Truth Statements in Post-Primary Narrative: Alabaster

Truth and fiction have had quite the volatile relationship. Most people can agree that fiction is neither true nor false, but rather somewhere in between those two. Fiction is true in the world it creates (unless, of course, the narrator or characters lie to you, but such a statement is only meaningful if the literary world has its own truth values).

In a traditional linear narrative, it is typically not too difficult to decide what the truth statements of the world would be. For example, in the Disney rendition of Cinderella:

  1. The Stepmother is mean.
  2. The stepsisters are mean.
  3. Cinderella is good.
  4. Cinderella is beautiful.
  5. The prince is not bad.
  6. The coach is an altered pumpkin.

The list could go on and on. But what about a story that has multiple endings or multiple possible narrative experiences? I’ve been looking at Alabaster, a multi-authored piece by Emily Short and others. [Spoilers will follow, so go play it quick!]. More

Postmodern Play

NYC Snowmageddon SadfaceI’m 10,000 feet above the ground right now, on my way to NYC, and Google has been kind enough to offer free Wi-Fi on flights over the holidays. It’s the perfect time to treat you all to the thoughts that have been mulling in my brain the last couple of days on the relationships between play and literature. (and four hours later, I’m stuck in the middle of the country waiting for a standby seat to miraculously open.)

I’ve been reading Dolezel’s Possible Worlds of Fiction and History (2010) and he makes some delightful comparisons between postmodernism and play. At one point, he states “Postmodernism creates a wonderland where each thing can morph into another, a ludic world free of conventions, rules, and traditions.” At first glance, it’s a utopian fantasy, but does this mean that postmodernism does away with a serious exploration of literature and history, replacing it with a nonchalant denial of authority and boundary?

On the contrary, the playfulness postmodernism has brought to our perspectives on literature is a creative one. Games are one place I find to be a particularly productive petri dish for these kinds of  narrative explorations. It is here that stories can be told through not just text and/or visuality, but also through interaction, through choice. Here, stories are told that encompass multiple narrative paths, contradictory events, multiple worlds of possibility all telling the same tale, but different facets of it. What text changes (literally) each time you read it? Of course, every reading of a text is a new, never-been-done reading, but text itself is mostly static. Even those texts with healthy manuscript traditions are unchanging compared to the vast possible “readings” of many role-playing games. More

The Day Deathwing Came

If any of you have been living under a rock lately, maybe you haven’t heard that Deathwing came and shook the foundations of Azeroth. The world has changed and the change is predominantly good.

I’m talking about the new World of Warcraft expansion: Cataclysm. Although it doesn’t come out until December 7th, Blizzard pre-patched the world last week so that everyone now lives in the world post-Deathwing. Almost all of the quests in the game from levels 1-60 have been redone. Many are simply brand new, while others have had their narratives touched up and a few of their progression points adjusted to be more seamless.

One of these new quests is found in the Badlands, a somewhat desolate place with an environment similar to Mars or Arizona. In this new quest, the player meets a trio of gentleman hanging out by a fire on a small hill overlooking a vast furrow carved into the earth. What happened here? Each member of the trio tells his version of the story: The Day that Deathwing Came.

The quest has many things going for it, not least of all, good old Blizzard humor. If for nothing else, go take a character through it for the laughs. Aside from the pure happiness I got from playing through it, I also started to think about how Blizzard is telling stories in this new version of Azeroth. What really happened that day when Deathwing came?

Last Tuesday, we all awoke to a new Azeroth. The way Blizzard communicated what had happened while we were sleeping and they were patching was through this cinematic. We see Deathwing getting his armor on and then flying across the world. Various famous landmarks are crumbled and destroyed before our eyes. It would be like waking up, turning on the news and seeing the Statue of Liberty broken by a tsunami, the Eiffel Tower devoured in a chasm of the earth, and the Great Wall splintered as the ground beneath heaved and trembled. More

Why Boss Drops Are a Good Mechanic

Over the past couple of months, I have watched the Turbine crew prepare Lord of the Rings Online for its shift to becoming a free-to-play game. Although there are many new and changed features one could talk about, I’d like to focus attention on the scaled instances and their rewards.

The developers have taken the original instances, both fellowship and raid content, and transformed them into scaleable dungeons. This means that a level 65 can go back and play through the Great Barrows, but at a level suitable to his or her ability. It may sound somewhat similar to the Heroic dungeons system in World of Warcraft, and it is to an extent. As WoW has a currency that drops from heroic dungeons, so does LOTRO. But, as WoW has specific gear available from each heroic boss on top of the currency rewards, LOTRO does not.

LOTRO Skirmish Mark

This play-for-currency system has been in place since the last expansion Siege of Mirkwood when the skirmish system was released. A player can instantly enter into a scripted instance, typically only about 20 minutes long, with friends or alone, and acquire Skirmish Marks of varying levels depending on difficulty and size. The Marks can then be bartered with a vendor for a myriad of items, both cosmetic and combat.

