Media Fluid and Media Fluent, E-Literature in the Era of Experience Design
University of Toronto
Citation: O’Flynn, Siobhan. “Media Fluid and Media Fluent, E-Literature in the Era of Experience Design.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 20, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/020.int03
Abstract: Imagine it’s 2025. What will constitute a “text” in the university class of the future? In our current era of convergent and transmedia practices, disciplinary boundaries between distinct media (film, game, literature, virtual reality, etc.) are blurred in stories and experiences that are distributed across or merge multiple media forms. From born digital works to analogue/digital hybrids, the challenge for e-literature studies moving forward will be how to critique works that are media fluid, that challenge the discipline specific hermeneutics of literary analysis, film studies, game studies, and/or theatre studies. No one disciplinary framework can speak to the whole of a given “text,” yet each offers a history of both critical and artistic practice that enriches and intersects with digital media studies. Add to this multi- and transmedia complexity, elements, situations, and contexts that deliberately invite audience participation in experiences allowing us to enter into the “storyworld” or that invite fans to co-create and extend content, and “textual” analysis overlaps with experience design. Originating in the field of Human Computer Interaction, and now central to game design, marketing, and corporate storyworld development, experience design recognizes our media fluent audience (i.e. people) as a medium. This essay models how understanding the methodologies of experience design can reframe our understanding of the design, effects, and affect generated by diverse digital media “texts” such as the Twine game Queers in Love at the End of the World, the first-person shooter game Bioshock and the VR 360° video adaptation of Lincoln in the Bardo.
Keywords: e-literature, Twine, VR, VR 360° video, Bioshock, experience design, video games, Aristotle, transmedia, narrativity.
Imagine a decade from now. What will constitute a “text” in the university class of the future? In our current era of convergent and transmedia practices, disciplinary boundaries between distinct media (films, games, literature, virtual reality, fan art, etc.) are blurred in stories and experiences that are distributed across or merge multiple media forms. From born digital works to analogue/digital hybrids, the challenge for e-literature studies moving forward will be how to critique works that are media fluid, and that challenge the discipline specific hermeneutics of literary analysis, film studies, game studies, and/or theatre studies. No one disciplinary framework can speak to the whole of a given digital “text,” yet each offers a history of both critical and artistic practice that enriches and intersects with digital media studies in different ways. Add to this multi- and transmedia cross-platform strategies that deliberately invite audience participation by entering into the “storyworld” of any given work, or that prompt fans to co-create and extend content. In both instances, “textual” analysis must then engage with experience design. Originating in the field of Human Computer Interaction, and now central to game design, marketing, and top-tier branded transmedia productions, experience design recognizes our media fluent audience (i.e. people) as a medium, in that the design of a digital artifact, interface, or simulated environment is reliant on our interaction. This essay models how the insights and methodologies of experience design can enrich our understanding of how born-digital “texts,” such as interactive fiction/hypertext games including Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World and Corrina Quach’s Siren’s Song, Irrational Games’ Bioshock, and The New York Times 360° Virtual Reality (VR) videos Lincoln in the Bardo (NYTVR) and Wild — The Experience (Fox Searchlight Pictures) use multiple semiotic and procedural cues to create compelling experiences. Here I build on my current monograph project Mapping Digital Narrativity: Design, Practice, Theory (Routledge, in process), which examines the impact of digital media on storytelling by recontextualizing Aristotle’s theory of tragedy and catharsis as a model of experience design.
As the forms of e-literature evolve, boundaries between different media forms blur distinctions between and across hypertext, Twine story-game, and VR 360°. The question of how to critique and teach e-literature is equally complex: as an established practice, literary analysis may obscure or elide key aspects of a given work. Look back to the formative years of game studies, and the narratology vs. ludology “debate” and objections raised by ludologists (Aarseth, “Genre Trouble”; Juul, “Telling Stories”) to reading games as “narratives” remain relevant today. However, for those who work in traditional media disciplines, I have found that the terms “electronic literature” and “digital storytelling” have a tendency to prompt a bias towards the foregrounding diegetic elements and a focus on analyses regarding linear vs. non-linear narratives, or story vs. plot distinctions. This can become highly problematic given the range of rich media forms categorized as “electronic literature” (e-literature), as a scroll through the Electronic Literature Collections, volumes 1, 2 and 3 makes evident (see collection.eliterature.org).
This essay is part of a larger project mapping the impact of digital media on storytelling and the challenges that arise in defining and analyzing “e-literature” today, as the range of forms, technologies, and practices continues to expand. This shifting field offers challenges as to how to frame the continuities and disjunctions between older and newer forms, and each scholar of e-literature has their own particular interdisciplinary trajectory leading to the current moment. My path charts through the parallel, overlapping, and diverging disciplinary fields of research and practice, from my “home” field as an English PhD and my near simultaneous entry into consulting and mentoring interactive storytelling at the Canadian Film Centre’s (CFC) Interactive Art & Entertainment Lab (later Media Lab) between 2001 and 2011. Over this time span, it often seemed that digital media and digital texts remain a foreign land for those whose primary texts have been print, film, and other legacy media. One factor has been that the novel as print text and material object has remained a relatively stable art form and a naturalized technology over centuries (as books are much as they were in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), while the more recent field of e-literature has evolved rapidly with periodic seismic shifts that redefine artistic and commercial practice. Working at the CFC, introducing legacy media practitioners to emergent forms of digital media, the constants were: 1. learning how to design for the affordances of different media, and 2. understanding that interactive storytelling as a process requires reframing “story” perceived as text to “story” understood as an “experience” actualized by the “user.”
