Talking on Stream

Whatever failings I may have as a streamer, one fairly consistent (positive) comment I’ve gotten has been my ability to keep talking. It’s easy for someone of my temperament to fall into a reflective ‘chicken or egg’ cycle regarding my format and my ability to talk, but if I’m honest with myself I can say that this is a quality I had going in, and just needed a mentor (in this case two, SeriouslyClara and JessyQuil) to bring it out. Earlier in my life I was very shy, and along the way set out to try and be a bit more outgoing. I think shyness is still a trait I have (I’m not crazy about taking photos, I don’t always go out of the way to introduce myself to new people. Limit it to the opposite sex and I half think I’m no better than I was in my early-teens), but I’ve managed enough to be able to do public speaking, and I can feel a degree of comfort speaking with people to a the point that I talk too much and now need to reign it in. That said, there are also a few imperatives created by my particular format that make a lot of commentary important. You can take a positive view of it and say that strategy oriented games with opportunities for pauses invite a more dialogue heavy style of cast, or a negative view and say that without a cam every minute without dialogue is an absence of any personality (easily the most important factor in any cast in my opinion). Given that other casters (Brotatoe’s guides come to mind, though personally I’ve not read them) have written their views on casting, I thought I’d weigh in on the one thing I have some credibility for. My verbose style probably limits the utility of this post as an actual guide, especially as I can’t resist the opportunity to editorialize, but I’ll do my best to section it off in meaningful ways.

Why Talk?

In some ways this seems apparent. Other casters talk, and I think it’s safe to say that most people begin broadcasting because they saw a channel that inspired them (even if it’s “Well I can certainly do much better than that systemchalk guy”), but presumably we can come up with a better motivation than “monkey see, monkey do.” Why would I want to be a second rate Arumba when I can be a first rate systemchalk? (For those seeking the origins of my streaming interests, look elsewhere. You good people let me know about Arumba after I was well into my broadcasting hobby.) We are on firmer ground when we consider that live streaming is probably the best interactive broadcasting platform (though by no means exclusively. TV has attempted far more innovation along these lines than people give it credit for) available to us, and we are social animals. Since the greatest strength of the platform is its interactivity, it is only natural that we would want to leverage the strengths of the personalities bringing us this content, and ultimately speech is the most effective way to accomplish this. People are communicating with you in typed words, you speak words back.

Interacting with a personality is not itself a major revelation, but what we should do is unpack exactly what that means so that we can put it under the microscope and find out why we are compelled by some broadcasters but not others. It also puts some boundaries on the discussion. For instance, this has little to offer an aspiring eSports professional who is likely going to attract an audience based on their performance on broadcast games (either in tournaments or on stream, though preferably both). Assuming there is no preliminary work that has already been done through success on another platform, what people know about you is due entirely to what you have spoken after hitting the ‘start streaming’ button.

Of course, there’s an even more fundamental reason to talk and display your personality: it’s entertaining. There is, of course, no obligation to be entertaining, but I am assuming that there are far less costly and technologically intensive forms of masturbation available. And if you’re not having fun, surely there are easier ways to make a living. I’m always looking for new ways to be entertained, and so I have to hope that the broadcasters I visit are as invested in my entertainment as I am. Having identified a motive for dialogue on stream, let’s think about the substance of what is said.

What do I Talk About?

The importance of founding the ‘what’ question on the personality of the broadcaster (again, interactivity being the comparative advantage of live streaming and so personality being the factor that best leverages this advantage) lies in its versatility. Our potential audience is anyone with a reliable internet connection, which means it is global and growing. It’s hard not to believe that there is an audience out there for more or less anything, though clearly some formats will be more popular than others. I don’t really think anyone can teach someone how to become famous. There’s an old quote that is at least attributed to Henry Ford saying “If I asked the customer what they wanted they’d have told me a faster horse that ate less.” This suggests that even if you were to simply poll the Twitch user base, the supposed insights of “Call of Duty is in this year” or “People really want tutorial style MMO PvP streams” are simply identifying past successes and so are basically like driving using only the rear view mirror.

