Pacific Rim: Shortcut to story

Pacific Rim poster: Coyote TangoBeing my usual big freakin’ gaming nerd self, I watched Pacific Rim with both halves of my brain: the comic-book geek half, and the gamer geek half.  On the comic book side, of course, it is a visual delight: if, like me, you sat down for a big live-action rendition of a manga or anime fest, it was perfect.  Pitch-perfect, colour-perfect, choreography-perfect, design-perfect.

But there was also something there for the story-lover in me, the game-master, the attentive reader of clues, the analyst of systems; Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham use some interesting shortcuts to emotional impact that I think are worth a GM’s time to analyze.  (Note: I’m offering minor spoilers that are mostly covered by the introductory minutes of the movie.)

First of all, let’s get something out of the way: a simple plot does not have to mean shallow impact.  Not only does Pacific Rim have to be true to its origins in manga, anime, and kaiju movies — just like The Avengers or X-Men had to be to their superhero comic book roots; but it really only has to measure up to movies like Star Wars, Big Trouble in Little China, or Titanic in terms of plot.  If you think about it, these were very simple stories.

What it does have to do is bring the usually drawn frame into photo-realistic life, both literally (from manga to film) and figuratively, making us believe that someone is threatened, angry, frightened, vengeful, or elated in the film convincingly enough that we don’t keep pulling out of suspension of disbelief.  We have to care enough about the characters that we don’t start rooting for the kaiju the way I rooted for the bugs in Starship Troopers.

In game terms, that translates to wanting my players to get emotionally engaged with the adventure, just like del Toro wants his audience engaged with the story, while keeping the plot elements simple and clean, without oodles of backstory to labour through.  He uses a few tricks that GMs can plunder from. 

(1) Quick overview, then jump into action.  Del Toro has the good grace not to inflict an interminable origin story on his audience, and if he was a GM, he would not demand that the players read 25 pages of setting history just to get to what the game is about.  Short recap, vivid clips from what has gone on before, then bam! Action.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting the back story; in fact, del Toro cut about an hour of material from his film, leaving a running time of 2h11m, but if he adds it back to a DVD version I will want to get this character exploration stuff.  But if a DVD is a mini-series and a TV show an on-going campaign, a movie is a one-off convention game; don’t waste it on exposition — show the players (viewers) just what they need, then jump in with immediate action.

(2) Instant human connection.  Perhaps the most effective and genre-appropriate idea in the movie is the need for two pilots per mech suit, working in close connection.  The Jaeger pilots need a strong bond; examples provided include brothers, husband and wife, father and son, triplets.  If I use this as a GM, I’ve just told my players: “Give your character a strong, close relationship with another player character or with a major NPC.”  This means we now know that the bond is special, more than your average siblings or couple.  The characters will have someone they are willing to risk anything for, and an unconditional ally.

(3) Foster cooperation.  The choice of pilots working in sync is not only very true to the mecha genre, it also means that excelling does not mean beating everybody else but finding the best cooperation.  We see it in the pilot try-outs; the ideal result is not scoring much higher than your adversary, but as close as possible.  We also see in the way several Jaegers are more effective if they work together.  In a game, this means a group that will work together, even with disagreements, rather than every player trying to hog the story.

(Incidentally, on the strictly visual aspect of the movie, the sync’ed pilots also have another profoundly emotional impact: seeing them work in tandem evokes a natural reaction in the viewer, an urge to synchronize with them.  I don’t know how you’d do that in a game, though.)

(4) Now pull against the bonds.  Give the characters other connections that pull against the primary one: a friendly or not-so-friendly rivalry, regrets about past choices, worry for a loved one’s safety, etc.  Make the characters want to risk one relationship to react to another.

(5) Watch the pace.  This is obvious: allow your characters the time to interact, but keep pushing them with new events.  Mark the times when they can slow down to explore a little — for example, the clock reset after a kaiju event — but make it clear that there still is a clock and it’s ticking.

(6) Tease the audience with plenty of details, but don’t feel like you have to explain everything.  We had lots of these in the movie, from the visual details in the introduction, to the quirks and mannerisms of the ground crew, to the glimpses of pilots’ memories in the Drift, to the texture and look of the locations and Jaegers, to the mentions of past kills, to the mysterious past of Hannibal Chau.  All of these are fodder for a future game — or a movie prequel or sequel, or a comic book or animation tie-in, etc.  They make us curious, interested, but we are not overwhelmed with unnecessary explanations.  Only what is needed to understand this episode is explained.

Examples of systems that are really good to model these points, with a suitable setting hack, include:

  • Heroquest (Issaries)
  • Fate (Evil Hat Productions)
  • Truth & Justice (Atomic Sock Monkey Press)
  • Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games)
  • Fiasco (Bully Pulpit Productions) (really!)
  • And, as I understand it though I have not had a chance to try it, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (Margaret Weis Productions)
  • Edit: As Edmund suggests  in the comments, Hot War (Contested Grounds Studio) could also be hacked for a good Pacific Rim game.

Incidentally, the two official Pacific Rim sites provide a wealth of great setting resources and even props:

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3 thoughts on “Pacific Rim: Shortcut to story

  1. The Apocalypse World hack should involve everyone living in one of the devastated cities, trying to eke out a living working for one of the cartels selling kaiju parts on the black market.

    It should be called “Monsterparts”.

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