Moral Premise: Trinity Reimagined

Rather than throw this in the Moral Premise and Gaming thread, I figured I would put up this one just to give one example of how we tried thinking about and applying the moral premise. I mentioned that one of the classes was focused on “Trinity Reimagined.” So here I’ll cover a very small snapshot of how we looked at this. Even thought it’s a small snapshot, I fear this still may be a long post.

Warning: There is a significant spoiler here regarding the original game Trinity. I do discuss how the original game ended because I sort of have to. If you haven’t played the game and still want to, this would be a good time to stop reading.

[size=150]THE ORIGINAL TRINITY[/size]

If we were going to “reimagine” something, we had to know what that something was originally. Here’s a basic summary of Trinity:

The game focused on a nameless protagonist who ends up escaping a nuclear war. You had an American who was visiting London when the war breaks out. A particular nuclear weapon happens to detonate right over Kensington Gardens, which is where the player happens to be. Being vaporized in the blast is what the player has to escape.

This escape involves traveling into what appears to a fantastical other dimension that does, in some ways, have elements that match our own dimension or reality. Through a series of adventures in various time periods – all of which involved some aspect of atomic or nuclear weapon development – the protagonist collects a series of items that eventually allow him to re-enter our dimension at the “Trinity” test site in Alamagordo, New Mexico. It’s here that the protagonist is given a chance to alter the course of history by preventing the first test from ever working, thus presumably avoiding the future nuclear war.


After some review and some play-through of the original game, it was immediately clear to anyone with some writing skill that the entire basis of Trinity was flawed. The overriding concept was that just because one atomic test was thwarted, all of the subsequent atomic and nuclear development would have somehow changed enough that a nuclear war would never happen. Clearly that chain of logic is lacking a whole lot of logic. From a design perspective, I wanted my class to recognize that and think about what that might mean for the story.

Another thing that my class noticed is that the fantasy elements in the game didn’t sit very well with the “real world” elements. Essentially the main part of the game – where the brunt of the action takes place – is in the fantastical realm. However, that realm leads to various points of time in the “real” world. The intrusion of the fantasy into that world wasn’t really handled all that well, at least from a storytelling perspective. (After all, at one point you have to interact with a dolphin to get yourself a coconut.) The game itself seemed to just mix these elements freely which, it could be argued, diminished the story a bit.

Finally, there were many, many places in Trinity where it was simply possible to get yourself in a no-win situation. Failing to grab certain items at the right time could lead to problems later on where you were no longer able to complete the game. There was no way to go back and get those items. From a design perspective, this was found to compromise the ability to tell the story effectively.

I think it says a lot about the paucity of effective stories in textual IF from the Infocom days that Trinity was so well-regarded at the time as it was. Looked at honestly, it was essentially Zork with a slight veneer of sophistication. Mind, I say this in full light of the fact that I was one of those who greatly enjoyed Trinity at the time. It was probably my favorite Infocom game, even given the annoying fact that you could routinely get yourself into spots where you could no longer win them game. That being said, there was an attempt to tell a particular story.

[size=150]DESIGNING TRINITY[/size]

With the above already-existing design in mind, I then asked the class to largely clear it from their minds while, at the same time, keeping it very much in their mind. Sounds strange, I realize, but what I wanted the class to do was consider a redesign based on the original but almost as if they were coming up with it for the first time. So what I asked the class to do was to consider what was known about the basic elements of the game as a treatment, similar to what you would see when somebody pitches a synopsis for a screenplay or novel. Then we’d use that to “design (a new) Trinity.” To break it down, here’s the simple treatment:

As far as a treatment goes, that’s just fine. But it also leaves a lot out: particularly in terms of why a reader would care. Who is this guy? Where is he located? How does he escape? Why does he escape? Did anyone else escape? Why do the portals all connect to past nuclear-related events? Why can the guy just change history at that one point – the “Trinity” test – as opposed to all the points he can visit? Why does the guy try to alter history? Does he even realize that this is what he’s doing? Does he consider any other ramifications of this, such as wiping out his own potential existence? Speaking to that, does the notion of time paradox have anything to do with this? Is this more a story about time travel? About nuclear war? And so on and so forth.

Let’s consider the first two questions there: “Who is this guy? Where is he located?"

