Magic Portals & Interdimensional Storytelling
A fairy circle, pixie house, or witches’ ring. Like the portals of the popular game series, Portal, these circles tend to transport people, or passengers, through space (but not time). However, the fairy world of Celtic, Norse, Welsh, and Polish folklore has a timescale, or “playback speed” to use a videography term, that is far quicker than that of our own world, with some passengers disappearing into the circles for mere minutes but returning decades older.
A frame from the narrative mystery game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Here, the player character (Senua) interacts with a stone pillar, one of many such stones found throughout the game world that communicates complex Norse mythologies, local histories, and important information to the player character. Consistent with both folklore traditions and contemporary video games, in Senua’s Sacrifice, some circles allow the player to “fast travel” to locations in the game world.
As we dig deeper, fly higher, and dive to depths unimaginable just a century ago, we continue to learn about our planet, our solar system, and the many ways that life manifests on our world. One of today’s more bizarre and fascinating studies is that of fungal networks (mycology), which we now know to represent some of the most complex organic systems on our planet. Fungi, whose varieties outweigh plants over ten to one, live in some of the most extreme places on earth—places that few other lifeforms can survive. Their durability aside, they can appear as if out of thin air, with wide-reaching fields of mushrooms cropping up over a single night, a fact that has in part shaped our understanding of mushrooms as mystical, spiritual organisms capable of transporting us great distances, or otherwise enabling a sort of dimensional travel. Experts in folk literature believe that the myth of flying reindeer originated with the consumption of a fly agaric mushroom (pictured here), which led locals to hallucinate and believe the nearby fauna were indeed flying in air. In Chinese folk traditions, mushrooms are considered a sign of long life and personal abundance; in Taoist tradition, they are the legendary food of the immortals. In cultures throughout Europe and Africa, they personify the soul reborn—perhaps because of their unique role as recyclers of dead organic materials, combined with their role as a hallucinogenic drug and tribal medicine used to expand personal insight and, in some cases, communicate with the dead. Anthony Rapp’s character in Star Trek Discovery uses an interdimensional fungal network to not only communicate with the dead, but bring them back to life.
Portals play a crucial role in The Witcher (now a celebrated Netflix show), transporting characters through both space and time, like in the popular transmedia narrative, Stargate. One of the more amusing character choices of the accompanying novel series is that Geralt, our stalwart hero who has almost no fears whatsoever (they have been conditioned out of him through decades of study and use of magical decoctions), has a deathly fear of portals.
Theatre vs. Performance
What separates performance and theatre is what separates a square and a rectangle. Theatre is always performance, but performance is not always theatre. Dance is performance. Music is performance. A TED Talk is performance. But theatre, as established over thousands of years of institutionalized practice, is specifically a performer-audience interaction. Social gatherings vary widely in this sense for several reasons. Costume is a large part of the social affair, even outside of such obvious charades as Halloween parties and other established "dress-up" events. A host, who cleans his home furiously for hours to embellish its finer qualities, and sweep away any stray ugliness, is a sort of theater, in which the host-performer and guest-performers play particular roles for which certain behaviors are expected, assumed, or frowned upon. The ritual of a dinner party, in this sense, cannot be separated from the established ritual of a theatrical play, in which the audience and performers, without so much as saying a word to one another before the lights dim, have a shared understanding of the meaning of the event and their roles within it.
A magic show is a piece of theatre. A street juggler lies somewhere between dancer and actor. A reality TV show is a piece of theater, at least insofar as it is live, has an audience, is performance-based, and provides a medium for audience interaction, such as voting apps, call-ins, and so on; these shows may also have live audiences themselves, although these audiences are of the curated variety, and their reactions are to an extent designed in that they are prompted to laugh, clap, and so forth using visual cues provided by showrunners. A live stream of a video game is a piece of meta-theater, the streamer himself performing the actor's role, with the game's own characters, controlled by the streamer-player, becoming meta-characters. Playing a game ourselves, we might become immersed enough to forget where we are. But watching someone else play a game, it is impossible to enter this sort of flow state, and our strongest relationship is not with the characters in-game--who mimic our actions, or at least obey our commands--but with the streamer-performer, with whom we interact, and whose attention we centrally seek during the stream.
