I am so very tired of now! now! now! initiatives. So is the literary editor of the Daily Telegraph:
Storytelling is under assault in schools, universities and from the internet, but the power of narrative shows no sign of waning, says Sam Leith
“Tell me a story.” It’s a plea that echoes through the ages: not only the ages of human civilisation, but the ages of man. As a child, tucked up and ready for bed.
As an adult, settling deep into a popcorn-scented cinema seat as the house lights go down. In old age, becalmed, combing your memories. Telling stories is as old a game as language itself.
So it’s odd – not to say alarming – to read reports that some people seem to think we’re on the verge of running out of narrative. A group of academics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in cahoots with some Hollywood moguls, have announced the opening of a “Center for Future Storytelling”.
“The idea as we move forward with 21st-century storytelling is to try to keep meaning alive,” explains its founder David Kirkpatrick. Baffling.
I don’t understand why people value the new over the good, the useful, the proven. Stories are necessary, integral to our humanity. We’ve been telling them and listening to them for millennia. There’s nothing wrong with our storytelling abilities (or our story-listening or reading or watching skills, either). And the tools, frankly, are fairly unimportant. Who cares if a novel is on paper or e-ink or iPhone? As long as you can turn the page in a timely fashion, it doesn’t matter. Yet MIT’s Media Lab has earmarked millions for an earnest quest for ‘Future Storytelling‘, to make storytelling ‘more interactive’.
To me this is a quixotic quest. Story–good story, story that works–is interactive.
I’ve written a whole rant about this (“You Have Been Warned”). But, basically, story triggers our mirror neurons, it puts us there; in reading we recreate a fictional character’s experience inside ourselves. We literally live the story. How can you get more interactive than that?
11 thoughts on “MIT Media Lab’s ‘Center for Future Storytelling’ (tuh)”
I'm not opposed to it. I like video games, & I want them to be treated like art, not like merchandizing. Books, bring them on. I like theater, being in & also watching. Probably my prefered bit of storytelling is role-playing.>>So I'm for it. Not to the exclusion of the tried & true methods, but innovation can result in some pretty nice consequences.
I agree. Though being an MIT alum, knowing how creative MIT folks are, I’m excited to see what they come up with. I also really dig that they found money for this, and would love it even more if they gave away grants someday…!>>(By the way, I’m a fellow writer and Clarion grad. I just found your blog, and loved Ammonite…so I’m very pleased indeed.)
mordicai, I have nothing, not a thing, against technical innovation. I find, though, that I resent the notion of technology making story ‘more interactive’. Better stories make the story more interactive, not the delivery mechanism.>>monica, welcome. I love watching MIT and what they come up with, but, as I’ve said, this notion of better storytelling through technology just pisses me off. Any studio with $25m to spend should invest in writers.
Nicola, you said it best: “We literally live the story. How can you get more interactive than that?”>>I agree with you. Storytelling .is. interactive. In my mind it’s axiomatic; storytelling = interaction and vice versa. >I love MIT, but honestly, sometimes they confuse even me.>>Oh, by the way, we’ve got quite the storm coming through coastal Maine tonight. Rainy and windy with gusts up to 47+ mph. Our power went out (not unexpected). I had fun taking pictures of the candles in our house. One has been posted in < HREF="http://gallery.me.com/tennjd#100505" REL="nofollow">A View of One’s Own<>.
I find it interesting and disheartening the amount of money that is poured in to these ventures. The technology can yield interesting results but the number of books that this type of money could buy! It is frustrating sometimes,does this really pay a dividend to society? >>Janine, I like your photo, it yielded some very interesting patterns. Hope the power comes back soon.
I always feel that the problem with interactive stories is that not every choice is a good choice in terms of a narrative. There are reasons why it takes a year to write a book, three to six months to turn out a finished screenplay, and so on; one of them is restraint. >>A huge part of storytelling is the tease, the business of making an audience wait to get to the good bit.>>If you let the audience pick the story choices, a lot of the time the story’s over in five minutes, and a bit of a damp squib. Interactive stories suffer from this, and from the converse: restrictive decision-making opportunities, where whatever you do kicks you back to the intended route.>>The second one’s soluble… the first one, I’m not sure about.>>That said, I’ve loved any number of new entertainments. I’m something of a Warcraft junkie at the moment – though that’s as much a giant virtual artwork as it is a narrative. (The new continent is just drop dead gorgeous, with atmospheric music and so on. The stories within… hasty. A bit dull.)>>I suspect the lab will discover that Future Storytelling is a lot like present storytelling, but with tools we don’t have yet. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it is a bit like those research papers to establish that pigeons can’t do advanced particle physics. All perfectly true, but one wonders why anyone would need a full study before they could say it with confidence.
janine, that lantern is pretty.>>rory, well, sometimes these weird spending initiatives do bring in more money or create Good Things, but it feels pretty random. But pure science is the same. Let’s hope for something nifty this time.>>nick, I think ‘interactive stories’ are just complicated and automated decision trees. They’re not real story at all. In real story, if one thing changes, everything changes.>>When I got my first computers I stripped out every game in self-defence. I got hopelessly addicted to even the most simple. Pathetic. So now I don’t play games, any kind of games. They trigger weird obsessional stuff for me. Best to avoid completely.
