more compelling than choice 03.12.2008, 6:09 PM
posted by sebastian mary
The first two major ARGs to play out, The Beast and ilovebees, surprised their creators: the collective intelligence of thousands of players was taking down in hours puzzles that the puppetmasters had expected the community to wrestle with for days. And in order for the game not to go stale, new challenges - sometimes created on the fly - had to keep coming. If the content fizzled out, or the puzzles were too easy, the players would become restless and lose interest.
I was reminded of this by the recent discussion on this blog about hypertext. 'Boring' is such a loaded word; and yet so much of the Web feels, to me, deeply boring. Even the interesting stuff. Internet addiction is all about clicking across link after link, page after page of content, unable to tear oneself away but still strangely bored. Faced with infinite places to go, all content becomes undifferentiated; lacking in narrative; boring. Much like the paralysis consumers face when confronted with 15 near-identical types of pesto, choice of content made as easy as a click here or there reduces it all to a blur.
I found myself pondering easy choice, supermarket paralysis and internet addiction in the context of the exciting promise and strange underwhelmingness of much hyperfiction. Then, yesterday, interactive game creator and SixToStart ARG writer James Wallis said something that flipped the light on. "Writing for interactive is different to print writing," he said. But this isn't in the way someone habituated to storytelling on paper might expect. For such, 'interactive' might suggest an exciting opportunity to cast off the formal shackles of one-page-after-the-next. (Certainly, when I first came across HTTP, that's what it seemed to promise me). "When you think of interactive, you think of the Garden of Forking Paths, non-linear narrative and so on. But if you want people to stay interested, that doesn't work at all."
Instead, he says, writing for interactive takes a more or less linear narrative, and makes the reader/user/player work it. In an ARG, a crucial piece of information might be hidden behind a login that needs to be hacked; the story's progression might depend on a puzzle being solved to reveal a code. The payoff of interactivity, the thing that gives the story a hook that it couldn't get otherwise, is less about 'choice' or a pleasure of diverging from linear narrative, than a sense of active contribution to the progression of that narrative. Of course, because an ARG plays out in real time, players may solve things 'too' quickly or take the story in a new direction - then, to avoid shattering the 'This Is Not A Game' illusion the puppetmasters must create new content to reflect that divergence.
Earlier, in a comment on the hypertext discussion, I found myself pondering emotional involvement - as measured by whether a story can move you to tears - in the context of interactive narrative. Games that eschew development of 'characters' in favor of making you, the central protagonist, the 'character' that develops. Tearjerking moments in 1983 text-based adventure games. How does a character or situation creep up on us so that we care enough to be sad when they're gone?
Perhaps it's easier to let this happen when you're being swept along by a movie, or barely noticing as you turn page after page. I can't prove this, but it feels as though having to make empty, consequence-free choices about where a narrative goes next pulls me back from imaginative involvement to a more meta-level, strategic, structural kind of thinking, that's inimical to emotional absorption. It's a bit like something pulling me back from an exciting moment in my book and inviting me to contemplate the paper. Forcing me to choose between narrative possibilities, when that choice has (as in the supermarket, faced with the rows of pesto choices) no consequences, and implying too - as the supermarket does - that choice were in itself a positive addition to my experience, in fact undermines my ability to relax into that experience. Compare that to a hidden group of puppetmasters evolving a narrative on the fly to fit around an amorphous, self-organizing group of players, going to extraordinary lengths to avoid rupturing the story's consistency, and you can see that here are radically different kinds of 'interactive'.
Making you work for the next chunk of story, or making you the central protagonist. If these are two narrative tools that demonstrably help make stories work in a digital space, are there more? And are they perceived as markers for quality interactive fiction? Or are game-like narratives still considered somehow a 'lower' art form, nerdy and plebeian, unsuitable for 'serious' writing or consideration as powerful narrative? I would welcome any evidence to the contrary.
Jeremy B on March 12, 2008 10:38 PM:
I found myself pondering emotional involvement - as measured by whether a story can move you to tears - in the context of interactive narrative.
It's hard for a game to be tragic-- so much of what powers tragedy is our recognition of the flaw in a protagonist, and the protagonist's bad choices; that's difficult to evoke in a game.
I like what Will Wright said in his 2006 keynote at SXSW, which is roughly that the emotional centers of games are pride, accomplishment, and guilt. You might not have had an interactive experience that has evoked tears (Floyd being perhaps the exception that proves the rule), but the question could be reversed: when was the last time you saw a movie that gave you the same sense of accomplishment you got when you defeated Ganon?
Tom Abba on March 13, 2008 5:04 AM:
Yes, there are. Marx said that a book isn't a book until it's read (I'm paraphrasing here, sorry) and on the same tack, an interactive narrative has no meaning until the moment of interaction takes place. Understanding that, for me at least, is the key difference between writing for analogue media and old media (and, ironically, the thing that's also the same). What we're really trying to do is engage the interactive reader, and keep their attention once they're hooked. Whether that's through a game-structure or a more formal hypertext is a matter of form (although Charles Olson had things to say about the relationship between form and content, and they have an impact on thinking about new media). What we're lacking, to my mind, is a set of narrative grammars for interactive storytelling, grammars which transcend the game/literature/nerd argument. I'd suggest that displacement is the first of these, whether that manifests as a rabbit hole (as in ARGs), or a shift in the reader's perception of what's required of them. More when I've had coffee.
