Aug 07

Narratives and Interactivity Still Misunderstood

by in Storytelling, Narrative, and Writing

Ico cover art by bigdogsleepingIco 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.

29 Responses to “Narratives and Interactivity Still Misunderstood”

  1. From Ben Abraham:

    “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.”

    Yes, yes, oh, GOD YES! You are totally making sense to me. However (and it’s only a small however) I wonder if throwing out the baby with the bath-water is such a great idea. I’ve added another comment on the original Brainy Gamer post, but I’ll summarise – I totally believe games should be focussing on engaging players rather than, as you say, masturbating their desire to ‘make the plumber move’ exactly as they intended.

    But I don’t know if you could successfully have the player engage in the world without that direct sense of presence afforded by such direct control.

    Maybe I’m wrong – there’s certainly a lot to be said for designing carefully exactly what it is that the player spends all their time doing, and it doesn’t always have to be running and jumping and turning – but I think that at least if for no other reason than we are now so *used* to doing that, then maybe games would be best served by maintaining these conventions.

    I dunno, whaddya reckon? Did I read your meaning all wrong?

    Posted on August 7, 2008 at 11:19 pm #
  2. From chris:

    Ben – I agree that throwing out player-game interactivity isn’t the right way to go (I hope I didn’t imply that in the article too strongly) – I’m rather suggesting that player-game interactivity isn’t the primary thing to worry about when we make a game. Developing “engagement” is first and foremost what we need to contend with. Designing how the player lives and interacts in that world *is* going to be an aspect of how they engage in the world, but certainly not when the game is designed to let the player dominate it with their desires. Making the plumber move – beautiful. :)

    I guess what I’m saying is that there is something *more direct* than direct control: engagement.

    If anything your interpretation of the post has shed even more light on the issue – thanks for the response Ben.. I’m glad that my ravings have at least found another mad mind to nest in! :D

    Posted on August 7, 2008 at 11:29 pm #
  3. From Roger Levy:

    Yes, it does! Thank you for starting this dialogue.

    Posted on August 8, 2008 at 7:49 am #
  4. From Cyranix:

    In my opinion, the two types of engagement would form a cycle. The player attains some degree of personal engagement through imagination, projection, or suspension of disbelief; this gives him/her the ability to perform various acts of player-game interaction. Each interaction, though, should ideally feed back into the player’s engagement in the game.

    Modern games which are technically acceptable but utterly soulless (for instance, that FPS game you’ve seen demo footage of but whose name eludes you because you knew there was no way you could care) definitely have a problem with making their player/game interactions feed back into engagement, and designers of these soulless games would do well to consider the concept and (hopefully) make something more of their games than simple strings of emotionless, rudimentary actions.

    Posted on August 8, 2008 at 8:10 am #
  5. From Lewisham:

    I find it hard to reconcile “engagement” as being “interactive”.

    For example:
    - I look at a painting. It engages me. I find the lilies on the pond wonderfully painted.
    - I watch a movie. I’m really enjoying it. I lose myself in it, so much so that I forget to make out with my date.

    Is they interactive? I think the great majority of people would say, “no, that’s not interactive.” And I would agree. I’m having meaningful experiences, yes, but I am not interacting with them. I am simply choosing to be dragged along.

    I completely agree that in order for a player-game interaction to be meaningful, there has to be a level of engagement to begin with. Without that context, there is no meaning. One could just be pressing buttons to make colours flash on a screen. However, I don’t believe “engagement” is a primary form of interaction. It’s a form of emotional state, created by an external force (albeit allowed for by yourself). Interactivity hinges on being able to change the course that the engagement is giving you, and to start changing the story (whether it be the game-narrative or player-narrative), as you suggest.

    Posted on August 8, 2008 at 8:28 am #
  6. From Lewisham:

    I should spend more time proof-reading after making edits :) “Are they interactive” would have been far better than “Is they interactive”!

    Posted on August 8, 2008 at 8:29 am #
  7. From Denis:

    Thank you for your reply on my comment over at The Brainy Gamer. It finally gave me the impetus to write my own post about the issue and further examine the comment I left on Michael’s blog.

    Of course, the problem I see with this is how much gamers seem to be clamoring for more and more options. When convoluted plots like Metal Gear Solid seem to be a benchmark (though, to be fair, I have kept away from the series because of this reputation), I do wonder when we’ll see more player engagement in the emotional investment and the care we are willing to put forth into the characters.

