The Future (of Literature) is Interactive Fiction, Part Two

This post is inspired by a post of my friend Max that was originally inspired by our mutual friend Alana who wrote a post about featuring authors in fiction. This post is not actually about authors in fiction, but about interactive storytelling. The reason I mention Max and Alana’s posts is that the circuitous way their blog posts have gotten me thinking about mine is (what I see as) the very stuff of interactive storytelling.

Alana had some thoughts about “the fun and games of featuring authors in fiction” (to use Max’s words). Max reflected on Alana’s thoughts from a metafiction angle with some references to Borges. Alana and I both commented on Max’s post with examples of other situations where people from real life (or, in general, one universe) can show up in fiction (or another universe). My comment brought me back to thinking about interactive fiction by way of the TV show Fringe one of the episodes of which (no spoilers, I promise) is this little metafictional gem where one character re-tells part of the plot of the show to another character, disguised as a steampunk noir musical. It happens that the listener is a kid, and she occasionally interrupts the storytelling to give feedback or even editorial input (“that’s not how the story should go!”).

My claim is that these long chains of writing, responding, and thinking are how stories come into being. This is not a particularly controversial claim: art derives from life; novels, in particular, derive from research of background material, long conversations with fellow writers and readers, editorial feedback, and so on. And yet, when we crack open a novel or watch a TV show or play a computer game, we face not the chain but the product at one of its points. This limits us as information consumers in two ways. First, we miss out on the stuff that came before – much of it may be rough or convoluted, but it may also shed new light on the story we are getting from the product. Second, we are tricked into thinking that the product is “the end” – that’s it for the book, or for the movie, or for the episode. In the broader world, the chain continues – people read, are inspired, give feedback, write their own stories, the author sees their feedback and thinks of a sequel, and over time, the product enters subtly into the Noosphere.

I claim that if we were able to see these chains, we would be able to look at works of fiction a different way. Less like monolithic Products and more like fuzzy Stories. Stories aren’t just about plot and characters; they’re about having fun and making sense of our world. ((In a later post, I might talk about how books, movies, etc. are Products whereas stories are Practices)) I would argue that it’s important to see the Story behind every Product, and that a richer, more contextualized presentation of fictional works produced today would benefit readers, writers and publishers alike. Maybe that’s an overly strong claim, but I am interested in it enough to share it with the world and hear your thoughts – and, of course, to write back!

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3 Responses to “The Future (of Literature) is Interactive Fiction, Part Two”

  1. Alana Joli Abbott Says:

    One of my favorite things to do is to gossip about characters from novels between books in a series. It is so much fun to have a community where you can say things like, “And did you believe it when…?” “I know! When do you think they’ll finally…” etc., etc. Neither party necessarily needs to finish the sentences when you’ve got a really good gossip going — everyone just knows what those scandalous events are.

    I was told in an anthropology class that modern Navajo communities continue to treat their legendary figures this way — gossiping about the activities of super(supra?)natural figures. If true, I think that’s pretty fantastic.

    I do think I enjoy the interaction with a book — with its author or other readers — after I’ve read it. I usually want to come into a work of fiction clean, without too many prejudices about the author or the, say, academic criticism, to give the story room to breathe. But once I’ve partaken of the story, I want to share, and I love excerpts and outtakes that authors post on their websites. I’m not sure where that would put me on your map!

  2. Max Gladstone Says:

    GQ (I think) had a great article last month about how branding has supplanted original storytelling in Hollywood – basically arguing that the marketing brigade that rules out west doesn’t want to touch anything without a pre-existing brand.

    Often, this logic is a Bad Thing [tm] – it made getting projects like The Town, The Social Network, and Inception green-lit nearly impossible, while films based on Stretch Armstrong and the Battleship board game sailed into production. But it can be a Good Thing [tm] too. Multimedia franchises like James Bond, Harry Potter, Batman, and Iron Man can be entertaining, smart, and deep. The language of brand vs. original content doesn’t leave much room to cross this gap; your “fuzzy stories” can, because it gets at the key component missing from Battleship: the story.

    Batman is an excellent example of a “fuzzy story” – the character has a backbone narrative arc (including an end, as of The Dark Knight Returns), and a ton of history, all of which is open to interpretation by new versions of the narrative. Batman is spread throughout time, space, and meaning, and the modern audience “gets” this instinctively.

    The story also fuzzes beyond its own narrative context: I’m rereading Name of the Wind right now, and as per usual I’m somewhat skeptical of the main character’s hypercompetence. But I’m rolling with it more now, because I read an interview with Pat Rothfuss in which he mentioned that the closest analogue to Kvothe in his mind was Batman. Oh, I thought, now Kvothe’s hypercompetence makes a *LOT* more sense.

    As for stories that become stronger thanks to their broader context, the most recent Batman and Iron Man movies are great examples, mostly due to their casting. Batman is Patrick Bateman, from American Psycho. The comparison is perfect, subtle, and inescapable if you’ve seen both movies. Iron Man, meanwhile, stars Robert Downey Jr. as, well, a superbly talented man with an immense ego and substance abuse problems. Even original stories in Hollywood do this to an extent: Natalie Portman’s performance in Black Swan depends in part on the public perception of her as a talented, beautiful actress, but also as a sort of Madonna figure – the perfect person to play Nina Sayers.

    I don’t know if this was the direction you were intending to go when you started this essay, but I think there’s gold in these har hills.

  3. Miguel Garcia Says:

    What’s fun about this is that I’m playing Dragon Age II right now and it explores this very phenomena. The whole game is told from the perspective of Varric, a sorta dwarf bard, and at certain points of the game he fudges facts and this is reflected in the gameplay. They also will cut into the action with brief cutscenes where Varric and his listener will argue about the veracity of his claims and the true motives of those involved. Granted they aren’t especially thought provoking conversations, but it adds dimension to the yarn.

    Another game that explores this is Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Where the story is told by the prince and when you die he will say “No no, that’s not right. Let me start again.” There is yet another game that does this in a film noir detective style, but set in the future. I forget the name, but it ends in a chess vignette.

    Regardless these games let you become involved in the story, and myth, of that time and place and see how different ones can shape the world that comes after. I think this is why Mass Effect has had such an effect on the gaming world in recent years. Because the save imports let you see how little actions can shape the world around you in future games.

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