The Holographic Story

…this illusory experience of living the story in time is not the only thing that is going on dynamically as we read. All the while, we are simultaneously building up a mental model of the story as a whole. And unlike the first model, this image of the story is timeless: it includes everything that ‘has happened’ and a great deal that ‘is going to happen’. At the point we have reached in our journey through the text, there are still large areas of the map that are blurred or blank. We know some, but not all, of the events already ‘past’ — who found the body, perhaps, but not yet who committed the murder…

This narrative model does not develop in the timelike way that the text does — as if a curtain were rolling back and exposing everything to view an inch at a time. Rather, its linear development is holographic: from an initial blur to increasing focus and clarity. From the start of our reading, it is a total picture of the story, with successive details filled in as we go along. It is finally complete only when the story is ‘over’ — that is, when we read the last word of the text.

Thus N. J. Lowe, in The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative, p. 23.

Lowe is a classicist, and a good deal of his book is concerned with the way that story works in specific ancient works and genres, but he is interested also in how stories work in general. One of his points is that, while reading a story, the player is constantly building up an understanding — a gamelike understanding — of the rules that pertain to this story world, what to expect next, and what sum total of information or event would make the story feel complete.

I find Lowe’s concept of the holographic story model constructive because it presents a way to think about plotting without reference to a taxonomy of temporal structure: stories told in linear order, mysteries that are about discovering what happened at an earlier time, stories with foreshadowings and flashbacks, braided narratives looking at multiple points on the timeline simultaneously, and so on. Such taxonomies describe a range of craft techniques all serving a common goal: to bring the story into focus for its reader or player in an order that will be maximally satisfying.

The holographic concept makes it easier to understand a variety of interactive story models that don’t map well to static fiction: works that are given meaning by their losing endings, works that need to be replayed several times to be understood fully, works whose authors expect their players to compare notes to arrive at a communal understanding of the story. Indeed, a number of interactive story techniques are about letting the reader/player control the focus knob in some way. What do you want to look at? What is the final point that will bring the story into focus for you? How slowly or quickly do you want to reach that understanding?

(And an aside: the whole discussion made me think about an interactive story concept where the whole plot is presented in a sentence or two and then elaborated by the player choice, rather than unfolding in time. I made a small sketch of what that might look like in inklewriter, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere: Holography.)

Wunderkammer: The Fiction of Physical Things

Typically a shryng, or altar, was set up in the home with commemorative articles from lost family members. Typical articles were a scrap of clothing, a lock of hair, an amulet, or a favorite razor. Pictures of loved ones were rare and treasured, brought out only on these occasions… For ancestors about whom little was known, Tre-manners used a custom they called “Ricing the Soup.” The unknown relation was given attributes common to all of humanity but in such a way as to make him or her sound individual. In this way the thin back-story of the ancestor’s memory was thickened. — Eli Brown, Excerpt from the forthcoming The Feasts of Tre-Mang

The Feasts of Tre-Mang is a cookbook with real recipes from a fake cuisine and a fake history. “Pamatala Jad-zum”, or “Storm Chowder Pie”, is a seaweed-laden dish served traditionally in memory of those lost at sea, appropriate to the memorial services of the Tre-manners described above.

Storm Chowder Pie. Image rights reserved to Eli Brown at; used with permission.

This interview with the author reveals an enthusiastic love of world-building for its own sake. In addition to the context-rich recipes, he has also created currency, propaganda posters, and a flag for Tre-Mang. Even though the book isn’t finished yet, the concept has already poked through into the real world in the form of a Tre-Mang evening at a local restaurant.

A History of the Future in 100 Objects is a project by Adrian Hon of SixToStart, imagining the world to come by highlighting specific items that might be invented or imagined in the future. His project is mostly to take the form of images and essays, but he has promised his Kickstarter funders a few physical rewards, including a newspaper of the future (which tells us, I suppose, that he envisions a future that includes paper-based news) and several 3D modeled objects.

