Objective and Subjective Storytelling

This is a topic that was brought up in a video series about “Interactive Narrative in Mass Effect 2” by Armando Troisi, Lead Cinematic Designer at BioWare.  He was talking about Role-Playing Games specifically, but I think the topic can be applied to interactive stories as well.  Basically, this is how the player sees their character, but it’s also a little more than that.  Let me first explain the two terms, then I’ll get into a few examples.

Subjective Story

In a subjective story model, you are the avatar.  This means whatever you do the avatar does, whatever the avatar experiences you experience.  Some have called this the “Gordon Freeman Effect.”  Basically, you see through your character’s eyes, you never hear what he says, he does exactly what you tell him to do, and everything that your character feels is actually you feeling it.  This effectively takes all character away from your character, and just makes you that person.  In an RPG this has some side effects, such as temporal distortions, and lots of dialog.

An example of this (not an RPG) is the First Person Shooter Half-Life.  The player plays as Gordon Freeman, a man with no voice and apparently no legs.  Everything that Gordon Freeman experiences, you experience.  Everything that you do, Gordon freeman does.  There are no cut scenes, or points in the game where control is taken from you at all.  You are always Gordon Freeman.

Most RPGs are Subjective.  Most of BioWare’s RPGs, except for Mass Effect, are subjective.

Objective Story

In an objective story, you are not the avatar.  The avatar has his own choice and motivations, which gives him his own character.  The player in an objective story is more like a movie director than a player.  They affect the world, but they aren’t in direct control of their character, even if they only control that one character.  In an objective story, everything is real time, including dialog.

An example of this is, obviously, Mass Effect 1 and 2.  In Mass Effect, Commander Shepard has his (or her) own voice, motivations, and character.  Sometimes Shepard will do something you don’t expect, and other times he’ll do exactly what you want him to do.

Let me take a quick moment to explain the temporal distortions I mentioned earlier.  Basically, this is when the game pauses so that the player can decide what they want to say next, and then when they choose what they say, the game skips their character actually saying it.  Fallout 3 is a good example of this, especially since the whole world around the two characters talking freezes.

Application

So what does all this mean for an interactive storyteller?  How will they change the experience?  How will the player see the world differently depending on whether the interactive story is subjective or objective?  And how does one decide which type of story to use?

These are all good questions, and I hope that I have equally good answers.  First of all, the experience.  Some may have a different opinion then me on this, so I will attempt to explain my views as well as possible so there are no misunderstandings.

Generally, I think that if the story type changes, then the way the player sees their character should change.  In general, and I stress that this is general, if the interactive story is subjective, it should be first person, and if it is objective, it should be third person.

This does not apply all the time, and I will describe when it does not.  I believe that you can have a first person game that is objective, such as Deus Ex or even Crysis, mainly because you can hear your character’s voice in both of these games even though it is first person, and your character has his own motivations and may do things differently than you would.  But then I also think that third person games can be subjective, such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where you see your character, but he’s you; you never hear his (or her) voice, and the character does exactly what you want.

I see subjective stories as being more immersive, more about the world and the other characters than about the main character.  You are still a character, and you still have motivations, but they’re your motivations, not the motivations of someone else.  Objective stories would be more about all the characters, including your own.  Your character would have a face, a voice, motivations, emotions, fears, hates, friends, enemies…but they would be that character’s, not yours.

I think it comes down to this: in a subjective story, you are an actor; in an objective story, you are the director.  The story type changes the level of interaction you have with the world, but not necessarily with the story.

The decision of whether to use a subjective or objective story in your interactive story is more a design decision.  It could go either way, but what way is better for this particular story?  Would Half-Life still work even if it were a third person game with a lot of cut scenes?

Let me take a moment to talk about cut scenes.  This is a fairly important topic, or at least a topic that a lot of people have very strong opinions on, but I don’t think it warrants a whole post, because I think I can sum up my opinion in a few sentences.  Cut scenes should not be in an interactive story.  Why?  Well, the main reason, and I think this is reason enough, is that it takes away control from the player.  An interactive story should never take away control from the player; they should always be able to do something.  If a form of entertainment has the word interactive in the title, it should never take away that basic right from the player, which is to choose what they want to do at any point in the story.

