Story and Storage: An overview (Part 1)

I’ve realized that I have been rather fast and loose with what I have been writing about over the last week or so. In wanting to record my thoughts on the subjects, I haven’t taken the time to say from where I am getting these ideas and would like to attempt to fix that — while also supplying a working list of authors and articles as suggested reading for others.

The first work I would like to highlight is “Database as Symbolic Form” by Lev Manovich (RTF, HTML). It is a much more recent read in the growing list of articles that I have been pulling ideas from, and represents, for me, a major point in changing how to unite both database theory and narrative structures together by looking at them separately and seeing where they might overlap.

My normal approach to reading materials like this is to highlight quotes that speak to me by writing them down. If I can ever get away from that tactile approach — and ending up with sometimes dozens of pages of physical notes in the process — I might get around starting some type of Tumblr account at some point so as to quickly post certain quotes as I come across them. In the meantime, I take the time here to write about my methods because this post will be mostly a listing of quotes that I have been using in order to build how I understand the differences between what a database is and how narrative might arise from interacting with it. I plan to expand on some of them in later posts, with this primarily being a summary and jumping off point of concepts I plan to cover in the future.

“The user is trying to build a mental model of the computer world.”

If there was ever a sentence that captured my imagination and hooked me into paying attention to an article faster, I’ve yet to find it. This single thought is exactly what I have been trying to put forth across a number of blog posts and even in some papers I have written for classes. It represents how I feel about the interaction of users with systems: as we work within it, we build a mental map of its grammar. The more we use software, the closer we get to understanding it. We model as we move.

“The world is reduced to two kinds of software objects that are complementary to each other: data structures and algorithms.”

It’s so simple that it is often overlooked in our daily interaction with computers. We use algorithms, steps for processing data, in connection with data itself constantly. If everything in the digital world is constructed, at some level, of structures of data then there are two main forms, the data itself and the instructions for accessing the data (which is itself data). A collection of data is therefore a database and the method of accessing different portions of it is an algorithm, a list of instructions. The difference between the two exist as contrasts: data is specific, but often unordered, while an algorithm is highly ordered, but often unspecific.

“As a cultural form, database represents the world as a list of items and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world.”

There it is. The idea of a trajectory across a database is something I have grown highly attached to as a way to explain how new media objects, like video games, can give rise to narratives. As we experience events, we construct a mental model — like yesterday’s post — that are are passages we create through a text by collecting up elements of the database, the events in text, as we pass through it. The chronology of events, especially in this light, takes on a highly important role in trying to create a cohesive narrative.

“Just like a game player, a reader of a novel gradually reconstructs an algorithm (here I use it metaphorically) which the writer used to create the settings, the characters, and the events.”

Mastery of the system. In looking at video games, we use the terms of “reconstructing an algorithm” in conjunction with mechanics. As we play games, we learn how the system works, how we can traverse its database in other words, and can predict future events or even arrange them by how well we have an understanding of the mechanics of the game. The better we get at playing the game, taking on its metaphors and applying them, the better equipped we are at understanding both the virtual world of the characters and that of the relationships between the objects in the world and the game engine that renders and maintains them itself.

“In general, creating a work in new media can be understood as the construction of an interface to a database. In the simplest case, the interface simply provides the access to the underlying database. For instance, an image database can be represented as a page of miniature images; clicking on a miniature will retrieve the corresponding record. If a database is too large to display all of its records at once, a search engine can be provided to allow the user to search for particular records. But the interface can also translate the underlying database into a very different user experience.”

I’m going to write more about this idea in a later post, but I agree with the concept that, to paraphrase McLuhan, how we view data shapes how understand it. An interface provides us a glimpse into a limited selection of the data. It is but a perspective on how the items might be arranged. There are some very powerful ideas embedded in the languages used to parse, understand or even query databases. The fact that programmers often have to switch between different linguistic paradigms, something I know from experience, speaks to how data is crafted through different lens and, ultimately, presented to a user in a different form than it is stored, accessed or even sorted.