In the academic context, the fulcrum of this tension now manifests itself in the question of how to integrate the principles of digital media design within a legacy media context, specifically literary studies and the English Department. This because there are significant disjunctions between the realm of academic literary texts, what is encompassed within the term “electronic literature,” and the range of “texts” or forms available and consumed by everyday audiences. And there is a marked lag in my home discipline of English Literature, where the inclusion of e-literature in courses as another form of literary textuality is rare and where the reading of digital works as literature creates a limiting keyhole effect, focused on concepts and characteristics oriented to the static text as artifact, rather than a system and process.
This tension is complicated and manifest in various terms, including “electronic literature,” “interactive fiction,” “digital text,” and “digital fiction,” which predispose readers to expect diegetic “texts” that tell stories and to focus on that telling. Yet these variant terms now encompass such a wide range of forms, like hypertext, Flash fiction, born-digital novel, Twine story-game, multi- and rich media apps, and VR shorts, that defining what “e-literature” is becomes challenging. Can we talk about a hypertext in the same way we would critique a VR work or a pervasive performative game? Game Studies, Media Studies, Interactive Cinema, and i-Docs all offer critical concepts, methods, and terms that allow us to address varying characteristics, concepts, and practices of interactive media. Janet Murray’s four properties or affordances of digital media (procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, spatial), for example, offers one foundational model (Hamlet on the Holodeck; Inventing the Medium). Within the distinct fields of Electronic Literature and Game Studies, there are now many theoretical directions and approaches that have moved beyond the early discussions focusing on a narratology vs. ludology divide. These include Ian Bogost’s writing on procedural rhetoric in games (Persuasive Games), Jan Simons’s investigation of game theory as an underlying model illuminating the commonalities between literature and games (“Narrative, Games, and Theory”), Astrid Ensslin’s mapping of a literary-ludic spectrum (Literary Gaming), which Stuart Moulthrop’s endorsement describes as a mode of “deft reading,” Miguel Sicart’s argument as to the necessary factors for generating ethical gameplay (Beyond Choices), or my own reading of the logics driving digital adaptions and franchise storyworlds (“Epilogue”).
Given the diversity of forms that exist now, and given the innovation imperative of digital media, how do we begin to construct a canon of the digital text? Franco Moretti’s 2000 essay, “The Slaughterhouse of Literature,” posits in a footnote the intriguing assertion that canon formation occurs in part influenced by the longevity and commercial success of a given author or text: “Let me make clear that, although canonical novels are usually quite successful right away, the key to canonization is not the extent of a book’s initial popularity but its steady survival from one generation to the next” (210). Teaching films in literature classes is commonplace, however, whereas teaching video games is not. Yet consider the fact that global game industry revenue rose to $91 billion in 2016, while the global box office for films barely increased at $38.6 billion. If we agree with Moretti as to commercial longevity impacting canon formation, what should we predict to become canonical for the “English” class of the future? What will constitute Electronic Literature in the future? Bioshock? Gone Home? The Walking Dead? Limbo? What Became of Edith Finch? Each of these games offers a distinct style of gameplay and all have narrative components that can be framed as literary. Yet reading any of these solely via their unfolding narrative(s) would ignore what Mark Wolf and Bernard Perron defined as the “elements (…) at the heart of what makes the video game a unique medium, and need to be addressed in any discussion of them. The most fundamental of these elements are: an algorithm, player activity, interface, and graphics” (14). With the explosion in indie games winning awards in new designations, such as non-linear storytelling, first-person narrative/exploration games, nonlinear walking simulator, story-based choice and consequence games, and episodic graphic adventure video games, what will the time-line for the incorporation of these forms be?
Two recent short conversations can provide context as they capture aspects of some of the challenges of our contemporary moment. The first was a recent exchange I had with a Teaching Assistant for a new first offering of a Video Game course in the Department of English and Drama at the University of Toronto. I wanted to know if the TA played video games (they played some, though not a lot) and if they had any familiarity with Game or Media Studies (they had none). Giving a very brief sketch of the course as an introduction to Game Studies with a short overview of experience design, my TA responded to the latter, “Oh! that’s like Reader Response.” This led to a discussion on how there was no neat equivalence between user experience design and Reader Response, and how designing for performative interactivity is distinct from analyzing or assessing cognitive engagement. Formative insights I cited included Espen Aarseth’s definition of ergodic literature as the “non-trivial effort required to…traverse the text” as distinct from turning a page or interpreting a story (Cybertext 1). Furthermore, that interactivity produces a change in state in the game or given work which is not equivalent to changes in meaning and understanding we may experience as readers. Player engagement encompasses time, attention, and mental and performative effort invested in the game. And while the story can be an important component to discuss, understanding game mechanics, and how games express an intentional design directed towards producing affect (meaning) and effects (what I do) would be equally important. I offered as one model Miguel Sicart’s useful distinction between “the two dominant gradients of abstraction that constitute the formal structure of a game: a procedural level contains the rules, mechanics, and other systems, and a semiotic level communicates, contextualizes, and makes users empathize with this system” (Beyond Choices 87). I think the teaching assistant’s initial assumptions started to shift towards a new and more expansive horizon as we spoke.
