Sunday, September 30, 2012

[Onion Wedges] T-Dog's Commentary

"Wouldn't It Be Hilarious If I Actually Lived All The Way Through The End Of The Walking Dead?"

by IronE Singleton, a.k.a "T-Dog"

Well, Season 3 of The Walking Dead is premiering in just a few weeks, and inexplicably, my character T-Dog is still alive. Believe me when I say I am just as surprised as you. I mean, let's be honest here, a guy named "T-Dog" is probably not meant for narrative greatness, especially not in a show about the zombie apocalypse. I play a one-dimensional character with no real connection to anyone in the cast, nor do I have any particularly interesting quirks or traits. And yet, as much of an afterthought as T-Dog is, you'd really think the writers would have at least found some imaginative way to kill off me by now. But miraculously, I am still a member of the living on the show. At this point, I can't help but imagine how fucking hilarious it would be if T-Dog somehow made it through to the end of the series.

Let's take a minute and look at some T-Dog highlights from Season 2 of the show, shall we? The first episode, all I managed to do was cut myself real bad. This led to my character getting an infection in his arm, then getting sick. Now right here was probably the longest piece of dialogue my character has had the entire series, where I gave a fever-induced incoherent rant about feeling 'disposable' - showing that my character is totally aware of how useless he is in the big picture. Then T-Dog got some gangsta medical attention (that's a joke, though "none of that gangsta shit," was a choice quote of mine in one episode), and for the rest of the season, I pretty much sat in the background, shaking my head or passively involving myself in all the stupid non-zombie problems the entire remaining cast got to experience. Every week I expected to be handed a script that featured T-Dog dying at the hands of a surprise zombie attack. But wouldn't you know it, I just kind of kept on living. That is of course, if you count multiple episodes where I had zero lines, or interactions with the rest of the cast and would often get less screen time than certain zombies as "living."

Now, before I go on explaining my case for my character's continued survival, I recognize the obvious benefits to my character staying alive. Every episode T-Dog appears in the background looking at his gun while Rick and Lori argue about the survival of the group is money in the bank for me, right? But understand that I'm no longer invested in this project for the paycheck. Right now, it is completely about the mind-blowingly ludicrous idea that somehow, the least-developed, least interesting character on AMC's blockbuster show could wind up surviving certain doom despite all odds and common sense on the part of the writers.

Maybe it's some sort of industry affirmative action that's kept me alive this long. Killing off the only black guy on the show is probably too obvious, and could be interpreted as racist I guess, maybe? So they keep me around because it's just easier that way. Great, so let's really fucking heighten this then. People gotta die sometime -start by killing the little kid, Carl. That'll really piss audiences off. 'He was the heart of the show!' they'll yell. Then kill the wife, Lori too. Have her get in the way of a zombie horde right when it seems like I'm finally about to bite the big one. My God will the internet blow up over that - can you imagine the shock of her dying over me? Then maybe at some point down the line the main character Rick dies too (depressed over his dead wife and kid, no doubt), and then every else one until it's just me punching zombies alone in some huge warehouse shouting: "You ain't never gettin' T-Dog!!" Come on, how amazing would that be? It would be like sort of meta-commentary on my character's purposeless existence, like every member of the cast of Dexter besides Dexter. Also, it'd would just be really fucking hysterical.

Oh wait, I just thought of something brilliant. Obviously my bland, purposeless character has been given zero backstory or flashbacks to date, but what if that changed all of a sudden? What if in the middle of everything, T-Dog gets an origin story? Maybe we'll finally get to know his real name! Or the day he chose to bequeath the name "T-Dog" onto himself. What about an episode where T-Dog is despondent, and feels like leaving the group, and the others actually have to convince him to stay by saying why he's a valuable member of the group, or why they like him?!. Haha, oh man, the writers would totally never be able to pull that off! God, I'm having way too much fun with this. They're going to kill me off pretty soon anyway. Or will they?

