Thursday, July 24, 2003

Atoms of Meaning, Molecules of Narrative

So as I may have only implied, I'm noodling around with a software implementation of the Hero's Journey/Three Act Structure. It's a game, but it's also an experiment in figuring out how easy or hard it is to reify various aspects of the narrative arc. As we've seen, "refusal of the call" is a tough one, while others, like "the road of trials" is a natural.

The problem I'm currently struggling with is how to define the atoms of the story. For example, I could easily put a deck of cards together, where each card represented an action or a character in a story, and then deal them out, one at a time, with some set of rules to make it feel interactive. Well, that might be fun once. (Maybe.) To be useful, however, this deck of cards needs to be reusable, playable over and over again without incurring boredom or predictability. Why not? A regular card deck only has 52 cards, and even collectible card games like Magic don't gain their sense of newness or difference of each match to suddenly new cards. What the surprise comes from in these cases is in new combinations of cards.

But I don't think that that's my solution. "You've got the Goddess Mother Figure, the Father Figure, the Nemesis, and All Hope is Lost." Umm... okay. This is just making a new deck of cards with funny names, and maybe it would even be an okay game, but it would lose the very idea of narrative structure, that the goddess shows up in the middle, that All Hope is Lost is the end of Act II. So if not from the combinatorics of cards, where do differences between matches come from?

I think it must come from a combination of more fundamental atoms, which combine to form the cards. So each deck, each time you play, is a set of maybe 100 cards, but each card is drawn from a large, maybe huge, potential deck, customizing and randomizing each card. But identifying these atoms, these fundamental units of narrative, is tough.