Focusing on personality also forces you to answer the question: why are you doing this? The best way for me to approach this question is to answer it for myself. I can clearly remember from the start what my intentions were in streaming. Gaming has always been a social experience for me, and I tremendously enjoy sharing games with people, even if they’re not gamers themselves. Furthermore, I really like games that make me learn things. When I was little I loved Civilization and can remember being fascinated by all the reading I was doing in the Civilopedia. It’s no coincidence that Kerbal Space Program was one of the first games I streamed because it was a game that I not only enjoyed sharing the experience of learning the game, but was also one that was very subtly teaching me more about orbital mechanics than I would have thought. The learning dimension somewhat expanded because I also talk about my academic interests. People who know me in person know that this is not limited to my stream. These discussions come from a genuine love of these subjects and the enjoyment I get out of sharing them with people. As it happens, games provide a wonderful framework to take people from “God I hated X in high school/college” to “Oh wow, I never thought about it that way.” Clearly the success of this is not for me to determine, but these are the reasons I stream and they are broadly unchanged from the first broadcast, though I hope I’ve become more effective at delivering them.

What I hope this biography conveys is that, while I do behave quite differently when doing a guest appearance on another stream, the content that you see (or more appropriately, hear) on Mondays and Fridays is inextricably linked to me on a personal level. Ultimately, I feel the best commentary comes from this place, which is why I don’t believe in a success formula. People will always remain the core of this broadcast medium, and your dialogue is one of the best ways to interact with them.

Sometimes answering this question is hard. Because it is part of yourself that you will be putting into each broadcast, answering “Why are you streaming?” bears some similarity to the dreaded question “What do you want to do with your life?” It’s a very personal question that you’re dealing with, and it is one that deals with your aspirations and ambitions, which will then be exposed to the world which makes no promises to cherish them as much as you do. But failing to answer this question means that we, the audience, are simply interacting with some cartoon, or worse, nothing at all. Here we do well to remember Polonius’ final piece of advice son Laertes in the first act of Hamlet, “To thine own self be true…”

While this section could be condensed simply to ‘be genuine’ the commandment version does not offer much about the insecurities associated with such an action, and leave the reasons for its importance up to conjecture. But while shrieking at a jump scare is, pretty much by definition, genuine, reaction alone is not enough to properly convey personality through the stream. This brings us to our final topic.

How do I Talk on Stream?

I have to guess every streamer at some point has had to deal with the problem of an empty chat room. Another reason for centring this discussion around a personality is because it should make this problem irrelevant. I knew playing Kerbal Space Program I’d talk about my experience learning the game if nobody showed up or 100 people showed up. This is the active creation of content where the streamer is bringing something more to the table than their access to a gaming computer and broadband internet. This is my Kerbal Space Program, there are many like it but this one is mine…

It is a lot easier to cast to an active chat than it is to an empty chat. Partly it’s because of the support, and partly it’s because I enjoy the interactivity of the medium both as a broadcaster and an audience member. But with this in mind, I still try to be active in how I interact with chat. I’ll illustrate this difference between active interaction vs. passive interaction with an example:

Suppose I’m playing The Talos Principle. I wander around a level, unable to solve a puzzle. “Man, I’m stuck on this one…” Go around in circle again “This game is really hard sometimes…” Notice something different “Oh I think I’ve got the answer.” Flip the switch, move to another section, wind up where I started. “Nope that’s not the answer.” “Oh hey yoloswag420360noscopeblazeit, how are you today?” … “I’m good, just playing some Talos. This puzzle is really hard.” Continue through level. “Yeah, it is a lot like Portal. The puzzles seem a lot harder though.” Have a breakthrough, solve the puzzle. “Oh I get it now. That makes sense, I can’t believe I didn’t get it before.”

There’s a trick to analyzing this hypothetical streamer. First imagine a checkbox of all the traits you’d want in a good stream. Are they talking? Yes, sounds are being produced. Are they responding to chat? Yes, and mentioned someone by name. But can we really call any of this interactive, or really even content? Let’s consider an alternative.

