Trials, Triumphs and Trivialities Article
Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #98:

Foreseeing Mediums: An Overview

by Shannon Appelcline

by Shannon Appelcline

December 5, 2002 - As I'm drawing up on the symbolic article #100 for Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities, I'm looking back through my archives to try and figure out which topics I've covered sporadically to date, and which really deserve an overview. And that's what today's column is: an overview of a topic I've hit upon many a time, but only in little bits and pieces... and the topic is mediums.

When I first talked about mediums, back in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #34 I consulted my OED for a definition. Looking back, I still find it accurate: "An intermediate agency, means, instrument or channel. Also, intermediation, instrumentality: in phrase by or through the medium of spec of newspapers, radio, television, etc., as vehicles of mass communication."

At the time I also said that the Skotos medium was "prose games transmitted over a global network and moderated by electronic devices." In doing so, I took the definition of mediums a little bit too much to heart, and presumed that they defined a monolithic entity. In truth, a medium can be a bit more complex; thus I'd like to start off this week's overview by better separating out the bits which make a medium work.

Taking Apart Mediums

In actuality, I don't think you can talk about medium in one short and pithy statement without confusing yourself. In reality, I'd propose that the medium at the heart of any creative endeavor can be broken into four subcategories: the transportation medium, the input medium, the output medium, and the translation medium.

It so happens that traditional mediums don't allow input, don't do translation, and that transportation is made as invisible as possible, leading to my own oversimplification last time around. Traditional mediums appear to be output only... but that neither is nor needs to be the case.

To define things a little better:

  • The transportation medium is what carries the stories from one person to another.
  • The output medium describes how you're telling your story.
  • The input medium describes how other people can interact with your story. (If the input and output medium are identical, that the medium can be said to have parity, meaning that storytellers act at a peer level with other participants.)
  • The translation medium describes how the story may be changed between input and output.
A few examples can show how a medium can be very simple or very complex. Television is a good example of a medium that is starting to become complex:
  • Storytelling Medium: Television.
    • Transportation Medium: cable; airwaves; or in a slightly different form DVD collections.
    • Output Medium: Video & sound.
    • Input Medium: None (no interactivity).
    • Translation Medium: Practically, none.

At heart, TV is a good 'ole traditional medium. In the days where you only had cable and antennae it seemed like you could define television simply via its output — video and sound. Now, though, a third means of transportation is creeping in — DVD collections — and its making it more obvious how much the transportation medium defined television as a whole.

In ye olde days you got to see a television story (a season) over the course of a year. It was broken up by breaks off at least a week at a time, and in-between sweeps weeks, sometimes breaks of months at a time.

Now, you can pick up a DVD of season one of Stargate SG-1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Oz... or many other popular shows and see it in one sitting, or a couple of days, or really over whatever time span makes you happy. The experience of seeing a story in a very compact time period and seeing the same story over an elongated time period is very different... and that's why transportation is part of the description of how a medium work.

Note that I saw "Practically, None" when I talk about the translation medium of television. Though signals are, technically, translated as they run over cables, hit satellite dishes, or whatever, that translation is never used to change the content of the story. As we're learning with computer games, you can do more than just pass-through information.

A slightly more complex, but still traditional, medium is that of telling tales.

  • Storytelling Medium: Tales told to friends.
    • Transportation Medium: Air/atmosphere.
    • Output Medium: Spoken.
    • Input Medium: Spoken (people can respond).
    • Translation Medium: None.

There isn't a lot more to explain here. The medium has reached parity because input and output are balanced. Transportation and translation are totally invisible.

With all that said, here's a more well-defined description of the medium of online games than that which I wrote up last year:

  • Storytelling Medium: Online prose games.
    • Transportation Medium: The internet; locally, DSL, cable, or modems.
    • Output Medium: Text & limited graphics.
    • Input Medium: Text & limited graphics.
    • Translation Medium: Computers.

If you compare by two definitions, you'll see that I've spent an entire section getting to the largely the same definition I had earlier. However, by analyzing it in the above fashion, I think it's easier for game designers to see what they can change regarding their medium, if they so desire. What if output had more choices? Or input? What if an out-of-parity medium were put in parity? What if a translation medium were introduced to a traditional storytelling medium? What if the transportation route is changed to include (or require) PDAs or wireless phones? What if... ?

Building for Your Own Medium

Once you've more accurately defined what your medium is, you can start to really grok your medium, and that'll help you to develop good stories for it. A great comic book story might make a terrible movie, or vice versa. In fact that's a good general rule of thumb: when you try and adapt a story from one medium to another you don't get to play to your new medium's strengths, and may indeed play to its weaknesses instead.

Take, for example, the medium of movies. It's a medium of pictures (primarily) and sounds (secondarily). Thus a great movie is going to have to take advantage of visuals to a huge extent in order to really shine.

  • Storytelling Medium: Movies.
    • Transportation Medium: Canisters of film.
    • Output Medium: Pictures and sound.
    • Input Medium: No interactivity.
    • Translation Medium: Practically, none.

Now, consider on the other hand the medium of novels. That's a medium of words, plain and simple. Pictures only work as long as they can be clearly imagined. And, any sound other than speech loses almost all of its interest when written down. Songs? Sound effects? Largely wasted in the novelistic genre. In addition, because books create a more virtual reality than movies do, you can do things that are impossible physically, like getting into the thoughts of a specific character — a technique that's actually the cornerstone of modern novelistic writing.