Retropolis is a world envisioned by Bradley W. Schenck, built up around art and images, though the website does also feature some branching CYOA-style fiction. Even in the stories, there’s a feelies-rich delight in physicality, however: inventory items are pictured and have their own descriptions, encouraging the reader to take some time off from the narrative progression to check out the tokens that come with it. Retropolis takes the “do art for free, make your money on t-shirts” concept to the maximum, allowing you to buy everything from clocks to blank journals with Retropolis designs on the cover — it’s the most obviously merchandising approach of these three — but they include tourist postcards and similar objects that are meant to “belong” to their world of origin rather than to our world.

Continue reading “Wunderkammer: The Fiction of Physical Things”

Dan Staines and Malcolm Ryan on moral choice in games

An interesting analysis of moral choice in games, with particular attention to Fallout 3, which makes the argument that choices need to be (a) expressed through extended play rather than through a single choice and (b) involve interpersonal dynamics more complex than the average conversation tree.

An Alternative Taxonomy for Interactive Stories

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked about Narrativist games, and despite a lengthy (and interesting) discussion in comments, there wasn’t a lot of consensus about a corpus of narrativist IF/videogames; indeed, some commenters thought that it was more or less impossible to do narrativism properly except through a human GM.

In general, I think there are two problems with using GNS theory outside of the human-run RPG context. First, the narrativist approach in particular requires a lot of freeform input from the player, which it is difficult to express in computer mechanics; and second, most of this theory does tend to assume that there’s a more or less one-to-one relationship between characters in the story and players, whereas many computer games and interactive narratives disrupt that assumption.

It may be more successful to think in terms of the relationship between player and story. Even where the player character is the protagonist and the player is assumed to share the protagonist’s goals, there are plenty of distinctions to be made (and not just the “characterized” vs AFGNCAAP distinction, either). But that’s just the beginning. Some of the more common possibilities that don’t identify player and protagonist together:

The player controls a character who is really just a foil to the real main character, whoever that might be. The player-character’s interactions with the real protagonist serve to reveal and/or develop her character, but our own character remains something of a cipher.

  • Both Portal and Portal 2. GLaDOS is far more developed, and undergoes more change, than Chell.
  • Digital: A Love Story.

The player is most like the hand of fate, or the protagonist’s own failings. He guides the protagonist through various challenges, but in a way that leads the protagonist to an unhappy outcome. The player may be explicitly aware that he’s moving towards an unhappy ending, or the protagonist may be framed as a villain/antihero.

The player is most like an actor, improvising a performance to a script of the author’s creation. Play turns on things like gesture and style, focusing the player on motive and personality while not allowing him to control action.

  • Heavy Rain, successfully in some segments
  • Dinner Date, though perhaps unsuccessfully
  • Lost Pig. The performative aspect is not the core gameplay, since that’s still chiefly puzzle-oriented, but a lot of the humor arises from finding ways to act in-character for this particular protagonist.
  • Some segments of Fable III, not least the ones where the player is actually on stage in some way: for instance, the scene involving re-performing the lost plays of a famous playwright, or the mission riffing on D&D, both of which can be performed in different ways with comic results.
  • The Act of Misdirection, the first scene: the player can perform the magic trick here well or badly, and is likely to do better on a replay than the first time around.

The player is most like a reader, though maybe of poetry rather than of prose. There are no real challenges at all, but the ergodic process of gaining access to different parts of the work encourages the player to be conscious of structural points she might not otherwise notice. Interaction often focuses the player on thematic links between apparently unrelated elements.

The player is most like a student, being quizzed with challenges depending on how well she understands the terms of a story that she doesn’t fully control (or perhaps doesn’t control at all).

The player is most like a coauthor, directly manipulating aspects of the story at a high level. Not a lot of these exist, but I might include

Hmm. What other possibilities are there in this space? Translator, director, prose editor, reteller?

[Edited to add: Ruben and Lullaby might come close to being directorial, though it’s low on specific event content, so possibly this is at the expense of plot. But still.]

Narrativist Games

I recently got this question (slightly rephrased for brevity):

Off the top of your head, what are the key [narrativist] games one should know about? Do any particularly stand out? Any recent games I should rush to read? I am thinking primarily in terms of GNS, or — even more loosely — along the lines of games like My Life With Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, Stalin’s Story, and Little Fears. But I’m not dogmatic here.

