How the game industry understood narrative, wasn’t really a big issue (the problems should be found somewhere else). As I always worked within entertainment, I never thought of a narrative from any other perspective than to deliver a feeling of something worth spending time on and where the goal was to give something people didn’t know they were missing. The game industry shared the same vision where e.g. “meaningful experiences” became an expression for delivering something worth spending time on interacting – as if not meaningful, nothing would happen, because you can´t force people to press buttons or pull levers (that is called behaviorism, which we don’t deal with here).
At a TED talk from 2012 Andrew Stanton, the creator of “Finding Nemo”, “Toystory”, etc., expressed the construction of a meaningful experience as “2 + 2= 4”. What he meant was that one should let the audience do the “4” by only giving them “2+2” because: “The audience actually wants to work for their meal, they just don’t want to know they are doing that.” What Stanton points out is the motivating vehicle of narrative that naturally triggers our core cognitive activities to interpret information by identifying, comparing, evaluating, exploring, taking decisions and making choices. And the knowledge that humans are by nature meaning-seeking and meaning-making individuals was something that we, who worked with narrative construction, took for granted whereby the “receivers´” expected to be given something to “work on”.
When giving consultancy and lectures in narrative construction, I was very grateful for the opportunity to follow hundreds of concepts taking form and where I could listen to people´s thoughts. One of the difficulties I found was to take perspective by the means to position oneself to the desired goal and think about others thinking as to understand their desires, intentions, and beliefs. Another dilemma was, depending on prior experiences, that people easily slid into thinking about what they privately thought was meaningful but missing that what is meaningful for one doesn’t have to be meaningful for another. And when it comes to art and entertainment, it is particularly exposed to personal taste where people evaluate the experience by its goodness, badness, or worthiness. But what easily happens if not being attentive to certain criteria and elements that do work ideas easily get discarded based on taste at the cost of seeing the possibilities.
Within cognitive science, which constitutes a link between narrative and computer science, the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner says the reason why we find it hard to achieve consciousness about how we interpret (evaluate) information and create meaning is that we are “too expert” and we cannot see what we so easily do automatically. Bruner calls the condition the “unconsciousness of the automatic” (Bruner, 1996). What Bruner describes is basically what I should appoint as the “office” of a narrative constructor where the desirable condition, in agreement with the “receivers”, is to have people in an unconscious condition as to engage them in the “2 + 2”. So basically, without the unconsciousness, it would be very hard for magicians or narrative constructors to surprise people, and since people learn “the tricks” it is also important for the narrative constructor to be attentive to when the “unconsciousness” gets aware in order to find new possibilities so the “receivers” can continue to do their work.
As the Western culture often thinks of narratively constructed experiences as fictional and separated from real life´s issues the knowledge about the beneficence narrative constructors find in the “unconsciousness of the automatic” can be a dilemma if the unconscious condition permeates the development of a concept where personal taste comes into play. In an interview for a position as a narrative designer, I was asked what I would do if there were conflicts in the team about individual preferences. I could tell by their looks that they didn’t believe me when I replied that there are no conflicts where I work. What I referred to was Jerome Bruner´s antidote to the “unconsciousness of the automatic” which helps to lower contrasts and confrontations as to reach an understanding and a reciprocally shared goal in a team about the “4” so “receivers” could do their work with 2+2 (not the other way around).
By taking a metacognitive perspective, which is to think about one’s own and others thinking, a narrative constructor takes the position to listen to how people negotiate their thoughts and from that one can find alternate ways to conceive an understanding about the “4”. As the game industry, as well as the film industry, is the most expensive place to host a “conference” where people exchange and negotiate their personal beliefs and desires, the key to avoiding eventual contrasts and confrontations during production (where confrontations, according to Bruner, are considered as a higher degree of conflicts that use to be taken care of by courts) is to set the premise (vision and desired outcome). Many companies do this already but to know the reason and purpose from a cognitive perspective could save a lot of headaches – including the “receivers´”. What the premise actually does is to build expectations and if the agreement is breached by not deliver what is promised someone will get disappointed. Since there is always a risk that someone will get disappointed the premise should relate to the desired experience and where all other things as resources, etc., should be seen as constraints. And if someone worries about running out of money and likes to set the desired outcome (premise) to “earn money” the difficulty it causes to the experience are that the goal is not shared with the ”receivers”, unless they will also be included in the goal to earn money. So if one truly likes to engage people in a meaningful experience, the desired goal has to make sense to all.
What else that is hardly considered due to the view on a narrative constructor´s fictional related work is how emotions involved in contrasting and confronting beliefs are the same mechanism narrative constructors cognitively engage the “receivers” to act upon by setting different goals to characters to propel conflicts. Since the same mechanism applies to the real world narrative constructors could basically (if they want) be a threat to the harmony in any real-life context just by the knowledge of how to create conflicts. But due to the agreement to create a meaningful experience narrative constructors hardly indulge in conflicts that will breach the necessity of reciprocally shared goals. However, what could cause “conflicts” for a narrative constructor is if the expectations are based on misconceptions about the narrative constructor´s role. In an advertisement for a narrative designer one could read the following prerequisites: “Did you cry when Bambi’s mother died?” How people understand shouldn’t be belittled, but for a narrative constructor, the most important is to at least make sure to be the last man standing when everyone else gives in to the “unconsciousness of the automatic” and want to cry. This does not mean narrative constructors do not cry, but the misconception about anyone´s role could cause dilemmas as if the expectations differ in a team about how one understands each other’s practices. This will make it hard to agree on the overall goal and people might not be able to work to their full potential. Thus, expectations work best if everyone understands each other’s roles, as it will open up new opportunities and detect possibilities.
