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On Monday night I went along to a public discussion panel in Westminster Hall entitled “Taking Video Games Seriously“.

It was a strange sort of gathering- but interesting for all that, as I’ve not been to a talk like it before. It was chaired by the rather charming Labour MP Tom Watson, and featured contributions from various speakers (including Tom Chatfield, author of Fun Inc. and Ed Vaizey, Shadow Minister for Culture) and was attended by people like me (i.e. busybodies from agencies), other interested MPs, various NGO representatives, Games Industry lobbyists and also the Gamer-interest pressure group “Gamers Voice“.

look, it's Ed Vaizey!

It was a pretty wide-ranging discussion, and if you are interested in exactly what was said, there is a highly accurate liveblog of the event very helpfully posted here.

My reason for writing this post however, was sparked by one moment in particular- a question from a journalist at the back of the room who asked the panel why games were so bad at doing narrative. He said he understood the debate about games not seeking to ape the conventions of film, but felt that the kind of storytelling employed by classic LucasArts games like Grim Fandango had been regrettably superceded by newer games like BAFTA-winning BioShock that instead offer “nothing more than the ability to machine-gun Ayn Rand fans”.

Grim Fandango, from LucasArts in 1998

Now BioShock has more famous and qualified advocates than I, and it doesn’t need me to rush to its defence.

I do happen to think that the questioner was wrong though, in a very specific way.

LucasArts made several cherished ‘point and click’ adventure games that were better narrative vehicles than other games- or at least they seemed that way. In my opinion, the gameplay they represented was simply more narrative-centric than other forms- because it prioritizes the development of story above game-world immersion, ‘sandbox’ exploration and player agency. LucasArts adventure games like Monkey Island or Grim Fandango seem to tell better stories to observers because they give a more familiar approximation of linear, text-with-pictures type narrative forms than any of the more modern popular genres (particularly FPS and MMORPG) do. They look like better stories.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

The distinction between looking and playing is important here, I think. I remember watching Monkey Island being played and imagining it must be great fun – it was funny, brilliantly animated and seemed to make intuitive sense as a story. Ironically, as an observer I was probably deriving as much enjoyment from spectating as my brother was from playing the game, given that a great deal of playing simply consisted of moving Guybrush around the screen and reading the text prompts that resulted. It was basically an animated picture book; extremely well-crafted, but a picture book nonetheless.

Personally I don’t miss the ‘point and click’ genre at all (with the possible exception of Myst). Having recently downloaded Monkey Island for the iPhone I quickly realised why I never finished the game the first time around and salvaged the disk space.

I don’t personally believe that the narrative itself is intrinsically better in this sort of game (good though it often is), but more to the point, I certainly don’t believe that any given story is better told in this format. In fact, it was the mention of BioShock that made me sit up and pay attention because BioShock has one of the best examples of a truly game-specific mode of storytelling that I can think of.

*spoiler alert – the twist in BioShock is revealed below – if you haven’t played it you should probably stop here*

Now BioShock has been (justly) celebrated precisely for the fact that it is a narrative-rich world, in fact it is positively overflowing with narrative elements – but only if you choose to engage with them. Rather than asserting the priority of text over image, of figure over ground, the game functions as a world first and foremost.

Indeed, if you want to machine gun as many Ayn Rand fans as you like simply to get to the end, you can do that. You won’t avoid the story completely, but you’ll get a much more streamlined version. Hell, if you don’t even want to use the map, you can turn on a compass that will automatically point you in the right direction! Shoot away, and navigation be damned!

Of course, if you want to find out more, you can do that too. As a shooter, it’s mechanics are clever, well-balanced and satisfying, but Rapture’s depth as an immersive world to inhabit is hard to rival. There is a game achievement available for uncovering every scrap of narrative describing cracked visionary Andrew Ryan’s underwater city-  though it will take you considerable time to get. Essentially, it’s up to you how much or how little narrative you chose to wrap your experience of playing in, and that’s what makes it a modern videogame in the truest sense.

Rapture

Of course this is more or less true for most modern games. What makes BioShock special is the pivotal scene roughly two-thirds of the way through the game; the confrontation with Andrew Ryan himself.

This is where everything goes topsy-turvy; your character’s true origins, purpose and worth are unveiled in brutal fashion.

Ryan reveals that your character is nothing but a pawn, a mindless automaton who has been doing the bidding of a hidden power up to this point, under the influence of deeply buried pyschological ‘trigger words’.

The manner in which he reveals this is shocking: he commands you to kill him – using your trigger word – and refuses to defend himself, challenging you to defeat your programming and relent.

You cannot.

Now it is not simply the twist itself – the ‘story-flip’- that makes this part of the game so powerful (though it is brilliantly conceieved). It is also the fact that the game remains ‘a game’ throughout this exposition. Unlike other narrative interventions in games (like the Metal Gear series for example) your agency isn’t removed by a cut-scene- your ‘screen-hands’ remain in place and at your command. Indeed, whilst Ryan is talking to you, you are able to switch weapons or plasmids in anticipation of the fight to come.

It never arrives.

