The Territory is the Map: Approaching Storytelling in 3D Space
by Misty West
How do you tell a story in 3D space? First, unpack the question, and
breathe slowly. It's a frantic, breathless question, adding exclamation
po!ntsandapleading, frenziedlookinthe EYE of the geekstorytellergeek asking
it. There are a lot of assumptions hidden in the question that have to be
untangled before it makes any sense at all.
What is a story? How do you tell a story on general principles? Are there
relevant general principles? How does the medium affect the way the story
is told? How does it affect the story itself? How does 3D space work
right now? What can we do in it? How will it work next week? Next month?
How will platform wars affect 3D content builders? What platform should I
Next level: What if my passion is as much for the technology as for the
storytelling? What if I don't care about the technology? Is the
technology liberating me as a storyteller, or am I limiting my storytelling
capabilities by using it? Will I starve? Bottom line: Will it work?
Will it work? I believe it can, but we have to name the demon before we
can face it. Call it by name and draw the sword, as the sword becomes a
quill and wraps around backward to draw itself. In this medium, image-play
can refer to wordplay, which can refer back to the essence of a character,
and still further back to the mythical archetype to which the character
"The map is not the territory."
The poet Alfred Korzybski has already been enshrined in the prehistory of
cyberspace for insisting on the divide between the representation of an
experience and the experience itself. Virtual world builders repeat it to
each other frequently, reverently, to remind themselves that they cannot
confuse the shell of a space with the experience of it. You cannot build a
virtual world and call it complete when you ship or upload. It is made
complete again and again in each moment online, filled with people.
First Step: Grok the centrality of experience. Substance over form.
References: Korzybski, Rene Magritte, Christopher Alexander
Question to be asked: What is the difference between representation and
You've seen glossy pictures of chocolate mousse cakes in magazines --
they're beautiful, but you know that they're only pictures. The map is not
Some of Magritte's best-known works were clear plays on that distinction --
the sentence 'Ceci es nest-ce pas un chapeau' (literally, 'This is not a
hat'), for example, sways in a loopy and graceful cursive over the painted
image of a hat. Isn't it a hat? No, it's a painting of a hat. If it were
a hat, you would be able to wear it on your head. That's what it means to
be a hat.
In academia, the source material is called the 'primary.' Analysis of the
primary is 'secondary.' Criticism of the secondary is 'tertiary' or a
competitive secondary with tertiary references. Proponents of various
academic arguments are often well aware that they're operating in
rhetorical cloud cities far from the primary. The primary then takes on a
raw, unfinished splendor, as though it were so intense that it's simply
safer to keep your distance, to fight battles with contemporary critics
instead of going back to the primary -- hide your eyes! They're opening
the Ark of the Covenant!
This is why I firmly believe in stepping into the cold water, in holding my
face up to the wind, in raising my arms and howling at the moon -- the
primary holds the experience of life, while the others hold arbitrary
representations of it. I've learned that when I retreat into the
secondary, the tertiary and beyond, I can have a lot of fun playing with
filters, shells, and huge varieties of representations of all aspects of
life, but I miss the richness, rawness, and glory of life in the primary.
Secondary and Tertiary Architecture
The basic insufficiency of the empty building-thought-shell has been a big
problem for virtual worldbuilders, because it's so difficult to build a
good shell that it canbecome really hurtful to realize that the shell is
only a setting for the experience. It's not easy to put
use/experience-design ahead of ego-design, but it is essential. To be
fair, that's been a hot-button problem for architects in the physical world
Christopher Alexander's 'A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings,
Construction' has become a central reference in modern architecture because
it addresses the shell vs. experience problem very directly. Alexander's
team did an incredible job of melding careful observation of human life
patterns with architecture that best enables all of them to occur at once
across the population of a town. He moves readers away from building for
sterile architectural beauty to building for the beauty of dances on
Saturday nights in open public squares, to building for the serenity of
water, running visibly in public areas. Bottom line: Never lose sight of
the audience. They are the reason it matters to do this at all.
Second Step: Move beyond secular space to enter play-space.
