Why experimental art matters: Looking at art from an A.I perspective.

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection … of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower …                                                                                                                                                                  “Artists against the Eiffel Tower” petition,14 February 1887

Did you know that the Eiffel Tower, the symbol of Paris  the most visited city globally with 80 million tourists per year , was heavily confronted and fought against,by the contemporary artists of the time? When I first got this information I was quite impressed and stunned, but then again, it’s easy to judge after the fact.

Recently, I visited Tate Modern and I didn’t understand almost any of the exhibits. They looked to me like a  pretentious, self-praising, pompous waste of time.We all, at some point in our lives, came in contact with weird and experimental art. Whether it was the Holy Mountain or whether it was something like that:


Let’s be honest, we have all wondered “why is this called art?” or “what is this good for?”. I am not going to get into the what-is-art argument, but I am here to tell you this weird/experimental/underground art does serve a purpose: It keeps the rest of the Art healthy preventing it from suffering a death by stagnation and I am going to use A.I in order to prove that: They are the exploration nodes of the human intellect.

Exploration vs Exploitation in A.I

There are a lot of A.I algorithms designed to solve vastly different problems, but a running theme in all of them ( or most of them, I haven’t seen all of them to be certain), is the choice between exploration and exploitation. Exploitation is when the A.I is choosing to do something, because it believes it’s the best thing to do. It’s the “I am doing this because, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the best move to make” mentality. Exploration is when the A.I is choosing to do something randomly, because ,who knows?, maybe something will come out of that. It’s the “Let’s do this random thing and see what happens” mentality.

Here is a simple example:Let’s say that you have some free time in your afternoon. You have two choices either do what you always do, which is  watch Netflix, or try something new ( you don’t know what, but it sounds exciting!). The first option is the exploitation ( you are basing your decision based on what you know) and the second one is the exploration.


To get more technical the simplest method to implement an exploration vs exploitation is the \epsilon-greedy method, where  the agent chooses the action that it believes has the best long-term effect with probability1-\epsilon, and it chooses an action uniformly at random, otherwise.

Now, the natural response is, “wait I thought that A.I was supposed to be all about thinking smart, what do you mean, they make the A.I random things?”.

Artificial Intelligence scientists have realized that only using your current knowledge to perform actions is not the best way to solve a problem. This will lead you to be stuck in a small area of the solution space. A healthy system needs to have a small element of randomness. Just like in our own example: If you only decide to spend your evenings Netflix, you will have an okay life, but you may be missing opportunities a lot of opportunities to have a great life. For example maybe you should have accepted that invitation to try an escape room, or to go out with some friends: Maybe this would lead you to discover a new passion in your life, or meet someone exciting and interesting.

In other words occasionally you have to try something new.

The tricky part in A.I is to find the balance between exploration and exploitation. You don’t want to get stuck in the same routine, but don’t want to force yourself to do something new every day either, your everyday life would lose consistency and meaning. It’s the same with A.I . Too much exploration and the A.I agent will just end up doing random insequential things. Too much exploitation and the A.I will be stuck in a local maximum. It’s the balance that makes an agent able to discover the best solution available for a problem.

Exploration vs Exploitation in Sciences

The same principle applies  for art and human thought. Quit often I hear the argument, “why do I care about CERN or the God Particle?”. I am pretty sure some wise-ass told Newton in England “why is is useful to know how fast the apple is falling if I get hit anyway?”. The real answer is : You don’t know. However, just because you don’t know the immediate results or implications doesn’t mean that it’s not worth exploring. Einstein’s theory of relativity, when published, seemed an obscure hypothesis concerning only Physicians closed in their libraries for far too long, completely disconnected from our everyday lives. Yet, today we use this theory every day in our phone’s GPS systems. This is why it’s important to have research in Universities and not only funded by companies. Whereas, company funded research is important it will tend to be a little more short-sighted and geared towards profit. It will not venture into the unknown or try to think outside of the box. Again, we have exploitation vs exploration concept.

Exploration vs Exploitation in Art

So, back to art, next time you see a very weird art-piece remember 9 out of 10 times it will be just something utterly meaningless, self-entitled piece lacking any substance. Anyone having visited Tate Modern in London can attest to that.  These 9 pieces though serve as the incubator for that tenth little gem which will become a catalyst to progress a whole medium and for us to see things a little bit differently. They are the exploration factor of our system and they prevent the rest of the system from becoming too narrow-minded and parochial. They prohibit it from getting stuck in a local maximum. Do they sometimes overdo it? Yeah, most of the times, but yet again maybe it’s alright for Art to do that, since it always represented the less orthodox and logical parts of our thinking process.