Yes, you obviously needed a setting. That’s obviously important. No matter what characters you end up building, they need to populate some location. But, as I talked about with my class, the nature of the location may depend on the character, in terms of having the setting be a counterpoint to that character.

[size=150]MEET HARRY SMOLIN[/size]

In contrast to Trinity’s nameless protagonist, our protagonist was going to be Harry Smolin. This was an American guy who was on vacation (in the United Kingdom) but not really enjoying it. This was a guy who lacked a bit of imagination regarding the world around him. The story picks up as Harry is visiting Kensington Gardens, after already having visited various other popular tourist attractions in and around London. Harry’s hates the idea of crowds and people all around him. In fact, Harry would rather be alone. If that’s the case, why then is Harry taking a vacation in a heavily touristed spot? Mainly because he feels that’s simply what people do. Harry’s a little lost in life, sort of going through the motions. Harry is also on vacation with his estranged wife and their child. But even though he’s supposed to be trying to use the vacation time to get back in touch with his family, here he is wandering around alone and, ultimately, this is because Harry fears he may not care all that much about his family. He doesn’t wish them harm; he just values being alone.

Harry often takes the easy road; the past of least resistance; the path that would allow him to largely just go through the motions of life without having to necessarily feel intensely about anything or anyone.

So, in talking with my class, we reiterated the obvious: characters that will be at odds with each other at some stage in the story provide a basis for conflict. However, in this case, what I really need is for a setting to be at odds with Harry. Harry’s imagination – or lack thereof – has to be challenged. Harry’s desire for being alone has to be challenged. As such, Harry is going to witness the destruction of civilization. Harry is going to be thrust into another land that not only gives him his “desire” (being very alone) but that also challenges his imagination because this land is very much not like our own. And even the events that have led Harry here – some odd things happen in Kensington Gardens – will have challenged his imagination already.

For a guy that liked to operate on the fringe of noticeability, with the minimum of effort, and taking the fewest risks, Harry was about to find that the future of history was in his hands.

[size=150]MORAL PREMISE[/size]

So here’s a possible moral premise:

Selfishness and self-preservation lead to defeat and death; but
Selflessness and sacrifice lead to victory and peace.

Each statement by itself is a theme; together, they’re a moral premise. Each statement acts as an argument and a conclusion. The story’s job is to prove it. From a textual IF authoring perspective, the challenge is to prove it will still allowing the player to interact.


As my class played through Trinity I was happy that they realized the fundamentally obvious problem in the story as a whole. The problem is that the closed causal loop ending of the original game undermines any sort of premise except one that focuses on inevitability. In the original the nameless protagonist (i.e., you) manages to subvert the original Trinity test. Then “something” tells you that such a thing can’t be allowed ultimately because of paradox and thus you end up right back at the beginning (“all prams lead to Kensington Gardens”).

That’s kind of silly for various reasons. At the very least, it doesn’t take much to realize that the pram was only one element of the game and it didn’t “lead you” to Kensington at all. You used it at Kensington Gardens. You didn’t use it at the Trinity test site. So it wasn’t a “loop object” in the sense that good time travel stories use them. The umbrella had much more claim to this in a lot of ways.

Further, you had succeeded in changing history – and yet the game just introduces a deus ex machina that says, effectively, “No, you really didn’t.” A closed causal loop is one the effect from a cause can reach back in time and cause the cause. You have what amounts to a self-caused event (or self-consistent global causality violation if you want to get technical about it).

Further, you were saving a tangible that was an abstract: civilization (i.e., life as we know it). Noble goal but in order for character engagement, it can help to parallel that story in a more localized way.

All of this threw a big spanner in the works in terms of design ideas.

[size=150]REDESIGN IDEAS[/size]

Regarding the whole civilization saving thing, we realized that you can have Harry really trying to save his wife and child who were also in London at the time. The act of trying to save them is mirrored in the actions to save civilization.

There are a couple of ways to do this. Harry’s actions in the game could truly prevent a global nuclear exchange thus saving himself and his family. Another is that there wasn’t really a global war, but rather some accident wherein only London was destroyed. During Harry’s visits to various time periods, he will have to meet selfish people interested only in self-preservation but his actions will, to an extent, change them. That very changing is what in fact makes it so that … what? A general nuclear war does not take place? Enough people survive past encounters with an atomic and/or nuclear bomb and they all have influence later? Or does Harry in fact end up in a causal loop wherein the war always happens?

