My slides from the MIT Virtually There Conference
Video from the conference: my talk is at 6:40
My slides from the MIT Virtually There Conference
Video from the conference: my talk is at 6:40
Thanks to Andrew Marantz for calling my attention to this December 2015 interview with filmmaker Charlie Kaufman in which he describes a TV pilot he worked on with a plot structure similar to Life After Life, exploring the alternate paths the same person’s life might have taken:
It seems that you would be an ideal person for an Amazon or a Netflix to throw a lot of money at and say, “Hey, make us a distinctive, Charlie Kaufman–esque show.”
I had a pilot at HBO that Catherine Keener was going to be in. The whole series takes place on one day. The premise of the show is that there are so many different accidents in your life that lead you in different directions, and as you look at someone’s life from birth to, let’s say, 50, there are so many different versions of that life that could have happened. My idea was that you take this woman, she is this age on this day, that’s the only given, and then each episode is based on a different route. Maybe it broke off here and the difference is very small; maybe it broke off when she was a baby, in which case it’s a completely different life. In the course of the series, you start to recognize, first of all, there’s clues given as to what these things were that happened that changed the course of her life. But there are also similarities in all these different versions of herself — about who she is. What I thought was really cool about the show, in addition to the premise, which I really liked, is that there’s no one right version of it. You can watch this in any order, and it’s a different show. The example that I like to use is that in one episode, she’s married to this man and you see their life together. In the next episode, she’s divorced from this man and you see her life having been divorced from this man. In a third episode, she and this man walk by each other on the street, clearly have never met. And depending on which order you watch the series in, there are different a-hamoments.
So what happened with it?
I wrote a first episode, and then they wanted to see a second episode because they weren’t sure what it was going to be. So I wrote a second episode. And I decided to make the second episode very, very different, so that they could see how it could be very, very different. The response I got from them was, “Well, I don’t see how this could be the second episode. It’s so different.” And it’s like, “Well, no. I’m not saying it’s the second episode. I’m saying it’s another episode. This isn’t like the order that the show has to go in if we want to establish the premise.” It may not be the real reason they didn’t want to do it, but they could not remove that idea from their head. Ultimately, they didn’t go ahead with the series.
This is clearly a genre that will work best on interactive platforms. The significant thing here is that both Charlie Kaufman and Kate Atkinson, Hollywood/experimental filmmaker and mainstream/experimental British novelist are conceiving of extended replay stories of this kind.
New ebook-only edition revised for 2016 with over 10,000 words of new content in the form of chapter-by-chapter commentary, with new examples and useful web links illustrative of the enduring principles of design that have been validated by multiple communities of practice — from game designers to digital journalists to VR developers — since 1997 when it first appeared, and emphasizing productive design strategies for the next phase of creative innovation.
In chapter 12 of ITM I talk about the companion model of the computer, the persistent fantasy that a computing machine can become our ideal personal companion, anticipating our needs even before we can articulate them. Spike Jonze’s new movie Her (2014) takes this wished for merger of computation and consciousness as his starting point, creating a richly imagined love story between Theodore, a relatively normal human being, and Samantha, a disembodied operating system. It is a smart movie and an elegant corrective to our fantasies of the totally responsive system.
Samantha, is a self-aware and evolving artificial intelligence, an instantiation of a new product called OS1 that Theodore meets when she is installed on his desktop machine. Samantha starts out as the perfect Siri+Google Glass assistant, offering reminders, retrieving information, tidying-email, proofreading documents, and even remembering which of the maze routes have already been tried in Theodore’s holographic video game. She is voiced with great charm by Scarlet Johansson, and given a sense of humor, a talent for cartooning and music composition, and verbal expressive qualities, such as breathlessness, that usually come from having a body. Samantha is also playful, “intuitively” sensing Theodore’s need for cheering up, she uses her navigational mode to send him spinning around madly; and she tricks him into approaching a pizza window and speaking out an order before he even knows he is hungry. This is Siri as the ideal playmate and mom for one’s inner, neglected 7 year old.
In order for this film to work we have to be able to sympathize with Theodore, who is alone on screen for much of the movie, communicating with Samantha through a wireless earbud and a mobile device which is often in his shirt pocket, pointed outward to share what he sees as he moves around the world. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance positions Theodore as a depressed but resilient person, who is unhappy but not desperate. His relationship with Samantha takes the form of an office romance – she is the perky and perfectly attentive assistant who understands him better and asks less of him than the embodied people in his life.
