Friday, November 11, 2011

The Narrative Gap

 "We're all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?"
          - Steven Moffat,  Doctor Who: The Big Bang
Four men, armed with swords and axes approach each other on a spit of sand. A fight ensues. One man takes an axe to the neck and goes down. The axe catches in the victim's collar bone and as his killer tries to jerk it free he's (quite literally) disarmed by the other opponent. The remaining two face off for a moment, then come together in a clash of steel. Meanwhile two more men approach from either side of the sand spit. 

The scene continues in this wise for some time with never more than two to three men on either side. Eventually, men stop joining the fight from one side. The two fighters on the other side wait a while, talking quietly with each other, and then return from whence they came.

I could provide the details of each pass at arms, but after two to three cycles it would be as tedious for me to write as it would be for you to read. I would have to work very hard to keep it interesting; to make each fighter and each blow they struck or took meaningful in order to keep your attention. After the twentieth or thirtieth death, dismemberment or disembowlment, you'd probably have moved onto another blog or be shaking your laptop while screaming at me to get to the point of all this bloody mishigas.

Now, if I pull the story's point of view camera back a  bit, you would see that the narrow spit of sand is the only way of fording a tidal pool that stands between two small armies. On one side is a raiding party of about three hundred battle-hardened vikings. On the other is the local Saxon Earl, his fifty armed retainers, and an assortment of two hundered or so irregular fighters brought in from the surrounding countryside to defend it from the raiders.

The Earl's retainers, while fewer in number, are better armed and better trained than their viking counter-parts. If they can hold the spit of sand, the vikings won't be able to bring their superior force to bear, kill the Earl and his men, and raid the countryside.  The vikings, on the other hand, can't simply wait out the locals, lest the inevitable reinforcements arrive and cut them off from their ships. Knowing this, that spit of sand becomes a piece of real estate upon which a larger story, and the fate of many, turns.

In short, fights are more interesting when their outcomes have, or contribute to, larger consequences.  And this is at the center of a narrative gap that divides lowsec and nullsec.

Small gang PvP as commonly practiced in lowsec operates at a much faster pace than the large fleet combat that drives the nullsec sovereignty wars. The mechanics of lowsec allow a small gang to assemble, encounter and engage targets, and then return home to refit and either go out on another sortie or call it a night in fairly short order. Gate camps notwithstanding, it's a quick-action format and very attractive for those players who are in the game for the pre-fight adrenaline spikes and the apre-fight shakes that follow.

However, one characteristic of this style of play is the absence of a larger narrative. Like the fighters on the spit of sand viewed in isolation, there is nothing but the fight itself.  One lowsec resident recently wrote that, among lowsec's PvP community, "you aren't judged on where you live, you are judged on what you kill".  Which is to say that, for a majority of that community, there is no overarching strategic goal to combat. It is both means and end in and of itself.  Nothing is at stake for the combatants except for cost of the loser' ships and bragging rights once the fight is over. It is battle without substantive risk or consequence.

The goings on in nullsec, on the other hand, are driven by events and characters that wouldn't be out of place in an Homeric epic. They feature a cast of characters that range from heroic to tragic to venal. On each clash of arm and each act of heroism or treachery hangs the ultimate fate of fortunes and empires. The disbanding of Band of Brothers, the betrayal of Paxton Alliance, the Fall of Atlas Alliance and the return of Against All Authorities are each a story with epic sweep driven by fallout from the actions and inactions of thousands of capsuleers.

And this, I believe, is why nullsec gets so much more love in the Eve zeitgeist than does lowsec.  

There are a lot of lowsec blogs out there. I read a few regularly and drop in now and again on some of the others. Most of them involve descriptions of good fights recently had (or bemoan the absence thereof) and/or focus on tactics and fits for small gang PvP. All valuable in their own right for the aficionado of small gang PvP.

The technical blogs I find useful and interesting. The fight recaps were interesting for, oh, about the first hundred. After that it all became a bit repetitious; sort of like listening to crazy uncle Billy, who corners me after every Thanksgiving dinner and holds forth in excruciating detail about his adventures on the golf course, like the time he broke par at Saint Andrews using nothing but a mashie niblick.

