Monthly Archives: November 2010

Here is Where My “Last Airbender” Joke Would Go if I Could Think of One

Last night, before combining The Last Airbender with Rifftrax, I made the mistake of watching it without the sarcastic commentary. Surprise! It truly earned its 6% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. I was fascinated, though, with why it’s so eye-bleedingly bad.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the whitewashed casting and how it undermined the setting established by the original Nickelodeon series. I will admit that I was taken aback by seeing a Fire Nation represented by actors of Indian, Maori, and Iranian descent, not to mention a notionally Inuit group of people represented by two very white actors. But leaving aside that giant misstep, the movie did a terrible job of condensing the original source material into a movie, in large part because it’s focused on the wrong thing.

The movie is based on the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a cartoon on Nickelodeon. That series’ first season was over ten hours long. The movie runs a little over an hour and a half, yet attempts to fit all of the first season’s major plot points into that time.

The result? A whole lot of stuff happens, a giant brownie of plot with dollops of exposition ice cream and topped with a glaze of voice-overs, but there’s little meaning to the action. To fit in all of the story, they had to dispense with character development.

In the series, the main characters have time to grow and become fully-realized people. Aang comes to terms with being the Avatar; Katara learns to trust in her strength; Zuko learns who he is and what he truly values. This is the series’ core, the real story being told. In the movie they’re ciphers, blown about by the winds of plot. The Last Airbender doesn’t even bother with common movie shorthand to signpost character growth, and skips any real banter and character interaction for poorly-staged and ill-paced action sequences.

For my day job I write proposals and put presentations together to teach people about my company’s technology. A big part of my job is deciding what story I’m telling, and to whom, and what the most critical parts of that story are. Because of that I’ve gotten better at recognizing when a story is about more than the specific events of its plot. In focusing on cramming ten pounds of plot into a two-pound bag, Shyamalan lost sight of what Avatar was truly about.

Chris Crawford’s Unflinching Look at His Life

Chris Crawford is a visionary game designer. He began his career at Atari and created some of the earliest computer-based wargames. He founded the Computer Game Developers’ Conference and The Journal of Computer Game Design. In 1985 released his best-known game, Balance of Power. In it, you played either the President of the US or the General Secretary of the USSR and worked to gain as much prestige for your country as possible without lighting off a nuclear war.

Even then, though, his real interest was in making games that told stories. In 1992, dismayed by the direction in which the computer games industry was going and frustrated by a lack of progress on true interactive stories, he gave The Dragon Speech in which he declared that he was leaving the games industry to pursue his dream of interactive storytelling before charging out of the room.

For the last twenty years he’s been working on this problem. He released the Erasmatron system in 1997; in 2007, he released the updated Storytron system. I’ve not been impressed with either, and not just because he considers interactive fiction a dead end. He has taken a reductionist approach to modeling human interaction, boiling it down into variables to be tracked and formulas describing their interaction and then attempting to create an emergent story from those variables and formulas. My experience mirrors Emily Short’s: I have yet to find a story built entirely from such a pile of numbers that has the power of a more deliberately authored story. As Crawford’s own Erasmatron showed, procedurally generating entire stories is hard.

Earlier this year Chris Crawford turned sixty. When he did, he wrote a meditation on reaching this milestone. Most striking to me was his willingness to face his mortality head-on through the concrete metaphor of beads in a jar and his clear-eyed assessment of how successful his life’s work has been.

Thus, when my sixtieth birthday struck, I found myself bereft of achievement in my most important undertaking. I have always felt a calm self-assurance that I am right, that I have developed ideas that would surely conquer the world if I only gave the world enough time to recognize them. My sixtieth birthday shouted loudly that my ideas had most definitely failed to conquer the world. It certainly looks as if I am a washed-up failure. I don’t really believe that — I still believe that I’ve hit upon a solid approach to interactive storytelling and that someday the world will appreciate my work. But with each passing day the evidence of my failure mounts.

I do not know if I could make such a ferocious, unflinching critique of my life as Crawford has done of his. I have not agreed with his approach, and am not one who is in awe of his ideas, but I am in awe of his willingness to give up safe choices and iterative development and instead run headlong, screaming a battle cry, in a two-decade-long attempt to slay his chosen dragon. Crawford’s ideas may not have won me over, but as the trajectory of my own life begins to curve downward, I could do far worse than to be won over by his tenacity.

Help Andrew Plotkin Write Text Adventures Full Time

I’ve known Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin for fifteen years. He’s one of those mad creative types who fizzes with ideas like a seven year old filled with Pop Rocks. He’s best known for his interactive fiction such as So Far (winner of 4 XYZZY awards), Spider and Web (winner of 5 XYZZY awards), and Hunter, in Darkness (winner of 2 XYZZY awards). Notice all of those awards? That’s because his work is stellar, and often groundbreaking.

Andrew wants to quit his job for (at least) six months and focus on text adventures. To do so, he’s raising money to fund development of his next game, Hadean Lands. It’ll be coming out on the iPhone, and if you contribute $25 you can get a version that’ll run on your laptop or home computer. In addition, he plans on working on his other IF projects. He asked for $8,000.

He had that amount in 12 hours.

This is astounding and cool, and guarantees that he’s going to write his game, but I want him to be able to do more. He’s not just funding a game, he’s funding development of tools that will help the entire interactive fiction community. You know how you can play some of my smaller games in a browser? Andrew’s written a similar tool for larger games. He’s planning on enhancing it and speeding it up. He’ll be adding to his open-source IF game engine. He’ll be promoting text adventures at PAX East. He’ll be providing the iPhone framework he’s creating to other IF authors. By supporting him, you’re indirectly supporting the whole of interactive fiction.

Not convinced? Try the game’s teaser. The game’s about a spaceship driven by alchemy and supported by a dragon. It’s so high concept I hurt my neck looking up at it.

So go donate. Any amount is welcome. $3 will get you the game when it comes out. $10 will get you a postcard feelie. $25 gets you the game on CD. Let’s see how far over his goal we can put him.