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The Designer's Notebook: Dramatic Novelty in Games and Stories

November 15, 2004

A 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:

RIMMER: 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!

[some time later]

RIMMER: So a six and a three and he came back with a three and a two.

LISTER: 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.

RIMMER: Don't you want to hear the Risk story?

LISTER: That's what I've been saying for the last fifteen minutes.

RIMMER: But I thought that was because I hadn't got to the really interesting bit.

LISTER: What really interesting bit?

RIMMER: 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...

LISTER: Hang on Rimmer, hang on... the really interesting bit is exactly the same as the dull bit.

RIMMER: 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.

LISTER: OK, Rimmer. What did you do with the dice?

RIMMER: I threw a five and a two.

LISTER: And that's the really interesting bit?

RIMMER: Well, it was interesting to me, it got me into Irkutsk.

The illustrious crew of the Red Dwarf

Two 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 involved.

The 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 point.

As 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 again.

If 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.

The 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.

In 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.

From 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.

In 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.

These 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.

Although 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.)

In 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.


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