Storytelling: no story, nothing to tell

Cyberpunk, according to Bruce Bethke, who coined the term 25 years ago, is “a young, technologically facile, ethically vacuous, computer-adept vandal or criminal.” Think of a highly techno-savvy version of Alex DeLarge, the protagonist in Anthony Burgess’ masterpiece A Clockwork Orange.

After Bethke had his PC rendered useless by three young hackers he commented “[t]he kids who trashed my computer; their kids were going to be Holy Terrors, combining the ethical vacuity of teenagers with a technical fluency we adults could only guess at. Further, the parents and other adult authority figures of the early 21st Century were going to be terribly ill-equipped to deal with the first generation of teenagers who grew up truly ‘speaking computer’.” He then wrote a short story about the issue and called it Cyberpunk. Over time, Cyberpunk has been increasingly recognised as a sub-genre of science fiction. Bethke’s parting line is indicative of the way terms belonging to digital-life got a life of their own with little-to-no consideration for their conceptual parents: “And you can bet any body part you’d care to name that, had I had even the slightest least inkling of a clue that I would still be answering questions about this word nearly 18 [25, in fact, RN-N] years later, I would have bloody well trademarked the damned thing!”

Tad Williams, prolific author of science fiction series, published a four-part cyberpunk series called “Otherland” between 1996 and 2001. The books are set in the mid-to-late 21st century, when virtual living becomes so evolved that people can plug themselves to computer and ‘live’ in an online world known as The Net (ever wondered where the Wachowski brothers, got their neat idea of The Matrix?) Williams built an amazing journey of discovery – involving layers of virtual worlds and strong, meaningful, links to some of literature’s greatest journeys – Alice’s journey Through the Looking Glass, Odysseus’ epic homeward travels, and Dorothy & companions in The Wizard of Oz).

Still seething after my pervious piece on the soon-to-be-punted-even-further-and-deeper digital-novel-to-outdo-all-digital-novels, I heard great news about an online game based on Otherland. Williams himself – commenting on his personal website – was understandably ecstatic: “Okay, we can finally talk about OTHERLAND – THE GAME. I’m so darn happy I could cry.” The game, set to be released around 2010, will be a major MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing game.)

Now, this is a fundamentally different take on ‘storytelling 2.0‘ because Otherland is an incredibly detailed, beautifully developed, edited, published, read, re-read and deeply loved story that will now be transformed into a game – as opposed to a basket of technologies mashup‘ed into a “world” by a maverick content creator, and let loose on players in a hi-tech version of ‘lots of sexy features looking for something to do.’

The only way to create a credible game-narrative, one that could aspire to become a dinkum ‘digital novel’ is to start from The Story. In the beginning was the story of Otherland, it then grew and matured and became a household story, it was taken around and shared around and talked about, discussed, — then read again.” In the 7 years since the last Otherland book was published, millions have read and engaged with its narrative – it evolved in a way that allows it to assume a life of its own, in total separation from its written ancestor.

Storytelling guru Eric Maddern laments what he calls “The End of Storytelling.” He says: “For thousands of years telling and listening to tales was a central human activity. But with the coming of literacy, urban life and the mass media the living storyteller all but disappeared. Soon, it seemed, these bearers of ancient tradition would become extinct, their place taken by a plethora of printed and electronic forms of communication.” Maddern and others like him still battle heroically to keep storytelling alive.

There’s an old saying about storytelling “if don’t have a map you’ll lose your way in the country, if you don’t have stories you’ll lose your way in life.” Storytelling – with no story, there’s nothing to tell.

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