It's funny, in the first couple of episodes I appeared in, I was instinctively letting the zombies get close to me during each take. I guess I was just assuming that my character - who no audience member is invested in or rooting for - was rightfully going to get torn apart at any minute. But fuck, now that I've made it this far, I feel like I'm calling the writer's bluff. I wanna see this thing through until the end. Maybe if T-Dog is ever supposed to get bitten, I'll storm into the writer's room and give them all my best angry black guy face to try and convince them that T-Dog's obviously he's got some kind of immunity to the zombie disease. These people don't have much of an endgame in mind, and the pressure's on for the series to continue for a while, so I'm willing to bet I can sell them on anything at this point.

Wow. You guys - I just got the script for the next episode we're shooting. Apparently I say: "count me out" on page 34, and then I basically disappear for the rest of the episode. And yes, I'm still alive! Hahahaha! I love it.

Oh man, I seriously can't stop laughing right now.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

From Underdog To Schadenfreude

Mike Birbiglia used to be my hero. He was exactly the kind of storyteller I wanted to be. Just a few years ago, he was a relatively unknown comedian delivering his tales of dangerous sleepwalking, shitty car accidents and one pathetic dating life. He told his stories in an emotional, almost apologetic tone, reassuring his audience whenever they cringed at a particularly embarrassing detail by saying: “I know, I’m in the future also.” 

Now he’s got his own movie out in theaters, Sleepwalk With Me, with a lot of the same amusing material. But watching him speak at a Q&A after the movie, I realized there was a certain off-putting confidence about him that I hadn't noticed before. Movie star Mike Birbiglia was successful and assured. A few questions in, I raised my hand and asked him whether he defines himself as more of a storyteller or a comedian, and he seemed to brush it off, saying he doesn't really label himself as anything. He gave me a relaxed smile and turned away to answer his next question, and right then I scoffed and turned my figurative back on him. How could a person I once traveled across three long New York City boroughs to see not have the humility to take a fan’s legitimate question seriously? The fame must have gone to his head. Man, I was so done with him.

Of course, this narrative I’ve created is total bullshit. A few weeks later, Birbiglia was on Reddit doing an “AMA” or “Ask Me Anything,” where fans and other internet denizens could similarly ask him questions directly over a short period of time. Though the move was likely another marketing gesture to support his film, his answers were both gracious and detailed. He thanked his many fans for their support and responded to legitimate questions about his experiences and career along with silly ones about late night pizza and what kind of bear he would be. And to be even more clear about how relative this all is - in the AMA Birbiglia himself readily admits that, to borrow a line from Mitch Hedberg, he is definitely more of an “apartment name,” than a “household name.”

In my quest to reconcile my emotions and the facts, I realized that I have an almost pathological need for the artists I support to be a recognizable underdog. This includes all the many writers, performers, and comedians - including personal friends of mine who have ‘made it.’ I can’t help but lose interest (if not worse) in their journey once they achieve the success I’d been supporting them towards the whole time. I’m honestly no better than the music snob who scoffs at his favorite band for ‘going mainstream,’ something I never thought I’d relate to, since I only ever seem to get into bands well after their alleged prime. Mind you, I’ll still enjoy any artist’s work if it’s good (though their work will be subject to comparison among the upper crust of creative output along with every other master of their field - Louis CK, Stephen Colbert, and the like), but the fan-driven passion I once had - feverishly posting on social networks, gathering support to come see a show, and buying everything I can regardless of quality - is totally gone.

I’ve spent some time wondering if this low level schadenfreude comes from more than just my own sad ego or lack of career success. I’m certainly jealous of any artist who’s become more successful than me, but in analyzing this specific instance, I came to realize that my brain may simply not know what to do with these people past a certain point in their careers, once the obvious struggling stops. Here’s the thing: an overwhelming majority of the character-driven stories I've read or seen throughout my life follow an underdog of some kind right up until the point of success. That success can come in a variety of flavors, and the character’s underdog ‘status’ can be as small as an otherwise awesome guy who is just a little too in love with himself and needs his ass humbled. Barring a few rare exceptions, the protagonist’s life is generally better off at the end of story than it was before. Then the story ends, and we’re content to move on to a different story with another character’s struggle, maybe this time in outer space.

