Perspectives Abound: from ‘distributed narrative’ to ‘transmedial worlds’

Lisbeth Klastrup completed her PhD in 2003 but has put it online for 1 month. ‘Towards a Poetics of Virtual Worlds: Multi-User Textuality and the Emergence of Story’ was completed at the Department for Digital Aesthetics and Communication (DIAC), IT University of Copenhagen. Klastrup began looking at, playing, immersing herself in ‘interactive narratives’ in 1996 and was immediately struck by the uncaptured phenomenon in front of her:

I started contemplating the nature of the relationship between a networked world, its users and the narrative experience. Gradually I realised that it could be dangerous to enter these worlds looking for narratives as I had previously known them, since the unfolding of a linear narrative proved to be well-nigh impossible as soon as there were several users influencing the development of events.

Other questions soon arose:

How can you explain the generation of text and events in a multi-user environment? How does the interaction between users, and between users and world, shape the experience of text and generate interesting player stories? (14)

Doesn’t this sound like participatory design?…Klastrup also gives us some wonderfully juicy quotes to use:

We are still at a stage in the study of digital communication and aesthetics where we still have to resort to “old” theory in order to speak meaningfully about these new digital phenomena, and the emergence of increasingly more and more hybrid genre phenomena such as alternate reality gaming (The Beast, Majestic) or online social spaces which are both games and construction sites (The Sims Online) demonstrates, it becomes more and more apparent that we must learn from a number of these “old” theories as well as from current writings on digital media by a variety of cyber researchers to explain networked aesthetic phenomena fully. (16)

Hmmm, ‘hybrid genre phenomena’…sounds like cross-media…But wait there’s more:

My intuition is that what we will see in the future will be a number of hybrid phenomena which contain elements of what, we traditionally used to define either as a game or a story, but which are also themselves altering the very notion of these concepts, and of what a game or a narrative can be. (18)

Ah wonderful! Klastrup goes on to deliver an alternate framing of narrative, games and text-production with her concept of a ‘virtual world’ which she terms as:

A virtual world is a persistent online representation which contains the possibility of synchronous communication between users and between user and world within the framework of a space designed as a navigable universe.
“Virtual worlds” are worlds, you can move in, through persistent representation(s)
of the user, in contrast to the imagined worlds of non-digital fictions, which are
worlds presented as inhabited, but are not actually inhabitable.
Virtual worlds are different from other forms of virtual environments in that they
cannot be imagined in their spatial totality. (27)

I’m sure there will be lots of hearty concepts that will add to the reframing currently making strides in the ‘interactive narrative’ domain, of which cross-media is part. (I’ve only just started reading her thesis, as well as Drew Davidson’s, Jill Walker’s and Tom’s-in-progress…). But I wanted to post because I was excited about the overlaps in approach. Indeed, Klastrup describes research interests as:

[I]interactive storytelling, forms of communication on the internet and persistent online (game) worlds and universes. Therefore I’m interested in phenomena such as transmedial worlds, websites which present entire universes, weblogs, interesting story experiments and forms of interaction which cut across all these genres of expression.

And forthcoming is a seemingly applicable paper: “Transmedial worlds – rethinking cyberworld design” (Klastrup, Lisbeth & Tosca, Susana) in Proceedings/IEICE Special Issue on Cyberworlds, spring 2005. Paper to be presented at Cyberworlds 2004.

Check out her personal page, her thesis page and her blog.

Crossmedia and Games researcher 2

Following the previous post on Tom Apperley is the inclusion of another cross-media researcher, focusing on games: Drew Davidson. Drew contacted myself, and Monique, excited about finding other researchers in this area. Whereas Monique and myself were beginning our research at the beginning of the millenium, Davidson had just completed a dissertation.

Davidson completed his PhD in 2001. It is online, indeed, was only online (part of the move towards ‘electronic scholarship’,‘electracy’ and so on). Here is a snippet:

In discussing the narratives of Myst, Sandman,Ultima OnLine and MitterNachtSpiel I used a schema of narrative composed of four characteristics: setting, character, theme and plot. These four characteristics are the building blocks of narrative. Together they combine to give us a story.

My contention is that these four building blocks of narrative differ in degree in relation to each other across mediums. Looking at my objects of study has shown that these blocks do differ across mediums, but not necessarily because of the mediums. Instead, it seems to have more to do with the authors of the texts, and less to do with the characterisitics of the mediums themselves, that allows one block to foreground over the others. So, it becomes a matter of the authors’ choices and how they approach the medium that cause a narrative element to be foregrounded.