This exchange illustrates the exact juncture I am interested in—the overlap and gap that occurs between and across disciplines as those who are experts in one field look over to another side and begin to grapple with a new field. The process is often that of exporting and translating familiar mental models and methods, which then tend to obscure what is distinct and recognized in other disciplines and hermeneutics through that keyhole effect. The second short exchange was with Ian Harper, the producer of the Inanimate Alice born-digital novel series, on our shared sense of what now feels like another generational shift as the students, practitioners, and designers who have grown up with rapid technological innovation have a vantage point as makers, media fluid and media fluent. We mused on the impact of works, such as Inanimate Alice, that introduce players to coding, hacking, and making, and the delayed response in university educational contexts to the vantage point these students have. Consider that Minecraft, Code Academy, Ruby, and Twine, and other free to use maker apps, have grade schoolers coding and creating their own digital works. Yet there is a marked lag and disparity in my home discipline, English Literature, where reading digital works as literary texts can be an inadequate model of critique. How do we define digital works—e-literature, digital fiction, born digital texts—as the forms of e-literature evolve and boundaries between different media forms blur? Are hypertext, Twine story-games, video games, and VR immersive and 360° films the same? It is clear that they are not. Add the complications of rapid production and dissemination of online content and the field becomes even more difficult to chart. Clay Shirky’s insight in Cognitive Surplus that technology now makes consumers into collaborators is evident across social media platforms and most other spheres of online engagement, where sharing drives new content production at a scale difficult to grasp, and where the ethos of recycle, reuse, remix and remix culture is pervasive, traceable in everything from memes to fan fiction, fandoms, and other fannish activities. What does it mean to teach digital texts to a generation for whom the classroom print “text” is a legacy media, and who are primarily engaged in communication practices that their instructors may be completely unaware of? What does it mean to teach to a generation who are fluently code-switching between conventional written English and new, emergent and informal text-based variants? Strikingly, in 2018, while the question of whether computer algorithms can recognize irony has long been recognized as a major challenge for programming AI for many digital humanities scholars, online text abbreviations, non-standard punctuation, and creative disregard for conventional spelling have resulted in a highly nuanced mode of discourse adept in expressing irony, sarcasm, irritation, astonishment or other paralinguistic nuances of tone and meaning, as linguistics professors are now beginning to recognize (Thompson). What does this landscape look like to those academics for whom the literary text is the framing model? How uneven is the distribution of critical knowledge? My concern is specifically focused on how we will transition from today’s disciplinary silos to this riotously poly/mediamorous future. Let me riff slightly on an insight oft attributed to William Gibson that “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet” (Gibson n.p.): “the digital text, and the critical tools to understand its many forms are already here—they’re just not evenly distributed. Yet.”
This is a particular challenge in the expansiveness of the term “electronic literature” as for those trained in the study of literature as a print medium the mental model will be that of reading text in terms of narrative features, poetics, thematic, cultural, political, and identity concerns, and potential narratological concerns in theory and practice, including avant-garde writing, poststructuralism, post-modernism, unnatural narratives, possible worlds, cognitive narratology, and now post-classical narratology (Alber and Fludernik; Richardson and Herman; Herman, “Storytelling”). The go-to precedent for a hypertext classic such as Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story as non-linear storytelling may be Roland Barthes’s notions of “The Death of the Author,” and concepts like lisible and scriptible works, translated as readerly and writerly texts (S/Z), wherein “(…) the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text” (4). Widely acknowledged analogue precedents for recombinatory poetics, for example, exist in the avant-garde text-games and literary experiments of Oulipo, a loose-knit group of French writers, scientists, and mathematicians launched in 1960 and initiated by Raymond Queneau in discussion with François Le Lionnais. Deena Larsen’s 2002 online flash hypertext poem Firefly: a tale told in 180 degrees of separation has been called “a digital multimedia take on Queneau’s 1961 seminal work, Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes” (Ensslin, “Computer Gaming” 502). The reader can generate variable readings, not through the flipping of text strips as in Queneau’s print text, but by clicking on any of the lines in each stanza. With five lines to each of the six stanzas, the interactive recombinatory poem can be fairly analyzed via literary, post-structural, and narratological hermeneutics, although Larsen’s digital work is also visually rich in semiotic design, including photo images, font choice, dynamic text movement, and colour palette. Anna Anthropy’s 2013 Twine story game Queers in Love at the End of the World, however, explodes this hermeneutic approach. While it’s possible to map all the branching narrative/text that exists in the back-end by playing through all possible variables (which some of my students have done), such a text “map” completely misses the experience of playing through the text, as the most compelling and impactful component is the timer that limits any play-through of the narrative to ten seconds before it resets. As repeatedly noted by my students, one’s realization that there is a ten second window to explore the text prompts frantic clicking to get “more” text which then creates a highly charged tension with the urge to read new text fully, as it is revealed with each click. This alternate playing mode results in getting “less” text/story as the timer counts down, creating a sense of poignant loss amplified as we choose to do less, or nothing. So while it’s possible to find transcripts of the Twine interactive’s text passages as a progressive back-end map, that “text” communicates nothing of the play experience itself. Understanding how the timer as a game mechanic impacts the experience as a formal design element is distinct from the level of narrative as content. Understanding play as experience opens up a discussion and recognition of the importance of intentionality as a design constraint which conditions player response. Paradoxically, in this Twine game, doing less means getting more.
