subjectivity design

YEAR: 2012-
ROLE: Creator

"Subjectivity Design" is a long-term project to systematize certain aspects of art, design, and narrative in which I am especially interested – aspects which I believe can form the basis for a general creative philosophy tuned to the facets of art that I find to be the source of its greatest value to us.

In essence, "subjectivity design" refers to a way of thinking about creation that prioritizes the perceptions associated with affective responses. There is, of course, no shortage of work that manipulates formal conventions to depict different emotional states in a character or confer emotional states onto an audience, but I am of the belief that many of our formal conventions designed to achieve these responses have, over time, come to be taken at face value and/or remain underdeveloped.

 

A "paint-by-numbers" attitude seems to have arisen in creative industries, where the only options are to either be safe and formulaic – maybe with a couple surprises thrown in here and there – or to be inscrutable and self-serving in the name of "experimentation." One may note that the greatest successes tend to be those works that manage to exist somewhere in between.

 

What follows are some examples of my proposals for creative methodologies that make the subjective manner of a work its primary design consideration. These are primarily artistic tools, but could potentially be used in conjunction with design research and user habits as well. Because the realm of subjective space is essentially infinite, these methodologies must be flexible by design. The goal is to encourage creators to use the tools to be inventive, rather than to either follow a received dogma or else rebel – only to decay into self-indulgence.

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While the Campbellian description of the Hero’s Journey (as combined with three-act dramatic structure) has come to dominate much of mainstream entertainment media, the Hero’s Journey – the monomyth – is less a distillation of myth, and closer to an average. It is a pastiche, a collage: an integration.

 

Many of the traditional stories from which the monomyth was derived start or end in "unorthodox" places. Just as in Greek tragedy, the hero does not always succeed in myth and legend. Just as in tales of tricksters, the hero does not always start or end in one of two different worlds.

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To be clear, despite the ubiquity of the monomyth in recent writing (Hollywood film and video games in particular), other ways of thinking about storytelling remain much-studied. The abundance of differently structured works is testament enough to this. This criticism of monomyth is merely a setup to discuss an alternative way of thinking about narrative structure in general.

Different narrative approaches result in different ways of thinking about characters and events, which result in different experiences for an audience. Just as the sonnet and haiku can force inspiration in a poet by way of adherence to form, experimentation with different narrative structures can loosen the mind and help it escape from its creative crutches.

 

The source traditions from which the monomyth was derived are rich inspirational material in their own right, but as a starting point, the monomyth itself can be arbitrarily dissected into any number of arcs as a conceptual exercise for structuring stories and events in order to better shape the moments in a character's experience and the audience's experience that matter most.

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A short vignette, a character study, a meditative reflection on a moment, or a high stakes story that ramps up as fast as it ends are all examples of structures that might benefit more from a “fragment” arc. A  writer crafting a story meant to end on a specific emotional note might consider the emotional states that different abbreviated arcs can produce.

 

By thinking about the most important events and emotions for characters and audiences alike, we can remix our structures to give us insight into how to highlight that which we most want to communicate.

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Human beings are always beginning and ending little journeys, no matter how short or mundane. Nearly any event can be described in terms of a full hero’s arc, but it is often not pragmatic – or it is just painfully cliché – to do so. Consider the following:

STATUS QUO: A nice dream.

CALL TO ADVENTURE: Alarm clock rings.

REFUSAL OF THE CALL: Snooze button.

SUPERNATURAL AID: A cat jumps on the bed, asking for food.

...etc.

Clearly, you can do it...but should you?

 

Similarly, some arcs in our lives are quite momentous and formative and make good stories – yet they do not sensibly align with a “full Journey.”

 

Consider a fragmentation of the Hero’s Journey in which shorter arcs are spread across an ensemble cast. Over the course of a story, the full Hero’s Journey is implicit as an emergent meta-narrative resulting from the smaller arcs each character personally experiences.

 

In this sense, character arcs may not need to be written or conceived in terms of their "completeness," so much as in terms of their overall contribution to the picture a work paints of humanity as a whole.

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What makes a genre? While some of what determines genre is related to strict world elements like setting and costume, there are also stylistic or structural elements that are more amorphous in nature.

Consider, for example, how horror films often restrict information with claustrophobic shots and dark lighting or prioritize disturbing sound design over score. Alternatively, consider how Westerns offer expansive views of their settings – whatever they are – or the infamous film noir “bars of light and shadow.”

These sorts of conventions are not constrained by particular settings or plots. Their function is to create a particular emotional effect in stylistic fashion. These conventional effects can be treated as modules to design the subjective experience of characters/ audiences/users and build novel atmospheres and moods.

 

As the existence of multi-genre or “genre-bending” films and other media demonstrate, there is a gradation between genres of the same category that can be achieved by including enough convention elements to be reminiscent of both.

The genres in video games are quite different from books and films. Video game genres (adventure, RPG, FPS, RTS, dating sim, etc.) describe the player experience and how the player interacts with the medium more than they describe setting or narrative mode per sé. These “interactive” genres are often combined with “literary” genres (sci-fi RPG, dramatic adventure, Western dating sim?) to describe ever more granular microgenres.

Broken down far enough, genres are little more than collections of conventions. By ignoring the expectations of a given genre and focusing solely on the conventions it contains, genre shorthands can be used in a fluid, syncretic manner to create idiosyncratic character styles and to shift quickly between different atmospheres and moods.

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LOW SYNTAX
LOW SEMANTICS

Examples: non-media, static, long takes of clouds or grass, poorly made/written films and books, etc.

HIGH SYNTAX
LOW SEMANTICS

Examples: Many blockbuster films/ franchise spin-offs, sequels, etc., pulp fiction novels, soap operas.

LOW SYNTAX
HIGH SEMANTICS

Examples: avant-garde cinema, arthouse film, experimental media, abstract art, much poetry.

HIGH SYNTAX
HIGH SEMANTICS

Examples: Classics in all media, religious texts/materials, scientific papers.

Emotional power is directly correlated to the amount of semantic content an individual can syntactically organize.

 

Examples of works with high syntax and high semantics are religious texts/myths, Shakespeare, etc. In the case of film, critically acclaimed films often also go in this category, but may not have sufficient broad appeal to indicate “high syntax” in the way meant here, which is, essentially, “easy for humans to follow in a narrative sense.” Syntactic capacity can be “trained,” such that more complex or dense works may be better appreciated with practice/training or sufficient exposure to common tropes and structures.

Part of the challenge of writing legible dense material is the frequency with which mixed metaphor and clashing themes arise with the addition of new elements. Density can also be achieved by selecting particularly poignant combinations of comparatively few symbols, but this is difficult for its own reasons. Another challenge is gauging the audience’s syntactic capacity. While any audience will, in general, prefer a work with more spiritually satisfying material, it goes to waste if the audience is unable to easily digest it.

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Individuals focus on different things in their environments. The things they focus on (consciously or not) drive their emotional reactions, guide their knowledge creation, and confirm or challenge their biases. The same space can be very different to two different people.

While aspects of this sort of thinking do appear in games – where different character abilities allow access to different parts of the map, for example – this  nonetheless tends to be represented as a unique interaction with an environment that is otherwise objectively shared.  

Breaking down the elements of an environment in terms of valences enables granular design of how characters experience their world – as well as how that experience may change over time with new knowledge and encounters.

In other words,
environmental valences are a method for breaking down subjective experience in terms of values that can be used as design cues/references for character worldviews.