The Other Use, Part One

“Not to be used for the other use.”
– warning label on a Japanese food processor.

Perhaps the most fun people can have within a system is messing with it.  When we come across an app, a game, a gadget, or an online community, it’s a presentation of a set of tools with a strong suggestion of how to use them.  A suggestion, but not a requirement.

For example, when you play “The Sims,” you’re intended to manage a life for a pretend person or family.  That setting where you’re building their house was added so that you can customize the look of the place.  It has about as much bearing on the gameplay as the wallpaper on your desktop does, and yet customizing it is probably one of the most engaging aspects of the game.  Don’t tell me my friends and I are the only ones who hit Rosebud* a million times and forgot all about the family while building mansions for them.

The house customization was probably only included in “The Sims” because status symbols were important for the aesthetic of the game.  If I recall correctly, the people were slightly happier if they were surrounded by nice stuff, but the effects of this were buried in with a slew of other qualifiers.  “The Sims” is not “Minecraft**”  It’s not a building game, but without the building setting, my friends and I probably wouldn’t have cared much about it.  It was not designed as a building game, but it could be played as such.  And so, play it as a building game we did.

This is something game creators need to keep in mind.  The creator’s idea might not be the audience’s idea of a good game, but if the game allows for what the audience wants, then the creator can still reach them.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that every game should try to be like “Pokemon,***” combining aspects of many gaming formats to come up with something that everyone can like.  However, game creators need to be aware that the people who play their games may be looking for alternate ways to play them.

Now, “The Sims” is a fairly small example of people using programs for The Other Use.  There are some much bigger ones out there, so now that I’ve set the scene, I’ll go into them one by one in the upcoming days.  Til next time,**** look around and see if you’re using anything for The Other Use.

* Rosebud = a cheat code to get more in-game currency, which is required for building and decorating the houses.
** Actually, “Minecraft” isn’t even “Minecraft.”  More on that later.
*** They shouldn’t.
****Til next time?  Did this just become a 1980s TV show?


Star Drek: A Case For Unscientific Badfic

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
-Arthur C Clarke


Ah got my nailz did!

Have you ever read a story or watched a movie that was so outlandish it made you shout out corrections?  I’m talking full-on 1950s, UFO-on-a-string, space-air-seeping-in-so-activate-space-goggles ridiculousness.  Nothing makes sense, and so what was intended to be a serious moment plays as comedy.

Even worse is what happens when we come across impossibilities treated as reality in amateur works.  This ranges from bad science to unrealistic relationships to Mary Sues.   We don’t just laugh.  We rip people apart.

However, I would argue that unscientific star drek isn’t always bad.  It’s inaccurate, but it’s not bad in terms of entertainment.  Step back for a moment and ask yourself what the point of fanfics and pop sci-fi and so on actually is.  These things are for entertainment.  It’s okay if they break a few rules.  While I expect a fictional story to maintain its in-world consistency, I do not demand that it obeys real world laws.  Finding errors in a sci-fi movie is not the same as finding errors in a science textbook.  Science fiction is FICTION.  It’s okay for a few facts here and there to be conveniently ignored for the sake of the story.  And yet, we still hold sci-fi to a higher standard than other literary genres.  We expect it to be science rather than free-form asking “what if?”

This is why the fantasy genre can be a lot more interesting than sci-fi – because the author has more freedom.  The fantasy audience doesn’t care where the magic comes from or why it works the way it does.  It’s enough to accept the in-universe rules of magic.  Sci-fi, on the other hand, gets grilled a lot more because it’s allegedly real.  We know it’s not real, but we treat it as though the author meant it to be.

"Wizard did it."

“Wizard did it.”

Perhaps this is because the original science fiction was meant to be realistic speculation.  Jules Verne, for example, drew from what was known at the time and wrote how-to guides for journeying into the unknown.  That was meant to be real, whereas fantasy was always fantasy.  One would hope that the genre-savvy audience can tell the difference between speculative fiction and the cowboys-in-space genre that sci-fi has become. The pop sci-fi of today falls apart when examined too closely.

Take, for example, time travel.  Who doesn’t love a good time travel story?  However, “time travel” is always explained either by meaningless technobabble or by “the characters get in their time machine; no further questions, please.”  Either is okay, because the point is to get on with the story.  If you took the time to actually explain how time travel works, for one thing, it would get boring.  For another… how does time travel work in real life?

Bounce a graviton particle beam off the main deflector dish...

Bounce a graviton particle beam off the main deflector dish…

It doesn’t!  At least, not yet, and not in the way we expect it to for an adventure story.  There is no logical reason to believe that putting a fish in your ear makes you a language expert, but that’s not nearly as big a problem as having all your characters unable to communicate with one another.  I have trouble writing sci-fi because anything I think of is either too implausible to be accepted by a scientific-minded audience, or it’s so plausible that the darn thing exists already.  I can explain how a toaster works, but no one wants to read about a toaster.  What if it was a magical toaster that could tell the future, burning cryptic runes into your morning whole grain fare?  That’d be a good story, but it requires the audience to accept the inner workings behind it as though they were true.  It’s called suspension of disbelief, and it’s perfectly acceptable.  Save your critical thinking for when you watch the news.  Enjoy your toast.

Marathon Training

As a continuation from the previous post

Have you even bought the DVD* of a TV show and watched a whole season in one shot?  If not, I suggest that you do, because it may make you a better writer.

Traditionally, a television show is broadcasted at the rate of one episode per week.  However, as people may end up watching a whole season at once, your audience may view the story in a different way.  First of all, it acts more like a movie than an episodic show.  That is, the overarching story becomes more important than the week to week adventure.  Character arcs and relationship building is more prominent.  Cliffhangers are more tantalizing than annoying, but at the same time you lose out on water cooler debates as to how the cliffhanger will end.

When you marathon a TV show, you also notice patterns.  Subtle callbacks stand out more.  Catchphrases and character idiosyncrasies can get annoying faster.  If there is a repetitive formula, you’ll notice.  This can be an excellent learning tool, since it’s an inside look at how the TV show is structured.  However, if you write an episodic webseries or periodical saga, your audience will likely pick up on the formulas YOU are using.

In any case, marathoning a show is great for analysis.  Not only can you see how the story is put together, but you can also see what stays interesting and what gets tiresome when the story is taken in large doses.

*Or tapped into a rich vein on YouTube