subjectivity design

YEAR: 2012-
ROLE: Creator

Subjectivity Design is a personal journalistic attempt to coalesce some aspects of art, design, and narrative in which I am especially interested. My hope is that these efforts may facilitate original, adaptive attitudes to design and artistic expression. 

 

I think that there may be a way to orient creative process around an audience's subjective experience of a work in a manner that does not rely on formal precedent. My ideas here are not at all declarative. Rather, they are a raw record of some of my thoughts on how well-known frameworks might be appropriated to do some interesting things.

Ideally, the still-inchoate approach I have in mind would promote and guide a mindset of innovation and free creativity that is not bound by formal convention, but is rather informed by it.

For now, this is just an honest look at some things I'm thinking about.

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The Campbellian description of the Hero’s Journey has come to dominate much of mainstream narrative media, but the Hero’s Journey – the monomyth – is less a distillation of myth than it is 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 myths and legends. 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 in various media 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 themselves. Similarly, the monomyth can be arbitrarily dissected into any number of narrative arcs as a conceptual exercise for structuring stories. Such an exercise might aid the development of moments in a character's trajectory that matter most for audience impact.

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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 that is meant to end on a specific emotional note might consider the emotional states that different abbreviated arcs can produce.

 

Remixing narrative structures might offer some unique perspectives on how to highlight the aspects of a story that are most important for delivering a desired emotional message.

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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.

Horror films, for example, often restrict information with claustrophobic shots and dark lighting or prioritize disturbing sound design over score.

 

Westerns offer expansive views of their settings – whatever or wherever they are.

 

Film noir is infamous for its “bars of light and shadow.”

These sorts of conventions are not actually constrained by particular settings or plots. Their function is to create a stylistically motivated emotional effect. Conventional effects of this type 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 or flexibility across genres that can be exploited by including enough conventional elements to be reminiscent of multiple references.

The genres in video games offer a different suite of creative possibilities. Video game genres (adventure, RPG, FPS, RTS, dating sim, etc.) describe 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 conventions can be used in a fluid, syncretic manner to create idiosyncratic character styles and allow for rapid shifts in tone.

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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.

The emotional power of a work appears to be 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 become more accessible 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. A common workaround is seen in motifs, which repeatedly emphasize a restricted set of symbols in order to author audience expectations. 

 

The use of motifs is also a workaround for handling the variance in an audience's syntactic capacity. While any audience will, in general, prefer a work with more spiritually satisfying material, the burden is on the artist/designer to ensure that the audience will be able to digest what is presented to them.

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Individuals focus on different things based on their predilections and interests. The things they focus on (consciously or not) drive their emotional reactions, guide their development of new "knowledge," and confirm or challenge their biases.

 

The same space can look or feel very different to two different people.

While this idea is implemented in games to some extent – unique character abilities allowing access to different parts of a map, for example – it tends to be presented as a specialized interaction with an environment that is otherwise objectively shared and recognized.  

Breaking down the elements of an environment in terms of "environmental valences" that represent a character's attitude towards their surroundings may enable a more granular design of how characters experience their world.
These valences might serve as a grounding for how the interaction of characters with their environment may change over time with new knowledge and encounters.