Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Epic Adventure

I've been thinking about the games and media we get nostalgic about, and about how they felt the first time we played them. Not just video games, but tabletop games and books and movies and whatever.

There were some emotions that you felt when you played those games, watched those movies. The feeling in your chest that new places were being explored, and that amazing things were getting done.

We don't feel that way much any more. I don't, at any rate. I don't think it's because games have gotten less epic. I think it's because I've become used to epicness. Like a child learning to play the piano - at first, they finally manage to play "Chopsticks" and they feel a great sense of accomplishment. But that gets pretty tired after you've played it a hundred times.

There are three basic ways that people progress from that initial accomplishment. The first is that they play more complex songs, reveling in the technical challenge of the art. The second is that they play the songs they have mastered with more care and flair, imparting more meaning and emotion to them. The third is that they innovate - improvising, arranging, writing new songs.

I think we can consider the act of epic adventure to be similar to the act of playing the piano. The games we play now are still epic adventures, but we are focusing on the challenge of ever more complicated epic adventures. Our skill at epic adventuring is being challenged at a technical level, and there's definitely fun to be had there, like trying to master Flight of the Bumblebee on your preferred instrument.

But there are two other directions we can go. We can make epic adventures which allow us to express ourselves more meaningfully. And we can make epic adventures where we are allowed to improvise and arrange consciously.

Of course we can also do two or even all three at once, but it might be best to focus on just one at a time.

I was thinking about how to make an epic adventure feel epic again. More technically complex adventures are interesting, but they don't give you that feeling in your chest. I think you need one of the other models to do that.

I've been working with a few ideas on that front, but I'd be interested to hear any opinions you have.


Ellipsis said...

I agree that we're getting over-epic'ed. To some extent, I think it can be effectively addressed on an individual basis by proper framing. That is, "epicness" by some kind of objective comparison isn't terribly interesting (in this movie, there were 50 explosions, but in this movie, there were 60 explosions, so it's more epic). If it were, then Gunbuster would have won the epicness contest a long time ago and everything since would seem boring. Rather, when creating a story, you quickly establish expectations about how the world works and what kind of situations the characters will get themselves into. Once those features of the story settle in, you can create a sense of epicness then by violating your own rules or pushing them to their limit. For instance, even in a world with powerful magic or martial artists that can split mountains in half, a few well-placed restrictions can be used to dramatic effect.

There's a great example from Avatar: The Last Airbender [minor spoiler!] - no earth bender can bend metal, and this is such a widely accepted fact of the world that it shapes strategy and architecture throughout the world. So when Toph breaks out of a metal cage at the end of the second season, the act seems incredibly momentous, even though in plenty of other settings, similar feats would be taken for granted.

Of course, the same principle of "relative epicness" can be taken to rather silly extremes (See e.g., Kung-Fu Hustle).

A similar rule applies for using a particularly scary or morally/emotionally charged element sparingly. A lich can seem like the creepiest thing in the world if there's just one, and its existence is subject to rumors and legends. In modern D&D, this effect can seem hard to get because liches have become a grindable medium-level monster.

The point is, a little restraint goes a long way. I suppose both of these suggestions fall under the category of your (2) - trying to make the epic you do use seem more meaningful by being more thoughtful about it.

Craig Perko said...

I'm not sure I agree 100%. I think it's a reasonable thing to say, but I actually think it is a symptom, not a cause. That is, I think the idea of violating expectation is a natural side effect of epicness.

For example, in FFI you fight some pirates in the second city. If anything, "fighting pirates to save a town" is pretty much what you would expect to be doing. But I remember that sequence feeling really, really epic when I was young.

Now, there were pieces of that which violated expectation. I didn't expect to fight the maximum possible number of enemies. I didn't expect the fight to break out in the town. But I think those are simply pieces of the whole, not the whole of what made the experience epic.