This is why ,although art almost never has practical applications it is equally important it does not  become stagnant and lifeless. Art affects human thought and it is a source inspiration and influence for the rest of us. The Catholic Church used art in the form of the Baroque theme to fight the Protestant reform.   If artists were not experimenting we would still be having only Greek Drama for theater and Church music on the radio. Our paintings would still be about red hands on caves.

So, next time we see a weird piece of art remember: It’s the exploration price we have to pay in order to  remain vibrant and alive , the ticket toll in order to ameliorate the standards the medium as a whole.

Let’s talk: Game Design and Politics, a surprising combination

Recently, in Greece we had snap elections that were caused when the opposition party SYRIZA refused to vote the government’s nominee for the President’s position. Greece has a semi-presidential system (it’s a system where the government is run by the prime minister and the head of state, the President, is more of a ceremonial position).  Parliaments are elected with national elections every 4 years and Presidents, in turn, are elected by the Parliament every 5 years. There are 300 MPs. To promote stability first party gets a 50 seat bonus and the rest 250 seats are distributed based on the number of votes. In  order to form a government you need the majority, at least 151 votes. Every 5 years whoever is in government must elect a new President. You get 3 chances to elect a new President. At the first two ballots you need a supermajority of 200 votes from MPs and in your third shot you need 180. If the government fails to elect it’s nominee the parliament gets disbanded and we get snap elections.  Confused? Let’s have an overview again:

  • Parliaments are elected every 4 years
  • You need 151 votes out of 300 to form a government. You get 50 seats bonus in order to do that.
  • Presidents, a ceremonial position, are elected every 5 years by the parliaments
  • Prime minister names a nominee.
  • You need 180 votes out of 300 to get a president elected.
  • If you fail,  government falls and we get snap elections.
  • First thing the new government must do is name a new nominee for President.
  • Repeat until a president is elected.

What happened in Greece, a few months back, was that the government formed by a coalition of the political parties New Democracy and PASOK and lead by prime minister Antonis Samaras failed to elect their nominee Stavros Dimas as a president. We had snap elections which were overwhelmingly won by the opposition party SYRIZA led by the current prime minister Alexis Tsipras.

The leader of the Opposition Alexis Tsipras won the snap elections he caused over the Presidential election on 2015.

The interesting part was that there a wide criticism towards SYRIZA and its leader Alexis Tsipras for toppling the government and causing snap elections and instability over a ceremonial position. Many argued that perhaps it was time for the constitution to change, so that government wouldn’t have to be held “hostage” every 5 years by the opposition ( in Greece, even though the leading party gets a bonus of 50 seats, a majority almost always has less than 180 seats in the parlament , thus the opposition’s consent is required in order to elect the president). They argued that SYRIZA got elected by exploiting an over sighted flaw in the process and it was time for the system to change. The critics included lawyers,judges and constitutional experts.

Is, however, the system really flawed? Let’s have a look from an unusual perspective, that of a game designer.

Let’s examine it a little bit differently…

Game design is, essentially, system design. Our job is to create systems that, generally, provide entertainment. These systems always include rule sets that humans must abide, so in a sense we are also law makers, at least when it comes to the game world. One difference may be that we tend to have a holistic view of the systems since we are interested in the performance of the system as a whole, rather than each rule separately.

So here we have a game with two players, the government and the opposition. Government wants to elect a President, the opposition wants to stop them.Let’s take a step back here and look at the rules a little more carefully.

  • You need 151 votes out of 300 to form a government. You get 50 seats bonus in order to do that.
  • To elect a president you need 180 votes.

Hmmm the requirements are a little bit weird aren’t they?  You need 151 votes to be granted executive and legislative power over a country, however for the president , a ceremonial position with no real power you need 180. For game designers weird rules like that are red flags. Either  the law maker was high on drugs when he was making this system or something else is up.

Have you ever heard of the term “the dictatorship of 51%”. It’s a term used to describe a potential abuse of the Democratic process. If everything is decided by majority then,in theory, half of the population may be ruled by the other half, sine the law of the majority is absolute. It’s a sign that healthy democracy can’t be something as simple as ” let’s decide by a raise of hands”. So what does the presidential election have to do with this? Everything. You see presidential elections are a safeguard against that very “dictatorship of 51%”. Remember that odd 180 vote requirement? Bingo. By demanding 180 votes, the law maker is telling the ruling party that they can’t completely ignore the opposition. They can’t afford to burn all the bridges, because every 5 years they will need their consent to elect someone, in an otherwise useless and completely powerless position.

