New Fiction Media

February 3, 2010

Okay, okay.  I may have struck a somewhat pessimistic tone in my last entry, what with my “prose fiction is being replaced” and how it “will become obsolete”. Yes, at 36, I’m a grumpy old man.  You ought to hear me bitch over the morning paper.

So, the inevitable question arises, what are the new ways of telling stories, if we’re not going to be reading them as often?  (“Huh, Mr. Smarty Pants?” I hear you saying.  “Riddle me that.”)

Before I list the obvious answers — and describe a recent brush with them — I just want to qualify what I mean by obsolete.  The word has a special connotation to me, coming from my college brush with Marshall McLuhan’s “Laws of Media”.  McLuhan’s laws are one of the few more cerebral things that stuck with me from my mass communications degree.  It’s a compelling theory, which you can read about here, that says all human artifacts and media always do four things simultaneously:

  1. They enhance or accelerate some aspect of the human condition.  Often, the invention will literally extend a part of our body.  A chair is basically an extension of our legs, for example.  Another example is a vacuum cleaner, which is an extension of our hands and an enhancement of our ability to save time when cleaning the house.
  2. They retrieve some earlier or obsolete action.  His examples of this are pretty basic and archetypal, so, continuing with the example of the vacuum cleaner, the machine retrieves the ancient primate behavior of grooming.  (Yes, this sounds like academic bullshit, but stay with me.)
  3. When pushed to its extremes, it reverses what it intends to do.  A vacuum cleaner eventually doesn’t save us any time because we come to expect a higher standard of cleanliness and therefore feel compelled to clean more often.  Think of it: in the pioneer days, how many times did the broom-swept house get cleaned?  Compare that to how many times Harriet Homeowner felt compelled to use her new Hoover after she bought it from the door-to-door salesman. (I think this is a good excuse to use the next time I want to get out of cleaning house.  “But honey, McLuhan’s third law of media suggests that . . .”)
  4. It obsolesces, or renders obsolete, another form of technology.  In the vacuum’s case, it obsolesces the broom.

So, this is basically what I’m getting at when I ramble about the medium of prose fiction — that is, the communication of a story solely through the written word.  I think that when the McLuhan of the 26th century looks back on the history of fiction, he’ll have the hindsight to view prose fiction as just one link in a chain of evolving technologies.  He might even apply the four laws to his analysis:

  1. Prose fiction enhances our mental, emotional, and spiritual understanding of life by extending our unconscious mind into the realm of conscious awareness.
  2. It retrieves the act of talking.
  3. It reverses itself in the extreme form by engendering fatigue.  (Yes, I am totally thinking about the glut of ’80s-’90s sitcoms, may they rest in peace.)  I think that prose fiction can reverse its own effects when a bunch of poorly crafted shit floods the market through vehicles such as self-publishing enterprises.
  4. Prose fiction obsolesces the medium of the traveling minstrel.

Now, back to the original question: what new media are obsolescing traditional prose fiction?

One obvious answer might be movies and TV, although it’s easier to see a straight line between the stage play and those two.  Movies and TV replacing prose fiction?  Iffy.  Movies and TV replacing the traditional stage play?  That I can see.  (Notice that “obsolete” doesn’t necessarily mean that the former medium dies out.  Stage plays are still pretty popular, particularly in my area.  But when you compare the number of theater-goers today to the number of movie and TV watchers, the newer technology clearly has a bigger market share.)  So I’m not sure that movies and TV are the logical successors to prose fiction.

What is?  Interactive fiction.

You know, it’s a shame that the Choose Your Own Adventure books I loved as a kid aren’t filling up every book shelf today.  They’re more collector’s items than anything.  They’re wonderful books.  You read a few pages in which you are the protagonist, and then you’re presented with a choice: turn to page 10 if you go through door #1, page 15 if you go through door #2.  And then, on whatever branch of the story you follow, in time you’re presented with another menu of choices.  I’m not sure why this form of fiction is so hard to come by now; maybe it’s because it was usually written in the second-person “you” point of view, which is about as annoying as an unlubricated catheter.

The 21st century answer to interactive fiction is, yes, the video game.  And I’m not talking about the stupid “pew! pew! pew!” arcade games on the Atari 2600 that I played as a kid.  I’m talking about intelligent, immersive, juggernauts like the Assassin’s Creed and Bioshock series.  It’s telling that the video game industry not only didn’t suffer during the recession but grew its market share.  Sure, some games are written better than others, but there are very few books of prose fiction that can keep one’s attention hooked for as many hours as one of these games can.  Hell, why spend $60 for a collector’s edition of a book, for maybe 10 hours worth of reading (if you read slowly) when the same amount of money will buy you 10 times as many hours?

Yes, I believe I’m just a little bit jealous of Richard Dansky and Lucien Soulban for the profession they’re in.

I’m not saying that I’m giving up on writing prose fiction.  Hell, no.  I’m still writing books and short stories and even stage plays.  (Remember what I said above about stage plays still sharing space with movies and TV?)  But I am saying that I now recognize, more than ever, that I occupy just one satellite in the solar system of storytelling — and unfortunately, I’m not on the hottest planet.

It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn, then, that I recently wrote and programmed my very own video game.  I didn’t do it in order to break into the world of video game designers (although that would be nice) but really just to amuse myself.  As I wrote about in my final Horror World column a few months ago, it’s vitally important to amuse oneself when writing, otherwise there’s little joy in it.  I used the skills at my disposal — PHP and Javascript — to make a simple puzzle game where you as the protagonist have to explore a haunted house to save your abducted baby. It’s online here on my website, and you can play it for free.

It was a lot of fun to take pictures of the stuff around my house and to weave them together into a story, and it marked the second or third time now that my son has been the unwitting star of one of my projects.  I also learned a few lessons that I’ll be sure to apply if I ever attempt something like it again.  Those lessons mainly have to do with how damn hard it is to: (1) anticipate and plan for every possible move that a game player might take, and (2) program a logical method of navigating through a game level.  For #2, I settled on a “movement” palette of arrows, which I now realize was a mistake because it can potentially disorient the game player.  I think the things I did well were the ability to collect items from around the house and also the inclusion of a health meter, through which the player can die.  It’s not a perfect game — Flash probably would have been a better programming choice, but I know diddly squat about Flash — and players who know a little bit about website construction could figure out ways to cheat.  But I wasn’t trying to program a foolproof game, just something for people to enjoy in their spare time.

Anyway, that’s enough of a plug for the game.  Go play it so I’ll shut up.

Back to my point about the evolution of story telling, and that is: things are changing, and it’s not all bad.  I believe that interactive fiction — gaming — is the successor.  There are other notable experiments, such as the previously mentioned Choose Your Own Adventure and prose-movie hybrids such as Jude Deveraux’s “vook” titled Promises.  It will be interesting to see what other new forms arise.  There are probably others out there I don’t know about; if you can think of any, let me know.