The following is a very early draft of a chapter from a book I’m writing with Tom Abba. Think of it as a couple of academics/creators trying to help other creators avoid all of the dumb mistakes they’ve made. It’s very early stages still but all feedback welcome (send them to email@example.com or to Tom, if you can dig up his contact details somewhere. Probably on his twitter. Or his home page. Maybe just shout it in our general direction).
Choose your structural grammar
My dad has regularly been going to the theatre for decades. He and a few of his friends have a subscription at Þjóðleikhúsið and, come rain, come shine, every few weeks they go to see whatever it is that they're staging. It doesn't matter if it's getting awful review, whether it's a farce or a tragedy, they go, watch, and then talk about it over wine. This tradition has survived two divorces and several major career changes.
Theatre has that effect on people (especially if you fancy yourself as a cultured middle-class citizen of the world). People get hooked on watching it. People get hooked on working in it. Theatre isn't a mainstream hobby activity but it's here to stay.
It is, arguably, the oldest form of storytelling that we still practice. (The other contender being music, although given how intertwined drama and music have been, the distinction is moot.)
Speak to any historian of cinema (especially the amateur ones) and you'll get a yarn about how early cinema consisted just of a camera pointing at a stage: recorded plays that didn't use the medium to any sensible degree and that film didn’t begin to advance until filmmakers began to break away from the conventions of the stage.
This narrative—even though it's demonstrably, completely, and utterly untrue1—has become a standard trope in media commentary.
Even though this story is a complete fiction, its message is a useful one: different media have varying qualities which means that each medium lends itself more to doing some things over others. It’s a McLuhanite parable—his pithy ‘the medium is the message’ aphorism writ large.
Which is all good. My only problem is that there’s a better yarn we can use for this: the story of an earlier media evolution that has much stronger parallels to our current new media predicament.
The novel has a longer history than people expect. How long, exactly, is a bit more complicated to answer because then you have to start defining exactly what a novel is in terms of length, style, and structure.
We’ve clearly been telling stories in prose for millennia but even if we restrict ourselves to something more specifically novelistic in terms of structure and style then we’re still talking about more than a thousand years2.
This is something we’ve clearly been doing for a while.
Despite this extended history, prose never really took off as a method for telling long stories. It dominated non-fiction, philosophy, and theological studies, sure, and it was the primary form of telling really short stories like fairy tales, fables, and ghost stories.
But when it came to telling longer interconnected stories poetry was what most storytellers reached for: Gilgamesh; Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Virgil’s Aeneid; Beowulf; Poetic Edda; Dante’s Divine Comedy; Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso; Milton’s Paradise Lost; Byron’s Don Juan; Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
Prose stories and novels existed but they have been in the storytelling minority for most of their history—even many of the exceptions relied heavily on poetry. Most of The Canterbury Tales are in verse. Even the Prose Edda was written and presented as a textbook for poets—it isn’t strictly speaking intended to be a prose retelling of the Norse myths. It was a Christian-era explanation of norse myths so that contemporary poets could read and use the metaphors, idioms, and similes that were based on those old myths. Drama and poetry ruled the storytelling roost.
(On a tangental note: what the Prose Edda omits, elides, and adds is just as interesting as the retelling itself. If you compare the Poetic to the Prose Edda, it seems clear that Snorri Sturluson adjusted the myths a bit to suit the more Christian culture of his day. For example, you can read the Poetic Edda as saying that Freyja ruled over the armies of Valhalla with Odin—that she, as the viking feminine ideal, was a lot more warlike than the Christian retellings made her out to be. Make love AND war, instead of make love, not war. The idea that the viking goddess of love would be a passionate general appeals to me.)
It wasn’t until moveable type became the norm that the novel began to make headway and even then poets like Byron and Pushkin dominated the scene with what were essentially novels in verse.
It isn’t that printed poetry doesn’t work. It does. It’s that poetry isn’t reliant on print, as a form it works just as well orally3 as it does printed.
Novels needed print to thrive as a medium.
Print distribution put novel distribution and dissemination on an even level with poetry. But even with a more even playing field it took the novel many years to reach parity and then surpass poetry as the western world’s primary form of written storytelling.
Back when I was a kid in gagnfræðaskóli (the Icelandic equivalent of high school, literally ‘school for useful studies’) a friend of mine, pressed for time, wrote a book review essay for school pretending that a AD&D roleplaying session of his was a fantasy novel.
