Posts Tagged ‘media


Guest Post: Taking Stories Back

Last week at the Portland Zine Symposium, my friend Mike Sugarbaker showed up at my table with a tiny pamphlet he’d just made, called “Taking Stories Back: A Mini-Festo.” He put them out on the table as a freebie, and folks grabbed them up as fast as he could staple them! It was incredibly inspiring, and I knew we had something special on our hands. So I asked Mike to do a guest post on the blog based on the original pamphlet. Here it is, adapted and condensed down to the essentials:

Serial fiction is important. Characters are important, and other worlds are important. There’s something magical about visiting another place, a place that might or might not even be possible, time and time again, and seeing how the people who live there are doing.

We knew this generations ago, when we gathered around fires to listen to the storyteller. Now, the fact that there even was a storyteller suggests that different people do get different amounts of skill at telling stories. But that’s not the only reason we gave up responsibility for telling stories to somebody else. We like to be surprised by our stories; we like to feel like they come from someplace else; we like to get them passively instead of working hard at them; and we like to have our senses dazzled. All that is understandable.

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Just a Girl Robot: Adventures in Fatherhood and Feminism

My daughter Niamh is 2 1/2 years old. Her life, I admit with some embarrassment and resignation, is inundated with mass-marketed media: Disney movies, children’s TV shows, picture books, and so on—to say nothing of the books, comics, movies and TV that Mom and Dad read and watch. From the very first my mind has been pondering and anticipating all the wealth of beloved stories I’ll be able to share with her as she grows up. Some I’m waiting until she’s older and can appreciate them better, and some I’ve started already: The Iron Giant. The Hobbit. The Muppets. Star Wars. Winnie-the-Pooh. Whatever she seems ready for, whatever she responds to, and whatever I watch for my own enjoyment that she just happens to be around for.

It was the latter case when Niamh became obsessed with Mega Man. I have a passing fondness for the old video game series, and stumbled on the 1995 cartoon adaption while poking around Youtube. Niamh, playing on the floor at my feet, perked up and said “wanna watch!” So I plopped her on my lap and we watched the episode together.

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Free, Affirmed, Expressive, Consequential

Awhile back “Doctor Professor” of the blog Pixel Poppers wrote some interesting stuff about interactive storytelling in video games. In the first half, he discusses how video games have failed at storytelling, by imitating other media (film, mostly) instead of playing to their own medium’s strengths: interactivity and dynamism. In the second half, he takes a look at what successful and innovative videogame storytelling might look like.

Doctor Professor’s points resonate with me. I’ve come to love the newest generations of VG technology (Playstation-onwards) for their ability to convey a story through cinematic presentation, and I’ve favored the kinds of games that present fully-realized characters with emotions and personalities (Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy) over games that provide blank protagonists to imprint your own emotions and thoughts onto (Deus Ex, Elder Scrolls). I’ve found that the latter tend to fall short of actually feeling like a story, while the former at least provide story in a meaningful way, even if it’s spoon-fed to you and beyond your ability to impact.

But Dr. Prof is right; these stories are wasting the medium’s artistic potential. They’re showing movies with intermissions for gymnastics and target practice. They’re often pretty movies,  sometimes with characters and themes that speak to me. And the gameplaying segments that alternate with cinematics can often be rewarding and fun in their own right. These are not failures as games.

But as an art form, they can be more. Some games are pioneering this change, such as Metal Gear Solid (known for its interminable cutscenes but also for making gameplay decisions matter in new ways) and Mass Effect (which will allow pivotal choices made in the first game to load into the next one). Pioneering new ground doesn’t run smoothly, of course. Both the above gamers have severe limitations on the player’s ability to affect the story. But hopefully as this trend continues we’ll see a radical shift as, like Doctor Professor says, the video game medium comes into its own.

The Professor names four strengths of video games that are vital for exploring their storytelling potential. 1) choices must be free, 2) choices must be affirmed, 3) choices must be expressive, and 4) choices must be consequential. When a player’s input is not channeled or forced into a predetermined path, AND receives feedback that validates the choice (characters thank you,  get mad, etc), AND allows for emotional expression and thematic statement, AND has a meaningful effect on the world and its inhabitants, THEN the player can truly be said to shape the outcome of the story. The user is a collaborator rather than a consumer.

Which is one of the strengths of face-to-face roleplaying, presumably–with human imaginations on tap for content, rather than computer algorithms, the potential for free, affirmed, expressive and consequential choice, for all participants, is vast. Collaborative story should pulse through a roleplaying session. And yet I’ve had many roleplaying experiences that have shut down each one of those attributes of choices, often several at once. Just as video games, in emulating movies, aren’t realizing their unique artistic potential, so “pen and paper” games fall short of their calling when they merely emulate the pre-written novel or the pre-programmed video game.

My friend Christian of Berengad Games also recently explored ways of achieving dynamic and interactive story in video games. He had a specific theoretical implementation in mind and I contributed my own. But whatever the specific implementation–and there’s room for multitudes–I think the key lies in Dr. Professor’s 4 elements: free, affirmed, expressive and consequential.

And if computer programmers are breaking new ground here, can interactive group storytelling in the real world do any less? For myself, I can’t go back. Those four criteria are my minimum bar for participation. At the very least, if any of those elements aren’t on the table, DON’T LEAD ME ON–tell me up front, so that I can make the mental shift and NOT approach the game as group storytelling. But when I’m seizing story, I’ll stay in the company of the innovators and explorers, and keep my eye on the horizon.