Democracy is something more complicated than “rule of the majority”

Furthermore, the 180-presidential vote balances out the 50 seat bonus that the first party gets in order to form a government. So, from one hand the law-maker tells you “right, I recognize the need for stability that’s why I will give  50 extra seats to the first party”, but then he comes back and adds “Buuuut this is not exactly fair is it? We are practically rigging the elections with this 50-seat bonus. So, every 5 years I am going to ask you for something more than that”. Essentially, since the 50-seat bonus is adulterating the consistency of the parliament, the presidential elections gets transformed into the real  vote of confidence to the government!  Naturally, the question that pops up in your head right now is “if that 50-seat bonus is causing so many headaches, why not simply reduce it or remove it?”. Right, time for some Game Design.

Rigging one system to achieve a result is something very common when making games. You create a  game mechanic and then you realize that you need to tweak a certain aspect of it. This usually causes a chain reaction as pushing a system beyond its normal means has consequences. However, you can’t just undo the change, since it provides with a very special effect that you want. To counter-balance it you change another game mechanic accordingly, so that the system as a whole becomes balanced again.

Confused? Here is an example with over-clocking.  With over-clocking, one pushes its CPU, beyond the normal parameters. As a result you get extra processing power, but as a consequence you also get extra heating. Simply undoing the over-clocking is not a solution ( you need the power) , so you change another system, ventilation, to counter it instead. Thus, the whole system becomes normal again. Well, not exactly normal since these changes tend to stack, but it’s better than nothing. Now, back to our presidential election. The law-maker couldn’t just remove the 50-seat bonus, because he needed the stability, so he added the presidential election as well. The 50-seat bonus is your over-clocking of the winning party, the 180-votes for the president is your ventilation. Simple!


The counter-argument to all of the above is “Yeah we get all that,  but that doesn’t mean that the system can’t be abused. The opposition can still overthrow the government every 5 years duh…”. No, the opposition will not do that. As a proof this rule has been in place for 40 years before it got used to overthrow a government. How come for 40 years the opposition never used it to cause snap elections? Don’t they won’t to become government? Of course they do, but there is something stopping them. This “something” are a set of special unwritten rules operating in a system. There is no documentation of them and they are not official, but they are just as powerful. Due to their “unofficial” nature lawyers tend to ignore them, but Game Designers have a name for them: Metagaming.

Unwritten Rules

Let’s see what wikipedia has to say about metagaming:

Metagaming is any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself.

We will take that definition, because it’s simple,understandable and accurate. Metagaming can take many forms:

  • The evolution of chess openings.
  • Football systems.
  • That adc heroes in League of Legends need someone to support them.
  • All forms of “fair play”. For example in football when a player is injured, any team having the ball will get it out of the game, so that nurses can attend the injured.

Good game designers will always take meta-gaming into account. There are quite a few games that have a good ruleset but bad meta-gaming ( I am looking at you Helldivers )  and vice versa ( my name is Settlers of Catan I have a simple rule-set and a VERY deep meta). Games that involve human multiplayer tend to have a very deep meta-gaming. Politics is such a system. Maybe it’s THE meta-gaming system, since in politics is a system that abounds with unwritten rules. Any attempt, to examine a political system without taking the meta into account is going to lead to false conclusions.

So what’s the meta-gaming in our case of presidential election? Political cost.

Remember, every Government practically needs the Opposition’s vote to elect a president due to 180 votes requirement. However, if the Opposition decides to cause snap elections by refusing to vote for the Government’s candidate, they do technically overthrow a legally elected, even unpopular Government. And that never plays well in public opinion. It’s not written anywhere, it’s not  official, but it is an iron-clad rule. What’s makes it worse is that snap elections are caused over a ceremonial position, so the Opposition can never mask their intentions in any way.Makes more sense now, why this absurd number of votes is required for a position with no real power huh? This way no one can use “political differences” as an excuse. If you cause snap elections over the Presidential elections, you caused snap elections for the sake of it and everybody will know.

This means that any Opposition causing snap elections over the President, must be absolutely certain, that they are going to win, even after receiving the penalty for overthrowing the Government.  If such conditions exist it means there is, truly, a dissonance between people’s will and the elected Government, thus it’s time for elections. Suddenly the reason why no-one has abused the rule for 40 years makes sense: No one could handle the political cost. The meta-gaming was holding them back.

American Congress

Even if you are still not convinced after all the above arguments let’s have a look at a case scenario where the Opposition did try to overthrow the Government, but it ended up blowing in their face.

