Arcs, Loops, and WESTWORLD

The negative reception to the recent Assassin’s Creed movie has gotten me thinking about why it’s proven so difficult to adapt videogames into movies, even as movies and television begin to resemble videogames more and more.

And I don’t just mean in terms of CG or action direction, or other things mainly focused around aesthetic. I’ve been noticing that a lot more narrative media is borrowing the narrative mechanics of videogames, and it’s not just limited to stuff like Superhero movies where at least the two share the broader traits of power-fantasy. But even as this confluence seems to be blurring the lines between dramatic-narrative and ludo-narrative, I think it’s important to understand the limits each has to storytelling.

Dramatic-narrative is typically illustrated like this:

dramatic-arc

You start with the protagonist, who is taken out of a position of comfort, and must choose to change in order to restore it. There’s usually some initial success gained from that choice, but it’s followed by challenges that the protagonist is not prepared for. In facing those challenges, the protagonist learns how to overcome them, and provided the story isn’t a tragedy, ends the story in a better place as a better person.

A brief and reductive explanation for why we enjoy this sort of storytelling is that it’s based in empathy. We naturally enjoy seeing people we can empathize and relate to succeed in their goals, which often reminds us of our own ability to achieve and better ourselves.

Meanwhile, Ludo-narrative is defined by what’s called a gameplay loop, which looks like this:

generic-game-play-loop

The protagonist/player enters a situation where they are confronted by an obstacle. The player has to figure out which of the game’s mechanics will allow them to overcome the obstacle, and then perform them. Doing so successfully results in a reward and the introduction of a new challenge.

This storytelling works because, well, because it’s gameplay. It’s creative problem solving, and working your way through those problems are fun, whether it’s figuring out you have to jump at just the right moment to hop off the koopa-paratroopa to reach a higher platform with a power-up; or even having to find a good place for a tetramino before it lands in a bad spot.

And while dramatic arcs and gameplay loops look like they have enough in common to be sort of interchangeable, they’re just different enough to make them pretty exclusive.

The biggest difference is that an arc has an end, while a loop is designed to bring you back to the beginning. At the end of a story, you don’t expect the protagonist to immediately begin things all over again. Sure, sequels exist, but even then, the job there is to present a completely different challenge for the protagonist to struggle against, not for the protagonist to re-learn what they did the first time around. Each step on the arc represents a point of no return; once a character makes progress, they can’t undo or redo it.

Meanwhile, gameplay loops are all about relearning new ways to do a variation on the same thing over and over again. The challenge in a Mario game isn’t about finding new ways and mechanics to get from the start of a level to the end; it’s about learning how to use the mechanics you’ve already been introduced to. Almost everything you do in a Mario game is a variation on running and jumping. Most shooters are about learning how to use your environment and shoot better; with Portal being maybe the best example in all of video games – your gun does one thing, how can you use the one thing it does to complete all of these challenges. And when new mechanics are introduced, they’re done to increase the variety of challenges that the player can then tackle. Power-ups don’t automatically let you win, they just allow you to find new problems and new ways to solve them. Gameplay loops are about working with the mechanical limitations the game has introduced.

Meanwhile, in a dramatic arc, having your characters discover new things about themselves or their world often is the problem that needs to be solved. A character learning a new skill or finding a new tool doesn’t present new challenges, it represents having solved a problem. Drama often has their protagonist break a system or create a new normal as a sign of their success. Games reward players who master the systems in front of them.

The end of a dramatic arc represents a rest – here’s where the story stops. The end of a gameplay loop is a push to keep the player moving forward. And this is the main reason why, even in episodic storytelling, like a sitcom or procedural, where the goal of each story isn’t to necessarily irreversibly change things by the end of a story, gameplay loops can’t fully replace dramatic arcs. Even using a structure like the Harmon Circle, which by the end returns the protagonist to the same place they started ends with them in a place of comfort, not one where their poised to take action.

ashana-lian-fantasy-la-screenwriter_dan_harmon_storytelling_wheel-writers-blog

The muddling and mixing of these structures is also what I think explains the appeal, and the backlash against one of the year’s most divisive television shows, Westworld.

~Spoilers for Westworld below~

It’s not a deep dive to say that Westworld was built around the idea of cycles. The park’s hosts live unaware of the cycle that dictates their lives, performing the same actions day-in, day-out, only to be killed, rebuilt, and put back out to their pasture. We find out that William/The Man in Black has lived the past thirty years on a cycle of returning to the park trying to find the center of the maze. The maze itself references the cycle of the hosts:

“The maze itself is the sum of a man’s life. The choices he makes, dreams he hangs onto. And at the center is a legendary man who’s been killed over and over again, countless times, but always clawed his way back to life. And returned back to life and vanquished all his oppressors in a tireless fury. Built a house, around that house he built a maze so complicated only he could navigate through it. I reckon he’d seen enough fighting.”

