Sunday, January 31, 2010

Play: January-February 2009

I've just finished a big re-draft of my game about dysfunctional family sitcoms, Bad Family. Which means it's time to kick back and spend another two weeks exploring new projects. Here's what's on my plate at the moment:

Read Mixtape: this coming-of-age script ranked highly on this year's Black List. It's about a thirteen year old who finds a mixtape that belonged to the deceased parents she never knew, accidentally destroys it, and uses the song list to go on a journey to find all the music in an attempt to get to know her parents. Really looking forward to this one.

AI story: Gino and I were talking a couple of weeks ago about how having an AI in a sci-fi story never ends well for the humans. Which got me wondering - what would a 'good' AI story look like? I'm going to have an explore and see if I can find out.

Destinies: it's time to push this web-series project a bit further and have a meeting with some of my brain-storming collaborators.

The Orphans: plotting out my creepy 'kids stuck in a haunted orphanage' movie will continue. Looking forward to seeing what these kids do next, because the situation is getting pretty grim for them.

Free writing: I'll spend a bit of each day just jamming on different story ideas and see where they go. The key will be to put absolutely no pressure on myself.

And for extra credit ...

Read The Second Session: my first draft script about musicians trying to record an album has been in my to-read pile for a while now.

The Limit: next step here is to assemble a contact list of emails for producers.

Made to Stick: I'd like to blog a bit more, and lock this series of posts off.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Speculation: Media in 2030

Following on from the last post, I wondered what life will be like for a teenager in 2030. (*) I want to hear your thoughts - add them in the comments:


Do you want to listen to something? Watch something new? Well, for the most part it's available instantly. You want it? Say it to your voice-activated googler and there it is.

Which means there's no cachet for someone who's dedicated themselves to collecting rare singles, B-sides or concert footage. All that stuff is just ... there.

What you do get cachet for is having a reputation as an explorer and a discoverer. Can you introduce your friends to the new, the old, the unfamiliar and the fresh? Can you discover and point out the history and inter-connections between music (its sounds, producers, rivalries and riffs)? In the world of 2030, there's so much stuff to experience, that most of it has never been heard or watched before. The shit that's been lost due to quantity and the death of the mainstream would boggle your mind. It means that media archaeologists are cool.

And pretty much everything's digital, right? I mean, your grandparents have shelves full of books. Your parents might have a few. But you? Everything's stored, waiting for you to access and project onto your wall or your hud.

But what use is a book? You can't search it, except you know via eyeball. You can't tag it, rec it, comment on it or read what your friends or the author thought of your favourite passage. Books are dumb.

(They're also maybe, like, increasingly unnecessary. For some of your friends it's a mark of pride not to be able to read. I mean, when do you really need to? But post-literacy is like way out on the fringe. Maybe for your grand-children it'll be normal but you don't even want to think what the world'll be like when your hypothetical grand-children are teenagers.)

Oh, yeah. And everybody who wants to create something, can. The engines of creation have been open-sourced for decades now. Record an album, remake Lord of the Rings again - you're a teenager: you've got tech and free time. Go nuts.


(*) Of course, all of this assumes the continuation of civilisation as we know it.

Anyway, add your ideas in the comments. And let's apply brainstorming rules: don't disagree or say why someone's idea wouldn't happen. Just write something different.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

New Media: Kung Fu Monkey on Netflix

Here's your essential post to read about the changes to online distribution that are coming: Netflix will win. And with your newspapers, too.

  • Netflix now gets to stream Warner Brothers movies to their customers, 28 days after the movies have been released on DVD.

  • E-readers (like the Kindle) will be replaced by tablet computers. This totally makes sense, but John Rogers goes on to point out that the Kindle is deliberately a gateway drug, to get people used to the idea of paying for downloading books to a convenient piece of hardware.

  • TV networks will probably be replaced by content-aggregating sites like Hulu, Netflix and the Apple store.

... oh, and Seth Godin speculates about what happens to libraries, when everyone can download any book ever printed whenever they want. His answer: they become training centres, to teach people how to find and use information.

