Mario is an unreliable narrator

Television will rot your brain. Heavy metal makes you worship Satan. Dungeons & Dragons will make you a homicidal lunatic. These are all claims I have heard growing up, and the people who said them honestly believed them. Of course, television has also brought us “Sesame Street”, heavy metal has introduced millions to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Dungeons & Dragons has taught many lonely, lonely young men how to do math. (They’re still lonely, though.)

As Ian Bogost et al note in their article “Documentary”, “[c]ontroversy is nothing new for video games – it is a medium that has been accused of inspiring prurience, brutality, and sloth for decades.” This puts video games in excellent company, particularly as they attempt to make the difficult transition from entertainment to documentary. However, despite all of the strengths that video games bring to the genre, there are certain inherent qualities to video games that have to be taken into consideration along the way, qualities that may be more easily masked than in other mediums.

As N. Katherine Hayles has suggested, “print is flat, code is deep”. This “flatness” applies equally well to film. Video games have an underlying structure that, while they may seem to offer more freedom of control in a given environment, still do not reflect the real world. The programmers make the rules, and those rules can shape the outcome either blatantly (such as with Kuma\War, wherein the player’s actions are tightly constrained to reflect John Kerry’s account of events), or subtlety (such as with JFK Reloaded, wherein the game physics define the possibility of “making the shot”). By shaping the outcome in this way, the programmer has the option of shaping the narrative despite any protestations of objectivity (such as Kuma’s insistence that “the players can decide for themselves”).

Another way that games’ protean nature allows them to differ from more traditional media is in presenting procedural reality. Rather than creating a specific situation with established characters in a linear story, a situation is created with a rule set that players engage with and make their own decisions. This gives the illusion of freedom and a lack of bias, but invokes Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s argument that “we must read both process and data.” How the character interacts with the scenario is dictated by the rules as they are provided, and choices are constrained both by the data given and the processes set forth. As an example, the game Peacemaker involves several sets of variables that include potential points of bias. How each “leader” is programmed to respond to a situation, the resources given to work with, and even the intermediary goals can be opportunities to shape the overall narrative, as well as the fact that the only available solution is a two-state solution.

While video games have great potential as documentary, they are no more or less objective in nature than their predecessors, and it is important to be aware of the ways that they will be manipulated, by their creators, their supporters, and their detractors.


Back to the Future

ChronoZoom is an attempt to conceptualize the entire history of, well, everything in a way that is accessible to the average person while incorporating multiple different disciplines, including biology, astronomy, geology, anthropology, economics, cosmology, natural history, and more. Utilizing a fairly intuitive “point and click” interface, it combines video, text, graphics and other forms of multimedia into a presentation that shows the interconnectivity of these different fields in a comprehensive “grand unified theory” of creation.

In addition to being visually compelling, the interface is easy to navigate and provides a readily accessible sense of scale for events. The upper-right hand corner of the screen includes a navigational tool that also serves as a constant reminder of the totality of the project. Changing from one section to another provides  a compelling sense of motion.

Despite the cleverness of the interface, however, there are certain things that stood out to me when I dug a little deeper. Even though it is presented as a straightforward history of the universe, there is a point of view and a narrative contained within, and certain elements are highlighted over others, which became more apparent as I clicked around the site. This was especially obvious once I considered the source of the project.

There is a distinct point of view contained within the narrative, one that is dictated by the disciplines that are used as the source material. Whether you believe them to be accurate or not, they shape the narrative, and present the material contained therein as fact. Considering that even astronomical and historical facts are sometimes disputed, it is something I believe should be approached with a certain amount of skepticism.

Setting aside any questions about creationism versus evolution or other issues of science fact, there are certain sections that seem out of place in what would otherwise be a straightforward depiction of the history of the universe. For example, is the Microsoft Corporation so significant in the history of the universe that it truly deserves its own section? Why are there seven data points for the major releases of Microsoft Windows, but no data points in the entirety of Greek History? It should be no surprise considering these facts that, upon reading the “Behind the Scenes” section, I learned that Microsoft was instrumental in the production of the project. The only larger section in the area dedicated to “United States” was “University of California, Berkeley”, where the project originated. Both were larger than the section on U.S. Presidents, and dwarfed the section on World War II. The visual representations are therefore more than a little suspect in terms of both timescale and relevance.