Our perceptions and understanding of interactive texts alter depending on our hermeneutic approach to a given text, and my interest is focused on how an assessment of the intentional design of interactivity and user experience (experience design) can inform and supplement literary perspectives. Related theoretical antecedents exist in the extensive critical work on cognitive schema, mental models, and natural narratives by theorists such as Jerome Bruner, Monika Fludernik, David Herman, and others. Yet the limits of these theories often manifest at the edge of interactivity as a performative response. As we know, all digital interactive “texts” are systems designed to prompt us to act, to generate effects and affect in us, and they are only completed by us through interaction. As the UX designer Susan Gorbet stated in a CFC Media Lab critique years ago, “In experience design, people are your medium” (qtd. in McLennan n.p.). She later expanded on this design approach, “Much like oil painters need to understand the properties of oil paint, interactive designers need to understand the properties of their medium, which is people” (McLennan n.p.). This insight is for me a baseline for inquiry into how digital works frame and prompt the generation of our mental models, and our perceptions and expectations of the modes of interactivity and anticipated outcomes that we encounter, and what we do in response (O’Flynn, “Designed Experiences”). These factors often then determine what we experience as satisfying or frustrating. In this sense, experience design builds on the insights of Don Norman who coined the term: “‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products” (Norman and Nielsen n.p.). Experience design is a term now used to encompass all dimensions of a user’s interactions with an interactive system, and the design process and methodologies used to optimize that experience with a clear goal in mind.
It became clear to me in the early 2000s that the mental model you bring to a digital text changes the way you engage with it and the experience you have. A very early work developed at the CFC in 2001 by Andreas Ua’Siaghail and Sean Hopen, Pax Warrior, adapted UN Commander Romeo Dallaire’s account of the days leading up to the Rwanda genocide as an interactive experience in which we take on the role of the UN Commander. The opening graphics borrowed from first-person shooter (FPS) conventions and this created a marked dissonance in the early testing and initial beta launch. Gamers approached the work as a game that could be won, which it couldn’t, as all choices ended in genocide. Unsurprisingly, they found this distinctly unsatisfying and frustrating. Filmmakers approached it as a docu-game and had the reverse experience: it was moving, challenging, and illuminating as an exploration of the harrowing events Dallaire continues to wrestle with. Today Pax Warrior is described as “an interactive software program / genocide prevention simulator based on authenticated events in Rwanda in 1994” (Ua’Siaghail and Hopen). Terms such as game, interactive story, iDoc, or docu-game aren’t even referenced now, and one guess as to why this might be is because the paratextual leanings in considering the “genre” of these media established too strong a cognitive schema or mental model as to what was expected. N. Katherine Hayles described a similar disjunction in her 2013 keynote lecture given at the International Colloquium: The Participatory Condition in the testing of Speculation, an alternate reality game (ARG) designed with Patrick Jagoda and Patrick Lemieux exploring divergent scenarios based on the 2008 economic collapse. She commented on how the creators found that gamers who play-tested early versions skipped the documentary, educational content in order to progress more quickly through the game components. Hayles described this as frustrating, as extensive time and effort had been put into that content, which the gamers then ignored. ARGs have an established history in commercial and viral marketing campaigns and The Beast, I Love Bees, Why So Serious? and Year Zero defined the conventions of networked multiplayer collaboration and puzzle solving within an often dystopian thriller framework. The mental models potentially engendered by descriptions of Speculation as a transmedia ARG may well have been misleading, whereas terms such as “speculative serious game” in reference to Jane McGonigal/Ken Eklund’s World Without Oil or “documentary games” such as the NFB/Arte’s Fort McMoney (Dufresne) or the NFB’s Bear 71 (O’Flynn, “Documentary’s Metamorphic Form”) shift the paratextual frame.
