Apologies, but no post today. I have been debating on doing fan-made adaptations, so expect a column about that in the coming month. I’ll also remind everyone that Lost in Translation now has a Facebook page.
The Sixties were a time of upheaval of the status quo against the backdrop of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Television was starting to come into its own as a medium, especially with colour technology becoming affordable. 007 made the jump from the books to the silver screen and audiences wanted more. To help fill the demand, MGM worked with Ian Fleming to develop a TV series along the lines of the Bond movies, resulting in 1964’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Fleming’s participation ended when a connection between the TV series and Goldfinger was discovered; Napoleon Solo was named after a character in Fleming’s novel, a gunsel that got on the wrong side of Bond.
Fleming’s touch remained. U.N.C.L.E, the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, is a multinational agency keeping the peace by working behind the scenes. Alexander Waverly heads up the agency from its hidden base in New York City. His top agents include suave American Napoleon Solo, played by Robert Vaughn, and dour Russian Illya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum. The original plan was to have Vaughn be The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – it’s even in the name, Solo – but McCallum’s Illya worked well with Solo that they became a team in the series. Solo would be the more visible of the two, taking a Bond-like approach to investigation, while Kuryakin took advantage of the distraction. UNCLE had an opposite number, THRUSH, an agency bent on world domination. Like UNCLE, THRUSH also recruited from around the world. The difference between the two agencies is simple, their goals. With competing goals, UNCLE and THRUSH clash often, with Solo and Kuryakin responsible for shutting down several seasons worth of plots.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had several advantages while filming. MGM wanted to get its money worth out of its sets, so the studio allowed the series to reuse existing sets from other movies. To add to the unusual for television look that the series had, action scenes had a personal touch as a camera man jumped into the middle, long before handheld cameras were available. Ensuring that the series felt world-spanning, guest stars weren’t limited to just Hollywood. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. became a weekly cinematic spy thriller, with a memorable theme tune by Jerry Goldsmith. Rounding out the globetrotting spy series, the titles were always an Affair; the first episode was called “The Vulcan Affair”, setting the tone for the rest of the run.
In 2015, Warner Bros. released Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The fifty years between the original and the remake saw a number of changes in the world, including the fall of both the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR. The nature of terrorism changed; instead of trying to get a message out even just fundraising, today’s terrorists are driven by ideology to the point where fear is the only end to the means. The likes of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Irish Republican Army have given way to Daesh. At the same time, a black and white approach to fiction has been replaced with nuance and shades of grey; no one expects heroes to be shiny anymore. Updating The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would mean losing much of what made the series work in the Sixties.
To Ritchie’s credit, he realized that and made the movie as a period piece, set in 1963. He makes use of cinematic techniques of the era, including split screen montages, to cement the mood. The opening credits cover history between the end of World War II and the beginning of the action in 1963, including the Cold War between the US and the USSR, the nuclear escalation between the two nations, the splitting of Germany between East and West, and the building of the Berlin Wall. The plot starts with Solo, now played by Henry Cavill, crossing the border between West and East Berlin, entering the Soviet sector. His goal, extract Gabby, played by Alicia Vikander, a mechanic whose biological father is a top nuclear researcher. However, the KGB has sent someone to prevent Gabby’s extraction, Illya Kurakin, played by Armie Hammer. The extraction is difficult; Illya is as good an agent as Solo, and is only lost while crossing over no-man’s land between the two Berlins.
Gabby’s father turns out to be a bigger problem than expected. He’s disappeared, and both the CIA and the KGB want him found. Both agencies bring their top agents together. Kuryakin and Solo recognize each other and are ordered to put aside their differences to work together and Gabby. The trail goes to Rome, Italy, where Gabby’s uncle and his wife have a shipping company. Both CIA and KGB expect that Victoria, the wife, played by Elizabeth Debicki, is the force behind the operation involving a nuclear missile. However, Gabby is already working for someone, a Mr. Waverly, played by High Grant, who is several steps ahead of both Solo and Kuryakin.
Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is more of an origins movie, though one that keeps the action going. Many of the bits that made up the TV series didn’t appear, but since neither Solo nor Kuryakin were UNCLE agents, they couldn’t get to UNCLE HQ through Del Florio’s, nor could they use either the pen radios* nor the modified Walther P-38s** that appeared in the TV series. Another missing element, though the people Victoria was working with were never mentioned, is THRUSH. The movie also introduced backstories for both Solo and Kuryakin, something that never came up in the TV series.
