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Redefining Interactivity, pt 1: Choose Your Own Title

May 9, 2011

A friend asked me to clarify what I meant when I pointed out that most game developers had done very little to advance the concept of Interactive Storytelling. I hadn’t provided my friend with any actual citations, and in truth, I don’t exactly have a list of searchable references within easy reach. You won’t find a reference book that focusses specifically on Interactive Storytelling as a principle means of video gameplay (or as a new entertainment-and-communications medium). If anyone is working on such a thing, I haven’t heard of it, or met them to discuss it and learn whether I think they’re on the right track (ooo, that sounds so arrogant, dunnit?).

My answer, which was supposed to be brief (alcohol may have played a part when I wrote it last night), came out thus:

Okay, I’ll try to knock this one out quickly, because I need some sleep. Lots of game developers, and particularly those Adventure Gamers (sic; I meant Adventure Game Developers ~Lee) who are more interested in telling a good story than in making cool puzzles, have been drawn to the siren call of Interactive Storytelling. The problem is, interactive storytelling up to this point has been either Interactive Fiction, or it’s been too expensive to do more than once. Witness Blade Runner, The Last Express, Planescape: Torment, Knights of the Old Republic, and… well, I’m gonna level with you, I’m pretty sure other game developers took stabs at it, but honestly, very few succeeded in doing much more than creating the illusion of a truly interactive plot.

Indiana Jones: The Fate of Atlantis, much like the Quest For Glory games, gave you a sort of RPG-style option to choose what sort of gameplay you preferred (back before any real genre of video gaming formally existed yet; pretty much everything graphical was one form or another of arcade side scroller), but extremely few story-based games outside of RPGs (The Elder Scrolls series comes to mind) and MMOs (World of Warcraft, anyone?) offers the player a chance to tailor their identity AND the type of gameplay that character will experience.

Also, in the last half decade, game developers from every genre have been implementing greater and more captivating (relatively speaking) storytelling into their work. But unlike books and movies, where you merely have to cultivate a tolerance for certain subject matter, most of the really big ticket games with the most noteworthy storytelling are on specific (expensive) gaming consoles, and/or are so tricky to play that most folks who might have enjoyed the actual story will never get to experience it because they really aren’t skilled enough to finish the game.

And that’s where Interactive Storytelling in modern video games falls over. Every genre is making significant strides, but so long as they are all still focused on developing ‘innovative and immersive’ gameplay, with carefully measured and doled-out plot development segments as a reward for continuing to slog through increasingly meaningless levels, they will never be more than what virtually everybody, including many players and most established developers, agrees will always be a plebian distraction from serious art and literature. Real Storytelling will always be done in a linear format, mapped out carefully with only the best possible scenario played out, because we are trained to believe that there is only one right answer.

Meanwhile, the medium of the future, successor to tabletop gaming and experimental theater, languishes and gathers dust, waiting for someone to demonstrate that it is not merely viable, but necessary.

A bit hyperbolic, and making some pretty grand assertions that aren’t so much incorrect as imprecise. Still, what I wanted to convey is this notion that a new storytelling medium is growing from these disparate sources, but we won’t see a fruiting tree until people stop trying to make it sit up and do tricks instead of focusing on doign what it says it does right on the tin.

Ask yourself this question: If someone told you that you could have a truly interactive story experience, what would you think they meant? Would you immediately think they meant solving puzzles or shooting big guns to resolve plot points artificially, and be handed a cutscene to commemorate the occasion? Or would you expect them to mean that you actually play a story, like actors in a play, talking, performing, occasionally fighting or thinking your way out of a tough spot, but generally trusting your intuition and grasp of common sense to tell you what the right course ought to be?

