What is a story?

February 8, 2010

Stories aren’t just a way of teaching a lesson. They’re a presumptious connection between scattered dots that, in themselves, don’t necessarily have anything to say. A story is an angle. It’s formed out of exclusion – it’s a pattern made from a series of closed doors. And stories are having a bit of a moment.

First there was James’s audacious Baron Munchausen game. Then there were all those Enemy of Chaos interview questions I found myself confronting – questions about meta-fiction and the future of storytelling, which I just hadn’t seen coming at all. The subject came up a lot at Playful, most interestingly, I think, in the shape of Duncan’s Fictive Worlds theory. And I’ve been invited to all sorts of story-related things since doing the book, often by shining intellectual benefactors such as Peter. There’s even a whole conference about storytelling coming up later this month. It feels like everyone is suddenly talking about stories. But why are stories important? What are they, anyway? And can we trust them?

Stories are immensely prominent. There they are in the TV drama, naturally, but there they are too in the newspaper, in comics, in films, in games. There they are in the emails we write to each other. There they are, microcosmically, in a headline, an abbreviation, a metaphor and a lie. They’ve always been our entertainment, they used to be more interactive. And, thanks to video games, all of which are simulations to some extent, they have a chance to become more interactive again. But I don’t know if interactive stories are always such a great thing.

I’ve been thinking about stories as immobile and reusable. Structures made of components which can be swapped about a bit and updated, but fundamentally take you on the same dot-joining journey each time, navigating a mess of possibilities. ‘Journey’ is key here. Is the story the route or the vehicle? It seems to me that they are often both, and that the wise storyteller holds the two in his head simultaneously like the particle and the wave.

The passive enjoyment of stories comes from the reassuring feeling of any performance: of being in a safe pair of hands. The magic of someone who can entertain – delight and frighten, but who has a subtle omniscience, a knowledge of what’s to come. A really good storyteller makes you feel like a kid again because they know. The teacher reading to you at school finds her place in the book, and we gauge how much is left till the end. So we were trained from the start to know that the best stories were always predetermined, waiting to be picked up next lesson, ready to be read out in class whether we show up not. Because although there’s always the possibility of criticism to be laid on top, some stories demand to be learned and enjoyed as entirely independent entities that already know everything, their own past, present and future. And they simply don’t care about your input.

So, some stories relate to us as teachers to silent passive children. And the effect of these stories that forbid interaction is quite magical. Fictional stories that aren’t interactive demand your faith that they know best, and have a permanence completely separate from the causal illusion of story telling. The fiction is a tacit covenant. We promise not to break the spell. They are compelling because we want them to be, because we have agreed to believe they are. In these cases, the interactive element is a one-off moment that underwrites every atom of the frozen structure of the story as it hangs in its timeless space.

But storytelling doesn’t always have to be on the storyteller’s terms. Explicitly interactive fiction is much more of a game. The journey will look the same at the end (something like this, perhaps) but the destination isn’t the point. Time is different here – it’s more important. If we walk away from an interactive fiction, the clock keeps ticking, and unexpected things can happen. Humans get bored when things go quiet, omniscient story structures do not.

It’s starting to feel almost obligatory that today’s stories involve interactive elements. In interactive fiction the selecting/inventing events role has been committee-fied. It is granted to one or more external contributors – we’re creating a sort of collaborative wisdom-of-crowds world, the same world that enabled our ‘digital village’. But the crowd isn’t always wise. It simply isn’t true that one person’s story is as compelling or relevant as another’s. The more we demand to be able to add to things, to compose and engage, the more the mysterious all-knowing storyteller fades from memory. I’m not sure I believe that passive enjoyment is less valid than active interference. Storytelling’s magic never came from the idea that absolutely anyone could do it – quite the opposite – and yet here we are fostering the right to commentate with everyone, on everything. One should have to earn the right to be heard, as one should earn the right to be called a writer.

Whenever we interact with each other we create tiny stories. Each day sees a million imposed causalities that staple the threads of our consciousness down in a line through time and space. Between us or alone, we continually create reasons and meanings for everything we find in life, because these interceptions are simply how we’re wired. But simply being able to do it, being naturally – biologically – inclined to it, doesn’t mean we should embrace the impulse uncritically. Not all stories are worthwhile simply because they are stories. Constructing causal sequences is naturally satisfying to us, but it’s fine for the results to be recreational and meaningless. The accumulation of numerous ideas isn’t always greater than the sum of its parts.

I don’t think we’ll ever be short of stories. But right now there seems to be an urgency about it all. Questions about narratives that make us feel like we live in Very Important Times indeed. But what if these aren’t important times? What if it doesn’t matter if we don’t want to “get involved”? Perhaps we’re afraid of what will happen if we ever fail to engage with the world. It seems the deeper we go into interactive technologies – ironically enough – the further we can feel ourselves drifting from the integral connections that work to orient us. In the disorientating digital world, where old things don’t age and everything is presented as equal, aren’t we alienating ourselves from the natural causalities, the cues and clues about time and space that our brains are so keenly evolved to hook together? We fear the vulnerability in witness passivity, but there’s a sense in which the agency of interactivity represents a far greater risk. The problem is not that we see ourselves as teachers as much as students, but that we want to be both at the same time.

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2 Responses to “What is a story?”

  1. Duncan Gough Says:

    As you point out, there’s plenty of focus on story *in* games, but not a lot on the art of story telling, which is simultaneously the hardest part, and the most engaging. There’s also a lot of focus on giving the stories themselves some sense of agency, rather than focussing on how games tell a story. I think it’s interesting to show the consequences of decisions within a game, but it’s also just as important to tell a story, to lead the player along a path.

    I’m keen on the idea of simple, directed stories as a reaction to sandboxes, virtual worlds and massively multiplayer games where the player is given all the tools, left to explore on their own in a fantastic playground. Maybe we should be building interactive fiction where the players have agency around the story, but not control over it? They’re not helpless, but they are going to experience the beginning, middle and end whatever happens.

    The best games seem to be about recreating the inexperience of youth, and there’s something to be said for easing back on the physics engines and innovative motion control, in favour of a bit of fabric around the narrative. The idea of walking away from an interactive fiction and allowing the clock to keep on ticking is compelling, too, “ready to be read out in class whether we show up or not”. I’ve been thinking of that in terms of Player vs. Environment, but relating it to a classroom is a much better example. It’s not hard AI to bring that level of awareness to a game and a story, more a sense of state than any real understanding of the fictive world.

  2. enemyofchaos Says:

    Aha, and that’s it, isn’t it – what we’re talking about is embracing permanence in games. Limiting exploratory possibility through fixed states, or statuses. Things (and characters) whose relationships to one another and paths through time are pre-set, rather than the ‘build your own future’ feeling of things like Little Big Planet, which – though cute – do constantly remind you that it’s you, playing this. It’s you doing the building and making the choices. Surprisingly it sometimes seems like the more freedom you have in games, the harder it is to escape from yourself.

    A fresh kind of game would shift focus from the playing dynamics, and tackle the relationship between the player and their character, closing the gap on it, or playing with it more subtly, in interesting ways. It’s as if, to encourage the player to connect with their role, they can’t also be continually worried about connecting with the drama (the problem of games triggering emotion?) So insulating the players by narrowing their options, reducing player agency *in certain circumstances*, especially when lack of agency is a character plot point (e.g. a disaffected youth) – might result in more empathetic relating to the character… which is Fictive Worlds should be a significant goal, I’d guess.

    Now genuinely worried that we’re about to invent Dungeons and Dragons.


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