Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Interactive Storytelling and the Gamer, Part I: Hearts and Minds

Even if you're only a casual gamer, you may have played Myst, back when CD-ROMs were new and gullible PC shoppers thought the word "multimedia" meant something.

If you're "old school", you might have played Zork, back when floppies were starting to overcome cassette tapes as the removable media of choice.

And even if you're a non-gamer, you might have read "Choose-your-own-Adventure" books.

None of these have anything to do with interactive storytelling. A modern interactive story is not really a story at all, but a social simulation in which stories arise naturally.

So get it out of your system and repeat the "simulation" mantra until it sinks in. Repeat it until you see interactive storytelling as something that is, in fact, unheard of in every game you've ever played, because none of the games you've played have ever simulated much of anything in a way that could create or change the plot.

This state of affairs will change. Soon, hopefully. But the fact that I felt compelled to address these likely misconceptions about interactive storytelling (IS) should give a sense of the difficulty IS products will have gaining initial market share among gamers.

It is true that non-gamers represent a huge untapped market potentially receptive to IS products. But IS isn't going to sell itself. Even if a huge swath of non-gaming adult women were born to play a new IS title, they're not going to go stumble into a game store and pick it up. They're not going to pay attention to advertisements for video games. Gaming is antithetical to their current sense of self. How will they ever get to the point of sale?

I see two major avenues. The first route is by way of entertainment they're already consuming. "Can't get enough of [novel, tvshow]? Enter the intrigue at [web address]." Web-based game play is something this audience could handle long before they could bring themselves to visit a game store, and probably more appropriate to the serialized media crossover model anyway. Web-based interactive stories, while benefitting from authorial and graphical styles, need not – and probably should not – be as flashy as their pc/console counterparts.

The second major avenue into the hearts of non-gamers is through their gaming friends and family. Consider a female college student, home for the summer. "I bet YOU would even like this game," says her obnoxious 15-year old brother. "I don't think so," says the young woman, just like she always does. But she steals glances at it. She becomes intrigued, then hooked, and eventually finds a way to get more.

The challenge for the developers in this case is creating products that will appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike. While graphics and explosive settings aren't the selling points of interactive storytelling (IS), an IS product that is not web-based had better capitalize on the technical advantages and create a very rich client that gamers will accept and non-gamers will be able to grasp just by watching someone. I would strongly argue that The Sims, a crude-but-addicting social simulation, owes its amazing success with women to pulling off this procedure. (And coming out of the established Sim franchise certainly didn't hurt with the get-in-with-the-gamers-first part, either. There's probably a lesson there, too.)

But rich interactive storytelling is going to be even harder to sell to gamers without the extensive camouflage of a graphically-rich client. It’s a problem of past conditioning. The text/dialogue portions of most games are typically the parts we gamers try to skip. Chatty cut scene? Pass. Domestic side-quest? Nein. Expositionary lump? C'mon, let me kill something!

This is not because there is anything inherently wrong with dialogue or text in general, but because it has a cosmetic or janitorial role in most games -- generally to give the impression of a greater scope than actually exists, or to impart information that the interface was unable to communicate on its own. It's a facade. It's duct tape. It's filler. We gamers see right through it to the underlying mechanics, where words are scarcely to be found.

So how do you bring textual content back into a game in a meaningful way without triggering the gamer’s reflex? You camouflage it.

One way to make essential game text more palatable is to use an ‘iconized’ mini-language, something pioneered almost fifteen years ago in Chris Crawford’s inventive flop, Trust and Betrayal. The player builds statements by assembling icons that represent “words” understood by the game. The Sims could be said to use a drastically-simplified version of the same scheme: much too limited for a meaty interactive story, but easily understood by neophytes.

But iconized mini-languages of any complexity are difficult for the non-gamer to understand just by watching; indeed, Trust and Betrayal is said by some to have failed on account of its “confusing” interface. Today’s best compromise between plain-text and iconization is probably Deikto, the “tinker toy” language Crawford has devised for Erasmatron 4, his latest interactive storytelling engine. It’s not as visual as icons, but it’s still sleek, precludes the need for an ambiguous text-parsing prompt, and is a system a non-gaming observer can latch on to because it still uses actual words.

