At the recent DHIS conference – held at the University of York – I presented a somewhat experimental paper which aimed to discuss and illustrate the ways in which media forms, language and formalised academic structures impact how archaeological narratives can be conceived of, created and presented. The presentation itself (which can be found HERE) was built in the “Twine” game engine which allowed it to branch and converge, demonstrate concurrency, synchronicity and causality, and allowed for visualisations of loops and progressions. In this blog post I will outline the research and background for the paper, some of the observed shortcomings and discuss what I think are some of the exciting possibilities for further research and construction in this area.
The initial idea spark for the conference paper was born back during my MSc when I was working with the ever inspiring Luke Botham (@Vazzan) on our entry for the Heritage Jam: “Buried” (which you can read about and play HERE). “Buried” was my first foray into non-linear storytelling for archaeology and it was a real eye opener for me regarding how media form can facilitate or constrain the way in which you can tell a story – something which I taken for granted prior to this.
This is to say that the traditional monograph based archaeological publication methods have a media bias which makes certain narrative forms easy and others difficult (if not impossible), whilst game-based interventions similarly have a set of narrative constraints and facilitators. As we began constructing the looping, branching and converging narratives for “Buried” I became overtly aware that the things which I had originally conceived of as “neutral narratives about the past” were anything but. In the end “Buried” certainly did some interesting things with archaeological narrative but still – I think – failed to really engage with how narrative in archaeological practice can work. This in part was undoubtedly due to me still trying to force certain familiar archaeological narrative structures and operators into this game-format, creating a tension between how the stories could be told through the media form and how I was trying tell them based upon my own formalised ideas of archaeological narrative construct. But – as Luke would constantly tell me – game development is not always about creating the perfect end product (given that no such thing can really ever exist) but rather is about the critical process that goes into creating, assessing this in retrospect, and taking the lessons learnt forward into new developments.
Early this year I had the pleasure to attend the fantastic Challenge the Past // Diversify the Future conference where I got talking to Daniel Dunne (@danjdunne) whose PhD research revolves around narratives – especially in game based forms. Discussions over a couple of beers soon made evident to me that there was a world of narrative possibilities for the past which game-mechanics and structures could open up – concurrency, synchrocity, multiplicity, narrative as location etc – which I had simply never considered. It was from these discussions that I started trying to think about how a concurrent (two or more narratives happening at the same time) narratives might exist in archaeological thought and how we might try to facilitate them through game-structures.
As I started thinking about concurrent narratives and archaeology I was reminded of my experiences of fieldwork back in NZ – where interactions with the local iwi had been somewhat confusing to me at the time, given the narratives which they were constructing about the past had limited correlation to my own ideas (honed through many years of academic conditioning) about how archaeological stories of the past should be told. Using this as the basis the paper explored how linearity, branching, omnipotent syncrocity and miopic syncrocity might be used to represent NZ settlement narratives. The presentation can be played HERE and my slide notes can be found below.
The presentation unfolds in a downwards line – allowing you to trace the unfolding narrative, revisit decisions by scrolling up and experiment with branching and convergence dynamically. I tried to do some pretty meta things, like the prior sections fade when you move past them, but by revisiting them they light up again, as well as through matching up the begining end sections to establish a narrative linkage between passages…
In the end the presentation, fun as it was to make, was only half succesful as, due to time constraints, I wasn’t able to fully implement my work on syncrotic narratives fully – instead having to represent their operation through graphics alone.Moving forward I will be seeking to use my modifications to twine to experiement around with how concurrency (miopic and omnipotent) might work for both academic and public archaeological narratives, so as always, if you have ideas or suggestions for data / entities that might work well with these structures please do get in touch!
The remainder of this post is given over to images and notes from the presentation – which are directly copy-pasted from my quickly typed day-notes so apologies for spelling / grammar in advance!
The Slide Notes
- START SLIDE
- INTRO SLIDE
- ME SLIDE
- We are have now entered into an era of archaeology where we use post-modernist, subjective,participatory and multivocal language when collecting, interpreting and presenting our material –
- but yet we have a tendency – through our formalised academic process and traditional methodological practices – to translate these ideas back into quite sanitised, formalised, single-strand narratives…
- We conduct our academic practices in a referential system – journals, books, articles which we link between, generating a plethora of narratives yet rarely do we attempt to see these narratives running in other forms such as concurrently or relationally… There have been identifiable attempts to cast our narrative nets somewhat wider – Rosmary Joyce, Zoe Crossland, Rose Ferraby and Colleen Morgan have all created excellent outcomes which challenge how we might construct multivocality in order to explore archaeological material. However further formalised inroads or clarification on the role, impacts and potentials of narrative structures, language and media in archaeology are few and far between, especially in regard to new media (interactive media + game based) forms and concurrency.
