words I knew he would say: “That’s it?”

“Okay,” I said. “The game starts now. Ready. Set. Go.”

Once you finish what I’m calling the “walk-through” of Dear Esther, you’ll find you’ve been given an array of puzzle pieces. Your job is to put them together. Build a story. And that’s the game. Each person’s story is different because each person is going to get different pieces of the puzzle, focus on different aspects of the story, and notice different visuals in the walk-through. And each person is going to bring aspects of their own lives, experiences, and knowledge to their interpretation. Once you’ve built a story, the fun, of course, is sharing it. I’m going to share mine below, after the spoiler warning, so if you haven’t played the game, don’t read past the warning. You really do want a chance to piece this together on your own before the interpretations of other people change the puzzle for you. And they will. And that’s fun, too. But getting that first idea will tell you some things about yourself.

One last thing before I go into spoiler zone: I was given the option to purchase the soundtrack in a bundle with the game. I scoffed, thinking why should I buy a soundtrack I haven’t even heard yet? I should have taken the deal. The music in this game is over a good third of the experience, and it is gorgeous. The soundtrack really should be singing to you while you’re playing the REAL game. In fact, I kind of think it would be far more fair to automatically bundle the soundtrack with the game, simply because the game you’re paying for is played during and after the first walk-through.

Now…

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Spoiler Warning: the following is my own interpretation of Dear Esther.

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lost highwayOne day, at a friend’s party, I found myself watching my first David Lynch film: Lost Highway. I was awestruck, disturbed, unraveled by the thing. I spent the next week reading everything I could find on it. I finally saw an article that talked about the film’s intention to put the viewer in the position of the protagonist, who is suffering a fugue state. That information completely changed my understanding of the story. It all came together for me. And in Dear Esther, when I was given a monologue that implied a fugue state, I couldn’t help going back to that idea.

Here is the monologue that changed my interpretation:

“The pain in my leg sent me blind for a few minutes as I struggled up the cliff path: I swallowed another handful of painkillers and now I feel almost lucid. The island around me has retreated to a hazed distance, whilst the moon appears to have descended into my palm to guide me. I can see a thick black line of infection reaching for my heart from the waistband of my trousers. Through the fugue, it is all the world like the path I have cut from the lowlands towards the aerial.”

So my final interpretation of this story is that it’s about a man who had a few drinks the night he crashed his car, and his wife was killed in the accident. He is trapped in a fugue state, wherein he identifies as a stranger trying to assign blame. He assigns blame to the other driver, to himself, to the drink, to the seagulls, to the paint on the road. He wants desperately to make meaning out of a meaningless tragedy. He is on a variety of medication, painkillers etc. He is not himself. Maybe he’s dying. Maybe he just wishes he was. Every once in a while, he becomes lucid and remembers who he is. But the fugue state always draws him back because he cannot deal with reality. The ending can be either happy or miserable. I toggle between them, and I think that’s okay. Interpretation doesn’t have to be precise to be meaningful.

Now I’ve read interpretations that are so different from mine, and yet these people had very similar information with which to build. I’ve read someone’s idea that the person wandering the island is Esther, who is in a coma and listening to the letters her husband reads to her as her dreamscape is influenced by those letters. And I’ve read an interpretation where you, the player, are an infection traversing the body of a dying man and hearing the thoughts that haunt him. These are all beautiful interpretations, and I don’t think any of them are right or wrong. They just are, and the people who came up with them have now beat the game, as have I. My prize is a story I pieced together, good memories of beautiful landscape and music, and new ideas about what makes a game a game.

Films That Make You Go Hmmm…

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Takashi Miike’s Audition.

I don’t mean for this to become a horror movie blog, but I guess it’s sort of heading that way, isn’t it? Probably it seems weird that a person who writes fantasy and young-adult, contemporary retellings of Romantic Era novels would be into horror films, but I am. I always have been, as long as I can remember. I read fantasy and I watch horror (well, horror and anything animated). And I just saw a horror film people assured me would seriously mess me up. It didn’t. What it did do was make me think. A lot. And after reading up on other people’s interpretations, I’ve finally come to a place where I think I just might get this film.