Back in The Talos Principle at the same puzzle. “Alright strap in boys and girls, I’ve completely lost my mind here…” While going through the level “I tried moving the box here, doesn’t seem to be any better place for that. There’s a fan part over there, but it doesn’t seem to be good for anything at the moment… I feel like I’m missing something but we’ve been through this level twice… Hey yolo, how’s it going? Were the other 420359 noscopeblazeits taken?” … “Glad to hear it. This is The Talos Principle. I’m loving it so far, but this puzzle is about to make me self harm.” … “Yes, it’s a lot like Portal. You know how in Portal 2 you get bits of the history of Aperture Laboratories through audio as you go through the level? This tells the story in a similar way, though it seems very philosophical.” Same breakthrough solve the puzzle “Are you kidding me? I’m an idiot. Have you ever noticed that you almost never think to look up in games? I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s because the original first person games only made us look forward? Or the levels are designed with most things at eye level (maybe because the designers played first person games where you only look forward)? I don’t know, what do you guys think?”

Very similar situation. A lot of the dialogue is geared towards the game, and this is a scenario that pretty much any steamer is going to find themselves in at some point: a difficult point in a game where they can’t make progress. However there are a couple of important differences in the scenario above that makes it better ‘stream talk’ in my view. First, personality is conveyed through phrases like ‘Okay strap in…’, the corny joke about the 420360 in the name, or ‘I’m going to self harm because of this puzzle’ (obviously context matters in this case!). There’s no way to fake this, but I feel the more genuine a streamer is with an audience, the more these turns of phrase will come out naturally. In addition, the ‘filler’ while going through the level has the benefit of a systematic approach of conveying a thought process through a game. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between just plain noise. “I am going through a door” is information we can see visually, while “Okay, let me double check what I have to work with…” is something that communicates why you are retracing your steps (and motivates why you’re going through a door).

But the chief difference I wanted to take out of these examples was the difference between a reactive caster and a proactive caster. The first example seems to have an absence of content. The comments on the game are largely already restating the obvious or what is present in the game. Interaction with the chat is reduced to waiting for them to give material to respond to. In the second example, the streamer is always bringing something extra. They don’t rest at simply saying they’re playing The Talos Principle or responding to the similarities with Portal, but instead talk about specifics. They don’t just make sounds in response to things that happen in the game, but they become opportunities to talk about things and possibly bring chat into the discussion. Every stream will have its own spin and so the discussion may not be about the game itself, but what’s important here is that there is something from the caster that is being added more than just noise.

In a reactive stream, chat needs to put the ‘token’ of a comment into the machine before they get something from the streamer (or sometimes the game will pay the token and the streamer will respond). The active stream doesn’t expect anything from the audience, and so is less costly for people to watch. The reactive stream really doesn’t rise above watching someone play a video game with occasional interruptions of noise. The person streaming is more interesting than that, and the people watching the stream are more interesting than that.

Conclusion

Talking on stream is by no means an easy task, but it’s one of the best things you can do to leverage the unique advantages of live streaming as a broadcast medium. Because of its interactivity, we need to focus on people: the person doing the broadcasting, and the people the broadcast is going out to. Because of the size of the potential audience there are nearly limitless options of things to talk about, but we may miss the opportunity to present them simply because we’re either unpracticed or nervous about people’s responses.

In the end, this can only get better with practice. Talk with friends, or at parties, or try to do some public speaking. Think about what you have to say, and your unique take on things. In the end, as a broadcaster, you are far more interesting to me than the game you are playing (which to me is just sort of furniture to a stream). Your commentary is one of the best ways to convey your personality and stand out, even in a crowded space.

