Tag Archives: Fun Home

Immersion

Reading the Wikipedia summary of a book or tv show is not the same as reading or watching it. A movie’s script is an inherently unfinished product until it is produced and brought to its fullest form. It makes a certain amount of sense; you want the full experience of Ulysses? Read the book itself, not the CliffNotes. Inception is a trip, but it’s a trip that works best when you’re watching it in full. The reasoning behind this seems quite obvious: for something written, there’s a particularity given to the prose that the writer uses to evoke whatever it is they’re going for; visual media like television and film use the camera to draw the viewer’s attention to certain places, with every aspect of the story tailored to the audience’s experience.

Things get weird when media gets more interactive.

In a book, things are written to be read a certain way, and unless you’re reading it, uh, backwards, you’re experiencing it the way it was extended. Sitting in a theater, you’re watching a movie as it’s meant to be, from start to finish, no distractions, and with the audio and the visuals just right.

But what about when you’re watching a play? Sure, you’re supposed to be watching the stage, but where on the stage? If it’s in the round you’re seeing a completely different point of view as someone on the other side! And what if they decide to interact with the audience? Furthermore, there are elements of stagecraft that draw the audience in, things that are designed to be seen, and experienced, in person. There’s no way a description of the furniture disappearing into the stage in Fun Home can compare to watching it happen in front of you. It’s arguable that the audience’s own ability to view the stage through their own eyes (and not that of the director’s camera or writer’s prose) is part of the narrative work of a stage performance. The liminal space occupied by the actors and the audience becomes a magic circle during the performance.

Being there, having to turn your head to follow the action, is a part of watching a play that a recording doesn’t quite capture, filtered as it is through a camera crew. It’s a small thing, but not having to physically turn your head to see what’s going on removes a small part of the interaction that’s part of the medium.

Kinda like not playing a video game.

In the same way that a well-made play uses that stage to its fullest, so too does a video game. Video games with a focus on narrative tell stories not just through non-interactive cutscenes, but by making players actually play the story. The effect of this, when well executed, isn’t found in other media. The Last of Us and BioShock both take place in the aftermath of cataclysmic disasters, and you, the player explore the spaces left behind. There you’ll find notes and audio recordings that slowly paint a narrative of the people who lived in the place you’re exploring, leaving you to piece together a story about what happened. It’s completely optional, you don’t have to pick up any of the notes and can quite easily go through the whole game without collecting any if you choose. But by interacting with you’re given some background that sits in the back of your mind.

Then, of course, there is making you play through the story. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has you building a team of mercenaries and staffing them at your base. You might not remember them all by name, but you, the player, recruit them all and put them where they go. They’re your staff. When a late plot development has a number of your soldiers turn against you, you, the player, must kill them before they can do more damage. It is an… unpleasant experience. Not all of them are hostile, many of them are accepting, and you are tasked with shooting them in cold blood. The player is not allowed a passive position in the development, they have to take part in the carnage. The guilt that weighs on Venom Snake weighs too on the player. Sure, you can watch a play-through of the game, or even read a rundown on the plot, but not actively taking part in the action removes a level of immersion intended by the designers. Like watching a play on screen, passively watching a video game doesn’t confer the experience in full.

At the end of the day, something that’s created to exist in a specific medium ought to be experienced in that medium. But in doing so, it does become something else, doesn’t it (compare a stage production to a movie adaptation)? Different stories work different ways, but to experience them at all is a joy.

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Bang For A Buck

Movie tickets here in New York short you around $15 a pop. Which is a lot for a movie, but we go anyway because, y’know, movies. So it’s worth it, price of admission and all that for those two hours.

Conversely, your typical new video game costs $60 at base, ignoring deluxe editions, special editions, and inevitable DLC. Which makes it come up to around a lot; Star Wars Battlefront totals out $110 if you buy the bundle for all the expansions, which I haven’t though I really enjoy the game and would appreciate the depth those expansions offer. $50 seems too steep, y’know?

The same goes for Destiny‘s newest expansion, Rise of Iron; it’s a hearty forty quid and even though I’ve already bought all the other expansions, I’m not quite ready to invest more cash. I don’t know if it’s worth it.

Then I check my playtime in the game. I’ve invested over 210 hours into Destiny. Woah (I didn’t check the number until just now). For how much I’ve paid, that’s better than 2 hours for each dollar I’ve spent. Or, in perspective, $1,575 worth of movie tickets. By that metric, Destiny has so far proven almost $1,500 cheaper. So picking up Rise of Iron seems like a steal.

So that’s it then; entertaining-hour per dollar is the way of measuring whether something is a good deal. Buy more games, go to the cinema less often. Easy.

But what about theatre?

