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<  Design concepts  ~  Interactive storytelling

Michael
Posted: Mon Sep 19, 2005 9:17 am Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
I absolutely disagree with the view presented by IGDA's Game Writers Special Interest Group on interactive storytelling. I didn't read all of it but the introduction presented tabletop RPGs as some kind of ideal situation and proceeded to display a number of graphs showing branching story structures and then some Crawfordesque pseudo-mathematical formulas to describe characters. I much admire Chris Crawford's work on interactive storytelling, it's been a great inspiration and I am definitely curious to see some practical examples of his theory. But I disagree with the core assumption of both IGDA's and Mr Crawford's statements.

Both are approaching storytelling from a very conservative perspective that puts all the focus on the linearity of a story. Then they proceed to find ways in which a computer can generate the linear structure that is a story. The solution, obviously, is to create an "artificial author": a computer program that can simulate human decisons in storytelling. This program takes on the role of the director or the dungeon master and basically replaces the human so we can get on with our 21st century life without having to bother with books or theater for our stories.

This is a Deus Ex Machina kind of solution, isn't it? Faced with a problem (the conflict between interactivity and linear storytelling), the authors simply invent some magical solution (an artificial intelligince to replace man or god). It's probably possible to create such a "robot" but it's highly unlikely that it will produce interesting stories. Of course, this all depends on what you call an "interesting story". If you're content with Tolkien and Star Wars, then this approach will probably fullfill all of your dreams. If, however, you've been spoiled by Duras and Wong Kar Wai, there will probably remain a lot to be desired.

In my opinion, games (in the broad sense of the word) do not resemble novels and movies as much as they resemble poetry and architecture. The big difference is that the latter are already non-linear. Games don't need to invent solutions for non-linear structures. All they need to do is look at poetry and architecture (and even painting and music to some extent). Non-linearity is not a problem that needs to be solved. It's a given that needs to be accepted and respected. The question should not be "How can we tell a story despite of non-linearity?" but something like "How can we use storytelling in a non-linear medium?" Are paintings linear? No! Do they tell stories? Yes!

As always, Duchamp is right: Il n'y a pas de solution parce qu'il n'y pas de problème: there is no solution because there is no problem. Interactivity does not stand in the way of communicating narrative elements. The only thing we need to let go of is the idea that a story requires a linear structure. And surely, after a century of modern literature and half a century of modern film making, this should hardly be an issue! We're perfectly capable to create the effect of storytelling (emotional response, learning, etc) without a linear structure.

Sure, you probably won't be able to tell the kind of moralistic tales that Hollywood is still trying to rival Shakespeare with. But this form is hardly suitable for the complexity of our contemporary world, is it? Games are the medium par excellence to embrace complexity and ambiguity without resulting in the fragementation and discontinuity that often occur when literature or film experiment with non-linearity. Games, in other words, can create a traditional aesthetic experience by using the methods of modernity and the avantgarde. Games have the potential to reconnect the modernist revolutions with the pre-modern aesthetic experience. One could look at the whole history of modern art as a series of attempts to make interactive experiences. But they didn't have the technology to make their point and so they lost contact with the audience. I believe computers are offering us the technology to recuperate many of the ideas of modernism and put them to use in an art form that can appeal outside of the "hardcore" elite that enjoys contemporary art.

Game authors should embrace interactivity rather than treating it as a problem that needs a solution. And don't just say that storytelling isn't possible because of non-linearity. That's simply ignoring a great deal of potential and will lead to games never evolving from their primitive roots. Humans thrive on stories. Humankind is made up from stories. Our cultures are soaked with narrative fragments and archetypes. Surely we don't need linearity or passivity to connect to this major part of our culture! Just be a poet with your bits.
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Michael
Posted: Thu Sep 29, 2005 9:49 am Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
Reading a novel (by Marguerite Duras, one of my favourite authors), I suddenly realized how complementary interactive media can be to literature. Both offer only a partial description of the events and much of the joy of the experience comes from making up the other part. It struck me that the part of the description that is missing from the novel, is exactly the part that is present in interactive media. And vice versa. This makes the experience of a novel and that of an interactive pieve kindof similar, in my opinion.

In a novel, charcters and emotions are described. But it is left to your imagination to know how they really looked (or sounded). Furthermore, an author often says things for effect. Not to describe an event exactly but to evoke a kind of atmosphere or emotion. Metaphors are a good example of this. If the reader just reads the words without interpreting, he or she will not enjoy the experience much. Continuous interpretation is required.

