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The Stories We Leave Behind

You ever seen that movie Big Fish? It’s about an estranged son coming back to his hometown to help his father as he is dying of cancer. His father, an inveterate teller of tall tales, has long frustrated the son with his “bullshit,” but we get to see just how important those stories are to the son’s image of the father, and how those stories are important to the father’s own sense of self. And then, in the movie’s last shot, in the parking lot at the funeral, we pan up to see all the father’s friends standing around, talking to each other, telling stories about their friend they have lost. The stories are big, energetic, funny.

When I first saw that movie with my wife, I turned to her after that scene and told her, “that – that’s how I want my funeral to be. People telling stories about my life, laughing and smiling.”

1445687313836And so that brings us to Muhammad Ali. And Prince. And Bowie. And all the famous people (and non-famous people) we’ve lost this past year. Ali, though, looms largest for me. Over the past day or two I’ve heard dozens of Ali stories, all of them wonderful and amazing. About how he talked a man off a ledge in 1980. Or how he was asked for a signature while deep in the grip of Parkinson’s Disease, and though it took him 15 minutes, he signed the damned paper anyway, refusing to give up. Or this beautiful obituary in the New Yorker, in which we learn how baby Ali knocked his own mother’s two front teeth out, or how he became a boxer to avenge the theft of a bicycle. I’ve got my own, too. Heard it on the radio some years back. A local radio station was interviewing George Foreman, and his fight with Ali came up. It went something like this:

Radio Host: That was the rope-a-dope, right?

Foreman: (laughing) And I was the dope!

Radio Host: What did you think about that? Do you think about that fight?

Foreman: Man, you gotta understand that I hit people hard, right? I used to hit guys so hard I’d feel bad afterwards. Was in a match once, knocked a guy down, and I remember saying to myself “aww…please get up.” Swung at one guy and missed, but he felt the wind, see? He decided to fall down right there and I was there sayin’ “get up, man – this is embarrassing,” and he’s like “no way, man.”

So, when I’m fighting Ali, I’m hitting him as hard as I can, right? And I’m hitting him and I’m hitting him and he’s just smiling at me. I hit him with everything I had for like ten rounds, and then he gets me in a grapple and while he’s hugging me he whispers in my ear, (imitates a low, mean sneer) “that all you got, George?”

Radio Host: (laughing) Really?!

Foreman: Man, I still have nightmares about that fight.

But, when they asked him if he felt any animosity for the Greatest, all Foreman would say is that he was a great, great man and that he loved him. The whole time, Big George was laughing, the hosts were laughing, and we all had a smile on our faces.

This – the stories we leave behind us – are our most enduring, our most important legacy. If we seek immortality, this is how we can achieve it – be being a person who makes such a mark on others’ lives that they cannot help but tell the world about it. Even after we are gone, the stories travel onwards, illuminating and amusing and encouraging our descendants for years to come. So, while there is a lot to be said about how one ought to live their life, I think this is always best to keep in mind: when you are gone, what stories will others tell about you? Is that how you wish to be remembered? If not, start living your life in a way that makes you proud and that touches others in positive ways, because while all your wealth and all your success and all your victories will vanish with time, it is the stories you leave behind that will persist.

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The Superhero Accretion Dilemma

Superhero movies have a problem. This problem is endemic, evidently, to their nature and I am uncertain it can be solved unless our expectations of superhero movies change fundamentally. In brief: if a superhero movie is made and it is successful, another one, by definition, will also be made. However, as this movie must surpass the original, the makers of the film invariably choose to expand the next film in scope, cast, and budget. The result is a movie that is not as good as the first, but just as successful. This leads to a third, and the same thing happens (only the third is not as good as the second) and so on until, at last, the final film in the franchise either fizzles, the cast gets tired and moves on, or it dies some other, more esoteric death (perhaps involving the death of a cast member, legal issues, scandals, etc.).

Okay, so far, so good.

Okay, so far, so good.

Allow me to explain in more detail.

Stage One: We begin, first, with a superhero. This superhero has his own movie and it is his (or, more rarely, her) story. We see how they become who they are, we are introduced to their struggles and are hopefully inspired by their ability to overcome their foes. Huzzah, huzzah – everything is wonderful.