    This does exist, but it often seems to me it’s because we are struck by a novel character or identify with the characteristics of said character. That and the squee factor (I have recently beeing squeeing over chocobos and moogles, so this brought to my mind a possible connection with non-human game ‘actors’ being much more available due to no previous expectations of what we can expect from their personalities). I have to pick up Ico, but I enjoyed the interaction between Pey’j and Jade, for instance, and wonder how many of those engagements affect other players (obviously it does have an audience, however, as it keeps coming up for discussion in the blogs I seem to read).

    Posted on August 8, 2008 at 9:18 am #
  8. From Justin:

    Sometimes it’s difficult to put down ideas in words when you have the kind of intuition that says “something tells me that most people are barking up the wrong tree when they tackle this issue”. Often, it is language itself that causes the problem, like the ambiguity in the word ‘interactive’.

    What I understand by this ‘engagement’ is the sort of feeling I get with The Longest Journey universe, the engagement that drives me and many others to talk endlessly on forums about the plot twists, characters and how the story might continue. And the sort of engagement that prompted me to make notes about Final Fantasy X. The things that engage me about games like these is the fact they have coherent, consistent world models and mythoi (plural of mythos, apparently!). What I mean is that they’re set in completely different universes, have their own world map, place names, races, societies, species, architecture, culture etc etc. Those kinds of game appeal to me most – but that’s a subjective thing, I suppose. For all games, not just fantasies, the characters and their stories and their goals have to engage us in a similar way.

    And yes, I agree that this – this engagement – is more important than ‘interactivity’, but then, I’m in a radical minority that doesn’t believe in free will, and therewith, believes that interactivity in games is a farce. I like my stories linear. If a game asks me, “What should the character do?” I just want to say, “It’s your character. You tell me. I’ve only known them a few hours!”

    Posted on August 8, 2008 at 10:17 am #
  9. From chris:

    Yikes! What a response!

    @Roger – My thanks goes to Michael for pointing out the issue in the first place. Glad that it at least made some sense to you!

    @Cyranix – I fully agree with you … although I do have to admit that there are many games out there that I can establish a rapport with. Although it’s a little known gem, ‘Heart of Darkness’ for the PS1/PC is a great example of how simple player-game interaction and an enjoyable character/story form a rich dialectic. One of my goals in the last few years has been to go into my collection find and talk about games that do what modern games don’t do. Thanks for the reply.

    @Lewisham – I understand your point, I think. I can see how physical interactivity and engagement appear to be different things. But for the sake of clarity, let’s imagine this example: you’re listening to a piece of classical music, and it’s not doing much for you. I say, ‘Try to listen to the story it’s telling’, or ‘Listen to the way the solo flutist makes the piece feel lonely, forlorn’. When you really engage with the music, you start to see (or hear, imagine) things you couldn’t possibly have seen/heard/imagined before. The music starts to evoke a story of a lonely traveler, etc. And the more you invest yourself in that piece, the more you get out of it. That really is a form of interactivity – the piece is giving you something, and you’re using it to transform how you view the piece, and now the piece sounds completely different. And the cycle starts over again. Engaging with anything is an interactive experience because the nature of the thing you’re engaging with changes. If we think about a film or game as an external force that we allow into us, then yes, it’s certainly not engagement.. I agree with you there. That’s consumption. But when we think about it as a dialogue between the viewer and the medium it certainly is interaction, I think. Thanks for the response Lewisham – I think you hit the nail on the head as far as how the vast majority of gamers would see interactivity.

    @Denis – I’m looking forward to reading your post. It got me thinking on the drive home because I kept asking myself, ‘Is Denis’s feeling of disconnect different from anyone else’s? Do I find the romantic stories in games compelling either’?

    I’m also of the school that sees ‘optionalism’ a growing problem in games, not to mention society in general. If I’m permitted to generalize a bit, players seem to think that a cutscene or a dialogue sequence yank the controls out of their hands. They want the option to skip it completely, or control the entire sequence in every way possible. And I empathize with that in many ways. But when I read a book, I certainly don’t say, “Dostoevsky got this sentence all wrong! If only I could re-write Crime and Punishment, I’d finally be able to enjoy it!” :D That kind of thinking bothers me, and it’s all-too pervasive in gaming. Games, to me, are totally interactive experiences – but not because I can make the plumber move, as Ben put it ;)

    And yes – a novel or enjoyable character does a lot for me also. The relationship between Pey’j and Jade is an interesting one, mostly because it’s got a lot of unspoken tension. The relationship between Yorda and Ico is different, and even more unspoken, and I think that’s part of the appeal for me. It requires me to imagine how they see each other, what their world is like for them now that they’re together, etc. Thanks for the reply Denis – I’ll head over to your blog now!

