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Testing Systems and Assumptions – a Redefining Interactivity supplement

August 20, 2013

I have been receiving a lot of traffic lately for my Redefining Interactivity series (still not finished; still going to finish it), which is encouraging, as I plan on doing a lot of editing and rewriting of the article series and expanding it into an ebook, which I will release for a measly 99 cents, because, really, I can’t justify charging more than that for a book of pontificating about video games and storytelling.

However, I also got a comment from someone who seemed to think the answer to all of my questions was to play IF (Interactive Fiction). I also had the opportunity to reread a comment my friend Deirdra asked about me explaining my theories about the importance of self-identification for immersion. So I figured I’d write a new article addressing both, as an attempt to get back to work on the series.

IF: Is it the Holy Grail of IS in Disguise?
Simple answer: NO.

IF is good. It’s great at what it does, which is putting the decision making more or less in the hands of the audience. The problem, quite simply, is the gameplay. I know, you’re thinking ‘what gameplay? It’s just words in a text box’, and that, my friends, is the point. It’s gameplay for code geeks and crossword puzzle fans. It’s all based on anticipating the correct subject/verb combination, which is a kind of mini-game in itself. For those puzzle gamers who have played games that incorporate word puzzles, like that puzzle in Still Life involving the recipe written as poetry, you’ll understand the frustration I’m trying to identify. Most people do not solve problems by thinking ‘take rubber duck’ and then ‘apply jumper cable’ as a reasonable option, and it’s the very nature of stopping to guess the correct word combination that breaks immersion and leaves people thinking ‘well, it was good, but it wasn’t Hamlet’.

ASIDE #1
Dawn and I fairly recently attended a birthday party/play-reading, where we actually read numerous parts and lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and it was a very interesting and amusing evening. That said, it was Hamlet, a brilliant play by a man writing at the peak of his powers as a playwright and author. But as interactivity goes, it’s a finished piece. You can put a lot into your performance to lend your interpretation of the intent, and in so doing grant the piece a (sort of) new life, but in the end, the Danish prince is just as dead.

The point of this aside is that, even in interactive fiction, the ending is just as assured. IS will probably fly under that particular high water mark as well for a long time, but ideally, when it gets where it’s going, it will break that particular bond to the classical ending and teach the audience to once more think creatively for themselves, taking part in the storytelling. The argument then becomes, ‘is Hamlet made better by Hamlet surviving?’, and the answer IS will offer is ‘depends on who’s telling the story, and who’s listening’. If you save Hamlet from almost certain death, the supposed deeper meaning of the tragedy is perhaps lost, but the agency granted in saving Hamlet is yours to savour, as you prove once and for all that Hamlet was the match of his Uncle, the Usurper King, and that he didn’t have to be the victim of merciless fate. Anyone of an academic bent watching the performance might think it lacked something, but I assure you, the person in Hamlet’s shoes would be feeling pretty damned good about themselves, if they succeed in outwitting the King and his court and machinations without cheaping out on the drama. Heresy? Perhaps. But IS will have to address these sacred cows if it’s going to establish itself as a proper medium to compete with linear storytelling and the holy bible of The Rules of Drama.

IMMERSION: Is it only for me and never for you or hir?
Again, simple answer: NO.

The trick here is, once again, in the execution. What makes Deirdra’s stories moving isn’t the fact that they have quirky characters and plots; it’s that her personal voice comes through so much of what she does, which makes her quirky characters just that much more compelling. She gets better at it every year.

What makes immersion work is that there is enough information being imparted effectively that you can easily slip into the fiction suit of the characters without stopping to question Lloyd about what your motivation is (or if you happen to BE director Lloyd Fellowes, having the gift to compel your actors to get back into character and finish the scene before the Dim Sum restaurant closes, and mass murder follows).

What I mean is, a good writer will make the scene work. A great writer will make the scenes sing. And it will take a great writer with a gift for immersive scripting to give the audience the most compelling lines and actions to choose from. The mechanics of whether they are another generic nameless action adventure protagonist, or if they are a fully-realized character with a back history and motivations the audience has to somehow figure out and get into an empathetic state with, is immaterial, and really just a technique for the writers to wrestle with on the way to submerging the audience’s identity into the Storyspace.

