Investigation into the paradigms of interactive narrative through the medium of video games
Can Interactive Drama provide true global agency within a coherent narrative framework?
Harry Morgan, University of Gloucestershire, 2012
There has recently been extensive research into interactive narrative theory and AI technology (Magerko, 2005). The development community for interactive drama has been the predominant force in driving innovation (Stern & Mateas, 2003). The opinion, held by many designers and theorists, is that interaction and narrative are not compatible as player satisfaction and dramatic impact are intrinsically opposed (Rolling & Adams, 2003). Interactive drama seeks to disprove this claim by providing complete player freedom, or agency, within a constantly alterable yet coherent plot. This paper provides analysis on the theorist and designers work, it was conducted in order to generate rationale and conclusion. This was achieved by exploring the importance narrative can have on player immersion and eliciting emotion. Also, it was imperative to explain the advantages the interactive medium could potentially serve for story in general. For example, the mixture of embedded, enacted and emergent narrative shows the variety of tools a game’s story can utilise. A greater understanding of the potential of interactive narrative can be gained from studying the grievances attributed to the medium. This includes the player vs. author issue and the current level of technological constraints. A case study on experimental game Façade (Stern & Mateas, 2005), which was used to demonstrate interactive drama, was carried out in order to test the positives and the areas of improvement for the genre. Ultimately, it was to investigate the possibilities of a global agency within a coherent narrative framework.
A significant number of game theorists and designers, such as Chris Crawford, agree there is a fundamental problem with combining story and gameplay. It’s said the two elements are not easily compatible and are ‘conflicting requirements’ (Riedl & Stern, 2006). Many believe that there is a basic contradiction between state of narrative immersion and the process of interaction (Bizzocchi & Woodbury, 2003). The problem is due to game design that attempts to structure an impactful narrative with player freedom of choice. On one hand, the player wants control to make decisions for the player’s character. On the other hand, game designers want the player to experience a coherent narrative progression (Riedl & Stern, 2006). However, this ‘contradiction’ is also endemic, and the cause of, additional flaws within interactive narrative such as the current levels of technology, characterisation and lack of structured theory.
It is important to address these issues as interactive narrative has unrealised potential to innovate within the act of storytelling. If narratives can be created incrementally in response to users’ actions, then users can be made to legitimately believe that they are empowered as active participants of a story (Mott & Lester, 2006). As a consequence of this it will increase the participants’ immersion and engagement within the story’s world, therefore enhancing their enjoyment of the experience.
Interactive Drama, a new genre in game design (Rauch, 2006), has attempted to combat the issues within videogame narrative. Interactive dramas have a strong plot behind them that the author wants to communicate to the player, but where the player may have a strong influence on the plot (Ram, Ontanon, Mehta, 2007). This can create gameplay that allows agency to effect the course of the narrative. The genre also aims to provide a “pure” hedonic experience, immersing the player in a dramatic social interaction (Knickmeyer & Mateas, 2005). ‘Social’ would imply renewed focus on characters and dialog, this is helpful as story is about conveying character (Perlin, 2004) thus it is a mandatory requirement of complex and meaningful narrative.
Interactive narrative is a broad subject, so the first aim of the research will be to define what the term represents. This will include a distinction between story quality and implementation, along with, the exploration of agency and authorial control. Computer games are themselves an especially large area and not all genres rely on narrative, Some games require more integration than others (Rollings & Adams, 2003), so it is vital to provide clear boundaries in order to avoid misrepresentation or inconsistency.
It is imperative to prove interactive narratives importance, not only to game design, but to media in general. This will justify research into the subject of narrative theory and interactive drama. Narrative provides key design disciplines for increasing player engagement, which includes the integration of identification and reward. This will explore how the player’s immersion is increased. Furthermore, it will be valuable to explore how the artistic desire to reach catharsis can have tangible benefits, which could translate to increased profits and a much richer gaming experience (Freeman, 2004). Lastly, an investigation into embedded and emergent narrative will display the advantages of the interactive medium. This will demonstrate the motivation for advancing the understanding and technology of interactive narrative.
Finally, interactive drama and, genre pioneer (Mott, 2010), Façade will be reviewed to determine the flaws of interactive narrative. These flaws, among others, include the player vs. author contradiction, the lack of a narrative theoretical structure and the limitations of technology. The concepts and technologies in Façade are an attempt to solve these problems.
Façade is the best representation of interactive drama so far, it points the way to how an interactive drama could work (Mott,2010), by using it as a case study it would test the possibilities of interactive drama. This would include analysis of true user agency, different narrative structures (Aristotelian etc.) and natural language processing. The outcomes of Façade will help to present a narrative framework guideline from which to base all interactive narrative. Especially games that have the ambition to combine user agency with a complex authored narrative.
This chapter will investigate topics such as agency, authorial control, enacted, embedded and emergent narrative and branching stories. This will provide the context needed to understand player choice and narrative constraints, as well as, explaining interactive narrative and why it is important for creating immersive gameplay.
Relevant research, on why interactive narrative is flawed, will explore the subjects of player vs. author, technology, characterisation and theoretical structure. These categories will establish which problems the case study will address.
Research by Pedersen (2009) explains that, in game design and implementation, there is often a lack of solid and interesting storylines. This is a subjective opinion, whether true or not it is inconsequential to the task of improving interactive narrative as it represents a different argument. The greatest mistake that is made in defining game narrative is the attempt to reduce it to story and story alone (Dansky, 2007).