This is a different question from the big storytelling games thread we had a couple years back — and in any case new stuff comes out all the time. So I thought I’d put some of my own thoughts here but also solicit feedback from the community, because I’m sure I’m missing a lot.

The wikipedia page on GNS theory defines narrativist play as follows:

Narrativist play relies heavily on outlining or developing motives for the characters, putting them into situations where those motives come into mutual conflict, and making their decisions in the face of such stress the main driving force behind events.

…and I’d say these features are fairly uncommon in IF and in video games in general, perhaps because it’s not easy to come up with mechanics that specify protagonist motivation. The Baron and Fate are obvious exceptions, with The Baron in particular stopping frequently to ask the player why he’s chosen to do something. Arguably Rameses also belongs in this category, because the player’s interaction is almost entirely about specifying what he wishes the protagonist had the guts to do, before Rameses’ neuroticism quashes the impulse.

A softer approach to this problem is to ask the player interpretive choices without extensively acting on the answers. Echo Bazaar occasionally asks the player to reflect back on a past event or action, or to express an attitude or intended action for the future. The “Free of Surface Ties” card, for instance, asks the player to choose an attitude towards the current game situation. The Countess storyline involves a similar choice. When the player’s decisions here don’t affect the gameplay but purely express motive, EBZ’s authors refer to this phenomenon as reflective choice. Very occasionally in the later stages of the game, however, motives do come into direct conflict: for instance, if the player builds up a lot of connection with two opposed social groups, he may encounter a card that demands him to pick sides. Still, a lot of this content is optional and it makes up a small percentage of the plotlines in the EBZ universe. So I wouldn’t say that the story is mostly driven forward by conflict between motives that the player has been able to select.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Bioware has also done some storylines in which the player makes some choices about affinity or loyalty and then is challenged on those as the story unfolds. I haven’t had time to take in anything as enormous as Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age II lately, but that sounds like the kind of territory they might be exploring.

So what do people think? Are there other games (IF or otherwise) that really qualify as “narrativist” in this sense? I’m sort of mulling over my own alternative taxonomy of interaction in computer-mediated storytelling, but I’d be curious to hear thoughts about the GNS approach.

Ebert & Moriarty Addendum

A couple of things keep coming up in the discussion about Ebert and Brian Moriarty’s defense of him, which let me take one at a time.

1) “I don’t see what’s great about Moriarty’s argument. Why is it better than Ebert’s original statement?”

Moriarty offered a much more coherent argument about why, exactly, choice might be a problematic thing to have in a game. Of course, coherent doesn’t mean “right” or even “compelling,” but I am sick to death of the argument that a choice-based work entails the absence of the artist and therefore the absence of meaning and artfulness. That is obviously nonsense, and if it’s not clear why, try Home or Photopia or Rameses or The McDonalds Game or Judith or Don’t Look Back or Passage or The Path or Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom or any of a gazillion other works that convey meaning in the gap between what the player wants and what the player is allowed to choose.

Moriarty’s defense did not rely on this argument, but looked at some other possibilities that do hang together intellectually, even if in the end I don’t agree.

2) “Why do we care what Ebert says?”

I mostly don’t, but he’s got immense cultural clout. When he says things that dismiss games as a cultural product, that enables others to do so comfortably without further investigation. This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s unfortunate.

3) “Why do we care whether games are art? Is it even worth arguing about this?”

Maybe not, but in Ebert’s argument and in many other people’s, “games aren’t art” is shorthand for saying that games don’t and can’t convey anything important, can’t meaningfully enrich the lives of players, can’t be a valid mode of expression for game designers. Ebert himself makes this explicit.

But possibly the secondary argument (“what is art? are games that thing?”) is just obscuring the original question, and we can and should go back to that. Can games say things that matter? To me this is an obvious yes. But once we embrace this seriously, maybe we can have more conversations about what they’re saying and how. There’s not enough game criticism of this kind and I would like to see more of it.