Andrew Ryan; alive

Instead, as well as a ‘story-flip’, you are disoriented by a physical and unexpected ‘control-flip’, which confounds your most basic expectations as a player. As the twist is revealed, your powerlessness is made physically manifest. Once the trigger-word is uttered, the controller in your hands becomes dead weight. Useless.

Your on-screen hands repeatedly bludgeon Ryan, until he can no longer get to his feet, and beyond.

Nothing you do with your controller can change this.

Not only are you a powerless pawn in-game, you are a powerless pawn out of the game as well. The device and control system that has been mastered by you, has allowed you to reach this point, is overridden completely.

This might sound simple, but because the game remains a game throughout – your first-person perspective and your HUD remain at all times- the loss of control is a sudden, physical sensation. Like a slitting of the spinal cord that connects you to your character, you, the omniscient conciousness that not only animates the on-screen body but controls (even pauses) the world of Rapture itself at your convenience, become a mute and paralysed observer to a brutal crime.

Your complicity in the story is compounded by your inability to act (and to interact) when it matters.

Andrew Ryan; dead

It is one of the most powerful bits of writing for a specific medium I can think of. It left me feeling used in a way no storytelling alone could convey. It affected me the player, not simply me the observer. It was, I guess, a kind of storyfeeling.

This ability of games, to suddenly remind you of your physicality – to play with the sensations of your interaction with the game device itself- is the most criminally underused tool in the industry’s box of narrative tricks. The sudden realisation that the games designers are breaking the fourth wall- are speaking to you, the player, the guy who is playing this game right now– is a device that other mass-produced media cannot replicate.

The only other (and equally brilliant) example I can think of that employs this approach is in Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass (on the Nintendo DS). There is a moment in the final third of the game when you are asked to transfer a symbol on your in-game map from your active screen (the one you can interact with using a stylus) to the map on your inert screen (that displays information but cannot be manipulated).

DS twin-screen Zelda action!

This seemingly simple task completely confounded me. I tried everything I could think of, but the sum total of my knowledge built up in-game (and from hundreds of hours spent in previous Zelda games)  proved totally useless. This problem had no analog with a Zelda game on any other Nintendo device – which is it’s particular genius.

I was on a train at the time, and out of sheer frustration was about to slam the DS petulantly shut when I realised… that shutting the DS was the answer.

DS open...

...DS closed.

By bringing the two screens physically together – effectively preventing you from actually playing – you could move the mark across this otherwise impenetrable boundary.

It was laugh-out-loud brilliant.

A playful,  unexpected and welcome acknowledgement of you as a player, as a person holding the device and physically interacting with it.

Again, the fourth wall is breached. You are recognised as not simply controlling Link the character, but having the ability to collapse and close the game’s entire narrative universe whenever you choose; the game has deliberately brought your physical context into it’s locus of effect. It is telling its story in your space, through your hands- not simply via a screen, some text, and some music and some sound effects.

This is how games can tell stories no other medium can.

They know you are playing them, and with this knowledge, the player – you – also become their medium.

The more designers that realise this, the closer I think we’ll get to a truly unique narrative form that is born of and designed for games alone.

So here is a rather belated third episode of my four-parter devoted to tip-top time-travelling televisual treat, Lost.

sayid-season5

In parts one and two of this rather indulgent series of posts I suggested that Lost will come to be seen as the defining TV show of the decade (and not just because it will have lasted for most of it). This will be, I believe, due to the ways in which it tells its stories (vaguely and deliberately without signposting) and the way that those stories are written (generative and emergent), amongst other things.

The aspect of the show I wanted to spend a little time on in this post is the role of Lost‘s writers, and the space they occupy in the ecosytem surrounding the show.

When reading other posts, comments and messageboards about Lost, I’ve found that its often compared unfavourably to Twin Peaks , a show which more than any other tends to be held up as the zenith of enigmatic mystery programmes. I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of mister D. Lynch – the only films I’ve  managed to sit through without feeling annoyed are The Elephant Man, The Straight Story and Eraserhead– but I do think it’s interesting to compare the two series. If I’m going to claim that Lost is worthy of being held up as defining of our current media culture, then a comparison with Twin Peaks should throw any alleged innovations into sharp relief, coming as it does from its own very different televisual milieu – that of the early 1990s.

It’s strange how dated the graphics look now, though the Badalamenti score still sounds eerie and brilliant.

