Past Illusions of Narrative Interaction

It’s dreadful, shouldering the responsibility of filling this blank digital canvas with content and meaning. I thought to write that it’s a new experience for me, but then I realized it’s not – I have done this many times at Storytron, both as a technical writer and, even more so, as a storybuilder. Still, the dread is here. I think anyone who embarks on a creative pursuit feels at least a little awed by the prospect of making something out of nothing, and we in interactive storytelling have it worse than most, because we are each of us trying to create not simply a single work, but an entire medium. I truly believe that our greatest challenge is neither technical, financial, or indeed artistic, but personal – maintaining our resolve in the face of this dread.

To do that, we must connect with the inspiration that brought us to this field in the first place. For me that’s going to take a bit of work – I’ve been out of touch for half a dozen years, and even before that, I never produced a completed piece of self-expression, either in written or in storyworld form (as Storytron’s writer I mostly expressed my interpretation of Chris’ thoughts, rather than my own). I think a good place to start is to take a little retrospective trip to see how my thinking on the subject took shape. I would like to use my first two posts to invite you along on this trip. This would both allow those of you who don’t know me to get some idea as to who is writing to you, and allow me to tease out and foreshadow issues that are meaningful to me and deserve posts of their own. The first post will be about the source of my interest in interactive storytelling, which in my case stems from certain gaming experiences I had as a child. The second will trace my attempts to put that interest into practice. I will conclude each post with a summary of the topics it raised that I intend to return to in the future.

I must’ve been in kindergarten when I saw my first computer game. I don’t remember what it was, but it was love at first sight. The earliest infatuations I remember were with platformers, graphic adventures following soon after. Sonic and Commander Keen were among my favorite playmates, as were Fingus and Winkle from Gobliiins 2, but none compared to Bobbin Threadbare from Loom, who impacted me so deeply that I wore a hooded sweatshirt to school for several years. All of these characters are the kind of people I would have enjoyed reading a story about – charming underdogs, either children or child-like, defying the laws of nature to conquer adversity. I found them easy to identify with, yet at the same time acting through them made me vastly more powerful and capable. In other words, they served their respective games extremely well in supporting the core fantasy of interactive entertainment – that you have stepped into a world where your agency is enhanced beyond normal human limits. Whereas in other media you get, at most, to identify with people who can do things you can’t, in computer games I got to personify them. That’s one blogpost-worthy topic I identify.

One reason why Loom in particular had such a stranglehold on my soul was the sheer amount of personality and story it crammed not only into the protagonist, but into the the entire game world. Its first-class soundtrack, based on Swan Lake, its stunning graphics, still impressive to me in 2014, its beautiful, hand-sketched manual, and the deeply imaginative, colorful yet grim world it portrayed, replete with interesting characters, hit my young mind like a hammer. The Israeli version didn’t get the included audiobook – that may have been fortunate, because had I had access to that I would have fallen so madly in love I’m not sure I could ever share my heart with another game. Loom had, to use a term I got from being a Magic: The Gathering fan, an enormous amount of flavor, that non-interactive icing that makes you care about a game even before you play the first move and build a world around it in your imagination. Of course, other media have many works that surpass Loom in flavor, and yet I have never worn any piece of clothing to represent myself as a character from, e.g., a book or a movie. I believe the reason is that, although Loom was a very linear game, with few actual opportunities for me to influence anything, let alone the plot, it offered me just enough agency to lure me into fancying myself in control, and my imagination did the rest, which included choosing garments that strengthened the illusion. I have much more to say on the subject of stimulating the player’s imagination with flavor. This will get a post of its own.

