Tag Archives: Hamlet on the Holodeck

The Life-After-Life Replay Story is becoming a genre

Thanks to Andrew Marantz for calling my attention to this December 2015 interview with filmmaker Charlie Kaufman in which he describes a TV pilot he worked on with a plot structure similar to Life After Lifeexploring the alternate paths the same person’s life might have taken:

It seems that you would be an ideal person for an Amazon or a Netflix to throw a lot of money at and say, “Hey, make us a distinctive, Charlie Kaufman–esque show.”
I had a pilot at HBO that Catherine Keener was going to be in. The whole series takes place on one day. The premise of the show is that there are so many different accidents in your life that lead you in different directions, and as you look at someone’s life from birth to, let’s say, 50, there are so many different versions of that life that could have happened. My idea was that you take this woman, she is this age on this day, that’s the only given, and then each episode is based on a different route. Maybe it broke off here and the difference is very small; maybe it broke off when she was a baby, in which case it’s a completely different life. In the course of the series, you start to recognize, first of all, there’s clues given as to what these things were that happened that changed the course of her life. But there are also similarities in all these different versions of herself — about who she is. What I thought was really cool about the show, in addition to the premise, which I really liked, is that there’s no one right version of it. You can watch this in any order, and it’s a different show. The example that I like to use is that in one episode, she’s married to this man and you see their life together. In the next episode, she’s divorced from this man and you see her life having been divorced from this man. In a third episode, she and this man walk by each other on the street, clearly have never met. And depending on which order you watch the series in, there are different a-hamoments.

So what happened with it?
I wrote a first episode, and then they wanted to see a second episode because they weren’t sure what it was going to be. So I wrote a second episode. And I decided to make the second episode very, very different, so that they could see how it could be very, very different. The response I got from them was, “Well, I don’t see how this could be the second episode. It’s so different.” And it’s like, “Well, no. I’m not saying it’s the second episode. I’m saying it’s another episode. This isn’t like the order that the show has to go in if we want to establish the premise.” It may not be the real reason they didn’t want to do it, but they could not remove that idea from their head. Ultimately, they didn’t go ahead with the series.

This is clearly a genre that will work best on interactive platforms. The significant thing here is that both Charlie Kaufman and Kate Atkinson, Hollywood/experimental filmmaker and mainstream/experimental  British novelist  are conceiving of extended replay stories of this kind.

 

Hamlet on the Holodeck updated ebook

HoH ebook updated

New ebook-only edition revised for 2016 with over 10,000 words of new content in the form of chapter-by-chapter commentary, with new examples and useful web links illustrative of the enduring principles of design that have been validated by  multiple communities of practice — from game designers to digital journalists to VR developers —  since 1997 when it first appeared, and emphasizing productive design strategies for the next phase of creative innovation.

Future of Storytelling | Dramatic Agency

Here is a film that was made for my participation in the the 2015 Future of Storytelling Summit.

Source: Future of Storytelling | 2015 Films

Among the games that flash by are Dys4ia, Blood and Laurels, Unmanned, Every Day the Same Dream,  Framed,  Walden, Her Story, Papers Please, and Game of Thrones: Iron from Ice

The interactive TV projects are from my Georgia Tech eTV Lab

Games as human drama

A coda to my Last Word on Ludology v Narratology:

In this moment from the popular British sit-com Gavin and Stacey (BBC 2007-2010) — available now in the US on several streaming services including youtube and very worth watching — Nessa, a jaded woman of the world who now works in a small Welsh video arcade, explains why she is never bored watching customers play videogames:

 

My TED Talk 1998

The folks at TED have kindly dug up for me my 1998 talk which I still stand behind and which predicts the future well, but is also still timely. It is longer than the current crop, and more spontaneous. It falls into 4 segments  and it references other talks, some of which are on the TED website but most of which are not.

 

Here is a summary:

1.PREAMBLE: WE NEED EVERY MEDIUM TO EXPRESS OUR HUMANITY (first 5 minutes) I take issue with Julie Taymor who spoke disparagingly of screen-based experiences, and offered the rituals of Bali dancers ( invoked again in her 20** TED Talk) as the superior paradigm for art that addresses the human condition.  I also take issue with John Warnock, founder of Adobe and a rare book collector who described his meticulously prepared facsimile book series as purposely avoiding interactivity, such as searching by text, which makes it much less useful. I would still consider both positions examples of a fetishism for legacy forms of representation. (first 5 minutes).

2. ELIZA IS OUR CREATION MYTH (5:00 – 17:00) I compare the amazement at the birth of film (the legend of the Ciotat Train showing) to the  amazement at the birth of procedural storytelling (the legend of Eliza at MIT), as I do in Chapter 3 ofHamlet on the Holodeck, and as I have done with my students pretty much every semester for the past 20 years.