In a future post I will talk more about what an interactive story should have in it and what it shouldn’t have in it, but in this post I wanted to explain subjective and objective stories in preparation for some future posts that I’m planning.  I hope that you all enjoyed this little discussion on story types, and feel free to leave a comment if you have a comment to leave.

The Battle Between Gameplay and Narrative

I’m surprised how many people in the game industry have brought up this argument, and how well it applies to interactive storytelling.  Check out the Frictional Games blog to read their take on this topic, and the book Extra Lives by Tom Bissell.  Basically, the idea is that gameplay and narrative actually fight against each other.  For this to make sense, allow me to first explain what I mean by gameplay and narrative.

Gameplay

Gameplay is the mechanics of a game when paired with a goal.  Without a goal, there is no gameplay.  Without mechanics, well, there is no game, really.  In a previous post I talked a little about gameplay, but my definition wasn’t very accurate.  I was defining gameplay as how the user interacts with the world, but gameplay isn’t about interacting with the world, it’s about interacting with the game.

For example, when you open up a word processor, how you use that word processor is usually through the interface.  This isn’t gameplay, because there is no predefined goal.  There are mechanics, however.  How you open up a new file is a mechanic of the word processor.

Narrative

Narrative is a set of predefined goals and plot points created by the game designer.  They don’t change, they aren’t very interactive, they’re just there to help move the game’s story along.  Cut scenes are the biggest example of narrative in games.  They take away complete control of the player’s character, and show the player what happens next.  And there’s nothing the player can do about it.

I want this to be clear: narrative and story are two totally different things.  Story is about what the characters do in certain situations, narrative is what the game designer thinks the characters should do in a given scenario.  It really comes down to basics, story is a more basic version of narrative, without the specific plot points and characters.  Story is the general idea of what happens and when it happens and where it happens, but narrative is the specific list of what happens, where it happens, and when it happens.

The Battle

As you may be able to figure out, gameplay and narrative are kind of against each other.  Narrative is about making progress through the story, and gameplay is about challenging the player.  If the player succeeds, the next cut scene plays, and the narrative continues.  If they fail, the narrative screeches to a halt and the player has to reload the game.  Sometimes in a game I wish I could just skip some boss battle and go to the next cut scene, and that shouldn’t even be a consideration.   The game should move smoothly along through every scene, but it doesn’t.  Why not?  Because of this battle between gameplay and narrative.

A game which focuses on gameplay will not have very good narrative, and a game that focuses on narrative won’t have very good gameplay, because the two cancel each other out.

Why Not?

So, why can’t either of these be in an interactive story?  Well, if the story is supposed to be interactive, then there can’t be a set narrative.  That’s what games have already, and they’re not interactive stories.  What about gameplay?  In an interactive story, there isn’t really any goals, because the player can do whatever they want.  They don’t have to go on quests, or solve puzzles, or beat bosses; they just do their thing and the story just sort of happens.  Of course, it’s not that simple, but that’s the basic idea.

What are the alternatives?  The mechanics of an interactive story (how the user interacts with the storyworld) are different from gameplay because they don’t have any predefined goals.  In an interactive story you can pull a lever that does something (like open a door) but you don’t have to pull the lever to open the door to progress through the story.  It’s just a way to open the door, but not the only way to progress through the story.  In an interactive story, anything you do should progress the story.  How will we accomplish this?  I haven’t thought about that yet, but I’m working on it.  I see the topic of a future blog post.

Conclusion

Well, I don’t want to go too deep into this topic, because it has been discussed elsewhere and I don’t want to just repeat what others have already said.  If you want to read more about the battle between gameplay and narrative, check out the blog I linked to above, and consider perusing Extra Lives by Tom Bissell.

What are Interactive Stories?