There were other games which meant a lot to me because of the way they stimulated my imagination with an illusion of personification in a flavorful context. Dune 2 is still my fondest-remembered real time strategy game, although in game mechanic terms it has been superseded many times over. That’s probably because my first contact with it was reading the manual, which contained enough hints of the richness of the source material (that is, the book on which the game was based) to get me very interested. I promptly bought and read Dune (I must have been 12), and it became my all-time favorite. Loving a game that offered the illusion of participating in the book’s events was a no-brainer, notwithstanding that Dune 2’s plot was actually very character-sparse and didn’t really have a lot to do with the book. Later I played Dune 1, a completely different game which made a valiant effort to include dramatically interesting interaction with the book’s characters as a major game mechanic. It failed miserably, but the attempt itself was more than you could find in most games that came before or after. One thing both games did very well, though, is capturing the book’s atmosphere in their soundtracks, which did a lot to strengthen my emotional bond to them. They were not, however, worthy interactive renditions of the book, nor were the other three Dune games which have been made since. I consider it the holy grail of my career to produce such a worthy rendition (although there is of course the slight issue of the rights to the franchise, which are held by EA, not exactly the easiest people to resolve IP issues with). As a first step, I would be very pleased if I manage to write a post about what it would take to create such a rendition.

Dune 2 wasn’t the only game which won me over with an interesting text-based story coupled with a flavorful world containing the allure of personification. It wasn’t even the first – that title belongs to Darkspyre, a game which came with what to me seemed at the time to be a humongous novella. The game itself followed its short intro video with several pages of textual exposition, some parts of which the player was invited to compose as the story unfolded. After that came what was a precursor to modern action roleplaying games such as Diablo, which for the most part I despise, but those dual textual introductions, the strong flavor of its world, and its compelling soundtrack have secured Darksypre a warm spot in my heart. Alone in the Dark was another game with excellent flavor and music supported by a relatively strong written narrative, which appeared in the form of various book and letter excerpts throughout the game, as well as a physical copy of a fictional newspaper included in the game box. I later found that Alone in the Dark itself was based on the writing of horror novelist H. P. Lovecraft. I also recall Dark Reign fondly – that must have been one of the last mainstream games to rely heavily on written narrative in its manual and between levels to drive the plot. I was probably one of the only people interested in it, but I devoured it. I was very much enamored with Gabriel Knight, a narrative-rich game with excellent music and dialog, which came boxed with a graphic novel. In fact, Gabriel Knight was designed by a writer who later also published its story as a book. Although at heart an action-strategy game designed mainly for good multiplayer carnage, Myth: The Fallen Lords had copious “cutscenes” in the form of installments from an audiobook that were played between levels, supported by hand-sketched images of some of the situations described. Lastly, I should mention the genre of choose-your-own-adventure books, especially Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (linked here in the marvelous iOS adaptation), which weren’t all that interactive but still managed to create a powerful experience of being transported to participate in a fantasy adventure. What all these games had in common is that they stimulated my imagination to place them in a narrative context, to become interested in them as stories as well as games.

You may be wondering what this list has to do with interactive storytelling. After all, none of the games I mentioned contained any appreciable amount of interactive narrative – they all had various bits of expository art tacked onto a core that was more or less interactive, but had no human drama in it. The answer is that these games are the closest I have come to having the experience of participating as a character in a story. If they managed to give me that, they must have done something right, and I think it’s important to tease out what that something is. I’ve already arrived at a first formulation – they had a strong illusion of personification and strong flavor. I will not go any deeper into these subjects, so as to not spoil future posts, but I will say this: the styles of their expository elements emphasized text and/or spoken dialog over cinematic cutscenes, still graphics over animation. They tended to have excellent music, a relatively slow, somber, even pensive tone (Myth was one of the few franchises I’ve ever seen that had no music outside the cinematics and main menu), and intimate ties with literature in one form or another. What none of them had was any real resemblance to a movie – an important point that would be fitting to explore in a post about flavor.

There have been a handful of games which managed to give me an interactive storytelling illusion despite resembling movies in their expository style. The most important among them were probably the Wing Commander series, Terra Nova and Half-Life (the former two also relied a lot on dialog and written background stories). However, these games have something in common which sets them apart from many other movie-like games: an appreciable amount of their narrative occurs inside the game world, and not in the cutscenes that appear separately from it. The fact that the non-interactive story and and non-dramatic interaction both occur at the same time and place does much to support the illusion that one is a participant in the narrative. In other words, such games achieve unity of place and unity of time, which are two of the three laws of dramatic organization posited by Aristotle. The third, which they fatally don’t achieve, is unity of action. I think the three unities deserve a post of their own as well.

