Revisiting the Iron Rooster

I’d been sitting on a story for 20 years — the story of my life’s greatest adventure so far (outside of getting married and having kids, of course) — when I finally had a good opportunity to tell it. It’s the story of riding the trans-Siberian railway in the winter of 1991, right at the historical fault line where the Soviet Union died and a new China was born. My audience for this telling, on January 18, 2012, was about 60 or so residents at the Wake Robin Lifecare Community in Shelburne, Vermont. I told them my story in about 45 minutes of continuous talking, punctuated with slides. They seemed receptive.

Now I’m trying to figure out how to tell the story digitally, maybe with interactivity (of a different sort than that interactivity innate to the oral telling). There are a lot of directions in which I could take it, but its most compelling element, at least based on the Wake Robin reception, is the story’s central character: the enigmatic Cai Jun (below), with whom my traveling companion and I shared a small train compartment for almost six days straight. I’m eager to tell his story, inasmuch as I can. Meantime, if you see him, would you please tell him that I’m looking for him?

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Simply Inspired

Thanks to a good friend for sending this amazing video of Japanese women covering a post-punk song from a British group named for corrupt Chinese revolutionaries.

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An Anecdote Analyzed: “The Name of One’s Cat”

Collected: November 15, 2009, 9:50 a.m.

Setting: Golf course

Narrator: Male, 45, Caucasian

Audience: One Caucasian male, 45

Topic: The name of one’s cat

Bacon, the cat

Transition: NA

Opening Strategy: The storyteller proclaims the topic of the story with an arresting statement to the effect of “Here’s what I had to do regarding my cat.”

Exposition: The story begins in the recent historical past, whichframes the narrative, with the storyteller relaying the events of a recent visit to a veterinarian with his cat. During the visit, the veterinarian inquires as to the cat’s name, the answer to which becomes the central conflict in this story.

Rising Action: The story shifts to the more distant historical past, and to another state, when the storyteller’s cat was routinely brought to the veterinarian by another caregiver, the storyteller’s romantic partner, who did not share the storyteller’s name. Hence, the cat’s last name is different from its current owner’s (i.e., the storyteller’s).

Climax: The storyteller expresses annoyance that his cat officially has a last name other than his own.

Falling Action: The storyteller announces, with clear dismay, the cat’s official first and last names.

Denouement: The storyteller ends the story with a statement to the effect of “So, this is what I have to deal with.”

Review:
I. Arresting statement
II. Opening frame: recent historical past
III. Central conflict introduced
IV. Rising action in more distant historical past
V. Climax: expression of annoyance
VI. Commentary on the outcome of the climax: dismay
VII. Closing frame: present state of affairs

Paralingual Cues: The storyteller makes frequent use of hands to indicate a general state of exasperation, often directing them, as if accusatorily, at the sky and off in various directions.

Interruptions: NA

Comments: The story seems designed as a report on the teller’s state of mind regarding his pet, perhaps as a metaphorical statement on his condition, and on the human condition more generally, which finds us responsible for pets that, notwithstanding their companionability, remind us of those of our own species who fail us in this regard.

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Interactive Storytelling: The Next Fronteir?

Facade - Interactive Story

I recently had the opportunity to meet and converse with pioneering electronic game programmer and designer Chris Crawford. Crawford, who began his career with Atari in the late 1970s, was on the campus ofChamplain College in Burlington, Vermont, where I teach interactive storytelling, among other (less amusing) subjects. In an open exchange with faculty, and later in a presentation to the larger campus community, he shared a thumbnail history of the game industry—the “games” (plural) industry, in his words—and his current thinking on where electronic games might be heading.

That’s not entirely accurate. Crawford, at this stage in his career, is avowedly more interested in interactive storytelling than in electronic games per se. And there is a difference, in his view. “Games are about things,” he said. “Entertainment is about people.” He expresses his preference for the latter in his efforts to create, through his organization Storytron.com, computer-based experiences that offer users/players entertaining character interactions in scenarios that develop in response to user/player choices.