Since the first post was about games, I’m going to post something about interactive stories now, since that is what the blog is supposed to be about.  You may have read my very brief description, but if you haven’t, well, read it really fast.  I’m not going anywhere.  Moving on, so what is interactive storytelling?  Is it like a RPG?  Or maybe one of those interactive narratives that, well, never were all that popular?  The answer: sort of.  Remember in my last post when I finally stated my definition of what games were?  Just for completeness, here it is again:

An interactive experience in which the player collects things, shoots things, and interacts with things.

I’m going to move on from this point assuming that everyone agrees with me, at least mostly.  If you don’t, post a comment, but please, be nice.  Anyways, if games are about things, what are interactive stories about?  Well, it’s pretty simple, actually.  Interactive stories are about People, not things.  Characters in an interactive story are more important then the weapons you can acquire, the money you can spend, the objects you can find.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be any weapons or money or cool looking buildings in an interactive story, they just won’t be the most important part, and the story won’t revolve around them.

Why Interactive Stories?

So, why am I making such a big deal out of interactive stories?  Why not just make really complex simulations, or Roll-Playing games with thousands of characters and complex character customization?

Ask yourself this question: what kinds of people play games?

Not many.  Video games are made for an audience of 18 through 35 year old males.  Obviously not only 18 through 35 year old males play video games, but they are the largest group of people that play games.

But who reads books?  Pretty much everyone.  I read books.  I’m guessing you read books.  My grandma reads (OK listens) to books.  Everyone can enjoy a good book.  Of course not everyone enjoys the same book, but everyone enjoys books in general.  Not everyone enjoys games, because games can be hard, frustrating, offensive, boring, or just too graphics intensive.  There are so many reasons people who don’t play games won’t start anytime soon.

So what?  Who would play interactive stories?

Let me tell you about a dream I have.

I think that in the future interactive stories will work on pretty much any computer, will have many different themes and genres, will be easy to use by anyone, and therefore be more accessible to people who aren’t used to playing other forms of electronic entertainment.

I mean, think of it this way, how many people do you know that want to shoot people over and over and over again?  It would probably amount to the number of males between the ages 18 and 35 that you know.  But how many people would do other things if they were in games?  Things as simple as driving their kids to school, to as complicated as being president of a country?  The larger pool of things you can be and do makes the audience much larger.

Another thing that makes interactive stories different from games is the challenge.  Games are challenging to beat, which actually slows down or even halts flow of the story.  Can an interactive story have something that is against its very nature?  I’m not saying that it should be easy to finish an interactive story, but interactive stories are more about choices than they are about challenge.  Finding the right balance of challenge and choice is going to be difficult, and most likely the topic of another post, so keep your eyes open.

What Would Interactive Stories Look Like?

I would like to take a moment and describe a few ways I think interactive stories could look. One is to have them be from the first-person perspective, so the player sees everything through the eyes of the character, and they have complete freedom of movement (similar to a FPS). But in my humble opinion, I don’t think they will be just a floating camera with maybe some arms that shoot out from the sides. The player would be able to see their entire body, as if they actually were that person. What these types of interactive stories would aim for would be immersion.

Another way interactive stories could look would be the cinematic approach. This wouldn’t be a third-person perspective in the usual gaming sense, but it would be more like an interactive movie. The player could see their character so they are detached, but also attached in a different sense than just immersion. This type of, for lack of a better term, “Camera system,” would be more like an interactive fiction, where you tell your character what to do and where to go, and then you watch him do it.

Both of these camera systems would have different uses, and different effects on the player.  I believe the first person camera would make the player feel like they are the character they’re playing as, so instead of emotionally bonding with their character, they bond with the other characters they interact with.  This would be like real life, where you have your own emotions, and they’re yours, but you can observe other’s emotions without actually feeling them.  This type of camera system would make the interactive story focus on the characters that surround the player, instead of the player’s character.  Finding the right balance of personality for the player’s character would be difficult, and will be the topic of a later post.

