April 23, 2004

Narr@tive: Digital Storytelling 1/2

by Nick Montfort · , 2:38 am

These reflections were written collaboratively by Nick & Noah during the conference using text editor SubEthaEdit; props to The Coding Monkeys for that tool.

Kate Hayles opened the conference with a keynote discussion of “Narrative Bits,” leaving some of us wondering about whether, having just completed her book Coding the Signifier, she is turning from materiality to formalism. …

She proposed that — in order to take fragmentary and combinatoric narratives seriously — a new term be introduced into the narratologically familiar fabula / syuzhet dyad: Possibility Space. (Nick: I’m speaking at SSNL Saturday on the same topic, but with reference to IF specifically, talking on the topic of his “Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction.”) Among other examples requiring us to consider the possibility space, Kate showed an image of Facade and referenced Michael’s Ph.D. thesis. Neither of us were sure at first how Kate’s new category was different from Espen Aarseth’s distinction between textons and scriptons; Noah asked about the issue. Kate explained that the possibility space is not a distinction between “surface and depth” or the internal texts and presented texts, but between (a) the combinatory possibilities within system and user operations and (b) the resulting syuzhet. It seems this changes the syuzhet from being generated by the fabula to something generated by combinatorics which have some relationship with a possibly non-unitary fabula.

The first session hosted three diverse talks on poetics and literary materials. Stephani Bardin gave a paper that ranged from McLuhan’s readings of Pound’s cantos to her own carnivore-inspired project Omnivore. Braxton Soderman, interested in the structure and constraints of the page, provided the first Oulipo reference of the conference — they seem to be obligatory these days, even cropping up at the Princeton video game conference. Interestingly, it drew connections between the formal practices of the Oulipo and more concrete and material practices by Jason Nelson and pre-computer poets. The small, dense book NTNTNT, which grew from transcripts of interviews that had become corrupted and (in some cases) had unintentionally gone though versions of the telephone/translation game, was introduced to us by Jason Brown.

Adriana de Souza e Silva began the next session with an intriguing pervasive game example, describing a location-aware cell phone game that involved a car chase in “hybrid space.” She showed a great promotional video from Botfighters, noting that such games can change our perceptions of the city. Nick: But do pervasive games — “assassin” being a pre-computer example — really blur the safe, ritual space of the game world with that of gritty reality, or do they simply use an already safe space in reality that is ready to be overloaded for such a use? Soldiers on the battlefield aren’t in a suitable environment to play “assassin,” while college students on a protected campus are. Maybe pervasive gaming is just a side-effect of increasingly safe urban environments. Noah: Another project from the same group as Botfighters is Supafly. It seems the idea is for players to be cool enough to get written about, and also for the game to support certain kinds of flirting. Will the flirting make it more of a problem that there’s a mismatch between physical bodies and the avatars folks design online? Nick: You mean, like, your bot is hot but you’re not? It seems to me that if these games can stimulate us to go to new areas of town and check out new coffeehouses and such, they could (unless we’re playing in a totally safe city) also lead us into situations that are unfamiliar and dangerous, perhaps while we’re in frame of mind that isn’t oriented to “real” dangers. Of course, I’m not suggesting we abandon such games — there are few interesting technologies and ideas that don’t have dangers… Noah: I wonder if it would be worth sponsoring people to play, if they agree to hang out at your location, just as a way of promoting your youth-oriented business?

Carolyn Lambert, Robin Hewlett, and Siobhan Rigg (part of The Liberty Avenue Project) brought us a video from another immersive project, also providing some comments on their work, which they’ll share in performance tomorrow. Their project creates a performance that occurs in the conflicted space of the Pittsburgh street, where groups are led to encounter five characters. “Welcome to the C District” takes place in an area that sounds like Pittsburgh’s Times Square — a rapidly-gentrifying arts district that has a history of vibrant gay and red-light cultures, used to be a home for vaudeville and other theatre, and now is a collision point for tourism, real-estate, and other interests. The guides and ambient characters make up the rest of the cast. Nick: It looks great, and interesting from the standpoint of urban experience and as a project itself — but I think what Boal’s been doing sounds more alluring as a model for interactive computer experiences. Noah: Well, it actually reminds me a bit of Boal’s “invisible theatre” — even though there were some folks who knew they were an audience, there were others (attendees at the NRA convention around the corner, the protesters, security and police) who did things like try to break up their simulated fights. On the other hand, the problem being presented is certainly less clearly drawn (and more open to multiple interpretations) than in most Boalian work. Nick: Ah, that’s true — it was “invisible” if you didn’t buy a ticket! I was thinking more of forum theater as a model for IF and the like, but invisible theater makes for an interesting interventional model, if not an interactive one.