Since the “unconscious game” between the constructor and “receivers” (the “2 + 2= 4″) is based on that people, learn it is important to know how emotions work in relation to learning. As many think of learning as something one does at school, and in school one thinks of entertainment as a hinder to schoolwork, people hardly think about the similarities between a narrative constructor´s and an instructor´s practice in formal education. But what melds the two practices is the motivating engine that makes people want to “work for their meal”. To miss this kind of “free-ticket” to engage people in some or another way would be a failure as the meaning-seeking engine is pretty strong. To get peoples´ attention, it doesn’t have to be right or perfect as long as the intention is sincere as when the director Ed Wood literally didn’t know what he was doing when making the film “Plan 9 from outer space” (1959). Why the audience even bothered to see or think about Wood´s film was the passionate (self-willed) effort that breathed through the whole production, and where Wood, no matter what, realized his film and succeeded to raise people´s curiosity by making them wonder how the film could possibly have been done. For that, the film earned The Golden Turkey award for the worse film ever made.
What we cognitively do as human beings when we learn (doing the “2 + 2”) is that we create meaning by making sense of our own and others’ behaviors (we look, listen, identify, compare, explore). Depending on our pre-knowledge, we categorize new information by reducing complexity in the information to understand. The time it takes to do “2 + 2” (interpretation), and “4” (assumption) can take a split second or infinite time of years as it took the Lutherans and the Catholic church to realize they had more in common than could possibly excuse to not try to collaborate. Since we like to avoid the anxiety that occurs when not understanding (by seeing strange things that we can´t identify) we create meanings (assumptions) to get in control. This means that if the level of anxiety is high and we can´t make sense of our own and others behavior, and we can´t find any explanation in conventions, structures, familiarity or expectations, we “fill in” automatically by giving the “unknown” meaning to lower the anxiety. And it´s here, in the very heart of the “anxiety-driven” learning narrative constructors reside by holding back and forwarding information to create curiosity.
When I started to make films, I was heavily influenced by the surrealist Luis Bunuel and worked on pure intuition thinking that Bunuel watched over me. It wasn’t before I read about the film in a French review that I got to know what the film was about (thankfully I didn’t receive The Golden Turkey). At the premiere of the film a person from the audience came up to me and said the film made her feel such heavy anxiety, so she wanted to go home. Spontaneously I wanted to apologize, but then there was this excited expression on her face that said something else, and she didn’t go home. This kind of intuitive approach wouldn’t work when I, later on, wrote serials for television. That was a more controlled approach to the “creation of anxiety” where people were put on suspense for years to keep up the curiosity – or rather keep up the ratings, so the channel could earn money from commercials.
When speaking of emotions, the horror genre is often used to show how narrative construction creates curiosity, suspense, and surprise. What is hard to recognize is how curiosity works when people are going “no, no, no” and cover their eyes or want to go home. But if one really likes to understand on a cognitive level how narrative construction can direct attention to create emotional engagement, the “anxiety-driven” learning is the key to why we can say “no” and still put up with things that scare us. Since what the “2 + 2” represents is our ability to anticipate and hypothesize and that we are in a constant search for meaning and where the curiosity the narrative constructor builds up can either be objective or subjective (or mixed). By looking upon construction from an objective/subjective perspective, it is easier to understand how the “Bunuel-inspired” film and the serial for television, even if very different in form could trigger the “anxiety-driven” learning by suspense and surprises. It can also tell what a detective and horror experience have in common with a television serial, as well as it can explain what differs “Journey” from “story-monsters”. What “story-monsters”, horror, and television serials have in common is a subjective approach where knowledge is built up so the “receivers” can take the character´s perspective by knowing what they know, and also react to what the character doesn’t know and feel emotionally attached when anticipating the outcome. With an objective approach, as in a detective genre where puzzles are presented, or in the “Bunuel-inspired” film having a surrealistic puzzle to solve, and in “Journey” where navigation and exploration were left to the player to figure out, the narrative constructor leaves to the “receivers” to make their hypothesis from what they see/experience. By looking at narrative construction from the perspective of objective and subjective construction, it is a lot easier to understand how beliefs occur when the academic expressed players to be the storytellers or when “Journey” was experienced as not having a narrative, and instead see how narrative construction can cognitively, like a lens on a camera, focus the activity of anticipating and hypothesizing in the “receiver´s” mind.
To think in terms of a narrative constructor working in mind turning thoughts as a lens might feel a bit uncomfortable and maybe it´s not a wonder that writers, storytellers, screenwriters, game designers, magicians, and basically all artists have been “locked up” in a category called art and entertainment. But what the digital and interactive medium has revealed is how reality and fiction from a cognitive perspective are not separated from each other by how we create meaning (construct narratives) and how emotions work. And like I mentioned before, how the game industry understood narrative wasn’t a big issue as we were living in the same art and entertainment bubble. It was rather when coming out from the bubble I realized how the narrative vehicle that I thought very highly of as a possibility to create new forms of meaningful experiences gladly assisted the creation of meanings based on prejudices and fears with the same capacity as from the inside of the bubble of entertainment.
Next part 3 When the cognitive vehicle of narrative backfire
Back to part 1 In search of the invisible narrative