Tuesday, September 14, 2010

WorldCon 2010 : From Gilgamesh to Fallout 3: How new technologies bring new narrative techniques

I must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone, I'm terribly sorry.  I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries.  I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.

Here's the blurb for From Gilgamesh to Fallout 3: How new technologies bring new narrative techniques:

"As new technologies arise, storytellers learn (sometimes to their embarrassment) which techniques can be adapted from old media, and discover new possibilities. Join our crew of passionate storytellers as we navigate the history of narrative from Stone Age campfires to  the interactive multiplayer future.
Chris Lawson, Grant Watson, Peter Watts, Ben Chandler"

C: This is a look at how a change in medium has affected the stories we can tell, for example the novel didn’t exist before the printing press, so how have videogames changed the landscape of narrative?

C: I want to discuss new techniques for the way we tell stories.  The Epic of Gilgamesh is the 2nd oldest piece of writing we have.  Many modern things are apparent in the way Gilgamesh was written.  People think foreshadowing is modern, but there is a lot of it in Gilgamesh.  Rhythm and rhyme were used to remember stories better (like Shakespeare written in verse).

G: Shakespeare says the same thing in different ways to try to ensure different people in the audience understand the concept.

B: Was it true that they didn’t do much in the way of costumes and sets?

G: Each place is announced when the characters arrive.  Any new actor to the scene is introduced as who they are meant to be.  The audience buys into that as that’s the way theatre was at the time.  They’d say “This is the king,” [Pointing left, at Ben.]  “And this is the queen.” [Pointing right, at Chris.]

C: Thank you. (Laughter)

G: But the audience bought into this, and it wasn’t until we got theaters set up in the one place and they could do crazy things to like release live rabbits, and you get to the 1900s and you have these massive plays set in the one place because the stages are so elaborate it’s going to take them forever to change it.

P: Video games are kind of like a film negative of what theatre was, the dialogue in video games sucks because the computer can’t react to the player and the computer is dumb when it comes to dialogue.

B: I think this is because video games aren’t a storytelling-driven medium like theatre is, and if you’ve ever worked in video games production, the first thing they cut is story.  They might want to cut levels 3, 7 and 9, and you’ve got all the climaxes in level 7 and the denouement in level 9, what’re you going to do?

P: You’re lucky if you ever get brought in that early, usually they go “We’ve got all these great levels, and it gets flooded in level 5!” and you have to point out that three levels earlier you came ashore and there were no dams, and it’s not going to work.

G: Is it more difficult because you’re putting control of the narrative in the player’s hands?

B: Well, yes, because for every choice the player can make, you have to program it in.

P: And sometimes there will be only one way out of the cave-in.

B: Exactly, and just bringing it back to Shakespeare, we’ve recently moved from text-based storytelling to voice-based storytelling, and you suddenly have a performance, and some of those performances are bad.

C: They’ve realized now that they need to hire proper voice actors…

B: Yeah, because going back a couple of years the voices were done by the animators or the programmers and their brothers and sisters.

B: People are starting to list videogames on their CVs now, in addition to films and TV, and you’re starting to see things like big Disney names having worked on games, and that’s a good thing.

P: This may tend to be too radical, but I wonder if we may be thinking it’s too radical a divide between text-based and voice-based, and the visuals of video games.  I like to think I’ve developed a style, and the reason people love science fiction because it takes them to new worlds, and they need to work hard to bring those ant scratches to life in their head, but with videogames and Crytek and Dreamworks, we don’t need to do that anymore, it’s all there in front of us.

B: I think the assumption there is that storytelling is meant to be efficient.  I play videogames and I read, and when I go to see a movie adaptation of the book, I enjoy watching the director’s interpretation, and I thought the Golden Compass was visually stunning, the story was lacking, but it was a beautiful film.  It wasn’t the way I imagined it, but I still enjoyed it.

P: But storytelling needs to be evocative, isn’t it like trying to describe a sunset via smoke signals?

B: Yes, but I hate the saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, because yes, a picture is a shortcut, but if you enjoy reading, nothing compares to the joy of reading a well-written paragraph.

G: I just want to point out that no new storytelling technology has ever phased out another, Greek tragedies still exist, not often, but they do.

G: The thing about prose is that I think one of the joys of creation is abstraction, I can show you a photo of Peter, and it will be exactly him, or if I draw him, it might still be a good representation, but it will appeal to a wider audience, they will be able to identify it better, then if I draw it like this… [Draws a smiley face.]

C: That’s not Peter. (Laughter)

B: Doesn’t Peter have a nose? (Laughter)

G: But you can tell it’s a human face, and you can identify it.