Plays don’t come cheap, Full-price tickets for Hamilton will short you around a $100 (roughly Battlefront+expansions, if you’re keeping track) for a single viewing of a two-and-a-half hour musical. Discounted tickets to shows like Fun Home and Vietgone, plays I’ve raved about, are $30 a piece. If we go back to our entertaining-hour per dollar metric, then plays are crazy expensive, far more than a movie and definitely a video game.

That is, of course, if you take things at a mathematical face value.

Was Fun Home worth those thirty dollars? Holy crap, yes. Seeing something live has a different aura than watching something on a screen. With a play, I figure you’re not paying your money for the story, but to have an experience. Hamilton tickets fetch such a high price because  it’s such an experience to watch it live. Similarly, the wonder of watching Fun Home done in the round, with the stage playing the role it does and being in a room full of other people is part of the ticket. And my own experience of Vietgone wouldn’t be the same without a particularly great piece of live feedback from an elderly woman during the introduction.

The whole entertaining-hour per dollar metric really falls apart as soon as you realize that entertainment isn’t just a blanket term. Of the over two-hundred hours I’ve spent playing Destiny, I can point to the experience of spending six hours venturing into the Vault of Glass with a six-person fireteam of strangers online and beating Atheon as being a highlight worth my purchase. That was an experience, of retries, strategizing, and, eventually, victory. It’s hard to capture that lightning in a bottle again, and that might be why I”m holding off on Rise of Iron.

When I buy a game, I’m after an experience. I want to be thrilled by Uncharted 4 or haunted by The Last of Us; if I get that, the money was worth it. Same goes for the stage; I want to see something that I could only have seen on stage, something made special by how and where it’s done. I’ll shell out a hundred bucks on a LEGO set because I love the process of putting it together (with a record playing and a nice glass of whiskey).

It’s why when Rogue One tickets go on sale I’m spending the extra money to see it in IMAX 3D: I want the experience, I wanna be there. And at the end of the day, that’s what you’re really paying for.

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To Tell The Truth

How do you tell the truth? Saying “Alice and Bob broke up” may be what happened, but is it the truth of it all? Breakups are messy business; did Alice break up with Bob or Bob break up with Alice? Did Bob break up with Alice for Charlie? Suddenly there’s a narrative attached to the happening, which in turn colors our perception of what happened. It may be less accurate, but it could be closer to the truth. Maybe the truth is Bob feels like his heart’s been ripped out. But there’s gotta be a better way to say it.

Enter fiction. And writing in general, actually, since trying to capture that elusive truth is one of the things poetry does so well. When Matthew Dickman describes the act of a dance in “Slow Dance” as “The my body // is talking to your body slow dance” it’s decidedly not factual (bodies, um, don’t talk). Heck, it’s not even strictly grammatically correct. But, what it does do – along with the rest of the poem – is describe the truth of that dance “with really exquisite strangers.” Throughout “Slow Dance” Dickman invites you into a space where he paints a picture of all those thoughts and feelings that accompany dancing with someone. He’s crafting an experience for you to be a part of, letting you know how it feels to be there. The truth of it all.

It really is poetry’s modus operandi, that, sharing a truth. For all the silliness of Lewis Carrol’s “Jaberwocky,” it vividly places you where it was brillig; in “False Security,” Sir John Betjeman makes you feel like a child again, where going to someone else’s house at night is an adventurous quest in and of itself. It’s not enough to tell you what’s happening, it’s about telling you the truth of what happened.

But poetry does it through image-heavy words, how do you show it? Take a look at musical Fun Home, which I recently saw before it closed (thank you, Nathan). Towards the end the narrator, Alison Bechdel, expresses how she wants so badly to remember how things were doing a pivotal point in her youth, but how does memories fade quicker than she can remember them. The play illustrates it beautifully, with the furniture that’s made up the set of her home (where her memories have played out) receding into the stage as she chases after them just moments too late. Again, not ‘realistic,’ but heartbreakingly true. How better to communicate the realness of memories fading away? It works.

Which brings me to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, because a lot of my thoughts and ramblings have been pointing towards that show lately. The show’s musical numbers are largely born out of a heightened emotional state, be it feeling excluded at a group hang or the stress of a parent coming to visit. These songs sometimes serve as a culmination of a sequence and let us into the singer’s mind. A striking example is the song “You Stupid Bitch,” wherein Rebecca finds herself at one of her lowest points — everything she’s been striving for has blown up in her face. So she sings this song rife with self-loathing, this incredibly harsh, unflinchingly brutal song — a song that she has the imaginary crowd join in on. Now, in the real world, people don’t get a musical number when their depression closes in on them. But, that feeling of despair with a crowd in your head singing your ills is absolutely true.

I talk a lot about how fiction’s all a lie. But it’s a lie that tells the truth. Because sometimes the lie of fiction tells the truth better than a factual account. Least that’s the best way to explain Bob’s really sad poetry about the breakup.

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