In this article I will be explicating and assessing the real-time web-narrative The Bureau from two perspectives: Concept and Gameplay. Prior to plunging into those subheadings, however, I would like to preface this essay with a few remarks on my theoretical bent.
Firstly, much of my current research follows from the McLuhanist principle that an emergent medium will reveal more about the preceding media than it will about itself. This can be seen in the tendency for scholars and critics to adopt ‘new media’ metaphors to retroactively explicate complex systems. One common example of this is the use of ‘new media’ to explicate human embodiment. From biologists metaphorically referring to the mind as being like a computer processor to Bernard Stiegler’s more extensive assertion that human consciousness is functionally cinematic, emergent media often provide new metaphorical perspectives on old configurations.
Conversely, these new perspectives tend to subsume those offered by preceding media and thus they escape contextualization. It wasn’t until the emergence of High-Definition television, for example, that the inadequacies of Standard Definition became apparent. In short, we can only clearly perceive the form of a medium when it becomes the content of another medium. This follows from McLuhan’s postulate that emergent media constitute a new media environment or ‘antienvironment’ that reveals the configurations of preceding media while imposing its own imperceptible framework.
The second disclosure follows from the first; that is, The Bureau, as a hybrid of genres and forms, will provide little in the way of commentary on the project in itself. However, it should reveal some unique configurative qualities of those genres and forms that have been placed into interface with one another.
Some of the genres in The Bureau:
- Detective Fiction – overarching narrative structure
- Epistolary Novel – emails retelling narrative aspects in reverse-chronology
- Autobiography – main character’s personal notes
- Constrained Writing – screen-sizes of various devices severely limited content length
- Text-based Adventure Games – debugging console with unique grammar and paths
- Puzzle-Games – the simulated A.I. in the console poses riddles in exchange for additional narrative details
- Point-and-Click Games – evidence-analyzer encouraged players to ‘photograph’ key areas for additional narrative details
There are more genres, no doubt, acting in varying degrees of influence on the project as a whole. Many occur ‘naturally,’ that is to say, they have been inherited as part of the fundamental functionality of digital communication. What inspired The Bureau was a drive to tap into that functionality–to exploit our familiarity not only with the genres but our familiarity with them acting in concert. Such combinations underlie our online experiences and they may have emerged from what Ian Bogost calls s ‘unit operations.’ However, to test the validity of that last postulate I will explore three key aspects of development in search of supporting evidence.
“Nil sapientiae odiosus acumine nimio” (Seneca) – Epigraph to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter
When I first set out to create a narrative designed explicitly and exclusively for web browsers the genre of detective fiction seemed appropriate. After all, such stories are often told episodically and their structures would be quite familiar to a Western audience, two features that the project required. Following this genre selection the work of Edgar Allan Poe and his amateur detective C Augustine Dupin immediately came to mind. It was Poe, after all, who first proposed that authors should start at the end and plot backwards to the beginning–intended effect back to necessary cause.
As it turns out the design for the entire site developed from a reading of Dupin’s second outing in The Purloined Letter. This is because Poe’s short story takes place almost entirely within an office. Similarly, whereas the constraints on a web page offered a very limited amount of visual space to work with. As it turns out Poe was especially concerned with spatiality and narrative:
“…it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place” – The Philosophy of Composition by Edgar Allan Poe
One can easily apprehend the metaphorical translation of frame and picture to web browser and web page. And so from the Purloined Letter I attempted to embrace a very strict ‘circumscription of space’ by establishing a detective story that would unfold entirely from a top-down perspective of an investigator’s desk. (Of course this offers an interesting commentary on spatiality in digital texts—the Playbook tablet, for instance, provides nearly limitless space to hide a purloined email. But such explorations go beyond the scope of this article).
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I wanted to craft an online experience that could not be translated to another medium without losing its essence—that is to say, I wanted to create a narrative that was told not through web content but web processes. The idea being that if properly executed the content would so conform to the skills and behaviour (i.e. the web-literacy) of its readers that any attempt to extract such content would mean sacrificing the ethos of the project.
Such a ‘web-literacy’ is really just a familiarized set of patterns—codified behaviour for reading emails, checking text-messages, frequent visitations for new content, point-and-click mechanics, etc. And, to elaborate on a point made earlier, a new literacy (a requisite of an emergent medium) can often reveal something hidden by the routine of a pre-existing literacy. If you’ll bear with me I’d like to illustrate this point with the crux of The Purloined Letter as an example.