Wrapping up the language with a sleek GUI will not be enough, however, to turn today’s gamers into IS consumers. I think the best way here will be to retain elements that gamers know and enjoy. This idea is probably perverse to some IS purists, but I think that IS can, and should, be used from the start to add a much-desired level of depth to classical role-playing games – like the kind where monsters are slain, spells learned, and treasure discovered. Though I see nothing wrong with such hybrids in their own right, gamers who appreciate the IS dimension will have a good chance of being won over to “purer” IS titles. This will be especially true if the game includes non-violent means of achieving objectives that are at least as fun as the violent ones. Plenty of games have claimed to be revolutionary for including non-violent alternatives, but the non-violent paths have sucked to play.

So let's suppose we've got an IS-enhanced game that the gamer can now at least recognize as kin. How will the IS portions be used? Can diplomacy be as interesting as spellcasting? Can conversation compete with armed combat? When the words -– iconized, Deiktoized, or something else -- start scrolling up, what will keep the gamer from taking this opportunity to use the bathroom and check his email?

First, the words will be integral to the that which the gamer cares most about -- increasing his ability to kick butt.

In most games, Merlock the Magnificent doesn't feel like teaching you the ‘Magma Mallet’ spell. He sends you out into the swamp to find some rare reagent before he’ll help you.

But today, in the IS-enhanced version, he's going to try and talk you into killing his enemy, Splitwick the Sage, instead. The problem is, Splitwick knows other spells you also want to learn. And in this particular game, there is no "charisma" stat. If you want to reach a favorable agreement with Merlock, you're going to have to do it yourself.

Being clever, you may discover that Merlock does still, in fact, want that Screaming Rotweed. And you might convince him to teach you in exchange for the weed, which you will then seek in the Swamp of Slimy Horrors, with adventurous results.

Or maybe not. Maybe you'll agree to kill the Sage, but just prior to the killing make a false promise to spare his life if he gives you his spells. Or maybe you'll offer to dispatch a different rival who means less to you. It all depends on the scope and flexibility of the game engine, but these kinds of options are exactly what an IS engine is designed to provide.

As we know, a modern interactive story is not really a story at all, but a social simulation in which stories arise naturally as players choose their own paths.

[In fact, I believe the term “interactive storytelling” should be reserved for games in which the social simulation is enhanced by a “Virtual DM” (Dungeon Master, Drama Manager – take your pick) who follows and adjusts a player’s journey in order to promote the dramatic structure and suspense-arcs we instinctively associate with storytelling.]

With a robust enough social simulation, you can have an economy where the participants can exchange not just gold for spells, but commitments for trust, trust for quests, quests for gratitude, and gratitude for gold. You'll still get your spell, if that's what you want, but the path will be more interesting, because you found it and chose it yourself.

Now, some of you will say that you have had these kinds of options before. Yes, I did play Morrowind, and there were indeed occasions where you could take a diplomatic tack, or a stealth tack, or a brute-force tack to increase the trust NPCs had in you. And this trust did indeed translate to new spells, items, or abilities. And they did indeed allow me to kick butt.

And in my growling gamer voice, I shout, "Yes! And it was good!"

But I also say that it was good because the world builders put in so many thousands of hours scripting up these specific situations. It was obvious that there was no underlying social simulation that could've spawned these options dynamically. The hand-sculpted approach has the advantage of allowing every situation to be rich in intelligent, creative details, if someone is able and willing to add those details. But the social simulation approach offers other advantages. The first is obvious: vastly greater numbers of situations. More interesting are the possibilities of tragic, humorous, or convoluted situations that make perfect sense within the simulation but would never have been anticipated by the designers or the players.

In our SSERPG (Social Simulation-Enhanced Role-Playing Game), It turns out that Merlock didn't even know the ‘Magma Mallet’ spell. He lied because he wanted you to think more favorably of him, because he knew you had the trust of the weaponssmith, who's daughter's hand in marriage he is seeking. Merlock the Magnificent is a con. He asked you to kill Splitwick, because the Sage knows he is a con, and has been using this to blackmail Merlock to the sum of 100 gold monthly.

It all makes sense now, doesn't it?

But maybe it sounds too good to be true. Perhaps you are thinking, like many game developers past and present, that no social simulation could never create this situation without the management of a human-level AI.

If so, stay tuned: In Part II, I show you how its done. Mostly.


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