As I look back at the non-interactive stories grafted onto these games, one other thing that strikes me is the kind of dark narrative they seem to share. None of these games depict a muscle-bulging, babe-wielding hero like Duke Nukem, “here to kick ass and chew bubble gum,” and, save for the earliest ones such as Keen, Sonic or Gobliiins, neither are they in any way light-hearted romps. Loom’s protagonist is a shunned orphan who watches his world turn asunder by an army of revenants. Dune is basically a story about the good being brought down and then corrupted by the evil. Darkspyre tells of a world damned by the gods, to be redeemed when a hero finally succeeds, where many have perished, in conquering a dungeon of horrors. The word “horror,” of course, is a precise description of Alone in the Dark’s story, which tells of a family, all dead now, having been driven to madness, illness and suicide by the spirit of a servant of dark primordial gods, buried beneath their house. Dark Reign tells of a brutal galactic empire mercilessly putting down a doomed rebellion, in the process ravaging the peaceful civilization of a neutral planet. Gabriel Knight is about a decadent, pessimistic ne’er-do-well who discovers he is the last scion of a dying and dishonored family of monster hunters, a terrifying job into which he is pressed despite his utter unsuitability. Myth follows a common soldier in a Nordic mythology-inspired world as it is devoured by a prophesied anti-messiah. Sorcery! tells of a hero’s lonely travels in a fantasy world overrun by evil and decay. Wing Commander begins as a straight-up swashbuckler, but evolves into a dark tale of humanity’s desperate and corrupting struggle for survival against a superior alien race, while the protagonist, a thoroughly decent fellow, is repeatedly betrayed, defamed, and has his loved ones killed. Terra Nova depicts a group of space colonists who have escaped the tyrannical regime of Earth to find independence, only to be invaded by their former oppressors. The protagonist of Half-Life is a young physicist in a government research facility invaded by aliens. Surviving the slaughter of his colleagues by their supposed rescuers, the US Army, he manages to defeat the alien threat, only to discover that he has been a pawn in a government plot to conquer the aliens’ world.

There is no need to dwell on how limited a sample these collected stories are of all the different kinds of human conditions that one could spin a tale about. They are, with very little variation, stories of violent conflict in an SF&F setting. While these are not two attributes that one would be surprised to find in a computer game narrative, I think that each of them does warrant some thinking. Start with the latter: why SF&F? I believe a very strong point can be made for using fantastical settings for interactive entertainment. This point has two sides: 1) the more “down to earth” the setting we use, the more we set up our audience to expect verisimilitude, which we are very far from achieving in an interactive product; 2) the more fantastical the setting, the grater the potential for the protagonist to do extraordinary things, which, as I hinted to above, is a core motivation to participate in interactive entertainment. I’d like to return to the question of choosing a setting in another post.

I have even more to say in another post on the topic of violence. Obviously, interactive storytelling should be less blood-splattered than computer games, but that doesn’t mean it should have no bloodshed – violence is a topic of the highest importance, being the way in which people repeatedly and tragically destroy each other. What most of the games on my list share is a view of violence as an extremely costly and corrosive ordeal, even for the virtuous and victorious – not a bad message to get across, in my opinion as a lifelong resident of a war zone. At the same time, violence a difficult topic to tackle, because by its nature it risks diminishing the depth of interpersonal interactions between characters. Actually, violence is only one of several “intense” topics that interactive storytelling should address, but address with care. My other obvious candidates for this list are sex, politics, religion, ethics and the holocaust, and I think all deserve further consideration from me. Sex is an especially interesting one. It is extremely central and ubiquitous, and unlike violence it vitalizes interpersonal interaction rather than killing it. However, I’ve never seen an interesting interactive treatment of sex. Some of the reasons for this are shared with other media; sex is so intense a stimulus that it is often censored, and when it’s not it requires some care to not let it devolve into pornography by default. I think one of the more unique problems we face is that the interaction in lovemaking is based on tactile – not verbal, not even visual – communication, at which computers are gloriously inept. I see some hope for mobile phones, though, given their ability to handle various kinds of tactile input and output – maybe a game where you caress your lover’s hand on the screen and feel it quaver in response, or blow them kisses by literally blowing into the microphone. Worth thinking about.

