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.

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.