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:
- The Stepmother is mean.
- The stepsisters are mean.
- Cinderella is good.
- Cinderella is beautiful.
- The prince is not bad.
- 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!].
In Alabaster, it is harder to define truth statements. If I have completed the piece (found all the endings), I know the state of the characters around me. I could say:
- I am the king.
- Snow White is possessed.
- The hart is an undead dwarf.
- Dwarrows are short.
However, because I know the options available in the story I could also say:
- I am Lilith’s consort.
- Snow White is a vampire.
- The hart is dead.
- Dwarrows are short.
Which set of statements is true? Are they both true all of the time? Or is each experience of the story a separate manifestation of that literary world?
If I could erase the knowledge I received in previous playthroughs, the post-primary residue, I could only agree with one set of statements. In my experience of the world, I wasn’t the king. I was just a huntsman with the (un)fortunate experience of meeting Lilith and being accepted by her. The hart was left dead on the ground in the forest. That moment when it seemed like he moved was just a figment of my imagination. Blood-sundering? I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.
There are three options here for deciding what is true in this post-primary narrative.
- Post-primary truth values are not dependent on exclusivity. Two truths may contradict and yet are still true. I am the King and I am Lilith’s consort although I discovered these two truths in different playthroughs.
- Post-primary truth values are dependent on individual narrative experiences. Each narrative experience manifests its own literary world with its own truth values. Each narrative experience is independent of every other. Now, I am the King. Next time, I will be Lilith’s consort.
- Post-primary truth values are only those statements which are true in all narrative experiences. Any statement which can be contradicted by that in a different experience is not a true statement. Dwarrows are short.
There is one other choice not in the list above. True statements of a post-primary world are true in all experiences even if never experienced. (This is an altered option #1). Is the literary world conceptually created at the moment of authorship (and thus all truth statements are independent of player experience (alt#1)) or is it created in the act of interactive reading (and thus all truth statements are dependent on player experience (#2))? Is it a single world created procedurally across narrative experiences (in which “I killed Snow White” and “Snow White killed me” would both be true (#1)) or is a new world created in each experience (#2)?
Let’s look at an example: You are the King.
If I had played through a variety of endings, but had never discovered who the King was, I would think that this statement was not true. Yet, despite my ignorance, it is. I am the King even though I don’t know it. The check is, of course, the source text or the conversation tree.
If this is the case, the altered #1 option is the correct one and thus the truth values of the fictional world are independent of my narrative experience(s). Whether I talk to the hart or not, he is always an undead dwarf. Whether I discover it or not, Snow White is always possessed by Lilith. Whether I discover it or not, she is always my daughter. Whether I experience it or not, I have killed her and she has killed me. In this option, the literary world of Alabaster exists in the text (the code) and my own conception of the literary world is incomplete (until I’ve explored it fully), if not just wrong (“I am not the King”).
This option elevates the text to a level I rarely feel comfortable giving it. If a literary world is fully contained in its text, so must its characters be. And that is just not conceptual experience.