The Wrong Target?

Almost since their very inception artists working within the various traditional entertainment media have been pushing against the boundaries of what is possible for narrative within their chosen field. In literature we have works like the Dictionary of the Khazars that encourages readers to piece together the “story” from fragmented often conflicting accounts, while in film we have the somewhat structurally similar in Rashomon where a rape and murder is told through the eyes of four witnesses, each with different perspectives on the crime. More recently we have something like Momento where the narrative is told in reverse chronological order.

Yet when discussions of interactive narrative come up, the usually reference point for narrative itself is the strict linear progression of events seen in the majority of films and novels, and rarely the other forms of narrative available. Forms that seem much more structually suited to the digital medium than something like Citizen Kane.

The arguments against interactive narrative are usually that choice is anathema to narrative structure, that any degree of choice takes away from the power of the narrative. This is true when it comes to strictly linear narratives, Romeo and Juilet would not have the same meaning or power if the reader could choose to let Juilet live. However when we consider the other possible narrative structures available the problems of choice become not problems but possibilities.

Recently I played Masq (Available from Alteraction’s website, and a title I would highly recommend) on the surface it’s a fairly straightforward branching story made up of discrete scenes; a choose-your-own-adventure. It’s possible to be entertained by a single play through from introduction to conclusion but at the end you are shown a sequences of scenes that may or may not have occurred for you. You are provided no context for these scenes, if you want to understand them you are implicitly encouraged to replay the game to see how else the story could have developed. Each choice you make leads to a different range of subsequent choices, and each character responds in a consistent manner to your actions, because of this different facets of the story are revealed each time you play. Over the course of multiple plays you uncover more about each character and how they react under different circumstances. There is no single defining truth but a range of potential truths, in the end it is entirely down to each player which is the real story of what happens or if there is a single canonical story at all.

Given the inherent strengths of the digital medium we should be looking at games to provide narratives that hinge on this multiplicity of truth. Where your understanding of the world develops as you experience the consequences of your choices; see how people’s motivations and actions change based on your actions. Games where we can see if Abraham Lincoln was correct by witnessing how somebody reacts to adversity or power, or both.

It’s not about remaking a choose-your-own-adventure game, but making a game focused on exploring the range of potential outcomes from any single decision. Television series spend hours building up webs of character interaction, layers of subtext and hidden motivation but games have a much better format for that, one where we can explore it at our own pace, where we can witness out actions affecting the world around like ripples in a pond. Such games could help us learn more about our place in the world, the consequences of our actions, and our responsibility to others.

Imagine a family gathering handled in such a game, we could take on the role of a family member and through our actions and their consequences we would learn much about the family itself and our place in it. Do we reveal our brother’s homosexuality or our mother’s affair, or do we keep their secrets and if so what does that do to the family dynamics? How does our father react to each of these revelations and what do we learn about his character from those reactions? What do we learn about ourseleves if we do choose to reveal or keep those confidences?

These might not be  stories in the traditional format and would be closer to Rashomon than Citizen Kane, but no less powerful for it. Maybe it’s time to stop looking to traditional narratives as a target when we consider the potential for interactive narratives.

System Shock 2: The Motion Picture.

Despite a history of decidedly average game to film translations, I believe there are some properties that could successfully make the transition, provided they were treated in a manner appropriate to the subject matter. At the risk of being branded a heretic I believe that System Shock 2 is such a title that has interesting film potential.

For anybody who has never played it the premise is fairly straightforward, you wake up alone on an board a space ship to find the crew have been killed and turned into zombies and worse. It eventually gets a little more complicated but that’s the core premise. The inclusion of the, arguably insane artificial intelligence SHODAN (Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network) adds some additional flavour but the basic premise of System Shock 2 is not the reason for its cinematic potential. For that we need to look at the manner in which the story is presented.

System Shock 2 02
A less than standard procedure.

Developed through audio logs left behind by the crew, as well as the occasional ghost of anybody who died in particularly dramatic circumstances, the events leading up to the player’s awakening are told in a piecemeal and subjective fashion. This could translate well to film provided it didn’t play out using a traditional linear format. Instead the audio logs could act as framing devices for flashback sequences, much like the diary in The Prestige. As the protagonist awoke and began to explore their environment each log they found would lead into a flashback showing the events described. As often more than one log references a single event the film could develop in a manner similar to Rashomon with each event being show from multiple perspectives and coloured by each participants personal prejudices. The objective “truth” of what happened never being made explicit. This is not something that is dealt with in to any extent in the game, and I wonder if it might have benefited from a more ambiguous narrative delivery.

Together these flashbacks would combined to form a collage depicting the events leading up to the start of the film. As some characters are still alive at the start of the film, their logs would continue to describe events that took place only a few hours or minutes before the protagonist found them. The final climax of the protagonist fore-shadowed by the climatic failures that lead they to that point.

It’s a potentially complex film, and one that would require careful editing as well as a degree of active participation on the part of the audience in order to form a coherent narrative of both the past and the present; considering the source material that seems only fitting.

System Shock 2 is not likely to see a film release, but rumours abound that its spiritual successor BioShock is. It will be interesting to see how it is handled, though I do suspect it will utilise a traditional linear structure, possibly with a flashback or two to fill in the history of Rapture. If that is the case it will be a waste of potential.

The best game stories are one that are (Or at least make pretensions to be) non-linear, and any reinterpretation of them in another medium would be well advised to make use of whatever non-linear techniques are available.