Jerome Bruner’s 1986 work Actual Minds, Possible Worlds illuminates this process of perception through his argument that humans experience two modes of cognitive functioning: the paradigmatic expressed in the logical argument and logico-scientific discourse (13), and the narrative mode, whereby we organize facts and experience into stories. Genre cues act as triggers that activate “the interpretive processes that are loosed by the text in the reader’s mind” (7). Our perception of genre depends not only on what is in the text, but also on our prior awareness of a genre (narrative style to game play mechanic) as a model or template outside of the text (Herman, “Storytelling,” Narrative Theory; Jahn, “Cognitive”; Gentner and Stevens; Norman, “Some Observations”).1 Shifting focus to the “reader’s mind,” Bruner asks whether “the triggers [are] literary or semiotic road signs telling the reader what genre [the story] is and what stance to take toward the story?” (7). The narrative mode, by this account (see also Bal, Narratology; Fludernik, Introduction; Fish; Keen), relies on the active cognitive engagement of the reader in the production of meaning, and outcomes can be widely and wildly variable. So take, for example, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. A child reader can enjoy the series for the plot-driven adventure and deeply realized fantasy world of daemons, witches, and armoured polar bears. A reader fluent in the Western literary canon will recognize Milton’s Paradise Lost and works by William Blake, and Heinrich von Kleist as intertexts, as well as references to Descartes and quantum physics. Bruner’s schema of the interrelation of mental models and “reader response” becomes increasingly complicated depending on the media specific elements mobilized in a given work. What happens when we look to digital texts that evoke associations with anything ranging from horror games, film genres, and specific films, or contemporary social and cultural contexts via memes, to interaction design, and/or retro-nostalgia arcade aesthetics?
My concern, then, is specifically how to transition the study of “texts” from today’s disciplinary silos (English Literature, Game Studies, Media Studies) to frameworks suitable for our riotously poly/mediamorous future, which is already here. Take, for example, the question of how to “read” the VR episode of Inanimate Alice: Perpetual Nomads, “an ongoing digital novel, an interactive multimodal fiction” (Inanimate Alice n.p.). A text-based model of literary analysis will be inadequate. Game studies, digital media studies, and 360° or immersive cinema can offer alternative analytical frameworks that may be better suited for the task, however, as these modes can be enriched by considering the experience design of a given work. Understanding how works are designed to manipulate us via semiotic, interface, and procedural cues, or user experience design, will be necessary as we engage with “texts” that are 4D and 5D, and that support networked, participatory, collaborative, environmental, and virtual interactions. Across the past forty years of experimentation with new technologies for interactive storytelling, the one constant has been that digital media require humans to interact through making choices and physical engagement that requires more effort than turning a page or watching a screen. This is not a trivial insight as interactivity necessitates understanding of how to effectively design the desired interaction and manipulate the human interactor to achieve an optimum outcome. User Experience (UX) offers one methodological framework for understanding the intentional design of the text as artifact, and a process that determines how that digital content communicates, prompts our interactivity, and achieves its intended effects and affect.
My hope is to add to the critical tool set available to those in my home discipline by offering one model for how an awareness of UX can inform the study of interactive works. From the perspective of a UX framework, I see value in recontextualizing “narrativity” as a broader human-centered process whereby intentional triggers are the catalyst for our meaning-generation, and for our physical responses as actions and interactions. This experiential layer (what we do as interactor) extends narratology’s existing definition of narrativity as the degree to which a text signals that it is a narrative, i.e. how we understand that a story is a story and not a grocery list. It is possible to reconcile the idea of narrativity as a model of experience design with an understanding of it as a process that occurs in-between the interactor and the work. A UX perspective can shift attention to the degree of intentional design in any digital text, in that the digital work requires that we do something in order for the experience to unfold and that this something is not necessarily obvious or a given. A UX perspective can also illuminate how our interactivity contributes to the production of effects and affect that again are intentional and required for the success of the work. Contra to New Criticism’s directive to consider the work of art as “a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object” (Zrnić 266), a UX perspective requires that we consider the specifics of design and practice that shape our experience of the interactive work. And contra to Reader-Response Theory or Affect Theory, a UX perspective attends to what we do in our choices as input actions that change the state of the system.
So, for example, when video games are considered holistically in terms of intention, interactivity, emotional affect, and meaning generation, we have to shift to a UX model. Digital media artists have been working from this perspective for decades, and in this context we are never just talking about a game or digital art as a “product.” As Bill Buxton, a pioneer in human-computer interaction, stated: “Despite the technocratic and materialistic bias of our culture, it is ultimately experiences that we are designing, not things” (127). Buxton’s insight provides a framework for understanding story games, video games, media art, and the experiential embodied dimension distinctive to VR films and games. As he also notes, “It is not the physical entity or what is in the box (the material product) that is the true outcome of design. Rather, it is the behavioral, experiential, and emotional responses that come about as a result of its existence and its use in the real world” (10).
Building theory from practice can provide an alternative method for exporting or adapting an existing hermeneutic approach to a new medium, or lead to forays into interdisciplinary analysis working across and between disciplines. This is because a UX approach understands that when digital “texts” are designed to be responsive and participatory, they are the result of an intentional design process that is completed by the interactivity of “the interactor,” a term used by Canadian VR artist, Char Davies, and that I prefer to “user.” Here, too, play-testing is a practice that is foreign to literary studies, as nobody play-tests a novel or a book, as the form has been naturalized. As we all know, however, every new digital work requires a rigorous assessment of its design, algorithm to interface, in order to ensure that it achieves the desired effect, affect and outcome.