Games on the other hand (let's just use this bastard name, shall we?), show you things and allow you to look at them from many sides, and even interact with them in some cases. They also deal with real time, where a novel often deals with condensed time. Your characters have a particular look to them and you can see their motions very clearly. What's missing is the story itself, the purpose of motions, or a description of the emotions.
Now, if we want our games to have the same impact as novels, what we need to do is take care that we do not add the story! Adding a story on top of the explicit display of characters, environments, motions and time would make the total far too saturated. In other words, it would leave no room for the imagination of the viewer. And it is precisely in this imagination that the power of art resides.
So, basically, the trick would be to include in a game only the things that are not included in the novel. Much like the novel allows us to imagine the game (and a game is much more appropriate than a film because it allows the reader to become part of the story), we should make games that allow us to imagine the novel. So never try to tell a story in your game! This is the task of the viewer. It is in fact part of the pleasure of playing the game.
This statement should not be mistaken for one that gives the player any responsibility as author. The designer is still the author. Not of the story per se, or of the plot, but of all the elements that can stimulate the creative process in the brain of the viewer. The art of interactive media lies in the ability to make this collection of disparate elements make sense. This is not something the viewer should be responsible for. This is where the game author needs to take complete control.



Side Note. If it is true that the imagination of the viewer is required for the enjoyment of art, then this may explain to some extent why the synthetic and the unreal often have a far greater appeal than the realistic depiction or description. The synthetic always leaves room for interpretation. The people in a painting are not real people. The painter may have invented them. They could be anyone. The people in photography, however, are all real. There is no room left for imagination. Except when you build a fictional context around these characters. Which is what happens in cinema. In cinema, it is the story that fictionalizes the reality of the actors and the environments. And this fiction is required for our pleasure.
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Michael
Posted: Sun Oct 09, 2005 9:25 am Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
The more I think about it, the more I realize that real-time interactive media should start from a situation rather than a story when dealing with narrative. The situation should be interesting and meaningful in and of itself. And then you can add narrative elements to direct the interpretation and to make the experience richer.
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Michael
Posted: Sun Oct 09, 2005 9:26 am Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
I keep finding a bigger and bigger gap between real-time interactive media and others. In concreto, between real-time 3D and pre-rendered or 2D interactive pieces. For the latter, I think it is a good idea to start from a story. I consider them to be a multimedia form of hypertext. And I think hypertext is a valid way of telling stories. But the hypertext concept does not work in real-time 3D. Or at least it doesn't exploit the medium optimally. I'm not quite sure yet why and how these two are so different. But I feel very strongly that real-time 3D should start with a situation rather than a story. It's more like architecture and set building than it is like movies or theater. Perhaps this is because the player, unlike in hypertext-type environments, becomes a part of the piece, rather than simply witnessing it.

Speaking of text, this focus on situation rather than story also applies to real-time text-based environments like MUDs. Funny to realize that those primitive text-based things have more in common with the sophisticated real-time 3D games than flashy websites and the like.
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picklebro
Posted: Thu Jan 19, 2006 10:28 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 19 Jan 2006 Posts: 110
Forgive me for resurrecting ancient posts, but I'm new here so I see all these nuggets and its nice to see people who think about what they do. Smile

Now back to hypertext...

The power of hypertext is to take you to another location, to allow you to 'drill-down' within a subject of interest. This can work in a game if your game is about portals. Common story/game portals include doors, gates, paintings, magical devices, time travel machines, and mirrors. To me this is the game version of hypertext usage.

This can work very well in some games, but it would be rather boring if every other thing you came to was a portal to another location and it would work better in some games than in others.

I certainly agree that the situation is what creates a game. In fact, if you have a story to tell about the situation it is better to discover that during the game, much like 'backstory' in a movie or novel. Its more fluid and engaging if the story is told during play and the situation becomes fleshed out by what is learned. These are my opinions. I also have armpits. Sometimes all of them stink. Wink
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Michael
Posted: Thu Jan 19, 2006 11:53 pm Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
I think a lot of games suffer from this desire to tell a story. Because it always happens in a very traditional way, through the device of "plot".
Ludologists conclude from this that games and stories don't mix. But this is incorrect if you are more open-minded about what constitutes a story and what "telling" means. Architecture can tell a story, a sculpture can tell a story. This is how games can tell stories. And should tell stories.

But of course game designers shouldn't listen to me. Because I believe that the only thing that is wrong with games is that they are games. Shocked
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picklebro
Posted: Fri Jan 20, 2006 1:46 am Reply with quote
Joined: 19 Jan 2006 Posts: 110
I posit that what is right with games is that they are games. But then we have to get into the definition of 'game'. Everyone wants the game to be something different. Somehow, somewhere, the player gets left out of the equation.

Lets face it, there are simply different styles that attract different players. Then there are the cross-over games that appeal to players of more than one style- these are the gems, but even then a game is designed to hit a certain number of objectives. Those objectives rely on the designer to be created (not surprisingly the designer must design both the game and the object of the game).

Perhaps the only rules that truly apply to games is a small list of what they cannot be (at least if they are to be successful to their target demographic). They can't be boring, feel too much like work, or be over-complicated. The important phrase in this paragraph is "target demographic".

