Archive: May, 2009

What is a story world, anyway?

[Research] (05.22.09, 1:10 pm)

Recently I have been shifting my focus from looking at story worlds proper to the mechanics. I think that worlds are still at the heart of the matter, but what a world is may need to be expanded a little. For adaptation, it is necessary to try to get underneath a text to understand what it is about. We can do this in two main ways, I think. The first is to look at aesthetics. Aesthetics is not just visual qualities or imagery, but is about emotional understanding. A work is understood aesthetically when it affects the reader at an emotional level. Aesthetics are experienced bodily and synaestheticaly. The second way to look at works is rhetorically. At the rhetorical level, the work is there to make an argument, to persuade, to say something about the real world. Rhetoric works at a more explicitly mechanical level, presenting an argument in allegorical or analytic form. However, the aesthetic works according to mechanics as well, but instead of using languages of causality, it operates using an emotional language. Both aesthetic and rhetoric are interwoven, and are part of a text’s mechanics.

Mechanics explains how a text works, what it does when the reader attempts to read and engage with it. It is not static and immutable, but is a system that the reader will decipher, play with, pick apart, imagine, theorize about, and understand.  I think that to answer the question of what is a text about, it is necessary to discover how it works. Some, but not all texts work through exploring a story world. A world is some sort of setting or stage in which the text exists and takes place. By its nature, the world must therefore exist beyond the bounds of the text. A story world may accommodate many possible stories existing within it, and may change along with the narratives themselves. The story is thus situated in the world. Because the actual story is about something, and that aboutness can be expressed through its mechanics, there is an intimate relationship between the story mechanics and the story world. Using the metaphor of simulation, we could say that the story world is a simulation of the mechanics.

This understanding of world is very valuable, but has some fuzzy edges. Namely, there is ambiguity as to how closely a world is connected to a story. If we view worlds as analytic tools, we do not need to be concerned over whether the story world technically includes all of the details of the story, but there become concerns when there are multiple stories set in the same world. Many authors make use of fictional universes and write stories that take place within them. These stories will likely have some degree of overlap in what they are about, but are unlikely to be the same, thus, there is probably some sort of core story world that is the base of this fictional universe shared by these stories, within which operates some set of mechanics that is general to each story. Each individual story with its own particular mechanics is a kind of extension of this shared foundation.

It is possible to apply the principle of the story world to other narratives, but in some cases the worlds that might result are confusing or perverse. For example, Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a story that exists in intersections of story worlds, there is something there that ties them together but it is the very process of creating new worlds. The rest of the worlds are simply fragments, but strung together to produce a definitive arc. We could argue for a “world” that encompasses all of these simultaneously, but this would lead to a mess. We can still understand it as a coherent system with clear mechanics, namely, about reading and building new worlds with each novel fragment read. Another corpus that cannot be made into a world is the monomythic collection of Russian Folktales described by Propp. These are well defined formally, and each has a common morphology, but as a whole they do not make a clear world. We could imagine a world where each object or situation in the world can endlessly substituted, and the only thing that remains is the commonalities between the equivalence classes of the substitutions. This schizophrenic world does not exist in time, nor beyond the narrative on which it is based.

So it does not make sense to argue that every narrative or related collection of narratives have worlds, but this prompts a few other questions: What relations make narratives share worlds? Is it spatio-temporal? Is it theme, genre, or mechanics? What narratives may we safely examine as worlds, and when does it become problematic?


[Concerts] (05.16.09, 11:12 am)

Thursday night, Audrey and I went to brave the night and go to another concert. This wasn’t really a concert, though, so much as a set. Most recent events we have gone to have had bands on stage, complete with real instruments and several people playing them. I have missed the days where we would go to clubs with an honest to goodness DJ, hovering over a mountain of electronic equipment, doing inscrutable things that cause lovely music to come out. This was a nice change of pace, and was a flashback to other experiences sorely missed. I do so love electronic music.

The tickets said that the show started at 8:00, so we get an early dinner and head over to Masquerade. This is the first time that we’ve been over there. I had passed this venue many times driving down North avenue, but never been to an event there. I had asked about parking on the phone, not realizing that the massive empty lot next to the building is all parking. And it was mostly full. There was a line for admittance that stretched halfway around the block. This was very odd, as Dieselboy is not really what one would consider… well, the sort of artist to draw in such a massive crowd. The line had a lot of goth and metal types, which we discover later were headed to a different show, as the venue has several levels: “Heaven,” “Hell,” and “Purgatory.” Our show was situated in Hell, the other group was a death metal band playing in Heaven. Awesome.

