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The Graveyard Book and the meaning of life October 6, 2010

Posted by Cesar in living me, thinking me.
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5 comments

“He looks like nobody but himself,” said Mrs.Owens, firmly. “He looks like nobody.”
“Then Nobody it is,” said Silas. “Nobody Owens.”
It was then that, as if responding to the name, the child opened its eyes wide in wakefulness. It stared around it, taking in the faces of the dead, and the mist, and the moon. Then it looked at Silas. Its gaze did not flinch. It looked grave.
“And what kind of a name is Nobody?” asked Mother Slaughter, scandalized.
“His name. And a good name,” Silas told her. “It will help to keep him safe.”

The quote above is from “The Graveyard Book“, from Neil Gaiman. The other day I was talking to my friend Wallace and I remembered I never wrote about one of my greatest passions: literature. And my first post on the subject couldn’t be about any other author: in my mind Neil Gaiman is one of the greatest writers of our generation. His fantasy books tell of amazing tales. Adult, deep, thoughtful fairy tales, and they are all great.

Neil Gaiman got famous for writing the Sandman graphic novels, and I love all of them, but after he started focusing on books he went from great to remarkable. I think we’ll talk about his books as classics if you give it a couple of decades. If you never read one of his books, you might have seen one or two movies. Stardust and Coraline were adaptations of his work (Stardust was alright, Coraline was awesome, but I digress).

Back to the matter at hand, I wanted to talk about literature and about Neil Gaiman, so I decided to make a review of his latest literary work: The Graveyard Book.  The book was written as a children book but, just like Coraline, adults who didn’t read it don’t know what they are missing. Neil Gaiman’s style is so interesting, his writing so close to poetry, his stories so full of meaning, that they transcend age constraints.

The Graveyard Book tells the story of Nobody Owens (you can call him Bod), a living kid raised by the dead in a graveyard. I won’t give away any spoilers. Zero. But Bod’s life has it all: his personal troubles, his interaction with the living and the dead, the secrets of graveyards and ghosts, a greater plot of good vs. evil, the metaphorical search for the meaning of life.

All characters are very tangible. You can’t help but feel the fear of Bod, the apprehension of his ghostly mother Mrs. Owens,  the strong conviction of Silas. As the story flows, the reader is constantly invited to be amazed, to fear, to smile and to laugh. The atmosphere of the book is always right and the borderline poetic narrative always keeps the fairy tale feeling alive. The humor is always witty and natural, as are the more scary moments and the epic passages.

Bod said, ‘I want to see life. I want to hold it in my hands. I want to leave a footprint on the sand of a desert island. I want to play football with people. I want,’ he said, and then he paused and he thought. ‘I want everything.’

To me the best way to read Neil Gaiman is to let yourself get completely immersed into the story, but to also see it as a quest for wisdom. Like long parables, all his books hold an invitation for thought and The Graveyard Book is no different.

The only flaw of the book is one that taints all great literary efforts: the book is too short, I wish we could follow Bod for a few more adventures. I was already nostalgic when I finished reading the last sentence. But then again, that’s one of the beauties of it, thinking about what was never written.

If you read this one and like it, try the Gaiman classics: Good Omens (simply hilarious, written together with Terry Pratchett) and American Gods. You won’t regret it.

See you space cowboys…

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Less buttons, more immersion: Part III December 13, 2009

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
3 comments

uncharted and verdi

The second reason for video game immersion is our mind and its incredible capacity for abstraction. This is the point games have in common with other art forms. Movies, music, literature, poetry, painting, all rely on the human mind to achieve immersion. But because we human beings have such a huge capacity of abstraction and imagination, most of these media still achieve immersion while offering vastly incomplete experiences. And that’s not a bad thing. A movie is very close to a full experience: it offers detailed visual and auditory stimuli. On the other hand, listening to a concert on an iPod offers nothing but audio and is still capable of moving us deeply. More impressive yet is abstract painting. Even with loose correlation to reality, it still makes us think and react. But perhaps the most impressive example is in literature. A romance offers nothing other than letters. Although it is not as interpretation heavy as an abstract painting, the feelings a book offers are completely created by the brain. The flat pages have no pictures, audio, smell or taste. But we are still capable of imagining all that from the otherwise meaningless letters and feel as if we were there, in a battle for Britain or in the middle of a rather funny version of the days preceding Armageddon (two of my favorite books by the way).

This is the immersion aspect that moves game technology the farthest. Graphics evolve at every new console or video card iteration in the search for immersion. But if you stop to think about it, isn’t this inconsistent with what I just said? If we can get immersion even from black letters on white paper, why struggle so much with graphics? Well, there’s a whole visual experience related to video games. It would be like asking Salvador Dali why he added so many details to his paintings. It is not just about activity immersion. Everything with a visual component can aim for a visual experience and for beauty. The same goes for all other senses. There are different types of immersion: you might love Assassin’s Creed II but still look at an individual screenshot and admire the beauty and level of detail in the 3D models and textures.

But that did not satisfy me either and I found the best answer from Richie Nieto, who helped me with my questions in the IGDA forums. Like he said, immersion depends on the suspension of disbelief. Which means our brain must fool us into believing the alternate reality the game offers (isn’t that the same thing we do with reality itself? Subject for another topic). The catch is that this depends on our experiences and our expectations. When a gamer plays a very abstract game, say Lumines, he’s taken to a weird world of falling blocks and intriguing sounds. We can, of course, admire the beauty of the graphics in combination with sound effects caused by gameplay. But in order for Lumines to be immersive, all it has to do is be consistent with itself. There’s no other world like it, our experiences and expectations are based on the game itself. Okami on the other hand also has a very unique art style, obviously non realistic. And while the lack of graphic realism does not stop us from getting involved, we have other aspects to consider. If gravity does not behave as expected, the player will notice. If the painted wolf’s head disappears behind a mountain due to a collision detection problem, it will bother us a bit. The experience is not ruined, but these details break the suspension of disbelief for a brief moment. It is even worse for a title like Metal Gear Solid 4. In this case, reality itself (well, at least as perceived by our senses) is the standard. That makes it so much harder to achieve immersion. Graphics matter a lot, as do sound, physics, movement, interactions.

So in short, the second reason for immersion is: the game must live up to its expectations and provide a consistent alternate reality. This alternate reality must not clash with itself or with the reality the player created in his mind, based on the game and on previous experiences.

Only one reason left. Keep on reading!

See you space cowboys…

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