If by chance you or I were given a glimpse of our favorite scrappy, unlikely hero after the credits rolled, it would start with a boring scene about a now-accomplished person likely celebrating his or her success with the love interest they’d just won over. At best, it’d be boring. At worst, you might have the strong urge to yell: “I get it, stop rubbing it in my face!” at the screen in frustration (or maybe that’s just me). The only time the story continues is when once again the character finds himself up against some shitty odds. The second a new obstacle emerges, this one even bigger than before!, we’re back on board until adversity has once again been overcome, hopefully this time in outer space. But that’s not how anyone’s life actually goes. Mike Birbiglia will probably still encounter life challenges, but unless he decides to switch careers and start his own cupcake delivery service, it probably won’t ever be as epic or story-worthy.

The effects of a lifetime of scripted storytelling have a lasting impact. You can’t just watch six years of Dexter, or seven years of How I Met Your Mother and naturally assume life ever stops being a struggle for more than a week or so, whether you’re a serial killer with a conscience or a guy who seemingly just cannot find ‘the one.’ I don’t just project this “narrative resists life” mantra onto others, either - even my own life isn’t immune from this line of thinking. Recently I experienced one of the most affirmative, fulfilling moments of my writing career to date. A piece I wrote got a fair bit of attention on the internet one day and suddenly I felt on top of the world. Walking to the subway with a spring in my step later that same day, I started crossing the street and I stopped short to make doubly sure I wasn't about to get hit by a car. The thought made no sense to me at first, until I realized the fear came about as reaction to the happiness I was feeling. I was actually anticipating some sort of inevitable, narrative retribution. I had experienced too much success, and now had to fall victim to some form of tragic downfall or else, presumably, risk losing interest in myself as the central character in the story of my life.

That night after Sleepwalk With Me, I literally got to watch the no longer underdog Mike Birbiglia emerge from his story post-credits, and converse comfortably in front of an audience in a way the on-screen Mike Birbiglia wasn't able to. Now on-screen Mike, that guy had my sympathy. He needed all the help he could get if he was ever going to get past being an underpaid, amateur performer. The overdog Birbiglia right in front of me on the other hand was just some big shot I couldn't relate to. He probably had to take breaks from counting all the stacks of money in his high rise apartment to come down and pay lip service to us losers, who had nothing better to do on a Saturday night. Jesus, Mike. I get it, stop rubbing it in my face!

I immerse myself in hundreds of hours of fictional stories based around overcoming adversity every year. The repetition of proper story structure and emphasis on drama and relatability trumps the mundane, unfocused narrative of any person’s actual life story. So it really shouldn't come as much of a surprise to me that I’m downright eager to abandon anyone who achieves a certain level of success. Let’s be clear though, I’m not a bad guy with low self esteem who just wants these people to fail. This Shafeekenfreude I’m feeling is simply me wishing them to back to their more relatable underdog status, where I can happily support them. Once they go back to struggling with their smaller audiences and embarrassing paychecks, I vow to vehemently cheer them on from the back of a dive bar in the outskirts of Brooklyn. I know it’ll seem pointless at first, but in time these artists will come to understand that their Sisyphean endeavors make for a much nicer story for devoted fans like me, who like it better when their reality follows a proper script.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Placebo: The Game! (That I Designed!)

Readers of this blog, as well as people who know me personally, people who know me casually, and others who may have taken a casual glance at me all know that I. love. games. I've been playing them obsessively pretty much my entire life, and a while ago I decided that designing from scratch was going to be one of of my bucket list goals. One morning earlier this year I woke and, out of ideas for any stories/blog posts I wanted to write, I decided to try to come up with an idea for game. I knew it wouldn't be a video game, only because I wanted it to be sometime I could make from scratch and have it be playable in a matter of days as opposed to months, or years (also something I could make on my own, and despite my frankly weak efforts, I am no programmer). So I decided on some kind of board or card game. Then, in traditional improv fashion, I sat down, gave myself a random word as suggestion, and began writing. That word?


