Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Player's Journey

In a few places around the internet, I've been reasonably vocal on the subject of The Hero's Journey, of the idea of bringing myth into games, of the ideas of interactive storytelling through videogames, and so on. (Have a look at Scott Miller's blog and a couple of vociferous letters to gamasutra if you want to know what I'm talking about). I thought I'd compile my general thoughts on why this sort of thing bugs me quite a lot.

My main beef with the whole 'interactive narrative' idea goes back far further than videogames, back as far as 1990 and the world of tabletop roleplaying games. There is a school of thought in rpg circles (most visibly used by the company White Wolf, publishers of Vampire etc) that roleplaying games are actually the great inheritors of the tradition of oral storytelling. The idea goes that the game elements of numbers and dice etc are basically facilitators, ground rules if you will, for a shared imaginative background, and that what is really going on in an rpg is a recapturing of the mythic experience. Rather than hearing the story of Beowulf, you are becoming Beowulf, and in playing that character with your friends against the conflict-laden dramatic world that the games-master has laid out, you have an interactive narrative.

In part, I agree with this, but the effect is wholly dependent on the players themselves. Poor players, or uninterested players, will quickly reduce such high ambition to mud. Some players like to put on voices and act the part, but others like to be themselves. It is from roleplaying games, most importantly, that the idea of player-character has emerged.

Fast forward a decade and a half to today.

There is a lot of talk and experimentation in the world of videogames with the same idea, essentially, as that from 15 years ago in storytelling roleplaying games. The basic gist of the idea goes that rather than having a GM moderating and crafting the dramatic world, the computer does that in a systemic way. The player plays either by himself or in groups (via the internet or whatever), and so 'interactive drama' is born. Push this forward another step and you get into the realm of understanding videogames as an extension of the narrative idea (all games are stories, or self-instantiating stories, or whatever) and thereby creating a sort of association with that same oral (and visual, i.e. film) tradition.

Frankly, I think this interpretation is simply dead wrong.

And the reason that I think that it is wrong is not simply a "we don't have the technology yet" sense of wrongness. It's a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference in the relationship between player and videogame versus player and roleplaying game. And it also completely shortchanges the importance of the GM in the process, while misrepresenting the idea of 'story' into the bargain. And hence, I think applying the Hero's Journey as a guiding principle of design is 100% wrong.

Player and Character

It is assumed in the narrative model of videogames that the relationship between the player and the character is the same as that in the roleplaying game. I believe that this is incorrect, and that in fact the relationship is quite the reverse.

In roleplaying games, players often take on the role of their character as best they can. Why?
1. They have usually created said character from the ground up
2. The game is set in an imagined world that no-one can see, so such elements help to add vibrancy and depth where none would exist otherwise
3. At the guidance of the GM, who among other things may dole out experience rewards for more dramatic play, and on a more general level may encourage it through play-acting and voicing himself

Within the limited scope of a player's acting ability and the tone of the game in general (some roleplaying games are just dungeon quests and numbers-hauls after all), the player becomes the character.

It is assumed in narrativist-thinking that players in videogames are doing the same thing. I don't believe that this is true. Why?

1. In a videogame, the capabilities are inherent and obvious, and we take on the perceptions based on where our points of contact are, yet
2. In a videogame, we are not engaging our imaginations. We are able to see the world that the game provides, whether abstract or realistic, and we see it fully in real time.
3. In a videogame, our actions are direct and instinctive, requiring no interpretation or spin.

As such, what we have in videogames is a sense of a constant window on a situation (rather than the dramatic one provided by a GM, or a film director, or an oral storyteller), an unconscious relationship with capability through static control points (which can vary from a humanoid character to a set of falling blocks), and what we are doing when playing a videogame is that we are using a character as an extension of ourselves, not a replacement. In videogames, the character becomes the player.

This is borne out through observation.
Attending many roleplaying game conventions in my youth, it was easy to see players pretending to be characters, with voices and mannerisms befitting. On the other hand, I have never seen anyone actually roleplaying in a MMOG. MMOG players enjoy playing the game, but they invariably play as themselves (watch the Leeroy video as an example). I have never heard anyone talking about an FPS where they say 'And then Master Chief did this'. They always talk about what they themselves did. Nobody roleplays the battlefield of Battlefield 2. They just get on with the shooting.

Does this mean that I think that 'story' is impossible in games? No.
Well, not exactly, but not quite. Before I can dig further into that, I need to talk a bit about story, narrative and drama itself, because I think they're very confusing.

The Story with Story

If games are capable of so-called storytelling, then what is a story?

Well we can start with differentiating a story with an account. An account is simply this:

"Today I woke up at 10:00 am because light was streaming in the window. I didn't really want to get up, but I did. I went downstairs and I met Simon and his two children. Simon told me that that they were getting ready for a barbecue. I went into the living room and watched a bit of TV for a few minutes, and then I went back into the kitchen and got some breakfast. I had Cranberry Wheats, they were quite tasty. Afterward I sat back down and watched some more television..."

