What PhD supervisors are for

I had a great chat with my supervisor on Thursday, after helping out with a Masters seminar. As regular readers may have worked out, I’ve been having a great deal of trouble trying to get a coherent testable design to test out of my half-formed ideas and lofty ideals.

The problem was trying to think of a cheap way to test some of the theory I’ve come up with. I’d got hung up on trying to think of a way to track visitors round a site and test their reactions to that. Until I solved that I was handwaving the issues of breaking the story into natoms, and balancing the conflicting needs of multiple visits in the same space. Those two problems both felt more within my comfort zone. The problem is that I’m not a technologist, that bit is so far out of my comfort zone that I’d need to enlist (or pay for) one. On top of that, the tech itself isn’t that cheap – getting a wifi network into some of the heritage places I know, with their thick stone walls and sheer scale, isn’t about buying just one wifi router.

I’d mentioned the other problems (particularly in the one of negotiating conflicting needs) in the seminar. (The students had been reading about a variety of museum interpretation experiments for their “homework” and we discussed the common issue that many of the experiments focussed on the issue of a visitor in isolation, and hadn’t thought enough about multiple users in the same space). Afterwards I spent twenty minutes with Graeme, my supervisor, in his office. I felt he’d finally got what I’d been trying to say about a “responsive” environment, and his interest was particularly focused on the two issues I’d handwaved. We talked about low-tech ways or exploring both of those, and of course THAT’S what I should be doing, not worrying about the tech. These are both things I can do (I think!) rather than something I can’t .

So by the end of our chat, when Graeme had to return to his students we’d worked out the rudiments of a simple experiment.

  • What I need is a relatively small heritage site, but the possibility of lots of choices about routes, lots of intersections between spaces. What Hiller calls a low depth configuration (that last link is to a fancy new on-line edition of the book, by the way. It’s worth a read).
  • I need to work with the experts/curators of that site to “break” the stories. Break is a script-writing term, but it feels particularly appropriate when thinking about cutting the stories up into the smallest possible narrative atoms. (Although maybe “natomise” is better!)
  • Then I need to set up the site to simulate some of responsiveness that a more complex system might offer. Concealed Bluetooth speakers for example, or  switches like these that can be controlled by Bluetooth.
  • Finally, rather than try and create the digital system that tracks visitors and serves them ephemeral natoms, I can do a limited experiment with two or more humans following visitors around and remotely throwing the switches that might light particular areas of the room, play sounds or what ever other interventions we can come up with. The humans take the place of the server, and when they come together, negotiate which of their visitors gets the priority. Graeme suggested a system of tokens that the human followers could show each other – but the beauty of this concept is that the methods of negotiating could become part of the results of the experiment! The key thing is to explain to the participants that the person following them around isn’t giving them a guided tour, they can ask questions of him/her, but s/he isn’t going to lead their experience.

So, now I have a a thing that it is possible to do, with minimal help and with a minimal budget. And its a thing that I can clearly see has aims that come of the research I’ve done, and results that inform platonic ideal responsive environment I have in my head. If it works, it will hopefully inspire someone else to think about automating it.

That’s what supervisors are for!

 

Cultural Agents

I’ve been reading Eric Champion’s Critical Gaming: Interactive history and virtual heritage. Eric asked his publishers to send me a review copy, but none was forthcoming, and I can’t wait for the library to get hold of a copy – I think I was to quote it in a paper I’m proposing –  so I splashed out on the Kindle edition. I think of it as a late birthday present to myself, and I’m not disappointed.

One thing that has struck me so far is a little thing (its a word Champion uses only three times) but it seems so useful I’m surprised it isn’t used more widely, especially in the heritage interpretation context. That word is “multimodality”. As Wikipedia says (today at least) “Multimodality describes communication practices in terms of the textual, aural, linguistic, spatial, and visual resources – or modes – used to compose messages.” But its not just about multimedia, “mode” involves social and cultural making of meaning as well. Champion says:

Multimodality can help to provide multiple narratives and different types of evidence. Narrative fragments can be threaded and buried through an environment, coaxing people to explore, reflect and integrate their personal exploration into what they have uncovered.

