Abstract vs. Concrete

Yesterday I was reading up on the Javascript programming language. Then after supper I resubscribed to Netflix and watched the first four episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, back to back. Both activities were fun, but the contrast was noticeable.

Why Javascript? Because I’ve been looking into the possibility of presenting interactive stories in a web browser. Ian Millington’s Undum system makes this possible — but Undum uses Javascript quite intensively, so I would need to know it a lot better than I do in order to create a story with Undum.

The goal is clear: I’d like to write stories and make them available for people to read. The stories themselves would be concrete experiences — just words on a page or screen, it’s true, but words stimulate the brain to imagine that real events are transpiring.

Same deal with Buffy: The reality (cameras, scripts, lighting, makeup, paychecks to the actors, carefully designed special effects) is an abstract apparatus, but the viewer has, in the end, a concrete experience. Mentally constructed, to be sure, but it’s an experience of “real” events, not an experience of the syntax of computer code, nor of camera angles and all the rest. If we notice camera angles and lighting while watching a movie or TV show, it’s because we have become less involved in the story as a concrete experience.

I trust I don’t need to belabor the difference any further.

What I learned yesterday was that I like concrete better than I like abstract. I’m familiar with several computer programming languages, and have written books about two of them, so I don’t think I need to defend my ability to deal with abstractions. Nonetheless, at this point in my life concrete does something for me that abstract doesn’t.

I recently wrote an interactive fiction piece called “The White Bull,” using the TADS 3 programming system. I was musing about porting this story to Undum — and why? So that more people would be able to experience the story more easily, in their browsers, without the need to download software components or learn the stilted command syntax of traditional text adventures. In other words, I had a marketing impulse.

Today I’m musing about reworking “The White Bull” as conventional text fiction. This is not, God knows, a marketing impulse, because the market for imaginative stories is dismal. It’s an impulse that arises out of a desire to experience the events of the story in a more concrete way.

I would have a more concrete experience both because no programming would be required and because the story could be opened up. The characters could have greater depth, and new events could be added.

Frankly, readers would have a more concrete experience too. Theorists in interactive fiction make much of the immersion factor — the notion that when a player feels he or she can control events in the story by issuing commands to the computer, the player feels more thoroughly immersed in the fictional world. I’m starting to think that theory is a load of hooey.

Pick almost any piece of fiction you care to name, from David Copperfield to the latest best seller. It’s hard for me to conceive that a novel — any novel — would be more immersive for the reader if the text were broken up into bite-size chunks, in between which the reader was required to stop and think about what command to issue and being interrupted from time to time by messages like “You can’t go that way” and “You can’t see any such thing.”

No, I think immersion requires seamlessness. Immersion requires the sense that the fictional world is all around (and within) us. That’s what makes it feel concrete and sensory rather than abstract and intellectual.

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8 Responses to Abstract vs. Concrete

  1. Terry Cox says:

    Jim — why not push the boundarys — and go “text to speech” and voice recognition to change the nature of the interaction. Shouldnt be too hard, at least in unix/linux systems. Of course parsing the inputs might be a little challenging.

    • midiguru says:

      I’ve had some fairly interesting discussions on that precise topic with a friend who works for one of the big speech input companies. He has some good ideas (which I’m not at liberty to discuss), but I would have to say his ideas seem to be pretty much stalled out.

      Although I enjoy hobbyist-level programming, at heart I’m a content provider. The idea of spending months developing a piece of software — after which I would have to invest in promotion, marketing, and distribution — doesn’t entice me.

  2. RealNC says:

    The reason I go to the video store is because I want to watch a movie. It doesn’t matter if the novel on which the movie is based is more immersive. I want to watch a movie, period. Ask yourself why you watched Buffy instead of reading a Buffy novel.

    Same with computer games. It doesn’t matter if the White Bull novel is more immersive then the White Bull adventure game. I wanted to play an adventure game. I might still read the novel, but that doesn’t have anything to do with me wanting to play an adventure game. Just because I’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy doesn’t mean I didn’t want to play the adventure game with the same title. The two don’t even compete with each other, even.

