Friday, November 17, 2017

“King Kong” as a ring-form game: Some preliminary notes [#HEX01]

I’m thinking about what would be involved in making a game that would play-out as a ring composition. Given that ring composition is a specific form of plot it is possible that it could not be adapted to open-ended gameplay. But that is by no means obvious to me. Ring-composition narratives have a an internal logic that is oriented toward certain kinds of problematics, if you will. I’ve spent enough time dealing with ring composition that I’m beginning to get a sense of how they work & what they’re for. The idea would be to set up a game world so that successful play would take the form of a ring, but no tightly specified sequence of actions is required. What’s important is the high-level pattern.

Why King Kong?

Because it’s there?

No, seriously. I’ve developed a pretty sophisticated understanding of the 1933 film. I’ve seen the 2005 Peter Jackson remake and the 1976 remake, but I don’t remember much about either, which is mostly a statement about what I remember, not an aesthetic judgment. I’ve also seen Kong: Skull Island, which is a different kind of beast. For that matter, I’ve seen a bunch of Planet of the Apes films and, of course, a whole bunch of action-adventure films in jungle settings involving big animals. It’s a world I’m comfortable with.

But it’s the 1933 film that interests me. That’s the one that started the whole business. It’s an astonishing film. And it’s ring form. It’s not, as I’ve observed in several posts, that I believe there’s some special magic in ring-composition – a key to all mythologies, an Open Sesame! that will lay the wonders of the world before my feet – rather, it’s something specific to look for. And, having found various examples, I can compare and contrast them to get a sense of what’s going on.

I am aware that various games have been based on the character and even one or more of the specific films (e.g. Peter Jackson’s King Kong). I may well want to investigate one or may of them at some point. But I need to do some thinking before I get to that point. Just what thinking I need to do...

... THAT’s what I’m trying to figure out.

Policy, Strategy, Tactics and cultural psychodynamics

In On War Carl von Clauswitz made a tripartite distinction between policy, strategy, and tactics.  National political policy established the objectives to be achieved by military strategy; strategy established the objectives to be achieved by tactics; and tactics governed the actual deployment of troops and equipment on a day-by-day basis. I find this a generally useful way of thinking about a variety of things. One might, for example, think of an action-adventure game (like Jackson’s Kong) as a strategic level adventure realized, at various points, though tactical level actions.

But what of policy? Northrop Frye has observed that a certain kind of comedy has a three-part plot: “One is the period of preparation . . . Another is the period of license and confusion of values . . . Third is the period of festivity itself” (A Natural Perspective, p. 73). If you drop the third part, you get a tragedy.

Well, the 1933 King Kong more or less follows that model, where the Skull Island sequence is that “period of license and confusion of values”. What would happen if Kong failed to defeat T-Rex and, consequently, R-Rex killed Darrow? The possibility of the existing happy ending, in which Darrow and Driscoll are destined to be married, disappears. Are we left with a tragic ending?

This, it seems to me, is a very high-level consideration. The battle between Kong and T-Rex is a tactical-level action, but the consequence is up there at the policy level, which is where I’d put the difference between tragedy.

That’s something I have in fact investigated [1] in the case of three Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing (a comedy), Othello (a tragedy), and The Winter’s Tale (a romance). In all these plays the shape of the dramatic action follows from the same situation, a man mistakenly believes that his beloved has betrayed him. These plays differ systematically in the types of characters they have in various roles, their age, social position, and temperament. I’m inclined to think that, if this is what you want of a game, then you need to give the user Sims-like powers of set-up at the very beginning.

Back to King Kong. When the film ends, Kong is dead and Driscoll and Darrow are free to get married (and, presumably, to live happily ever after). THAT happy ending, the impending marriage, is what the film is about. All that precedes it is somehow psycho-culturally necessary to that ending–that’s what the Shakespeare paper is about.

How, you might ask, is a fight in which a giant ape defends the bride-to-be from a T-Rex while the groom-to-be is wandering about looking for her, how is THAT somehow necessary to this particular happy ending? Give me time and I’ll work something, something along the lines I’ve already sketched out in that Shakespeare paper. This is myth-logic and myth-logic doesn’t make sense.

Thus, it is on the face of it implausible that Kong’s interest in Darrow should be sexual. After all, there’s a size difference that makes interspecies intercourse impossible. And yet, when he gets her back to his lair after he’s killed the T-Rex, he rips her dress, plays with her breasts, and sniffs his fingers. Looks like sex to me. And yet it can’t be because, size differential! What we’ve got is plausible deniability; in psychoanalytic terms, we’re dealing with defense mechanisms – defense mechanisms at the level of cultural trope, not simply the individual psyche.

Like I say, myth logic.

Now, what if, early in the film, during the voyage to Skull Island, what happens if Driscoll and Darrow don’t fall in love? What kind of film can we have then? We can still have the villagers turn her over to Kong and then, of course, the men will have to rescue her. Will Driscoll slack off because he’s not in love? But why should it be up to Driscoll? Or perhaps he falls in love during the course of the rescue. But then she doesn’t reciprocate.

What of those villagers? Are they necessary? Of course, in the current cultural climate you’d have trouble with villagers like that. And you know what makes that such a pesky issue? Myth logic.

And so it goes.

What do I know?

I suspect that I can spin those speculations for hours. But it will grow old pretty quickly. Then what?

What kinds of things are possible with current gaming technology? What do people want to do beyond what’s currently possible?

My gaming experience is quite limited. Back in the day I played Wolfenstein 3D for a couple of hours and watched others play it for many hours. Likewise, I spent some time playing early version of The Sims, but decided it involved a kind of exacting tedium that isn’t my particular idea of fun. I don’t play chess for a similar reason. Finally, I read a number of articles about Myst when it first came out, loved the images, was intrigued, but didn’t bite.

What do I do for fun? Watch movies and TV, walk around taking photographs, and play the trumpet. I love music, and the interaction of improvisation, including group improv.

My lack of experience is and is not a problem. If I wanted to design a game myself, then, yes, lack of experience is a BIG problem. 

But that’s not what I’m up to. I have a fairly sophisticated understanding of how stories work, both in films/TV, and in written narrative. And at least some of that understanding has been developed in computational terms. I suspect that I know a thing or two

I’m interested in bringing that understanding to bear on the problems of game design. Where do I go next?


[1] At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare's Greatest Creation? Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 21 (3): 259-279, 1998,

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