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.

These new narratives that test the boundaries of story and the limitations of possible worlds encourage us to ask new and exciting questions. What is a character really that has different possible lives? How can it be the same character when one day I see him make one choice in one situation, and the next day see him make a different choice in the same situation, influencing his life and those of the characters around him for the duration of each narrative experience?

New (or refashioned) questions, perhaps, but not a new phenomenon. Narrative that is only fully developed after multiple different readings/experiences has been around for a long time. A reader of the Iliad knows one part of the story, but the entire Epic Cycle is closer to the whole thing. Not even close, actually. Achilles lives in tales outside of the Cycle, in tragedies after, in myths and cults spanning the time before and after. That character is one with different lives and different deaths depending on who and when is telling.

Yet, all of those tales are of the same character. Not contradictory – complimentary. Our telling of the sack of Troy is only one part of the story, one example of a story told by many different bards in many different places, all with their own narrative style, their own twists and takes. Oral narrative shares many features of multi-pathed narratives in games today.

And the examples don’t stop there. Modern superheroes are a prime example of narrative that creates characters and stories through contradictory stories. Comics have a canon imposed upon them, but even that has variations in it, and those things termed non-canonical are just as valuable to those of us asking these questions. They are only non-canonical if the limitations and boundaries of canon are meaningful. Why do we demand a canon? Is it a reaction against a crossing of the bounds of character? Perhaps it is there that we can find exactly how much variation a character can take before it’s no longer Batman – it’s just someone wearing his cape.

[to be continued in: Freedom from Author(ity)]

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