Tagged: narrative

Do You Want to Save Your Game?

A few days ago, someone on /r/suggestmeabook posted this thread in which they asked for a book that “has a similar style of a JRPG” and is “an adventure with a group of people that use magic and swords to fight along the way.”  This question has come up multiple other times in various forms: 1, 2, 3.  I like this question because, of course, it brings together my love of video games and literature, but also because it’s a super interesting question that deserves some exploration.  I think it lodged in my brain more than it normally would have because I’m currently about 1/3 through Station Eleven and the Traveling Symphony has some elements of the RPG storyline, although I won’t know just how much until I finish the book.

Let’s ignore what the user said about using magic and swords and just focus on the common elements of RPG, especially JRPG, storylines.  I’ll be using Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, and the Warcraft universe as my primary examples as those are what I’m most familiar with and the ones I’ve enjoyed the most (thus I would consider them successful stories!):

  • The stories often start with a single character, who will be the focus of the bulk of the story, but the rest of the protagonist cast is quickly introduced.  Each character has a fairly unique backstory that’s important, although the amount of fleshing out of these background stories doesn’t have to be uniform.  The most typical backstories are either that something tragic happened to the character (loss of a loved one as a result of the antagonists is real popular), or that the character has forgotten some important element of their past.  Early on, there is usually some element of abrasion between the cast of the protagonist team, but as the storyline progresses they become more and more cohesive, especially when the Something Bad Happens (more later).
  • Like the protagonist cast, there are typically multiple antagonists, but one ends up being the Final Boss.  The antagonists are introduced early on but undergo some kind of significant change during the storyline.  Either the antagonist has a similar character arc to the protagonists, where they become more and more evil/deranged/powerful (Kefka, Arthas), or we find out that the antagonist we have been focusing on is actually a pawn, or less of a threat than whoever turns out to be the Final Boss Antagonist, etc. (Magus vs. Lavos, Shinra vs. Sephiroth/Jenova, Illidan).

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Kefka’s first scene versus his last, in Final Fantasy VI.

  • Final Boss Antagonists are generally not that nuanced.  Giygas (Earthbound) and Kefka are just plain evil.  Sephiroth has a more complex evil, but is still willing to do anything to gain the power he seeks, and it’s arguable that he is a secondary antagonist to Jenova, despite being the Final Boss of the game.  Warcraft‘s Final Bosses are often corrupted by something, and are sometimes seen as complex characters prior to corruption but not after (Lich King, Kael’Thas fit this bill, we don’t have enough information about pre-corruption Sargeras to know about him.  Illidan in post-defeat by Arthas just hasn’t been given any treatment.).  Garrosh is one of the few characters who seems somewhat evil prior to corruption, and has one of the more interesting arcs in the universe, probably not uncoincidentally.  The seemingly most powerful villains in the Warcraft universe, the Old Gods, are also the least complex.  I think there might be something to the fact that a higher percentage of secondary antagonists are humans versus primary antagonists, too.
  • Something Bad Happens, usually about halfway through the story.  This might be the death of someone important to the protagonist’s side but generally not a playable character (one of the reasons I think Chrono Trigger has been so iconic as an RPG is its treatment of this).  It could also be the destruction of a town, or an even bigger destructive event (the cataclysm in FFVI).  Sometimes the Something Bad is a betrayal, although betrayals are common in these stories and aren’t usually the main Bad thing.
  • Super important and something that doesn’t always happen in literature: There are good guys and there are bad guys, and while who fits on each team might shift, in the end there are a clear-cut set of good guys who triumph over the bad guys.

There’s tons of examples that don’t fit into this framework, but I believe a lot do.  People play RPGs for their storytelling and world building and character development, so something about this formula has to work.  And yes, there is quite a bit of overlap with Campbell’s archetypes, but the focus is on specific parts of that story progression.

With the basic elements laid out, let’s explore some literary texts that have similar features:

  • Moby Dick is the first one that comes to mind.  The opening chapters are literally the gathering of a party to set out on an adventure.  As the story progresses, we learn more and more about the backgrounds of the party, although the main protagonist is less obviously developed compared with the typical RPG main protagonist.  The Final Boss is not nuanced.  Ahab is arguably a secondary antagonist.  Pip’s death could be considered the Something Bad.
  • It’s interesting to compare the plot progression of a typical RPG with that of The Lord of the Rings, given the close relationship between the original RPGs (tabletop games) and canonical fantasy works.  Tolkein’s treatment of the bad guys is a little different than most RPGs – beyond maybe the ghost army and Saruman we see little nuance of the antagonists.  They’re all just evil and led by a single being (there are some independent evils but they’re also just evil with no other motivation).  The party-gathering aspect is almost identical to an RPG, both in the trilogy and in The Hobbit.  Lots of Something Bads happen.
  • Stephen King’s The Stand could definitely fit the bill in pretty much every aspect.  We have a Final Boss-esque bad guy who has subordinate bad guys that are more complex than he is.  We have a team of good guys who we slowly learn more and more about.  The antagonists develop simultaneously.  There’s a big bad thing that happens prior to the climax.  There’s betrayal.
  • Likewise, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere hits all the same notes.
  • TC Boyle’s Drop City is the closest thing I can think of that might fit this bill and is considered a recent piece of literary fiction.  There’s a cast of protagonist characters who set out on an adventure with a common goal.  Somethings Bad happen.  There’s two clear-cut antagonists including one who was part of the protagonist team and then betrayed them, although they kind of seem like secondary antagonists to an incorporeal primary antagonist.

It was very difficult for me to come up with modern or realistic examples, and I think part of that is that so few books have embodied antagonists (or even organizational antagonists) post-Modernism.  What could this story look like in a semi-realistic setting?  Maybe Infinite Jest with everyone working against the American Government?  If on a winter’s night a traveler with a bigger protagonist cast?  Wild, but about a group of people doing the trail instead of one woman?  I don’t know.  What do you think?

Here’s the TVTropes article that describes the common elements of what they call the “Eastern RPG.”

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Thesisizing

With summer drawing to a close, it’s time to get back into the mindset of school and projects and whatnot.  I’ll be graduating next May, assuming I can complete a THESIS.  As such, I’d like to do a little description as to what I have planned so far, but first I wanted to get some meta-blog stuff (or blog meta-stuff?) off my mind.

I’ve been hesitant to update my blog lately because the subject constraints I’ve laid out for myself here are based on the confluence of gifted education and my academic subject matter, Rhetoric and Composition, along with the idea that connects them: storytelling as persuasion/informer.  However, over the summer, I’ve strayed quite a bit in my work and interests, and I wasn’t sure if I should write about that or not.  I think, given the fact that most readers come here not because of the subject matter but because of their social (media or otherwise) connection to me, that it would be fine, but we’ll see how the future goes.  Lots of people say the biggest pitfall for a new blogger is to jump around in topics.  Although, it’s definitely possible my recent work projects are connected slightly more than tangentially.  For one, I’ve been wanting to talk a lot about Infinite Jest, which I just finished, and which might be the greatest book I’ve ever read.  There’s a lot of “gifted” youth content in that book, and I think there’s room for a discussion there.  Additionally, I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about the South, for several reasons.  I’ve been semi-obsessed with genealogy in the past year, and am writing a good deal about it, both in terms of legacy, family connections, and the impact of the neo-digital world on what the aforementioned things will look like going forward.  I spent some time this summer taking pictures of graveyards in Kentucky.  I also played the new indie video game Kentucky Route Zero and am pitching an article on it to a few places (it’s a great storytelling experience, very southern-inspired, and not at all like a typical video game).  There’s storytelling and rhetoric and composition all over the place, really, now that I’m sounding it out.  Maybe I had no reason to be scared?  A handful of possible topics:  Video games as a composed text, and separation of storytelling-experience-based games like Kentucky Route Zero from the typical video game text.  Kentucky Route Zero as a simultaneous narrative/counternarrative about the Southern experience.  Storytelling as part of genealogy, and the relationship between the two (check out the argument on Wikipedia about whether genealogy and family history are the same thing, for more on that).  The rhetoric of legacy, in terms of previous/old-fashioned memorials and digital/future memorials.

SO, maybe more on that later?

Back to my thesis.  As this blog shows, I’m interested in the power of narrative, whether personal or otherwise, within argument/persuasion.  As someone in the academic+composition world, I know that this is a popular topic for discussion.  Lots of scholars argue that students should be allowed to use their own experience in academic papers (despite lots of professors still insisting on “No first person!”).  In addition, there are a good deal of scholarly texts that include personal experience, including Victor Villanueva’s Bootstraps and Joseph Trimmer’s collection Narration as Knowledge which were assigned in one of my classes last semester, but even more iconic omni-discipline texts like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera use authorial experience to make their case.  So, given this scholarly atmosphere where we approve of and supposedly encourage this implementation of personal narrative as rhetoric, the question my thesis asks is whether this approval/expectation carries over to “novice” writers, specifically those sitting in a freshman-level composition class.  I’ll do this by conducting a small experiment looking at the reactions of freshman composition instructors to texts which use personal experience versus those which do not.  Don’t worry – I have no intention of making an argument one way or another as to how we should value personal experience in relation to “academic research.”  Instead, I’ll allude vaguely to it and let my reader project themselves onto the page.

