Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Storytelling with Amnesia

via Marxchivist
While I hate to harken back to Halloween, having now passed Thanksgiving, there is one ritual associated with the former holiday that I feel has year-round appeal; ghost stories.  This past Halloween I managed to engage in two forms of the modern ghost story- I watched both a marathon of 'American Horror Story' episodes (verdict: I like it) and Sean Plott (better known to Starcraft fans as Day9) live stream his play-through of the critically acclaimed horror computer game Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  While both played on familiar horror tropes- dramatic lighting, eerie music and action 'jolts'- I found myself more intrigued with Plott's play-through of Amnesia, in part because it was a computer game (yes, I'm a nerd) but mostly because I immediately sensed that this was a new type of ghost story in which I was participating.  Not only was there the appeal of the main storyline being 'told' through play, but Plott also displayed in his live feed a camera on himself that allowed viewers to see his reactions to horrific elements interspersed in the game.  Plott also set-up a chat room for viewers to espouse their comments (or taunts/jeers), making the experience interactive and not simply a one-way netcast.  While there were moments of tedium, anytime tense or scary moments developed I was engaged and watching with bated breath to see what would happen to Plott's character.  Even though I wasn't playing the game I was still drawn into viewing its narrative effect not simply for the story but also to watch the reaction of players recording or streaming the game because in doing so I felt like a participant in the communal act of telling scary stories.

Screenshot of the Sewer in Amneisa- via Frictional Games
Go search YouTube for Amnesia videos and you will see that I'm not alone- there are several examples of others recording themselves playing and reacting to the game's many scary moments.  After watching only a few it becomes obvious that the makers of Amnesia, Frictional Games, developed a truly immersive and deeply frightful environment.  In his GDC Europe 2011 talk, 'Evoking Emotions and Achieving Success by Breaking All the Rules', lead designer Thomas Grip discussed how the Amnesia team made several unconventional (for the Horror genre) choices in the basic mechanics of the game, those being no death, no weapons and no competitive mechanics.  While Grip does a fine job of explaining why these choices were made in his GDC Talk, I believe this quote from his post reviewing 'Heavy Rain' on the blog 'In the Games of Madness: Unspeakable thoughts on horror game design and development' provides a good summation:
What I think happens is that as we interact in a videogame, there is feedback loop between us sending input to the game and us getting information back from the game (in the form of visuals, audio, etc). which builds the basis of us feeling present inside the game's virtual world.  The better this loop works, the more we feel as a part of the experience.
Eschewing traditional mechanics in horror games- the fear of death, the need for weapons, and 'gaming the game' to defeat the various monster obstacles- Amnesia instead relies upon the circulation of information between the game and the player to capture interest and create a compelling atmosphere.  By removing the more obvious 'game' mechanics Frictional Games paradoxically created an even better 'game' that borderlines on interactive storytelling.  Yet players don't feel like the game is a movie- indeed, one of the reasons for Amnesia's emotion evoking success is how easily (perhaps deceptively) it convinces players that their agency in narrative action is real and has consequences that a flowing movie-like narrative structure wouldn't allow.  Thanks to tweaks in how important mood elements (the sanity meter and appearance of monsters) operate, Amnesia creates effortless feedback loops that, honestly, rely much more on the player than the game to provide both fuel and production of emotive responses.  In this regard playing the game is akin to listening to a ghost story.

via William Cromar
This, alone, would be impressive in and of itself.  Yet Frictional Games went a step further and released mod tools for the player community to use for creating their own Amnesia 'stories'.  The results were impressive, as noted by Grip in his post about Amnesia, one year later, found again on 'Games of Madness':
Another pleasant surprise was the amount of custom stories that have been made.  In Penumbra we only knew of a single attempt to make a user-created level and that one was never released in public.  For Amnesia at least 300 custom story projects have been started, and 20 or so have actually become completed, high quality, experiences.  There has even been a Tetris clone with the tools! … It really show that supplying users with creation of tools is well worth the time.
Over at the ModDB 'Amnesia' site there are listed 75 'story' mods in various stages of completion.  One of the most impressive stories in terms of its scope and complete reworking of the original Amnesia setting is 'White Night', created by Turkish Computer Engineering student Tansel Altinel.  On the 'summary' page of White Night's ModDB entry, Altinel makes it clear up front: "White Night is a total conversion mod for Amnesia: The Dark Descent; and focuses on mostly storytelling." (Emphasis in original)  This is evident the moment you boot up the 'story' as Altinel has clearly spent a lot of time on crafting not only a new environment (Amnesia takes place in a castle, White Night at the Denver Mental Hospital) but also new objects, like the box lightbulbs come in, for the player to pick up, examine and toss about the various rooms in the asylum.  This level of detail only adds to the 'feedback loop' Grip describes above and brings the player deeper into the story experience.

