Thursday, September 09, 2010

TBC - To be continued...

It’s something you will see in games, in TV series, in movies … the dreaded line “To be continued…” But why?

The first cliff hangers came with the movie serials that were quite popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Those short movies were produced in a weekly rhythm – very much like a modern-day TV series. At that time, though, most people did not have a TV, so they went to the movies far more regularly than today (and movie tickets were a good deal less expensive). People went to the movies to see the news and they went there to see the serials. To make sure they would come back the next week (and spent another few pennies on the ticket), the stories of the serials were crafted to always end with a dangerous situation for the hero or heroine. They might not always be hanging from a cliff, but they certainly were in grave danger, so the audience would leave the theatre asking themselves ‘how is she going to get out of this?’ ‘She’, because the main characters in most of those serials were women. The girls basically walked from one trap to the next (a job they still seem to have in some modern movies or computer games) and at the end of the next instalment of the series would be in trouble again as sure as the earth is round and orbits the sun.

Comics and penny dreadfuls took the same approach, ending each chapter with a situation that made sure people would by the next one to know how it ended. But then, they were chaptered anyway, so people didn’t expect each chapter to be a complete story.

Cliff hangers can be very annoying. They are annoying when you’re reading a novel today and know it will take ages until the next book is out. They are annoying when you’re playing a game and the story is cut off all in a sudden and you don’t know if or when the next game comes out. We’re not talking about one or two weeks here – as with the serials, comics or penny dreadfuls. We’re talking about one or two (or even more) years. Imagine the author dies in the meantime. Imagine the developer who does the games goes bankrupt. You’ll never know what happened (or should have happened).

Penny dreadfuls and serials ran as long as they were successful, usually. The changing authors of the penny dreadful stories that were a great success simply added yet another sub-story or character and made the story longer. You can easily see that in some collected penny dreadfuls (like Varney the Vampire or The String of Pearls [the original title of the Sweeney Todd story]). The same goes for serials. The heroine landed in yet another dangerous situation on her way home (or wherever she was headed).

This probably is one of the reasons why those stories are considered to be badly written. They were not written with one outline, going from scene one to scene three hundred and fifty-seven (or whatever). They had a basic story line which they followed, but it was lengthened or shortened to fit with the success. If a story was not liked by the audience, it was brought to a quick, sometimes even very abrupt end. The stories were tailored to success, thus they might change right in the middle of it all, in order to fit with the tastes of the audience.

But why, one might ask, do people still employ this plot in modern-day TV series, in games and in movies?

TV series are a lot like the serials of the past – they are what has become of the serials when TV conquered the living rooms. Especially the soap operas make good use of TBC. They need to make sure the audience will be in front of the TV the next day, so they end every episode with suspense. Jill has just learned she is pregnant, but who is the father? Will Brad get out of the car before it blows up? People want to know, so they tune in again the next day to see what happens. Always keep in mind that the stations are selling the time during the breaks – the more people watch a program, the more the station can take for ad-placement in the breaks.

Yet, there’s a good and a bad type of TBC.

The good type is the one where the actual story of a movie or game or novel or episode is finished, but the end suggests there’s more behind it. If you take, for instance, the second part of “Pirates of the Caribbean”, you will realize that the main story has finished. The “Dead Man’s Chest” has been found. And Davy Jones’ pet has found its prey, Jack Sparrow. Yet, there’s more behind it. Davy Jones is about to become a tool of the East India Company and Jack is needed to deal with him. Enter Captain Barbossa, back from the dead. It’s a classic TBC to show a character people can identify but haven’t really thought they’d see again. Barbossa will lead the characters to Jack in the next movie, but for the TBC, he is shown. What will happen is in the TBC, but the audience now knows it will happen.

The bad type is the traditional one. The hero or the heroine (or some character they hold dear) is in trouble and all in a sudden it’s ‘Game Over’ – TBC. The story is not finished. There’s even a worse way, though. Some games which are cut into various episodes simply stop. You play, you have mastered one part of the quest and then TBC. You’re back in the main menu and have to wait for the next episode to come out.

TellTale, the creators of the new “Sam & Max” games, the “Tales of Monkey Island” and many others by now, do it the right way. Take, for instance, the five episodes of the of the third “Sam & Max” season, “The Devil’s Playhouse”. Each episode (save for the last, of course) ends with a little cliff hanger. But the main story of the episode is complete, the player knows he (or she or it) has done well. The puzzles have been solved, the story has played out. Yet, there’s more to come. Therefore, you want to come back, you want to know what else is going one with the psychic toys Sam and Max keep finding. You get to know a new host of characters (and see some you already know from previous seasons again) and you want to know what will happen to them. But then, TellTale is specialized in games in episodes – and there’s only a month between the episodes, not years

“To be continued…” can be good or bad. But it only works if the story so far (no matter how it was told) is good.

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