This first movie is, by far, the easiest to get right – one main character, one external and internal conflict, one story arc to manage, one villain to face, and so on. It is basic, mythic, Campbellian storytelling that human beings have been doing since Gilgamesh. Now, notably, the movie can easily still be terrible, but so long as it makes money at the box office, it hardly matters. Stage 2 approaches.

 

Oooo! The plot thickens!

Oooo! The plot thickens!

Stage Two: So, now we’ve got this movie studio that feels it’s discovered a money-making machine, and they’ll be damned if they don’t capitalize. The thing is, though, that you can’t just make the same movie twice – you’ve got to move forward, wow the audience, blow their minds. So they add more moving parts to the story.

It should be noted that there is no objective reason the second story has to be worse than the first. Indeed, some franchises actually do improve in the second installment (Captain America: Winter Soldier, for instance). If they do so, however, it is because of two things: (1) the second story didn’t incorporate more characters, but instead incorporated more complex character conflicts for the hero to resolve or (2) the first movie was terrible and there was nowhere to go but up.

Much of the time, however, neither of these things is the case. You wind up a movie that is pretty much like the first one, only louder and bigger and needlessly more complicated. It can still be pretty entertaining (Iron Man 2) or notable (Batman Returns), but it lacks a certain something that the first one had.

That something, by the way? It’s called “authenticity in storytelling.”

 

Ummm...guys? How are you going to even...

Ummm…guys? How are you going to even…

Stage Three: If it ain’t broke, why fix it, right? The second movie made money, so surely the strategy of the producers was the correct one: bigger is better (forgetting, of course, that the audience was coming to the theater on the promise of the first film, not the quality of the second)! But now they need to make another movie! And it needs to be even biggerer! HOW CAN THIS BE ACCOMPLISHED?!

Easy! This time you don’t just add one or two new characters to the mix! You add an additional 2 or 3 on top of the last film. New love interests (everybody loves love quadrangles, right?), the return of an old villain who teams up with a new villain and then both of them encounter a third villain who is tangentially related to the first villain in some way (looking at you, Spider-Man 3), the artificial raising of the stakes (first he saved the city, next time he saved the county, now he is going to save the city from the county and, therefore, the WHOLE WORLD WILL WATCH!), and on and on and on. And of course there are new allies, new sidekicks, new sideplots, and soon the whole thing becomes unwieldy. Everybody needs a story arc, but not everyone gets one (the movie’s got to fit into 2 hours, people!), and so characterization becomes more hand-wavy, more cliche. Our main guy? The hero we tuned in to see? His screen time is reduced, his arc is more predictable, and he very likely fails to undergo significant growth.

But, for all that, the damned movie is still fun, right? Well, maybe. A lot of franchises die right here, a lot of actors get tired of all the green-screening nonsense. If they go on, however…

What the actual fuck, people?

What the actual fuck, people?

Stage Four: MOVIE ARMAGEDDON! Now the franchise is so damned popular, it can have everybody in it. Distinguished actors from across the globe sign on for cameo roles that nerds freak out over. The special effects are absurd abominations for the eyes. People actively forget there’s supposed to be a plot. Character growth? Bah! We want explosions and our hero standing on the crushed remnants of the enemy android army. The only dialogue should be witty banter or over-the-top, Gandalf-in-Return of the King-esque speeches about it “being time” and “time growing short” and how “the time has finally come.” The movie is a complete and utter clusterfuck. Nothing makes sense, almost no character has sufficient screen time to be interesting, and all of us are basically going just to see how it all works out, just like people attend playoff games after their teams are knocked out – just to see what happens, ultimately, and to tell other people about it. It’s not a story anymore, it’s an event. And this is the end. It can go no further.

