|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #92:
TV & The Art of Mystery
October 10, 2002 - Lately I've been spending evenings watching the reruns of Crusade which have turned up on the Sci Fi channel. It's a somewhat interesting television show, set in the same universe as the mid-1990s cult hit, Babylon 5. It's not the greatest show in the world being that it was largely ruined by Ted Turner, then cancelled before a single episode was aired but it is an OK show, and, more importantly, it reminds me of what a great show Babylon 5 was.
Sure, the dialogue in B5 was sometimes bad often cliched, frequently wooden. Sure, the plot was occasionally a bit wonky. But, damn, that show kept me on the edge of my seat. The weekly wait to see what happened next was agony... and when sweeps' week ended, and the show went on hiatus for four or eight weeks... ohmygod. On at least one occasion, when sweeps ended on a particularly nasty cliff-hanger, things were thrown across the room. Hard.
Babylon 5 succeeded in something that no television show before or since has. It kept me on the edge of my seat through its entire run. Every time I was through with an episode I wanted little more than to see the next one at once. Sure, there have been other series that have done that sometimes. The Sopranos often causes an ohmygodwhatnext reaction. Buffy often leaves me curious about where the plot is going. Survivor has me constantly trying to figure out who will be voted out next and how the game will develop.
But B5 was the king of mystery, the emperor of needing to know.
And how it did that how all these shows provoke curiosity is something that should be of interest to you as game designers. Because if you can keep your viewers on the edge of their seats, then you're already halfway to producing a hit.
As I've said before: by looking at a different medium we can discover crucial lessons for our own.
Life's a Game
I'm under the opinion that any good television show is a game between its producers and its viewers. I should clearly note, however, that my opinion is not the same one held by the majority of television viewers. Most viewers, instead, would like to be dished out mindless entertainment in small, bite-sized dollops. The average-viewer can't get off his butt to change his channel. He thinks The Dukes of Hazzard and Baywatch are high entertainment. He can not be expected to think, let alone engage in competition with a wily television producer.
As an online game developer you're going to find yourself faced with some players who likewise expect to be spoon fed, but you're probably not developing for those people. You're most likely developing for players who are going online to engage in proactive, meaningful interactions with other people on the 'net. And it's those people who I think will largely agree with my definition of a good television show.
Thus, I think the lessons of my "good" TV shows can be directly applied to your "good" MMORPG audiences.
When I say that a good television show is a game between its producers and its viewers that means, for a start, that the television producers don't give you all the answers. Instead, they give you open questions.
They give you mysteries.
And, they do something more than that. They give you clues as well. They give you opportunities to try and figure out what they're doing where their show is going. And thus they give you the opportunity to think, and get there before them.
That a number of shows are very successful in this regard is, I think, obvious from looking at the Internet. In the heyday of Babylon 5 the 'net was filled with constant conversation about the show, week after week. After any arc-heavy episode of Buffy, I'm personally sure to stop by alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer. And, the Survivor Sucks bulletin boards are my constant companion during the Survivor season.
All because I love playing that game. I love sifting through clues with other fans, and trying to figure out the truth. It's interactive television... just like the interactive online games you're building.
Mystery is, I think, a slightly wider topic that you might immediately perceive, thus I'm going to take a look at three of the shows I've mentioned Babylon Five, Buffy, and Survivor and try and identify how each deals with mystery. I'm also going to glance at two shows that didn't pull it off right, in my opinion: X-Files and Twin Peaks.
I'll be avoiding spoilers as much as I can, though there will be some. Expect to learn some of the core questions from these television shows, but not necessarily their answers. Some plot points will definitely be spoiled.
Babylon Five & Backstory Mystery
Episode one of season one of Babylon Five began with the words, "It was the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind, ten years after the Earth-Minbari war." Already, mysteries were being established. What is the Third Age of Mankind? What were the first two? What was the Earth-Minbari war? Why was it fought?
The narration over the credits were season four were even better:
"It was The year of fire." -Lennier
Why each of those characters would be feeling those particular emotions for 2261 was a topic of much discussion for almost the entirety of the season.
Throughout the show the producer, JMS, introduced mysteries via two means. The first was through forestory. What was going to happen? But, this went beyond simple questions about plot direction, because JMS offered it as a game. He gave hints of the future, such as the two narrations that I've already quoted. He also offered flash-forwards to the future. We saw Londo's death vision and knew that he would be killed by G'kar. We saw a vision of the station exploding in the future. We even saw an episode where the protagonists travelled back in time from the future years before we got to the point in the story where they did that backward time-travelling.