Narrative can be defined as a succession of events; the order of events represent story but the act of telling represents narration (Rollings & Adams, 2003). Therefore this discussion is not about the quality of the events but instead about how these events are integrated into an interactive environment.
Most games have some form of narrative structure and themes, even those that are heavily abstract like Tetris (Pajitnov, 1984) is about casting the player as an environment-battling hero (Murray, 2004). Despite this, the narrative is not important in making Tetris fun. Ryan (2004) believes the most sophisticated games do not need narrative to attract players. Some players may even feel frustrated when narrative interrupts gameplay. However, other genres depend on complex narrative to support the quality of the overall experience. Role-playing games, like Dragon Age (Bioware, 2009), and especially Adventure games, like Tales of Monkey Island (LucasArts, 2009), are almost entirely narrative driven (Dansky, 2007). Greater understanding of interactive narrative could consequently benefit an entire genre.
The term agency best describes the user’s freedom in, and effect on, the games world. Murray (1997) had agency as one of three categories to describe interactive story. Mateas (2004) believes agency is the most fundamental of Murray’s categories because when designed appropriately, an interactive environment can lead to a feeling of agency, in turn creating interactor immersion (Bizzocchi & Woodbury, 2003). Thus, within interactive narrative, agency is the catalyst of engagement.
In ‘god’ games such as The Sims (Maxis, 2000) high agency is at the core of the experience, as an example, it is the interactor who sets the parameters of the character’s personality (Murray, 2004). However, this strong agency comes at a price, the lack of a meaningful, directed narrative. One of the goals of interactive narrative research is to facilitate true, or global, agency (Tanenbaum, 2008) that can be found in The Sims, and then combine it with a complex story similar to Dragon Age. Players should be able to experience both the immediate and long-term effects of their actions (Knickmeyer & Mateas, 2005). For enhanced immersion the player needs a range of significant consequences for their actions, further increasing their sense of presence.
Authorial control is the use of story to constrain the player’s experience to a particular narrative path (Riedl & Stern, 2006). It can feel linear, as if the only purpose the players actions serve is to move the game toward a predestined conclusion (Rollings & Adams, 2003), strict authorial control is essentially the opposite of agency. However, Koster (2005) believes games will have to imply authorial intent in order to invoke desired learning patterns. So in order for meaningful narrative to be communicated designer control is required. The answer lies in finding the balance between: Agency –to provide immersion, and authorial control –to offer motivation and context to the player’s actions. Action games such as Uncharted 3 (Naughty Dog, 2011) have extensive use of authorial control, featuring many set-pieces and cut-scenes.
Gameplay can be measured by the player’s engagement. Even games often disassociated with story use narrative in order to develop engagement. Dansky (2007) believes narrative strings together the events of the game, providing a framework and what can alternately be called a justification, a reason, or an excuse for the gameplay encounters. The first part of providing justification is a successful use of identification. If the player identifies, or sympathises, with the protagonists motivations then it would create a character more desirable to play as and follow (Kincaid, 2002). Also, identification of the antagonist’s threat provides context for player’s need to defeat them.
-“When a game asks you to shoot things it’s helpful to know that the things you are shooting are dangerous terrorists, flesh eating zombies, mutated lawyers, or something else that you have little or no moral qualms in dispatching into digital oblivion” (Dansky, 2007 p.6).
The same ideals can be used to create a feeling of responsibility for the games universe.
Successful identification with the game world allows immersion to create the willing suspension of disbelief. Revealing more of the story then becomes a ‘reward’ to the player, careful design would mean significant exposition is delivered as rewards for achieving in-game goals or after intense bouts of gameplay, such as an end level ‘boss’ encounter in God of War (Sony, 2005). In principle, these cliff-hangers drive players to want to know what happens next and thus motivate them to continue to persevere with the game (Dansky, 2007).
Emotion in games is potentially a powerful tool because, when emotion is added to a game, the game will appeal to wider demographics. The game gets better press and is more likely to generate allegiance to a brand (Freeman, 2004). If a game narrative is to affect a player in a particularly potent way, through fear, laughter or melancholy, then the experience will be more memorable. Koster (2005) wants games to use emotion to deepen the medium as an art form and that they are capable of portraying the human condition. Freeman (2004) agrees that when a breadth and depth of emotion is added to games then the art is enhanced.
Emotion in games also helps immersion and identification by adding a sense of believability to characters. The emotional believability contributes towards providing the user with a unique immersive experience (Aylett & Louchart, 2003). This extends to how characters are visualised, as Disney animators Thomas & Johnston (1981) express, that it has always been the portrayal of emotions that has given the Disney characters the illusion of life. Such expression of emotion is needed to provide identification and identifying with the protagonist is necessary in order for an audience to experience catharsis (Mateas, 2004).
Enacted narrative exists in a variety of ways within videogames but most famously in the form of a cut-scene, also known as a pre-rendered cinematic. Traditionally they were used as segments in-between levels to provide exposition. They are the most concise way for the author to deliver story as player interaction cannot change or interrupt the narrative, additionally cut-scenes can be an effective way of providing reward.
Fig 1. Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007) has an integrated cut-scene to introduce rapture and antagonist, Andrew Ryan.
With the advantage of interactivity, enacted narrative evolved into the integrated cut-scene. This was first pioneered by Half-life (Valve, 1998) and plays out as a scripted event. This greatly smoothed the transition from game to cut-scene. The jarring effect of jumping from one graphics style to another was eliminated (Crawford, 2003) and control is never explicitly removed from the player.
