Friday, February 18, 2011

The King of Kong and character

While we are on the subject of people who seem to like games too much but are actually quite sane, I wanted to recommend a movie I saw a few months ago on Netflix: The King of Kong.

This 2007 documentary is part of the indie tradition of visiting a geeky subculture (Renaissance Faire denizens, video gamers, independent horror filmmakers) and revealing their complex social systems (so like our own! and yet so weird!). The tone is usually one of mockery with an unconvincing glaze of bittersweet. (If only we, the knowing, could have such an all-absorbing passion that we didn't care what other people thought of us...) And it does appear, as a few reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes have pointed out, that The King of Kong started out with those intentions. It tells the story of a changing of the guard in the world of classic arcade gaming, namely the nearly-impossible-to-master game of Donkey Kong.*

But then something shifts. Steve Wiebe, whose quest to be acknowledged as the game's new champion provides the movie's narrative, refuses to be put into the geek-viewing tank. The filmmakers try, in the beginning, to make him conform, interviewing his wife about how obsessive he is, and his dashed dreams of playing baseball (the pathology is obvious, yes?). Meanwhile Wiebe calmly goes about his business of teaching science to kids, being a father, chatting amiably with his interviewers, and playing Donkey Kong--which we slowly begin to gather isn't any stranger than, say, playing tennis for several hours a day, or writing at great length about people who exist only in our own minds. The film seems to step back at a certain point and let him be who he is, an act of generosity.

Fiction writers can learn from this, I think. We may often start out wanting, or needing, characters to play a certain role, especially if we have a plot in mind that we want to advance. Steve the Gamer has to be a troubled soul, so we can reveal the whole world of Donkey Kong as a (bittersweet) refuge for life's losers. But Steve, we find, won't go there. Without meaning any harm, he breaks our plot and reveals it as a sham--or a mere starting point that has to be revised in light of new evidence. Let him be who he is, and he will make your story better. And he may teach you something about your own assumptions.

*From brief experience, dredged up from the mists of the early 80s, I can tell you this game is freaking hard. My favorite games from the 80s were Galaxians and its variant, Phoenix. Although now I'm such a softie that I don't think I could stand a game involving shooting birds--even alien birds bent on wiping out the human race...

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