Which is surely what all curated cultural heritage spaces are trying to achieve, isn’t it? (Some with more success than others, I’ll admit.) Champion is referring to the multimodality of games and virtual environments, but it strikes me that museums and heritage sites are inherently multi-modal.

It sent me off looking for specific references to multimodality in museums and heritage sites, and indeed, I found a few, this working paper for example, and this blog, but there are not many.

But I digress. I’ve started Eric’s book with Chapter 8 (all the best readers start in the middle) Intelligent Agents, Drama and Cinematic Narrative, in which he examines various pre-digital theories of drama (Aristotle’s Poetics, Propp’s Formalism (with a nod in the direction of Bartle and Yee) and Campbell’s monomyth), before crunching the gears to explore decidedly-digital intelligent agents as dramatic characters. Along the way, he touches upon “storyspaces” – the virtual worlds of games which are by necessity incomplete, yet create an illusion of completeness.

His argument is that there is a need for what he calls “Cultural Agents” representing, recognising, adding to, or transmitting cultural behaviours. Such agents would be programmed to demonstrate the “correct cultural behaviors given specific event or situations” and recognise correct (and incorrect!) cultural behaviours. For example, I’m imagining here characters in an Elizabethan game that greet you or other agents in the game with a bow of the correct depth for each other’s relative ranks, and admonishes you if (in a virtual reality sim) you don’t bow low enough when the Queen walks by.

Which leads on to what he calls the “Cultural Turing Test […] in order to satisfy the NPCs [non-player characters] that the players is a ‘local’, the player has to satisfy questions and perform like the actual local characters (the scripted NPCs). Hence, the player has to observe and mimic these artificial agents for fear of being discovered.” (As he points out, this is in fact a reversal of the Turing test.)

Then he shifts gear again to look at Machinema (the creation of short films using game engines, which I learned about back in Rochester) as a method for users to reflect on their experience in-game, and edit it into an interpretation of the culture the game was designed to explore. Its a worthy suggestion, and could be excellent practice in formal learning, but I fear it undermines the game-play itself, if it becomes a requirement of the player to edit their virtual experiences before comprehending them as a coherent narrative.

Also in all though, I can already see that the book will be an enjoyable and rewarding read.

 

Creating a design document: part 2

More time than I’d like has passed since I started creating my design document. In my last post on the subject, I described how a recital I’d seen could be broken down into “Natoms” or Narrative Atoms. The recital itself was constructed to create a story by putting these natoms into an emotionally engaging order.

Now imagine that we want to use the same research to create an exhibition in a museum, or tell a similar story to people visiting a country house.  Last time I introduced the idea that the natoms could be all sorts of different media: “documents (which could be original or images); portraits (ditto); text (spoken in this case, but it could be printed); sound (live music in this case, but it could be recordings); and even original instruments.” This list can be divided into two types: physical media – objects, and maybe in an historic environment (rather than a museum gallery) the spaces themselves; and, “ephemeral” media – video, audio, text etc, which can be delivered to the access points on demand. I use the word ephemeral because the physical stuff is by definition in a located in a particular place and (generally) doesn’t move around. By the other media can be delivered to visitors wherever the visitors are. A fundamental difference between this concept and traditional interpretation design, is that text panels cease to be permanent objects in the gallery, letting the collection take pride of place. But the ephemeral stuff is not necessarily less important than the physical stuff, as Cohen and Shires pointed out, the only thing that distinguishes kernels from satellites is that the kernals have come in a certain order.

click to enlarge
click to enlarge

In the diagram (above) I’ve separated out the physical natoms (spaces and objects) from the ephemeral ones (indicated by the cloud box), but I think I may have been mistaken by making all the kernels ephemeral natoms. There could well be “wow” objects, that curators place at the very start of an exhibition, to make sure that everyone sees it at they enter. This would obviously be  the first Kernel, and maybe a should redo the diagram to show that possibility. Alternatively, curators can put a wow object at the end of an exhibition, for example at the brilliant Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum,  but in fact this is more difficult to do in many free-flow historical environments, so maybe I won’t show that case in the diagram (or maybe I’ll create different diagrams for different curatorial audiences).