Stage vs. Platform
The word "platform" as a term describing digital media interfaces arises directly from our usage of the term to describe a raised wooden stage on which performances are conducted. A platform, in both senses, is a place we go to in order to experience something, whether this be making a purchase or making a friend. In the future, we may altogether forego using the term "stage" in favor of "platform" where physical performances are designed for digital replicability--a stage play, for example, whose production is intended to be enjoyed live both in-person and by streaming. The video game, after all, has no stage outright, but its characters inhabit a space, a world, and this world performs the role that a stage otherwise would.
A small puppet theatre showcased by the Prague Puppetry Theatre in 2016.
Narrative Taxonomy: How Tags Rule Supreme
To describe narrative taxonomy, I use the example of the hashtag. A hashtag is a form of metadata: data that talks about other data. Hash tags are used to quickly and easily locate messages, posts, news articles, and other short-form narratives on social media platforms. Because of their ubiquity across virtual media platforms, and because of their ability to connect oft-distant narratives from around the virtual landscape, they have been called the “wormholes,” “veins,” or “eavesdroppers” of the internet. This may be another reason for their incredible popularity in corporate marketing practices. In short: if you want your narrative to reach a wide, global audience—whether you’re promoting a product or idea—hashtags are likely to help get the job done.
In 2007, when UX designer and inventor Chris Messina was working in a fledgling social media industry, there was no search feature for narrative media posts. If you knew someone who was interested in a topic, you could “Follow” them, and get announcements when they posted new narratives on their social media pages (and this was novel in its own right, like pressing a button on a book that will send you a text message whenever the author releases a new one in the series). But you could not locate narratives from outside your proximal social circle.
The Internet is like an ocean filled with stories. Users with access to different kinds of interfaces and platforms have access to different kinds of stories. Hashtags didn’t just allow narratives to replicate more quickly; They allowed them to transcend the limitations of the fishing rod in catching the fish. Call into the water and the water will call back: that’s a hash tag. Now, instead of sharing a narrative about a cat cuddling with another cat, and talking about your friend Suzie’s love of cats, you can just leave a hashtag with a photo on Suzie’s Instagram feed.
Hashtags, like emoji, are simple, concise, and expressive—which they must necessarily be in order to replicate. The most popular hashtags on social media platforms align almost identically to the most frequently used emoji in text messages, perhaps because of their adjacent emergence in the early 2000s. I suspect, however, that is also likely this results from the nature of narrative media platforms more generally; such communication hubs may, by nature of what people choose to share, and how many people are contacted simultaneously with a positive post than a negative one. You’re more likely to contact someone with an opportunity than with a warning, especially since social media platforms are used so frequently for event notifications, invitations, and, more generally, to promote information and ideas. Understandably, hashtags are the natural cousin to keywords, words that are used to “tag” blogs, newspapers, and other online textual content. For these reasons, on much of the Internet, hashtags, tags, and keywords are used primarily to promote for-sale content.
The Atomic Narrative
Discrete classification systems are essential in the material sciences, guiding everyday and complex operations on which human cultures have become reliant for millennia. Any sufficiently advanced society or technology relies on our mastery of systems—abstract concepts denoting organic, natural laws. To describe a system, decoding how it operates mechanically, or atomically, can be a reward in itself. That our two highest-tier biological classifications are named after an Anglo-Saxon monarch-state (“kingdoms”) and its rule-bound subjects (“domains”) is perhaps no accident, and likely telling as to the true relationship among and between these distinct nomenclatures. Classification systems of all sorts, from the biological and organic to social, representational, or non-Euclidean.