That’s the interactive story in a nutshell: The plot, for lack of a better word, evolves in a direction influenced by user/player choice. Many electronic games function according to the same principle, of course, but their plots are encoded along a game “spine,” with the consequences of choices following a narrow range of encoded paths that often lead back to the trunk of the narrative, thereby creating a perceived sense of user/player influence over the narrative’s direction. In true interactive stories, in contrast, the consequences of user/player choice are more varied and more sensitive, propelling the narrative through a more open, less path-bound virtual space or scenario. Interactive stories of this type aim for an experience that more closely simulates interaction with an artificially intelligent character or entity; such interactions are rich, varied, and complex.

Crawford pointed to Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’sgroundbreaking but inchoate project Façade (image at the top of this entry) as the most fully realized example of an electronic interactive story available today. Façade remains in an experimental stage and can be downloaded free of charge. It’s buggy but, in my opinion, fascinating. Indeed, its shortcomings suggest the monumental challenge of creating a mechanism that simulates the wide range and complexity of human interactions possible in even a simple one-on-one exchange.

Crawford’s presentation came on the heels of a stimulating class discussion in which my students and I revisited some of our basic assumptions about such fundamental concepts as game, story, andplay. We find the definitions of these words, in the context of computer-based experiences, to be very much in flux. We envision a range of experiences that blend these values in innovative ways. Following Crawford’s presentation, I reminded my students that Crawford sees some applications for interactive computer-based experiences in corporate training as well as in entertainment, although he cautioned that, when one tries to combine entertaining and training, the result is often neither.


I take this warning into my work as the faculty liaison with a game development team creating an electronic game that combines soccer simulation gameplay with an instructional message about preventing violence against women. Save us, Sabido!

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An Anecdote Analyzed: “Scots Fisticuffs Narrowly Averted”

Collected: November 5, 2009, 8:21 p.m.

Setting: Bar (sub-variety: sports)

Storyteller: Male, 35, Caucasian

Audience: Five Caucasian males, approx. 25-50 years

Topic: Fist Fighting

Transition: It is possible that the story under examination was inspired by an encounter at a restaurant previous to the narrative episode described herein. During this previous encounter, the storyteller experienced a brief, friendly exchange with an individual with whom, on another previous occasion and in the setting where the story under examination was told, the storyteller collided accidentally.

Opening Strategy: The storyteller poses a rhetorical question: “Have any of you ever been in a fight as a grownup?”

Exposition: After previewing the story climax, which will involve an assault by way of a thrown, unopened can of beer (brand unknown), the storyteller (also the protagonist) provides a general description of the setting—the portion of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, campus known as the Meadows—and the time, the evening of a football match between Scottish Premier League rivals Celtic F.C. and the Rangers. The storyteller notes that, on this occasion, he had been wearing a blue shirt, suggesting affiliation with the Rangers (inaccurate). The storyteller then introduces the antagonist: a short, drunk Scotsman carrying a bag containing two cans of beer.

Rising Action: The antagonist, upon meeting the storyteller, challenges him to a fight. The storyteller describes an ensuing brief but heated exchange during which he understands that the antagonist is inebriated to the point of being unthreatening.

Climax: The storyteller meets the assailant’s challenge by turning the assailant’s body 180 degrees so that the assailant is facing in another direction. As the storyteller walks away, the assailant renews the challenge by throwing a beer can at the storyteller, missing, thereby failing.

Falling Action: The storyteller continues walking away.

Denouement: The storyteller leaves the scene while the assailant directs his continued tirade at a lamppost.

Review:
I. Rhetorical question
II. Setting established
III. Time established
IV. Enter antagonist
V. Antagonist challenges protagonist (storyteller)
VI. Protagonist meets challenge
VII. Antagonist renews challenge
VIII. Antagonist fails
IX. Exeunt protagonist (storyteller)

Paralingual Cues: The storyteller makes frequent use of hands to indicate the antagonist’s height. These gestures convey a sense of gentleness, as though the storyteller were not describing a bellicose, inebriated Celtic F.C. fan but, rather, an innocent, frightened child.

Interruptions: NA

Comments: Several members of the audience inquire as to what the storyteller did with the beer (he walked away from it), indicating that, had they been confronted and assailed thus, they might have seized the unopened can from the ground and run away with it. The story seems directed at generating similar stories in series,

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