Limbo 4: Working for A Living

I have decided to engage these games as much as possible without resorting to cheat guides, walkthroughs, Let’s Plays, and so on; if I’m actually committed to progressing through a game in a series of short sessions, I ought to confront head-on those factors of duration and difficulty too often skipped in favor of easy, outsourced solutions.

Come to think of it, I have always been something of a cheater, guiltlessly ready to subvert the sanctity of the magic circle, or at least distend its ethical circumference. I remember at fifteen hunching over my Apple II+, studying the lines of BASIC that made up Sierra On-Line’s Softporn Adventure (1981), sifting the deep code of DATA statements for vocabulary items—“nipple,” “unhook,” “menage”—that would lubricate my path through the seamy hypertext. In 1996 a friend introduced me to another virtual labyrinth, iD’s 3D shooter Quake. He pulled a console down from the top of the screen, typed “NOCLIP” and “GOD MODE,” and showed me how to walk through walls, a floating unkillable angel of death holding all the guns and unlimited ammo.

I’ve never worried much about whether this kind of loosey-goosey fun compensates adequately for the pleasure it replaces—the more sober, committed, purist approach of playing the game as it was intended to be played. Yes, texts are machines that work independently of their authors, ergodic texts like videogames more than any. But there will always be value in engaging the text machine as an expression of its maker—particularly when the notion of “maker” is expanded beyond human agents to include objects and forces, actants institutional, technological, and historical.

Plus it is just fun to blunt-force my way through a problem, solving it in baby steps, experiencing first frustration, then a kind of humbling at the sorry limits of my skills and abilities, then a burst of so-there euphoria when I finally crack the damned thing. This kind of emotional slalom, which I associate with focused, patient, persistent work toward a larger goal, is not something I’ve had much practice with.

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This image documents my victory over the two-weight puzzle. What you do is, you pull the first rope down between the gears, then jump down and run and climb on the cart that’s been positioned there, jump to the end of the retracting rope and pull it back down. Swing and leap onto the second rope, pull it down, and run beneath the weights before they get too low.

Full of confidence in my agency and effectiveness, I strode onward. Right into a situation where some kind of glowworm dropped onto my head and took over my movement so that I could only jump, run, or walk in the direction the worm was taking me. When it settled into my scalp with a waxy sizzle, there was a highly cinematic pullback with a bit of Vertigo zoom, a retreating axial gesture videogames have long used to transition into and out of cutscenes. Here the device is neatly deployed to signal a different compromise of agency, turning me into an avatar under the command of two competing sets of inputs.

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Solving a puzzle first-thing lends an optimistic boost to a play session, and I practically danced through this one, ridding myself of the glowworm by enticing some hanging vampire slugs to nibble it off my noggin, then getting enmeshed in an elaborate mechanical conundrum that involved getting a huge machine to run in the background to generate electricity that makes a storm that makes it rain, then pulling an aqueduct down to fill up a basin in which a log floats, making it possible for me to leap to the other side. To run the machine I had to lure a little spiky hamster critter out by knocking loose some glowberries it hungered for … then get it in its way and chase it back to the machine where it takes up position in a hamster wheel, which I pull a lever to strike with a brake that starts the electrical display in the background. Got all that?

Limbo 3: Fatigue and Alienation

One hour and twenty minutes of playtime in, I’m souring of Limbo’s world; or maybe it is the experience I find tiring and tedious. Watching my character work its way along the screen’s X axis is like watching an ant in an ant farm, trapped in sandy tunnels between two sheets of glass. Over and over I thud into some new nasty trap and die until I figure it out. This was the first session where I racked mental focus from Limbo’s gorgeous, auroral grays and blacks, becoming conscious instead of its bluntly punishing rhythms. In the words of a former student, the game’s mechanic started to stick out.

