Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Make Your Own Haters

Not the famous poster,
but has Dejah Thoris.
I really wanted Andrew Stanton's John Carter to be good. And it's pretty good. It's not terrible. It deserved better than it got in the market, I think.

But I can see now what really holds it back from greatness. And it holds a great lesson for any GM (and plenty of other story-tellers, too). It's a lesson I myself have struggled to remember, time and again.

You just don't hate the bad guys enough.

And for a fantasy adventure story you need bad guys you can really hate. And in a fantasy adventure movie, you need to get to the hating right away. Your audience needs to HATE.

That's the lesson: a great fantasy adventure needs massively hatable bad guys.

Villainous Villains

Why is it especially important to get right to the hating in a movie? Because movies are really short, and they operate visually. Every second your audience spends trying to distinguish characters from each other is a second in which you've lost the opportunity to make them care. Important characters must be immediately distinguishable from others. Visually. We have to understand their relationships and our own feelings about them viscerally, not through explanation.

Let's compare the opening of John Carter with a couple of other films that I think are trying to tell similar sorts of stories, and did so magnificently: Star Wars and The Fellowship of the Ring.

Both of these films, like John Carter, start by setting up a large-scale conflict that will draw in our unsuspecting hero. Over the course of the story the heroes will come to take on the conflict as their own, and prove to be essential in its resolution. What's crucial, then, is that the audience care about the conflict. They need to be emotionally invested in the outcome of the conflict. And this has to happen fast, because, as I mentioned, movies are short. When you've only got a couple of hours to build that emotional investment, every moment of confusion or uncertainty in the audience reduces the potential impact of the story.

Done Right

30 seconds in, and you already know
who to cheer for.
The opening shot of Star Wars is rightfully one of the most classic openings in cinema history. Not only is it a fantastic technical achievement, but it tells the story right away. There's these scrappy little guys in some sort of ramshackle arrangement, and they're getting pushed around by these big bullies in this ENORMOUS HELLO I WILL EAT YOU spaceship. You know right away whose side you're on, of course, and that impression gets steadily reinforced as the opening scene plays out: kindly-faced Rebel soldiers looking worried as they get steadily gunned down by visored unstoppable soldiers, and then DARTH VADER appears all in black with a skull mask, and he murders some guy and then intimidates the plucky princess. Later on he will strangle some dude and BLOW UP A PLANET. And THEN he kills Ben. Jeez Louise.

We understand quickly that he's the bad guy, we hate and fear him immediately, and we are repeatedly shown reasons to continue hating and fearing him. We REALLY want Luke to get rid of this guy, even though it seems totally impossible. And we immediately recognize him later on, and we feel that hatred and fear without having to think about it.

One of the best things Peter Jackson ever did was to understand exactly who the bad guy is in The Lord of the Rings, and the opening of Fellowship makes it very clear. The battle between Isildur and Sauron, Isildur's moment of weakness at Mount Doom, and his subsequent betrayal, all of this tells us right from the get-go who the terrible trouble-maker is: the Ring. The Ring is bad, and we know it five minutes into the movie. We've seen it doing bad things, and we fear and hate it for the rest of the film.

Done Wrong

Basically identical to every
other guy in the movie.
So, compare with John Carter. Much like these movies, it opens with a scene depicting the larger struggle: in this case a battle between nearly-identical bands of flying soldiers. The leader of one group of nearly-identical soldiers is nearly identical to all the other soldiers, and appears no more competent or dangerous or hateful than the rest. Sure, he's killing people, but everyone in the frame is killing people, so...

Sab Than inspires neither fear nor hate. He's not doing anything that obviously needs to be stopped, and stopping him doesn't look any harder than stopping another random guy with a sword in a flying airship on Mars.

"But," you say, "Sab Than's not the real bad guy! This story is all about Matai Shang!"

Okay, so Matai Shang shows up, and yep, he's visually distinctive, at least. And he can apparently fly. And he gives Sab Than a big blue glove and says "This is awesome." So Sab Than tries to blow up Matai Shang with it, and nothing happens.

So that's not very impressive. We're still left with no real reason to hate Sab Than or Matai Shang, and Than's foolishness only makes both of them even less fearsome.

And Matai Shang changes appearance constantly through the movie, which undermines the point of his distinctive appearance. The whole point of giving a primary character a distinctive appearance is so that you can steadily build up an emotional association in your audience. When they see him, they see him doing something awful, and they hate him even more than they did before. They build an association between that feeling of disgust and his appearance.

Every time he appears in some other guise, that association is made less intense. So Shang's constant shape-changing undermines what's already a problem about this film -- our lack of emotional investment in the conflict of which he is a part.

And Shang never appears to do anything all that terrible, anyway. Nor does Sab Than. Oh sure, there's killing guys, but war is hell, right? And there's TALK about vague, terrible things, but we don't SEE any terrible things, so we don't develop any association between these characters and a sense of disgust or hatred. They're not blowing up planets and torturing plucky princesses. They're not corrupting brave warriors or whispering to Ringwraiths. They're not doing much of anything, it seems.

The Lesson

I'm not trying to hate on John Carter. I like the movie. Stanton's takes on both Carter and Thoris are fantastic, and both actors do a great job bringing two of my most beloved characters to life. The action scenes are well-played and the Tharks are other beasts are awesome.

But this is an instructive lesson, I think, for storytellers of all stripes, including GMs. It's hard to create truly memorable villains in an RPG, since so many games are crafted around the idea that the players will win every encounter. That means that upon meeting the bad guy, they will defeat him, and so there's rarely much of a chance to really build up that sense of hate and fear.

But how do you introduce bad guys, get your players to hate and fear them, without making it an immediate fight to the death? How do you delay the action of justice so that it's all the more satisfying when it happens?

One of my most memorable bad guys was an accountant. There's something about accountancy that helps keep players civilized, maybe.

I often outright tell my players to not try fighting a bad guy out of their weight class. My reasoning is that the characters are receiving far more non-verbal information than I can give the players, and so they have access to an understanding the players do not. So if I say, "You're very sure this guy will beat you all to a pulp if you look at him sideways," that's just their characters understanding some cues that are hard to express through the sort of narration available to a GM. Once the players are willing to let the scene play out, I find it much easier to build up bad guys they can really hate.

But are there better ways to do this? Do some games handle this better than others?