That said, the movie did keep to the feel of the TV series. While Hammer as Kuryakin worked for the Illya of the movie, Cavill’s Solo came from Vaughn’s portrayal. The film avoided a gritty look while still keeping the approach of the TV series, a mix of serious and lightness. Given the trend to make grim-and-gritty versions of older series, avoiding the temptation to do that with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a good move. Solo and Kuryakin aren’t grim killers, nor do they traipse around, usually, and their portrayals in the movie reflected the teamwork seen in the original.
For those who have seen the original series, some of the twists, particularly involving Waverly, could be seen coming. Given that the last episode was first run in 1968, it has been almost fifty years since a new episode*** and even a syndicated run is now limited to specialty channels. The movie reintroduces the characters and the setting for new audiences, bringing them into the world of the 1963 UNCLE. By the end of the movie, UNCLE is a new agency, with Waverly bringing in top agents from around the world, leaving room for further affairs. The movie brings back the core of the original TV series with few missteps.
* The TV series began with a cigarette case radio, but changed to the pen radio after concerns about children wanting a toy based on the prop.
** Known as the P-38 UNCLE, the pistol used by UNCLE agents had an attachable stock, barrel extension, silencer, and telescopic sight, and was never available commercially.
*** Barring the reunion TV movie, The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair in 1983.
The Magical Girl Team Generator is released! It actually looks like it was in pretty good shape, though like many of my generators I may probably want to tweak it later.
Writing it was educational, since magical girl teams have some interesting naming structures such as they are. I had to extrapolate a lot as well. Overall I think it worked.
Here’s a few examples:
Lost in Translation has looked at the difficulties inherent in adapting a television series to a movie before. However, challenges exist to be met. Let’s take a look at one of the challenges, expanding the audience to pull in more than just the core fandom.
Movies are expensive to make, with the 2015 Jem and the Holograms being an outlier at only US$5 million to make and today’s blockbusters regularly exceeding US$200 million. An adaptation cannot afford to turn away potential audiences, but word of mouth by fans can also break a movie. This is one reason why superhero movies start at the origin; while fans are well aware of how a character got his or her abilities, the average person might not.
Television deals with the problem of getting new viewers up to speed every week. Continuity lockout harms a TV series, preventing new audiences from jumping into the show. Streaming can help, with older episodes available on the network’s website, but that’s a recent technology. In the past, streaming and even video tapes weren’t available to the general audience. Television worked around that, with characters painted with broad strokes and creative use of opening credits. With the broad strokes, characters can be described using short phrases, such as the angry guy, the jokester sidekick, and the long-suffering spouse, all of which is easy to portray in a two-minute clip.
Opening credits, though, can set up the situation faster. While not in use as much today, the expository opening theme outright states what’s going on. Classic examples of such opening credits include Gilligan’s Island, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The Powerpuff Girls. Handy, efficient, and not used much in film since the Sixties* as technology progressed enough to overlay titles on action sequences, allowing the film to get to the plot right away.
At the same time, if opening credits aren’t going to be used, how can a film get a new audience up to speed without having fans yawn at old information? Time is limited in a film; few people will sit through a five hour movie. For this analysis, let’s take a look at Mystery Science Theatre 3000. MST3K had a ten year run with three different broadcasters, starting at KTMA in Minneapolis, then moving to Comedy Central and ending at the SciFi/SyFy Channel. During its run, the show used an expository theme song to let audiences know what its premise was. The opening theme was flexible enough to account for a cast change, going from Joel to Mike and even adjusting for a network required ongoing plot. The short version – evil mad scientist inflicts terrible movies on a victim trapped on an orbiting station; the victim builds friends out of spare parts to help make fun of the terrible movies.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie, released in 1996 and riffing on This Island Earth, didn’t make use of the opening theme the TV series had. Instead, the movie opened in Deep 13 with Dr. Clayton Forrester, played by Trace Beaulieu outright telling the audience what will happen. Normally, the adage is “Show, don’t tell,” but this time, the telling was just part of the equation. It’s what is going on while Dr. F is telling the audience what to expect that shows what the movie will be about. As Dr. F monologues, he’s walking through his lab, showing that he’s not all that effective at being an evil mad scientist. Up on the movie-budget upgraded Satelite of Love, Mike Nelson, played by Michael J. Nelson, is in the middle of a 2001: A Space Odyssey parody, running on a giant hamster wheel with Gypsy(Jim Mallon) and Cambot observing when Tom Servo(Kevin Murphy) arrives to warn him about the latest nutty thing Crow T. Robot(Trace Beaulieu). Crow, who has seen one too many World War II prison camp movies, has decided the best way to escape the SOL is to tunnel out. In these two scenes alone, the situation is introduced, the characters are shown for they are, and the movie has started. It took a little longer than the TV series’ opening credits, but here, the audience is brought into the movie, ready to put aside any suspension of disbelief and establishing the film as a comedy.