Barbara Fister on March 13, 2008 7:33 AM:
"Forcing me to choose between narrative possibilities, when that choice has (as in the supermarket, faced with the rows of pesto choices) no consequences, and implying too - as the supermarket does - that choice were in itself a positive addition to my experience, in fact undermines my ability to relax into that experience."
---I'm going to be thinking about this for quite a while. Brilliant.
As for the next line - an amorphous, self-organizing group that works to sustain a story - that reminds me of what it felt like as a kid to play "let's pretend" with a group, all working off the same premise. I haven't had that experience as an adult, and I remember exactly when we all looked at each other and realized we were too old to do anymore. We had become self-conscious and it ruined the improvisational ability to make stuff up on the fly together. I'd love to have that experience again!
Michael Bhaskar on March 13, 2008 9:51 AM:
Computer games have already fulfilled the promise of interactive fiction in the way you describe; they exactly embody that sense of a linear(ish), controlled narrative that requires work on the part of the consumer whilst bonding the consumer to the characters in play. Because computer games are called, well, games, they are often overlooked as narratives; equally (paradoxically?) it has become a near commonplace that gaming environments and story lines are as involved, dense and rich as those to be found in other media.
Computer games are interactive fiction and the new forms now coming to prominence are driven by the same motors as gaming. Interactive fiction is as old as Donkey Kong...ignoring reader response theory debates about how interactive all forms of fiction are.
For me where ARGs get interesting is in their ontological play with gaming and storytelling, the overt collapsing of distinctions between media and reality etc. ARGS are to the world, to media in the broadest sense, what Half Life is to code. But overall interactive fiction is continuing in a well established tradition against which it will almost certainly always be miniscule.
If we accept the claim advanced here that interactive fiction and computer games are indistinguishable than I think already there is a change in terms of how games are viewed. A friend of mine is studying for a Ph.D in computer game theory. It took english literature centuries before it was studied seriously; in the 19th century the notion was laughed off as the height of wastrel dilettantism until someone realised the "civilising" potential it could have. It always takes time for an art form to find itself. TV is only now, with shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, being watched in the way we might read Tolstoy or Proust.
Interactive fiction will not be far behind.
Anne-Marie on March 14, 2008 3:51 PM:
I've been writing/thinking/talking about ARG's for a few months now -- and I keep coming back to this idea of storytelling and even more, the idea of the players/users/readers co-creating the narrative. I don't think I really started to "get" ARG's so long as I was focusing on the puzzles, or the non-linear-ness of the narratives. It wasn't until I stumbled on Great moments in ARG history at unfiction -- that I really started to get it, and the "it" was the connection the players felt to the narrative and their complex role within that narrative, not as the central figure, but as a collective and as a part of the narrative's creation. Which I guess is a longish way of saying "I agree!" and thanks for saying it so well.
Mark Bernstein on March 18, 2008 8:51 AM:
Michael Bhaskar rather overstates the case when he says that "it took english literature centuries before it was studied seriously." The serious study of literature is very, very early; we certainly see evidence of critical research in Aristotle's lecture notes (which we know as the Aesthetics), and clearly the Roman elites of Cicero's generation considered literary education a defining accoutrement of gentility. Later, erudition in classsical Greek and Latin literature became the defining mark of gentility in the late empire, and this definition was revived in much of Rennaisance Europe, including England.
When we speak of "english literature" today, me often mean The Novel, and the role of the novel is thin before the 19th century. Nontheless, English Literature was studied in universities quite early; the Rawlinson and Bosworth Vhair (held by JRR Tolkein) was established in 1795, the Oxford Professorship of Poetry (held by Matthew Arnold, AC Bradley, and WH Audien) dates from 1708.
If TV is only now being watched as we might read Tolstoy, film has been taken serious since at least Eisenstein.
Michael Bhaskar on March 18, 2008 9:15 AM:
I would distinguish classical learning from English literature, so while it is true to say that from the Renaissance on "erudition in classical Greek and Latin literature became the defining mark of gentility" this was not necessarily the case for literature in the vernacular. Even if one takes a date as early as 1708 then that is still centuries since Beowulf or even Chaucer for the foundation of an academic unit.
Those chairs do not signify the establishment of what would recognisably be an English syllabus, as the Oxford English Honours Course was only started in 1896 (although there was an earlier course at UCL).
Re film - agreed.
alan on June 23, 2008 7:10 AM:
To see really exciting new multimedia literacy try out Inanimate Alice. http://www.inanimatealice.com And its a free online resource!
More an interactive piece of fiction than a traditional game, Inanimate Alice: Episode 4 continues the story of the young game animator as she leaves her home in Russia and travels abroad. Inanimate Alice serves as both entertainment and a peek into the future of literature as a fusion of multimedia technologies. The haunting images and accompanying music and text weave a remarkably gripping tale that must be experienced to be believed.
And better still for schools there is a piece of software now available that allows learners to create their own stories. Valuable for all forms of literacy and this is being sold as a perpetual site licence for schools at £99 ! http://www.istori.es