References: Joseph Campbell, Don Norman, 'Tamara'
Question to be asked: Who is my audience? What am I communicating to them?
What is a story? Traditional storytellers say it's a chronicle of events
with some pretty rigorous parameters wrapped around it. It needs a few
central characters (from one to three), a bit of exposition about them and
their world, it needs a conflict, it needs a resolution, and it needs a
denouement. The conflict can take a huge variety of forms -- break it down
in the most general terms to human vs. human, human vs. nature, or human
vs. himself. Conflict is frequently made manifest in a search for
something -- to quote storyteller Frank Daniel, "Somebody wants something
really badly and is having difficulty getting it."
The conflict is usually the centerpiece to a story, as it inspires subplots
with their own subconflicts and acts as an anchor to the story's sense of
movement. Character development shows the characters changing and/or
growing in response to the events. The denouement is usually defined as a
diminuendo (quieting) that lets the audience relax between the
climax/resolution and the moment they're tossed back into secular space
('the real world') when the story ends. This is an emphatically linear
process -- as meaningless out of order as a symphony would be if its notes
were scrambled. Nobody can take a traditional story and just scramble it
to make it nonlinear or interactive.
So what do you do? Interactive storytelling is a genuinely new field.
From Chris Crawford (Trinity) to John Sanborn (Psychic Detective) to
Jonathan Delacour (just you wait!) to the play 'Tamara' and many others,
there have been three basic approaches. First, the branching structure: a
defined beginning point leads to a predefined set of forks in the path.
The story-aggregate grows larger and larger as each path requires its own
set of outcomes; it can loop back on itself to save resources, but this
can require a good bit of contortion to be sure the story still makes
sense. It has been done successfully -- text-based MUDs are a good
examples of branching strategy. But writing a branching story is no easy
task -- scripts are often ten to twenty times the length of standard movie
scripts, and they're extremely complex. There are several programs on the
market that help you do the storyboarding process -- they're excellent for
making sure all your if/then possibilities are covered. But making sure it
all comes together sensibly is up to you.
Second, the multipoint structure: Stories with wider casts of characters
and more and better-developed groups of subplots can be followed from any
individual character's perspective. This is well suited to multimedia, as
players can easily choose their path through the story with the mouse.
'Tamara' was an extremely successful multipoint play staged in the physical
world -- audience members would follow actors through a large house as they
performed their roles, choosing a path through the story quite literally by
The audience was also given repeat cards -- come back and see the play more
than five times, and it's free from that point forward. Graphic artist
Mike Sivak saw the play eight times, following different characters through
different plot-sets each time. "What I loved about 'Tamara' and what I
think would best translate to multimedia is that you can have a common
experience and an individual experience at the same time. It benefits you
to go in with a group of people, because you can talk about the experience
afterward and compare notes from the different plays each person saw," he
begins -- he has a lot to say about the effect the play had on his
perception of the way storytelling works.
Third, the holy grail: syntheses of the two in multiuser space. John
Sanborn reached for this when he made 'Psychic Detective' -- he delivered
an artful blend of branching and multipoint, with a smooth user interface
on top of it that made use of plot devices to help it vanish into the
background. Magical psychic devices would appear around the edges of the
UI, for example, that would give the player keys to new information that
could be used to unlock the story's central mystery. This way it felt far
less like clicking on a widget in the interface, and more like interacting
with an object in the story itself. 'Psychic Detective' sold well on Sony
Playstation and Win/PC platforms, and still stands as a very good example
of what can be done. It's emphatically single-user, however, and still
immensely complicated. With the complexity of the two structures operating
at once, it seems almost masochistic to upend it all and insist on a
multiuser perspective. Yikes!
How does that affect the story? The best answer here is that I don't quite
know yet. There are several key elements of the single-user story that are
mucked up by multiuser. First, beginning and end points and pacing -- who
gets to say it starts now? How can you provide new players with enough
info to make sense of it? How does it end? (Maybe it needs to be an
ongoing soap-opera style piece, with online delivery? This has been tried,
with varying degrees of success. Critical factor here seems to be
ground-level sense and comprehensibility: does it appear in final analysis
as interesting and complex, or confused and spaghettilike? Call this one
the spaghetti test).