Because that’s teh big problem with most (not all) video games I’ve played over the last thirty years. They were occasionally quite fun, and very occasionally, the stories taht wove the gameplay events togetehr could be so gripping, I felt transported in a way reading and watching movies didn’t do. Make no mistake, I love reading and watching movies. They inspire me greatly. But I never really, REALLY believe I am the star of the story. There is no ‘agency’, no freedom to figure it out on my own. I learn pretty quickly who the star is, and they aren’t me, nor do they choose to do things the way I would.

The problem with most games, which have more than a sprinkling of story in them, is that they are plotted to work the way movies and books do, with the gameplay portion being the main point, and the progression of plot being incidental to the gameplay. In essence, it’s like turning on a movie or television show, watching a few minutes, and when the star says something silly, you take a drink and then try to do a crossword puzzle or fire a handgun at a bunch of imaginary monsters. Where they fail, and fail badly, is that the constant stopping to drink and play a mini game breaks you completely out of the narrative.Your Suspension of Disbelief is shattered completely. Games never want you to forget that you are playing a game.

My solution, and it’s not a popular one, I assure you, is to: a) let games do what they’re going to keep doing regardless; b) take the lessons games have taught us about agency, pacing, and interactive problem solving; and c) make the story the whole meal, rather than just dessert.

What I usually get every time I bring this up in gaming forums is:

That sounds like those Full Motion Video games from the 1990s… y’know, Interactive Movies. They were expensive and boring. Hardly games at all. Who needs ’em?

…or words to that effect. I won’t argue with folks that lots of games in the past that tried too hard to be interactive movies fell on their arses, but that’s because they weren’t truly interactive. They were games disguised as movies, and they had to stick to a very tight script. The things cost millions to make, and that was without branching plotlines and context-sensitive dialogue or whatever other crazy idea one might devise to make a story more like live performance and less like reading cue cards in front of a live studio audience.

I have a lot more to say on the subject–probably a whole book’s worth–but I’m gonna stop here and go change the title to something more academic that suggests it’s part of a bigger statement. Because everybody loves those, don’t they?

I’ll probably come back later and start rambling on about how digital media can be written to give the audience more agency, while still telling a story with meaning. Please feel free to comment, ask questions, and make requests. I’m all ears.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2011 7:22 pm

    Some thoughts:

    You already know this, but I think stories can be interactive to various degrees, and am wary of the notion that complete holodeck-style player freedom is a holy grail to which all other interactive stories must aspire. (Life Flashes By takes a complete opposite approach, where it is absolutely clear that you are not the star of the story, for instance.) I’d be interest in you writing more about why you think playing a game “as yourself” is more important than playing as a character… or whether that is, in fact, what you think. 🙂

    What do you think of Rockstar’s newest offering, LA Noire, where it’s said that the player will have the option to skip action sequences if they’re having difficulty with them?

    You cite a lot of big-budget examples, as well. I’d be curious to know what effect IF and indie games have had on interactive storytelling, in your opinion. As for what we can do to have more of an effect, for that matter. 🙂

    • May 9, 2011 7:41 pm

      I don’t rule out playing as a character. Quite the opposite, in fact. I just think that the audience has a stake in what the protagonist does, and in a digital medium, there isn’t as much concrete excuse not to address the issue.

      On the subject of Rockstar’s LA Noire, I’m intrigued by the game, but I believe it’s a console game, so I’ll have no way of playing it when it arrives.

      As for citing other, less commercial games, I think that’s going to take some research and discussion with other industry-savvy gamers and developers. I don’t have a list yet. I don’t even have a partial list of games I’ve personally played and reviewed. I’m only just beginnig to think that there might be grounds for a dedicated reference list (or books) on the subject. This could be quite an undertaking.

  2. May 19, 2011 7:42 am

    Hi. I used to go to the Adventure Gamers forum as MoriartyL. Today I’d planned to go back and wander around to remind myself of why I left, which would lead into a blog post about how my life has changed since then. Instead, I almost immediately saw your link to this fascinating blog, so it seems my plan has backfired.

