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Good Teeth & Korean Storytelling

Jess Lebow Posted:
Columns Jess Lebow's MMO Story Hour 0

Jess Lebow's MMO Story Hour: Why Good Teeth Are Important to Korean Storytelling

Fresh out of a trip to the dentist, Lebow retells the tale of one strange encounter during the development of Guild Wars.

For all my life I’ve had good teeth.

Well, let’s clarify. I had crooked teeth that for one reason or another managed to remain cavity free—even through the torturous orthodontic nightmares of braces and retainers—until the age of 30.

I brush my teeth twice a day and go to the dentist regularly, like I suspect most people do. I’ve just been lucky I guess.

But when I started at ArenaNet I got a new dentist. My old dentist was a long way from the office and my apartment, and he wasn’t fully covered by our dental insurance. Several of the people at the office were going to a dentist only a few miles away. They all loved her, so I took their recommendation. The first visit was completely painless. The cleaning went fine, and when the dentist came in to examine my teeth she asked me if I had any questions or things I wanted to discuss with her. I said, “Just tell me I don’t have any cavities.”

And she did. No cavities. She even went so far as to tell me that I had great teeth, especially for someone who grew up in Seattle. (Later I pondered that statement, wondering if she was insinuating that those of us born and raised in the Puget Sound area simply didn’t take good care of our teeth, or that we were all backwater hicks who hadn’t yet embraced the modern convenience and technology of the power toothbrush.)

Six months later I was back for another routine cleaning. Again everything went fine and the dentist came in to ask me if I had any questions. “Nope,” I said, thinking about repeating my quip from the previous visit but deciding against it.

And that was where the train came off the rails.

Sitting down beside me, the dentist pulled out a sharp hook attached to a long wire. She then proceeded to place the pointy part into the grooves of my teeth. Each time she touched the enamel, a high-pitched noise was emitted from a small box near her feet. It sounded a little like the screech an old-school radio makes when you’re trying to tune it from one station to another.

She scowled at each of these noises and scribbled notes on a small pad beside the chair. Her scrawl seemed exceptionally loud, since the paper was right beside my ear. After which she proceeded to tell me that I had four small cavities, two on the right side and two on the left. (Though it is completely irrelevant to this story, I will tell you that it is my firm belief today that I did not, in fact, have any cavities at that time and the dentist was simply drilling holes in my head to get more money out of me and my insurance company. But like I said, not relevant.)

From there I was whisked into a room at the back of the office where the right side of my face was shot full of Novocain. Apparently I have a resistance to Novocain, because I needed three shots just to numb me enough to drill two small holes and fill them with cement.

The whole thing only took an hour, and I was walking into work after this ordeal at about 9:30AM. When I arrived the entire Guild Wars writing team was in a panic. Apparently one of the founders had come by looking for me three times already. The extra work at the dentist had run longer than I had anticipated, but to be honest, arriving at a game company anytime before 10:00 is well within bounds. I didn’t have any meetings on my schedule, so whatever this was had been unplanned.

Dropping my briefcase at my desk, I walked down the hall to find my boss and two Korean men sitting in a conference room. One of the men was the ArenaNet business manager, and I knew him. The other I was introduced to as “one of the foremost literary scholars in all of Korea.”

This man had been playing Guild Wars for the past week. He had taken it upon himself to get onboard a plane and fly 12+ hours just so he could spend half a day explaining to me how to tell a story to a Korean audience.

Now, we were three days away from pressing our gold master and about six weeks away from releasing the game. My boss was not at all happy about having this Korean scholar in our offices. He felt it was meddling on the part of our parent company and publisher, and he was, rightfully, irritated that this sort of input wasn’t delivered to us at a stage where we could perhaps make changes in the story and game without them costing millions of dollars and potentially slipping our release date.

My boss then proceeded to pull the business manager out of the room for a private discussion, leaving me and our visitor alone in the room. Now, I’d never heard of this man before. Why would I have? But what I later discovered was that this meeting was roughly equivalent to me being in a one-on-one writing seminar with our American poet laureate. In other words, this was an event of a lifetime for a writer like me, but at that moment I had no idea.

Still, being primarily a friendly person, I began a conversation with our guest—at which point I learned that he spoke very little English. Our business manager had been in the room as an interpreter, but he was no longer there. I, on the other hand, speak no Korean at all, and half of my face was completely numb from the unexpected dental work. So that morning, I could barely speak English myself.

The two of us suffered through what amounted to a little over an hour’s worth of trying to understand each other. My boss and our interpreter only returned to escort our scholarly friend out of the building and help him get a cab back to the airport.

Despite our difficulties, I did learn a thing or two. As it turns out, there is a rather large difference between the stories that resonate with an American audience and those that resonate with a Korean audience. Primarily this has to do with the differences between the two nations in what is culturally acceptable. For example, Koreans are far more respectful of their elders than we Americans are. The story I had written for the first Guild Wars featured a prince defying the commands of his father, the king, in order to do what he thought was right. Korean gamers looked down on this. They wouldn’t see this prince as a rogue hero who overcame tremendous obstacles to do the right thing for his people. He would instead be a disgrace, someone who could not be looked up to simply because he did not have the values or honor to respect his father and do right by him. It was a tough discrepancy to overcome at such a late date for certain.

It was an interesting experience. If I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, I would have pressed to spend more time with our friend. There are a lot of things I’m certain I could have learned from him and I suspect, there are a few he could have learned from me. The very least of which is how to tilt your head back far enough while talking to avoid drooling on the table when one whole side of your face is still numb.


Jess Lebow