    • midiguru says:

      I’ve never read a Buffy novel. Never read a spin-off novel of any kind. I’ve certainly watched spin-off movies of novels I had read earlier, though — Lord of the Rings, for instance. In general, I would say movies are more immersive, but novels are more thoughtful.

      What interests me is the question of how best to tell a story. Every medium has its own strengths, and every medium has weaknesses. I’m not concerned about what medium an audience (or an individual audience member) may prefer, either in general or on a particular day. That may be heresy in a pop culture in which “give the audience what it wants” is felt to be the only guidepost — but hey, I’m happy being a heretic.

      • RealNC says:

        The question should rather be “what’s the best way to tell a story in a game/movie/novel.” The decision on whether you want it to be a game, movie or novel doesn’t have anything to do with which of those is the better medium for storytelling. It has to do with whether you want to create a game, a movie or a novel.

        If you view adventures as a bunch of prompts between chunks of prose, then I suspect you’re not actually interested in creating adventures. You need to ask yourself whether you enjoy creating adventure games. Telling a story is just one part of the process. And it might not even be the most important one, even. Gameplay is just as important. Creating an environment that seems dynamic and adapts to the player’s actions. Even if those actions don’t have much to do with the story. You know, the thing that games do, making you feel like this is a real environment in which you can do stuff. (Whether this is solving puzzles, shooting zombie demons with a BFG or running people over with cars doesn’t really matter.)

        If you don’t enjoy creating that, but enjoy the pure storytelling, you might have chosen the wrong medium. Since this is a hobby, rather than a job, you should definitely do what you personally enjoy most.

      • midiguru says:

        I don’t think your question (“what’s the best way to tell a story in a game/movie/novel”) precludes mine. They’re both interesting questions — and there are others. One could ask, “What types of stories work best in medium X?” Or alternatively, “Here’s a story. What’s the best medium for this particular story?”

        I suspect, also, that you’re suggesting too narrow a view of how I ought to approach the decision-making process. Speaking strictly for myself, I happen to enjoy hobbyist-level computer programming a great deal. Thus my choice of whether to write conventional fiction or interactive fiction requires weighing two (or possibly three or four) different criteria, some of which have nothing whatever to do with storytelling.

      • RealNC says:

        “Here’s a story. What’s the best medium for this particular story?”

        As I see it, you first have to decide on the medium, then on a story that works well with it. To me, it begins with “I want to make a movie” (or novel, or game, or whatever.) Even if you have the basics of a story beforehand, why make the decision of which medium to use depend on the medium’s suitability for this particular story? Why not choose the medium you’re most interested in at this time and adapt the story to it?

        Also, I truly believe the “best” medium for any story is the written word. So the question of what medium is best is, to me, quite redundant to begin with. The best way to tell a story is to write it down.

      • midiguru says:

        I don’t like to be disagreeable, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to take exception to your saying, “You first have to decide on the medium.” In my experience, it simply is not the case that artistic decisions _have_ to be arrived at in any particular order. The process is usually a lot messier than that, and considerable portions of the process are not only unconscious but not capable of being brought into consciousness!

        True, it sometimes happens that one begins with an impulse to create something in a particular medium, and then thinks of a story. But not always. Right now I’m pondering the possibility of resuscitating and reinvigorating a character I dreamed up about 30 years ago, and I honestly don’t know yet whether my vague ideas about her story will end up in IF or in a novel. I also have an unpublished novel on my shelf that should probably have been written as a screenplay … and I vaguely recall that I knew that when I started it. But I’ve never written a screenplay, so I wrote it as a novel.

        In saying, “Why not choose the medium you’re most interested in at this time and adapt the story to it?”, you seem to be making two assumptions — first, that any story can be adapted with equally felicitous results to any medium, and second, that it will be easy for me (or for any other artist) to know clearly which single medium I’m interested in at any given time. Neither of these assumptions is necessarily valid.

        Since storytelling was done entirely by talking (and, to be sure, by waving one’s arms) for more than 100,000 years before the invention of written language, I’m reluctant to agree with you that the written word is always preferable to the spoken word as a narrative medium.

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