I’m a storyteller. I see the world in stories. That’s not saying much, because this is true of everyone. What is a story, after all? It’s an organization of reality, an illusionary order imposed by our brains to make sense of the fundamentally nonsensical universe. So why say I’m a storyteller? Because it means something else to most people, and the difference between that meaning and my meaning is what I want to talk about. For those with some knowledge of narrative theory this won’t be anything new or interesting, except maybe the stuff about video games and D&D later.
When most people think “story”, they think a book, or a movie, or whatever. Words, images, a sequence of events experienced by and actions taken by characters, fictional or non. For most people, a story is a distinct entity, separate from them, that they may borrow for a time but that remains outside of them. If a story is in a forest and no one’s around to read it, is it still a story? Most people say yes. The answer is no.
Well, not necessarily, because “story” is just a word and it means whatever you want it to mean, whatever meaning you endow it with, but there are other words for that sort of thing. “Text”, usually: if a text is in a forest and no one’s around to read it, is it still a text? Yes. (Well, actually, I would say no, because I think that all that really exists is the relationships between things and that the idea of “things” is just another false order constructed by our brains to make sense of nonsense, and so something without any relation to anything else doesn’t exist, but that’s for another time.) Unless you mean something else. But using a different word isn’t the problem; the problem is that people don’t accept that anything exists besides text. That, whatever you want to call it, there is something more than text.
When you watch a movie or read a novel or experience any kind of narrative (or anything at all, really; remember, stories are just organization), you connect with the text. You engage with it, interact with it, whatever. Your experience is not the text, it is of the unique relationship between you and the text. Everything that is you–your memories, experiences, knowledge, friends, thoughts, ideas, dreams, whatever–affects how you experience the text. Think about when you see a movie with your friends. You all saw the same thing, the same text; yet afterwards, when discussing it, do you bring up the same scenes, the same lines, the same moments? If your friends are very similar, maybe, but even so, your experience was different. What you felt during the movie was your own experience, distinct from everyone else’s (although nonetheless related, because there is of course the commonality of the movie). That is story.
We do understand this implicitly on some level; we know that we like some movies that other people don’t. We know that moments in movies mean things to us and mean other things to other people. But somewhere along the line we learn to treat that as separate from the experience of a text, as if those were flaws and idiosyncrasies that we shouldn’t really talk about because there’s supposed to be only one interpretation, one meaning, one experience: there’s just the movie and that’s it. Anything else is personal and therefore irrelevant. (Think of “objectivity” in movie reviews. And of course as everything is a story this also applies to reality in general, the desire for “objectivity” in anything. Journalism and the media are a particularly nasty incarnation of this, claiming “objectivity” in order to avoid ever facing their own influences and biases our saying anything of actual value. And politics and justice . . . but I digress, as always.)
This is easier (and harder) to understand if you consider video games. In a video game, personal influences are direct, because the text actually responds to your interpretations of it. The text is interactive. Or so it seems, anyway. In fact the text isn’t really changing at all, of course, because everything in the game was produced long before you played it. It isn’t creating anything new, it’s simply showing you different facets of the same text. (The core of Bioshock‘s brilliance is its skewering of this illusion of interaction and choice.) This happens in movies, too: watch a movie for the second time and you pick up things you didn’t notice the first. It’s the same thing in video games but it’s more obvious.
It’s different, of course, than movies. Video games don’t provide a linear narrative, they provide a narrative space, a set of interconnected narrative components that have to a greater (open world games) or lesser (adventure games) degree of disorder. In video games the linear narrative always changes (more-or-less) even if the underlying text doesn’t.
But while mechanically video games are very different from movies in providing (and necessitating) interaction, in terms of narrative this is actually only a change of degrees. Movies have a narrative space, too: you choose (or your brain chooses, or whatever) what parts of a movie affect you each time you watch it, what your thoughts on a particular moment are, how you react and feel to the movie in general. Mechanically you’re just sitting there, watching; but mentally, the experience is not very different from a video game, despite appearances. (For some reason I’m reminded of wave-particle duality in physics and the way that the smaller in scale you go the more individual particles start to act like dispersed waves. Movies are matter at a macroscopic level: you really can’t see the wave-nature, the narrative space, unless you already know it’s there. Video games are like atoms: sometimes they look like waves, but most of the time they’re still pretty discrete and countable. What’s next?)
The text of a video game doesn’t change because the creators aren’t there with you, responding to it. A text really can’t change, in fact, because then it’s not a text. There are, however, narratives, or games, that change in response to your input. The experience of life, which as I said is composed of stories/narratives, is one of them, because the “text” of life changes. Not the events or the physical reality, but the people. Everyone you know is creating their own stories of their own lives, and the interaction between these stories is the heart of lfie. But that’s not really what I was getting at. I was getting at more obviously constructed (or fictional) narratives that take that fact–that a changing “text” requires a person to be making up the text with you–and use it to create the most open narrative space outside of life.
This occurs in any kind of game that involves more than one person. (And begs the question, when does a game end and life begin? Is a discussion between friends a game or life? I don’t think the answer is particularly useful, because again it’s a matter of degrees. I don’t think there’s a useful difference between “fiction” and reality because all we experience is constructed stories.) In fact, movies and novels and other supposedly linear texts can be affected by this as well: when you discuss a movie with your friends, aren’t your opinions of the movie, your experience of the movie, changed and evolved? Again, this is only a matter of degrees. But this most impacts, and most obviously impacts, games like D&D, which have a set of rules–a text–but the experience of which is crafted by a real person–the DM–as others play the game. (And the rules are more like guidelines, anyway.) And in a very real way, the DM is playing the game, too (with different rules, from a different position, from a different perspective, with another story).
This is what really fascinates me about D&D. It is, essentially, a multiplayer narrative, a group of people getting together to collaboratively tell stories. Granted, D&D especially (when compared with other RPGs) tends away from this and towards hack-and-slash combat (although that is still a story), but D&D is also fairly simple and relatively easy to get people to play (and I’ll hopefully be running a D&D campaign this fall). Again, any time people interact with each other they’re doing this, but most of the time they won’t admit that, or can’t see that; D&D is a group of people together with the intent of constructing a story. At its worst it’s disgusting escapist fantasies of chaos, violence, and power, but at its best it’s something beautiful and moving.
I recall a presentation by Will Wright, creator of Sim City and The Sims and the upcoming Spore, where he discussed narrative applied to video games in terms like this. He discussed Grand Theft Auto, a game known both for its complex, well-crafted linear narrative and its open-ended gameplay, and the fact that when people talk about the game, they don’t talk about the linear “story” the game tries to tell them, but about all the crazy shit they did inbetween–the actual story, to them. And he said a very smart thing: that the crazy shit people do in GTA means more to them than the carefully constructed story of Tommy, or Nico, or whoever, because they made it themselves.
I love linear narratives; there are many movies and novels and televsion shows and even video games whose linear narratives have affected me deeply. But they only affect me because I connected to them, because they neared something that means something to me in my own life. The more of a story people get to construct themselves, the closer it is to real life, and the more it means to them. Has a D&D story ever meant more to me than some of my favorite movies? Maybe not. But it has the potential to. It can do things that no movie or novel or even video game ever can.