Video game as Gesamtkunstwerk

Robin Sloan, in the first issue of his newsletter about making a video game:

Some days—not all, but some—I think video games must cerainly be the 21st-century version of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” that draws upon and integrates all other forms. For Wagner, ca. 1849, opera was the Gesamtkunstwerk.

There’s a lot in this whole formulation that’s questionable, but here I will just plainly confess that, for me, its allure is not. In video games, you get to deploy story and prose and graphic design and moving images and music—you get to “play all the keys on the keyboard.”

This is interesting to me because, without knowing the word Gesamtkunstwerk until today, it has long seemed to me that film has been vying for this label—even to the point of incorporating the technology of games. It’s theater + photography + music + etc. But Wikipedia’s entry for Gesamtkunstwerk doesn’t even mention film, only opera, architecture, and visual art.

Meanwhile, video games arguable go further even than film, adding software to the list of incorporated crafts/practices/affordances/arts. Maybe Sloan is right. (Even when he’s not 100% right, you might have noticed that I consistently find him interesting. The “Robin Sloan” tag overfloweth.)

One last blockquote to share from this same newsletter, this one about why it matters that he’s calling his video game a video game:

As you might know, I produce a lot of odd-shaped digital projects; this thread from a fictional social network (?!) is a good example. I truly love making these things, but/and I am often frustrated that the only “critical response” available is what I’ve come to think of as the “nod of approval.” I like nods, and I like approval—but I like real engagement even more. When you’re producing work in a genre that consists of… only that work… it’s a tall order to expect people to like, invent a whole new way of talking about things… just to talk about your thing.

Just by calling something a game, you give people the framework—the permission—to evaluate it. To compare it with other things. To recommend it!

You’ll see, as this project progresses, that it would have been perfectly reasonable to call it “an extremely enhanced e-book” or a “super-duper interactive digital story.” I struggled with this for a long time; I am now over it. This is a video game.

As someone interesting in making odd-shaped digital objects, this is a pretty compelling argument.

Hand-wavy science fiction is the best science fiction

Consider this, found on a pink sheet from Robin Sloan’s Risograph:

As part of the process, my mother had answered thousands of questions basic and surreal, and also submitted to a full-body scan at a university three hundred miles south, the results of which—petabytes worth—had been transmitted to the lab near Toronto. That data wasn’t uploaded into the tree, exactly; but it wasn’t NOT uploaded into the tree, either.

He could have come up with some Star Trek-style gobbledygook about how the tree fibers were reengineered to bend like neurons through the use of an experimental Organic-Structural Mirror Ray—but why? The best science fiction is focused on people, not (fake) science.

See also: “Something like a HELICOPTER”

The mimetic power of digital fiction

One of the opportunities of digital fiction is to mimic a format or context as a way of implicitly commenting on it. This is one of powers of using software to tell stories, apart from the more obvious affordances of branching plots, embedded video, etc.: it can imitate other software in a way that goes a step beyond a paper book’s ability to recreate a text message thread or PowerPoint deck. It’s the mimetic power of film, brought into the service of literature.

Un/tied (which is actually memoir rather than fiction) does this particularly well. Especially that initial choice on the homepage—an e-commerce sight so common that it’s easy to forget about, but that silently signals theme in the same way as the first shot of a well-made movie.

When camera movement means turning your head

I went to a VR/360° video installation the other day for my first experience outside of the relatively simple Google Cardboard. What struck me mainly was how low-res it was, to the point where I was never sure I had the headset focused properly, as well as the fact that I was nauseated when the camera dollied.

But I did have one moment, a kind of epiphany that I suppose must be old hat to people who get a chance to experience a lot of these: I was watching a 360° film when I happened to swivel my head away from the characters to check out the surrounding environment and was surprised to see a fire in the distance. It would have felt heavy-handed as a pan in a movie, and it wouldn’t have been important enough to the story to justify that anyway. But the fact that I just as easily could have missed it gave it extra weight, like I had discovered something. In a way analogous to how a movie feels like it’s rewarding you for your cleverness when it trusts you to put the pieces together on your own rather than spoon-feeding you, I felt rewarded for my curiosity.

It’s several days later and I’m still thinking about this not-a-pan. What happens to cinema when you take away camera movement? Is it still cinema? Or is it immersive theater? Or is it something else?

GPT-2 is “like a three-year-old prodigiously gifted with the illusion, at least, of college-level writing ability”

Every once in a while you find an article that seems just for you. John Seabrook writes in The New Yorker about the group OpenAI and their A.I. called GPT-2, which is so advanced that they are keeping it under lock and key. Not only is the whole thing about the bleeding edge of writing writers, it’s also a wonderful example of a digital article. It also appears in print, of course, but the online presentation is so subtle yet inventive, with its interactions to reveal AI-written text and a mini-game of “spot the AI” within a paragraph, that I cannot imagine the print version competing with the web one.

I do wish Seabrook had talked to Robin Sloan about his experiments in writing fiction using the same A.I. It might have encouraged him to explore the idea of A.I. as a potential partner or generator of raw material to be re-shaped.

Jake Elliott on game writing formats and tools

A really interesting set of posts on the mechanics of writing Kentucky Route Zero, the experience of rolling your own dialog format, and comparing Twine, Ink, and Yarn.

It’s behind a Patreon paywall, but c’mon—it’s for Cardboard Computer, the creators of Kentucky Route Zero, and their first tier is a dollar a month. Those four blog posts alone should cost more than that to access.

