Games

How to Make Non-Linear Reactive Stories

A comparison between tarot cards and the field of non-linear, first person video games.

One of my favorite phrases to throw around in a video game debate is that no amount of naming the chess pieces in a game after something will change the fact that you’re still playing chess. The chief preoccupation is still scoring a checkmate, having nothing to do with whatever title or meaning you’ve assigned to the pieces. It’s simply a way to shake up someone who thinks that all video games need to do is have a more sophisticated plot, a way to make them question the game designs and activities we’re actually doing in games. It also reminds people that the player input is what makes game plots so difficult to manage, though it's also what gives them so much potential. Yet there must be a way to create meaning in a game despite that huge variable without constantly forcing the player’s hand. A couple of games that are coming on the horizon are exploring just that, as highlighted by a fascinating interview over at Gamasutra with Patrick Redding about Far Cry 2. I made a comment there that was just meant to summarize what Redding was trying to explain when one designs a non-linear plot. The writer creates a series of reactions that relate to one another like vignettes that inter-operate in the game. People seemed to take a shining to it, so after giving it some thought, I figured I should explore what the hell that actually means.

Long ago, at the young age when awkward boys are thinking up unique ways to impress girls, I opted to learn how to tell fortunes with a tarot deck. It was just something that fit my personality. This might shock you, but the real key is to not actually believe you’re predicting the future when you do a reading. Instead, pretend you’re giving someone an elaborate ink blot test. It’s like holding up a giant symbolic mirror that will, thanks to our mind’s natural inclination to assign meaning to chaos, create an incredibly personal and profound story for the subject. This means I don’t need to be in control of the meaning the cards create for a person, because I know the meaning they create will be far more powerful anyways. It also means they’ll take care of any flaws in the story I project at them. When I say a lively and energetic man is affecting your life, I don’t have to worry that I’m talking to a person surrounded by boring people. They will, by default, manipulate the data in their head until someone conforming to that image plugs in. So to explain how one might create narrative in a seemingly random video game, I’m going to explain how I can create narrative with a deck of cards.

The deck consists of 78 cards representing broad philosophical and personal concepts. The Magus is skill, wisdom, cunning. Death is transformation, change, and destruction but not literally death. You then have the lower arcana of wands (energy), cups (emotion), swords (logic), and discs (material affairs). These are like the houses of a normal deck of cards: each are numbered and represent states or emotions, the major arcana represent types of people or situations, and the ace is a massive concentration of whatever arcana it represents. Each of these cards are visually and descriptively designed to kick off something in your subconscious, and they do so with a variety of tools. I use Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Deck and I chose it because each card has a stunning amount of imagery on it. There's phallic, vaginal, occult, and anything else they could pack into one little card. It is extremely unlikely that a person looking at one of these things is not going to have it register and connect with something in their head. Whether that association is positive or negative, tarot cards work as narrative devices because they deal with loaded symbolism that people naturally turn into stories. When I slap down the Knight of Wands, shown wielding flaming staves and thundering horses, I know the subject is both puzzled and creating connections without me saying a word.

Furthermore, in any narrative there is a great deal to be said for prepping your subject. I’ve experimented with a variety of reading methods and they almost all require the subject to shuffle the cards. While they do so, you have them think about what’s affecting them or what question they want answered. You do this to make sure the subject is already trying to turn the random symbols into a larger narrative. Other mediums use music, labels, etc. in a similar method: you prep your subject for thinking about a particular theme. The sad music in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is as much a signal for my brain to start referencing sad thoughts as the imagery itself. So I tell them to think about a problem in their life and that these cards are going to relate to that problem. Occasionally a person will be extremely helpful and tell me what’s on their mind, but most of the time I like the challenge of sniffing out the issue. This is probably what separates good fortune tellers from bad ones: the capacity to gauge a person’s responses to you. Fortunately, video games are going to be far better at this than me because they have all those graphs and feedback charts. There may still be a lot of cultural bias towards video games being anything except diversions or fun, but for a game that wants to impart a meaningful story one of the key aspects is letting the person know your intentions. As much as you might fear sounding pretentious, if you’re trying to say something complex and deep then don’t pretend otherwise.

So once you have a wide and universal array of symbols at your disposal and a subject who is thinking very hard about converting these symbols into something that means something, what is the final phase? The presentation. There are actually a lot of ways to do tarot cards, and most people choose based on their personal skills. I use the Celtic Cross method, which divides the draw into 5 groups of 3. One group represents the conflict, two are potential decisions for the user to make, and the other two are outside factors to consider. That’s a lot to work with, so that even if the subject does not really resonate with the central conflict group, they tend to perk up when I gloss over a successful future or interesting factors in their life. With so many topics to discuss, it means I don’t have to tell a perfect fortune, I just have to get my foot in the door. They’ll do the rest, the morphing and manipulating broad symbols into their life, all by themselves. There are other techniques for the tarot as well. The Egyptian method is to just draw cards until one hits pay dirt, then gloss the rest as significant in other ways. Others have their own unique set of symbols and claims for the subject. The result is always the same: if you mix broad symbols with proper presentation and carefully managed player input, you will have an impact on the subject.

It might surprise you that despite my own blunt perspective on the art of tarot, I still tell my own fortune a fair amount. When something is troubling me or I’m unsure about a choice to make, I break out the deck and follow the cards. Not because I expect good advice or even a solution, but because they help generate perspective. Like the ink blot test and sitting on your therapist’s couch, reading those cards makes me think about myself and my issue in a new way. Which is technically what narrative in most mediums is doing with symbols anyways. You find something you can relate to in a story and through that connection find profound meaning. Going back to more linear mediums, a popular symbol would be the mansion. From Faulkner to ‘There Will Be Blood’, that symbol of a big house, the wealth it implies, and its motivation to bloody-minded men is near universal. I don’t need Daniel Plainview to say another word in the film when he says he wanted a mansion as a kid, I and the vast majority of people know what it is to long for wealth. In video games, where interactivity creates such an impossible headache for writers, I think the tarot offers a lot of insights on how meaning can still be created in an environment where the author has little control. A series of reactions like someone crying for help if you shoot them or a dog following you if you feed it could be created in response to the player. Rather than worry about how these relate to some grand linear story, simply leave them as short vignettes that connect and relate to one another through A.I. With enough potent symbols and a willing subject, you don’t really need much control over the narrative at all. The player will create the story for you.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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