My alienation might also stem from my first encounter with destructive forces embodied not in sharp-edged objects, unjumpable gaps, or giant hairy spiders, but human beings like myself—a gang of imps shot blew darts at me, chasing me back along my path until I was able to crush them between two stomping hammers. (It took about six deaths to learn the correct sequence and timing of jumps to bring about this result.) Discovering that this already unpleasant place had characters in it working to make things even worse was mildly angering, and I was pleased to smash the motherfuckers. I suspect I have wandered into a Lord of the Flies situation, and I have never had any illusions that in such a pecking order I would be anywhere besides the base. I wish we could all get along, but failing that, I will survive by any means necessary.

A central problem of game design is the calibration of challenge and skill, the parceling out puzzles and obstacles poised just slightly ahead of the player’s growing repertoire of game-specific talents and tools. It is essentially a pedagogical process in which each test is also a lesson that feeds into the next incremental advance. Videogame as tutor code, by turns irritating and inspiring. Get the mix wrong and the game is boringly easy, or paralyzingly difficult.

But even as I pin my reaction on the game, I realize that local, player-side effects are conditioning my response. I ended today’s session in the middle of a puzzle I can’t yet crack, a baroque interrelation of pull cords, turning gears, two large blocks whose lifting and falling is key to safe passage. There’s a push cart I haven’t figured out how to use, although it is reassuring to trust in the parsimony evident throughout Limbo so far: if it isn’t important to the solution, it wouldn’t be there.

Colonoscopy

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When I told my mother-in-law that I intended to remain mindful throughout the process of my first colonoscopy, she said, “Take notes.” I think there was a wink in her voice, but in truth, engaging in careful observation and taking notes seems entirely appropriate to things like this: interruptions of somatic routine so potently dramatic they leave you, in Brechtian fashion, estranged and resensitized to the basic conditions of existence. You know: the existence where “you” are just a language virus with delusions of self that grew inside the complex brain of a hyperselected primate body that is itself a feat of natural evolutionary engineering—a body that will always remain, though you inhabit it every day like a complacent monarch riding in the cushioned control dome of some steampunk mecha, profoundly beyond your limited ken.

Of course, the ken I speak of is my own. In medical matters I am the ignorant beneficiary of knowledges, sciences, and skills practiced by my intellectual betters. I’m OK with that. One facet of any “procedure” is the way it enlists you in a sequence you have not authored and in most cases do not fully grasp (assuming you are in the hands of experts whose value is precisely the rarity of their depth of training). Everything was made simple for me, the poor shlub with the colon in need of scrutiny. The doctor gave a referral, CVS provided prescription medicine (a white paper sack the intimidating size of a Wendy’s bag), the endoscopy clinic called a week beforehand with instructions, a website took my medical history. By the time my wife dropped me off at the clinic and the automated doors opened for me and I handed over my ID and insurance cards, I was as locked into my path as a pinball in its spring-loaded launch bay, ready to be plungered into the careening, strobing field of play.

Given the nature of colonoscopies, I guess I shouldn’t be talking about getting “plungered.” My point is that I see phenomena like this as straddling the worlds of perfect order and mad chaos. It is a test, and if I pass, I get to go back to life as usual—life lived in happy ignorance of the body’s magical self-maintaining machinery and its constant potential for catastrophic breakdown. If I don’t pass, if they find something, I get the prize of a new and different future, one of which I am destined to remain acutely, painfully, fearfully conscious. Again, formalism.

Limbo 2: Let’s Talk About Spiders

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So far they are about the only living thing that has responded to my presence, and they do so in a deterministic way that mirrors the relentlessness of a natural predator in the implacability of the code driving its digital twin. After getting impaled by the spiders’ stabbing legs oh, a dozen or so times, I have grown affectionately accustomed to these bristly black blobs and their quickly crawling ways. During one hair-raising phase I was lifted into a web and spun into a cocoon, only to break free and hop away like a sperm bouncing madly on its tail—a terrifying intimacy after which the spiders seem as inevitable as family. By the end of my third session we were on such familiar terms with each other I was yanking off a wounded spider’s legs and rolling its body like a boulder to solve a climbing problem.

