In February, after nearly 18 years of thinking and writing about interactive storytelling (as well as a good many other topics), I received a Ph.D. in that subject from the University of Teesside in the UK. My thesis is called Resolutions to Some Problems in Interactive Storytelling, and it's a retrospective and analysis of the papers and lectures I've given over the years. In this month's column, I'm going to summarize a few of my conclusions. (If you want to read the whole thing, which covers a lot more than this column does, you can download it here.)
One disclaimer before I start: my thesis only covers single-player, avatar-based stories in which the player contributes actions to the events of the story. It doesn't address multiplayer storytelling, non-avatar-based games (like The Sims), or static hypertext in which the reader's only contribution is to choose what to read next.
My work began back in 1995, when I gave a lecture at the Game Developers' Conference called "The Challenge of the Interactive Movie." Interactive movies were the latest hip concept at the time, having taken off following the invention of the CD-ROM. The title of the lecture was meant to lure in people who were excited by the idea, but I concluded that the "challenge of the interactive movie" is to make a decent video game despite the fact that the marketing department will insist on slapping this stupid label on it.
In the course of the lecture, I introduced some of the key problems that face any interactive storyteller. A few years later I described them again in "Three Problems for Interactive Storytellers," an early Designer's Notebook column. I called them the Problem of Amnesia, the Problem of Internal Consistency, and the Problem of Narrative Flow.
I concluded that these problems were fundamental to the nature of the interactive medium and couldn't be resolved, only lived with. But in the years since then, I gained a better understanding of them, and I did in fact resolve them, at least to my own satisfaction.
We'll start with the easiest one.
The Problem of Amnesia
This is the well-known fact that the player enters the game world with amnesia: she doesn't know who she is, where she is, or what she is supposed to do there. In the game industry, we deal with this rather poorly. The earliest commercial computer games required the player to to read a manual; later we devised tutorial levels, long narrative passages (Okami), or long expository speeches from mentor characters (Planescape: Torment).
In the worst case of all, we give the player an avatar who is actually said to be suffering from amnesia -- I consider this to be a Twinkie Denial Condition because it's such a cheesy solution.
Eventually I came to realize that this isn't really an intractable problem, and it isn't by any means exclusive to video games. All stories have to introduce their audience to the setting and characters. Movies sometimes use opening narration, especially if the location is unfamiliar; you can see it from Casablanca to Star Wars to The Fellowship of the Ring.
In TV shows, where time is tight, characters will find a reason to use each others' names in the early dialog. Establishing shots tell us where the show is set by including a famous landmark (the Golden Gate Bridge, Sydney Opera House) or, in less familiar places, a look at a road sign that includes the town's name.
Skilled writers can introduce the player to a place and a cast of characters subtly, in such a way that nothing that she hears or sees seems unnatural. Of course, games have an additional problem that the presentational media don't have to deal with: we have to teach the player to use the controls, too; but there are better and worse ways to do it.
Any game in which the avatar has a particular profession -- football player, soldier, dancer -- can include a training camp or practice room that both belongs in the game world and brings the player up to speed without risking anything. Take a look at my column "Eight Ways to Make a Bad Tutorial" for further discussion.
In the end I concluded that it's simply a question of craftsmanship. The Problem of Amnesia can be solved by any competent writer. Games have more time than TV or movies to introduce their world, so there's no excuse for doing it badly.