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Friday, 31 January 2014

Who is making the choice?

OK, this isn't a dig at either Heavy Rain (above) or The Birthday Party (below). These interactive videos on YouTube are just a bit of fun. But they do serve to illustrate a problem with interactive movies - to wit, that they are completely and calamitously unengaging.

Look at the Heavy Rain example. It's set up exactly like a scene in a movie. Our mental gears shift to prepare us for being told a story. And then suddenly it all freezes. The engrossing but fragile confection that is story evaporates, to be replaced by the uncomfortable angles of a puzzle. Snap out of it, you have to make a decision!

But as whom? We're not the protagonist. We're not the protagonist's confidant or conscience. We are, in fact, the viewer - or we were a moment ago. But now we're the author - quite a old-fashioned author, too, hopping between viewpoints - making the next plot decision. And in a moment we'll go back to being the viewer. How discombobulating - and exhausting.

Viewers and readers do not want to make up a story. They want to be told a story. The motivation that most compels our interest in fiction is wondering what happens next. Interactivity can play powerfully into this need. You can make the reader the hero, as in a traditional gamebook, in which case their decisions fit logically within the story. Another way is to make the interactivity about the reader's or viewer's relationship with characters.

What doesn't work is disconnecting us from events so that we float around in an oneiric state of immersion one moment, then have to wake up into a different persona - the rational, active self in which we analyse, ponder, sit forward and make a choice. That's interactivity for Vulcans. Let's have no more of it.


21 comments:

  1. Dave, may I ask what the Sokara source book is used for?

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    1. It's for role-playing, Alex. But the Fabled Lands RPG seems to have fizzled out - in fact, I just checked and Greywood Publishing's licence expired last summer. So if anyone wants to publish a roleplaying game set in the Fabled Lands...?

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    2. Very tempting, although I might hold out for when the Dragon Warriors licence with Serpent Kings expires...

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    3. As to that... I am still hopeful that the Players' Book isn't far off.

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    4. What's that got to do with this post anyways?

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    5. Jamie and I have a running joke. Whatever I post about it, we reckon somebody will get the subject back onto FL gamebooks. Look back at the posts about Dirk Lloyd, my Frankenstein app, Mirabilis, Dragon Warriors, and see if I'm not right.

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  2. Efrem Orizzonte2 February 2014 14:23

    I understand your point, Dave, but I still found Heavy Rain spectacularly engaging at times. Maybe for all the wrong reasons, but still. It's the only game that made me feel a true sense of responsibility when it tasked me with... making microwaved pizza for dinner, or changing a baby's diaper. Yeah, I felt more responsible doing that than unraveling the game's mystery. There are moments when that game gives you very little control, but those moments are also the most tense. How will the other characters react if you make a little mistake? You can easily predict what will happen if you succeed... but you're constantly wondering, "what if I screw this one up?". And you almost WANT to screw up because, well, it's like a gamebook: more often than not, it's very interesting to see how badly things can go if you make a mistake. Also because Heavy Rain won't give you a Game Over, even if you manage to get one of the characters killed. You can screw up, and the story will just unfold in a different way to its end.

    I don't know if you've actually played the game or just watched the scenes on YT, but for me, they are two very different things. The charm of Heavy Rain can't really be understood if you're not playing it, and for the very reasons you mention in your post. When you have to make the decision and you're not just watching the actual player make that decision, it's really different. As flawed as Heavy Rain is from a narrative standpoint, I think it's a great experiment. Maybe I'm in the minority, but in video games I prefer to "make up" the story than merely "watch" it. It makes bad narrative more tolerable to me (and video game narrative is very rarely NOT bad).

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    1. I do like to be in a story, Efrem. That's why I love role-playing games - though the emphasis there is on being in character. The story is visible only in retrospect.

      The question remains, though, who am I in the story? Are the characters my little pets (Lara in the original Tomb Raider) or a sort of proxy/avatar that I can control at times (Cutter Slade in the still unbeaten Outcast)? Or something else?

      You used the first person there when talking about Heavy Rain, and it's good if it gives you that feeling, but I suspect, because real interactivity is always a dialogue, that the most effective model is to have the protagonist in a relationship with the player rather than standing in for the player. That is, assuming that interactive story is the main thing we're aiming for. Sometimes (as in Max Payne) you just want to shoot stuff and experience the story as a backdrop to hold it all together.

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    2. I can only speak for myself, but playing both Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls (from the same developer) I never felt like the characters where just my toys to play with or extensions of myself. The characters where themselves and when playing as them I felt like I was them (or at least how I imagined them).

      The most immersive moments for me was no when I was "watching the movie", but when given choices. Holding a gun against another man's head in Heavy Rain trying to decide if I should shoot this person I know nothing about or lowering my gun and risking the life of both myself and my comrade. Contemplating suicide in Beyond and ultimately deciding against it, not because I need to make the heroine survive to "win" the game or because I wanted to get on with the story, but because I knew that other characters relied on me and wanted me to survive.

      If that isn't interactive fiction and role-playing close to their highest potential I don't really know what could be.

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    3. (That "where" should be a "were" and that "no" should be a "not". I really need to look better over what I post. Especially when I don't have an edit function at my disposal.)
      I'd add that there was only a single moment during Heavy Rain that I remember feeling like a spectator rather than a participator, and I believe that scene was that way on purpose.

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    4. If you feel that it is "you" making the choice then it's working. Max Payne, for example, encourages you to think in first person while leaning forward (ie running and shooting stuff) then in cutscenes you switch to an empathic third person. That's especially important in Max Payne (first game) because he's such an unreliable narrator. Is he really a detective under deep cover, or is he a homeless drug addict and possible murderer who was kicked off the force years ago?