Outside content:  A few things.  Below is a track listing for a mix CD I made entitled Home(Sick) which grew out of my mind being so focused around home/the South lately.  In addition, here are a few YouTube videos with music from Kentucky Route Zero:  1, 2.  Compare them with their more “traditional” counterparts: 1, 2.

Home(Sick)

1. Long Journey Home – The Bedquilt Ramblers
2. God’s Country – Ani Difranco
3. Feather Lungs – Laura Gibson
4. Classic Cars – Bright Eyes
5. Paradise – John Prine
6. Fire It Up – Modest Mouse
7. Drifting – Pearl JAm
8. Whiskey in My Whiskey – The Felice Brothers
9. Merry Go ‘Round – Kacey Musgraves
10. Laundry Room – The Avett Brothers
11. Rockin’ Chair – The Band
12. Dear Believer – Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
13. History of Lovers – Iron & Wine w/ Calexico
14. Giving Up – Ingrid Michaelson
15. To Just Grow Away – The Tallest Man On Earth
16. I Can’t Take It – Tegan & Sara
17. Mother, I’m Here – Darren Korb
18. 24 Hours A Day – Todd Snider
19. Sunday Morning Sidewalk – Johnny Cash

On Sincerity and Authenticity

Last night in my Composition Pedagogy class we covered expressivist and rhetorical pedagogies.  I know, I know, try to contain your excitement.  Anyway, I was in charge of teaching the rhetorical section, and like many English majors in their late twenties, I am slightly obsessed with David Foster Wallace.  Because of this, I used his 2005 Kenyon Commencement speech, commonly titled “This is Water“, as part of my lesson.  My logic was that speeches are often analyzed in composition classes for their rhetorical content (Identify the Ethos, Logos, and Pathos that Martin Luther King Jr. uses in his “I Have a Dream Speech”, etc.), and that Foster Wallace often makes arguments about the rhetorical presentation/nature of writing (“Tense Present“) and other cultural phenomena (“E Unibus Pluram“).

I expected part of the class to not like it.  It’s a long speech, and we could only listen to the first 1/4 of it.  Much like his writing, some of the speech feels overwrought to the point of being tedious (which is the same thing that makes most of his fiction and some of his essays out of reach of my enjoyment).  However, I didn’t expect the majority of the class to disagree with both his content and his style, which is what happened.

Some context:  We spent the first half of the class discussing expressivist pedagogy, which came to power in the 1960s.  If composition itself is traditionally concerned with the writer, the reader, the text, and the reality/truth, expressivists are the ones who put the writer at the top of the chain.  Practices like freewriting or trying to find an “authentic” voice are closely associated with this theory.  In class, we spent a lot of time discussing what having an authentic voice meant, and whether or not it was the same as sincerity.  The general tone of the class agreed with the postmodern idea that there’s no such thing as having one voice, that we are comprised of many voices.

Now, when you start talking about David Foster Wallace, discussing whether his voice is authentic or sincere leads to some complex stuff.  On one hand, the man wrote frequently against the overuse of irony that permeates modern American culture and told Charlie Rose that his pushing the boundaries of text with his signature injections of footnotes are an attempt to portray the convoluted reality of thoughts.  On the other hand, it’s been reported that he made up pieces of his supposedly nonfiction essays to dramatize the story.  Now, whether or not that makes him inauthentic, insincere, or whatever negative adjective you choose to use is up for an engaging debate.

However, in class last night I was disappointed to hear those critical of his commencement address refer to it as being overly ironic, and even “hipster” (a reference to their interpretation that part of the style of the speech was an attempt to seem cool).  The biggest contributor to this attitude were the instances in the beginning of the address where he acknowledges the expectations (mostly negative) of what a commencement speech entails and then proceeds to work within those expectations while simultaneously seeming to mock them.  And, I think, interpreting that action as an attempt at irony is not illogical.  What I would argue, though, is that by acknowledging the social/cultural expectations and boundaries that he and the event are subject to, and then working within them, he is not being ironic.  In fact, I would argue he is being more authentic by making his audience cognizant of these factors.

But, I don’t know.  How do we walk the line between authentic, self-aware, and likable/readable in our writing?  Is there a point to looking for a voice, authentic or not, in your writing?