You'll never successfully design a game that everyone will want to play but you can create niche games or games with broad spectrum appeal.

So the trick, in my opinion, is to define target demographic along with what objectives you want the game to accomplish (I don't mean what objectives are to be accomplished in the game, but WITH the game..ie, educate, arouse, provoke, mystify, entertain).

Oops, I think I turned this thread into something other than hypertext related, sorry! Anyways, move it or whatever, but I'm really interested in hearing your response.

As for ludologists...bah...I would be a lot more interested in what psychologists and sociologists had to say about human behavior when I was in the concept stages - I would only care about the 'game scholars' when it comes to implementing technology and understanding limitations. After all, how much great entertainment did Einstein turn out? Wink
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Michael
Posted: Fri Jan 20, 2006 9:27 am Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
What I said about games was sort of tongue-in-cheek. Games are perfectly fine the way they are, games. And I am using a strict and historical definition of games as rule-based systems with a competitive purpose. Like sports or pre-computer games.

But much like sports or board games haven't achieved a high status in the list of human expressive arts, games will not qualify to appear on that list as long as they remain games, or only games, or mostly games. As long as game designers hold on to their products being first and foremost games, they will not be making art of any significance (and I use a broad definition of art that includes pop music and cinema).

The reason for this is, I believe, that the most important and expressive aspect of computer software is interaction. If most of that expressive power is used to produce a game, then you've just wasted your artistic potential. Games that are valued higher artistically, are always games that have interactive elements that are not really required for the actual gameplay. In short, gameplay is not an expressive form of interaction (though it may be very enjoyable).


As far as demographics go, obviously some people like some things better than others and nothing can please everybody. But there is still the matters of quality and meaningfulness, which I believe to be far less subjective (you will not find many people who would seriously argue that a Da Vinci painting is less important than a Iron Maiden album cover even if they are more familiar with Iron Maiden's output and like it a lot more).

If you're interested in game demographics, I recommend that you read the result of International Hobo's research into it. Chris Bateman has also written a book about it.
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picklebro
Posted: Fri Jan 20, 2006 2:03 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 19 Jan 2006 Posts: 110
Art vs. Games..hmmm....I wonder if the 'problem' is not so much with the games as with the perception. People like to spectate art, not participate. If they participate then somehow, apparently, its not 'art'.

While I'm aware that there are a few contemporary artists that have tried to create interactive art, I highly doubt their works will end up in the Louvre 100 years from now, at least not as interactive pieces.

Now I don't know why interactivity precludes pieces from being art, but it seems to do that. I mean it seems to me that if at some point in the future when all computers could play movie quality games, if someone were to spend millions upon millions and create a completely interactive, non linear game that was just incredibly gorgeous, even if it had broad cross-demographic appeal, that it would only be remembered as 'that awesome game' and would likely never end up as part of a computer installment in some art gallery.

Who knows, perhaps in a few hundred years, computers will gain acceptance as art mediums and gorgeously crafted games of today will be commonplace in art museums (instead of just videogame archives) around the world. Smile
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MoriartyL
Posted: Mon Jan 23, 2006 2:34 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 05 Nov 2005 Posts: 69 Location: Israel
Quote:
Now I don't know why interactivity precludes pieces from being art, but it seems to do that.
Don't be ridiculous. Music, dance, and stage are interactive art forms. In these cases, there are three sides to the art: the creator, the player, and the viewer. The art emerges on the viewer's end. There is nothing at all preventing any type of game from encouraging the presence of a viewer.

But even without the third person, art can still be created by assigning also the role of viewer to the player. For instance, when I improvise on the piano, I may use themes composed by someone else (creator), but I will improvise the music on the spot (player) for my own enjoyment (viewer). The fact that there is no one else to listen to what I am playing does not make it any less art, because I can hear it myself. In fact, that is why I improvise in the first place- I want to hear music.

Since gamism has no inherent rules whatsoever, the creator is free to create whatever balance he likes between his and the player's roles. The closer that balance is to his side, the easier it is for the player to act as viewer. The C/P balance is most often on that side simply because downplaying the new art form's strengths (which have not yet been discovered, in most cases) allows the creator to fall back on hundreds of years of experience in noninteractive art experiences. Great art can be made with this balance- observe The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which uses noninteractive story progression for most of its emotional material, with the player adding in the more flexible elements like action scenes. Or look at Myst, in which the player's role is merely to uncover the work of the creator for his own viewing pleasure, with the exception of puzzles where he creates the experience for himself.

But the C/P balance is not always on that side- observe Electroplankton, in which the creator's role is relatively minimal. The player creates the art, either for himself or for a third person to view. More works of art like this become possible only with the growing complexity and flexibility of control devices- the Revolution's controller, for instance (assuming anyone takes advantage of it).

