Playing by the Rules

On Thursday I completed a story that incorporated some strange and supernatural systems and rules. While these were never defined exhaustively, they were things that I tried to remain consistent to throughout the piece. It’s quite common for a work of fiction to introduce some entirely new system as a part of its world, which needs to be explained to some degree to the reader. Different stories will establish those rules to different levels of detail. A film I mentioned last week, Primer, is incredibly exhaustive in explaining how its version of time travel is achieved, whereas Harry Potter makes no attempt to ever explain its source of magic, it just happens to be present in that world. Still, the basic functions of that magic system are understood: magic folk can affect the natural world around them, that ability is further enhanced by the use of wands and spells, and the performance of those spells seems to require a certain amount of focus or particular state of mind in the spell caster. Not all of these components are explicitly stated, some are simply inferred from what the reader sees, but the fact remains that one way or another the system is established and generally maintained.

So whether its traveling the far-flung expanses of space, or finding a secret world hidden within our own, or journeying back to a magical land of fantasy, why do so many stories invent all of these fictional rulesets? I believe the main reason is because it makes the experience a sort of artificial education. The fact is that human curiosity craves regular, stimulating learning and it won’t feel completely healthy and fulfilled without it. We’ve perhaps made a stereotype of the word “education” as a synonym for dry, boring lectures, but that is not what true learning actually feels like. True learning is most often experienced when encountered in an entertaining, playful way, which is exactly what stories can provide. In fact, a clever author will intentionally use best teaching techniques in sharing their world systems, having an educational arc that runs in tandem with the character and plot arcs. In the very first act of the story they will avoid overwhelming the reader by providing only the barest, most fundamental mechanics of their world. Next, they will introduce new concepts at a regular, comfortable pace, each only coming to bear when the previous are understood. Finally at the climax, all of these separate mechanics start to combine in novel and unexpected ways, often resulting in the hero being able to finally overcome the villain.

Unsurprisingly, one good source for examples of these systems is in video games, as that very system is directly tied to the gameplay mechanics, which need to be consistent for the player to make reliable use of them, but also evolving to maintain the player’s interest. In the game Portal, the player is introduced to the basic concept of traveling through connected portals placed on flat surfaces, which occurs as the plot opens by welcoming you into a strange but innocuous AI-driven test facility. Then, through the second act, the methods of how to use those portals are expanded one-at-a-time in each self-contained testing level, where you learn how to use portals with lasers, with buttons, with converted momentum, etc. Simultaneously, the plot at this point is piece-by-piece introducing unusual moments where the controlling AI seems quirky, then fishy, and finally untrustworthy. As the game enters the final act, the player breaks out of the testing environment and encounters all new obstacles and is required to make unexpected connections of the game mechanics. All of this is as the story traverses behind the scaffolding of the walls to the heart of the now clearly malevolent AI villain for a final showdown. The world system and the story are entirely intertwined in one another from start to finish.

This pattern is apparent again in films, such as The Matrix, where Neo first learns the fundamental fact that he is in a digital simulation, then gradually learns concepts like how to tweak the parameters of his reality or download skills directly to his brain. Finally, at the end, he surpasses every prior discovery by realizing he can go beyond just changing the parameters of the simulation to rewriting the entire code and define his own reality. The pattern returns in books of course, such as in Stephen King’s It, where we first see the children being menaced by some supernatural being, then realize that the being’s power comes from their own imaginations, and finally conclude that they can use that same imaginative power against their enemy to defeat it. This pattern even exists in music, where we commonly are introduced to a main theme, then explore several new motifs, and finally culminate by combining those separate ideas into one, making the original theme stronger than ever before.

Unfortunately, there are a number of stories where the author does not understand the power and potential of fictional rules and systems, and only use them as window dressing to try and pretty up the story, only to then break those same rules when it is convenient for the narrative. I don’t care to name names for negative examples, but this is a common failing of comic book series, no doubt in part due to the complexity of every superhero and villain having their own unique system of rules that combine for an overly complex web. This is always unfortunate when it occurs, an author straying from his or her own rules cheapens the story and makes it difficult to care about the systems when the creator doesn’t even respect them.

Of course, these rules and systems exist in true-to-life dramas as well, though in forms more subtle than supernatural physics or alien abilities. Sometimes there are rules embedded in a story simply by the themes and atmosphere generated by the author, and these are just as important to remain true to. All throughout A Tale of Two Cities there is an established trend of suffering begetting suffering, with no shortcuts around that vicious cycle. Consider the following quotes from its pages:

Death may beget life, but oppression can beget nothing other than itself.

Vengeance and retribution require a long time; it is the rule.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seeds of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

In the final act of the story Charles Darnay is captured and facing an unjust death, but it is an injustice that is in response to previous injustices given by his own forbearers. It would fly in the face of everything the story has stood for if some lucky happenstance plucked him away to safety at no cost. Even if the story is going to end happily, still the balance must be maintained and a price must be paid. It is the only way to be true to the rules of the tale, and so that is what happens. And not only does this decision preserve Dickens’ narrative honesty, it allows him, like any great teacher, to show us the culminating lesson that we are meant to learn: that the cycle of oppression can be overcome, but only through sacrifice.

Feel free to come back on Thursday when I will introduce part one of a new short story, one in which I will establish a new concept, then provide additional mechanics on top of it step-by-step, and finally culminate with a fresh combination of those ideas in the last entry of the series.

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