Friday, June 30, 2006

American TV vs. Japanese Anime

I really enjoyed the Story Arcs piece in Distributing the Future (5/15/6).

The main discussion contrasted story arcs in Japanese anime with story arcs from the traditional American TV show. Chris Adamson examined economic pressures that largely forced American TV into self-contained episodes. Anime story arcs, on the other hand, often span the whole series (or multiple series). I'd recommend listening to the whole podcast, but I'll summarize the good bits here:

On the American side, distribution methods made it difficult to guarantee that stations would show all the episodes in order. Also, TV episodes make most of their money in reruns. The rerun audience usually catches the shows intermittently and does not watch them seriously. This means self-contained reruns are more popular (or at least easier to market) than continuing stories. Apparently, Alias deserted the end-of-episode cliff hangers to make itself more marketable.

Recently, the American TV scene has broken through the self-contained barrier. The best example is undoubtedly 24. Long story arcs can succeed now, largely because of successful DVD sales. American TV can step away from its dependency on reruns, and this frees shows, at least partly, from the episodic limit.

On the Japanese front, an anime series tends to make most of its money from tie-in products: toys, models, cards, stuffed-animals, T-shirts, or whatever. The Japanese series also tends to be shorter and they are often broadcast only once. This makes it easier to create story arcs that span an entire series.

Most interesting to me, anime series often start with a few self-contained episodes. This gives the audience a chance to get to know the main characters and the world, before they get swept off into the main story.

So, how does this tie into gaming? Well, we don't have economic forces influencing our games (unfortunately, I'd love to see Thamus Johnson action figures from my recent Serenity game), but there are outside forces that affect the type of stories we can tell. One obvious case is player attendance.

I prefer games that follow the anime model. Start with a few self-contained adventures to loosen everyone up, and let us get aquatinted with our characters, the world, the rules and the GM's style. Then we stumble into the main story arc, which spans the rest of the campaign. However, playing this sort of game requires a serious commitment. You have to show up regularly. If you miss games, it's hard to follow the story. Worse yet, having a character continually pop in and out really disrupts the narrative flow. Even if someone ghost-runs your character, it's just not the same.

If your schedule does not allow regular gaming, then episodic games are probably best. It's easier for characters to come and go without disrupting the flow, and missing one adventure won't affect the next. Of course, adventures often span two or more gaming sessions--but the episodic structure still handles irregular attendance better than a unified story arc.

What other outside forces affect the structure or style of our games? Sex of the players is often sited as a big influence on style. I have heard that some men dislike playing in mixed groups. Some have obviously had a bad experience with another player's less-than-interested girlfriend, and that has prejudiced them against women gamers everywhere. Other male players just don't like feeling that they have to watch their language or be on their best behavior.

I feel that my best gaming experiences usually come from mixed-sex groups. Maybe it's because the guys watched their language and stayed on their best behavior--I don't know. Thinking back, some of my favorite players were women, most of them novice players. They had very little interest in rules and mechanics, but they were very interested in acting and stories. Having them at the table really helped keep the game focused on story.

Chris Adamson brought up another unrelated but interesting point. Most American dramas are hour-long programs. Anime is usually 1/2 hour--even for a dramatic show. This forces the creators to tell the stories differently. American shows typically have more subplots, while anime must stay focused. The limited time often gives it a tighter, more energetic feel.

30-minute game sprints are probably too short to be useful; but it makes me wonder, what would happen if we cut the typical game session in half? In my head, the Platonic Ideal for gaming sessions is 4 hours (probably because I wasted too much of my youth at RPGA tournaments). So, what would 2-hour game sessions feel like? Would restricting the time force us to focus more on the action--force us to bump up the energy and limit distractions?

Player planning often frustrates me (both as a player and as a GM). Players will waste 15 minutes just arguing over who has to pay the bar tab. When it comes to more-complicated planning, it feels as though they thrash over the same ideas for hours. It's not all bad. The players clearly like it--probably see it as some type of logic puzzle. But, it's not good story.

Would shorter gaming sessions encourage players to focus more on action in game and planning between games? I'm not sure. But, it might be an interesting experiment.

As always, please leave a comment with your thoughts.

-Rich-

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