A Purloined Example
Poe’s series of three separate short stories star the amateur detective extraordinaire C. Auguste Dupin. In The Purloined Letter the story opens with a police detective relating a frustrating case to the illustrious Dupin. It seems that a certain, seemingly reputable individual has stolen an incriminating letter and another reputable individual would like it back. The catch is that if the thief is aware that he is suspected to be in possession of the letter he may be forced to take drastic action. Thus the police are reduced to searching the thief’s office when he is known to be elsewhere and they must do so without leaving a single trace of their presence. The policeman then relates how, having drawn the thief out of his home on some pretence, he and his officers set about examining every potential hiding spot with a rather impressive array of tools and methods for detecting cubby-holes and other secret hiding places.
However, following several exhaustive searches the policeman is forced to proclaim to Dupin that the letter was nowhere to be found. And yet when Dupin inspects the thief’s home for himself he discovers its whereabouts almost immediately. Using the terminology of this paper, I would I would suggest that in discovering the location of the letter, Dupin exhibited a literacy that the trained and regimented police clearly lacked. That is to say, Poe’s detective ‘read’ the space using a distinct pattern-recognition method.
The distinction here is a commentary on breadth vs. depth of knowledge. The police methodology, which included microscopes to detect concealed compartments and pins to secretly explore cushions, was quite exhaustive and rather ingenious given that they could not betray their presence in the thief’s home. But their refined methodology acted like a dyslexia; it obscured their ability to perceive what was before their eyes. Where Dupin gains the advantage is in his amateur-status—he hasn’t been formally trained, a process that forces one to suppress certain points data in order to highlight familiar patterns of interest.
In this and other mysteries, Dupin apprehends what others cannot because he possesses a literacy that is informed by a distinct set of patterns. His highly analytical mind has not been hardwired, so to speak, by repetitive and mundane instances brought on by rigorous training and thus he’s better able to ‘read’ the unique and unorthodox crimes (though one might foresee him struggling with the text-book crimes). In essence, it is the mind I would consider ideal for the multimodal web experience of text, image, video, and the html language that binds them together. That is, a mind capable of reading media and not just in a medium (i.e. print).
There have been many clever uses of html to tell narratives but the majority of such projects operate under print pattern-recognition. Such projects, many of which remain ingenious, use html to push ever further into patterns supported and, in turn, revealed through text. What I envisioned was a sustained narrative that forced readers to employ their web-literacy rather than exclusively their print-literacy, to make that Dupin-shift from one mode of thought to another. The lofty goal being to hopefully reveal what the dyslexia of print-mindedness has rendered imperceptible. I know that The Bureau did not achieve that goal but I believe talented designers and authors could obtain more encouraging results.
I should note that this is not a knock against those who study literature but rather a project that attempts to capitalize on a literacy that already exists outside of literature (if you’ll excuse the malapropism). Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming too ‘literate’ in one medium, which always entails a compensatory illiteracy in others. As Poe began his story: “Nil sapientiae odiosus acumine nimio” or “Nothing is so hateful to wisdom as an excess of cleverness.”
2. Tablet: Daily Recaps/Emails/Image Analyzer/Console/A.I.
3. Phone: Personal Emails/Text Messages/Call Log/Personal Notes
- 23 days/1,324 visits/949 visitors
- 29.9MB of data in the /thebureau directory
- 4,171 lines of code in the index.html
- 74+ scripts/CSS files
jQuery Plugins (12): Animated Tabbed Content, Expand/Collapse Div, iCal-Like Calendar, iPhone UI, jGrowl Notifications, jQuery Dock, jQuery Photoshoot Effect, jQuery Terminal, Moving Boxes jQuery Slider, Scrollable-Timeline, ScrollTo, Tiny Scrollbar [See ‘Credits’ for full details]
“Taken to an extreme, cybertextual analysis could even be seen as a system operation; it seeks to construct an ontological domain that includes and excludes certain works by virtue of their overall function.” From Unit Operations by Ian Bogost
The above statement from Ian Bogost’s operational-analysis of videogames, texts, and film in Unit Operations has an odd synchronicity with the earlier statement made by Poe on the need for text to circumscribe its narrative space. Poe advocated that a narrative should be formulated with a frame in mind—that is, the author needs to ascertain the text’s space in order to fix what content would and would not ‘fit.’ With Bogost it becomes apparent that what the frame or spatial boundary establishes is a limitation not necessarily on the content but on the processes that can be contained therein.