In "Trust Me, I'm Lying: How to Become a Media Manipulator," Ryan Holiday writes vociferously, with a sort of hyped-up dual sense of pride and shame, about his decades of work bending narratives for-profit. No wonder that yo this day he enjoys a highly paid marketing role for one of the Country's largest, most litigious, and least apologetic clothing companies, American Apparel. He explains that, because of how blogs make money, it is more important to be spectacular than to be honest. In fact, it is often the least true stories that draw the most attention. We don't have to go far to test this theory in adjacent forms, like video blogs ("vlogs"), where there have been numerous global controversies highlighting the assumed value of user attention over all else. PewDiePie is known as having videotaped a dead body that he came across in the woods in Japan and livestreaming the encounter to millions of people worldwide for the sake of viewership. It worked, of course, which calls into question the values of digital media narratives that rely on viewer impressions to make money. Facebook, Twitter, and every other social media platform under the sun have been lambasted for their roles in political campaign censorship, misinformation, and flagrant disregard for the impact that false narratives, masquerading as truth, can have on a society. In the end, all narratives that make money do so based on their user impressions. A book will make money if it has a wide enough readership. A movie, play, or concert performance makes money from ticket sales. What distinguished the two is deceptively simple, actually: one makes money from narrative users, and the other makes money from their attention.
A simple analogy for narrative modes would be a city transit grid. People from one end of the city have to get to the other end somehow, so these streets are built with multiple transit modes in mind. Depending on your situation, you might be looking for a bus, a train, a taxi, a bike, a scooter, and so on. Maybe you have to walk the dog. Or maybe you’re traveling with young children and need some extra space (maybe you're trying to communicate something to a child and you need some extra space on the page). Whatever your need, you should—under ideal conditions—be able to find a mode suitable for you. Such is the case with narrative, which manifests in order to achieve certain ends.
Narrative Darwinism & Memes
Internet Memes are what happen when people are able to share stories visually without delay, interpretation, censorship, or interface limitation. Because Internet Memes are virtual narratives – they don’t exist in physical space – they can be replicated indefinitely without using any materials of any kind (limitations that exist for many other narrative forms). But since they travel quickly, and reach many people, they have to be simple – they have to be consumed, and shared, incredibly quickly if they are to “make it” as a Meme (reach a wide audience, which, sadly, is notoriously difficult to define). Richard Dawkins coined the meme from the Greek mimeme—“to imitate”— to refer those parts of a culture that are non-genetic, yet transferred between and among individuals within a society. Viewing the meme as an operative mimeograph—a replication machine used in printing—we see the meme further as a cultural artifact that can be duplicated infinitely due to its low replication costs. As I use the term, a meme is also a narrative artifact that convey distinct meaning that aligns with its purpose: without distinct meaning, the meme serves no purpose.
Susan Blackmore summarized memetics as the If you have creatures that vary, Darwinism works by an evolutionary algorithm. If there is something that is copied, with variation and natural selection, than you MUST get natural design (Dennett 1995). Internet Memes are simple, visual narratives that are shared between people using social media platforms. Using Dawkins’ definition of a meme—an overwhelmingly (underwhelmingly?) simple and clear idea that moves quickly between people – we quickly observe that many narratives actually take the form of a meme, even if they don’t leave us, the Users, with the same “taste in our mouths” that we get when seeing a more easily identifiable or overtly salacious meme. Memes ask the question: why do we share stories, and what stories are worth sharing? Basically: Memes are Narrative Action Hubs, through which Users communicate straight-forward information, ideas, and belief systems.
Social Media systems have been integral to the development of new narrative forms, namely the digital meme and what I call the Global Narrative (narrative posts that, unlike a hand-written letter or post-card intended for a single recipient, exist on a digital “wall” or “feed.” If it can, information will replicate indefinitely. Susan Blackmore summarized memetics as the If you have creatures that vary, Darwinism works by an evolutionary algorithm. If there is something that is copied, with variation and natural selection, than you MUST get natural design (Dennett 1995).
Universal Character Design & Emoji
What began with 170 characters in 2007 has now become over 3,000 unique visual icons, what today we call Emoji. Arielle Pardes of Wired Magazine points out that academic scholarship on emoji (and, I argue, many visual narrative iconographic systems) is lacking, largely due to their recent adoption, but perhaps primarily because of the emoji researchers’ interest in “[courting] a popular audience.”
As a narrative and symbolic alphabet, emoji are interesting for several reasons. An emoji, like a word, can be used as a part of speech, or many different parts of speech, and can exist as a communication on its own.
