Friday, February 12, 2016

Visual Essay Series: An Interview with Matthew Derby

Matthew Derby is a writer and designer interested in the place where the two disciplines meet. He is the author of the interactive novel The Silent History and the short story collection Super Flat Times.

SM: The Silent History is described as “the first major serialized, exploratory novel written and designed for iPad and iPhone.” Can you tell us about some of the things that it is doing first in terms of providing a reading experience?

MD: Well, it was the first digital narrative experience of its kind that was developed specifically for being read on a mobile device. Meaning that every decision we made, from the length of each passage to the pacing of each of the six volumes, and obviously all of the facets of the presentation of the text - the interface - everything we did had to support the behavior patterns of a reader who was mobile, connected, and expectant of a fluid, intuitive experience. No one, to my knowledge, had attempted something quite like that before.

"Reading a hypertext, you’re often more aware of what a digital platform can take away from the reading experience than what it can add."

Hypertext has been around for decades, but historically that literary form has tended to view the platform as a constraint, where we were looking for opportunities. Reading a hypertext, you’re often more aware of what a digital platform can take away from the reading experience than what it can add. With The Silent History, we used features embedded in mobile devices - most notably GPS - to pull the story out of the device and into the real world with the geo-specific story fragments spread across the globe, the vast majority of which were submitted by our readers and fans. 

There hadn’t been any kind of “natively digital” narrative experience like it, and I don’t think there’s been anything produced since that can compare to its scope. That sounds like hubris, but I’m not trying to brag. It’s actually very difficult to do the thing that we did. Difficult and complicated and expensive unless you’ve got a group of friends who are willing to work for free for a couple of years. 

SM: I’m interested in the different lives this project has had and the way it was first built for a digital format but was recently made into a print version. Do you think readers or publishers still prefer to read certain texts on paper?

MD: The print version came about as a result of the attention that the digital version got. We never imagined it as a print book until FSG offered to do that work for us, and it was harder than we imagined to “port” the book from the digital space into print. As I mentioned before, we’d written each passage specifically to be read in a certain context - on a phone or tablet, likely while waiting on a train platform or in line at the DMV or whatever - and the pacing of the thing just didn’t work when it was printed out on paper. So we did a lot of editing, merging, and excising to make the print version flow. It was a really interesting process, actually. Usually it’s the other way around, where you’re trying to turn the analog into something digital.
SM: You also work at Harmonix, a video game studio in Cambridge, as an Interface Designer. What does it mean to "experience walkthrough documents"? I'm curious to know what this work teaches you about the way people read and understand a story. Can you recommend a narrative game?

MD: When I got out of grad school, the only real skill I had that would qualify me for a job was a basic understanding of HTML. So I started working in web design. This was back in the late ‘90s, when web design was a…very special field, where even a major Hollywood film had a site that looked like this -over time, though, as we started to understand more clearly how people used the web, how they read the internet, this discipline known as User Experience Design started to take hold.

"A book is a designed object. Its design has been optimized over centuries such that it no longer feels like a designed object."

It was all about ‘designing for use’ - understanding how an object fits into a person’s life. I was naturally interested in this field because it combines design and narrative in a really interesting way. In order to really design something well, you have to understand the people you hope will someday bring the thing you’re designing into their life. There’s something potentially creepy and capitalist about this notion, but I would argue that anything we consider art has undergone a design. A book is a designed object. It’s design has been optimized over centuries such that it no longer feels like a designed object. Nobody questions that a book reads from one end to another, that it has a spine, that it fits in a person’s hand and can be stored easily on a shelf. But all of those came from design decisions made long ago. Narrative itself is a set of design decisions. What image do I want my readers to imagine right now? How can I best convey that image? Those are design decisions. So I actually don’t see much of a difference between designing a game or a website or a book. 

As for good examples of narrative in games? Portal 2 is, to my mind, the best-written game to date - and also one of the best games overall. But I also think A Dark Room and 80 Days are great narrative experiences that have come out in the past few years. Gone Home is another one. Some of the best game narratives, though, actually contain little to no language - and I’m thinking of course of Journey, which was consciously designed to tell a powerful story without the use of words at all, and which does so really well.

"Why aren’t we trying harder to push at the boundaries of the form, given that these devices allow us to practically bend time and space?"