American democracy is a full-presidential democracy, where the President is also the head of state. President holds the executive power while the legislative power rests with the Congress. The interesting thing about American Democracy is that tge executive branch and the legislative branch have different elections.  It’s a little bit complicated, but to simplify it President’s get elected every 4 years and a big portion of the Congress get elected every 2 years. This difference in elections means that you may have Democrats controlling the executing branch and Republicans controlling the legislative branch and vice verse ( it’s the dreaded Midterm elections that American politicians are scared of) .

Now, imagine those who criticize the concept of the Opposition being able to cause snap elections over a president, to stomach the Government controlling one branch of the government and the Opposition controlling another. No country would ever accomplish anything with a system like that! How can a system like that work?Well, not only it works, but judging by the fact that USA is the strongest country out there, I guess it works pretty well. What makes it work so well? The meta gaming.Yes, in theory, the Government can get stranded by a stubborn Opposition. However, let’s see what happened last time when the Opposition tried to pull a trick like that:

In September 2013, Republican controlled Congress refused to vote for ObamaCare, the Health Care program of Democrat President Obama, using the USA Government lending limit as an excuse. As a result the USA government was shut down.

Republicans believed that they had the public opinion supporting them, and they probably did. However, a strange thing happened: Public opinion turned against them. This whole stunt turned out to be a major PR disaster for the Republic Party. President Obama may not have been a popular president at the time,but he was an elected President and to people’s eyes it looked like the opposition was pulling a coup. A whole lot of Republican Congressmen, tried to exploit the written rules and they fell into a meta-gaming trap that was set up decades ago.

The Republican fiasco as it was depicted in newspapers 

Systems involving humans

So far we’ve see how Politics can benefit from Game Design, but what about the opposite? Designing games involving humans can be tricky. Humans exploit the rules, are always attempting to find loopholes and, sometimes, are really hard to entertain. Furthermore, game designers are struggling to predict their behavior , especially when it comes to interactions between the players such as trade, alliances etc. Sometimes games try to completely ignore that element, by “freezing” the relationship to a certain state, for example “Axis and Allies” or Starcraft 2. Others are applying the same rules for diplomacy that exist between humans and A.I, like Civilization 5, but this approach usually fails to express the complexity of negotiations between human players.

I think that the best approach is neither. Players don’t appreciate it when they are restricted in the ways they can interact or ever worse when they cannot interact at all. In the end finding the best way to deal with human interactions in games can be a hard to solve riddle. Notice that the politicians were faced with a similar problem, having to deal with a system that involved humans , perhaps on of the most complicated ones as well. So, what did they do when it came to rule-making? We haven’t directly  expressed it so far, but I guess you must have figured it out by now:

They didn’t make a single rule :P. They left it completely to meta.

Surprised? Don’t be! Remember: The bonus of seats awarded to the first party and the presidential election are a formally expressed rule. However, the balancing mechanics are all meta-gaming. Same situation with the American Congress. Separation of Powers is a formal rule, but the political cost of abusing them? Meta. And it works precisely because it’s meta. Meta-gaming is not expressed, it’s not written, it just… exists. This means that there is no “official” conditions of where the rules apply and no one is certain of how it works. This, not only serves as a form of protection against exploitation, it also prevents “certain to win” strategies, gives the game depth and makes it last in time.

In other words the best way to incorporate human interactions in your game design is… don’t. Just set up the game setting and let the humans, figure it out themselves.As a final note to convince you, remember one the most famous games that revolves around human interactions, yet it doesn’t have a single rule about them. There is no safe-way to play it but, like in real-life politics, you just have to be ready for the back stab.

Let’s talk narrative: It’s supposed to be plot-driven, you stupid

Recently I tried watching Sense 8 on Netflix. I had such high expectation. With the creator of Babylon 5 on one hand and the writers of Matrix on the other this was going to be the next big thing right?



What a disappointment:While the series started really strong then it felt…. flat.

There are many people criticizing Sense 8, because “there were too many homosexuals in it”. They are generally right, but they are also a little bit off the mark. The problem is not the presence of homosexuals in the story, rather that the story focuses too much on their personal lives. I spent episodes, upon episodes learning about the love life of the characters, their every day life, their dreams and fears. The show was trying to make me care, but I couldn’t really make myself care. On the contrary, I found myself despising the protagonists because not a single one of them tried to discuss their new power with the other seven, or wonder about it, or even experiment. At least not for the first seven episodes.

This is what I call the “Burning Questions” issue.

The “Burning Questions” Issue

The “Burning Questions” issue is when a story drops a bomb in the scenario and then focuses on something completely different, like the protagonist’s love life, thus leaving the audience “burning” with questions.