Given the nature of the series, MST3K has some extra challenges most TV shows don’t have. Most shows use commercial breaks to generate revenue and drop in a minor cliffhanger. When adapted, the show changes to match the format of the big screen, keeping the plot moving through the beat structure of film. MST3K, though, used commercial breaks in part to have the characters react via skit to what they saw and in part to give the audience a respite from the featured movie**. A feature film, though, doesn’t have real commercial breaks; audiences would riot. MST3K: The Movie had to use other means to get to the skits, including a broken film and Mike and the bots just walking out of the theatre to find Servo’s interociter. The result was the same, a break from the film to let the characters react to what they saw and a break for the movie audience from This Island Earth, a slow-paced film that had far too much telling and too little showing, with the alleged main character just along for the ride.
Of course, the movie wasn’t only for new audiences. Long-time viewers could find in-jokes throughout the film, including the use of “Torgo’s Theme” from Manos, The Hands of Fate as Mike uses the external graspers. The movie didn’t rely as much on callbacks as the TV show did, making it a good introduction to new viewers. Any callbacks in the movie, such as “Torgo’s Theme” can give a veteran fan an in to circulate the tapes*** to a new fan. Continuity is important, but a new viewer, especially watching the movie of the TV series, needs to be able to understand what’s going on without needing a ten-page synopsis of the show.
Other movies adapted from a TV series reviewed here at Lost in Translation made an effort to introduce the characters to a new audience. Star Trek: The Motion Picture made sure that the audience knew that Kirk and McCoy were still friends, despite whatever had happened prior to the movie, and that Kirk and Spock were friends, but something happened to the latter before he rejoined the crew of the Enterprise. Likewise, with Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, the opening scenes establish who Eddy and Patsy are, two women who refuse to grow up, with Eddy rolling out of her car drunk after a fashion event.
Introducing the characters and situation isn’t a problem for just TV series adapted into film. Other media have the same problem, letting the audience know what’s going on and who the main characters are. With television, though, the medium is similar to film, both being visual, that it can be too easy to forget that the characters need to be re-introduced. Failure to do so locks out a portion of the potential audience, leaving them outside and not watching. Without the extra audience, the film could flop at the box office.
* There are exceptions, such as the entire 007 film run, and even Die Another Day turned the traditional Bond titles into a plot-relevant sequence.
** The series riffed on older B-movies, serials, and shorts, where the quality of the featured film was guaranteed to be bad but with hooks for the riffs. Alien from L.A. was but one film, but represented the type of work found on MST3K, bad but watchable with people having fun with it.
*** The series encouraged fans to circulate tapes of the episodes because of the limited access early audiences had. Not all cable companies carried Comedy Central at the time, and international audiences had to deal with a complex web of rights and licenses that the MST3K crew didn’t have to worry about.
And here we go,The Magical Girl Team Generator is in beta.Inspired by everything from Shattered Starlight to my work on Her Eternal Moonlight, it’s a generator to create magical girl team names, which is kind of obvious. Feedback is appreciated – getting the proper feel of names is a bit challenging.
Here’s a few examples:
Some thoughts for all the people out there that follow me for career and creative advice . . .
Improving our skills and abilities, learning new things, is something we all develop. Most of us do it consciously, sometimes with a great deal of planning. It may even obsess some of us as our jobs and lives require us to learn at a rapid pace. However there’s a shadow side to what we choose to become competent in – a choice to learn something means there’s a lot else we choose not to learn at that time.
Every choice to educate ourselves means we’re spending time and resources that aren’t used learn a different subject. Each competency is paid for in not learning something else. For all you are good at, there’s a large amount of things you don’t know and can’t do, and you chose these “incompetencies” willingly or not.
