THEORY: We, the global population, spend thousands of hours every day having artificial memories planted in our minds. It's not a conspiracy, and we're all better off for it. And now that I have your attention, let's talk about storytelling. This will all make sense in the end, trust me.
Now, About that Cube
So when you're telling a story, you're usually trying to convey as complete a set of information as possible, not just about how a given situation looks or feels or sounds, but also subtler, less tangible things, like a character's personality, the state of the setting, plot-relevant details, subtext and general themes, motifs, and ideas, barring, of course, those instances wherein you deliberately withhold information from the reader/player/viewer/what have you, for the purpose of dramatic effect or to ratchet up a mystery. All of this information combines into a unified whole, a multisensory snapshot engineered to make a moment in fictional time take up real space in someone's thoughts, to make foreign concepts and ideas feel palpable and beam them right into the subconscious mind, a trigger for experiences and emotional reactions, a sufficiently complete arrangement of information we'll call the "Information Cube."
Now, as a storyteller you have a wide range of tropes and techniques at your disposal for the ever-daunting (so daunting) task of filling the sections of this cube to suit your goals, and every medium comes with its own exclusive set of them. Furthermore, every such set of unique techniques has sections of the cube that it is better at filling than others, as well as sections it's not so good at filling in comparison.
You can get a sense of the way different media approach this problem by looking at a constant, the written or spoken word (referred to herein as "text,") and seeing how the way that constant gets used changes depending on the nature of the medium it's used in, which gaps in the cube that medium has already filled, and which gaps it could still use some help with. For instance, in a book text is all the reader has, and as a result the reader must get all information from it, whereas in a film or comic book, certain amounts of visual (or audiovisual in the case of film) information have already been filled in, relegating text to something mostly only need for dialogue or, in some cases, narration (again, a broad generalization. These things do come with complete scripts, after all.) and sometimes the effect a common technique has on an audience is based on the way that it combines with other, medium-specific techniques, like the unique way text is juxtaposed with imagery in film.
In the case of videogames, text serves an unusual purpose. We've come a long way from the blips and blocks that characterized the likes of Space Invaders, Spacewar!, Space Harrier, and Pong, and nowadays we can fill in a metric ton of audiovisual information. And oh, the places our shiny new boxes have taken us. Alien worlds blaze by in a whirlwind of high-fidelity and psychedelic colors. Towering colossi shake the ground as they walk and can be seen for miles. In-game action is getting harder and harder to distinguish from the CGI that (all too often) accompanies it. We've strolled into a living Japanese painting, Raced through rainbows in the sky, Witnessed alien geometries in the heart of Aperture Labs, soared through Rez's neon-lit cyberscape, and watched the entire universe destroy itself in one of the most mind-boggling endings of the 21st century. Our Pokemon are in 3D now, and don't we feel old. When we walk, our shoelaces sway. Even the pixel art has gotten more detailed. Congratulations. Good for us.
But all that said, it's still kind of hard to get the player to pay attention to what we want her to, especially when it isn't wrapped in spectacle. We can't use close-ups, lingering shots or other filmic techniques to emphasize that which needs emphasizing. But here's where our old buddy text come in to save the day, used now to explain background detail to those who investigate it, a technique that has a few perks of its own. Metroid Prime owned this trope.
This is a concept that be applied to a bevy of structural choices. We may even one day use it to figure out where cutscenes fit into interactive experiences. But now that you've got the gist of it, we're going to apply it to something bigger.
Much, MUCH bigger.
Storytelling, Mind Control, and Zipped Files
Sometime ages ago I was talking about implanted memories, and I asked whether or not an implanted memory sufficiently complete in its sensory makeup could be as traumatic as a "real" memory. That's just a broad summary of the conversation. You can see the rest for yourself.
But here's the thing: a few people did say yes, and we drew parallels to fiction, that is, the way fictional memories fit themselves into our constructed reality.