The MCU Anomaly

Now, I know there are those of you out there who are holding up Marvel’s interlocking franchises as proof that this dilemma has a solution. The solution, of course, is that you have individual movie franchises that keep things a little small (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, etc.) and then giant ensemble movies where you don’t need to do character development as much because we all already know these people (The Avengers). This, however, is not solving the problem, it is merely dragging it out. The individual films still tend to degrade (Iron Man 3, anyone?), the giant ensemble movies are still fun-but-stupid (Avengers: Age of Ultron was nonsensical, folks), and we are still locked in a steady, downward slope that even new Stage One films (Dr. Strange!) will only serve to slow a bit before they, also, are wrapped up in the morass. Basically, what I’m telling you is that The Infinity War Part 2 is going to be the greatest movie clusterfuck of all time.

And I’m totally going to be there to see it.

The Exotic and the Mundane

The only good story here is one that renders this normal place somehow new and interesting.

The only good story here is one that renders this normal place somehow new and interesting.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that all storytelling is simply negotiating the narrative tension between the exotic and the mundane. Read a book on storytelling or writing or screenwriting, and odds are you’re going to hear something along the lines of “all stories start the day something changes”. What that means, essentially, is your main character is going along with their daily business when something knocks them out of their regular routine and forces them to adapt to new circumstances. Joseph Campbell outlines this famously as the “Hero’s Journey” – the hero begins in the normal or mundane world, the Call to Adventure is answered, they enter the Special or Magical World, and their adventure begins. I think there’s more to it than simply that, though. See, just because you run Campbell by the numbers doesn’t mean you have a good story. Furthermore, as important as the plot is to a story, there’s a lot more at play there, too – theme, setting, style, and so on. I think that all of these things are also caught up in that dichotomy, between the exotic and mundane.

If you are writing in the real, mundane world, that story won’t be interesting unless that normalcy is made somehow exotic. The exotic – another way of describing the new and novel – is what gives a story purchase. It’s what draws us in. We are not interested in a patent clerk. We are interested in the patent clerk who is the brilliant physicist. We are not interested in a high school, but we are interested in a high school Saturday detention session that changes the lives of several young people. Without some aspect of the novel or new or strange, we don’t actually have a story.

Likewise, this needs some grounding in the real to allow us to understand and sympathize with the plot.

Likewise, this needs some grounding in the real to allow us to understand and sympathize with the plot.

It works both ways, though. The exotic cannot maintain our interest without some element of the mundane. This comes up a lot in science fiction and fantasy, actually; the mundane is used as a way to allow the audience to identify or sympathize with characters in a bizarre environment. The further a story drifts from what is identifiable, the less potent the story becomes. Why? Well, the audience has no emotional hand-holds by which to come to grips with the action. If I write you an epic war among single-celled organisms, I’d need to do certain things to make you engage with the story. If I don’t, it’s just a bunch of goo going at it in a petri dish. To use a real-world example, consider Dune, which is about as exotic as you get. Amid the Bene Gesserit and the Gom Jabbar, we have Paul and his mother. We have Paul taking a test. We have Paul in pain. These things we understand, and these things allow us to connect with Paul early on. They carry us through a story that would, otherwise, be an unidentifiable alien landscape. The exotic is tempered by the mundane so that we can access it intellectually and emotionally.

The more I think about it, every story has this balance to strike. Now, the precise nature of the balance is very wide, but it is nevertheless there. Our normal world needs the new and unusual to keep our interest, just as alien worlds need some aspect of the normal to do the same. This strikes me as something very fundamental to storytelling and, while I’m certain somebody else has put it into words better than I have here, I honestly haven’t seen this idea explored. It probably warrants some explanation.

 

Narrative Boardgaming and Me

A lot of my friends are pretty serious board-gamers. They own more board-games than they do individual dinner plates or even, possibly, individual pieces of flatware. Some own so many board games that it is extremely unlikely they will ever manage to play them all. They keep buying more, though.

Zzzzzzzz...huh? What? Oh, yeah, I buy coffee or something. Whatever.

Zzzzzzzz…huh? What? Oh, yeah, I buy coffee or something. Whatever.

While I do like games and will usually try any game once, I’m discovering that my tolerance of such games is somewhat limited the more and more game nights I attend and the wider variety of games I play. I find I get bored easily with a lot of games and, while I can appreciate the strategy involved and often admire the elegance of the rule design, the actual act of playing the game generates the same feeling I get while doing my taxes.