Scott Ruston discussed the notion of interactive cinema, with reference to the other categories: “analog,” “e-literature,” and “games.” He described CYOA-like DVDs, problems with plot-driven choices. Noah: I’m reminded a bit of the comment by Adrian Miles that interactive cinema is now working through what litearary hypertext folks were discussing 10-15 years ago. Nick: What? Just a moment, let me put down my nunchaku and turn off this New Order album. You were saying that this reminded you of something we’ve been over long ago? Noah: Yes, but maybe this needs to be said again in each new media context. Nick: There are so many easy ways to repeat this! Noah: And there are things specific to the interactive cinema context. Consider something like Terminal Time. I wonder if it will come up? Nick: Or Glorianna Davenport’s work and the work of others in her Interactive Cinema group. I think the focus here is on things that are produced by film-production-like companies and look like normal movies. No Lorna or the like. Tender Loving Care is offered instead as an alternative; a detective story that profiles the viewer and responds. Noah: So, will Chris Hales come up? Nick: Tender Loving Care does have quite a funny structure and interactive format. Chris Hales’ work came to mind for me, too, but I think Scott’s dealing with feature-film sorts of works specifically. They shouldn’t be overlooked, as TLC suggests, but I think they can be understood better with reference to some of work we mentioned. Noah: Lots of reference to Marie-Laure Ryan’s Narrative as Virtual Reality, which we discussed with the author a while back on GTxA.

Scott Bessels discussed how sensor technologies allow the environment to participate in narrative cinema. An example of how we’re gaining new senses: students walking around campus and tracking the areas where there is a wireless signal. He described how work could be, not interactive in the usual way, but environmentally reactive. Scott described a project, Brakelights, and showed video documentation of it. In it, different beats are selected, by emotion, from 200 lines of dialog. The selection is based on input from a camera looking at the freeway and determining the overall intesity of brake lights.

Those were the talks for Thursday, except for our talks, in the last slot of the day. We’re looking forward to Friday’s discussion and to the reading at the end of the day…

11 Responses to “Narr@tive: Digital Storytelling 1/2”

  1. Jill Says:

    My copy of Hyper/Text/Theory (ed. Landow, early 90s) is at my office, so I can’t check, but doesn’t Gunnar Liestøl also talk about something very similar to what Kate Hayles is proposing in his chapter with those diagrams of Genette’s histoire (fabula) and discourse (syuzhet) – though perhaps I’m mistaken, it’s a long time since I read that article.

    It’s fun reading the collaboratively written report – must have been fun writing it too!

  2. B. Rickman Says:

    Wasn’t there some brief discussion about possibility spaces here a while back? Well, I personally am somewhat leery of bringing mathematical-ish terms into new media theory; the phrase “combinatorial explosion” sets my teeth on edge when spoken by an English major. (Perhaps this is just a defense mechanism; if any English departments want me to teach a math course please contact me.)

    I’ll try to collect my thoughts on the conference and post them on my blog in the next day or so. I warned Noah that they might not be too nice.

  3. nick Says:

    I hope part 2 (which Jeremy also contributed to) will be posted by Noah soon. These writeups were fun. I write from a Chicago airport pay phone, so must end…

    Update: This phone has an RJ45 port available for use for $1.50 an hour! And me with my ethernet cable right here. Hooray for telcos and pay phones. Now I can go delete 200 spam emails during the next hour … and I thought I might not be able to do anything productive …

  4. Espen Says:

    “Kate explained that the possibility space is not a distinction between “surface and depth” or the internal texts and presented texts, but between (a) the combinatory possibilities within system and user operations and (b) the resulting syuzhet.”

    My distinction between scriptons and textons is NOT between surface and depth, but “between strings as they appear to readers, and strings as they exist in the text, since these may not always be the same. ” (Cybertext, p 62.)

    The example I use in my definition, Queneau’s Cent Mille…, illustrates this: there is no surface versus depth in the text, only combinatorics that takes place on the surface.

    The only difference I am able to tell between my terms and Kate’s from this short description is that mine are more general; they also address non-narrative phenomena such as experimental hyperliterature and poetry.

