Notes on PRY, the book app

From the art collective Tender Claws comes the app-novella PRY.

Six years ago, James – a demolition expert – returned from the Gulf War. Explore James’ mind as his vision fails and his past collides with his present. PRY is a book without borders: a hybrid of cinema, gaming, and text. At any point, pinch James’ eyes open to witness his external world or pry apart the text of his thoughts to dive deeper into his subconscious. Through these and other unique reading interactions, unravel the fabric of memory and discover a story shaped by the lies we tell ourselves: lies revealed when you pull apart the narrative and read between the lines.

In the app, there is one part where you pry apart lines to reveal new text, literally reading between the lines. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but also hints at the promise of “a hybrid of cinema…and text”: the written words’ gift for abstraction and introspection can be complemented with the metaphors of cinema, which are much more immediate, concrete, and visceral than figurative language — and even moreso than literal language, because, of course, for something to be literal it must be frozen as a written word. In a book, one might figuratively “pry” into someone else’s affairs, or one might literally “pry” into a locked drawer, but only cinema allows you to see someone’s hands in all of their visual excess physically work apart a blockage to reveal a secret…and only with an app can those hands be yours.

I have more fun thinking about what PRY means for the future of the book than I do actually reading it. Each chapter is read in a different way — sometimes by using multitouch to open or close the main character’s eyes while you’re “inside his head,” sometimes by dragging your finger along braille that is read aloud to you while video plays as a palimpsest beneath, sometimes with scrolling through text that loops infinitely. It’s more clever than rewarding. In one chapter I had to escape to the help menu to figure out how to read it.

But what bothered me more than the tricky mechanics were the ones in which I felt a loss of control — with a book, you can easily go back and reread a sentence, and with a movie, you might miss details of plot or staging but you can be confident that everything you need to pay attention to is either between the four corners of the screen or is hitting your ears. With this app, there were chapters that played along like a movie, complete with a play/pause button, but that also had several layers going on so that it wasn’t clear (to me, anyway) whether you did or even could catch all the story material there was on offer. In other words, there were several times when I didn’t know where to look — which is never a problem in a purely textual novel and only comes up in a well-directed movie for rare, specific effects.

The app seems to know that this is an issue, and gives you a graphical representation of how throughly you have read each chapter, on a scale of one to four. I suppose this is to encourage you to go back and reread, but that’s asking a lot: most of the best books I’ve ever read I haven’t read four times.

That is my critique of the experience so far — one of the most promising affordances on display in PRY is the fact it’s being rolled out in stages: apps make a very convenient distribution system for serializing stories.

It also occurs to me that the discomfort I feel while reading might be necessary: If we are going to push the boundaries of what books can be, will that mean learning how to read all over again?

Karen, the story app

Karen is a “life-coaching” app that is actually a story app. Or, as the New York Times would have it, “a software-driven experiential art piece…part story, part game.”

It was released last year, but I just got around to playing it. It’s very good. Some craft-focused thoughts:

  • I can’t tell having just played through it once how much the story adapts to the responses you choose. My sense, based in part on what that NYT article describes, is that your choices influence tone: you see different scenes based on what you say, but every combination of scenes adds up to the same basic story. (Again, this is my guess and gut feeling after one time through.)
  • It was an interesting decision to enforce breaks in the experience. Karen hangs up, and you can’t call back until some time later. The length of time you have to wait before calling her back varies. Sometimes I found this annoying, but sometimes I found it unsettling in the way I imagine the creators intended: sometimes those gaps were suspenseful.
  • Even though it’s fiction, it offers you a “data report” at the end that purports to give you psychological insights based on how you answered questions within the story/game. In doing so, it gives you a peek behind the curtain as to how it tailored itself to you.
  • Is this actually “part game”? It feels like all story to me. You can’t win or lose it, at least as far as I can tell. I think if I were trying to achieve as certain outcome it would be a game. But I wasn’t—I was just answering questions honestly and enjoying the ride.

Link

The people behind “Wallace & Gromit” have teamed up with Google to create a short film that is both 360° and interactive.

But changing the point of view this way doesn’t just put other aspects of the scenery into focus — it actually changes the plot itself: There are more than 60 trigger points placed around the backyard, and looking in a certain area essentially “unlocks” small parts of the story while pausing other parts of the action. This makes it possible to focus on an impromptu neighborhood band, and have Santa and his adversary patiently wait to continue their chase off screen.

[…]

By giving viewers the ability to explore different plots within the story, projects like “Special Delivery” also abandon the idea of a traditional timeline. Basically, a story can take as long as you want it to, which is obviously very different from a traditional YouTube video with a fixed length.

And you can watch right on YouTube! Well, theoretically. Right now you can only watch on select Android devices, but iOS support is coming soon. I’m looking forward to trying this out.