Let me attempt to summarize what I have said so far. My interest in creating interactive storytelling has come from childhood and teenage experiences, playing computer games which gave me the mere illusion of narrative interaction. What allowed these games to do this were certain characteristics, such as rich flavor, a reliance on textual exposition, and a compelling soundtrack, which promoted a sense of personification with a virtual character through which I experienced enhanced agency. They were based in SF&F settings emphasizing the grimness of violent conflict. I would like to author storyworlds which create a similar experience, but do it through interactive, rather then merely expository means, and which explore richer forms of human conflict beyond direct violence. I don’t know whether my experience, and the motivation it created, chime with your own. If not, I hope that the contrast with what I wrote will help you differentiate your own experiences more clearly. If you would like to share your take on these issue, I would welcome your comments.

Lastly, here is a list of possible topics for future posts that I brought up. Some may overlap, and some may be beyond my grasp, so I don’t promise to write a post for every one, but they’re a good tentative list to start from. If you think I missed some, feel free to say so in the comments – I just might do requests:

  1. Promoting the illusion of interactive narrative
  2. Personification and the enhancement of agency
  3. Creating a flavorful storyworld
  4. What it would take to create an interactive version of Dune
  5. Unity of place, time and action in interactive storytelling
  6. Choice of settings for a storyworld
  7. Dealing with intense topics such as violence or sex
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6 Responses to Past Illusions of Narrative Interaction

  1. This is one of the most insightful essays I’ve read in a long time. It covers so much territory that it’s impossible for me to present an organized response without dedicating far too much time to digesting it. Some random thoughts:

    1. Violence: is violence used in games because it is the most intense (and therefore most dramatic) form of conflict? Or is it used because players are often young males — many of whom are obsessed with violence? Or is it because violence is easy to simulate: point the gun, hit the bad guy?

    2. Sex: forget it. Sex is a whole-body experience. It relies on the integration of many sensory elements; the computer is simply too narrow a device to communicate sex. Consider, for example, the use of sex in video. Pornographic representations of the sex act are a very poor representation, and in fact many people find them to be a turn-off. The more tasteful representations of sex in mainstream cinema try hard to be artful, and they sometimes capture a fraction of the experience. But to be effective they have to be indirect, concentrating on faces and hands, not genitals. I sometimes wonder if the sex scenes in movies are primarily for the benefit of younger people who appreciate a little visual instruction? It would be interesting to get some sort of polling data on the degree to which people enjoy sex scenes in movie as a function of their age.

    3. I am VERY impressed that you understand Aristotle’s three unities!

    4. You represent a generation raised on games. I and the first generation people had no frame of reference for game design; we had to invent it out of nothing. We were not educated by an existing body of material — but this was in some ways an advantage. Our imaginations were free to roam wildly. On the other hand, the terror of the blank page was so much greater because the entire universe of game design was a blank page. In any case, the differences between our generations will prove fascinating. Our task was to establish the basic rules of the genre; your task is to master and then rebel against those rules.

    5. Dammit, your essay is too long! I fear that some people may not have the fortitude to tackle the whole thing, so short have our attention spans become.

    6. The thrust of current game design is to advance the *illusion* of narrative interaction. I am the radical who claims that this is entirely the wrong approach, that the only worthy strategy is to attempt to achieve the *reality* of narrative interaction. But I have 20 years of failure to demonstrate the futility of my strategy. Should we settle for the illusion?