The cinematic camera system, on the other hand, would allow the player to see their character and see their emotional responses.  The only problem is, these responses may not be those of the player.  If the main character is mad at someone else, then the player may not feel that same anger.  Should they?  Perhaps not.  I don’t think the player should be so caught up in an interactive story that they forget about real life, but books and movies can have an emotional impact that can sometimes be quite strong.  This is a difficult topic, and I will definitely talk about it in more detail in the future.

The Next Step

If you think about it, interactive stories are the next logical step for entertainment.  First there were books, then movies, then text adventures, then RPGs, and now interactive stories.  Obviously that’s not a complete chronology, but it get’s the point across.  Even in games, there has recently been more and more emphasis on story and characters, not just gameplay.  Many reviews of games focus on how well the story was told through the game.  In general, people are attracted by story more then they’re attracted by gameplay.

Interactive stories are all story and practically no gameplay.  There will still be some features that some may consider “gameplay”, but these will be mostly how the player moves their character, how they interact with the environment, and how they interact with other characters.  I suppose we could come up with a new term for these things, such as “story interaction” or something like that, but basically, it’s the same thing.  Some may be wondering why we don’t get rid of this completely, but until we make a holodeck or use the Kinect where your body is the controller, the user will have to have some way of interacting with the machine (computer, laptop, tablet, TV, phone, whatever).

Some Examples

So what kinds of interactive stories have already been made?  Well, Chris Crawford, who coined the term “interactive story” and wrote a book on the subject, which I highly recommend, has done a few experiments with interactive storytelling which are text-based.  They allow you to choose certain parts of a sentence which you want to “say” (basically, input to the computer), and then the characters and story change based one what you do.  He also made a game called “Trust and Betrayal, the Legacy of Siboot”, or just “Siboot”, which was based almost completely on the player’s relationships with the other characters in the game.  I highly recommend this game, if only to see how someone might converse dynamically with game characters.  The language system Crawford created for the game was quite ingenious.

But has anyone else attempted to make an interactive story?  I mean, Chris Crawford is cool and all, but is he the only one who’s done anything that can be considered an interactive story?  No, as a matter of fact, he isn’t.  Probably the most commercially popular “interactive story” was Façade, which is a story where the player character goes to dinner with a couple who are having some marital problems.  I would recommend Façade, except it is riddled with bad language, and the subject matter is adult in nature.  It was still an interesting experience, and the ability to type what you want to say is pretty nice, if a little buggy.  The most revolutionary feature is the ability to have real-time conversations where if you can type fast enough, you can interrupt characters with dialogue or even physical actions.

There are other examples of people’s attempts to create interactive stories, but I will not discuss them here, mainly to keep this post relatively short (compared to War and Peace) and also because I have not played through them, and so I don’t want to discuss something I haven’t experienced.  In the future I will try to post more reviews on interactive stories that anyone can access.

In Closing

Well, I don’t want to wear you out, so I’ll stop now.  If you have any questions or comments, feel free to write a comment.  I will answer any questions that I can, and if you want to answer someone else’s question, feel free to.  This is an open discussion and I want to encourage everyone to say what’s on their mind.  Also, please consider voting in the poll to the right.  I think we all might be interested in the results it receives.  I will change the poll about every month, but perhaps I’ll publish the results on a page so that they will always be available for everyone.

What are Games?

I’m not a huge fan of welcome messages on homepages, but since this is the first post, I figure what the hay!  Welcome!  Now, onto business.  If you haven’t read the About page or Interactive Storytelling page, I highly recommend it, just to familiarize yourself with the topics I will be covering and the reasons I will be covering them. So, what are games?  I think this is a question every person, not just a gamer, but everyone, should ask themselves.  What are games?  What do they do to people?  How do they affect people?  What does an extended period of time playing a game do to someone?  Do you know the answers?

Well, I ask you to think about it.  I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to these questions, and I think that is very dangerous.  Gamers don’t care because when the government wants to take away their right to buy M rated games they get defensive, and act totally irrational.  Most politicians and parents, on the other hand, don’t know much about games so they assume some things they shouldn’t, and then attempt to get rid of games completely. I don’t think either of these reactions are right.