In the final episodes, we also find out that Dolores’ journey over the course of the season is just one loop of many, as she gets asymptotely-closer to gaining real consciousness. The same goes for Maeve, whose rebellion we find out is just another part of her script, and who – so close to actually escaping – turns back to enter the park once again. Ironically for the hosts, they’re supposed to have narratives, but are kept from actually completing them by getting killed by guests or by being driven off course. The loops exist only on the meta-narrative level.

And, while making those loops exist as a part of the structure of the show was an interesting formal choice for Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy to use for the show, it resulted in what I felt was a lot of spinning its wheels. In the first two episodes, the gameplay loop as narrative structure worked amazingly well. The pilot did an amazing job of introducing us to the rules of Westworld, the characters, and what their general paths will be. We learn that all of the hosts live the same story repeatedly, we learn that the Man in Black comes to the park often and treats the hosts cruelly, and we learn that the hosts are beginning to push against their limits. By the end of the episode, we’re essentially back where we’ve started, at the beginning of another day’s loop, but now we understand the mechanics. It was a pilot-episode as tutorial level, and it was a great hour or so of television. The second episode did the same thing, introducing some new characters in Meave, William, and Logan, and showing how they interact with the loop established in the pilot.

But after that, things start to get a little repetitive. Dolores goes off-script in a way that hints at her reaching some higher consciousness, but then has some sort of episode that prevents her from a full epiphany. The Man in Black tortures one of the hosts while looking for the maze. Logan tries to get William to act a little hedonistically, and William plays the white-hat. The characters change locations, and things get more tense for them, but they themselves don’t meaningfully change or learn anything. They reach new levels in the game, their loop gets progressively more difficult to find the end of, but they never actually seem to get closer to an end goal.

The two big exceptions to this are Meave and Ford. Over the course of the season, Meave is allowed to have the epiphany that escapes Dolores; she becomes aware of her cycle, and works to escape it, with each loop she goes through actually bringing her closer to a set goal. Ironically though, her story has the least stakes: she can’t meaningfully die – dying over and over actually is part of her plan – and the worst thing that can happen to her is things return to a normal state where she becomes unaware of her circumstances. It’s existentially threatening to us, the viewer, but not really to her. But, over the course of her story, her character goes through meaningful evolution, until – as a twist – it’s revealed that she hadn’t.

Ford is the other exception to the rule, mainly by way of being the closest thing the show has to a villain. Ford is the only character not on a loop, and has an end-goal for the park that’s left as a mystery until the final episode. His motivation is clear, at least to himself, and we watch him get closer and closer to it without the threat of his ending being another loop.

Things also admittedly pick up a lot in the final two episodes because, as it nears the end of the season, the show is forced to present us with some sort of closure. It seems like Dolores is finally just steps away from achieving sentience, the Man in Black has all but found the maze, Maeve has all the pieces in place to break out of the park, William finally breaks bad, we find out that one of the characters has been a host all along, etc. etc. But it’s really only at these final episodes that the characters reach a point in the story that breaks their loops – it takes nine episodes for these characters to move a step along their dramatic arcs that they can’t step back from.

On a higher meta-textual level, the gameplay loop of Westworld also existed for the viewers. The pilot set up a number of mysteries for viewers to try and solve, and after each episode, the internet was flooded with fan-theories and people trying to piece together clues on the nature of the park, and Ford’s plan, and the identity of the Man in Black, etc. etc. The show presented itself as puzzle to be solved as much if not more than a story to be told. Each episode represented another level full of clues to piece together rather than a chapter in the lives of these characters. And I think that’s also what caused much of the backlash towards the finale, because people were reacting to either solving the puzzle before the show got there and complaining it was too predictable, or they pieced the clues together differently and the ending didn’t give them the closure they were looking for.

There was also a complaint I heard from people that they felt like Westworld was trying to outsmart them. It’s fine for a game to offer that sort of challenge and be combative, but a narrative should focus on revealing itself to the audience, not testing them to see if they can beat it. When a story wants to be challenging, the questions it should pose should be “what does this mean?”, not “what’s going on?”

And I don’t want to give the impression that I’m picking just on Westworld for doing this. Another favorite show of mine, CW’s The Flash often runs up against this same issue, making Barry relearn the same lessons about how to use his powers and behave heroically almost every half-season while upgrading his speed and the threat of his enemies to give the illusion of progress. Arguably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is guilty of this, too, but I feel that enough of each movie is dedicated enough to character growth to really cause an issue.

My point in these 2000-something words though, is that, while it’s possible and very tempting to use gameplay loops as a narrative structure in order to make your story more engaging, you can’t so easily replace dramatic arcs without potentially harming your story. If your audience wanted to play a game, they’d turn on the Playstation, not the TV. Audiences still expect good, meaningful endings from their narrative media. It’s arguably the most important part of any story, it’s what the audience goes out on, and you should focus on leaving them with a sense of closure.

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