Furry People, or Sapient Animals?

Over on Ron Edwards’ comics blog (warning: link probably NSFW), a discussion about the 1970s-80s erotica comic Omaha the Cat Dancer led to this gem of insight about anthro-animals:

I’m familiar with the difference between anthropomorphic character in the Stan Sakai sense, where animal form is simply shorthand for character traits or temperament, and also in the “these are actually different species of being” that may or may not uplifted or magical or whatever versions of animalified people or peopleified animals. — oberonthefool

“Oberon” then goes on to term these approaches as “theriomorphic people” and “anthropomorphic animals,” respectively. I realize now that in Pentra, I keep assuming that the latter is what I’m after, when the former might serve my purposes much better.

I’ve always been aware there are different degrees of animal-ness under the broad umbrella of “anthropomorphic animal” fiction. At one extreme would be Watership Down. The rabbits of the Down have a heightened intelligence over the rabbits we know, giving rise to sophisticated language and culture. But in all other respects, they’re rabbits through and through: they’re rabbit-sized, lack hands capable of fine manipulation, and eat and mate and crap exactly like real-world rabbits do. At the other extreme might be the sort of “cat girls” you see in trashy anime or visual novels, which are basically ordinary people with cat ears and tails attached. (“Ordinary people” with the bizarre anatomical proportions common to such things, anyway.) A setting like Redwall wouild lie somewhere in the middle. Its characters do human-like things such as building structures of wood and stone, but their features are depicted as entirely animal, no human-like faces in sight.

What I didn’t realize until reading Oberon’s comment, though, is that there’s not simply a sliding scale at work here, with “human-like” on one end and “animal-like” on the other. There are actually two philosophical approaches to the idea of characters depicted as part human, part animal, that operate on very different assumptions.

I’ve always defaulted to the Redwall mode, that of “anthropomorphic animals,” not noticing the possibility of an alternative. That scheme tends to a lot of world-building detail, defining the places of all these different species in the world culturally and ecologically. When the inevitable questions arise, like “how did so many different evolutionary branches reach sapience?” or “what happens when a tiger-person and a gazelle-person try to have children?”, those are legitimate topics to ponder. The rabbit hole* leads ever deeper from there. For the Pentra collaborative storytelling game, I’ve sketched out matters like “are there non-anthro horses and rabbits in this world?”, because, well, that’s what you do for a furry setting, right?

The thing is, my answers to those questions have become more and more hand-wavey as I realize they get in the way more than they help. On the matter of inter-species reproduction, for instance: “Well, biologically it doesn’t work, but magic that allows it is both very common and a little unpredictable. So it’s not unusual to see a wolf and a badger get together and have lemur children, or whatever.” In other words, a wizard does it. Which is of course absurd, as soon as you think about it for more than a moment. But the alternative—making a verisimilitudinous set of rules for how things work—would inevitably shut someone down. “This story’s about a lynx family, you can’t play an armadillo…”

But there’s another way to come at it, exemplified by the aforementioned Omaha, Webcomics like Better Days and Original Life by Jay Naylor, and so on. These works aren’t overly concerned with the mechanics of animalism. Rather, the assumption is that the characters are people first and foremost. Human beings, not voles and squid. The animal traits help characters stand out from one another visually and prime us to expect certain character traits (slyness for a fox, e.g.), expectations the narrative can consciously play to or subvert. The dialogue and action might acknowledge the physics of the thing, but only on a superficial level, and often tongue in cheek: a startled catperson’s tail puffing up, an avian character having the last name “Byrd,” etc. This gives the creator freedom to assign whatever species they’d like to each character without any particular gymnastics about how it all works. The animal visages form a filter over a fundamentally human story.

The worldbuilding-heavy approach has its place, of course. Kurt Busiek’s The Autumnlands, or Redwall for that matter, succeed in part by the loving detail they impart on different species, their physical attributes, cultures, and history. When I’m writing stories in the Pentra setting, I have no intention of erasing all the thought I’ve put into species’ respective territories, flavors of magic, and so on. But I now realize that when it comes to a participatory thing like the Pentra game, those are the kinds of creative constraints that stifle rather than inspire. Any given group sitting down to spin a tale in its framework can create mythic or fabled personalities like Br’er Rabbit and Reynard the Fox; species that work more like ethnic groups than taxonomic divisions, like in Jay Naylor’s work; or devise their own cultural and physical setting detail. Those are only possible within the same framework if the game itself assumes an agnostic stance on the furry hypothesis.