I’ve been trying to isolate my criteria for what makes a good board game, and I’m finding it’s surprisingly difficult. As a basic rule, I despise almost any game that makes the acquisition and management of resources a major gameplay component – Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, Monopoly, and their relatives. Then again, I really enjoy Illuminati and Innovation, which aren’t too far off such resource management games, so that’s not quite the rule involved. Likewise, while I find deck-building games to be more frustrating than interesting (every game of Dominion I’ve ever played has wound up being a brief, perplexing, and disinteresting experience), I think Thunderstone sounds like a lot of fun. Furthermore, while I no longer have the attention span or endurance to tolerate massive strategy games like Axis and Allies (and its billion spin-offs), I love History of the World and will play Diplomacy anytime someone suggests it. I don’t like Risk, but I do like Risk: Legacy.

I believe I’m beginning to figure the metric out, at any rate. I’ve decided that, while the rules of the game are important, what is really important to me is whether or not the concept behind the game is fun. The prospect of building tracks across North America (Ticket to Ride) sounds unutterably dull to the point where I have no desire whatsoever to play the game unless I’m in a room full of people who want to play and I have nothing else to do. On the other hand, the prospect of being a corrupt politician in a small banana republic and attempting to overthrow El Presidente (Junta) sounds like hilarious fun, so I’ll play that no matter how tedious the rule set is. I’m in the game, ultimately, because it tickles my imagination somehow. I feel emotionally invested in the outcome, even if that outcome is completely random (Betrayal at House on the Hill) or takes hours and hours to finally realize (Robo Rally). The game has to make me laugh or encourage me to talk in a funny voice. If I can look at the board and say “that looks so cool,” I’m in, no matter how poorly the rules are laid out or how predictable the outcome ends up being (Monsters Menace America). On the other hand, a bunch of cardboard chits that explain to me how I’m the richest stock broker in Manhattan is not going to get me going, no matter how innovative and interesting the rules mechanics get.

This, ultimately, is probably due to my obsession with story. I am a storyteller; it’s just about the best thing I do and pretty much the only thing I want to do. Everything to me is a story and, if the story is boring, I’m no longer invested. This goes for almost everything in my life, but especially so for the games I play. This part of the main reason I’ve been playing Warhammer 40K for as long as I have, for all the foibles and flaws in their rule set: I love the world, I dig the story, and I like telling stories every time I play the game. That’s why I plunk down hundreds of dollars a year and spend countless hours building and painting miniatures – it tickles my narrative-bone. Sure the investment is pretty major, but the payoff far exceeds anything that can be accomplished on a Risk gameboard. Risk, meanwhile, has a much more interesting and tangible narrative edge than Fluxx, which, while mildly amusing, is unlikely to get me really invested in play as it is so abstract as to be no more interesting than, say, Crazy Eights or Uno.

So, if you’re trying to peddle a game to me wherein I get to grow crops and sell them in town for horseshoes, call somebody else. Let me know when the barbarians or zombies or zombie-barbarians show up and then I’ll be there with bells on.

Posit your Sorceries, Oh Human, and Unfurl Thy Universe

I came across a post on the Facebook Page of Stupefying Stories the other day that got me thinking. The editor, Bruce Bethke, made the following statement:

Why it’s so hard to sell me computer-related SF:
We see a lot of stories that revolve around human/computer|AI interactions and that seem to have fallen out of time warps from the early 1950s, or else about “the Net” that seem to have fallen through similar time warps from the 1980s.
My old college roommate went on to do post-doc work in A.I. and his subroutines are now on the surface of Mars inside Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. Meanwhile, the linked article is the sort of thing I deal with every day in my day job.
If you want to sell me a computer-related SF story, forget Clarke’s computers and Asimov’s robots, try to become conversant enough with the current state of the art to write something at least slightly ahead of it, and for Deep Thought’s sake, no more rewrites of Kurt Vonnegut’s “EPICAC.”
The article he linked to is here.
Damn...where's that owner's manual...

