Sunday, April 18, 2010

Now Wait for Last Year (Chapter 6)

It was during the early afternoon, as she sat in her office at TF&D arranging for the purchase of a 1937 artifact, a reasonably unworn Decca record of the Andrews Sisters singing 'Bei Mir Bist Du Schön', that Kathy Sweetscent felt the first withdrawal symptoms.

Her hands became oddly heavy.

With extreme care she put the delicate record down. And there was a physiognomic alteration in the objects around her. While at 45 Avila Street, under the influence of JJ-180, she had experienced the world as consisting of airy, penetrable, and benign entities, like so many bubbles; she had found herself able – at least in hallucination – to pass through them at will. Now, in the familiar environment of her office, she experienced a transformation of reality along the lines of an ominous progression: ordinary things, whichever way she looked, seemed to be gaining density. They were no longer susceptible to being moved or changed, affected in any way, by her.

And, from another viewpoint, she simultaneously experienced the oppressive change as taking place within her own body. From either standpoint the ratio between herself, her physical powers, and the outside world had altered for the worse; she experienced herself as growing progressively more and more helpless in the literal physical sense – there was, with each passing moment, less which she could do. The ten-inch Decca record, for instance. It lay within touch of her fingers, but suppose she reached out for it? The record would evade her. Her hand, clumsy with unnatural weight, hobbled by the internal gathering of density, would crush or break the record; the concept of performing intricate, skillful actions in reference to the record seemed out of the question. Refinements of motion were no longer a property belonging to her; only gross, sinking mass remained.

Wisely, she realized that this told her something about JJ-180; it lay in the class of thalamic stimulants. And now, in this withdrawal period, she was suffering a deprivation of thalamic energy; these changes, experienced as taking place in the outside world and in her body, were in actuality minute alterations of the metabolism of her brain. But—

This knowledge did not help her. For these changes in herself and her world were not beliefs; they were authentic experiences, reported by the normal sensory channels, imposed on her consciousness against her will. As stimuli they could not be avoided. And – the alteration of the world's physiognomy continued; the end was not in sight. In panic she thought, How far will this go? How much worse can it get? Certainly not much worse ... the impenetrability of even the smallest objects around her now seemed almost infinite; she sat rigidly, unable to move, incapable of thrusting her great body into any new relationship with the crushingly heavy objects that surrounded her and seemed to be pressing nearer and nearer.

And, even as the objects in her office settled massively against her, they became, on another level, remote; they receded in a meaningful, terrifying fashion. They were losing, she realized, their animation, their – so to speak – working souls. The animae which inhabited them were departing as her powers of psychological projection deteriorated. The objects had lost their heritage of the familiar; by degrees they became cold, remote, and – hostile. Into the vacuum left by the decline in her relatedness to them the things surrounding her achieved their original isolation from the taming forces which normally emanated from the human mind; they became raw, abrupt, with jagged edges capable of cutting, gashing, inflicting fatal wounds. She did not dare stir. Death, in potentiality, lay inherent in every object; even the hand-wrought brass ash tray on her desk had become irregular, and in its lack of symmetry it obtained projecting planes, shot out surfaces which, like spines, could tear her open if she was stupid enough to come near.

The combox on her desk buzzed. Lucile Sharp, Virgil Ackerman's secretary, said, 'Mrs Sweetscent, Mr Ackerman would like to see you in his office. I'd suggest you bring along the new "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" record you purchased today; he expressed interest in it.'

'Yes,' Kathy said, and the effort almost buried her; she ceased breathing and sat with her rib-cage inert, the basic physiological processes slowing under the pressure, dying by degrees. And then, somehow, she breathed one breath; she filled her lungs and then exhaled raggedly, noisily. For the moment she had escaped. But it was all worsening. What next? She rose to her feet, stood. So this is how it feels to be hooked on JJ-180, she thought. She managed to pick up the Decca record. Its dark edges were like knife blades sawing into her hands as she carried it across the office to the door. Its hostility toward her, its inanimate and yet ferocious desire to inflict destruction on her, became overwhelming; she cringed from the disc's touch.

And dropped it.

The record lay on the thick carpet, apparently unbroken. But how to pick it up once more? How to drag it loose from the nape, the backdrop, surrounding it? Because the record no longer seemed separate; it had fused. With the carpet, the floor, the walls, and now everything in the office, it presented a single indivisible, unchangeable surface, without rupture. No one could come or go within this cubelike spaciality; every place was already filled, complete – nothing could change because everything was present already.

