Two Fold Immersion.

Having now read Patrick Redding’s Austin Game Developers Conference presentation (“Familiarity Breeds Contempt: Building Game Stories That Flow”) it’s interesting to see how dissimilar our thinking is on the matters of flow and story.

It seems Patrick believes the role of the story is to help with flow itself, something that serves liable to make the story entirely subservient to play. Specifically he says that story should be used “as a tool for illuminating control and challenge” which sounds like it would place significant limitations upon the role of story within a game.

To clear up some definitions before I go any further. When I use the term story I mean all elements of story and storytelling, including the content and style of the story itself and the means it is presented to the player. I include therefore those elements not generally considered part of the plot itself: aesthetic level design and lighting; character design, animation and behaviour; along with sound and music.

I consider flow to be a manifestation of the linear, pattern matching, side of our brains, whereas most of the non-plot specific aspects of story are things more closely associated with the sensory, holistic, right side of our brain. Whether those divisions actually exists, the conceptual framework they provide is useful for such a discussion.

I agree that elements of story can help enhance the flow experience, Team Fortress 2 is a very good example of this. The aesthetic design has been used to promote affordance and provide clear feedback. Character models are designed with a distinct lighting gradient and silhouette so as to make identification of their class, team and weapon as easy as possible.

However instead of using story exclusively to enhance flow, we should be trying to engage both sides of the brain at once; if that is even possible. We should seek to develop a form of story flow to complement left-brain centric concept of flow we already have.

Imagine a game with systems designed to enhance the sensation of flow and systems designed to enhance story flow, systems that could monitor and adjust the presentation and content of the story based on player actions. Jordan Thomas (Creative Director at 2K Marin), talked about his work on the ‘Shalebridge Cadle’ level for Thief: Deadly Shadows and described how he used a central choreographer to modify objects in the level at run-timed. Imagine such a system tied into all story elements across the game. Working on feedback gleaned from the player’s actions such a “puppet master” could adjust the presentation and feel of the story itself to keep it within each player’s personal “flow zone”. Designs and writers therefore would not script the exact structure of the story but instead shape the coverage of the flow zone. They would provide the limits of a system within which players would be free to play with the story.

With such systems in place and gameplay aesthetics that reinforced the themes of the story games could be created that would maintain a player’s sense of agency across all elements not just those concerned purely with logic and pattern matching, but those of tone and style as well. Maintaining a sense of flow in both logical and sensory terms would lead to players experiencing a two-fold immersion, as both sides of their brain became immersed in the experience.

But could such two-fold immersion work? Would the logical experience override the sensory or vice verse? Or would they cause a positive feedback loop, with one augmenting the other?

Story Flow.

Note: This was originally written as response to some elements of Clint’s presentation, before I got stuck on the notion of logical immersion as flow and from there the concept of story flow. Maybe if I’d been paying more attention I’d have read Pat Redding’s presentation before I made this post. As it is I’ll be adding a follow up concerning that presentation itself, at a later date.

So I’ve actually got around to reading through Clint Hockings GDC presentation, “I-fi Immersive Fidelity In Game Design”. His discussion of the two forms of immersion, that of the left and right brain, is a notion I have been aware of previously, but been unable to adequately express.

Playing Quake III Arena, I would often turn the in-game music off so I could listen to my own music selection. I found I could lose myself in the gameplay and still be able to enjoy the music. Quake III is what I would call a very pure game, the core mechanics are easily understood and the the aesthetics are all but inconsequential; it is just as playable stripped of it’s textures and visual effects. It’s a game of layered pattern recognition. Everything is based on patterns, the layout of each level, the timing cycle of each power-up, the movement of the enemies. Success comes from understanding all those patterns and positioning yourself and your cross-hair at the optimal point in space and time, repeatedly.

Quake III is one of the clearest examples of logical, left-brain, immersion I’ve ever experienced. In essence logical immersion is flow.

The other form of immersion Clint talked about is that of sensory immersion, or the immersion of the right-brain. The is more in line with the common perception of the term immersion. It is the ability of a created work to completely absorb you, it is what allows you to lose yourself in a book for hours on end, or to forget you need the toilet when watching a particularly film.