Fig 2. The protesters placard reveals part of raptures past and what lead to its current dilapidated state.
Embedding narrative is a subtle way a designer can reveal story segments by using the environment. In games that employ environmental storytelling the characters and objects (Wei, 2010) can contain moments that shed light on past actions (Jenkins, 2004), there are many effective ways to implement this technique. A common form that carries a literary tradition is objects with texts, like stone inscriptions (Wei, 2010). The enhancement embedded narrative has, through the interactive medium, is the sense of player discovery. As Gee (2007) notes, traditional media has a determined order in which events will be encountered. On the other hand, players in a videogame can ‘gain the same information from different sources’ and in a different order. In video games like Deus Ex (Eidos, 2000), stories are embodied in the player’s own choices and actions in a way they cannot be in books and movies.(Gee, 2007)In Deus Ex, players have the option to gain access to NPC’s (non-player character) email accounts, this can expose certain NPC’s backgrounds and intentions therefore further developing character and narrative. The flexible pace of videogames enables a personal approach to narrative progression only possible with interactivity.
Complex game systems allow for many possibilities to arise and every action taken by the player, using that system, can be considered a form of narrative in its own right. In a combat scenario the weapons and tactics the player chooses to use, and the outcome of the battle, is a narrative that constantly emerges. Here, the elements are predetermined, but no element is formally scripted (Boon, 2007) instead it is the player’s action, and the consequences of them, that write the story.
Fig 3. Bioshock allows for gun and close quarters combat as well as special powers. The greater variety increases the complexity of the emergent narrative.
Emergent narrative can only exist when interactivity is provided –the greater opportunity the narrative is given to emerge –the more personalised the player’s experience becomes. This is a vital component of agency, as key to a successful mechanic is to make the player feel that they are contributing to creating a plot (Nielsen, Smith & Tosca, 2008). As well as dynamic combat, emergent gameplay is seen to exist in the customisation of characters in genres such as the RPG (Role-playing).
Some games allow players to choose between distinct story paths in order to avoid predestined conclusions. This style of interactivity can be called the ‘broomstick approach’ (Bruckman, 1990); it consists of a linear story which branches into a number of alternative endings. It is useful in allowing players to make a decision on the preferred route they want their character to take.
Most of the aforementioned disciplines; enacted, emergent and branching narratives, are undeniably useful to interactive narrative. However, they also have limitations and implementation difficulties that inhibit interactive narratives ability to provide true user agency and coherent, authored narrative. That is why it is necessary to analyse their flaws and theorise the solutions.
The predominate question posed by game designers and theorists is whether the act of play and authored narrative operate in shared solitudes (Bizzocchi & Woodbury, 2003). It is represented as a clash between the player and author’s desires –the player wants to seek agency but the authorial control restricts it. This relationship creates design issues. Firstly, the player’s potential actions will be unpredictable, it may include their beliefs about the storyworld, their goals and their level of engagement. (Mott & Lester, 2006). Authors are limited by what they can anticipate and produce in advance (Perlin, 1996). The author can use enacted narrative to communicate their intent concisely, but some see it as defeating the point of interactive narrative. For example, integrated cut scenes do not solve the problem of interactive storytelling, because they do nothing to make the storytelling interactive (Crawford, 2003).Rollings (2003) agrees that a game is a participatory entertainment, and purists would say any non-participatory elements are extraneous. This additional conflict between player intentions vs. enacted narrative can undermine the intended flow of the plot. In Grand theft auto IV (Rockstar, 2008) the cut-scenes show the player character, Niko Bellic, to be highly sympathetic in his struggle for a better life. However, the gameplay produces emerging narrative that portrays an emotionally devoid psychopath. In this mode of alternating between game play and cut-scenes, story elements and simulation are kept strictly separate (Riedl & Stern, 2006) and the narrative loses its coherence.
It could be argued that the player vs. Author problem exists because of the ideological differences both roles inhabit. For example, the narrative has a tendency to interrupt the player’s progression. In RPG’s there is an emphasis on character progression – but dramatic twists and turns clash with the prevailing tone of steady advancement (Crawford, 2003). These dramatic twists are seen as ‘forced failures’ used to take the narrative in a different direction, but they are perfect examples of instances when narrative trumps gameplay, diminishing the player’s response (Dansky, 2003). On the other side of the argument, the problem of offering the possibilities of winning can conflict with an engaging narrative (Nielsen, et al. 2008). This could make certain potent story forms, such as the tragedy, impossible to create (Boon, 2007). The idea that the medium has created a culture of players seeking ludic incentives fuels an expectation, of the author, that the interactor will behave in a self-gratifying, pleasure-centric manner, subverting the story to satisfy his desire for Agency.(Tanenbaum, 2008) This leads to the belief that narrative satisfaction and game satisfaction are intrinsically opposed. This is exacerbated by the need for player-character identification. It can sometimes take a lot of time and effort for a player to develop their character’s stats and inventory.
Murray (2004) offers a counter point by arguing that too often, the criteria of divergent disciplines or genres are set against one another. Instead, think of the characteristics of stories and games and how these separable characteristics are being recombined and reinvented. While she has a valid claim in pointing out stories in games have been successful there are many additional issues such as technology, characterisation and theoretical structure that prove to be practical problems within the medium, preventing global agency or coherent narrative.