The play-for-currency design is simple and easy to manage for both developers and players. Bag space is already limited, so instead of making characters loot along the way, one just gives them a currency type and lets them buy what they want. It’s like getting Gift Cards at Christmas instead of big, shiny boxes (full of unwanted crap).

However, with the new Free-to-Play system, Classic instances are going into this play-for-currency scheme as well. I can run a 24-man raid and not see any drops from the boss. As long as I do it enough times, I’ll get to pick what gear I want and be happy.

At first glance, the system seems flawless. No one has to grind for their gear. No one has to design multiple loot tables for different levels (since the instance can be scaled). No one has to do anything hard.

As old school as I may be, I’m not going to champion “hard” meaning endless grind as the best, or as the “good old days”. However, I do want to make case for boss loot tables and random drops. More

The Silver Lining

All of the media we encounter affects us in some way, but for me, one game in particular drastically influenced the direction of my life – King’s Quest VI.

I was 10 years old at the time, and this game shipped with the desktop my parents had just purchased. I was quite computer illiterate at the time, so first thought that the 5 1/4″ disk drive (yes, it had one of those) was the CD drive.

If you’ve never played the series, you missed out. It’s a delightful adventure series that uses myth and fantasy  to propel one through a world of drama and excitement. The 6th installment was particularly amazing because it features the Charon and the Underworld, the Golden Fleece, the Minotaur, Druids, Beauty and the Beast, Alice in Wonderland, etc. – all of my favorite things. Or perhaps they are all my favorite things because I encountered them there. More

Characters in History (and also Starcraft)

There was a fascinating article put up on Gamasutra today which deals with the process of storytelling in a real-time strategy game (RTS). Brian Kindregan, the lead write of Starcraft II, gave some fascinating insight into the narrative process at Blizzard. Two great points were made.

1. Storytelling is about the characters, even, or maybe, especially in an RTS.

2. The medium of games is evolving rapidly and with it, our understanding of how to tell stories.

First, the characters. I’ve especially been thinking lately about the way characters are created. There is theory that tries to understand how we create imaginary people out of text (especially Possible-Worlds theory), but what I really want to know is the ins and outs of creating those characters. What are the pieces of them that we need in order to be engaged? As Brian says, engaging the reader is always the goal no matter what medium you’re working in.

…engaging the reader is always the goal.

I think I tend to think of the classroom in the same way. I’m telling a story, either one written by Homer or Vergil, or one lived by people in the past. My goal is to engage my readers, my players, my participants – my students.

Is there something that lets us create these alternate worlds in our mind and populate them with people and physics? I know that when I play a Warcraft game, even World of Warcraft, I feel like I’m in Azeroth. It has a geography, a culture, a history, etc. It’s a real place in my mind. Jaina and Thrall and Arthas are characters I recognize and feel for. In my case, I have a soft spot for Arthas and killing him was one of the most problematic things I’ve done in a game. But back to the topic at hand – why do I care?

Kindregan says that we need characters to differentiate between the parts of the world that don’t matter, the disposables, and the parts that do. Sometimes I think history is the same way. There’s a judgment made about what matters. Caesar. Nero. Constantine. These matter. Joe Roman… ? In our modern culture of equality, such statements probably elicit a bit of horror. “Gasp, how can you say one person matters more than another?” Somehow, these characters in the story of history make it meaningful and relevant. And they are characters. One of the big paper topics of a class I TA’d for last year was – “How do we find out who Caesar really was?”. What we have left from history are character sketches of a person larger than life. What does it even mean to know what someone really was? Everyone is a character, maybe nothing more.

I was talking to my students the last day of class this term about the Nike revolt. The emperor made a decision to slaughter 35,000 people in order to end chaos and affirm his role in power. My students didn’t engage with that story until Justinian became a character. Why did he decide this? What were his motivations? What were the consequences? It was when they were able to enter into a world of Justinian that they started to actually think about that event and what it means. It took a character to teach them history.

Look for another post about Arthas and his role as a character in the story of Warcraft. Now I can’t stop thinking about him.

Gamer English

As a native English speaker, I tend to assume that I will be able to understand when other people speak my language, even if they have little skill and perhaps a heavy accent. It may take a repeat or two, but I eventually get it.

gamer cat In the gaming world, language permutations are rather common. Although not at all specific to social games, I was made particularly aware of this trend through the Facebook platform. In the world of Facebook apps, people "friend" each other in order to play together although they don’t know each other at all and likely never will. In a way, they are creating their own community to play with from a pool of possible fellow players. Although this kind of community full of strangers is like a server in a typical MMO, it’s also quite different. A server, one’s community, in an MMO is typically restricted to a certain region, often along country lines, and the language differences are not very great, especially in the US. In Asia and Europe, it’s much more likely one encounters different languages, but they are still those likely to be encountered in a single regional area. 

