December 2, 2005

DAC 2005 Session 6

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 6:05 am

There are three papers in this session:

– Douglass, Marino, Dena: .Benchmark Fiction: A Framework for Comparative New Media Studies
– Scott Rettberg: All Together Now: Collective Knowledge, Collective Narratives, and Architectures of Participation
– Mateas, Stern: Procedural Authorship: A Case-Study of the Interactive Drama Façade

Douglass, Marino, Dena: .Benchmark Fiction: A Framework for Comparative New Media Studies

Jeremy Douglass (of Writer Response Theory) asks how we can comparre eliterature fiction. Can hypertext fiction, interactive fiction, chatbots, wikifiction, and other forms be compared? Their approach is to adapt (quite loosely) the idea of “benchmarks” from software and hardware development. Reimplementing the same fiction in many computational forms.

Why? There’s an explosion of forms (or genres, or sub-genres) that are generally defined technologically (hypertext, IF, generators, blog fiction, etc). It can be seen as (i) interaction method, (ii) arrangement structure, and (iii) enabling technology. We don’t talk about things like “horror” or “bildungsroman.” We can restate the question: When a work of eliterature is implemented in one form or another what happens and why does it matter? Which is similar to the naive question: Why is this particular fiction in this form?

Of course, there’s something odd about saying we’re going to “implement” a fiction in a form. Isn’t there usually give and take between form and content during design? Well, probably. But while implementation in multiple forms in parallel doesn’t often happen, multiple parallel adaptation certainly works.

(Jeremy’s playing the audience really well. The timing of his slides and discussion is getting good laughs and thoughtful expressions.)

He’s now mentioning a number of theories we might see this as related to: Media-Specific Analysis, Remediation, etc. And as precedents such as Hello World.

The Lady or the Tiger as hypertext, wiki, chatbot, Googlefight, and cellular automata. When does it stop being a valid adaptation? (Googlefight, btw, chooses the lady, whereas cellular automata choses the tiger.)

Question: Dene Grigar asks why don’t you bring up things like the Odyssey, which used to be a long oral poem and now is a book? Forms change because of popularity and need. And why not “translation” rather than “adaptation”?
A: Not translation in part because we lacked core competency in translation studies and didn’t want to be embarrassed in public. But seriously, any enduring text gets moved along through many forms. Which brings up the stumper: is this in any way specific to elit? Why not push the question more broadly.

Question: Markku Eskelinen asks how this relates to other attempts to formalize textual behavior, like cybertext theory.
A: Different project members have slightly different approaches. Jeremy’s particular focus is on the interaction. We’re all interested in some sort of communications model, formal features, Norbert Wiener, etc.
Markku: I’m talking about previous comparative approaches.

Question: Roberto Simanowski asks about the terminology. At first you mentioned “transmedia” and “cross media” — how are those different from “intermedia” and “multimedia”?
A: I’m not familiar with intermedia. Cross media is distinct from benchmark fiction because there you understand there’s a continuity divided across multiple forms, where the different pieces add up to a larger whole. Whereas we’re working with things that are prior, not extending the world across media but trying to present the story (however partially) in many forms. Of course, the chatbot adaptation shows that cross media logics (supplement, compliment) inevitably sneak in.

Scott Rettberg: All Together Now: Collective Knowledge, Collective Narratives, and Architectures of Participation

Authorship is always the result of many people working together. Sole authorship is an economic fiction, and one that’s no benefit to elit – and since elit authors can’t pay other people to become invisible they even more come to the fore.

Going back to the Memex, it was imagined as a way of making collective knowledge (and pathways through them) more available and sharable. Nelson was interested in supporting, in Xanadu, the idea of things being reconnected (and retranscluded) continually by future generations. Michael Joyce’s distinction between exploratory and constructive hypertext, with the constructive conception being about things that are constantly being assembled. Marble Springs, by Deena Larsen, was published as a constructive hypertext to which people were encouraged to make additions. On the web, The World’s First Collaborative Sentence and Brown U’s Hypertext Hotel. MOOs and MUDs.

The writing process of The Unknown (that Scott wrote with three collaborators) which was originally published in 1998, was being read by a number of folks in 1999, but they kept writing and revising it during the reading through 2002. They would write the characters named after other authors into difficult situations, and challenge the writer named after that character to write a way out. Also Surrealist games, etc. Play, negotiation, confrontation. compromise.

For collective narrative, constraints are particularly important — the Oulipo, Mad Libs, 2002 (a palindrome story), etc. Explicit structures are also quite useful for people writing a collaborative narrative, a kind of constraint — Propp, McKee, Facade’s architecture.

Large scale collective narrative — Invisible Seattle, a novel of Seattle written by Seattle. Questionnaires, call-in radio shows, anonymous contributions, etc. Several versions published, none definitive.

Three types of participation: conscious, contributory, and unwitting. The first understands the full structure of the project; the second may not know the whole structure, but know they are putting material into a project; and the last is for things that are brought into the narrative that were never imagined to serve that role by their authors (includes things like The Impermanence Agent).

The implications of things like Flickr and Wikipedia. The tagging of Flickr, with the consciously-contributed tags organized into automatic hierarchies through analysis of emerging folksonomies.