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I’m less sure what to make of the other “kids” sharing this tenebrous gameworld with me. There’s more than one of them, and they frequent the frame’s edges, slipping out of view as soon as I see them. Their bodies litter the background, suggesting that their role in this little cosmos is not simply to tantalize and torment; they, in turn, are tormented.

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It’s increasingly clear that I am in a world of physics puzzles—something like Angry Birds—whose mechanics, along with its mise-en-scene, invoke a larger bleakness at the heart of videogaming’s appetite for corporeal destruction. To play this platformer, it seems to say, is to be neither dead nor alive but suspended between the two, pushing along by sheer instinct through a landscape that (A) kills and resurrects you repeatedly and (B) doesn’t give a goddamn.

Limbo 1: Murnau’s Forest

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I’ve only been playing Limbo for a little while—this post covers two twenty-minute blocks of gametime—but already I am getting used to moments like this one, when I encounter a scene that brings me to a startled halt, gazing at some vision that is simultaneously horrible and beautiful. I stare (or rather, I regard my avatar as it stares with its bright, empty eyes) and take the measure of the mise-en-scene, which so niftily merges the cinematic with the algorithmic. Seen as a frame of film, the chiaroscuro layers of this misty, monochrome forest recall F. W. Murnau and Jean Cocteau, or the multiplanar woods in classical Disney features: Bambi, Snow White. Engaged as a juncture in a videogame, by contrast, the little diorama explicitly presents itself as a puzzle to be solved, an experiential bottleneck to the story’s unfolding. I know I can stand here forever if I choose.

I guess what I’m saying is I like Limbo’s pauses, the aporia that precede its epiphanies. The equilibrium they provide acts as an antidote to the relentless, headlong run-and-gun that typifies other games I play—the 2016 Doom most recently—as does the game’s nearly silent soundscape of drifting winds, rustling leaves, creaking chains, and buzzing flies.

I also like the frequency with which the game kills me. Every obstacle that impedes my rightward progress through this platformer’s sidescrolling world comes with a lesson in the form of a tiny death that will repeat until the problem’s solution has been learned: Falling on spikes will kill you, so jump over them. You will drown if your head goes underwater, so find a boat or a floating log. Some lessons are functional, the rudimentary physics of manipulation: Ropes can be climbed and swung on. Objects can be pushed and pulled. Some lessons are accidental and purely felicitous: Hold down the right- and up-arrow keys and you will skip childlike through the blowing grass. I care very little about my in-game puppet, whose dopey, compliant body reminds me of the kids savaged in Billy’s Balloon (Don Hertzfeldt, 1998). I drop it off trees and throw it into bear traps just to hear the meaty squish of its annihilation.

But I keep moving forward. After a period of isolation, alone except for the occasional rotting corpse, I’m starting to encounter other life: a giant, spear-legged spider. Another child like myself, running off as I approach. And every so often I crunch over a glowing egg and a score pops up. These bread crumbs, I surmise, will mark my progress through Limbo. When I shell out to the menu, I note that I have completed 11 “chapters” out of 40 or so.

The Long Flight of the Leif Ericson, Part Two

This is the second in a series of posts tracing the storied path of the Leif Ericson, a spaceship designed in 1968 whose afterlife has carried it through a number of incarnations in different media formats – most notably, plastic. Previous posts can be found here.

Viewing the Leif Ericson as the expression of Matt Jefferies’s singular engineering sensibility is pleasing for at least two reasons. First, in crediting the ship to the work of a “great man” of production design (who himself worked under the direction of another, that Great Bird of the Galaxy Gene Roddenberry) it scratches our auteurist itch—one specific to modes of fandom oriented toward behind-the-scenes makers such as special-effects artists. Second, it invites us to tie the Ericson to a larger fictional system, the storyworld of Star Trek: even if never directly seen or mentioned in the original series, maybe the Ericson was out there regardless, plying the spaceways alongside the Enterprise and other Starfleet vessels.

