14 Sep

Spoiler Alert: The Beginning

“Spoiler Alert” is a serialized short story, coming in 13 parts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. “The Beginning” is part two. It’s best if you know the end first, so go to part one if you haven’t read it yet.

I met David when I was in prison in El Salvador. What was I doing in prison in El Salvador? Drugs. Not my fault. Some asshat on a bus just outside of Sonsonate stashed an ounce of cocaine in my backpack. I think it was an ounce. Might have been a gram. I don’t know shit about coke.

In fact, I didn’t know shit about why I was in prison until David explained it to me. He said it was a scheme for taking advantage of tourists, especially solo ones — some guy stashes the drugs on you, the police look through your luggage, maybe taking a few choice items, and then they get you to bribe them to let you out of jail.

I asked him how he knew all this.

“By pretending I’m not fluent in Spanish,” he said.

Same thing had happened to him. He kept quiet through the whole ordeal until they finally came to him with the offer. “You give money, you can to leave prison,” they said. He told them to go to hell.

Why? Good question. That’s what I asked David. Here’s where it gets weird.

His answer: “If someone had told you when you were a kid that you’d break out of a Salvadorian prison when you were 50, would you believe them?”

There was a mouse moving across the floor of our prison cell when he asked me this. It came within a few inches of my feet. I remember thinking he had a lot of nerve, that mouse.

Then I noticed David looking at me with his eyebrows raised, like he wanted me to actually answer the question.

“No. I would not believe anyone who told me I’d break out of a Salvadorian prison,” I said. “Are you telling me that I’m going to break out of a Salvodorian prison?”

“Yes. I’m not entirely sure how it happens, but it will.”

I asked him if he knew when it would happen ‘cause Salvadorian prisons aren’t that comfortable. When he said no, I just chuckled and tried to get some sleep.

I think I dreamt of mice running through mazes. It wasn’t a very reassuring dream, but it was better than being in prison with a nutcase. So when David woke me up in the middle of the night, I wasn’t too happy about it.

“I was just getting comfortable,” I told him.

“Now’s our chance.”

11 Sep

Spoiler Alert: The End

(“Spoiler Alert” is a serialized short story, coming in 13 parts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)

Here’s how it ends. I’m on a bus in Guatemala, daydreaming about a woman I’ve never met and feeling slightly guilty that I’m not going to die today.

It’s about 100 degrees, I haven’t showered in at least a week, and everyone else smells as bad as I do. People standing in the aisles have been rubbing up against my shoulder, and the slightly overweight woman next to me has had her leg leaning against mine for the past half an hour.

And then the bus pulls to a stop.

We’re on the highway, for God’s sake. Why the bus is stopping is beyond me.

But five minutes pass, maybe ten, and people start getting off the bus. I figure it can’t be any hotter outside, so I grab my bag and go out.

The pavement is shimmering with heat, and there’s a traffic jam that extends up the road as far as I can see to a bend that sweeps behind a mountain. Somehow, though we’re miles from the nearest village, there’s a guy walking toward us on the road’s shoulder, carrying a cooler full of flavored ice. I flag him down and buy two tubes of the stuff, though by the time I get them open, they’re more like flavored cold water.

Still, they hit the spot. And I’m happy enough that I’m out of El Salvador to care too much about our current predicament. So I tilt my head back to finish off the last of my purple “ice” and relish the short inner chill as the liquid shoots down my esophagus. I’m imagining that it’s a margarita when an explosion reverberates through the mountains.

It’s close. It must be. Because I can feel my chest rattle and I can hear glass breaking. I squint to see beyond the bright reflections emanating from the cars stopped in front of us. In the distance, a cloud of black smoke plumes skyward.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, I’m not. But knowing it would happen doesn’t make it less tragic. In fact, I’m suddenly feeling so sad that my knees buckle a little, like some involuntary part of me knows it’s not worth taking one more step forward. Might as well just fall down right now and die.

I’m not dead, though. And since nobody around me speaks English anyhow, I say it out loud. “I’m not dead.”

I think about how David patted me on the back in Jutiapa just before getting on his bus. “Doubt is a wonderful thing,” he said.

Now, David Schumaker is no more. The plume of smoke rising over the mountain is coming from his bus. I’m sure of it. David’s dead, and there’s nothing he or I could have done about it.

Still, I feel partially responsible.

24 Mar

Video + Interaction

On whether video games are the new media of choice for delivering stories in our digital age.

Are all video games stories? No. Tetris.

But the vast majority of games at the very least have a back story. That is, there’s some story that precedes the interactive game the player partakes in. Even Space Invaders as Jesper Juul points out, has a back story. He writes, “A prehistory is suggested in [Space] Invaders: An invasion presupposes a situation before the invasion. It is clear from the science fiction we know that these aliens are evil and should be chased away. So the title suggests a simple structure with a positive state broken by an external evil force.” Just to emphasize: a story is suggested by Space Invaders, but not actually stated.

