a German film called The Way Things Go ("Der Lauf der Dinge"). If you haven’t seen it, you probably remember the Honda commercial that ripped it off. I mean, that was “creatively inspired” by it.
Objects have personality. A rolling disc moves with a cheeky wobble. A rod swings arrogantly. A ball bearing blithely ignores the chaos all around. Artists have know this since the first time a pebble was shaped to have sensuous curves. Thousands of years before the Virgin Mary, pareidolia detected other faces in a full moon, a cut pear, or a deer’s entrails. And Heider and Simmel showed that even triangles and circles can exhibit attachment, jealousy and unrequited love.
We all know that inanimate objects can be vindictive, especially when we’re hurrying to get ready and a chair or table decides to trip us up or inflict a treacherous blow to the shins. I encounter it every day on my computer. Firefox is often obstructive, especially when it gets together with McAfee. It drags its heels, refuses to shut down and restart. I’m accustomed to every hanging pause and greyed-out window as to the foibles of an obstreperous flatmate.
In an application with a practical function, the last thing we want is personality. Hands up who misses Clippy. Thought so. Just like reaching out a hand to pluck a grape, we desire thought and action to be as one. Good interactive design is all about immediate response and no surprises.
Except when it comes to stories. Because there, personality is exactly what we’re looking for. A choice in a gamebook should never play out entirely predictably. That’s what dice rolls used to clumsily try to provide. But a much better example comes from storytelling – the ordinary, non-interactive kind.
A story, if it’s well told, makes you wonder what’s going to happen next. (In fact, before that, it has to make you care what happens next, but what we’re talking about now assumes you’re already signed up for the ride.) Faced with a problem, the hero tries something – maybe it works a little, maybe it makes things worse, but it’s never exactly what he planned. Now he has to think on his feet. Reaching the satisfying conclusion is a process of continual tweaks of a complex system involving circumstances, unforeseen complications, the hero’s own shortcomings, and the emotions of others. “Stay in the house.” Of course she doesn’t. “Don’t forget your phone.” They always do. “Wait for back-up…” Oh, aren't we're just itching for the plans to gang agley?
In a gamebook, having to roll dice when you try to leap the chasm is one way to inject some unpredictability. Better is when you leap and fall onto another ledge. A new route – but is it more dangerous than the one before? Or you tell a character to do something and they argue. Maybe they do a little of what you asked, but don’t stick to the whole plan. How frustrating. And entertaining.
What would be terrible design in an interface is good policy if you’re writing interactive stories. Each time I curse Firefox, a part of me thinks of trying to persuade Victor Frankenstein to be more careful, or of arguing in the snow with Kyle Boche. Lack of complete control is what allows stories, improvisation and interactive fiction to exert such a hold over us. Where will it lead? We don’t know yet. The only certainty is that it’ll be fascinating.