Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives
Developing thoughts on digital narratives.

As many of you know, I'm currently cranking up my digital skills to apply to grad school. I've been feeling out different programs for years, and I've finally found the direction I want to take – the catch is, I really need to put my money where my mouth is in order to actually get in. To that end, I am now furiously studying both programming techniques and some of the definitive works of Media Studies in order to improve my chances. The more I work on this, the more certain I become that yes, this is the direction I want to go next. I picked up a copy of Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media, which is a small dense book of theory and philosophy about the impact of media upon human development, and it's incredible. I definitely want to get into some kind of academic setting where we can talk about this, because the work is so dense that I'd love to have someone to talk to about it, but even alone I'm really enjoying it.

There is one thing, though, which I'm sure is actually a Good Sign. As I continue down this path, I'm becoming increasingly aware how vague and overambitious my old question, "What is digital storytelling?" actually is. For me, it's no longer enough to simply bat around definitions. 'Digital storytelling' can mean using technology to tell true personal stories, or to help others record their stories, or to tell stories that could not have been told without such technology, or even to just use digital technology to tell stories, period. These are the things from which amazingly banal academic schisms are formed. What really matters, IMHO, is how that technology can help drive the art form and shape the art of the narrative in the 21st century.

Here's two of the things I've been thinking about in the last two weeks.

  1. Hot versus cold media

    McLuhan describes media as existing in two categories: hot or cool. 'Hot' media is high-resolution and low-involvement, whereas 'cool' media is low-resolution and high-involvement. A movie is 'hot' because it's a very rich sensory experience, with lots of very detailed visuals and audio creating a very real environment in which the user only has to sit and enjoy it. A comic strip, however, is 'cool' because they are so often simply-drawn sketches (so a reader has to interpret what they're intended to mean) with a good deal of the action occurring in the spaces between each panel (so the reader has to extrapolate what's actually happening there): again, low-resolution, high-involvement.

    So what, do you suppose, would McLuhan call a video game? As technology improves, it's only a matter of time before videogames become made from real video frames, which the computer then alters and serves up in real time – truly interactive cinema. High-resolution, high-interaction. Sounds a lot like life, doesn't it?

  2. The coming age of the digital Renaissance man

    Personally, I'm fairly excited about the improvements in digital technology, because I believe that the future of narrative is going to be exactly what I just described: high-resolution, high-interaction stories. Much like videogames, only more robust, involved and even more literary. Someday someone is going to write a videogame based on Shakespeare, or the War of the Roses, etc. In the same way as Myst provided escapism without turtles to stomp, I think there will be a real market for worlds to explore that simply unfold narratives as you go. I keep thinking someone should create a digital version of Prospero's island, with a virtual Caliban running around wreaking havoc. Why not?

    I think in the future, these digital storytellers will be true Renaissance men. Personally, I'm trying to hone my skills in music, writing, art, programming, all of these things so that I can sit in my garage and create a truly innovative piece of work. Do I think that collaborations between people will still be important? Absolutely – but I also forsee more digital narrative artists tackling videogames the same way as comic writer/artists like Jeff Smith and Dave Sim do double duty on their books. I think we'll have more Sid Meiers and American McGees and Will Wrights, and I think that's great. The rise of indie videogames will most likely echo the rise of indie cinema and indie publishing, and as those games become more and more artistically interesting, I think the form will gain credibility. Gen X and Gen Y have grown up with games, and we're not growing out of them anytime soon. It only makes sense that the form will grow with us.

  3. How important is interactivity, and why?

    Videogames like Final Fantasy deserve their great reputations because they consistently deliver great, uncliched stories. There's a real sense of narrative innovation and style there, and I think that the medium as a whole will do well to continue to experiment along those lines.

    However, in many cases the amount of story is inversely proportionate to the amount of interaction. This makes sense – the more freedom they give the user to write their own stories, the more difficult it becomes to implement such classic storytelling techniques such as pacing, character development or even plot. So where's the sweet spot?

Anyway, those are the things I'm thinking about right now. More, I'm sure, will follow in the weeks ahead.

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