Nicola– I should first agree with your over-all point; I'm sick of the patronizing attitude of a lot of these kinds of initiatives, &/or the reporting on them. I do think that “interactive media” like video games &– well, mostly video games– have brought something to the table.>>You make a strong point to Nick below– that “interactive stories” are generally just decision trees & not really interactive. I am there with you (& I'm again thinking of my weekly RPG, for which this isn't true) but isn't that the direction “next generation” interactivity can & should (& is?) going?
I used to be one of those people who believed technology would bring “new and better storytelling” to the world. I got excited whenever I read articles like the one announcing the opening of a “Center for Future Storytelling.” Today, I thought bleakly, “MIT has been doing this for decades now.” >>I remember reading < HREF="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0262631873?ie=UTF8&tag=teapot-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0262631873" REL="nofollow">Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace<> when it first came out, in 1998. I went around telling everyone about The Future of Storytelling. I was that naive. It’s been ten years now and I’ve yet to see the projects MIT was working on back then go big. >>I’ve come to think news about anything “future” are just a way to get funding happening. Ugh, I even went that route myself when I was a believer. Guess what I called one of my projects that received financing from the Mexican National Fund for Arts and Culture? <>Interactive Storyteller<>. *lowers head in shame* >>I hope MIT goes open source with these tools they’re trying to develop. But if they’re getting their funding from the movie industry, I doubt it. In my opinion, proprietary software these days goes the Dodo’s Way. The article isn’t very detailed, but from what I could gather, they’ll be working on some sort of < HREF="http://www.machinima.com/" REL="nofollow">Machinima<> on steroids. Which could be a really good thing. I made a few Machinima shorts flicks back in the days of the Doom and Quake physics engines. >>Highly customizable Machinima would be a sweet deal. But didn’t < HREF="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnE64DbnUzY" REL="nofollow"><>Final Fantasy: the movie<><> advocate the same thing in 2001? That actors and sets and so on would not be necessary to produce movies anymore, that any civilian with a computer and a good story in their heads could produce a blockbusting feature film, that the world of entertainment would be known as before and after <>FF<>? And none of that happened. The studio that created <>FF:The Sprits Within<> crashed, the production was unsustainable, and we went back to our regular mix of live actors and CGI. Machinima, on the other hand, is still very alive because of its fair-use and open-source-like nature. >>These days, I’ve traded my computer programming books and motion sensor installations for Creative Writing workshops. I’m not saying that text on a page is the best and most elevated medium we can use to tell our stories. But it is pretty powerful and has been proven since its inception. >>Even in video-gaming, I haven’t experienced the thrill of the early text-based MUDs such as Zork. I remember the anticipation of typing, “Turn on lamp,” after having gone under a trapdoor into a pitch-black dungeon with only the faint glow of my sword, afraid of the grues that would find and tear me to pieces before they ate me. Then the following text appeared: “The lamp is now on. You are in a dark and damp cellar with a narrow passageway leading east, and a crawlway to the south. On the west is the bottom of a steep metal ramp which is unclimbable. The trapdoor crashes shut, and you hear someone barring it.” Eek! It used to give me goose-bumps in a way no other video game, including World of Warcraft, has been able to replicate. There’s something about text: it was all happening in my head; the story was inside me and I couldn’t escape the cellar once the trapdoor was shut, I couldn’t ignore the terrible certainty that the grues were coming for me. With WoW, I still feel everything is happening on the screen in front of me. I only have to reach out and turn it off. Poof, gone. >>We’ve come a long way from Zork and LISP and all those MUDs. World of Warcraft is indeed a work of art and it blows my mind whenever I play it. But do we go in for the storyline masked as “quests”? Nope. I bet Nick has also installed the QuestHelper add-on, as has 90% of the rest of WoW players. The add-on tells you where to go, what to kill or find without having to read the blurbs the Non Player Characters give you. Because we don’t want to read a story when we’re playing WoW! We just want to move our avatar, fight this, kill that, spit on the enemy, complete the tasks so we can level up and be more powerful and kill more things. And we want to do all that without having to read. It’s a different kind of stimulation and reward system than the one we engage in when we agree to read a good short story or a novel. I’m frankly pretty skeptical as to how those two mindsets could be joined into a more “interactive” experience. >>If MIT makes mashing-up easier and accessible, then that’s great. I get the feeling the Center for Future Storytelling has more to do with the movie industry trying desperately to survive the YouTube takeover, though. I also suspect they won’t be as generous as Google has been; they’ll be hoarding because the movie industry lives on pay-per-view, while Google’s economic model is based on making tools and content available to users for free. But we’ll see. It’s been really long since the last time I got excited by technology. It’d be nice to go gaga again.
I just learned to really use a computer five years ago, for god’s sake! I write on a yellow legal pad as much as I do on WordPerfect. But the main thing to me is that the ability of story tellers is uneven. We are all compelled to tell, write, paint act, draw, film and photograph our stories and others. I have difficulty writing, but I am a very talented reader. I think writers do the hard work, but they don’t write in a vacuum. They need a bunch of readers to fall passionately in love, whether its with science, math or literature. Everything else is just gossip.
Wow, quite a meme to open on a >Thanksgiving morning here in rainy SoCal. I am a story-teller. She whispers in my ear, tell me a story as we wend our way into the wonders of lovemaking. Buttons undone, zips unzipped, lip to lip we lick and nibble while I conCock a tale to embroil us.>>Tell me the story she wails but make it faster. So I begin to snip details, leave out actions, gather conversations into one or two actors.>>No machinima, I am the machine which runs on a wish, a prayer, and a dime.>>There she says, lick just there.
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