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Larger-arc contextualization, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Designer and theorist Keith Burgun talks about the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and how it's a good example of the sort of contextual layering that's needed in game design.

Keith Burgun, Blogger

May 24, 2021

12 Min Read

Okay, I have two objectives here:

1). To talk about the effects of longer arcs, both in storytelling and in game design, and

2). To talk about what an amazing show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is. Actually, this was the main thing, really. But I did connect some stuff that I observed from this show into a game design thing.

I'm re-watching Crazy-Ex Girlfriend right now, a show that was fantastic on the first watch and way better on the second watch. Part of why it's so much better on the second watch is that now, knowing where everything is going gives the things you're seeing on screen a context. The greater arcs involved in the story changes things from something like "neat, if you like musicals maybe" to "holy cow, incredible".

This article will have some spoilers because, not only do spoilers do the exact opposite of "spoiling" anything (as I just also explained), but I really hate the way that "spoiler protection" makes it so that no one can talk about any media.

This show

Like many of you reading this who haven't yet seen the show, when I first heard of it, I thought it was probably something terrible, because of the name. And actually, I still think the name is one of a small handful of things that I personally would have changed about the show. But it makes it sound like it's going to be some raunchy teen comedy, or some crappy mass-produced romantic comedy. As bad as the name is, even it is somewhat recovered, once you've watched the show. The problem is, people never attempt to watch the show because wow, it really sounds terrible.

A piece of information that you need, which the title of the show does not necessarily suggest, is that this is a show about mental health. In this show, the main character, but really ALL of the primary and even secondary characters, are struggling with their own issues and doing the best they can with the mental health hand that they've been dealt. It actually isn't doing "ha-ha, look at this crazy person, aren't they just bonkers?" It sort of "starts there", it starts with a variety of "crazy person" tropes, where many people currently are, and it walks with them to a place of much better understanding. I'm not saying that this show teaches people psychology or any specific mental health advice, but it's clearly trying to humanize the person you might have identified as "a crazy person". Which really, has to be the first step: to recognize the humanity and empathize with people who struggle with mental health. (More broadly, a lot of these kinds of social problems aren't so much a matter of knowing the solutions, but more of a matter of the simple will to do anything about it.)

So a lot of the story in CXG revolves around the main character, Rebecca Bunch (played by Rachel Bloom), involved in various schemes that you might find in a romantic comedy. The first episode involves her leaving her high-paying NYC law firm job and moving out to some random town called West Covina, CA, to basically try and get her middle school summer camp boyfriend to fall in love with her. Much of the show is textually about chasing these men, but ultimately, as I mentioned, that isn't at all what the show is actually about.

Actually, the property of being a musical, is itself, one of those tropes that for a lot of people (not me) are an instant turn-off. Yet I've heard a few people who generally don't like musicals, love CXG because it's re-using these tropes in a new and very self-aware way. That's what larger arc contextualization lets you do: it lets you do the generic thing, and it lets you be meta or self-aware about it, because the larger arc is actually the "real" thing you're honestly and directly-meaningfully doing. This then allows the viewer to really enjoy the generic thing again. I'm also thinking about the Disney movie Enchanted, which did an overall slightly worse version of this same basic idea (but which had INCREDIBLE music). CXG is kinda what I wish Enchanted had done with its story, actually.

Take a song like this one, above. I actually love this kind of music, but I don't know if I would really be able to appreciate this song at all without the context of a show that has a broader, really good and smart purpose (it's kind of a risk showing it to you). If this song played in some generic romantic comedy that really was just a love story between two people, there's maybe kind of a shallowness there. But watching Rebecca have these dramatic love moments and KNOWING that this is actually very layered and complex, lets me enjoy the song for what it is. The generic rom-com is lying to me about reality. CXG is being, in some sense, more real and honest with me by having this longer arc that is much bigger than whatever guy Rebecca is getting with.

The major observation that I'm making here about CXG isn't really anything new. People have been using and subverting tropes... forever. Arguably, that's all storytelling is: people establish some kind of pattern, and then create meaning either by reproducing, or by reproducing and then changing that pattern somehow. It's just that this show, because of its comedic and self-referential tone, and because of the specific story it is telling, becomes a particularly rich tapestry of subverted and re-imagined tropes, all made to have new meaning. It's sometimes pretty explicit about it:

Also, this article is an excuse to show you some of my favorite of the fantastic music (and even better lyrics) in this show.

In this scene, Rebecca is doing one of her many "dramatic revelations" where she learns some huge, important lesson, and then starts acting as though all her problems are solved. This is one of the ways that the very format itself (one of an episodic TV show) compliments the message very well. At the end of each episode of a standard sitcom, you have some kind of "lesson learned" monologue. In the context of those shows, it's often corny and dumb because... that's all there is. There's no greater thing going on.

The Dream Ghost "tells" Rebecca some stuff about her history (really it's just Rebecca telling herself stuff), and then she comes back from the experience doing that "end of the TV show" stuff. Only in this show, those around her don't really buy it, and it blows up in her face. But not in the "ha-ha, that silly Rebecca, always messing everything up!" sort of way where we're just meant to laugh at a character's misfortune. It is always a complex, layered disaster with longer term consequences. All of which point to a single conclusion to the entire series.


