You always hear about things from our childhood influencing our adult lives, but it's not often you can identify the one thing that shaped your entire attitude toward life. Luckily for me, I recently started re-watching Babylon 5, and I've had the transcendent experience of not only discovering why new age-style philosophies are so appealing to me, but also why I like dark-skinned, dark-haired men named Marcus.
For those of you who have seen Babylon 5, this may already make perfect sense to you. For those of you who haven't, the series is about a space station that's classified as a neutral zone, and ends up as the staging ground for an epic battle between the forces of light and darkness. I say epic, and I mean epic. The series - all 5 seasons - were planned strictly in advance, so that things that happen in season 3 are a wonder of engineering from season 1, and so forth. Everything fits together, and, unusually for a science fiction show, there are no continuity errors (that I've spotted). Despite the fact they got 'cancelled' and had to cram seasons 4 & 5 into season 4, then got re-upped due to their popularity and so spent season 5 being a little silly, the show as a whole always has a cohesive feel that I haven't come across in any other episodic content apart from Avatar: The Last Airbender. There's something to be said for planning far in advance, and I'm in awe of any writer who can do so.
But the philosophy in Babylon 5! Oh, it reminds me of so many things, and explains so many things. One thing that Marcus said today, in one of the episodes we watched, was a comment on how life is unfair. He said he actually finds it a relief, because wouldn't it be awful if all the terrible things that happened to you were actually things you deserved? Without realising it, or perhaps even being cognizant and wanting to get an important message across, J. Michael Straczynski opened up entirely new possibilities for my little mind to comprehend. I say little in the sense that I was quite young, and all of these thoughts were revolutionary. Looking back on the show I loved so dearly, some of these insights are still a surprise. Most of all, I'm surprised that I forgot where they came from until now.
Babylon 5, the place, also explains my attitude toward multiculturalism. I'm so for it that I don't even notice it. I was once told to 'get an education' by a friend of mine because I didn't understand the racial slurs he was making. This being said while I was at university, I was somewhat shocked. Similarly, a German acquaintance told me all Australians are racist but pretend we aren't. No, I replied, that's simply not true. I don't believe it's possible for anyone to be completely free of prejudice, and I'm aware that it's just that my prejudices lie in other areas, but I don't notice what race or even gender most people are. When a friend and I were waiting for my friend one time, she said, "What does he look like?" I replied, "Average height, black hair, glasses, round face." When he finally showed up, my first friend waited until he was out of earshot then said, "Why didn't you just say he was Asian?" It didn't even register as a relevant detail for me.
I think it's a lot easier to be tolerant of other humans when you grow up seeing the interactions between different species, especially in something so optimistic about 'human' nature as Babylon 5. All the species must band together to fight the threat of the Shadows, because it's the only way they'll win. Of course, most of the aliens are still bipedal, but it throws things like colour or gender out the window when it's suddenly a choice between Narn or Drazi. It also raises issues of cultural acceptance, as many of these species act in ways that humans find either unacceptable or illogical, and yet still have to deal with, e.g. "Green Drazi follow Green Leader...."
The one other idea, though, that I remember most from watching Babylon 5 when it first came out was Kosh. Oh, how I adored him. He was enigmatic, and strange, and not very forthcoming, but when he saved Sheridan from that transport... I've never forgotten it. Kosh is an alien who always hides inside an 'encounter suit', saying the atmosphere is deadly. Eventually he reveals that he can't show his true form, or everyone would know him for what he was. When he saves Sheridan from falling two miles to his death, he appears as an angel. More than that, though, he appears as an angel of each race watching, so to the Minbari he looks Minbari, to the Narn he looks like a Narn, and to the humans he appears as human. That single sequence, more than anything, swayed my thought that all people can believe in the one idea, and see it with different faces. But the flipside of that is that the Vorlons had never visited Centauri Prime - and so Londo saw nothing. Never before in my young life had the idea of separate consciousness been explained so clearly and so beautifully. To that scene, I would argue, I owe my empathy.
This is all well and good, you say, but how does this apply to me, Mr./Ms. Wannabe (Games) Writer? Oh, my dear, how does it not apply? To send a strong message, you have to be aware of the message you're sending. Science fiction has always been an allegory for society, to show us the paths we've taken in a different light. The original Star Trek pioneered some amazing attitudes, like the first same-sex kiss that was ever televised. By colouring the world a different way, we're able to see similarities that might not have been obvious before. As a reflection of society, Babylon 5 is an ideal. As a writer of any kind of media, you need to know your ideal before you start.
What are you trying to tell your audience? What is the one thing you desperately want them to know, or feel, or think? What experience do you want them to have? And, something I personally try to keep in mind, how are you trying to make their lives better?
The arts have an ability that few other communication methods have. We can change a lifetime of thoughts with a gentle nudge, turn a reader's attention to an unknown part of themselves, or a player's actions into a much larger and more thought-provoking issue. As artists, we can make people think. As writers, we can influence their world. What are you writing, and why? How is your work improving the world, one step at a time?
I wouldn't be the person I am today if it weren't for Babylon 5, or Baldur's Gate, or Planescape: Torment, or Robin Hobb. All of these ideas shaped me, and you're fooling yourself if you think you aren't doing the same to the people who read your work. Everything is an influence. The wonder of it is that you can use this to your advantage, to make your message as strong as you can while refraining from didacticism. The wonder of your audience is the way in which they will interpret your message, and bring new meaning to it from their own experiences. I realise this is a very romantic view of writing, but we writers are nothing if not romantic.
Make your audience feel - happy, sad, angry, whatever is appropriate. Give them something to think about. And, when you feel up to it, slip in one of those little pieces of advice that have made your life better. The off-hand comment that sparked a journey of self-discovery. Something your mother told you that's always rang true. The kind words of a lover, when life has got you down. These moments, while personal, are uplifting. Share them. Joy is not only to be ferreted away against the days of the rain. It's also for sharing. Use your words or your art or your games to share that human experience, to impart some hard-won knowledge that might not otherwise be found. Strive to make life easier for those that come after you. And maybe, one day, a girl you've never met in a country half-way around the world will think of your name and smile.