Human beings are suckers for a good story. One of Eve's selling points is a player's ability not only to hear a good science fiction yarn, but to participate in one; to be immersed in it as a character capable of driving events in the larger tale, even as it is being told. I am certain lowsec is rife with stories and characters that the Eve community and gaming fans at large would find riveting. They may not involve the clash of great fleets or the fall of  empires, but are compelling and engaging in their own right. However, they pass quietly through the deep and go largely untold.

Someone once suggested that Fiddler's Edge was biased in favor of nullsec. I hold that it is biased in favor of good stories, of which more are told in nullsec than in lowsec. Closing that narrative gap is the challenge I throw out to my friends in the lowsec blogging community. Doing so involves a commitment to nothing more than engaging in one of the most primal of human activities.  

Tell us a story.

25 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I just re-read my comment and I made some bone-headed writing mistakes. This is what happens when your computer has been down for 24hrs.

    The challenge is on the writer to find the compelling narrative, it always is. Some of the greatest literature in history has been built around the smallest of plots, stories, and ideas. And while the spic arc of Null sec is an easy story to tell, and often a good one don't get me wrong, that doesn't make the low-sec one automatically boring. The Eve Community is full of lazy writers and speckled with some truly amazing ones.

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  3. I am starting to believe that its a case of areas being suited to particular mediums. Lowsec seems to suit pvp videos where the adrenaline of particular fights can be at least partially shown. Whereas nullsec favours the blog as the stories are more drawn out and requiring the detail that blogs can provide

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  4. @Rixx - Oh, Rixx, you think everything you write about you is compelling storytelling ;)

    You make my point and miss it all at once. At no point do I say that bigger stories are better stories. I do say that there are many good stories in lowsec that never get told. And that stories about conflict that don't involve risk or consequence to the participants get dull after the first hunded or so.

    Tell me a story, Rixx. Make it a good one.

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  5. "I hold that it is biased in favor of good stories, of which more are told in nullsec than in lowsec."

    Those are your words m8, not mine. And I disagree whole-heartedly.

    My post was actually intended as an extension of yours. While I would never think you meant what you wrote, at least I don't believe so, you did write it. The words are right up there for anyone to see. And on behalf of my fellow bloggers I took umbrage at your assertions. Which I personally believe to be false, biased and without merit.

    There, hope I made my point clearly enough. I have always had a lot of respect for you, but you have to stand by what you write.

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  6. "I hold that it is biased in favor of good stories, of which more are told in nullsec than in lowsec."

    Do be precise: I don't say nullsec stories are better than lowsec stories, or that bigger stories are better than small stories. I say that there are more good stories told in nullsec than lowsec. An important distinction.

    Feel free to take umbrage. Denial, however, is not a river in Egypt.

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  7. The problem is that there's another "narrative gap" - the gap between the stories and the actual experience of fighting in these huge battles. For the average rank-and-file grunt a major nullsec battle comes down to hours and hours of boredom. The storyteller portrays it as a great epic clash, but half the time the guys in the fleet don't know what they're doing or even what they're fighting for because the leadership are too paranoid about spies to tell anyone anything. Most ops fizzle out without doing anything and when a fight does happen the lag makes it a nightmare to figure out what's going on. And even if you can get past that, you have to deal with the fact that unless you're a supercap pilot or one of the handful of people making the decisions, your presence is basically irrelevant - whether you show up or don't probably will make no difference to the fight and odds are nobody will even notice.

    Jester has a really good post about this - http://jestertrek.blogspot.com/2011/10/incompatible-beliefs-tidi.html . When he got into EVE he was amazed at how hard it was to find an alliance who wanted to do sov warfare. After all, it's where all these epic stories came from, right?

    Then he joined it . . . and found out exactly WHY no-one wants to do it.

    Giant nullsec fights might make for good stories. (Or so I'm told. Personally I couldn't care less about which alliance supercap fleet is killing which alliance non-supercap fleet and the battle reports on EVE 24 bore me to tears, but I'm sure some people like them.) But small-gang fights in lowsec are actually fun to PLAY. And in the end, that's what matters to me.

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  8. @Wendi: OK - get the whole "big fleet fights versus small PvP" issue out of your head. This is not about the relative quality of the nullsec/lowsec PvP experience. That's a long, tiresome and pointless argument only peripherally related to the subject at hand.

