Thoughts on Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media

For me, Lev’s article on database and narrative has highlighted the increasing importance between these two in the current age of information explosion. With the advent of cheaper storage and bigger datacenters, there is no longer a problem of lack of data of any form; textual, visual, audio etc. The challenge is how we can contextualise and arrange these vast corpus into something meaningful.

In my view, the Google search engine is possibly the biggest database-based ‘interactive’ that exists in the world. I think it’s much more than just a search engine. Its many capabilities include natural language interpretation, image recognition(somewhat useable), user context linking etc. Its clearly the most massive form of algorithms + databases mankind has ever witnessed.

On a philosophical level, I think it’s fair to argue that Google has played a tremendous part in people’s life. Let me provide a hypothetical example.

Imagine you are a young, lost, disinterested teenager, on a typical day, plowing through your daily social media routine. You regularly use Google for school work, research and the occasional trivial. You spot something interesting under Youtube recommendations, you watch a short clip of scientific trivial, which in turns pique your interest for more. Piling google search upon google search, you develop an interest in the topic. Fast forward a decade, you are now working hard on a research paper that might change the way people think about a certain topic.

This sounds like a typical plot of a budget Hollywood film; it could very well be. But I think the Internet has definitely changed the lives of many around the world, mainly through vast information dissemination. This form of empowerment is driven mostly, by search engines of course. The humble search engine has invariably been instrumental in crafting and shaping the stories of our lives, professional and personal.

And anyone that has gotten on the ‘web’ has interacted with this database and left a mark of his/her narrative in the digital(and possibly physical) world.

Reflections on Marsha Kinder’s Designing a Database Cinema

The project that was the most intriguing for me was ‘Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film’. For me it was a great example of combining archival materials, visual effects, interactive systems design and storytelling. The archival materials, on its own probably would not be deemed as engaging/intuitive for audience to peruse or comprehend. Yet, when masterfully combined using techniques from other disciplines, the value of the materials is greatly enhanced and elevated.

Having a visual effects background helps me to appreciate how it was utilised in this context; Mr Pat has recreated scenes and combined them with archival material, in a manner that is comparable to big budgets films of the day. Also, the technology has been used in a purposeful and appropriate manner, in contrast to the endless stream of violent, explosive, meaningless films of the modern era.

I can only imagine the difficulty in crafting a coherent narrative around a set of disparate archival materials. It is also interesting to note that with a structure in place, a sense of ‘interaction’ is created organically where the audience can selectively ‘move’ through a recreated virtual space and relive/explore an iconic landmark in ways that would be costly/impossible to do in real-life. That in itself is the value an interactive piece aforementioned can provide, that is otherwise impossible to achieve from traditional means like a documentary(a passive medium) or a site tour(subject to locality and availability). The additional benefit is the content has been curated to be appropriate and relevant to whatever experience is desired, so though the experience is essentially free-form, it has been carefully crafted to allow for a tantalising and complete experience.

Who would want to browse through that intimidating collection of archival materials anyway :p


Reflections on database / interactive narrative

A great recent example of an immersive database-interactive-narrative is a game called Firewatch.

In the game, you play a man who has chosen to take up the job of a fire lookout, to escape a troubled life. The game boosts extremely minimalistic design elements; there are very little on-screen indicators to guide the player along. You navigate the Firewatch world only from a myriad collection of conversations, record logs and a plethora of visual notes. Even though the story ultimately has a general overarching storyline, the game has been carefully crafted to provide a unique experience as each player navigates freely and randomly within the Firewatch world.

There are many design elements that have been carefully employed to provide a strangely rich and authentic experience for the player. As a fire lookout, there are many mundane tasks to carry out, like navigating from point to point, retrieving items or observing surroundings for fire breakouts. These moments, interspersed throughout the game, emulate reality in a simplistic yet effective way. Coupled with masterfully written prose that is played out while you go about your day, it almost feels like you ARE living and breathing within the Firewatch universe. The melancholy and tranquility that can be experienced anytime in-game adds a meditative, wabi-sabi-esque touch. The story has enough depth to make you sympathise for its characters, to feel genuinely sad, jealous, happy or scared.

Peeling back through the layers, the game is essentially driven by a database of words and recordings. The prose drives the gameplay seamlessly; the intriguing plot twists unfolding every step of the way. The visuals are presented in a loosely-ordered manner. Personally I have played the game for a couple of hours, and it strikes me as fascinating how a game can deliver an equally immersive experience purely by masterful writing and pacing, without fancy cutting edge tech like VR/AR, surround sound or extra fidelity graphics. In fact, the game’s visuals was just the icing on the cake. I’d imagined it would be just as effective with simple 8-bit graphics and monotone sounds.

The game succeeded in being cinematic, entertaining and deeply engaging; without any shooting, driving, violence. On the contrary, you are only allowed to pick up/throw things, walk/run/jump/climb and observe your surroundings. I’d be hard-pressed to find many games that can succeed doing just that!