It depends on whether player ends up having Harry pursue the vice (selfishness and self-preservation) or the virtue (selflessness and sacrifice). Both paths through the game will prove the premise. (In a more complex game, multiple paths could exist for the vice and the virtue but it’s questionable how well such a game will be written.)

You could still have a closed causal loop and that could, in a way, be a form of “death” in that you constantly relive the same situation over and over. (If Harry gets stuck in that, he wasn’t redeemed and thus we have a tragedy.)

The elements of the story will have to work towards this premise:

  • The “bird lady” Harry meets in Kensington should be made to seem selfish or putting self-preservation first. (She seems to sacrifice and be selfless for “her” birds. But that should only be on the surface. After all, why doesn’t she just feed the birds herself rather than relying on people to give her money to feed the birds?)
  • The disfigured Japanese woman should be selfish or show only self-preservation. (This woman is critical in terms of providing the equivalent of the conch shell in Lord of the Flies; in this case, it’s the umbrella. It’s a totem that should have been sued more than it was. The self-preservation here would be showing how she’s not risky enough to get the umbrella – even though it means a whole lot to her.)
  • The barrow wight should be selfish or desiring self-preservation. (This would actually require a lot of changes in terms of hwo the barrow wight was used in the game.)
  • Some character would need to be at the Trinity site that could personify those events in the game. There has to be someone trying to actively stop the protagonist from completing his “mission.” (This, again, would require changes to the structure of that part of the game.)

This, as you may noticed, forced us to consider some redesign ideas. Did it have to be a nuclear war?

We wanted an event that could destroy civilization (or at least some portion of it).
Just as the family is being destroyed (literally and figuratively).

Possible endings:

  • Harry can be in a time loop and everyone dies. ← vice (selfish)
  • Harry can be in a time loop but everyone lives. ← virtue (sacrifice; selflessness)
  • Harry can be in a time loop but his family lives. (No; Harry and his family can’t live exlusively.)
  • Harry can die and everyone lives. (Possible.) ← virtue (sacrifice)
  • Harry can die as everyone else dies. (Possible) ← vice (self-preservation)
  • Harry can die as his family lives. (Possible) ← virtue (sacrifice)
  • Harry can live and everyone lives. (Possible) ← virtue (selflessness)
  • Harry can live and his family lives. (No; Harry and his family can’t live exlusively.)

So I can see that the Harry’s family has a fate that is tied with everyone. If everyone dies, the family dies. If the family dies, everyone dies. Likewise, if the family lives, so does everyone else and vice versa.

At this point, we began implementation around a series of ideas in Kensington Gardens …

[size=150]WAS THERE A POINT?[/size]

What I hope you all get out of this is that by considering a specific character (Harry Smolin) with specific traits (lack of imagination, desire for aloneness) and a specific setting (Toadstool Realm) that served as a crucible and as a counterpoint to Harry’s own traits, we ended up coming up with a moral premise we wanted to explore. That in turn allowed us to focus our design very specifically.

I’ll just give a very brief synopsis of some of those design discussions here.

  • We decided we didn’t want some elements of Kensington Gardens to be as “magical” as they appeared. We didn’t want, for example, the grass that tangles up the player’s feet and drags them back to Lancaster Walk. The roadrunner, as it was used, was probably going to have to go.

  • We decided that many of the past points in history that Harry would develop would not be as “odd” as those in the game. Each historical point would have someone in it who Harry could choose to act selfishly with or selflessly with. Those choices would determine whether Harry (the player) was following the vice or the virtue.

  • We weren’t sure if a nuclear war was necessarily going to be the focus. Rather, the “toadstool realm” may have simply connected up with disasters of various sorts, whether chemical spills, oil rig explosions, whatever. So maybe the “toadstool realm” linked up periods of focused human suffering. Or maybe, similar to the film Groundhog Day, Harry was himself being tested by “something” and breaking the loop was one part of that. Or maybe it wouldn’t really be explained at all.

  • We did like the idea of a loop in time, but more in the sense that this was only one possible end for Harry. If the loop was used, it truly had to be self-caused all along the path. Going with the moral premise (the “…leads to death” part), the act of getting caught up in the loop would be a form of death.

