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Computer Games and Max Lüthi’s Abstract Style —Derek T. Jones, Guest Blogger

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

Today, we share a response by author and computer engineer Derek T. Jones to a selection of Max Lüthi's work that is included in Maria Tatar's The Classic Fairy Tales.

I had to check the date. When was this written? 1982? Okay. But he’s writing about creations that are hundreds of years older? Wait a minute, this isn’t a computer graphics journal? What’s going on here?

This is Max Lüthi’s essay “Abstract Style,” and he’s not talking about computational constraints at all (though he could be)—he's talking about fairy tales.

Scene from Myst, 1993
Scene from Myst, 1993

During the 1990s and 2000s, anyone playing a game on a personal computer or even a console was aware of a certain queasy experience, where glass and chrome spheres were depicted with a perfection that would be the envy of Escher, while wood paneling and grass looked like badly printed contact paper. Any attempt to render a human face resulted in horrifying golem masks from the depths of the Uncanny Valley. The rare and refined was easy to perfect, while the commonplace organic was expensive and elusive.

Scene from Myst V: End of Ages, 2005
Scene from Myst V: End of Ages, 2005

As a computer engineer, I can tell you the reason: economy. That crystalline perfection took only a handful of variables to describe, while an ordinary head of hair required millions. But how does this explain what Lüthi discovered, which is that these same mineral, crystalline properties have pride of place in ancient folktales?

He goes through a litany of other facets of the abstract style in folktales, such as: nouns having only one attribute; single-role characters; sharp contours; lack of depth; sharply divided narrative stages; gifts that precisely fit the hero’s assigned tasks and then disappear afterward. All of these things are also properties of computer games, even those preceding graphics, such as text adventures like Zork. Again, within the computer, economy explains all of these: more conflation and interoperation between the parts of the game means more opportunities for a displeasing contradiction (including a game crash) to arise.

A popular text adventure authoring language, Inform 7, promotes the metaphor of stagecraft, which is an excellent fit. The entities encountered are not expected to have infinite depth and use, even by the audience, who understands that they are receiving an abstracted depiction of the story.

Of course, much of this economic explanation applies to any narrative; these properties make the tale easier to remember, tell, and follow. The abstraction removes the speaker’s unique style and narrative voice, and, like a freeway sign, makes the essential message more legible, helping the tale survive retelling by multiple speakers.

So far so good. But what I’m stuck with, what I can’t comfortably explain, are those mineral, metallic special objects. What’s the narrative reason why tellers of folk tales would gravitate to the very materials which, unknown to them, have a more economic chemical and physical structure?

The only serious guess I have is the “economic inversion”: because those substances would have been rare in the common world of the folk tale tellers, their rarity imbued them with value and made them memorable to their hearers. But even as I offer this explanation, it seems like a reach.

If you’re up to fairy tales, here’s one to end on: the simulation hypothesis, which posits that our real world is, in fact, a giant video game. Elon Musk believes it’s not merely possible but probable, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson agrees, giving it better than 50/50 odds. Are they onto something? Did Lüthi smell this without recognizing the scent? Neal Stephenson’s latest book, Fall, takes on this idea without flinching and explores the consequence, suggesting that the Greco-Roman myths might be early, low-resolution computer games working within resource constraints. Give yourself some time, though—Stephenson’s book is a thick modern novel. I’ve only given you the abstract.

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