There exists no theoretical framework that can pose and answer game design questions (Mateas, 2005), especially those relating to how gameplay and story can be compatibly woven. Professional game development is too young a discipline for a coherent language to have fully emerged, it is in a state of ‘evolutionary flux’. In contrast, the narrative language of theatre, novels, film and television has become largely codified and consensually agreed (Bateman, 2007). This is problematic as it prevents a consistent, growing understanding of the medium.
It is clear that the format of a book is very different from a computer game (Aylett & Louchart, 2003). Also neither films nor virtual environments represent bodies of work which are consistent and coherent enough in terms of form, content, aims, resources or techniques (Clark and Mitchell, 2001). However, there is some basis for drawing parallels between games and other media, when concerning interactivity. Burn (2004) believes interactivity in games is a kind of turning outward of the narrative text to face the reader to directly involve him or her. An example of how this can be done in literature is shown in Dulce et Decrom Est (Owen, 1917) through the ‘if’ clause, we are offered alternatives – to stay home and misrepresent the war, or to share Owen’s experience and tell the truth (Burn, 2004). Readers can’t change the poem, like players can in a videogame, but the use of language is still relevant in displaying the author-audience relationship. If a theory is to be formed it is necessary to explore which current media elements are transferable and then adapt them to incorporate interactivity. Ignoring established media theory would prove to be counter-productive.
Mateas (2005) believes a lack of theoretical framework causes inefficiency and inconsistency within interactive narrative design. Without being able to define a problem, it is impossible to generate a solution.
Crawford (2005) believes stories are about people and not things, he explains that this is why games have failed to incorporate storytelling except in ‘the most mechanical and forced manner’. The complaint is that characters are only used in games to serve the purpose of embodying gameplay challenges. Perlin (2004)cannot sustain the fiction that an actual Lara Croft continues to exist offstage, because he has not actually experienced her agency. Characters are the key to creating believability and engagement but have had lack of ‘research’ within the medium (Neilsen, 2008).
Burn (2004) offers a more rational explanation –the characters in games represent different types of stories. In Alice in Wonderland (Carroll, 1865) Alice is on a journey solving puzzles, similar to the premise of an adventure game, but she does not actually emotionally develop. Yet, she is not criticised for being ‘superficial’ or compared ‘unfavourably to Hamlet.’ The complexity is external as oppose to being internally focused on psychology. Alternatively, in Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001), a psychological horror game, the protagonist James Sunderland ventures into the nightmarish titular town of Silent Hill. He believes his dead wife could be alive there, it is his naїve psychology that explains his willingness to persist and provides believability to the actions (Rusch, n/d). When necessary, videogames can produce psychological character development if it can help in providing narrative context to gameplay.
While the amount of depth videogame characters have achieved is debatable, it does not provide an answer to the real problem. In order to achieve global agency, characters need to be complex enough to increase engagement, but this needs to be combined with a method of dynamically influencing these characters through emergent narrative and gameplay (Perlin, 1996). However, the difficulty of integrating believable characters into a ‘true’ interactive narrative is a technological problem.
A fundamental component of story and interactivity is choice. In games the act of choice is the focus of attention (Bizzocchi & Woodbury, 2003), when interactors are faced with choices and dilemmas they become strongly engaged (Swartjes & Theune, 2009). Whenever we make a choice, we are choosing between verbs ‘We choose between kissing the girl goodnight or shaking her hand goodnight.’ (Crawford, 2003 p.166). The French narratologist Genette (1980) agrees that narratives are based on the category of verb, which is the basis of action. However,the problem in interactive storytelling is that thousands of verbs are needed.(Crawford, 2003)
The limitation of branching stories, or the ‘broomstick approach’, exposes the vast thirst for a multitude of verbs and a variety of actions. To allow any true depth of choice using this technique would overload the developer’s ability to create and structure enough scenes (Boon, 2007). Choosing among a large number of actions is a problem if the number of actions exceeds 10. We call this the “choice problem” (Szilas, 2004).
Even though there have been enormous advances in computer graphics, animation and audio, most of the games contain very basic artificial intelligence (AI) techniques (Ram, et al. 2007). Unrealistic responses of game characters in role-playing or adventure games break the illusion of an ongoing narrative (Sharma, Ontanon, Mehta & Ram. 2010). Perlin (2004) concurs by suggesting interactive narrative cannot move forward until characters can ‘act’ well enough to embody the environment. The task is to build believable characters that can act, but also so the player can interact with them using a vast amount of choice. This also needs to be crafted in such a way that allows for emergent narrative to provide complex social interaction, which is necessary for meaningful narrative. Thus maximizing player agency requires providing at least a limited form of natural language dialog (Mateas, 2004).
From the literature it can be said that both agency and authorial control are imperative for providing a ‘true’ interactive narrative, finding a way to strike a balance between the two is the difficulty. Agency will act as the freedom and influence within the games world, whereas authorial control is needed in order to provide the player complex dialog and engaging scenarios.
Discovering ways to improve the relationship between gameplay and story is important as narrative has well established influence on engagement. By offering identification and reward it can encourage players to persist with the game. Additionally, interactive narrative could create riveting new artistic possibilities, in which agency play will allow for salient new opportunities of emergent meaning and reflection on our human conditions (Harrell & Zhu, 2009). Games that offer catharsis could broaden the audience by bringing deepened meaning to the medium (Rauch, 2006).