    This is about telling a good story.

    Nullsec gets the attention of people in the press and the gaming industry because the stories it generates have interesting characters and involve dramatic tension created by conflict (personal and physical) and by the consequences of conflict.

    I think lowsec deserves its share of the spotlight.

    As Rixx points out, without events of epic scale to write about, the job of the lowsec writer is a little harder. One has to find and draw out for the reader the stories and characters.

    Who are the pilots on your wing? What are they like? What's the dynamic between you? How do local inter-corp or alliance politics enter into the fights that come your way? Who's the enemy? Who do you have a grudge against and why? Tell me about the interlopers who tried to take over your version of Dodge City - don't just give me the shoot-out with no back story. Did you get run out of town? Did they?

    One of my favorite lowsec stories had to do with a pilot who, having just joined a new alliance, got in trouble when the "friendly" POS batteries targeted her jump freighter. Funny and harrowing all at once, the piece paints a picture of not only the action at hand, but the people around her involved in the action. Eve the author's RL husband makes and appearance:

    "What's wrong, hon?" my concerned husband inquired in response to my tone of despair.

    "Giant emergency here! I'm about to lose a very fucking expensive ship!!!" I whined, eyes fixed on the screen.

    "Oh, just game stuff? Whatever. I'm going to go mow," he announced.

    OMFG "JUST GAME STUFF"?! "JUST"?!!!!! STFU YOU NOOB! CAN'T YOU SEE I'M DYING HERE! GO DIAF!!! GTFO...HUSBAND PRIMARY!!!!! I silently raged.

    What are your lowsec stories?

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  9. Well, if the Earl wanted to take the best position, he would defend the exit to the choke point on his side. His men could create a concave and outnumber the attackers as they slowly streamed forward. He would be able easily reinforce his position while the Vikings are forced to walk across the spit of sand. The vikings either attack in the concave created by the Earl or they retreat. Either way, the Earl wins.

    If they fight 3 at a time in the center, then they can't use the number advantage on either side. You don't fight an even side. If you want to win, you fight with the advantage on your side.

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  10. I sent you an email Mord. Hope you like it.

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  11. @Tahna - The actual battle on which the example is based ended thusly:

    Finding that they couldn't force their way across the sand spit, the Vikings resorted to medieval smack-talk. They taunted the Earl and Earl and his men from across the water; saying the Saxons were a bunch of pussies, afraid of a real fight and so on.

    While the Earl's retainers far preferred being called pussies by vikings to being eviscerated by vikings, the Earl was a proud man. At some point, unable to endure further slights to his honor, he directed his men to pull back from the spit of sand and let the vikings cross and assemble themselves that the Saxons could prove their mettle in a proper battle.

    The Earl's retainers, socially expected to die with their lord if he fell, reacted in the way one would suppose. They recapped the strategic situation and begged the Earl not to be an idiot (in appropriate retainer to earl language). The Earl would not be moved.

    The vikings were allowed across. The battle ensued. The Earl his retainers died to a man. The vikings lived happily ever after, and went on to found a game software company about 1,300 years later.

    It's an ill wind that blows no one good.

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  12. @Mord Fiddle

    Well played, sir. Well played.

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  13. You want drama?

    http://kuanyida.tumblr.com/tagged/star%20fraction

    You want rivalries?

    http://kuanyida.tumblr.com/post/1154885049/never-trust-the-amarr

    For more Predator Elite trolling, see http://kuanyida.tumblr.com/tagged/predator

    You want story telling? Well, fake RP story telling...

    http://kuanyida.tumblr.com/post/4781241302/eytjangard-story-arc

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  14. But Mord, your strategic null sec goal is; make believe. The space isn't real the interests and stakes aren't real. Yes they provide a narrative maybe, but claiming there's any more substance to it then lowsec is only because certain nullsec residents assign some value to their make believe empires.
    I don't want so speak for others, but I and I think a lot of other lowsec combatants look at nullsec sovereignty wars often silently questioning the sanity of those involved. The thing that is real in PvP *to us* is the fight my/our skills v.s. his/hers/theirs. And I don't NEED my own station in my own space with my own little logo or name on it somewhere to do that. All the time that would go into obtaining that and then keeping it just takes away from the time I have to actually shoot at others in internet spaceships.
    Frankly the only people that have a *NEED* for sovereign space as far as I can discern are industrialist interested in building stuff the requires sovereignty to construct. But for a pvp-er purr-sang somebody that plays EVE for the 'pew' holding sov is just a pain frankly.