The Myst novels may have foregrounded character, but the medium of print is more than capable of having any of the narrative elements highlighted. The same can be said for the comics. Sandman had theme as the strongest perspective because of Gaiman and company’s choices in the story. Comics are also capable of having any element foregrounded. And similarly, the hypermedia objects of study may have foregrounded setting, but hypermedia is capable of having the other elements highlighted as well.

This is not a total loss. For while each medium is capable of having any of the elements foregrounded, the experience of these elements is different. Each medium demands a learned literacy in order to be fully engaged. You have to learn to “read” each medium. It is a performative difference in the immersion into the story across mediums. And while books and comics are relatively affordable, you need a computer in order to experience hypermedia (which is currently still an expensive purchase). In print, readers deal with the power and skill of the authors’ words. To immerse yourself into the story (into the plot, setting, charracters and themes) is to let the words describe the story for you. The story is filtered through words. With comics, readers now have words in conjunction with images. Immersion occurs as you see the elements illustrated before you. The story is refracted through the dance between words and images. And with hypermedia, readers are virtually placed within the story itself. You are immersed within the world of the story. You have to act in this world, exploring within the story, in order to experience the narrative.

There is also a temporal difference for the writers of the mediums. Print is mostly a solitary pursuit in which authors complete and publish the work. This is where authors let go of of their active part of the narrative, and the rest is in the hands of the readers. Comics have a similar ending point where the authors release the work to the readers, but there is usually a team working on the story, so there is a narrative collaboration prior to the finished document. In the case of a CD-ROM, hypermedia also has a ending point, where the product is released to the public. But with the internet, the ending point blurs. The “final” story is more ephemeral. Authors can continue to change the work, even as readers are engaging the story. In fact, that is exactly what has happened with this dissertation. Instead of handing in a final hard copy, printed version and waiting for comments to come back, I am continually making changes to the document and posting the new revisions up online. In fact, with the advent of XML (Extensible Markup Language), ASP (Active Server Pages), Java and other technologies on the web, dynamic interactivity in webpages can be automatic and determined by the readers themeselves. So, this dissertation could be automatically and dynamically (re)arranged anew everytime someone “reads” it. This can be done both individually and collectively, as the website (and the arguments therein) respond to the readers. A hypermedia document on the internet is an organic and rhizomatic experience for both readers and writers. The story changes.

Davidson, D. (2001) ‘Stories In Between’ [PhD] Department of Communication Studies, University of Texas at Austin.

Davidson has also written a fascinating paper on the cross-media work Myst:
Journey of Narrative: The story of Myst across two mediums’
, where Myst and War of the Worlds are compared. We agree that Worlds is perhaps the poster-child of immersive design.

The media phenomena of these two narratives share some similarities and differences. Both share the novel form as part of the overall narrative flow. The War of the Worlds started in the novel and then was adapted to radio. Myst started and is continuing as a CD-ROM, but it had a middle section in the three novels. Both narratives are developed through the novel. And both narratives take advantage of a new and different medium to continue the narrative. Orson Welles and WKBW utilized the immediacy of radio to bring the audience into the drama. The listening audience was a part of the story, listening to “real” events that had consequences. Myst explores the capabilities of multimedia hypertext to allow for a nonlinear, interactive “reading” experience. The audience is a part of the story because the story will not unfold unless the reader/player puzzles through it. The audience is the impetus for the narrative’s progress.

A major difference between the two phenomena is the progression of the narratives. The adapted radio versions of The War of the Worlds were the same story as the novel. The difference was in the updating of time and place. Both of the broadcasts brought the story to a local setting and the present time. This took advantage of the immediacy of medium of radio and made the theatrical broadcasts seem to be actual events. So, while the story of a Martian invasion stayed the same, the time and place were changed to make the audience a part of the story in progress. In contrast, the Myst novels further developed the story that the audience puzzled through in the CD-ROM. So, the story was not the same across the mediums, it continued to grow and change. The novels added to the original CD-ROM and will help the audience to better puzzle through Riven. You do not need to read the novels in order to “play” the Riven, but it will help you to better understand the context of the new story through which you have to puzzle.

An interesting similarity between these two phenomena is how the new technologies are used to actively include the audience within the narrative. Welles and WKBW use the immediacy of radio to include the listening audience in the story, they are listening to the reporting of actual events that have real consequences

. Thus you have the public panic as people fulfilled their implicated role in the narrative. The listening audience was a part of the story in progress. The CD-ROM parts of the overall Myst narrative rely on the reader/player. The audience needs to become immersed in the environment and carry the story forward with their explorations. You are an inhabitant of this story that will not progress unless you make progress solving the puzzle(s).

