The Art of Storytelling, Part I

Once upon a time, a man left his village and traveled in the wilderness for many, many years.  When his wanderings were done and he finally deemed it time to return home, he found that things were not quite as he recalled them.  Where once the village folk had gathered around fires in the evening and hearkened to the voice of the storyteller, who remembered every line of the epics passed down to him through the generations; where once those stories and many more were written on parchment, and later printed on paper; where once children played games and ‘make-believe’ outside with sticks and stone forts…well, the man found that they still played these games, and read these stories, and heard these tales.  But they did other things as well, like scrying far-off or even imaginary events in little speaking boxes and in glowing windows.  And the man found these novel additions quite curious.

The modern world is full of such curiosities, and many are worthy of examination.  I wish, however, to focus in this series on one particular aspect of this place and time: the use of interactive media as a storytelling medium.  Simply put, the last hundred years has seen the invention of the radio, the television, the computer, and much more.  This flurry of inventive activity has expanded man’s ability to share his tales and narratives in new and incredible ways, where once it could only be done with the spoken or written word.  “Have you only read The Lord of the Rings?  Now you can listen to the audio drama.  Now you can watch the movie.  Now you can play the video game adaptation.”  It is unlikely that the art of storytelling has seen such a drastic change in its methods of execution since the invention of the printing press—and before that, of writing itself.  This is not, however, to say immediately that these innovations are a good addition.  Rather, it is an observation that these most recent developments should be examined and judged according to a principle ultimately dependent on their aim: telling a story.  As such, in the next piece or pieces, I will examine: how interactive media (most commonly and easily understood in the context of video games) is able to tell a story; the merits of doing so in this way; and this medium’s inherent difficulties or demerits.

The Best Stories are Moral

But first, it is necessary to give some definition to “story.”  A story is, at its heart, a narrative which seeks to communicate something to the listener.  Authorial intent unsurprisingly allows a vast range of objects for this goal.  But let it be supposed, for the sake of argument, that the best “something” is a moral, in the sense of “there exists a proper way of things: a worthy manner of viewing, explaining, and interacting with the world.”  The author must demonstrate the significance of this moral by providing the audience with models of emulation—and he does this most easily in presenting characters who are admirable in their dedication to the positions that they hold intellectually, in their devotion to their goals, and their persevering strength in the face of adversity.  Moreover, these models typically hold to the idea that there are things of import in life and beyond which are worth pursuing, and they show this either by word or by deed.  For example, although good men do not always win and bad men do not always lose—often depending on the author’s tastes, his intent, and even his own moral character—the most enduring and praiseworthy tales are those which convey an intuitive understanding that some things are indeed better than others: for instance, that regardless of a deed’s pragmatic or calculated benefit, virtue is intrinsically admirable and wickedness is inherently repulsive.  The grandest heroes and most meaningful literary figures generally live in worlds where, beyond all complications and conflicts, good is Good, bad is Bad, and that is That.

Let it then be supposed that the best stories aim to build worlds which clearly demonstrate and illustrate such principles.  These worlds most often accomplish this task in a setting of conflict.  There is, naturally, conflict in such narratives, because how could men possibly relate to such a world without strife and pain?  As much is necessary, then.  But these situations are also convenient because they use difficulties to further illustrate the tale’s moral ends, as in the refining of gold.  A man facing a challenge either is broken by or surpasses it.  Suffering for the sake of the Good cause (be it the Quest to destroy the One Ring, to defeat the White Witch, or to rescue the princess from her tower) exalts the hero, while demonstrating the ultimate merit of the things he fights for by saying that they are worth pursuing—even if the man loses the battle, and perhaps his life.

A Sublime Mirror to Reality

It is also natural that the lens of a story will often be clouded or cracked by inconsistencies and errors of perception—or worse, if the author is of a particularly ignorant, warped, or malicious disposition.  Yet even tales across this range will still reveal something about the world.  By its very nature, fiction—a narrative crafted around a situation or person that is not factually true—will tell its reader something that is nevertheless true about reality, in what Dr. Eric Hutchinson might call “literary providence.” To do otherwise would undermine the story’s ability to engage its audience.  For instance, an explicitly conscientious character in chapter twelve will clearly feel regret over his previous misdeed in chapter eleven; neither the character nor the misdeed actually exist—but if they did, his regret would be real and true.  This is something the reader knows almost as surely as fact simply because anything else would ring false, and immediately break both his immersion in the tale and his connection with its characters.  This is true to the extent that even Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Grapes is instinctively recognizable as describing the human condition (an aspect of reality), despite the fact that foxes are themselves incapable of rational thought.  Such a detail means little in the face of the fable’s moral, which speaks to something beyond itself in spite of Aesop’s ‘factual error’ in his representation of the rational capacity of a fox.  But more on this to follow.

