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Agitating For Dramatic Change

October 29, 2003 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Forms of computer-based interactive entertainment are heavily controlled by the idea that they are "games", which are produced for a narrow (but profitable) market of "gamers". Thus, fast, fun arcade-like experiences, artificial puzzle-solving, gaining points and "winning" have been the main emphasis in interactive design, even while the graphic and sound environments have become more and more realistic -- even as NPCs have become embedded with so-called "AI".

The idea of story is largely used to set the stage for first person shooters and role-playing games. Once the game begins, story elements become simplistic, linear or at least pre-defined, and "underwhelming" -- if they exist at all. Character development is something left behind after opening movies and seldom-read documents that come with the game, which outline who's who, and why they're doing what. It is rare indeed to find good character development and multi-layered, gradually unfolding stories in computer games - to say nothing of good, emotionally moving drama. I have heard the justification that computer animated NPCs are simply not sophisticated enough to pull off a dramatic performance - and yet poorly animated Saturday morning cartoons can be emotionally involving (if rarely, but the point is that they are indeed sometimes moving). The NPCs in Half-Life 2 are more life-like and have more ability to communicate a range of emotions than perhaps in any game before, except for the days of live-action games. Nevertheless, judging only from the E3 demo, Half-Life 2 still seems to be basically a "shooter", rather than an interactive drama, albeit in a more realistic universe than usual.

Valve has make NPCs more lifelike than ever in Half-Life 2, but at its core, the game is still a "shooter", not a drama.

No, it's not that NPCs can't emote. Instead, I think that given the emphasis of "game-think", and a market of "gamers", it's clear that the ideas of story and drama are simply a low priority.

And there's nothing at all wrong with this. Computer games serve a lucrative market. If it's not broken, don't fix it. It's just that I think a far bigger market is being left untapped.

In addition, I've found that people who are not professional writers or professional storytellers, but who may be "designers", "level-designers" or "producers" hash out a story premise for a game, or will decide on a setting populated by a certain kind of characters and monsters, who live in a matrix of certain rules. Sometimes a professional writer will be brought in to take what has already been decided upon and flesh it out. The professional writer may write a background story that sets the stage for the action and/or will write up biographies for the main characters. Much of this will never been seen in the game itself, beyond opening movies and cinematics. Sometimes professional writers will even get in on dialogue writing. But in terms of actual game design, my experience has been that in general, there's little attempt or little interest in interweaving non-linear story elements, strong character development and the principles of drama into interactive designs. This hampers appealing to a mass audience as much as the insistence on developing interactive entertainments by game-think alone.

Other kinds of interactive entertainment, based on good storytelling, good character development and an adaptation of the principles of drama, targeted to consumers with computers, but who are not avid gamers -- are waiting to be designed - and profited from. I think that the masses are ready to spend money for an interactive drama that leaves the trappings of computer 'games' behind. Whoever builds this groundbreaking system is going to get rich.

This article is a follow-up to an earlier Gamasutra article I wrote, "Adapting the Tools of Drama to Interactive Storytelling". That article has much more to say about the nature of drama. I suggest reading it first before continuing with this article. For the purpose of this article, drama is not a genre of entertainment. It is a toolset of principles developed over hundreds, if not thousands, of years to rigorously enhance communication. To quote Martin Esslin in An Anatomy of Drama, "For the expression of the imponderable mood, the hidden tensions and sympathies, the subtleties of human relationships and interaction, drama is by the most economical means of expression."

Interactivity for the Masses

I'm agitating for the creation of a new kind of interactive experience that is comfortable and compelling for the masses. This new art form would immerse the experiencer inside a reality very much like what he or she is already familiar with: film and television.
This is a search for a method of "interactive dramatic narrative presentation" and packaging.

What I see is an interactive drama for the masses who have computers, but who are not "gamers". The masses will be drawn to this experience because of three things: it's familiar like TV and film, the interface is simple and intuitive, and because the characters are emotionally evocative and their plight is understandable and just. There are no brainteasers laid artificially and superficially into the design. If there are to be puzzles, they are puzzles that evolve out of the dramatic backbone of the experience. In fact, everything that can be considered a trapping of 'game thinking' would be absent from this new kind of interactive dramatic experience. Though the designer knows that the experience will have a beginning that sets up the narrative, a middle with evolving conflict, and an end with a good resolution -- no one knows how the dramatic experience will evolve. In my vision, advancing from A to B to C will be a non-linear, yet also emotionally powerful, dramatic experience. So far experiments with interactive storytelling have failed to take into account the need to adapt the principles of drama to interactivity, and thus these experiments have been merely interesting, instead of truly emotionally involving.

In my imagined design, the moment-to-moment experience is not pre-defined. Nevertheless, a satisfactory dramatic experience demands there to be a definite beginning, middle, and end, which will support a rising level of tension until the dramatic climax and resolution is achieved. I see a system in which the dramatic and narrative principles and support elements are managed at the macro-level, in order to achieve drama, but in which these elements are active in a non-linear, non-branching way at the micro-level.

It will take a design team to create such a groundbreaking entertainment -- not just a designer. The team will be composed of a dramatist/storyteller/writer, a programming lead, an art lead, and a sound/music lead. There will be no talk of "levels" and such. There will be no talk of whether the experience will be a shooter, a role-playing game, or a massively multi-player on-line game. There will be no mention of the word "game". Instead there will be talk of "narrative environments", synthespians, synthespian directors, motivations, subtext and goals, emotional environments, and real-time adaptive music. There will be talk of the macro-level "drama engine", which provides for a three-act structure, like an umbrella, over non-linear narrative development. There will be development of interactive tools for dramatists who are not necessarily programmers.

In a nutshell I want to encourage a dramatic story-environment in which the experiencer and truly AI-smart NPCs, each with their own goals, biases, and methodologies, co-create the narrative at the micro-level, in real time, as their actions trigger the results of dramatic situations that are pre-defined at the invisible macro level by an interactive writer/ dramatist.

Considered for use at Sierra, Haptek's People Putty allows you to create a interactive 3D character, then using set of sliders, give your characters a range of emotions.

I have long believed that combining a story/drama world-authoring engine, perhaps something like Chris Crawford's "Erasmatron" project, with a front end something like Haptek's "People Putty", represents the major animation, management, and creator interface software components of such a project. At one time the People Putty engine was being considered for an adventure game at Sierra. I was present for long demos and was able to talk at length with the founder of Haptek, Chris Shaw. So I am very familiar with what they've done, and I'm impressed. I'm also impressed and fascinated by Chris Crawford's Erasmatron efforts, which I've been following for several years now. Yet, since his is a largely single person's effort, and since his development platform is only available for Mac users, I fear his efforts may take a very long time to pay off. Nevertheless, I encourage readers to check the Haptek and Crawford URLs.

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