Denver State Hospital Entrance
Denver State Hospital Entrance found in 'White Night'
What's even more interesting is how both the original Amnesia and the player created 'stories' allow for more than just single-person interaction when the players themselves either record or stream their gameplay experience.  In the case with Sean Plott's live stream, which included a chat room viewers used to comment, the back and forth between player and viewers produced a mix of teases, taunts, even helpful suggestions.  Even though some of the chat room participants, and probably many of the viewers who watched the archival video, already knew the Amnesia story through previous play, they spent time watching Plott play the same game because there was participatory value in watching him encounter and experience the same frightful moments as they did. Much like those who gather around campfires or held flashlights to tell ghost stories, viewers/commenters of Amnesia or its mod derivatives are engaging in a community-themed narrative experience that heavily relies upon the feedback loop between the story and the listener.

One key difference that viewers/streamers/recorders of Amnesia have over the campfire/flashlight crowd is that they are engaging the narrative story in an augmented reality whereby the experience can be shared online for others to view and engage.  Campfire stories are limited to the time and space they are told, whereas Amnesia stories can be told over much longer spans of time and greater distances thanks to their presence in the analog/digital intermeshing that is augmented reality.

Had Frictional Games instead decided to keep the weapons system they first designed for Amnesia instead of cutting it (watch the GDC Europe talk), I'm not sure the streams and recordings of play-throughs would possess the same narrative impact.  The same goes with repeated death moments or the inclusion of competitive mechanics (the game hunting the player down).  These mechanics would be fun for the player (maybe) but not necessarily for the viewer.  By focusing on the immersion, the feedback loop, Frictional Games instead created a narrative experience that could become communal- something I'm not sure would be as possible without the presence of an augmented reality.  Perhaps, as the various player created 'stories' for Amnesia indicate, there is a future for this new type of narrative experience.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Subverting the Panoptic Structure

While on a recent visit to NYC for some archival digging, I took a day to visit parts of the city I wanted to see- chief among those parts was that glorious bookstore The Strand.  There I picked up a copy of Michel Foucault's '73-'74 lecture at the College de France titled Psychiatric Power, which proved to be a wonderful buy.  I've enjoyed reading Foucault's monographs on Sexuality, Madness, Discipline and Power, etc… but for me, the best place to explore Foucualt's imaginative thought process is in his lectures captured via tape recorder and transcribed for publication.  Psychiatric Power does not let down in this regard, as Foucault spends his twelve lectures investigating what would become the main topic of 'Discipline and Punish'- the role and configuration of disciplinary apparatuses.  His lectures on the topic are succinct and easy to engage, due mainly to the oral nature of their delivery.  I would easily recommend this volume for anyone attempting to grasp Foucault's larger themes of power and the disciplinary mechanisms created to channel power.

Photo by Nicolas Nova
Recently I've been using posts on this blog to investigate what I have termed the mobility potential of knowledge.  While reading Psychiatric Power it occurred to me that Bentham's panopticon and Foucault's use of it to explain the workings of disciplinary power might provide a good opportunity to map out the differences in operation and conception a panoptic mechanism would possess when examined under the framework I've tried to establish for the operation of mobility potentials.

Before diving into the differences each depiction portrays, it might be helpful to establish the baseline for how Bentham envisioned his Panopticon to function and how Foucault found in its operation the workings of a disciplinary apparatus of power.  (Quotes below come from Psychiatric Power)

Bentham designed the Panopticon to augment the power of the central observer through two means.  First, the panoptic design is a multiplier of power that provides 'herculean strength' to power circulating within the institution and to the individual who holds/directs power and, second, the panoptic design gives the center a means of obtaining 'mind over mind' power. This is accomplished by the individualizing nature of the panopticon, as it places the focus of the gaze, the body, on a singular subject. The result Foucault notes,
...means that in a system like this we are never dealing with a mass, with a group, or even, to tell the truth, with a multiplicity: we are only ever dealing with individuals.  ... All collective phenomena, all the phenomena of multiplicities, are thus completely abolished. (75)
Examples of 'collective phenomena' include distinction in workshops achieved by use of songs or strikes, collusion among prisoners, or acts of irritation/imitation found in the asylum.  As a result, "the whole network of group communication...will be brought to an end by the panoptic system."  Power thus becomes collective at the center, the beginning of the anonymous gaze, with the distribution of power always focused on the individuals, the bodies, located in their separate cells.  Foucault equates collective power held at the center as "...a sort of ribbon of power, a continuous, mobile and anonymous ribbon, which perpetually unwinds within the central tower.  ...(The Panoptic Mechanism) is an apparatus of both knowledge and power that individualizes on one side, and which, by individualizing, knows." (Both quotes from p. 78)

Returning to the illustrations above, we can now map out the operation of a panoptic mechanism using both disciplinary and mobility potential frameworks.  The disciplinary framework concerns itself, primarily, with the individualization of the subject in its cell.  The center's gaze penetrates the cell, able to give commands and directives but also capable of conducting observations that record the reaction of the cells to their individualized directives.  This 'feedback' of observation is reconciled in the center via the 'perpetually unwinding ribbon of power' which spurs the creation of new directives and commands.