In Sense 8, we start with 8 characters who suddenly  each sees and feels what the other 7 see and feel. These characters are spread throughout the world and are living different lives. Pretty interesting huh? I am sure by reading just this sentence right now you are already thinking one thing:

-How did this happen? Why?

This is our “burning question”. The heroes had something completely abnormal happened to them and we need to know how and why.  Notice that our main questions does not have to do anything with the characters themselves. We do not, at least not immediately, care who these people are or how is their love life. Sure it may be interesting, but DUDE YOU CAN MAGICALLY FEEL WHAT OTHER 7 PEOPLE FEEL AROUND THE GLOBE, YOU CAN TELL ME ABOUT YOUR BOYFRIEND SOME OTHER TIME.Don’t get me wrong, at some point I would like to know more about the characters but the story structure these TV Series are following… It’s like seeing a guy getting out of an exploding car, being chased by aliens and then you ask him, “So how are your marriage problems?”.

Now, it’s okay if the series does not answer these critical question right away. We wouldn’t want the scenario to unfold immediately. However, it is a problem when the heroes seem to ignore these questions as well. I don’t really get what is the point of having a huge blast in the story and then have the scenario focus on the characters instead. This is a problem many science fiction or fantasy shows, like Battlestar Galactica, Last Resort, Dominion, Stargate: Infinity.  

This is happening what was clearly meant to be a plot-driven story is treated as a character-driven one.

Character-Driven vs Plot-Driven Stories

Generally stories are being divided into two categories. Character-driven and plot-driven. Character-driven writing is focused on the characters and the internal change. Plot driven writing is focused on the events. To borrow  a definition from Gordon Dorrance:

Character-driven – [..] character-driven writing focuses on the inner conflict of the characters that you’ve created. [..] your reader will spend time thinking about the characters and their attitudes, personal evolutions and decisions, and how those, in turn, change the shape of the plot and the story as a whole

Plot driven – Plot-driven stories, on the other hand, place a larger emphasis on the actual plot itself. Factors such as plot twists, action and external conflict are what make up the focus of this style of writing. In most cases, the goals of the story are more external in that they are focused on the development of a situation.

In other words when it’s a plot-driven story we ask questions about the events. If it’s a character-driven one we ask questions about the characters.

Plot driven story example?

One good example of a plot-driven story is “The Lord of the Rings”. It’s a story where actions take priority over characters. It’s not that we are not rooting for the hero, but think about it: How much information do you really know about the members of the Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf was a mystery, if someone wants to know about him he must read the Silmarilion. Same goes for Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir and name me one thing about the 4 hobbits’ background, besides “being related to Bilbo”. Frodo, for example, the protagonist decides to undertake a life-changing, dangerously hopeless quest, because… wait, why does he do it indeed? I mean a decision like that , we must spent at least some pages analyzing the motives of the hero right?

Oh right, he is one of the good guys. He does it because it’s the right thing to do. Right…

See, this is the magic of the plot-driven story. You still root for the good guy even though you don’t really know anything about him. The story is made like that. You are not supposed to really care. They are the bad guys , we are the good guys, get over it and pack your things we are going on an adventure!


Character driven story example?

If you want to see character-driven story done right go watch “12 Angry Men”. The story of the movie is that twelve jury member get inside a room to discuss whether they will condemn a young man,accused for murder, to the death sentence. Eleven of them are in favor of the execution. One is not.The movie depicts their conversation. That’s it. No explosions, no aliens, no spaceships, no out-of-this-world events (please take a not of that, it’s important). Just twelve men, with their personalities, their egos, their prejudices, their views upon their world trying to reach a decision about a fellow citizen.


This is how you do a character-driver story. In fact there is a whole murder in the story and we don’t even care about the crime (  the movie never really tells us whether the accused was guilty or not). What we really care is the characters. Why do they behave they way they do? How does their personality and lives affect the way they view the very same events? What makes them decide someone is guilty or innocent?

Let me, however, state something up front: This is not exact science. Nor there are formalized definitions of which is which. Here I am giving some extreme example but it doesn’t mean that every story is either strictly plot-driven or character-driven.  Some are a mixture of both and this is not a necessary bad thing. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that every story is suited to have elements of both. Science fiction tends to be better-suited for plot-driven stories.

