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Adapting the Tools of Drama
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Adapting the Tools of Drama

September 14, 2001 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Game developers are beginning to realize that mindless, violent action, and fantastic special effects supported by ever advancing hardware will not hold the interest of core gamers forever. After certain point, advances in resolution and sound won't be enough to increase sales. The added effect will be negligible. In addition, mindless games without good characters and narratives will never attract a wider market, despite photo-realistic decapitation and volcanic eruptions of blood. Sure, we can always count on x-number of boys coming up through the ranks who will buy x-number of units. But why should we be satisfied with this small market when there is a much larger market to be nurtured and exploited? As a result, some have begun to reconsider the importance of story and character development.

A rising concern is, "How do we graft a story to our action game?" Story means linear...right? The whole idea of a story is opposed to the idea of interactivity…right? The basic concern is "How do we make an effective interactive story?" So what does effective mean in terms of interactive storytelling? There are two basic ingredients. These are intuitive interface design and compelling stories. In this article, I will address one of the two ingredients, the development of compelling interactive storytelling.

My definition of a compelling story is one that grabs and holds the attention of the audience. It must move and excite them. It must take them on an emotional roller coaster. Finally, it must make them feel like they have had a worthwhile experience at the conclusion.

What is it that engages and holds on to us in stories, interactive or not? What makes a story compelling and satisfying? An art form has evolved to deal with these issues. The name of this art form is "drama". Though the word "drama" is thrown around a lot, very few could accurately describe it. So before we begin to explore how the principles of drama can be adapted to create compelling interactive entertainment, we must first briefly review what drama actually is. After a brief overview, we will explore specific tools and suggest some ways to adapt them.

What is Drama?

There are many generalized descriptions of drama, which is actually a body of arcane knowledge compiled over thousands of years. The main points of agreement are that drama is a story of human conflict communicated by means of speech and action to an audience. Moreover, that which depicts human conflict will command attention and interest. Therefore drama uses the innate human interest in conflict to engage an audience for the purpose of communicating a theme. The theme must be something that we can all relate to.
In a dramatic presentation, conflict is expressed through visible action. Of course game designers understand the need for action. But to make a project compelling, the reason for the action is more important than the action itself. The forces that cause the action are what excite the audience, making the action believable, and holding the audience in rapt attention.

What are the reasons for action? In life and in drama, the study of the human being resolves itself into an evaluation of the motivation that provokes action. Whenever there is a balance of forces in our lives, we prefer to not act. However, when there is an imbalance of forces, and the motivation to restore balance is strong enough to overcome this basic inertia, some kind of action is taken.

The motivation to act lies in our wishes, needs, and desires. When any obstacle stands in the path of the resolution of these motivations, conflict occurs. In its barest form, a dramatic work all comes down to a character, or a group of characters, that we empathize with because they want something that we can all relate to wanting, and antagonistic forces that opposes the fulfillment of our want. The clash of these opposing forces results in dramatic action.

Human motivation can arguably be divided into four basic drives: desire for response, desire for recognition, desire for adventure, and desire for security.
These are the motivating forces that control the actions of all humans.

Desire for Response: the need every human being feels for intimate contacts with others -the desire for companionship and fellowship- can be fulfilled by a dramatic work in at least two different ways. It can be a social institution. People seldom go to the theatre or to the theater by themselves. Of course massively multiplayer games hook into this aspect of dramatic presentations.

In a more universal sense, an interactive dramatic work can satisfy the desire for response by providing the participant with a chance to partake in the drive to resolve the conflict with others. The participant who is caught up in the imaginative whirl of the work feels a fellowship and an intimate personal contact with the dramatic characters — empathy, in other words. Instead of just the immediate thrill of a firefight, we also gain the desire of the participant to achieve a positive response from the characters by his or her actions. Thus, we have just made ordinary action more compelling.

