Molecular Narrative Engineering

Tod's picture

...from a thread started on

Narrative Structures are like virtual "skeletons" for the forms of stories that manifest them, but further: they are comprised of molecular units of tension and relaxation, normativity and novelty, which can be organized in ad-hoc ways. If enough of them change in significant ways, you get a different Myth involving the same characters and locations. Tragedy instead of Comedy, perhaps. If the arrangement is highly stochastic, you end up with a chain of dramatic moments that become strung together as a Story in hindsight. If your Narrative Structure has an underlying arc to it, you can design your selections/tables/etc to be indicative of their placement within that arc.

But I think we can go beyond that, even, in terms of futuristic design possibilities. I sometimes imagine the "offstage game state" as a set of "Deleuze-Virtual" multiplicities (i.e., states of being which are "real" even if not currently actualized, such as an unspoken vengeance motive or a hot-headed temperament, or the fact that ice IS water, under the correct circumstances). These little dynamic structures may represent NPCs, or diegetic Forces (such as "militarization"), or non-diegetic Forces (such as "dramatic tension"), depending on playstyle and the "grainsize" of your narrative intentions. It should even be possible to build a little molecular diagram of the possible directions an NPC's or Force's "considerations" or "moods" might go, all of which relate to the logic of the myth (or the narrative structure you're emulating). A "Story" (in hindsight) can be seen as a series of these machines - these little random-but-player-affected dynamic structures - whose very existence or state when encountered may depend on the outcomes of previous encounters with other machines, operating on the same or different levels.

My guess is, just like with the periodic table in physics, we'd discover there's a manageable number of these basic dynamic molecules. Probably in the double digits.

It should be said that my goal right now is not to specify any particular approach, playstyle, or level of randomization, but rather to open up the discourse on randomization and different types of "realness" to levels and elements that may not have been previously considered. A feeling of "realness" may mean anything from physical verisimilitude to narrative coherence to mythological meaning to psychological symbolism.

Hopeless_Wanderer's picture

It is interesting to me that you are coming at this with Deleuze in hand. His work was a minor foundation for me in grad school, but he has stuck with me the longest since then.

A feeling of "realness" may mean anything from physical verisimilitude to narrative coherence to mythological meaning to psychological symbolism.

Delueze aside, this sentence is interesting for me just on the face of it. The reason that I haven't got involved in any of the discussions about blorb or game-state on S-G, is because I am not interested in the physical verisimilitude of "realness" while being intensely interested in the other three. It seems to me from scanning the dozens of threads there on this topic that physical verisimilitude is the only thing they are interested in talking about. I might be over-generalizing, perhaps Vincent and a few others aren't so interested in it, but by-and-large, what I've said hold true.

Tod's picture

I tend to agree, depending on the game of course, and with the understanding that there's usually a certain minimal level of "physical verisimilitude" that must be maintained. But this minimal level is so basic and deeply ingrained that it requires next-to-no thought; it is the the embodiment of every physical "law" we have learned with our own bodies over time. Object Permanence. Gravity. Temperature. Even Theory of Mind. Taking these assumptions as a priori is as natural - even more natural - than language itself. I find much more meaningful challenges in engendering "realness" on those other levels: for me, that is where the True Art lies.

And yes, of course this comes from a guy who wrote a surrealist game :-)

When it comes to Deleuze... Kuul Wahad! I have never before found a philosopher whose concepts so clearly and directly apply to our artform. His work is a vast tract of fertile soil, just waiting for us to interpret and apply it. Manuel DeLanda has done a good job of interpreting Deleuze on the materialist/practical level. It will be up to us to interpret him in light of the interactive narrative arts.

DeReel's picture

The molecular analogy : could it work with a Fishtank situation (as seen by Rickard Elimaa) populated by characters (be them person or non person) ? in a GMful game with less than 10 characters, you can "polarize" characters by their drives and simulation is accurate enough, as one player is in charge for each character. Modulate tension with scarcities (of course, resources are not restricted to food, water and gasoline. Some are abstract or meta).
Would that do ?