The film prevents us from dismissing the relationship by offering up a range of parallels to human/OS romance by which to calibrate what is real. Theodore works as a highly empathetic surrogate writer of computer-printed “handwritten letters” for a client base of caring but inarticulate lovers and relatives. When Theodore is at home he plays gesture-based video games on a holographic system projected in front of his couch, exploring an alien planet in the company of a comically insulting alien child. In one scene, the very personal, humanlike presence of Samantha, as a voice in Theodore’s earbud, is juxtaposed with the more rigidly programmed holographic game character. Theodore is also given a range of sexual encounters with actual women including happy memories of married sex, comically dreadful phone sex with a stranger, clumsily eager attempts at intimacy on a blind date, and a disturbing attempt at a three-way with a body surrogate for Samantha. With these scenes as sympathy-building context, the movie invites us to experience the loving words (over tasteful black screen) of Theodore and Sam’s love scene not as the masturbatory delusion of creepy loner, but as an absurd but authentic romantic consummation between two conscious beings.
With this scene Spike Jonze has taken the software-as-companion fantasy as far as it can possibly go, leaving previous robot/human stories like Blade Runner , let alone Nicholas Negroponte’s longing for the perfect English butler, in the dust. He also fittingly captures both the intensity and the futility of the underlying desire.
(Spoiler alert… for the rest of this post)
Warren Spector is a game designer and critic who has been advocating for more expressive games for over a decade. He has just started a new column with a familiar lament: Where Are Gaming’s Role Models? Warren, who began his career expecting to be a film critic, points to a column by NY Times critic Brooks Barnes about Hollywood stars like Ben Affleck and George Clooney who persuade studios to let them make movies with serious social content. What would it take, he asks, to get the same kind of role models in the game industry?
It is not surprising that a question about games is framed as a deficit of heroes — role models of exemplary individuals. It is also not surprising that Spector should turn to an older narrative medium (and the most awarded Hollywood films of 2012) for evidence of more mature story lines:
Can you imagine a game about a guy on a spiritual quest in a boat with a tiger? How about two old people struggling with the pain of love and aging? Or the story behind a raid to kill the world’s most notorious terrorist? Okay, we could probably do an okay job of that last one, though probably not the events leading up to it – do you water board that guy or not? Seriously? But you get my point.
It is funny to imagine how the pitches for such imaginary games would be received by the big game companies. But we should also remember that Ben Affleck (Argo) and Katherine Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) had a long tradition of serious war films to point to, including classic hits like Casablanca or Bridge on the River Kwai, in which disgust for war and admiration of heroic self-sacrifice are interwoven in complex moral patterns. Ang Lee’s highly original Life of Pi exists in a number of similarly long traditions including human/beast moral fables like King Kong and ET and journey/survival films like Lifeboat or Cast Away. And of course there is no lack of French movies about Amour — including many about the amour of aging lovers — for Michael Haneke to reference.
More importantly, each of these cinematic traditions can trace its roots back to much less serious adventure stories or soap operas, which would display the pattern that Warren describes when he says that
in 30 years of making games I’ve never been anything less than awestruck at the intelligence of the people playing and making what often seem like mindless entertainments.
In fact, I would argue that you can’t get to serious, engaged, complex story-telling without a strong tradition of “mindless entertainments” that lots of people watch and lots of people are rewarded for creating. That is what is called a tradition of practice for the makers and a popular genre (hence watchable/playable mindlessly) for the consumers. And such formulaic traditions of practice are absolutely necessary to the creation of socially important works that actually engage and move people .
In Hamlet on the Holodeck, I pointed out that the soliloquy that Shakespeare uses in Hamlet to explore the isolation of the modern consciousness and depths of his tragic hero’s self-doubts, began as a stage device for letting the audience in on the evil intentions of the villains in the bloody, formulaic genre of the revenge play — which were pretty much the equivalent of the mind-numbing zombie games that Warren considers the nadir of current popular entertainment. No revenge plays, no soliloquys for Hamlet; no blockbuster videogames, no mechanics for expressive serious games that actually engage and move people.
I share Warren’s impatience and I applaud his efforts to nurture a more “grown up” game practice. But it may be that the stealth mechanics tradition of Deus X or the survival choices of The Walking Dead ipad game will prove to be foundational to the creation of the culturally impactful games that Warren is asking for. I’m very glad that we also have non-violent, artistically captivating games like the highly successful Journey with its poetic shout mechanics and mindful play. (Maybe Jenova Chen is the hero Warren is looking for.) But even though I may not want to play kind of games Warren is making fun of, there is something to be said for the development of the conventions of interaction in a lively practice of mindless commercial entertainment.
When Dick Clark died earlier this week, he was best known as a “New Year’s Eve Icon” from his hosting the annual televising of the Times Square celebration, but he came to prominence earlier as the host of two ground-breaking TV shows, American Bandstand, which aired weekday afternoons and introduced baby boomer teenagers to new records by showing Philadelphia teenagers dancing to the latest releases, and the New York-based Dick Clark Show, which put rock ‘n’ roll performers in front of screaming teenagers for half an hour every Saturday night.
Dick Clark’s success rested upon a change in music distribution platform around 1958 to a new technical standard: the mass-produced 45 rpm vinyl record, smaller and cheaper than the 78 rpm singles that were the previous market standard. Continue reading