  • Storytelling Medium: Novels.
    • Transportation Medium: Books.
    • Output Medium: Words.
    • Input Medium: No interactivity.
    • Translation Medium: None.

Despite the differences in these two mediums, stories are often translated between them. And, it doesn't always work that well.

Consider the adaptation of any book to the screen, be it High Fidelity or Bladerunner (two of the rare decent adaptations). The first problem that you run into is that an average book contains much more story than an average movie. So, to make your movie you have to cut and cut away story until it's short enough — and hope you end up with something sensical and interesting. Then, you have to figure out what to do with all the internal monologue that's the heart of most modern novels. Either you cut it totally, and risk losing the emotional heart of the story, or you turn it into voiceover, and start playing to one of the weaknesses of the movie medium (words) rather than its strength (pictures). Even if you make these early decisions right, there's still the possibility that you might have adapted a story that doesn't actually have any good visuals, and thus will flop in and of itself.

I think one of the most dramatic recent examples I've seen of a poorly considered translation of a story from one medium to another was the movie, The Big Kahuna. The movie starred Kevin Spacey, who I have tremendous respect for, but was two of the most boring hours I've ever sat through. The problem was that The Big Kahuna started out as a play.

  • Storytelling Medium: Plays.
    • Transportation Medium: A stage.
    • Output Medium: Words, limited sound effects, limited props.
    • Input Medium: No interactivity.
    • Translation Medium: None.

I love plays. I've seen the majority of the productions done by the Berkeley Rep in the last four years and occasionally visit other theatres in Berkeley and in San Francisco. But, the main strength of the play medium is the intimacy of the setting. You can nearly feel what the actors are feeling... and that's totally lost when you translate to movies. On the other hand, plays do have specific weaknesses; most notably they have limited cast and limited settings.

Enter the Big Kahuna. The two hour movie, other than one brief interlude, featured three characters sitting on one room. Very understandable for a play, but a huge waste of the visual medium of movies. And thus a flop.

In talking about converting stories from one medium to the other, I'd suggest quite simply: Don't translate; adapt.. To some extent you should take the core idea of a story, and start from that, not from the actual text of the story. That way you can create something totally new which bears kinship to your original story, but isn't dragged down by the rules of a medium that are no longer relevant.

Strengths & Weaknesses of our Medium

And finally, before ending this discussion of medium, I'd like to look a little bit at the strengths and weaknesses of our medium of online games. All mediums have both strengths and weaknesses, you see, and it's not shameful to admit it. Rather it's very important to know and understand them, so that you can build on strengths and avoid weaknesses.

I've written about a number of our strengths in the past, in my "The Power of the Medium" series. Here's a quick run through, and a few other thoughts on powers:

  1. Individualized Output. Those computers that we use are great for translation, and so we can give every individual a totally unique experience that befits them. (see Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #34.)
  2. Text. The output medium of text in and of itself has some cool properties involving allowing for participant imagination. (see Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #35.)
  3. People. Because our medium allows for input from people, those people can help to make the medium even better. (see Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #43.)
  4. Continuity. People interested in our medium tend to stick around for a long time, and even beyond individuals an overall community can last for decades. Thus we get the benefit of lots of continuity of story. (see Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #69.)
  5. Automation. Thanks once more to those computers at the heart of the medium, we can easily automate mundane parts of storytelling, and thus both tell more stories and save human effort for telling more interesting ones.

Though my list of possible articles include a few "Problems of the Medium", I've never gotten around to writing them (though I've covered some weaknesses in other unrelated columns). But, in summary, here's some of the biggies:

  1. Timezones. The transportation medium allows people from all around the world to interact in the same story. However, because people are in many different timezones, they'll be available at different times.
  2. Non-permanence of Players. Players won't always be interacting with the medium, but since they've become a part of the story, their absence will be noted. This shows up in a lot of different issues, including players who leave, players who get busy in real life, and players who are flakes.
  3. Limited Authorial Authoritarianism. Because the medium is in parity, it's sometimes hard to tell who are the storytellers and who are the consumers. This can lead to questions about what the "real" story is.
  4. Limited Dynamism. Some aspects of storytelling are slightly mired down in extensive descriptions and even code. This can result in inertia against changing the story in an interactive way, even when it's desired and appropriate.
  5. Limited Sensory Input. Because we can only use text and limited graphics we have to work that much harder with those tools to create real emotional impact that might be simple to generate with some pretty pictures and a sappy song.

The Power to Compare

And that draws me almost to a conclusion on mediums. I only want to offer one other piece of advice, which I think I've heeded myself in this column: look to other mediums for inspiration.

In this column I've written about movies, roleplaying games, and mythology. Over in my Thinking Virtually column I've also considered television and comic books. Each one of those mediums approached things in a slightly different way, and some of the methods that other mediums use might allow for very different and very interesting game stories.

So, whenever you see any story in any medium, think about what technique the storyteller used, and see if it's emulatable.

If you'd like to read more about contrasting other mediums with online games, see "Mediums: Contrasting and Comparing" in my Trials index and "Episodic Plots" in my Thinking Virtually index.

And that's it for me this week. Next week I'm considering some more thoughts on plot. Then, in two weeks, I plan to tell a story using a different medium — something I've only touched upon briefly in this column — as a special treat for the big one-oh-oh.

I'll see you in 7.

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