The Alexandrian

What artists of today or recent history will one day be considered some of the greatest of all time alongside the likes of Bach, Mozart, Michelangelo, van Gogh, and Shakespeare?

This is a virtually impossible question to answer. If you had asked people in 1630 which Elizabethan playwright was likely to be remembered for all time, the majority would have confidently answered, “Ben Jonson.” In 1900, the majority opinion would have held that the phenomenally popular novels of Marie Corelli would inevitably be joining Jane Austen’s work in the canon of English novels. Do you know who Marie Corelli is? Probably not.

So, with that caveat out of the way, I nominate: J.R.R. Tolkien

The reason for this is not, primarily, the popularity of his novels in the ’60s and ’70s or the popularity of the Jackson movies in the ‘naughties. It is rather that Tolkien’s novels have proven to be a persistent influence on the creation of new fantasy across multiple generations. Whether we’re talking about the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ‘naughties, or today, new fantasy works are constantly being both created under the influence of Tolkien and interpreted through the lens of Tolkien.

I suspect that this influence will actually increase over time: Beyond The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien left behind a large and rich body of mythic material, much of it half completed or extant in multiple and contradictory forms. When those works fall out of copyright, there’s almost guaranteed to be a Tolkien renaissance as authors delve into that material.

In addition, we’re slowly starting to see a trend of increasing academic study in Tolkien’s work. And that’s an essential element in any artist’s long-term canonization: If they can get entrenched in academia, academia will sustain and constantly rejuvenate their presence in popular culture. It looks like Tolkien might make that hop. (And he’s an excellent candidate for it, given that The Lord of the Rings is a rich and complex text in its own right and the rest of his corpus is enigmatic in precisely the ways that can indefinitely fuel theses.)

J.R.R. Tolkien - History of Middle Earth

Among those looking to denigrate video games (the newest of artistic mediums), a favored tactic is to compare it to other forms of art and point out its various inadequacies. Those interested in defending video games as a new art form will often point out that video games are still in their infancy and comparing its output to mature forms of art is unfair and misrepresentative.

The common rejoinder at this point is that other forms of art don’t really show a lot of growth or development. Literature, for example, has been producing timeless and classic work for thousands of years and there’s really no strong indication that works produced in, say, 1800 were inferior to works being produced in 2000. If other forms of art don’t improve over time, why would we expect video games to improve over time?

Literature, however, is a bad example for comparison because the history of literature is literally prehistoric. At best we might be able to take a peek at Gilgamesh, but even that is clearly the pinnacle of a long storytelling tradition.

If you’re looking to compare the current evolution of video games as a medium to other mediums, then you need to look at other mediums that we actually have some ability to analyze.

WESTERN THEATER

The earliest antecedents of theater are lost, but we actually do have access to some really early stuff. Based on oral histories we know that the earliest Greek plays emerged when individual characters stepped out of the choruses that were used to recite narrative stories.

In the works of the earliest extant playwright, Aeschylus, we can still see the technological limitations of his artform. (For example, he was only able to use three characters at a time, which severely limited the dramatic situations he was capable of constructing.) Tracking from Aeschylus to Euripides to the Roman playwrights who followed we can see that there was a rapid development of the artform over its first century or so: Dialogue becomes more natural. The transitions between scenes become more complicated and, simultaneously, elegant. The evolving stagecraft allowed for the presentation of more dynamic and varied sequences of action. And so forth.

FILM

An even better example, however, awaits us in film because our historical records of its development are so much more comprehensive.

Film is invented in the late 1880s. As an entertainment industry, it’s generally agreed that 1895 is the starting line.

1895 – The DerbyThis was released in the first year commercial motion pictures became a reality. It’s basically the film equivalent of Pong.

1902Voyage to the Moon: This is cutting edge stuff from 1902. Compared to video games, that’s basically Pac-Man. (It comes 7 years after the first commercial films; Pac-Man is 8 years after Pong.)

1922Nosferatu: Twenty years after Voyage to the Moon, you can see that the art of film has developed significantly. In gaming, this is the equivalent of Final Fantasy VII. (If you need to, take a moment to compare Pac-Man to Final Fantasy VII.)

1941Citizen Kane: Twenty years of Nosferatu, this is widely considered the landmark at which the modern art of film came of age and pioneered a lot of what are now considered basic film techniques. (If you’d prefer to go with the golden year of 1939, more power to you. It’s about a 20 year gap either way.)

What’s the video game equivalent to Citizen Kane? Well, from a purely temporal standpoint we’re talking about a game that will be released in 2019 or 2020 or thereabouts.

CONCLUSIONS

You can see the same sort of progression in, for example, operas.

What are we seeing here? Well, I think it actually boils down to something quite simple: You have a technological breakthrough that creates a new medium. Neophytes converge on the new medium in great excitement at its potential, but their use of the medium is still primitive and borrows heavily from existing media. (Early Greek theater is choral storytelling plus characters. A lot of early film is basically a filmed stage play with a couple of flourishes.) This stuff appeals to a relatively small group of really dedicated fans.

