Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On Stories and Trying to Figure Them Out

From the end of my senior capstone paper in English on interactive storytelling (and once again, no idea why the font gets periodically messed up):

The hodgepodge of theories, concepts and examples with which I’ve explained the problems of interactive storytelling has not been one that lends itself to being quickly wrapped up in a concluding page, let alone five. It would perhaps be a more fitting note to end on a story; to further interconnect the many concepts explained, and if we’re lucky, see a new idea emerge. After all, if there is one thing us academics can agree on, it’s that he who of those delights can judge, and spare to interpose them oft, is not unwise.

Only a year ago, I had been recently accepted into the Honors program in computer science to begin a project whose name was simply “Interactive Storytelling.” My proposal, although over ten pages, contained little of what was needed to understand anything of the problem at hand; my understanding of narrative was confined to narrow formalist ideas of plot and a handful of scattered critical concepts.

By chance, I ended up in a class on literary theory after not making it into a different English class. Combined with the various books with which I supplemented my project, I found myself understanding narrative in ways that finally bore fruit. Combining my knowledge of mathematics and literary theory, I began to see stories themselves in a different way, abstracting them to structures juxtaposed in varying dimensions.

Nonetheless, as every structuralist knows, rules are meant to be broken and as I found myself writing this paper, a tension between the easily imagined existence of signs within systems and the inability to clearly explain their relationships to one another within some space kept me spending an entire day wondering what I was really saying, how I could find that balance between saying what needed to be said and leaving the rest open. I saw then what Stanley Fish talked about in another part of Interpreting the Variorum, a moment of tension in the process of reading.

That tension has seemed to exemplify the work I have done on interactive storytelling in the past year more than anything else; a constant tension between the axiomatic and the narrative. Mathematics is closed; there is always a clear path to understanding it. But only narratives endow us with any kind of meaning; even the great Paul Erdรถs would always say after proving an exceptional mathematical theorem “it’s in the book!” I’ve been standing on the edge throughout the entire year; interpreting stories with technology, looking over as I make another carefully thought out conjecture.

Yet there has been a remarkable sense of fulfillment from it all. With each day, my own project and my own writing on the subject become increasingly robust and meaningful, even as I come to terms with this lack of understanding. Every day I am capturing narratives more, not less, even as they appear more elusive with each day. Perhaps more than anything I’m gaining satisfaction from this very lack of reconciliation. After all, this tension is the mark upon us which narrative leaves; narrative exists in the friction that comes from not quite understanding, from the vulnerability of any structure we create, no matter how simple. And if such tension is what defines a narrative, then this project, this critical technical practice, is one as well.

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