Damn…where’s that owner’s manual…

Mr. Bethke makes an important point. Science Fiction is a moving genre, ever-changing. As technology marches ‘forward’ (though we must be careful in discussions of technological development as linear), the fiction that explores the reaches of our scientific potentials must keep pace. This is something of a challenge, as you might imagine, particularly if you are not a scientist or engineer by trade (such as I am not). I, personally, have the advantage of a robust liberal arts education, and thus am conversant (though not necessarily fluent) in most fields. Still, research and legwork must be done to achieve technical authenticity in works of science fiction.

Right?

Well, I’m going to put forward a ‘yes and no’ answer here. In the first case, if you want to write any kind of fiction and do it well, you need to read widely in your genre (and beyond) to see what has been done and be able to take it a new direction. That’s fairly obvious and not really under discussion here. Let’s focus, instead, on the idea of technical authenticity within the context of science fiction.

 

Authenticity is important, certainly. The mantra “write what you know” (as horrible a mantra as that can be for the creative process) is important in that it forces you to explore and even inhabit alien territory before you can efficiently write about it. Nothing rings more false than somebody writing about the government who has never met nor spoken with anybody in any government, and the same goes for the military, or for college, or what-have-you. Computers, technology, engineering, and so on are not exceptions to this rule. You have to talk the talk before you can walk the walk, if you follow my reworked metaphor. So, yeah, if you’re going to write about AIs and computers you better damned well do a little bit of AI and computer related homework.
But not too much, mind you.
The scifi author is Neo, not the Architect.

The scifi author is Neo, not the Architect.

There is a danger in reading and evaluating scifi where you wind up saying to yourself ‘that’s totally unrealistic’ and it knocks you out of the story. The more you know about a topic, the more particular you become in an area of scientific and engineering lore, the smaller and smaller the scope of the science fiction you will tolerate becomes. What ‘can be done’ in science becomes the shackles which bind your own writing. Science fiction, though, exists in the peculiar position of needing to look past the ‘write what you know’ thing and voyage into the totally unknown. Granted, science is our only guideline in those wide, unexplored places, but we cannot let known science (or even theoretical science) wholly dictate our dreams. There is a point where ignoring or bending the rules becomes ridiculous, but there’s a lot of leeway before that happens.

On a further note (and this is probably a topic for another day, but still), we ought to be wary of a world in which our scientific achievements are mystifying and incomprehensible to the common public. We, in our technological wonders, are drifting further and further towards Arthur C. Clarke’s imagined division between technology and magic. Technology is a tool, but magic is seen as fearful and wicked. As science fiction authors, part of our duty is to take the bizarre and esoterically technical and make it wonderful and accessible. If we wish ourselves to be a species supported and driven forward by science, the storytellers are at the forefront of that task. The further we go down the technobabble rabbit hole, the further we get from being able to attract the masses that made science fiction the popular storytelling genre it began as.
Still, though, remember to do your homework. Just don’t forget that you aren’t just a student of theoretical science, but also a kind of teacher.
Edit: In a sort of cosmic irony, the formatting in this piece is being atrociously idiotic, hence the weird font stuff. My apologies.

Mysteries and Labyrinths

This is going to be a half gaming, half storytelling post, so you’ve been warned.

Not as fun as it looks.

Not as fun as it looks.

I like mazes and puzzles. When I saw The Goonies when I was a kid, that treasure hunt through the caves of One Eyed Willie was my idea of boyhood paradise. I searched the islands near my house for secret passages, cryptic messages, and buried treasure. All I ever found was a curiously discarded park bench on an island otherwise completely given over to seagulls and poison ivy.

When started playing D&D (well, running D&D. I’ve run far, faaar more games than I’ve ever played in), I used to devise elaborate mazes just like the caves and labyrinths of the old RPGs on my NES. I thought it would be fun, to have players sneak around in those mazes, hunt down bad guys and treasure, and avoid the occasional tripwire, deadfall trap, or poison dart corridor. It wasn’t.