    Posted on August 8, 2008 at 10:22 am #
  10. From chris:

    Justin, agreed! Language really is the key here – because without a more articulate sense of what ‘interactivity’ (or narrative) means, we’re operating in the dark.

    I have to admit that The Longest Journey is on a very short list of fully living, breathing, worlds for me. It is not a simulation. It is not fully interactive in terms of player-game control. It is not a sandbox. Yet, it pulls me into the world in a way that few other games ever have. I think you’ve hit on a really important point – that somehow the mythos of the game matters greatly, and without a consistent and rich mythology or cosmology, the dialogue/stories/interactions don’t seem to matter much. The rest of the aspects you mention are equally important – they set the context for the game. All of those things put together, I think, are a ‘world’.

    And linearity has become a swear-word in computer/video games for many of the same reasons. If a character is rich, their world is rich, and the story being told is deep and compelling, I’m not sure that not being able to pick which place on the map I go next matters so much. Now, in the context of a game where non-linearity is part of the play specification, like the Ultima series which is predicated upon the idea of exploration and discovery, then yes – it’s going to matter a heck of a lot. But creating a non-linear story for the sake of it is a cheap novelty.

    Thanks for the input, and reminding me of The Longest Journey – it’s a powerful world that I should have remembered sooner.

    Posted on August 8, 2008 at 10:31 am #
  11. From Lewisham:


    Ahhhhh, I see what you were getting at now.

    The funny thing is, we don’t really disagree, I just stumbled over the words. I wonder if there’s an academic term that would unambiguously describe things. The vocabulary of ludology is still too small or not permeated gaming circles enough!

    In which case, I’m going to say that while we need fully realised *games*, we don’t need full realised *worlds* for this to work. A game like Passage , while deliberately arty, illustrates this beautifully. It’s not a world you believe exists, but it’s one whose agency continues all the way through, and you’re able to engage and extract meanings and feelings from it.

    The flipside would be something like Facade, which is a fully realised world, and creates the same environment because of the agency.

    Agency is the key thing to this “engagement”, and I think most in the academic narrative research community believes that, so people aren’t really “barking up the wrong tree”. I certainly don’t think that research in this area is blinkered to the issue (on the contrary, Facade would have been a great PhD thesis without the game: the narrative technology would have been more than enough).

    Whether a more myopic view is taken during real game dev, I don’t know. I think a lot of these things, particularly pertaining to narrative, are constrained in industry because of the time and money involved in the R&D for very unmarketable features. Academia will find workable solutions now that there are places with the focus for it (such as the Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz). Once those start coming out, games built around that technology will begin to appear, and studios can focus efforts on building agency into those games.

    DISCLAIMER: I’m off to study, hopefully with Mateas at the EIS, this Fall, so I have a biased view of these things!

    Posted on August 8, 2008 at 3:29 pm #
  12. From Michael Abbott:

    What an interesting and vigorous exchange of ideas. Very cool. And very stimulating.

    I’m bringing over something I recently posted in the comments at my place, so apologies if you’ve already read this. At the risk of oversimplifying (and a bit of fence-sitting) it seems to me these narrative ideas should be seen as both/and rather than either/or.

    It seems to me that if Redding/Hocking and others move in the direction I described in “Narrative manifesto” (a direction I find exciting for what it promises), such an approach does not necessarily invalidate other more authorial-controlled approaches to narrative design. Ultimately, all these ideas will be thrown into the big mix, and the ones that work best will be the ones we build on. It’s possible to see elements of one influencing and being adopted by the other.

    This sort of cross-fertilization is one of the best outcomes of “big ideas” in the arts, and that’s why I’m so delighted by the hard thinking so many smart people are applying to game narratives. It’s not a perfect analogue, but if you look at Bertolt Brecht’s influence on the performance arts, I would say roughly 50% of his ideas “stuck” and the rest are still sort of floating around. I don’t agree with some of his ideas myself, but others I have fully embraced and borrowed shamelessly.

