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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’.

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.

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.

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.


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