    I’m going to read through all these posts, because I want to see how your ideas play out. But from this first chapter, I already have too much to say to just keep going without a comment. In a nutshell, I’m with Deirdra in not wanting to disconnect the concept of interactivity from predetermined characterization.

    I’ve been playing D&D lately, which is a new experience for me. I’ve spent many hour figuring out my character: her skills, her weapons, her backstory, her motivations, her behaviors, her character flaws, etc. The first session I got to play with her properly was fantastic. Everything I’d decided about her actually came into play, even though the DM had no idea. He was just inserting some plot points designed to get us from point A to point B, but I took those ideas and ran with them and followed my character’s strange reactions to their logical and dramatic conclusion. This completely derailed all the DM’s plans about where the story was going, so from his perspective maybe the session wasn’t great. But from my perspective, it was an ideal that interactive storytelling can strive for.

    The following session was not so inspiring. The DM, at a loss for where the story could now go (with all his many plans demolished), gave us a “vision” introducing an NPC in distress. (Not a single player cared about this plotline.) I got very frustrated with the DM, and told him so after we were done. If he’s telling an interactive story, he needs to let us interact! He can’t just show us something that he thinks is important, he needs to introduce it in an interactive way that makes us think it’s important! And he said that he can’t, because we always go our own way and ignore the plot entirely.

    This is an extreme example, but in a truly interactive story you’re always going to have this tension between the story a gamist is trying to tell and the story that a gamer decides to play. The things that caused drama in the first session were entirely unintentional on the DM’s part and came from our playing, so to keep that kind of experience going he’d need to forget any notions of plot he has and just keep throwing things at us until something sticks and makes an impression. We move to a town, there’s something random happening in it, we’re not interested so we go to another town. There’s something happening there that means something to one of the characters, which leads him to kill another player’s character. He gets a new character. After a while, it probably gets a bit like herding bulls.

    Now imagine that you’re not just trying to make a game for four or five players, but for thousands of players who each will come to this game with their own ideas about what it should be about and where it should be going and what sort of experience they’d like to have. And further imagine that you have no ability to rethink your plans based on the ingenious ideas the players come up with. Following this line of thought, you don’t end up with FMV. You end up completely giving up on the idea of telling a story, but instead just hand a bunch of toys to a bunch of players and say: “I don’t know what these are exactly, but you can pretend they’re swords or telephones or whatever. Have fun.”

    Even the tiniest bit of storytelling (by the conventional meaning of the word) will not survive an environment where the players are the real stars. If you give them agency, they will use it. They will go off in whatever direction appeals to them. And you can’t possibly guarantee that no matter what direction they go in, they’ll have a good story. Games like Fable have tried that, but it doesn’t work, does it? (Seriously, I’m asking. I’ve never played Fable.)

    No, the player and the gamist need to be on the same page. The player’s options need to be restricted, or at the very least the “wrong” kind of options need to be discouraged, in order to keep him going in a direction compatible with the game. If you have a few different valid versions of the story, you offer the player options that go in those directions. But you won’t have five thousand different variations on the story because you don’t have a hundred years and infinite resources with which to make the thing. At some point, you need to acknowledge that the player is not the one pushing the story forward, he is the actor playing a role which you’ve already picked out for him. What the gamist can do is make the given roles rewarding or interesting to play, and here we run into the deficiency of most current interactive storytelling which does neither of these things.

    On a separate note, I don’t see how reminding the player he’s playing a game is a problem. At no point during reading a book do I forget that I am reading a book; in fact the position in which I am sitting in and the turning of the pages and the ability to reread sections is an integral part of the experience even in the most gripping portions. It is not beyond our ability to look at abstractions and pretend they are reality.

  3. May 19, 2011 10:43 am

    Hey Mory, welcome aboard.