Some recent collective narratives. Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, with the only constraint being that the contributed stories are tied to particular locations in New York. 1001 Nights Cast, where the author puts up a short prompt each morning, people contribute short stories that respond during that day, and then does a live performance of one each night. Fearaphobia is a constrained story Scott does with students in his multimedia production course. Students are delivered a character by drawing attributes out of a hat, and then there’s an overall scenario (for example, fear becoming a communicable disease in New York), and they students must write certain scenes. The strong constraints make students — both writing concentrators and not — report that they feel quite freed in their writing. On a slightly different tack, The Movies, and the game outputs that are shared (after adding audio tracks) by many players. A number of reviews are people complaining that they have to do all this tycoon sim playing in order to get to the fun part. Already a relatively interesting short film: The French Democracy (about the recent riots).

Question: Elizabeth Losh asks about the political implications. What about projects like Listening Post, which borrows the words from many people in chat rooms?
A: I don’t know if I would say there’s one political angle. Certainly The French Democracy tries to take this entertainment product and turn it to political ends. But not all collective narratives do this. But collaborative writing, which is enabled by the network, certainly helps people work together. [heavy paraphrase by Noah]

Question: Emilia Branny asks, are you a Marxist? Where is this economic theory of authorship coming from somewhere? [again heavy paraphrase by Noah]
A: Johnson’s lionization was in part so the censors would have someone to target, but also so that one author could have a copyright and legally challenge others.
Emilia: So you agree with me that this is all a relatively recent idea?
A: Yes, I think the cult of authorship is modern.

Mateas, Stern: Procedural Authorship: A Case-Study of the Interactive Drama Façade

This isn’t a Facade overview talk, but really a talk about procedural authorship with Facade as a case study.

Murray’s four affordances of the digital medium: Procedural, Encyclopedic, Participatory, and Spatial. Usually these have been presented in a democratic way — you could take advantage of any of these in making work. Michael and Andrew want to be less democratic, and point out that one of these is dominant: procedurality. The other three are basically dependent on procedurality to exist.

The essence of the computer as a medium is processes. Computation is code and rhetoric. There’s no uninterpreted computation — any process is thought of in terms of rhetorics. Crawford’s notion of process intensity, “crunch per bit.” Less crunch per bit limits interaction. The program needs to be able to do more, to respond to audience doing more, but dependence on assets limits the number of possible responses. It limits interaction or collapses response. This path is losing its viability for commercial game development — talk of a “content crisis.” Some forms can’t even get off the ground without high procedurality, like high agency interactive stories (aka, interactive drama). An encyclopedic approach just isn’t able to get anywhere.

There is no design-only solution. You can’t just think through the issues and then use existing technological tools to implement your design. (You can’t say, “I know how to do a finite state machine” and then make it work that way.)

What Facade brings from games is that they’re high agency. Games have a game state, and concrete player actions directly change the state. And the score serves as a kind of summarization of the various changes in state (you can imagine richer summaries). Of course, story is not amenable to this kind of numeric display to its state. We want the global progression of the story combined with characters who have consistency and inner life. How can we conceive of this kind of experience with high agency? Abstract player actions (discourse acts) change a heterogeneous, multi-level state. And the state is communicated through dramatic performance.

Facade’s affinity game, hot button game, therapy game. And the dramatic tension that they system wants to increase over time but in a way influenced by player action. In order to do this there are multiple, mixable progressions. Beat sequencing, beat goal sequencing within that, and global mixins that can happen intermixed with the beat goals and handled. The atoms of performance are joint dialogue behaviors — each a little machine for performing this from many points of the room, with the right expression, if interrupted, etc. There’s less content in Facade than they planned, but many ways it can be sequenced. And it’s also easy to add more — for example, very late in the authoring process they decided to add a particularly desperate move for Trip, and they just authored it and it immediately started mixing in smoothly — interacting appropriately with the other machines.

Procedural authorship allowed them to create a (somewhat) high agency interactive story. It’s also shown a direction toward being more generative, but that requires taking procedurality even more centrally. It also confirmed the need for artist programmers. There’s no way they could have done it if one of them was the writer and the other the programmer. The strict Fordist approach of places like the game industry won’t work.

Question: Espen asks “Have you thought about making it turn based?”
A: No, we wanted to make it real time. We wanted both local and global agency. Keeping local agency is helped by the moment-by-moment interaction of the game-like interface.
Q: It would be hard to do?
A: To make it turn based? I’d have to think about that. Because all the dialogue is delivered by these machines, the real timeness is built in at a very low level.
Q: Well, one of my students thought it would be more empowering to be able to type in what you want to say without getting interrupted.
A: We wanted to make the player feel rushed, to build tension. It’s been called “a great game for stenographers.” We didn’t want a game that would wait forever for you to take action. It’s a simulation of a marriage falling apart that you can intervene in, and if you just sit silent they’ll throw you out.
Q: You need speech recognition.
A: The technologies not just there yet. But they do stop a little and listen to you when you’re typing, and we could do more of that.

Question: This is both text and visual. What are the pros and cons of this versus real-time text based experiences.
A: We feel the real time facial expressions give us a rich way to express that the text-only version wouldn’t have. The real time performance is important to us, especially the faces. Back in the early days of the Oz project they had a real time text world that would scroll past if you did nothing.