    And as for stories there are many many many lowsec people that right excellent blogs and tell of their fights, no their fights don't alter the map of make believe empires in make believe space but is that really what PvP is about at it's heart?

    The divide between lowsec and nullsec is one of 'fierce viking warriors' vs. 'the Saxon Earl' perhaps, but the Earl is the only one that really gains anything *he* needs those armed retainers and armed peasants to enable his playstyle, they don't need him for theirs. If his retainers (the core pvp'ers of nullsec) one day decide to go live with the fierce Vikings in their lowsec mead-halls and care only about mighty battles and naught about the Earl and his make believe lines on his make believe map *they* loose nothing and the Earls narrative of his make believe empire grinds to a staggering halt and he loses everything.

    Nullsec is irrelevant for the purpose of pure PvP* (yes, I mean that, really) I can have it elsewhere with less string attached and without some guy with delusions of grandeur (the Earl) breathing down my neck about his interests or killboard stats.

    Nullsec may make for great stories, but PvP there sucks donkey balls.

    *except maybe massive fleet fights, but fights on that scale no longer have anything to do with individual pilots skills (except maybe some Fc's and Xo's) so from a pvp standpoint they're quite pointless PvPwise unless you already care deeply about your logo on some station.

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  15. Kaeda -

    Once more with feeling: This isn't about the quality of PvP. This is about the quality of story-telling.

    "And as for stories there are many many many lowsec people that right excellent blogs and tell of their fights."

    But that's all they tell about. The mechanics of this fight or that fight all blur together after a short time. Fun for a little while, but after you've read the first twenty or thirty, you've read them all. It's not good story-telling. It's unimaginative. It's lazy. It's boring.

    Give me something human to grab onto. Some consequences or human back story beyond the immediate fight. Political intrigue, an interesting couple of players executing a subtle scam, five rogues executing a unique bit of spaceway robbery, someone fighting an against-all-odds rear guard action so his buddies can make an escape, the corp loudmouth you're always bailing out of trouble.

    Lowsec has been churning out vanilla gf write-ups since Mittens was a noob. It's time to bump the lowsec narrative to the next level.

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  16. And what would you imagine that narrative to be then?

    Because frankly that's what we lowsec 'pirates' do; we have fights. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. And we never get tired of it!

    I could tell you a story about how I will happily shoot gunpoint diplomacy (or any number of other nearby 'pirate' corps) one day and fleet up with them the next but it won't make a good story as there's no grudges no politics just sometimes an opportunity or need and maybe some enjoyable smack.
    And lots of fun making shit explode (in sometimes interesting ways) be it a target of opportunity or them or myself.

    A narrative an ongoing story requires alliances, long held grudges or to put it more simply; politics and in the extension of that drama.
    And I challenge you to find any reputable lowsec pirate corp of any significance that wanst to have anything to do with space ship politics or drama.

    I predict the reply you will mostly get is; 'we don't have any blues we have friends (that we will still shoot given the opportunity)'. Feel free to test this by asking around, I'm quite confident I am correct. Many of them will add they came to low to get away from the spaceship politics, drama b.s. and blue lists of Null.

    Politics happens to an extend in some 'anti-pirate' alliances/loose coalitions and they mostly get raised eyebrows or even outright scorn for it from the rest of the lowsec community. And in some places local pirates have something that resembles a 'NIP' where they won't shoot each POS'es but that really about it.

    I agree people shouldn't blame you for not writing about lowsec if there's no interesting narrative to write about. But if the lowsec narrative ever moves 'to the next level' and with that comes all the politics/drama that you currently see in null, I for one will go in search of a new game.

    I quite enjoy the no politics, no drama, target today and fleet mate tomorrow lets just explode (in) stuff for the sheer fun of the explosions. Best target policy in game? NPSI (not purple? shoot it!).

