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.

Conflict simulation, violence and order

I’m skeptical if intrigued about using the tools of evolutionary biology to trace the genealogy of myths and folktales, but the idea that stories that demonstrate good conflict resolution are adaptive (more useful and thus more likely to survive) stood out to me as insightful:

“Little Red Riding Hood,” the tale of Polyphemus, and other ancient tales are all preoccupied with peril. They are populated by predators real and imaginary. They are replete with physical and interpersonal threats—in particular deceit. They confront characters with at least one crisis and force them to either resolve it or meet a terrible fate. Even the folktales of the Agta, which emphasize harmony, only do so through a sharp contrast with discord. When we try to define the qualities of memorable narratives today, we often fall back on clichés and tautologies. Stories need conflict, we say. Why? Because conflict makes for a good story. But maybe there’s a deeper reason.

Not only are ancient myths and folktales almost universally concerned with danger and death; they are blatantly didactic. If we remove their layers of symbolism and subtext—which have been interpreted and reinterpreted for millennia—and focus on their narrative skeletons, we find that they are studded with practical and moral insights: people are not always what they seem; the mind is as much a weapon as the body; sometimes humility is the best path to victory. Modern stories frequently plunge us into lengthy interior monologues, exhaustively describe settings and people’s physical features, delight in the random, absurd, and orthogonal, and end with deliberate ambiguity. The earliest stories were, for all their fantasy, far more pragmatic. Their villains were often thinly veiled analogies for real-world threats, and their conclusions offered useful lessons. They were simulations that allowed our ancestors to develop crucial mental and social skills and to practice overcoming conflict without being in actual danger. Though we may never definitively know what confluence of biological and cultural pressures hatched the first stories—though narrative has far exceeded its preliminary role in human evolution—it seems that our predecessors relied on stories to teach each other how to survive.

The idea of story as practical simulation makes intuitive sense and provides a neat alternative to the received wisdom of “stories need conflict because conflict makes for good stories,” which I had never recognized as a tautology until this article called it out.

Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human makes a similar point about stories as conflict simulation, but I while I read that book I was thinking only in terms of how stories do their work, and not about where the “rule” for writers came from.

The other book this makes me think of is Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, which claims that a story needs a dramatic question, and then needs to answer it—another way of describing the didactic function. At the time I read that book, that claim seemed suspect—if you have a lesson to impart, just be direct and write an essay! Dressing up a lesson in the guise of a story felt both dishonest, like hiding medicine in food, and like a good way to waste the unique strengths of fiction.

But now I wonder. Maybe there are questions and answers that are best addressed through fiction—ones that aren’t “lessons” because the questions are ineffable or the answers are multiple or contingent or otherwise complicated. The article above lists lengthy interior monologues, randomness, and ambiguity as evidence that modern stories have abandoned their didactic function. But isn’t that instead evidence that we are facing different sorts of conflict in the modern age?

Man versus ennui. Man versus the algorithm. Man versus his own alienation. These are a long way from the old “man versus man” and “man versus nature” models of conflict you get in high school. Maybe a better framing for modernity is not conflict/resolution or question/answer but disorder/order. Tzvetan Todorov talked about the idea of “violence” rather than “conflict” in his book Introduction to Poetics. There is a system in a certain order, some violence is done that upsets the order, and then work has to be done to put things back into (probably a new) order. (I think I’m remembering my Todorov correctly—I admit to working from one sentence I jotted down in school a decade ago.) This feels to me like a mental tool as well adapted to modern fiction as “versus” is to fairy tales.

Learning to count

Most of the time I don’t like writing, I like having written. As a result, writing can fall prey to productive procrastination: Cleaning the kitchen is easier, and its rewards more immediate. The writing impulse can also die at the hands of excessive modesty: Nobody is asking for my writing, nobody needs it. And it is easily put off by tiny martyrdoms: I should do the thing that other people want from me, rather than the thing I do seemingly only for myself.

Surely if I work long and hard enough on the needs of others and life’s inescapable chores, my karma will accrue and I’ll find myself suddenly in a peaceful office, with a large oak writing desk, its polished top, otherwise devoid of distraction, dwarfing a clacky keyboard and a large mug of coffee. This fantasy office occupies the top of a turret from which descends a spiral staircase, and its door is locked for no reason, as it is obvious to everyone that I am not to be disturbed. The view out the generous window above my desk is lost on me, given how absorbed I am in the work, my fingers not leaving the keyboard for hours at a stretch.

Somehow my conscientious avoidance of writing has failed to materialize that perfect writing setup, and so, like many writers, I need some kind of accountability to get anything done. And accountability, the etymologist will note, requires counting.