Now whilst I think the concerns of the two series are poles apart (Lynch is primarily an auteur translating his signature concerns into a new medium, whereas Cuse, Lindelof and Abrams seem like far more pragmatic TV people) they do bear some similarities:

  • Twin Peaks is credited with introducing filmic cinematography to TV, with each episode costing over $1m to create. These high-production values are now part and parcel of the televisual landscape (see also the short-lived Carnivale) with Lost as the most obviously ‘cinematic’ of recent big-budget shows – the opening episode of the series featuring the crash of Oceanic 815 cost a reported $14 million.
  • both shows are were commissioned and broadcast by the Disney-owned ABC network, one of the ‘big-three’ US networks. Given the tortuous, mazy nature of the plotting of the two shows, the aforementioned expensive production values, and both series’ propensity to defy the tropes of genre (particularly in the case of Twin Peaks) this is surprising. As it was, both were big ratings successes for a mainstream broadcaster that has traditionally been amongst the more conservative forces in US television.
  • The themes around Lost‘s peculiar mode of storytelling that I identified in parts one and two of this series are also true of Twin Peaks. In both shows the main story is told vaguely, generating theories upon theories about the possible direction of the plot and engaging the audience in an active mode of consumption more akin to playing a game than passive viewing. Also, Lynch (as is his wont) kept things interesting by improvising on-set, famously casting set decorator Frank Silva in the fabulously scary role of ‘BOB‘ after he was accidentally filmed in a scene. This sort of free-form approach is mirrored in the writers’ and producers’ approach to Lost, and is something I wrote at length about in part two of this series of posts.
killerbob

BOB being SCARY

Now this is where we start to look at some of the differences between the shows.

I’m going to ignore the Lynchian queasiness of Twin Peaks versus Lost‘s seemingly more earnest approach, as this stylistic difference is so obvious it goes without saying: Lynch wasn’t really making a TV show, he was making ‘David Lynch’s take on TV’ – a series that attempted to transcend the strictures of genre television. Lost on the other hand is very definitely primetime mass audience fodder, and whilst there’s nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned, any comparison of the respective shows’ unique artistic vision would be likely to see Lost lose out.

What I’m interested in is less about the content of the programmes or even what appears on the screen, and more about the differences between the shows’ internal engines and their relation to what I’ve referred to as their ‘ecosystem’ – essentially how they were concieved, created and consumed within their respective cultural environments.

Both are mystery shows that refuse to give anything away too cheaply (driving hordes of fanatical viewers to speculate wildly on possible explanations) and because of this both series’ also became part of culture more broadly; both were satirized and celebrated in mainstream media and referenced by numerous other TV shows, movies and comic books. However, where Twin Peaks was perhaps the ultimate in ‘watercooler’ TV programming, igniting debate about what was actually happening in the show, it remained essentially tied to one man’s vision, a creator who remained very much aloof from his audience. Lost is fundamentally different in that it is a child of the internet age, and as such is part of a changed media environment.

In short, Lost has the web.

Twin Peaks had many committed fans (and still does) but it didn’t have forums, chatrooms, blogs, and wikis – the focus for mass fan conversations and theory-swapping, as well as the site of interesting interfaces between the viewers and the creators . It also didn’t have access to new digital distribution and storytelling platforms that have become important parts of the Lost ecosystem- Youtube, podcasts, and ARGs, DVDs and PVRs.

One of the most important shifts that this digital ecosystem has allowed lies in the potential for writers to experiment on, commune with and draw inspiration from the audience for their show.

Remember this?

The dharma shark!

The dharma shark!

The ability to pause, rewind, examine and then post, share and discuss the content of the show with potentially millions of other dedicated LOSTies allows the writers to increase (by an order of magnitude) both the amount and the obscurity of the ‘clues’ they provide. The celebrated DVD easter eggs, the clues and hints in the official podcast, the two (at last count) Lost ARGs- as well as what actually happens onscreen frame by frame- are all pored over by fans producing hundreds of thousands of hours of analysis. This then results in many long and complex theories (this is one of my favourite theories actually- that Lost is actually generated through a complex game being played between Lindelof and Abrams– though the writer lost me with his revelations about eye colour as his evidence runs to hundreds of pages). These theories are ultimately what fuels the show’s ecosystem, providing the necessary nutrients to support the diversity of content provided by the writers.

Now Twin Peaks generated loads of discussion too, with one important distinction – the discussion between fans of Lost happens in public, and is closely observed by the writers of the show. In fact, popular site the fuselage is an official Lost fans forum sponsored and frequented by Lost’s creative team.

In previous posts I’ve looked at how the characters of both Ben and Desmond were plucked from the supporting cast and put centre-stage because of the power the actors brought to their roles. The audience’s immediate recations to them were also very important, however, as demonstrated in this quote from Cuse:

“you’re right about Michael Emerson [Ben]. He’s the biggest example of a character who we just fell in love with beyond our expectations. I would say Desmond would also be in that category. The audience really fell in love with him right from the get-go and he quickly moved right into the mainstream of our cast.”

The fact that the writers and producers of Lost allow themselves room for this type of improvisation or ‘generative storytelling’ (as I termed it) allows them to be highly reactive to the characters or plot elements (i.e. Hurley’s numbers) that grab the fans’ interest. It also works the other way however, moving characters introduced by the writers from the centre to the periphery when the elements just don’t seem to ‘click’…

paulo-nikki-dead

The ill-fated Nikki and Paulo are a good case for what makes Lost such an interesting series to me. The writers made the decision to introduce these new characters, handled the introductions badly and then acted swiftly and resolutely when it didn’t work out. It is the way in which they decided to write off the Nikki/Paolo experiment however that really demonstrates Lost‘s special kind of brilliance.

