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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Modes of Storytelling

Modes of Storytelling

When we think of storytelling we tend to focus on a certain set of standard models. Generally speaking, a story has a beginning, a middle and an end, with a number of changes or beats throughout that propel the plot forward. There's the possibility, of course, that these sections are arranged out of order, but generally speaking there's still a beginning middle and end, and there's still a set of beats that--even if they aren't chronological--move the reader to some sort of understanding.

And then we have something like this:

"Classified: Baby Goods. For sale, baby shoes, never worn."

An alternate version tossed around is:

"For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn."

According to legend, Hemingway turned this sucker out on a bet that he couldn't create a story with a beginning, middle, and end in less than ten words. In a way, he seems to have succeeded.

But on further analysis he really hasn't.

Not strictly, at least.

See, the interesting thing about this passage is that it actually does not contain a beginning a middle and an end within the text itself. The story is there, but it is generated due to the reader's interactions with the text--not in the text itself. It is making us--the audience--do the extra work.

This might seem like a dumb, finnicky thing to say, and to some extent it is, but it's worth considering due to the possibilities it opens up. Namely, the idea that you can encapsulate the suggestion of an entire story of hope, tragedy, and loss within a single moment. This means that a single scene, a single message, a single image can contain within itself the catalytic power that prompts the reader to generate the rest of the story. Let's look at a few new storytelling modes that this opens up, shall we?

Implied Narrative

I've actually already explored one mode of this sort of implied storytelling in my article on mechanical horror. Remember our friend Cloistered Youth? I would argue that the storytelling there is very similar to what Hemingway is using in the tale above. The card really just represents two separate states of being. The story comes from the fact that you are the one in charge of the transformation, and that the transformation takes place within the context of a wizarding duel in which you apparently are capable of making some pretty foul bargains. The story is ultimately a product of the player reading the mechanics as indicative of a wider story, just as the Hemingway take depends upon the reader interpreting a classified ad as indicative of a narrative.

There are a few other good examples of this in recent Magic: The Gathering sets. Again, I've tried to pick out stuff that is easily grokkable by a general audience. Check out, for example, this interesting piece:

This card is pretty straightforward. You give a temporary boost to one of your creatures so that it's better in combat. But the flavor of the card is particularly interesting from a narrative perspective because of the implications it sets up. Look at the bravado of that flavor text! Look at those glowing weapons! Look at that stat bonus!

...Now look at the seemingly endless crowd of zombies the guy in the art is jumping into.

And then look again at that last bit of text: "till end of turn."

Yep, this heroism is just a momentary thing. Eventually this faith that our hero prizes so highly is going to start to fade. And when that happens... well... tell me, do you think it's likely that he'll have taken down all of those zombies? Or even most of them?

Yes, what's interesting about this card is that it implies a beginning, middle, and end using only the middle section. The beginning and end are going to be a highly individual thing, but I suspect that the start is in the midst of a desperate last ditch attempt to stave off the forces of darkness, and the end... well, let's just say it won't be pretty.

Implied History

Drawing further away from Hemingway's model is this card:

It's also a card that moves away from my mechanical horror idea, because the mechanics of the card don't really matter all that much. In fact, the only thing that matters is that flavor text:

Underling Ethu's 263rd report read simply "Yes, my lord. Overwhelmingly, my lord." This marked the end of the Mirran-Phyrexian War.

Let me give you some backstory. This card comes from the third set of cards relating the story of the Mirran War mentioned above--a war between the natives of the strange metal plane of Mirrodin and the horrific colonizing and corrupting force of Phyrexia. The Phyrexians are beings that will restructure, reprocess, debase, corrode, and corrupt anything in the name of progress and improvement. They are the personified nightmare of technology in the hands of utter monsters.

And they won.

Not only did they win, they won without mercy, without quarter, without anything other than a simple mechanistic impetus to purify.

Now, this flavor text does not, on its own, say much of anything. But with this backstory of desperate survival it suddenly creates an evocative picture that an actual description could never create. It is a picture of a final desperate battle for survival on the planet's surface, a last ditch attempt to avoid extinction. And not only did the Mirrans fail, they failed overwhelmingly. I love, in particular, that this failure is relayed not with dramatic, tragic language, but with the simple, curt efficiency of these utterly inhuman victors. The horror and the tragedy of this loss blows me away, and part of the impact comes from the fact that the entire scene is created by my own mind. I'm not translating someone else's vision. It's all my own, prompted by the chemical catalyst of this text and what I already knew of the wider history and storyline.