Your external content of the day looks at adding a new voice, literally, to poems.  Motionpoems takes poetry and adds video/audio to them.  Having met a couple of the poets who received the treatment, the dissonance between the voice used in the video and their real voice is highly entertaining.

A Gifted Counternarrative

A few posts back, I was worried about what to write on for my final paper in a course on using narratives in academic writing.  My first two papers had been on gifted education, so I knew my last one would as well, but I didn’t have a solid direction on it.

My final product ended up being a piece on why academically gifted students need a counternarrative.  A counternarrative is a story that goes against what is common knowledge.  In this case, the “official” narrative (which has also been expressed as myths about gifted students – see here and here) that I addressed was that academically gifted students will be fine without extra services because of their abilities, with some attention paid to the related narrative, that gifted education services are elitist.

I would like to say up front that of course, some gifted education services are elitist, and some are unneeded, but that’s due to flaws within the system, not due to the concept of gifted education.  At my high school, classes aimed at the academically advanced (Honors/AP classes) appeared to serve primarily as a racially/class segregating tool, not to implement any kind of meaningful curriculum differentiation.  I also believe that the label itself, “gifted,” serves to further reinforce the narrative that the programs are elitist/extra, but that’s not a battle I’m up for fighting.

Instead, what I wrote about was my belief that gifted education would be best served by showing specific cases of how a lack of gifted education hurts via storytelling, as the research is already on “our” side and it hasn’t done much for us.  I gave my own high school experience as an example–I dropped out of high school at sixteen due to a lack of options–and used it to springboard to an argument I’m still wrestling with: gifted education should be treated like special education and/or academically gifted students should have access to the same types of resources as the athletically gifted.  I especially like the athletic metaphor because academically gifted students vary as much in what they’re skilled in as athletes vary between sports, but the special education comparison is also valid, as academically gifted students vary as much from the norm in terms of IQ scores as students in need of special education do.  (Big note, not advocating IQ as a meaningful measurement here, just as a quantifiable example).

What writing this paper (and continuing this blog) showed me is that I’m constantly learning more, and even my interpretation of what I’ve read/experienced has changed from the first paper I wrote in this class to the most recent one.  Probably the most significant shift would be giving up on meaningful differentiated education within a mainstreamed classroom, but that’s a topic for another entry.

I think it all comes back to Dr. Kettler’s talk at the TAGT conference – the most important strategy in gifted education and in education at large is to be flexible.  Both mainstream education and gifted education have to fight against the notion that a one-size-fits-all solution exists, and we do a disservice by trying to make that nonexistent solution appear.

Your link of the day – Radio has emerged as an awesome vehicle for storytelling as advocacy, here’s just one example of some powerful stories that can shift public opinion on crucial issues.

Choices, Choices

As I mentioned last entry, I was lucky enough to have a memoir-essay accepted for publication about my experience as a gifted student that ended up dropping out of high school to attend college early.  It’s not a happy story; I didn’t do well in college and the problems that led to that decision were fairly severe.  However, it’s one of the first things I’ve written where I felt I had a lot more to say on the subject, and that it was within my ability to continue saying it.

This semester, as part of my graduate program in Rhetoric and Composition, I’m taking a course entitled “Narrative Ways of Knowing”.  The assignments in that class have allowed me to continue following this strand of work.

For the first assignment, which asked us to think critically about a teaching, learning, or writing experience, I elaborated on a bit of cognitive dissonance in my own thinking.  As a student of education and the liberal arts in general, I nod my head vigorously in class when we talk about the dominant culture imposing its will subconsciously via culturally biased testing and evaluations.  I know that it’s very common for students to be labeled as needing special education because they are English language learners, or because their learning style doesn’t match up with the classroom setting, or because of home life factors outside of their control.  I know that tracking is often used as a modern-day segregation, and that it typically uses outdated methodology, and that there’s little accountability for revisiting these categorizations later in the child’s career.  I know that these biased actions hurt the child and the system overall, and that this casts doubt on any program, aimed at top or bottom, that doesn’t promote mainstreaming and least restrictive environments.

Despite “knowing” all of this, I look back on my own education and feel that the parts I benefited from the most, and the parts that I advocate strongest for to others, are the parts that were as far from mainstreaming as you can get.  Primarily, summer camps that required standardized testing scores for access, and pullout GT classes.