About twenty years later, those fans grow up and start really experimenting with the new medium. They test its limits and push the envelope. Their stuff is still pretty primitive, but it’s good enough that it finds a mainstream audience.

About twenty years after that, you’ve got an entire generation who grew up on the new medium. Not only are the creators from this generation ready to polish and hone and perfect the techniques the pioneers of the previous generation were experimenting with, but the audience has also matured to the point where they’re capable of really appreciating the new medium.

Sound familiar?

The next 20-30 years are going to be very exciting for interactive entertainment.

… and by that, I mean that they should be inspiring good, old-fashioned awe with the things that they do.

This is something I first talked about in D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations and I developed the theme in E(X): The Many Games Inside the World’s Most Popular Roleplaying Game.

Recently I was speaking with someone who was unhappy with the “crazy scaling” of Perception checks he was seeing in the arms race of high level Pathfinder games: The players crank up their Perception modifiers. The GM responds by simply cranking up the DC necessary to accomplish previously much easier tasks. The result is “silly” and “ridiculous”.

This is what I said:

FIRST, CONTEXTUALIZE THE NUMBERS. Instead of just blindly cranking up the numbers, think about what those larger numbers really mean. If a DC 30 check reveals a “well-hidden secret door”, then what does a DC 40 check really mean? Well, it means something that no one in the real world without special tools would ever be able to detect. So maybe that means that the door has been phase-shifted onto the Ethereal Plane; or painted with the illusion-infused blood of a demon; or covered with the alchemically-treated hide of an animal that has evolved the ability to make people psychically ignore its presence.

In other words, embrace the fact that the PCs are doing awesome things and really emphasize how awesome it is.

SECOND, EMPHASIZE NOT CHANGING THE NUMBERS. Instead of trying to keep the same old tasks challenging, focus on the paradigm shift that’s occurred.

Yup. They’re really, really good at finding hidden things. Similarly, they’re really, really good at killing 1st level goblins. Instead of resisting that change by leveling up all the goblins in the universe to match their new abilities, focus instead on exploring how their interaction with the world shifts.

A mechanical option along these same lines would be to include guidelines for improving the quality or speed of a check by accepting a penalty on the check. For example, I have a generic set of guidelines for “quick checks” that drop the time required for the check by one category in exchange for accepting a -10 penalty to the check. (High level characters, for example, can make successful Gather Information checks in 1d4+1 minutes instead of 1d4+1 hours by accepting a -20 penalty on their check.) For Perception checks, you might apply a -10 penalty to allow characters to notice hidden doors/objects/etc. without actively searching for them. (They just walk into a room and spot the hidden door in the corner.)

An extreme example of this sort of thing Doctor Who: The Doctor can open the door of the TARDIS, sniff the air, and instantly identify the atmospheric content, the planet he’s standing on, and the time period. (I like to imagine that this is based on complex spectrographic analysis compared to charts which Time Lords study in school much like we study multiplication tables.)

ALTERNATIVELY, PUT A CAP ON THE AWESOME. If you don’t want to embrace the awesome, on the other hand, you’ll be much happier simply stepping out of the arms race. Cap their advancement before they become “too awesome”, either drawing the campaign to a close or finding other ways of advancing their characters. (This is where E(X): The Many Games Inside the World’s Most Popular Roleplaying Game comes back into the picture.)

Doctor Who - The Temporal Masters

If the Time Lords return, what brand new villain would you create to oppose them?

Anything posing a credible threat to the Time Lords would need a really solid season arc behind it. Any commitment of narrative force less than that and it’s going to be almost impossible to justify something that can stand up to the former/current masters of time and space.

With that in mind…

THE DAWNING CREST

The Doctor takes an action which abruptly triggers the rise of new Lords of Time. No, not the Time Lords of Gallifrey. But the emergence of a new pan-galactic society which fills the same niche that Time Lords once filled before the Time War happened: A species that went back to the dawn of time, reshaped it, and took undisputed control of it.

What would this action be? At the moment, I’d probably hypothesize either something with his daughter (Jenny) or a regenerated River bearing his child. Further afield, we could visit Susan and his great-grandkids… who, it turns out, are hyper-susceptible to the TARDIS radiation when he takes them on a joyride.

Whatever the action is, the point is that it’s a moment of impetus. The Time Lords referred to this as a “dawning crest”: It sets in motion a chain of events which inevitably gives rise to the Temporal Masters. And as soon as that happens, the Temporal Masters exist everywhere and everywhen as the change cascades throughout time.