AuditionThe film in question is Takashi Miike’s Audition. My immediate reaction after seeing it was to discuss it with The Other Lamm, look up other people’s interpretations online, and then discuss it some more. I felt very strongly that there was more to it than The Other Lamm’s mostly literal interpretation. There seemed to be so many subtle and not-so-subtle hints that we were dealing with an unreliable narrator. I was damn near sure virtually none of the third act actually happened outside Aoyama’s head, and much of the first two acts were colored by his skewed perception of reality.

One of the very first detailed interpretations I read not only agreed with my initial response to the film, but identified the film’s heavy use of symbols and changed how much of the “dream sequences” I took at face value. For example, I believed the dream-assistant when she suggested she had slept with Aoyama one time and that, while it was a mistake, she had expected more from the relationship. My reason for taking this at face value was the scenes in the first act in which the same assistant talks about her impending marriage as though she wants Aoyama to stop her. And because I took the dream-assistant’s admission at face value, I also took Aoyama’s implied sexual relationship with his son’s girlfriend at face value. I now feel very differently.

There are three main ideas that are pivotal to my interpretation:

1. This story is told from an unreliable perspective. We’re seeing events through the eyes of a man who’s decidedly out of touch with reality. The evidence for this is pretty plentiful. He has several conversations throughout the film, and we see each one occur multiple times, but every time one occurs we find it’s changed. His memories of past events are shifting. Also, he knows things he shouldn’t know, like the way Asami’s apartment looks and the sack she keeps, which shows up in Aoyama’s delusions as well as the “reality” portion of the film. But he’s never been to her apartment, so why is he imagining it exactly as it is? The answer, of course, must be that he’s never seen her apartment and so neither have we (the audience). We’ve just been shown what he imagines in both instances.

2. I’m convinced this is a story about the “Madonna–whore complex.” Aoyama sees women as objects. He holds an audition for his new wife, compares looking for her to buying a car, and when his son walks in on him looking through their head shots, he reacts as though he’s just been caught looking at pornography. Asami is dressed only in white when Aoyama sees her as his ideal. She’s shy, submissive, and “obedient” (which is another indication Aoyama is not seeing the real Asami: he cannot possibly know whether she is obedient without having ordered her to do anything, but that doesn’t stop him from repeatedly insisting she is). She is absolutely, one-hundred percent pure—extra virgin even. Then he finds out about her abuse. And shock shock, he blames the victim. He imagines her allowing and then enjoying her abuse. He imagines her abuser as another victim. To him, there’s no way a good girl could have gone through what she went through. She’s damaged. And since a woman can only be one of two things to him, she goes from perfect to monstrous. Not only that, but all the women he knows turn into sexual deviants in his mind, which is why he dreams about them all aggressively molesting him. After his initial disillusionment, we see Asami wearing other colors: first a red coat, and finally black leather. But this isn’t the only instance in which color is used to indicate a dichotomy. All throughout the film, scenes are set in bright red against pure white. And while black might be the obvious opposite to white, red is the color of passion, of desire, rage, sexual maturity, blood, etc.

3. My third idea is not one I saw in the other interpretations, but I think there’s a very real case for it. That is, I think this film is meant to be incredibly meta. I don’t think this is just a story about one man’s misogyny and how he deals with the cognitive dissonance it creates. I think this is a story about art, about the portrayal of women in film. I think that’s the reason the casting call repeatedly mentions becoming a heroine and Asami talks about becoming a real heroine at the hotel. The director is examining our quintessential heroine, delving into the dichotomy much of society tries to impose upon women, both in the real world and in art. This is a self-examination, and that’s what makes it brilliant. Art that examines art in such a way that doesn’t call attention to its purpose is definitely doing it right.

If you read this post despite the spoilers and haven’t yet seen the film, I recommend seeing it, especially if you’re one of those people who loves to find meaning in story-puzzles. You won’t be disappointed… that is unless you’ve seen the god-awful trailers and are expecting straight-up torture porn. So you know, this film probably won’t shock you, it won’t mess you up (especially if you’re familiar with the horror genre), and you won’t be hanging on the edge of your seat (at least not through the first two acts). You may get a bit squeamish in parts, but that’s all. What this film will do is make you think. And think. And think… I get the feeling there’s so much more to Audition that I haven’t even examined, so many different possible interpretations, and so many uncovered clues. This was just my brief analysis of an incredibly complex film after the first viewing.