I'd say we're looking at 20 years max until print becomes a novelty rather than the default. 50 years until printed goods become artifacts and souvenirs rather than common-place possessions. And when I actually try to imagine the media-world for a teenager in 2030, I think I'm being way too conservative with those timelines.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

2009: Favourite Games

I think I'm reaching the end of my run of 'What did I think was cool in 2009' posts. This one is about four notable games I played last year, and why they were fun.


Stephanie Pegg ran "Sitting Shiva", a LARP (short for Live Action Roleplaying) for about eight players. A LARP is kind of like improvised theatre: the players are expected to be fully committed to acting as their characters, moving around, continuously speaking in-character. "Sitting Shiva" took place at the wake of a friend (who was also a participant in the game, bringing a supernatural air to the event, and making our faux-mourning even more tangible).

There were two things that really struck me about this game. First, I loved how it dug into quite emotional material - we played heightened versions of ourselves, dealt with grieving and our attitudes towards death, and learned a lot about the recently-deceased (played by Frank P, in this game). There was an intense focus and full commitment to maintaining a mood as we played.

Second, with only 8 players I was able to feel involved in all of the unfolding story. My previous experience with a LARP had about 80 players, and by necessity I could only keep track of maybe 2 or 3 of the unfolding plotlines, maintain an awareness of about 5 others, and was completely oblivious to at least 5 more. Obviously, this amount of story complexity is pretty awe-inspiring and I felt like I had a complete story-experience for my character in this 80-player LARP, but I found the inability to experience the totality of the story extremely frustrating.

Stephanie's thoughts on Sitting Shiva are here.


I also played the second season of 'The Other Side', a game which lasted about six months and deals with a fantasy kingdom that's been colonised by modern-day America. Taking that basic conflict as our starting point, we created a rich cast of eccentric characters and a sprawling uber-plot that actually sort-of tied together (concerning an attempt by the Kingdom of Hell to invade the fantasy kingdom as well).

As a group, we exercised a tremendous amount of awareness of each other's strengths and weaknesses, pushing each other into hilariously uncomfortable conflicts and in-character romantic entanglements. I was also impressed at how Celeste grew to dominate the game (and discover her affinity for conflict-creating characters) through her portrayal of Fifi, the fairy godmother from Hell.

This is one of the games that my Tuesday night group has had the strongest committment to, I think and it was a pleasure to play (even if my character hardly ever got what he wanted, and when he did he was usually misunderstood). To use some RPG theory, in Big Model terms I think our group were pretty much totally on the same page when it came to the game's creative agenda: we were strongly encouraging each other to help create an inventive anime / soap opera with lots of romance, culture clash and teen angst.

There's a partial write-up about the Other Side, here.


I've played and run one-shots of Dogs in the Vineyard before, but they did not prepare for what happens when you sit down with a group of good friends and play through seven towns over half a year.

In Dogs you (effectively) play teenaged Mormon missionaries in 1840s Utah. The idea is that you travel from town to town, sorting out the extremely human problems to do with sex, pride and jealousy that inevitably emerge in tiny isolated communities holding each other to impossible religious standards. If Dogs has a genre, I think it's 'biblical noir'.

Our characters consisted of two outsiders (Emma played a prostitute who'd converted to the Faith; Malcolm played a Native American convert), and two philosophical opposites (Simon played a 'golden boy' who was completely confident in his Faith and authority; I played an intellectual from 'back east' who challenged the Faith and tried to rely on his own judgment).

We rotated the responsibility for designing towns and running them for the others. Each time we GM'd, we tried to focus on the character issues that had been revealed in previous towns. To me, it felt like an excellent TV series directed with a 1970s Western aesthetic by directors like Robert Altman and Clint Eastwood.

For me, the big discovery was that I changed from 'trying to solve the town' to 'treating the fictional townsfolk as real people, and just trying to make their lives better'. I also developed a lot of admiration for Emma's no-bullshit approach - at least once a game, she would make people surrender in a conflict just by saying the exact right thing that would cause them to realise they'd fucked up. At one point, she made Simon's character decide to retire, shattering his confidence and his Faith.

By the end, it was obvious that the game was really about the future of the Faith, as it was under threat by the arrival of settlers and railways from Back East. What was at stake was how we Faithful would respond: with violence, by running away, or by trying to assimilate, change and exercise passive resistance. The ending of the game was melancholic, and it haunts me still.

