Sunday, June 08, 2008

Why is the book world NOT threatened by gamers?

I don't normally do this, but I am moved to write a response to a post on the Guardian Tech blog by the journalist Aleks Krotoski on the subject of book publishing, computer games, and asking generally why is it that the publishing industry seems so behind the times. Her point is effectively an argument for the oncoming wonders of interactive storytelling.

I have written about this before (here) and made the basic point that the differences between games and storytelling are not simply a matter of one being a restrictive version of the other, but rather that there are key differences. Editing being one, and the role of the hero being another. So-called "interactive storytelling" isn't, in my view, something that is practically achievable because of these two key traits.

She writes: "In computer games, for example, the player is the hero."

No, she isn't. This is an essential and oft-misunderstood point. The player appears to be a hero because in a movie the hero is a walking talking thing with arms and legs that does stuff, and if I play a videogame I am also a walking talking thing that does stuff. QED? No. A hero in a story is an essential part of the structure of the story. Their personality and character, bad decisions and good are what make them as much a part of the story as the setting and the incidental characters. In a videogame, the player is not a hero. The game character that they manipulate is simply a doll, a suit of clothes, a projection of themselves into a game world. The player's mind is immersed in a world through that doll, but they do not become the doll (as in adopt their actual personality, motivations and whatever).

The publishing industry really doesn't have any cause to be afraid of what's going on in computer games. While there are many fans of the idea that games represents some great departure into a branching new age of multiple stories and generative solutions, there aren't any good games that back this notion up. One of the most recent (Grand Theft Auto IV, which is fantastic, play it) is a great example of how gaming and sliced story segments can work really well together, but it isn't a threat for an author of a novel.

Hanif Kureshi has it right. From Aleks's article: "At a recent literary event, I asked author Hanif Kureshi what he makes of interactive literature - the kind emerging across blogs, social networking sites and in the virtual sprawl of computer games. He poo-pooed the idea of co-authorship with unknowns, unless he could ensure that collaboration was with someone "good", and appeared reluctant to relinquish the control he has over the narrative experience."

The implication being that Kureshi is simply being a fraidy cat. He's not, what he's voicing is experience: Authorship is hard, and it's a mostly internal process. While there is some virtue in the idea that the wisdom of crowds might be applied to editing or offering constructive criticism, the authoring doesn't really scale. One only needs to look at various efforts across Facebook and Penguin's experiments to realise that crowd-writing of fiction is generally bloody awful (whereas crowd writing and editing of fact like Wikipedia is great). It's not simply because most people who write are bad writers; it's because the fiction process requires structured imagination and experimentation to work.

In Aleks's piece, she writes "Books are the equivalent of single-player games and old-school websites. They are snapshots of information at a single point in time, where stories are created and navigated from the point of view of one person. Social media has changed the nature of information gathering and production, and multiplayer games have re-inspired collaborative play. Static media which insists on remaining static is on its way to becoming a curiosity."

Except it isn't. Games sales may be on the rise but so are book sales. We may be using utilites such as the internet to have great big global conversations, but we are usually conversing about the supposedly-boring static media. What the interactive-set hope for is essentially a future where the novel, the album or the painting becomes a fluid thing, but realistically it's just a fantasy borne from reading a bit too much William Gibson. There is no global conversation without topics of conversation. Mashups need starting points. Fan pages need something coherent to be a fan of.

We really are at the limit of where games and stories meet, and it turns out that they just don't have a lot in common. Games in reality have much more in common with architecture, the visual arts and mathematical systems than they do with stories. What I find interesting is this idea that has gotten into many journalists (and developers) that their goal is to take on Hollywood, or Big Publishing, when I think they should be looking much more at the world of modern art for their cues and inspiration.

Immersion does not have to be (and usually is not) achieved through storytelling-ish or even quasi-storytelling-ish means. It's all about ambience, vibe, triggers, music, good game controls, and true fluidity. GTA IV's genius is, and this has always been the case, that it embraces fluidity right down to the gameplay by dispensing with trying to be storytellers and instead using story snippets simply as a part of the ambience. In GTA, story is basically the thing that gives context to the missions, adds to the vibe, and generally stays very far away from trying to impose, inspire or whatever.

It's not interactive storytelling, it's interactive architecture. Kureshi need not worry.

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