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The Little Lighthouse

There was once a bay with a great many sharp rocks lurking around its entrance, and many ships were lost upon them. And so the local town decided to build a lighthouse of stone and wood and place it on the cliffs to guide vessels to the harbour during storms.

It was not a mighty thing as the town was very poor, and the lighthouse knew that many of the ships scorned it for being so small and having such a puny light.

“The great lighthouses can be seen for dozens of miles,” they would scoff, “you are of use only to ships wishing to enter this bay, your glow is so minor.”

The little lighthouse was sad, for it did not have control over how tall it was built or how brightly its light shone. It would tell the ships so, but they were not interested to hear it speak. As the years went by, the little lighthouse by the bay grew used to being laughed at by the ships that went by.

“They are right to tease,” the little lighthouse would think, “as I am so small and my light is so dim.”

The seasons and the years came and went, with the little lighthouse standing on the cliff with its light burning for the ships that sailed past. Then one winter night a terrible storm blew up, and wind and rain lashed the ships and sent them scurrying into the bay for shelter with the little lighthouse to guide them.

The heavens raged and the little lighthouse was glad that all the ships were safely in his bay for he did not wish them harm.

“Be careful that the wind does not blow out your light,” jeered one of the ships. “He is quite safe, for the wind only blows over the tallest lighthouses and he is very small,” another joined in.

Then the little lighthouse saw, out at sea, a ship being tossed by the waves. It was a very fine ship indeed, with tall masts and a proud hull.

“Oh no,” thought the little lighthouse, “it shall surely be dashed against the rocks and lost!” And so the little lighthouse called out, expecting no reply as ships never listened to what the little lighthouse had to say.

“Be careful mighty ship!” The little lighthouse called urgently, “You are headed for the rocks!”

To the little lighthouse’s amazement the mighty ship changed its course and began to head for the bay. As it passed him, the mighty ship said:

“Thank you little lighthouse.”

Well, the little lighthouse was astonished. For a ship to talk to him! And not just any, but one so mighty as this!

The mighty ship continued to speak with the little lighthouse throughout the dark night. It had only praise for him and his light.

“Do not be sad, little lighthouse,” the mighty ship counselled, “you are as tall as you need to be and your light does its work well.”

The little lighthouse was very sad when the mighty ship left the bay when the dawn broke and the storm subsided, for he felt he would never see the mighty ship again.

And indeed he did not, for several years at least. The town grew as the little lighthouse brought ships safely to shore. More storms came and went, and the ships went on taunting the little lighthouse when they passed. But the little lighthouse never forgot the words of the mighty ship.

“They are unkind,” the little lighthouse thought, “but I do not care. I am as tall as I need to be and my light does its work well.”

Then one spring day the little lighthouse was delighted to hear the voice of the mighty ship again, greeting him as it sailed by and told him it was carrying new goods and would be visiting the little lighthouse regularly. The little lighthouse was overjoyed, and the two talked often throughout the long summer.

“I am glad to know you,” the little lighthouse said to the mighty ship.

“And I you, little lighthouse,” the mighty ship replied.

The mighty ship’s visit were frequent, and the little lighthouse would spend much of its time scanning the ocean for the mighty ship. So much time that it scarcely noticed the dockers loading the cargo of the mighty ship into carts, nor those carts carrying stone and wood along the cliffs at the far side of the bay.

The autumn came and it happened that the mighty ship took a different path out of the harbour after one of its visits. The little lighthouse watched the mighty ship as it left, and his eye fell upon the cliff at the far side of the bay.

There, nearly built, was another lighthouse! It was tall, at least twice as high as the little lighthouse and he supposed its light would be very bright indeed. The little lighthouse realised at last that the mighty ship was carrying the materials for the new lighthouse, and he was sad and angry.

“I thought the mighty ship cared for me!” The little lighthouse sobbed, “But he brings stone and wood for that other lighthouse which will be taller than I and shine far brighter than I.”

The little lighthouse thought and thought as the weeks went by, for he knew that the mighty ship would soon return with more cargo and that the lighthouse across the bay was so near to completion that it would surely be the last delivery the mighty ship would need to make.

The autumn was at its close when the mighty ship did return, heavy in the water with its holds bulging with goods. The sky was black with dark clouds, and wind and rain lashed at the mighty ship as it rounded the cove and saw the familiar light of the little lighthouse on top of the cliff.

The mighty ship began to enter the bay, when suddenly the guiding light of the little lighthouse disappeared.

“Little lighthouse! Little lighthouse! Your light has gone out and I need help or I will surely crash onto the rocks!” The mighty ship called out.

But the little lighthouse said nothing, did nothing. It heard the mighty ship continue to call for help, and then it heard a roaring, splintering crunch as the mighty ship crashed onto the rocks.

Then the little lighthouse turned its light back on, and saw the mighty ship laying on its side, its belly torn open, waves beating across its decks. Its tall masts were broken and its proud hull was shattered. Immediately the little lighthouse began to regret what it had done.

“Oh mighty ship! I am sorry! But how could you bring the stone and wood to build a new lighthouse to replace me? I thought we were friends!” The little lighthouse cried.