It’s basic showmanship

You remember before when I said that in 12 men there are no out-of-this-world events? There is a reason for that: When you have big explosions and spaceships on  on screen it’s really hard to convince your audience to focus on down-to-earth events like character development. An event that breaks the laws of reality, is bound to steal the attention. Simply put, you are off to a bad-start. As I said in the Burning Questions part in the beginning “WHO CARES ABOUT YOUR BOYFRIEND,HOW CAN YOU FEEL WHAT OTHER PEOPLE DO???”. Every performer will tell you the same thing: “If A is more flashy than B and you want people to focus on B you never put A and B together on stage”. FIFA knows this very well:  In the Olympic Games the big stars of football teams do not participate in the event. Football popularity is so big that will erase everything else from the map. However, in the Olympics they want people to focus on other sports , they have Mundial for football. Thus, they remove flashy A from the scene, so that the audience can focus on humble B.


Character development in TV series also has one more thing going against it: TV is a medium that favors visuals. In a book we can use our imagination to give equal importance to events and to character’s thoughts. On TV though where explosions are explosions and character’s internal monologues get translated into just a 2-second close up in their eyes , the deck is stacked against you. So, yes, spaceships, aliens and paranormal activity on TV series is your Mundial and character development is your Olympic Games. They can equally be entertaining but put one next to the other, and the Olympics don’t stand a chance.


Not the best place for character development…

Let’s face it, stacking spaceships on your screen will not make the audience wonder about the inner-workings of your characters. By definition you are moving the focus elsewhere. On a book you can make it happen, but on the screen is almost impossible. There are exceptions like Solaris or STALKER  but notice how both movies keep the special effects to a minimum. Especially in STALKER the paranormal element was… a room. An empty room where wishes come true. In the movie Sphere the plot is very similar, it’s just that the wish granting device is an alien golden sphere in an alien spaceship at the bottom of the ocean. It is clear which movie wanted to question human behavior and which movie aimed for the “wow” factor.

Then why? Why do writers do this to themselves and keep trying to shove character development in a story that is clearly not fit for it?

Lack of imagination: It’s easier to do a little bit of both 

You know who was good in writing good characters? Dostoevsky. Read Crime and Punishment You get drawn in by the main character Raskolnikov immediately. You put the book down and you keep thinking about the character. It shows how bad  spoon fed TV-based character development is ( this is a scene where we show you that the character is cruel, this is a scene where we show you that the character is also sensitive -> character development complete).  Yes, good character development is that hard.

Having said that, character writing plot-driven stories for fantasy universes is just as hard! You need to set up a whole universe, rules, lore, story and I am forgetting some. Do you think writers from the Start Trek Next Generation are easy to find? Or that every book has a well-structured universe like Middle Earth?So what do you do? If doing either really good is hard, to compensate you do a little bit of both. This way you avoid to either have a very good structured and imaginative universe or to have  deep and well written characters, since the focus of your viewers is divided. The fallacy they are falling into is that these two elements are not additive. A story with half-character development and half-plot development usually does not equal one which is exceptional in either fields.

Essentially putting character elements in a plot driver story, is an attempt to “cheat” the system. And it usually fails.


Oh Battlestar Galactica why?

If you want me to give you an example of how hard it is to write proper science fiction you can have a look at Battlestar Galactica . I knew from episode 3 that the series  was going to be lame. Why? The first alarm was the intro ( more to that later) ,but I was truly convinced when I saw episode 3: It was about a prison riot. Yes a prison riot. Here you have a show revolving around mankind’s last battleship, in a desperate fight against evil robots from the future and we get… a prison riot episode.

No,no,no,no,no,no,no,no,no,no,no, NOPE.

I knew that if the writers can’t come up with some different on Episode 3 and they were already running out of  science fiction ideas, then we were off to a really bad start. In the end the show proved me right: They writers had no clue what they were doing, the story was all over the place and after 4 seasons , they had to release an extra movie to explain what happened in the ending ( because 75 episodes are, obviously, not enough). When a science fiction TV series has a prison riot for its third episode, just turn around and keep walking. It’s a waste of time.  The reason they did episodes like that? They are easy to write. Anything to avoid answering the “burning questions”, anything to prolong the plot for as long as possible using the least imagination needed.

You can find plot devices like that in almost every TV show: Stargate Universe had the “long-range communication stones” which allowed people’s conscience  to travel back to earth, thus allowing writers to write episodes with down-to-earth plots like love-triangles. Last Resort, a show which started with a nuclear war and the mutiny of a submarine with nuclear warheads, had episodes about… dating.  Why? Well do this simple test: Ask yourself what would really happen if a nuclear submarine went rogue. You can’t really think of an answer straight away can you? Well, neither could the writer. He probably did something like this in his head:

“Wait what would happen in case there was a captain with some nuclear warheads at his disposal running wild? Uhhhh you know what? I am going to write an episode about a date. Easier”.

