Game Theory (of Throne-Building)

Game Theory (of Throne-Building)

Now, you might be saying, “Buddy, two Thrones posts back to back? Wouldn’t it make more SEO sense to wait until the final season starts, instead of blowing your wad all up front?”

To which I reply, “Listen, buttnards, why don’t you keep your beak in your own pot of yogurt, you fuckin’ dumb door-holding fuckin’ oaf.”

…Because last time we talked about why Game of Thrones was so popular. We had a good time (we did. that is non-negotiable), although I didn’t talk about the actual series itself with any real depth. So what makes A Song of Ice and Fire so fuckin’ good when there are a bajillion similar fantasy novels shoveled out on the daily?

Make way for this post, everybody, get your your weird-ass-eerily-accurate-cosplaying persona on and let’s DIG… into our pockets and bring out our dodecal-sided die. That’s right, nerds, we’re gonna go into table-top RPGs and how they’ve shaped your favorite pervert-murder-dragon show on television.

There have been several unsung table-tops prior to Dungeons and Dragons but D&D is the one that stuck after its release in 1974– and much like its philosophical cousin, The Ouija Board, it ran a chill through the hardcore Christian, anti-satanist set. You know what D&D is. You’re hip.

As a goddamn king of nerds, it should come as no surprise that George RR Martin was (and apparently still is) an enthusiast. Apparently, several authors felt that Dungeons and Dragons served as a smelly basement boot camp for writing fiction. In the article previously linked, Ball University Assistant Professor Jennifer Grouling explains:

“D&D is completely in the imagination and the rules are flexible — you don’t have the same limitations” of fiction, or even of a programmed video game, she said. A novel is ultimately a finished thing, written, edited and published, its story set in stone. In D&D, the plot is always fluid; anything can happen.

I want you to pin that notion of story-fluidity behind your ear for a minute or two while we go into the fact that Martin himself ran a long, long campaign of a table-top RPG called Super World in the 80s. Beginning to realize that playing games was not a financially sustainable means of existing, Martin and his gang of hooligan-author friends did what anyone would do– they rewrote the rules of the game in such a way that their campaigns could be transcribed into novels and thereby published. It’s called Wild Cards and the whole story behind its origin is summed up pretty neatly here. Apparently, there’s a TV show in the works, offering hope to all us schlubby punks making art for our friends’ sake.

During this time, Martin went back and forth between trying to jumpstart a serious fiction career and writing for TV.  Suddenly, and forgive me if I’m wrong, he writes a scene he remembered from a dream he had. That’d be the Starks finding the Direwolves, the seed that’d become Ice and Fire. 

I say seed intentionally, because Martin sees himself as a gardener of stories. In his words:

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

I’ll tell ya, architect and gardner are way better names than what the writing community at large has claimed to distinguish themselves as: plotters (which is self-explanatory) and pantsers (ugh, because one writes at the seat of their pants). It’s essentially the difference between folk who chart out every scene ahead of time and those who explore the words they’re writing while writing. Most authors are a mix of both. And I think it’s important to demystify Martin as some evil curmudgeon whose hiding the blueprints to your favorite dragon-murder-porno and instead see him as a person and an author who’s working on a project that means a lot to him.

It’s not that he doesn’t outline either, but it’s more accurate to say that he strategizes. Apparently an early outline married Tyrion and Arya together and Jaime became king after simply murdering everyone else (kind of like a evil run in a Bethesda game). But that would’ve robbed the story of Tyrion’s integrity of his sudden chastity with Sansa and Jaime’s turn from selfish, impetuous murder machine to self-reflective, all-around good amputee guy (*cough* excludingtheweirdrapeofhissisteronhisson’scorpse *cough*). That’s where the fluidity of viewing an epic fantasy from a bird’s eye view becomes advantageous–  you can see missteps before you make them and then correct course.