For Wendy’s Mother, Peter Pan Is a Horror Story

Excuses are my speciality. For example, part of the reason I’m the worst blogger in the world this month is I’m working on a challenging revision. And part of the reason the revision is challenging is a new point of view I’m having to write from. I chose to write from this point of view both because it was challenging and pivotal. The character is central, a catalyst, and I think he’s freakin’ adorable. But that’s neither here nor there. Mostly, I’m using him as an excuse to lead in to a blog post about a film I love and how point of view changes everything. Sorry, Kaspar. You are freakin’ adorable, though.

I first saw The Orphanage after watching an incredibly disappointing horror movie and deciding to begin a new quest for high quality horror. The Orphanage was the first film I tried, and I didn’t have to look any further. It was chilling and powerful in that way that keeps you up all night, thinking.

I was so haunted by the film, I started looking up interviews and extra information on it, and what I learned about its conception taught me something about my own writing: story may be king, but point of view is… the pope or something. On his inspiration for The Orphanage writer Sergio G. Sánchez said, “My influences were more literary. One of them was Peter Pan. Basically, it was just that picture of Wendy’s mother sitting by the window waiting for her child. That’s the spark that ignited everything. I was thinking, it would be really interesting to tell the story of Peter Pan from the point of view of the mother.”

Think about that for a second. From Wendy’s point of view, the story of Peter Pan is a great adventure, sometimes terrifying, sometimes exhilarating, but an adventure still. From the point of view of her mother, Peter Pan becomes a horror story. Can you fathom how terrifying it would be for any parent? You brush off your children’s stories about an imaginary friend who comes to visit them through their window every night as normal childhood whimsy, only to find, one night, their window flung open, their beds empty. I can’t imagine it, but that’s exactly what Sánchez does. Never mind the little classic “horror” moments sprinkled throughout the film; The Orphanage is terrifying because of the point of view.

If you can handle any amount of horror, I highly recommend you see The Orphanage. It is beautiful, touching, terrifying, and strange. I’ve not seen another film quite like it. I even question whether marketing it as pure horror really did it justice. It’s not your classic teen slasher flick. It’s more elegant than your typical supernatural horror movie or your psychological thriller. There are moments where you can feel the not-so-subtle hand of someone who said, “let’s make this appeal to horror movie fans, K?” but overall, the piece is stunning. And if it doesn’t make you think about the story of Peter Pan in a whole new light, you just weren’t paying attention.

Chemistry: Free E-Book and an Excerpt

Chemistry CoverChemistry is a retelling of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, set in a modern high school and told from the perspective of Claude Frollo, the story’s antagonist.

For the next few hours only you can download the entire e-book for free from Amazon. Grab it while you can!

EXCERPT:

The drumbeat of Phoebus’ party still throbs in my ears as though I never left. It’s so loud I can’t hear anything else. The light from that full moon still glows through my eyelids, red like slow-burning coals. I can’t shut it out. So it doesn’t surprise me at all when I catch the sound of Peter’s voice and realize he’s been talking to me all this time, though I haven’t heard or even seen him. It’s all a jumble, whatever he’s saying, but I catch the word Esmeralda and I’m snapped out of my hellish daze.

I lift my head and blink. “What?”

“Claude, are you okay?”

I’ve been wallowing on the floor, so of course he would ask. “Just had a weird stomach cramp,” I say. “It’s better now. What were you saying?”

Peter shakes his head. He doesn’t believe me, but whatever he’s about to say takes precedence, so he gives me the benefit of the doubt. “Esmeralda is missing.”

Those three words are a flood; they wash me away. I never saw them coming, and I don’t know how to deal with them now that they’re here. “Don’t joke around, Peter.”

“I’m not joking. She and Djali have been gone three nights in a row.”

“Is that unusual?”

“Yes!” He’s overwrought. “She always comes home by midnight every night. I live with her, so I know. She wouldn’t just stay away like this. Djali needs routine or she starts to shed.”

I have no idea how to respond to this. In the first place, I’m horrified that Esmeralda is missing. In the second, I’m beginning to suspect Peter’s primary concern is for the goat. “Have you reported her missing?” I say.

“How can I?” He throws up his hands, dramatic as always. “Who am I to her?”

“Well, who’s taking care of her? Why haven’t they reported it?”

“I don’t think anyone takes care of her. She’s always been by herself. The truth is I kind of suspect she’s in the country illegally, but I don’t know. It’s never been a problem until now. Damn that Phoebus. I swear this is all his fault.”

I cock my head. “Phoebus?”