There are three different groups of gamers in which I’ve noticed language change happening:

1. Social media + games

2. MMOs

3. Text-based games.

All groups show signs of problematic grammar usage. Spelling includes both common mistakes as well as purposeful shorthand. The most interesting thing I’ve found is change that seems to result from learning the language aurally. Combining that with the other two changes of English, I find it quite hard to all your base understand sometimes. Considering that these changes typically occur because of different mother languages, it can also happen that new words are formed for a particular group, especially if there is a minority of native English speakers in said group. Add that into the mix and one begins to wonder just how English this “English” really is.

I am no linguist, so I will make no broad claims about how or why this is happening, but I find it especially fascinating that the group most impacted by these language changes is the one involving social media.  I do admit this may be purely due to personal experience and would love to hear your own experiences if they differ from mine. Since Facebook as a gaming platform has no regional barriers, I have app buddies from all corners of the globe while my experience in other games tends to be more heavily weighted toward native English speakers due to my location in North America.

There are two ways I encounter language change in social media. First, I occasionally will get requests on Facebook that are written in 2 or 3 languages – typically a native language, a bastardized English, and then occasionally something else based on I do not know what. “Aidez-moi svp, pls hlp, piaco graci mio.” [Yes, the third is my made-up Italian-looking gibberish.] Second, I see comments on either peoples’ app-related posts or their personal statuses and photos.

preposition It is the comments on photos and personal statuses that show the most extensive changes in English, to such an extent, I often cannot understand what is being said. Perhaps this is because people are trying to actually communicate something substantial, as opposed to just asking for general help with an application. I can pick out words, and sometimes I can read all of the words, but the manner in which they are joined combined with a plethora of emoticons makes the thoughts communicated impenetrable to me, while others in their community are able to respond and converse. I see this happen most often between Asian users. It is not always so extreme. There are also some comments I can usually understand, but they seem to come from people who have learned no English in school and instead have just picked up words either from seeing other application user’s comments or from the applications themselves or even from real life. These comments do not try to carry on a conversation – instead, they simply express thanks or need. These users are most predominantly Hispanic I have found but there are also those from Eastern Europe and Asia whose comments fit in this category.  There are also the comments by native non-American English speakers which tend to be mangled more by the Internet than that of my fellow Americans for reasons of which I’m unaware. It is the extremely different English comments  of my Asian app buddies though that most baffle me. It is unclear to me how such extensive changes take place while still conveying a sense that the users have actually had some education in English though clearly a small amount and as a second/third language.

I have separated them somewhat by region and that may be influenced by educational practices in the various countries. European ESL folk tend to be the most clear when using English, but I assume that is because most start learning English in school at a young age. Since all my languages are European or form the base of European languages, perhaps it is just easier for me to understand their use of English and to not notice so much the changes in grammar.

video games teacher How would these different kinds of English usages arise? Games with a social component certainly are a huge incentive for this. One needs to communicate, even if just a little, with one’s fellow players even in a game so simple as a Facebook app. English is the language of many of the main applications on the platform, so unless they use some translator, some basic form of English certainly helps though it isn’t hard to tell what is being said in a Facebook app since almost all of them follow the same basic formula. This formulaic simplicity likely helps with basic vocabulary acquisition.

The big question I have though is why is it so much more prevalent on Facebook than in an MMO? I think one of the primary reasons is the state of textuality in the games themselves. MMOs are typically translated to the language of their target region, so an understanding of English is not required to play the game, but rather serves as a bridge to other players if necessary. North American servers occasionally encounter players who rarely speak English, for example, some French-speakers from Canada, but they are such a small segment of the population that it has no real effect outside of their immediate group.

In text-based games, the difference lies not so much in the difference of language in the text, but simply the aspect of textuality itself. I have little experience with contemporary text-based games, but I would imagine the impact of textuality would create a different kind of petri dish for language breeding. Depending on the language setting of the game, the population of the community (which is not so strictly monitored as in an MMO), and the level of interaction among players, the language permutations found here could be vastly different from those in other game settings. Even in these different conditions, English very often serves as a kind of administrative language, if you will. For example, one web-based game whose website is translated into 24 languages and whose forums have separate boards for separate languages, still shows the English segment of the forum to be the most-used and the site’s general information how-to-play section is also in English. Clearly, if one seeks to play a game like this to one’s full potential, knowing English in some way is going to be beneficial. Even if one’s client of the game is in one’s mother language, if the community one is playing with speaks primarily English, the player will naturally pick up phrases and words even with no English background. I am not sure if the manner of acquisition would be different depending on original mother language, but it would be a fascinating study.

Perhaps the most fascinating result is that I, as a native English speaker, have to learn a strange permutation of English in order to communicate to my Facebook app buddies. I do not need to be able to write this language – simply to read it superficially enough to understand it. What kind of literacy is that? AESL – Alternate English Sub-Literacy. I jest and am also quite serious.

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