Double Dragon The Movie: Inside Not Out

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I have never watched the entire Double Dragon film from 1994, the infamously bad video game “adaption,” until recently. I say adaption as the movie has nothing to do with the game – a game I remember playing in the arcades. Since the film is terrible, it probably makes the game look better.

Many things that make the film bad – the acting, the effects, the script. But one of the strangest things is that the movie has an enormous amount of “plot” that has nothing to do with the game. Does a film about “two guys beat up a gang to rescue someone” need a post-apocalyptic LA, gang politics, magical amulets, and the like? It’s a story where everything is grafted on.

None of this worked, as you may guess.

I started thinking about how others might approach a property like Double Dragon’s beat-them up. I was thinking specifically about some Hong Kong b-movies studios, indie studios, and the like. The plot was a significant problem of the movie, so how might someone with a fresher, “punkier” sense make such a movie?

The original game has no plot except “beat people up until you save the victim.”  Some versions add a few simple elements – the martial arts the heroes practice, their enemies (The Black Warriors), being in a post-war New York, and the heroes’ hope to save their kidnapped mutual love interest. Not a lot to go on, right?

So let me ask, what if you ran with this paltry lore instead of piling on extra elements. Don’t add things on, but go deeper into what you have from the limited lore. Indulge me for a moment.

First, two brothers practicing a strange martial art and with a potential romantic rivalry? With the right actors, that’s a core dynamic right there! We have two talented martial artists with a great burden – and a petty rivalry eating away at them? How do they evolve and grow as they battle their way through post-war New York? There’s a story!

Now lets’ take the Inevitable Kidnapped Interest, Marian. Rescue-the-girl tropes are sexist and overdone, so let’s shake it up. Marian let herself be kidnapped to infiltrate the Black Guardians, all arranged by the heroes’ master. Only the master got himself killed before he let them in on his plan to take down the Guardians. Now Marian has to pull a Die Hard from the inside to help the two occasionally bickering heroes defeat the bad guys and get her the hell out.

So we’ve got a Martial Arts Die Hard with arguing brothers? What about the setting?

We’ve got post-war (indeed post-nuke) New York. So let’s toss in some politics, just not the egregious ones of the film. Several martial arts groups have worked to bring the city back, and some of the gangs would be up for it – except the Black Guardians want to rule. So our heroes have a chance to unite the gangs to fight for the city, and battling the Black Guardians can do it. That was their master’s plan all along . . .

There you go, you’ve got a film. There’s an epic journey across a devastated New York, with the city’s future on the line.  Two likable badasses with a weak spot for arguing, trying to save the city and their love interest while fulfilling their masters’ last wish. A put-upon and clever female lead operating from the inside, trying to corral her would-be rescuers. Gang politics as an excuse for epic fights – and of course, it must end in all the gangs attacking the Black Guardians in a kind of Helm’s Deep of epic action.

You didn’t have to add on tons of unrelated stuff. Just extrapolate and go deeper with what you have. It’s still two guys battling to rescue a girl in a post-War gang-infested New York. You add some depth to make it mean more.

Less isn’t always more. But a few things with depth can make a movie or book or whatever far better than many elements with no depth.

Steven Savage

The Writer’s Game: Wytchwood

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The Writer’s Game: Wytchwood

Wytchwood from Alientrap is a “gothic fairy tale game.” You’re an amnesiac witch with a cauldron on her head, stealing the souls of wrongdoers for a mysterious black goat. Steal enough souls, and you’ll awaken a mysterious sleeping maiden and maybe get your memory back. Of course, punishing evil is pretty rewarding . . .

The core of the game is crafting. As the Witch, you wander around collecting ingredients from the countryside and it’s creatures. You can craft traps, magical items, and more with the right components. Figuring out where to get resources, use them, and combine them is critical to progress.

You’ll use all your brews and creations to undermine assorted unpleasant figures and save people from evil. The characters all have a “fairy tale” feel, and more than a few will seem familiar. Completing your missions is semi-linear, making the game more of a visual novel/linear adventure unlocked my making things.

The game itself is really a playable story – it’s just you have to figure out crafting and resources to advance the tale. As you can guess, such an interactive tale yields quite a few lessons for writing fiction.

Look and Feel

Wytchwood is a fairy tale, and the game is excellently crafted to reflect the genre choices. The entire look feels illustrated much like Wildermyth. One wanders through various locations that look like a pop-up storybook. Characters have exaggerated looks in bright colors, and monsters and wildlife are amusingly expressive. It feels right.

Getting that feel is critical to your own writing. Perhaps your novel needs long paragraphs and colorful language, or it needs short breezy commentary. Wychwood’s aesthetic helps you embrace what it’s trying to be – a playable fairy tale.

(Of course, maybe you’re trying to break genre conventions, so keep that in mind as well.)

Know What You’re Doing

Wychwood is a story, but its mechanic is infamously familiar – wander around, collect things, make things. The game boils down to a shopping list and a to-do list that tells stories. The creators knew exactly what they wanted and stuck with it.

This focus means the game delivers on its two premises – crafting and stories – and can go deep in each area. Crafting requires thought in gathering and using items, which can set up satisfying “cascades” as you maximize your travels and tricks. Stories have all sorts of twists and turns as well as human bits, and are obviously carefully written. It’s amazing what you can do with focus.

When making a story, focus on what you want to deliver. It might not be all things to all people, but it will be the right thing you set out to do.

You Don’t Have to Say Much

For a game where you wake up in a world with no memory, the game tells a lot of story without saying a lot. Any exposition comes from conversation with other characters or flavor text – your character has nothing to add. As some storylines are mysteries, you start them at near-zero information.