The end of Clint’s presentation seemed to tail off a little, ending with a call to unite both forms of immersion but with few suggestions on how to achieve this. This got me thinking; if logical immersion is akin to flow, is there is a similar theory for sensory immersive? Is there a dynamic difficult adjustment for story?

How could such a mechanism work?

The obvious first step is to have some means of recording players interaction with the story. SiN Episodes: Emmergence included a robust form of player statistics tracking that originally was intended for use by Ritual to make changes to future episodes. Tying such a system into something like the “AI Director” in Left 4 Dead would allow the game itself to respond to the behaviour of the player. This AI Director could study how individual players interacted with the story of the game: did they sit through every cut-scenes, or did they skip them but explore each level carefully and read every scrap of paper or listen to every line of dialogue? Adjustments could then be made, pushing more of the story at the player through cut-scenes or moving it into the world where the player could pull in as much as they desired.

That would handle the means of delivery, but what about the content of the story? Extended to include tracking player interactions with non-player characters, the AI Director could be used to bring certain characters to the fore or push them to the background. If the player spent more time with a particular character, events could be adjusted to make them the focus of the story. Or that character could take the place of another character and therefore be killed by the chief antagonist, spurring the player on to the final confrontation (Though that is a rather tired cliche). Characters themselves could be made to respond to the actions and perceived attitudes of the player and react accordingly.

Thematic elements could also be tied in, with colouration, saturation, sound effects and music all adjusting to keep the player in the correct mood.

Such a system would take player actions as inputs, and adjust itself to keep both the presentation and the content of the story within what the game judges to be the particular “comfort zone” of each player, ensuring that the story never became too subtle or complicated (avoiding anxiety), nor too obvious or vague (avoiding player boredom), thus maintaining a story flow.

Addendum:

On reflection it’s clear Clint had been thinking about this when he made his presentation, as one of his colleagues Pat Redding presented a talk at the Austin Game Developers Conference last year entitled “Familiarity Breeds Contempt: Building Game Stories That Flow”.

Restricted Interactivity.

A core property of games as is that of interactivity, digital games especially so. Computers are interactive, therefore computer games are interactive, but does interactivity operate on a binary scale? Is something either interactive or not? If it’s not a binary scale does a game require a certain degree of interactivity?

One title that has been criticised for not being enough of a game, (not interactive enough?) is Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. The sequel to the critically acclaimed point-and-click adventure game The Longest Journey, Dreamfall has been criticised for including too few elements of actual interactivity. In essence the game involves an extensive use of non-interactive cut-scenes, linked by periods of environmental exploration and brief tactically unsophisticated combat. By a number of metrics there is very little “game” in Dreamfall and what does exist is not particularly well implemented. However I contend that none of that matters, Dreamfall is a form of electronic entertainment that provides an experience that could not be implemented in another medium and remain as engaging or affecting. The worlds of Stark and Arcadia and the people that inhabit them, could be described in a novel or represented in a film but neither form could make them feel like an actual place in the way that they can in a digital game.

dreamfall-the-longest-journey-01
Cinematic… But not a film.

Dreamfall it is too interactive to be a film, therefore gaming has as much right to claim it as anything else.

All games afford a some degree of interactivity, it make no sense to put a threshold on the degree of interactivity a game is required to offer. The level of interactivity provided by a game like Grand Theft Auto III is something unique to the field of games and something that should be encouraged. But the specific style of highly scripted experience provided by Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is just as vital to the evolution of games; they are simply at different ends of a wide spectrum of interactivity. Though potentially less interactive than Grand Theft Auto III, Modern Warfare is still too interactive to be a film. It must be a game because it can’t be anything else.

Similar arguments occur when it comes to the role of story and narrative within a game, such as during the GDC panel on “The Future Of Story In Game Design”. As interesting as such discussions can be, I believe that they are fundamentally counter-productive. I personally see a role for narrative in games, and am interested in the potential new techniques for storytelling made available by games. However I would never claim that all titles must aspire to developing a narrative, any more than I would demand that all films should be in black and white, or that all literature should be written in iambic pentameter.