- I will therefore argue in this paper that there is a disconnect, between many of the modern or post-modern archaeological ideas that we want to engage with, discuss and present versus the medium, tools, narrative types and methods which have tended to use to try to explain them. Moreover I will argue that there is a disconnect between the fragmentary, concurrent, juxtaposed nature of the narratives which exist in many of the non-western and potentially past traditions and the way which we, again, tend to try siphon back into a single strand narratives, especially in our academic archaeological writings.
- This talk is not going to say that these normative archaeological practices, media forms and narrative types are bad or wrong – as indeed these all have a vital part to play in archaeological storytelling – but they are potentially not the whole picture and we might seek to gain many new insights and experiences in archaeology and the construction of ‘pastness’ by firstly recognising the constraints these things have in interpreting and discussing ‘pastness’ and secondly by thinking about how our emerging archaeological paradigms might better be serviced by other forms.
- As such this talk will use some of my experiments with using and, more recently modifying, the simple game / interactive fiction engine: Twine as way to quickly demonstrate how media, language and narrative tie together to facilitate different ways to think, talk, interact with and present the past and try to set the ball rolling for how we might leverage some of these ideas from the trowel’s edge onwards. The talk will largely draw from my own personal experiences in the field, and as I am only in the preliminary research stages of my PhD research many of the technical components that I am developing are only proof of concepts for narrative structure at the moment which are intended for further development into tool-sets and game-outcomes in the coming months.
- So starting at the beginning – linear narratives offer us archaeologists the ability to demonstrate, with limited participation on behalf of our reader, single trends of referentiality and causality as well as cohesive view of how ‘pastness’ worked from one perspective. For example when working in New Zealand we would often get into conversations about settlement stories with the most common archaeological dialogue being that C14 dating from inland kiore and structural deposits has demonstrated with a high statistical probability that polynesian settlement of new zealand occurred around 1280CE – which is obviously a very narrow and causally linked way of describing Maori settlement processes – albeit a vital one.
- Even when dealing with conflicting records or concepts of multivocality in NZ the tendency has been to adopt a scientific approach to simplistic non-linear narrative in which sections broaching a topic have been interleaved one after the other as a method for demonstrating divergence or convergence to norms. For example in Ahuahu we had a contentious archaeological record and multiplicity of oral histories regarding the settlement of the island and our tendency, given we had a reasonably post-processual approach, was to try acknowledge that a multiplicity existed – but we did this by writing one groups perspective, then another, then another in a staccato which kind of ironically ended up tying these narratives back to a singular ‘best fit to probable pastness’… thereby rendering that multiplicity into the singular.
- At a different dig in Aotearoa, Urupukapuka, I clearly remember – very early on in the dig – talking to local elders who said to me that the story we – archaeologists – were writing about the settlement was difficult for them to comprehend – and we thought they meant they didn’t get the chronology or that they had an issue with our chronology because it conflicted with their oral histories – so our group was desperately trying to show how the things we had been digging up fitted into this neat story line, and then how their stories matched up or didn’t with that with the idea being that by simply including them in our discussions and assessment meant we had engaged with multiplicity, and engaged with their narratives.
- But in retrospect I think I realise now that the problem more was that multivocality as we concieved of was not multivocality as they presented it – in other words, our narrative form, language and media types that we were using were prescribing or constraining the story of the past in ways which didn’t necessarily make sense to their perspectives.
- So as I moved into my MSc and PhD research I tried to think about how we might mediate multiplicity and multivocality of the past using game engines, and the first approach which I tried to implement was to use decision trees to place multiplicity narratives into branches – side by side diverging from common or crossing origins – and allow the participant to step into the shoes of the story-teller to select the path which they walk through the narratives, replaying the text to explore additional branches or to move from one story, to another, to another.
- Here its being used to demonstrate a subset of 3 archaeological and oral histories regarding settlement of NZ (each of the nodes is a key segment of the story progression) – in which you can walk through paths regarding key oral histories of the waka said to have landed there, divergent stories from other groups, and archaeological records – basically the decisions you make as a reader influences how you can experience the story of settlement.