Fiction, at its best, is a sublime mirror to reality; as in art, it says something accurate and true about its subject, and it communicates this to its audience.  It might be said that the difference between reality and fantasy is like that of an actual landscape and its painting.  The former is a real place on earth, and the latter is merely a two-dimensional facsimile of the location.  Yet the painting will still tell its viewer that there is, for example, a lone tree upon a hill next to a brook running through a valley of green grass.  The painting is, of course, incapable of conveying every detail of the landscape as it truly is (every blade of grass, the touch of the wind, or the call of birds flying overhead), but the little vale where the local painter did his work might still be recognizable to the viewer as the precise place he passes every day on his way to work.

Yet it is in this limitation of detail that the true power of Story reveals itself.  The lack of ultimate and all-encompassing detail means that the painter/writer/storyteller must limit and focus his explanation of the world that he presents to an audience.  As a result, his work highlights and draws attention to that he which he intends, if he is thoughtful; and if he is an honest man with a reliable sense of the world’s nature, he also implicitly explains what is Real—what remains true even in a world that does not in fact exist, whether it is built from paint or words.  There are transcendent and moral principles, he says, which man cannot escape even if he constructs a world that plays by different rules, whether they are alternate histories (where Rome never fell) or a twist in the very laws of physics (where up is down and Alice chases a White Rabbit).  This is how a tale can claim a theme.  Indeed, in an interesting twist, the more unreal or fantastic the world reflected in the mirror, the more distinctive are its most important elements.  Looking into a funhouse mirror causes you instinctively to search for the things you still recognize in order to confirm that you are in fact seeing yourself in the glass—even if the novelty of the experience is its overall surreality.  So it is with fiction as well, because anthropomorphized animals or men in space still display recognizably human foibles and virtues.  The reader could identify with and care about nothing less.

A Signpost to a Better Narrative

Granted, it is also natural to expect that many authors do not fully understand or accept a moral and objective reality of this kind.  Instead, they celebrate things and behavior which are not healthy or edifying.  At worst, they revel in the opportunity to mock what they dismiss in reality, and set up an artifice that glorifies the vices which might undermine their own lives.  As such, their worlds and their fruit are often darkened and twisted by their innate ignorance, fallibility, and (sometimes) malice.  Why would such a writer send Frodo and Sam into Mordor on a difficult and selfless journey when his characters can sit alone in a dingy apartment inwardly contemplating the futility of action while drowsing in a nihilistic and drug-induced haze?

But in the end, can these two stories possibly compare?  Is there even a question of the possibility?  No, clearly not—but a critical and inquisitive mind will see something curious here.  With this marked contrast in mind, even a weak and petty narrative says something important about reality and morality, whether the author intends it or not.  Because, for example, a solipsistic—or merely clumsy—chronicle leaves the reader unsatisfied and wanting more (from the tale, from his own life, or both), it implies that there is something more and something good to be had that will satisfy.  Hunger hints that appetite can be sated; loneliness suggests there is a fulfillment in relationship; bad stories say that there are good stories which overshadow the paltry and distasteful, and instead offer something meaningful.  Even a bad author cannot help but tell his audience that there is something bigger and more wonderful out there, because it’s clear he’s living in its shadow.  If a story only inspires the thought “I could do this better” or “it should be another way,” then it becomes a signpost on a road to a better narrative.

And so we come back to the beginning: a truly great story will speak of a Real moral order which resonates with the audience and points towards something beyond oneself.  What then?  How can such a story be told?  And does the manner of its telling affect its message?  Its ability to touch those who perceive it, and thus its effect upon them?  Here we enter the question of storytelling medium—specifically, for the purposes of this series, of an interactive media belonging to the modern era: the video game.

Read Part II: Interactive Media as a Storytelling Medium.

Author: Aaron Kilgore

Aaron Kilgore graduated from Hillsdale College with a B.A. in Classical Studies. With interests in storytelling, fiction, and language, he is on his way to becoming a librarian and information specialist. He serves as an editor for Salt and Iron.

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