Dogs in the Vineyard: play it if you like totally character-based campaigns set in the Wild West.


At Post Box Con, I had the opportunity to jump in to a fully-prepped game of Bliss Stage. It was incredibly satisfying to unleash my inner emo for the second time this year.(*) Bliss Stage feels gritty, desperate, and deals with sweaty, troubled relationships. I love it and I want to play a full game to its conclusion.

(*) The first time I emo'd this year was during Jenni's excellent parody of Twilight.

Friday, January 15, 2010

2009: Favourite Books

I read this year! Here are some highlights:

Sharp Teeth: a verse-novel about rival tribes of werewolves using LA gang culture to survive.

Presentation Zen: a simple, colourful guide to making your presentations easier to engage with and be remembered. The subject of many many posts this year, and (crucially) started my line of reading books about the essence of story.

The Garden of Last Days: a gruelling, extremely slow-burning thriller about one night in a Florida strip-club. By the author of The House of Sand and Fog. Highly recommended, but ... yeah ... did I mention 'gruelling'? It's an extremely very rather tense read.

The Sleep Dep Online Exquisite Corpse: Chris' collaborative story-telling game that started moody and ended insanely. Led to ...

The Event: a collaborative story about Wellington in the throes of an apocalypse. Great writing from everyone, but especially worth checking out for the character of Margaret's special POV.

The Dip: a book about quitting that led to the toughest-to-write series of blog post I've done so far.

Made to Stick: I have struggled to take notes on this book for the last couple of months, but I'm now ready to start blogging about it. Made to Stick is all about finding ideas that people want to spread (whether that be urban legends, inspirational anecdotes or jokes).

Under the Dome: Stephen King returns to small-town Maine and then nukes it.

Passengers: a script written entirely in first-person, about what it's like to be possessed by a pleasure-seeking parasite that takes over your body and wipes out your memory. A good story, and a brilliant technical exercise.

Buried: a script for a low-budget feature film set entirely in a coffin. It's a quick read, and slightly claustrophobia-inducing.

Monday, January 11, 2010

2009: Favourite Movies

Here are the stand-out movies I saw this year:

500 Days of Summer: A playful structure, a melancholic mood, and a conflict between the characters that I really cared about.

District 9 is great fun. An excellent action film that reinvigorated my love of movies.

The Fountain: Beautiful, emotional, and the first Aronofsky film that I can imagine myself rewatching.

It Might Get Loud: I am the target audience for a movie about how Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White became guitarists.

The Room is the Plan 9 from Outer Space of '90s indie movies. I suspect that within 2 to 10 years, The Room will be as well known as Plan 9.

Shortbus: an extremely explicit movie about people trying to overcome sexual problems in their lives. Provocative, funny, moving, and dealing with conflicts that most movies prefer to ignore. I thought this movie was fantastic.

Soul Power covers the 1974 concert in Zaire that took place at the same-ish time as the Ali-Foreman fight. Lots of great performers including James Brown, favourite-bluesman-ever BB King, and new favourite singer Bill Withers. For me it's a movie that really illustrated the joy of playing music, and the satisfaction of playing music yourself rather than receiving it from some 'star'. Great stuff.

Zombieland: a feel-good romantic comedy with an attitude that's perfectly pitched to my tastes. Taught me that interesting things can happen in a zombie movie when you dial the zombie threat down to about a 2 out of 10.

Rather than pick a best film of 2009 (whatever that means), I can see myself rewatching all of these. But the ones that I think I will continue to get something from are (500) Days of Summer and Shortbus.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

2009: Favourite Single Episode of TV

Here are the contenders.

Mad Men, Season 1: The Marriage of Figaro. The third episode of this show opens up what it's really about - social conformity and people caught in lies about their own lives. It's like Pleasantville without the gimmicks. I'm looking forward to seeing how these characters survive the 60s, but I doubt it will be a pleasant journey for most of them.

Lost, Season 5: Le Fleur. The episode that established that Sawyer is amazing, that gave him a home and people to care about, and then reintroduced Jack to screw it all up. Le Fleur not only gives us our first real behind the scenes look at Dharmaville, it begins the process of making all of the main characters sympathetic again that Season 5 would continue.