      In short, it works if you're emotionally engaged, but to create emotional engagement the designer(s) must ask themselves what role the player is taking. Trying to create engaging interactivity without that in mind is likely to come unstuck.

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  3. My biggest qualm with these interactive videos is the lack of old, musty paper smell. ;)

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  4. What was I JUST SAYING about everything having to come back to gamebooks?

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  5. It kinda sounds like you're saying First and Second Person is okay, and Supporting Protagonist is okay, but Third Person isn't. I agree that interactive movies are jarring, but that doesn't mean that being the non-character Director for a story has to be a bad thing. I believe you're a fan of The Walking Dead games -- surely those are no more jarring than any "You" gamebook or FPS with dialogue trees? (quicktime events aside)

    Moreover, I don't see the appeal of playing Jiminy Cricket or John Watson to the protagonist. Why does it matter if the viewer is in the story or not? Surely we watch movies this way: "Don't go in there!" "Katniss totally should have picked Gale over that dud Peeta," etc.

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    1. No, I'm not saying third person can't work - see my reply to Varg above. There is nothing wrong with third person characters in interactive stories as long as you're made to care about them, whether we're talking about Lara (a sort-of pet) or a genuine Creatures/Tamagotchi type pet.

      The viewer (ie player) is in the story either way - if you recognize that the story is the whole system, player and game environment, not just the bit on screen. And, yes, you can set up an interactive story in which the player's role is to be the director controlling the characters - but you still need to evoke a relationship. That by implication gives you a role in the story - guardian angel (powerful, remote, game character may not be aware of or acknowledge your existence) if not Jiminy Cricket (restricted to giving advice, intimate, direct dialogue with game character).

      Empathy of course works very well in non-interactive stories. That's pretty much the whole point of a story. But to put traditional stories alongside interactive ones is largely a misleading comparison. The power of dramatic irony, for example, comes from our inability to do anything BUT yell at the screen: "There's a bomb under the table!" If we could act on that, no tension.

      Ah, but if we have a relationship with the character and we have to convince them about the bomb, that's starting to get interesting. That's why Walking Dead is so much better than all those "solve the plot" adventure games with their crate-stacking and environmental IQ tests.

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    2. I was going to ask if you'd played the Walking Dead. The reason that series works so well, I think - and I would definitely put it in my top 10 video games of all time - is that apart from having excellent choice-making mechanics and some fairly major moral quandaries, it just had top-notch writing, characterisation and voice acting amongst video games in general. (Oh, and soundtrack. This song still gives me goosebumps - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFo9whvbx4Q ).

      The other interesting thing about it is that compared to a lot of other games, there are no alternate endings; the difference is whether you arrive at the end with a group of survivors who trust and respect each other, or a group that hates each other's guts. The story is in the journey, not the destination.

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    3. That's also true of my Frankenstein app. For example, in almost all outcomes the monster kills Victor's little brother. But depending on what you've done earlier it can be an accident, a cold- blooded ploy to get Victor's attention, or an expression of jealous rage. (And in fact there's another outcome in which... But perhaps I should avoid spoilers.)

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  6. It was a point in WD's favour that it's still a fantastic choice-making game without your choices actually impacting on the ending (i.e. your choices still feel meaningful even if they don't ultimately make a difference), but I do actually prefer choice-making games with alternate endings; not too many, maybe seven or eight, and also not the dual good/bad ending that many games have, but something that runs the gamut from really terrible to really happy, the way that a lot of CYOA books did back in the '80s.

    Actually, the PC game Dishonored (spoilers for that if you intend to play it) had a surprisingly good feature at the end. My first playthrough culminated with the villain holding the princess hostage atop a tower, at the edge of a drop, his plans in ruins, and as I approached he yelled "Don't come any closer!" I came closer anyway and he jumped and took her with him. And rather than saying "game over" and allowing me to go back to the last save, the game actually accepted that as the ending and ran me through an ending sequence showing what the consequences of that were. I ended up savescumming and going back to save the princess and get the "good" ending anyway, but I was very impressed that the game incorporated the possibility of failure as canon, and still think of that as the "true" ending to that story, because it was the first one I got.

    Thanks for avoiding spoilers on Frankenstein btw - I'm intending to read your version once I've actually read the original. I'm trying to knock off a lot of the classics this year. Halfway through Dracula at the moment and it holds up surprisingly well.

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    1. There's the big problem with multiple endings. A story's ending, to be really satisfying, should be both surprising and inevitable. Yet the author in setting up multiple endings doesn't know the part of the story that's outside his/her control, ie the player's own response to all that has happened. That's another reason why I prefer the player not to be the central character.

      I read Dracula when I was about ten years old, & I think it's probably a good adventure story, though not a literary classic as Frankenstein is. Btw my Frankenstein app includes the text of the original book (the 1818 version) as one of the extras.

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  7. Are you kidding about the a FL RPG?
    That's a sad news. Eventually, I would love to do one that complement the original rules in the game books. Same system to export character, no spell list (Like Ars Magica or Mage the Ascension/Awakening). Some lite rule for encumbrance, travel and a few optional rules for combat.

    The FL gamebook rules are really good!

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  8. Thanks, Ikaros - and you may want to take a look at Stuart Lloyd's new rule system, which he said was inspired (in part) by FL. Click on the "Lloyd of Gamebooks" link in the sidebar.

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