Writers have a bunch of numbers to obsess over when our work collides with the world: sales, pageviews, rankings. My favorite, which I mean to emulate, is the writer who encouraged herself to bring her work into the world by setting a goal of a certain number of rejection letters. But during the writing process, our opportunities for counting are scarcer. We have only two things we can count to see if we’re keeping our pace: words and hours. Continue reading “Learning to count”

Cat Manning on “Reflective Choices”

I previously wrote that the “pleasures of interactivity in the absence of any kind of control over the plot are much the same as the pleasures of reading a book in which ‘nothing happens,'” the poetic dimension that is orthogonal to plot. Cat Matting calls these instances of interactivity without external influence “reflective choices” and has smart things to say about them:

Not all player choices have to have mechanical effects. It’s less interesting to establish this point (and constantly re-defend it) than it is to say: given that reflective choice is a legitimate technique, it can be used well or badly.

[…]

They offer the player information about the character’s personality or current emotional state and allow expression of that; they offer insight into what a character won’t or can’t conceive of doing…

That sounds to me like a window into a character’s interior life—something that is sometimes claimed to be accessible only to the novel.

The role of story in games

Ian Bogost made a point similar to the one I made in my recent post about why walking simulators shouldn’t be thought of as movies with buttons. (Or rather, my point was similar to his, since he published his a year ago.) But from similar observations we came to different conclusions.

First, the same question:

The whole way through, I found myself wondering why I couldn’t experience Edith Finch as a traditional time-based narrative. Real-time rendering tools are as good as pre-rendered computer graphics these days, and little would have been compromised visually had the game been an animated film. Or even a live-action film. After all, most films are shot with green screens, the details added in postproduction. The story is entirely linear, and interacting with the environment only gets in the way, such as when a particularly dark hallway makes it unclear that the next scene is right around the corner.

Then, his observation:

The gag of a game with no gameplay might seem political at first, but it quickly devolves into conceptualism. What Remains of Edith Finch picks up the baton and designs a different race for it. At stake is not whether a game can tell a good story or even a better story than books or films or television. Rather, what it looks like when a game uses the materials of games to make those materials visible, operable, and beautiful.

[…]

What are games good for, then? Players and creators have been mistaken in merely hoping that they might someday share the stage with books, films, and television, let alone to unseat them. To use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose, but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects. Of ordinary life. Take a ball and a field: you get soccer. Take property-based wealth and the Depression: you get Monopoly. Take patterns of four contiguous squares and gravity: you get Tetris. Take ray tracing and reverse it to track projectiles: you get Doom. Games show players the unseen uses of ordinary materials.

To this point we largely agree. But then our conclusions diverge. He thinks that games should “abandon the dream of becoming narrative media and pursue the one they are already so good at: taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.” But this ignores the fact that a story can be the basis of a game without being the only, or even the most important, thing about it. Put another way, story can be a useful and enjoyable pretext without being the point.

To see this is the case, look to film. Story isn’t the point of many films: It’s the skeleton they hang on, giving them their shape, serving as an organizing principle. Most people find it hard to watch a movie without a story, but what those same people carry with them when they walk out of the theater are the impressions of individual shots, a single phrase spoken by a beautiful person, snippets of music—the essence of cinema, made digestible by virtue of the framework a story provides. They might also carry with them a feeling of catharsis, but ask them about the twists and turns of the plot that led to it, and you’ll likely get some embarrassed mumblings as people realize they have trouble remembering the supposed point of the past two hours.

Novels provide another example. True, the point of a Dan Brown book is indeed the story, and you race through it as quickly as you can to get to the payoff. But in literary fiction, the story is once again the pretext—it’s not unimportant, but if there is a “point,” it is found at the level of the sentence, or the phrase.

Games can be, and are, as a much a narrative medium as films and novels—which is to say, only partially, but that part is important.

 

Sentence spaces

Robin Sloan, novelist, media inventor, olive oil entrepreneur:

Imagine a sentence. “I went looking for adventure.”

Imagine another one. “I never returned.”

Now imagine a sentence gradient between them—not a story, but a smooth interpolation of meaning. This is a weird thing to ask for! I’d never even bothered to imagine an interpolation between sentences before encountering the idea in a recent academic paper. But as soon as I did, I found it captivating, both for the thing itself—a sentence… gradient?—and for the larger artifact it suggested: a dense cloud of sentences, all related; a space you might navigate and explore.

[…]

My project called sentencespace, now public on GitHub, serves up an API that provides two things.

  1. Sentence gradients: smooth interpolations between two input sentences.
  2. Sentence neighborhoods: clouds of alternative sentences closely related to an input sentence.

Sentence neighborhoods are simpler than gradients. Given an input sentence, what if we imagine ourselves standing at its location in sentence space, peering around, jotting down some of the other sentences we see nearby?

Here’s the rest, including widgets that let you play around with what he did without installing anything. File under writing with machines.

What’s the point of walking simulators?

