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A Novel Protagonist with a Health Meter? at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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Denis coovermanI Love You, Beth Cooper was described to me as a John Hughes film as a book. It has the nerdy protagonist. The unreachable cheerleader (slated to be played by the quintessential cheerleader, Hayden Panettiere). The wacky friend and loads of comic violence thanks to Larry Doyle, writer for The Simpsons (and it shows). But it also has an unusual feature. One from the world of video games: a health meter.

At the start of each chapter (or perhaps level), the reader is greeted with a status update, a version of the cover image (by Evan Dorkin) of our anti-hero, Denis Cooverman, revealing the current state of his much maligned body, including (without spoiling):

Status Updates on Dennis Cooverman

  • Bloodied Nose
  • Blackened Eye
  • Mosquito-bitten Flesh
  • Sweat-Spurting Scalp

And the list continues.

Not only does the image reveal his Health, it also shows his state of dress (and undress) as well as his progress toward (or rapidly away from) happiness, via a content smile or (more often) a look of extreme, adolescent panic as he is chased by a psychopath in the company of the reckless girl of his dreams.

The illustration serves as a teaser of what will come, somewhat like the reverse structure of Memento. You see the picture and wonder how the character will get there. More significantly, the illustrations help readers watch Doyle plague this punching bag in very funny stages of teenage torture.

Like a health meter, the reader knows how much body Dennis has remaining at any given time. Reading the book becomes the experience of seeing how far we can make our quarter last, how far we have to go before having to restart the system.

Contrast this with a story like The Quixote, where the Man of La Mancha is pummeled, broken, twisted, beaten, and has his teeth knocked out far beyond the typical number of molars and incisors. Though a health meter hardly promises veritas, it at least guarantees that the character’s suffering will be restricted to the comically exaggerated limits of his illustrated body and that the main character will always be in view.

Literature is full of fictions that center on the courses of individual bodies, growing up, growing old, and occasionally growing younger. Consider The Death of Ivan Ilych or Death in Venice, books which follow the progressions of a body’s demise (Thanks to Jessica Pressman for these suggestions). Or consider The Picture of Dorian Gray, which could be similarly illustrated (and no doubt has) with the chronological age of the character. Of course, the power of these books is the narrative’s ability to keep updating our mental image of the author’s state. What changes when novel’s give a repeated graphical meter?

Doyle’s novel suggests the permeation of video game aesthetics into novels, as popular entertainment incorporates the conventions of technologies that visualize progress and state. How many bars do I have? How long before this thing is done loading? How many meters before I turn?

This book only begins the incorporation of status meters. Couldn’t we also use the health meter of the antagonist? A love meter? A fate indicator? Distance from “the turning point.” Denouement speedometer? Perhaps a score for making it through particularly dense sections of Joyce or Pynchon. If my electric razor can tell me how much charge it has left, why can’t my novel tell me how much conflict remains?

Status Meters and Heads Up Displays

Of course the art of the heads up display has evolved with its own aesthetic principles. In Gamasutra, Greg Wilson wrote this insightful critique of status meters back in 2006. His aesthetic stresses building the status meter into the diegesis of the world (a race car dashboard that displays speed or the car itself displaying damage).

Literary games and interactive stories such as Passages and Façade reveal status without breaking the diegetic structure. As your avatar ages or as your friends turn their backs on one another, the status of the fictional world becomes self-evident.

While games and interactive stories move to naturalize status, Doyle’s technique moves to denaturalize characterization, to pull it out of the verbal and into the visual, to take it from the imaginary and into the image, the icon. It keeps us from that immersion in the character and in the world of play. The body of the avatar becomes like the video game character, something that can be warn down or powered up, something that can be referred to in between levels. What we see here is a change in the relationship of the book to the reader, who is not trying to imagine but to watch as the book acts upon the avatar.

Live and Let Diegesis

Diegesis is cool. To respect it is to show-not-tell. It is to say it without spraying it. To some extent this aesthetic assumes that you want to create an unbroken immersive experience. But there is some sense that in most circumstances of interactive design, building the buttons and feedback mechanisms into the storyworld represents a kind of attention to detail and respect for the interactor.