Following Space Invaders, though, there were plenty of games that did state the story that preceded play. Classic arcade games like Double Dragon, Alien Syndrome, and Paperboy usually had some minimal introductory scenario that got the story rolling (click the titles to see the intros). The typical one had some evil mastermind kidnapping your girlfriend. Wasn’t that the premise of most of the Super Mario games? Princess Peach is kidnapped and we’re off.

In a lot of these “back story” games, though, the play doesn’t move the story forward much. The initial computer animated sequence provides a context for gameplay, but what follows is a series of challenges that have little to do with plot.

This situation continues nowadays with online shooters, which dispense with story altogether. Even the ever-popular Halo series, which has a definite narrative thread, throws story out the window for its online play, where a player is usually on a team of marines fighting against another team of marines. Such a scenario actually runs counter to the Halo story, where the player never fights against his own species.

Speaking of the Halo story, though, in it we can see a more sophisticated method of conveying the narrative. It doesn’t just begin with back story. It then proceeds to fill in gaps between the various “levels” or chapters using “cut scenes.” The cut scenes exist to propel the story forward and they alternate with actual gameplay.

But it’s rare (and a fairly recent phenomenon) that gameplay and narrative are actually delivered at the same time. RPGs and action-adventure games sometimes attempt to offer the player various narrative choices, but often those choices take place in interactive cut scenes rather than in the gameplay itself. One of my favorite examples of such an approach comes from the game Deus Ex: Invisible War. Are there any games that don’t pause the gameplay to allow the player to move the story forward through interaction? Prior to reading Jesper Juul, I would have said yes, definitely.

But now I’m not so sure.

He makes the claim that you “cannot have interactivity and narration at the same time,” an argument he bases on a pretty complex discussion of story time, narrative time, and reading time. But I think I have a simpler explanation.

If you’ve ever played a game with a narrative component to it, think about whether the narrative thread of the game would have been different without any of the player’s game challenges like fighting, puzzle solving, platform jumping, etc. In most cases, I think, it’s an either/or situation. Either you’re fighting baddies, collecting coins, doing whatever you’re character is supposed to be doing OR you’re watching the story progress through cut scenes and/or through choosing pre-packaged lines of dialogue for your character to deliver. Thus, with every video game I can think of, if you were to fast forward through the gameplay sections, the story would remain completely intact.

Modern games are getting more fluid with this alternating narration/gameplay format (a game like Fallout 3 being a good example of that — see the fifth video here for an example), but that’s all they’re doing — they’re alternating better. They’re not actually making the narrative as interactive as many game developers claim they are. Pretty hefty claims, if you ask me. “A growing number [of developers],” according to the “Brainy Gamer,” now believe that “the designer builds a system, but the player authors the story.”

Except they’re wrong. The player cannot co-author the story. As Jonathan Blow notes, “Story is a filtered presentation of events that already happened.” The player’s interaction with a game consists of alternating between navigating the pre-written (sometimes choose-your-own-adventure) story and the challenging situations that don’t really matter to the narrative. There’s no authorship on the player’s part.

Steve Gaynor articulates this sentiment well: “Video games are not a traditional storytelling medium per se. The player is an agent of chaos, making the medium ill-equipped to convey a pre-authored narrative with anywhere near the effectiveness of books or film. Rather, a video game is a box of possibilities, and the best stories told are those that arise from the player expressing his own agency within a functional, believable gameworld. These are player stories, not author stories, and hence they belong to the player himself.”

What I think Gaynor means is that there are stories delivered by the video game and stories that arise from the video game. Stories delivered by the game are in no way co-authored by the player, and stories that arise from the player’s experience — from the “box of possibilities” — are, I would argue, experiences, not stories. Sure, when you tell someone about what happened in a game, it’s now a story, but in the game itself, it’s an experience.

Gaynor continues: “Unlike a great film or piece of literature, (video games) don’t give the audience an admiration for the genius in someone else’s work; they instead supply the potential for genuine personal experience, acts attempted and accomplished by the player as an individual, unique memories that are the player’s to own and to pass on.”

The goal of many developers, then, is to provide a rich world that the player can navigate freely; these worlds are often referred to as “sandboxes.” But the purest sandboxes eradicate narrative.

Enter Second Life, the perfect example of a virtual experience that has no narrative element to it. Sure, some stories may arise out of it, but Second Life itself has no more plot than the state of Wisconsin does.

In a figurative sense, sure, we’re all authoring our own life story, but that’s just a metaphor. We’re experiencing our lives. My life isn’t a story until I craft it into a “filtered presentation of events that already happened.” Thus, narrative and experience are somewhat at odds. The listener/reader/viewer/player cannot tell the story she’s receiving. It’s an impossibility by definition. She can choose between various options if the storyteller gives her any, but to say she’s then co-authoring the story is hyperbole.

