Archive: October, 2009

And on that note…

[General] (10.24.09, 3:03 pm)

I just read this off of Amanda Palmer’s blog. In it, she discusses an experimental theatre project “Sleep No More” being run by the British theatre company Punchdrunk. Sleep No More is described as a combination of “The Shining, Macbeth, and Twin Peaks.” As awesome as that sounds, it gets much more interesting (from AFP’s post):

you don’t sit and watch actors. you wander around the space, alone (and wearing a mask) and you create your own experience.
actors come and go, events unfold. you can follow actors if you wish (they generally ignore you, but they will make contact occasionally),
or you can sit alone in a beautiful room filled with christmas trees until someone walks by you.
you can discover rooms nobody else is in and rifle through dusty papers and books.
there are rooms in asylums filled with bathtubs. there are fully landscaped gardens, there are rooms filled with dirt.
there is full nudity. there are lots of tuxedos and ballgowns. there is insanity. there is sexiness.
there is murder. there are moments where everyone winds up together and moments where you can watch the most intimate scenes play out between characters.

It’s not game-like in the sense that there is no “interactivity”, though there definitely is presence on the part of the audience. So, despite a lack of interactivity, there is still participation. Moreover, there is exploration and role-taking. Using classical definitions (say, Chatman), this can hardly be classified as narrative. So what is it? Well, it is performance art, but that ignores the problem.

We can think of types of games, performances, and stories which require some degree of role-taking (eg, clapping for Tinkerbell in Peter Pan plays). We can also think of performances which have an anonymous audience that wanders though a space in which some scene plays out (eg, spectator mode in some FPS games).

Some thoughts on games and narrative

[Research] (10.24.09, 12:12 pm)

I have been lagging on writing, and there is list of things I ought to be writing about which is growing ever larger. However, I wanted to bypass that to describe something that has been on my mind recently. Last week there was a panel here on games and narrative. Cleverly entitled “What is Narrative”, and it featured Espen Aarseth, Fox Harrell, Janet Murray, with Celia Pearce and Ian Bogost moderating. (This is of particular interest to me, what with my thesis committee either on or moderating the panel.) There’s a recording of the thing online. It’s all intensely academic, and is oddly political. Not political in the sense of policy, but in the sense of power and authority. The whole ludology-narratology thing goes far back and does not seem like something that will ever get resolved. I am reminded of a notable quote by Wallace Sayre: “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” This is something of a digression, but it raises the question of what is this whole conflict about, and why do we seem to care about it so much?

One argument concerning the emergence of ludology is that when academics started studying videogames, many scholars looked at games from the perspective of narrative theory and film theory, frequently bypassing the importance of rules. A problem with this explanation is that it is something of a straw-man. It is hard to imagine this perspective as being unjustified, but I’ve never seen any sources to back it up. Whatever the cause of this frustration, scholars have been arguing about the differences between games and narratives, and arguing over whether the rules are important or the story is important, and so on. Lately, by Aarseth’s most recent talk, the question has become one of “How are some games narratives?” My favored response to this is to turn this question on its head: Yes, some games can be understood as narrative, but many stories and story worlds can be understood to operate according to rules; so, how are some narratives (or story worlds) like games? Much of what I am going to say is reacting to Aarseth in particular, but the idea that I’m proposing runs a bit deeper.

The problem that’s at the root of this debate is seeing games and narrative in opposition. The classical argument is that there is an opposition between stories (which are fixed), and games (which are interactive). However, as anyone who has spontaneously come up with a story and told it to a child will know, stories can be flexible. Cases such as oral storytelling, tabletop roleplaying, and improvisational theatre all refuse to fall into the oppositional structure of games and narrative. Each of these examples share qualities with both games and stories. Instead of seeing pure extremes which create a spectrum on which any given example must fall, we must acknowledge that the reality of the situation is much messier. Opposition does not effectively describe the relationship between games, stories, and all the ambiguous and edge cases.