Screenshot of Sony's Journey

SM: I wonder if the acts of designing a game, a book, and a website have become more alike because each medium is now competing for a similar audience as readers become more digitally literate? It's funny then, to note how many digital readers simply mimic the pace of the one-way book, sometimes even with page-turn animation or the paper-flap sound effect. The modern platform still seems so constrained by the ancient referent, likely because a book is our most familiar way to divide and conceive of space.

MD: Yes! That’s one of the core questions we tried to address with The Silent History - we suddenly find ourselves at this moment in time where an astounding majority of us are carrying around these incredibly powerful devices in our pockets, and yet we’re still shrinking away from the narrative possibilities inherent in their features. We’re still ‘paging’ through books. I totally get why we’re doing that. Like I said before - the book is an ancient technology that’s stood the test of time. It’s something we understand. It anchors us. But why aren’t we trying harder to push at the boundaries of the form, given that these devices allow us to practically bend time and space?

I’m not saying that The Silent History knocks anything out of the park when it comes to taking advantage of the narrative affordances that come embedded in our mobile devices. But we considered the device itself as a storytelling medium (as opposed to a platform for reading electronic scans of print books). 

 From The Silent History

SM: Well, the differences that I see between these three types of design are the various ways that each has given over only part of their storytelling efforts to visuals—as you say, a story without words. I’ve seen Portal, Gone Home, and Journey, and these seem to use an audience's familiarity with film to guide them. I like this idea of writing a digital native and how that process could be different altogether. I wonder if you agree that another of The Silent History's firsts might be that its guiding visual referent is a functional digital tool—the GPS—that inherently pairs image with text? 

MD: Absolutely. Not only does the GPS functionality pair image with text, it overlays the “real world” with a narrative layer that becomes strangely bound up in our memory of place. For example, there’s a playground in Providence, near where I live, and one of the geo-specific passages in The Silent History - which can only be read when a person is actually standing in the park - involves a strange and particularly dangerous piece of playground equipment. Now, I have no idea if this piece of playground equipment is actually called ‘the nut crusher’ by the kids who play there, but I think about it every time I pass by that park. It will always be a part of my memory of that place.

Similarly, out on the Cape Cod National Seashore, there’s this stretch of beach that’s pierced by a single, 20 foot wooden pole. Just stuck straight into the sand. Looking at the pole, you have absolutely no idea why it was put there, or what purpose it could possibly serve. No other clues to help you make sense of its presence. But another one of our readers wrote a passage about this pole, and it gives the pole an origin story (no spoilers!), and after we released the app, we began noticing that our readers were going out to this pole. They started calling it ‘the silent pole.’ So, for all of these people, this object that may have meant absolutely nothing to them suddenly had a history. It’s a fictive history, sure, but it’s a “real” object in the “real world” that’s been imbued with this narrative energy. It will always be bound up in those peoples’ memory of the place. I feel like we’ve only just touched the surface of what’s possible along this axis of storytelling. 

 "The Silent Pole"

SM:  This year I came across your stories Meat Tower and Crutches Used as Weapon, printed in a double-bound chapbook out of Papirmassse. The volume is hand-sized and lives in a neat, efficient structure among graphics. Can you tell me a bit about this publication mode and how these stories found a home head-to-foot?

MD: I actually had nothing to do with the chapbook - I’d exchanged a few letters with J.P. King (who runs Papirmasse, the publisher, along with his wife Kirsten McCrea) back when Super Flat Times first came out. He contacted me last year to see if I’d be willing to let him use some stories from the collection for a project. I knew and trusted him, and so I gave him the whole manuscript and let him choose whatever stories he wanted.

I love that they chose to put the stories back to back, flipped, like an Ace Double. I’m not really a fan of pulp novels, but my brother had a massive collection of science fiction novels from the seventies - Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Philip K. Dick, Michael Moorcock - and I spent a lot of time as a young kid pouring over the covers, diving headlong into the weird and hallucinatory cover art. The aura of those books pervades Super Flat Times, and I thought it was really cool that Kirsten and J.P. picked up on that quality even though we never talked about it.

SM: Yes, maybe interesting to note that these stories also have a kind of collaborative second life in which visual elements have remade them. Have you designed for your own texts before or is it, as you describe, always a kind of group effort behind these bigger texts that use form and image? 