The episode of their demise, Expose, is one of my favourite Lost moments- not because of the noirish theme and the gruesome finale, but because the whole episode is basically a gift to the fans of the show. The new characters that the viewers loathed were killed off in a hilariously OTT double cross (with spiders!) which served as both apology and admission of failure by the writers- but the show also integrated them, by way of flashbacks right into the first episode of the series, giving us all-new perspectives on some pretty old Lost lore, and resolving one dangling plotline (Sun’s kidnapping by Charlie)- a rare and satisfying occurrence.

This kind of ‘easter egg’ doesn’t come cheap. The cost of returning to the spectacular crash that opened the series, editing in the new characters (to the extent of bringing back actors who had been killed off in previous seasons) only to kill them off at the end of the episode must have been considerable. At the same time, they gave the actors they’d hired to play the ill-fated Nikki and Paolo a whole episode to themselves in which to shine. Way to turn a crappy situation into a win/win for all involved.

lost-expose-1

Nikki is edited back into the crash of Oceanic 815

I don’t know another programme where this kind of relationship would even be attempted, let alone pulled off with panache. For me this demonstrates another aspect of what makes Lost worthy of comment – not only is Lost a game, not only is it an experiment in generative storytellling, Lost is also a property shared between writers and viewers. Lost is a conversation.

So whilst Twin Peaks blazed a trail that Lost is deeply indebted to (openly admitted by the writers), it is a markedly different beast in my opinion, with different artistic concerns and a new mastery of a different media ecosystem. Also, unlike most things involving David Lynch, Lost will have an ending that at least goes some way to satisfying the fans who’ve sat through it.

For my fourth (and definitely FINAL) post in this series, I’m going to look at the blurring between the fictional world of Lost and the real world of the viewer, and also consider the particular challenges the show faces as a primetime ratings driver.

Apologies for the length of this one, I got a bit carried away!

lost-locke2Yesterday I wrote about Lost‘s deliberately vague storytelling, and suggested that the narrative paradigm the show adopts is more akin to that of an ARG or a mystery game (like purported influence, Myst) than to a more typical unfolding of dramatic events. Today I wanted to focus our attention behind the scenes, and think about the lore surrounding how Lost’s stories get written.

There are two aspects of the show’s creative process that I think are worthy of some examination; both the writers’ approach to writing the show and role of the writers themselves in the Lost universe.

In the case of the former, popular legend (and a great deal of messageboard commentary) has it that the witers on Lost have only a vague idea how the story will ultimately pan out, and perhaps even less fixed notions on how any given character’s arc will develop from series to series. In effect, when writing Lost, those involved are making it up on the fly, improvising willy-nilly and creating a discordant mess of half-baked plot lines, ultimately to rely on a heavy-handed deus ex machina to resolve the story come the series’ end.

I have no idea how close to the mark this is, but in terms of how much license the writers have to alter the direction and flow of the show (adding unexpected narrative nodes and connections), it does seem to be the case that they are afforded extraordinary freedom.

Given the difficulties that some American television dramas (particularly those in the science-fiction genre) have had with Networks approving storylines  (Joss Whedon‘s new series Dollhouse is a case in point) or indeed with writers arguably being allowed too much scope for sweeping character changes (I’m looking at you Sylar) it is remarkable that Lost seems to operate the way it does.

It is interesting to speculate on ther mindset of the creators; the narrative, the story, the message, whatever you want to call it seems to play second fiddle to themore immediate, tangible qualities of the world they are trying to create. Their willingness to re-write at the drop of a hat is aptly demonstrated in the anecdotes about the casting process and- seems typical of the  approach to the show overall (the character of Hurley was invented after Jorge Garcia auditioned for the role of Sawyer, and the character of Sawyer was re-written to fit the accent and irascibility of Josh Holloway).

Perhaps the best example of this willingness to adapt and change mid-flow is the character of Benjamin Linus, easily the most compelling, complex and devious player in the whole drama.

benjamin_linus_by_lecsica_by_michaelemersonclub

It is hard to imagine how a character who is so central- indeed pivotal– to the world of Lost was originally only scripted for three episodes in season 2. So the story goes, his contract was extended to eight episodes, and then to the whole of series 3 and 4 as the writers sort of riffed off of Michael Emerson‘s brilliant, bug-eyed presence.

It appears that the overall narrative, the ‘story’ of what happens in Lost is far from sacrosanct – and in the case of Ben’s character, much the better for it. The world of Lost and the charisma of the players who inhabit it seem to be more important to the creators than the integrity of the tale itself. This of course, is another reason why Lost sits uneasily with television dramas like The Wire – a show that takes the existing televisual tradition of the hard-bitten cop drama to an apex of verisimilitude.

In The Wire, the story (ultimately the moral of the story) is everything – and quite right too.

In Lost however, it is the being in the world that seems to matter most.

Why is it that this seems to upset people? In much the same way that pop bands often get castigated for not having written their own songs, for being simply performers (though it doesn’t seem to affect president Obama)- it seems to many as if the writers of Lost are somehow affronting us, insulting our intelligence by not sitting down and writing the show properly.