His teacher had given the class the assignment to review a book of their own choice. He’d been too lazy to read something so he just gave the session a title and wrote a literary ‘review’ of it for the class. The teacher couldn’t tell the difference and none of the kids blabbed.
Much ink (and pixels) has been spilled on the issue of the role of storytelling in games. There’s always been a narrative element to games but the use and importance of stories in games exploded in the late 20th century. Even without computer games, roleplaying games, board games with an explicit and important setting and back story, and choose-your-own-adventure books make the issue complicated enough on their own.
That a medium like games can accommodate and use narrative elements but not be dependent on them seems to break the brains of a lot of academics, despite the fact that this is the role that stories tend to play in at least two other historically important art forms:
- Poetry? Can use stories and story-like elements but doesn’t need them as a form.
- Music? Ditto.
Of course, this complicates all attempts to define a theory of games. Is it a good game when you’re just using the mechanics of the form to deliver a story? Is it a good game if the story is rubbish but does an excellent job of serving the gameplay? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
Asking if something is a good game or novel is only a useful question if you’re an academic or an annoying snob. You can take that question and its siblings (such as did this conform to the rules of its form as academics define them?), put them in a box, and throw them in a particularly indigestive volcano. They don’t help you create. They don’t help you create.
The questions to ask are more along these lines:
- How did this affect me?
- Was the experience consistent?
- Did it play with or too my expectations in an interesting way?
- Would I do this again?
Anybody who has spent any time researching readers and players knows that these four qualities—effect, consistency, expectations, and repeatability—are what is important to them about works of art.
When it comes to deciding on a medium or genre as a creator, how those four qualities play out and support or don’t support our goals and intentions is the single most important factor to consider.
My great grandfather was a journalist, translator, politician, academic, poet, playwright, and a priest.
Not all at the same time but he multitasked more than you’d expect.
He was an interesting fellow—founding member of staff of the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service and in charge of their newsroom during the start of World War Two—but what’s relevant to us today is that the list of the media he worked in roughly corresponds to the list of subjects and fields he worked in.
He didn’t do journalism or news reportage as poetry or drama. He didn’t deliver academic essays on Byron’s work from the pulpit.
He did mix up some things. His poems were very political. His drama had religious overtones. But for the most part the various media were treating like sorting boxes: something from this field went into that box, a different field went into another.
He realised what a lot of creators today don’t: some things only fit in some boxes.
Most of what’s in people’s head about writing and creating is romantic nonsense dominated by psychobabble (‘the creative personality’, ’artists have an irresistible urge to create’) or mysticism (‘the creative spirit’). Most of those bullshit notions about art and creativity aren’t compatible with thoughtful consideration of your actions. Beginning writers don’t choose novel writing because it’s the right choice for what they have to say. They don’t even think about what it is they have to say in the first place.
I know because I’ve made all of those mistakes myself.
Despite the label, creative acts—storytelling in particular—tend begin with the creator just going with the defaults.
If you can write, the default is to write a novel. If you can draw, the default is to draw a comic book. If you have money and gullible friends, you make video.
Major upheavals in media, such as the shift from poetry to prose, or the current introduction of digital media, only happen because somebody began to choose something other than the default. It happened because, at some point, an storyteller looked at the stories they had to tell, then at the qualities of the various media at hand, and decided on using something less tried, less developed, and unexplored.
Neil Gaiman's Sandman includes a story called A Game of You. It's usually remarked as one of the least popular of the series. It's difficult, awkward where its predecessors (especially the piece that comes before; Season of Mists) are sly and clever. At its heart is a narrative about dreams, and the power of an internal fantasy life that might tell us things about the external world. It is also an echo of a Jonathan Carroll novel; Bones of the Moon. Gaiman initially abandoned the story after reading Carroll's novel, finding the similarities too close to ignore. Carroll told him:
Go to it, man. Ezra Pound said that every story has already been written. The purpose of a good writer is to write it new.
A Game of You is a cousin to Bones of the Moon. They share genetic material, a DNA of story, but each tells its tale in ways that only their chosen form can deal in. The grammar of a 24 page comic book, with monthly instalments, words and pictures in concert on a page, re-reading and visual connections, is markedly different to that of a novel. The two works are, as Gaiman suggests, born from 'two radio sets tuned to the same goofy channel', but what arises from that transmission is native to their form, each using the grammar of their medium with subtlety and grace.
This place. This point where you are looking around and poking your way through digital media. You don’t get here without an essential curiosity—a compulsion to chip away at the unexplored and to wander into the dimly lit unknown.