A prison riot, an unfulfilled love,a love triangle, someone standing up to a bully or to this boss, these are all events that to a greater or lesser extent, we have all been exposed to over the course of our lives. It’s easier to write stories about something familiar. Writing about the impossible, about civilizations different than our own, about the wonders of a fictional universe is hard.  It requires a resourceful imagination and a rare talent to create memorable and lifelike universes.

And last but not least, let’s not forget the king of “Burning-Questions-let’s-focus-on-some-flashbacks” Lost. Again the same concept: Story starts with a blast, a deserted island where weird things happen, then it start focusing on character flashbacks about their lives ( actually Lost took it to a whole new level by introducing flash-sideways and flash-forwards ).Narrative-wise, that series was such a mess, I would probably need a whole post, just to analyse that show. However, Lost did one thing right: It always introduced a new “Burning Question” every 2-3 episodes, which made the audience completely forget the previous plots and focus on the new story. Of course, by the time the story ended, the piled “Burning Questions” were so many that no one could even connect everything with one explanation. In fact the writers didn’t even try to do that. Here is a video to help you remember how bad this , very successful show, was in this area:

Again and again and again it’s the same story: Good story set up, followed up by focus on the characters.

This is a point where Japanese story tellers put American ones to shame. Japanese writers are masters of setting up complicated universes with strict sets of rules and then basing a story by exploring this set of rules. In fact their whole TV show structure is revolving around how to properly introduce an audience to a new universe. I will make a post just for that at some point, as well ( too many posts pilling up).

Fantasy and Science fiction is about the “Call to the adventure”

I think that on some level these shows don’t really believe in their fantasy. A part of them treats science fiction as childish, so they are trying to make it more mature by adding character development. In the end I think this is the reason that these shows are failing to deliver an entertaining experience. The problem is not the addition of character-driven story elements. It’s the reason of adding them.

In it’s very heart science-fiction and fantasy is about amazement and wonderment. It’s about what they call in storytelling the “Call to the adventure” moment. It’s about forgetting this world for 2 hours and jumping into another universe which promises mystery, excitement, danger, action, bewilderment and wonders the likes we have never seen. Every single element of the production is tuned to amplify this notion.

When focus is shifted on characters in order to procrastinate your story progression or , even worse, to make your show look more mature, it’s where things are starting to go downhill. This is when the TV show is giving you this “I take myself more seriously than I should” vibe and completely misses this adventurous element. To get you an idea have look at Battlestar Galactica Intro

and this is the intro, but with the music from the original Battlestar Galactica on top. Notice how the vibe of the show changes, just with a single music track and also notice how the element of adventure suddenly re-surfaced.

It’s all about the narrative

To make a conclusion it’s almost never the events of the story: It’s the narrative which is at fault. No, it’s not the homosexuals in Sense 8, it’s not that Starbucks in Battle Star Galactica, came back to life inexplicably, nor the fact that in the end Lost was about magic wine holding evil at bay. You don’t mind how Ray learned how to fight with light sabers so fast,  Luke Skywalker gave his ,battle-hardened veteran galaxy-wide known pilot, Darth Vader a hard time flying in Episode 4, even though he was just a farm-boy.

If you start arguing about how something in Science Fiction is unrealistic then it means that the writer failed to trigger your suspension of disbelief. If you are bothered by the protagonists’ sexual preferences it means that the writer failed to make you interested in something more important than that.

I will close with how easy it is to make people care about your characters without huge budgets. I started watching a TV series recently on youtube to pass time. The story is this:

“A musician, a lawyer on a loosing streak, a journalist and a failed private detective, all former classmates, re-unite by chance and decide to fulfill their childhood dream of opening their own radio-station”.

  • Interesting and weird assortment of people? Check
  • Rooting for the characters since they are trying to fulfill childhood dreams? Check
  • Making you curious about how will all this turn out? Check

This is how you properly set a character-driven story. Notice how you immediately get interested about the characters. Who are they? Why do they want to open a radio station? More importantly you identify yourself with the characters and you feel connected with them, something really hard to do in Science Fiction where characters generally find themselves in unnatural situations.

Yeap, it’s that simple.

Lets’ talk interface : Old cars and Crusader Kings 2

Maybe it’s better treating some video-games interfaces like web-browsers, rather than traditional video games’ interfaces. 


I had been meaning to write this for more than a few months now. I have made 2 drafts already and had 3 diagrams in Gliffy. I didn’t like either draft I made, but today I decided that enough was enough: Crusader Kings 2 , it’s you and me baby.

