June 28, 2006

The End of Things

CC: It's interactive storytelling.
GS: And what does that mean to the common person?

CC: It's a story you get to participate in as the protagonist. You're the hero...and you let the story go. It's not at all like a regular story. It's not as if you're just following the footsteps of the hero in a standard movie. Interactive storytelling has a more meandering feel to it. You don't charge down a plot line towards the end, you meander through a social environment.

-- Video Games are Dead: A Chat with Storytronics Guru Chris Crawford

What is the value of an ending? How does the concept of an 'end' - and the constitution of those steps required to achieve that end - change how we view the design, and the narrativity, of a game? All game rule sets are systems of control, and most contain some sense of an ending (checkmate, Uno!, or even, "and they lived happily ever after"), but most games lean more towards one of two overall types: progressive or emergent. With the potential for vast narrative landscapes in virtual environments, bound by the limits of hardware and broadband connections rather than those of paper and ink, emergent and progressive design are two key strategies for containing space, story, and time. And yet these two genres hold radically different approaches to the alchemy of interaction and narrative.

Progressive games are arguably a narrative, adhering to many of the conventions of the word except for the (rather significant) departure from a fluid narrative communication strategy (outlined years ago by Chatman as flowing unidirectional from "Real Author" to "Real Reader" - see an example of this diagramed here). Emergent games, however, arguably are not - they may create narratives through their play, just as we might create a narrative about our walk to the park, our conversation with the homeless man we met there, or how we tripped and fell into a puddle on the way home. Those are experiences and only become narratives when they are retold. A retelling may happen almost immediately, such as a transcript generated as you play through a game of Facade, but the transcript - not the play - is the narrative.

These two overall types, emergent and progressive, are loosely defined by both the end state for the completed game, and the process by which a player or players achieve that end state. Both may use fiction as a component of the game, but the former, I argue, is the only kind that would be considered "game fiction," a phrase I use to describe a genre of game that draws upon and uses narrative strategies to create, maintain, and lead the user through a fictional environment. Game fiction's two most immediate and obvious connotations are prose fiction and interactive fiction (IF), and it deliberately is suggestive of narrative forms - novels, films, and the like - and yet distinguished by the ludic quality implicit in the game.1

While emergent games provide a series of game states (a shuffled deck of cards, an arrangement on the board, a set of characters or pieces) and a set of rules, the play emerges from any myriad potential combinations. The standard set of chess moves and situations (many of which chess players will keep on note cards for reference and study) is one such example. The process is less "story-telling" and more "lived experience," which distinguishes it from narrative, a form that at its base level is a retelling of events. To paraphrase the above comment by Crawford, in emergent games "you let the game go" - making choices along the way, influencing outcomes based on skill, knowledge, or luck. And yet the outcome - the end - is not designed (one might say, authored) as the completion of a series of staged, repeatable events.

Progressive games, on the other hand, often may adhere to what Aarseth calls the "pearl chain structure" ("Quest Games" 369), although with varying degrees of sophistication, and usually providing for at least some limited choice and configurability. They offer delineated paths, often a quest (either explicit or not) toward the completion of a goal: rescue a princess, defeat the invaders, escape from certain doom, or find the missing pages of a book. Computer games that involve platform jumping, adventure games, first-person shooter (or sneaking) games, and several styles of role-playing game involve predominantly progressive play. Significantly, in progressive games any emergent behavior generally is constrained to the supplementary events (satellites in Chatman's terms) rather the constituent ones (kernels). 2 Rather than following the footsteps of the hero, as Crawford suggests above, the player activity is more akin to following the footprints laid out on the floor by a dance instructor. With emergent games, the design process is one of stimulating potential. With progressive games, the design process is one of encouraging actualization.

Game fictions, then, include a presupposed end-game (or end-games), engendering a process by which the player interacts with the ludic design in order to actualize an ideal completion of the game's goals — to solve a mystery, to build towards a functional system, and/or to actualize a narrative sequence. If the rise of the novel in the 18th century reflected a growing "tendency for individual experience to replace collective tradition," as Ian Watt argues (Rise of the Novel 14), then comparatively the rise of game fiction could be seen to reflect a tendency towards collective tradition under the guise of individual experience. The interactive and competitive nature of the game fiction requires an interface for interaction and a shift in point of view, a framework guiding the player toward goals, which is most often framed as a quest, and establishing the parameters of the player character's abilities within the game and fictional space. Just as the shift from reader to player necessitates these control systems and feedback loops, so to does the shift bring with it thematic focus: encountering new worlds, managing conflict and goals, and bringing a character under player control and managing models of understanding his or her abilities, history, and story. The individual experience is in fact collective tradition, an echo perhaps of Marie-Laure Ryan's musing that hypertextual "aesthetic pleasure, like political harmony, is a matter not of unbridled license but of controlled freedom" (Narrative as Virtual Reality 8-9).

1 "Interactive fiction" would presumably suffice, and yet this term is so closely aligned with text-based adventure games (and some text-based procedural works that aren't necessarily games) that expanding the use of the phrase to encompass all types of game fictions seems unlikely to be adopted. Furthermore, the term "interactive" is limited in many ways as a descriptive term - as discussed in depth by Aarseth, Manovich, and others - so as to discourage my adoption of it over "game."

2Importantly, games may contain both emergent and progressive qualities, but just as texts, as Chatman asserts, adhere to a predominant type — Narrative, Argument, or Description — (CTT 6) so too do games, and either type can function "in service to" the other . So the games that are often heralded as more sophisticated for their non-linearity, such as Grand Theft Auto 3, Morrowind, and so on, often have a broader dose of Emergent play in service to their predominant Progressive type. Also note that games can share many qualities but lean more heavily towards one side or the other on this spectrum, e.g. Half-Life and Counterstrike, or Starcraft (Single-player) and Starcraft (Multi-player).

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June 21, 2006

Bending Stories

Probably one of the more concise, understandable descriptions of a kind of "interactive narrative" I've seen:

The idea of Bending Stories consists in considering the story as a sort of elastic band that the player is free to stretch depending on his actions. The story retains its structure but the player can modify its length and form and thus participate in the narration. In reality the story does not change diametrically from one game to the next, all that changes is the way it is told. However, the player can see parts of scenes and obtain different information depending on the particular path he follows.

Gamasutra - Feature - "Postmortem: Indigo Prophecy" by designer David Cage.

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June 7, 2006


Unfortunately, due to comment spam I've had to start relying on a CAPTCHA - one of those funny image/text verifcation systems (this plugin is SCode). I am well aware of the issues they cause, especially for those with vision problems. Currently, however, I'm just not sure any better way to stop the spam, which has shut our servers down several times in the past weeks. I welcome comments on the change, either through the normal comment feature or via email, which is always accessible: jcrhody AT umd DOT edu. Fellow herders - I sent email around detailing how to implement the plugin. I ask that you choose some effective way to moderate spam (TypeKey, SCode, etc.).

Posting has - and will remain - relatively light for the next several weeks, for a variety of reasons. Once I give it a good spellcheck, I will probably post the talk I gave at Georgetown a few weeks ago. The talk, which I gave alongside Michelle Roper and Mark Sample, was well-attended and enjoyable. After about 50 minutes of presentations, the forty or so audience members, who hailed from GW, Georgetown, UMD, UVA, and George Mason, ran us through our paces with about 70 minutes of Q & A. All in all, a great conversation and enjoyable afternoon.

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