Posted by: L1H | June 8, 2009

Player Made Stories: Catching Up to 1982

I’m a big fan of NPR – yeah I’m one of those people.  One of my favorite podcasts/shows is Radiolab, hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.  

Each episode of Radiolab features an interesting subject or scientific curiosity: sperm, morality, sleep, laughter, you never know what central theme or question these guys are going to explore next.

Recently Radiolab asked the question which is better: radio or television?  They even staged a faux “boxing” event and had the audience vote by applause which is better by category.  Television was better at “pictures”, hehe, but for questions like which medium is better for conveying emotion, radio was the hands down winner.  By the second act of the show the question of how does telling stories via the radio differ from telling a story on television?

Robert Kulwich and Ira Glass, a guest host for the event, had a great back-and-forth which really nailed the distinction between the two mediums.

Essentially radio is more intimate, more emotional.  Simple moments that would be otherwise unremarkable become “mythic” because the listener gets involved in the content, we co-author the story by “painting” pictures with our minds as the story describes the scene.

Hearing a father’s deep voice describing the love he has for his daughter, how her flesh all too vulnerable and, by extension, he too becomes vulnerable, really drives home how powerful a medium radio is.  In contrast, to see footage of the father playing with his daughter, to witness a visual montage of this little girl growing up, would register as totally unremarkable, common, and doesn’t pull on the “heart strings” as easily as the “telling” of the story would.

Television, however, has to build up to an emotional moment, more production is involved to achieve a real emotional event.  Loud bright moments lend contrast to darker quiet moments.  It’s a lot of work to keep a person staring at a screen, to keep them engaged and concentrating on what’s playing out before them, and because television is a visual medium, you’ve got to stage, time, and build everything to elicit an emotional reaction.

This got me thinking about my old Pen and Paper adventures: D&D particularly. 

We didn’t have miniatures back then, my friends and I just used a dry eraser marker on an overlay map, and playing those campaigns was a pure “theatre of the mind” experience.  As advanced as our console/computer RPG games are becoming, I think the point of being a “co-author” of the story, like telling a story on the radio, is what made those tabletop games so magical.

Take a DM description of a simple room:

Compare this:

“You walk into a room that’s 20′ by 20′.  The dim chamber before you is unoccupied and dimly lit.  A thin coat of dust covers every surface.  The entire room appears to be made of a smooth grey colored stone.  The floor is tiled while the walls are adorned with elegant arches set into their surface.  The room is empty save for a simple pedestal at the center the room which appears to be made of the same stone as the rest of the room.  The pedestal’s waist is carved with the same arch shaped lines as the chamber’s walls.  Across the room you see a short ramp of stairs leading into an arched doorway.  A similar door and exit is to your left.”

To this: Click Me.

Did the GM fail to describe the room well enough or did the picture fail to meet the vision in your mind?

Do our video games involve us in “co-authoring” the story, like a tabletop game, or does the visual medium of video games diminish our need to fill in the blanks?  What special challenges do video game developers have when telling stories?  Can they elicit emotion as well as other mediums?


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