"[Design is] really the opposite of writing, which tends to be this solitary, dictatorial process where the author is calling every shot. Instead, you’re surrendering to the aesthetic power of the group."

MD: It tends always to be a group effort. As a designer, it’s my job to come up with a framework that allows other people to do the things that they’re really good at. You create a plan that provides enough constraints to get people moving in the right direction, but with enough flexibility that they can really inhabit the design and claim some ownership. It’s really the opposite of writing, which tends to be this solitary, dictatorial process where the author is calling every shot. Instead, you’re surrendering to the aesthetic power of the group. And I just find that incredibly thrilling and rewarding. 

For example, Russell was finishing up another project for the first six months or so that we were working on The Silent History, so we had no real sense of what it was going to look like or how it would behave. The User Experience designer in me was very anxious about the size and shape of the vessel into which the story we were working so hard on would be poured. And so I spent a considerable amount of time working up diagrams and flows illustrating how I thought the app should behave and I sent them off to Eli, who kept saying, ‘don’t worry about this. This is Russell’s department.’ I kept worrying about it, though, because I knew that we needed an absolutely stellar and arresting container for the story in order for it to grab and sustain the attention of our (then imaginary) readers.

And then I met up with Russell a few months later, and he showed me an interactive prototype of the interface, and it was incredible - much better than what I’d cooked up. So from that point on, I stopped worrying about the interface at all, and focused instead on writing text that could match the beauty of what Russell was making. Of course, this only works out when you’re collaborating with people you trust, whose work you believe in. And it’s hard to find those people. 

SM: Much of what you write is highly visual, but it’s your fiction that inhabits digital and designed forms. Are scale and genre elements you think about when these texts grow multimedia elements?   

MD: Scale was something my friends and I talked about a lot when we were first planning out The Silent History. Eli Horowitz, who came up with the idea for a digital novel that would unfold over time and incorporate geo-specific passages of text, felt we should create something that had heft - even though it wasn’t a physical experience at all, he wanted it to have a substantial aura, so that people would trust and invest in the experience. We wanted people to invest in it over time, to stick with the story as it unfolded. To do this, we had to, well, write the whole thing, but we also had to make sure that people who bought the book could perceive its depth the moment they opened the app. Our designer, Russell Quinn, came up with an absolutely brilliant interface to convey the experience: Six segmented circles, each representing a single volume, with each segment representing a single weekday’s worth of story content. Immediately below the circles, a map showing all of the geo-specific story fragments, which deepen and broaden the story even more.

Of course, after working on the thing for over two years, we realized that we might have been better off coming up with a simpler, easier to produce and implement project before taking on such a sprawling, complex task. But on the other hand, I’m really proud of the work we did. And the collaboration with Eli, Kevin Moffett, and Russell was tremendously fun. It’s been really difficult to go back to writing in isolation.

"I discovered that… although words certainly influence our thoughts, they’re not required for thought. This changed everything for me. It allowed me to view my sister from an entirely new perspective."

SM: Your essay about your sister Margaret made me think more about the documentary aspect of The Silent History. Can you talk a bit about how you began to consider how identity is shaped by language after her death?

MD: It wasn’t until I started doing research for The Silent History that I really started to think about the relationship between thought, identity, and language - and how any of it related to my sister. I knew her primarily through the impact she had on our family. I loved her fiercely and helped my family close ranks in a protective shield around her while she was alive, and I felt a terrible and enduring loss when she died, but it wasn’t until I started to consider what life might be like for a person without language that I began to see her as a 'real person' at all. It’s difficult for me to even say that, but I think I’d spent most of my life thinking of her as a spirit, a supernatural force at the center of my family. I never allowed her, during her life, the dignity of personhood. I never considered what went on in her mind - what did she think about? What did thoughts look like without words to give them shape? I’d always been under the assumption that words were the fundamental vessel for thoughts - that thought required language. But one of the core texts we used for The Silent History was Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct.” And in reading that I discovered that thought and language are actually independent, and that, although words certainly influence our thoughts, they’re not required for thought. This changed everything for me. It allowed me to view my sister from an entirely new perspective. And in writing The Silent History, I was able - albeit feebly, decades late - to come to know her in a way I was unable to when she was alive. 

SM: Thanks, Matt.

More about Matthew Derby at his website.

Sarah Minor is one of the curators here at Essay Daily.

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