    I just think it’s very rare for a big movement in the arts to be adsorbed whole cloth. The impact is usually more like a meteor collision, if that makes any sense at all.

    Posted on August 9, 2008 at 8:30 am #
  13. From Denis:

    Though that did not stop Handke from trying to incorporate Brecht’s theories wholesale.

    What’s intriguing about this example is that Brecht himself probably saw the flaws in his theories of the verfremdungseffekt and Epic theatre–it took someone else who became enamored with his idea to really push the envelope.

    I imagine in the gaming world it would take the exact same parallel approach. A larger game would never be able to pull all these ideas off and still function, but a smaller, more boutique game may at least attempt more.

    If anything, the attempt would at least show us how it succeeds and fails.

    Posted on August 9, 2008 at 9:33 am #
  14. From Michael Abbott:

    A bit off-topic, but I like Handke’s ideas about the theater even less than Brecht’s precisely because they’re too “pure” and unyielding to any other ideas or aesthetics.

    I think what I’m looking for in this games narrative debate is common ground, or at least a few areas where these theories may converge. It’s seems unlikely to me that anyone has a monopoly on good ideas. It’s not so much “why can’t we all get along,” but more “let’s try these ideas and see how they work and what we can learn.” Player-focused constructed narrative is a relatively new idea that will surely have something to offer, even if we ultimately decide author-controlled narrative works better.

    Posted on August 9, 2008 at 7:57 pm #
  15. From Justin Keverne:

    Are we potentially being unfair to the first form of interactivity? The ability to act and experience the response to that action is incredibly powerful if we really learn how to use it in a more experiential manner.

    Recently I played (Which seems like an entirely inaccurate word) Masq ( on the surface it’s a fairly straightforward branching story made up of discrete scenes; a choose-your-own-adventure. It’s possible to be entertained by a single play through from introduction to conclusions, but as each choice you make leads to a different range of choices in the future, and as each character responds in a consistent manner to your actions, it is much more meaningful to play multiple times. Gradually uncovering more about each character and how they react under different circumstances, there is no single defining truth but a range of potential truths.

    I think maybe we should be looking at games to provide narratives that hinge on this multiplicity of truth, through direct interactivity. Where your understanding of the world develops as you experience the consequences of your choices; see how people’s motivations and actions change based on what you do.

    It’s not about remaking a choose-your-own-adventure game, but about making a game about exploring the range of potential outcomes from any single decision. Television series spend hours building up webs of character interaction, layers of subtext and hidden motivation but games have a much better format for that, one where we can explore it at our own pace, where we can witness out actions affecting the world around like ripples in a pond. Such games could help us learn more about our place in the world, the consequences of our actions, and our responsibility to others.

    Imagine a family gathering handled in such a game, we could take on the role of a family member and through our actions and their consequences we would learn much about the family itself and our place in it. Do we reveal our brother’s homosexuality or our mother’s affair, or do we keep their secrets and if so what does that do to the family dynamics? How does our father react to each of these revelations and what do we learn about his character from those reactions?

    These wouldn’t be stories in the traditional sense, though it would still be a narrative of a sort, it would be closer to Rashomon than Citizen Kane, but no less powerful for it.Maybe that’s where we go astray, assuming that established rules still hold for a new medium.

    Posted on August 10, 2008 at 5:57 pm #
  16. From chris:

    Wow, I can’t even keep up with the responses! It’s great seeing how we’re getting more and more amazing dialogues these days – the collection of blogs is almost operating like a roman forum!

    @Lewisham – I think you’re bang on with the idea that we need realized ‘games’ not simply ‘worlds’. The only reason I used ‘world’ to describe the experience of engagement is because the word ‘game’ is so encompassing and vague that it’s difficult to be very specific with it. I’m obscenely envious that you’ll be working with Michael Mateas – his ideas are wonderfully creative.

    @Michael – I absolutely agree that these aren’t either/or distinctions … I hope that I didn’t argue my point in that way. In fact, my thesis in this article is more that thinking about games as being ‘author-controlled’ and ‘player-controlled’ leads us away from much more crucial questions about games/art in general. If it were really about author control, then reading a book would be considered the ultimate form of authorial power – we can’t change the words on the page. But we know that’s not the case – some authors create worlds (books, novels, games, films, plays, etc) that evoke the audience’s imagination in such a way that the audience feels as if they’re participating in the story. That’s the thesis I’m after here.