3. PROTOTYPE OF A  MULTISEQUENTIAL STORY WORLD STILL AHEAD OF ITS TIME 17:00- 2500)  show an MIT project I created with Freedom Baird, sponsored by IBM and based on Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy, The Norman Conquest. The TV dramas are also now on YouTube.  They were meant to be seen on three successive nights in any order, and each one is complete in itself but an exit in one play is an entrance in another play. This makes a nice comparison with Mitch Horowitz’s recent work on the Netflix version of Arrested Development, as I discussed in another post.   (timecode: )

4. WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? (last 30 seconds) I sum up as I do in Hamlet on the Holodeck, by comparing the development of conventions of interaction with the invention of the soliloquy in Shakespeare’s time.

Other references: John Warnock is the founder of Adobe and a rare book collector. At 1998 TED he presented a facsimile book series that purposely avoids interactivity, such as searching by text, which makes it much less useful. This is a good example of what I would now call legacy media fetishism.

Brenda Laurel, feminist game designer and pioneer of interactive storytelling, whose talk on her wonderful but short-lived series Purple Moon, is on the TED site.

Marvin Minsky, one of the seminal theorists of the field of Artificial Intelligence, who has a notorious blind spot for humanistic discourse. In the corridor between sessions Ben Shneiderman and argued with him. Minsky took the position that fictional stories were a waste of time because they were not true. Ben and I were appropriately outraged.

 

Where Are Gaming’s Role Models?

Warren Spector is a game designer and critic who has been advocating for more expressive games for over a decade. He has just started a new column with a familiar lament: Where Are Gaming’s Role Models?  Warren, who began his career expecting to be a film critic, points to a column by  NY Times critic Brooks Barnes about Hollywood stars  like Ben Affleck and George Clooney who persuade studios to let them make movies with serious social content. What would it take, he asks, to get the same kind of role models in the game industry?

It is not surprising that a question about games is framed as a deficit of heroes — role models of exemplary individuals. It is also not surprising that Spector should turn to an older narrative medium (and the most awarded Hollywood films of 2012) for evidence of more mature story lines:

Can you imagine a game about a guy on a spiritual quest in a boat with a tiger? How about two old people struggling with the pain of love and aging? Or the story behind a raid to kill the world’s most notorious terrorist? Okay, we could probably do an okay job of that last one, though probably not the events leading up to it – do you water board that guy or not? Seriously? But you get my point.

It is funny to imagine how the pitches for such imaginary games would be received by the big game companies. But we should also remember that  Ben Affleck (Argo) and Katherine Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) had a long tradition of serious war films to point to, including classic hits like Casablanca or Bridge on the River Kwai, in which disgust for war and admiration of  heroic self-sacrifice are interwoven in complex moral patterns.   Ang Lee’s highly original Life of Pi  exists in a number of similarly long  traditions including  human/beast moral fables like King Kong and ET and  journey/survival films like Lifeboat or Cast Away.  And of course there is no lack of French movies about Amour  — including many about the  amour of aging lovers  — for Michael Haneke to reference.

More importantly, each of these cinematic traditions can trace its roots back to much less serious adventure stories or soap operas, which would display the pattern that Warren describes when he says that

in 30 years of making games I’ve never been anything less than awestruck at the intelligence of the people playing and making what often seem like mindless entertainments.

In fact, I would argue that you can’t get to serious, engaged, complex story-telling without a strong tradition of “mindless entertainments” that lots of people watch and lots of people are rewarded for creating. That is what is called a tradition of practice for the makers and a popular genre (hence watchable/playable mindlessly) for the consumers.  And such formulaic traditions of practice are absolutely necessary to the creation of  socially important works  that actually engage and move people .

In Hamlet on the Holodeck,  I pointed out that the soliloquy that Shakespeare uses in Hamlet to explore the isolation of the modern consciousness and depths of his tragic hero’s self-doubts, began as a stage device for letting the audience in on the evil intentions of the villains in the bloody,  formulaic genre of the revenge play —  which were pretty much the equivalent of the mind-numbing  zombie games that Warren considers the nadir of current popular entertainment. No revenge plays, no soliloquys for Hamlet; no blockbuster videogames, no mechanics for expressive serious games that actually engage and move people.

I share Warren’s impatience and I applaud his efforts to nurture a more “grown up” game practice. But it may be that  the stealth mechanics  tradition of  Deus X  or the survival choices of The Walking Dead  ipad game  will prove to be foundational  to the creation of the culturally impactful games that Warren is asking for.  I’m very glad that we also have non-violent, artistically captivating  games  like the highly successful Journey with its  poetic shout mechanics and mindful play. (Maybe Jenova Chen is the hero Warren is looking for.) But even though I may not want to play kind of games Warren is making fun of, there is something to be said for the development of the conventions of interaction in a lively practice of mindless commercial entertainment.

Return to the Holodeck

In the 14 years since the publication of Hamlet on the Holodeck, there has been a rich and diverse expressive practice at the intersection of storytelling and interactivity.  This talk, which I gave as part of Georgia Tech’s GVU Brown Bag series in October 2011, surveys some representative examples of computational narrative forms and identifies  promising areas for innovation.