We probably don’t look at learning as “choosing an incompetency” as a form of defense because there’ so much we don’t know and it scares us. We’re taught to think only of being good (or acceptable) at something, not bad at something. We’re taught not to admit failure or lack of ability because we seem weak, but to ignore it or pretend we’re good at everything.
But we have to accept the truth – choosing a competency is also choosing incompetencies. If we accept the we choose our ignorance and lack of ability, we can choose wisely. If we’ve decided we can’t truly know or learn something, then we’re prepared for that gap in our lives.
We can develop that valuable competency of knowing what we don’t know – and why we don’t know it.
We can bring an innocent attitude to learning so those that know something we do not (that we may choose not to educate ourselves on) can teach us.
We can stop worrying about not knowing. We’re all fools at one point, so let’s be fools consciously.
Exercise: List ten things you know nothing about that affect your life. Why didn’t you learn them? What did you learn in their place?
The short version, adaptations continued to dominate the silver screen. With studios risk adverse, they want to maximize audiences. It’s still not a guarantee of success, but adapting a popular work is one way to draw in a crowd. Couple adapting with popular actors, and studios see a sure thing. The New Teens are looking a lot like the Fifties, where popular adaptations far outnumbered popular adaptations. Let’s break down the top ten films by box office, using the numbers compiled by Box Office Mojo. Remember that popularity isn’t necessarily a sign of quality, just of what is popular.
1) Finding Dory – sequel to the Disney/Pixar original work, Finding Nemo. A surprising entry, given the strength of what follows.
2) Captain America: Civil War – second sequel to Captain America: First Avenger, an adaptation.
3) The Secret Life of Pets – original.
4) The Jungle Book – Disney’s live action remake of its animated adaptation of the story by Rudyard Kipling.
5) Deadpool – adapted from the Marvel character and the most comic book movie ever made*.
6) Zootopia – An original Disney animated movie.
7) Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice – adapted from characters and situations seen in DC Comics.
8) Suicide Squad – another DC Comics adaptation.
9) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – an original movie in the Star Wars franchise.
10) Doctor Strange – adapted from the Marvel comic.
Note that Rogue One and Doctor Strange are still in theatres. The Star Wars prequel could finish 2016 higher in the list and also dominate the 2017 list.
For all the complaints people have about adaptations, audiences went out to see them more than original works. The breakdown has two completely original works, two sequels/prequels to original works, and six adaptations or sequels to adaptations. It’s telling that most of the original works are animated, especially from Disney, who used to plumb animated features from fairy tales. Studios just aren’t going to give up the potential income from popular adaptations, no matter the outcry. At this point, original works will need top talent just to get a budget from studios. Depending on the work, an original may need to go to television just to get noticed. For balance, let’s look at the bottom ten.
10) Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – fictionalized adaptation of the memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker
9) Assassin’s Creed – adaptation of the video game.
8) Snowden – a biopic of Edward Snowden.
7) Mechanic: Resurrection – sequel to the remake, The Mechanic.
6) Manchester by the Sea – original.
5) Free State of Jones – loosely based on a historical event.
4) Blair Witch – remake of The Blair Witch Project.
3) God’s Not Dead 2 – sequel to a movie based on Rice Broocks’ God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in An Age of Uncertainty.
2) Keanu – original.
1) Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life – adapted from Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts.
Note that Assassin’s Creed is still in theatres after being released on December 21. Manchester by the Sea opened in limited release November 18 and had a full release December 16 and is still in theatres.
The bottom ten has four adaptations, two sequels to adaptations, one original work, and two movies based on real events, including the Snowden biopic. Being at the bottom isn’t necessarily a sign of quality. Manchester by the Sea has been nominated for a number of awards, including Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Screenplay, and has been listed on the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Films of the Year. What the bottom ten show is that adaptations run the gamut of popularity and that we’re still in an era where adaptations outnumber original works. However, with two exceptions, every decade in the history of movies shows that trend. The exceptions were the Eighties and Nineties.
Adaptations aren’t going away any time soon. People are still getting out to see them in theatres. At this point, quality is important; repeat audiences are driving the numbers for several films. For now, expect more original works in unexpected media, like animation or television.
* I’d say “shamelessly the most comic book movie,” but the movie lives in audacity, contributing to its popularity.