Desire for Recognition
By way of the dramatic work we may enjoy all of the recognition denied us in life: fame, influence, authority, reputation, and renown. Drama is peopled with fabulous or fantastic characters to identify with. Traditionally we vicariously enjoy the homage given kings and heroic warriors. In the interactive realm we can directly receive the plaudits of a grateful society for bringing the bad guys to task. We can feel firsthand the rush of victory after a battle that would be much too dangerous in real life. If we choose to follow an outsider or anti-hero, we get the chance to feel much more special, unique, or unusual than in mundane life. But this only works if we have based our venture on the basic premise of drama: In its barest form, a dramatic work all comes down to a character, or a group of characters that we empathize with, because they want something that we can all relate to, but very difficult obstacles stand in our way. If we don't care about what the characters want, or if what we want is too easy to get, it won't move us. That is, it won't be fun.

The Desire for Adventure
No one's life is so complete that he or she doesn't desire vital new experiences beyond the possibility of attainment in ordinary life. The dramatic work is a land of action and adventure. We get to enjoy the thrills of romance and conflict that is frequently denied in life. We may grapple with the problems of a falling dynasty, or stand casually, blaster in hand, and then thwart the alien mob. We are the ones who get to protect the weak and destroy the wicked. (Or rid the cosmos of weak-minded inferiors).

The Desire for Security
In most dramatic works the hero emerges triumphant. When we identify with the hero we vicariously pass through the trials, the struggles, the crises, and remain reasonably sure that our cause will win out. This accounts for the popularity of films with happy endings. When we indulge ourselves with interactive entertainment we experience this firsthand. Some will say, "How immature! Life isn't like that." Of course, but most people do not go to the films or buy a video game to prove their maturity or to see life as it is. Life is complicated and our control of it is minimal. In our times not only our security but the security of life on earth is threatened. The feeling of helplessness in the face of it all is an every day fact of life. But in the dramatic work we get to indulge our emotional and imaginative sensitivity, to be stimulated and diverted, and to see life as it "ought" to be — more secure.

There are of course many other reasons that we seek out a good story, interactive or not. We may seek great intellectual as well as emotional values. They comment upon life and its problems, and perhaps pose specific argumentative propositions. A dramatic work can also provide deep aesthetic and artistic experiences. However, when all is said and done, the great attraction of a well done story lies in the opportunity to participate imaginatively in the dramatic action. A dramatic work can perhaps survive without art or intellect; it cannot survive without emotion.

Drama is a work that encourages empathy, but even more than that it promotes pathos — the quality that arouses feelings of pity, sorrow, and compassion. When a drama is successful, the audience is suspended in an altered state of hyper-awareness and emotion. The principles of drama are what make stories compelling.

Economy is the essence of clarity

Drama is an art form, and as such is a method of concise, powerful communication. In watching a film or a television episode we have declared our willingness to have something communicated to us. We are conditioned to think of a television or cinema screen as space within which significant things are being shown; we will therefore try to arrange everything that happens within this space into an understandable and significant pattern. Hence, anything that is unnecessary or does not contribute to that pattern will be seen as an intrusion, an irritant.

The dramatist limits and controls her imaginative flight within a well-defined dramatic structure. Her prime purpose is to project her interpretation of life clearly and forcefully, so that the experiences of the characters may become the experiences of the spectator. To do this successfully, the dramatist must follow the universal artistic process in adapting life to the stage. It is a process of informed simplification and refinement. The key steps in the creation of a work of art are:

  • Selection
  • Rearrangement
  • Intensification

By careful selection, the playwright chooses the conflict, theme, characters, and situation that communicate the playwrights meaning. By rearrangement, they create a dramatic and exciting sequence. The playwright may intensify by highlighting certain characters and subordinating others. They may emphasize particular ideas to the exclusion of others. The Playwright may develop some situations fully and trace others only lightly. The meaning and the power of the drama will depend upon the elements the playwright intensifies. Finally, highly selected dramatic characters are placed in highly selected dramatic situations.

The headline that proclaims "Space Ray Destroys Planet Alderaan" tells of an exciting action.

The headline that proclaims "Space Ray Destroys Planet Alderaan" tells of an exciting action. It is compelling in and of itself, but only briefly — the reader wants to know more. What drove someone to do this? How did it happen? What are the results of the action? The drama is the concise tale of the background of the climactic action stated in the headline. It traces in an exciting and clear fashion the interplay of the forces that ultimately drove the destruction of a small, peaceful planet. A dramatic presentation is the story of the struggle and conflict that caused the final action.

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