Video games and the future of storytelling | listening to Salman Rushdie

By Limor Shiponi

Massive tweeting led me to an interview of Salman Rushdie by Max Miller. I don’t know who’s brilliant idea it was to add the transcription at the bottom but thank you anyway – it’s clever and helpful.

Listening to Mr. Rushdie is pleasant because of the presence of humbleness. No fluff to wipe away, which might be the reason I suddenly managed to zoom in on thoughts causing frustration for a while now and put them in clear words (I hope). Thoughts about misconceptions concerning storytelling and they have nothing to do with story – which turned obvious for me after listening to this video. Story-crafting, story-building, story-weaving, story-construction – call it anyway you want, that’s not a problem between me and the world.

It has to do with the mechanism that creates the storytelling event, what I call the core model of the art. Something in the written world that has to do also with ownership of the story and how it evolves is blocking the view of understanding. So – inclined text for my thoughts interwoven into Mr. Rushdie’s lovely words.

Question: How are video games influencing linear forms of storytelling?

Salman Rushdie: That’s a very interesting question and I think the answer is we don’t yet know. But I do think that I mean for instance the game that my 13-year-old boy Milan and his friends all seem to be playing right now is this wild west game called “Red Dead Redemption” and one of the things looking over…  I mean I don’t even pretend to understand what is going on really, but one of the things that is interesting about it to me is the much looser structure of the game and the much greater agency that the player has to choose how he will explore and inhabit the world that is provided for you.

This is true for oral storytelling since dawn of time. I was surprised to hear it from Rushdie thinking to myself “doesn’t he know that?” but that was also the point I figured there is something else going on with this misunderstanding. If Rushdie says that one of the things he is interested in concerning gaming is the looser structure of the game and the much greater agency the player has, it might mean he does not see it in story.

Concerning a written plot, I feel he is right. Written by an author, the person who also owns the materialization of the original idea. But oral culture texts are not created and owned that way. In fact they might be owned by a culture but not by a single storyteller. What storytellers own is their ability to channel the story and participate in the event. Even if they are initiated and recreated by a single person oral stories never settle into a final written form. If they do they are already something different and will miss from that moment on the dynamics of storytelling’s core model.

In oral storytelling a linear plot is a vehicle to a loose structure and greater agency of the witness (listener) within the story’s narrative (world). It was never intended to do anything but rise our interest into the narrative, define it’s borders and the size of the playground to start the listener’s inner voyage to understanding. Not what the storyteller wants to make people understand but what they need to understand for themselves at a given moment in time.

He doesn’t… in fact, doesn’t really have to follow the main narrative line of the game at all for long periods of time.  There is all kinds of excursions and digressions that you can choose to go on and find many stories to participate in instead of the big story, the macro story.

Well, that sounds to me like the “arrow” form in storytelling. Mythological time and space. The arrow means – you are witnessing a plot that is framed in time, space and content while being aware that the arrow is arriving from somewhere and going somewhere, both out of sight right now but you know they are there. Notice Rushdie is calling the excursions and digressions places where you can find more arrows. In mythology there is no possibility to be in all places and experience the entire narrative at the same time – unless by the way, you know the entire cycle. Then you can visit all it’s parts simultaneously in your imagination. Keep this in mind, it has do to with something Rushdie is saying later on.

I think that really interests me as a storyteller because I’ve always thought that one of the things that the Internet and the gaming world permits as a narrative technique is to not tell the story from beginning to end—to tell stories sideways, to give alternative possibilities that the reader can, in a way, choose between.

Here, Rushdie is talking about reader and therefore writer.

I’ve always thought of the Borges story, “The Garden of Forking Paths” as kind of model of this, that… “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a story, is a book whose author has gone mad because what he has tried to do is to offer every possible variation of every moment.  So, boy meets girl.  They fall in love/they don’t fall in love.  That is the first fork and he wants to tell both those stories and then every variation of every moment down both those lines and of course it’s like nuclear fission.  The possibilities explode into millions and billions of possibilities and it’s impossible to write that book.

Yes, you can get lost if you can’t make-up your mind, take risks, follow a path. Living in endless possibilities is living in one place, a bubble. It might seem wonderful but it’s a trap for human beings. Humans might want to live in fairyland forever but it’s not healthy. The guy went mad as you’ve heard.

But it seems to me that in some ways the Internet is the garden of forking paths where you can have myriad variant possibilities offered and at the same level of authority, if you like. So I mean I think that’s one of the ways in which storytelling could move. And these games, these more free-form games in which the player can make choices about what the game is going to be, become a kind of gaming equivalent of that narrative possibility.

I can’t say I’m sure about what Mr. Rushdie means in “at the same level of authority”. I wish he would say more about it. But it does feel as if  he sees the possibility of creating a “forking” story in a much easier way than in writing, something people might find engaging. My more difficult thoughts here are about cost, limitations and who is going to decide about the narrative space. Writing a book, telling stories – they take time and money but between us, it’s small money. Gaming is driven by other forces for now.

Question: Do you worry that video games are eroding people’s ability to read novels?

Salman Rushdie: I think there are legitimate concerns there and I worry also that there is a dumbing down factor.  These games…  I mean they sometimes require lateral thinking.  They sometimes require quite skilled hand-eye coordination and so on. But they’re not in any sense intelligent in the way that you want your children to develop intelligence to make the mind not just supple, but actually informed. And of course if people spend too much time on this stuff then it militates against that.

Yes, it does seem gaming on the internet and video does not support having marvelous minds that can make-up places and go there in no time, making sense, learning, changing. It seems too connected to the limitations of the medium and the will to monetize it through tapping mostly into very basic human needs. I also feel imaginations are being wired to specific narratives and that frightens me because of the possible consequences. Still my eternal question stands – what for?

One of the things about “Luka and the Fire of Life,” which is basically pro… Rashid Luka’s father is basically fond of the video game and defends video games to Luka’s mother, who is much more skeptical of their value. But there is a bit of the book which also suggests that the problem may be that this way of inhabiting the imagination may do something harmful to our relationship to story, to the way in which human beings have always needed and responded to the art of the story and that is something to be worried about, because I think that there is something about storytelling that is very intrinsic to who we are as human beings. So one of the characters in the book refers to man as the storytelling animal—and so we are.  We are the only creatures on the earth who do this, so and we may even I think be hard-wired to do it in the way that we have a language instinct.  We may actually have a story instinct and so there is a legitimate concern about a new form which may erode our attachment to the story.  What will that do to us as human beings?

Very good question and a sad one too. As I’ve said before – as long as it stays man-size there is no danger. But it seems someone is pressing the equilibrium.

This couples with another bothersome thought that attacked me after watching “The Social Network” a couple of days ago. Suddenly I reckoned many people are praising someone who is socially disturbed and deprived as the person who reinvented the definition for social connectivity.

If that’s the future of storytelling it does not look good.


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