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Completing the Circle: The Role of Audience in Fiction

Completing the Circle: The Role of Audience in Fiction

Picture this:  A dream-like fantasy world––not unlike something you’d imagine from a children’s book––becomes the victim of a devastating catastrophe.  What’s left is little more than hunks of earth, adorned with scraps of vegetation and ruins of homes and castles floating in space.  Survivors are few, but they know––as part of their history, mythology, or religion––that their world can only be brought back to life through the mystical, restorative will of something pronounced “Bass-chyuhn.”

For some of you––probably gamers of the recent era––this synopsis may remind you of the 2011 Supergiant Games release, Bastion.  A post-apocalyptic action-adventure game, the player controls a character simply known as “The Kid,” a youthful adventurer   who lives in a world of suspended ruin, literally.  Pieces of the world that used to be float in space, seemingly unconnected like leaves in a pond.  What’s interesting about the game is two-fold: first, the game is narrated as you play by another character in the game.  The narration is kind of dynamic, responding to how the player controls The Kid as well as revealing story.  Second, but related, is that the world only exists as your character exists; where he stands is all that is real.  For example, at the outset, The Kid wakes up in his bed in a room, which is just a bed on a rock with half a wall and a doorway just floating in the middle of nothingness.  The player can see other floating islands in the background, all at different depths, in different sizes.  The player moves the control stick which causes The Kid to get out of bed and as you guide him up and out through the door the ground literally rises up underneath his steps in disparate pieces, creating a path only as you move forward on it.  It’s an unsettling feeling at first, but you quickly get used to it, especially when creepy creatures are trying to do you in.  The crux of the story is that, despite the utter destruction of the world, The Kid is trying to collect fragments of the world to run a machine called The Bastion (a combination of terraformer, time machine, small town, and space ship) which––when fully powered––has the ability to undo the effects of the Calamity––the event that made the world what it is.

“The Kid” wakes up amid floating ruin. Source: Supergiant Games.

For others, after listening the description at the beginning, it may remind you of the classic 1984 children’s fantasy film, The Neverending Story––the last third, specifically.  The movie is based around a child in our present day finding an old book in a book store called, The Neverending Story.  The viewers watch as he reads the book, which is about a hero, a warrior-boy named Atreyu, trying to save an ill princess and, at the same time, stave off the oncoming cataclysmic event called The Nothing.

Not for lack of trying, Atreyu ultimately fails at the latter part of the to-do list and the fantasy world is left in literal fragments, highlighted by the image of the princess’ castle floating on a lonely bit of land in the vacuum of space, surrounded by other bits of the once beautiful world floating along side it.  Even amid such destruction, the princess assures Atreyu––and the reader of the book––and the viewers of the film––that there was still hope to reverse the effects of The Nothing––in this case, it was an otherworldly entity called Bastian, which happened to be the name of the kid reading the book, a name I’m assuming it’s short for “Sebastian.”  Instead of a floating city––a veritable planet all its own––the child named Bastian is imbued with the willpower to affect Fantasia, the fantasy world in the book he’s reading.  What’s interesting about this is that even though, to us viewers, Bastian is as fictional as Atreyu and the princess, but he represents reality and the fact that the fictional characters of the book he’s reading can’t repair their world––and that only a person in the “real world” can––speaks to the very nature of fiction and narrative itself: the readers are as important to the creation of a story as the writer is.

Fantasia becomes a world of floating ruin.

While I have drawn distinct parallels between these two apocalyptic fictions––and in my research I have seen no overt mention of the movie by the game’s designers––the similarities I found most interesting weren’t the obvious ones, though they are eerie.  Instead, these are fictions about fiction and use absolute destruction and vacuous absence as metaphor for a person’s engagement with fiction––how a reader or viewer actually completes the process that is “fiction.”  Games, like books, when unused sit there on a shelf (or hard drive) and figuratively don’t exist when not in play simply because the whole purpose of a book or video game (or a movie, or an album, etc.) is to be consumed.  Entertainment products are the closest things we have to tangible verbs in the sense that verbs only happen when they’re happening: a runner only runs when she is running, a painter only paints when he is painting.  They are realities conjured by action.  When looking at how this existential dilemma is brilliantly illustrated in the Toy Story movies, it’s not a far reach to think that, were things like books or video games sentient, they would be fighting night and day against this sense of non-existence––call it The Calamity, in the case of Bastion (the video game), or The Nothing, in the case of The Neverending Story.


This is my suspicion.

What this means for the player or reader is that consuming entertainment is not completely a passive act.  The books you love don’t exist as you know them until your eyes glance over the words on the page––only then do those characters exist at all for you and they cease to be when you close the book for the night.  With regard to Bastion and video games, the imagery of the ground flying up to meet your every step is a not-so-subtle metaphor for not only how games are processed internally but that polygons are only really processed at all once the player engages the controller––the real world’s umbilical connection to the virtual world.  The point is that these fantastic worlds don’t just exist because someone wrote them––Emily Dickinson wouldn’t be important at all had her poems not been found locked away in a chest; they would be nothing in the cultural and historical schema otherwise because they weren’t being read––fiction exists in individual bursts of imaginative light, a reaction that occurs when a fiction finds its audience, one by one, keeping it alive like the beat of a heart.

