So the big news this week is we released our first video and it both looks and sounds fantastic. The videos will start coming out on a regular basis now and to celebrate we’re having a party continuing to work hard in post-production. But while others may celebrate, this blog shall mourn. This Stage Left Studios Blog, or Slog if you will, has had a month and a half long golden age of being the best content SLS was producing. Granted, this was only true because we were the best by default. And keeping in mind the content being produced was of such questionable quality, a task force was independently commissioned by the Oxford English Dictionary to consider a revision of the definition of the word “default” so that this blog could not, by any definition, be considered "best.” But even with all those factors, it was still a special time and it draws to a close. I would like to thank Emily for taking over the task of editor for the second half of this era and for being the retroactive editor for the first half. More importantly, I’d like to thank myself for not making any Xzibit or Inception jokes while talking about the creation of content that is a report on content creation.
Last week I polled the audience for what direction to take the Slog now that all the founders had been interviewed. Due to a combination of: having almost no readership, failing to use the poll widget, said readership being lazy, and Emily’s proclivity for trouble making; the poll has ended in a tie despite only receiving a single vote. So I will both be interviewing all us filthy sub-founder peasants, as well as writing odes to the navels of all the SLS Founders. As I have not seen the navels of any of the SLS Founders, these odes will not be written in alphabetical order, but rather the order of “whomever gets drunk enough or is otherwise bizarre enough to think that sending me a picture of their belly button is a good idea first.” And no, navel oranges don’t count; it’s well known that citrus based poetry is a cardinal sin. So, with that being said we’ll set a hopeful start date of “never” for that particular feature.
“All the world's a game, And all the men and women merely players; They have their logoffs and their logons, And one man in his time plays many alts,”
~William Shakespeare, margin of error, +/- four words.
I know we’re still in the beginnings of our history as a production studio, but all the same I’d like to take a moment to look back at our roots. The Machinima Shakespeare Project was motivated by the “Three Es” that are our purpose as a studios: educate, entertain, and enrich. Furthermore, I think the Shakespeare Machinima Project does a fine job of achieving these goals; and that these are fine goals worth achieving. However, I think there is even more to be had out of this project than all that. So have a seat, and let us examine why this is an even better idea than we thought.
The first games in the world were merely tasks or exercises meant to challenge a person in some mental or physical way. In time these games grew more structured and complex, and while some were modified or created to be more fun, other games were made with the interesting decision to act as analogues to bits and pieces of the world; everything from kings doing battle with their armies (chess) to moguls doing battle over real estate (monopoly). And this was a giant step, but at some point they took an even bigger one: games stopped just simulating activities and started telling stories.
But let’s put a pin in that for the moment and take a look at a much older medium for telling stories, the play. At first blush, at least for those who aren’t terribly familiar with them, plays seem like they are a more advanced version of storytelling than the novel. And while individual results may vary, the play, at least for writers, is the simplest means to tell a story that there is, because it distills it almost everything down to dialogue. There is a little bit more sometimes, a handful of stage directions perhaps. Or from time to time the experimental piece that tries to buck the trend and keep dialogue to a minimum. But ultimately, and especially so for Shakespeare’s time, dialogue was king. Shakespeare did not have fancy sets or special effects more complex than a simple trap door, or musical accompaniment, or even a narrator. He did have elaborate costumes, but these more to help suspend disbelief than convey the story. Shakespeare’s works are legendary because they had one means to tell the story, and the person telling them, Shakespeare, was an utter master at it. Want proof? Walk up to random people and ask them who the greatest playwright of all time is. Then walk up to random people and ask who the greatest novelist of all time is, see if you get anything close to the consistency of answers you get for the first question.
As story telling is given new mediums, more complex mediums with more collaboration, this effect magnifies. To see the same kind of success Shakespeare had, you need more and more people who are all utter masters of their field working together in order to achieve the same comparative level of quality. But let’s go back to games for the moment.
Games, and in particular video games, have been criticized as not being art. This is arguably true, if you mean it in the same way that you might say a cube is not a shape, it’s a polygon. Video games are more than art, they’re so much art piled on top of itself that it’s broken into a new dimension. They are images, music, voices, mechanics, plot and a million other little things all tied together. Giving the audience choice can be an amazing experience that allows millions of stories to be told in a single volume. But it’s also why you’ll never see anything close to the level of mastery you see in Shakespeare, because there’s too much that needs to be done and not enough uber-geniuses to go around.
So using a game to perform a play is, if nothing else, some beautiful contrast from opposite sides of the story-telling-spectrum. However, the use of an MMO is even better because it adds yet another interesting meta-wrinkle to the concept. MMOs have always had a bit of difficulty telling stories because they are often worlds designed for millions of protagonists all out to change the world. And as much as I might enjoy an MMO filled with Man vs Self style protagonists suitable challenges, apparently the market isn’t quite there. So instead you watch other heroes perform great deeds, then watch as everything returns to the status quo so that you can perform those same great deeds yourself. It is the world’s most convoluted game of “monkey see, monkey do,” in a way. But just because that’s what the designers are often forced to do, it doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting stories told in MMOs. There are stories told that were never part of the designer’s plan. Stories like a raid boss downed by the narrowest of margins thanks to one player’s quick thinking after the plan went awry. Stories of guilds brought together and torn apart. Stories told by role players fleshing out the lore of their favorite worlds. And yes, stories imported and recreated by machinamists like ourselves. It’s amazing the amount of stories that are told in these games, though not exactly surprising since, with the population some of these games have, there are collectively thousands of years of game time that has been logged. So even if individually each player is just a monkey playing “monkey see monkey do,” together they’re more than that. Because when you take a thousand monkeys and have them type on a thousand keyboards for a thousand years you end up with… well I can’t quite seem to remember, but I’m fairly certain it’s something pretty cool.