As for video games, they use story to create an enjoyable context for gameplay. And they are undoubtedly an effective delivery medium for some pretty good stories. But the player’s interactivity isn’t as revolutionary as some would make it out to be. They do raise some interesting questions, however: what is the storyteller’s goal for his audience and what is the ideal reception on the part of the receiver of the story? I’ll explore those topics next.

14 Mar


Another pause in the exciting essay action to bring you my latest interactive story: Polaroids.


It employs javascript to give you a veritable clickfest! (Which means that you can click on pictures and text to reveal more pictures and text.) This one utilizes the same code I used in my telescopic text story, but it demanded a lot more css tweaking and a lot more time in photoshop. I got all the images off of flickr, which provided me with about three dozen pictures of pertinent graffiti. Not entirely happy with the final resolution of the images, but there’s always something that’s not perfect.

07 Mar

Established Storytelling Adapted

On what’s currently happening to established forms of storytelling in the digital age.

Part of the issue in figuring out where fiction will go from here is to determine whether current forms will be improved or whether new forms will be invented. The novel was not a huge departure from its predecessors. It was simply a longer story. So it’s really more of an enhancement of previous fiction rather than a complete revolution, like film.

What will happen from here on out, though? Will we maintain current forms of fictional stories and adapt them to the web, or will we come up with fundamentally different ways of delivering narrative? That’s the question.

In a talk he has given multiple times, Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine explains that when internet content was starting to take off in the 90s, the powers that be thought it would be like “TV, only better.” But it surprised them because a) it wasn’t at all like TV, and b) it ended up producing content nobody could have predicted.

I have no illusions here: I don’t claim to know what will happen with the future of storytelling. But we can look at what has happened already in the relatively short period of time that digital media has thrived. And today, I’d like to examine how already-established forms of storytelling are faring in this new media environment.

I want to first mention the novel, even though I know I’ve already said quite a bit about it. The Kindle, and various other ebook readers, were developed for one primary purpose: to keep the novel alive. Or, if not the novel, then at least novel-length books. That’s one of the reasons I don’t see the novel dying any time soon. It’s a priority for our society still. We’re creating technology for it.

On the other hand, I don’t see the novel faring well online with our current web interfaces. For all the reasons I stated earlier, I think shorter chunks are the key to the current digital media environment. So what about serialized novels, you ask. Good question.

I don’t think they’re doing too well either. That’s not to say there aren’t lots of them. There are. They go by the name “webserials.” And you can find plenty of them at webfictionguide.com. But for now, they remain one of those relatively obscure niches on the web, mostly populated by aspiring authors.
For webserials to really be successful, they’re going to have to be featured on sites that attract readers. This has been done, too. Sites like Salon, boingboing, and Slate have published serialized fiction. But they have some problems. The Salon one, according to one reader, just kind of faded into obscurity by the 35th installment (I can’t verify that). The boingboing one linked to a pdf file, so you were essentially just downloading one chapter per week of a book that had already been published, thus robbing the serial of its much-needed sense of what’s-going-to-happen-next-? And the Slate one I can’t even get to load.

Ultimately, though, serials just haven’t ever gotten back the popularity they enjoyed in the Victorian era, despite some notable exceptions here and there. As one informative piece on serialization points out, though, serials never actually died; they just changed form.

Two such forms have done well on the web. One is the comic. Webcomics are cheap to put together and some enjoy as wide a readership as print comics. Xkcd is my personal favorite, though it, like Bizarro (my other favorite comic), doesn’t have an ongoing narrative (with a couple notable exceptions here and here: 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5). Others, like Penny Arcade and Weregeek are pretty popular, and there are some very clever ones that have attractive interfaces, making them fairly interactive. The Right Number and Nine Planets without Intelligent Life are my favorites.

Beyond webcomics, video series, or webisodes, have done alright, too. A quality webisode usually requires a big monetary investment, though. Which is why some really good ones, like 72nd to Canal and The Remnants, have just fizzled out. But Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, Chad Vader, Lonelygirl15, Quarterlife, Red vs. Blue, and several others have gotten a significant viewership.

With the development of personal media devices like the iPod, and with the addition of 3G internet access to sophisticated cell phones, I think the video format of storytelling is adapting well to new media. They don’t even need to be in serial form. Some of my recent finds include excellent stories like Evol, Ida’s Luck (Part 1 & Part 2), and Glory at Sea.

Ultimately, video on the web is both better than and quite inferior to television. There’s certainly enough quality out there to rival traditional TV. But finding it is a little more difficult. Fledgling programs like Miro and joost and hulu have had some success, but miro is the only one of the three that is pure internet tv and I just haven’t found many channels worth subscribing to.

So even video, I would argue, hasn’t achieved its optimal form of propagation through the internet tubes. There remain issues of accessibility and consolidation. Clearly the internet won’t kill video (like video killed the radio star), nor will it kill comics or novels. But I’d say video is in transition. Might it be headed toward something with more interaction?

That’s what I’ll look at next time. Video + interaction = _______. Fill in the blank.