What I’m trying to show in the diagram is that there is at least one ephemeral natom for each physical one, for example a catalogue entry, but there may be more – maybe a recording of music being played on an instrument on display, for example. That piece of music may have a specific place in the narrative, making it a kernal. Giving a very simple, broad-brush example, it may in be a minor key, a “sad song” if you will, and works very well in the narrative when we’d like the audience to reflect on the death of protagonist. The object itself may, or may not have a specific place in the narrative. Lets assume it doesn’t.

Now imagine our visitor wonders over to look at the object. The system knows what natoms have been delivered to the visitor at this point, and has a choice: it can let the instrument stand on its own, as a thing of beauty, remember, it is in itself a natom; or it can measure the time the visitor pauses by the object, which indicates a particular interested in it, and deliver (via an e-ink panel say) the catalogue entry; OR it can note that the visitor has recently been told about the death of the protagonist, and so the plays the “sad song”, which, for another visitor who has not yet heard the death story, it holds in reserve until later in the experience.

This isn’t meant to remove all control from the the visitor, who may well have the ability to trigger the music (or another piece) even if the system chooses not to deliver it until later. Indeed, if the visitor goes around triggering every bit of music, a sophisticated version of this system should be able to background the social story, in favour of a more musicological one. Rather, its an acknowledgement that the visitor already takes control of the experience by moving around the spaces, and offers a more flexible way for the curator to tell an emotionally engaging narrative by defining the kernels of the story.

Does that make sense?

Interpretive Planning – Part 2

In my continuing quest to catch up on the latest thinking on interpretive planning, I’ve got hold of the second edition of The Manual of Museum Exhibitions. Published just last year, this must contain the cutting edge of modern museum thinking…

Or not. Maria Piacente’s chapter on Interpretive Planning very reasonably starts off with three essential questions: “What meanings do we wish to communicate? To whom do we intend to communicate these meanings? What are the most appropriate means of communicating these meanings?”

She says proper planning leads to exhibitions that are “Relevant, Meaningful and Relatable: because the majority of visitors are not artists, curators, historians, scientists or members of a special interest group, museum professionals need to find better ways to communicate complex and unfamiliar ideas.” She invokes the grandfather of Heritage Interpretation, Freeman Tilden:

Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information

A good plan will also be visitor centred, and Piacente points out that “Visitors attend as individuals or in groups, as tourists, as part of a school visit, or as a family. Each grouping or type or visitor learns and behaves differently in a museum setting.”

Which leads in to a piece on learning styles contributed by Christina Sjoberg. Now, there has been a lot of discussion about the validity of Learning Style models in recent years, which I’ve touch in previous posts, but what is definitely true is that museum visitors are in a very different learning mode to academics or schoolchildren. As Sjoberg says, “Museum learning is: informal; voluntary; and, affective.”

This last is important, Sjoberg argues that museum learning focusses “on our feelings, attitudes, beliefs and values” rather than being purely cognitive. Later in the chapter, learning styles come up again, when Piacente identies the “means of expression” a designer might use. I like this phrase, because it doesn’t just straight to defining the medium – though of course each means of expression does steer one’s thoughts to specific media. She lists four:

  • “Didactic means of expression include text panels, cases of artifacts and displays of works of art […]
  • Hands-on/minds-on activities are often low-tech interactives that incorporate mechanical devices, comparative exhibits, feedback stations and open-ended questions […]
  • Multimedia […] from videos to touch-screens and from augmented reality systems to simulators or even large-format theatres […]
  • Immersive environments include walkthrough experiences and dioramas that may incorporate sound, video and hands on experiences.”