There is also a distressing tendency for some scholars to perform a bit of ambiguous metonymy and substitute parts for wholes. I’ve heard Chess described as narrative because its structural resemblance to European monarchy in the layout of its pieces, because of its simplified and idealized representation of gentlemanly war, and because of the fascinating history of the most powerful piece on the board. However, in cases like these I think I have to agree with Aarseth, that to call this narrative is to dilute the term beyond meaning. However, while characters and history do not make the game into narrative, they are still important in thinking about Chess as a game, particularly as a game whose rules say something about its players and the culture which produced it.

To borrow from Barbara Stafford’s work Visual Analogy: We are too caught up in thinking about differences. (And I might add, we are too caught up in thinking about categories.) We should pay attention to how things are similar. This is notoriously hard to do, as we are naturally disposed to think in terms of comparisons rather than likenesses. What is missing from this discussion is the matter of how are games and stories similar: what they have in common? What do games have in common with stories, and what do stories have in common with games? Naturally, we should not look at them universally or as poles, but rather as collections unified by common ground.

For instance, suspense novels are frequently organized into chapters which structure the flow of the reader’s tension and anticipation. Tabletop roleplaying games are organized into sessions which often tend to have similar patterns of anticipation and conflict. Action games are typically organized into levels which have their own arcs of anxiety, tension, and resolution. This is not to say that these three examples should be made out to be the same thing, but it might be fruitful to consider how they are similar, and what that says about them. Games might use a common narrative construction, such as “character”, but use them in a variety of ways. We can look at differences within a group, and then find similarities across media. For instance, games might have very shallow characters, or maybe caricatures or stereotypical characters. Characters might be introspective, or not. There might be some allusion to inner lives, or there might be only surfaces. Novels and film too use these varieties of characters. We can borrow from Scott McCloud’s treatise Understanding Comics to understand how the depth of characterization affects identification, and apply this to characters in fiction and in games. We can look at the types of rules involved in controlling characters in games, and see how they resemble the methods used in film and fiction.

We should move beyond essentializing arguments about what is narrative or what are games and focus instead on the important properties that they share in common.

Andy Gilmore

[Art,Genetic Image] (10.06.09, 4:56 pm)

Genetic Image needs to be able to do things like this. I just discovered Andy Gilmore today, and a lot of his abstract work is extremely applicable to the Genetic Image project. While it’s not really feasible to put a lot of organic shapes into the program, especially not with the pictures that are hand-held pen on paper,  some of the more abstract shapes and the principles behind them could be induced algorithmically. It’s possible to get more process based stuff into a system like Painter, but that needs so much work.

It changes shape with you, it changes shape with you

[Concerts] (10.04.09, 10:03 pm)

School of Seven Bells were playing at a nearby venue “The Drunken Unicorn” last Tuesday. Naturally, we got tickets. The Drunken Unicorn is a tiny but cozy little space nestled away by a few bars and restaurants. The audience appeared to be a hip, young student variety. We got there around 9 in the evening, and the show lasted until about 1 in the morning. The opening act was Tea Lights, a fascinating and complex group native to Atlanta, which used an impressive diversity of instruments. Most pleasing was their use of a cello alongside drums, electric guitars, and electronic samples. I’ve recently been thinking that cellos are entirely underutilized as band instruments, and Tea Lights showed just how effective one can be.

After Tea Lights, another indie-electronic group, Phantogram, began their setup. This setup involved assembling a stand full of equipment, including a keyboard, a mixer, a strobe light, some sort of voice processor, and a number of other devices I couldn’t recognize. Phantogram consisted of two performers, Josh Carter, who manned an electric guitar, and Sarah Barthel, who controlled the hub of electronics. Both sang, and used the voice system to create intense, ethereal, reverberating effects. The music itself was layered and distorted, but pulsing enough to be quite danceable.

When Phantogram finished, School of Seven Bells began setting up, and started their set. They sound very differently live than in their album. The sound is coarser, the vocals were covered but not drowned by the ambient guitar noise. The upside of this is that the songs are more energetic and danceable. Particularly satisfying was “iamundernodisguise,” which is introspective and even reserved on the album, but was played with vibrant force and pulsing energy. The band played several new tracks as well, which suggests that there might be a new album in the works, so we have something to look forward to.