Authority and context: showing and telling

The core source of power provided in all this context stuff comes from two primary souces. The one I’m going to discuss today is that is that context is shown, not told. Monday I’m planning to talk about the other one: editing. A new player with a character just as rich and detailed as all the existing characters in play, but they can only convey that information directly through telling, rather than more indirectly/subtly (this distinction is important, and I can’t seem to find quite the right words for it, if anyone can help then please chime in).

Actions, and the interpretation of them by audience, are inherently ambiguous. Maybe a character kills someone because he is protecting someone, maybe it is in revenge, maybe the character is simply psychotic. It is even possible (perhaps common) for all of these reasons to be backed up by the fiction. It is simply unclear which reasons are primary and which are supporting. I think that, often, the players themseles do not fully know which motive is dominant.

This ambiguity is important because it builds much more complex models in the minds of players. It also allows for compatible but non-identical models of a character to exist in the minds of players (going back to my thoughts on Play is Chaos and, to a lesser extent, Low Permanency and Remixing).  These ambiguous models are also important because they are much better at facilitating reinterpretation based on new information than static models are.

If I tell you that my character Bob killed his family out of hate, that’s a static model.  You know that it was done in hate because I’m the author of Bob, if I tell you that Bob did something for a reason then I can not be wrong.  But if later developments in the story make it such that things are far more interesting if Bob did it out of some twisted form of love, we run into a problem.  It seems odd to say ‘Oh, I thought that Bob did it out of hate, but I can see now how I simply misinterpreted’ because you didn’t interpret at all.  I cam right out and told you what was going on.  You can, of course, choose to reinterpret things anyway, but it is a bit jarring.

Hopefully you can see how having built the model on the basis of action-interpretation solves this problem.  We acknowledge all the time that we mis-interpreted actions, and our minds naturally construct new models based upon new evidence.  Reinterpretation is no longer jarring because it does not involve a conflict with an authoritative statement from the author.  The author did not unambiguously tell us what to think, but more subtly showed us the way to get at what we are supposed to think.

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