Thursday, August 11, 2005

PAC: Pattern Depth

There's a lot of methods for making patterns interesting. You can use pattern shock, where you switch patterns suddenly. That's very effective, at least for a moment. You can use empathic patterns, generally used on people, to make the audience feel for (or against) a character. That lasts considerably longer, but is rarely very hard-hitting.

If you want a high level of interest which lasts a long time, there's only two ways to go about it: investment and depth.

Investment is all about getting the audience to feel emotional about your pattern. We'll talk about that some other day.

Depth is the one we'll talk about today.

Depth is the part of a pattern that the audience KNOWS exists, but they can't clearly see. The Force has a lot of depth in several dimensions. First, it affects everything, so we can imagine how it would affect our lives, or how our lives would be in that universe. We can't clearly see how it would, but we can hum a few bars and fake it. The other major dimension the Force is "deep" in is how it actually works. Why is it dark/light? Why does it allow people to do the things they do? Why does it run in families, and what kind of end goal does it push for?

The mystery is a major part of the appeal. Of course, the pattern is also deeply invested - which we'll talk about some other day - but the depth is also extremely important.

Another example is Dune. Dune is explained, over and over, but each explanation shows a darkness where we know there must be a pattern, but we don't know what the pattern is.

Most really great films in my favorite genres are like this. Not all films have these patterns, of course: Comedy films usually don't, and romances tend to avoid anything even remotely interesting. But even romances can be argued about: they are often about exploring someone's personality, someone's history, someone's life. They are all about knowing there is a mystery in that person, and trying to find what it is.

Unfortunately, they inevitably SOLVE that mystery. ("My mom - choke - she wore checkered print. It was horrible..." "Oh, you poor incredibly handsome man, let's go get married.")

Solving is a no-no.

Solving is good - it's a reward - but each solution should only draw the audience deeper into the darkness, reveal that more mysteries await. You should never clear up all the mysteries, because that's not interesting.

Fortunately, the way a pattern can interact with other patterns will almost always remain a mystery. That's one of the Force's big draws, after all.

One common method is using "PERFECT PATTERNS". A perfect pattern is a pattern which cannot be stopped, cannot be truly harmed, and always accomplishes whatever it is supposed to. This occasionally happens in movies or books, usually in chick fliks, but it is also a cornerstone of some of the best science fiction ever. For example: "I have terminal cancer..." is the version you might see in a chick flik, but "I am a pawn of the Force..." is the version you'd see in scifi. Both are the same: there is an unstoppable pattern involved.

The method is then in mining the perfect pattern for secrets - usually the secrets of how it interacts with other patterns (which, as you recall, is an endless secret). Usually, the other, lesser patterns are actually the ones which do all the heavy lifting.

Star Wars is an excellent example. The Force is a perfect pattern. Luke, Darth, and Obi-Wan spend their movies slamming into the perfect pattern, and the results are what is interesting.

Of course, the perfect pattern can be anything. In the Alien and Terminator series, it's the bad guy. Those get defeated in the end, so you might say they aren't perfect patterns, but they are the patterns against which all other patterns are crushed. In Dune, it's the whole Spice/worms complex. In the Matrix, it's the Agents, and when they are defeated, the robots. In Finding Nemo, it's Nemo being lost. In a chick flik, it might be someone's mother.

The idea is the same: by providing a focal pattern, you can provide a baseline for judging patterns and how they change.

You probably don't NEED a perfect pattern, a focal point. But it is handy, and the reason I mention it is because, in games, it's usually the avatar.

That's right. Sure, you might be fighting the big evil bad guy, but in truth, YOU are the perfect pattern. YOU are indestructable, unstoppable, and always come through in exactly the way you are intended to. You never fail, unless you were supposed to fail.

The game revolves around YOU. And the best games show how other patterns are crushed against YOU. In System Shock, you are an unstoppable virus, dismantling the careful plans of the Many, then dismantling SHODAN. In Final Fantasy III, you are an unstoppable team, and you watch as that distorts the patterns of both your team mates and the world at large.

Of course, it is pretty common to have ANOTHER, pseudo-focal pattern arise. A bad guy. But that is largely just to allow the player to have a feeling of challenge instead of, as in the Sims, being a god.

People often cheat to reduce the challenge. People always improve, trying to get more and more powerful. Gamers WANT to be the "perfect pattern", and the only way you can let them be is if you throw other patterns against them and have them crushed by the player. These patterns need to be ever more powerful, to reflect the growing confidence the gamer has in his pattern.

Well, it's one way of thinking about it, at least.

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