And so on. An account is simply a retelling of things that happened. I may have made up that account, it may be true, that doesn't matter. What matters is that it is simply straightforward. This happened, then this happened, then this happened, etc.

Story, on the other hand, is to take this account and make it dramatically interesting. How? With structure. A storyteller structures an account in order to give it resonance, to drop the boring bits, to create mystery and drama, to ficitionalise parts of the account that need to be fictionalised, and to chop and change focus. A good storyteller telling the story of my day might choose (depending on the feelings he wants to evoke, the mysteries he wants to conjure and the pace that he wants to convey) to start from the middle and work back ("Tadhg sat typing at the desk in Simon's house, but Simon was nowhere to be seen"), or from the beginning but work forward interestingly ("Cranberries", thought Tadhg, "Always with the fuckin cranberries") etc.

The key factor to recognise here is that the storyteller structures the complete story. He places the beginning where it is so that the end will transpire in a certain way with certain emotions. This is where the Hero's Quest is quite relevant as one means to reflect that. The beginning and the end and the middle and all the details in between are all part of a web of structure, and when the structure works, the story works. The hero has a quest that we can follow because the structure lends itself to that, and so it goes. My account from above therefore can turn into anything from a story about a man musing on whether he should have broken up with his girlfriend while eating breakfast, to a piece about malaise of western civilisation as told through the archetypal boring Sunday afternoon.

And that's the narrative experience.
Story = structure.

This is where roleplaying games diverge from videogames, because roleplaying games have a dramatic arbiter in the shape of a GM who can pull the story back on track and skip the crap. Whereas videogames are entirely account-based. In a roleplaying game, the GM can choose on the fly to skip encounters, add them in, give characters lines and information, and basically mix it up. GMs dynamically arbitrate roleplaying games to keep a dramatic structure. It doesn't always work, but there is a knack to it so that it does come out as a consensual story experience.

A videogame system is unable to do that in keeping with drama. It may vary the hit points that a player has to make combat easier or harder (like Max Payne does, apparently), but it's unable to judge, based on the boredom versus pace scale, whether to drop bits of a level, add new ones, or otherwise craft drama. Storytelling is an art and a craft, and a videogame is unable to do either.

Videogames are real-time experiences. They are not self-instantiating stories. They are self-instantiating accounts.

Open Windows

This does not mean, however, that the account of a videogame cannot be interesting. What it means is that we cannot rely on the tools of storytelling in its traditional (or meta-story) form for any answers, because the whole of storytelling theory and idea are based on identification with heroes and the structured narrative. Videogames subvert both. What videogames do allow for, however, is the crafting of situations.

The typical single player videogame pattern runs as follows. A piece of information sets up a gameplay challenge for the player. The player plays through that challenge, and then the game progresses on to the next challenge after informing the player that he has completed the current one. Challenges become progressively more involved or difficult or both. This I choose to call The Player's Journey.

In this context, what happens to the world of the game?

The answer is that it changes. It may get faster, for example, or the landscape may change. The obstacles may change. The player may find themselves in a completely different level. The player's team may be becoming injured or switch sides on the pitch. The videogame represents a constantly changing and challenging situation.

It is impossible to build emotional connection into a game and establish the hero's role etc etc because the player does not become the hero. Every player plays Max Payne according to his or her own personality (the character becomes the player, remember), so trying to make the player 'feel' a certain way on a constant basis is pointless. What the game can do, however, is set up the situation.

In doing this, the pieces of information that the game uses to set up the challenges is what's important. This information can be as simple as 'Now try Level 3'. Or it can be as complicated as the opening cut scene to Max Payne 2. What mustn't be forgotten is that the player will play according to the player's whims (My Max is different to yours) which runs counter to dramatic structure. But what doesn't change is the situation.

I play Max Payne one way, you play Max Payne another, but the precinct lieutenant is the same in both of our experiences. By crafting the situation appropriately, we can create an experience within the videogame that informs and underscores the gameplay (if we so choose it to) by realising that we're not creating a hero journey. We're creating a player journey. The player has a window onto a world. What we can do is create the world, and that world is what makes a game potentially artistic, authorial and interesting.

And that's where I think attempts to co-opt the Hero's Journey are doomed to failure, because the Hero's Journey is based entirely on the structure and art that a storyteller provides. With videogames what we are creating is a dynamic structure, what I like to call a Living Architecture. We can create interesting life, depict situations, beliefs and morals within it if we choose, but we can only rely on the player to be the player, not some idealised hero figure that fits into our narrative scope. Videogames are fundamentally not a hero-driven narrative art, they are a player-driven situational one.

Let's use that to our advantage, not fight against it.

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