Both of these satisfactions are, in their way, ideological lures: means of extracting pleasure from the fantasy operations of capitalism. We come nearer the truth, or at least a more complete picture, if we see the Ericson as the product of an industrial relationship between two arms of mass culture: television and toys. For in 1968, the Leif Ericson made its first appearance in public not on screen but in the material form of a plastic model kit.

The Michigan-based manufacturer AMT had enjoyed a mutually beneficial symbiosis with Star Trek since before the show’s premiere, contracted by Desilu—the studio where Roddenberry developed Trek—to build technological exotica as needed for the series. Although the company’s name, AMT, stood for Aluminum Model Toys, its capabilities extended beyond the making of cheap playthings into the fabrication of large commercial items. As detailed on Memory Alpha, the need to make “finished display pieces … for marketing purposes” led AMT to start the Speed and Custom Division Shop, a subsidiary “to build both full-scale and scaled automobile mockups … to promotional ends, as well as to manufacture the templates or masters in order to construct the molds from which the parts for their model kits were extracted or cast.” A third axis, extending outward from these coordinates of showroom spectacle and mass-produced consumer item, connected the items AMT built for Trek: objects ranging from studio miniatures to full-sized sets to be inhabited by actors.

These production artifacts were at one and the same time components of an invented future, simultaneously split and joined by the ontological dividing lines of camera lens, celluloid splice, cathode-ray tube. Take for example the Galileo shuttlecraft: AMT built it as a studio model to be filmed against a bluescreen and matted onto backgrounds of starry space, but also made a full-sized version of the ship’s interior. Episodes like the first season’s “Galileo 7”—written in part to showcase the spacecraft—married together exterior and interior, constructing for audiences a screen reality through the simple yet profound magic of a televisual edit.

To be continued …

The Long Flight of the Leif Ericson, Part One

This is the first of a series of posts tracing the storied path of the Leif Ericson, a spaceship designed in 1968 whose afterlife has carried it through a number of incarnations in different media formats – most notably, plastic.

Origins

Reflecting the many odd waypoints and junctions through which its journey would eventually take it, the Leif Ericson had more than one starting point: as with a quantum particle, its emergence can be fixed in relation to multiple and not always commensurate frames of reference, and our choice of perspective changes the very nature of the object we describe. One the one hand, we can see it as the creation of a single, inspired author; on the other, the product of a set of industrial forces.

Walter "Matt" Jefferies

Walter “Matt” Jefferies

In the first version, the Ericson was born in 1968 in the sketchbooks of Walter “Matt” Jefferies (1921-2003), production artist on the original Star Trek series. [1] Part of a team of designers that included propmaker Wah Ming Chang, costumer William Ware Thiess, and makeup artist Fred Philips, Jefferies—whose background in aviation and mechanical illustration was ideally suited to visualizing futuristic technologies in blueprintable, buildable forms—supplied Trek with its most familiar and recognizable features. These included the exterior of the U.S.S. Enterprise, with its saucer-shaped command module joined to a cigar-shaped engineering section from which two narrow, cylindrical warp nacelles jetted backwards: a configuration of geometrical solids whose basic arrangement has endured throughout fifty years of resculpting and streamlining in one movie, TV series, and videogame after another. Jefferies also designed the Enterprise’s circular bridge, its crew’s quarters, and the transporter room. Built as standing sets and used repeatedly across the seventy-nine episodes of the original series, these fixtures of a future history quickly became as familiar to audiences as the other, smaller details contributed by Jefferies: Starfleet’s golden arrowhead insignia; the instrumental triumvirate of communicator, tricorder, and phaser. But for the model-building fans who play such an important role in this story, Jefferies’s most important creations were his ships: not just the Enterprise, but the submarine-shaped Botany Bay commanded by Khan in “Space Seed”; the turreted, whirligig space station in “The Trouble with Tribbles”; the Klingon’s manta-ray-like battle cruiser in “The Enterprise Incident”; the boxy, three-windowed shuttlecraft in “Galileo 7.”