It turns out that you don’t have to say a lot to tell a story. Wytchwood realizes its tales through conversations, reactions, clues, and flavor text. Everything revealed is relevant to the story and the game, but there’s no giant exposition dumps or walls of text. Wychwood sticks with what’s needed.

Amnesia is a remarkale way to make a story concise.

Keep It Human

Wytchwood tells tales of people, even if they’re very archetypical. A woman wishes to escape the attentions of an amorous wolf-man. Neighbors are fighting with each other because of a cunning manipulator. Workers groan under the burden of some taskmasters who earn a richly creepy comeuppance. It’s a visceral, human game because you relate to the characters.

This sheer humanity draws you into the game, because so much is relatable, albeit colorfully exaggerated.

If you write fiction, keep it human. Ensure characters can be understood and related to work with emotions, feelings, and sensations.

A Lovely Bit Of magic

Wytchwood takes the (in)famous game mechanic of “collect and craft” and uses it to tell a series of compelling fairy tales. Making excellent stylistic choices, making its tales human without information overload, it draws you in.

If you’re trying to craft a good story, Wytchwood is worth examining – and maybe playing.

Takeaways for Writers:

  • Chose stylistic elements appropriate to the story and genre (unless breaking convention is the point)
  • Focus on what you want to deliver depth. It’s better to do a few things well in writing than be all things to all people.
  • Tell your story with relevant elements that reveal enough – character reactions, discussions, appropriate descriptions. You can do a lot with surprisingly little.
  • Make your tales human, it ensures people relate and understand, and draws them in.

Steven Savage

The Writer’s Game: The DeathSpank Series

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If the title concerns you, the DeathSpank series are a trio of comedy action RPGs from Hothead Games.  You can stop worrying about the name.

Starting in 2010, this series follows the adventures of DeathSpank, a muscley but vacant hero in the vein of The Tick.  Through three games (the titular first one, Thongs of Virtue, and The Baconing), our sword-swinging protagonist travels a colorful world to smite evil and recover magical artifacts.  It has all the trappings expected of a fantasy action RPG – equipment, button-mashing combat, quests – while parodying the genre.

The genre, a staple of video games, had plenty to parody.  Overblown magical weapons, senseless side quests, post-apocalyptic tropes, strange artifacts were all targets for DeathSpank.  I can still remember laughing at the overdone reveal of a magical sword or seeing the realm of the gods as a walled community of snobs.

Comedy is tricky no matter the media.  DeathSpank provides us lessons we can use in other media, even if you find the title questionable.  There are lessons for writers in this series, especially writers of comedy.

Get The Foundation Right

DeathSpank was a parody of games, but it was a game.  The monster-bashing was solid, there were interesting environments to explore, and it was fun to play.  The authors could have made a serious game on the DeathSpank engine, but chose parody.

Fortunately, the authors deiced to be hilarious.

This is a reminder to authors writing comedy that you’re still doing writing.  Much as DeathSpank had the mechanics of the game right, your novel or comic needs to have the right pacing, language, etc.  If you want to write comedy, be a good writer.

Had DeathSpank not had good gameplay, not as many people would have stuck with the series to enjoy the comedy.

Actually Be Funny

DeathSpank had plenty to make fun of – fantasy RPG Action games are both familiar and have plenty to mock.  The crew didn’t just poke a few things and call it a day; they worked hard to make you laugh.

The voice actor for DeathSpank (the character) was hilariously overdone.  The genre’s common devolution into “sidequests” is roundly mocked.  The dialogue is often plain funny, even when the hero talks to a cow or his evil Anti-self.  The comedy writing and acting were authentically good and extremely well written.

If you’re writing comedy, you have to put the work in – and as many of us know, it’s not easy.  Even when you have obvious targets as DeathSpank did, you still should put in the work.  DeathSpank was well-written enough I could have seen it being a film or short-run TV show.

Know Your Subject

The reason DeathSpank had me laughing as I battled monsters was that the creators clearly knew the genre they mocked.  As a fan of fantasy RPGs and fantasy in general, I recognized what they were parodying.  I was the target audience (and still am).

Thus, it’s clear the people behind DeathSpank knew what they were making fun of.  It wasn’t shallow humor, there were a few deep cuts, as well as many medium ones as it were.  Simply put, no one that didn’t know the genre well could have made this game.

This is a reminder for writers that you have to know any subject you’re parodyiny.  If you don’t – or think you do and don’t – your work will suffer for it.  Come to think of it, so will your audience.

There may be a time to look at something and realize you can’t mock it, no matter your writing skills.

Love Your Subject

DeathSpank was there to mock, but it was also  a labor of love.  You don’t craft something this funny without caring about what you do.  Much as The Venture Brothers was both parody and homage, DeathSpank got close to that line.

The game was funny, yes but done with affection.  Time was lavished on the dialogue, humorous environments, and game design.  There is craftsmanship in this game, even if you teleport via magical outhouses (no, really).

Caring about a subject means you know it well enough to parody it.  That intimacy also means you’ll have love and sympathy for the subject matter, saving you from the traps of mean-spiritedness.  Instead, your humor will be true as you know the subject so well.

The audience will respond to that love, as their laughter comes from knowing the subject as well as you.

In Conclusion

DeathSpank managed to be a comedy game that was both comedy and game.  The result was a fun, funny experience that reminds us comedy lies on a foundation of knowing the subjects and the mechanics of your craft. 

Lesson’s For Writers

  • Solid writing matters no matter the genre.
  • If you’re trying to be funny, don’t hold back even if the target is easy.  Put in the work.
  • Know the subject you’re parodying.  If you don’t, focus on something you do know.
  • Care about the subject you’re parodying.  It helps you be funny, leads to good craftsmanship, and saves you from mean-spiritedness.

Steven Savage