And the first step in that wandering is a decision to choose. Once you’ve made that decision, whether you end up going with the default or not doesn’t matter, because you will have considered and weighed your options, instead of just being pulled along with the crowd.
One of the biggest mistakes you can do is simply lump all digital media into one and pretend that it’s all the same thing. That’s like pretending that all print books are alike and that the distinction between novels, short stories, journalism, poetry, and comics isn’t meaningful.
Digital storytelling, once you’ve let it settle after shaking it up like a snow globe, tends to settle into two broad piles, each which can be subdivided into countless mini-piles.
The first pile, on your imaginary left, is games.
The second pile, on your imaginary right, is hypermedia.
There’s a bit of indistinct sludge in between the two where you can’t quite tell which pile it’s in. That’s okay. Crisp, paper-like boundaries are for print anyway.
Games are the more easily recognisable of the two. Not because there’s more of them (in fact, there’s less) but because they have a much clearer boundary. When you can’t figure out whether a piece of storytelling is a game or hypermedia, that’s because it isn’t fitting the definitions coming out of the games field. Hypermedia doesn’t care. Hypermedia loves everything and everybody. Possibly a little bit too much.
Games design is much too big a concept to be covered here. Like poetry and mechanised print, games predate digital by several millennia. Their principles, while benefiting enormously from digital, aren’t dependent on it.
The ‘hypermedia’ that predates computers, on the other hand, works in ways that are fundamentally different from actual hypermedia. To pull that off in print, you’d need to be able to perform instantaneous transformation of matter.
Because it isn’t the link, per se, that puts the ‘hyper’ in hypertext. It’s the instantaneous and dynamic transformation of one text into another when you press the link that gives hypertext the oomph we associate with hyper media.
Think ‘hyperspace’ and you’re on the right track.
The hypertext that you read and enjoy vastly outnumbers the games you play because hypertext is how the web and apps tell stories.
And almost everything we do on the web and in apps is storytelling.
Facebook’s a story. Twitter’s a story. Blogs are stories. Every website, every app, every chat platform, they’re all hypertext and they are all stories.
That most of these are also conversations doesn’t make them any less hypertextual because hypertext is fundamentally conversational. That’s what linking and dynamically including texts in a variety of context does. It makes conversations. That’s hypertext.
Even in a plain old web page, links are conversational. Unlike references, which are formal even at best of times, links can be witty, tragic, satirical, tongue-in-cheek, and laugh out loud funny, even when neither the linking or the linked text are any of these things. Simple things like linking from a person’s name to the page in a medical dictionary for restless leg syndrome can be hilarious in the right context, even when the tone of both texts is serious and deadpan. That’s hypertext.
Hilarious juxtapositions of tweets or Tumblr posts are a common enough phenomenon for it to become a regular trope on Twitter and Tumblr. That’s hypertext.
Even ebooks are hypertext, if only by virtue of their reading context. Some of them are only accidental hypertexts, sticking to print conventions and ideas even as they have lost all meaning and sense in digital. Others, like this book, are written as hypertexts first, where links are used as one of the primary punctuation marks—more common than the m-dash, less pretentious than the semicolon.
This isn’t a book; this is hypertext.
Because this text was written with digital first in mind—unlike those print books which have been skinned and then re-coated with a digital gloss—this is a loose, conversational, and sprawling hypertext that might well eventually be bundled up and stuffed into print form like a set of clothes stomped into a suitcase while the taxi to the airport is waiting outside.
Which is fine. If I don’t want you to criticise my preference for reading print books lifeless, skinned, and flattened into ebook form, I don’t get to criticise you for preferring to read the ebook as a bleeding, severed appendage cut off from its network.
Games design is huge. Lucky for us, there are a lot of books and websites covering the subject so we really don’t have to do the form an injustice by covering it badly.
My personal favourites are:
- A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster.
- Lost Garden by Daniel Cook. A website that is a treasure trove of notes, ideas, theories, experiments, and examples on games design theory and practice.
There are more and I’ll add them as I think of them.
Digital media of all kinds is built on a series of action feedback loops. You do something and the device gives you feedback on that action. It’s the foundation of User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design and the basis of everything we do in the field.
The core difference between the structural grammars of games and hypermedia is that in games the centre of meaning is in the action feedback loop but in hypermedia it is in the feedback loop’s context.