It’s why I think Martin views his own work as a table-top RPG that he’s playing with himself (and his audience). It’s documented that he’s a creative type who enjoys transferring table-top antics to words. It’s also documented that he writes an average of 350 words a day. But he has a lot, I’m speculating, a lot of notes and spends a lot, I’m speculating again, a lot of time strategizing.

Several authors I’ve come into contact with, fantasy or otherwise, have a bible of character and world information. It’s full of details. It’ll tell you that x character has brown eyes and z forest is deciduous and Lady HatchetVagina got her moniker ironically. And no doubt Martin has one as well– in fact he writes that shit into his books. Fuckin’ Ned Detective runs through the Baratheon Genealogy to find the golden-haired discrepancy that gets his goddamn clock ticked. There’s a whole chapter (maybe more? Clash of Kings is so big) where Jaime just pages through the White Book, describing all of the feats the White Cloak knights accomplished (some of which is narratively-super important, some not). Martin has definitely put the work in here. But understand, the work built upon itself while it was being written. World building expands. The fog of war dissipates as one moves in a direction. Things change as we look at them. 

The way it still strikes relevant is the fact that the dude spent his fantasy life in the company of other human-beings. If you’ll permit me a stark (heh) deviation to Roberto Bolaño and his (arguably) worst book,  Third Reich. It’s still, ugh, the best fiction out there. At least philosophically. The best I can try to explain what the book is about: a man goes on vacation to a Spanish beach, stays after his vacation (long after his girlfriend leaves), plays a table-top game of WWII, becomes obsessed with a local vagabond, the vagabond beats him at the game, dude fears that the guy is going to kill him and then the vagabond doesn’t kill him. While I’m fairly sure it’s a coded message to express Bolańo’s bisexuality, the novel maintains a descriptive handle on the game’s movements throughout (tediously so), while the main character wraps himself in isolation and paranoia with the exception of his homeless friend. It’s essentially a story about strategizing alone which is ultimately futile. War– like books, games, and art– requires engagement. In isolation the narrator, a German, forgets his own values and plays the Axis. The homeless guy, who is crazy but ultimately virtuous, plays the Allies and, despite being an amateur at the game, wins. This decimates and ultimately liberates the narrator.

From that deviation, I’ll take away two things. The first, as suggested above, is that Martin strategizes in response to other people. He understands the expectations and he knows how to subvert them almost perfectly (read: the definition of irony) which is what makes him such a bastard sometimes. The game he’s playing is against us and to quote Grouling again, “anything can happen,” in a game where “the rules are flexible.”

The second thing I’ll take away is the notion of values. One of my first posts on this site was about how you could use D&D to determine a character for your novel and it would be 10 times more believable than jotting down notes on a profile. Values override details every single time. Because details should serve to express value.

The character of the Hound (the best character! Fuck you! HooooyooooUUUUND!) maintains a certain value set throughout the books and show even though our first introduction to him is his ironic and cynical slaughtering of a young boy (the Han shot first of GoT). But his values become clear, slowly, as Martin is keen to show and not tell us. Lil Clegane’s main value is that he, in nearly every other happenstance, protects children (which makes his boy-slaughtering that much more of a sin). Later we find out why. Still, he protects the Child King Joffrey, then saves Sansa, before becoming Arya’s drunk and chicken-filled father-replacement. He’s a murderer who hates knights, doesn’t go out of his way to hurt women (equivalent to Westeros feminism, I guess?), and keeps the kiddies safe (save the one).

That’s why for three quarters of A Feast For Crows you’re heartbroken to learn that The Hound is raping and killing women and looting towns in the salt pans. Your expectations combat your understanding of the man you’ve begrudgingly come to respect and admire. The “oh-shit” moment happens in a turn of dialogue between Brienne and some old religious fucker who explains that it was Rorge, the noseless douche that kept harassing Arya “with a stick”, that had donned the Hound helm and used that brand recognition to pillage with his brigands. The godly man explains that the Hound died while a man who 100% resembles Sandor Clegane digs graves in the background. In the show, Sandor assists the building of a temple. In both cases it’s assumed that the death of The Hound is a symbolic path to reach forgiveness and atone for his sins through labor (the dorkier among you will nod and solemnly agree that this is the work of the Smith). Through the humiliation of physical work, The Hound transforms into Sandor Clegane, culminating in the scene in the televised series where Sandor attempts to properly bury the farmers that he himself had doomed to death by robbing them a few seasons earlier. He doesn’t seem unquieted by his past, but he continues to make a good effort to support those around him who are trying to make things better.