    A single author–or even a team of authors–only has the resources to make so much of a given Storyspace (the environment within which the overall story is told, from its many potential narrative elements). I’m not planning on rewriting the human brain to be able to anticipate absolutely any contingency. However, I think it is possible to effectively define a Storyspace with enough complexity and variation to ensure that the player has more than enough different avenues in which to arrive at the part of the story that interests them most.

    The important thing to remember is that compliance isn’t implicit in the act of turning to the first page–the contract isn’t signed yet–but the moment the story ‘grabs’ you, and you begin flipping the pages without thinking about it, your assent is implied. It’s figuring out how to get the audience to the point of real immersion that is every author’s true mission, regardless of format.

    The problem with tabletop ‘paper & dice’ RPGs is that the game is only as good as the GM, who may not be up to the task of wrangling those bulls you mentioned. I’ve tried some of the tricks your GM tried, and I found that the only people who really enjoyed themselves were the ones who had faith in me as a storyteller, which was not a given with the group as a whole, and ultimately hurt the campaign.

    Implicit in the act of sitting down to the table is this notion that every player is there to experience and progress the story. The player agrees, by the simple act of choosing to participate, to discover and help process the elements of the plot as they are given, including whatever incidental elements the GM may conjure up in the process of guiding the story. Demanding their own, separate story to follow instead of the main one is inappropriate, but it’s up to the GM to decide how to handle non-conformists. There’s one in every crowd.

    The GMs job is to anticipate and establish whatever is needed to make the plot development both feasible and fun. There are lots of ways to achieve this, but the first, most important means by which the GM performs this station is by winning the support of hir players. Learning what it takes to get the players on your side is a part of the art of GMing, and letting the rogues run out of your grasp is a sure way to lose control of the entire experience and guarantee that your group will never let you lead again.

    It’s up to you as a GM to decide if the job is worth it to you to continue when it breaks down so completely that you honestly don’t know where things are heading. Some storytellers are gifted enough to keep the ball rolling despite the hitches in their plans. However, most will try the last ditch attempt to corral the herd. Some can manage it; others (like me) cannot. Them’s the breaks.

    But paper RPGs are a different thing from interactive storytelling in a digital format. For one thing, the author isn’t there in the room to bully and cajole. No matter how much space they offer you to roam in, there is no way for you to get more space than has been allotted from the outset. You balk to your detriment, in which case, Caveat Emptor is applicable. If you didn’t get the story you wanted, maybe you should have settled for the story that was provided. At any rate, hope you kept the receipt.

    People are usually a little more amenable to the limits of a given Storyspace if they are paying for the priviledge to be there, so long as the author has upheld their part of the bargain. The author, like the GM, has the job of anticipating the audience’s needs for persuasion and collusion. A good author chooses the best course sHe can. A great author makes you believe you chose it yourself.

    What Interactive Storytelling (IS) aims to do (implicit in its literal definition) is give the audience agency within the confines of the provided Storyspace. How much agency is given is determined entirely by the author, whose job is then to make the choices virtually seamless and make the audience believe that theirs was the only true path.

    What systems the author uses to achieve this result are quite possibly as individual as the authors themselves. But the form of IS requires that the author stop thinking of plot as a finite, non-negotiable thing. The audience may choose to continue to believe in the One True Path, but the author of IS must learn to abandon this faith. Otherwise, they can’t do the job properly, and should go write a novel or something instead.

    Hope I’ve helped. Thanks for commenting, Mory.

  4. May 19, 2011 10:55 am

    “It’s figuring out how to get the audience to the point of real immersion that is every author’s true mission, regardless of format.”

    I absolutely agree. And I think that in the case of adventure games, that’s achieved by giving the character a believable, fully-formed character to play rather than giving them lots of space and tricking them into thinking they made the right choice. But I suspect we’ll be able to debate this better when I reach the finer details of your philosophy.

  5. May 19, 2011 11:06 am

    I meant the players, not the character. Obviously. We’ll talk in a few hours, when I’m caught up on your posts.

