Friday, 9 October 2015

Interactive biography: players, actors, protagonists

A Fortunate Man?

Towards the end of John Berger and Jean Mohr's photo-essay A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor, are a few paragraphs musing on the difficulties of writing biography – particularly of living subjects – compared with fiction or autobiography.

"In a certain sense", Berger writes, addressing what he feels to be the impossibility of concluding this essay, "fiction seems strangely simple now. In fiction one has only got to decide that a character is, on balance, admirable. Of course there remains the problem of making him so … But still –outcomes can be decided. Whereas now I can decide nothing."

Autobiographers, he reckons, have it even easier – or are, at least, "freer" – than novelists. The autobiographer
"is his own subject and his own chronicler. Nothing, nobody, not even a created character can reproach him. What he omits, what he distorts, what he invents – everything, at least by the logic of the genre, is legitimate." (p159)
(As an aside, Berger's text is, throughout, as sexist in a thoroughly-of-its-moment (1967) way as the above quotes suggest. Jean Mohr's accompanying portraits exhibit a much better gender balance.)

Berger makes one comment on biography that clarified what I'm trying to achieve with this project He's explaining the difference between writing a biography of a living, and a dead artist.

When work is no longer in progress

"The painting you saw last week when you assume the painter was alive is not the same painting (although it is the same canvas) you see this week when you know that he is dead." While an artist lives, every work is
"part of an unfinished process. … When the artist is dead, the painting becomes part of a definitive body of work. What we can think or say about it changes. It can no longer be addressed to the artist … we can now only think and speak for ourselves. Because he is dead, we become the protagonists." (p160-161, my italics)
There's a lot written about the relationship between the roles of author and "audience" in interactive narrative, much of centred around the relinquishing of authorial control and the correlative increase in audience agency. In "Player Agency in Interactive Narrative: Audience, Actor & Author", for instance, Sean Hammond, Helen Pain and Tim J Smith write
"A player in an interactive narrative can be a spectator in the sense that she is a witness to the dramatic spectacle. She can be an actor in the sense that she plays the role of one of the characters in the narrative. And she can be an author in the sense that she collaborates with the system (and perhaps with other players) to produce the resulting narrative experience. The player is not exclusively a spectator, nor an actor, nor an author, but in any given example of interactive narrative the role of player combines these three traditional roles to different degrees"
Emily Short in a 2011 blog post on An Alternative Taxonomy for Interactive Stories explores the different ways in which, and extents to which the "player" can become actor, character, protagonist and/or author, and offers useful examples of/links to games and fictions for each mode.

The framing of the audience (or reader) as player is, of course, a trope drawn – along with many of the techniques and technologies of interactive narrative – from gaming. But I don't think it's apposite for a zoeography, where, although the interactive element is playful (or "sportive", to employ the term Hayley would have used). I'm still not sure what the right word is, and may need to coin another neologism.

A protagonist in someone else's life story

In attempting to create the simulacrum of a relationship between the audience/reader and the biographical subject, while, at the same time, positioning my commentary on his life as marginalia, I don't feel I'm ceding any of my authorial control to the audience/reader. What I'm aiming to do is expand their role as protagonist, if not in Hayley's story, at least in the telling of it, while diminishing the role of the biographer-as-protagonist and/or narrator, and morphing it into something else. Commentator, perhaps?

What's different here from the other player-as-protagonist examples that Emily Short provides, is that it's the audience/readers' selves – or how they choose to identify/describe themselves and their circumstances: the app and I will have no knowledge of whether they're answering Hayley's questions honestly or not – that will influence the course of the narrative.

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