I found Failbetter Games browser-based adventure game Fallen London via it’s Kickstarted sister game, Sunless Sea, a kind of nautical rogue like of comedy-horror-adventure. I quickly took to Fallen London’s playable-novel style of adventure (in fact, moreso than the brilliant but nerve-wracking Sunless Sea). As I played this game I began to wonder just why I had taken to it so much – enough to get a monthly subscription for extra elements. That’s where this essay comes in.
It’s clear this award-winning browser game has a certain something that compelled me and others. By getting my own thoughts together here I hope to make a small contribution to game analysis, as well as understand my reactions. Fallen London got me thinking about game mechanics in surprising ways, and a good analysis should help me – and others.
So let’s look at Fallen London – and what it does right. Join me, Delicious Friend.
In Fallen London you’re a newcomer to the Victorian subterranean city, which was London some thirty years ago until it was stolen below ground by strange forces. Now under control of the mysterious if often friendly Masters of the Bazaar, nominally ruled by the “Traitor Empress” that made a deal with them, it’s a haunted, weird, scary, and wonderful place. Hell is nearby and has an Embassy, living objects come from distant shores of the underground “Unterzee” and previous stolen cities ruins lie around. Also, people are mailing cats.
You walk into this as a newcomer, arrested for some reason (likely just coming there), and upon escaping embark on your own destiny. Poet, spy, mercenary, investigator, and more all are available to you. As you progress you make connections, improve your character, find lodgings, unlock further secrets, and so on. Whatever you do is up to you.
All of this happens with very well-written text and story vignettes that really bring the half-horror half-comedic setting to life. Fallen London, bluntly, is probably better written than most any game and quite a few books, somewhere between Monty Python, Eldritch Horror, and Discworld.
As I analyzed it I was able to find six areas that the game did things right. These traits and mechanics, in combination, produce a marvelous experience.
Let’s take a look.
It’s hard not to go on about the writing in Fallen London. Were it simply a series of novels or a comic series it’d be an epic experience on its own. The fact this writing is couched as a game makes it even more compelling as you live the writing. This excellent wordsmithing succeeds due to three factors:
Writing Comes First. It’s very clear that the writing of Fallen London is meant to be of the highest quality. The tale-telling clearly has come first over all else, bringing you into the setting, but also making the choices and usual actions of an RPG have a particular urgency and life to them. The writing is not just witty and illustrative – it makes your choices feel real, and the choices and plots are well-thought out.
Branching And Combining Stories. Various conditions unlock story options, stories have multiple resolutions with real impact, and the end of one of the tales may lead to several others. This produces clear choices that feel very real – and are often real as they will lock future choices on one hand, while opening others or at lest providing resources to open them.
Parts Of A Whole. Though there are many stories and “storylets” great care has been taken to make them part of a whole. A mysterious squid-faced man handing you a chunk of slimy amber isn’t a random event, but is due to a backstory. A marsh filled with giant mushrooms isn’t just a marsh, but the site of races as people have discovered that running across giant mushrooms is rather sporting. Everything is connected (finding these connections could occupy you quite a bit in the game).
Abstract Characters. One of the most curious elements of Fallen London is most characters are referred to by abstract names – the Wry Functionary, the Knuckle-Scarred Inspector, and so on. Instead of making them distant this abstraction makes them archetypical, giving them life, while also making the experience personal and unique. Everyone may encounter a Sardonic Music-Hall Singer, but it’s their own, personal one.
Representing characters with various numbers is a classic element of role-playing games. Fallen London is no different, but does it with a mix of generality, clarity, and precision.
Distinct Attributes. Characters are represented by four different Attributes – Watchful, Shadowy, Dangerous, and Persuasive. These Attributes affect a character’s chance to succeed at an appropriate task with a simple random “roll,” and a success provides colorful descriptive text as well as various rewards This simplicity makes characters and characters easy to understand – but also distinct depending on how high that Attribute is.
Attributes Associated With Settings. Various areas of the setting are associated with the activities requiring a given Attribute or Attributes. A monster-haunted area may yield mostly Dangerous tasks, while a street of crime and mysterious couriers may have mostly Shadowy activities. The limited but distinct sets of Attributes in turn allows for easy definition of various areas of the game and the stories within, as well as what one may do there.
Distinct Failure States. Each Attribute has a parallel failure state called a Menace that usually increases if one fails a more severe challenge – for instance failing a Dangerous challenge may result in an increase to Wounds. One can usually guess the probable results of a failure state from the Attribute involved and the descriptive text. The failure states also contain witty descriptions, such as one where spending time with a Vicar raises the Menace of Scandal when said Vicar turns out to be a reporter in disguise who assumes less than pure intentions. Failure is a story.