I Will Now Opine About Mad Max: Fury Road and Movies in General

I saw Mad Max: Fury Road tonight (edit: well, when I started writing this… Been a couple days since). I had some Scene points (loyalty program) that were expiring, and out of everything available I’d heard the most positive reviews about it. I’d not quite intended to write a second post in a row on something creative, but this is how the day turned out. The main reason for avoiding this kind of topic is because I find it’s very easy to voice opinions on entertainment products, but there isn’t really lot of value in merely stating an opinion. This is probably why I generally have avoided reading reviews of things because they generally fail at establishing context (credentials or really any indicator that this is an opinion worth hearing), and I’m usually left without an answer to the all important question: “who cares?” There is nothing particularly bad about the expression of an opinion per se (though I’d hope we’d expect more from the institution of the review), but generally when they are negative they are also matched with an unhealthy dose of scorn for the team behind it. It’s understandable because usually it’s really fun to write in high dudgeon, and as long as everyone’s on the same page, everyone has some good laughs about what morons the people who shot that movie/wrote that book/made that game were.

I think most people are generally on board with the ‘don’t be mean’ sentiment. Generally I think this kind of behaviour is limited to talking about unknown individuals, so something like a development team, and on the occasions that it does take a specific name (ie. Michael Bay), people are attacking the concept rather than pursuing an individual vendetta against the man. That said, the sentiments expressed to these people are no less hurtful to them because they certainly are known individuals from their point of view. Now, this does not make anyone free from criticism (even poorly expressed or ignorant criticism), but it seems to me much more productive to engage these people seriously and do what we can to nurture this talent so that in future we can at least hope for more and better entertainment options. This is partly the motivation for why I wanted to elaborate on the Caves of Qud comments on Twitter (even if, as is likely the case, these views will never inform an actual decision). I also prefer criticism that rises beyond snark because it simply makes for better reading. Compare The Resistible Rise of Vladimir Putin from Foreign Affairs (which, it is worth reiterating, is a book review. Also likely behind a paywall but I believe there are two free articles a month) to any of the other reviews you’ve read recently. I clearly can’t expect to accomplish what the book review does, but in the spirit of producing commentary that attempts to at least engage with the material, I thought I would talk about what worked for me and what didn’t in Mad Max: Fury Road.

It’s worth mentioning that I believe I’ve seen the original Mad Max, but I don’t recall any details about it, and so some of my comments on character are likely to be informed by this gap. That said, the last Mad Max movie was released 30 years ago, and so I do not think it is unfair to expect that most viewers are not going to be familiar with anything that occurred in the original three films.  I also can’t expect this to be too much of an impediment because absolutely nothing about the promotion or discussion of the film has indicated it is anything but a pure action movie. And in this regard it is absolutely fantastic. It starts off strong and fast and maintains that pace for more or less the entire first half. It may not be for everyone, but I think it’s a ton of fun to watch, and I really can’t think of a movie that’s done it quite this well.

In many ways, I have to suspect that this is what movies on the big screen are about today. From a business perspective, consider the following: almost all of the information is conveyed visually, and the majority of sounds essential to the experience are not spoken words, meaning that it will likely translate better into other languages than, say, a comedy that relies on wordplay. Big sound and big visuals are also still best conveyed in a movie theatre. I have to assume the experience will be somewhat diminished on Netflix. This doesn’t mean there isn’t value in seeing a drama on the big screen, or that there is necessarily a tradeoff between the two (just think of Lawrence of Arabia), but it is much easier to make the case that action is a reason to actually go out to the movies. It’s also easier to see a transition to more action oriented fare in response to the fact that drama can develop greater character arcs over the course of a season of a television show (to say nothing of several seasons) than in the confines of even a three hour movie. It’s hard to imagine seeing Breaking Bad having the same impact restyled as a feature length movie, and it’s even more difficult to imagine The Terminator sustaining a long standing TV series (yes, I know there was the Sarah Connor Chronicles. I never saw it and it appears to have only run for 2 seasons, earning Emmy nominations for technical work only). This is why it may be easy to joke about Michael Bay movies, but there is a certain gift in being able to identify this shift in audience sentiments, if this is actually what’s occurred.

