Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Something I learned about Alternate Reality Fiction

This week I learned something you can do with alternate reality fiction that you can't do with regular, localized fiction. You can create text that's part of two separate stories.

(You can go back to my previous post on alternate reality fiction, or here's the short form: it's the sort of fiction that has pieces of a universe supporting it. Web sites for fictional companies, fictional people blogging and sending email, so on. When it's a game you call it an "alternate reality game", but it's not always a game, right? You can support a novel or a TV show that way. So, "alternate reality fiction.")

(Yes, I am now using the flimsiest excuse for posting this on a gaming blog -- it's a followup to my previous post on this blog. Sorry, Jmac.)

Now follow along; this will take a bit to set up. Let us venture into the world of fanfic.

(Not because there's anything specifically fanfic about the idea. It's just the first example I noticed.)

Take a look at this web site: Looks like typical corporate crap (except for the disclaimer). But if you're familiar with the Stargate TV show, you'll recognize Cameron Mitchell as a character from the last two seasons. (If you're really familiar with the TV show, you might guess who JD Nielson is. But that's not important right now.)

Now take a look at this flyer for the company (270kb PNG image). Indeed, the guy at the bottom right is Ben Browder, who plays Cameron Mitchell on the show. So you're getting the picture -- these two artifacts belong to the same storyline, in some sense. Maybe the flyer doesn't appear on the web site because it's not professional enough, but they fit together. Right?

(I created that flyer, by the way. The amateur photoshopping is all my fault. So is the fact that it's completely silly. The role of JD is played by Michael Filipowich. The web site was created by synecdochic.)

Now take a look at this livejournal account. (Now emigrated to dreamwidth -- Ed.) It lists as its web site, the location matches, it's got a "fictional person" disclaimer, and the name is shown as "Cammie"... wait. Nobody ever calls Cameron Mitchell "Cammie" on the show. Does Ben Browder look like a "Cammie" sort of person? No no no. Further, if you look at some of chemicalfuel's journal entries -- and those of vtwopointoh, who is JD Nielson -- you will rapidly deduce that Cammie is a woman. Cameron Evangeline Mitchell.

So you look back at the web site, and you think, hold on -- there ain't no pronouns on that page. It does not specify whether Cameron (or, indeed, JD) is male or female. So the web site is consistent with the flyer, and it's consistent with the Livejournal pages. But they're not consistent with each other. They can't all be the same storyline.

(Unless it's a storyline with magical sex-changing technology. Which is not actually beyond the bounds of the Stargate universe, and certainly not beyond the bounds of fanfic. But you'd want some corroboration before you took that interpretation.)

At this point I will spill the beans. These sites are sideline material for a bunch of Stargate fan stories by synecdochic and ivorygates. Two disparate serieses of stories. In the Broken Wings series, Cameron Mitchell is permanently disabled after his Antarctic crash, and so he retires from the Air Force and starts a software company. The Mezzanine series has exactly the same premise, except that Cameron Mitchell is a woman. Different things happen. (Each series has a JD Nielson, who are both guys, but they're not quite the same guy.)

The site is ARF material for both storylines. This is something I have not seen before.

Why not? Normal fiction has no ambiguity about its boundaries -- at least, that's the modern convention. You know when you're looking at fiction; and (we generally take for granted) you know what fiction you're looking at. The publisher slaps "Hogwarts year N" or "a Repairman Jack novel" on the cover to make it obvious. But when you dissolve the first assumption, and release material which pretends to be real life, the second assumption gets fuzzy to. Why shouldn't a work fit into two different sequences?

I am not, understand, talking about the crossover story. In a crossover, we point at two storylines and pretend they're the same -- Batman is fighting Spiderman, which means Gotham City is more New York than usual; they're the same place. Or Spiderman took Amtrak. (Or, since the two worlds continue to ignore each other's premises outside the suspended disbelief pentagram of the crossover, we might consider that we've created a third storyline, of limited detail, which shares some premises of each.) But however you consider it, the crossover text represents one story. Batman meets Spiderman.

To truly match the case, you'd have to write a story in which a man named Bruce Wayne meets a man named Peter Parker, and one of them is a superhero, and the other is a regular dude who lives in New York / Gotham City. But the text wouldn't tell you which. It would fit into either the DC or the Marvel universe, but in each case it would mean something slightly different. (Perhaps something radically different!)

I know I'm way out on a theoretical limb here, and maybe you can't think of a reason to write such a story. But you could try. Somebody should.

