I am now going to explain the mechanics of
a pipe by using a different rhetorical tool: simulation.
In this Flash piece, we have the pipe and a button.
If you press the button without releasing it, you will
see the smoke coming through the small end of the pipe.
After releasing it, smoke will come up through the other
end. At first sight, representation and simulation seem
quite similar: after all, they are describing the same
behavior. Well, they say the devil is in the details,
so lets pay attention to them.
Flash simulation is modeling the mechanics of the pipe
through a mechanical rule: if you suck from one
end, you will get some smoke, and later more smoke will
come up through the other end. Basically, the
same rule that we narrated on the previous example.
The difference, as I said, is that here the rule is
shown through a model. Nothing happens if you dont
press the button.
The difference between this Flash movie and a comic-book
style narration of the action of smoking seems to be
very subtle. After all, we could see the Flash simulation
simply as a hypermedia example, where the button is
basically doing the equivalent of flipping through pages
or images. Actually, this is how one of the most popular
games ever, Myst, was built (by using a hypermedia
environment called Hypercard).
A comic-book style narration of smoking
return to our pipe example, by now taking a look at
a more complex simulation.
this example could have been theoretically built as
a hypertext -by crafting all the possible varitions
of size and density of smoke- it would have taken an
awful lot of work. This simulation shows thousands of
different kinds of smoke, depending on how the user
manipulates two variables ("Sucking" and "Tobacco
each outcome could be considered as a narrative, just
like any videogame session of Super Mario Bros. could
also be viewed as a story (even if most would be quite
strange by traditional narrative standards). And this
is the reason why so many people insist to call videogames
and simulations "interactive narrative":
for an external observer, the outcome of a simulation
is a narration. But the simulation itself is something
bigger than narrative. It is a dynamic system that yes,
contains thousands of potential "stories",
but it is larger than the sum of its parts. The simulation
itself is not a narrative, it is something different,
in the same way that a kaleidoscope should not be understood
as a collection of possible images but instead as a
device that produces images according to certain mechanics.
I said that the outcome of a simulation is a narration
"for an external observer". This is because
in many simulations, particularly in videogames, the
player does not feel like she is being told a story
by a narrator, but rather experiencing events as a personal
experience. Unlike what happens in theater, these events
are not just being enacted, but the player has a certain
degree of control over them. Phenomenologically, the
player generally experiences videogames more as an alternative
reality where she has certain freedom to act than as
could say, as some people do, that simulations are a
different flavor of narrative, but by doing this we
risk to turn "narrative" into a very vague
term that could be applied to almost everthing (because,
after all, for an observer ANY mediated event could
be considered as a narrative). Besides, based on the
examples that I just gave, it seems that they are certain
differences between narrative and simulation that justify
reasons, I think that studying simulations and videogames
as narratives does not allow us to fully understand
the potential of the medium. Certainly, my oven "produces"
cakes and I can infer some characteristics of the oven
by analyzing those cakes. But if I really want to understand
its mechanics, I would definitively chose to study the
oven itself. I view simulations as dynamic systems that
produce outcomes, and in order to understand dynamic
systems we can use tools as cybernetics and simulation