We at Dinofarm enjoy great things. A screenplay is great when an empathic link is forged between audience and character through a seamless, delicately woven web of plot threads. Eventually, a profound value is revealed after a surprising, yet inevitable climax. Such a screenplay can change someone’s life, or at the very least, lead to weeks of contemplation.
A great game can lead to the same kind of enrichment, but does so in its own ways. After several matches of games like Go, Texas Hold ‘Em or Tetris, the mind is tickled in a way that only great games can tickle it. They too cause contemplation, but not in the same way a narrative does. Great games leave a person pondering over the deep possibility space they have only just begun to see. A true lover of any great game will lay in bed and dream up new, lateral, creative ways to overcome the infinite challenges that lie in this ocean of a game space.
In thinking about it, I have come to the conclusion that both mediums, while inherently very different, do have a strong corollary, and that corollary is real, meaningful decisions. Again, since both mediums are so inherently different, this is going to mean something different for each, but just the same, it all comes down to choice. Real choice.
I’m no expert in fiction, but I am an avid hobbyist, and have taken to considerable self-study. In these pursuits, I have discovered some useful lenses through which I evaluate the stories I take in. I became interested in learning why it is I like a character and why I care about what happens to him.
I’ve observed that “character development” is a term thrown around by every moviegoer age 13 and upward, and every discussion I have on the matter seems to yield a different definition of the word. To many, “Character Development” is simply a combination of backstory, physical descriptions and expository dialogue. Many friends of mine through the years have complained, upon exiting the theater featuring the latest superhero movie, that the story was “okay, but lacked character development.” If I were to ask them what they meant, they too would probably turn to backstory, description and more expository dialogue. I argue that this does just as little, in many cases, to develop a character as the senseless action everyone complains about.
First I should point out what I believe the goal of character development to be. I believe that it’s all about forging an empathic link with the character, so that when the climax arrives, we feel what they feel. Whatever life-changing value they take away from that climax, we too must take. If that is our goal for character development, then character development must lie in the character making ambiguous, tough, irreversible decisions under pressure, the outcome of which is surprising, yet inevitable.
Suprising, Yet Inevitable
This is the holy grail of storytelling. Anyone could do surprising(“and then our heroes were….TELEPORTED BY A MAGICAL DOLPHINOID ALIEN”) which, on its own, is cheap. Anyone could do inevitable(“She gets pulled over by a cop as she speeds to her son’s big game. Her excuses don’t work until she decides to tell the TRUTH and the cop goes ‘i’ll let you off with a WARNING.’*cue 90s orchestra theme*”) which we buy out of because it satisfies our predictions 1 to 1. It’s my belief that only when you get the audience to say “I can’t BELIEVE THAT JUST HAPPENED….but…it couldn’t have happened any other way…” do you have a great story. It’s so… hard to do. I certainly can’t do it! And it only comes from real, ambiguous choice, or dilemma.
We’re all unconsciously familiar with the power of dilemma in our stories, and we’re also unconsciously offended by its opposite: FALSE CHOICE. Somewhere along the line, Hollywood headhunters hired to find great screenplays and spruce them up for blockbuster appeal must have read at some point that “The hero must have a choice to make at the climax.” Apparently not understanding why this is so important to the art of story, they often shoehorn in these choices when there really isn’t a choice to make. It’s the illusion of choice. All the dramatic music and earth-shattering deliveries of an A-lister cannot make the choice real. And our brains know it deep down.