A Long-Overdue Post

Art is the product of human creativity and imagination. So what does this mean to designers in the interactive medium? There have been many arguments against games as an art form, saying that games can’t express an artist’s opinion because the interactivity of the medium takes that self-expression away. And then there are those who argue that games involve art such as music, 3d images, and dialogue scripts, therefore since they include art they become art. I am not going to join in this argument, because frankly, I think it’s stupid. Art isn’t some standard that’s defined by the French; art is art. Come on, Shakespeare would agree with me.

I think the more important question is, what is the purpose of art? Expression? Entertainment? Education? Evangelism? I read a very thought-provoking article, which provoked the thoughts that eventually led to this post. The article discusses the Christian game industry, and how it has suffered in the past, and its weaknesses as compared to the secular game industry.

A great deal of the article discussed how many Christian games tried to evangelize, and because of this, many non-Christian players wouldn’t touch them with a wireless controller. Does this mean, however, that Christians shouldn’t make evangelistic media, such as games, movies, or books? If not, what should they do with these mediums? What should anybody do?

No story should be preachy. The moment the main character gets on his soap-box and begins preaching to the audience, the audience loses interest in the story and possibly turns away from it. Rather than tell the audience what is right and wrong, the story should show the audience some truth in a way that allows them to discover it for themselves. Stories that do this are the most rewarding.

The article then went on to talk about how many Christian games aren’t honest about how the world really is, how they avoid edgy topics, and focus on happy, fuzzy feelings. I have noticed that many Christian movies and books are this way as well. I am excluding, of course, Ted Dekker and Frank Perretti. My opinion is that as a Christian, I must ask myself how I can be honest about the topics I’m addressing in my story, and yet how I can also show truth. A Christian story cannot come to the conclusion that life is hopeless, or that we must always give into temptation, or that revenge is justice. Being honest does not mean that we must sacrifice truth.

Christian stories should show a fundamental truth about the world we live in, and the God we serve. How the story does this is completely up to the storyteller.

The strength of the interactive medium is that the player is faced with choices that allow them to explore a topic in a way that is impossible in any linear medium. This does not mean that interactive stories should allow the player to wreak havoc on the storyworld; this isn’t Grand Theft Auto. The storyworld should react to the player’s actions, reward or punish them based on what they do. How the storyworld does this is again up to the storyteller.

Why I Want to Create Interactive Stories

Since I have finished my little shpeel on art and whatnot, I would like to take the rest of this post to talk about why I want to create interactive stories. So there you go; two posts in one! I figure I owe it to you, since I haven’t written in so long. Shame on me.

Story seems to have become somewhat of a novelty in games. I think it’s funny how game developers are touting their “story-driven” games, as if that’s just another feature that the programmers tacked on. I’m always disappointed by these games, though, because the story is just that; tacked on. The story is nowhere near as important as the gameplay, and during the important story points, control is usually taken away and you are forced to watch a cut-scene.

I mean, did you see the Battlefield 4 trailer? Warning: it contains strong language. But it does illustrate my point quite well, and I could point out a million other games that tout “storytelling” and “emotion” as features. I’ll be honest, I watched the trailer, and the first thing I thought was: wow, that’s pretty good. But then it went from one impossible situation to another, and I read this article, and I thought, man, that just shows how low my expectations for video games has fallen.

The Assassin’s Creed games are the same way, but there are other reasons why those games annoy me. I mean, will they ever end? Come on. They’re just doing the same thing over and over again. Is this what playing Call of Duty Black Ops 2 feels like? Creating the longest FPS series isn’t a good thing, Infinity Ward.

Sorry, I got all worked up there. I apologize, and promise to move on. The point is, every time I see a trailer for a game that is supposedly “story-driven,” it gives me this itch in my soul, and I think, I can do better than that. I don’t want to create pulse-pounding action experiences with amazing graphics and destructible environments, I want to create genuine, honest stories about real people doing real things. I want to show the world that the interactive medium is a powerful medium. I just don’t see games ever doing that.

A Little Update

OK, I think I also owe you a little update as to what I’ve been working on lately. I haven’t really written about interactive stories for a while, but I have been working on them. After looking at InkleWriter and Versu, I started working on a simpler, text-based approach, which will probably be web-based. However, I haven’t started coding anything yet, so don’t hold your breath. I’m still pondering some of the fundamental decisions I will have to make before I start. If any of you have looked at InkleWriter or Versu, or other interactive story technologies, and have opinions on them, let me know in the comments. I am fascinated to know what others think of them, and maybe get some ideas.