“Friends, little lighthouse?” Groaned the mighty ship, “You are a lighthouse and I am a ship. We could never have been friends. You did your work well and I did mine.”

The little lighthouse understood.

“I am sorry, mighty ship,” the little lighthouse said.

“I know, little lighthouse,” the mighty ship replied with a sigh. “I know.”

In the morning the townsfolk saw the mighty ship wrecked upon the rocks at the foot of the cliff below the little lighthouse. How foolish the mighty ship must have been to crash onto the rocks with the lighthouse there to guide it! And how angry they were that now there was no ship large enough to carry the goods needed to finish their new lighthouse.

But, they thought, it was not worth the expense of chartering a new large ship to bring the goods they needed. They had the little lighthouse after all, which had always done its work well.


It’s Not My Story: Narrative Restriction in Interactive Media

This, clearly, is the ponciest title I have yet used in any blog post. What it really means is that for the next sixteen paragraphs, I’m going to be ruminating on how, contrary to superficial expectation, taking away freedom in immersive interactive media can result in greater investment from the media’s consumer, not less.

Books are kinda neat. I want to set out my stall right here at the start. I like books. Films too. I like books and I like films. If you asked me whether it was true that I liked those things, I would tell you that it was and I would be telling the truth. There, I’ve said it. Now we’re clear. But they’re a bit old-hat, aren’t they?

You just sort of sit there and look at them. Do you know what else you sit there and look at? Paint drying, minute hands on clocks in waiting rooms, the bleak abyss behind the eyes of the human resources drone delivering corporate training. Isn’t it more fun when you’ve got something to do; isn’t it more fun when you’re actively participating in something? Because they’re static, because they don’t react to the person consuming them, aren’t films, aren’t books a bit… boring?

Interactivity, now that’s fun. I’m not just participating in somebody else’s story, I’m helping to tell it — I’m telling my own. Home story-telling is killing books. And which medium best encapsulates the paradigm of user-driven narrative? Why it’s video games, of course.

I once shot a man in a video game just to watch him die. And as he collapsed into a ragdoll physics-enabled heap at my feet, I was glad. I was glad because I had wanted to kill him, and I had been able to. I can do anything, man. Move over Ian Banks, I’m the one behind the typewriter now. That character is annoying, much better that he should die painfully.

You hear a lot about freedom. Politicians talk about it as though it’s a physical product to be consumed, controlled and exported; games designers trumpet how Super Manshooter IV will have “unparalleled levels of player freedom”; the Earth rotates about its axis unperturbed. Freedom’s fun you see, freedom’s where it’s at.

How many amazing video gaming moments have only been possible due to the freedom of the player to make decisions? Save the world from the oblivion gates, or don’t. Shoot the krogran or talk him around. Take the road less travelled, or follow the crowd. It’s your choice, your experience. You’re not just an observer at somebody else’s show, you’re the main event at your own. Freedom feels good, man.

Sniper scopeFreedom isn’t free though. Cohesiveness is usually the first casualty of introducing more narrative interaction. Emergent narratives most often lack the finesse and flow of experiences which, if not linear, are at least guided by immutable narrative guidelines. If it has a good story, you can pretty much guarantee the freedom in your favourite non-linear videogame is just an illusion; if you want a good story then you need to have the bumper rails up on the player’s freedom.

In truth I have always been opposed to it. I’ve always wanted freedom. I’ve always seen the merits of my being able to construct my own story, let my own imagination loose. I have found the trend towards highly scripted corridor shooters to be tiring and sad. I’m a virtual book-burner, me.

Something happened recently to make me put my flaming torch down though, and that something was indie read-em-up Don’t Take It Personally Babe, It’s Just Not Your Story. Placing you into the position of a frustrated and damaged man who becomes a teacher after an early mid-life crisis, it’s more of an interactive novel than a game. Even the term ‘interactive’ might be misapplied here.

You might not agree with many of the actions your character takes, or the things he says. He’s morally questionable at least, falling in love with one of his fifteen year old students and manoeuvering two students into a gay relationship with each other. You can’t make your character behave in the way that you want; you can’t in any way construct your own narrative. That’s part of the conceit of the game though: it’s just not your story.

And you know, it’s captivating. I found myself utterly absorbed in the game’s narrative, more than I’ve been in any game’s for years. There’s a theory applied to roleplaying games called GNS Theory, which assigns motivations to players. There are gamists who enjoy the mechanics of a situation (“I rolled a 20! I get a critical hit!”), narrativists who participate in the construction of a strong narrative behind their characters and the events of the game, and simulationists who revel in the sense of place, and are likely to consider their character in third person and ruminate on how their character would react, as though it were a separate entity rather than being under the player’s direct control. It’s Just Not Your Story is a simulationist’s dream.

More broadly though, I found it interesting how easily I overcame the barrier presented by my innate attraction towards a freer narrative. Once I’d accepted the loss of control I found I could access a whole new level of imaginative interaction. Why was my character behaving in this way? This became the area I could improvise within and think about.