Second, perspective -- is it told from the perspective of one of the
characters? From those of several simultaneously? Can players follow
different characters at different times? Can players interact with other
players as well as with characters? Are characters live actors, or bots?
Third, maintenance of the story-world -- does it go on forever? Is it
maintained by the original storytellers? Can the same story be repeated,
or does it need to always be new? I've been annoyed in MUDs at times,
seeing players dropping character all the time, and having the same banal
conversations they might have anywhere. What does it mean to 'stay in
character' in a MUD, when the goal is to entertain the players themselves
rather than an audience? I, as a player, know that the characters I meet
can represent any of the 'selves' within a person, whether they're made
manifest in the physical world, buried in another player's unconscious, or
completely contrived, and they are likely to be an inconsistent mishmash of
all these things. Telling a story with this sort of cast is a bit like
trying to launch a rocket from a pile of quicksand.
I refer to Joseph Campbell and Don Norman here because they speak to the
jump from the secular world into the story-world or the desktop-world.
Mythology is a story-based answer to the existential questions that people
have been asking for thousands of years -- why am I here? What's this all
about? Many of the world's mythologies -- notably those that
anthropologists say had to have evolved separately -- share common themes
and consistent threads. Also, most importantly, they resonate within many
people's psyches with some of the most common glimpses of the primary --fac
ing adversity, facing fear, seeing change and growth in themselves.
The jump into play-space has been translated to the 'suspension of
disbelief' in the harsher vocabulary of Hollywood, but the meaning is the
same: We know the aliens are fake, but we squirm in our seats and scream
because we've entered play-space. Campbell argues that all the world's
mythological stories require entry into play-space, and that it takes
practice, just like any other skill. Skilled actors come to know
play-space well, and enter and exit it fluidly, consciously. Games of
belief, as expressed in ritual or storytelling of any kind, act as the
first steps toward a divine realization that everything is a story,
occurring exactly, subjectively, as we perceive it.
Don Norman finds stories about users of basic household objects and
software packages, the way they're perceived by designers, and the way the
objects lead them to perceive themselves. He notes that the basic design
of an object leads straight to its perception and use by the market, and
that complex or sophisticated design can leave users confused and cold. He
also points out that people tend to blame themselves for making errors in
use of objects due to poor design -- mistaking hot and cold water if the
switches aren't clear, mistakenly resetting the time on an alarm clock,
getting the 'return' and 'enter' keys mixed up in data entry programs that
actually map different functions to them.
People enter play-space when they interact with objects because they
approach the objects with a predefined set of expectations, and they are
tossed rudely out of play-space if the objects don't behave as they should.
The key here is that play-space and object familiarity are universal and
unending -- these will be required characteristics for holy-grail
storyworlds. This is why Sascha Becker has formed a 'widgets' working
group within the larger VRML standard-creation body -- consistent, commonly
understood widgets will be key to wide acceptance and use of storyworlds.
Good design will have to inform players of how to interact with the
storygame, how to play, what is expected of them, and what they should
expect of the game. Play-space is infinite and elusive -- it must be
all-encompassing, convincing, and most of all, fun.
The virtual territory is the map of a particular play-space, ready for action.
Third Step: Speak truth within the play-space.
References: Chess, Go, Edward Tufte
Question to be asked: How can I share in the wildly nonlinear, divine
patchwork perfection of the world?
The territory is the map. The audience's conscious decision to immerse
itself in the story enables the entry into play-space -- the suspension of
disbelief. Once there, the audience has a strong interest in moving the
story forward, in staying in play-space. This means that they will
willingly put on somebody else's filter, see the world through somebody
else's glasses for a time, because it is useful, or fun, or (hopefully)
both. The territory is the filter, the glasses, the new and temporary view
of reality. It is part game, part story, and part truth -- this is what we
want to build. It is a delicate dance between the wildness of imagination
and the constraints of the new medium.