Enacted narrative is valuable to interactive narrative as it can provide a greater degree of reward and authorial control. However, it restricts or can prevent agency, this would suggest enacted narrative must be used in very limited form within an environment built for global agency. An effective use of embedded narrative to tell the story, and a system which allows for complex emergent narrative, are techniques that can provide evidence of a well authored –yet interactively dependant story.
It was significant to break the flaws of interactive narrative down into four distinct categories of: Player vs. author, technology, theoretical structure and characterisation. This means these categories can be used as criteria for judging how well agency and narrative have been combined, but also for showing how interactive narrative can be improved. By applying these categories to Façade, through a case study, it will be possible to determine if it achieves global agency within a coherent narrative.
Criteria for creating Global agency within a coherent narrative framework
Player as co-author:
Fig 4. Table represents the categories that measure Façade’s attempt to create global agency within a coherent narrative framework.
A prospective case study was the chosen investigative method as Flyvbjerg (2006) argues that they provide the value of phenomenological insights gleamed by closely examining ‘expert knowledge’. Such expert opinion is how evidence will be collected, it will be highly necessary, especially since interactive drama is an obscure part of the videogame medium. The ‘expert knowledge’ will be derived from some of the leading creators and theorists of the genre. Also, Case studies lend themselves to generating hypotheses (Flyvbjerg, 2001). This is important as the conclusion will seek to provide a suggestive framework of global agency within a coherent narrative. The integration of global agency and coherent narrative, into interactive drama, will be the subject of the case study, the experimental game Façade, will be its object.
Relevant surveys into user engagement, while playing Façade, have already been conducted in academic journals. The results from these surveys will be referenced and used as evidence to strengthen a conclusion. Case study research provides the statistical framework for making inferences from quantitative case study data (Yin, 200). There are many elements that refer to the flaws of interactive narrative and a case study would be the ideal resource to analyse individual factors. Case studies benefit from prior development in theoretical propositions (Skate, 1995), which will apply to areas such as the scrutiny with which the neo-Aristotelian model, the theoretical narrative framework for Façade, will come under.
The Façade case study will aim to be a critical case generalisation, of valid use to all forms of interactive narrative as well as interactive drama. This would be in contrast to the negative form of case generalisation, which would suggest the research would only apply to Façade.
Façade is the ideal object for studying interactive narrative as Mateas (2005) states, In the design and engineering of Façade, they explicitly wanted to push on the question of the capability of agency and narrative. Tanenbaum (2008) believes Façade is one of the most successful systems to have emerged from scholarly research into interactive narrative. It also has, arguably the most famous example of drama manager technology (Roberts & Isbell, 2008)
The case study will begin by giving an overview of Façade’s gameplay and setting. It will also analyse the game creator’s ideologies and intentions behind the project. The case study will attempt to answer the question, of global agency within a coherent narrative, by dissecting Façade in relevant and specific categories including: Theoretical structure, characterisation in Façade, technology in Façade and player as co-author. Firstly, it will be necessary to analyse the theoretical structure Façade was based on. It will also include discussion of the tensions caused by the neo-Aristotelian model.
Then it will be significant to detail how Façade implements characterisation. It will explore its issue with identification and implementation of believable characters. This will be followed by descriptions of the technology behind Façade including: The natural language processor, the character architecture and the drama manager. This will show how the gameplay can produce a variety of emergent narrative. Furthermore, this category will provide a survey (Roberts & Isbell, 2008) to test the effectiveness and feasibility of Façade’s drama manager.
Finally, it will be imperative to test the possibility of player as co-author, Tanenbaum (2008) believes interactor agency becomes one of performer responsibilities. Therefore, Façade can achieve ‘true’ global agency through the player as co-author concept. It will also have to cover topics such as how it handles interactivity, choices, variety of action and branching stories. Likewise, it will be integral to study Façade’s narrative to test how coherent it can be, which will allow for complex story.
All these categories will help by providing results to explore whether Façade has achieved global agency within a coherent native framework. It will also show whether it has formed a structured theory for how best to fulfil interactive narrative’s potential. Then the case study can conclude by suggesting how Façade can be improved, further adding to its strength as a theory of how agency and narrative should be combined. There will also be proposed guidelines developers could follow when creating an interactive narrative framework.
In experimental game Façade, the premise is that old friends Grace and Trip invite you to dinner, the player then gets embroiled in a marital argument between the couple. The playerhas to respond to the situation and, if they feel like it, play marriage counsellor. The only tool is conversation –to communicate in full sentences(Mott, 2010). The setting is inspired by the play Whos afraid of Virginia Woolf (Albee, 1962).The action is seen through the first-person perspective and input is managed by the keyboard, to type out conversations, and the mouse, to interact with the environment. When the game was released opinions varied, Rauch (2006) found the game to be ‘ingenious’ but not very ‘fun’, this would indicate that Façade is innovative but is not a fully realised concept as a game. However, Adams (2005) found Façade to be one of the most important games of the last ten years.
Fig 5. Grace and Trip, main characters of Façade, standing in their apartment.
Stern & Mateas (2003) outlined that they had built Façade to create socially interactive gameplay and realistic game challenges. They believe that currently games are unable to convincingly address human relationships, thereby limiting both their mass market appeal and potential cultural value. There is agreement within the development community that this is a problem, Koster (2005) explains that games have not really worked to extend our understanding of ourselves. Instead, games have displayed human behaviour often in its crudest, most primitive form. By having a strong focus on social interaction it allows a greater base on which to build more meaningful narrative. Meaning requires words, characters and dramatic shape. It requires a sense that the action is leading to some transformation or resolution.(Rauch, 2006) Having the ability to interact with well written characters in a meaningful way is the key to creating complex narrative. The designers believed this method would help expand the medium to new audiences.