Early concepts for the Leif Ericson and Scoutship

Early concepts for the Leif Ericson and Scoutship

The Leif Ericson originated as another of Jefferies’s fictional spacecraft, but not one that ever appeared on Trek—or at least not for many years. In 1968, Jefferies sketched a pointed, rocketlike ship along with a smaller vessel whose delta wings and bulbous front section vaguely resembled a baby bird. Designed as a pair—the second craft would ride within the larger vehicle, inside a hangar covered by two hinged doors—the Galactic Cruiser Leif Ericson, together with its “mini scout ship,” were to be the first release in a series intended not for TV but toys: a line of model kits put out by a company called AMT.

To be continued …

[1] http://www.fact-index.com/m/ma/matt_jefferies.html

Of Lucasfilm and LEGO, Part One

[This is the first in a series of posts on my LEGO project, described here. Be warned, I’m very much in my “word salad” phase with this project — the goal is simply 500 words of rough draft.]

Two Origin Stories

The story of LEGO’s genesis has its own faintly modular quality, parts and pieces clicking together in a way that reflects the toy’s own pleasing combination of predetermined outcome generated from open-ended possibility, the shape of the statue already extant within the uncarved block from which it will emerge. In the practiced tellings of David C. Robertson’s Brick by Brick (New York: Crown Business, 2013) and Daniel Lipkowitz’s The LEGO Book (London: DK, 2009), first came the humble workshop of Ole Kirk Kristiansen, who set up his workshop in Billund, Denmark in 1916. (Lipkowitz 12). A family business was created in 1932 to make wooden toys (Robertson 10) but evolved to embrace the plastics manufacturing capability developed in wartime and, following the end of World War 2, became available industrially in 1947, resulting in the plasticization and mass production of children’s toys (see Rehak 2012). The LEGO “system of play” emerged in 1955 and, with the patenting of the LEGO brick, became legally legible (and defensible by copyright) in 1958. (Lipkowitz 7) This system, condensed into a list of “Ten Important Characteristics,” was defined by such attributes as “unlimited play possibilities,” “endless hours of play,” “imagination, creativity, development,” and “each new product multiplies the play value of the rest.” (Lipkowitz 11) This system would evolve over the decades that followed to become ever more adaptable to consumer needs through differentiations within the product line that addressed ever finer categories of the play base, with Kjeld Kirk Kristiasen’s “system within a system” providing “each age group of consumers with the right toys at the right time in their lives.” (Lipkowitz 11). Kristiansen, according to Lipkowitz, saw himself as “a more globally oriented leader [than his grandfather], seeking to fully exploit our brand potential for further developing and broadening our product range and business concept, based upon our product idea and brand values.” (Lipkowitz 11)

The other origin story unfolds along similar lines, from humble workshop beginnings to corporate, globe-spanning mastery. In the early 1970s, George Lucas, a graduate of the University of Southern California film school, followed up his debut features THX-1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973) with the space fantasy Star Wars (1977), a movie marked, in retrospect, by a similar handmade quality: the difficulty of securing funding that forced Lucas to shop his screenplay around to multiple studios, the crafting of a fictional world from the detritus of other pop-cultural artifacts, and a find-it-or-build-it ethos emblematized behind the scenes by Industrial Light and Magic, the special and visual-effects house coordinated by John Dykstra. Emerging from a comparative nowhere in the founding moments of the new Hollywood blockbuster, Star Wars was explosively successful, immediately generating plans for two sequels (The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, Return of the Jedi in 1983) to form the “Original Trilogy” – an appellation that, like LEGO’s origins, would come into usage only retroactively, as more and more content followed, often received skeptically as wrongheaded permutations of an authentic essence. But viewed against the background of their global reach and granular infiltration of our physical and mediated lives, the six feature films of the Original and Prequel Trilogies are but a minute core to a vast halo of materials, images, narratives, products, and practices that constitute the franchise. Star Wars, too, would grow into a “system” promising – at least in the claims of its adherents and popularizers – endless possibilities for play and expansion.