Actually, it was deadly boring for everyone but me. I traced the players along on my secret map, and they were barraged with endless questions like “left, right, or straight?” or “there is a stairway up and a stairway down–which way?” There would be the occasional monster to deal with, but outside of that, my players were really tired of that nonsense by the time they got to the end of the campaign. Hell, they still give me crap about it to this day, and this game ran a full twenty years ago when me and my childhood friends were in 7th and 8th grades.

Still, though, I was fascinated with the idea of labyrinths and puzzles in stories and in games. Movies like Labyrinth and fantasy series like The Death’s Gate Cycle kept me interested. How, though, could you incorporate the satisfaction of solving a puzzle without slogging through the tedium of wandering up and down corridors? You can, of course, create linear dungeons and such (room after room, in sequence, each with a different challenge), but while that ensures the fun of solving a puzzle, it removes that sense of discovery one gets when you pull back a secret passage or make your way around that last corner. In stories, this effect is easier to simulate, but the labyrinth is necessarily reduced to operating at whatever speed the plot insists, and the protagonist(s) find his or her way through and encounter each obstacle at predetermined points, though with the illusion of being ‘lost’ woven around them.

Is this, then, the only solution for the labyrinth? Is wandering corridors and getting stuck in loops until, suddenly, that moment of epiphany pulls you through–is all that merely the province of video games, never to make the transition into pen-and-paper RPGs or fiction?

Well, no, it isn’t, but to do otherwise requires the assistance of your players/audience. If you are GM-ing for a bunch of PCs who will never bother to figure out ‘where the thrush knocks’ and, instead, blunders forward slaying goblins until the entrance to Smaug’s lair is made evident to them, that moment of discovery is forever denied them. They don’t want or need that moment; they’d rather it be figured out for them. Likewise with your readers: if they won’t bother trying to figure out who killed Mr. Ratchett or why a stag appears as Harry’s patronus and are just waiting around to be told, there’s nothing you can do to make them wonder. Lay out as many clues as you like, hang as many of Chekov’s guns on the wall as possible, and they still won’t notice. There’s nothing to be done here without collaboration.

If, however, you can make the stakes clear and the rewards compelling enough – if you can fire their curiosity – why then there isn’t a labyrinth they won’t try to unravel, no clue they will fail to track down, and they will do it all with a smile on their face. In this sense, whether GMing a game for a bunch of your friends or writing a story for a larger audience, you need to meet them halfway. You need to give them something to hang on to in order to get them through that maze. Kidnap their kid brother, threaten to burn down their house, or steal their very souls away. That way, if done right, they will enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

Killing Things, Taking Their Stuff

Can I confess to you something? I don’t like what most people think of when they say ‘role-playing game’. I have run dozens of RPG campaigns, GMed probably thousands of sessions in my lifetime, and I feel that I have settled on what I consider to be the ‘true’ definition of a role-playing game, and it is not the same thing as what appears to be the common definition.

What is this common definition? Put simply, most RPGs are some variation of the theme ‘Killing Things to Take Their

Look! It's a pot of gold wearing a dragon suit. ATTACK!

Stuff.’ That is, your objective is to group together with your buddies, find a bad guy, kill it with your magic/guns/swords/giant robots/ninja techniques, and thereby acquire its gold/technology/experience points/chi/karma etc, etc.. Essentially every video RPG does this (MMORPGs do this to the virtual exclusion of all else), D&D is built around this mechanic, and most games inspired by or based off of the D&D structure do something similar, if not precisely the same. Even games that claim to be something else are still based off the same basic idea. The point of an RPG, to the wider world, is to go into a fanciful world of some kind, portray some kind of hero, and kill something for the purpose of acquiring X so that you can become more Y.

I hate this.  

I hate this because it is completely antithetical to what I think an RPG should be. An RPG is all about the RP part, and less about the G part. To you uninitiated (and kudos for still reading this, by the way), that is to say that the Role Playing portion of the RPG takes precedence (or should) over the Game part. RPGs should always be about telling a story more than it is playing a game. The game should act as arbiter for disputes and should also function to enhance the story somehow, but it always, always, always takes a back seat to story. This underlying philosophy is why I rankle at complaints regarding ‘game balance’ in certain systems and why I rarely use the same system twice across campaigns.

