Free Play: a Flute and a Prologue

10 years or so ago I picked up a little book called Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch.  It lit up my whole switchboard and gave me a philosophy and direction for creative living. Its subtitle even found its way unconsciously into Story by the Throat’s tagline. This book was one of the first sources to talk about something I had a thirst for. I read it over and over, soaking up Stephen’s exciting ideas.

But now a decade later I find I’m barely closer to realizing these principles in my own life. So I’m going to take a closer look, step by step, and see how Free Play‘s concepts connect with the other things I’ve learned and experienced with creativity, spontaneity and collaboration.

I’ll begin delving into it in the next few days. Meanwhile, I present the Japanese folk tale from the book’s prologue. It speaks volumes all by itself: Continue reading Free Play: a Flute and a Prologue

Free, Affirmed, Expressive, Consequential

Awhile back “Doctor Professor” of the blog Pixel Poppers wrote some interesting stuff about interactive storytelling in video games. In the first half, he discusses how video games have failed at storytelling, by imitating other media (film, mostly) instead of playing to their own medium’s strengths: interactivity and dynamism. In the second half, he takes a look at what successful and innovative videogame storytelling might look like.

Doctor Professor’s points resonate with me. I’ve come to love the newest generations of VG technology (Playstation-onwards) for their ability to convey a story through cinematic presentation, and I’ve favored the kinds of games that present fully-realized characters with emotions and personalities (Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy) over games that provide blank protagonists to imprint your own emotions and thoughts onto (Deus Ex, Elder Scrolls). I’ve found that the latter tend to fall short of actually feeling like a story, while the former at least provide story in a meaningful way, even if it’s spoon-fed to you and beyond your ability to impact.

But Dr. Prof is right; these stories are wasting the medium’s artistic potential. They’re showing movies with intermissions for gymnastics and target practice. They’re often pretty movies,  sometimes with characters and themes that speak to me. And the gameplaying segments that alternate with cinematics can often be rewarding and fun in their own right. These are not failures as games.

But as an art form, they can be more. Some games are pioneering this change, such as Metal Gear Solid (known for its interminable cutscenes but also for making gameplay decisions matter in new ways) and Mass Effect (which will allow pivotal choices made in the first game to load into the next one). Pioneering new ground doesn’t run smoothly, of course. Both the above gamers have severe limitations on the player’s ability to affect the story. But hopefully as this trend continues we’ll see a radical shift as, like Doctor Professor says, the video game medium comes into its own.

The Professor names four strengths of video games that are vital for exploring their storytelling potential. 1) choices must be free, 2) choices must be affirmed, 3) choices must be expressive, and 4) choices must be consequential. When a player’s input is not channeled or forced into a predetermined path, AND receives feedback that validates the choice (characters thank you,  get mad, etc), AND allows for emotional expression and thematic statement, AND has a meaningful effect on the world and its inhabitants, THEN the player can truly be said to shape the outcome of the story. The user is a collaborator rather than a consumer.

Which is one of the strengths of face-to-face roleplaying, presumably–with human imaginations on tap for content, rather than computer algorithms, the potential for free, affirmed, expressive and consequential choice, for all participants, is vast. Collaborative story should pulse through a roleplaying session. And yet I’ve had many roleplaying experiences that have shut down each one of those attributes of choices, often several at once. Just as video games, in emulating movies, aren’t realizing their unique artistic potential, so “pen and paper” games fall short of their calling when they merely emulate the pre-written novel or the pre-programmed video game.

My friend Christian of Berengad Games also recently explored ways of achieving dynamic and interactive story in video games. He had a specific theoretical implementation in mind and I contributed my own. But whatever the specific implementation–and there’s room for multitudes–I think the key lies in Dr. Professor’s 4 elements: free, affirmed, expressive and consequential.

And if computer programmers are breaking new ground here, can interactive group storytelling in the real world do any less? For myself, I can’t go back. Those four criteria are my minimum bar for participation. At the very least, if any of those elements aren’t on the table, DON’T LEAD ME ON–tell me up front, so that I can make the mental shift and NOT approach the game as group storytelling. But when I’m seizing story, I’ll stay in the company of the innovators and explorers, and keep my eye on the horizon.



Making it ourselves

I saw the Tim Burton film 9 last night with my wife. It was a movie that promised so much, yet failed to satisfy. In fact it was painful how breathless plotting, ponderous dialogue, and shameless clichés managed to rob a story that could have been heartbreakingly human. Instead it was a collection of fascinating ideas and themes that were ultimately lifeless.

This has always been a hazard of Hollywood, for seekers of substance. Every now and again a film is the real deal, but often it’s a pale, stilted imitation of authentic expression.

My wife and I noted that more and more of the promising movies we’ve seen have left that empty taste. The question hit us–are we witnessing a twilight of artistic depth? Is the age of personal human vision in art and storytelling passing from the earth?

I don’t know much about how 9‘s vision germinated. I do know that the production processes of movies and television provide a wealth of material for consumption, but are not conducive to authenticity. Human-ness is not produced by committee. What are then chances that a creator will say something honest, and be heard, as content-as-product proliferates?

Perhaps this trend in movies represents a mere slump, a recession if you will, in creativity. But if it is indeed the birth pangs of a complete creative collapse in the “entertainment” industry, then I must conclude that if we want to have stories with integrity, we must make them ourselves.