This is actually a technique that I've seen used to great effect in short fanfiction. Consider this little piece by LessWrong, author of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality:

(Note: Written after I heard Alicorn was writing a Twilight fanfic, but before I read Luminosity. It's obvious if you're one of us.)
"Edward," said Isabella tenderly. She reached up a hand and stroked his cold, sparkling cheek. "You don't have to protect me from anything. I've listed out all the upsides and all the downsides, assigned them consistent relative weights, and it's just really obvious that the benefits of becoming a vampire outweigh the drawbacks."
"Bella," Edward said, and swallowed desperately. "Bella -"
"Immortality. Perfect health. Awakening psychic powers. Easy enough to survive on animal blood once you do it. Even the beauty, Edward, there are people who would give their lives to be pretty, and don't you dare call them shallow until you've tried being ugly. Do you think I'm scared of the word 'vampire'? I'm tired of your arbitrary deontological constraints, Edward. The whole human species ought to be in on your fun, and people are dying by the thousands even as you hesitate."
The gun in his lover's hand was cold against his forehead. It wouldn't kill him, but it would disable him for long enough -

Ahyup. We can, from there, imagine a whole potential range of conflict and adventure, all generated from this text colliding with the original idea.

Implied Character and Emotion

But what if we don't want a full narrative arc? I mean, that last category certainly seems to be drawing rapidly away from the idea of a narrative anyway. Do we need it at all?

Strictly speaking, I guess we do if we want to tell a story, but it can be just as valuable, I think, to express a powerful emotion or a sense of a characterization within a single moment. And it can certainly be just as difficult, because it still requires taking a basically two dimensional work and plugging it into a reader's mind to create a three dimensional impression.

This card does that well:

Look at that flavor text. Just... really, try to read that without grinning just a little bit. The sense of self-awe is palpable. You can practically hear the realization dawning upon Oglor that he is a being of immense power... but that this power is actually totally secondary to that of his Frankensteinian master. It's delicious.

So, from this small line of text, and the context given by the name and the setting, we can construct in our minds a whole characterization for Oglor. It's not a strict beginning-middle-end story, but it's still a whole scene and predictable set of characteristics drawn from our own interactions with people and our familiarity with the Igor archetype in scifi-horror.

This category is actually exemplified best, I think, in poetry and image-based art. I think my favorite example of this kind of storytelling through a single moment is Alfons Mucha's Star and Siberia:

This is just stunning. Absolutely stunning. I started attempting to describe everything that makes this painting brilliant, and I just could not come up with a description that didn't sound like utter bullshit. I think the painting speaks for itself anyway. This is why I find this storytelling technique so effective--it forces the viewer to put the pieces together, and fill in the blanks in their own mind. The future and the past are simply products of our projection, triggered by the fleeting moment and what it signifies. It is an art, ultimately, of the suggestion--a kind of sleight of hand which convinces the audience to see what it wants to see.

And in the depths of our mind, our desire for narrative creates a sensation of an art that surpasses direct truth and enters into the sublime.

I'll be doing a followup article on this sometime next week. Remember my Shunga paper? It might have something to do with that. As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.


  1. This is a great article, and I share your interest in implied narrative and whatnot.

    I recently had an incredible interaction with a Winslow Homer painting titled "Fog Warning." Here it is:

    I've often found that visual art leaves me cold. This painting bucked that trend in a big way. The fisherman's dilemma here is clear (at least to me) - can he make it back to the ship before the fog bank rolls in and he's stranded? How much more time can he spend out here? He has to make a difficult decision. He watches his salvation bob in and out of view on the horizon as he rises and falls with the ocean swells. I was on the edge of my fucking seat.

    It is, to my thinking, an incredibly evocative story in a manner very similar to the Hemingway's baby shoes. I'd say more, but I've probably already murdered it enough. Just take a minute to drink in that picture, though.

  2. I'd just like to say that I enjoyed this article, I never could of imagined that a trading card game could act as a catalyst for such a deep meta-narrative. I am wondering if you know anything about the poetry of Ezra Pound, in particular from his Imagist period and onward? I am just curious, because when you mentioned how your understanding of the text of a Magic the Gathering card was "prompted by the chemical catalyst of this text and what I already knew of the wider history and storyline," it reminded me greatly of Ezra Pound's "ideogrammic method". Not to mention the fact that Ezra Pound was a big influence on Hemmingway and helped him get his writing career started.

    1. I do, actually, although I'm not as familiar with Pound and his theories as I am with his contemporary TS Eliot. It makes sense that imagist stuff lines up with what I've discussed here. Eliot's "Preludes" in particular works that way. I hadn't really thought of that before you mentioned it, though. Thanks.

      Did you read the followup article on porn? :P It's like this one, but sexy.

    2. Yes I did, you make a very compelling case. Oddly enough, your latest article is what brought me to this blog. I'll definitely be reading regularly.

    3. Glad to hear it :)

      And yeah, I think the majority of my readers are here because of that latest article. The last few days have been interesting.


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