Let me give a brief summary of the evolution of experience design. Initially developed in the 1980s as a sub-field of human-computer interaction, the goal was to reduce the friction and dissatisfaction we experience with poorly designed computer interactions. Don Norman’s 1988 The Design of Everyday Things introduced an ecological approach to design via the practice of user-centered design and the concept of affordances. Light switches are intuitive for most humans alive today. Similarly, a glowing object or spot in a video game indicates something clickable and responsive that will typically release more content or interactivity. However, show a ten-year-old console game champion a rotary dial phone or a turntable with vinyl records, and the process of how to “use” and interact with these technologies will likely remain frustratingly opaque. UX emphasizes the understanding of user experience at all points of contact with a product, a service, a company, or a system, and mapping this experience via scenarios and personas that can storyboard or model exactly what a given interaction will be like through the entire process of discovery, to completion.
The notion of a desired outcome as intentional design is not entirely foreign to literary theory. Each year, in the context of teaching various courses, I reread Aristotle’s Poetics, and continue to be struck by Aristotle’s definition of the well-made plot in tragedy as itself an experience design model. Here, in his statement that the well-made tragedy is a structure that creates an effect on the audience:
Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. (Aristotle n.p.)
What is particularly relevant in today’s media ecology is his argument that catharsis can be understood as both a state and a process that results in an experience of emotion. As Joe Sachs notes, the word “catharsis” only appears once as the term “wonder,” rhaumaston, is then used. Sachs argues catharsis functions not just in the sense of “purging” but also as a metaphor for a “tragic pleasure” arising from feeling “washed out.” Either sense of the term demarcates a process whereby the audience is lead from one emotional state to another. This process of shifting is marked in the structural components that Aristotle views as hallmarks of the highest form of the well-made tragedy: peripeteia and anagnorisis, reversal and recognition. When present, these elements result in a reversal in our understanding of the story as a whole, and the audience’s wonder in recognizing the real meaning of the “story” and the design of the whole work of art. Probably the most striking example of this in contemporary video games is Bioshock’s noir revelation of how (and this sentence should come with a spoiler alert) the non-player character (NPC) Atlas has manipulated our player avatar, Jack, through the use of a trigger phrase that we are conditioned to respond to. This reveal is effected through a mid-point cut scene that removes our agency as players, meaning that we are forced to watch while we as Jack brutally murder a key NPC. This reveal fully leverages Aristotle’s peripeteia and anagnorisis, as we reconcile our altered understanding of the story and our role in relation to our actions. However, the shock of this moment is substantially affective precisely because of the degree of our interaction as players making choices prior to this moment, at the mechanical fight mode or ethical decision points. This disruption of the in-game fiction of our agency in game-play forces us back to a meta-critical awareness of the game as a system that has successfully conditioned us (along with other FPS games) to respond to the semiotic and procedural prompts that contribute to Bioshock’s richly imagined world and immersive game-play. Rather than observing Oedipus in his moment of tragic discovery and reversal, we experience both as Jack and as victims of this system, fated to experience this inevitable moment no matter what our prior choices.
That we understand this moment as intentional, as designed, is as true for Bioshock as it is in Aristotle’s model of the best-made tragedy and its constituent parts that work together to produce a significant effect and emotional affect. Consider that for Aristotle, Sophocles’s version exemplifies the best-made tragedy, not because of the surprise disclosure of who Oedipus is and the nature of his relationships (everyone knew that already), but rather because of Sophocles’s achievement in the design of telling a familiar story, and its effect on the audience. The crafting of the plot triggers an emotional response that shifts the audience through different states more successfully and with greater impact than other versions. The broad strokes of the Oedipus drama were well known in many variations, and this foregrounds Aristotle’s emphasis on the value of intentional design as a means to produce the most heightened and resonant effect and affect possible—expressed as catharsis. While the play does not require us to do anything in response, digital texts are designed to prompt and guide our responses as input that changes the state of the system, by evoking familiar mental models of game play or interface design, genre cues, stories, or story worlds. Interactive works may or may not design for prolonged instances in which we do nothing. Do we see hints or prompts as to desired actions? Will the program remain suspended or “bounce” us to a next interaction? Will a timer run out so we “die” and reset? Or do we knowingly act against what we understand as the rules and world of the system? One of my recent favourite discoveries in game-play walkthroughs is one player who focuses on doing everything wrong—for example making what are obviously the worst, unethical choices in The Walking Dead, just to see what happens. This model of playing to test or break the system subverts intentional design for optimum outcomes, yet it can reveal whether the designers have thought about the outlier responses in game play and interactivity.