ASIDE #2: PLEASE DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME
The problem with writers, the great and the good alike, is that they all want to win points for writing the most clever beginnings, middles and endings. They don’t particularly WANT to share the glory with the bloody audience. Oh sure, buy the book, read it, review it, share it with friends, excerpt it for review purposes, and maybe even purchase the rights to it for lucrative movie and theatrical adaptations, but please, in the name of all that is hallowed, don’t presume to tell the writer how to finish the story.

After all, everyone in every field of endeavour wants to feel like they know what they’re doing, and when they reach the point where they feel reasonably certain they’ve clinched it, they sure as hell don’t want to share the credit with someone they don’t trust and probably don’t even like. But in the digital age, more and more, we are seeing authorial collaboration, and it’s only a matter of time and degrees before we find ourselves writing not just with the audience in mind, but with the audience making suggestions and requests. It’s already happening, except that it’s generally a bloody awful mess, because the audience is being slavishly fannish and the writer is being truculent and the egos and tempers are flaring.

I truly believe that, while you can’t write effectively by committee any more than you can create anything of redeeming value by committee, you CAN create something great if you don’t try to achieve one single goal with one single start, middle and end. If you open yourself up to the possibility that there can be multiple paths to a satisfactory conclusion to your story, invest yourself into and implement each of the most satisfactory paths, and then allow the audience to choose from amongst the options you were able to implement in a reasonable amount of time (or are open to the idea of revisiting your previous works and writing more paths for future audiences; hey, some writers practically rewrite the same novel endless times in the course of a series: why not just add to the original, best novel?), then you will have contributed to an almost entirely new medium and created a whole new type of audience experience.

CONCLUSIONS
As I get older and more hide-bound, I wonder if I will ever truly achieve any of these lofty goals, but I sincerely hope I never give up on wanting to see someone somewhere achieve the seemingly impossible dream.

Because I sincerely would like to see at least one of my stories adapted and turned into a true Interactive Storytelling experience, the way Pete Townshend once dreamed of the Lifehouse experience involving and informing the entire audience, essentially changing each other through the exchange. Because, really, what else is communication for, besides putting up verbal barriers to further communication? If we’re really going to share a story and an experience, we have to come to the table prepared to collaborate as best we can, and that of necessity has to involve the audience having their say at some point. I dream of a day when an IS author can publish an interactive story so rich in features and open to audience participation that it becomes an oft-replayed and expanded classic that reflects the passions of both the author and the audience. What would it have been like to have been a member of Shakespeare’s company, with him writing expressly for your performance, rewriting scenes and adding them as the play reveals itself to you? In many ways, Shakespeare and his ilk were the first IS authors, but even they had to play and pander to an impassive and vocal audience who might not agree with every choice the troupe made. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

But I’d like to have a medium that investigates that assumption rigorously, and tries to impart a true sense of creative collaboration with those in the audience that crave more input, more variety, more experiences.

Sometimes, less IS more. But, if it’s done well and with conviction, more is definitely much, much more. And more can only be a bad thing if it isn’t done as well as can be.

I think I’ve exhausted this topic for now. Time to get back to the other stuff I’m supposed to be working on today. Thank you for reading.

Lee.

Quick Question?

March 19, 2013

Is anyone out there interested in me finishing off the Redefining Interactivity series? I mean, I plan on doing it someday anyway, but I could speed it up a bit if people were still interested.

Meanwhile, I do apologize for the overlong wait.

Lee.

June 11, 2012

Emily Short writes an article about Varytale, a CYOA-type Interactive Storytelling system that I’ve been interested in for some time. Check it out:

Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

As mentioned in a previous post, Varytale is a platform for interactive stories. It’s put together by Ian Millington, the same person who created the Undum tool, but Varytale goes quite a bit further.

Writing Tools

Undum provides a slick front-end and a way to build a few choices and otherwise leaves everything up to the author (hey, you don’t mind learning some javascript to code your story, do you?). It’s been used for a couple of neat IF works, including Deirdra Kiai’s 3rd-place Comp 2011 winner The Play and Andrew Plotkin’s The Matter of the Monster.