JMS also introduced mysteries through backstory. Some of these mysteries were based on the fact that we didn't know the true story of the universe, as it was understood by its participants. It was most of a year before we knew everything about the Earth-Minbari war, for example. Some of this was because the show's characters also had mysteries in the past, either that they didn't tell anyone else about or that they didn't know the answer to themselves. The most famous was probably the mystery surrounding Jeffrey Sinclair, the original captain of the station. He had an hour of missing time during the final battle in the Earth-Minbari war that was very slowly revealed.
X-Files & What Not to Do
At first blush it might look like Chris Carter did about the same thing in The X-Files. I mean, surely, he introduced a lot of good mysteries: What happened to Mulder's sister? Is there a conspiracy? Why is there a conspiracy? Are there aliens? What's the relationship between the aliens and the government?
Many tons of backstory mysteries, etcetera ad infinitum.
Unfortunately all indications seem to point toward Chris Carter not having a master plan before he started producing X-Files. In other words, he didn't know what the answers were, and that, I think, was a critical mistake.
Me, I stopped watching the X-Files around season 5 when it became obvious to me that the pieces weren't fitting together. I know many other people who were likewise disappointed.
If you're offering mysteries playing games with your consumers you must play fair.
Buffy & Plotting Mystery
Buffy really doesn't approach mysteries in the same way as Babylon Five did. There was one episode, at the end of the fourth season, which was essentially a very long dream sequence. If offered lots of tantalizing hints about forestory, but it was the exception not the rule. (1)
Rather, Buffy has mysteries because it has plots and characters that are constantly evolving. In season three we met Faith, a vampire slayer who was slowly going bad. What would become of her by season's end? At the end of season five Buffy sacrificed herself to save the world. How would they get out of that?
These are what I call plotting mysteries. It's obvious that things are changing, and that the shape of the TV world will be different by the end of everything, and you're trying to figure out what path they're going to take.
Twin Peaks & What Not to Do
It's worthwhile to stop a moment here and look at another mystery-ladden show that fell flat on its face: David Lynch's Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks was a lot tighter than the X-Files, but I was always under the opinion that Lynch also didn't know all the answers from the start.
But, what really caused Twin Peaks to fail was the fact that the mysteries were too important. You want to keep people coming back, but at the same time you need singular episodes of your game to be standalone. Don't put your mysteries at the center of every single story you tell.
Survivor & Directing Mystery
Finally we come to Survivor. The mysteries in this game show, which I previously described in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #74, Anatomy of a Game: Survivor are pretty obvious. Who gets voted out each week? Who wins? Who loses?
What's less obvious is that these questions underlie a game between the producers and the viewers.
You see for every 45 minutes of television the producers get to cull down 72 hours worth of footage from multiple cameras. This means that they get to decide what story they're going to tell based on what they show. You, the viewer, thus must figure out what's shown to make the ending more satisfying and what's shown to offer misdirection.
Is a certain character shown as the underdog so that you'll understand why they're voted out, or so that you can cheer their come-from-behind victory? Is another character shown to be very annoying so that you can understand his going away or to provide a focus for your own negative emotions week-by-week, so that your cathartic victory is that much sweeter when he's finally voted out.
As I said, it's all a game.
What does this all mean to you as a game designer? Quite a bit. Even if you aren't writing in the mystery genre, you can introduce mysteries into your game to keep your players on the edge of their seats, always coming back for more. The TV shows that I described offer a number of ways in which you can do this:
An Ode to Other Mediums
Before I close out on mysteries, I'd like to briefly note that television is not the only medium which takes advantage of this method of keeping its consumers coming back for more.
In comic books, Chris Claremont's X-Men had backstory mysteries ("Who is Mr. Sinister?") and plotting mysteries ("Did Madelyn Prior live?") that lasted for years or decades. Neil Gaiman's Sandman is perhaps a better example; like Buffy, it had plotting mysteries that lasted its entire run ("What will be the final fate of Morpheus? Can he change?")
In novels, David Brin's Uplift Wars is fairly renown for its backstory mysteries ("Why was the universe upset by the pictures beamed back by the Streaker? Who uplifted humanity?") and its plotting mysteries ("What was the final fate of the Streaker and the long boat?") alike.
Overall, any serialized medium eventually learns that unanswered questions can help retain viewers. If online games aren't doing this yet, it's because we're still in the early generations of computer games that are serialized, a topic I've touched upon before in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #69, The Power of the Medium: Continuity.
