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.

360-degree, interactive storytelling

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”

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.

Stories—interactive, generative, interconnecting, API-accessible

Robin Sloan is the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. He also has an email newsletter you can subscribe to. Should subscribe to. I mean, look at this:

I love the Star Wars API and the Marvel API: databases packed full of interconnecting stories that you can query and… well, right now, you can’t do much with whatever you get back, because of course the material is spoken for — copyrighted and locked down. But even so, I love what these projects suggest. APIs for story! APIs for lore!

[…]

You consider all these things together and I think you start to get a sense of where I’m going. I am interested in a new way of telling stories that is sparse and generative; more text than pictures (but pictures help); native to the internet, and to interactive screens; and led by an author, but open, somehow, to everyone.

*blink*

What does that MEAN, exactly? I have some notions, but I’m not going to share them yet, both because they are rough and because (frankly) I think they are really good. I’d rather share a junky prototype than a lofty description, and in 2015, I will.

That’s all I’m quoting, because Sloan doesn’t publish the emails on the web for a reason. (Secrets.) So consider this your inside tip.