By contrast Varytale comes with a complete authoring tool; a website where books are showcased and attractively presented online; the capacity (eventually) to use one of several payment schemes to charge for content; and feedback and statistics tools that allow the author to collect ratings and comments on content, and to…

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The Plea

April 9, 2012
tags:

Lee.

New Home

March 30, 2012

I’ve been thinking about reintegrating my blogs into one for a while, and this brief brush with the fans of Julian Lennon finally convinced me that I let a golden opportunity slip through my fingers by not having my blog optimized to capitalize on an influx of strangers who might be curious if I just give them something to look at.

So today, we made some changes to the back end of our host sites, and I imported all of my blogs into one. It’s over HERE.

Naturally, I invite you all to join me. I may work out a crosspost feature if I can, but I don’t have one yet, and I’m going to be pretty busy over the next little bit, so I’m not sure when I’ll have one in place; best just to assume this is the last post, and follow me or let me go accordingly.

In case this really is goodbye, I thank you for your patronage, silent though it has mostly been. I’ve enjoyed trying to make you smile.

Lee.

Inquisitive Arts (2007-2009)

January 27, 2012

The Little Engine That (Almost) Could

The final chapter of this saga started as a series of discussions I’d had after I moved on from the Longest Journey forums to The Adventure Gamers forums, where I ran into some old friends, but mainly made a number of new friends, including young Deirdra Kiai. Deirdra is an independent game developer who holds a diploma in computer engineering, and has the numerical value of Pi memorized to a fairly obscene decimal point (although she confesses she’s lost some of it in recent years). She’s also a musician and composer, and has written a rather lovely novella for NaNoWriMo, which she has not published as of yet.

About the only thing she can’t do is make me finish a game in a timely fashion, which is unfortunate, because we’ve collaborated on a few really interesting ideas, and only one of them has seen the light of day in any form, and then only because she took the basic concept and redid it as a solo effort called ‘The Play’, a game that will be released shortly* in a Choose Your Own Story-type text format called Undum. But I get ahead of myself. Let’s back up to the beginning, with Dream Job and Jenna’s Tale.

After I had given up working on The Shadow Sygne with Rod and Amanda, I started thinking seriously about whether I had any true interest in making games at all. It seemed that what I was really trying to do was tell stories in a new way, so I didn’t have to keep squeezing all of my writing down into what would neatly fit through a square hole.

It wasn’t so much that I was writing stuff that was impossible to be read as a novel yet. It was more that I was tired of making sure all of my ideas fit neatly into the novel format. I began entertaining the notion that what I had been looking for in all of this was a new storytelling medium altogether, and one that didn’t require me to work with self-important programmers or art directors who didn’t value my contributions enough.

At any rate, Deirdra and I started talking about our ideas about gaming, and found that we valued a number of similar things, even though we had very different aesthetic sensibilities. We found we had mutual respect, which I discovered was something that had largely been lacking in most of my collaborations previously. We each knew that we had strengths and weaknesses,and didn’t presume to tell each other how to do the parts we were strongest at, and neither did we tell each other not to do things that weren’t part of out main skill set. Encouragement and cooperation. Who’d have thunk it?!

Our first project together was my science fiction concept, Metropolis Fallen, which Deirdra and I collaborated on shaping the plot for, because there were things she wanted to say, and things she didn’t want the game to say. Compromise was needed, but I figured it was for a worthy cause, so I started writing like mad to make things work.

The main problem was, if we were going to make a conventional adventure game that had both of our values and ideas in it, we’d need to find someone who could help us make the actual graphical animations and such, because my story ideas wouldn’t work quite as well if we did it using Deirdra’s cartoon techniques, and it wouldn’t get done at all if we waited for me to learn how to do the grunt work myself, because I’m far too slow and flaky to pull off all of the art for a major game project.

So we looked around for someone to aid and abet us, and Deirdra found a guy who had some nice 3D art chops and computer animation skills, and made first contact with him. He seemed interested, and we worked with him for a bit, but sadly, our graphical and conceptual styles clashed a bit, and he sort of fell out of love with the project and drifted off, after having shown the demo to an industry friend who took a pass on helping us along.