Two Projects

Two writing projects sit on my desk, and the fact that they’ve remained there untouched throughout winter break, which ends a week from Monday, means I’d better get my butt in gear. I don’t realistically expect to complete drafts before classes resume January 20, but at the very least I can get some groundwork done. And since a working principle I’m experimenting with is that visibility via this blog is one way to short circuit the cycles of neglect and perfectionistic worry within which so many of my scholarly ambitions languish, I introduce these projects to you below.

The first is a chapter for an upcoming anthology on animation in Rutgers’ Behind the Silver Screen series. In these collections, every decade gets its own chapter — now that I think of it, a layout reminiscent of another Rutgers project I participated in, the 2003 chapter in American Cinema of the 2000s — but editor Scott Curtis, in consultation with me and the other contributors, has opted to stretch that framework in divvying up the blocks of time to respect animation’s complex and interleaved history, more a set of overlapping developments in technology, style, and economic/industrial practices than a neat linear progression. Here’s the abstract for my bit:

Ubiquitous Animation (c. 1990-2010)

The 1995 release of Toy Story marked the dawn of the fully computer-generated animated feature film, but Pixar’s technological and commercial success was only one node of a wider array of digitally-inflected animation practices that flowered in the 1990s and into the first decade of the 21st century. Across a range of screens, drawing on new tools and skills, and engaging heterogeneous subcultures of creators, audiences, fans, and players, animation between 1990 and 2010 was radically reshaped by the computer’s ability to augment, automatize, and in many cases absorb traditional modes of production while putting animated content to work in new platforms, devices, and displays. Computer-generated visual effects played an increasingly central role in building the storyworlds and performers of blockbuster cinema, from Jurassic Park (1993) to the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2000-2003); videogames such as the first-person shooters (FPS) Quake and Half-Life and massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) Everquest and World of Warcraft took graphic shape from the specialized code of their rendering “engines”; and traditional 2D and stop-motion animation began to rely on digital tools for generating backgrounds, tweening keyframes, and erasing supports in films such as Coraline (2009) and The Secret of Kells (2009).

Picking up in 1991 with the release of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast – a film blending traditional 2D animation with CG backgrounds generated by Disney and Pixar’s CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) – this chapter charts the spread of digital animation in three spheres: traditional animation, live action feature films featured computer-generated visual effects, and high-end and casual videogaming. I trace the development of tools and production workflows that facilitated digital animation’s spread, including applications such as After Effects and Flash, motion and performance capture, photogrammetry, artificial-intelligence software for animating crowds and digital “extras,” and in the world of videogames, game engines and content editors that enabled users to create their own videogame animations known as machinima. Alongside these developments, I chart the industry’s embrace of digital animation through the founding of studios such as Pixar, Blue Sky, DreamWorks, and Sony Pictures Animation. The chapter thus emphasizes not just the computer’s role in planning and producing animated imagery, but the impact of the internet and World Wide Web in creating new communities of production and fandom, as well as the growing importance of media convergence in breaking down formerly distinct barriers between television, film, gaming, comics and graphic novels, and a pervasive ecosystem of “smart” devices and interfaces for accessing and sharing content.

There’s a lot here, and as usual when looking at proposals written long before the manuscript was due, I sense that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew — or maybe the better metaphor is that of a trip to the buffet, where I loaded up my plate with more food than I can reasonably ingest. What’s that saying? “His eyes are bigger than his stomach.” I’ve always struggled with my appetites, and while wisdom tells me to be more moderate in my choices, I suppose I will always harbor some sneaky bit of pride in thinking big, whether it’s in regard to an XL pizza with double cheese, barbecue chicken, pepperoni, and anchovies (shoutout to my favorite pizza place in Chapel Hill, NC) or a menu of tasty theoretical and historical tidbits my September 2012 self decided my January 2014 would enjoy sampling.