P: So you’re saying we exist not to tell the reader what to imagine, but to give them space to imagine the story based on what they know.

B: Getting back to the previous example, photography didn’t kill painting.

G: No, but in my mind there’s a very clear distinction of photography being where Picasso and cubism came from.

[Art talk.]

B: But this was back in the days when you had to wait a year for the storyteller to come around, and these days you can access thousands of narratives with the touch of a finger.

C: And share fictional universes, like Wikipedia.  (Laughter)

B: And people while they were waiting for the storyteller to come around, they made up their own stories, like fanfiction, and most of those fanfictions are lost.

C: Or collected by people like the Brothers Grimm.

G: Going back to Shakespeare, there were about 30 plays called Richard the Third, but they all changed to reflect Shakespeare’s version, because he had a lot of money and a lot of friends at the time.  We’ve found older plays where Shakespeare has lifted entire sections of the plays from their work, and these days we’d consider that plagiarism.

B: It’s easy not to plagiarise when your work is the only writing getting published. (Laughter)

C: But back in the day that was seen as homage, not borrowing, it was seen as a tribute to use someone else’s work or play someone else’s song.

B: I have inspirations from other things in my book, but I can’t include footnotes, it’s not an academic paper, and it would slow it down if I did.

P: In my last novel there would be quotes, and some would be made up and some would be real and I deliberately tried to l keep it ambiguous.

G: I recently directed a play of Julius Cesar that I changed to reflect an American presidency…  [borrowing without getting sued]  And Shakespeare can’t sue me because he’s been dead for 400 years. (Laughter)

G: I think if you’re going to use an homage, you need to actively conspire with the audience to create that understanding.  One of the most irritating films of recent years was 28 Days Later, which borrowed so much from Day of the Triffids that it was embarrassing, then denied that it ever happened.

B: I think that’s why we can have discussions of narrative technique, because we’re all telling there same stories, over and over, and there are certain common elements that we use and if we avoid them, it’s something we’re actively trying to do.

Q: Reading a novel that is in first person, the reader is still an observer, whereas in a game the player is the main character. (Somehow this was a question?)

B: Growing up as the centre of attention via video games. 

G: There’s a strong correlation between video games and the player, and acting.  The game can only progress if you, as the player, play the role of Master Chief. 

P: I always get the sense that your role in a video games is not to move the story forward, but to solve little problems that help the story move forward by itself. The story seems to happen between the game.

G: One of my favourite games of recent years was Prince of Persia, Sands of Time, you have the priest narrating.

B: That’s similar to the Legacy of Kain series.

G: Right, but one of the things that happens is that when you die, there’s a voice that says “No, no, that’s not how it happens” and you load your game, but at one point 8 or 9 hours is, you die and the voice says “Yes, that’s exactly how it happened! He just pranced in and died!” (Laughter)

P:As an experiment I made a made a game about my cat, Banana, and you run around you need to attack rodents, and when you kill one you get a blood splatter and he looks up at the camera looking really proud, and the more you eat the fatter he gets and the harder it is, but when you eat enough you explode, and level 2 is you as a maggot in this mess of intestines as a crow is pecking at you, and you need to pupate into a fly while avoid the crow.  (Laughter)  That’s as far as I got with it, though, because I got tired of it.

B: People don’t treat MMOs as a sandbox or story space, they’re treating it as a competition they want to win.

P: Theirs is a very interesting development just happening in MMOs, [WoW plague idea], and behind every single data point there was a human-level AI – clerics going in to heal their friends – Science, one of the most prestigious magazines ran an article on it, and we’re moving into a territory that’s becoming narrative as scientific exploration.

C: There was an example of this in Eve Online where players infiltrated another corporation over the process of several months and completely destroyed it from the inside out.  And this was something the players were doing to each other, it wasn’t in the game’s story at all.

G: [Ergonic vs interactive?   Theme park vs sandbox.]

B: Experiment –hands up if you play MMOs.  Okay, now hands down if you read the quests.  That’s what I thought.  It’s not about storytelling.

G: They’re making a WoW movie.  It’s directed by Sam Raimi.

B: Are we all going to be in it? (Laughter)

B: I find it interesting that the basis of these online economies is based on going from nothing to something. 

Q: Everquest 2 is the 77th strongest economy in the world.

G: It’s stronger than Russia.

C: What economy isn’t? (Laughter)

Q: Sims 3 fanfiction.

B: It was popular in the days of my undergrad to have entire Buffy households in the Sims, and Buffy would be there, and Spike would come over, then Spike and Angel would make out… (Laughter)

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