We find out once we get in there that the show actually did not start at 8 as advertised, though, but at 9:30. Not so awesome. Dieselboy started at 10:30, and then another DJ would come on at 12:30. Both Audrey and I spent the time contemplating our inevitable exhaustion for the next day, and talked about work.

The first set that came on was Two Fresh, which was incredible. This group consisted of two DJs, who I would later learn were twin brothers, who moved in uncanny synchrony, and a live drummer. They used a very interesting variety of samples, and did a sort of genre blurring that was very cool. The samples came from all over the place, there were a number of clearly R&B influenced clips, as well as some more jazzy ones, but these came alongside powerful beats and other ambient and rhythmic tones. Samples were often juxtaposed with background music that contrasted but did not clash. The live drummer contributed this very sharp and crisp sound to the percussion, which gave the set a sort of liveness that is hard to get when most drums are played with a drum machine.

Dieselboy came on afterwards and launched right away into the grinding, machinic, dissonant noises that he is well known for. This was immanently enjoyable, but it was at this point where the crowd began getting really obnoxious. Actually, that’s not entirely true, they were pretty obnoxious throughout Two Fresh, but I was too into the music to really pay attention. Dieselboy is interesting stuff, it is hard to listen to, but, like any acquired taste, rewards the palette with experience and paying attention. It was the paying attention that was especially difficult. Maybe now that I’ve had some distance from the club scene that I have lost my tolerance for thick crowds and having others around me constantly moving around. I’ve never been on Japanese public transportation, but that is the mental image that comes to mind. The set was very cool overall, it had one moment that was absolutely great, but I don’t remember what it was at all.

After Dieselboy went off, Audrey and I were thoroughly exhausted. It was after midnight and she would have work early in the morning. The last DJ to come up would be Pretty Lights, who we sadly missed. I feel bad for not having stayed, but don’t really regret it. I looked the group up after we got home and suddenly realized that I love this sort of music. Pretty Lights is classified as downtempo, a magnificent genre that is extremely listenable, consistently interesting, and very good as background music. I frequently listen to Chromanova while I work. So, it’s better, I think, to listen to while in a somewhat more relaxed environment than the writhing club. Pretty Lights has three CDs for free download on their website, it’s good stuff.

Some findings on immersion

[Research] (05.11.09, 9:37 am)

Immersion has been a prickly issue due to a number of points. One is the Immersion Fallacy, which I have briefly written about, as have a number of others. Immersion is an overused and overhyped term that attempts to communicate a lot of ideas. One of these ideas is a sense of presence, where one feels like the world is real and one’s actions in that world are immediate– not just in the sense of instant, but literally without a medium. That idea is closely related to media transparency, where we might interact with an interface but become so accustomed to it that it no longer feels like a surface that we interact with. Game controllers are good examples of transparent media to experienced game players. One tenet of the immersion fallacy is that interfaces obstruct immersion, and should be removed to give a greater sense of “being there”. This is false because sometimes we actually want an interface now and then…

Immersion relates to adaptation in an interesting way, though. If we think of immersion as being about presence, being in a world, and imagine that narratives are essentially about worlds, then it seems that one way for adaptation to work would be to create that sense of being there, and leave it at that. I just discovered Steve Gaynor’s blog Fullbright, which recently made an argument that an often unrecognized method of expression in games is through that sense of being in a new place. It could be argued that architecture is an art form which has that potential as well, but games are more clearly worlds than spaces. Gaynor makes the argument that playing a game can give a similar experience to taking a vacation to a far-away country, to experience something new, but then return having been changed and affected by the experience. Books too offer the capability to experience new worlds as a tourist. Many works of literature make use of this metaphor, and popular childrens’ reading campaigns make use of it as well, for better or for worse.