    7. You’re dead on with the observation that SF&F gives us greater freedom from the demands of verisimilitude. But can we not also use greater abstraction to accomplish this? Consider the comic strip “XKCD” — it uses stick figures lacking faces. The extreme abstraction of the visuals doesn’t detract from the communicate — it is used to enhance the communication. I have frequently cited the example of the strip tease as using the *lack* of verisimilitude (you never get to see the genitals) to stimulate the imagination. What other avenues of “depleted information” can we use to communicate what we cannot communicate explicitly?

    I better stop here.

    • Jonathan Beyrak-Lev says:

      1. I would add that the emphasis on violence in formal games is by no means a recent phenomenon in the history of culture or indeed of evolution. A lot of mammalian play is practice for various kinds of violent encounter, and in humans a very large proportion of formal play seems to always have been centred around the application of ballistic control, spatial navigation and teamwork to defeat an opponent (e.g. soccer). Of course, these are the basic skills that humans (mostly men) employ to kill prey and other humans. Games for more subtle skills, such as mind-reading or relationship-building, are rarer. Moreover, they tend to either be zero sum games such as poker, which is still very humanly limited, or rely a lot on non-formal improvisation, as in spin-the-bottle or Dungeons and Dragons (the latter, of course, also often being centred around violence and not interpersonal processes).

      2. If we’re talking full-monty sex I think you’re right. The question is, can we do something low-key as in the romantic caressing example I proposed?

      4. Sadly the main kind of rebellion I’m seeing is the “pixellated retro” style. Sure, it’s rejecting the current AAA titles for many of the right reasons, but I think it doesn’t really offer a good enough alternative.

      5. Several people agree on this – point taken.

      6. I think if the current state of game development proves anything, it’s that investing in the illusion of narrative interaction is hitting enormous diminishing returns. AAA Games cost as much as movies to make these days, but narratively they are pathetic even compared to Hollywood. Mechanically they are often no better than indie games cobbled together for relative pennies (viz. FTL, one of the best games I’ve ever played). One fatal mistake these extravaganzas make is that they try to go down the Wing Commander route of unity of time and place combined with spectacle. If my personal experience is any indication, this is a wasteful and inferior way of fostering the illusion they’re looking for (though effective, I would think, in popping the eyes of teenage males). I think the facts bear out that there is no way forward using these inferior techniques, and I think that the feeling is growing in the mainstream that something’s gotta give, although they are mostly clueless about what that is.

      At the same time, I agree that we don’t yet have a viable interactive storytelling product. I think that such a product could be helped along immensely if it combines as many ruses as possible to engender illusive narrative interaction in addition to the true-blue interactive storytelling it offers. But that’s a topic for another post.

      7. Excellent points. I think they tie in very closely with the attributes I singled out for good illusive interactive storytelling – a focus on abstract expression such as text and music, still images rather than animation etc.

  2. Bill Maya says:

    For those who aren’t familiar with Aristotle’s Classical unities they are:

    • The unity of action: a play should have one main action that it follows, with no or few subplots.
    • The unity of place: a play should cover a single single physical space and not attempt to compress geography, nor should the stage represent more than one place.
    • The unity of time: the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours.
  3. oneconch says:

    Nice post.

    Personally: this is really interesting. I remember thinking when I read your bio on the storytron site, years ago, that our stories were almost identical. Those first two Dune games were and still are among my biggest influences, and I similarly read the book (and its sequels) because of the original game. Though I was about half your age at the time, heh.

    I’ve actually been rereading the books over the last few months. It’s interesting to see what I missed, having much more context today than I knew back then. And, as I feel Herbert’s biggest strength is his description of abstract concepts, I also think that its description of prescience has some interesting parallels to what Crawford calls “subjunctivity”, the wide-open possibility space afforded in a storyworld or broad sandbox-style game. And where a prescient character can explore the results those options in the hypothetical without making a choice in the real world, such games and storyworlds allow the same exploration of possibility space by means of replaying and making different choices in the same situations. Run Lola Run is a film that also explored the same idea somewhat, in another linear medium.

    I am really interested in your Dune-as-storyworld idea, though I am a bit confused by your summary of the story as “the good being brought down and then corrupted by the evil”, even (or especially) if you’re only referring to the first novel!

