Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What You Show = How It Feels

As a quick warning, there are very minor spoilers in this for Man of Steel.

Sunday I brought my dad out to see Man of Steel. We've always done movies as a 'thing' together and now with me being older and out in the work place I try to find an excuse to go see movies with him whenever I can really. Now, the qualities of the movie aside, the end of the movie is a wonderful example of how you can control the feel - and relative brutality and darkness - of a world and work by what you show the audience. Today I want to talk about that, as it is a key component for lots of games but especially for folks trying to run more light hearted Super Hero adventures or cold/dark/brutal black trenchcoat type games.

The Ending Action Sequence
To get the spoilers out of the way, the end of Man of Steel has a huge action sequence (surprise!) where in true to post-Avengers' comic movie fashion the film just isn't happy until it is levelling a city. Only, this isn't Marvel Heroes but DC Heroes. That means the power level, and collateral damage, is on a whole new level. Superman and foes go through buildings, plow streets, knock over gas stations, and all manner of other damage. Then there is also the military involvement and crashing planes, missiles missing their mark, and everything else. Basically, everything gets blown up.

Why Isn't it Dark?
So what you have is a major metropolitan area getting flattened by crashing vehicles and groups of demi-god like beings throwing down with each other, and yet the movie isn't dark. In fact, at no point do you feel anything but the thrill of the action. How is this done? Well, the movie stays focused on the action and doesn't show other things. And I mean that literally. Nothing that is not directly relevant tothe actual fighting going on is shown, nor does any of the stuff not shown trigger as a consequence.

How far does this go? Well, for example, in the Avengers there is a scene where Hulk runs through an office building to jump on top of an enemy craft in a besieged New York. It is a good scene, but it establishes things for us, the most important of which is that there are still people in the buildings. This means that all those other scenes where buildings get hit means there is a potential loss of life. Avengers even goes further and shows people getting gunned down in the streets and the general panic that is going on. Man of Steel doesn't do any of this (once Superman is on scene anyhow) and the difference in feel is apparent.

In Avengers you have an action sequence but it is tense and serious. There is this feeling that the good guys could lose, and that even if they win that it is a victory at great cost. In Man of Steel while it isn't known the good guy will win a lot of the tension is gone (technically, the tension happened earlier in MoS) and you can focus on and enjoy the big budget action sequence and special effects.

Which Is Better?
Honestly, neither of them is better. The end sequence to Man of Steel is just as enjoyable as the end sequence to Avengers. You may like one or the other more, but both approaches are just fine. The difference here is a stylistic one that goes back to how Marvel and DC approach their worlds. A friend of mine coined it in my current favorite way when he said: DC is people with powers that have problems; Marvel is people with problems that have powers. With DC the focus is on the powers, the heroics, the spectacle. With Marvel the focus is more on the person and the consequences. In that regard both movies do a very good job in thier climactic scenes of showing what the franchise wants to focus on.

How Does This Apply To My Game?
But how does this apply to your table top game? Well, easy. I've talked before about consequences. I've also talked about how you present things. This is both of those. If you want things to feel more gritty and realistic then have the consequences and visibility hit the darker side of things as well.  Did your Super Heroes just fight off an alien armada in a big city? Maybe the aftermath includes mention of mourners and injuries to people? Maybe you focus more on the bittersweet aspect of "Survivors look for what to do next" and "Thousands mourn the loss of loved ones in Alien attack" as well as focusing on the good and what the heroes did. If you want it lighter, than you focus on the good. Don't even mention people dying or families being separated. Instead you get headlines like "Heroes save city!" and "The world is saved!" with all reactions being positive.

What you show will control how it feels. If you show people mourning loved ones then the game will feel like there was a loss. If you show everyone celebrating and being happy, the game will feel like a full victory was achieved. The choice is yours, just make it one to fit the game you are running.

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