Piacente expands a little on Spencer’s discussion of the thematic framework, re-introducing the idea of a linear, or “sequential” structure, giving as examples a simple chronology, and spacial sequences – room to room, or traversing a country. Of course she also explores nonlinear structures, which she says “accommodate more complex exhitions that require the presentation of multiple voices and perspectives.” She offers a number of examples of nonlinear structures:

  • “Focal specific structures establish one major topic or theme around which are clustered a number of subthemes that radiate from the core, much like the petals of a flower or or the layers of an onion […]
  • Parallel thematic structures establish a set of themes or subthemes that are used over and over again to explore many topics. Natural history exhibitions often employ this type of interpretation[…]
  • Independent Structures are frameworks in which individual loosely related or unrelated topics are addressed within a single area or gallery. […] such Structures are sometimes employed by science centers”

So far, so good. I’m not seeing anything new here, which on one hand, is good, as it doesn’t appear I’ve been particularly old fashioned in recent years (always a worry when the years as an undergraduate, where you think you’re inventing everything, recede into the distance). But on the other hand, I’m disappointed there apparently hasn’t been much development in thinking over the last ten years.

For example, even though Sjoberg speaks of “our feelings” and mention is made in a later case study of “anchor experience or ‘wow’ in each thematic area,” there’s no discussion of the relative merits the various structures have in manipulating visitors’ emotions. (I’ll tell you for free – linear structures are better at engaging people emotionally, because of the narrative paradox, not withstanding the problem that in real life, away from the exhibitor’s drawing board, visitors skip all over linear exhibitions, doubling back, taking shortcuts and and missing chunks out. )

I’ve got some more books to read, and if I find anything interesting, I’ll report back, but here’s a plea. Does anyone out there know of any papers with some really fresh thinking on interpretive structures and narratives?

Narratives in social science

I ought to watch out for the literature rabbit holes I can fall down. After my last foray into narratives and sociology, I got sucked into another work that was only tangentially about what I’m studying. This one though did at least have a few quotable quotes I might want to use later.

Brian Alleyne kicks off his Narrative Networks; Storied Approaches in a Digital Age by asking (on page 2) “What is narrative?”

“Narrative, in its simplest sense, consists of a series of connected events, and a particular way in which theses events are told. The first element is the story, and the second element is the narrative discourse… It follows from this that a story can be rendered through different narrative discourses”

He goes on (page 40) to reference “Jerome Bruner (1986; 1991) [who] has argued that humans make sense of the world in two fundamental ways, in two cognitive modes: paradigmatic and narrative. In the Paradigmatic mode the human mind recognises elements as belonging to two categories in a classifying operation.So in this cognitive mode, when we encounter an object, we seek to map it onto already existing classificatory schemes pf objects, trying to work out what kind of object it is. […] For Bruner this mode of cognition is most characteristic of science.
“In the the narrative mode of cognition we seek to connect people and events into a temporally coherent whole. The passage of time is important in this mode.As Paul Ricoeur (1984) argies, some sense of the passage of time is quite fundamental to how humans understand themselves and the world around them. The narrative mode of cognition is one with organises ideas and experiences into stories and is seen to contrast with the paradigmatic, scientific mode in that it operates in an emotive or emotional and expressive register as opposed to the rational register of paradigmatic cognition. These ideas are obviously abstract ideal models of cognition and cannot always be easily separated from one another in seeking to account for how people go about making sense of the the world.”

So it can the argued that a label in a museum or cultural heritage site, which categorizes an object, can’t connect the visitor emotionally to that object, unless they bring a story with them. But a purely story led interpretation of a site or collection can’t help the visitor understand it.

Later on in the book (page 92)he touches upon the Narrative Paradox “The fundamental issue here is that however defined, narrative text is characterised by a coherence that links human, and non-human agents, their actions, experiences and other happenings into a temporal chain – the following of which leads us to some kind of conclusion. The problem here for thinking about “hypertext narrative” lies in the very nature of hypermedia: unless the author of a hypertext network deliberately imposes a narrative structure on that collection of texts, the collection will have a degree of openness which militates against narrative coherence” using classic text adventure games Zork and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as examples he concludes “Interactive fiction therefore sacrifices the open-ended possibilities of hypertext in order to maintain some degree of narrative coherence.”