Unique Results Of Failure States. The Menaces can be treated by specific actions, such as taking Laudanum to deal with the Menace of Nightmares. In addition, if Menaces get too high then the character you play suffers specific effects, such as being imprisoned for having too much Suspicion. Addressing these challenges leads to further stories, making the tale one experiences both appropriate and unique.
As the character adventures, they make friends, solve cases, advance in the ranks of clubs, and so on. Representing these is done distinct from the attributes in question, often as the result of an action.
Achievements By Simple Numbers. To represent the connections people make, achievements and reputations and so on, there’s simple number scores characters acquire. These represent everything from how good a thief they are to how well-connected they may be to the police. A character may have many of these or only a few – it depends on the activities of the characters. This simple method allows for very complex character differences all with different “piles” of simple numbers.
Reputation As Number. Depending on how a character dresses, their home, and how they comport themselves, they get reputations – Bizarre, Respected, etc. that also have simple number scores, much like Attributes. The items that influence these traits, of course, often have clever and witty descriptions.
Use Of Acquired Traits. Acquired traits open up new story opportunities or may even be used like Attributes in some occasions, such as using one’s Dreaded reputation to threaten someone. Thus these acquired traits become goals, rewards, and tools while just being simple numeric stores. The drive to upgrade them also helps propel some of the game, and may inspire players to upgrade equipment and Attributes.
Progress in various ventures in Fallen London is measured by numeric scores, much like the acquired traits.
Progress Is A Number. Progress in almost anything is represented by a simple number score, often raised by challenges against Attributes or exchanging certain items. One may be “Solving a Case” and solve it when one has a score of ten. Or one may be exploring an area and solve it when one has ten points of “Exploring.” These scores are like very temporary Acquired traits, and often reset when a venture is over. These provide clear, simple measurements of progress.
Progress Influences Story. At a certain amount of “points” gained towards knowing a character or group you may unlock options such as starting a romantic relationship. Other scores may increase the challenge, such as solving a case getting harder the further one progresses, with new challenges arising. The score becomes a signal of challenges to come as well as a goal (and a player may feel their heart race as a score climbs . . .)
Negative And Conflicting Progress. These progress scores may, at times be negative or even conflict. One may be trying to outrun a rival, and as “progress” increases the rival is closer. Or one may be trying to keep one score up and another down. A few simple numbers can lead to complex stories and decisions.
Having a large inventory of “stuff” is a time-honored RPG tradition, and Fallen London is no different. However it uses the “adventurer inventory” to cover a wider range of ground, representing possessions far differently.
Everything As Inventory. Anything in one’s possession is portrayed in inventory, but this goes beyond guns or treasures. Possessions can also include knowledge, stories, or insights (each with its own description). One may thus have 1000 Clues or 50 different seafaring stories from their ventures – treated and inventoried no different than 70 pieces of Jade or a mysterious pistol. By treating everything as inventory the game allows a unique way to measure progress and address challenges – one may need to blackmail and enemy, and that story requires 3 Blackmail Materials (which a handy intriguer may have handy).
Inventory Presents Story Options. An item in your inventory isn’t just something to sell or “spend” for a challenge, be it pearls or an Appaling Secret. Inventory items often provide other story options when you select them, from acquiring other items to opening more stories, to helping you solve mysteries. A single kind of item might open up multiple options, giving you different ways to use them – each with their own descriptive text or substorm. One of my favorite examples is having Appalling Secrets – one option in using them is to try and “forget” a few of them with the hope of reducing Nightmares.
Inventory Converts. Another brilliant innovation in the game is that related items, from treasures to knowledge, can often be traded up in the associated “story options” mentioned. Hints become Clues, Jade can be traded for artifacts, candles traded to a church in return for mysterious salts. “Trading up” and at times “trading down” is required to unlock stories or do tasks, and figuring this out is an interesting challenge that contains its own miniature tales. One of my favorites experiences realizing that treasures I’d gathered in a seafaring venture could be swapped up to get information that in turn I could trade for a map to let me continue my adventures.
As noted, some of Fallen London is about swapping various items or literal pieces of knowledge to achieve different goals. The entirety of Fallen London is actually about economics.