My God, Kathy thought as she stood gazing down at the record by her feet. I can't free myself; I'm going to remain here, and they'll find me like this and know something's terribly wrong. This is catalepsy!

She was still standing there when the office door opened and Jonas Ackerman, briskly, with a jovial expression on his smooth, youthful face, entered, strode up to her, saw the record, bent unhinderedly down and gently lifted it up and placed it in her outstretched hands.

'Jonas,' she said in a slow, thickened voice, 'I – need medical help. I'm sick.'


Before we go any further, I need to be clear that I didn't write this. I have tried my hand at a few short stories (posted here and here), but the above is not mine. At the risk of being thrown in jail for reproducing these first few paragraphs of chapter 6 from Now Wait for Last Year (a 1966 novel by the late Philip K. Dick), I just had to throw this up here.

Reading this last night, I became acutely aware that eventually this section would end, and I wasn't ready to be done with it. I began to read each few sentences over again. The point of being lost in the book was completely overpowered by the fact that I didn't want to move on to the next page. I really enjoy Dick's writing style, and since a friend of mine lent me Confessions of a Crap Artist, I've loaded my Kindle up with about 30 or 40 of his novels, and am tearing through them one by one.

The animae which inhabited them were departing as her powers of psychological projection deteriorated. The objects had lost their heritage of the familiar; by degrees they became cold, remote, and – hostile. Into the vacuum left by the decline in her relatedness to them the things surrounding her achieved their original isolation from the taming forces which normally emanated from the human mind; they became raw, abrupt, with jagged edges capable of cutting, gashing, inflicting fatal wounds. She did not dare stir.

Just words, taken one at a time, but the way Dick strung them together creates the sense of urgency that this woman is realizing at being deprived of the effects of the alien drug JJ-180. This same understanding of Kathy's dilemma would be near impossible to create visually, or in an interactive sense.

There's so much hype thrown around about creating immersive stories in games these days, but can a game really compete with a full narrative? I submit that it cannot. We need to realize this, and move back towards making games. There's nothing wrong with that. Oftentimes we find that "the book is usually better than the movie". But it's not always just better, it just describes the arc of the narrative better. Movies can do some things better than books... the visual representation and sense of scale of an epic battle, or a fightscene happening quickly. Some things are better absorbed visually, take any of Monty Oum's work with his Final Fantasy vs Dead or Alive videos. Reading about one of those fights intead of just watching it would be a totally different experience.

I personally get frustrated when a game takes away controls from me to make me sit and watch a cutscene. Everyone crapped their pants over the Wrathgate questline, but in reality it was just some regular quest chain that happened to end in some long drawn out "fight" in the Undercity that didn't even require any input from the player, and contained some machimina cutscene in the middle. The second time through the Undercity I levitated down the booby-trapped elevator on my priest, discovered I was safe there in the shaft, and just went outside for 20 minutes. I came back and the story arc had completed.

Half-Life, on the other hand, had an awesome introduction sequence where you are actually in the "cutscene". You control Gordon as he makes his way through Black Mesa, and you see the mysterious G-man peeking through windows yourself. The difference between that and the Wrathgate is that if you afk in Halflife, the story doesn't progress without you. If you die in Half-Life the cutscene ends. Simple joys like coming over a rise and having a a breathtaking vista revealed are so much more awesome when you're discovering the reveal yourself, instead of having the camera just pan to show it with you sitting idle. The DK starting area is also rightfully praised for putting you in the action, and having you personally drive the story forward.

Using this interactivity should be the primary focus of storytelling in games. Interactivity is the one thing games have that books and movies don't have, and the story should be catered to focus on that element. Having quest text (tiny books), or pre-rendered cutscenes (tiny movies) in the middle of your interactive experience is counterproductive.

And, like the beginning of this post demonstrates, your gamers aren't going to stop reading books or watching movies... so they'll still be getting their recommended daily allowance of those forms of story telling. Let the games be games, though.

I mean... right?


oshin said...

Bang on the money, there is 0 engagement with WoW or its plot. At the start your sucked in by the world and your willing to read through the logs, but eventually it feels so flat and lifeless.

It has perfected the grind to such an extent that I would rather play it that say CS or TF, but a good game with a decent plot will drag me away every time.

And I`m off to read some Philip k Dick i think

LifeDeathSoul said...

true... it could be hard to create immersive cut scenes, but with the good use of music or sounds it just might be possible. We often don't take into account how important a role music plays in creating a scene. Try it out, playing Half life 2 with sound, and then without sound. The effect would be really quite different. ;)