Discussions about the role of story in game design should be limited to the specifics of whether it is something a particular title should be concerned with or not. Of course there is a role for author created narratives in the vast continuum that is games but not necessarily in every title, and not to the same extent in those titles that do choose to include such narratives.

Gaming should be an inclusive form, there’s as much room for the simulated as the imaginary, for the narrative as the ludic.

The worst fate that can befall any medium, at such a relatively early stage in it’s development, is to have arbitrary restrictions imposed upon its growth.

Let me tell you a story.

Any discussion of storytelling in games is going to run up against a barrier at some point due simply to the nature of games as (in very loose terms) “interactive systems governed by rules” seems to run counter to what defines a story. I personally prefer the term narrative as it doesn’t have the same connotations of a strictly linear progression, though there is still a dichotomy between narrative and games.

This appears to be something that is clear to Ken Levine, as the third major point he touched upon in his GDC Presentation was how BioShock was designed in a way to encourage the player to discover the narrative for themselves. He described the difference between the traditional linear narratives of films (and cut-scenes) as being designed to “… push information at the player” where as in games the ideal is for the player themselves to actively engage with the story and pull it towards them.

In her seminal book on the narrative potential of computers, Hamlet On The Holodeck, Janet Murray described the four essential properties of digital environments, [Chapter 3, page 71] that they are: “procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic.” The former two properties she grouped together as what makes such environments interactive. The latter pair she considered to be the defining aspects of immersion (A topic Clint Hocking dealt with specifically in his GDC Presentation “I-fi Immersive Fidelity In Game Design”, and something I plan to return to at a later date).

The primary two properties are of interest because not only do they encompass what is usually meant by the term interactive, they also cover a lot of what is inferred by the term gameplay. The remaining two attributes, that of being spatial and encyclopedic, are therefore what is present in addition to the core gameplay. It is within these two properties and how they interact with each other, and gameplay, that the narrative is found.

Of these narrative properties the spatial, or the ability to provide a navigable space, is prehaps the most significant difference between a narrative told within a game and one within any other medium. A film can represent a location but only a game (Using the broadest definition of the word), can let you explore that location; no longer are you bound by the viewpoint of the camera. Because it is not possible to be absolutely certain of where the you are or what you are looking at, attempts at providing narrative should be moved away from the critical path and out into the environment itself. There are ways to encourage the player to stand in the right place and look in the right direction, techniques that Valve Software are rapidly becoming the masters of with Half Life 2 and it’s episodic sequels. Even so these techniques cannot be universally relied upon, and furthermore if they are too prevalent or obvious they can feel artificially restrictive.

There will always be limits to your exploration in such games, but done right those limits can serve the narrative itself; handled correctly a blocked path serves both gameplay, by keeping players heading in a particular direction, and provides a narrative beat, by highlighting destruction that has occurred before you arrived.

Environmental narrative provides context. Throughout BioShock and Half-Life 2 there are areas where you are given freedom to explore within boundaries, and discover the background to Rapture, and City 17 (Alien Controlled Dystopian backdrop to Half-Life 2) at your own pace.

Players will be more willing to engage with a narrative if they feel they have some involvement in it, and what better way to encourage involvement than to allow players to discover the narrative for themselves.

Together with the final property of digital environments, that of being encyclopedic, this freedom to explore at your own pace is what allows games to including the level of depth required to satisfy all three audience levels, without overloading any one group with information. It’s what allows games to include both scope and depth, as Janet Murray herself describes it [Chapter 3, Page 84] “The capacity to represent enormous quantities of information in digital form translates into an artist’s potential to offer a wealth of detail, to represent the world in both scope and particularity.”

Games are not best served by the strictly linear storytelling techniques of other mediums, and it’s only by making the most of the strengths that games do possess that new and interesting ways of providing narratives, and presenting stories, can be achieved.

Nobody cares about your stupid story because you are telling it badly.

Can I tell you a story?

Though nobody cares about your stupid story it’s likely that it’s not entirely down to the audience and their preconceptions of games. There are people who do see games as a storytelling medium, whether they consider that to be their primary function or not.