But in reality, if I’m only going to talk about the action, I have nothing new to say here. If you don’t know that Fury Road has a lot of really good action in it, there’s plenty of other people who can communicate that better than me. What else is there to keep you entertained for two hours? Here is where someone might go for the old saw that it’s ‘good for action but not much going on for the story.’ Again, there’s more going on here than that cliche can permit. There’s actually some interesting ideas going on in this movie, both in terms of setting, but also those weird image systems english majors like to keep talking about. Different fluids keep coming up: Max as a ‘bloodbag’, the rationing of water to keep the population under control, the farm of wet nurses, and the theft of gasoline all keep coming up again and again in the first half. It’s apparent enough that the people are living under an oppressive, extractive system, but the return to this theft of fluids (my Strangelovian phrasing aside), provides a nice coherence to the setting that suggests that this is more than just a string of cool stunt performances with dialogue to keep it respectable.

On this note, we can make a contrast between the two types of review. Someone wanting to regale us with the time they slummed it with the plebes and enjoyed a brainless bit of dumb fun would point out something like ‘why would they use so many flamethrowers and chainsaws if fuel is so precious?’ But, with maybe some reservations, I like this touch and see it as another indicator that a lot of thought and care was put into creating this world. Such extravagance is ultimately a display of such supreme confidence, and I can think of more than a few historical precedents (imagine the complaint “If money is so precious, why do these Romans keep wasting them on spectacle?”). ‘Wasting’ fuel on a flame throwing guitar (or the entire rig with drums and speakers) just as easily is a display of strength and the assuredness that further conquest will bring in more fuel. I’m maybe less sold on the utility of the combat oriented uses (the chainsaws, the flamethrowers) given the presence of more primitive (and reliable) weapons in the film, but this maybe accounted for a fraction of a second’s thought in the overall film. I also thought the design of the different weapons and tactics on display were quite ingenious, and tremendously enhanced by different styles for different factions, and I really like the touch of a post-apocalyptic world where humans can be reduced to tools (Max as a blood bag, the blind guitarist, etc.). It’s certainly possible to create a sequence of high-octane vignettes without putting any thought into the setting, but I think the fact that Fury Road bothered to take the time to fully realize its setting is something that sets it apart and makes it a really good time at the movies.

Unfortunately, I also think there are limitations on this front. I should first note that apparently Eve Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues) was a consultant on this film, and so I may simply be missing the mark when it comes to characterization. This caveat aside, I really don’t know what to make of the characters in Fury Road. Max seems to go from a crazy person with a beard who eats lizards to, well, a crazy person without a beard (who may or may not still eat lizards). Furiosa is a bit more interesting with a lot more implied story, but the dialogue is pretty sparse, and generally reduced to orders or directions, so there really isn’t much room for development. This leads me to probably my only real complaint with the movie. I’d say the first half (I didn’t exactly time it) is loud, exiting, and just a grand old time. Once they’ve escaped the army and begin looking for ‘the green place’ things begin to drag a bit, and I kind of feel like I could have gone out, gone to the bathroom, and maybe have gotten a coffee without missing too much. The aforementioned material on fluids is more or less gone at this point (rather than being present throughout the film as is the case with other movies that use these techniques effectively) with possibly the exception of the poisoned water of what turns out to be the remains of the green place. If ‘the big no’ moment (or is it a skyward scream? Comment below) is any indication this is the big emotional lynchpin, but I was sort of indifferent at this point. This is the point without action, but unfortunately it feels a bit aimless which, while perhaps appropriate to the circumstances the characters find themselves in, doesn’t do a lot for me as a viewer. For contrast, the film sets up some really great moments of conflict (admittedly in action scenes) where there are three characters all after the same goal, each completely at odds with one another, so the drag is really noticeable. In face of the fact that the conclusion is much like the opening in terms of thrills and engagement, I do quite literally mean this is my only complaint. The ending may be a bit simple (Furiosa is embraced as a new ruler without question and Max walks off as the lone wanderer he was at the start, possibly in search of a lizard), but it ties everything together, and I suppose gives Furiosia the redemption she’s stated as seeking.