I suspect this is something about the show, and something about the audience.

Because Lost seems to ride roughshod over the writerly, literary approach to narrative, it seems somehow less genuine when compared to shows that have a more readily demonstrable artistic vision. At the same time, the kind of audience that time-traveling, science-fiction, high-concept adventure shows would normally attract can be quite fickle, and I suspect many see Lost as a high-gloss confidence trick – a mainstream, big-budget drama that looks like its written for sci-fi fans but is a actually a hollow shell designed to suck in ratings and plenty of these…

dollars1

I have some sympathy with this view, because I’m exactly that type of fickle fan – however, rather than castigate Lost for sitting outside of one artistic tradition, I prefer to locate what it does within another. As the introduction of Benjamin Linus shows, in Lost’s peculiar ecosystem one actor’s performance, one variation, can literally remake everything else around it.

This example doesn’t suggest a writer carefully constructing narrative in accordance with an artistic vision, instead it shows new content being generated through the interactions of a set number of players acting in accordance with some basic rules.

It is emergence.

In this sense, Lost can be said to (at least in some part) be generating itself.

If we believe this to be intentional, this process would place Lost within a very different, but no less canonical tradition. Emergence is something that has fascinated many artists over the years, and continues to do so today. For an artistic read on the topic, you could do a lot worse than listen to this discussion between Will Wright and Brian Eno in this talk from the Seminars About Long-term Thinking (SALT) series organised by the Long Now Foundation.

eno_qa_fullIn short, emergence is the study of how small interactions- which take place on only a very local level with very limited inputs- can produce complex behavioural systems. The classic example is ant colonies, where whilst individual ants don’t take orders but act as autonomous units, the colony as a whole displays complex behaviour (such as finding the maximum distance from all colony entrances to dispose of dead bodies).

Emergent behaviour can be created and studied using cellular automata, illustrated in the video below. Simple rules govern each individual cell’s behaviour, whereby its state (black or white) changes only in relation to the states of the cells in its immediate vicinity.

Out of these simple rules, very complex patterns emerge.

In art with both big and small ‘A’s, there have been plenty of experiments using algorithms and processes to generate novel and unpredictable work, from William S. Burroughs’ “cut-up” technique to the automatic writing and exquisite corpses of the Surrealists or the Musikalisches Würfelspiel supposedly practised by Mozart.

Indeed, in the Wright/Eno talk mentioned above both speakers talk about work they’ve produced based on a fascination with the possibilities of this approach.

I particularly like Brian Eno’s example of a wind chime as a cheap and basic machine for creating generative music within established rules.

So is Lost set up to allow emergent narratives to appear?

Even if not their explicit intent, it seems that the interaction of actors, writers and creators is allowed to take precedence over the pre-existing narrative if it produces a variation that feels right. It may be idle speculation on my part, but if the writers and producers really were experimenting with emergent wrting it would make the whole show a rather grand project, I hope even for those who currently feel somewhat cheated by it.

After examining how the process of writing Lost sets it apart from many of it’s contemporaries, I intend to use the next post to explore the second aspect of Lost’s writing – the role of the writers themselves in Lost’s universe, where fiction and reality are blurred.

See you tomorrow 🙂

Brian Eno image sourced from Wired and Benjamin Linus image from DeviantART user Lecsica

Oh well.

I was planning to live-blog the series opener of Lost this Sunday, pretty much aping the Guardian’s patented minute-by-minute update style.

lost_logo

I was really quite taken with this idea.

However it turns out I’m going to see Sebastien Tellier on Sunday evening instead of sitting in front of the TV, as a gig that was originally supposed to take place tonight has been rearranged.

I can’t complain too much about that as either way my Sunday evening will be awesome- but it does throw a spanner into my electronic-publishing plan of works somewhat.

spanner?

Sebastian Tellier: spanner?

As a result, I decided to replace my liveblog idea with a series of posts that will try to capture some of the thoughts I’ve had about Lost over the years: why I think it is such a landmark piece of television programming (and much more besides) and why I have asserted confidently that it is the TV show that will be remembered most readily in future decades as defining it’s era.

There are four reasons for my plaudits, and as I’m going to go into each at some length, I’ve decided to make this post part 1 of a four-part series. I will try to post the other 3 reasons before Sunday’s premiere so I can add to the build-up of excitement in my own insignificant way.

The first reason I think Lost has significance other than simply being great telly lies in the way it tells a story.

Following the argument that Steven Johnson so memorably made in ”Everything Bad is Good for You“,  Lost is an important (if not the definitive) example of  popular culture’s evolutionary algorithm: mass-market TV shows will start to swell with characters, plotlines and sub-plotlines, story arcs, disassembled narratives and countless hours of ‘overspill’ content  in other in other types of media (webisodes, fan-generated content and references, homages and parodies) as audiences become  more culturally adapted to ‘reading’ the medium and therefore demand more complex experiences from it (eventually, Johnson argues, driving increased intelligence on a mass-scale as witnessed in the flynn effect).

Lost is undeniably complex, but what sets it’s particular brand of complexity apart from other celebrated TV shows like The Wire or 24 is it’s vagueness.