ICONOGRAPHY & ADINKRA SYMBOLS
The Adkirna people of Ghana possess a written language whose symbols, while unfamiliar to us, communicate incredibly specific and specialized meanings, which serve as an excellent contrast to emoji representation. In this way, they can communicate complex emotions, perspectives, and concepts with minimal effort. Emoji, on the other hand, are so simple that they can easily be misunderstood. The Ankirna culture, on the other hand, utilizes a complex array of ornate wooden stamps (icons), which each possess meaning comparative to that of a spoken sentence.
Hashtags & Audience
The hashtag #TRASHTAG went viral in early 2019, with social media users posting pictures of themselves with bags of trash that they’d cleaned from public parks and other natural areas. The hashtag quickly spread in environmentalist circles, liberal circles, and millennial circles, and led to an NPR story about the Rwandan practice of Umuganda, which means “Coming together in common purpose.” On Umuganda, the last Saturday of every month, every adult participates in a mandatory clean-up of their local streets and public spaces. For the Rwandan people the hashtag #TRASHTAG is completely unnecessary, as it is for many cultures around the world. In that sense, when we look at hashtags, we can suppose an assumed audience that possesses certain dispositions, tendencies, and needs.
Why is Everything Adapted from a Novel?
Novels are essentially textual descriptions of fictional events, or real events portrayed with fictional flair. The density of description in novels, and the richness of some novel's dialogue, makes them perfect for adaptation into other forms. Adaptation, after all, requires only the structural essence remain, and need not meet the original work exactly in any particular sense. In short, if you can view it from 20 yards away and recognize it as you would the original piece, then it is a successful adaptation. Adaptation is a form of curation as much as it is a genre in its own right. Artists don't after all create something out of nothing. They build meaning out of fragments. And so is the case for adaptation, where some fragments are taken and others left - depending on the adapter.
Posthumanism & Survival Stories
After the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese stories – which had always carried with them a theme of natural disaster – took a turn to focus on manmade annihilation. The stories of Haruki Murakami are excellent examples of this resurgence (Super Frog Saves Tokyo is a favorite of mine), as well as a rich body of stories that focus on technology as both a solution to our problems and as a cause of our eventual destruction, as with the film Akira. Numerous collections of dystopian, post-apocalyptic short stories have also come from Japan in recent years, including Monkey Brain Sushi.
Nature has always made its way into our stories, from the earliest explanations of solar phenomena to more contemporary portrayals of intelligent botanicals emerging as key story characters. The carnivorous plant in the Little Shop of Horrors franchise (1960 and 1987) is representative of a modern resurgence of characters who magnify our relationship with our environments (the film was early off the cusp of national acceptance of man-made climate change), although the trend had been observed millennia before in Japan.
Shinto, the native religion of Japan, has been among the most impactful narrative frameworks for popular contemporary stories involving the environment. Examples are rampant in classic Japanese myths and folklores, in which every natural object is considered to have a soul, or kanji. More recently, the trend has been seen in Japanese fiction (Murakami’s After the Quake), anime (Akira, Dot Hack, etc.), and in graphic novels (Attack on Titan, which literally merges humans with their environments). Depictions of natural cataclysm have always been a part of narrative and cultural landscapes, and have in fact helped geologists and historians date global natural phenomena back to the very first written stories.
Our environments inform our stories, just as our stories shape and inform our environment-specific behaviors. Like any interaction, human-nature interactions go both ways. The first global climate changes resulting from human industrial behaviors started sometime in the late 18th or early 19th Centuries, well before Tolkein created the Ents of Lord of the Rings, although early mathematical models for climate change didn’t occur until 3 years following its publication—who eventually rebel against their persecutors.