He also summarises the Narratology/Ludology debate, on page 93 and later (pages 116-121. As a gamer and a narrativist, he offers a balanced view, citing many ways in which games are not narratives but also pointing out that “Narratology has been part of the videogame designer’s toolkit from the start (Crawford, 2003; Rollings & Adams, 2003; Ryan, 2001; Salen and Zimmerman, 2010). Many computer are based on the three-act narrative structure of situation, conflict and resolution, that that same structure being repeated as the player moves through the game.”

In his debate on whether games can be analyzed narratively, he looks specifically (page 119) at history themed games like my old favourite Civilization: “In order to make these games worth playing narrativity has to be be balanced with playability, which means departing from the tight emplotment of historical that is at the core of historical narrative.”

Does any of this leave me any more enlightened? Not particularly, but I enjoyed reading it.

Plot, Character and Genre

I am across an interesting article the other day which, I fear, has little to do with my thesis, but I was captivated and intrigued by it. It recorded and experiment exploring storytelling genres, run by sociologists.

So, why are sociologists looking at story? Well, I’ll let them explain:

Preachers, advertising executives and politicians have long attested to the power of a good story to change people’s minds. Communication scholars recently have shown why. People cognitively process stories differently than they process other kinds of messages… people process stories by immersing themselves in the story, striving to experience vicariously the events and emotions that the protagonists do.

I can’t argue with that, its one of the reasons why story is such a powerful interpretive tool, when done well.The authors (Francesca Polletta, Monica Trigoso, Britni Adams and Amanda Ebner) argue that the reader’s interpretation of a story will change depending on the ideology dominant at the time the story is being read.

Two hundred years ago, a story about a woman whose quiet forbearance allowed her to suffer the indignities of poverty, abuse and injustice without complaint might have been heard as a story of heroism. Today, ‘Patient Griselda’ is likely to be interpreted as a story of abject and pathetic victimhood. This suggests that stories are interpreted in terms of contemporary beliefs.

But they also argue that readers also bring their understanding of the genre into their interpretation of the narrative.

It suggests that we can hear stories in line, not with contemporary ideological beliefs, but with expectations that are intrinsic to the genre.

Thus, as readers, when we’ve twigged what sort of genre the story, we expect the characters to behave in certain ways.

In particular, the moral evaluation that audiences make of the story’s main characters will depend less on characters’‘objective’ behavior than on audiences’ genre-based expectations. Audiences will fill in missing causal links in the story in line with what usually happens in stories of this genre. For example, in a tragic story, the main character’s assertiveness may be blamed for her downfall. The same assertiveness will be appreciated and endorsed when it appears in a heroic story. Indeed, that assertiveness may be cited by audiences as the reason for liking or identifying with the character.

Dealing with the sensitive issue of acquaintance or “date”-rape, and narratives intended to encourage victims to report incidents, the authors were interested in whether genre would trump dominant ideology or vice versa:

Books, articles and other materials that are aimed at preventing rape, encouraging women to report their rape and helping victims to recover from their rape routinely include victims’ stories of their experiences. But do these stories do what they are supposed to do?

Their analysis of stories used in existing rape counselling literature, showed two genres being used. The first is “gothic” stories, “in which an innocent woman is destroyed by an evil man”, which they say is often criticized by feminists because victims struggle to identify with the woman in the story. The alternative that has appeared in response is what the authors call a “classic tragedy” in which “the protagonist is in a sense responsible for his or her fate.”

In their experiment, they presented the same plot  in four different genres, tragic and gothic, as per the existing counselling literature, and two alternatives: “heroic” and “rebirth.” Then, in a series of both closed and open questions and also in focus groups, asked readers “how they judged the protagonist of the story; whether and why they identified with the protagonist of the story and whether and why they could imagine being friends with her; whether they believed that the story was credible; and, what they would do after they left the rapist’s room if they were the woman in the story.”