Currently he is working on a paper analysing the videogame ‘Prince ‘Prince of Persia: Sands of Time‘ according to traditional plot diagrams and an interactive diagram he developed previously. Davidson is on the ball in looking at the relationship between interactivity and narrative in the cross-media paradigm (much like Apperley too — you 2 need to talk!). He’s also looking at ‘ubiquitous storytelling’, folksonomies and their similarity to the meaning-formation process of a cross-media reader and as an architecture for communities to co-create stories.

Davidson currently works as:

Academic Department Director for Game Art & Design and Interactive Media Design at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and is an Affiliated Professor in the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. He is a professor, producer and player of interactive media, exploring narratives and mediums across texts, comics, games and other media. Primarily, he is interested in conceptual interactive design, integrated narrative and interwoven media, collaborative design and development, applied media and game logics.

Lots of exciting ideas happening. I really look forward to hearing more from Drew.

Since Tom is now online as well I’m putting together a ‘People’ page, like the terms and works ones, with details on the areas researched by those we’re aware of thus far and their papers…it will be online soon.

Tom Apperley’s research is now online

Tom Apperley, fellow cross-media researcher at the University of Melbourne (different department though), is publishing his thesis-in-progress online.

Appereley is focusing on the game, specifically console, dimension of cross-media (where games are an ‘intertextual commodity’), and on ‘interactivity’. He is also doing a valuable ethnographic comparison of Venezuelan and Australian gamers. His posts include:

Preliminary Report on Venezuelan ‘Gaming Situation’

Subsequently I mentioned this game to other people in conversation I discovered that while the game was universally admired for its game-play and technical excellence, there was a general feeling of ambivalence towards the subject matter of the game. In short, while people were pleased that Venezuela was the setting for such a prominent game, they felt that the scenario was implausible. I interpreted this as a cognitive dissonance with the world-view of the game, which was designed with a North Americans audience in mind. To its intended audience the game was located within pre-existing tropes of anxiety involving terrorism, oil supplies and the Latino ‘Other’.

A listing of sites on Lara Croft for his research into the fans of Lara
General Ludological links
An article-in-progress on genre and games

The main argument is that the market-based categories of genre that have been developed in the context of computer games obscures the new mediumÂ’s crucial defining feature, by dividing them into categories (loosely) organized by their similarities to prior forms of mediation. The article explores the inherent tension between the conception of computer games as a unified new media form and the current fragmented genre-based approach that explicitly or implicitly concatenates computer games with prior media forms.

A draft of chapter one of his thesis
In this chapter I found, among other gems, a great proposal:

I suggest a third type of interaction exists; that of interaction with the rules of the interaction themselves. This type of interaction is radically different, as it allows the player to change the cybertext by altering its ergodic structure, rather than by making choices within that structure. The practice of altering the cybertext in this manner is known as ‘moding’.

Also, his first graduate seminar paper on designing a Research Method for X-box

The technology and practices associated with gaming encourages a new model of commodification and consumption. The transmedia intertextual commodity: here I am refering to the current ubiquitous trend in the mass media to remediate the same content across all media platforms. The Book/Film/Game/Happy Meal phenomena that is associated with most contemporary mass media products. While I believe on one hand this is a calculated marketing tool in the sense of a product reaching all kinds of demographics, to put it crudely a shotgun effect. On the other hand this form of commodification encourages a deliberate process of intertextual assemblage during the audiences production of meaning, which allows the audience to experience a sense that each product is a part of a wider mediated universe that is largely constructed in the minds of the audience through the process of assemblage of the disparate medias.

An article-in-progress: Queering the Game Player

Popular media portrayals of the activity of computer gaming, with few exceptions, associate the computer game with a male audience. In this article I will explore the implications of this linkage in order to foreshadow problems in the ethnographic enquiry I propose on the uses of x-box games and the x-box in everyday life. Part of my project here is to try to understand, how should I approach the gamer as an ethnographic subject. By considering gaming as an ‘a-priori’ masculine activity, I suggest that I would be ignoring the myriad practices and activities of female, gay and transgender gamers. My project in this article is to open the quotidian practices of gaming to include the heterogenous practices and pleasures that can only be accounted for by detaching games from the dominant discourse of masculinity in which they circulate; in short it is to ‘Queer’ the predominantly masculine field of games.

He has opened up comments on his blog so please feel free to contribute to his research. Great to be able to read your ideas Tom, and not just scribble down notes as you say them! Congrats on being online.

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