Now let's examine the same panoptic mechanism through a mobility potential framework.  Because the panoptic mechanism facilitates the imposition of discipline it relies upon the transmission of primarily, perhaps exclusively, low mobility knowledge.  Foucault states that the rise of disciplinary mechanisms is closely tied to the growing use of documentary records to track a body, individually, through space, and the record keeping obsession possessed by many powers from the nineteenth century to present day attests to its enduring practice.  Documentary records, largely, do not transform through transmission or else they would lose their value in the larger practice of forming discipline.  

The cells, upon receiving the transmitted low mobility knowledge, formulate their own reaction or interpretation, although this cannot be shared to the other cells due to the configuration of the panoptic mechanism. (Remember that 'collective phenomena' is what the Panopticon is designed to avoid)  Information produced by the cell, be it high or low mobility, is observed by the gaze of the center and brought into the center for interpretation.  In doing so, the center acts as a 'transition point' for the shifting of high mobility information into low mobility information, a place to reconcile the two and mitigate the disruptive effects their transition generally entails, creating new directives that are then transmitted, once again, to the individual cells.  The key difference in this understanding is that both the cells and the center engage in knowledge interpretation, yet the design of the panoptic mechanism means that only the center can act as the 'transition point'.

Now I would like to ask different questions that I think hold significance with events unfolding today.  Can the panoptic mechanism be subverted?  Are there instances in which the operation of this subverted mechanism could be demonstrated?  I would like to explore the idea that the panoptic mechanism can be subverted and that the prime example of such subversion is the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Below, I've sketched out what I think a subverted panoptic mechanism would look like. 

Here we have the exact same layout as the traditional panoptic mechanisms analyzed above, yet the flow and type of information is highly varied.  Some distinctions are immediately evident.  The center, instead of being solely based on a physical location, now embraces an augmented reality presence allowing both high and low mobility information to be transmitted and received by the center.  This is the first key distinction, as the meshing of the physical and the digital allow the panoptic mechanism to maintain its form even while its very function is subverted.  Because an augmented reality presence necessitates the use of high mobility knowledge potentials, the gaze the center normally possesses in a traditional panoptic mechanism becomes inverted.  Cells now gaze and penetrate the center, attempting to gain knowledge and 'individualize' in a function closely aligned with the traditional panoptic gaze.  The 'perpetually unwinding ribbon of power' is now shared by the center and cell alike, meaning that cells can now engage in the sort of collective phenomena prohibited in traditional panoptic mechanisms.  Now the 'transition point' function, the capacity to interchange high and low mobility knowledge with minimal disruptive asynchronous effects, resides in both the cell and the center.  This shift is the second key distinction of a subverted panoptic mechanism.

In some instances, the subverted panoptic mechanism can wield traditional panoptic powers- this is evident when Occupiers pose for pictures taken by tourists or when video or statements created by the center are transmitted to the cells.  What is interesting is that only in these expressions of 'weak panoptic power' (utilizing the physical structure of the panoptic mechanism) does the center actually gaze into the surrounding cells.  When engaging the cells in an augmented reality presence (as Nathan Jurgenson says, uniting the hashtag and the physical), this gaze is inverted and can no longer penetrate the surrounding cells.  By utilizing the panoptic mechanism in such subversion, the cells also acquire the two benefits outlined by Bentham and explained above- the 'herculean strength' of power multiplied and a means to obtain 'mind over mind' power- and while the effect of the first benefit is immediately apparent when viewing the outpouring of discussion, videos and photos associated with OWS, the second benefit, while very crucial, becomes diminished by simple fact of plurality.  Many cells aligned with the 'ribbon of power' mean that many interpretations are created, making the 'mind over mind' power generated by the subverted panoptic mechanism more suited to the question and analysis of hegemony.

It cannot be stressed enough that the essential characteristic of a subverted panoptic mechanism is the intermeshing of both the physical and the digital.  Absent the physical anchoring, the movement would still be transmitting and receiving information but it would do so outside of the (subverted) panoptic structure.  This, to me, is a key difference between a movement like Occupy Wall Street and a group like Anonymous.  There is a question now, with the general revocation of a physical space to occupy, if the OWS movement can continue or maintain the impact they have fostered so far.  While the loss of a physical location would prevent the movement from subverting the panoptic mechanism for their own uses, there is always the possibility that one of the cells will hold new ground and re-create the movement there.

This is just a very preliminary sketching out of ideas regarding the role of the panoptic mechanism under the framework of mobility potential.  I gladly welcome any comments from readers as to points I either glossed over or missed completely.