I won’t do into depth on their results here, but this quote summarizes the dilemma they uncovered:

Tell a story of a young woman who is sheltered, shy and insecure – unlike the tragic protagonist, blameless – and an audience of college women will like the woman in the story and identify with her but will find it hard to imagine her reporting her rape. Tell a story of a woman who is confident and assertive and the audience will imagine her reporting her rape to police but will not identify with or like her. As researchers have shown that identifying with characters is essential to stories’ achieving their behavioral effects, this presents a real problem.

So their are no easy answers, and not much learning for me, in my research, but I was intrigued by their approach.

Kernels and Satellites

Last week I reminded myself that I hadn’t sought out Cohen and Shires’ Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction, which had been referenced in an article on game narrative. It was low down my list of priorities, mainly because it was written in 1988 – which feels like ancient history in citation terms. That shows in chapter one, where defining “narrative” as recounting “a story, a series of events in a temporal sequence,” the authors explain that:

our culture depends upon numerous types of narrative: novels, short stories, films, television shows myths, anecdotes, songs, music videos, comics, paintings, advertisements, essays, biographies, and news accounts.

Games aren’t mentioned, and I guess that’s no surprise, given that in 1988 computer games were still a relatively youthful medium, and the audience for games were relatively youthful too. The investment of Hollywood amounts of money in game narratives was still a twinkle in programmers eyes. If they looked at games at all back then, the authors might well have consciously excluded them from their analysis, because, the central premise of their book is “the events making up a story are only available to us through telling”, which might (arguably) exclude the procedurally generated narratives that most games provide.

But one of their ideas does have some relevance to game narratives. The article I looked at last week made reference to this passage (page 54):

From the vantage point of a completed sequence, events function either as kernels or as satellites. Kernel events raise possibilities of succeeding or alternative events – what we can call, taking the term rather literally, “eventuality.” They initiate, increase, or conclude an uncertainty, so they advance or outline a sequence of transformations. Satellite events, on the other hand, amplify or fill in the outline of a sequence by maintaining, retarding, or prolonging the kernel events they accompany or surround.

In game narrative terms this is a neat summary of how games work as a storytelling medium. In more scripted games such as Red Dead Redemption, the sequence of Kernals is quite rigid, and the satellites are optional or even (in the case of games like Skyrim) procedurally generated. I remember nearing the end of RDR: I’d helped John Marston, the character the game had been following, to track down and (mostly) kill his old buddies from the gang he had run with, and confront his old boss, who throw himself off a mountain. Marston had been given back his farm, and wife and child, and the game challenges had become less about death and destruction, and more about production and family life – rounding up cattle and and the like. Then a blicking icon had appeared on the game map, telling me that I was ready to play the nest kernel event.

I didn’t want to, I knew the game was nearing the end, and having discovered Marston’s life story, I knew it wouldn’t end well. I wanted to prolong the rural idyll of farming, hearth and home. So I found satellite quests to prolong the current kernel. I became obsessed with beaver hunting, promising myself I wouldn’t play on to the next kernal event until I’d found the five beaverskins a crazy glider pilot Marston had met in Mexico needed for his glue. I spent days and days hunting beaver. It became a running joke with my wife.

But after shooting the first two, it seemed the beavers had gone into hiding. There was beaver drought, it seemed, by every river in the gameworld – and yes I did try every one. So with a heavy heart, I turned John Marston back towards his fate. Damn, was I emotionally engaged.

But even in purely procedural games, the idea of kernels and satellites works. As Tynan Sylvester points out, in a game like The Sims, the narrative is reliant on the interpretation of the player:

This story was co-authored between the player and the game. The game simulated some simple event (attraction between redhead and roommate), and the player ascribed meaning to it (jealousy and frustration) the same way he might have for the Michotte balls, even though that emotion was not actually in the simulation. The next part of the story was cued by him when he orchestrated the murder. The game simulated the logistics of firey deaths, but the sense of sorrow and revenge was, again, ascribed completely by the player. Most of this story is apophenia – present of the Player Model, absent from the Game Model.

