Monday, April 25, 2011

Tunnels = Choices

The analogy is pretty clear: choice A versus choice B. Perhaps one of the reasons the "dungeons" is in Dungeons & Dragons is because, in addition to being easy to map and plot, tunnels also provide some very clear decision-making and problem-solving scenarios. In fact, I'm often surprised at how linear a game's dungeon map will be. Most people probably just don't want to waste work that might never be experienced, and I can appreciate that; but everyone loves finding Easter eggs, and even the storyteller ought to be surprised once in a while.

Still, the basic choice of tunnel 1 or tunnel 2 is a pretty great one, assuming the stakes are high enough at the time of choosing. I'm a pretty thorough sort - I loathe never getting to find out what lay behind the unchosen door, and so I try to in such a way that I can scout out every corridor. This can be infuriating to those more intuitively inclined, which I secretly relish, because intuitive people are constantly getting the drop on me. I'm that irritating guy who plays chess by taking so much time to contemplate moves that the other person is driven to distraction.

Some will argue that tunnels are a little irrelevant outside of a role-playing game, but I disagree utterly. Even if there weren't a plethora of fascinating contemporary tunnels, the physical form of a tunnel is easily perceived in any number of situations. Sometimes there are tunnels made of crowds of people (a familiar problem in New York City) or of a given person's inability to see more than two or three choices. The idea of a "lesser of two evils" is pretty neatly encapsulated (literally and figuratively) by a pair of tunnels. Either way you choose, you're still underground, still committed to one time and place. The limitation of options not only serves to crystallize decision-making, but can inspire more creativity. That's not even to explore the effect of constraint upon the stakes of a situation or story.

There's something of a tendency in contemporary films to raise the stakes by expanding the horizon: Our hero not only has to overcome her alcoholism in the course of two hours, but SAVE THE KNOWN UNIVERSE. Yet the opposite choice can serve to ratchet up the stakes for all involved. This is an area in which a certain brand of science fiction film excels. I'm hardly the first to notice the omnipresence of corridors in sci-fi genre movies, and while they may technically be the exact opposite "underground," their effect is the same. By limiting the choices, our characters' plights are far more uncompromising. It's also great for pace - everything becomes directional and intentional, and literally picks up pace as the climax approaches (Kubirck aside).

(It's also of course, incidentally, great for economy. I'm learning this personally as I work on my first sci-fi film. Wall panels and portals can be moved around, reconstructed, turned upside down, relit . . . the possibilities are endless. Which is a pretty neat parallel between plotting a movie set and plotting an adventure map. Economy's a valuable virtue in both environment and storytelling.)

Of course, there's also the ultimate cruel twist to all this choice-inspired tunneling. The metaphor so apt, its identification is in its own colloquialism: the Dead End. That famous assonance implies the utter cessation of choice. As the story-teller, we can decide whether this physical feature is an opportunity for the characters to show great resolve and overcome, or whether perhaps it lives up to its name and means an ultimate end to the exploration. When it comes to confronting inevitability, the dead end can prove nice and unconquerable. Sometimes, death and the dead end even coincide exactly.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm, interesting. I'm going to have to marinate on this, but I do think that there is something to the tunnel/underground equation. Even in space, there's nothing out there other than what's at the ends of the tunnel. Sci-fi and horror stories almost always include concepts of confinement and the need for escape/freedom. I think you're on to something here Punch. <3