That last part is surprisingly important. From Sherlock Holmes' contributions to the field of forensic science, to the impact Disney's and his "True Love's Kiss" trope has had on our romantic ideals, to real-life experiments designed to determine the effectiveness of Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, to A Short Film About Killing's instrumental role in ending the death penalty in Poland, we integrate the fictional and the real on the regular, assimilating our understanding of one into our experience of the other. We have these concepts and events planted in our heads, and they shape our worldview no differently than real memories and people. In effect, fiction becomes a sort of implanted experience, vicariously lived, but vivid, and real as it needs to be. Granted, it doesn't bypass our senses and head straight to the mind like an actual implanted experience would, but maybe that's for the better.
I mean, of course we wouldn't want to write directly to the mind! Have you seen Ghost in the Shell? Could you imagine what horrors would arise from a setup like that? Could you picture what it would be like if we thought every horror movie was real? It would RUIN US.
This is why the Willing Suspension of Disbelief is so important: It's a failsafe. It's the fact of our having to willingly invest ourselves in these fictional worlds that keeps us from entering into a very unhealthy relationship with them, one where a constructed fiction has more control over us than we do, a situation that still does happen every now and then, sometimes on an enormous scale (although that's a story for another day.) It's what keeps us from crossing the line. Granted, it doesn't mean we don't want to lose control if it helps, just so long as we know (to a sufficient, hopefully spoiler-free extent) what we're getting ourselves into. Being sad, mad, or afraid are all parts of the natural media experience,
and as long as we consent to it, we can let ourselves get roughed up a bit wait no and our ability to maintain distance is what makes it all work.*
So the Willing Suspension of Disbelief is our necessary failsafe, and what that means is that with storytelling, we've come as close to implanting experiences as physically, no, better, as humanely possible, at least for now. We've come within 99.99999...% of that ideal, and we're putting on another 9 every day.
So if that made any sense at all, consider this: Doesn't it seem a little unfair that it takes so long to produce a work of fiction and so little time to consume it? Not at all! They may be relatively easy to consume, they can take forever to digest, which makes sense as they are often an entire lifetime in the making. When it comes to which memories we choose to transmit, we tend to choose our own (if only for lack of another point of reference, what with experience being subjective and all,) and then try to find a way to compress an idea that it took years or even a life to formulate or understand, like trust, love, mortality, or something more outre, into a 177-page novel/2-hour movie/10-hour game/12-episode series. To read, watch or play our work is to reconstruct the story of our lives. But that's old news, isn't it?
And so we encode these ideas and memories in tropes, characters, plot devices and the like, and ship them off to the audience, who proceeds to unzip these compressed experiences. Because, you see, if you get it right, your audience will spend as much time understanding your ideas as you spent learning them. And yes, that can be a lifetime. Or, in the case of true classics, it could take even longer than that.
Stories are, in that sense, a very analog way of encoding memories, sometimes an entire lifetime's worth. And that's useful, since we sure as heck don't have enough ROM for a job like that, or the compression or unzipping technology for it, either. I'm not sure about you, but maybe this will change the way I think about taking in fiction...or creating it.
For one thing, it explains why we're expected to care about, or at least research what we're writing about. Because otherwise, what could we possibly have to transmit? There's no use in an empty cube.
Hello again. I guess I haven't been here in a while, and I'm sorry about that. The last few months have been a blur of bad events, most of them family-related, and as I became more and more preoccupied my social media usage began to slowly taper off. I am back now, though, and I've got something special planned for Valentine's Day.
Honestly, I wasn't even going to post this. This is an incredibly old draft that I never got around to making public because I though it would be too weird to even begin to talk about. I mean, I must sound completely off my rocker. But coming back to it, I realized it was practically finished aside from a few images and typos, so why not? It's just a hypothesis anyway.
So, it's hard to say what I should ask about in the comments this time, but...oh, okay, maybe it's bit off-topic, but here's one...Has there ever a been a video game that you would consider it a major life experience to have played through?
I'll go first. I remember that the first time* I played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I was going through a similar coming-of-age transition, and had returned to me old home after years of absence to find that everything had changed, hard times had fallen, my friends had become almost different people, and the world wasn't quite as straightforward as I had been led to believe. Given as that practically sounds like a plot synopsis for the game, you can imagine I got a lot of the experience, in terms of both personal enjoyment and...personal growth.
*My history with that game is WEIRD.