    I get your comparison with Brecht, I think.. and I suspect that process happens in all of the arts, including games. Ico is a great example of how narrative and dramatic style was interpreted from Eric Chahi’s ‘Another World’ (Out of this World), but in a completely unique way. I just wish I knew more about Brecht – but I’ll have to leave it to you guys to explain him to me!

    @Denis – While I can’t comment on Brecht or Handke (but I will read about them while I get a chance!), I find that some of my most enjoyable experiences have been with games, often developed by boutique studios or small teams, that have ‘failed’ because their vision was too grand. I enjoy playing something that takes a radically different vision and runs with it, even if it stumbles along the way due to poor execution. While I can’t think of any perfect example, The Faery Tale Adventure series had something going for it – the game tells the adventure in the past tense while you play it, as if each of your actions are being recorded in a book. Neither are great games to be sure, but they were on to something, I think…

    @Justin – I wish I could cut and paste the first paragraph of your comment into my article. I couldn’t agree more with you – “The ability to act and experience the response to that action is incredibly powerful IF we really learn how to use it in a more experiential manner.” That ‘if’ is the crux – if the story told is one that doesn’t engage the player in an ‘experiential’ manner, then all is lost. Rashomon and Citizen Kane aren’t just interesting editing/storytelling exercises – they’re also great stories. Part of that story is the way the narrative is executed.. as a series of flashbacks, changes of perspective .. but the entire thing hinges on telling the kind of story that people can dig their fingers into. And within that, the narrative style transforms the way the story is told and makes it more interesting. And if we take the family idea, which is great (reminds me of American Beauty), telling that story through perspectival switches would be a wonderful way of doing it – but only if the family’s story was worth role-playing at all. If it isn’t, if the family’s characters don’t grab the player, it just becomes an academic exercise or fruitless plot.

    Wow! Took me almost an hour to respond. Like I said, I’m not proposing that I’m more knowledgeable than anyone else in the thread – I just wanted to propose my own theory of interactivity and see what it gets us. And from the quality of responses we’ve put together, it’s looking great!

    Posted on August 12, 2008 at 10:52 am #
  17. From Michal:

    When I read your post today, and yes I know it’s a bit late, I got very excited. I can see I’m not the only one from the huge response you’ve received here. What a great post though. All this time, ever since trying to nudge people in the direction of art games a couple of years ago, I’ve been coming from a phenomenological perspective.

    In fact, my entire “interaction” with games tends to be on such a phenomenological level. And I love it that you brought this up, because I think I might have given up on the whole thing. That is, the whole nudging people in that direction idea, not on the approach itself though.

    So while it remains important to differentiate between interaction, a rather minimal and basic concept, and engagement, I agree with you that the latter is of greater importance in designing a game. Nevertheless, the aspects of interactivity and the basis on which that interactivity is formed serve as a unique attribute to games which present this as a fascinating new medium of creative expression for me.

    Riding the coat-tails of your previous post, I must say that Morrowind provided me with the right combination of variables to generate that type of engagement. Though I understand your criticisms of the TES series, Morrowind had me so hooked that I played the game for about two years. Other adventure games have had a similar effect on me, but that’s another tangent.

    The point is, that over the years I have noticed a trend in myself to try and experience media such as games and movies without letting myself get in the way. As a result, I have been known to think much more positively of certain works than most of my friends and acquaintances. That’s fine though, because I think I get a lot more out of watching/playing these things, while they just sit there complaining and not having as much fun with it. I think that going about experiencing media this way presents a great deal for us to gain, and nothing to loose.

    So thank you for writing this post. Oh and just to clarify, phenomenology remains at the forefront of contemporary philosophy, along side philosophy of technology and environmental philosophy. For one of the most notably philosopher of our time in this vein look up Albert Borgmann (a student of Martin Heidegger’s and the teacher of my philosophy professor ^_^).

    Posted on August 13, 2008 at 2:59 pm #
  18. From Michal:

    I managed to put some of my own thoughts down yesterday on this topic. My concern is that interactivity and narrative aren’t always complimentary, and sometimes they are at odds. Even if one of the two is good, it often makes the other of secondary importance.

    Two examples that I used in particular were Wing Commander and Morrowind, which are good examples of strong authorial control and player generated narrative, respectively. In the end, it’s hard to find games where interactivity and narrative are balanced well, and I believe a game which does so well is Indigo Prophecy.