I've always loved this word. I actually give it as a suggestion to others during improv shows all the time. I love the way it sounds, I love the actual definition/amazing mind manipulating science behind the word, and of course, it reminds me of one of my favorite Simpsons moments of all time. So when I gave myself the word "Placebo" as a starting-off point, I found myself plotting the idea for a game almost immediately. A half hour later, I had the outline for a card based game involving a deadly virus, a team of shitty scientists, and of course, lots of delightfully deceptive placebos. Here's a small sampling of what the game looks like:

And you thought I was just wasting my life on stupid things like this blog!
Pretty cool, huh? Now, I can't reveal every detail of the game here today, since in case I actually try to make it I don't want the concept stolen before I get it off the ground. BUT - the reason I'm announcing it today is that, after a few trial runs with close friends, and about three major overhauls, I think the game is in good enough shape that I'd like to start testing it on a larger scale.

So - if you live in the New York City area and love games, give me a shout (comment in this blog, or message me on Twitter) and I'll make a master list and start getting games together. I'm looking for feedback of any kind, and of course, watching every playtesting session carefully to look for exploits and other forms of game-breaking behavior.

For the rest of you who can't play it right now, don't fret. For all you know, this time next year, Placebo: The Game! could be on sale on Amazon or your local nerd shop for all to purchase and play (what a dream!)

Help me make this as awesome as possible and don't worry - unlike this game's namesake, the joyous sensation you're going to feel after playing it will be the result of 100% real gaming goodness!


Friday, September 7, 2012

The Delusion of Choice: Narrative Bending In The Walking Dead [Part 3]

[I'm back with more analysis on The Walking Dead video game series. Minor spoilers for the first episode]

Part III: Oh My Darlin' Clementine (Or: Please Don't End Like Mass Effect 3)

Every episode of The Walking Dead video game opens with a message that says: "your choices affect the story." Let's get this out of the way right now: this statement is not entirely true. There are many times that when presented with a choice of what to do or say, the plot will continue on as planned regardless of your alleged "choice," with at most a different line of dialogue spoken by other characters.

This is the reality of crafting a plot-heavy video game. Players want to feel like they have control over the story they're participating in (this is why they're playing The Walking Dead video game and not just watching the television series or reading the comic book), but Telltale Games doesn't have the writers, the budget or the time to craft a game with thousands of sprawling storylines. Understanding this limitation is the key to appreciating the game, which I still contend is one of the best story-driven video games to come out in a very long time.

The "narrative bending" that takes place in the game still allows the player to make some difficult choices, even if the story ultimately snaps back into place and hits the same beats regardless. I was initially disappointed to see that the infected woman I'd mercifully allowed to commit suicide in my game still wound up killing herself in my friend's game when he declined to give her that option (she manages to snatch the gun in a scuffle if you don't simply hand it over). But even if the writer's weren't inclined to created two diverging paths for the storyline - one where this woman was alive and slowly turning into a zombie because you didn't have the heart to do what you know is right, or dead thanks to your heroism and long-term decision making ability - your character did still take a moral stand, so a sort of balance is struck between the player and the writers.

I do have one big concern though, regarding the final narrative bottleneck known as the ending of the game. I'm worried this same gesture will feel like an awful cheat after however many episodes of incredibly painful decisions, big and small. This is what happened earlier in the year with Mass Effect 3, when hundreds of choices made over the course of three sprawling, 40+ hour games were whittled down to ostensibly a few color changes in a two minute cut-scene. After a massive outcry, the creators of the game added a minor update that at least made the game feel like it had three distinct endings, but it still fell short for many, myself included.

In the short term, I'm ok with the story plowing forward regardless of my decisions at the time. But I'm really hoping the series is planning an actual tailored payoff for players at the end. Here's my biggest example: while venturing through the zombie apocalypse, I've been having dozens of small conversations with Clementine, the little girl I've been protecting since I met her at the beginning of the game. She has provided the motivation for me/my character to power through all the depressing, end of the world insanity going on. Every choice I make in a line of dialogue with her reflects my character's pragmatic desire to keep his young companion informed while preserving whatever little bit of innocence is still left in her.

