few years back, the BBC aired a TV science fiction comedy called
Red Dwarf, about a slobby space-technician named Lister,
a hologram simulation of his nerdy roommate (Rimmer), an android, and a strangely-evolved
cat, all stranded in deep space. It was very funny and the first
few series were strikingly original. The following is an excerpt
from series 4, episode 6, entitled "Meltdown." It introduces
this month's subject better than I could myself:
So there we were at 2:30 in the morning; I was beginning to wish
I had never come to cadet training school. To the south lay water
- there was no way we could cross that. To the east and west two
armies squeezed us in a pincer. The only way was north; I had
to go for it and pray the gods were smiling on me. I picked up
the dice and threw two sixes. Caldecott couldn't believe it. My
go again; another two sixes!
So a six and a three and he came back with a three and a two.
Rimmer, can't you tell the story is not gripping me? I'm in a
state of non-grippedness, I am completely smegging ungripped.
Shut the smeg up.
Don't you want to hear the Risk story?
That's what I've been saying for the last fifteen minutes.
But I thought that was because I hadn't got to the really interesting
What really interesting bit?
Ah well, that was about two hours later, after he'd thrown a three
and a two and I'd thrown a four and a one. I picked up the dice...
Hang on Rimmer, hang on... the really interesting bit is exactly
the same as the dull bit.
You don't know what I did with the dice though, do you? For all
you know, I could have jammed them up his nostrils, head-butted
him on the nose and they could have blasted out of his ears. That
would've been quite interesting.
OK, Rimmer. What did you do with the dice?
I threw a five and a two.
And that's the really interesting bit?
Well, it was interesting to me, it got me into Irkutsk.
lines in this exchange actually say something quite meaningful about
games and stories. Lister says, "the really interesting bit
is exactly the same as the dull bit" and later Rimmer says,
"well, it was interesting to me, it got me into Irkutsk."
Lister is bored to tears with Rimmer's endless story about Risk,
and of course to an outside observer, Risk is a dreadfully
repetitious game. Rimmer finds it interesting because he was personally
subject of this month's column is dramatic novelty in the context
of games and stories. I have a longstanding interest in the problems
of interactive narrative, and I have recently begun to do some thinking
about just exactly how stories and games entertain us - how they
produce enjoyment in our minds. The exchange above is directly on
I have written before, part of the basis for interactive narrative
is an equation - or an analogy, if you prefer - that we make between
dramatic tension ("what's going to happen next?") as it
is found in stories, and gameplay tension ("am I going to overcome
this challenge?") as it is found in games. In a story, it is
up to the author to provide a resolution of the dramatic tension.
In a game, the resolution of gameplay tension is an action taken
by the player to overcome a challenge created by the game designer.
Sometimes the player succeeds; sometimes he fails and has to try
we, as game designers, think of ourselves as creating interactive
narratives (and many of us do not, of course), then we are either
explicitly or implicitly buying into this analogy: the notion that
gameplay tension is like dramatic tension and perhaps interchangeable
with it. However, as Rimmer's Risk story illustrates, this
doesn't always work. Risk is a terrible basis for a story.
For one thing, it has no characters apart from the players themselves,
and the players' personal qualities as human beings have almost
nothing to do with the course of events in the game. Worse, however,
is the fact that those events are all alike. Conquering one country
in Risk is just like conquering any other country. Because
it's a board game for the general public (as opposed to hardcore
board gamers), it has simple, easy-to-learn rules, and that makes
it repetitious. This repetition is bearable - even exciting - to
the players of the game because they are personally involved and
every move affects their progress towards victory or defeat.
reader of a story, on the other hand, is entertained by ongoing
novelty. A story should never contain two identical events.
Rather, things should happen that the reader didn't anticipate.
Characters should express their personalities through their words
and actions. This can happen in a big way (melodrama) or in a subtle
way (drama). Even if a story takes place between only two characters
in one room, it can still contain novelty, as the characters converse
and reveal things about themselves, their pasts, and their relationships
with each other and third parties. (See the J.D. Salinger short
story, "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," for a classic example.)
Many stage plays, especially modern ones in which there is little
change of scenery, work on exactly this principle.
games, sometimes you get behind and have to work to get ahead again.
Backgammon is a perfect example: your men get knocked onto the bar,
and you have to get them back on the board. This is part of the
gameplay, part of the struggle to defeat the other player, and the
lead can change hands many times before the game ends. But characters
in stories almost never have to go back and do something over. They
are occasionally thwarted in their plans, but normally they don't
just try the same plan again later. Instead, the characters in a
story try a different approach to the problem, and that provides
further novelty to the reader. In backgammon, however, you're not
allowed to try a different approach. There's only one way to get
your men back on the board, so that's what you have to do.
time to time I come across fantasy fiction on the Web that consists
of the "dramatized" progress of a pencil-and-paper role-playing
game. These, too, are seldom good stories. They're often written
by people who can't write well, but the bigger problem is that they
are accounts of events that occurred by chance - die-rolling, to
be specific. As a result, these events often feel haphazard and
incoherent. "We set off to slay the dragon, but on the way
half the party were killed in a surprise attack by trolls. We had
to drag their bodies back to town to get them reincarnated before
setting out again." This is perfectly realistic RPG gameplay,
but it's poor storytelling unless the troll attack teaches us something
meaningful about the characters. Otherwise it's just a random incident,
irrelevant to the main plot.
a good story, nothing happens by chance and nothing is irrelevant.
Even if something seems irrelevant to the reader, the author should
have had a reason for including it. That is the nature of authorship.
Stories are not created by die-rolling, but by design. Their novelty
is constructed by the author to keep the reader interested and the
story going forward.
two characteristics of many games, repetition and randomness, make
for poor stories. It's worth noting that the classic adventure game
avoids both. It avoids repetition because its challenges are usually
mental, not physical (you don't have to try things again and again),
and because they are usually symbolic rather than numeric (you're
trying to solve a series of unique puzzles, not to rack up points
or money). It avoids randomness, again because its challenges are
non-numeric, and random setbacks are tiresome and irrelevant in
the context of storytelling. If the player receives a setback in
an adventure game, it must be for a reason - a deliberately constructed
reason, just like a setback in a story. This is why the classic
adventure game comes closest to interactive narrative of any game
genre we have yet invented.
it may sound odd, I think rail-shooters like Half-Life are
actually our next-most storylike genre after adventure games. They're
not terribly sophisticated stories - characterization is almost nonexistent
- but their rail-like nature keeps them moving forward. It's seldom
necessary to go backwards in a rail-shooter, and the layout of the
challenges is pre-determined, not random. They're the videogame
equivalent of an action flick - which is why action flicks such
as Die Hard make pretty decent videogames. (Of course many
people, especially women, find action flicks tediously repetitive
too: run, shoot, punch, do it again. Action flicks are stories,
but rarely deep ones.)
summary, I believe one of the keys to interactive narrative is to
provide a continuous sense of forward progress - or at least, no sense
of completely retrograde progress - and a feeling that everything
that happens in the game world happens for a reason related to the
storyline, not happenstance or accident. To provide true dramatic
novelty, a videogame designer must abstain from two of the tools
in our traditional gameplay toolbox, repetitious play and randomness.