Here’s the other project:

Lucasfilm and LEGO: The Building Blocks of Transmedial Franchises

In 1999, the Star Wars franchise became the first intellectual property to be licensed by LEGO, with kits based on both the original and prequel trilogies becoming best-sellers over the next decade and a half. During that same period, LEGO licensed additional franchise properties such as The Lord of the Rings, Batman, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, signaling a new industrial alliance within the transmedial storytelling systems and convergent flows of fantastic blockbuster culture. This chapter uses the LEGO/Star Wars history to examine shifts in the fortunes of both companies and their product lines, emphasizing the ways in which LEGO’s modularity and near-infinite adaptability harmonized with Lucasfilm’s efforts to expand and extend the Star Wars property through its own “modularization” of production, including prequelization, the recasting of key characters, and the eventual conversion of iconic characters, settings, and vehicles into animated forms such as the Clone Wars series (2003, 2008-present) and video games set in the world of LEGO. LEGO thus emerges as both the prototype and future of transmedial franchise building, exposing underlying industrial logics of substitution and recombination of fantasy assets, and marking a negotiated succession between analog and digital media culture.

This one is for Mark J. P. Wolf’s upcoming LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon, and before you ask, I believe I came up with the “building blocks” line first. (I’m open to correction on this, of course.) The editor, on the other hand, is behind “transmedial,” which I agree is the more elegant if less standard way of referring to properties that bridge multiple media forms in creating and narrating their virtual universes (for more on which I highly recommend Mark’s magisterial Building Imaginary Worlds). My focus here is narrower and more critical, as I firmly believe that nothing very good happened to the Star Wars franchise after 1983’s Return of the Jedi, or really after 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. (Yup, I’m one of those fans.) Still, my planned goal in reading Lucasfilm and LEGO against each other is not to suggest that the former “ruined” the latter or vice versa, but rather to think about the interesting harmonies that link their strategies — a strange-bedfellows argument.

More on these projects as they develop; they’re my primary diet for the foreseeable future.

Notes on blueprint culture 1

My conversation today with an interesting young man — a Swarthmore student — about Mass Effect 3, a topic on which I’m preparing a future post, reminds me that blueprint culture arises not just around the “metatexts” and “hyperdiegeses” of literary, television, and film franchises’ fictional worlds, but those of video games as well. In fact, mapping and schematizing activities subtend any number of fictional media worlds, including those associated with comic books and fantasy wargaming (the latter a particularly interesting case in that its maps frequently function as actual spatial matrices of player engagement, its tables of character attributes actionable scripts for determining the turn-by-turn progressive generation of narrative and battle; in this sense, perhaps, fantasy wargames constitute a purer ur-form of referential play whose hallmarks, applied to more authorially-locked territories of noninteractive media, are unavoidably adulterated by a secondary, paratextual distance).

What makes a fictional world particularly amenable to blueprinting and referential treatment? (Note for further investigation the close lexical kinship between reference and reverence.) Looking at the invented universes that spring most quickly to mind as examples — Star Trek and Star Wars — I would argue for a list of attributes that includes the following:

  • belonging to the genre of science fiction, esp. “hard” SF, and some forms of fantasy
  • primarily visual in their base form (e.g. movies and television)
  • marked by distinctive design motifs that are also proprietary in nature, marking off one intellectual property from another
  • serial in nature and consisting of multiple instances (i.e. single, standalone films rarely have blueprint cultures associated with them; similarly one-off TV episodes, rare entities within that medium in any case); see “transmediated” below
  • as a consequence, containing large amounts of detail rendered still vaster and more extensive within the blueprinting practice
  • strong on continuity, often an outgrowth of limited numbers of repeatedly-visited settings
  • active or once-active fan bases (here an archeological/tautological factor: the very study of blueprint culture is premised on the availability of an archive constitued through blueprinting practices, themselves inherently textually generative; the wave of fan activity, once passed, leaves documentation in its trail like a waste product, or less pejoratively, something like a coral reef)
  • frequently the locus of officially-authored blueprinting as well, via tie-in texts
  • transmediated, or implemented across multiple media platforms, its very proliferation in part a function of blueprint materials that stabilize the fictional universe as an IP, organizing its extension and seeking to maintain coherence (an action whose continuousness suggests an equally relentless counterforce that threatens to decohere and scatter the storyworld’s textual instances)