As for stories, a great work of art could doubtless be created without giving the player too much control- arguably, such works have already been created in the realm of adventure games. Stories which demand of the player more responsibility in the artistry will only come with the emergence of more advanced virtual character techniques, so it's a shame the entire art form of virtual characters has been used more or less entirely for pet simulators. Once there are great works of art which feature nothing but a single character to be explored and developed, then and only then will it be time to move on to incorporating such characters into emergent stories.
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Michael
Posted: Mon Jan 23, 2006 5:16 pm Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
I agree that there is a certain similarity between performance arts and "new media arts". But to call the performance arts interactive is incorrect. I think Chris Crawford definition of interactivity is the most useful one I have read so far.
Quote:
Chris Crawford's definition of interactivity
A cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listen, thinks and speaks.

So performance arts are only interactive to the extent that the performers respond, in a meaningful way, to the audience. This happens very rarely or very minimally in my experience.

And perhaps the comparison with painting and sculpture, which would earn interactive arts a spot in the Louvre perhaps some day, is not appropriate. There is no dance or theater or music in the Louvre. But those are still art forms of high importance. Perhaps interactive arts belong in that category.

As for virtual characters, you'll be happy to hear that we are going to work on a project with this very subject later this year. The idea is to create a reusable system for an autonomous actor. Not an artificial intelligence per se, but a character that can act autonomously with dramatic effect.
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MoriartyL
Posted: Mon Jan 23, 2006 8:42 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 05 Nov 2005 Posts: 69 Location: Israel
Michael wrote:
I agree that there is a certain similarity between performance arts and "new media arts". But to call the performance arts interactive is incorrect. I think Chris Crawford definition of interactivity is the most useful one I have read so far.
So performance arts are only interactive to the extent that the performers respond, in a meaningful way, to the audience. This happens very rarely or very minimally in my experience.
You can't be serious. By the same logic, no single-player experience of any kind can be considered a game, solely because you're not interacting with another listening, thinking, speaking person. Only multiplayer games/performances can qualify as being interactive. Or maybe I've misunderstood?


Why bother with a museum exhibit for games? The only reason museums exist in the first place is that it is the only way to see rare works of art or archeology. Digital media isn't rare, though- it is perfectly free to copy it, and it is generally sold in large numbers. Games have no more place in a museum than does great literature. The future is in on-line libraries, though.
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picklebro
Posted: Mon Jan 23, 2006 10:29 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 19 Jan 2006 Posts: 110
I'd like to take issue with your argument (nice blog site, by the way):

Quote:

You can't be serious. By the same logic, no single-player experience of any kind can be considered a game, solely because you're not interacting with another listening, thinking, speaking person. Only multiplayer games/performances can qualify as being interactive. Or maybe I've misunderstood?


By utilizing code all games 'think' and respond to your actions.

Quote:

Why bother with a museum exhibit for games? The only reason museums exist in the first place is that it is the only way to see rare works of art or archeology. Digital media isn't rare, though- it is perfectly free to copy it, and it is generally sold in large numbers. Games have no more place in a museum than does great literature. The future is in on-line libraries, though.


I assume the US is not the only place where museums exist to exhibit collections of whatever someone chooses to exhibit, including cars, art, devices, movie memorabilia, etc...even mass-produced items.

I do agree, however, with you and Michael, that perhaps Games should be 'archived and viewed' in a similar fashion as other performance arts. In this case, perhaps someday there will be video game libraries in a similar fashion to song and video libraries, making 'classic' games available to any and all to view and interact with at their leisure. I think this would be a lot more likely to happen if there was some sort of expiration on copyright for digital media in much the same way there are for books, etc (perhaps there is - I'm not completely up-to-date on digital rights).
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Michael
Posted: Mon Jan 23, 2006 11:34 pm Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
MoriartyL wrote:
By the same logic, no single-player experience of any kind can be considered a game, solely because you're not interacting with another listening, thinking, speaking person. Only multiplayer games/performances can qualify as being interactive. Or maybe I've misunderstood?

You did misunderstand. First of all, this is a definition of interactivity, not of game. There are many games that are not interactive. Second, the definition speaks of an "agent". This does not need to be a human. A software agent is perfectly acceptible for instance. The nice thing about this defintion is that it presents interactivity as form of conversation. In the case of a computer game, this is often a conversation between the player and the game. I like thinking of software as virtual organisms that respond to what you do in a clever way. Smile
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MoriartyL
Posted: Tue Jan 24, 2006 10:27 am Reply with quote
Joined: 05 Nov 2005 Posts: 69 Location: Israel
So dancing a certain way (after you've memorized it) in Dance Dance Revolution is interactive, and dancing the same exact way, with the same tempo, without the TV on is noninteractive. Gotcha.
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