  • We did like the idea of “something” guiding Harry along a path. The deus ex machina in the original game could, perhaps, be put to better use; not as something to be explained, but rather as a constant element that is driving Harry.

  • There is some possibility to having all of the events be something Harry “experiences” without necessarily being real. (If you read the original novelization or screenplay for 12 Monkeys, you’ll see that was the intent of that story, which didn’t transfer quite as well to the film version.)

[size=150]FINALLY (AND THEN I SHUT UP)[/size]

My class was interested in a few other games of the Infocom area in terms of trying to reimagine them with a moral premise idea. Those games were Bureaucracy, Planetfall, Plundered Hearts, and Starcross. There was some talk about A Mind Forever Voyaging as well since there was a lot of story possibility regarding a different set of values (for a computer; i.e. PRISM) being applied to a human world.

Why not just have people write their own games and stories rather than look at those from the past? That’s the ultimate goal; but there’s huge benefit in learning to think about textual IF in the context of a pre-existing work. In fact, my own attempt to “reimagine” Starcross led to a unique story and game idea that I’m still hoping to implement one of those days.

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Again, really valuable, especially because it gives us something concrete to consider in our other conversation.

I’ll try to provide a fuller critique later (or maybe I’ll write my game instead), but for now I’m going to focus on this, as it’s the problem I have in microcosm:

This, for me, is a prime example of how working with moral premise structures tends us towards tired narrative devices (not necessarily, but in practise). The save-the-wife-and-child plot is a plot essentially halfway between the two great stories of kill-dragon-win-princess and rape-revenge-fantasy. Leaving aside the narrative laziness and dubious gender politics (harsh language used because of lack of time and eagerness to put thoughts down, not to imply your work isn’t in depth and useful) of creating two characters defined solely by their relation to the (presumably, by name) white male protagonist, this is also the kind of ethical simplification which simply does not exist in the real world, and which I think it’s artistically irresponsible to keep telling people does exist.

Even though this is also a tired and lazy narrative option, wouldn’t it be infinitely more interesting if, in some way, through either disaster or time paradox, saving civilisation would involve Harry sacrificing his wife and child? That’s, tellingly, one of the few options you don’t ennumerate. That way we really get to see selflessness: a much bigger sacrifice than the whole Bruce Willis-in-Armageddon thing because the sacrificer has to live with their loss. And although the layer of moral complexity there is no more than in some facile philosophical moral dilemma, at least there’s a layer there, however thin.

More subtly, what if interfering at all these time points has a confusing and complex mix of positive and negative effects? What if this involves ruining a scientist’s career, or killing someone’s unborn child to prevent them inventing the bomb? What if we explore the frustration you hint at in which the protagnoist realises it’s not actually possible to prevent the bomb forevermore? What an interesting hero we have if the dragon keeps inevitably coming back to life, and the hero is totally unable to find personal fulfilment (or save his village) by killing the dragon, and so has to do something else instead.

This is one of the very few things I really liked about the storytelling in Indigo Prophecy (aka Farenheit). While there was considerable kill-dragon-win-princess plotting, the epilogue for each possible ending was narratively complex: “winning” the final sequence didn’t lead to total happiness for anyone, and “losing” the final sequence didn’t immediately lead to dsiaster for everyone. Saving the world turned out to be a lot more complex than the game first thought.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that kill-dragon-win-princess is an extremely culturally specific dominant narrative, though it’s increasingly hegemonic in this era of homogenising globalisation. What if we were to write stories that are more like Zen koan, Melanesian tragicomic hero quests, or American First Nations Trickster stories? Wouldn’t that massively widen and deepen our storytelling ability?

(This rant, unstructured, questioning and incomplete as it is, has been heavily influenced by the fact that I recently read Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe, a tasty little novel which explores all of these questions in depth, with wit, moral complexity, and emotional depth. How we tell stories really matters to how people figure out how to live their lives.)

Perhaps so. Thematically you could have a story about how Harry, in saving two lives, realized he could save many others or, alternatively, how Harry could sacrifice two lives to save many others. The real thematic area we were going for, however, is that Harry’s desire for alone-ness wasn’t just from his family but a disconnection from the world around him. You certainly could argue that Harry could sacrifice his family for the good of civilization. But then you need a premise to support that. (After all, if Harry’s family doesn’t get a choice in whether or not to be sacrificed for the good of civilization, you could have another area of self-preservation or selfishness taking place. Remember: Harry is disconnected from his family; them dying in some purported attempt to save the world may not be all that hard for him to conceive of.)