Uncertainty of Origin in Interactive Narrative Systems
An interactive narrative, on the whole, is created by teams of individuals with different professional backgrounds, approaches to problem-solving and ideation, and personal belief systems. In a large-scale interactive narrative, individual designer-creators can quietly, and with little chance of being “found out,” subvert the intended design structures and political belief systems set forth as the “goal” by the team’s upper echelon—its creative directors, and so on. This can make the actual perceived “reason” for design decisions in the final product untenable. Consumers and players can find it difficult to actually pinpoint the “purpose” of decisions, since these are made by groups of people who aren’t just in a tug-of-war with a single rope on a single virtual axis—but hundreds of ropes all knotted together, wrapped in thousands of different directions and unwound into their very singular fibers.
The distinctive and yet universal labyrinth rests developmentally somewhere between game theory and consumer psychology, determining that users are both characters and business assets within narrative systems. As Jack Tressiger writes in his "Symbols and their Meanings," "labyrinth patterns… give graphic form to the manifold and difficult choices of life," although the labyrinth is not limited to this application, as it was used in heraldic circles for centuries. The labyrinth is also protective, keeping safe those within it who may seek refuge from outside agents, as with several notable Egyptian tombs. Labyrinths share some of the same symbolic applications of knots, which may represent infinity, longevity, or safety.
It is no secret that Ikea stores around the world are designed to be labyrinthine, relying on copious communications (arrows, signs, etc.) to overload one's spatial resources, whose navigational skills are already diminished within a city-sized consumer playground.
In consumer psychology, narrative systems studies are treated as gateways into consumer behavior, ideations, and opportunities. Research in consumer psychology has led to deeper understandings of human behavior outside of consumer systems as well, by outlining more concretely certain "choice" behaviors that are essential to humans' abilities to "rise" and "fall" in social and economic currencies, which are perhaps different than one's social and economic fortunes. The former, for one, implies a sort of exchange rate that can transfer energy from one system to another in the form of abstract or concrete value.
It is perhaps easier, from the perspective of the narrative architect, to forego any notion that individuals will be able to effectively conform to a specific or established pathway in a labyrinthine narrative. The design of such a space, abstractly or otherwise, encourages individuation and the fulfilment of individual goals, which change depending on the stage of the journey (early or late, for example) or location (i.e., a user realizes he needs candles, or develops a desire for candles, while passing by the Holiday Goods section, altering the progression of events such that his narrative, or story, is inextricably changed).
And yet, all things being connected within a system, narrative architects should also recognize the inter-authority of narrative things, such that a seemingly innocuous behavior in one system edge, area, or piece might organically affect other parts.
Ellen Lupton's representation of an ikea store as a narrative labyrinth, providing opportunities to play a character within this system while simulating, or curating, natural experiences.
Strategy in Paperback Books
There is strategy involved in reading a book, just as there is in completing the final level of your favorite video game. To achieve the desired experience, you may optimize your experience in a number of ways, which can be ranked in terms of their contextual benefit. You can, for example, curl up with a blanket in a cozy spot, pour some hot tea, take a deep breath, raise your feet up, put on calming music, or lick your finger (to help with page-turning).
Comparing Games with Traditional Narratives
Comparing games and narratives
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between a narrative game and a non-narrative one, especially since we have a nasty habit of projecting narratives onto systems or situations that otherwise would not require them. Tetris, for example, is a game without a narrative. You could say that the narrative of the game is this: you, a builder, are laying the foundation for a wall when bricks of strange shapes start falling from a platform above. You must quickly catch, orient, and place these bricks; if you fail, the building will collapse. (Of course, you can’t “win” a game of Tetris – you can “meet your goal,” though, which is probably to “get better than last time”).
The actor takes on the identity of an agent (usually fictional), through which the actor is able to portray actions beyond his normal suite and often of the “heroic” persuasion. Traditional definitions of narrative have accounted for its ability to act on its participants. How do we distinguish between narrative types when narrative is thus defined? All narratives are participatory. But role-playing narratives are the most so. One example is their use of specialization, an attribute belonging to an individual, tool, or mechanical object, conveying that it possesses knowledge, capacities, or experiences that make it ideally suited for particular actions or applications. Specialization is a common quality of role-playing narratives.
This page contains miscellaneous observations and inquiries.
Graduate Thesis Project Daniel T. Kessler
NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study Updated 12.12.19
Graduate Thesis Project Daniel T. Kessler
NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study Updated 12.12.19