Fresco painters keep elaborate memory-maps of what their colors will look
like once they've dried, because wet fresco colors look very little like
their dry equivalents. This is simply another set of constraints, no
different from the one we face. How fast is the renderer? Which platforms
will work client-side? This is no different than mapping wet colors to dry
-- we must always learn from history.
Bottom line: Truth needs a medium for transmission in the physical world.
Flawless movement of truth (think of it as a form of energy) from one
person to another might be an imaginary ideal, but even then, that idea
itself functions as a medium. To suppose that there could be such a
transmission, you have to assume that truth can be quantized into little
packets or waves of some kind to be transmitted. The only ways we know to
transmit truth from one person to another -- language, color, art, sound,
dance, all forms of storytelling, and on and on -- are pretty noisy
channels from a pure information perspective. But even if you posit a
perfect, energy-based, noise-free channel, what is it that you're
transmitting? You have to make up an artificial framework of some kind to
put parameters around 'truth' so you know for sure that something is
actually being transmitted. Is it possible to do that without affecting
the 'truth'? No -- that was the mistake made by the objectivists who tried
to observe without affecting the systems they were observing.
We're at the point in memetics where the early chemists were when they
posited ether. We're struggling to identify the parameters we've put
around information in order to define it, to know what it is that's going
into those noisy channels for transmission. Newtonian physics had assumed
'action at a distance' -- forces act upon each other at a distance, with no
intervening medium. Gravity acts upon apples at a distance, light moves
from the wick of a candle to create dancing shadows on the far wall at a
distance. As scientists like Michael Faraday began to notice direct
relationships between things like light and magnetism -- things that
certainly weren't supposed to affect each other -- the idea of an 'ether'
grew to fill the void. All these wild and strange relationships had to
happen within some larger context -- within a medium. By the late 1600's
Newton himself was writing in private letters about the ether and its role
in physical change, and by the mid-1700s most were convinced.
In a similar way, we're positing a meta-medium of common understanding
(mythology/archetype) and a mishmash of media that affect the messages they
transmit in very different ways. We need to understand and accept that
responsibility and all those noisy channels, and avoid the temptation to
search for a way to conceptualize or transmit 'pure information.' Claude
Shannon and his Information Theory made some amazing breakthroughs in the
1940s in reaching for what that pure information might be, but the field
struggles today on a fine line between finding that tantalizing common
denominator between all forms of truth, and total irrelevance, because so
many levels and kinds of noisy channels must be peeled away to approach its
study. We're subjective creatures with subjective perspectives, and we
must enjoy the confusion we've created, using it to touch a million
different perceptions of truth (and fun) wherever we can.
The key to the perfect game (as it is said): it must be easy to learn and
difficult, if not impossible, to master. I like Tetris and chess a lot
better than I liked Myst, in all honesty. I love the pure game, because it
demands far more of the imagination. I do not believe that the goal of the
gamestory is to replace the imagination -- I could not support it if that
were the case, let alone work toward it.
Brilliant example recounted to me by Dave Marvit: Two of the world's top
go players met here in SF a while back for a challenge match. A reporter
asked one of the players' assistants what the match would represent. The
reporter was not prepared for the response: "Two players come together to
make perfect art," the assistant said. Go is not a zero-sum game. There
is not a 'winner' and a 'loser' in the binary Western sense -- the
experience of the game itself, with both players contributing to it, is the
perfect art and truth itself. The outcome simply means that a particular
game is over. Its message has been made manifest, whatever it was. The
game is a consensual hallucination that takes place in the physical world.
Build a play-space to stimulate and inspire the human imagination -- create
an environment that enables player interaction, with other players, with
bots and AIs, with the environment itself, and you will find that you have
contributed to the herky-jerky perfection of human existence. It does not
tell a linear story. It simply is. Is that enough? We'll have to build
them to find out.
Misty West(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a 3D space
Producer and Designer. She is a gearhead who studied fiction
writing, literature, and critical theory, and hopes to apply all
of it to new forms of experiential storytelling on the net.
She credits Michael Moon with the inspired inversion of map and territory around which she (mostly) structured this article. (Structure? Did somebody say structure?)