I'd like to think that there are hundreds of different Clementines in the world being created right now, born out of the many different conversations players are having with her. Some of them are toughening up, some of them are cowering in a corner somewhere in fear. I want to believe that the Clementine I'm protecting, the Clementine I'm maintaining a 100% honest, caring relationship with will not be the same one every player sees just before the credits roll (and so help me God, she will make it to the end credits). Because if she winds up the same little girl with the same heart and same view of the world no matter what I said or did, then what the hell was I fighting for all this time?

Still To Come:
-How To Make Death An Actual Threat
-And Probably More!

Also: Check out Part I and II if you haven't yet (or just, you know, scroll down).


Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Delusion Of Choice: Narrative Bending In The Walking Dead [Part 2]

[I'm continuing my thoughts on this excellent zombie-filled adventure game series. Incredibly vague spoilers ahead for the first two episodes of The Walking Dead]

Part II: "Fuck You Kenny!" - Thoughts On Building Connections Between Players & NPCs

I tried giving him the benefit of the doubt. I really did. He seemed like a decent enough guy at first. Loving husband and father. Adorable southern twang. But after two major back to back disappointments during the debacle at the barn, I think I'm done being reasonable with Kenny. In fact, I'm on the verge of outright leaving him for the zombies, next chance I get.

You should understand, I play my video games like I'm the second coming of Jesus. I don't lie, I don't steal, I turn water into wine if it's ever an option. In every conversation with another non-aggressive person I react with the patience and forgiveness of a saint. That's just how I was raised to video games. Obviously having a good relationship with every possible character you come across is only ever going to benefit you as the player.

But dear god, I am so fucking done with Kenny. He pushed me to the point where, whenever my character had the opportunity to yell at, demoralize or undermine him, I took it. And I love it. I'm off of my usual video game autopilot right now, not just picking the option that gets me the most "friendship points" or "alliance strength" or whatever stat I know the game is tracking after every dialogue option I choose. At this point, I don't give a shit what harm comes of it. I'm done letting Kenny ruin things for my character, and the rest of the group. Especially Clementine, the little girl I'm protecting.

At the end of the second episode of the game, the group comes across an abandoned car full of supplies. Kenny dives right in, while my character stands back, judging him. Several options for dialogue appear on the bottom of the screen. There's a neutral response, a mostly negative response, and one outright sneer.

"You're really on a tear today, aren't you Kenny?" I tell my character to say to him.

The screen flashes a prompt, informing me: "Kenny will remember your words", and I shout at the screen: "GOOD, HE'D FUCKING BETTER!"

I love that on top of the game tracking my decisions with other players and keeping tabs on our relationships, it's gone one step above and beyond and caused me the player to have very personal reactions to the scripted NPCs. Great stuff.

Still To Come (I may wait until after I play Episode 3 for these)

-How To Make Death An Actual Threat
-Oh My Darlin' Clementine (Or: Please Don't End Like Mass Effect 3)
-And probably more!

And if you haven't read it yet, check out Part I.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Delusion Of Choice: Narrative Bending In The Walking Dead [Part 1]

[I have some scattered thoughts on the topic listed above. I'm focusing on one small thread here though, for now. Minor spoilers ahead for the second episode of The Walking Dead video game series]

Part I: The Hunger Mini-Games

There was a moment of pure dread I experienced playing the second episode of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead, and it actually had nothing to do with zombies. My character, Lee Everett, was put in charge of deciding who among our party of ten very hungry survivors was to receive the four meager pieces of food being allotted for the day. This decision troubled me more than any other in the game so far (save for the decision between saving the lives of two characters, which I'll talk about later) because I knew I couldn't out-game this particular decision. There was no winning or losing here, and I couldn't just reload a save to try and perfect the scenario. I was just going to have to choose four people to give food to, and the rest were going to go hungry. End of story.