So what might we do with the sagging middle? Fury Road doesn’t fall into the sin of most movies today which is to be too long. It clocks in at an even 120 minutes which is a perfectly reasonable time for a movie. That said, I wouldn’t be too disappointed if it were cut down. But as I said, maybe there’s a bit more going on here which I simply didn’t realize, and maybe I’m going a little too far in saying that it’s perfectly acceptable to have a pure action film. How might we change things if forced to keep the present runtime? The following answer almost certainly reflects my present interests, but I hope to argue that this alternative direction is at least consistent with things I think are already strengths of the film, and possibly strengthen points where I feel the film is weaker.

In the present ending, Immortal Joe is killed, and Furiosa’s revelation of this is sufficient to establish herself as his replacement. This may work in the world of the film but is an opportunity for conflict that isn’t explored. Immortal Joe has set up a system through which his access to and limited distribution of precious resources secure his control. Joe was the present warlord, but this system is very much intact after his death and Furiosa needs access to it to accomplish her goals (even if she ultimately seeks an equitable distribution of these resources). In the current version of the film, Furiosa’s successful combat against Joe is all that is required for her to seize power, and it can be possibly justified if we assume the existing administrators feel the need for a display of strength in order to keep the current system in place. But let’s take a step back and contrast Furiosa with a character like Maximus in Gladiator. Maximus initially refuses Marcus Aurelius’ call to lead Rome back to a republic, explaining he is not a politician and cannot handle institutions such as the senate. His soldierly instincts permit him to survive in the gladiatorial arena, but not to achieve success (“Are you not entertained!?”). His journey in some senses is a political one in which he must learn to win the crowd in addition to being an effective combatant. When he  finally defeats Commodus, he delivers his final speech to the crowd, his mastery of both spheres complete. I think Gladiator’s a great movie, and certainly is not short on excitement, so is there anything we can take from Maximus’ journey that we can apply to Furiosa’s?

Let me motivate this further by asking you a question: Suppose overnight Kim Jong-Un was successfully overthrown by US and South Korean forces, who now inherit all the systems of control of his repressive government along with it’s starving, uneducated, desperate population. What would happen? Fury Road’s answer is that they would realize the better way and embrace the new government from the coalition without a second’s thought. This, to my view, is a tremendous missed opportunity. If we shorten down the ‘wandering’ moments to communicate the essential information (Furiosa’s past, meeting the Vuvalini, the poisoning of the green place) and instead make the final confrontation not just a trial by combat, which Furiosa has already displayed considerable skill in from the outset, but instead make the seizing of the citadel the final challenge the characters need to overcome. I think this conflict still allows the film’s themes to come through, and strengthen’s Furiosa’s quest for redemption. The current redemption is effectively granted to her by the whims of whoever holds the levers to bring the party up to the valves that hold the water. While she may go from simply saving herself and the five wives to saving the citadel, it’s a side effect of her fight against Immortal Joe. In contrast, a fight to bring the citadel under her control (ideally one that is at least partly, if not fully political in nature, again, Gladiator demonstrating that these need not be mutually exclusive), makes the achievement that much more meaningful. It presents an opportunity to show more of her character, in addition to providing a better role for Max who is a former cop (and so has a past that involves public service and the enforcing order).

In so far as this is a review I suppose I should finish by saying whether or not I think it’s worth going out and seeing. As always, I need to hedge my bets and say it depends on what kind of a movie you want to see. If you don’t like loud movies with violence, then this is not going to be the movie for you. If you go to movies looking for ‘holes’ to poke in, you’ll probably be able to project them (though as outlined above, I don’t think can be sustained) and so presumably will not enjoy yourself. Likewise, while I think there’s more to the story than what I hear others give it credit for, if you want a bit more dramatic meat in your films, you’ll probably be a bit disappointed. But honestly, those individual cases aside, this movie is a fantastic reason to go go out to the theatre and watch a movie. It’s big, the sound design is great, the stunts are great, the soundtrack is a perfect match, and the action has fantastic pacing and tension throughout. And if, like me, you’re worried it’s dying out halfway through, take heart, it’s just as exciting in the climax. I’m happy to have spent the time and money.

The preceding contains what some might consider spoilers and probably shouldn’t be read if you don’t want to know any details about the plot before seeing the movie.