Fig.6 choosing a drink from the bar
Fig. 7 Trip runs to the kitchen during an argument.
Mateas & Stern’s (2005) task was to create an architecture that affords the authoring of non-linear, player responsive narrative performed in real-time, and implementing a small but complete, high agency interactive drama within that architecture.The case study will resolve whether Façade achieved the designer’s goal but will also decide interactive drama’s current flaws and potential.
Part of the difficulty in achieving interactive drama is due to the lack of a theoretical framework guiding the exploration of the technological and design issues surrounding interactive narrative (Mateas, 2004). Façade is based on the neo-Aristotelian model and Mateas (2004) believes it provides a general framework for analysing player agency. But the model has critics who believe Aristotle’s plot centred approach does not include interactivity between the author and the user, which makes it hard to apply to interactive narrative without serious modification (Aylett & Louchart, 2003). In The poetics (Aristotle 330 BC) Aristotle splits a plays structure into six parts: Action (plot), character, thought, language, pattern and enactment. Smiley (1971) presents Aristotle’s six parts of drama as connected by formal and material causes. Each part dictates the form of those below, while each provides the material for the element above. Playwrights hold the formal order to be most important as the plot dictates the qualities of the characters. Whereas, actors and production team tend to construct the play working in the material order (Tomaszewski, 2006).
Mateas (2004) explains how the material/formal causes are adapted to integrate agency. In interactive drama the player’s intentions become a source of formal causation. The plot guides the formal causation which dictates what the player perceives to be dramatically probable at the parts from language down to enactment. The parts present below the level of character provide the player with the material resources for taking action. The only actions available are the actions supported by the material resources present in the game, thus the material/formal causation become constraints on what actions the player can choose.
Fig 8. The neo-Aristotelian model with material and formal constraints
The neo-Aristotelian model can measure the right balance of agency by using the material/formal constraints system. For example, In The Secret of Monkey Island (Lucasarts, 1990) the player is given a rich Caribbean world to explore with many interactive objects. However, the imbalance of material constraints means the player has to try many possible actions to find solutions to puzzles. The problem is having insufficient formal constraint to decide between choices (Mateas, 2004), thus diminishing agency as player choice lacks intention or consequence.
Mateas’s adaptation of the neo-Aristotelian model has led to some disagreements about the suitability of its structure. Tomaszewski & Binsted (2006) state that the omission of key Aristotelian features has led to certain tensions. They argue that Aristotle’s sense of manner has been lost, by renaming enactment to mean spectacle, rather than differentiating between whether a narrative is enacted or presented, spectacle has come to mean ‘all that is experienced by the audience’. Aylett & Louchart (2003) disregard the Aristotelian model entirely because an interactive narrative must encompass the emotional contribution to believability, which contributes towards providing the user with a unique immersive experience. However, Aristotle gives ‘little theoretical weight’ to the role of emotion in narrative.
Magerko (2006) believes the focus on interaction in Façade is primarily in the conversational realm and physical interactions are mainly incidental. There are certain objects within Grace and Trip’s flat that can be interacted with, but often it’s purely as a visual prop rather than a significant plot point. This can be linked to the neo-Aristotelian structure as it has underrepresented the spectacle. Physical features, expressions, gestures, costumes and theme music also contribute to our understanding of who a character is. Yet these attributes seem to serve as the material for character without conveying thought or using language (Tomaszewski & Binsted, 2006). Mateas shows his seeming disregard by describing interaction with objects as “somewhere between spectacle and pattern.(Mateas, 2004)” Providing a greater degree of interaction for the player is the most important advancement to be made in interactive drama (Magerko, 2006). With more actions available to the user, the more a story can open up to reveal more potential areas of interest.
Façade’s technology can allow for open-ended social interaction whereby the player’s actions have huge influences on the plot, but that the plot could still maintain complexity and coherence. This was along with the ambition to create believable and adaptable interactive characters. All these requirements were met by programming three systems: the natural language processor, the autonomous character architecture and the drama manager. Dow (2007) states that The natural language processing system interprets natural language input and physical actions from the player. It can also respond using thousands of lines of pre-recorded dialog. The natural language processor was necessary in order to enable a wide variety of verbs and therefore choice, which is integral for interactive narrative to contain user agency.
The autonomous character architecture manages the moment-by-moment goals of the characters, coordinates the joint performance of dramatic action, and drives the procedural character animation. The autonomous character architecture is instrumental in showing character feedback to the player’s agency in real-time. Lastly, the drama manager moves the story forward, through growing crisis, climax and resolution, the three stages of a classic Aristotelian story arc (Dow, Mehta, MacIntyre, Mateas. 2007). The drama manager represents how the player can influence and change the plot. However, the plot can still progress with climatic suspense and eventually to a satisfying end (Rauch, 2006). The technology in Façade is impressive as it manages to overcome many flaws inherent to interactive narrative. Wide variety of choice is possible, every action has recognition from the games characters and the plot is kept organised no matter how much the player interferes.