Progress Is Transactional. All of the well-written stories in Fallen London are essentially accessed by a transaction. This could be swapping a “move” to achieve something, or as complex as figuring out how to “grind” for information to get a legal document in order to get your hands on some important books. As these transactions are clearly stated and often work in a similar manner, the game is very easy to pick up – but the challenge is figuring how to pull off the transactions. After all you may want to save those Whispered Hints to solve a bigger mystery later, or your need to get your hands on seditious material requires you to choose between stealing from a group of Devils or getting into a fistfight with a book-carrying critic.
Tradeoffs Requiring Thought. The economics of the game also require one to consider tradeoffs. One may reduce the Menace of Nightmares with a good cup of wine, but a drunken night may raise the Menace of Scandal, which is best addressed by spending a few turns going to Church.
So those are my initial thoughts on what makes Fallen London work. To sum it up I’d say it’s a writing-centric game that uses a series of simple scores and inventory systems in combination to allow for complex tales, and has simple but interesting ways to portray common game mechanics and choices. That is, of course, a simple summary.
Now as for what else we can learn, let me see where my investigations – and you reaction to this essay – take us . . .
And Merry Post-Christmas everyone! I hope you’re doing well. Me, I’ve got over a week off and am enjoying it – which means plenty of time to do projects. And by that I probably mean play videogames, but still.
So let’s catch up!
Way With Worlds Book 2 – I have finished my latest edits and am getting feedback in from pre-readers. Very positive on this one. Still looking to be end of March. I will need reviewers too . . .
Way With Worlds Followup – I’ve been bouncing this idea around here and there, but there are followup minibooks to Way With Worlds. Those are in the works. Those probably drop in April, over time. There’s more in my newsletters.
The Next Generator – Taking a break from Food, the next generator is a Magical Girl Team generator! The current alpha version produces teams like “Beguiling Rose Angels,” “Rune Ladies” and “Seraphim Of Energy” which seems to be on track!
Thats about it for me – enjoying the time off and relaxing. Of course that means writing . . .
The Eighties were a weird time in entertainment. Popular original works outnumbered popular adaptations for the first time in movie history. Regulations about advertising to children were relaxed, leading to animation adaptations of toys and anything that a toy could be made from. The latter meant popular movies became fodder for cartoons, even if the film wasn’t originally meant for children, like Rambo and Robocop. Lost in Translation has already looked at one animated adaptation from the era, Back to the Future. Another series, though, was more successful.
The Real Ghostbusters ran from 1986 until 1991, undergoing a title change to Slimers and the Real Ghostbusters in its third season. Despite being tied to the film, Ghostbusters, a court case between Filmation and Columbia/Sony forced the adaptation to change its name as Filmation had the name first, leading to adding The Real to the title. The Real Ghostbusters was licensed out to DiC, who farmed out the animation to several Japanese studios, giving the series a unique look. While Columbia had the rights to the movie by virtue of being the production company, the studio didn’t have the rights to the actors’ appearances, leading to main characters who had a passing resemblance to the original cast. One episode, “Take Two”, goes as far to explain the differences – the movie is an in-universe adaptation of the characters’ lives. Venkman even goes so far to remark that Bill Murray doesn’t even look like him.
The cast was small, cosnisting of five voice actors total. Arsenio Hall, best known now for his talk show, was starting out in his career when he voiced Winston Zeddmore, the guy the Ghostbusters hired when business picked up during Gozer the Gozerian’s invasion of New York. Maurice Lamarche, who has played roles such as the Brain on Pinky and the Brain, played Egon Spengler, scientist and inventor. Lorenzo Music, best know for playing Carleton the Doorman on Rhoda and Garfield the cat* in the cartoon based on the comic strip Garfield, portrayed Peter Venkman, scientist and all-around smarmy dude. Laura Summer got her first work as a voice actor playing Janine Melnitz and almost every other woman in the first two seasons. Frank Welker, who has made a career out of being a non-human voice, including Megatron in the original Transformers, among others, played Ray Stantz, scientist and inventor, Slimer, and a large number of other ghosts and supernatural creatures. Summer was replaced by Kath Soucie with the name change to Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters, but, for the purpose of this review, the renamed series will be treated as a separate work to come later.
