21 January 2010

January Challenge #21:
What Form Your Fiction

I've always been attracted to the art of story, which is a little ironic for a guy who can't tell a traditional short-form story joke to save his life. Personal anecdotes, one-liners, rejoinders, I'm pretty good at those. But the conventional "A zombie, a vampire, and a mummy walk into a bar..." type jokes, I can't get a laugh for nuthin'.

Oops, tangent. Back on topic.

The art, craft, and science of story interest me greatly. I've taken creative writing classes, read shelves of books on creative writing, and started at least five novels that I remember specifically. None of these novels got past ten pages.

For a long time, I really didn't know what the roadblock was. I worked up extensive setting notes, diagramed plotlines, developed deep character personality models, but when it came time to connect up words end-to-end from Once Upon A Time to And They Lived Happily Ever After, I quickly lost interest and moved on to another project.

I probably should have seen it at some point in the thirty-odd years I've been playing tabletop RPGs. Setting notes, plot diagrams, and character descriptions are the bread and butter of that hobby. I mean as in clean up, publish, and sell as campaign settings, adventure modules,and NPC collections. These are what the RPG industry is about.

Complete novels? Please. I've read enough game-based novels to know that most of them are awful. With some exceptions, the creative geniuses of gaming don't write good novels, no matter how brilliant their source books. The craft of writing RPG material is distinctly different from writing linear fiction, even though many of the supporting skills are the same.

But it wasn't until I started working in video game development that it first clicked for me. I'm interested in story, but I'm not interested in writing, not linear fiction anyway. I don't mean that I would rather make films or write plays; those are still linear fiction. It's the linearity that kills it for me.

I'm much more interested in the bits, the atoms of a story, the big bad wolf, the wicked witch, the tall mountain, the insoluble puzzle, the unattainable love, the deus ex machina, the plot contrivance, the call to action. And especially the interstices, the ways that these things connect, how they string together and inter-relate.

Two books I've read from in the past year especially illuminate the point for me, Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, and Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games.

A quick word about Chris Crawford: You don't need to agree with him to get value from his work. I personally think he's a crank. But he's a very smart crank with a ton of experience in game development. Importantly for this topic, he's been thinking hard about story for at least the last fourteen years. Crawford has not been working in games since 1995. He's been working in interactive storytelling, working on systems that create stories in active cooperation with human users, provide an interface to allow the user to utilize natural language to guide their part in the story, and generate and remember reactions and relationships with the purely digital characters in the setting.

In his book, Crawford discusses grammar, not simply the grammar of natural language, but the grammar of story elements. How are they sequenced in a meaningful order? How do they collect into an epic tale? Story atoms at a certain level of abstraction are very like the parts of speech, nouns, verbs, adjectives, conjunctions. Like the parts of speech, their assembly has certain rules of grammar and semantics, and each affects the forms of the others, conjugates them.

In Persuasive Games, Bogost hits the reader with a challenging concept, Procedural Rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of communicating persuasively, and procedural describes something done in discrete steps, a process. A creator can communicate with an audience with process rather than words. The art of procedural rhetoric is to use process as persuasive expression. Like many brilliant thoughts, it may seem obvious in retrospect, but it boggled my mind at first. Process as a communication tool is immensely powerful, whether we wield it purposefully or not.

Putting together the themes and ideas from these two books, I've re-examined my lifelong battle with the craft of writing, and the conclusion startled me. I've been fighting the wrong battle. I don't want to create a static story for others to digest in exactly one way. I want to present the audience with a stage, characters, props, and situations, the tools to create a story in collaboration. I want the artifacts of my imagination to inspire the imaginations of others.

In RPGs, these artifacts take the form of the material I spent years crafting for the simple pleasure of doing so. In video games, they take the form of games themselves. Less so in games of simpler abstraction like Asteroids or Geometry Wars. These games are worthy, fun, and engaging, but they don't tell much of a story. I'm speaking more of games that stretch the definition of game, games where the player sets their own goal and acts to achieve this goal by interacting with the elements they find within the setting.

Tomorrow, I'll share a half-baked idea of a game that understands the grammar of story, including the player's role as the Hero of a Thousand Faces.

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