The Transmedia London meetup last night was fantastic – if you are in London when they’re on, and interested in games/narratives/new media – I highly recommend you come along.
Now, there were lots of great talks over the course of the evening and a lot of great conversations following on from that, but I really want to talk about the thoughts sparked off from one of the projects – Varytale which was presented by delicious friend @alexiskennedy. Many of you will be familiar with Echo Bazaar. Varytale is a platform for publishing interactive fiction, in their own words:
We’re helping pioneer a new genre of literature: a genre where the reader’s choices are part of the author’s creative expression.
I’m a big fan of interactive fiction of all kinds, and text-based storytelling – but the word that made me start to scribble furiously in my notebook was “complicity”. Alexis talks about the power of choices making the reader complicit with the author, and that’s an interesting notion – one that has been explored, I think, much more keenly in games than in other media. Brenda Braithwaite’s Train does this in boardgame form (you really will be spoiled if you click the link), the much talked about No Russian level of Modern Warfare 2 where your controlled character is part of a group of soldiers killing civilians (or participates in the murder) – and really, almost any game to a greater or lesser degree – simply because you as the player are making choices (even within a framework).
You can’t help but be complicit because of the way in which your interaction is structured – and so, here’s the point of confluence: interactive fiction is read in the same way that games are played. The “choice” at the bottom of the page, the blinking text box, the controller in your hand – they make the reader into a player. And a player is a metaphor – it’s you and not you, the person sitting on the sofa and the character on the screen. You’re a real, physical person, but at the same time you’re part of the story. The story world actively reaches out for you, makes a space for you beside the characters and places and words and images of the fiction – a welcoming indendation molded to your shape. (The very inverse of what Barthes describes as a fundamental quality of film – that it is “an unbroken membrane” – games are cracked all over, and that’s how the players get in.)
There’s something there: playing as being, separate but complicit, a kind of dreamlike state in which we’re simultaneously pushing the B button but equally we’re pulling a trigger.
Jesse Schell – talking about ME3′s Kinect-powered voice activated dialogue system at GameHorizon last week- went some way towards identifying this as a kind of playing with. Dialogue in the ME series works a bit like this: you are in a situation, some dialogue options appear, you select one but the text on the screen is not simply repeated by Shepard – you realise, at best, it was an indication of what Shepard was going to say. That slippage of control is interesting.
I’ve always thought about it in terms of choosing an internal state (this is what Shepard feels or thinks to herself) and that organically prompts her public utterances. But Schell – in the act of speaking the text on screen out loud – sees teamwork rather than an internal voice piping up. Adding your real player’s voice into the mechanic makes it a dialogue – as if you begin a thought, and Shepard continues it. You’re not – as I’ve been thinking of it – the voice inside Shepard’s head, you’re extensions of each other.
Your complicity is not in inhabiting Shepard’s persona – but the complicity of standing beside and with. Of mingling your voices in pursuit of a common goal.
I think that’s what it’s like – sometimes – reading interactive fiction or playing certain types of games. And it’s a quality that you cannot experience in a traditional broadcast or reading scenario.
There are some interesting parallels with folktales, and with the oral tradition of storytelling more generally. Stories that change in the telling, localised to a place and time and audience, personalised for you by a strident authorial voice. With folktales there’s “the story” but that happily coexists with all the other versions of it being told, and when you get up a bit closer, those particular versions happily coexist with “your story”. And they’re all meaningful. Allowing the audience to own pieces of your story doesn’t mean the author has to give up their claims.
Beyond this, there is something transformative about being there. At its most gentle – sitting crosslegged and listening to a story, or the breathing hush in a theatre as the lights go down – and then, further along the gradient, the call-and-response of pantomime or group storytelling, by choosing to give your voice, your body, your activity to the story, you get to take part of it with you. The people who yell “she’s behind you” are always, always having more fun than those who sit there in stony silence.
But – more than that- clicking is as magical as lifting an arm or putting on a silly voice or yelling a reply to a fictional character on a cardboard-dotted stage. With a click of a button on my controller I can lift an object or jump or fire a gun or open a portal or run or shield my body or draw a line of colour in the sand or, sometimes, if I’m very, very lucky, go back in time.
And yes, there is certainly a complicity in turning a page when reading a book – a physical act – but it’s like comparing a side-scroller to an open-world game. It’s like playing Canabalt. There’s a pressure to move forward and at any point in the process you can stop but that’s the end of the story.
The physicality of the book can’t help but focus you in time and space. Even as we start the very first word we’re aware of the shape and size of the paragraph it’s within, and of the distance we are from the end, and how far we’ve come. But the reflective disc of a DVD, the digital download – they reveal nothing except the haziest outlines of size – download time, not experience time. And even that is no real indication of the size of your game – in any given Bioware RPG you are experiencing only a fraction of the content.
And there, that, that exact thing is what connects the variable narrative of the sort that Varytale is with the game much more distinctly and affirmatively than the novel- the empty spaces all around the content. The roads not taken. The sun setting over forests in the distance that you will never explore. The characters you may or may not meet.
The cities and choices that live in ghost-instances, experienced only through conversations with your friends and in youtube clips and on forum posts – playing Dragon Age: Origins, I didn’t explore Kirkwall fully and so completely missed the character of Leilani. She dies in Kirkwall’s destruction, but I didn’t feel the impact of her death except retrospectively – and refracted through another’s experience. A friend telling me about their favourite character – and the shift from non-existence to death.
Reading a book there are always blank spaces, elisions made by the author – but there is something strange and deliciously dangerous about being able to elide the story yourself. And maybe that’s what these kinds of stories are – not unlimited choice, but a gradual and deliberate closing down of choices. Each one heavier with meaning. That’s powerful.
Samsara: April and May, 1757 – an update
27 Jun 2013
Some of the StoryNexus doodles I’ve worked on…
16 May 2013
Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Digital
3 May 2013
Samsara: March 1757 – a new month
5 Mar 2013
The Lost anthology
12 Feb 2013
Samsara: a game of dreams, war and courtly intrigue
12 Nov 2012
- Samsara: April and May, 1757 – an update
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