Conflict

There are many misconceptions about story in games.  All good writers know that a story needs conflict or it is boring, and games seem to have plenty of conflict.  But what is conflict, really?  How does it apply to story, and what types of conflict are possible?

Purpose of Conflict

The purpose of conflict in a story is to prove the premise of that story.  If a story has no premise, no theme, no purpose, then conflict is irrelevant.  We don’t care about conflict that doesn’t teach us anything.  Any conflict that does not further the proving of the premise does not have a place in the story.

Allow me to try and explain myself better.  Every good story has a purpose for being written; something the author wants to prove; a premise.  If the conflict does not help the author prove this premise, then it will only serve to confuse the audience.  Conflict is not simply entertaining, but it is important to help prove the premise of the story.

As I mentioned in a previous post, stories have three main parts: a premise, characters, and conflict.  The premise helps define what kinds of characters are going to be in the story, and the characters help define what the conflict will be.

Types of Conflict

There are basically four types of conflict, but not all of these are good, or should be used.  I will describe them here so that they can be avoided.

Static

Static conflict happens when the characters in a story are weak, and have no interest in doing anything.  Even if they have a desire to do or change something, if they do not have the strength or the resolve to do something, there will be no rising conflict.  If the conflict in a story is static, there is no story.  Static means dead.

Characters must be created very carefully so that static conflict is not even an option.  If they do not have the willpower to fight, then there will be no conflict, and no story.

Jumping

Jumping conflict is the result of characters who lack the necessary transition from one state of mind to another.  For example, a character cannot become a murderer overnight.  To some onlookers it may seem that the character jumps, but to the audience of a story, this should not be the case.  There should be an obvious transition from one state of mind to the next, or the conflict will jump, and confuse the audience.

You may wonder why the transition must be seen by the audience.  To answer this, we must look at the reason for conflict.  Why must there be conflict in a story?  Conflict shows us the true character of a person.  Everyone hides behind a mask, but in conflict, their true self is revealed.  If there is no conflict in a story, then we will never see who these characters really are, and as a result, will not care what happens to them.  By showing the transition from one state of mind to another, we reveal the character’s true self, and understand why they chose to do something.

We want to know why the coward risked his life to save someone else.  We want to know why the honorable man robbed a grocery store.  We want to know why, because this helps to prove the premise of the story.

Slowly Rising

Slowly rising conflict shows the transition from one state of mind to another, so there are no jumps in conflict, and the conflict does not stay on a plateau.  This type of conflict requires characters who are moving from one pole to another, such as love to hate, joy to depression, indifference to sacrifice.  At every moment in the story the conflict should be escalating, but this cannot be too quickly, or there will be jumping conflict, and the audience won’t understand certain decisions made by the characters.

Let’s look at an example.  In the Lord of the Rings, there is a slowly rising conflict between Sam and Frodo after Gollum comes along and begins sabotaging their friendship.  If Gollum and Sam hadn’t treated each other so poorly, and if Sam hadn’t confronted Frodo about Gollum like he did, then it would have confused the audience when Frodo asked Sam to leave.  The conflict between the two had slowly built up until there was no alternative to Sam and Frodo parting ways.

By now you should have noticed that I love using the Lord of the Rings as an example, so if you have not seen the movies or read the books, I urge you to go watch the movies right now.  Step one to making good stories is exposing yourself to good stories.  The Lord of the Rings is one of the best.

Foreshadowing Conflict

Foreshadowing conflict is not really conflict, it is the promise of conflict in the future, which creates anticipation.  This means that if a story starts by foreshadowing conflict, the audience will stick around until the end because they will want to see the outcome of the conflict.

How conflict is implemented in an interactive story will probably depend a little on the technology behind the interactive story.  As I talked about before, creating characters that are well orchestrated is integral to conflict, but for the interactive story, a great personality does nothing if there is no algorithm to process it.  I will talk about these issues when I talk about creating the engine for interactive stories, but for right now I am focusing on just the aspects of a good story.