My conclusion for the paper was that in theory, mainstreaming is the way.  But, once you consider how poorly teachers are paid, how little training the average teacher has in gifted OR special education, how large the class sizes are, and how fast school budgets are shrinking, it’s hard to imagine mainstreaming as being a realistic possibility.  It’s because of that, that I fall back on well thought out pull-out programs (including super cool initiatives like college early entrance academies – see TAMS in Texas, the Gatton School in Kentucky, as well as a slew of others).  Ultimately, I believe that we need to keep as many options on the table as possible, from grade-skipping to dual-credit high school classes, as every student’s needs are different.  But, at the same time, we need to be pragmatic about the availability of the resources for such services.

In our second assignment, we were asked to interview someone else and reflect critically on a particular experience they shared in the interview.  I ended up interviewing Tracy Weinberg, Associate Director of the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented.  We had a wonderful talk and spoke very broadly about gifted education, and I ended up writing a paper delving into a few of his anecdotes and comparing them to the experiences I went through, as well as those of my friends.

For our final paper, we need to extend these lines of thoughts and incorporate scholarly sources into the fold.  I have a few ideas, but am unsure of how to proceed:

  • Identification sucking the air out of the room.  Discussion of gifted education is often so dominated by the identification topic that little attention gets paid to the fact that services for those that do get identified are lacking or nonexistent.  Con: Unsure of good way to weave scholarly sources in.
  • Dissonance in how we treat students gifted athletically versus students gifted academically.  Tons of scholarly material depicting both processes, and at least one article looking at this discrepancy in particular.  Con:  Difficult to make coherent connection to my first two papers.  (As an example, imagine reshaping this article to be about an academically gifted student.)
  • Same as second idea, but comparing approaches to special versus gifted education in a similar way.  Same con.
  • Something else riffing on the debate over mainstreaming or not.

Your help would be appreciated!  What topics that are related to our culture’s treatment of gifted education interest you?

For your outside perusal today, a recent article on the lack of meaningful, widely available gifted education – Young, Gifted, and Neglected

Stories as Life, Life as Stories

In the past year or so, my work and my interests have been pushed heavily toward personal storytelling.  Call it what you want–narrative, creative nonfiction, memoir–I’ve been all about it.  Last year, my first real publication came thanks to Texas State University’s Front Porch Journal with a short piece I wrote entitled “The Language of Cancer“, and while the piece wasn’t about my own experience, it was a breakaway from the traditional fictional short stories I had been writing.  Since then, I was able to attend an awesome workshop at the Aspen Summer Words Festival in Narrative Nonfiction with Bill Loizeaux, and I’ve had a second, more personal nonfiction piece published again by Front Porch called “Elastic“.  Finally, I found out that the Harvard Educational Review is going to publish an essay I wrote on my experience as an academically gifted high school student.

And while I’m still writing fiction, I’m becoming more and more enamored with the romanticism of putting a personal story out there for an audience.  There’s the obvious example of the power of This American Life, but I’m excited for more, like the very cool Radio Ambulante which is providing a similar Latino-centric voice.  There’s the slew of really, really good memoirs and combination memoir/biography+contemplations that have popped up in the past few years.  I’m thinking here of some more clasically structured memoirs like Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Debra Monroe’s On the Outskirts of Normal, and Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, but also books that have nudged the boundaries of the genre, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother, and David Lipsky’s Although You End Up Becoming Yourself (also see his older work Absolutely American for a fantastic bit of storytelling+investigative journalism) (also, this hybridity deserves more, later).  And finally, there’s the inherent storytelling aspect to our increasing reliance on social-based news sources and media.  Is reality television an extension of this?

Which is to say that I am all about some creative nonfiction right now.  I’m also lucky enough to be in a graduate class on narrative research, and I’ve used that class to springboard into further work on the stories I want to tell, specifically more on gifted education.

One of the topics that frequently comes up in class discussion is the difference between a fictional and a nonfictional narrative.  I don’t have a good answer for that, yet.  On one hand, as a reader, I feel like knowing whether a story is true or not should not influence my enjoyment of it.  On the other hand, I feel drawn toward these stories that are labeled as true, which I hope is not just because of that label, but because of some combination of content and format that elicits an innate resonance in me….  Or maybe it’s just really good marketing.  From a writerly point of view, though, I think the nonfiction approach invites you to use outside content in a way that fiction doesn’t necessarily do–the stories of others, research, things the reader can follow up on (thinking of Eating Animals a lot here, but others as well).  Not that fiction can’t supply these things as well, but the cohesion level is rarely the same.

Questions for you, reader:
Why does a “true” memoir versus a fictional memoir hold more or less value for you?  Is it a false dichotomy?
What are your favorite sources of personal storytelling?

And, finally, a bit of humor for the day after elections – Nate Silver 2.0