He leans in. “You know he was stabbed at that party.”

“Was he?” I hope my feigned ignorance is convincing.

“Jesus, Claude, where have you been?” Peter reaches down and helps me to my feet. “Everyone’s talking about it. He was stabbed in the back with Esmeralda’s knife. The whole school thinks she did it, and the fact that no one has seen her since only confirms their suspicions. But I’m telling you it wasn’t her. She’s not like that. She just isn’t. Someone’s done something to her, Claude. I heard some of the guys on the soccer team swearing revenge. They say Phoebus is paralyzed for life; he got hit in the spinal cord, and he’ll never play again. They say she’s not going to get away with it. I think they took her, but I have no idea what to do. I mean I haven’t got any evidence, have I?”

I can’t breathe any more. You know how in really campy films, one of the characters will realize he’s destroyed something precious, fall to his knees, and scream, “What have I done?” while pounding a fist into the ground? Yeah, I always laugh at that scene, too. But just now, I think I could do with a good, long, what-have-I-done moment. It would be far better than what I’m really feeling. It’s like my heart has stopped and every limb has fallen asleep. I’m afraid if I try to take a step, I might fall down. If I try to speak, I might scream. And if I blink, the tears gathering in the corners of my eyes will fall. Once the dam breaks…

“We have to do something.” I flinch when my voice cracks.

“I know,” Peter says. “But what? We don’t even know where they’ve taken her.”

Why I Retold The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

People often ask me why I write what I write. Usually, the question is followed by a suggestion that I write something different: mystery-suspense, short stories, picture books. The truth is I tend to write what I crave to read but haven’t been able to find.

notre-dame de parisI fell in love with Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (or The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) many years ago. A good friend loaned me the book, assuring me I would adore it, and he was right. The story was this perfect mixture of tragedy, comedy, and romance, with just a touch of satire and social commentary. Every character was one I could both love and hate. They all made horrible mistakes even though I was practically screaming at them not to. But that’s the nature of tragedy.

I realized I had seen several film versions of the story, but none of them had won my heart the way the novel did. I think that’s because they were so simplified. The villains were villainous, and the good guys were so very good. And Claude… Oh, Claude Frollo was the most changed of all. In Hugo’s novel he is a good man—a fantastic man even—who looks after his fellow orphans like a father and does his best to be both wise and virtuous. But his standards for himself and others are untouchable. When he can’t live up to his own idea of goodness, he believes himself to be a monster and ends in fulfilling his own prophecy. And when the girl he loves turns out not to be the angel he took her for… Well, way too many people pay the price for that.

Claude Frollo Adopts QuasimodoTo me, the original novel is not one story, but many, all tangled together in an inescapable mess. I have always wanted to see it retold in a way that didn’t try to dichotomize good and evil, and since I haven’t been able to find a version that did this, I tried to make my own. I chose to tell just one of the stories—that of Claude Frollo, the one I felt received the most radical changes in other retellings—and I chose to tell it in first person. It wasn’t fun being in his head. Claude is a person who wants to be good, but who has unexamined very-bad-ideas, unhealthy obsessions, and unrealistic expectations. But that’s also what makes him so human.

The idea to set the story in a modern high school came from reading Claude’s first confession of love. It was so desperate, so frantic and clumsy, it reminded me of how it felt to be in love at that age. But setting it in a modern high school also had its challenges. Obviously, I was playing by a very different set of rules. But I hope I managed to retell this story by staying as true to the original as was possible in a modern high school. That was my goal all along.

So I hope you enjoy my new book, Chemistry, which is available now at Amazon. It will be free on October 30 and 31. The warning Claude gives you in the book description is a real one. This isn’t a pretty story; it’s a tragedy. But if you think you might like to get a modern taste of Claude’s untidied tale—complete with cobwebs, dust, and mildew—please feel free to give my little experiment a look.

And lastly, if you want an excellent soundtrack for reading either Chemistry or Notre-Dame de Paris, I recommend VAST’s self-titled album. I listened to it accidentally the first time I read Notre-Dame de Paris, and I listened to it again while writing Chemistry, just to relive the experience of discovering Hugo’s story for the first time. It’s perfect music for this tragedy. It’s brutal, passionate, primal in a way. I swear some of it came right out of Claude Frollo’s head. I’ve embedded a taste of the album below, probably my favorite song. If you like it, I’d wager you’ll like the rest of the album, too.

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