This is something that Ken Levine went on to discuss in his GDC presentation, he talked about how BioShock had been designed to work on three levels, what I would consider the physical, the intellectual and the emotional.

The first level, the physical, he described as the very straightforward “Where do I need to go, who do I need to kill?”, BioShock needed to satisfy those people who simply wanted to play, to maintain forward progression and be engaged. The second level, the intellectual, is the group Ken described himself as being a part of, those with “… some interest in the story.” People in this group need to be satisfied by the immediate action, but also need some context for their actions. The final group is those people who are deeply invested in the story and background of Rapture (The failed undersea utopia where BioShock is set), for this group “… you have to give them all of that love, a novelistic level of detail.” This is the group for which every detail matters.

These levels are in very simple terms the “What?”, “Who?” and “Why?” of the game. If you don’t know what you are doing it doesn’t matter who you are doing it to or why.

Every level should build upon the previous levels, the secondary and tertiary levels cannot be successfully catered too without first satisfying the primary level; people shouldn’t be asked to fight through the core mechanics of the game in order to appreciate the story; and they will resent being asked to.

The major issues arise when trying to balance the needs of these three levels, to engage the entire audience at once. If the game is loaded with too much exposition up front, those players who simply want to play will be, at best, distracted and at worse feel patronised. Too little depth and a game will be incapable of holding the attention of those who are interested in the story and they will quickly move on to something else. At the same time nobody should be forced to wade through copious detail in order to understand what is actually going on.

I find that often when games attempt to tell a story they overload the core experience with information, rapidly devolving into a succession of over long speeches full of proper nouns. Halo 3, is a game that, for all it’s ability to provide the visceral thrills required by the primary audience, has difficulty balancing these levels. So much exposition is throw up within the first few minutes that it becomes very difficult to follow unless you have been keeping track of the Halo cannon since the first game; a title that managed to cater to all three audiences in a much more successful manner.

There are people who are interested in games for their story, but there will always be people who simply want to be entertained on a physical level, and whatever story a game contains should strive not to get in the way of that.

Nobody cares about your stupid story because you’re telling it to the wrong people.

Do you want to hear a story?

The role of narrative in games, and the relationship between story and gameplay, has been an important topic at this years Game Developers Conference. Once again developers seemed unable to agree on the importance of narrative in games.

The first person to speak up specifically about the role of stories in games was Ken Levine, President and Creative Director of 2K Boston (Formerly Irrational Games), and the person credited with “Story, Writing and Creative Direction” on BioShock. Though BioShock has received significant critical and commercial success and been awarded for it’s story and writing, Ken started his presentation (“Storytelling in BioShock: Empowering Players to Care about Your Stupid Story”) by informing the audience that: “… the bad news for storytellers is that nobody cares about your stupid story”. Though this was not the core of his presentation as he went on to qualify that statement, and present a number of other ideas that I plan to discuss at a later date, I do feel his initial remarks are deserving of specific consideration.

On the face of it I feel Ken has a point, I find it extremely unlikely that anybody who played BioShock choose to do so because of the story alone. I do however believe from personal experience that the quality of the story and it’s presentation are a contributing factor to some people’s enjoyment of the game. This is a situation true of many games, people might not come for the story but it is often what keeps them playing past the point at which they have mastered, or grown tired of, the gameplay.

Stories have been a vital part of human society since the birth of communication, it’s only natural for people to be interested in them. The nature of storytelling and basic dramatic structure is embedded in human culture to the extent that when recounting their day to a friend the narrator will describe the events in the structure of a story, with a beginning, a middle a conclusion and dramatic tension. When playing a game without a specific story players will invent one, and personalise it. They rarely refer to what happened by saying “my character fell”, rather they will say “I fell”.

Stories are part of being human and any artistic or entertainment endeavour that ignores them is greatly limiting it’s potential. There will always be an audience for games without explicit stories, games like Chess or Football, but the potential audience for games with stories is conceivably every human being alive.

The problem games have at the moment is that they are not seen as a storytelling medium, because of this neither the type of people who would be interested in experiencing the new techniques of storytelling made possible through games, nor those best suited to develop those new techniques are interested in games.

Nobody cares about your stupid story because games are not consider a narrative medium.