While not talking about games, Cohen and Shires manage to predict how the random calculations of a procedural game can become an emotionally engaging story:

While kernels may appear to function as primary events and satellites as secondary ones, satellites are as important as kernels to a story sequence. Furthermore, an event’s status as a kernel or satellite depends entirely upon a particular sequence and not on the event itself, which does not possess the ability to advance or amplify a transformation on its own. An event acquires its kernel or satellite function for a given sequence through its placement in the sequence, because the sequence is what sets the events in relation to each other.

I like to play Civilization, which is an example of unscripted, procedural game. Some games are more satisfying than others, when the random generation of events becomes, in my mind, the thrilling story a plucky little nation that could. Sometimes, despite my best efforts to manage my nascent state “events, dear boy, events” conspire to make the game boring – but the advantage of procedural games is that if its boring, you can start again. Well designed procedural games are the ones that keep you restarting because of the all the great narratives you’ve discovered on previous plays. Ones that are consistently boring don’t get restarted, they get turned off.

The challenge for cultural heritage sites is that they can’t be restarted, so a purely procedural approach of interactive narrative would not be constructive. Some degree of scripting – the selection and ordering of narrative kernals is required.

Narrative Structure and Games – Backstory?

I’ve started writing up my literature review. And that has sent me back to the literature itself, to try and make head or tale of the cryptic comments I made to myself when I read it the fist time. Take for example Barry Ip’s two part article in Games and Culture, Narrative Structures in Computer and Video Games. Ip offers, in part one, his own pretty complete literature review of story in games. Indeed I could quote him extensively and move on, except there are some things he said that obviously prickled me. And now I’ve had to re-read him to find our why.

Overall, its the useful summary of game narrative I thought it was. It saves me having to play games for months, with a stopwatch to hand. And looking at it again, I’m reminded of a particular reference to a now out of print and distribution book I was going to check for in the library, but never did*. It needs a bit of updating, mostly by references to Tynan Sylvester’s work, and Terence Lee’s piece on emergent narrative.

But the thing that gets my goat is his use of the term “back story”. I was obviously annoyed this quote:

Backstories are usually presented just before a game begins or seen written on the back of game packaging or in its instruction manual to capture a player’s attention as well as set the scene for the entire game.

Now to my mind, what he is describing is the “blurb”, or at best a prologue that states “what has gone before” and, maybe sets the scene. Whereas I think of backstory as the background created for a fictional character, which isn’t explained at the start of the narrative (where it really becomes part of the narrative) but may be referred to as the narrative progresses. It is complete (if anywhere) only in the author’s head, but the reader (or player) can construct their own understanding of it from the clues peppered throughout the narrative. This was one aspect of Red Dead Redemption that I liked, the player’s avatar had a backstory (and not a very pleasant one) that the player could only piece together during the game. In contrast the player’s avatar in Skyrim has no-backstory – other than he is a captive at the start of the game.

So this time, rather than tap out a barely understandable note to myself, i went to the dictionary to be proved right. The online Oxford dictionary says:”A history or background created for a fictional character in a film or television programme” Aha! I was right! But then it goes on to give an example: “‘a brief prologue detailing our hero’s backstory'” Curses! That’s more like Ip’s definition … And Merriam-Webster agrees with Ip. On the other hand, Wikipedia backs up my understanding (today at least).

Oh! I don’t know, maybe I should just live with it. It seems I’ve spent more time niggling at the word than actually writing – which may of course have been the point.

 

*Kernels and Satellites from Cohen and Shire’s 1988 Telling stories: A theoretical analysis of narrative fiction

A little epiphany

Today I saw a diagram that looked a bit like this:

Branching narrative

It was in the chapter on Narrative from Tynan Sylvester’s Designing Games. He explains that with this this sort of structure, “any given player misses most of the content”. There’s another problem too – with this sort of structure, it’s incredibly difficult to pace the emotional rhythm of the narrative. Christopher Vogler, the screenwriter uses Joe Campbell’s Jungian analysis of Mythic structure to demonstrate how the emotional rhythm changes pace in the course of a story.