True Blood, Season 1: Episode 6. I just felt so sad for Sookie's loss, which was magnificently displayed in sub-text during a scene where she ate her grandmother's pie.

Dollhouse, Season 1: Man on the Street. A episode filled with brutal, series-defining plot points in this show about people who can copy and download their personalities into other bodies. It also contains a gimmicky series of news interviews with people about the urban legend of the Dollhouse. ... 'Gimmicky' that is, until the very last interview - where a scientist says that if this technology is real, then it's the end of humanity. "We are over. As a species," he says, referring to the idea that the people who control this technology will inevitably use it for their own gain. At the very least it will create a class of rich immortals who use our bodies as rides. From there, two or three minutes of consideration, a set of nightmare scenarios emerge that (in later episodes) Dollhouse will spectacularly not shy away from.

Supernatural, Season 4: The Monster at the End of This Book. Probably the most 'meta' episode of television I've ever watched. Magnificent. Inspirational.

And the winner is: Dollhouse, Man on the Street. Dollhouse is the only show I've had arguments about this year. Despite all of its many many flaws, Man on the Street is the point where it demonstrates its incredible potential.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Dollhouse: One scene from Season 2

Bad idea to begin a post by discouraging people to keep reading, but I want to analyse a particular scene in the first episode of Dollhouse, Season Two. So, yes this post contains



The centrepiece of this first episode is a conversation between Topher (the genius who designs and uploads the artificial personalities into people's brains) and Dr Saunders, who has recently discovered that she isn't real - that she is in fact one of these artificial personalities.

I love this scene for three reasons:

1. It's long
2. It introduces a big idea that gets explored throughout the rest of the season
3. There are clear changes between the start of the scene and the end (in both emotion and character).

The scene begins as a seductive confrontation. Saunders (who despises Topher) tries to overcome her programming and make love to him. In the process of doing this, she acts like a doll, trying to be her best - basically adopting the role of everything she hates. Which raises the question of 'why'. Why is she doing this.

The scene immediately answers that, dancing through a complex series of beats that climax in Saunders identifying Topher as God. After all, he created her with a specific series of qualities. He obviously had a 'divine plan' in mind. Why should she fight it?

The next section of the scene is great: as Topher explains why he designed Saunders the way he did, there's the resonance of God explaining himself to his creation. Anyway, Topher resists Saunder's take on the situation. He tells her that he programmed Saunders to question and challenge him, not hate him. Saunders has chosen to do that.

It's a good end-point to the scene: identifying that Saunders has free will and she chose to hate Topher. A nice emotional twist that reveals a truth about a character. But the scene continues, and the material it begins to explore opens up a whole new dimension of understanding what 'Dollhouse' is really about.

That's the first reason I love this scene. It's unafraid to spend time with these two characters and dig into the hearts of what they're about, what's driving them, and what they're afraid of. Sure it's a little 'tell, don't show', a little theatrical. But screw it: I like plays.

So, the scene continues with Saunders wanting to know how she can continue living, knowing that that she's not even real, knowing that everything about what she is and who created her disgusts her.

But when Topher offers to give Saunders back her original personality, Saunders refuses.
And she refuses because she doesn't want to die. "I'm in someone else's body, and I'm afraid to give it up."

And that's the big idea that this season introduces: these artificial identities think of themselves as real. These 'imprints' have their own existence, their own drive for survival. It's an idea that's expanded on in the next episode, 'Vows', which features the first entirely successful (at least to me) assignment-of-the-week episode, and subsequent episodes dive into the concept whole-heartedly.

One of the reasons I admire love Dollhouse is that it's a show about big ideas that haven't been fully explored on TV before. A 13-part season is just about big enough to (a) explore the idea of self-preservation in people who know they aren't real, and (b) throw in an enormous amount of patented Whedon-esque plot twists and character reveals.

Finally the scene ends with this recognition: that Saunders knows she isn't real but doesn't want to give up her body to the personality it originally belonged to. And it ends with Topher appreciating the enormity of her problem. The scene moves from seduction to isolation, and from Topher being glib to being to move into another phase of his character arc.