Conflict in Games

Now I will address conflict in games.  Some of you may still think that games have great conflict, even after reading my brief descriptions of the different types of conflict.  Some people do say that games are good examples of how to put a character in a position where they are forced to fight, but I would have to disagree.  In my experience with video games, and trust me, I have a lot of experience, most games force the player to fight because if they don’t, they will die.  This is not true unity of opposites, because there is still no real reason for the main character to fight.  What are they fighting for?  Why must they go on?

Allow me to give an example of a game which I think had great potential to show growth in a character but threw it out the window.  In the first Assassin’s Creed game, the main character, Altair, is an assassin sent to kill certain people which will supposedly end the Crusades.  The Crusades are bad because people died, right?  Let’s fix it by killing more people!  But I digress.  Altair’s reason for killing these people is not necessarily to end the Crusades, but to gain his honor back as an Assassin.  Noble, right?

But as the game progresses, Altair begins to question his assassin master, and wants to know why they are killing these people.  This is when I started to get really interested in the story.  Then there is this mission where Altair goes to kill a man who is burning books because he doesn’t agree with what the books say.  In the game, whenever you assassinate someone, there is a short discourse between Altair and the person he assassinated.  For the book burning guy, the discussion was pretty interesting.  The guy asks Altair why he killed him.  Altair responds that “Men must be free to do what they believe.  It is not our right to punish one for thinking what they do.  No matter how much we disagree.”

There are a few more lines of dialogue, then the man says, “Am I not unlike those precious books you seek to save?  A source of knowledge with beliefs different from your own?  And yet you were quick to take my life.”

This is great.  This should be the point where Altair changes and stops killing people.  Or at least, a major turning point.  But he doesn’t!  He continues mindlessly killing people.  And when he does finally confront his assassin master, it isn’t for the reason it should be.

Now of course I will admit that not all games are like this, but there are very few games I have played that do have any type of social conflict.  Mass Effect had a little, but not enough to really change any of the characters.  It was more like an afterthought.

If you disagree with my assessment of conflict in games, please, let me know.  But be nice.  I don’t really want to get into a big argument over the internet, but I welcome your comments.

To end off I will leave you with a quote which I thought was very funny, from one of the game designers for Mass Effect: “Remember: games don’t hurt people, game designers hurt people.”

Character

In this post I will begin my discussion of character. Characters for an interactive story should have fairly detailed personalities, but to design and create these personalities, we must know a little about characters in traditional stories, and human nature. We will also look at how characters can help to prove a premise, and how we can orchestrate our characters to cause conflict.

Types of Characters

There are two main characters that must be in every story to cause the main conflict, and then there are secondary characters that also help the conflict. To start, I will discuss the protagonist.

Protagonist

As I have stated before, the story should start at a turning point in some character’s life, and this character is the protagonist. The protagonist, or pivotal character, is the character who wants something so badly he or she will destroy or be destroyed in the process of getting it. The pivotal character, by definition, takes the lead in a movement, and in this case, the movement of the story and conflict. The protagonist has been forced by circumstances to do something they don’t necessarily want to do, but they don’t really have any other choice. Because the pivotal character has already made their most momentous decision before the story begins, they don’t change much throughout the rest of the story. They could change from passion to obsession, for example, but they won’t change from love to hate. If they change too much, then there is a possibility that they will either give up or give in before the story has had time to finish, and this will end the story prematurely.  The pivotal character spurs other characters in the story to change. This is why the pivotal character is so important. They don’t do a whole lot on their own, but they do force the other characters, possibly even the main character of the story, to change. Also, they can’t change their mind, otherwise the story will die.

I think it would be unwise to make the player the protagonist in an interactive story. In many stories, the main character isn’t always the protagonist. There is a common misconception that the protagonist and the main character are the same, but they are not always. Of course, depending on your interactive story, it may be beneficial to make the main character the protagonist, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. The main character could even be the antagonist. There are no rules. They’re more like guidelines.

Antagonist

The antagonist is any character who opposes the pivotal character. To be a good antagonist, this character must be just as strong as the protagonist, and able to put up a good fight, otherwise there will be no story. Why will there be no story? Well, if the protagonist has no opposition, then he will just get whatever he wants, and the story will be over. No conflict, no growth, no story. I will talk more about conflict in the next post.

