Friday, 23 October 2009

Immersive Worlds

A Replicated Typo recently posted on how bad the new Sci-Fi series Defying Gravity is. Charles Stross's blog on approaches to Sci-Fi is cited, basically making the point that a lot of Sci-Fis add lazers to ordinary dramas without thinking about the consequences for the characters.

It's a good point that many sci-fi programs seem to have fancy technology just for looking at, without any of it changing the way the characters interact or think about the world. However, there are some TV Sci-Fi shows that build the world from the ground up. My favourite example is the Ghost in the Shell spin-off TV series Stand Alone Complex. The show follows a team of anti-terrorists in the year 2030, where society has changed in response to the invention of e-brains and cybernetics. I often got the feeling that Masamune Shirow did not create a world, just write about one he happened to visit at some point.

There are two things that make SAC feel like a total immersion in a different world. Firstly, because it's animated, there is no difference between 'real' and 'CGI'. That is, suspension of disbelief is easier. Secondly, the new technology has a direct affect on the lives of the characters. Not only does the proliferation of cybernetics have an effect on what it means to be human, there are new ways to interact, and new ways to break the law (mind-hacking). Similarly, Orwell's invention of 'Thought-Crime' in Nineteen-Eighty-Four created a culture with new pressures.

As a side-note, also similar to Nineteen-Eighty-Four, SAC looks at the balance between public privacy and public security. However, the heroes of SAC are constantly hindered by lack of surveillance, and the viewer comes to empathise with their need for more information, quite contrary to the reader's response to Winston Smith's situation.

Back to Defying Gravity, it's difficult to see how a small crew going on a single journey aroud the solar system would change a culture. Perhaps Defying Gravity will eventually get around to this. I don't doubt that space travel can change a society's perception of itself, but how different is it from the moon landings for the average person?

Here we get to the root of the distinction between immersive worlds and drama-driven worlds. In the drama-driven world, the big change usually only occurs for a small, elite group of people. For example, Defying Gravity. In an immersive world, the big difference is global and the protagonists are more ordinary people who must survive in it. For example, Nineteen-Eighty-Four or Ghost in the Shell.

Furthermore, the aims of both approaches now becomes apparent. Ordinary society + extraordinary people = drama. Ordinary people + extraordinary society = social commentary/satire. The examples continue: Heroes vs. Dawn of the Dead, Star-Trek vs. Neal Stephenson's Anathem, Dr. Who vs. Watchmen.

So, maybe it's just a lack of satire that A Recplicated Typo is missing. If so, you've got the formula now, so go out and make your own show.

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