Vague complexity might sound a little oxymoronic, but an essential part of the experience of watching Lost is the sense (shared by the characters inthe show) that you have no idea what is going to happen next – not because the writers are deliberately attempting to out-fox the most committed plot-guessers in the way that a season of 24 does- but rather because what might happen next is simply not deducible from the what has happened previously.

Like the survivors themselves, the viewer lacks agency and insight: the most significant events in Lost‘s world happen to you, not because of you. It’s futile attempting to figure out what may actually be going on because the centre of the puzzle, the island itself, remains obscure; obfuscated in plain view.

This is not a dramatic device designed to keep audiences on the edge of their seat (the flow of a season of Lost is not nearly as frenetic as that) but rather a central part of how Lost‘s narrative world functions.

The Wikipedia entry for the show states that an influence on Lost‘s creators was the celebrated Macintosh computer game Myst, and the connection between the two worlds runs deeper than the obvious analogue of the mysterious island.

myst

Myst became renowned because it was a computer game experience which subverted many of the norms of computer games- for example, there is no set time frame in which you must act, there are no enemies to kill or avoid, and there is precious little context other than what the player discovers through their interaction with the world. Discovering the conceit of the game is what the game is actually about.

This is also true of Lost– the storytelling paradigm is not one of an unfolding dramatic narrative- a grand story being revealed piece by piece- but rather one of exploration, investigation and extrapolation. So much of what is revealed is unconnected, seemingly random and with precious little indication of it’s relative importance versus everything else that the viewer’s response has to be to catalogue and file these story ‘bits’, attempting to delineate a ‘big picture’  through a process of connecting them. It’s actually a lot closer to an alternate reality game than a typical TV script, only without explicit viewer/player input.

I suspect that many of the questions Lost raises won’t be answered ever by the writers of the show- previous form would suggest it’s probably foolish to expect anything else.

I think that this is the reason why many people find the show (some even the idea of the show) so annoying- it feels like there is no grand plan and so therefore it cannot be worthy of the investment of time. Moreover, it probably doesn’t qualify as literary in the way that The Wire does, because this sort of ‘make it up as you go along’ schtick is simply not very writerly. Also, some people seem to hate it because it’s not Twin Peaks.

In a way, all these objections are true- but they miss the point for me because they are judging the show with the wrong set of expectations. The thrill of watching Lost does not lie in seeing an intricate plot device click satisfactorily into place- it doesn’t reward viewers in that way.

In fact, rather than making the viewer feel clued in, rewarded and powerful, the pleasure one derives from Lost is revelling in your utter powerlessness. Giving yourself over to the spectacle of it. Realising that everything you think you know is probably wrong.

The prototypical exclamation from a satisfied Lost viewer is not ‘aha!‘ but ‘wtf?

The shift at the end of season 3 and into season 4 from flash-backs to flash-forwards is a great example of this. We all believed that the story of Lost was the struggle to get off the island, and the role of the ubiquitous flashbacks was to give us all-important clues as to why the survivors were destined or fated to be stuck there: the flashbacks pointed us to the island, to the present- tantalisisng us with the promise of revelation.

To then be confronted by the sight of a future Jack, grizzled and troubled, far from the clean-cut leader of men we had become accustomed to and desperate to get back to the island moved more than the goalposts – it shifted the whole centre of gravity of the narrative, it knocked the wind out of us.

It was brilliant.

The complex yet deliberately vague way Lost tells us it’s stories is something worthy of celebration- if you approach with the right expectations. However, whilst the way the story is told is a key element of the Lost phenomenon, it is arguably not as groundbreaking as the way the story is written.

Tune in for more on this tomorrow 🙂

I really ♥ Animal Collective.

Here is a last.fm chart to prove it:

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Now you know this, you may want to not bother reading my review of their new album Merriweather Post Pavilion because of my obvious bias.

I don’t mind if you don’t- it is pretty much a celebration of my own fanboyishness, and I daresay that there are better-written reviews out there anyway.

However, if you are wondering why anyone might enjoy listening to their insane, childish racket (like my wife), then you might find the following interesting from a purely forensic point of view.

A track by track review follows after the jump:

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1. With Flowers: This track combines acoustic guitar arpeggios with squelchy atmospherics to create a (typically) hazy and ink-washed bed for folksy-type lyrics about dancers with flowers in their hair. Naturally, halfway through it turns into a banging rave-out, powered by church organ.

Because Dave Portner and Noah Lennox’s vocal harmonies remind me of Simon and Garfunkel, I’ve branded this track a Scarborough Fair for the messy melange of our current decade.

2. My Girls: Quite possibly the most immediate and most ‘pop’ track I’ve ever heard the band produce. It has great call-and-response vocal harmonies, a brilliantly catchy chorus and perhaps most surprisingly a proper bassline you can dance to. The song seems to be a pean to Noah Lennox’s house – celebrating the fact that it protects his wife and daughter from the elements and anthropomorphising it into one of his brothers. Weird, but that comes with the territory, and the song is actually quite touching – and as heartfelt as a love song to a house could be.

