Archive: May 9th, 2009

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.