Why is story so important? Well, let me answer that question with a question of my own: why is the game part important? What is it supposed to do, if not what I have thus far laid out? RPGs are not ‘competitive’ exercises, really, and they aren’t about moving spaces on a board and planning out esoteric strategies within the confines of the rules. If you want those things, play a strategy game–they do it better and they are just as much fun without having the added complications of plot and character hanging around to foul things up. This is part of my problem with the current iteration of 4th Edition D&D, which has essentially been degraded to a video game played out with miniatures and gridmaps; story is a trapping laid over top of what is basically a simplistic strategy game and a number-crunching engine. Boo!

There is so much potential for RPGs to be really, really memorable collaborative storytelling exercises. Allowing game mechanics to take precendence over story is mind-boggling, as is running a game without careful thought to how game mechanics are going to interfere with the story and addressing those concerns before play begins. The acquisition of imaginary stuff is boring, for the most part (I go more in-depth regarding my thoughts on PC gear here), and combat has nothing interesting going for it without story backing it up. At some point it stops being heart-pounding action and starts to become work.  The verb ‘to grind’ is used in reference to leveling up in video games not because it’s lighthearted fun, you know, but because it’s mind-numbingly boring, repetitive, and soul-killing. I want things to be interesting all the time, or at least as much of the time as I can manage it. I want combat to be tense. I want players on the edge of their seats. I want people to cheer when they survive a deathtrap, to sigh when they make a narrow escape from the palace guards, or to grind their teeth while the villain laughs at their folly. None of that stuff happens without a focus on story; all of that stuff can be easily messed up by an over-emphasis on game mechanics.

I played an MMORPG once–Age of Camelot. I played a Dwarf named Durglethok. I spent hours and hours, more or less alone, wandering through the wilderness killing giant ants and selling their carapaces for pennies in some mountain village. I was, in essence, an exterminator who could throw lightning. After a while of this, I got bored and took a horse (which in that game was a lot like a train or a flight) to some other village. This village was surrounded by larger ants that kept killing me. I ran out of money to get another horse out of town and wound up sitting in the streets, literally begging for change. After an hour or two of doing this, I stopped myself and asked ‘why am I doing this?’ I put the game down, never played again, and have never been tempted to play another MMPORPG again. There was no interesting story in which to involve myself–I was a peon in a world very much like our own, except without a functioning welfare system. The designers had the audacity to request money from me for this privledge. Ugh…

It’s much the same feeling I get when I watch friends of mine spend hours and hours playing Morrowind or now, I suppose, Skyrim. It’s the same grumble I feel in my gut when I hear that there are D&D ‘tournaments’ where they apparently crown winners and losers of some kind. It’s an offense to what this genre of entertainment is capable of. They’re taking the opportunity to let the players star in their own personal movie or adventure story and degrading it to basic exercises in probability and economics. On the whole, I’d rather play Axis and Allies, if that’s the way we’re going. Those of you who know me know just what a damning admission that is.

The Lure of a Good War Story

I love listening to veterans talk about their experiences. Usually it’s the ones that don’t like to talk about it that have the most incredible tales. These stories aren’t really the har-har, slap-your-knee, ain’t-it-cool type things you usually get from anecdotes – they’re something different. You, the listener, are getting a glimpse of a place you probably will never go, assuming you’re reasonable lucky and live in a serviceable stable society. War isn’t noble or good or awesome or anything like that – I’m no jingoist – and the stories that come from it aren’t there to entertain. They exist, for me, as a fascinating window into a state of human existence beyond the scope of my experience or understanding. I crave them because I want to hear how regular people react to completely impossible, improbably scenarios. They’re hard things to understand sometimes, or sometimes they’re too easy so long as you don’t ask, but they draw you in anyway; they get you caught in their teeth and won’t let go. They stick with you forever.

Tim O’Brien, in his simply incredible collection of short stories The Things They Carried, has one story called “How to Tell a True War Story” that puts the trouble with war stories best:

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterwards you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’re got your answer.

For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

The answer matters.

