21 September 2010

On Survivor - by Patrick Moran

Based simply on principle, I did not like Survivor when it debuted.  In the onslaught of reality shows that were developed in the wake of the show's immense popularity I quickly disregarded it as cheap thrills and somewhat disturbing from a sociological point of view.  The show's premise, to strand a couple dozen normal people on an island for a month until one is the lone survivor, appeared to be a one trick pony, a gimmick.  Survivor was not something that I consumed inquisitively, rather rejected the notion all together.  I was too good for the circus.

So imagine my unspoken apprehension when my girlfriend at the time spoke of her love for the "unscripted drama" that occurs when people leave their loved ones behind to starve, exhaust, and bicker their way to one million dollars.  If this woman was to be "the one" (it turned out she was) then I had better be willing to try a few new things.  This is what had me settling in on Thursday nights with my soon to be fiancée to tune into Survivor: Pearl Islands.

It just so happened that this season had a pirate theme and even a real life pirate on the cast.  My love of pirates ever since I played the original Sid Meier's Pirates is well established.  How could I not fall in love with this TV show?  What began as a love of pirates and the shear entertainment value of Rupert Boneham evolved very quickly to a greater appreciation of the brilliance of the game itself.

Contestants in Survivor quickly began to unravel as the hardships of living in those conditions began to take their toll.  The ever present existence of the game hanging over the contestants drove them to unpredictable and unusual behavior.  Politics, while not explicitly stated as a mechanic of the game, began to emerge out of the game over several seasons.  Words like "alliance", "two person", "four way", and "blindside" became part of the unofficial lexicon for any contestant or fan.

By video game standards, Survivor is a stunning achievement visually, commercially, and creatively.  Each set is lovingly crafted to present a rich thematic look.  The ringed fence of the camp in Gabon, the bright tribal colors against the vibrant blue of the water in the Cook Islands, and the incredible castles, tree top platforms, and ruins that make up tribal councils still bring back strong memories of the drama that occurred there.  Challenges that aren't that unlike the levels we create in the video game industry move the pendulum of momentum back and forth between contestants.  These serve to further the aesthetic of the show but also serve to dramatically change the social dynamics and endurance requirements.  They serve as the dice roll that could at any time make heroes out of fringe players and move the safest of players to the chopping block.  At the end of every season, the true winner always seems to be the game itself.  It claims all the contestants who enter its grasp even if they resist.

I'm very much looking forward to tonight's premier of Survivor: Nicaragua and I'll be continuing to write about the season and it continues.  My project for the next few months is to discuss each episode of the season and what lessons it has for Game Designers and how the show relates specifically to game design within the video game space.  While I would love to one day work on the show or even compete on it, writing about the show here will have to suffice for now.

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