Video: “Saschka Unseld – Uncovering the Grammar of VR”

Video

Lots of interesting contrasts in this video between film and VR:

  • “In VR, if a story is told well, it actually is all about you.”
  • “If someone falls on their face right next you, it’s not funny.” (As opposed to pratfalls in film.)
  • “In cinema you have something like the fourth wall…between the [film] world and the audience. In VR there is no such thing as a fourth wall.”
  • “In a movie if you have an intimate scene, you would normally use a close-up shot… [But in VR] that is not what a close-up is. A close up [in film] is using a really long lens and being far away with the camera. But [in VR] because you are sitting really close to someone who is about to cry, that is not comfortable. But if the character sits back there in the corner and is about to cry, you actually have a lot of empathy for him.”

Notes on So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

Like a lot of books that purport to offer “rules,” this has the whiff of the self-appointed guru — then again, part of the message is about effective self-promotion, so at least Newport is modeling.

It should have been an long essay instead of a book, but the good parts are quite good. My main takeaways:

  1. He says that “follow your passion” is wrong advice — but considering the evidence he presents I would say that’s it’s not entirely wrong, just too vague. He’s right that people usually don’t start out with a pre-defined passion, or if they do it’s usually not their life’s work: Steve Jobs would have ended up a Buddhist calligrapher if he had followed his passion. But Newport also talks about the importance of deliberate practice, and that what separates those who reach a pinnacle from those who plateau is the ability to push past the discomfort of stretching oneself. (The difference between noodling on the guitar and practicing the difficult parts on a loop for hours.) He convinced me of that, but what does that ability to push consist of? It’s either masochism or passion. It seems to me having enough passion about something to put up with deliberate practice is a good evidence that you’re on the right track — the real distinction to make is between making your passion your master or your servant. (In Mike Rowe’s words: Don’t follow your passion, but always bring it with you.)

  2. There is a popular notion that the only thing preventing people from following their passion is a lack of courage, and Newport thoroughly debunks this idea. It may take courage to quit your banker job and open a yoga studio, but if you’ve never taught yoga before it’s also stupid. That’s not to say that courage isn’t important, though: It also takes courage to turn down a promotion in favor of negotiating for greater autonomy in your work, but from the point of view of job satisfaction that is usually smart.

  3. Small, achievable projects give you a chance to quickly iterate, get feedback, and course correct. (Cf. Darius Kazemi, Thoughts on small projects.)

  4. He has a refreshingly straightforward view on supply and demand, and the value of not just self-improvement but specifically building marketable skills. “Career capital” is the term he uses.

  5. Despite his musician examples, this book has mixed messages for those who want to have an artistic career. He claims that “the right work” is secondary to “working right,” with the implication being that as long as your position has the traits that lead to job satisfaction (autonomy, impact, a sense of competence, good relationships) you might as well find the position that will maximize your earning potential. Money is a “neutral indicator of value” and art is a “hobby-style interest.” Tell that to Lewis Hyde.

Manipulation as a mode of reading

Roger Ebert, in his arguments that games are not art, made a point about art forcing the viewer/reader to hand over control to the creator, and being transported. But this passage from interactive fiction writer Nick Montfort about a seminal text game suggests a framing for understanding interactivity and its place in art that I think is more promising:

Although at first Bad Machine seems to resist reading, it teaches the persistent interactor to read in a new way — not to glance at a surface and appreciate the play of symbols, not to see a confusion of code that communicates only through its visual aesthetic, but to read and understand the novel description of the IF world, and then to move on to understanding its systematic nature. To gradually accomplish this, it’s necessary to investigate the world, manipulating it.

Manipulation as a mode of reading. Forget (for a moment) the relationship between the audience and the absent creator, and the formal attributes of interactive vs. other kinds of art — What does a reader do with that? What does it mean to “read deeply” in that context, when one often cannot explore every path or aspect of the world being presented?

(Hey, I think I just rediscovered reader-response criticism. Maybe I should label a gameshow wheel with different critical approaches and spin it and see what insights fall out.)

I finished a screenplay

In the winter of 2009, in the middle of my master’s program, I took a film class called The Detective Story. It was an opportunity to indulge my love of tight narrative pacing and the baroque visuals of noir while at the same time pushing past purely formal concerns to think about cultural context and theoretical underpinnings. It planted a seed.

Meanwhile, I was fighting a tendency in myself, watching myself squander the creative potential of globally connected, omnipresent screens in favor of convenient consumerism and mindless Skinner-box consumption. And I was reading more and more news about government and corporate surveillance.

Those threads came together in a screenplay, begun in the nervous free time of my unemployment directly after graduate school and polished slowly afterward, just missing the quarterfinals of the world’s most prominent screenplay competition two years in a row before earning me a ticket to the Austin Film Festival last October as a semifinalist in their competition.

With feedback from Austin, as well as family and friends, I have given the screenplay one last polish and given myself permission to call it done. Framed combines my favorite parts of classic noir like The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past with the grungy near-future feel of Looper and Children of Men. It’s my most ambitious creative project to date.

I’ve put it on The Black List — one of the few, perhaps the only, legitimate online screenplay network, and I have published the first 11 pages here. I hope the script goes somewhere — screenplays are meant to be used, and I wrote a movie that I want to see — but at the moment I’m just enjoying the learning it represents.

Now on to the next one.