I think that the idea of being in a world is important, but I would have to make the argument that in both games and narratives, despite the clear use of world and setting, there is also an element of action. The vacationing tourist does not just inhabit the worlds, but takes action within them, taking part in activities and joining the culture as a participant. To recall anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Bradd Shore, culture is a living and changing document, and it must be enacted to have meaning. A reader of a book does not enact the contents of its passages, but does mentally simulate and imagine them in a mental stage. The player of a game actually participates and explores the world. For example, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus have minimal gameplay (the latter is still intense at points, but spaced out), and the activity of the player is still a very active and engaged exploration, full of movement, climbing, and navigation. Even in architecture, a space is meant to be experienced physically and bodily, but the experiencer is still in the place for a reason, partaking of an activity. The tourist is not passive, but is perpetually engaged.

I am certain that it was not Gaynor’s argument that the player is passive, but I think that a connection can be made between the immersion model of game worlds and the mechanics oriented model.

Worlds, Models, and Mechanics

[Research] (05.09.09, 10:58 pm)

I want to write out some additional thoughts that came up after writing my quals, (but through gross neglect on my part never made it in).

A central tenet to my theory is that narratives take place in worlds. It is a far cry to claim that narratives are worlds, but it is certainly possible to view a narrative as a document through a literary or textual world. These worlds are dynamic, the narrative occurs because time passes in the world and its state changes. The presentation of the events that incur these changes may be rendered in many different ways, and in any concievable sequence, but there is still a story-time in which events take place in a chronological order, where causality causes one event to occur as a result of another.

For a world to be dynamic means that its state changes, the meaning of this is highly ambiguous, but it can be thought to be the space of relevant details and information that is meaningful for changes to be elicited in the world. In fiction, it is clear that some details are meaningful and others are not. Some details are included to provide a background, tone, or mood, but others are provided to be consequential. If this detail was not present, or different, then the story would have played out differently. Classical drama is all about consequential elements, where grander than life characters are introduced only by direct declarations of these factors. In narrative presentation, there is a difference between what details are shown versus told, and sometimes consequential elements are determined by an author, but illustrated only through showing, and are never told explicitly.

Once we have an idea of what a fictional world’s state is, namely, its significant variables, then we can consider what the mechanics of the world are. Mechanics are the rules and conditions by and under which changes occur. Again, mechanics are highly dependent on interpretation. What one reader sees as mechanics of a story world might be very different from the interpretation of another. Novels, particularly, are also “realistic” in nature, though what this means is variable; realism means that not only are there mechanics deliberately present within the story world, but the reader must also incorporate their perception of the mechanics of everyday life into the world. Adopting this sensibility, we can see Frederic Jameson’s Political Unconsicous as documenting the intermingling of an individual’s cultural context with the social world of the fiction.

Exactly what a mechanic is, is also very hard to pin down. How mechanics might be documented and explained in a work is also hard to imagine, because it could be great or little. For instance, a very loose and general mechanic that might be found in English Regency literature could be “if a man loves a lady, he will want to marry her.” This is a very general rule, but it is cogent enough to describe something significant. A more precise and detailed mechanic might be “if two people are interacting, each has a status, and whoever has higher status has social power over the other; higher status can enable the following actions: embarassing, persuading, condescending, or commanding.” This is very specific, but leaves open many questions, as to what exactly these actions are, what their consequences and parameters are, and so on.

I used to use the term model to describe the state and mechanics of a world, and simulation to describe the dynamics. I have found these terms vague and cumbersome, but they are still generally useful in their own right. Model in particular is difficult because it shares usage with many other disciplines, which can be useful to derive synthesis, but sometimes can be misunderstood. In cognition, model is generally used to refer to “internalized models” for use in planning, where an agent plans around a world that is entirely stored in its artificial mind. I have found the term “perspective” to actually be very useful instead, and giving my models an optical metaphor. A model in this case is a way of seeing the world. This can be used to see particularly useful in considering dynamics and mechanics, because the makeup of each is dependent on the interpretation of the observer.

If we see a narrative as a world, where the world is dynamic and controlled by mechanics, there is still a lot that needs to be done before we can bring it into the territory of something that is adaptable. My particular interest is in games, but games are not the only types of adaptations that can benefit from the approach of story-worlds.

Many adaptations aim on filling out a single story world, and a single flow through time of that world (the history of the world is static, and cannot be changed), but can offer new perspectives and other details. It is in this sense that adaptations are built as transmedia artifacts, that develop a single canon. Here, there is one story world, and each adaptation offers a new perspective of some part of that story world. This is particularly common in many popular pulp and science fiction works, where each narrative builds to the richer sense of the world. This approach runs counter to the notion of the text as variable, but does easily segue into exploring things that could happen.