This difference in grammars expresses itself as different kinds of structures. Games are a tightly interwoven structure of feedback loops: one loop leads directly into another and they build on each other like Lego™ blocks. Sometimes that structure is hierarchical, i.e. levels of increasing difficulty and requiring increasingly complex actions: finish one to get to the next). Sometimes it is networked: e.g. a large space that you can explore where difficulty and complexity is distributed spatially.
In hypermedia, no matter whether it’s Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, A Story, Kottke’s weblog, or Twitter in its entirety the centre of meaning is in the context: where you get to after you take the action. The action only has meaning insofar that it affects the context. The page or tweet you see is what says something, the link and following it only modifies it.
The popularity of game mechanics in user interface design complicates things but mostly because they are usually badly thought out and not that unique to games.
Some of the things labelled as game mechanics are merely good UX design practices, like having clear, dynamic, and immediate feedback loops throughout your app. Others, like using leaderboards and the like to foster competition and manipulate your users into dehumanising their fellow people and thinking of them as things to be beaten is a tactic long used by the managers of sales teams. It, and a lot of other ‘game mechanics’ are only really competition mechanics and aren’t specific to games.
In the end, the ‘is it a game or not?’ question doesn’t matter to us. While the distinction between the two is important when it comes to understanding the strengths of each, it’s important also to understand that digital media (as well as a lot of non-digital media) can be more than one thing at the same time.
You can make a game that works just as well as just a story with all of the game’s feedback loops dialled down to ‘So Easy a Drooling Infant Could Do it’. You can make hypermedia, apps, and websites that can be played like games.
Absolutism doesn’t work for digital. Often the answer to the questions you ask yourself as a creator will be ‘both’.
I don’t remember the first time I told a story. None of us do. It doesn’t matter whether its genetic or learned, nature or nurture, storytelling is a basic human activity.
We only have two ways of teaching:
- A show-do loop. The teacher demonstrates. The student tries to do. Gets feedback from the teacher who my or may not show again. The student tries again. Repeat as necessary.
- Storytelling. The teacher encapsulates the showing, the doing, and the information needed to do, in a story.
Every teaching method or form is just a variation of one of those two, usually replacing the teacher or the storyteller with a technological proxy.
Games are strong on the former method: a feedback loop between showing and doing. Hypermedia is strong on the latter: even incomprehensible non-sequiturs are filled with narrative logic once you post them online, on the web, on Twitter, or on Facebook. The very context coopts everything that appears into telling a story.
In real life, how you teach isn’t limited to just one method but usually a mix of the two depending on the subject, strengths of the teacher, and the abilities of the student. The blurry line in digital media between games and hypertext is just a reflection of common practice.
What you teach isn’t limited to skills or knowledge, although that’s what we usually associate with teaching.
Sometimes what you teach is emotion. Feel the sting of murderous jealousy. Experience humbling shame. Understand the fear of death. Fall in, feel, and lose love.
This is what it feels like.
As teachers storytellers cannot just pour information into the heads of the listeners. They have to lead them to an understanding. It doesn’t have to be exactly the way you understand it—we all start in different places—but it needs to be of a kind with your understanding. Emotions need the same build-up, practice, demonstration, and experience as any other thing you teach.
And to be able to do that you need to understand your medium. You need to have at least made a conscious note about what you’re doing. Choose your medium. You need to know how that medium is and has been used. It doesn’t matter if your colleagues in that form aren’t doing what you’re doing, their techniques are relevant. Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Will Eisner’s Contract With God are, respectively, journalism, autobiography, and fiction but they share a form of storytelling. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a comic on cute cats, their methods are relevant to your work. Copy the way they do things. Try them for yourself. See what works for you and what doesn’t.
The same applies to games designers and hypermedia authors. Don’t limit yourself to the games or hypertext that are covering exactly the same subject as you are. The form is where the methods and the structure comes from. Copy ideas from apps, websites, and games.
Choose your structural grammar. Study it. Practice it. Repeat as necessary.
- Right out of the gate, early cinema focused on spectacle, fantasy, and documentary works. Most of the stage adaptations come after the special effects and documentary films. The crude and stage-bound nature of early film has more to do with the limitations and immobility of the cameras than an over-bearing influence of drama on the filmmakers. ↩
- Who’s with me on holding a party in 2021 celebrating the thousand year old birthday of the published novel? ↩
- Oral transmission coupled with the mnemonic aids of verse makes poetry less dependent on print for distribution and authorship. ↩