Now, I admit, some games should not have been made.  But I don’t think it’s the government’s place to ban these games, it’s the gamer’s choice whether they want to play them or not.  Movies today are much worse than games, and yet, the government does not attempt to ban them.  Why?  Because everyone understands movies, but not everyone understands games.

It’s very important for this problem to be cleared up, but that’s not the purpose of this blog post.  This blog post is to make you think about the problem, and try to come up with your own solutions. Now, I’m not saying that there is no right and wrong.  There is.  But gaming can be seen as drinking—some can drink a glass of wine and be okay, but other’s can’t.  Some people can play games for an hour and it doesn’t affect them, but others can become rude, irritable, and downright nasty.  Apparently if one plays games for longer than two hours a day, they start to experience adverse affects. Some of you may be getting a little irritable reading this right now.  Well, I understand where you’re coming from.  I was there too.  But think about it—do you want a game controlling what you do or how you act?  Is it really that important?  Would you risk relationships for it?

I’m not saying all games are bad.  I’m saying all games affect us adversely if we play them for too long.  In fact, TV does the same thing.  Even reading.  If we read books all day long, then when someone comes along and tries to tear us away, we get angry!  It’s natural to become attached to something we’ve been doing for hours on end, especially if we enjoy it.

Since this blog is supposed to be about interactive stories, then why am I talking about games?  Well, I think that interactive storytellers can learn a little from games, but they shouldn’t try to copy games.  Well, really, games shouldn’t even try to copy each other, but I mean on a more basic level.  How the player interacts with the world, for example.  Will the controls be like a first person shooter?  Or more like a point-and-click game?  Should the player have to hit a million keys to do some sort of action, or should they just hit one key and the computer takes care of the rest?  In future posts I will talk more in-depth on these subjects, but for now, I just want to talk about what games are, and then in the next post, I will talk a little about what interactive stories are and maybe even show a few examples.

OK, so what are Games?

In one simple, concise sentence, this is what games are:

An interactive experience in which the player collects things, shoots things, and interacts with things.

You see, games are about things, money, weapons, ammo, even enemies or allies.  In a video game, the player shoots things and collects things, but he rarely interacts with people.  If you want the player to truly interact with the characters in the game, allow them to do more than just choose a few dialogue options.

For example, let’s take a look at Deus Ex.  This game has been known for it’s great story, so wouldn’t it be more about people than about things?  Well, most of the levels are based around how many lockpicks you have, how many credits you have, or how many multitools you have, but not about your relationships with the other characters.  Things you do early on in the game do affect how people react to you, but you can’t really change the overall story, and you don’t have all that many options when interacting with other characters.  You can ask them questions, and you can kill them.  That’s about it.

For the fun of it, let’s take a look at another game: Mass Effect.  This is another “story-based” game, but is it really?  Much of the game still revolves around collecting armor, weapons, and credits with which you can purchase more armor, weapons or upgrades.  When you do interact with characters, which is quite frequently, you are still limited by what you can say and do.  First of all, unlike Deus Ex, you can’t just kill anyone you want to, the game doesn’t allow it.  Your dialogue options are usually split up into four different categories: investigate, nice, neutral, or rude.  However, the nice neutral and rude options are pretty much all the same, it’s just how you say them.  Sometimes it allows you to say “yes” or “no”, but this is pretty rare.

In general, a lot of shooter games say how great their story is and how it was written by some famous writer, but first of all, it was usually written after the premise and basic storyline of the game was already created by the designers, and second, the story is always exactly the same every time you play it.  If your mission is to assassinate someone, you have to assassinate them, otherwise the game reloads from the last save point, so there really isn’t much choice.  And you don’t ever choose what you say to other characters; if you do, it’s probably a FPS/RPG hybrid.

In the next post I will talk about what interactive stories are, and of course provide a few examples of what they should be and what they shouldn’t.  Once I do that, it will be easier to compare them to games, and see how they are different.

Feel free to comment and continue the discussion on what you think games are.  Disagree with me or agree, but at least say why.  And come back regularly to see my new blog posts.