* If I may employ a trite turn of phrase for its humor value, here


Storium: First Impressions

Marc Yves:

A couple of months ago, someone I follow on Twitter shared a link to the upcoming collaborative writing site Storium. It sounded fascinating, and reminded me of collaborative fiction projects I was heavily involved in from junior high through high school. So I signed up for an invite, and lo and behold I got in to the alpha test about a week ago. What do I think, and how does it compare to those collabs that were so near and dear to my adolescent heart (and which today I remain nostalgic about)?

Folks, this thing is really cool.

Storium, per commentary on its blog, is intended to provide a structure for online collaborative writing built from the ground up for the purpose, as opposed to the shoehorning of such endeavors into message boards and forums meant more for topic discussions. Its features speak directly to those needs:

  • Email notifications of activity, and the ability to nudge people whose input you’re waiting for.
  • Story/Chapter/Scene/Move structure for posts.
  • Creative prompts to help overcome blank-page paralysis, such as setting (“World”) templates, character archetypes, and “cards” that represent locations and goals in a scene.
  • A “karma” system that encourages players to write failures and setbacks for their characters before claiming big successes.

You can read up on the aforelinked blog to get more details on those! I’ve been using the site since I got that invite, and now have one story underway with a second in warmup. I’d like to take some time to examine the differences between Storium and collaborative writing projects I’ve embarked on in the past, and what I think of those differences.

Linearity. In a game of Storium, you write one scene after another, one Chapter after another, until the story comes to a conclusion. This is in marked contrast to the collaborations of my past, which tended to be sprawling affairs with lots of subplots going on in parallel. You probably could use Storium to accomplish such a setup, by creating several stories, but it’d be a clear case of shoehorning; the design would fight you at each step.

Individual scale. Similar to the above, in Storium each player gets exactly one character. The assumption, not built-in but implied by structure and advised in help text, is that those characters will be in the same scenes together most of the time. In my old forum collabs, people could make up as many characters as they fancied, sometimes to the point where the archive of character descriptions was littered with people who never got written into a story at all.

Those two pieces together represent the biggest paradigm shift from the collaborative stories I remember, and it’s taken me a bit of reorientation to get it. But I see what problems it solves, and I appreciate that. The linearity prevents chronology from ever becoming a headache. In multi-thread forum stories, you might have a series of posts describing a single hour of time, and another that jumps ahead by days or weeks between paragraphs. If the events of one become relevant to the other, how do you reconcile them? It got confusing. And while huge casts of characters can be impressive, people did tend to have one or two they focused on and really developed; the others were supporting cast. There are times I think I’ll chafe against the one-character-per-player restriction, and it does cut off certain types of stories (we’re all but assured that a player’s character won’t die before the final scene, for instance), but overall it’s different, not worse. I think it’ll help promote fewer, more three-dimensional characters, which has some value over an ensemble of bit parts.

The smaller scale has an additional, more subtle benefit: accountability. In a collaboration involving dozens of authors, it’s all but impossible to get everyone to contribute regularly. People wander away, and their stories die off. Even for regular contributors, dilution of responsibility kicks in. With only four or five people overall involved in a story, it’s easier to set and enforce a pace, and to keep track of outages that might delay an individual writer’s contribution. The invite-only nature of stories shores up the matter, too: an author wandered in from the Internet at large has no particular reason to feel responsible for the story’s success. But if you’re one of four people expressly asked to join an intimate group, there’s a feeling of obligation and motivation to see it through.

Fancy creative prompts. The collaborations I’d done before were all text all the time, maybe with a picture gallery on the side. With story cards, Karma, and inline images, a Storium tale looks vibrant, made for the Internet. The cues they provide are subtle, and players don’t always understand them at first, but they do help give direction when people aren’t sure what to do next. Blank-page paralysis plus the daunting scale of those other collaborations made it difficult for people to get started. Storium doesn’t suffer from those problems, at least not as much!

All together, I think a Storium game is more likely to be sustained to a conclusion than other styles of collaboration, and that greatly appeals to me. There’s something sad about a sprawling collaborative world sitting abandoned, its characters in eternal stasis, their hopes and fears unresolved. But I’m just starting, so we’ll see if that holds true!