Stories and their media


So, I was reading this Edge Online interview with Cory Doctorow about videogames, when one particular answer made my eyes pop out.

I was a giant Marc Laidlaw fan when he was a novelist, and when he went off to write Half-Life I was like, well we’ve lost a great one. And my wife plays a lot of Half-Life and Portal and I came to appreciate how amazing they are at storytelling.

Marc was good enough to come and speak to some of my students when I was teaching in Seattle at the Clarion workshop. What he described as a storytelling methodology was really interesting. He said by the time you’re writing dialogue or cutscenes as a way to tell the story, you’ve already failed.

That made me think: imagine if Saving Private Ryan was one long string of battle scenes, except when advancing the plot it'd switch to scrolling text. Oh wait, some webcomics already do that. You just got used to the art style, when suddenly prose! And it's not that I would mind reading a short story on the side, but not when I came expecting, you know, a new comic page.

What is it with people hating the medium they work in? It's especially visible in silent movies: they couldn't have sound, and instead of adopting storytelling techniques from, say, ballet (which had "only" existed for five centuries at that point), they were struggling to put words in front of the audience anyway. And title cards were woefully inadequate for the task.

Ironically, I've seen modern movies that barely use or need any words, even though nowadays they can say all the words they want.

Of course, the trouble with videogames is that they're a fundamentally new medium. Theatre had the precedent of oral storytelling. Novels had the precedent of letters. Film could borrow from theatre, however poor the fit. But interactive media are something radically new and different, and that confuses the hell out of most storytellers.

Except, you know, they're not. Ever since the detective mystery novel was invented, stories have been a dialogue between author and audience. More recently, tabletop roleplaying has amply demonstrated how stories can be created gradually from a natural back-and-forth between people. We can make stories together, and we know how, too. We just need to accept that the 21st century author can no longer sit on a pedestal reciting big words to a dumbstruck audience.

But I guess that's hard to do in a culture fixated on the Romantic notion that creativity is a rare, special gift bestowed on a precious few people who then proceed to create out of divine inspiration and nothing else. And it's grand time we exterminated this brainbug once and for all.