|Ico cover art by bigdogsleeping.
Michael’s “Narrative Manifesto” post at the Brainy Gamer gave me an opportunity to think about what’s at stake when we talk about interactive narratives. Although I can only sketch out some of the issues involved, I’d like to take a stab at understanding a few ways we tend to think about interactivity and narratives, and the kinds of assumptions they come with. I hope that I don’t come off too strongly here, but I think we’ve continued to repeat a grave mistake in our understanding of interactivity, and because of that are headed down a blind alley in terms of story development.
The basic premise I have is that the word “interactive” can be understood on at least two levels in video games. We tend to forget that one level of interactivity is more important than the other, often end up in situations where a player fights with the game instead of enjoying it for what it is. Instead of beating our collective heads against the wall as we try to design games that let players live out their wildest desires, we should be developing worlds that encourage players to explore them as living, breathing, places.
When we talk about video games, we typically mean “interactive” when hit a button and the game responds in some way. The player interacts with the game in a way that produces some kind of in-game response. For the last 25 years, this form of interaction has been hailed as the hallmark of computer and video games because other media seem to be less contingent upon the audience’s choices – musical melodies and brush strokes don’t change much when we listen to music or encounter a painting. Since Pong, we’ve relied upon the idea that what is physically on the screen should change whenever the player does something. Player-game interaction is what we typically mean by interactivity. Player choices and decisions are tantamount here, and the game enables the player to accomplish her/his goals.
But doesn’t that seem a bit suspect? Like the first time a cat sees its reflection in a mirror and realizes that it can make its doppelganger do its bidding? Have we been pushing pixels around a screen for 25 years and marveling at the novelty of technology?
In order to answer that, we have to look at a second kind of interactivity. This level of interactivity is one that is found in all aspects of human perception, not just when we play video games. When we talk about engagement we mean that a person is somehow captured, arrested, or even enchanted by something. When we really engage with something, it seems to capture our entire attention. In the most extreme experiences of engagement we sometimes seem to perceive nothing else than the object (or person) of interest – we feel inseparable from the person, place, or thing. A lot of 18th century philosophy tried to get at the idea of perceiving things ‘as they are’ without our personal desires getting in the way.
If you’ve read Michael’s post on the experience of keeping a scorecard at a baseball game (and my comparison to Role-Playing), really engaging with a game means that we put our desires aside and let the game speak to us. Really engaging with a spectated ball game, role-playing a character, reading a book, listening to music, having a conversation, and engaging with fine art, all involve giving ourselves over to the experience and appreciating it for what it is, not our personal desires. Personal engagement is a more primary form of interactivity because it lets the object/person/game express itself to us. Only then can we really personally respond to it and feel something for it. This is a more direct, less masturbatory way of interacting with something.
This is where I think things have gone south of cheese in the way we think about video games. We’ve forgotten that our ability to engage with something is a gift inherent to human perception, and instead we’ve attempted to replace that form of engagement with a derivative technological form of interaction (player-game). When I engage with a game, and really live in that world, everything around me falls aside. The choose-your-own-adventure-esque choices that I make in game mean nothing if I do not already buy into the world as a living, breathing, place, where my choices matter not just to me but the game world itself. When I play Ico, if I don’t invest in the game world I couldn’t possibly care if Yorda is captured by the shadowy figures – she’s just another annoying road block that gets in the way of my immediate goals.
|Skip to the 4:00 mark for Ico’s encounter with Yorda.|
But when I engage with the world of Ico, I develop a care for what happens in the game, and it’s no longer possible to watch Yorda get pulled into one of the black portals without feeling guilty, or compelled to run over and save her. So inviting players to really engage with a game is the true magic of video games, as it is with novels, films, music, stories, and other media. The magic of engagement, which comes as a result of the author inviting the audience to stay a while, and the audience putting aside their immediate desires, is something that principally cannot be achieved technologically. Or in other words, player-game interaction (the kind of interaction we’re used to in games) only means something when the player is already engaged with the game.
In that way, the idea that we need to develop interactive storytelling algorithms or AI that “react” to the player’s choices in real-time in order to make stories better or more enjoyable, is barking up the wrong tree. Instead of figuring out ways to craft a story on-the-fly (how many times do we need to re-invent Choose-Your-Own-Adventure?), we should be trying to figure out what’s involved in getting players to really engage with the game and build a sense of care for it.
I’m not suggesting that player-game interaction doesn’t matter – it still remains to be an important part of what makes video games a unique medium – I’m instead suggesting that our time needs to be invested in understanding what makes a particular narrative or story compelling for a player. Without that, there is no technological magic pill that will make a story matter for us.
… does this make any sense to anyone else?
Note: head on over to the Vorpal Bunny Ranch for a response from Denis, who has masterfully shown how these issues are expressed in several kinds of games.