  6. May 19, 2011 12:07 pm

    I started skimming through the later posts as I saw that it had less and less to do with interactive storytelling and was more and more about all sorts of games and how you think they’re related to hunting or social trends or whatever. The question of who plays games and why doesn’t interest me much; I was hoping for more of an opinion about adventure games and where they ought to be going.

    Anyway, since this seems to be the only post directly concerned with interactive storytelling so far, I might as well continue the discussion here.

    Have you ever played Another World? That is a game that’s perfectly linear, involves just one player, has no dialogue, and almost exclusively consists of action gameplay. And yet, the story it tells -about two friends trying to escape a repressive world- is quite engaging from start to finish. The player has no choices at all, beyond some basic battle tactics as in any action games, but each new thing the player is forced to do puts him more in the state of mind of this specific character that the game presents.

    As far as I am concerned, Another World is the farthest any game has reached so far into how interactive storytelling is supposed to work. Unfortunately that says more about the other games out there than it does about Another World, because its plot and characterizations are paper-thin. But it told a story through its gameplay rather than trying to create a story independent of its gameplay, and few games since have even bothered to try doing that.

    The reason I’m bringing up Another World specifically (and if you haven’t played it, you must) is because it seems the antithesis to everything you’re talking about here. You mock the idea that “Real Storytelling will always be done in a linear format, mapped out carefully with only the best possible scenario played out, because we are trained to believe that there is only one right answer.”, but Another World only had one carefully-constructed ending, and I cared about that ending when I reached it in a way that couldn’t possibly have come from a noninteractive medium. And I will repeat that the emotional value came out of carefully-chosen gameplay, rather than cutscenes.

    Throughout the game, there are scenes where you and your friend are in trouble and need to help each other out. The relief you feel when he gets you out of an impossible situation is enough to form an emotional connection, and the game builds on that for its drama. The final scene, rather than being a generic boss fight, modifies the gameplay so that as your friend is in a hopeless fight you can do nothing but crawl along the floor to something that may or may not help if you’re able to reach it in time. There is no “agency” here- the player is running through lines in a script. And yet, it does mean something.

    Deirdra’s Life Flashes By gave the player no agency at all, creating a sense of utter hopelessness and depressed detachment.

    My point is that interactive storytelling is not dependant on the player’s freedom: in fact, it is considerably strengthened by limiting the player’s freedom! You get a player to identify with a character by limiting his options to the very specific options that the character (who has already been decided upon) is interested in. This is the foundation of successful interactive storytelling in any kind of computer game, be it adventure or action or strategy or whatever. You need to focus the gameplay to get the player into the state of mind of the character, whoever that is. In the case of Another World that was a person running for his life, so there is no gameplay that does not serve that goal. In the case of Life Flashes By it was a person who refuses to do anything to change, so there were no options at all. Imagine how counterproductive a version of Life Flashes By would be, where the player was allowed to change her life substantially along the way! The entire point of the game would be lost!

  7. May 19, 2011 12:11 pm

    By the way, I have started writing up a philosophy of interactive storytelling which might interest you:

    I Am Not Myself Today

    From what you’ve said so far I take it you won’t agree with most of what I say, but it’s worth a read.

    • May 19, 2011 12:57 pm

      (I’m linking to the introduction of the piece. The actual posts are after the “next” arrow.)

  8. May 19, 2011 3:22 pm

    Mory, as you guessed, I can’t agree with your stance. I understand and see how you arrived at this viewpoint, but personally, I think you’ve overlooked some things.