Just. Like. A dog.

That might be one of the most satisfying character arcs ever written and it works because the characters values remained the same but it required a few hundred pages and six seasons to finally realize them.

I don’t think I’m blowing any minds by saying that Ice and Fire is one big table-top experience. The intro to GoT literally resembles a game-map, complete with ticky-tacky toy-like renderings of the regions involved (wiiiiiith a game-chip circling the construction of Old Town). But it works effectively once transcribed to a literary experience because games have rules and players have values. 

That sentence alone explains the bulk of conflict in the series. Each house has a motto which serves as a rule. They also have repeated sayings which express values.

The Lannister motto is “Hear Me Roar,” while their repeated saying is “A Lannister always pay their debts.” Martin throws us another saying said about the Lannisters: “Lannisters lie.” Tyrion and Tywin play the game by the value of paying off debts to obtain loyalty and assure their own safety/regard. Cersei and Jaime (initially) play the game by the second value of deceit. But they all show their ferocity when push comes to shove and we see what happens when one value clashes against another. [insert “twang” foley]

The Boltons’ motto/rule is “Our Knives Are Sharp,” while their saying/value is “A naked man has few secrets; a flayed man none.” Roose plays by the rule, which is more in line with shady treaties and backstabbing, while Ramsey plays by the value of demonstrating cruelty. Playing by the rule changes the political landscape, while the value ultimately sinks the Bolton house into the grave.

And yes, you have the ever-memed Stark motto of “Winter is Coming,” and the saying “A Stark must always be in Winterfell.” Eddard died because he violated both. By heading south to deal with the politics of King’s Landing, he (albeit reluctantly) forsook his charge as steward of the northern defense against the wights/wildlings and brought Arya and Sansa along with him, leaving Robb alone to the Bolton’s manipulations and Bran, still comatose and crippled, to be strong-armed out of control of the municipality by Theon. The saying and value “There must always be a Stark in Winterfell” is a regional one, essentially saying that without a sense of nobility present, the north will fall to the cruelty of the likes of those fuckface Boltons or taken advantage of by the likes of those goddamn pirate Greyjoys. Currently, HBO-wise, it’s Jon Snow and Sansa upholding the motto and verse of the Starks, hence their survival.

I could go on, but I’m getting interrupted by this sound in the air… Do you hear that? That’s the sound of my virginity re-crystalizing. I learned what fuckin’ GURPS was for a free article on the internet. And I even held myself back from applying stats to characters (Tyrion: INT-8, STR-3; Jaime: INT-3, STR-9 then 2; Robb: INT-5, Str-8; Arya: INT-6, STLTH-9; Sam: INT-7, STR-1, STLTH-0, MGC-0, VIT-0; Melisdandre: MGC-9, TT-10; The Mountain: 10 everything except PSN RSTNC) because there’s a goddamn table top for Game of Thrones now. Cracked.com (before they sold to Scripps and Facebook leveraged the value of video content, essentially fucking up earning projections for every website you used to enjoy) made a video satirizing the likelihood of GoT making the tabletop circuit, leading to madness, betrayal and insanity.

I’m not mad about the RGP (I’LL GET DOWN OFF THIS LEDGE WHEN I GODDAMN FEEL LIKE IT), if it means ushering in another generation of innovative storytellers, but it strikes me as redundant. Martin’s JOB right now is to tell you how the game goes. You can pull a Third Reich and test your own values to try to make it go differently, but what’s the point when you could change the rules and write your own  damn thing?