First of all let’s establish some foundation for this post:

  • Crusader Kings 2 is a great game.
  • Crusader Kings 2 is a reminder that hardcore can be popular.
  • Crusader Kings 2 reminds me of an old car.

Yeap you read right: An old car. Before you re-read a third time let me explain myself and the “old car effect”

The old car effect

In my family we have an Alfa Romeo 146. I adore that car, but , just like all Italian car it has issues with its hydraulics: In order to get the first gear on you have to get the stick through… the second gear. It sounds and it looks weird. but if you don’t do that, you can’t really put the first gear on to start your car.

It’s old but you still love it!

I do this procedure automatically now but if anyone else tries to drive that car he will have serious issues. Doesn’t matter what they tell me though: I still love that car.

See, almost all old-car owners have a certain number of tricks that they employ when interacting with their cars. Tricks that are hard enough for anyone else unfamiliar enough to perform. The car-owners however perform them automatically and they even ignore any inconvenience that it may cause them. It has become like a second-nature to them. They even love their old cars despite these pitfalls : That’s the “old car effect”.

Crusader Kings 2 in many ways reminds me of this effect.

Back button : The ignored hero of our browsing experience

You all know the “back button” on browsers right? Here is a back button as a reminder :

Back buttons are important for every node-like structure.  Let’s say that the internet is a node-like structure: Pages are nodes , links connect the nodes.

The back button allow you to add temporary vertices between the nodes, based on your history of traversing the diagram.

Let me put it in a less mathematical way: Try to browse the internet without the back button for 10 minutes. You will realize that even familiar web-sites feel weird and clumsy.

  • How do you get to the song you were previously listening on youtube?
  • How do you navigate to page no 2 of reddit from a specific post?
  • How do you get from 1 specific news article to another without navigating to the home page of a news website?

You will realize that don’t know how to get to every page, from every page. Sometimes there is simply no way to do that, at least not directly and ,even if there is, sometimes the way is not a common one: Sometimes the link to the youtube video you were previously watching is on the top of the recommendations sometimes is on the top.

So what all that have to do with Crusader Kings 2? Bear me with me we will do one more detour…

How is Crusader Kings 2 different than other strategy games?

Strategy games on their core are decision making games. Generally all strategy games try to put all the information needed for a specific decision on 1 screen. For example this is the city management screen from Civilization 5:


All the information needed in 1 screen!

On the other hand  when you play Crusader Kings 2 you see something like this:

This is a character sheet. 

Crusader Kings 2 is a rather uniquegame: Its main element is its characters (Kings, lords, wives, bishops etc) , their traits and their relationships.  In a sense it is more of an RPG than a strategy. And what you see here is a practically a character sheet with all this information provided.

Each icon on the picture that you see is practically a link which leads to another character sheet. It’s a structure that reminds us more of the internet node-like theme rather than your average strategy game.

Crusader Kings 2 node structure

You know what else Crusader Kings 2 has unique compared to other strategy games?   You need to look on more than 1 character sheets to make up your mind. Just like you need to look in more than 1 page when you are browsing the internet. What does this mean in other words?

The information needed to reach a decision is not on just 1 screen.


Crusader Kings 2 looks like this information-wise

So now we have established that:

  1. Crusader Kings 2 is different than other strategies
  2. The information needed to reach a decision is not on only 1 screen.
  3. Crusader Kings 2 has a node structure like the internet.
  4. Back buttons are important for anything that has a structure like the internet.

I am pretty sure by now you will have guessed what the issue with Crusader Kings is right?

Crusader Kings 2 doesn’t have a back button

TADA! FINALLY. After 800 words we have reached the heart of the problem. Crusader Kings doesn’t have a Back button. And it needs it. It badly does. Sure there is the equivalent of the Home button which is your character and there are some shortcuts but they cannot replace the functionality of the back button.

You don’t believe me? Load the game and try to get information on people participating on a conspiracy or a faction.

The weird thing about this is that I have never seen anyone else mention this. Crusader Kings players admit that there is a hard learning-curve with the game but I beg to differ: Once you have gotten you mind around inheritance of the game the rest is easy. It’s the interface the main enemy of the new player. The fact, you have to memorize every route between the nodes to get the information you need.

This is  why I mentioned  the “old car effect” at the beginning of this post: Crusader Kings 2 players remind me of these car owner. They have gotten used to the game’s inconvenience that by now they don’t even notice them. If you ask me it’s a shame: The game will become so much more user friendly with this tiny interface addition. Or maybe these inconveniences are what makes the veterans love the game even more: They make it unique.

I will just leave this picture here as wishful thinking XD

Wishful thinking XD