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30 June 2012 @ 10:44 am
The Medium Makes the Message  
A thought on the different media through which stories are conveyed.

Each one has a different set of constraints and capabilities. There is even somewhat of what I dare say is a hierarchy, ranging from most constrained to least constrained.

I believe it is something like this: Stage theater<live action movie (pre cgi)<live action movie (post-cgi)<live action television<animated movie<animated television<video game<print comic<webcomic<written word w/ illustration<written word sans illustrations. There are other media, such as poetry, music, and oral storytelling which I am less qualified to speak about, of course, and I will not put them in the hierarchy because I honestly don't know where they fit.

Each medium has constraints that a creator must work with. Pretty universal constraints exist, such as the range of colors visible to the healthy human eye, or the linear nature of time as humans experience it, but otherwise each medium has unique constraints. Stage theater, for example, is constrained by factors like what can be portrayed on a physical stage by human actors, what props and scenes can be constructed or implied, what can be done with sound and light in real time. The real time nature, without luxuries like editing that film have, is another constraint. So is the fact that theater has to be experienced by a live audience, typically! People only have so much patience and capacity to endure a play on stage, what with things like needing to eat, sleep, and relieve themselves. Films are less constrained, but still face the same issues of human endurance and limitations of human actors. CGI helps, but in turn is constrained by things like the uncanny valley and matching the world in the film it is used to enhance. It goes on.

I believe that a crucial element of any work of storytelling in any medium is at its best when it exploits these capabilities and limitations found within its medium. If it undershoots and works within the constraints of a more constrained medium, it is disappointing. If it overshoots the limitations that exist for its medium, it can be awkward. There is a balance to be reached.

I'm certainly not the first one to reach this conclusion. The writers over at the Escapist certainly have, advocating ceaselessly for video games to make better use of their unique constraints and capabilities to tell stories that no other medium could. They often beat that tired, dead horse of Bioshock as a prime example of what can be done with games in particular for storytelling that could not be accomplished in, say, a film or cartoon or other passive medium. Unfortunately, they also sometimes miss examples of games that predated Bioshock which also exploited their medium, and even miss exactly what made Bioshock so good at what it did.

Cutscenes in games aren't what's holding them back from best exploiting their medium for storytelling potential. They are not the most effective use of the medium, but they are not an old-fashioned plague or a holdover from cinema or animation. And it should be noted that there exist very significant games which can both make use of their status as a game to deliver a unique storytelling experience and still contain cutscenes without having to eliminate them or reinvent that wheel entirely. In fact, one of the other dead horses of this conversation, one that is nigh-endlessly berated for overuse of cutscenes, is actually far more effective at using gameplay and its game status to tell a story it would not be able to without being a game. That's right- Metal Gear Solid. Especially MGS2, the maligned sequel to end all maligned sequels not named Devil May Cry 2.

A movie would certainly not be able to get across a sense of tenseness and danger the way it does with just the consequences of being spotted by a guard and the difficulties one has to go through if they are, not to mention the difficulties they face just not being spotted. No film, for that matter, would be able to have the volumes of optional conversations available over codec that flesh out the game's world, story, and characters while also still providing useful advice for actually playing the game. They're optional and nonlinear and completely implausible (if not impossible) outside of a digital medium. Nothing else can convey MGS's pacifistic message in both text and subtext quite like it does, either. There are certainly monologues about inhumanity of war and the toll it takes on everything it touches- monologues and conversations in a volume that staggers the player to think about- but this is only a companion to the fact that the game actively rewards you for not killing foes. They act like real people and have real names (details that would almost certainly be either hamhandedly handled or overlooked in a film, but conveyed in minor actions they do while you spy on them and the completely optional dog tags you can collect from them), and can be tranquilized or knocked unconscious rather than killed. Killing fewer opponents actually nets you a better rank when you beat the game, and makes a certain boss fight in MGS3 easier and less guilty (once again, another wholly unique to games experience, if fairly hamhanded in implications). Guards who discover an unconscious comrade will also cause far less of a problem to the player than guards who discover a dead one- the level of alert resulting from the former is far lower, and thus easier to deal with. It's the difference between being more actively suspected by guards who are still on typical duty and actively hunted.