Again, I’ll quote Grouling: “the plot is always fluid; anything can happen.”

The closest thing Manchot has to a fantasy epic at this time is a genre-bending comedy between Science Fiction and Fantasy featuring a trio of siblings bumbling through a happy-go-lucky nuclear wasteland. It’s called The Fish Fox Boys and you can start reading it here

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S-Town and Tangential Storytelling

S-Town and Tangential Storytelling

Spoiler alert for the podcast S-Town. I ruin it.

So if you party like I do then you’ve already binged the entirety of NPR’s S-Town podcast on a Saturday night while sharing a fifth of cheap Scotch with your best friend, a crayon drawing of a sad woman on a napkin.

Anyway.

S-Town is a fantastic journey revolving around the troubled redneck genius John B. McClemore– and during those revolutions, a layer from the small town in rural Alabama is shaved off and inspected thoroughly, revealing that every inch of this place has John’s DNA somehow embedded into it, even well after his suicide. It’s a mind-blowing piece of investigative, empathetic journalism.

And there’s a popular theory that John himself “authored” the narrative of this story from the very beginning and there’s a lot of tempting evidence that this is the case. Too many metaphors make too much sense. You have the “null set” of the maze which not only summarizes John’s philosophy on his own life (there’s no solution and yet you’re trapped in an experience of convoluted twists and turns and frustrations) but also that of his thoughts on climate change (no solution to the biggest problems that plague us)– the pessimism is almost redundant. There’s never any solution, just problems, of which John bitches about constantly. Brian Reed even suspects that John had set up the “null-set” on purpose early on in the series. And that carries an implicative weight to the other puzzles John has proposed: namely, the murder that wasn’t a murder and his hidden stashes of gold that might not actually be buried. Problems without solutions. Wild goose chases. Geese chases? Never mind.

There are other metaphors, of course. One of the most striking is how John gilds a dime to give to Brian using potassium cyanide. He ingests the same chemical later to kill himself. The beautifully grim metaphor, if there is one, is that John was symbolically turned to gold on the inside. (Sidebar: it could very well be that this is the metaphorical gold that John has sent Travis to look for– not material wealth, but the appreciation of their friendship once he’s departed. But that rings a little too smug and cold, even for John. It sounds too much like every high-schooler’s threat “you’ll miss me when I’m gone.”) The gold metaphor comes full circle when it’s revealed that John’s other preferred gilding practices likely incurred gradually detrimental brain damage similar to the Mad Hatter’s disease.

So did John just use Brian Reed to enact a dramatic suicide note? My take? Not really. You’d have to discount the tireless work Brian and his team did to find this extremely personal narrative, slogging through hundreds of hours of audio. S-Town is a testament to how important editing is– how essential scene selection can be for an emotional payoff. John was a man who rambled, rambled coherently maybe, but shot off from one subject to the next until it inevitably spiraled into climate change and the doom of his shit town, Woodstock.

John also thought in metaphorical concepts. He’s a clock-fixer-upper, it makes sense that he could create complicated stories with people acting like the cogs that turn against each other… but again I feel like that’s a disservice to the amount of work put into this thing and the narrative constraint they put upon it. S-Town could have been many things, if based on John’s metaphors alone. But everyone involved in production was smart about it and they made it into a journalistic novel not unlike Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

And I salute them for a storytelling strategy that often goes unappreciated– that of constant deviation and tangential leaps. I think, because John was who he was, this was almost inevitable. Well, that and the fact that the first story (the non-murder) would have rang kind of flat if not for Reed’s post-mortem investigation into the intrigues of Woodstock.

If you think about it, the narrative goes from hanging out with John (noting his pierced nipples), to the murder investigation, to the suicide, to the familial troubles of John’s family which branches off into two distinct parallel perspectives (Travis and Rita, the former of which is now searching for gold, the latter of which tried to get those nipple rings as a keepsake from the coroner), both of which leading towards contacting the lawyer and town clerk (Faye), which opens a lot of questions which leads towards John’s perhaps most intimate friend and the explanation of the “flagellation” ritual of piercing his nipples repeatedly.  It could be that I’m bad at summarizing things, but I think I got the basic story down.