The conceit of a “walking simulator” game is that you can interact with the world around you, but not to the extent that it affects the plot. In Gone Home, you can listen to cassette tapes and flip lights on and off, but you can’t go outside and reconnect the phone line to call your parents and bring the game to an early end. In Kentucky Route Zero, you decide the name of your dog, but no matter his name he silently sticks by your side. In Firewatch, you talk over the radio with Delilah, and what you say affects subsequent conversations, but no matter how those conversations go you’re fated to discover and solve the same mystery, and your relationship is destined to end in the same way. The Stanley Parable calls out this odd balance of power, making a lot of the fact that you can turn left when the narrator says you should go right, but then mocking you when you quickly reach the limits of your freedom.

Hardcore gamers think this is boring, which is where the term “walking simulator” came from: You’re just walking around! These gamers consider the point of playing to be finishing with the highest score or fastest time—or perhaps more precisely the enjoyment of exercising the skills necessary to reach that score or time. They bear a family resemblance to readers who consider the reveal of the plot’s conclusion, or the tension savored on the way to that conclusion, to be the point of fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself as you employ the hand-eye coordination or puzzle-solving ability necessary to play a game, or with enjoying narrative tension, but thinking of that as the main or only point of reading or playing closes you off to the pleasures of books in which “nothing happens” or games in which the broad arc of what happens is out of your control.

What pleasures? Why play if not to exercise a set of skills or attain a high score? Why have any interaction in a walking simulator at all? Why not just make it into a movie that you can lean back and watch? Continue reading “What’s the point of walking simulators?”

‘Walking simulator’ as technique, not genre

Games like Gone Home, Firewatch, and The Stanley Parable are sometimes called “walking simulators,” a term that started out as derogatory before it was appropriated, or at least accepted, by people who like these games that focus more on story and exploring a space than on puzzles, fighting, and whether you win or lose. But in reading an article about the making of the interactive short film Solace, I was surprised to see the term applied to something that isn’t a game at all:

The original concept could be boiled down to a cartoon you could play with. Like a more traditional film, I wanted the story to be front and center — the interaction should not overpower the narrative. The challenge was to balance playability with the joy of sitting and listening to a good story, well told.

From the start it became apparent that there was a conflict between listening to the narrator’s voice and playing with the interaction. If any of interaction was too complicated, or absorbing, users would miss key moments in the narrative. On the other hand, not being a traditional animation, if the interaction wasn’t strong enough, a user would get bored. This was an experience that couldn’t use traditional game mechanics, or puzzles in general. It had to be closer to a film that you are mindlessly toying with. Nothing to solve. Nothing to complete.

Through numerous iterations and user testing, the end result can be described (in the trendy parlance) as a ‘2D walking simulator’. The user plays with each of the 17 scenes, but their actions don’t drive the narrative. Each scene and the interaction within the scene is a metaphor for the story at that particular point. Sometimes it is as simple as what the narrator says is what the user sees. At other times, the interaction referred or alluded to greater themes of the story.

This offhanded comment by Evan Boehm does something brilliant: It redefines “walking simulator” as a storytelling technique rather than a game genre, a technique that strikes what I think is a very satisfying balance between player agency and authorial control.

Quietly personalized stories

Sam Barlow, the author of Her Story, is now at a company called Eko, thinking about interactive storytelling without the need for explicit choices from the viewer:

Barlow was uncertain how much of the “WarGames” tracking mechanics he should reveal to the viewer. “The two-million-dollar question is: Do we need to show this?” he said. He believed that interactive films will increasingly resemble online ads: unobtrusively personalized media. “When ads first started tracking you, for the first few months you’d be, like, ‘How did they know?’ A couple of months later, you’d be, like, ‘Of course they knew. I was Googling baby formula.’ And now it’s, like, ‘I’m still getting spammed for vacation properties around Lake Placid, and I’m, like, Dude, we went. You should already know!’ ”

The entire article, “Will interactive films be this century’s defining art form?,” is worth reading. 

Hypertext narrative contrasted with interactive fiction

As I continue to figure out the different types of interactive storytelling out there, this dialogue between Emily Short and Mark Bernstein was helpful:

Emily: I like the distinction between calligraphic (sparsely linked) and sculptural hypertext (densely-linked, controlled by rules); though I think I tend to associate hypertext only with the former kind of work. When I hear “hypertext”, I assume something with minimal modeling behind the scenes.

Mark: This is an interesting – perhaps the interesting – distinction between the IF and hyperfiction traditions. IF is inclined to model story, while HT is inclined to model — or to believe itself to be modeling, plot. I don’t believe this has ever been stated clearly. Has it?

UPDATE: Mark Rickerby gets at something similar:

The core distinction [between parser games and choice fiction] is between the story unfolding through actions modifying a world model and the story developing through predefined narrative branches.