The Story on Cyber-Stories

Katherine Phelps

Traditionally, stories have been powerful tools for organising and remembering historical and cultural information. People also story their lives in order to justify their beliefs and inform their actions, often finding ways to align their stories with their culture's stories. In this way they have a sense of personal meaning within the context of their society. As Jerome Bruner elaborates:

It begins to be clear why narrative is such a natural vehicle for folk psychology. It deals with the stuff of human action and human intentionality. It mediates between the canonical world of culture and the more idiosyncratic world of beliefs, desires, and hopes. It renders the exceptional comprehensible and keeps the uncanny at bay--save as the uncanny is needed as a trope. It reiterates the norms of the society without being didactic. And, as presently will be clear, it provides a basis for rhetoric without confrontation. It can even teach, conserve memory, or alter the past.
[Bru90, p. 52]

Many other valid reasons also exist for the social significance of stories. Below I have created a list of what I believe are prevalent reasons for which people immerse themselves in stories:

With a quick glance it is easy to see how potent computer based storytelling can be. Many computer games give people the satisfaction of problem solving, learning new skills, being taken out of everyday life, role experimentation, wish fulfilment and an emotional buzz. However, with only basic plotting and thin characterisation, the pleasure remains visceral and it is unlikely that the audience will attain any deep and lasting aesthetic experience.

Through the development of my project I sought in part to understand how story could be expressed within the computer medium, and how the elements and processes of storytelling could be transferred or, where necessary, evolved to good effect. With a clearer perspective on the task perhaps this artform could better mature within this medium. To achieve these ends I needed first to identify story, its elements and processes.

I found Livo and Rietz's understanding of story highly suggestive:

Like sentence grammar, story grammar can be thought of as generative--a set of abstractions for pattern from which stories never before told can be formed, presented, and recognized as stories. The listener learns story structure rules--the suprastructures of stories--as organising frameworks for story content, and, eventually, recognizes these as regular, conventional, and predictable patterns for the arrangement of information. Even very young children acquire and have knowledge of, and therefore expectations for, story grammar.

The structures mentioned here do not need to be considered proscriptive, but rather supportive of communicating thoughts, ideas, beliefs and feelings in an aesthetic and memorable fashion, and these structures can also be expanded upon, added to and subverted. Since according to Livo and Rietz story structure represents a culture's perceptions of how the universe works, this suggests that central to story is understanding the processes of human living. So with this insight the task at hand is to grasp the nature of story and its functional structures, such that we can find a way to map them onto computer-mediated structures.

From this perspective I formulated my definition of story as:

A theme driven system of representing characters and events, and their causal relationships to one another, such that the story represents how certain states of affairs occurred and evidence of why.

By "system" I am primarily alluding to the framework of plot, but also the grammar of storytelling within a particular genre using a particular medium. The method of representing characters and events would include the style in which the story is told, which will inevitably support a particular theme and be influenced, again, by genre and medium. This definition is given flexibility by focussing on methods of establishing inter-relationships amongst characters and events, and thereby allows for more dynamic navigation through a story, which will still result in a coherent and complete experience when that navigation is completed.

Therefore, the elements of computer-mediated story and their development processes I felt in need of investigating more closely are:

I found some traditional definitions for these elements did not extend to digital media successfully. With careful examination of computer based stories and experience I have come up with new definitions for these as described in the following chapters. Interestingly, my redefinitions, which bring these elements into the digital sphere, have proven backward compatible with other media.