Games are important to explore in adaptations, and I would argue that the are actually crucial. Games can render the dynamics of a story world, and have the potential for getting outside of the linearity of narrative, and outside of the idea that the story world is fixed. This does not always happen, though. Many games, in particular many adaptations do not have a potential to vary or change the outcomes in the story world that they are based on. There is still a dimension of play, but this is not in the sense of playing with a system. It is important to remember that the play is the name of the button on the VCR and DVD player, that it is the name for theatric productions. In these cases, play is not about playful manipulation, but about executing a process, about movement, about enactment. In most game adaptations, the player is given control over a character, and is able to move that character around, essentially piloting the character through some environments from the original narrative, and being able to stumble on nodes of plot in order to progress in the story. There is still play, the player virtually enacts the deeds of the character, but does not control them.

Games have mechanics as well, and this dates back to the simplest pre-digital games. The mechanics of games are their rules, the criteria by which the state of the game may advance, and describes the potential actions of the player(s). The mechanics of games are themselves representative, and evocative of the mechanics of systems encountered in everyday life. With analogous or allegorical interpretations, the mechanics of a game might be said to represent many other dynamical processes found in everyday life. Games can have a significant communicative, rhetorical, and emotional power even when the representative power is small.

So, there is a connection, but not necessarily a clear path between games and narratives. Both are dynamical systems, and both have mechanics. However, it is worth being reminded at this point that the mechanics of games, particularly the capacity of games to be played, are not the same thing as the mechanics of story worlds. In order for game mechanics to work, they must be playable. Not all story world mechanics are playable. The example earlier that “if a man loves a lady, he will wish to marry her” clearly makes sense as a story world mechanic, but does not make all that much sense to be played. In a tabletop enacted roleplaying game, or in an improvisational theatre performance, it would probably be doable, but not in a videogame. I think it makes sense that the taks of the adapter then, is to transform the mechanics of the story world into the game. This involves finding out what mechanics can be played, and finding clear ways to reproduce them.

In many game adaptations, the adaptor usually starts with the question of “what is this original work about?”, and tries to design mechanics for the result, but there is a lot of room in that question. I think that examining the types of mechanics of the storyworld and the types of mechanics in the game provides a clear methodology for analysis and criticism of game adaptations. With any luck, it may also form a method for creating adaptations as well. Ultimately, though, things are still just a matter of perspective.

Death Cab

[Concerts] (05.09.09, 8:54 pm)

Wednesday evening, Audrey and I went to see indie rock outfit Death Cab for Cutie. Unlike most of our other concertgoing experiences, this was at the Fox Theatre, a historic Atlanta landmark, but one we haven’t gone to until then. The theatre is huge, collossal, even. It was originially intended as a mosque, which makes the presence of liquor sales somewhat bizarre and disconcerting. Well, actually, according to Wikipedia, the building was going to be a “mosque” for a Shriners’ organization, which makes it sort of less wierd, but only sort-of. The place is still enormous, and the entire theatre was packed. The crowd was different from our usual theatre-going crowds as well. We are used to the punks and goths, with dyed and spiked hair and visible piercings and tattoos. This was very different. It was a much younger, frattier, crowd. They were pretty loud and obnoxious. During an opening act, there was a really obnoxious group sitting behind us that talked incessantly through the set and shouted requests at the stage. It bears noting that we had what Audrey calls “nosebleed” seats, and were at least far enough that any catcalls would be inaudible. By the time the main set came on, fortunately, somehow, they disappeared. There was a sign saying “no photography,” but this didn’t stop the incessant camera flashes. There was also a wide swath of glowing rectangles in the crowd, as the audience recorded the live songs on their phones. I’m not opposed to that, and it’s happened at every concert I’ve been to, but it was an interesting thing to see from a distance.

The actual main act was very good, the light show was fun but blinding. The vocals were crisp and clear, and they played a lot of good songs. I was surprised, though, that many of the songs were either upbeat or sung very cheerily. Death Cab for Cutie is one of those bands whose songs are so deeply bitter and resentful, but the entire set was full of positivity. They also neglected to play some of the songs that we really love, which was sad. Don’t get me wrong, the set was great and a lot of fun, but we like to nitpick.

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[Research] (05.02.09, 9:29 am)

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Protected: Qual 2-1

[Research] (05.02.09, 9:28 am)

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