Stories in space not time


4/22/20082 min read

Following on from a longer piece I wrote here on storytelling versus plotting it seemed like a good idea to take some time to talk about storytelling and space.

Generally storytelling is embedded in the conventions of passing time. Even in using flashback structures - we are still very much in time moving forward, pushed and cajoled by the tyranny and impetus of the flow of time. As such we develop story theories that have time as their key organising principles: plots evolve, a b and c storylines proceed, blend, repel but always forward. Even a ‘reversal’ is not literally in time but in fortunes. Likewise a turning point.

You can use strongly formal experimentation to confound this. John Cage is probably the master here, overlaying a star chart onto a musical stave is rigorous, clever and inventive - literally laying space on time. Similar experiments with narrative likewise break the idea of continuity of experience and stress fragmentation over unity.

Another way to do this, and one which I am currently grappling with, is to tell stories in space and not time. That is creating stories which are traversed in space and in which time cannot play a part because linearity (cause, effect, consequence) is removed from the storytelling process. Put this another way: imagine a series of turning points ‘attached’ somehow to a series of park benches. You cannot control the order a walker might sit on your benches - so you cannot guarantee the order in which the story is told.

This is a ‘problem’ in game design - how much do you compel a player to go down one narrative pathway? How much freedom (agency) do you give them? How do you balance the risk of them endlessly circulating in dead space with ‘railroading’ them into one outcome too much?

I am looking at this stuff as I am beginning some plans to use Augmented Reality as a story telling medium. This involves patterning experience as much as telling a story, or rather weaving many possible stories together into a fabric that might be as satisfying to someone who visits two park benches as someone who visits two hundred.

We’ve been through this before also in ‘hyperfiction’ and what we found was that often an idea of something non-linear is more compelling than the experience itself. For instance with the star music of Cage as described above you don’t really need to hear it, it’s a conceptual piece that has a strong existence just from its description.

But what I want to do is achieve something that is (literally) walking the walk, a piece that can be assembled by the walker in any order but still has coherence and is a pleasure not just a jumbled collage of mini experiences.

It’s a tough thing to get right, but the ability leave a story just hanging around a location in virtual space is very compelling. Imagine an AR film that plays out different scenarios depending on which character you walked with, which street you turned down…