I think we can all agree on one thing: the more complex something is, the more time it will take to make, and the more likely it is to fail. In a previous post I quoted Chris Crawford when he said, “Storytelling is infinitely complex!” In this post I will talk about the necessity to simplify things, so we can actually get something accomplished.
By the way, that quote was in a talk he did at Mesa Community College. If you want, you can watch the video on YouTube. I highly recommend it, because it is a very good introduction to interactive storytelling, and it’s only one short hour. He even makes some jokes!
Why Simplify Things?
First I would like to explain why I think we must simplify interactive storytelling. There are two aspects of interactive storytelling that we could think about in relation to simplification: how the user interacts with the software, and how the software works under the hood. For now, simplifying both of these aspects is important because it will be easier to implement, and simplifying the interface will allow more people to use the software. I’m not saying that people are generally stupid–I don’t really need to, do I?–but people are more willing to try something out if it is easy to use. Also, if the software is difficult to use, then that breaks the immersion.
There are some people who enjoy really complicated things, but these people…I don’t understand them. The problem is, not everyone can really get into complicated, convoluted games, because they don’t want to spend the time. I try to understand that, so I want interactive storytelling to be simple because I want people to actually give it a chance. I don’t want it to be like programming or worse…math.
In order to simplify a complicated process, you have to focus on your goal. Only amateur game developers say, “I want to make a zombie survival simulation game, where you have to eat a certain amount, and sleep, and drink water, and you get tired if you walk or run too much, and each zombie has their own hunger meter, and you can build shelters and cook all different kinds of foods and I want there to be five hundred different types of enemies and all the weapons known to man and I want the world to be like 100 miles square….”
Yeah, probably not going to happen. I’ve seen people post in forums about things like this…it’s kinda scary how many people do this.
If you want to make a zombie game, you can’t just throw in every zombie-related feature you can think of. Unless your goal is to purposely make it complicated, then don’t make it complicated. Keep It Simple, Stupid! (That’s the KISS principle. I didn’t make it up.) The user should not have to read a big long manual before they can use the software.
You must ask yourself what you want to accomplish with the software. Not necessarily what you want the user to do, or even what you want the software to do, but what you want to do with the software. If your goal is too general, e.g. “Be fun,” then you won’t be able to focus very much. You have to have something more specific. So if you are making a zombie game, you want to focus on the aspect of zombies you most want to portray; survival? Horror? The psychological effect of the zombie apocalypse and how people react to it? Once you have decided your goal, make sure that everything you allow the user to do is related to that goal. If it isn’t, cut it out. If you are focusing on the relationships of a group of survivors, don’t put too much combat into the game. It isn’t about the combat after all; it’s about the people.
I’m not saying that there can’t be any combat in the game, I’m just saying it’s not the most important part, so minimize it. While Frictional Games was designing Amnesia: The Dark Descent, they experimented with adding some combat to the game, but they found that it wasn’t having the right effect; it wasn’t scaring the player. It either bored them, or it frustrated them. Neither of these responses was the right one; they were supposed to be scared, and you’re not scared when your frustrated or bored.
Interactive storytelling won’t only be focused on the emotions it can elicit, but it will have another focus: proving a premise.
I know, I know, I promised to stop using that word so much. OK, theme, then? Tomatoes, tomatoes. Oh, this is text, so you can’t hear how I’m pronouncing…nevermind. To-MAH-toes. There.
Anyway, if you were writing a story, and you wanted to show that people could overcome their fear in the face of disaster (zombie apocalypse), then you wouldn’t spend a lot of time describing how they foraged for food and fought off some zombies, and had to keep collecting ammunition or they would run out, etc. You would have these in the story, but you wouldn’t spend a lot of time about them.
Or if you were writing a book about how obsessive revenge eventually leads to death, you wouldn’t spend pages and pages talking about whales, their body parts, and the history of whales in pop culture. Well, maybe you would. Who am I to judge? I just run this pathetic blog, hoping somebody reads it.
So yeah, simplify things or risk boring or frustrating people.
There are many methods of simplifying systems, which I won’t get into here. One way that I will discuss, though, is eliminating duplicates, or, to use one of Chris Crawford’s words, orthogonality. Basically this means to merge two features that are almost identical, or eliminate one of the duplicates. In other words, their should be only one way to get to a certain effect. Chris explains this quite well when he talks about personality models, but now I must say one thing that I don’t like about Chris Crawford’s view of interactive storytelling.
Chris has very strong opinions about what he thinks is important in storytelling. He believes that psychological factors are the most important, and other factors, such as physical attributes, are so unimportant as to be unnecessary. Now I agree that sometimes it’s not important what the character’s eye color is, or what their hair style is, or what they’re wearing, but that really depends on the story. Sometimes what someone is wearing is really important to the story, other times it is not.
A General System
Chris Crawford spent a lot of time, money, and effort creating a general system for interactive storytelling: Storytron. And I think we all know how that turned out. If you don’t, follow the link; Chris writes some interesting articles about the rise and fall of Storytron.
The moral of the story is this: I think we need to focus on specific interactive storyworlds and creating systems for them before we can create a general system for interactive storytelling. Each interactive storyworld is going to be different, and creating a general system to handle all the possibilities is infinitely complicated. I think we’d do better to create software similar to Facade; it focuses on one genre, one location, few characters. It’s a very specific type of storyworld; it would not work for anything else. However, we can take what we learn from these specific systems and apply them to more general systems someday.