Consider the case of the Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novel. This is a digital graphic novelization of the story of Metal Gear Solid. Interactors watch a series of sequences in graphic novel form, gradually collecting parts of the story to fill a flowchart called The Memory Building Simulator. Essentially the system keeps track of how many of the 271 comic panels the interactor has scene. A metor indicates how many Memory elements have been collected. This novel-as-game includes a task-accomplished or story encountered meter of the (See Giant Bomb’s write up)

Here then is the meter system used to give interactors incentive to view the complete contents. However, the Giant Bomb reviewer seems to appreciate the work that has gone into creating the fictional environment in which interactors serve the meters. The reviewer comments:

Due to the terminology used for many features and menus in the game, one could easily come to the conclusion that the creator’s intention was to have the “player” feel as if they are accessing the Metal Gear universe’s VR database. Due to the fact that you shouldn’t be able to interact with the story for time-paradox-avoidance purposes, it is a very clever way of addressing why the game isn’t as interactive as other Metal Gear games. While this is something rather minuscule and meaningless, that many other game developers would likely overlook, Kojima Productions obviously cared enough for the material to come up with a plausible and artistic identity and means of expression for the product.

Here the novel-game has created a game-like goal to motivate passage through the information. Novels do not typically need such incentive systems, largely because they have a clearly identifiable last page and a physical representation of progress (the number of pages read and remaining). In the world of electronic narratives, progress and status are important pieces of information to represent.

Is this a sign of the influence of video games on novels? Again, this book is more cinematic, but the find found me rooting through my shelves for other books that have progress bars of various kinds.

Let’s Play a Game Book

Of course, Game Books are a genre in themselves, though not exactly “mainstream” or high literary. Jeremy points us to the hundreds at Gamebooks.org. He notes:

It doesn’t always have to be a health meter or an RPG-oriented simulation — for example, The Money Spider is a choose-your-own-adventure style detective gamebook that only tracks keeps track of all the knowledge you collect in various numerical registers of a 1-pg spiderweb drawing called “the Web” and then directs reading accordingly, e.g. “If you have marked 10 on the Web, turn to 218; otherwise, turn to 178.”

From my own book shelves, I find several other examples. In Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, the player/reader entered their player data on an Adventure Sheet, featuring:

  • Skill, Stamina, Luck
  • Gold, Jewels, Potions
  • Provisions Remaining
  • Items of Equipment Carried

In Eric Affabee’s Wizards, Warriors, & You (Book 2, at least), the system was simplified so readers could merely flip coins when battle sequences engaged. (The first in the series, incidentally, was written by R.L.Stine)

In his essays on stories and game, Jimmy Maher writes of another series, “Lone Wolf series created by Joe Dever,” which allowed the reader to take their character from book to book.

Ramifications for Elit

When I was presenting “12 Lessons to Better Time Travel” (Windows &
MAC) to Scott Fisher’s class at USC, one student suggested adding a status bar to help readers develop a sense of what they had seen so far. The idea was to motivate them. Similar suggestions have been made for “a show of hands,” as readers stress the usefulness of visualizations to give reader’s progress updates. (”a show of hands” already includes a percentage-read function, as part of the Literatronica system).

I suspect other classics have also offered status reports through maps or images of characters, as in The Canterbury Tales. I don’t want to water down this idea to just encapsulate illustration in general, though I can remember using the illustrations at the start of chapter books to get a sense of what was to come in the plot.

Status is a meaningful part of storytelling. Pages left to be read. Minutes left to watch. Songs left to hear. Rooms left to Traverse. How we convey status affects immersion. When we represent status, diegetically or extra-diegetically, we decide whether the reader will squirm in the shoes of a protagonist or expect the opportunity for a do-over, a magic button to reset the game. We also decide whether we are going to give the reader a gold star or rely on that ever elusive sense of satisfaction, those intangible rewards from slogging it out on our own. In any event considerations of status acknowledge the interactor and reader’s desire to determine how far they’ve come, how far they’ve left to go, and whether or not they will proceed at all.

Writers Respond This: What other status novels have you seen? What role does status play in your experience of story?

[Incidentally, also came across reports of a Sims 2 mod that offers a Novel Writing Progress Bar, for those less interested in novels simulate playing video games and more interested in games that simulate writing a novels. For your own novel, you could use one of these.]



1 Response to “A Novel Protagonist with a Health Meter?”

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    Great news man ! ! ! keep up the good work . . and i have just subscribed

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