Convergence and screen aesthetics

A. O. Scott recently articulated a trend that a lot of people sense: the distance between movies, TV shows, web series, and video games is growing smaller and smaller:

Equally hard to refute is the idea that we are approaching a horizon of video convergence, in which all those screens will be equal and interchangeable and the distinctions between the stuff that’s shown on each one won’t seem as consequential as it does now. We still tend to take for granted that a cable drama, a network sitcom, a feature film, a web video and a first-person combat game are fundamentally different creatures, but they might really be diverse species within a single genus, their variations ultimately less important than what they have in common. They are all moving pictures, after all, and as our means of access to them proliferate and recombine, those old categories are likely to feel increasingly arbitrary and obsolete. The infrastructure of a multiplatform future is before us, and resistance to it can look like an especially tiresome kind of sentimentality.

Spoiler alert: Scott doesn’t think cinema is going away. But convergence doesn’t have to mean a complete dissolution of boundaries between media, and it is a useful context to think of the connections between these forms.

The common element linking films, TV, video games, etc., is often thought to be story. And that’s a useful vector to approach the question of convergence, but perhaps not the most fundamental: films can be non-narrative, and I’ve heard of non-narrative video games also.

A candidate for a true shared foundation comes from a recent essay by designer Frank Chimero. In “What Screens Want,” he starts with what is often heralded as the beginning of cinema and instead posits it as being, more generally, the beginning of an aesthetic of screens:

Muybridge’s crazy horse experiment eventually led us to the familiar glow of the screen. If you’re like me, and consider Muybridge’s work as one of the main inroads to the creation of screens, it becomes apparent that web and interaction design are just as much children of filmmaking as they are of graphic design. Maybe even more so. After all, we both work on screens, and manage time, movement, and most importantly, change.

Rather than pixels or celluloid, Chimero sees this capacity for movement as the most salient material quality of screens, one that binds together the art forms presented on them:

Just like any material, screens have affordances. Much like wood, I believe screens have grain: a certain way they’ve grown and matured that describes how they want to be treated. The grain is what gives the material its identity and tells you the best way to use it. […] the grain of screens is something I call flux […] Flux is the capacity for change.

Cinema and graphical software are blood relatives. And Chimero paints film as the father, mentioning that software developers would do well to adopt some of the language we use to understand the cinema.

This isn’t a new idea: there are experiments at the intersection of software and traditional arts both old and recent but with the film and video game industries on a collision course and high definition interactive screens in a majority of pockets, this is not going to remain solely an avant garde concern very long.

7 thoughts on “Convergence and screen aesthetics

  1. As I see it, the big difference between film narrative and game narrative is that a film story is tightly controlled by the screenwriter and the director, while in a narrative game the story is a series of parallel outlines and the viewer/player controls where it goes. That’s a fundamentally different way to look at story construction. Are there other ways to structure story in narrative games. I don’t know enough about it to know. And if games are developing into art, as films did, has one person pulled the principle story telling elements together and created a language for game narrative? Has the D. W. Griffith of games shown up yet?

    • I don’t know much about games either — I usually find them more fun to think about in relation to other art forms than to actually play. But I’m pretty sure there are a lot of games that offer a single linear story, no parallel outlines. If a game goes to far in this regard, and does too many “cut-aways” to expositional video scenes in which the player just watches, the gameplay is criticized as being “on rails.”

    • while a viewer/player’s interactions dictate the narrative path—through the presented portion of the writer’s diegesis*—of a story, the rules and domains, i.e., how things change or the direction a story takes, are all prewritten by the writer. as such, i’d argue that the writer still is the one dictating the narrative in a game—though, clearly, the game participant has a longer leash, if you will, than when reading a screenplay for instance. another way to look at this is to consider that, for a film, a screenwriter creates and ‘sees’ the world (space and time) and writes a script with a prescribed path through that world. that being said, as viewers (or readers) we interpret and fill in blanks; what we see in our mind’s eye is different than what the screenwriter envisions.

      *my definition of diegesis is based on the way the Interactive Cinema Group at MIT’s Media Lab’s (c. mid-1990s) used it. there, it referred to the whole world in which a story existed within the mind’s eye of the writer.

      • I think there is a matter of degree issue here. A choose your own adventure book might offer 10 different narratives. In that case, the reader’s leash is a little longer, but not by much. A complex video game might offer 100 different narrative paths. (Even if there is only one way to ultimately succeed, there will be several different ways to fail, and intermediate goals that can be accomplished in different orders.) At that point, it makes more sense to think of the creator as in charge of the diegesis and the player as crafting the narrative. I.e., one person builds the world and another navigates their way through it.

        I think a major consideration for storytellers in the future is where they will situate themselves along this spectrum:

  2. i’ll meet you half way and propose that there will be/are different types of creators whose types likely fall along a continuum (different than the control spectrum hoguet presented). on one end will be the creator type that completely controls/dictates all possible narrative paths, while on the other end, the creator only creates a diegesis but with no story, per se. hmm… actually, maybe a 2×2 matrix might have diegetic control/ownership on the y-axis and narrative path control on the x-axis. e.g., in the low diegetic control, low narrative path control quadrant, the creator seeds a world–with minimal, relatively speaking, rules–and lets go.

    • An interesting idea. What is “diegetic control”? Is it the degree to which the story world is defined by the original author? E.g., a film which displayed the entirety of a room would have more diegetic control than a film which displayed only one wall of a room, with a terse prose description maintaining the least diegetic control of all? Or is this about interactivity? E.g., a novel maintains complete diegetic control because the reader can’t change the world, in contrast to a video game?

  3. my intent for ‘diegetic control’ was more in line with your first example.

    as i re/read your original post and the subsequent comments and think about responding, i believe that i don’t know the right/current terms in use on this matter.

    if i may, here are a few words/phrases and loose definitions. what are the current terms for these or what are your terms?

    here’s how i think of things:
    a single person (the author (or creator?)) imagines a world within which a story takes place. that world is the diegesis. it, as is, only exists in the mind of this one author. any attempt of the author to relay the story to another will create both a story’ (story prime) as well as a diegesis’.

    – are author and creator used interchangeably?
    – how rigidly is diegesis defined? (wikipedia has several different definitions for different medium/schools of thought, etc.). is there a better word for my understanding of it?
    – are there words for the interpreted ‘prime’ versions of a story and of the diegesis?

    given this, you might see how my definitions conflict/clash with “Or is this about interactivity? E.g., a novel maintains complete diegetic control because the reader can’t change the world, in contrast to a video game?”. it’s been a very long time since i’ve actively read and thought about things in this space and, as such, expect that there are new terms to catch up with.

    further, i feel that there should be terms for the delta between the original and any prime version. how far (no idea on what units of measure to use here) the prime versions (a) deviate and (b) are allowed to deviate will likely be pertinent especially in discussions of interactivity and non-linear story telling.

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