Adapting Ghostbusters to a weekly format wasn’t a problem. The nature of the movie allowed for further adventures for the team. Ghostbusters was a business; the team could easily continue busting ghosts in an adaptation. Indeed, the “ghost of the week” plot carried the series. The series also treated the events of the movie as occurring in-universe. Peter did get slimed by Slimer at the hotel and the team did fight Gozer the Gozerian in the form of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man The goal to adapting well is to bring the core of the original, in this case, Ghostbusters into the new medium, even with all the restrictions on the adaptation. A number of elements of the movie just wouldn’t fly. Venkman’s lecherousness was toned down, but didn’t completely disappear; his casual cruelty was removed. Janine kept her crush on Egon until executive orders in Slimer forced the writers to excise it. Repeatable violence isn’t allowed, but very few children would have access to backpack-sized unlicensed nuclear accelerators*. The Ghostbusters also only shot at ghosts to pull them into their traps, reducing the potential harm further. The action could thus match what was shown on screen, complete with slime.
The main characters, despite not being allowed to look exactly like the original actors, did have enough details in common to make it easy to see who was who. Egon had glasses and the hair style, along with Lamarche’s Harold Ramis impersonation. Peter kept some of Bill Murray’s smarmy charm**. Summer recreated Janine’s accent. Ray still had his weight. Winston was still the workman of the group, the one who was more down to Earth. Equipment matched what was shown on screen. And to add to the accuracy, the design of Slimer in the 2016 reboot movie was partially based on his appearance in the cartoon.
As mentioned above, the series could have kept to a “ghost of the week” plot, mirroring the jobs the Ghostbusters had in the movie prior to the containment system shutdown and the fight against Gozer. The writers, though, went beyond that. The first episode, “Ghosts R Us”, had a trio of ghosts working a scam to drive the Ghostbusters out of business. The team fought Samhaim, the spirit of Hallowe’en, in “When Hallowe’en Was Forever”, written by J. Michael Stracynski of Babylon 5 and Thor fame. Even with “ghost of the week” plots, not every ghost was busted. Several were able to move on after completing a task that kept them tied to the land of the living.
Going beyond the above, the writers delved into myth, legend, and classic literature. Samhaim was but one character based on myth and legend. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appeared in “Apocalypse — What, Now?” Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was adapted as “The Headless Motorcyclist”, updating the legend for modern times. The team accidentally busted the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come in “Xmas Marks the Spot”.***
Then there’s the adaptation within the adaptation, “Collect Call of Cathulhu”(sic). Written by Michael Reeves, the episode goes beyond just using the trappings. The episode acts as an introduction to the Cthulhu mythos as created by HP Lovecraft and other writers. Guest characters are named after other writers who had contributed to the Mythos; Clark Ashton after Clark Ashton Smith and Alice Derlith after publisher August Derlith. Lovecraft himself is name-dropped as the creator of the Mythos, with his writings in Weird Tales cited in-character by Ray. Cultists of Cthulhu appear, along with Spawn of Cthulhu and a Shoggoth. The episode even quotes Lovecraft, specifically “The Nameless City” – “That is not dead which can eternal lie,/And with strange aeons even death may die.” The episode climaxes with the awakening of Cthulhu, a being that, to quote Egon, “makes Gozer the Gozerian look like Little Mary Sunshine”, and the Ghostbusters fighting to just stop the Elder God, using the Mythos as a guide.
Even when not using classic literature for plots, the series has references to works that would be unexpected in a TV series aimed at a younger audience. In “Ragnarok and Roll”, the spell used to begin Ragnarok is the Elven inscription of the One Ring from JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphisis is referenced in “Janine Melnitz, Ghostbuster” as Janine reads out some of the jobs that have come in; “And some guy named Samsa says he’s possessed by the ghost of a giant cockroach.”
The Real Ghostbusters puts an effort into continuing the story from the movie, even while explaining away the differences. The series sets itself up as an alternate continuity where the original movie is a movie about the animated characters. The characterization builds from what was shown in the movie and expands on what was originally shown. The Real Ghostbusters is a worthy adaptation, taking into account the limitations imposed on it by the medium and expanding the ghosts thanks to not needing special effects beyond ink and paint.
* In an interesting twist, Bill Murray would later voice Garfield in the movies based on the strip.
** And if a child did have one, repeatable acts would be a minor concern.
*** While almost every TV series has had an episode based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, few had the Ghosts of Christmas running a gambit to teach a main character about the meaning of the season while still having Scrooge around.