You may be wondering whether the antagonist must be a person or not. Surely there are many stories with antagonists that are environmental. It may seem this way, and it may seem like a good idea, but for interactive stories, it is not. Let me explain why. For a character to grow, they must be changing; dynamic. Change requires conflict. Obstacles, such as giant alien bugs, large cliffs, or huge oceans, do not force the character to change mentally. They force the character to change physically, or change the path they are on, but in the end, they do not cause growth in the character. A human antagonist, on the other hand, is the opposite of the protagonist. He upholds everything that the protagonist hates. When a protagonist who wants one thing comes up against an antagonist who doesn’t want anyone to have that thing, there will be conflict.

A Few Examples

Let’s look at an example of The Lord of the Rings. Who was the antagonist? Was it the orcs? No. Saruman? No. It was Sauron. Every obstacle that Gandalf, the protagonist, has to overcome, is a result of Sauron’s attempts to thwart the destruction of the ring. Why do I say Gandalf is the protagonist? What about Frodo? Frodo is a main character, yes, but think about it this way. If Gandalf had never come along, would Bilbo have ever left the Shire and found the ring? Would Frodo have ever left seeking to destroy it? All the other characters were forced to change because Gandalf wanted the ring destroyed. He had no choice; he knew that the ring must be destroyed, so he forced the other characters, such as Frodo, to change. Frodo changed from feeling indifferent about the outside world, to the willingness to give his life saving it. Aragorn changed from trying to avoid his throne to accepting it and becoming king. Legolas and Gimli changed from disliking each other to being best friends. Gandalf changed very little, and, from what I can tell, Sauron didn’t change at all.

Let’s look at another example. This one will be of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Who is the protagonist? Not Christian; he changes too much. Christian changes from heading towards destruction to resisting sin and walking into Heaven. Then who is the protagonist? Evangelist, who talks Christian into leaving the City of Destruction and heading towards the Celestial City, is the protagonist. He doesn’t change, but he does force Christian to change. Evangelist wants to save people from destruction so badly that he goes out and finds Christian, who he then convinces to leave destruction and find the true path. The antagonist is the devil, who commands all of the obstacles Christian faces, such as Apollyon.

The Main Character

The main character is not necessarily the protagonist. Frodo is the main character of the Lord of the Rings, but he is not the pivotal character. My definition of the main character is the character who is controlled by the player. So for an interactive story version of the Lord of the Rings, the main character could be Frodo, Aragorn, Sam, or someone else. It is up to the storyteller.

Secondary Characters

Secondary characters may not be the most accurate term for what I am talking about, but it will have to suffice. By secondary characters, I mean all characters who are not the protagonist, antagonist, or the main character, and yet still require a personality. In continuing the Lord of the Rings example, these would be characters such as Sam, Merry and Pippin, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, Saruman, etc. These are all important characters to the story, and they all have very well-defined personalities, and they all change, but they aren’t protagonists, antagonists, or extras.

Extras

Whether extras are required in an interactive story is again up to the storyteller. These are basically characters that have no personality; their only purpose is to populate the world to make it more real. The Lord of the Rings would be very empty if there were only characters with personalities; what would happen at all those huge epic battles? Not much. That is really all I have to say about extras.

Orchestration

When creating the different characters for an interactive story, they must be orchestrated properly. By this, I mean creating characters that will help prove the premise and create conflict. If all the characters are exactly the same and want the same thing, there will be no conflict. How is this achieved? The characters should be different enough so that their ideas conflict with each other. As I stated before, this is most important with the protagonist and antagonist. They must be created so they naturally are in conflict with each other, good and evil, light and dark, Gandalf and Sauron. However, if they aren’t stuck with each other, if one of them could just decide “Well, I’m done fighting, I think I’ll go home now,” then there would be no story. What they need is a “unity of opposites.” The opposite part is simple enough to understand; Gandalf wants the ring destroyed, and Sauron doesn’t. Opposites. The unity part, on the other hand, may take more explaining. The two opposite characters who are in conflict must be forced together, and neither of them can be allowed to leave the battle. For example, if Gandalf gives up and the ring isn’t destroyed, then Sauron wins and turns Middle Earth into hell. If Sauron gives up and lets the ring be destroyed, then he is also destroyed. Both Gandalf and Sauron are in danger of being destroyed, so they must destroy the other. They cannot both exist at the same time. The protagonist and antagonist of a story are like the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe, and Everything, and the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything: they can’t both exist at the same time. If someone knew both the question and the answer, the universe would cease to exist and have to start all over again. Same goes for story.