    For one thing, you misunderstood where the agency in Deirdra’s game was. You didn’t grasp that her journey led to a moment of redemption if she learned to reach out to and show appreciation for Trevin’s contribution to her awakening. It was a very subtle thing, but it was there, depending on the choices you made. It just wasn’t a screamingly obvious bit of game mechanic that presented itself with blinky lights, because to do so would have squelched the message, which was and is that it’s all down to your personal point of view whether you accept and welcome these insights. If you cop an attitude and dismiss Trevin’s various attempts at friendship, nothing too terrible happens, but you also don’t get to witness Charlotte realizing she’d made a friend, despite her failings. It’s a seemingly minor point, but it was also the whole point of staging LFB as an interactive story in the first place. I wanted to tell you at the time, but I didn’t want to spoil it for anyone else.

    As for interactive storytelling being strengthened by limiting it, you’re arguing for the status quo without saying such. Of course stories without agency are thematically and narratively stronger than open sandbox games. That’s not the technical trick I’m looking to solve.

    The problem, which I’ve talked about at ad nauseum on the forums and even hinted at in those articles you’ve chosen to overlook, is that truly interactive storytelling hasn’t been fully realized yet. However, when it is finally realized in full, we will have a new, stronger, very different way to share stories with people that won’t be dependent upon the old rules and expectations that have hampered video games being accepted as a serious literary/cinematic medium up to this point. It’s not an Us vs Them issue. It’s a Cart Before the Horse problem.

    The point of these articles is to cover a lot of ground leading up to the bit where I explain why I think Interactive Storytelling has been ill-served by trying to be a game first and story second. Games are fine. They’re not going anywhere. Even Story Games (and Gamebooks, for that matter) achieve exactly what they set out to do, with varying degrees of success.

    What they don’t do is focus primarily on telling a story that the audience truly feels they are a part of. Not truly. We’ve got layers of immersion in everything down to TV commercials, but nothing is more immersive than telling your own story.

    The thing is, even if you CAN tell your own story, that doesn’t stop you from wanting to play in other people’s gardens as well. And I think the technology and the design philosophy exist now to permit that in a truly meaningful way that isn’t stilted by being required to shoot monsters or do sliding puzzles to unlock the next piece of story, whether through cutscenes or not.

    Anyway, there will be more articles in the future that more directly address this issue of story progression AS interactivity, rather than story-as-gameplay-context-simulator we’ve been hypnotized into believing is all there really is to interactive storytelling.

    Despite my objections, I still thank you for your input, Mory. It’s always good to know how the other half live.

    • May 19, 2011 3:41 pm

      Hm. It seems we agree on almost everything, and just haven’t been communicating properly. For instance, we disagree on how to define “gameplay”, and “agency” and all the other terms we’ve been using. But behind the linguistic confusion are almost exactly the same ideas. We’ll have to talk again next year after my first adventure game is hopefully finished – I expect it will support every point you’re making. It’s been a pleasure chatting.

      • Lee Edward McIlmoyle permalink*
        May 19, 2011 3:49 pm

        It Has!

        And you are probably quite right. You’re an indie game developer and I’m a amateur story writer, and we probably have completely different ideas about what all of these elements mean in terms of what we do and how we approach our work. I think it will be very interesting to see where we’re both at when we finally reach common ground.

        Good luck with your game, Mory. I look forward to seeing it when it’s complete.

  9. borabosna permalink
    August 20, 2013 8:08 am

    You need to play IF games! Start here: pr-if.org

    • August 20, 2013 8:34 am

      I think your reply misses my point, which is that IF, though a very good storytelling medium, isn’t perfect, because it (usually) involves the text box, which is a very limiting and confusing device for novices, and some experts as well. Just as traditional graphical adventure games and their point&click interfaces are both effective and yet confusing for amateurs, the text box is a fiercely confounding device that allows a fair bit of agency, and a definite sense that freedom is attainable, but it IS still an illusion, and not always a compelling one. But in the meantime, immersion is repeatedly broken because the interface is not that intuitive for people who don’t enjoy coding or word games.

      To be honest, I like the IDEA of Interactive Fiction more than I do the executions by many (though not all) IF writers. IF writers have a LOT to teach IS, but putting the story before gameplay is a step away from what most IF has to offer so far.

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