    I do agree with Chris that this essay is overly long. Blogging tends to work best with smaller posts, with longer writings split across multiple pages. This is good for advertisement and notifications to followers, but also has other benefits: people can comment on individual sections of a text, and link a to specific area on another site. Plus, it can be a good mental exercise to cut down to only what is necessary and relevant for a given topic or subtopic; the excisions often form natural bases for new posts; and it is often simply easier to write on a more constrained topic.

    In a more behind-the-scenes note, it’s helpful to use the “more” tag after the first paragraph or so, especially on long posts like this. It helps keep the frontpage looking less cluttered and encourages people to click through to the post page itself, which is where all the crunchy bits live.

  4. Jonathan Beyrak-Lev says:

    Thanks for the tips – I’m new to blogging so this is very useful to me.

    Re my interpretation of Dune, you’re right that it was influenced by the later novels, but I think it’s already justified by the first. The Atreides start out being a force for humanity, virtue, and love for one’s fellows, and very little seems to be left of that by the end of the book. Sure, they kick some bad guy butt, but in many ways they don’t end up seeming very morally superior to their enemies. There are several little stories along the way that mimic this larger plot progression (as I see it). The most notable is, of course, Yueh.

    It’s been many years since I made a serious attempt to sketch out an interactive version of Dune. In my youth I made several, but as I realised the enormity of the task (and of the copyright issues), I put the idea on hold. I do hope to take it up again. One thing I feel strongly about is that, to allow for enough interactive freedom, it should deal with a broader context than the travails of House Atreides on Arrakis. Perhaps it should deal with Landsraad machinations, one possible outcome of which would be being sent into an ambush (or not) on Arrakis.

  5. Daniel Davis says:

    Thank you very much Jonathan for an excellent post.
    Putting last things first, the order in which you list future topics looks like a good one to me. except perhaps for what it would take to create an interactive version of Dune. on the one hand as the only topic offering a glimpse at a complete storyworld it is the most interesting, on the other, for that same reason it seems to naturally belongs further down the line.
    by the by, my initial guess as too what it would take would be “Too much”

    violence has another “advantage” on other forms of communication – the answer to violence is usually more violence (or dying).

    I would say that rather than 3A hitting diminishing returns what we see is that they’re hitting negative returns. If they would actually succeed in promoting a better illusion of narrative the world would be a better place as far as I am concerned.

    by now though, Jonathan beat me to the punch, I think illusion of narrative can fill the gaps.

    The questions buzzing in my head after reading this discussions are:
    can there be any narrative without flavor?
    is such a thing really desirable?
    do all characters in an interactive story have to be full actors? why not start with just two if it simplifies things? SF&F give as plenty of plausibility for this, other characters could be under a spell, simplistic monsters, adults, or even (gasp!) AI.
    an interactive story could take the form of the standard Macro-Micro structure of traditional games with the micro part being small bite-sized stories. leaving the illusion in the part of “where we’re going” and focusing the interactivity on “how we got there”. as long as there’s no way to win or lose the steps that would create the story don’t face the danger of being deprived of meaning.

    For example, if I think about the theme of dark narratives, how about a small group of people in a closed environment with slowly depleting resources. the macro would be non-interactive about bad things happening and semi-interactive actions of delaying the inevitable. The interesting bits would be how the people cope with the situation.

    In my own experience, I can’t remember many games that game me an interactive storytelling illusion. Grim Fandango & Wing Commander IV sucked me into their world (the previous wing commanders probably got me to a large extent through the music). but what I would characterize as my closest brush would by times in strategy games or RTSs where I invented the narrative myself to explain the unfolding actions.
    What I was surprised to discover was that I’m not alone in this, there is a whole culture out there of people taking strategy game playthroughs and trying to create and share stories about them.
    And in the end, isn’t all narrative created in the subjective mind? with the creator merely attempting to nudge them along in the direction he fancies?
    for the most basic of interactive stories isn’t all that’s needed are a few meaningful actions and enough flavor to spark the imagination of the player and let his mind create the story for us?

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