There's also game design in this article, I swear!

I've been writing for years about short and long arcs, and how a lot of games that have a very small grid or are otherwise simple lack longer arcs and what that means for these systems. Games, too, have their own set of cliches and tropes: deckbuilding, dealing HP damage, equipping items, exploring an area on a map, doing combos, etc. Each of these, on their own, may be somewhat meaningless, but are patterns that can be subverted or otherwise re-contextualized by longer arcs.

First, let me give a couple of not so great examples, but ones that make what I'm talking about very clear. The first example is that 9x9 tic tac toe, you've probably seen it around - here's a version of it you can play in a browser. This game is basically a "tic tac toe of tic tac toes": each 3x3 grid is its own TTT game that can be "won", and the first player to win three TTTs in a line, in the greater board, wins the match. This adds some additional context, some slightly longer arcs, to the extremely-short-arcs engine of the original TTT. Another example would be in my own Gem Wizards Tactics, where a normal tactical battle between a handful of units is also part of a larger strategic positioning around longer-term objectives like towers.

That said, it's not the case that you can just slap something into a bigger context and it'll just work automatically. In the above examples, it's not just that "one thing is inside another thing", but also that there's pretty clear "high coupling" or interdependence between the short, medium and long arcs.

For a worse example, let's take Final Fantasies 12 or 13, both of which I recently just played a bunch, in an attempt to catch up on some of what I skipped out on after stepping away from grindy console videogames back in about 2000 or so. In these games, you have the combat system, where you fight monsters and level up, and then you have a greater context—the story, your position on the world map, perhaps some team-building dynamics, and so on. On paper, and at least somewhat in practice, each battle in Final Fantasy 12 is contextualized by these other bigger arc elements.

I stopped playing FF12 (and probably all similar games for another 10 years or so) because of the massive amount of grinding that the game is clearly built around. Or, well... grinding is one way to put it, but grinding can suggest that I had to fight a large number of popcorn fights over and over again in order to progress. Which is true in FF12, for sure, but that's almost not pointing at the real problem.

There is a story in FF12, and actually, I kind of care about it. It's kind of an anti-colonial story, you have a likeable protagonist who's a poor orphan and wants to fight the cops by doing thieving and subterfuge. And at first, it can kind of seem like there's going to be a somewhat "continuous" or natural experience of going through this story, meeting new characters, doing battles and so on, all in service to this plot as it advances.

Here's a video of someone doing some exploit thing where they're AFK and automatically just leveling by fighting a bunch of respawning monsters with everything sped up.

This seems obviously degenerate and disconnected from the larger story or adventure arcs completely. You might say, okay yeah, any game can be exploited and kind of "played wrong" in that sort of way. But the problem is... the video as you're seeing it above there, actually playing the game properly isn't that much different from this. The fights quickly devolve into automated, repetitive, unexciting and disconnected events, and the game is designed to facilitate that! The system is real time with pause, and you can give your allies AI instructions, and it even has a 2x/4x speed-up function. The result is, playing "exploitatively" or not, fights quickly feel commoditized or alienated from the rest of the experience. It's easy to forget... almost everything else about what you're doing, and think only about the little XP and other boosts that emerge out of the fights. There is very little "subversion" or reinterpretation of the "trope" that is a Final Fantasy battle in FF12. There's nothing more to it.

The point here is perhaps that "contextualization" isn't simply "one thing being inside another thing". The fights in FF12, while indeed being in a larger structure, are actually not very contextualized! The environments you're in don't matter at all. You might be in a desert, or in a dungeon, or in a forest, but none of these things affect how the combat goes down in any way. I much prefer it in CRPGs where, the buildings and structures that you walk around and navigate through while exploring also block line of sight or can be used for cover, or if there's a bunch of water around you can use it to electrocute a bunch of people, things like that. Those help to contextualize a given battle a little bit more.

To take the FF12 example even further, you could imagine how putting Portal and The Legend of Zelda into a single executable application that has a menu that allows you to select either game, doesn't really "contextualize" either game much (except perhaps in the Benjamin "aura" sense).

Back to CXG

I don't know, maybe this is a weird idea for an article. But when I see how brilliantly put together CXG is, the way it weaves these complicated failures together in a way that is all heading to a surprising-yet-inevitable conclusion, I'm very inspired to bring this to my game designs. I mean, this is the kind of idea that made me want to write Clockwork Game Design. It's elegance! This is why I've been skeptical of games with "two screens", the alienated labor of grinding in JRPGs, and... a lot of games.I want to see more games that really contextualize their gameplay - not just plop it into another bigger system, but really have a "nicely weaved tapestry" of meaning that they're building.

I will finish by saying, again, jeez-louise you need to watch this show. Also, all the actors sing their own parts. And... they're all also incredibly, wildly multi-talented.

Now please enjoy Ping Pong Girl!

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