ARF (or ARG) material is, I think, more suited to these tricks than plain prose -- simply because such material is usually not a story per se, but a small piece of a story -- or sideband information which enriches a story. It conveys by implication; which means you are imputing meaning based on context; which means the meaning can change in different contexts.

Regular prose stories also convey stuff by implication, to a lesser degree. And (pace my original claim) I can think of some novels which pull tricks in this vein.

  • A scene in Rosemary Kirstein's first Steerswoman novel, in which a boy dies while trying to open a cursed chest. In this case, there is "really" only one storyline -- but the reader knows something that the protagonist doesn't (or at least has the chance to figure it out). So the characters see one storyline; the reader sees two, made up of the same incidents.

  • Sharon Shinn's Archangel (first of its series). Again, the reader can see a storyline (science fiction) where the characters see another (theological fable). This works because both are good stories; they have weight and emotional heft and change the characters' lives.

  • Inversions, by Iain M. Banks. A better example, because it reads differently depending on whether you think it's part of a series or not.

  • And, to bring this whimsically back to Stargate, the original Stargate movie. The people who made the movie are not same the people who made the Stargate: SG-1 TV series. This led, at one point, to the movie writers publishing a set of tie-in novels which were also sequels to the movie's story, but went in a completely different direction from the TV show (and its tie-in novels). Two storylines with the same first chapter.

The first two of these examples display differences in interpretation. The characters may disagree with the reader about what happened, but we can reasonably say that the characters are wrong (or uninformed) -- there's only one sequence of events.

The latter two examples are more interesting, because the reader can take different views on what's going on -- depending on context, as I said. This doesn't change what the story is directly showing us; but it does change what else we believe has happened. That is, the implied, off-screen events vary. That's the right parallel. The site doesn't have events, but it does have directly conveyed information (the names and bios of two people) and off-screen information (their existences, including gender).

Here's where I ought to tie all my rambling together into one glorious conclusion that illuminates the future of Narrative 2.0. Haw haw.

No, I have no idea where I'm going with this. It's a gimmick! It's neat. People should use it more.

What if there were a community web site dedicated to ARFs (and ARGs), which became a focal point for participating in them? People would be discussing the various projects, but some of the people would also be fictional, and be conveying in-character information as they interacted. (Go where the fans are, right?) You could take it as a giant crossover where all ARGs meet (St. Elsewhere!), or you could take each fictional world separately. In this world, character X knows about the AIs infiltrating society. In that world, character Y sees the fnords, but person X is just a guy playing an ARG. Get it?

(For all I know, ARGNet or Unfiction already does this.)

Less apocalyptically: what if Chaz Villette invited JD Nielson over for dinner?

What if an ARG included several different universes, all playing out on the Web, unaware of each other's existence but sharing web sites and (alternate versions of) characters? Three universes, say.

(Recognized those Michael Filipowich images, did you?)

Pick your own path.

Comments imported from Gameshelf

(boing!) Cnoocy Mosque O'Witz (Dec 11, 2008 at 12:47 AM):

The thing this reminds me the most of is the practice of writing pastiches of songs, specifically of writing new words to an existing song. One of the most elegant things one can do in this is use entire lines from the original that have had their meaning changed by context. (I can't think of any specific examples right now.) This also happens in "urban weirdness" or "alternate history" role-playing games, when the creator comes up with an in-game explanation for something that actually happened. In this case, a fiction is sharing a text with a non-fiction.

Andrew Plotkin (Dec 11, 2008 at 8:45 PM):

Ooh, yeah, that kind of secret-history world-creation -- which exists in novels just as much as in role-playing. Tim Powers does this for a living. (See also Elizabeth Bear's comment that a whole lot of Elizabethan history just makes more sense if you start with the assumption that Kit Marlowe's death was faked by the Queen of Faerie...)

I guess this is the basis of alternate-reality settings in the first place: the web site is a real web site, it has real files on it, it might (for participatory sites) even have real people posting. But the fictional world shares it. The trick that surprised me was two fictional worlds sharing one text. But of course when I say it like that, it sounds obvious. :)

Andrew Plotkin (Dec 18, 2008 at 3:11 PM):

New case in WTF:

Take a completely ridiculous music video intended to evoke fantasy B-movie cheese. Write a CYOA game which follows the video rigorously -- but you're still choosing the story that is portrayed. It only hurts your head when you think about it.

Well done, Megan Messinger.

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