3. Also Frightened: This song has a bassline that sounds kind of stumbling and drunk when you first hear it. In fact, it seems like it’s pushing the rest of the song around in a bossy and ungainly way. It’s okay though because after you’ve heard it a few times you realise that the bassline and the rest of the song are actually great friends and go really well together.

Besides that, it has a very rousing vocal harmony near the end thet will suddenly have you sitting up straight thinking ‘where did that come from?’ There’s a lovely melancholy edge to the melody all the way through this track, but it’s definitely the soaring title-singing moment that you’ll remember this one by.

4. Summertime Clothes: To me, this song channels a sort of 1950’s americana; doo-wop music and Archie comics somehow seem appropriate. Maybe it’s because the track rumbles and bounces along seemingly without syncopation (making it practically impossible to dance to without looking like an excited child)- but that’s also part of the slanted innocence that the song celebrates with a chorus that simply proclaims “I want to walk around with you”.

Obviously the track is still chock-full of strange samples and weird grumbling electronics, but at the same time it seems to issue from an earlier, more innocent era.

5. Daily Routine: This is a more classic Animal Collective track. The primary elements are pushing, insistent drums partnered with off-kilter percussion, and a looping, spiralling melody with vocals kept relatively low in the mix. The track holds its structure until roughly the 3 -minute mark, whereupon it begins to dissolve into a loose, droning hum. This is one of the few songs on the album that could possibly have fitted into an earlier album, but that’s no bad thing.

6. Bluish: This track feels dense and foggy, like you have to wade through it. It has a truly lovely chorus, and sounds like it was actually written on an instrument rather than being built up layer by layer using samples. It’s kind of a rock ballad, actually.

I know I’m making a lot of inappropriate comparisons here, but the lyrics, and vocal phrasing and melody make this track feel a bit like  an Animal Collective cover of Spandau Ballet’s True. Which in my estimation is an excellent thing.

7. Guys Eyes: In contrast to the previous track, this song is completely layered up from the bottom using what seems like hundreds of different fragments. An acoustic guitar strum gives impetus to the melody, but with even the vocal tracks denseley layered and phased between the left and right channels, the overall effect is to create  a mosaic of sound that you have to stand back from to make any sense of.

It’s another futuristic-sounding track of the kind that only Animal Collective seem to be able to produce- in terms of provenance it seems to come from everywhere and nowehere, to be exactly apposite for right now but also alien and timeless, like it could have been dug up in an archaeological site. This type of track is the reason that listeners became interested in them in the first place.

8. Taste: As the name possibly suggests, this track is rich, dense and sweet like a fruit cake. A singalong melody, toytronica samples and a minor to major chorus that just feels warm and comforting.

9. Lion In A Coma: This track is like a more ‘grown-up’ version of ‘who could win a rabbit‘ from Sung Tongs. It marries a ‘so-fast-it’s-hard-to-follow’ vocal phrasing with a powerful single-note bassline (played on a digeridoo no less) and nursery-rhyme melodies. It is rapidly becoming my favourite sing on the whole album because it’s so spacious and strange, yet childish and campfire-singalong accessible at the same time.

10. No More Running: Okay, many years ago I left a copy of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Music of My Mind‘ sitting on a record player in the sun, and the damn thing melted into a warped, undulating and ultimately inappropriate 3-D shape. It was a pretty crappy record player too- the speakers enjoyed a loveless long-distance relationship with the stereo where both parties were obviously more interested in pursuing other interests. This song reminds me of trying to listen to that album, post-melt, on that stereo.

So it sounds like a gospel-soul ballad played on a warped record through damaged speakers.

On a rainy day.

11. Brother Sport: What a closer! This track combines African melodies, panpipe synthesizers, tribal rhythms, masses o’ maracas, and a simply huge singalong coda. It pretty much removes Vampire Weekend’s reason to exist. Please leave the room Vampire Weekend.

Overall, the album sounds cleaner and more polished than previous releases- even Strawberry Jam didn’t have this sort of production sheen that actually recalls the sound of the 1980’s in places.

Also, the singing is more restrained- which adds to the sense that this is a more mature album from a more mature band. However, the fact that the album sounds cleaner doesn’t mean that the band’s output feels any less unique. They retain the ability to create odd noises, build medlodies and juxtapose disparate elements in ways that I’ve never heard another band do. In fact, the essential strangeness of their aesthetic is not diminished but enhanced by the move to a more polished production style; it’s just that now you can hear how weird they really are.

I also saw the the band live last week- with all the sensorial stimulation that a packed, sweaty gig provides. Needless to say, they were great.

I urge the musically curious reader to try them out- you might find something truly awesome in their muddlings.

I have recently spent a fair amount of hours immersed in a variety of webcomics, which has been jolly good fun.

I have always been a fan of comics in printed form, from the British fare I consumed as a youngster (like Whizzer & Chips, Eagle and Tiger, 2000 AD) to  Mighty Marvel’s Daredevil in my teens (Frank Miller’s second stint on this comic was awesome, despite his current penchant for making crappy movies) to Japanese manga (from Doraemon to Maison Ikkoku to Deathnote) that I still read today.