It was something of a blow to both Deirdra and I, as we concluded after months of silence that he’d just decided to avoid telling us he’d quit. It was pretty uncool, but I can’t say I blame him. It was a highly improbable project on such a limited budget and using so little staff. Really doesn’t help that I hadn’t fully realized the vision of the project before we brought in an artist, because really, you either are the art director, or you hire someone else to do it, and I wasn’t prepared to let someone else design the whole game without my input. If I had it to do again, I’d design the crap out of it and then hire someone who liked what I’d done and could think of ways to take it and make it better, which I’m more than willing to concede to.

Instead, we decided to recover from the loss and moved on to ‘Stage!’, a much simpler project that we figured I would be able to handle the art chores on. At first it was conceived as a mini adventure-style video game, but when it became clear that I was having trouble making time to sort out the art assets and animation, Deirdra reimagined the project as an interactive comic book, which did theoretically play to my strengths better. Sadly, even this met with problems, as I simply couldn’t make time enough to get beyond the initial layout and design phase to do the actual drawings. I still regret letting this project go stale, and have vowed to finish it in some fashion without forcing poor Deirdra to wait forever to get the art assets. Meanwhile, she has reworked the script again and created her own (superior) version of Stage!, which she called ‘The Play’, and which placed very well in the prestigious Interactive Fiction Competition (IF Comp 2011).

Since then, Deirdra and I have worked together on one of her projects, but I’ve largely remained in the background, offering support and suggestions when and as required. Inquisitive Arts has more or less run its course, largely because it’s clear that I can’t produce a proper video game on the kind of schedule Deirdra needs in order to keep her head in the project. We work better as support to one another, though I haven’t yet completed any of my interactive projects.

What I’ve found most amazing about that period of my life was that, without knowing it, I was devising the medium I was arguing for, even though I hadn’t found the right platform or learned to use the right software. As of this writing, I still haven’t found the ideal tools, but amazingly enough, the technology is becoming available even as I develop my ideas and adjust my storytelling techniques accordingly. With any luck, by the time I have my concepts polished enough, I’ll be able to apply them fairly seamlessly to some delivery system that feels right.

Well, that concludes the history lesson. Hope we all learned something from this. What I’ve learned is, I’m a lousy collaborator. But hey, they can’t all be life affirmations.

Lee Edward McIlmoyle,
Somewhere in Limbo,
Drinking Limboccino, listening to Squeeze, and tinkering with the old Stage! Cayra file in Remote Desktop
Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

 

* I started writing this article before the release. The Play has been released, and also placed highly in the 2011 IFComp.

The Shadow Sygne (2006-2007)

January 26, 2012

Requiem for a Fantasy Video Game

In 2005, I rediscovered the wonderful world of Adventure Gaming, after years of having more or less abandoned them as too difficult to create, and thus too difficult to contemplate seriously as a vehicle for my storytelling. I’ve never been keen on spending too much time and effort on a medium I can’t ever use to my advantage.

But when my wife first moved in with me, she encouraged me to buy a collection of Myst games and play them again, which I did, and found I’d really missed the format and franchise, but even more, I loved where it had gotten to as a story. In the years that had passed between my previous playings of the first three games in the series and this time, a change in how I looked at story had begun to take place. What once seemed like a lot of extra bother for very little payoff suddenly became this idea of an entirely new storytelling medium. I became a convert, not of Adventure Games, but of storytelling through the interactive process of digital video gaming.

Then I discovered the great love of my life: The Longest Journey. It became the first game I’d ever shared with someone I was actively in a relationship with (i.e. my wife), and had a great time together playing it. My first great ‘Date Game’, if there can be said to be such a thing, which seemed the case for us, because we tried this activity a handful of times, playing a number of games in the hope that it would draw us closer together. Surely this actually worked with a few of them, but the experience of playing TLJ together was never truly repeated for us, and this activity soon became a solitary one, and in time stopped entirely, when I developed a case of performance anxiety about playing adventure games that still dogs me a bit to this day… but I digress.