Postscript on rebellion against control

Gilles  Deleuze identifies in his essay “Postscript on the Societies of Control” his vision of the evolution of Foucault’s “disciplinary societies”, defined as the family, the school, the factory, the hospital, and the prison, and particularly focused on the factory. He purports to identify a crisis, in particular as the nebulous and shadowy (though never quite defined) “administrations in charge” demand reforms, and claims we are moving toward “societies of control”. He then proceeds to engage in fairly standard decrying of technological and social advancement, with particular attention being given to capitalism and the old workhorse, the corporation. It would be easier to take his arguments as being less politically motivated and more a matter of serious and immediate concern where it not for two issues: his historical treatment of capitalism and his clearly biased approach to labor unions.

When approaching capitalism, he offers the barest fig leaf of suggesting that capitalism conquers “sometimes by specialization…sometimes by lowering the costs of production”, but more significantly focuses on “nineteenth- century capitalism is a capitalism of concentration, for production and for property… the capitalist being the owner of the means of production but also, progressively, the owner of other spaces conceived through analogy (the worker’s familial house, the school)”. He then goes on to define the new capitalism as a mutation, and the corporation as the embodiment of that mutation, one that is dispersive, wherein “[t]he family, the school, the army, the factory are no longer the distinct analogical spaces that converge towards an  owner-state  or private power-but coded  figures- deformable and  transformable-of a single corporation that now has only stockholders” and “[c]orruption thereby gains a new power”.

Contrasting this is his treatment of unions, “their history of struggle against the disciplines or within the spaces of enclosure, will they be able to adapt themselves or will they give way to new forms of resistance against the societies of control? Can we already grasp the rough outlines of these coming forms, capable of threatening the joys of marketing?” This assumption that unions, which can be argued to be a form of control equivalent to any corporation of their own, as the path to resistance against societal control in the form of corporations, is counter-intuitive. It is also deterministic, which seems to defy the very essence of defying resisting “societies of control”.

Given the decidedly mixed history of unions over the course of labor relations both in the US and abroad, as well as the mixed benefits and tragedies that corporations have brought, it is far from given that capitalism, or corporations, are completely bad, or that unions are unvarnished good. To craft a narrative that casts either in such an absolute light makes it difficult to give anything else he has to say in his article any amount of credibility.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to MUDs

When I was a kid, one of the few games I had for my Commodore 64 was a cracked copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I was a huge Douglas Adams fan, and I should have found this game amazing in every way. The only way I found it amazing was in how amazingly frustrating it was. Even with a supposed “guide book” in hand, I found the game not only unbeatable, but practically unstartable (I never did get the babel fish).

Fast forward a decade or so to my first time away to college when my roommate introduced me to the internet, and in particular a game called Purgatory. It was a MUD, a multi-user dungeon. The interface was just like the text-based games I had played so many of in my youth, but it was a completely different experience. Where those games had been restrictive, this one was liberating; where those had been fun but limited, this one was grand and unlimited. Most importantly, where those had been professional and polished, this one was completely amateurish, and it showed.

Hitchhiker’s had a defined, linear path to victory, and when the story was over (so I’ve been told) it was over. There was also no real way to access help; even the guide book was more use as a coaster than a reference. Purgatory theoretically had an end game, in that once you reached a certain level of accomplishment (and I came so close…) you became part of the creative team that expanded the world rather than playing in it, but nothing prevented you from continuing to participate.

In addition, the paths to reaching that level were as varied as you wanted them to be. You could explore the world in any order you liked, and new sections were being added all the time. They ranged from the traditional, generic fantasy to more obviously plagiarized but still fun fantasy (including an entire section based on David Edding’s The Elenium series) to the bizarre (my favorite zone was based on the Rush albums 2112 and Hemispheres. No, I’m not kidding.) This level of playfulness and creativity was added to by the element of roleplay and interaction with other players, many of whom would willingly assist new players to adjust or advance.