A few minutes later, after starting to hand out the food, I was presented with a decision that, conversely, I was actually easily able to out-game. When I got down to the last package of cheese and crackers, the game asked me decide whether to keep it for myself or to give it someone else. I thought this was a clever move in theory, but unlike my previous decision(s), I knew that obviously my character was going to just go hungry. Why? Because he's the protagonist, and the game wasn't actually going to make him/me suffer. Not enough to affect me as a player in any way, at least. I made a similar decision at the end of the scenario when the group stumbled upon an abandoned car full of supplies and debated whether or not it was considered stealing. "No thanks guys, but enjoy your ill-gotten gains. I'm pretty sure I'll be just fine," is what I said to the group, though I think my character may have been forced to say something a little less blatantly fourth-wall breaking.

It's easy to take the moral high ground when you know you're playing as the story's hero. I believe this kind of self-awareness can be worked around though (and since I haven't played past episode 2, for all I know it will be, so I'm mostly just speculating here that my character won't be adversely affected by his decision to starve himself). What if, after deciding to not give himself any food, any strenuous activity that took place afterward (including struggling with a lumbering zombie) was that much harder to accomplish (via button mashing or inputs)? What if for the rest of the episode/day, my character walked noticeably slower, making the player suffer the same way the character is? Then I'd actually have a legitimately tough decision to make (though for the record, and I know this is "gamey", but I would want to know in advance that starving myself would have these consequences, since I know I'd probably be grumbling to myself if I suddenly found my character walking at half speed).

The difference between the two decisions was that even though the storyline was going to more or else continue either way, I knew that handing out food for the others was about my character affecting his relationships with members of the group, as well as, on a very basic level, providing sustenance for some while denying it from others. It was a difficult decision with actual consequences (though not one that required any new branches in the storyline, which I can imagine is something of a nightmare for the creators of these kinds of games), as opposed to the choice of whether or not to feed myself, which was essentially a non-issue. For the record, if anyone's playing the game as well, I gave food to the two kids, the cheerful cooperative Mark, and as an olive branch to Larry the asshole. Big mistake on that last one.

In case it's not entirely clear, I am definitely loving this game, and I have some more thoughts on the overall topic of choice and narrative in games like these that I'll be talking about more in the near future.

Still To Come:
-"Fuck You Kenny!" - Thoughts On Building Connections Between Players & NPCs,
-Oh My Darlin' Clementine (Or: Please Don't End Like Mass Effect 3) and
-How To Make Death An Actual Threat


Sunday, September 2, 2012

[Onion Wedges] Feminists and Perverts Form A Tenuous Alliance Over Topless Law

A local feminist protests topless laws in New York start, while left, a local pervert fervently supports her

NEW YORK - Feminists and perverts rarely have any common ground to stand on, but this past week both groups came together in droves over a cause that was equally important in each of their minds. The topic at hand was the topless law in the New York State that prevents women from being able to openly expose their bare breasts. Taking to the streets, a chorus of vocal feminists threw off their shirts and bras and picked up megaphones and signs instead to protest a law they feel is sexist and discriminatory. Moments later, an equally large group of horny perverts emerged on the scene, ready to back their cause.

"We're happy to get all the help we can get in this fight," said Debby Glauser, a lawyer and a mother of two. "The more people they see out here in the streets, the more they're going to know that...oh come on Stan! Can you stop taking pictures with your phone for thirty seconds and maybe hand out some fliers, please?"

Despite some initial discomfort, both sides seemed willing to put past differences aside to come together for what they both see as antiquated law. Working together, the groups formed two large circles to represent the female breasts, with all the topless feminists in the center, representing the nipples, and the perverted protesters all represented the outer portion of the breast, surrounding the women and facing inward.

"This law is something I've been saying is bullshit for years," said Matt Bowman, a locksmith and total perv. "And I just want to say, I can and will support all these women in whatever way they need," he said, winking several times in the process. "Especially if that smokin' hot redhead from Mad Men is coming to this."

As of a press time, the topic of the new law gaining a 'groping clause' had gone from a casual joke between the two groups to a heated debate.