Perhaps; if you can convince the audience that all the sudden Harry sees the value in saving civilization by letting just two people die. But how realistic is that? What would save the world from a nuclear war just because his family dies? You’d have to build up a narrative where somehow his family became the linchpin of a civilization destroying event.

You bring up Bruce Willis and Armageddon and that’s interesting because there’s another movie of his, Die Hard, that explores ideas very similar to our revamped ideas of Trinity.

On the physical level Die Hard is pretty simple, right? You’ve got a cop who battles an office tower full of terrorists (who are basically just thieves). They are people who, obviously, act very selfishly. But on the moral premise side, the movie is really about the depth of John McClaine’s selfless love for his wife, Holly. The motivation of every character in Die Hard centers on the conflict and arc between selfishness and selflessness. John, in particular, begins the movie pretty selfish. He ends it largely selfless (or at least a heckuva lot more selfless than before). With that, we have a possible moral premise statement:

Selflessness leads to happiness; but
Selfishness leads to unhappiness.

There’s another way to look at this as well, which is that part of the formula requires that the protagonist have some aspect of that which he is going to fight against in his own nature (internal) as well as in the outside world (external). With this logic applied to the film, McClane is selfish (internal) and fighting selfish (external). Harry, in our case, was a guy who lacked imagination and yet was confronted with a situation that required tons of imagination. Harry was a guy who wanted to be alone and then get more of being alone than he could stand (since the “Toadstool Realm” is largely unpopulated).

Okay, so sticking with a storytelling mantra for a second: the idea is that the author does the presenting of the evidence via scenes. When advice like “keep each scene focused on the premise” is given, what this means is that each scene should provide evidence in support of the moral position that you, the author, are taking. And it’s not even just this. It’s also that each scene must reinforce the “formula” of the premise, which is another way of saying the moral premise statement. So even if we go with the idea in “Trinity Reimagined” that to be selfless means to sacrifice others for some greater good, you have to explore that theme at all points.

So going with the Die Hard example, we’ve said that part of the moral premise (the conclusion we’re trying to prove) is “selfishness leads to unhappiness.” So in this film you’ve got a character who’s a chain-smoker, drinks a lot, puts more effort into his job than his family, and disregards authority (selfishness). This puts a huge strain on his marriage (leads to) and causes estrangement from his wife and children (unhappiness). So each and every scene must reinforce some aspect of this three-part conclusion. (Tangent: you’ll notice that “each and every scene” reinforcing this in the context of textual IF is a trickier proposition when you have a lot of geography to explore that breaks up the scenes.)

The audience’s involvement in the story turns on the John’s ability to make the “right” moral decision that moves the plot and story into a direction they’d like to see. But who is the “they” here? Well, that’s the rub, isn’t it? The story has to resonate with enough people, based on some of the commonalities that make up human nature, such that what each individual would like to see is largely the same across a wide swath of people. With Die Hard, it’s doubtful too many people in the audience were rooting for the terrorists to kill everyone and get away clean. That means they were rooting for John to go after them and killing them (they shouldn’t get away with their crime, after all) and also rooting for John and his wife, Holly, to get back together (since, in doing all this, he is proving his love for her and his willingness to risk everything for her).

[Tangent: Would the film work if John decided to sacrifice his wife for the “greater good”?]

Okay, so another metra: in adhering to a moral premise, the protagonist’s inner journey is shown to us in the protagonist’s outer journey. An example of this in Die Hard is in that the idea that John’s attempts to defeat the terrorists are a metaphor for his attempts to win back the love of Holly. The two concepts intertwine because in order for John to keep on loving Holly he has to save her (and others) from the terrorists. John has to battle with terrorists that have a total disregard for life (including that of Holly). The problem is that John, up to this point, has been someone who has shown a similar aspect of disregard (especially of his own wife, Holly). Just as Holly has rejected John, so do the terrorists. Just as John has to fight the nature of the terrorists, he has to fight the similar nature in himself. So as John works to defeat the physical threat, he starts to deal with the psychological threat as well. What’s also interesting is that the audience identifies with John and this isn’t because most of us identify with fighting loads of terrorists in a skyscraper but rather because we identify with the notion of “going through hell” to win back a love. The “spine” of the story is given as “John’s battle with the terrorists to save his marriage.”