These considerations are foreign to literary analysis, where outlier responses are discounted as misreading, yet irreverent or resistant play must be anticipated in interactive design and experience design because all digital interactive “texts” are systems designed to prompt us to act, to generate effects and affect in us, and they are only completed by us, through interaction. Recognizing that “people are your medium” is a profound shift for disciplines that focus on media as artifacts, yet this ethos is now a fundamental principle in marketing, business, and content production across industries. Transmedia and marketing have codified this relationship as the conversation between an audience and a storyworld/brand. This UX maxim is essential to understanding designing in virtual reality, which combines cinematography, interactivity, 360° storytelling, game mechanics, haptic interfaces, and soon biometrics. While models for developing action-driven stories already exist in games, there is an explosion of experimentation happening in VR documentaries, journalism, animation, and indie VR filmmaking that is defining a new language of immersive VR.
Incorporating UX into this expanding field of ergodic, literary-ludic, born digital “texts” completes a trajectory in current interdisciplinary approaches—particularly in the expanding field of post-classical narratology—that seek to align traditional media with digital interactive practices. What is often evident in post-classical narratology’s interdisciplinary forays is that theorists stretch various 2D conceptual frameworks to address digital media, often with limited results because the focus remains on the “text” as static content or artifact. In contrast, game designers and digital media producers have for decades been centrally concerned with UX in the design of the interface, cues to interaction, game mechanics, and what has emerged in the richness and complexity of fluid processual and procedural storytelling. Recent inquiries into ethics and game design, by Miguel Sicart and others, mark the incorporation of a design thinking methodology in game studies. In industry, the challenge VR filmmakers and producers are now wrestling with is how to design interaction, to cue our responses optimally, without any visible interface. Here, Henry Jenkins’s 2004 essay “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” is much more relevant for understanding storytelling in VR’s 360° immersive environment than a hermeneutic approach that focuses on questions of “story” rooted in narratology or post-classical narratology’s foci.
Two examples can illustrate how VR designers and producers are integrating UX to achieve effects and affect, particularly that of embodiment. The first example demonstrating a clever use of positioning and visual constraints is found in the VR 360° short animated film, Sergeant James. Created by Alexander Perez for Within (formerly Vers), the VR 360° camera view positions the user underneath a bed in what is clearly a boy’s bedroom, so our “view” of the environment is restricted to what can be seen beyond the bed within an approximately 1 foot vertical “window” leading out a few feet to the surrounding walls. One can see various toys, toy airplanes, train tracks, stuffed animal, building blocks, on space of the floor beyond the bed and an open doorway into hall. While the space is empty to begin with, a dog trots in through the open doorway and rummages around a toy chest, then leaves. As our position is locked, we wait, and then we hear voices of a boy and his mother in a typical pre-bed time scenario of rushing him into bed. Of course, all we see is their feet and lower legs. Our position as 360° voyeur in this casual and intimate moment takes on greater valence when the boy asks his mother to leave the light on “I think there’s someone under my bed… Mom, I think there really is someone… and it’s not the first time” (Perez n.p.). These clever, small narrative details suddenly “sync” our reified experience of this micro-world and mini-narrative into an active and anxious experience as we are now the monster under the bed. What stands out here is a highly effective scripting of the viewer into the cinematic immersive environment as a potential agent and threat. Everything from this moment on, in terms of sound and light cues and the mise en scène, directs our responses as to where to look, and with our added sense of what we may be. Our perspective immediately changes as does our anticipation of how the “narrative” may play out.
Where the initial 360° camera’s point of view in the scene functions as an unacknowledged and unremarked presence, we are now implicated as a significant entity, occupying this same 360° point of view, and we don’t know what we are in the scene. Monster? Alien? Insect? Mouse? Where we look and what ensues then unfolds with this reframed tension in the short film. Writer/director Perez describes his “eureka moment” in VR filmmaking as the realization that in essence
You’re creating a story for only one person to experience; this completely redefined my role as a filmmaker. I immediately understood the new dialogue I wanted to have with viewers: to play with them, to be complicit with them, but also to deceive them. To me, this collaborative one-on-one relationship is the main difference between a traditional film and a VR one — and it was the beginning of my desire to work in the medium.
What Sergeant James demonstrates is a highly effective scripting and positioning that personalizes our experience as being in the room, without knowing what we are in that space. We experience both a sense of presence and anxiety over the unknown, and a delight in cinematic constraints of being under the bed and how the logic of this limitation is used to build the narrative.
The second example is the New York Times VR adaptation of George Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo, both published April 2017. The director Graham Sack initially pitched the idea to Saunders and Random House as the first VR adaptation of a novel, making it neither a book trailer nor a film adaptation (Maher). For Random House, rights were something of “a convoluted issue” as there was no model. The VR short “reinterprets” a central scene when Lincoln enters the tomb of his just deceased son and then carries his body out into the cemetery, accompanied by his son’s ghost. You exist in this space as a viewer held to a fixed 360° cinematic vantage point in the scene. The inference is that you are one of the many “ghosts” observing Lincoln’s solitary act, and at times they are a focal point that other ghosts address. The VR short has original dialogue written by Sacks, with Saunders described as “a key collaborator,” so the work adapts and extends the novel (Sacks n.p.). In its UX design, the short plays in established ways with point of view and proximity, in order to create small surprises as ghosts intrude on the viewer’s “personal space.” As an adaptation of a novel, its form and design foreground the limits of literary analysis as a hermeneutic approach oriented towards a static text, read for the mechanics of plot, character, time, rhetoric, or poetics, or generating thematic, symptomatic, or paranoid readings.