As I look at The Warbler’s Nest and The Dreamhold, I am reminded more of Hitchhiker’s and less of Purgatory, although the feeling of both of those is more of a purgatory than anything else. While the writing feels tight and defined, parsing the story and figuring out “next steps” is often more struggle than entertainment, and the lack of visual or audio clues in the absence of a friendly group dynamic is a flashback I can easily do without.

The Medium is the Thing

In both “From Additive to Expressive Form” and “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis”, Janet H. Murray and N. Katherine Hayles respectively touched on the same point regarding digital storytelling: it is not enough to simply analyze the content of the narrative being presented, we have to consider the capabilities of the medium and how they shape the experience of the story being told.

“From Additive to Expressive Form” focused on the interactive and expressive elements of digital media, both of which brought to mind for me the rise in plot elements of video games over the last thirty years (quite possibly because of the mention of Zork). When video games first came out, something as simple as Space Invaders was sufficient; the bad guys come down, you shoot at them until they finally get you. Now even fighting games like Tekken feel the need for plot lines, and deeper story driven games like Skyrim  are wildly successful. However implicit in each of these narratives is still a particular view of the world; even in games where any path is open to you, some are denoted as “good” and others as “bad”, and there is a defined sense of morality.

An example from “Print Is Flat” that I found particularly notable was the discussion of the historical consideration of what literature was: “Consistently in these discourses, material and economic considerations, although they had force in the real world, were elided or erased in favor of an emphasis on literary property as an intellectual construction that owed nothing to the medium in which it was embodied.” I immediately thought of my mother reading The Hunger Games  in paperback, some person listening to it as read by the author on CD, my wife reading it on her Kindle, and myself seeing the movie. Did we all really experience the same story? Did any of us? Taking it the step further and thinking about the interactive and expressive elements of digital media, what if we got to decide the order in which we experienced the story, or which elements of it? What about a game based in that world? Will it still be the same narrative? Obviously not, so how do we compare it to the original story, or others? What criteria do we use? Or does it become something completely different, like trying to compare a painting to a novel?

Reaching beyond the screen

Traditional writing, music and film are restricted in one key aspect: they are completely linear. Even such luminaries as Pulp Fiction that attempt to break the temporal linearity of the medium are restricted by the fact that the finished product, no matter how out of sync the storyline might be, is still told in a strictly linear fashion that will be the same upon each viewing. “Redridinghood” by Donna Leishman ( embraces the capabilities of the digital environment to elevate the narrative beyond this linear restriction, engaging the reader/viewer through interactivity.

While the storyline still has a defined beginning and end, there is a certain amount of flexibility built into how you get from A to B. Most of it is small and subtle, as little as lights in individual rooms in a skyscraper going on and off as the mouse icon hovers over them. However, even something as small as “click to continue” draws the viewer in, makes them complicit in the telling of the story. Even more significant, in the middle of the work there is an opportunity to make a key choice that, while it does not change the inevitable conclusion, does alter the narrative experience in a very meaningful way.

The artwork is simple, having a rough aesthetic at odds with the complex musical track and deep, thoroughly developed themes of the piece. Considering its age (it was created in 2001) it is hard to say whether this is an artifact of intent, artistic ability, or simple limitations of technology at the time. The color scheme is obviously deliberate, using stark contrasts, careful shading, and vivid lines to maximize the impact of the art. The piece also playfully blends traditional comic book esthetics with digital capabilities, using individual panels in comic book fashion while advancing the narrative through motion within the panels, and in some cases giving direction to the viewer through motion within the frame. The reader is “drawn in” in both senses of the word, invited to participate with mouse clicks that change the structure of the world and move the narrative forward or even sideways.

This expansive view of what narrative is changes the relationship between story, storyteller, and listener. It utilizes the capabilities of the digital medium to reach beyond the separation that traditionally exists between the creator, the creation, and the consumer to create a new dynamic, a gestalt work that combines all three.