I already talked a little about creating the protagonist and antagonist, but the other characters, the characters who actually change substantially, are also very important. The main character, or the character the player will control, will probably be the most difficult character to create. The storyteller must decide how much of a personality they want to give the main character, and this goes back to my post on objective and subjective storytelling. There is one thing that we must keep in mind when creating the main character: this is the player’s story, not yours. You’re creating the storyworld, but the player creates the story. If you give the main character too much personality, and the player doesn’t like that personality, they may not want to finish the story.

There are several options for creating the main character’s personality. Oh, and by main character, I mean the character who is controlled by the player. One idea is to allow the player to create the main character’s personality. The main character would start out with a blank slate, and the player would make choices that define them. These choices could even be made before the story officially starts; in an “opening gambit” as it were. This would be a short scene before the rest of the story that forces the player to make certain decisions, and from these decisions, the computer creates a personality model for the main character that the player must deal with for the rest of the story. This would definitely be an interesting way to create the personality of the main character, but it is by no means the only way.

As I discussed in my post on objective and subjective storytelling, there are several different levels of control the player can have over the main character. How much control should ultimately be up to the storyteller, but for the character to truly be able to change and create conflict and grow, he must have a personality of his own, separate from the player’s. An example: in an interactive story of The Lord of the Rings, the player would probably be in control of Frodo. If Frodo had no personality and simply did whatever the player told him to do, then there would be no conflict between him and Sam when Gollum comes along. There would be no conflict when it comes time to throw the ring into Mount Doom. There would be no conflict, because Frodo, since he’s a mindless automaton, would have no real way of interacting with the other characters in the story except on a physical level. Interactive stories are interactive on an emotional and mental level, not only a physical level. You are interacting with characters, not things.

To orchestrate secondary characters is very similar to orchestrating any other character, only the unity of opposites is not as important. The protagonist and antagonist must be locked in battle, but the secondary characters are allowed to fail without ending the story. If Gollum were to steal the ring from Frodo, for example, Gandalf could have theoretically still recovered the ring and had another secondary character destroy it. Isildur failed in destroying the ring first, so years later the task was passed on to Frodo. But if Gandalf were to die, the story would end, because there would be no character to spur the other characters to action. I hope I am driving this point home without it becoming too tiresome.

Obviously the main character should not just be able to die because of a stupid mistake, but I digress.

There is little more to orchestration other than practice.  Creating characters for an interactive story isn’t simply a formula that need be followed.  Examining real people and how they interact with each other is always a good way to learn about human behavior, but reading good stories is probably the best way to learn about dramatic human behavior.  Creating characters is the most important part of creating an interactive story, because they create the story.  Take the time to make the characters truly golden, and your interactive story will succeed.

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.

Story

It has been too long since I have posted here, but after my last post, I was unsure of what to write about next.  I have decided that in my next few posts I will talk about the different elements that make a story, including premise, character, and conflict.

There is a common misconception in Gaming that “Story” equals “Backstory.”  Backstory is just a bunch of meaningless facts about characters, organizations, or worlds.  Story is something much more real, dynamic, and interesting.

What Makes a Story

There are several elements that are required to make a good story.  I am going to talk about the most basic elements, because I do not want to start listing every little thing that I think is important for a story; for example, “Stories need a good guy, a bad guy, a epic battle between the two, character development, blah, blah, blah.”  There are really only three things a good story needs, and everything else will either be a subset of these three things, or an element which is not integral to the story.

The three elements which I will talk about are premise, character, and conflict.

Premise is the purpose of the story; what the author of the story wants to prove through the story.  I have talked about premises before, so I will try not to repeat what I have already said.  A premise is required for a story, otherwise the other elements, character and conflict, will have no meaning.  The three elements of story I am talking about are each unimportant without the previous element; characters are unimportant without a clear-cut premise, and conflict is unimportant without well-orchestrated, three-dimensional characters.

All stories have characters.  Characters don’t necessarily have to be people or even alive, but to be honest, the most interesting characters are people.  A good story also needs strong characters, otherwise there will be no conflict.

Conflict stems from characters who are designed to prove a premise, and they prove this premise through conflict.  I will talk about conflict in more detail in a later post, so I won’t go into too much detail here.

