Monday, December 22, 2014

The History You Build

I saw The Empire Strikes Back, in the theatre, when I was 16 . . . and to this day I do not understand why I saw that film very differently from other people.  During the great reveal about the bad guy being the father of the good guy, when others were staggered by the shock of it all, I was thinking, "Really?  The writer thought we would swallow that bullshit?"

Apparently, the people did.  Except me.  And so, where movies are concerned, I took a different path.

Yesterday, I saw a film most will think obscure, The Hundred Foot Journey.  I did not think it a very good movie, but I don't mean to go into why.  I will spoil it a bit, without describing the plot.  The movie is about cooking; it includes a lot of food porn.  In the final climax, the writer makes it very clear through the choices of the characters that modern fusion cooking is devoid of soul and passion (compare the father's philosophies about food at the film's beginning with the son's end-of-film decision).

Yet, when I investigated what the critics had to say after watching the film (it is something I do), not a one said anything about this.  Every single critic was completely wrapped up in the relationship between two cultures, one of them Hindu and the other French.  Because, unfortunately, the writer obscured the theme with a thick veneer of racism and insider/outsider conflict - and since the audience is easily obsessed with neanderthal concepts like skin color and cultural bias, that's the only thing anyone writing about the film seems to remember about it.

Where it comes to deconstruction, I'm sad to say that amateur critics or reviewers have trouble drawing the threads together of how the subtle conversation in the first act has relevance to the character's dilemma in the third.  I feel this same issue is what makes audiences unaware of contrived moments in a film - not paying attention to the details, it seems perfectly okay if the two main characters suddenly become lovers.  It's okay if the villain is suddenly the hero's father - even though the basis for this are a few random phrases about the father that could apply . . . well, to anyone.

This is why many of you are so confused when a professional critic seems to love a film that seems slow, purposeless or even moronic.  The merits upon which they judge the film are not based upon the film's enjoyability or measure of escapism - they are seeking the relationships between the phrases and images used at different parts of the film to express a specific idea or emotion, along with the quality and specificity of both the method and the purpose.  Any film where this is done very well will become enjoyable through multiple viewings, because the number of errors are so few.  Compare this with what I wrote a couple weeks ago about seeing the flaws in everything.

If we are going to deconstruct things, it isn't enough just to look at the details.  We must look at the bigger picture.  We want more than how the adventure is constructed, we want to be clear about what the adventure will provide.  What messages does it send about your campaign?  How does the end of this adventure contribute the player's will and desire to step forward into the adventure to come?  How are you selling yourself and your skill as a DM?  It only takes one adventure with a cheap, second-rate twisted ending to plant the seed in your player's mind that you - the DM - are unreliable. That you're out to fuck them.  Think about how you feel when you see another movie released with actors and a director that you've learned not to like.  Hell, are you going to see those movies?  Then why suppose that players are going to come back and run in your world again, faithfully, when you've proven yourself unlikeable?

The great, exciting idea you have for a twist ending today may screw you in the long run.  Look at how the end of Empire completely destroys the evil bastard Darth was in the first movie.  In the Return, Lucas had to bring in the Emperor to provide a reasonable villain (as Darth was reduced to puppet-status); in the pre-quels, there's no comparable villain at all.  To play that one, cheesy reveal in the second film, Lucas mortgaged the farm.  All the films since have been - from my point of view, I'm afraid - unwatchable shit.

Who am I kidding?  I can only ever watch the first one.

You may view your adventures as independent of one another, but in fact you and your players acquire a history through your efforts.  Nor does it matter if this history is acquired in any given genre or system!  The adventure you run in Rifts will affect how your players view you during your Pathfinder campaigns.  You may have switched to 5e, but your adventure scheming and design from 4e is still with you.  And don't think that you're safe from this if you run modules - you choose which modules to run, a reality that reflects upon your character, your philosophy and your method.

If you wonder why you can't seem to make any system work, then it is time to understand that it isn't the system, it is you.  You need to change.  You need to grasp the groundwork you've already laid down - and you're responsible for ripping that groundwork up and replacing it with turf worth playing on.  Which you'll never do if you can't accept that you need to deconstruct your own method with a clear, cold, ruthless eye.

1 comment:

Jay Murphy said...

I'm happy to say I was brought up short by a couple of comments by my players in my last game session I ran. One was that the PC felt I had pushed for the character to take a course of action, and the other was a PC's confusion over an NPC's choice of action. That he was having trouble grasping the "meta-game" surrounding the world and consequently, the actions of a particular NPC.

Now I could just chalk it up to the fact that the PC's only see what they see and are not privy to the total world knowledge available to myself, but that would be just good old fashioned self satisfied GM'ing.

Instead I've tried to take this feedback as essential information, a clue to how I present and run my session and that I had better look at how I can manage the game elements in a consistent and well played manner.

It helps I have a blog which consistently flogs the dead horse of shit GM'ing so I don't wander lost amid the issue.