This can be seen in the office space of the thief in The Purloined Letter. The majority of the short story is spent describing the room and its contents—this space presents a limited range of possible behaviours, especially when paired with the plot-restriction that the police must leave the room in approximately the same condition that they found it. In a sense Poe has taken the open-system of the world and crafted a scenario that presents the detective, and therefore the reader, with a closed-system (a closed-system with its own set of internal rules). As Poe remarks, this helps focus the reader and as Bogost might add it does so by restricting the potential functions in the text (genre as a whole is an accessible demonstration of the latter point).
In the case of The Purloined Letter those potential functions are the potential narrative developments. From the restrictions imposed by the genre down to the plot-based prohibition on disturbing the thief’s office, the text, as a process, can only perform certain functions. This may seem vague and rather arbitrary in relation to literature but from a game-design standpoint it proves to be rather ‘common sense.’ This is because game design is fundamentally about communicating to the player the potential interactive options. on this point there is a fairly common fallacy that goes something like this: given powerful enough hardware the ideal game will be a facsimile of ‘reality.’ This is a recurrent theme that imposes a teleology that suggests videogames are constantly compensating for hardware limitations and that is the source of the inadequate portrayals of reality. However, this would be equivalent to claiming that the height of ‘realism’ in literature is a stream-of-consciousness novel describing the all-at-once sensory experience at any given moment.
However, in the short-story and in the video game, the art is in what you leave outside the frame. Or, put another way, a well-crafted story or game is one that instantiates a closed-system (containing a definitive set of functions) within the open-system of ‘reality’ (by ‘within’ I mean without fundamentally contradicting). Poe’s closed system exhibits a process that reveal, among other things, the pitfalls of habituation and routine without contradicting the processes of the system as a whole. Similarly, a videogame must interpret from the open-system (‘reality’) a set of functions it wishes to emulate in a closed-system–it cannot contain them all, just as a print novel cannot contain all sensory experiences. This is upheld even in an abstract game such as Tetris. For Tetris, despite its visual abstraction from reality, identifies certain real-world functions/processes (gravity, physical interactions amongst geometric shapes, etc.) and it utilizes those functions as the basis for its mechanics (if that internal logic of matching shapes contradicted the open-system, if somehow the two complementary geometric shapes no longer ‘fit’ with one another, and thus the game behaved randomly, we would likely label it defective or at least not a very ‘good’ game). The point here isn’t radical (nor is meant to be presented as radical) but rather: where it is explicit for videogames it nevertheless remains true for all linguistically-constructed texts.
This becomes clearer in a narrative-game such as a point-and-click adventure title like Myst. Here the designers chose to highlight visual fidelity (the functional representation of reality) in exchange for the ability to move freely (Doom, released in the same year, chose the inverse, highlighting three-dimensional movement at the expense of visual ‘accuracy.’ The trade-off was necessary given the hardware limitations at the time).
It would be an understatement to point out that graphics vs. mobility is a definitive and genre-defining decision. Indeed, for Bogost the identity of a text is comprised of similar decisions as one selects from a discrete series of operations to compose his or her ‘text.’ In turn, this recasts the role of the author/designer/programmer: “Together, comparative criticism and videogame software development entail the bricoleur, the deft handyman who assembles units of preexisting meaning to form new structures of meaning.”
In terms of The Bureau, devices were selected that contained pre-existing meaning or what I would call familiar patterns. For instance, a web-user will likely ‘intuitively’ know who to navigate a tabbed menu (such as on the tablet) and many web-savvy individuals know the various ‘screens’ of a cell phone and, whether they are conscious of it or not, the different forms contained therein.
In this specific case, the potential of the web exhibited in The Bureau is in regards to its ability to represent persistent space (of, perhaps, real-world environments) and thereby demonstrate temporal patterns using a much larger array of ‘languages’ (textual, visual, audile, code). And it is crucial to note that that potential is realized explicitly through ‘units of meaning’ or what Bogost calls ‘unit operations.’ This is evidenced by the fact that each jQuery plugin (listed above) is a standalone script or collection of scripts—they are discrete functions packaged and deployed as self-sustaining processes. In fact, the bulk of my coding wasn’t spent programming individual functions but rather, like the bricoleur, I was fixated on harmonizing the conflicts between the functions I wished to include. The process is, essentially, coding by bricolage—but a bricolage explicitly based on processes and functions, not visual or textual interactions and certainly not on the basis of content.
It is my hypothesis that from this functional perspective one can gain very little insight into web design itself but rather that this methodology, being linguistically-based, could prove immensely revelatory when applied to literature. Unfortunately, I have stepped well beyond the scope of this paper paragraphs ago and there are more lofty claims than concrete evidence to back them up. However, this proof-of-concept game I felt supported an equally speculative paper. Needless to say, there is more work to be done.