[Tangent: Notice how some people may just say the “point” of the movie was to save people from terrorists. That’s true at a physical level. Saving his wife was one part of that. But, really, it was saving his marriage. It was saving the relationship and going back to what he was when he and Holly got married.]

Part of this is making the audience want to identify with the characters. We identify with John’s desire to destroy the terrorists (because he hates bad guys so much, which is why he was so work-driven in his police job). But he also has a compelling need to do this because his wife is directly endangered by those terrorists. It’s his love for his wife that drives all of his actions. The title even makes sense in all of this: the villains “die hard;” the villains find that McClane “dies hard;” McClane’s love for his wife “dies hard.” There is, at the heart of all these things, a moral struggle.

In order to create moral or psychological identification, the moral struggle must resonate with the audience as being true and, along with this, the moral premise must be consistently portrayed throughout the story. What’s really happening is that the audience (often unconsciously) is agreeing with the moral and psychological story. At an even higher level, the story connects with the audience’s values and gives their own life, complete with its own trials and conflicts, meaning. To consider how this can go wrong if a story is told badly, let’s invert Die Hard. Let’s say that John spends most of the time in film looking for a way out of the tower at all costs. Let’s say he refused to sacrifice his well-being for his wife. When John was forced to confront the bad guys, let’s say he was shown to have shown ambivalence toward what the terrorists were doing. (In other words, he only fought them because he couldn’t get past them otherwise; it wasn’t for any higher moral outrage at their actions.) So let’s say that Die Hard had been constructed with John as an anti-hero, doing nothing more than protecting his own life and even showing him willing to sacrifice Holly to protect himself.

Then we get a different moral premise. In that case, would have been something like this:

Covetous hatred leads to life and celebration; but
Sacrificial love leads to self-denial and certain death.

That’s a valid moral premise upon which an author could spin his tale. That being said, it’s unlikely too many audiences would have agreed with that moral premise. The psychological spine developed in those scenarios would not have been something that most audiences reacted positively to (even if they could intellectually understand why John didn’t want to risk his life).

I think the film Lethal Weapon could come into play here along with Die Hard in that you have people reinforcing the value of the traditional family since you have characters either trying to put their family back together or to save it from destruction.

Incidentally, those moral premises I just mention above come from Stan Williams. I disagree with some of his viewpoints on Die Hard but, by and large, I think he provides a good analysis. Also note from this that the reason “Trinity Reimagined” goes a different direction even though the premises are similar, is because John’s battle is ultimately to save his wife (which requires saving himself). In Harry’s case, his battle is ultimately with himself (which requires saving others).

Incidentally, if I haven’t bored you to death yet, for a counterexample that many people have reacted very negatively to, consider the movie version of the The Mist and how it ended.

In the end, the hero, David Drayton, ends up shooting his own son (and some others) to spare them living in a world of horrors. There’s no more bullets left for him to kill himself. Just after he does this, the military comes through, saving everyone. His son died for nothing. Even though David was a good man through the film and did the “right” things by people, the ending is widely recognized as undermining the premise.

The problem wasn’t so much that particular ending. It was that the ending undermined the premise that had, up to that point, been established and acted upon by all characters. The film ending was jarring and I will admit it was an emotional ending, but it was also one where audiences had said it “cheated.”

So in terms of whether Harry could or should sacrifice his family, it’s a valid way to tell a story. It’s not one we settled on in particular. The story was really about Harry and about how he disengaged himself, not just from the world (civilization) but from his family. The death of civilization was simply personified in two people but both elements were really a metaphor for the “death” of Harry that had been taking place for a long time. That’s why the family’s death was linked the civilization’s death: it’s because one wasn’t necessarily more important than the other since those weren’t the focus. The focus was on Harry having to become a very different person and realize some things about himself.

I really appreciate the time you’ve put into this, and I think this analysis should prove useful to many authors: it’s not boring at all. I’m gonna be really quick, because there’s a quick point I can make, and because I’m procrastinating, but I hope I’ll find the time this conversation deserves later:

Now, I don’t know this film, but that’s the kind of ending I absolutely love. A story which undermines itself is much more valuable to me than a story which doesn’t, because it gives me more to think about. It’s complex and surprising without depending on just a “plot twist”. It presents an argument and then the negation of that argument. Sure, an audience will feel “cheated”, but that’s just because so many audiences have been dulled into only wanting or expecting small variations on the same stories and narrative structures.