There came a point, after having played TLJ, where I became feverish to know more about the game, and discovered that, in fact, the greatest controversy about the game was that there was a sequel in development, which had kept fans waiting for almost a decade. I looked it up, found out it was due to come out in a mere matter of weeks—what luck!—and immediately ordered the limited edition of Dreamfall for my wife and I. When it arrived, we ripped through it in a matter of days, and while there were some misgivings as to how successful it had been as a sequel, I at first felt myself most strongly moved by the fact that it had become ‘difficult’ to play, on a physical level—what modern game activists refer to as ‘ableist’, a portmanteau, in spirit if not intent, of ‘ability’ and ‘elitism’.

This notion became the background of an entire series of rants about how great storytelling games had a duty to be accessible to everyone, regardless of how able they were in comparison to young gamers who craved constant overstimulation at the expense of all else save perhaps the ubiquitous award-winning graphics and sound. Following on this, I found myself arguing for a number of concepts and features that seemed all-but-completely absent from games in 2006. I drove a number of people nuts, and have on at least one occasion read someone complain on another forum about how they ‘hate that Lee in Limbo guy’.

It was, however, through these rants, which mainly took place on the Longest Journey forums, that I came into contact with a gentleman from Germany who felt similarly that something needed to be done to revolutionise not just how games looked but how they treated their players. In the interest of not misrepresenting or maligning him, I will refer to him as Joel.

Joel told me about a semi-secret gaming engine he as developing that would make 3D games easier to create with smaller, less-rigid programming teams, as assets would be far more context-sensitive, and thus would largely behave and govern their appearance and functionality based on system-wide events and the passage of time and catastrophe. This sounded like the sort of revolutionary development I had been envisioning as a possibility for the near future, but as I knew nothing about programming modern video games, I didn’t know how much of what he said was possible and how much was just stuff he was selling his bosses.

Nevertheless, on the basis of this series of conversations, given his expressed wish to work with a writer of the skill level he kindly attributed to me, I suggested we collaborate on something. After fumbling around a little in Ideaspace™, I got hold of the tail end of an idea that sounded about right for us; The Shadow Sygne, a medieval fantasy with no elves, dwarves or hobbits, which I decided would have this unifying theme of sigil magic and ancient crypts containing the spirits and, in some cases the immortal remains of the original Lords of Sygneria. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but what I’d achieved was essentially to come up with another Link concept in disguise, and one that slots very nicely into the work I’d done previously on Link: West/Euroboros (what Rod refers to on the LinkWorlds wiki as Link: Gaslight, a title I find I’m growing rather fond of, actually).

At any rate, what had started as a fruitful series of emails outlining our ideas about what the story and the mechanics would be turned rather quickly into a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings, and before I knew it, I was complaining bitterly that we were supposed to be creating a new kind of Adventure Game, while Joel was arguing that what he thought we’d agreed to create was a new sort of strategy game. When it became clear that we were no longer enchanted with one another, we ended the project, and I took my notes away with me.

Now, if you were thinking that would be the natural end to that project, I would normally agree with you, except that it wasn’t.

Sometime in 2007, Rod got back in touch with me and told me that he and his wife were back in the tabletop gaming racket, but this time making supplemental PDFs for a sort of informal brand X series, and they wanted me to suggest a medieval game setting that they could base their stories in, as well as anything I could write for them. We started exchanging notes about this Sygneria place of mine, despite my wife’s staunch argument that I needed to keep the rights to it preserved for a novel series. I promised her I’d protect the family jewels, and then bravely waded into a second round of developing The Shadow Sygne, hoping this time things would be different.

Sadly, there had already been too much development of both gaming supplements and punch-out cardboard staging areas, which was the main product line of the new publishing company they were dealing with. As well—and I say this with no ill will meant—Amanda and I weren’t as comfortable collaborating with each other as Rod and I had been, given that he and I had been doing so since we were in high school. So I found myself arguing more and more for a preservation of my concepts, until finally I just had to beg off and took my ideas away with me again. I do still sort of regret not having made a better go of it, but over all, I think keeping the concept pristine has enabled me to improve and develop Sygneria into something I can start unpacking into a new gaming system when I finally find the right one.

To date, the Sygneria concept hasn’t seen the light of day, but I’m still on the lookout for the right platform for it to be realised the way I imagine it. When that time comes, I’ll release it under the LimboInteractive label. But that still leaves the last collaborative gaming development company I’ve been involved with…

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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