You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the ways all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen – and maybe it did, anything’s possible – even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.

The experience of war is a mess, from what I am given to understand. Tim O’Brien knows this better than most; I am willing to trust his word. He’s right about the question of truth, anyway – truth doesn’t depend on fact and never has. Those who compile their understanding of the world on the basis of fact alone are living half a life, are seeing half the world.

For this Veterans Day, I’ve got two war stories for you. The first is from my Great Uncle, now deceased, who was a tank commander in the US Army during World War 2. He drove a Sherman through Italy and, at one point, experienced 150 hours straight of combat. Straight – no breaks. A week of being shot at, shooting, being scared as hell, and barely sleeping. You don’t believe it, take it up with him. He didn’t talk about it much, but I do have this story:

Bro (my uncle’s name) and his crew never left the tank if they could avoid it. They slept in it, they ate in it, the lived in it – a rolling armored apartment with not much elbow room but lots of armor plating between them and any bullets heading their way. They were driving up through the Italian countryside – I don’t know where they were going or their precise mission, but it was close to the front – when they come upon a German motorcycle leaning against a tree. This was a sweet bike – brand new BMW, still shiny, no apparent damage. Yeah, sure, it’s just a motorcycle, but this is a tank full of teenagers and early twenty-somethings and this is a free BMW motorcycle. The Germans were running for the hills at this point, so they figured it was left behind.

Breaking with all tradition, they decide the bike is too valuable to leave behind for some infantryman or supply douchebag to snag as his own, so they all hop out of the tank and lift the thing up on the back and spend a minute or two tying the thing down. After they get it secure, they get back inside the tank.

The second the hatch closes, the whole tank shudders and the world roars as an enemy artillery shell hits the tree the motorcycle was leaning against. The tank is fine, the guys inside are fine, but the motorcycle was shredded to ribbons. Had they spent another ten seconds outside admiring the thing, they would all have been dead.

That’s it – that’s the story. My Uncle Bro went on to weather the whole war without sustaining injury until the very end, after V-E Day. His tank was being transported via train to where it would be loaded up and taken back to the States. True to form, he was sleeping inside. When the tank fell off the train, he bashed his head open on the metal bulwark inside and had to have a steel plate put in his skull.

What’s that all mean? No idea. Did it happen? Don’t really care. It sucks me in anyway. I think about it all the time – those guys peering out their hatch and through their little view-slits to take a gander and a gleaming BMW and risk their lives on it. I love it, and I know it’s true in all the ways that matter to me.

The other story is something different. Met an old guy at a party once – faint German accent, well dressed, said he was a dentist. Told me this story:

He was a soldier in the German army in World War 2, and he served on the Eastern Front. He was at Stalingrad and he related, with a kind of ghoulish grimace I can’t simulate or understand, how “when the Russians came, they came women first.” He said there were men who wouldn’t shoot the women, but the women had knives and cleavers and axes and clubs, and when they got to you, you died. “So,” he said, “I shot the women.”

One day he was firing his gun (I gathered from the description it was either an MP40 or Sturmgewehr or something) at a human wave coming at him, howling for blood. The air was so cold and the gun was so hot that his hands were numb so, when he heard the sharp crack, he expected to see that his gun had jammed. Instead, the bottom of the gun had been blown off by a stray bullet (or perhaps it was aimed – who knows). It’s path through the gun had taken off the bottom of his right hand – the last two fingers.

At this point in the story, the old man held up his mutilated hand – his evidence, his proof. He then added, “It was good that they shot off my fingers, because I was put on a plane to the rear for medical attention. It was the last plane out before the rest of the army was cut off.”

He showed me that grimace again and chuckled dryly. “Not many others made it out. Nobody I knew, anyway.”

After the war he came to America and spend decades not telling anyone about what he had done during the war. Then, one day, he decided he ought to talk about it. I don’t know if I believe him, but the story stuck with me anyway.

Where am I going with this? I’m not sure, except to say that we ought to remember that the veterans we welcome home bring with them a heavy burden of narrative. How to describe something so alien as war? Not many are equal to the task; still, if they should talk to you, it is the least you can do to listen.