    Disclaimer: I realize that this is not Kate’s position in her own words but as blogged by GtxtA, which as we all know tends to skew facts from time to time…

  5. Mark Says:

    Not to speak for Kate, of course, but (according to my notes not typed on SubEthaNet) she made it clear that “possibility space” required(less than a dozen) computational operations conducted by digital systems operating within works involving fragmentation and combinatorics.

    So, as you’ve written Espen, the term could not be more broadly applied and had at least some material (or computational) specificity.

  6. Espen Says:

    Mark, thanks for the elaboration, which does leave me a bit puzzled.

    Does this mean that only digital works have “possibility spaces”? And that texts like I Ching, Choose-your-own-adventure books and Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes do not? (And what about digital versions of the above?)

  7. nick Says:

    I (speaking only for myself) don’t think possibility spaces are specific to digital work. I think the Oulipo, plagiarists by anticipation that they are, came up with a term that can be used for this concept long ago: “potential.”

    If I dump all the text out of some interactive fiction source code (using a facility of Inform, for instance) or disassemble a story file and get all the text, I have the textons, as I understand it. If I play interactive fiction, I see scriptons. There is also the set of all possible ways that the textons can be arranged and presented to me as scriptons, the potential session texts of a particular work of IF. which seems to be the possibility space of that IF. No, this is not a new concept, but it is probably worth some attention.

    Yes, I agree with Espen that a computer is not necessary here. If I bind the textons of Cent Mille Millard de poémes into two volumes, or if I taped several “pages” back together along the strips so that it is as if those pages were uncut, I would have the same textons, and could produce and look at something that would be a scripton in the original Cent Mille Millard de poémes as well, but there would be far fewer potential poems.

    Incidentally, you don’t need anywhere near a dozen basic computational operations to build a general-purpose computer. It can all be done just using the true/false distinction and NAND. There is a small set of logic gates that are generally talked about, but those two elements can be used to build them and are all that is needed for general-purpose computing.

  8. William Says:

    Well, let me ask something to get clearer on the ontology here a bit: is it possible that works like the I Ching are, in fact, computers (finite state machines) simply not implemented on silicon computers?

    Aren’t combinatorics the core of computing, whether it is computing with electrons, sticks, or steam? If a computer is a programmable system that responds to rules and executes commands, wouldn’t this describe the systems of the I Ching and the Oulipo work?

  9. B. Rickman Says:

    Personally, I would describe things like the I Ching and certain Oulipian methods as devices for calculation. They perform specific functions, generating random passages or transforming one text into another.

    I really don’t get what the purpose of defining a “possibility space” is, aside from providing a visualization of some operation, e.g. this book of ten pages can produce ten million unique (and very uninteresting) poems. This visualization quickly breaks down in the case of Nick’s operations on textons, where the “space” of potential readings is vast in comparison to the number of likely readings anyone is likely to encounter. (The possibility space becomes just so many monkeys on typewriters.)

    Computation, on the other hand, can be thought of as a way of performing calculations on a generic, non-specialized machine. The compuation might be the calculation of a combinatorial operation, spewing out all the permuations of some text, but that is only one specific function of what computation can accomplish. And while combinatorics can be appealing to non-math people, there are most powerful tools like group theory, set theory, topology, &c, which would be much better tools for analysis of some possibility space.

  10. Katherine Hayles Says:

    Thanks to Nick and Noah for posting these notes on the conference, and to all those who responded. As I said at the conference, this is the beginning of a new project for me, and I’m especially grateful for all of your thoughts and comments. Thanks to Espen for correcting my mistake about surface/depth regarding textons/scriptons. On further thought, I am rather inclined to believe that what I am trying to get at here is something like a shift in the metaphysics of narrative. Whereas I find texton/scripton an invaluable distinction for directing attention toward the difference between how the text is generated and what the text is, my own interest in this project is directed more toward narratological functions and the presuppositions embedded in a dichotomy such as syuzhet/fabula. What I see happening in much of contemporary narrative, both print and electronic, is a shift away from thinking that a storyworld (fabula) underlies/interacts with the syuzhet; rather, now the generative tension often seems to be between the syuzhet and a combinatorics/computational space. I will thinking/reading more about this in the weeks/months to come, and I appreciate all the tips, corrections, and leads you have suggested.

  11. miscellany is the largest category Says:
    ebr + first person
    electronic book review has established a thread for Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan’s First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Check out the thread introduction or see an overview of the weave. Also, some thought provoking conversat…

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