Roberts & Isbell (2008) conducted surveys to test the attributes of a select number of games drama management systems. This is important as the drama manager is the tool that influences narrative flow. Façade’s results showed that it had undeniably extensive potential for replayability, but this came at the price of its ease of authoring. This is in contrast to the interactive drama Architecture (Magerko, Laird, Assaine, Kerfoot, Stokes. 2004) which doesn’t place much burden on the author but does lack in offering replayability. ‘The use of a deterministic planner will bring about the same narrative structure repeatedly’. As well as adaptability which ‘does not consider the player’s goals when making action choices, only tries to ensure the narrative is consistent with the authorial intent’. Robert & Isbell (2008) propose that future work focus on the technical details of developing new frameworks for ensuring authorial intent.This is to provide authorial tools that allow designers to use interactive drama frameworks. The greater the usability of a drama management system, the more likely the genre will be able to expand.
Façade’s success relies on its two main characters, Grace and Trip, as they have to provide the narrative, gameplay and plot direction. Rauch (2006) believes, despite being simply drawn, Grace and Trip are at moments shockingly natural. They have a wide variety of defined emotive states and accentuating the thought process reveals the characters feeling (Thomas & Johnson, 1981). They are believably adaptable and they provide high user agency as they are heavily influenced by player input. Their fluent responses and automatic control of real-time interactive animation are requirements of believable AI (Riedl & Stern, 2006). Perlin (2004) believes there cannot be a way to find intermediate agency without believable AI actors. Façade creates a coherent narrative experience through the use of synthetic actors (Magerko, 2006).
Grace and Trip are considered the protagonists, which can lead to issues with identification. Stern & Mateas (2003) state that the player plays a central role in the outcome of the married couples row, but is not the main character. This is a contradiction of Mateas’s (2004) ideology where ‘the player should be the protagonist’ and ideally ‘the player should experience a change in the protagonist as a personal journey’. At no point in Façade does the player’s character get given any authored development, especially not enough to allow for character transformation to occur. Murray (1998) suggests that structuring participation with a mask (an avatar) is an essential way of inducing immersion. Without a personality to react to, players may lack engagement if they have no reason to identify with their own character. Also, Grace and Trip can only react in hundreds of ways compared to the millions of expressions players could make. Sometimes Grace or Trip’s reaction can seem confusing and can impair player immersion, they often react to a suggestion they don’t recognise with an awkward stare or a look of horror (Mott, 2010).
In Façade, the player is given almost no direction or role to play; they simply tell the system their name and gender (Stern & Mateas, 2003), allowing players to play as themselves if they choose to. Interactivity is never removed from the player, unless you are being kicked out the flat, as cut-scenes do not appear. Scripted events can be interrupted and altered depending on how you interact. The ability to interact with characters means nuanced ways to experience agency as a change in conversation path is very subtle. Façade provides mechanisms for choosing between different pre-written plot points at run-time (Magerko, et al. 2004). This is oppose to games that use the ‘broomstick approach’ such as Mass Effect 2 (Bioware, 2010) which restricts the player to clearly defined paths. Change in the plot should not be traceable to distinct branch points, offering the player a small number of obvious choices that force the plot in a particular direction. The plot should be smoothly mutable, changing depending on the long and short term actions of the player (Stern & Mateas, 2003). Additionally, a seamless plot change will maintain player immersion.
Façade presents a conceptually different role for the player, by becoming an actual character in the game the player is instead seen as a co-author of emergent narrative. Performers in interactive drama are engaged in the act of constructing a story in collaboration with the designer of the system, and with any other performers, be they AI agents (Swartjes & Theune, 2009) like Grace and Trip. Where the player has significant influence on the story world, then player action and plot event begin to merge (Murray, 2004). Façade rewards players for being proactive and acting dramatically by appropriately managing the plot (Tanenbaum, 2008). The difficulty then lies in providing players with the necessary context so they know how to act within the environment. This is represented by the material and formal constraints. The former is to inform the player what they can afford to do while the latter tells the player what they are meant to do (Swartjes & Theune, 2009). So then the function of the interactive characters, Grace and Trip, is primarily to communicate material and formal constraints. That is, the player should be able to understand why characters take the actions they do, and how these actions relate to the plot (Mateas, 2004). The player then invents goals as the interaction with the characters evolves (Knickmeyer & Mateas).
Considering the player as co-author perspective, Swartjes & Theune (2009) provide further correlations to interactivity in other mediums. ‘A real-life’ counterpart that bears much resemblance to the idea of emergent narrative is improvisational theatre. Improvisational actors co-create scenes on the fly, without any explicit guidance or centralised direction as to what the story should be. (Swartjes & Theune, 2009) This offers a much more appropriate alternative to the classical narrative forms studied so far. By considering storytelling systems as communication channels between authors/designers and performers, rather than as artifacts, it becomes possible to consider interactive narrative as a co-performance (Tanenbaum, 2008). This represents a fundamental shift in concept from usual narrative theories that present the author and player as opposing forces.
The technology and structure of Façade has shown that explicit interactivity is able to interfere with a story experience. The task remains to form strategies that structure the domains of interactive and narrative design (Bizzocchi & Woodbury, 2003). The aim of producing guidelines, that attempt to improve upon Façade, is to clearly demonstrate how global agency with a coherent narrative can, and in some instances, must work.
The theoretical structure of the neo-Aristotelian model is unpopular as it places limitations on the interaction with the environment. By under-representing the spectacle part of theatre (Tomaszewski & Binsted, 2006) Façade has limited the variety of choice and action, therefore this limits agency. The most important element to come from the neo-Aristotelian model was the concept of material and formal constraints. Finding balance between the two constraints is key in analysing a games use of agency and narrative. Although theatre and literacy is an important basis for interactive narrative, it is improvisational theatre that shares the ability to create emergent narrative (Swartjes & Theune, 2009). It could prove to be useful in visualising the concept of a game scenario in a practical way.