Notes on The Training Commission

The Training Commission” is “a serial fiction newsletter by Brendan Byrne and Ingrid Burrington.” A little over 18,000 words in total, plus interviews (about which more below).

The writing

Good writing, good concept. Concepts, really—there are phrases scattered within that could be their own novellas.

Science fiction often entails gesturing toward an event or idea without filling in every little detail, making the reader work a little bit to catch up. Byrne and Burrington do a lot of this, dropping evocative phrases, sometimes elaborating on them later, sometimes not.

They also treat the climax this way: There is a major yes/no decision that is elided, seen only in retrospect. I liked it.

The presentation

I received it in my email inbox, serialized over several weeks. Having it serialized over email is cool in theory but I found it frustrating in practice—mixing my fiction into my metastasizing list of requests and anxieties didn’t make for a focused experience. I suggest reading it on the website.

One danger of doing technically interesting things in the presentation of a story is that you’ll lose the reader. The authors state as much in an introductory email:

As “fun” as it would have been to turn this into an elaborate puzzle where you have to piece together narrative hints to open encrypted files, we know that many of you are busy people who probably have just enough time for a newsletter but not for like, an alternate reality game. (Also, we are not game designers.)

That being said: we are doing something kind of tricky with disseminating the files.

Even that small tricky thing was enough to interrupt me. It involved downloading a special browser that allows peer-to-peer browsing, which in itself is not difficult, but I could only run it on my laptop, so I lost the ability to read the story on my phone during my commute. I finished the story a couple weeks after the final email was sent because that’s how long it took for me to find an uninterrupted stretch of time to sit at my computer.

The interviews

Central to the plot are some documents that turn out to be interview transcripts, and those are real interviews conducted with real people by Ingrid Burrington. The fiction links to these documents, as well as to a real news article, in a way that plays with the concept of a piece of fiction as a bounded work. It is both a way of expanding the fictional universe and of citing one’s sources.

 

Sometimes tech’s greatest benefit to the reader comes when it stops with the publisher.

Craig Mod, in Wired:

We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve—I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building—everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. Perhaps the form and interactivity of what we consider a “standard book” will change in the future, as screens become as cheap and durable as paper. But the books made today, held in our hands, digital or print, are Future Books, unfuturistic and inert may they seem.

I’ve been thinking about this as I work on a piece of digital fiction, and realize that it gets better every time I take away an opportunity for interaction.

I was also thinking about this reading Robin Sloan’s print mailings, which you can get if you sign up for his newsletter. Sometimes they come on thin pink paper, printed with a Risograph and folded in thirds. The latest one came in an envelope and on paper that felt very much like a junk mailer, which Sloan explains was of necessity but also part of the fun, since it came from a fictional bureaucracy. In each case, he runs the Ruby scripts, does the care and feeding of the AI, gets ink on his hands, or whatever else needs to be done for you to receive something delightful in your actual physical mailbox with no double-click to install, no log in, not even an ‘on’ button.

I see a parallel here between the technical burden that Sloan shoulders, and that the book printers and distributors that Mod refers to do, and a particular trend in web development: doing more work earlier in the process, in order to make what you send to your reader lighter and less complex. That can mean server-side rendering, doing most of the computation on the sending end rather than the receiving end so that the reader receives the simplest bundle of text possible. Or even before code hits the server, doing more work at compile time. Rich Harris, the maker of one such tool called Svelte, argues that “complexity, like energy, can only really be converted from one form into another” and he would prefer to take on the complexity rather than make his reader or customer or whoever is waiting at the end of the process deal with it. Shifting more of the effort sooner in the assembly line.

What you as a creator lose in that bargain is often not a loss at all. You may give up some novel or flashy presentation, but do your readers want that, or do they want to escape from it? And making it easier on the readers might make it harder up front for the people making the thing—but it’s always hard to make something that feels easy, always complicated to make something the feels simple.

Some of the time—maybe most of the time—the fancy tech does not belong in the hands of the reader. Too often it results in irrelevant cognitive load for the reader or too much computational load on the reader’s device—two analogous problems that often go hand in hand. Respectful tech helps get a piece to the reader in a way that feels light and simple and elegant, as with a restaurant that keeps all the complexity hidden behind the door to the kitchen, so that guests might have a simple, quiet, concentrated, respectful experience. (Snow Fall is Benihana.)

It feels like people take as a given that interactive widgets and lots of motion are what it means to use the native tools of the web, when in fact those are the tools of advertising, the problematic funding source for most of the web, which is built around the goal of diverting your attention rather than aiding your concentration. What would a web that prioritized readers over buyers look like? I suspect the difference would be greater than just an absence of ads, or even an absence of clickbait.

How not to say something

From “The Dinner Party” by Joshua Ferris:

On occasion, the two women went to lunch and she came home offended by some pettiness. And he would say, “Why do this to yourself?” He wanted to keep her from being hurt. He also wanted his wife and her friend to drift apart so that he never had to sit through another dinner party with the friend and her husband. But after a few months the rift would inevitably heal and the friendship return to good standing. He couldn’t blame her. They went back a long way and you get only so many old friends.

He leaped four hours ahead of himself. He ruminated on the evening in future retrospect and recalled every gesture, every word. He walked back to the kitchen and stood with a new drink in front of the fridge, out of the way. “I can’t do it,” he said.

Did you catch that? A new drink. Ferris could have had another paragraph or two there, with beautiful and clever language explaining that our narrator had started drinking two hours ago, was on his third, and liked to pair his dry reds with cutting loquaciousness. Continue reading “How not to say something”