“The ‘user’ of a narrative is traversing a database, following links between its records as established by the database’s creator. An interactive narrative (which can be also called ‘hyper-narrative’ in an analogy with hypertext) can then be understood as the sum of multiple trajectories through a database. A traditional linear narrative is one, among many other possible trajectories; i.e. a particular choice made within a hyper-narrative. Just as a traditional cultural object can now be seen as a particular case of a new media object (i.e., a new media object which only has one interface), traditional linear narrative can be seen as a particular case of a hyper-narrative.”

I basically said as much in the earlier paragraph, but this this links, if you can pardon the pun, to hypertext theory. An author sets down the ordering and connections between the textual objects and the user must discover the pattern that is at work in them. For web-native content, it is a pretty common metaphor of how a user might access data. They follow one link to another to another and make their way from page to page or even move between objects. In video games, we follow this method even more rigorously as even the very worlds in which we play are highly designed; everything within it is constructed and placed.

“To qualify as a narrative, a cultural object has to satisfy a number of criteria, which literary scholar Mieke Bal defines as follows: it should contain both an actor and a narrator; it also should contain three distinct levels consisting of the text, the story, and the fabula; and its ‘contents’ should be ‘a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors.’ Obviously, not all cultural objects are narratives. However, in the world of new media, the word ‘narrative’ is often used as all-inclusive term, to cover up the fact that we have not yet developed a language to describe these new strange objects.”

It’s an interesting criteria that Manovich highlights from Bal. To unpack it here would be somewhat of a disservice to the ideas and so I will try to break it out into a post of its own at some point in the future. However, I wanted to include it because I think it is worth investigating if this same criteria applies to video games and if, for some games in particular, it might not work at all. As something to think about, and to start a conversation on it, consider the problems if the actor and narrator are the same person.

“Thus, a number of database records linked together so that more than one trajectory is possible, is assumed to be constitute ‘interactive narrative.’ But to just create these trajectories is of course not sufficient; the author also has to control the semantics of the elements and the logic of their connection so that the resulting object will meet the criteria of narrative as outlined above. Another erroneous assumption frequently made is that by creating her own path (i.e., choosing the records from a database in a particular order) the user constructs her own unique narrative. However, if the user simply accesses different elements, one after another, in a usually random order, there is no reason to assume that these elements will form a narrative at all. Indeed, why should an arbitrary sequence of database records, constructed by the user, result in ‘a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors’?”

I think I disagree with this. It’s obvious to say that, if I accessed random pages in a novel, for example, I might not get a coherent narrative. The same could be said for a collection of frames in a movie or even different parts of a game. However, I think the problem in this argument is in the terms used. While I completely agree with not getting a narrative from random elements, I think that Manovich overlooks the ability of new media objects to have unique mechanics within their texts that allow for a reconfigurable nature of their units. It is possible to get a narrative from a different trajectory across the textual units, even a seemingly random one, because of the interface (i.e. algorithm) used to access them.

“Rather than trying to correlate database and narrative forms with modern media and information technologies, or deduce them from these technologies, I prefer to think of them as two competing imaginations, two basic creative impulses, two essential responses to the world. Both have existed long before modern media. The ancient Greeks produced long narratives, such as Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey; they also produced encyclopedias. The first fragments of a Greek encyclopedia to have survived were the work of Speusippus, a nephew of Plato. Diderot wrote novels – and also was in charge of monumental Encyclopédie, the largest publishing project of the 18th century. Competing to make meaning out of the world, database and narrative produce endless hybrids. It is hard to find a pure encyclopedia without any traces of a narrative in it and vice versa. For instance, until alphabetical organization became popular a few centuries ago, most encyclopedias were organized thematically, with topics covered in a particular order (typically, corresponding to seven liberal arts.) At the same time, many narratives, such as the novels by Cervantes and Swift, and even Homer’s epic poems – the founding narratives of the Western tradition – traverse an imaginary encyclopedia.”

As a way to wrap up this post for today, and not have it extend another thousand words, I’d like to note that I really like this comparison of the two new media themes of database and narrative to that of the epic and encyclopedia. It’s, to break it down into three words, the difference between story and storage. While one seeks to convey information through actors creating a parallel, the other delivers knowledge through examples and object relations. Yet, both mix with each other: their ordering encodes meaning and the method of access prompts understanding.