Boasts of Bethel: Getting to the Point

Boasts of Bethel: Getting to the Point

This Boast is framed around Game of Thrones and does not discuss content; so, there are no spoilers contained herein.

I like the Game of Thrones tv show more than A Song of Ice and Fire––the book series its based on––for a variety of reasons.  First, each book has a page length that, at this point, can only be measured in scientific notation.  At this point in my life, I have taken a firm stance and won’t read books over three-hundred pages (though exceptions can occur)––I’ve got too much else to do and my stupid brain isn’t able to remember that much story.  Second (though related to the first), the ten episodes (at one hour each) that make up each season is the perfect amount for me to not only consume and still have time left in my day but to also remember everything that’s going on.  I have my quibbles about the show, sure, but on the whole I enjoy it quite a bit.

But don’t tell me to read the books, especially because they’re “better.”  Of that I have no doubt.  It is a fact that tv shows are terrible books because, by definition, tv shows are not books.  However, the reverse is also true.

Nerds’ slavish devotion to source material puts us into a strange quandary––we are super excited that our beloved stories and characters are getting adapted to other media––and, moreover, they’re super successful––but we also become obsessive hair-splitters who feel the need to declare that one version (usually the original) is superior to the other (usually the adaptation).  I had to stop doing that because I wanted to actually enjoy these adaptations––especially when they’re good.  My first major encounter with this “disappointment” was with Brian Singer’s first X-Men movie.  Namely, how characters were shifted around in terms of relationships and ages for reasons that didn’t seem to make sense.  The biggest offender in this regard was the character of Rogue who, in the comics, was the same age as most of the main cast and even had intimate relations with Magneto for awhile.  For the movie, they basically made her a mixture of Jubilee (i.e., Wolverine’s teenage apprentice) and Kitty Pride (i.e., the new student at the school who is initially wary of being a mutant).

Though I enjoyed the movie because, in terms of general characterization, Singer got the X-Men right, I made sure to note that it differed from the comics drastically (I am proud to say that I never cared about the lack of comic-inspired costumes, however).  What turned me around was when I thought back to the X-Men cartoon from the ‘90s––another adaptation I was incredibly excited about.  The series was extraordinarily faithful to the comics despite some dodgy animation and I remember being so excited for each episode to start on Saturday mornings that I couldn’t sit still.  However, the feeling that dominates my memories of the show is mostly boredom.  I eventually stopped watching it about halfway into season 3.  It remained incredibly faithful and was even doing some direct adaptations of stories from the comics, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care.  I realized that the show was too close to the comics, that I had already consumed this content but through a different medium––so why would I want to see it on tv if I have the comics in a longbox?

Great artistic expressions are made by artists––that is, people who are adept at expressing themselves in a particular medium.  A great comic book storyteller does not necessarily make a great film director or screenwriter (re: Frank Miller’s Will Eisner’s The Spirit)––a great director makes a movie great.  If properties are being adapted into other media, I’d much rather see an artist of that medium approach the work so that the adaptation will mean something on its own and to not simply be “the movie version” or “the tv version.”  Such requirements diminish the importance of the source material when being adapted.  I point to things like the Hellboy movies––the second one, especially, feels right at home in Guillermo Del Toro’s oeuvre.  I point to The Walking Dead––both the tv show and Telltale’s episodic video game series.  I point to Darwyn Cooke’s Parker graphic novels.  I point to Game of Thrones.

All of these adaptations are done right––they focus on making a good example of the medium which is neither a “dumbing down” of a property to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, nor a point-for-point recreations of the originals.  They want to make a good movie, game, comic, or television show first rather than just make the source material dance like a marionette.  What makes a good book does not make a movie good.  A good adapter knows that and works with the ideas, themes, and characters of the source material to make them as viable to the new medium as they were to the original.  To do that may require changes, however, but if those changes are made out of the same desire to tell a good story––the same motivation as the original creator––then it should yield good results.  Differences don’t make things bad––that’s called bigotry.  Differences are just different, and as a fan it’s important to ask why––not just in terms of the story, but in terms of the medium.

The truth is the correlation between adaptations and their source material is more akin to alternate universes than family relationships.  They rarely feed off on one another, especially once they get going.  The choices one makes neither adversely nor, necessarily, favorably affects the other.  They are separate entities and should be viewed that way.  I’m sure the A Song of Ice and Fire novels have much more complexity and intricacy in terms of plot and character; I understand that.  Game of Thrones, for a tv show, is just as wonderfully complex and dynamic––compared to other tv shows.  And though A Song of Ice and Fire fans have been clamoring eagerly for book 6 in the series for three years––a book which will hold much more information and story than the tv show could ever muster––I’m comforted by the fact that I know I only have to wait a year for season 5.