For games which uphold the consequences of the player’s actions (so not Super Manshooter III, where if a squadmate dies then you have to restart from a checkpoint) it has become gaming gospel that the only way a player can have freedom in the narrative is by allowing them to do anything. There are many worthy games which allow the player to do this, and they are not per se bad games. Games can have a strong narrative without diminishing player investment if the story they present is interesting enough to convince the player to get on board.

One of my favourite authors, when questioned when a particular character in the novel series he writes will die, answered “at the dramatically appropriate moment of course”. That’s what you lose with unrestricted narratives.

Freedom can be slavery, slavery can be freedom. Let’s see more exciting, enthralling and engaging games where the narrative rules the roost. Let’s see developers who are brave enough to challenge established notions of videogame plotting and who are inventive enough to rediscover what books have always known. Let’s see freedom dethroned and story regaining its rightful place in interactive media.

The king is dead. Long live the king.


30DSC: a song nobody would expect me to like

Day 14 of the 30 day song challenge. Today, a song which people might be surprised I enjoy.

The Geto Boys – Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta

Being a slightly snobbish plonker, I have quite a strong dislike for all gangster rap. It seems to me unironically materialistic and hollow. I like music with soul — or at least, something which doesn’t wear its lack of soul on its sleeve.

Damn it Feels Good feels like rap music with a soul, and it’s clever. The bait-and-switch of having the president suddenly talk in those terms about his life and activities allows the song to make a genuine point about the way we find different behaviour acceptable.

Drug dealers and gangsters might be making deals for their own benefit at the cost of others, but politicians do this all the time. I’m not convinced there’s a fair comparison in there, but it’s food for thought certainly.

It’s really not my genre, but just this once, it really does feel good to be a gangsta.


30DSC: A guilty pleasure

Day 13 of the 30 day song challenge. Today, a guilty pleasure.

Les Miserables – I Dreamed a Dream

I don’t have much to add to this one actually. It’s just a beautiful song, but usually if you asked me whether I liked it, I wouldn’t dream of saying so.


30DSC: My favourite film song

Day 14 of the 30 day song challenge. Today, a song which people might be surprised I enjoy.

Howard Shore ft. Annie Lennox – Into The West

I initially resisted the temptation to write about this song. It’s quite heavy, and I feel as though I’ve maybe covered that territory already. In fact I went so far as to write a post about another bit of music: Goldberg Variations & Aria, The Silence of the Lambs. I had all this stuff set out about how it was commissioned for an insomniac Count who wanted something to dull the maddening expanse of his sleepless nights, and the sheer beauty of the resulting composition. But as I read it back I knew that it was a lie. My favourite film song could only ever be one thing.

I love fantasy novels, and I most of all love the world J. R. R. Tolkien created in Middle Earth. Though the Lord of the Rings as a series of books is rather stuffy and perhaps not a fantastic read, they nonetheless set out a mythos which has dominated mainstream fantasy ever since. The films to me are a masterclass in how to successfully adapt a novel to the cinema, taking liberties with Tolkien’s plot whilst still retaining the refined essence of his messages and themes.

Into the West sits at the end of the trilogy, providing the punctuation at the end of a succession of lesser endings. Yet it’s not so much the context of the song as it is the song itself which makes me feel as I do about it. It’s just remarkable enough that it means something very real, just generic enough that it means something special to everyone for different reasons.

It’s a goodbye, written for budding New Zealand filmmaker Cameron Duncan who died, tragically young, from cancer. In memory of him, I curtail this blog post before it’s really begun.


30dsc: a song from a favourite band

Day 11 of the 30 Day Song Challenge. Today, a song from one of my favourite bands.

Arctic Monkeys – Mardy Bum

I really hate accent rock. I want artists who’re about their music or about their lyrics; I can’t for a moment even feign interest in artists who’re about their accent. The Kooks can sod off with their stupid accents. But if I asked you to name a current British band famous for their accents, you’d probably say the Arctic Monkeys — and if you thought that meant I didn’t like them, you’d be dead wrong.

They’re the best band of the noughties for me, and easily some of the best lyricists of all time. Alex Turner’s lyrics are poetry as song. They couldn’t be more evocative, and the historian in me appreciates how in thirty years time university students doing history are going to be able to reference the Arctic Monkeys.


30DSC: Favourite Music Video

Day 10 0f the 30 day song challenge. Today, the best music video.

Smashing Pumpkins – Tonight, Tonight

Music videos are ten a penny, and by now there are very few innovations possible in shooting them. The current trend seems to be staged performances with backing dancers and pyrotechnics. Thanks, R&B, for taking us back to the worst parts of the 1980s.

Still, that’s not to say that all music videos are bad. There are some great ones. I Am Kloot’s video for their song Proof — a steady close-up of the actor Christopher Ecclestone’s face as he slowly begins to smile — is one example of a recent one which I think is just a great concept.

It’s not my favourite ever though. That honour instead goes to Tonight, Tonight by the Smashing Pumpkins. Inspired by the aesthetics and sense of wonderment in early silent films, particularly George Melieres’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, the Pumpkins’ video is visually stunning and has just a magical and otherworldly air.

It feels like a waste to talk too much about the video, so I won’t. If the other entries in this series are about sound, this one is about vision. So just watch it.

July 2018
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