When a Story Starts

A story never starts at the beginning.  Why?  Because that would be boring.  A story should start when a decision is made, when a character comes to a turning point in their life, or when something vital is at stake.  If a story starts without any conflict, and instead begins by introducing the characters and telling everything about them, it will be boring.  The audience wants to immediately see conflict, or the foreshadowing of conflict.

This point at which the story begins is called the “point of attack.”  This starts the conflict immediately.  If a story were to not start at the point of attack, then the audience could lose interest in the story, and possibly not care to see how it ends.  This is obviously not a good thing.

I hope I am not boring anyone, but I think that this is very important to understand if good interactive storytelling–or any type of storytelling–is the goal.  If you bear with me for these next several posts, you won’t really need to read The Art of Dramatic Writing By Lajos Egri, although I still highly recommend it.  I am also reading his book, The Art of Creative Writing, which is also very good, but is not as important as the first.

To put it simply, start in the middle, not at the beginning.

When a Story Ends

Since a story is an attempt by the storyteller to prove a premise, the story naturally is over when the premise is proven.  Many of these ideas are leading up to an interactive storytelling process, so a process must be created that decides when a premise is proven.  In a future post I want to talk about what should actually be expected from an interactive storytelling engine, and what should be expected of the storyteller, or the person creating the interactive story.  My point is, deciding when the premise is proven could be the job of the storyteller, or the job of the computer.  Currently, I believe it would be much easier to force the storyteller to input certain criteria that must be met for the story to end.  Once all the criteria are met, the story is over.  It will be up to the storyteller to decide whether the criteria allow the premise to be proven at the end of the interactive story or not.

If I was confusing in that last paragraph, I apologize, but I want to talk about it in more depth in a later post, so I will leave it for now.  Continue to bear with me.

Stories in Games

As I mentioned before, most stories in games are backstories.  Not all, but most.  For example, one game I think of is Quake II, in which there is a text file you can read that explains all of the events leading up to the beginning of the game, and then story is replaced with glorious violence until a cinematic ends the game.  Wow.  The characters were so great in that game, I don’t even remember any of their names.  Of course, I shouldn’t pick on Id games, you say?  Well, I could always pick on Mass Effect.  Or Fallout 3.  Or Heavy Rain.

I have already talked about Mass Effect in several previous posts, so why would I bore you once again with musings on the story of Commander Shepard?  I won’t.  You already know my opinion on the story of the Mass Effect games.

I will instead talk about the popular Role-Playing Game, Fallout 3.  I played that.  Fun game.  Lots of talking.  But was there a real story?  There were many backstories, many things that looked like people, and many quests that seemed like conflicts, but were there any characters?  Was there any real conflict?  Was there even a premise?

Considering the game can end one of three ways, not including the hundreds of slight variations, I saw no premise in Fallout 3.  You could end the game as a charismatic character, who helped those in need and did not give in to the temptations of the wasteland.  Or you could as easily end the game as a villainous character, who killed those who trusted him and let his greed take over.  You may ask, “well, can’t a game prove multiple premises since it gives the player a choice?”  No.  If all characters and conflict are created before the story even begins so that they can prove a premise, how could you then prove a premise on the fly with characters who are not able to prove that premise?

Again, you may wonder, “But if the characters are changeable, why couldn’t they prove several premises?”  Even though the player character is changeable, the other characters would not be able to change enough to prove a new premise without causing either static or jumping conflict, which I will talk about later.

I will end this little argument with myself by saying that if a game could prove any premise, then what point would there be to making one?  If you, as the creator, have no say in what the audience learns or experiences through your story, then why would you even care to make one?  I, personally, see no point in this.

Since Fallout 3 had no premise, the characters and conflict have no purpose.  They are simply entertaining, and their depth stops there.  To create an interactive story, the characters must be more than entertaining.  The conflict must be more than glorious violence.  There must be a premise, and I will not yield on this point.

Conclusion

Well, I hope you are still bearing with me.  Very soon I will be writing posts about character, conflict, and finally some design issues involved in creating an interactive storytelling engine.  As always, if you have anything to say, leave a comment.  Feel free to start a discussion.  However, I have made a pact with myself to not argue on the internet.  That is a waste of time.  I will try to answer any questions, of course, and I hope you return for my future posts.