The ability of Façade to recognise natural language makes it possible to have the choice to perform a wide variety of action. This combined with the character architecture enables the game to react to the players influence, therefore creating global agency. The drama manager organises plot points into a seamless line. This is in reaction to the consequences of the player’s agency. The ability to do this means a narrative can be dynamically adapted to the plot direction, still offering dramatic arcs, while keeping a sense of coherence intact. The disadvantage of such a complex system is the scalability and usability issues, without an easier to develop system few designers will be able to create an experience in the same direction as Façade.
Grace and Trip act convincingly with a range of emotions, motivations and psychologies but most importantly they react to the players contribution. This was the essential factor in enabling global agency, being able to present characterisation in an alterable yet complex manner. However, this is at the expense of the player not being in control of the protagonist. The story revolves around Grace and Trip’s marriage, while the player has an important part in shaping the outcome, they are not central to the story. This could harm the responsibility the player feels for the games world. Furthermore, there is no characterisation of the player and thus no one to provide identification.
The paradox between player success vs. narrative satisfaction becomes less complicated when the notion of interactivity is viewed from a different perspective (Swartjes & Theune, 2009). If the relationship between the author and interactor is conceived as one of equal parts improvisation then succeeding, for the player, becomes being part of creating an interesting story (Tanenbaum, 2008). The player will be a meta-actor that will be encouraged to help construct a meaningful plot as part of the gameplay (Bizzocchi & Woodbury, 2003).
Criteria for creating Global agency within a coherent narrative framework
Player as co-author:
Produces complex emergent narrative in line with player actions.
Allow for a greater variety of player behaviours that can receive a dramatic response.
Allows a variety of action and consequence to choice.
An easier to author drama management system.
Provides complex, adaptable and emotive characters that react, in both the short and long term, to the player’s actions.
A player character that is in the central role.
Provides the formal/ material constraints system to analyse agency.
Neo-Aristotelian model needs to better incorporate meaningful interactivity with environmental objects.
Fig 9. Chart representing the successful/ negative aspects of Façade’s design
In order to begin the design process, of an interactive story that enables global agency and a coherent narrative, there are important conceptual, technological and theoretical changes that need to be enacted:
Ø Having the player as co-author - would mean the player’s goals and narrative satisfaction become one in the same.
Ø Using improvisational theatre - will aid the creative process by being able to practically enact game scenarios.
Ø Incorporating the formal/material constraints - balance system will allow designers to deduce agency.
Ø Inclusion of a natural language processor - to allow an extensive variety of choice.
Ø Addition of the character architecture - enables characters to react to the players choices and act believably.
Ø A drama manager - is necessary for keeping coherent narrative as it organises the plot as and when it changes.
Ø An easy authoring tool - so the drama manager can attract a wider range of designers.
The goal, for a style of instruction called interactive pedagogical drama, is to provide teaching skills within compelling interactive stories that have didactic purpose (S, Marsella, W, Johnson & C, LaBore, 2000). It would be useful to further study how the framework for interactive drama can be used as training tools for complex social situations. This could include diplomacy, negotiation and leadership. Interactive drama could turn social skills into a matter of problem solving. Other research should look into how combining socially interactive gameplay with traditional action gameplay, such as shooting or puzzle solving, could be feasible. This would include studying issues with control set-ups, as well as, dealing with boundary problems. For example, deciding how the game would cope with a main character being killed off in an early stage of the narrative.
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Appendix A: Glossary
Façade – developed by M, Mateas and A, Stern [online] Available at: http://interactivestory.net/. Grand Jury Prize winner of the 2006 Slamdance Independent Games Festival.
Tetris – developed by Alexi Pajitnov and published by Nintendo, a block-falling puzzle game most famously released alongside the Gameboy.
Dragon Age – developed by Bioware and Published by EA, A fantasy RPG inspired by Dungeons and Dragons. Has a heavy focus on, expert writing, character upgrades, questing, exploration and character relationships.
Tales of Monkey Island – developed by Telltale games Published by LucasArts. A Point-and-click adventure game. Focus on comedic writing, exploration and puzzle solving.
The Sims – developed by Maxis and published by EA. A life simulation game, focus on personalisation of your house and family.
Bioshock – developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K games. A first-person shooter with an emphasis on atmospheric environments and integrated cutscenes.
Grand Theft Auto IV – developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar. An open world, sandbox game set in an alternative New York.
Dulce et Decorum est – written by Wilfred Owen: If you too could pace behind the wagon that we flung him in …/ My Friend, you would not tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory/ The old lie, Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori.
Silent Hill 2 – developed and published by Konami. A psychological Horror game that seeks to creating a haunting environment.
Secret of Monkey Island – developed and published by LucasArts. One of the first ‘classic’ point-and-click adventure games. Heavy focus on dialog and exploration.
Mass Effect 2 – Developed by Bioware and published by EA. Science fiction action-RPG with focus on character relationships, branching stories and space exploration.
Uncharted 3 – Developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony. A treasure hunt themed action game, involves platform jumping and cover-based combat. Many cut-scenes and set pieces, very Linear, no focus on exploration.
God of War – Developed and published by Sony. A close combat adventure game set in mythological ancient Greece. Has a focus on enormous boss battles.