This is why roleplaying and storyjamming are more than mere diversions for me.

This is the way we make our own myths, the way we keep the flame of story alight. This is the way we teach ourselves, over and over, to be humans. This is the way we celebrate who we are.

Occasionally, within the “system,” (or sometimes in defiance of it–Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, for instance) a fire will blaze up that speaks with integrity, that teaches us, that celebrates with us. We cherish these flames. But by and large, we’re on our own. So we write our own novels with a purpose beyond leveraging motion picture rights, we make our own comics which explore the endless possibilities, we make our own music in our living rooms and on our street corners for whoever is there to hear. . .and we sit down by the hearth to tell stories together.

Put like that, storyjamming is less a pastime and more a calling. A calling I mean to keep.



Roleplaying by the Throat

OK, enough preamble–now it’s time to take these concepts and wrestle ’em to the ground. I’ll focus on roleplaying to start with, since that’s the central activity for this blog.

In “So what the hell does THAT mean?” I wrote:

Story by the Throat in the context of roleplaying is passionate engagement around the whole gaming table in making a story together. It’s roleplaying with heart and fearlessness that really shows what our protagonists are made of, in the tradition of the gutsiest fiction. It’s switched-on, fired-up, total excited attention to what’s happening right this moment.

Let’s unpack that a bit. “Passionate Engagement” is of course the key, the centerpiece to the whole philosophy. It’s a basic commitment, when we as roleplayers sit down together, to build an enjoyable and fulfilling experience that satisfies our aesthetic and emotional standards. Something we can be proud of. Not because we “made art” in any hoity-toity sense, but because we were vulnerable enough to invest something of ourselves in our shared creation, enough to generate some intensity and genuine emotion and possibly grow as humans and friends.

There’s a tradition that sometimes rears its head in roleplaying culture, of non-investment: “It’s just a casual thing, let’s just chill and munch some snacks, roll dice, slay a dragon, crack some jokes. Don’t…y’know…make a thing of it.” Even when players sink a ton of their time, effort and money into the hobby, this “don’t take it too seriously” vibe can rear its head. RPGs in this case are less creative exercise (which is a kind of exertion), and more blowing off steam (which is an escape from exertion). Which, sure, is a valid goal. But it’s not my passion. I’d prefer either a passive entertainment or a non-story activity for that purpose. For story, I need engagement.

Engagement with what? Look at the next part of my little rant that divulges the very reason I roleplay: to see what our Protagonists are made of.

I don’t mean anything as basic as “Can Hero McBadass slay the dragon? Roll Dice! Yes, he can! He’s BADASS!” After all, what does that show us about Hero Mc-B? Did we discover anything about him as a human being? Why did he slay the dragon? What hardship did he endure? Did he have to sacrifice anything to slay it? Who was hurt, and who benefited, by his actions? Did the act change him, irrevocably, for good or ill?

That’s where Story by the Throat lives: right there in those moments where the character is in the heart of the fire and we ache with the uncertainty of what he will do and what it will cost.



So what the Hell does THAT mean?

Story by the Throat is a phrase I’ve coined to describe an approach to storytelling in all areas of life, but particularly roleplaying games. It’s something I’m seeking, not something I’m a master of, so I picture this blog being more of a fluid conversation, rather than a teaching or lecture dynamic, as I explore this concept with anyone who’s interested. That’s the hope, anyway.

Story By the Throat is a connotative term, not a definitive one. Meaning I’m trying to convey a certain emotional experience by painting with words, rather than codifying into conceptual law the exact parameters of a phenomenon that has no clear borders. Rather than wrestle that greased linguistic pig, I’m going to go with my gut and try to connect with you all on a more felt, instinctive level. With luck I’ll occasionally succeed.

Story by the Throat in the context of roleplaying is passionate engagement around the whole gaming table in making a story together. It’s roleplaying with heart and fearlessness that really shows what our protagonists are made of, in the tradition of the gutsiest fiction. It’s switched-on, fired-up, total excited attention to what’s happening right this moment. It’s Story Now, not Story Someday When We All Look Back Fondly, or Story Already Fleshed Out Fully in Our Mental Character Concept, or Story Already Worked Out in the GM’s Notes and We Just Run Through The Motions.

Story by the Throat in the context of individual storytelling is a reclamation of the Oral Storytelling art practiced in every culture in the world. It’s learning to use and appreciate a form of entertainment that’s interactive and personal, that’s living and breathing in way that a movie or television show can never be. It’s the age-old scene of the folk of a community gathering at the tavern or campfire to sing songs, tell tales, drink, laugh, and bond. It’s togetherness and participation fueled by creativity.

Story by the Throat in the context of art is boldly vulnerable self-expression, through whatever means speaks to you. It’s a poem, a play, a story, a painting, a woodcraft, a needlepoint, whatever. . .which truly contains a piece of your passion and your heart. It is not safe, paint-by-numbers “oh, isn’t that nice.” It is committing your whole self to expression and beauty.

Story by the Throat in the context of everyday life is realizing the wonder of the world around you. It’s both recognizing when the everyday events surrounding you are charged with the drama and portent, and living a life such that you’d feel proud of its qualities as a tale of wonder and beauty.

Story by the Throat is, in short, emotionally investing in life, being unafraid to laugh, cry, drink deep, and connect with other human beings in a dangerously authentic way.

All of these are open to discussion. I look forward to it.