My Answers to Mysteries
And now for something... slightly different.
I'm, at heart, a speculator. I'm one of those people that grasps those mysteries offered up to me and does my best to solve them before the producers reveal up the answers. Thus I thought I'd end this week's article by having a bit of fun, and suggesting my own answers to where things are going in Buffy and Survivor. (Babylon 5 need not apply, because it's been completed for years now.)
If you're not a fan of those shows, you might as well move on here, though it's possible that some of my thought processes might offer some more insight into the ways that these shows create mystery.
Survivor: So, with 13 contestants left, who do I think goes, and who do I think sticks around? At this point, they've made three contestants somewhat unlikeable (Robb, Stephanie, and Ghandia), and also introduced conflicts between some of those people and some other contestants (Ghandia v. Ted, Robb v. Shii Ann). My best guess, thus, is that the next three people leaving the island are in that group of five. I think there are some red herrings, some desires to set up villains for the future, and some instances of giving us correct information so that we don't feel cheated when we see who gets booted. My personal boot order for the next three, leading to the tribe merge, would be: Ghandia, Stephanie, Shii Ann.
After the two tribes merge, the gameplay enters a slightly more chaotic state, and its a harder question who actually wins, because you first have to figure out which tribe achieves ascendance. However, I feel like one tribe, Chuay Gahn, has been set up as the underdog; further, at least half of the other tribe, Sook Jai (Ken, Penny, Erin), has been all but invisible in the show to date. For those two reasons, Chuay Gahn is my choice for who takes the upper hand. Of the 5 contestants that I expect to still be on Chuay Gahn post-merge, we have two with somewhat negative portrayals on the show (Helen and Jan) and one who is such an over-the-top game player that there's no way he could be the winner without the producers having already given it away (Brian). That leaves us with two people, one who will have overcome an early conflict (Ted), and another who has universally been portrayed as likeable and funny (Clay). Based on all those hints, I'd peg Clay as the winner of Survivor 5. If I'm wrong it's probably because Mark Burnett has chosen to make his winner invisible (again), and it's actually Ken, Penny, or Erin who'll be in the winner's circle but when the show has been edited like that in the past it's irritated me so much, that I refuse to consider it as a real possibility. (2)
Buffy: To play the "who win's Buffy" game I have to look at things as a storyteller, not a game designer. Here we've got a show that's in its seventh and probably final season, and thus should be drawing to dramatic closure. The main questions are: what happens to Buffy and her sometimes beau Spike.
We've had a long-running character arc in Buffy dealing with Buffy coming to terms with being, essentially, a superhero who is forced to risk her life on a daily basis. In the first five seasons we saw her grow from scared youth to someone willing to sacrifice her life. I think that plot arc is still continuing, that in the sixth season she had given so much to her heroic identity that she had no humanity left. Thus, I would guess at the end of season seven that Buffy doesn't give up her heroic identity, nor does she die (again), but rather that she finally finds a happy medium between altruism and personal need.
Spike, on the other hand, has been on an arc for redemption since season two, when he was the big bad. He also made an ultimate sacrifice, his at the end of season six, when he won back his soul, and thus was struck by the horror of everything he'd ever done. I think the end of season seven needs to bring the end to Spike's redemption plot. Either (1) he fails, (2) he dies winning redemption, or (3) he wins redemption and gets to live.
As my wife has written on her Buffy website, the answer there probably has to do with whether Joss Whedon is writing a comedy or a tragedy. I'm going to go with comedy, which means Spike wins redemption and gets to live. I don't think he gets the girl (Buffy) though. Instead, I think he learns to stand on his own (finally).
Oh, and since someone notable dies just about every season in Buffy, I should probably guess a dead guy too. Anya, it seems, has a character arc very similar to Spike's. She's a demon, she's proven herself sometimes good, but she's struggling. I think she's going to get hers sometime before the end of the season, probably after she'd already redeemed herself and everything should have been fine. It'll just make Spike's own, parallel, story that much more tense and meaningful.
So, in the television mystery game, those are my answers. For Survivor: Ghandia, Stephanie, and Shii Ann up next; Clay the ultimate winner. For Buffy: Buffy finally balances slayerdom and life; Anya dies; Spike is forgiven and finds happiness though not love.
Feel free to grade me in about two months for Survivor and seven for Buffy. We'll see if a get a version of the home game, and Rice-a-Rona, the San Francisco treat... or not.