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…