    I would be happy to get your feedback on that post of mine, and if you have time you can read it here…

    Posted on August 20, 2008 at 7:21 am #
  19. From ilkay:

    broadly speaking engagement has two ways to go;
    one is getting pulled in by something that really interests you and make you forget about the world and the almighty thyself. The other one is the kind that also makes you forget about the world but at the same time makes you wanna be there with your whole being, both body and soul. That is where the interactivity comes in! As stressed out in the article what makes the games unique is their interactiveness. There have been many times that i found myself wanting to dive in a painting that i adored. That’s the beauty of the video games, you can dive in! But i guess what’s being missed while attempting to make the games more interactive is the thing that makes you wanna dive, which is definitely the story. And by story i’m not only talking about the narrative, but also the visual elements that make up the world.

    I think the main concern should be “reaching to a state of equilibrium” while putting a few more grams of weight on interactivity because that’s what distinguishes a game from a novel, a picture or a video. I love interactivity and i’m not quite sure which draws me to that world; my desires or the story. But probably i wouldn’t even enjoy the story if i didn’t find something to relate to, just like i wouldn’t when i’m reading a novel, unless it is a masterpiece like a painting of Raphael.

    We engage in a game with our body and soul. We don’t just lean back and get intoxicated, but we participate and the most importantly we play! And computer is the best tool yet invented because of that =)

    Posted on January 6, 2009 at 9:32 pm #
  20. From juan:

    dude! right on!!

    Posted on February 10, 2009 at 3:32 am #
  21. From Oskar:

    A very inspiring article indeed! I am currently doing a similar work for my examina in Game Studies A (or ‘one’ if you like) and found that I am on the exact same track as you once was, and hopefully still continue on debating to this day. Though I am focusing a tad more on analysing the actual game world of ICO, how it captures it’s visitors, allows them total immersion and whatever role the narratives of this partcular story plays in the experience as a whole. I argue that the former debate about ICO being art or not never really held any relevance other than for the sake of debating, if you know where I’m getting at (feels like it was ages since I wrote in english, the paper is in swedish to my advantage). That the real fuzz should have been about ICO taking a step in the right direction towards telling an engaging story in an interactive environment, as to say the game world.

    Your writing on the subject made me think about one or two more points that I can add to my paper, backed up with references of course (damn academics). I especially find it interesting that you point out two different types of interactivity, as well as reaing your personal definition on it. (I think I’ve read as many definitions as I’ve read texts about interactivity by now…)

    Now the deadline is closing in and I will probably not be able to read the eventual response from you, which also means that it is in fact pointless for me to comment on this article or to post any of my thoughts for you to comment further than I have already done. Ah, well.

    Much appreciated anyways,
    Oskar Nordström.
    Currently studying Game Development at the University of Skövde, Sweden.

    Posted on November 2, 2009 at 4:44 pm #
  22. From chris:


    Great to hear from you. Not pointless at all to comment! :) I’m excited to hear that you’re doing an investigation of Ico, and in a game studies program! There are so many aspects of Ico worth investigation, and its peculiar narrative style is one of them, I agree wholeheartedly. You are absolutely right that the ‘is-Ico-art?’ question is the wrong question, and focus should have shifted towards its narrative/aesthetic style which is unique to that game (and perhaps Shadow of the Colossus).

    My theoretical definitions of “interactivity” are quite loose, for the definitions are there only to show that ‘personal engagement’ is the primary form of experience that allows a player-game interaction to proceed. The “personal” part of it is the most important, for it implies that there is no game without a player. This is something we lose sight of when we turn to either debates about game mechanics, or turn the game into an objet d’art. The player makes a personal contribution that cannot be reduced to the game mechanics (or narrative), nor the player’s psychology alone.

    Like you, I am writing a thesis whose deadline is closing fast, and I will be returning to these kinds of issues. I am so glad to hear that someone else is battling with the same ideas in game studies, as I come at it from a psychological perspective. I hope some day you will consider publishing your examina in english, or perhaps a summary of your paper – it sounds fascinating. I think Ico is one of the most important games in 20 years. It often receives praise, but it rarely is given much intellectual thought.

    Thanks again for your contribution Oskar. I look forward to hearing from you again some time!

    Posted on November 2, 2009 at 4:57 pm #


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