These are not the only ways in which MGS uses its status as a game to tell itself as a story in a way a movie can't, but these are enough to prove the point. And, perhaps, elucidate why movie adaptations of games always feel so lacking. The story and characters may be there, but the whole concept has to be shoved in a much smaller set of constraints that cannot carry across the richness of the original, less-constrained experience.

I could also talk about how Silent Hill does similarly clever things with gameplay to tell its story, and in particular via creating an atmosphere, and how it's just another thing that fucking movie version completely failed to do right, but I won't because I'm getting too entrenched in just talking about games here.

Another example of making use of a medium (and people missing the point of how to do it) is in animation. The folks over at CartoonBrew would have us believe that the best use of animation is in something like Ren and Stimpy- using the medium to create wild distortions and exaggerated actions impossible with real actors. And to a certain extent, that is one of the particular features of animation that sets it apart from other media, particularly live-action ones. It is also, however, not the only advantageous feature of animation and certainly not the only useful one for making full use of animation as a medium. It's primarily a feature that can be used to convey humor and action actors cannot convey, but is itself rather limited to those elements.

Really, animation's most important capacity is showing things that cannot exist in the real world, I believe. Locations that cannot be filmed or created or have actors realistically imposed upon, and things on a scale that does not exist or cannot be filmed. It's not just the movement possible in animation that matters- it's the subject matter and the genre that it can portray that really give it an edge as a medium. Except for comics and perhaps video games (though more rarely in the latter because of unique limitations that come up once again in it), no other medium is better suited for stories of fantasy, science fiction, and surrealism. Even in a work that has limited, stiff movement in the animation, there can still be settings completely impossible in a live-action work, scales that cannot possibly be conveyed, and characters that can be built in animation and nowhere else. The fact that the range of styles outside of realism that comics can convey is also something animation can is basically icing on the cake- even an animation that approaches photorealism can still in other ways beautifully exploit the fact that it is not made with real people and the real world and their limitations.

A word, perhaps, on webcomics. They are a young medium still, and very few of them actually do things that print comics cannot. Perhaps this will go away with the medium's maturation, or if fewer webcomics are made specifically with selling print copies in mind. I'm not sure. Aside from things like XKCD's use of alt-text, or the cleverly limited format of Dinosaur Comics (which actually takes advantage of making itself more limited), the majority of well-known webcomics don't actually exploit the fact that they are digital sequential art on the internet very much at all.

And then there's Homestuck (as well as Problem Sleuth, its predecessor on MS Paint Adventures). To be brief and avoid sounding fannish, here are some things it contains that a print comic could not:
  • Sound, both in music and sound effects. It has several entirely optional albums of music not even contained in the comic available on the side in addition to the music that does appear in the comic.
  • Animation. This comes in both the format of animated gifs and longer animated interludes complete with sound, the longest of which clocks in at a whopping 13 minutes long. Gifs are used to convey actions, emphasize text, and in one unique example as part of an epilepsy-inducing character design.
  • Links to outside content, e.g. the wikipedia page on Betty Crocker.
  • Gameplay, in several segments that resemble an action game like Bastion, RPG-style wandering like that in Earthbound, faux turn-based RPG combat, and a point-and-click adventure.
  • Reader-generated content, which has mostly been phased out by now in favor of a more cohesive author-driven narrative. In older MSPA stories and the first two acts of Homestuck, almost all actions taken by the characters within were taken from commands sent in to the author via a submission box and drove the narrative. This last element, while no longer a feature of MS Paint Adventures, has been put to use in other webcomic narratives since- for example, in the horror adventure "Ruby Quest".
The point is, if you want me to wax poetic about how amazing your work of fiction is and offer/threaten to suck your metaphorical dick, make effective use of the medium you're creating it for.