Premise and Interactivity

I wanted to quickly reiterate that this blog is a place for me to throw out ideas, not a place where I publish my finished ideas.  When I have a theory on interactive storytelling that I think is relatively finished, I’ll write a book or something.  For now, I’m just going to post ideas here.  I say this because in some posts I may contradict something I said in a previous post, which is fine.  I just wanted to warn you.

So why do I bring this up now?  Because in my last post when I was talking about Fallout 3, I said there has to be a premise in an interactive story, and it can’t change because the characters wouldn’t be able to adapt.  I still think this is true, but it brings up another question: how, then, can an interactive story have a set-in-stone premise while still allowing the player to change the story through their actions?

We must also be willing to ask ourselves if an interactive story would still be a story if it did not have a set-in-stone premise.

Keep in mind that a lot of the ideas I will talk about in this post will be artistic decisions made by the storyteller, not built directly into the engine.  The storyworld designer will be able to choose how they want to prove a premise, what decisions they will give to the player, or even if they are going to try and prove a premise.  These decisions will make the interactive story better or worse, but they will be up to the storyteller, and I don’t want to take away the storyteller’s options.

In this post I will be exploring how a premise works together with interactivity, and if this is even possible.  There have already been many debates about narrative vs. interactivity, and how they are mutually exclusive, but this discussion is slightly different.  A premise is not a storyline.  By storyline, I mean a linear set of events which are in nature not interactive.  A storyworld, on the other hand, and I’m stealing this from Chris Crawford, is in nature interactive.  I will talk more about this later, but my point is that premise and narrative are two totally different things.

Note that throughout this post I will be talking about a “Storyteller,” which is simply the creator, or designer, of the interactive story.  I hope to talk more in the future about the different team members that may be required in making an interactive story.  Since a project on this scale would require several people, I think it would be a good idea to talk about some important team positions and what they do.

The Purpose of Interactive Stories

Before I talk about what the player should be able to do in an interactive story, I think it is important to explain the reason anyone would even make an interactive story.  The purpose of any story should be to prove a premise, but are interactive stories different?  Is there something more to them that makes proving of a premise less important than interactivity?

Chris Crawford has an interesting idea about how stories teach.  In his book, Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, he talks about mental webs which represent a person’s ideas.  Depending on the person, their web could be different from another person’s, and possibly even be missing some ideas.

Crawford puts forward the idea that a story is a complete web of ideas, which, when heard, is merged with the audience’s web, and as a result, their web is modified.

The point of this idea is that interactive stories are able to probe the user’s web, find any discrepancies, and adjust the story to better fit the user’s web.  How in the world the computer does this is a mystery to me, but I am thinking about it.

Crawford also talks about what he calls the “second-person insight.”  This is basically anticipating how the player of your interactive story is going to feel at any given moment.  Crawford states that we aren’t forfeiting our artistic vision with an interactive story, we are trying to help the player see our truth through their eyes.

That is the purpose of interactive stories: revealing a truth to the player through their own eyes.

So how in the world do we do this?

Conflict Between Character and Player

If we attempt a more simple system of control, for us, anyway, then this could cause some frustration for the player.  For example, if the player tells the main character to do something, and the main character doesn’t want to do this, the player will become frustrated.  Put another way, if the player wants the character to do something they are not ready for mentally, the character probably won’t do it.  You could avoid this altogether by only giving the player certain options; options which the character will definitely do.  The computer would just leave out all other options.

So at pretty much every moment in the interactive story, the computer is evaluating the development of the main character, the environment, any other characters nearby, and giving the player a list of options they can choose.  However, if all options are only things the main character wants to do, then there will be no conflict, no growth, no story.

Say we define a “Comfort zone” for the main character; a set of behaviors that the character will do easily.  Anything outside this comfort zone would be undesirable to the main character.  I suppose this could be called the “Conflict zone.”  The player can choose an option that is outside the main character’s comfort zone, but it will be harder for the main character to complete, and therefore cause conflict.

In my opinion, most of the options, if not all, should be outside the character’s comfort zone.  If all the player chooses are comfortable options, then the interactive story will very quickly die, because there will be no conflict.

It will be up to the storyteller to create a scenario for the main character that will help to prove a premise.  This also means creating suitable antagonists for the main character.  If the antagonist in the story is strong enough, which he must be, then he will create conflict for the main character which the player must also deal with.

Choice

To prove a premise in a written story, not an interactive story, the writer creates a cast of characters who all will help him to prove that premise.  He then lets them create their own story.  This all seems perfect for interactive stories, but then there’s that unknown factor of the player.  At the beginning of the story, the player most definitely won’t know what the premise of the interactive story is, so how can he possibly help prove it?

In an interactive story, every outcome is acceptable.  If the main character dies at the end of the story, that is a viable ending.  But does this help prove your premise?  Every option available to the player must somehow further the proving of your premise.  This means that if the player has a positive “good” option, and a negative “bad” option, the “bad” option is still a viable option and will help further the proving of your premise.  Of course, as I said, these decisions, and whether they ultimately help you prove a premise, are up to you, the storyteller.

Another thing to point out is that we don’t want to give the player unimportant choices.  For example, say you allow the player to choose what their character eats for breakfast, what they wear, some of the places they go, but whenever an important choice comes up, a cinematic shows the player what their character does, and they have no say in the matter.  This would prove a premise, all right, but it proves it the wrong way.

A related idea is that “dull” choices, such as what to eat for breakfast, or whether or not to shower, aren’t important in an interactive story.  They cause no conflict, help prove no premise, although they could be slightly entertaining, as seen by the success of games such as The Sims.  An idea I had, and this doesn’t by any means need to be integrated into an interactive storytelling engine, is to give the player certain “dull” choices, but “no” is the default answer, and will be chosen if the player doesn’t make their decision within several seconds.

This mechanic should not be the same as the process of displaying and choosing decisions that are important to the story.  When these options are displayed, there should not be a time limit; the player should be able to think about what they are going to do, and then make their choice.  Remember, it isn’t a game, so we shouldn’t punish the player if they take too long to make their decision.  However, the story can punish the main character if they make a bad decision, but this doesn’t usually just end the story, this helps develop the character and prove the premise.

I feel like I am avoiding the question I asked earlier by dumping the problem on the storyteller.  However, I don’t believe there is any formula that can create a storyworld that proves a premise and only gives good options to the player.  This is all up to the storyteller, and is the reason interactive storytelling, at least for now, isn’t for everyone.  My dream is that someday everyone will be able to make an interactive story, but first I think we must help everyone to learn what an interactive story really is, hopefully by showing them what a good interactive story looks like.

Conclusion

To wrap everything up, I would like to talk about Chris Crawford’s definition of an interactive story and how it relates to this discussion.  He says that a storyworld is a set of dramatic decisions that explore a single main theme.  That main theme would be the premise.  Crawford talks a lot about interactivity and story, and he comes to the conclusion that storyworlds are made up of rules that define what they player can do, but these rules relate to the story.  In the future I will talk about what these rules should be and maybe a few examples.  For now, I must do more research.

I hope this post has helped clear up a few things about narrative, premise, and interactivity.  If it hasn’t, feel free to leave a comment with your question, and I will attempt to answer it in a way that makes sense.  In the next few posts I will talk about character and personality models, conflict, and many other very interesting topics.

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