Unfortunately, something went wrong with the cultural development of the Temporal Masters: The Time Lords could always be a little dick-ish, but the Temporal Masters are positively fascist. They ruthlessly crush any resistance to their preferred timeline (which they refer to as the “pure” timeline). In the new balance of power / balance of existence that the Doctor finds himself in, there are only two major powers resisting the Temporal Masters: The Daleks and the Great and Bountiful Human Empire. Both of these powers are engaged in a Cold Time War fiercely protecting their own prior timelines from being wiped out.

KEY EPISODES

THE DOCTOR’S GRANDDAUGHTER: In which the Doctor makes the choice which results in the Temporal Masters arising. (This, by the way, means that the Doctor is the ultimate genetic progenitor of all the Temporal Masters.) The key moment revealing the passing of the dawning crest is when the Andromeda Galaxy abruptly vanishes from the sky. (Might be interesting to set this episode during the collision between Andromeda and the Milky Way four billion years in the future.)

Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy Colliding

DAWN OF THE TEMPORAL MASTERS: The immediate sequel in which the Doctor tries to figure out what’s happened to time. We also introduce the Tri-Galactic Time Enforcers (the agency which works endlessly up and down the timestream to ensure that the timeline of the Great and Bountiful Human Empire is not disrupted). Establishing scale here is really important: The Human Empire controls three galaxies, but it nevertheless feels like the United States has been backed up into defending Maryland and nothing else.

ALLIANCE OF THE DALEKS: The Doctor proves instrumental in forging an alliance between the Human and Dalek Empires because only by mutually protecting each other can they resist the Temporal Masters.

THE GENESIS EXTERMINATION: The Doctor is forced to protect the timeline of the Daleks… and fails. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could pull a “Trials and Tribble-lations” using the classic “Genesis of the Daleks” episode. (So that the Doctor and the Temporal Master agents are running around in the background of the original 4th Doctor/Davros drama.) The Doctor ultimately fails to protect the Dalek timeline: The Thals win the war. The Human Empire now stands alone.

Genesis of the Daleks - Davros and the Doctor

THE MASTER PLAN: Revealing that the Master insinuated himself into the early history of the Temporal Masters, providing a crucial lynchpin for the creation of their modern ideology and their hegemony over time and space. (Does the Master revel in completely corrupting and co-opting the Doctor’s entire legacy? Yes. Yes, he does.)

ANDROMEDA BURNS: The Temporal Masters literally destroy the entire galaxy of Andromeda in order to destabilize the Human Empire’s future timeline. (This is why Andromeda was missing from the sky during “The Doctor’s Granddaughter”.)

TIME LORDS ASCENDANT: In a last, desperate effort to avert the Temporal Masters’ complete ascendancy the Doctor locates and forces open one of the cracks left by the explosion of the TARDIS. (Maybe we put the crack at the heart of the Temporal Masters’ homeworld, serving a role similar to that of the Eye of Harmony in Gallifreyan technology. That way the Doctor has to infiltrate the greatest stronghold of the Temporal Masters.) Gallifrey and the Time Lords return… and now there are two great powers waging the Second Great Time War.

BEYOND THE SPINE

Somewhere in all of this I also have the image of the Doctor’s TARDIS become a refugee vessel: The only place where temporal refugees whose timelines have been wiped out can safely continue their canceled existence.

Between and around these episodes, the Doctor can also have a bunch of normal adventures. Because the Human Empire is protecting its own timeline, for example, human history as we know it still exists. And there’s potentially something interesting about the Doctor truly exploring an unknown universe where he doesn’t instantly know everything (because everything has been changed from the reality he knows).

The 12th Doctor

Sonnets for Sale

January 8th, 2014

Classical Actors Ensemble

I’ve been approached by Classical Actors Ensemble to serve as a poetic liasion for the Kickstarter campaign they’re running for their Spring 2014 Repertory of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.

What this means in practice is that if you back the project at the level of Crown Sonnet or above, you will be commissioning a sonnet written by me (in addition to a bunch of pretty nifty rewards). Here’s a sample of that would look like:

Sonnet by Justin Alexander

You’ll be able to address the sonnet you commission to anyone of your choosing or specify a particular subject. It could be a grand romantic gesture or a sentimental token. Want to star in the sonnet yourself? Create an amazing gift? Make your guy or gal swoon? Immortalize your cat in verse? Whatever you want, a custom sonnet is guaranteed to be unforgettable.

The kickstarter only has a couple more days to run, but if you’ve ever thought yourself, “I really wish I could pay Justin Alexander to write a sonnet for me,” then this is really an opportunity that you can’t afford to miss.

More information about the sonnet here. And, as I mentioned, there’s a bunch of other really cool rewards they’re offering so take a second to check it out.

(I’ll also be at the Donor’s Reception which you’d receive as a Crown Sonnet backer, so if you’re local to Minneapolis and wanted to meet me… Ta-da. That’s literally a privilege which money can apparently buy. Although, realistically, there are probably other ways to make that happen.)

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