    I can see why some people see an attraction in empire building and the story of those empires and like telling that story on their blog.

    But I think there's a big difference on a quite fundamental level between lowsec residents and null residents, for most in lowsec EVE is ultimately about spaceships shooting each other and not about the consequences beyond the immediate joy of that act we're quite the hedonists ;-)
    From your and other nullsec blogs I get the impression that even the 'leet' pvp'ers like those in PL lack a streak of nihilism present in a lot of lowsec 'pirates' they need something more (even if just an idea, goons especially excel at projecting that) then the immediate satisfaction of stuff going *boom*.

    Sorry we make for such a poor story, but I actually do still enjoy the hundreds of fight write ups I read, I still pick up stuff from it. If nothing else it gives me some second hand experience of situations I haven't encountered yet and that might be useful in some later fight of my own.

    Like vikings singing songs of hundreds of different glorious battles, but all of them just battles in the end.

    Unless of course you have some ideas about we how we can make interesting stories happen that don't involve lots of drama an politics but mainly lots of exploding space ships ;-)

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  17. Kaeda - Lowsec is the dark heart of the beast, filled to the brim with all manner of naughty persons. If you can't find a good story there, you aren't trying. ;)

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  18. I shall endeavor too and shout if I find some amazing human interest story then :-P

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  19. @Kaeda-

    Better yet: Enter it in the Lives in Low Sec Writing Contest. Check my November 15 post.

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  20. Yeah, because Boromir dying defense of Merry and Pippin, or Samwise's fight against Shelob were both boring as hell, right? When Merry and Éowyn stood between Théoden and the Witch-King of Angmar, I was annoyed that I was forced to spend time on this meaningless little fight instead of the main battle.

    You really missed the mark on this one, Mord. Small stories matter just as much as large ones do when we care about the people in them. Often, they matter more.

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  21. @Jester -

    In all three cases you mention, the fights have consequences both in terms of the characters involved and of the overarching story line. Further, the more the characters matter to the reader, the more impact the fight has on the reader.

    Now, I do not say that large stories are better than small ones. I do say that battles in which winning and losing have meaningful consequences are more interesting than those that don't.

    I say in my post that there are many good stories to be found among the rogues and rascals of lowsec. I truly wish lowsec authors would write the sort of small stories you describe. But they don't.

    As Rixx Javix has pointed out, good lowsec stories are harder to write because they don't have the whole "epic sweep" thing going for them as does nullsec. It's easy for Achilles, whose story is born of a great war close to the center of the human population of the time, to get press. Fame comes harder for Beowulf, whose smaller story emerges from the primordial North and describes a small but visceral struggle between a band of men and a creature out of nightmare.

    I'm searching for lowsec's Beowulf.

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  22. It's ironic as hell that you say Achilles is null's champion, rather than -- say -- Hector.

    Tell me, what story is Achilles best known for?

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  23. I never said Achilles is null's champion.

    You're being particularly aggressive about putting words in my mouth today, Mr. Teg.

    That's not usually your style.

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  24. I'm glad Jester brought up Boromir; I had a similar thought that the best parts of Lord of the Rings for me were the "man alone" moments, where the hero learns his true worth. Gandalf on the bridge is another example.

    True, these events all took place in the context of an epic story, but are not epic events simply made up of a series of smaller stories?

    You also compare Beowulf to the Illiad, and ignoring the fact that I far prefer Beowulf, I'd also point out that Homer is better known for the Odyssey, which is, at the end of the day, just a story about a guy trying to get home.

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  25. Taurean - Smaller stories are more interesting if consequences the come of them. Gandalf on the bridge if one had no idea of the context would be a good bit of writing. However it is it's context that gives it emotional force. We know who Gandalf is, what he means to the other characters and how critical he is to the forces that oppose Sauron.

    I don't compare Beowulf to the Illiad in order to say the Illiad is the better story. I do it to point out that stories that do not involve the clash of armies and the fall of empires can be just as important and interesting as those that do.

    However the small story-teller has to work harder. Like Beowulf, stories out of lowsec have to punch out of their weight class.

    Even with small stories, it's not just about describing good fights; context and consequences make the action much more engaging to the reader.

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