The Hero's Journey Model from Vogler, C. 2007. The Writer’s Journey 3rd Edition, Studio City: Michael Weise Productions, 8
The Hero’s Journey Model from Vogler, C. 2007. The Writer’s Journey 3rd Edition, Studio City: Michael Weise Productions, 8

In his book, Sylvester draws a curve that echo’s Vogler’s model, and describes how such an emotional curve can occur even in an unscripted game:

For example, take a multi-player match of capture the flag in any shooter … As the timer runs low, the stakes increase, and with them the tension. At the end of the match, the game approaches a climax of intensity as the players try to capture their last flag and turn the game in their favor. Afterward, the players have a few moments to cool off at the score screen. The pacing curve they experienced follows the classic three-act story formula, but instead of being predefined, its generated a little differently every game.

Sylvester doesn’t acknowledge it, but the key phrase in this description is “as the timer runs low.” With multiple players choosing from variety of actions with every event, the narrative path is infinitely branching, but the time limit is a mechanic (in game terms) that forces an emotional climax. Its the same in sport, think of the emotional stress that supporters are under for the final few minutes of a game of football. Basketball is famous for introducing all sorts of timing rules to make the game more emotionally compelling to the audience. Without a mechanic like a time limit the emotional impact of a narrative would be infinitely diluted by the infinite possible endings of a branching structure.

Now, think about the how cultural heritage institutions plan their interpretation. Many follow a model like the one Judy Rand describes in Building on your ideas (in Bicknel, S. and Farmello, G., eds. 1993. Museum visitor studies in the 90s, London: Science Museum). In such a model, one starts off with the main message, or theme, which she describes as the “single most important idea you want people to leave with.” With the theme in place, and informing all the subsequent decisions, one will arrange all the other story elements or messages into three categories:

A primary message is one that we feel we must communicate to a sizeable number of our visitors (albeit to fewer than the main message)… A secondary message is one we feel we should communicate to the visitors (although we expect even fewer visitors to receive these messages… [and] a tertiary message is one we feel it might be nice to communicate to visitors (but we expect few visitors, if any, to get these)

Rand explains that this process is more than an arrangement of the relative value of the messages, it suggests a floorplan, with primary messages becoming sub-divisions of the exhibition and secondary messages indicating the contents of individual exhibits. I must admit that I go through a very similar thought process when I first look at a new interpretive challenge. But looking at Sylvester’s diagram gave me a little epiphany.

Lets look at my version again, but this time with labels from Rand’s model.

Branching narrative+Rand

Sort of fits doesn’t it? And it makes me realise that without the challenge imposed by mechanics like an opposing team and a time limit, this structure sets us up for a narrative with a very dilute emotional climax. What it means, is that by default, musuems and other heritage sites frontload the story revealing the emotionally engaging  parts of the story early in the experience, sometimes even in the introductory video. The challenge is to retain the pacing curve so that the emotional climax happens nearer the end of the experience. One solution is  the  Thoughtden/Splash and Ripple project for National Museums Scotland, which address the issue by adding, yes…  an opposing team and a time limit:

Given that not every cultural heritage site wants to be turned into a game of Capture the Flag, how do we retain some emotional structure in the story we want to tell?  Games, Sylvester tells us, use side quests and story convergence:

Side quests put a piece of content on the side of the road, which can be consumed or not, but affects little on the main path. Story convergence offers choices that branch the main storyline, but later converge back to a single line… Often though we need to combine story-ordering devices in a more nuanced was to fit the needs of the game… This hybrid structure is popular because in combines so many advantages. The designers get to script a careful introduction which introduces the story and the game mechanics. During the softly ordered central portion, the player feels free and unconstrained. Finally, the game’s climax can be carefully authored for maximum effect.

Sounds great. But how do we apply that to real world spaces?