Night of the Living Dead, which does something similar, has my favourite ending in all of popular cinema, apart from possibly Todd Solondz’s Happiness. And isn’t it so much more interesting than The Walking Dead, with its tired safe-wife-and-family and rape-revenge-fantasy plots? (I wrote a blog post a while ago about the political distinction between the two, which you might like.

Finally, I think this bit is probably more important than anything else I wrote:

Completely agreed. I was fuming at the end of that movie; I was so pissed off. And then I had to step back and realize: wow, that movie really hit me emotionally in that one moment. I also agree, however, that it did “cheat” – but not because of the ending. It was because the premise wasn’t followed. There are many other movies that had similar bleak endings that audiences raved over. And if you analyze those, it tends to have to do with how the “bleak ending” was, in fact, consistent with the premise.

Agreed. And that was an example where the premise was adhered to because it was clear that “doing the right thing” (made concrete in The Mist) was more diffuse in that context. Holing up in a house, for example, was probably not the smartest move. Well played in the scene where Ben doesn’t want to go in the cellar, locking himself in – even though he ends up doing just that with the house as a whole. A great play on the idea of the antiquated space and showing how the rules had changed. Normally barricading yourself in against threats was safe; in this case, given the nature of the enemy, it was not.

In fact, The Mist and Night of the Living Dead are very similar thematically: an antiquated space (store, house) is used; there is good inside and outside. Both focus on the distrust of official explanations or even any explanations at all. Both also focus on the inability to work together for a common purpose, except in limited situations. But eventually groups and cliques form. The internal threat ends up becoming even greater than the external threat.

Regarding your last question, I think (for me) that storytelling ability would depend on what audiences can (and want) to relate to. My ability to connect with audiences may be compromised were I to go certain routes. In which case my ability to “tell a story” doesn’t necessarily translate into effective storytelling. That being said, storytelling evolves. The nature of what people do and don’t like change. Many of our most effective stories are heavily imbued with a sense of myth. In fact, I’ll give you what may seems a really strange data point here (You’re going to think I’ve lost my mind here.)

A perhaps surprising example of the mythic (and it’s sometimes subconscious appeal) can even be seen in the horror film Friday the 13th, Part 4: The Final Chapter.

There’s a key pivotal moment in that film and – believe it or not – it’s rooted in mythology! The screenplay was by Barney Cohen but it was based on the story done by Bruce Sakow, who believed that good writers incorporated mythological motifs – even if very subtle – in their films or novels. So Part 4 was done with a moral premise in mind. And, interestingly enough, The Final Chapter is the film that most fans of the series routinely say is the absolute best. They don’t always articulate why necessarily; but, again, it’s another example I’ve seen of where emotional impact matters when it’s crafted via a specific technique. And, as we know, it wasn’t quite the “final chapter.” There were six more films in the series; nine more if you count the 2009 remake and the 2003 Freddy vs. Jason. My point there being: fans had a lot of other movies to choose as their favorites, including the prior three in the series. It’s interesting that the one they picked was the one that had a writer who believed in, and utilized the moral premise.

For those curious:

At one point Jason is confronted by Tommy Jarvis, who shaves off his hair and makes himself look like Jason did when he was a young boy. Jason, in seeing Tommy, sees himself as it were. This is rooted in the mythological idea that if you have a monster – and Jason was a monster – one way (sometimes the only way) to destroy it was to get it to look at itself; to truly see itself. If you could do that, it was vulnerable. And in that vulnerability was your one shot to destroy it.

That being said, my point point is that there is a lot of room to explore ideas, even in a venue like Friday the 13th. Because of that, I think stories based on tragicomic hero quests and various other concepts are worthwhile pursuits. The trick is making them relevant to an audience. Audiences will decide what they respond to. This doesn’t mean a writer has to write for an audience, necessarily. But if part of “improving our storytelling ability” is predicated upon the important ability to connect with and emotionally engage audiences, then stories like you describe can certainly take a stab at that.