- Which works really well with evolutionary narratives or spaces where decision making is an important element of the story – multiplicity can be bound to emergent narrative structures which shifts the focus of the narrative from a didactic or prescriptive approach to one where the player is asked to take a role in co-creation – a element which seems to have a lot of possibilities for community archaeology and even for comparatively exploring practice within academia…
- But such a structure still places only one narrative within the one space at any one time and it is only if you perceive the entire system (through play or construction) that you can understand that all these diverges are meant to operate together. So to return to my experience at Ahuahu and Urupukapuka this branching, whilst potentially multiplicit, still enforced a segregation to the narratives which wasn’t present in the cyclical, synchronic and concurrent nature of stories told through waiata, whakapapa and karakia.
- So my next step was to try piece together how syncretic narratives about the past might work for archaeology in a game-space and this is where things start to get a little experimental – in part because in english our strong reliance on dexis and indexicality hinders our ability to speak or read truly syncretically and it also has the interesting knock on effect that we lack a lot of the lexica to natively explain many of these structures, so how then do you create a system which facilitates an understanding through showing and experiencing rather than telling?
- My first experiment aimed to facilitate exploration of myopic syncracity – the idea that multiple narratives exist in a space progressing in tandem where the story of one impacts on the story of the other without recursion but still maintaining referential multi-vocality in interpretation – in other words a space where syncrotic elements become successive whilst sharing the same longitudinal space.
- But such an approach uses interactivity to progress rather than explore the system and runs into that issue again of no matter how many linkages you visualise you still have a staccato away from multivocality back towards a core narrative that branches – therefore it only works really well in situated and successive narrative constructs which undoubtedly is a useful and interesting way to explore narratives, especially between interpretations of one time, space or thing which, admittedly, as archaeologists we do a lot – but it seems to still lack true concurrency – so what more could we do with twine to try facilitate this?
- So the next step was that I modified twine again and wrote another set of scripts to try facilitate a more omnipotent interaction state – where actions made in any pane interact with the state of all the others recursively -in that space itself – binding narratives together and using interactivity, not to drive the story, not to progress, but to explore HOW multivocality and concurrency works.
- In this state the goal is not to “get to the end of the narrative to find out what happened” but instead is to spend time situated within the narrative space, exploring the meshes, layers and movements between the entwined elements – Its a structure which is rarely used in english outside of experimental post-modern writing but has been used extensively in eastern and middle-eastern art traditions. Here we see it being used to explore the linkages and concurrency between two settlement stories – the focus as you navigate being to explore how these narratives interact with each other and how the concurrency operates within and between the waka stories.
- Its an awful way to tell “a story” about “the past” but I think there is potentially a lot of use for such structures to explore “many stories” about “many pasts” – in other words it becomes an interface for exploring multivocality rather than a story-tool that tells us multivocality exists. Interestingly, whilst a different system and approach, the fantastic “Voices Recognition” which Colleen Morgan, Kerrie Hoffman, Alexis Pantos, Sam Kinchin-Smith and Stu Eve worked on for last years “Heritage Jam” does a similar thing largely through audio – layering voices on top of one another in a cacophony to stress the multiplicity of things happening around you simultaneously rather than each of the singular stories one by one.
- There are a veritable TON of other narrative types too – both from english literary traditions and further afield – which I think have a place in archaeological thought and exploration – choric concurrancy, conflicting concurrency, layered concurrency, narrative as place, concurrence in narration of the narrated – but I haven’t as yet had time to pursue how these might work in interactive space, let alone how I might be able to bastardise twine to try work with these things…
- Speaking or writing narratives about ‘the past’, especially in academic english, usually involves engagement into a process of formalization and thus usually a certain level of linearity – by necessity of our lexica – but games and interactivity can facilitate a space which shifts focus away from progress through “A story” to navigating “MANY stories” by providing the ability to show, through systems, rather than tell through words.
- As archaeologists we constantly engage with items, people and places of the past and weave stories – whether those be scientific, phenomenological or otherwise – about what was happening.
- I think it is important, therefore, that we don’t then lose sight of how our media forms, narrative types and languages constrain or open how we can actually tell these stories. And I think it is important that we are aware that just because it is how we are used to stories about the past, just because it is the way that makes sense to us natively, that doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the way all stories about the past work – a realisation that working on Ahuahu and Urupukapuka really highlighted to me.
- This isnt to say that we need to abandon our current academic processes or narrative types that are embedded into our archaeological practices, but simply that we really need to be aware of how we are using these things. There is a need to be critical of our own practices and a need to explore how other approaches might work.