I’m using the nipple ring motif because it’s something that first appears as a random, almost unnecessary detail that keeps returning as a slightly more relevant (even contentious) detail before the symbolic weight of the piercings are finally revealed. It’s also the perfect example of a little quirk that binds two disparate narratives together. Of all the legal conflicts between Travis and Rita, it’s the nipple rings that apparently affect both on a solely emotional level. And for Travis, the explanation brought us back to John’s workshop, practicing their “Church” service, one of the last images we have of John in S-Town‘s narrative. It initially came off as thematically forced to thread the story along before Reed and his team finally let the last Tetris block fall into place.

The art of tangential storytelling is that if you take enough left turns, you’ll eventually end up where you started, but, like all stories, you’ll have gained perspective. By the end of S-Town we’ve gained the perspectives of many people who’ve interacted with John, but in a sad way, once the series is over, we’re back to a world where John doesn’t exist and are forced to ask the question, am I the better for knowing this man? S-Town (or Woodstock), too, like the gloomy protagonist always insists, is more or less the same town it always was, minus an eccentric that many of the townsfolk preferred not to know. Are they the better for having this series released?

The latter is the kind of question I can’t answer definitively. I think exploitation was avoided as much as it could’ve been. Not that it might matter to the people of Woodstock. “Fuck it,” is the motto for telling everything upfront, after all. In that, I feel, there is some elemental truth of honesty. The tattoo artist is upfront about his racism and Reed, while hiding the fact that he’s married to a black woman and is Jewish, accepts that and moves on to other topics of discussion. He does it without necessarily demonizing the guy. That was a lateral move of empathy, uncomfortable though it may have been, on Reed’s part to keep on digging for the story– and he found it (summarily: John would get a tattoo every time the shop was in the red to give them enough business to get ’em back to black). Effectively Reed piloted a narrative into a crash-landing in shark-infested waters and made the story about the sharks and where they swim. But they’re not as scary as you’ve come to believe. That’s the kind of opportunity that this kind of story mechanic allows for.

The structure of tangential storytelling is more intuitive than you might think. After all, the recipe for the second act of a hardboiled detective novel or police procedural TV show is rooted in the act of interviewing people. This is what translates so elegantly to the podcast format of S-Town– Reed acts as detective running down leads on his deceased friend and picking up common threads between seemingly unrelated perspectives. We see those interactions recorded as they happen and we love it. It’s why you’ll remember scenes from All the President’s Men if not the actual newspaper article that broke Watergate. Just like John’s riddle of where he left his gold, it’s the journey that’s more important than the outcome.

Which might be trite but nonetheless true.

I suppose it’s because that journey uses every tangent as a discursive opportunity to explore an element of John’s life or otherwise his impact of the people he left behind– and their lives in S-Town. To bring up my favorite book on earth,  The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño employs the extreme method of using 52 narrators to account for the actions and whereabouts of two scummy poets over the course of several years. The plot of the novel is entirely implicative, obscured by the dozens of stories people tell, not only about the poets, but about their own secrets, troubles, impulses, mental illnesses, historical fascinations and racial biases. It tells of the evasive duo, but not without letting in the reader about their own life. Likewise, John B. McClemore is sort of a magnet thrown into a mine. He’s always at the center of things, but everything/one that sticks to him is also fascinating.

Which nullifies the “null-set” paradigm of reading S-Town. At least on a cynical level– I doubt that John’s dream of a suicide note would include intimate details about his rhinoceros-skinned nipples. It includes everybody he’s known, and while he’s had his own time to devise his time on earth, it’s the people that he’s interacted with that get to spin his legend. And everyone’s got a different outlook on the guy. He’s been many things. But there are common threads of kindness, pettiness, embarrassment, cowardice, success and failure…

And through these many lenses we get the character of John from the outside looking inward.