Tod's picture

Absolutely. An abstract machine may be as simple as this:

Do you give it what it needs?
YES: It shifts to helpful mode
NO: It adds a new complication

...or it may be much more complex. "It" may be an NPC, an object, or even a state of mind. The fishtank is comprised of several such objects, each with its own potential assets, affordances and complications. Some of these secondary elements may be of paramount importance (i.e., macguffins) while others may represent optional (non-mandatory) modifiers or problems/assets, and still others may be mere "color."

The fishtank itself may be seen as a large abstract machine comprised of smaller ones.

DeReel's picture

Little bits of narrative reactivity, a vivid image. There's already something like it in HP (and magic weapon bonus). In some games, like versions of Fate *edited : Danger Patrol is clearly like that*, it's so abstract the landscape is like "towers of realness", with obstacles resisting up to 1 2 or 3 successes. The first motion seems to be : reality is what resists when you stop believing in it. But there must be many other ways to push and pull. Like in AW, clocks can mean a variety of things. Generally speaking, I think Tags and Aspects do a great job at diversifying the ways a story can go.
Also, if you want to make a circuit, you will also need transistors, revolving doors. Excuse me if I use unclear metaphors, but I haven't got a clear view of this. It's fascinating nonetheless.

Tod's picture

I totally agree! The simple abstract machine I described above might be called a "gate" or a "switch." Transistors, revolvers, etc are more specific types of abstract machines.

My guess is, just like with the periodic table in physics, we'd discover there's a manageable number of these basic dynamic molecules. Probably in the double digits.

Thinking like this could be paving the way toward a structuralist approach to narrative engineering.

DeReel's picture

That's a line of work similar to the RPG design patterns. My first move to explore it will be to try and read existing games in this light, and try and extract cases where it clearly fits. Then try and see what could exist based on these observations, and look for it in the corpus, allowing the study of less clear cases.
Chances are, however, that I'll be left at that point with a "transposition" from some terms to others. The gain will be to make similarities between game objects appear maybe at unusual places.
The goal of approaching "realness" discourses would be better met with a study on discourses or engagement I think. But maybe you intend to dissipate illusions and errors Enlightenment style ?

Tod's picture

Not surprising, since my original concept was descended from "Design Patterns" as used in object-oriented programming. Having glossed over Kirk's document (thanks for mentioning it!), it's clear that he was coming from a similar connection and structuralist intention. But where Kirk is concerned with the mechanics of RPGs (stats, gauges, alignment, etc), I'm more interested in the engineering of narrative spaces - an area Kirk didn't really give much attention to.

DeReel's picture

You really want the levers and knobs to manage "squared narrative", not the action, but the tone, stakes, etc.
This makes me think of Fate, and of how Ron Edwards calls it "squared intuitive continuity" here : (it's long so check the chapters head captions)
Edwards not liking this area of design doesn't prevent us from going there. For me, I would rely on humans for their pattern recognitions, ability to create analogies and tune in on culture material. But I suspect you may have an automated treatment in mind ? is deep learning on the table ? Exactly what components of narrative or story would you wish the mechanics to address, in all ideality ? dramatic intensity ? scene framing ? themes and motifs ? dramatic continuity ? etc.

Tod's picture

All/Any of the above.
I'm not talking about any specific game, but gesturing toward a broad area of possible inventions.

DeReel's picture

OK, so I picture a clock that works like in AW. Reacts to fiction and mechanical outcomes. The number of ticks is the damage dealt, or something. The clear part of the clock gives a number for stuff. Use this number for, say, the number of heroes and allies, or resources available, the scope of the conflict, the number of rounds before bad things happen, successes needed for each obstacle.
That's a simple way to have a tension-meter actioning things.

Otherkind dice make good gates : whatever the fiction, they give you a way to close a narrative thread or open one, more or less to your convenience.

It's hard to picture a fishtank where nodes are not simply obstacles to "unlock", which devolves into conflict resolution, as with a dungeon map.

I feel many things already exist and am blinded by what tools I know best.