In general, one truism that seems to exist is that successful fictional communication has three components. It must not just be a story; it must be an entertaining story. That’s the first component. (What does and does not entertain will differ by culture, both spatially and temporally.) For fiction to be entertaining, it seems that it must be morally “true” (at a psychological or spiritual level) or, at least, morally consistent. That’s the second component. Finally, for fiction to entertain, it must emotionally engage, meaning it must be be a reasonable simulation of life in terms of being physically understandable. “Reasonable” and “understandable” here just means that people can related to it in some way, even if it’s fantastical. People have no trouble enjoying films like The Matrix or Inception but that’s largely because the physical was relatable and the arcs of the characters (played out in the moral realm) were also relatable. The same could be said of a film like Identity, which has a “twist” ending that was rooted in the physicality of the scenes (keeping people focused) but with a clever play on what that physicality represented later in the film.

I am not a big fan of The Mist, although I liked the ending.

I’m not very familiar with stating moral premises, but it seems like the ending fits with something like “Acting on things you cannot be certain of leads to pain and death; acting on the understanding that you have only limited knowledge leads to hope and opportunity.” This would fit in with the origin of the creatures, which were strongly hinted to be lab-made (at least in the original text), and also with the various ends of people who were sure they knew nothing was out there, and the dangers of people who were certain the enemy was other people.

I think myths have a lot to offer, too, but I like stories that at least hint that It’s More Complicated Than That. It’s never as simple as “kill the terrorists, save the wife, save the marriage”. You can’t go back again to the person you were twenty years ago. Often the other survivors are more of a threat than the zombies. Sometimes the princess is happy where she is.

I think one of the reasons The Witcher filled me with unholy glee was that it played with those tropes. (The game, at least; the stories, at translated, are kind of full of gender fail, which tends to detract from any cultural undermining.) Both choices were legitimate paths with significant downsides; there was no clear and obvious right choice, but you still had to choose. That’s the sort of premise I miss in games. Sand Dancer did something similar, pretty explicitly, with a path to responsibility and a path to freedom. I appreciated that the path to responsibility felt like the “right” choice morally, but the path to freedom felt like the “right” choice from a character perspective. (Perhaps this was unintentional, and a reflection on me.) It made the whole thing very bittersweet, whichever way you went.

I do wonder about the unfortunate side implications of some of these things. For example, if you’ve got a certain number of people that you can interact selfishly or selflessly with, how many selfless actions are required to save the world? Is last-minute redemption of a selfish actor ever a possibility? Is it clear that selflessness will help you down the line (in which case, how selfless is it really)?

It’s worth saying that most myths, even Western myths, are much more complicated than contemporary Western narrative conventions. Take Theseus and the Minotaur, for example: in most tellings, after defeating the monster and getting the girl, Theseus abandons Ariadne, who does love him, on Naxos! – sometimes for no particular reason, and sometimes because Dionysus tells him she’s already spoken for. And then in some versions of the myth Theseus either forgets, or is cursed by Ariadne to forget, to change the symbolic colour of his sails, so that, on Thesus’s return home, his father Aegus thinks that Thesus is dead and throws himself off a cliff into the sea! (hence Aegean) The thing about Greek myths is, they rarely have neat endings – they keep being extended and retold, because they’re owned by everyone.

This is putting it a little crudely, but our current narrative conventions are a product of the growth of the moralistic novel in the 18th century (though even then Samuel Richardson can be dialectically opposed to Lawrence Sterne), and, later, of the growth of mass entertainment. I might take the crude genealogy further, and claim that our current narrative conventions have memetically evolved in the fitness-ensuring struggle of commercial mass entertainment, because they work so well at producing simple and satisfying stories. But not so well, I’ve been arguing, at producing morally complex stories which, after all, make much less money.

There has always been an alternative underground current to the popular entertainment running through literature, which, if not formally, is typically at least morally more complex. I wouldn’t go too far though in aligning interactivity with the less pop-culture-ready aspects of literature, because to some extent this might be an accidental artifact of recent computer history. There is another level on which interactivity could be argued to be more pop-culture-ready than all of literature, so to the extent that this other level is attainable and its benefits could come to be perceived in the way they are in say modern 3D video games as compared to movies (since in the visual space the interactive industries have long outstripped the size of the TV/Movie industries despite the lopsided relative storytelling challenges), that could change the whole equation.


Did you and/or your class spend any time trying to identify the premise of the original Trinity? What did you come up with?