How, then, do narrativity and Aristotle’s Poetics intersect with experience design? In essence, narratology and narrativity have always been concerned with “experience” prompted by the processes we engage in to create meaning and the affect produced in response to triggers in a “text,” though usually with the assumption that the result will be our perception of “a story” as a tale told by a storyteller. My reading of digital “narrativity” considers narrativity as both a quality (the degree to which a text suggests it is a narrative/story) and a process (experienced by the user mediating those signals and the affect/effects we experience in response to a given interactive work).
What games destabilized and VR disrupts, however, is the separation of the reader/player from the fictional/immersive world, substituting simulated bodily haptic experience for literary interpretation and imagined experience. Simply put, in VR the distinction between real and imagined, life and fiction collapses, as we can experience “the depiction of a psychic reality” as real. Existing theoretical models emphasize the separation of these domains. Monika Fludernik’s notion of the “experientiality” of a work for the reader is focused on narrative’s “quasi-mimetic evocation of real-life experience” via a consciousness depicted over time (Towards 12). Marco Caracciolo theorizes that “embodiment as thematized by narrative can modulate readers’ embodied involvement, possibly making them more aware of the bodily feelings evoked by discursive patterns” (Caracciolo n.p.). VR, however, gives us embodied experience, felt as real, where instead of the optic illusion of trompe l’œil, our bodies react as if the environment we find ourselves in is real. It is not a “quasi-mimetic evocation of real-life experience” (Fludernik 12). Your first experience of vertigo in VR will be a landmark moment as the physiological response is visceral, even though you know intellectually that being perched on a ledge is an illusion. We can imagine the world of a novel because it mimics our experience of the world; VR gives us the experience of being in a responsive simulated world.
Pre-existing mental models based on genre, story world frameworks, prior texts and intertexts can impact our perception and anticipation of outcomes, and when evoked, have a parallel function to what experience design terms as “affordances.” If we understand “narrativity” as a process of reading a system of (multimedia) signs that we interact with and act upon, we recover the role of the audience as the receivers and makers of meaning (see Mieke Bal’s examination of the role of the narrativizing subject in Bal, “The Point”) and can broaden the scope and outcomes of this process to include what we do.
“Narrativity” can then be mapped in a new manner. As one aspect of experience design, it manifests in the space of engagement that all digital interactive works mobilize via signs and triggers activating us to act and generate meaning. Experience design is always concerned with designing as system that moves us through a predetermined structure from one state to another. That includes the diegetic sphere of what we perceive ourselves as doing within a story-game space (Secret Agent Cinder, Gone Home, No Man Sky) and the extradiegetic movements necessary to interact with the system (click, tap, wave, arrow keys, controller jump sticks, and so forth). In adapting “narrativity” from narratology, where today it refers to the characteristics or qualities that suggest that a text is a narrative, reconceiving narrativity as an unfolding process prompted by cues predetermined within the system opens up a language and methodology to discuss what has always been a component of the mimetic arts. When we think of the present-day complexity of digital multimedia, transmedia, and VR content, we are often looking at works that incorporate and mobilize multiple semiotic systems. The distinction of digital interactive media is that our responses are measurable, in game play, in clicks, and online fan engagement that often directly reveals emotional impact. A UX approach makes sense because there is no single model of how a digital platform, technology, app, or interface is designed.
Experience design can demarcate a holistic model for understanding the digital “text” from its design inception to its final realization via our interactivity. The more unfamiliar or new the technology, the more “training” we may need in using and interacting with new interfaces and technologies. Digital media works that allude to, adapt, extend, or cue existing works mobilize those cues to establish mental models that limit our expectation as to what we should be doing and what we might encounter. Our experience of digital works is defined as much by the interactivity itself and the design of the interface (frustrating to intuitive), as it is by the content we experience (see, for example, To the Moon’s 16-bit/32-bit era graphics which prompt nostalgia in many players). Note that Aristotle’s model of the plot as the soul of tragedy is not fully realized without including and qualitatively assessing the impact of the “drama” as a whole on the audience. Our responses complete the drama as process; the text is never complete in itself. A tragedy that fails to produce a catharsis—pity, fear, purging, and wonder—was, for Aristotle, not the best tragedy. In experience design, we are the medium. Hence Steve Jobs’s inclusion of delight as a goal of technical design, and digital artist and inventor Zach Lieberman’s declaring that his marker of success is the “Open Mouth Phenomenon,” the moment of surprise, wonder, and delight (Rael). This is “when a person’s jaw drops open in awe” at the realization of what their interaction with technology has created.
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- See too the concepts of cognitive schema and mental models in psychology, cognitive science and post-classical narratology.