Given this prediliction, it’s actually a bit of a mystery to me why I’ve never properly explored the world of comics on the web. I remember discovering and reading Scott McCloud’s I cant stop thinking four or five years ago, and being really inspired by it. I think it’s still inspiring now, for two reasons:

  • first, his enthusiasm for the web as a game-changing technology. McCloud was (and still is) a convincing evangelist for the transformative power of the internet, and was way ahead of the game in looking at how print-based media should adapt to this new environment. His arguments for micropayments remain entertaining and compelling years later – and are well worth a read.
  • secondly, I really loved his exploration of the browser window as a medium for storytelling. It is insightful, entertaining and (to me) exciting to see someone analyse how a particular media idiom works, and really bring to life what this understanding makes possible. Take a look at the panel below for a sample:

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Stuff like this is really  interesting to me.  I’m always fascinated by the kinds of interplay existing between context and content, form and function, object and interpreter- as to my mind this is where media (whatever it is) actually happens.

I don’t think enough people who work in the media industry really get this point – any given media is not simply the sum of its technology, its audience and its content: it is much subtler and much richer than that.

Every form of media is pervaded by a social, cultural and historical context- who consumes it, where and when is it consumed? Beyond that, we should ask what preceded it, what does it supercede? What does it make possible and what does it render obsolete?

(Props duly given to Marshal McLuhan)

For this reason, it’s a pleasure to observe what McCloud has forged using what he calls ‘the infinite canvas’ of web space as opposed to the printed page. I actually think that the point is made most eloquently with a simple image from his epic Zot! Online:

(click to enlarge)

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However, despite feeling fired up by his ideas, I failed to really investigate the landscape that he opened up to me. I got distracted by other web-based things – MMORPGs and blogging for starters- and just plain forgot about it all.

I intend to make up for that, starting now!

When I started using RSS properly in 2005, I did add two webcomics, which I have stuck with ever since, namely Boy On A Stick and Slither and Slow Wave.

BOASAS is written by Steven L. Cloud, and concerns the philosophical meanderings of the titular protagonists; a strange stick-boy and his friend – a snake.

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The philiosophical bent to the humour in the comic is probably not to everyone’s taste, but it tickles the bit of my brain that laughs at clever things (the bit that really wants to like QI) more often than not. Plus it looks gorgeous.

Slow Wave, written by Jesse Reklaw is really more than a webcomic. Or maybe less than a webcomic, I’m not really sure.

Each edition is a simple four-panel piece that Reklaw creates using a narrative derived from one of his readers’ dreams. He calls it “a collective dream diary authored by people from around the world”, and each featured dreamer gets an author’s co-credit. These comics have a brilliantly surreal feel, the dream-narrative having its own strange logic – or lack thereof.

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As a result, the comics are always the same yet always different, and whilst there is no character or thematic development the comics are unlike anything else on the web or elsewhere.

Reklaw is now an established star in the webcomic firmament , and as such has also contributed a guest edition of what is probably the web’s favourite comic right now, achewood.

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Achewood is one of the most narratively driven webcomics I’ve come across, and whilst it is syndicated strip by strip, the characters develop into rich, rounded individuals over time – particularly the main protagonists Ray Smuckles (the cat in the the tracksuit) and his best friend Roast Beef Kazenzakis (not featured above).

It’s pretty daunting to try and explain achewood to the uninitiated, so I suggest you read the Wikipedia entry, or just jump in and try it out. I would reccomend starting around March 2002 and reading a few issues in one sitting to get a feel for the characters, the humour and the art style.

Another very well-regarded and apparently much-read webcomic is Nicholas Gurewitch’s Perry Bible fellowship.

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The richly detailed and wickedly funny three-panel comics are a visual feast, and I’m not at all surprised that Gurewitch’s first published book has been a huge success story on Amazon.

There are of course many many more webcomics out there to discover and enjoy. I need to end this already over-long post however, and I wanted to post my absolute favourite here. I’ve already put the link out on twitter, but it’s so good I had to post it twice- it’s the Bad Comics Challenge!

This series of surreal, outrageous, hilarious and manifestly not bad stips resulted from a gentlemen’s wager that author Anthony Clarke couldn’t produce two-hundred bad comics  over a weekend (to balance out his existing great work).

The results speak for theselves,  look at #198:

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and also this, from early in the series (#7):

badcomicschallenge13That last panel is so full of pathos. And WIN, obviously.

The webcomics I’ve highlighted don’t actually all demonstrate the potential of Scott McCloud’s ”infinite canvas” that was discussed at the start of the post- for more of that check out this exciting, yet complex example by Patrick S. Farley.

I hope, however, that they do demonstrate the variety and vibrancy (is that a word?) of material out there.

Enjoy!

me

I work in media as a strategist. I like art, robots, comics, interaction design, karaoke, wildlife photography, indian food, campari, gaming, American TV (teen drama included), reading non-fiction, reading fiction and listening to music. I also have a tenori-on because I'm so rad.

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