I heard last week on a mailing list for USC film school alumni that Nina Foch has passed away.
Nina taught the course on directing actors that was required of all first-semester students in the graduate screenwriting program at USC. As new students, none of us knew each other*, and most of us were new to Los Angeles. Some incoming students had directing and acting experience, while some of us… um… didn’t. It was the kind of “forged in fire” instructional experience that sticks with you forever. Nina never put a kind spin on a review of work she thought was crappy, and never pulled any punches. She was tough, and mostly fair.
Nina instructed obliquely, but with force. It took me more than a month to start to figure out what she meant when she talked about “intention.” And it turned out that the class would have been more accurately entitled “Deciphering and Assigning Intention, Because That’s The Only Thing It’s Important To Understand When You’re Directing Actors.”
You’d be most of the way to understanding what Nina meant by “intention” if you thought of it as “motivation.” But bafflingly to me at the time, she violently resisted “motivation” as a synonym for the thing she was trying to get us to understand. I finally came around to understand that “intention” was a word Nina used to describe what a dramatic character was trying to accomplish, internally, by doing some activity. “Motivation” wasn’t right because that could too easily be misunderstood as an exterior force.
Now, Nina never once just came out and said what she meant by the word “intention.” I’m still not sure whether that was clever pedagogy, or if her brain just didn’t function in a way that would let her define anything once and for all, clearly and unambiguously. But in any case, learning about intention was a long process of elimination. When she swore and yelled and made you feel like shit, you had misunderstood. When she didn’t, you might have gotten it right. (Alternately, you still might have misunderstood, but said a not-wrong thing by lucky accident.)
Imagine a writing teacher who desperately wants you to understand what he or she thinks is the most critical thing about writing fiction, and who has extremely precise and devastatingly different definitions for the terms “narrative” and “story,” but who can’t describe the difference between the two past being able to tell you either “absolutely not” or “perhaps” when you propose, say, a given passage of text as being one or the other.
This, it turns out, is how dogs are trained.
In any case, intention was always described in the form of an infinitive. “To apologize,” “to murder him,” “to set the table.” But a character’s intention was almost always divorced from the activity the character happened to be doing in the scene.
For the activity “to set the table,” a decent intention might be, “to show his mother how grown up he is.” For the intention “to murder him,” good activity choices might be casual cocktail party conversation, or a game of cribbage. Intentions, most often, were metaphorical.
The intention “to apologize” sticks in my mind because that’s what she eventually decided that I was doing when I talked about my alto saxophone in a class exercise called “hot objects.” To boil it down, each student brought in a physical object of emotional significance and verbally free-associated about, aloud. In jawing about the thing—telling stories about playing jazz in high school and college, and whatever else—I was more or less telling the horn that I was sorry to have put it in a closet for five years upon graduating from Hamline. The thing to understanding is that I never said anything remotely like, “Sorry about that, saxophone. Sure is a shame.” I told the stories that came to mind; what the people who were listening understood is that I was sorry.
It is, and it was, tricky, her phrase “intention.”
Anyway, I had been thinking—even before I heard that she had passed away—about Nina’s technical use of the term “intention” as I think it might relate to the discussion of core minutes of gameplay that we’ve been having in the comments of the DSU thread.
Our “core one minute” is a lot like her “intention” in one way because it’s slippery, and it’s concerned with interpreting art, or even Art. It’s obvious that it’s an important concept, and may even include the key to the whole question of why any given game works, or doesn’t. What’s more, I have the sense that an even slightly skewed misunderstanding of “core one minute,” just like a not-quite-right understanding of “intention,” would (a) be very easy to come by, and (b) lead you down an apparently useful road but one that was, in reality, dangerously wrong.
But also, “intention” goes to the question of why. It’s about the force that prompts and inspires a dramatic character’s action.
Understood correctly—and assuming that we eventually get there—the core minute might also wind up helping us figure out a game’s why.
That’s why I feel like “to command the awesome power of magic” is a compelling explanation of Ars Magica‘s core minute, and why I’m attracted to Paul Czege’s alternative proposal, “to test the power of magic and love against doubt and fear.” (Although I know exactly what Nina would say about that last proposal. She’d say, “I don’t know where to put my hands [to act that out].”
But a key difference from drama to gameplay when you talk about “why” is the difference between character and player. In games, intention has to be about why the player is playing.
So, the more I think about it, the more I think that the core minute of gameplay is more like the “activity” half of the intention/activity duality—the half that is at once essential and meaningless. Kevin Wilson and Eric Lang call this the “gameplay ritual” around the office. The word “ritual” works for me as a word for something that’s both essential and meaningless.
The really great thing is that understanding the core minute in that way, as part of a duality, would make room for some other thing in games: a bigger part, a motivating part, an ephemeral part, a part that means something bigger.
But since games are largely obsessed with the activity, I think that’s where they’ve historically fallen down. Players, critics, and designers haven’t generally seen far enough past the activity to make a serious stab at talking about or designing for an underlying intention-equivalent for games.
(And anyway, why call it an “intention-equivalent?” That’s horrible. How about we just use the perfectly good term Nina gave us, and just say that it’s an intention?)
But you object: Isn’t the intention of playing a game “to win?” Hell no. In Things We Think About Games (Thing 28), I wrote:
When playing a game, be aware that the other players are not necessarily playing for the same reason(s) that you are.
You might be playing to compete [to win], but the guy across the table might only have joined to hang out with the group, or bathe in the theme, or poach your girlfriend. Even among those who are “playing to play” there are different spins. Playing to win, playing to make sure everybody has fun, playing to broaden experience.
And what’s more, different games might drive the same player, with the same personality and same psychological make-up, to put on different intentions. I, personally, tend to play Eurogames to learn the systems, high-theme games to bring about as many awesome moments as possible, and roleplaying games to create stuff. Even beneath those three intention-like motivations, though, there are probably even deeper intentions. In my case, probably things like, “to avoid being left behind,” “to get back to my adolescence,” and “to vindicate my choice of profession,” respectively.
None of this goes to the questions that have come up recently about what the core period, or periods, of tabletop roleplaying might be. I’m cool with that. Maybe some other day I’ll delve into those questions; I do have some opinions.
We should fix the fact that the average cartoon does a better job at portraying the human condition than our games do.
The “A” that I finally got in Nina’s class was the hardest one I have ever earned, in my whole life of schooling. Gameplaywright is turning out to be an equally difficult course of study, made that much harder because none of us, here, have been making games for 60 years. Nina, a master of her craft, had already been acting for 13 years when she appeared in The Ten Commandments. Yes, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Freaking Commandments.
Rest deservedly, Nina. We’ll be groping around here, trying to figure it all out. Thanks for showing us a little bit of the way.
* Not entirely true. In the massivest fit of “small world” in which I’ve ever participated, the incoming class of thirty or so students that year included Chris Thell, who sat directly behind me, in an obviously alphabetical seating order, in my 7th grade life sciences class at Highview Middle School in New Brighton, Minnesota.