Wednesday, August 10, 2005

PAC: Pattern Relevance

What we want, when we make entertainment, is to get the audience to be interested. Entertainment and fun are methods of doing that, but, as I've said before, I hope most people weren't having "fun" while watching Schindler's List.

Similarly, people weren't having "fun" when Aerith bit it in FFVII. But it is considered (foolishly) one of the most memorable moments in gaming.

With that in mind, there's nothing wrong with "fun". But this post isn't about "fun". It's about "fascination". Fascination is what you're aiming for. Aerith's death was fascinating. Schindler's list was fascinating. Pong was fascinating. It was also fun.

The way I'm thinking about fascination is simple. Think about when you were younger, watching something happen. Almost anything. Ants carrying food, let's say. Wow! Interesting stuff! Ants. Yeah.

It's unlikely you've sat down and watched ants carry food any time recently. Been there, done that, got the bug spray. What was it that was so fascinating the first time you really looked at them? The way they hesitate briefly before scurrying onward? The way they fiddle around, pulling and pushing against each other at random until they get something that works? The unerring trail they follow? The fact that hundreds of them wander around at once?

Whatever it was, it was something you hadn't seen before. And, really, you probably haven't seen it since. It was of only momentary interest: it really had no effect on you.

It's the same for entertainment. Most of the greatest books and movies have a new and unique pattern. As time passes, the most successful patterns are replicated and make the first story outright campy - like werewolf and alien invasion stories. This diminishes the original because it is no longer exploring a vibrant new pattern, it is a slow-ass tour of a pattern you've seen a million times in more advanced forms.

But not all new and unique patterns are interesting. For example: I could tell you about the methods they use to determine the elements stars are made of by dissecting their color, and how they have to deal with the speed of the star... but most of you wouldn't be interested. Even if you are geeky enough to be, most of the general public really isn't.

They are not curious about it, because they have not spent most of their lives learning geeky science stuff - the patterns of science. Because I have, new scientific "patterns" (theories, technologies, implementations) interest me. On the other hand, I don't like sport's games... largely because I don't watch or play much in the way of sports.

The pattern has to be relevant to the audience in order to be interesting.

One of the easiest ways to do make this happen is to make a "window" character, who is essentially a direct link to the audience. Using various empathy-building techniques and a series of personal patterns which most people will have enough experience with to find interesting, the main character is made relevant. Then, anything which affects him is also automatically relevant.

This is doubly easy in video games, where your avatar has instant relevance regardless of emapathy and personality. After all, your avatar is how you interact with the universe. If he is reduced, you are reduced. If he is enhanced, you are enhanced. Instant relevance.

Relevance is like a virus. It spreads. Once the window character is made relevant, everything which affects him is made relevant - although not always in the same direction. For example, I would gladly have seen Cait Sith die, and when he DID, I was overjoyed. I wasn't voting FOR him, but he was still relevant.

This is a pretty basic concept, but I decided I better post it. If it affects something that means something to you, it means something to you. If it means something to you, you want to know what it's going to do and how. That last part is important: that's where the fascination comes in. That's why simple, boring patterns are largely uninteresting: they're largely predictable.

We'll talk about pattern depth and probably touch on methods of creating window characters in the future.

Comments appreciated: this is a very old concept for me, dating back at least five years, so it's very firmly entrenched in my mind.

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