[MUD-Dev] not about telling stories

Joe Andrieu jandrieu at caltech.edu
Wed Nov 28 10:42:41 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001

Interactive story is not about telling stories.

Jeff Freeman wrote:

> People don't want games to *tell* stories, they want games to *be*
> stories.

(probably quoting Dave Ricky)

Yes!  But you reach the wrong conclusion.  Interactive stories are
about BEING the hero in the story.  If you start with a definition
where this is not the case, you are working with a flawed idea of
what it means to experience an interactive story.

Interactive stories allow the player to be the hero-protagonist in
the story. Joe Bates' classic "live" experiment using his group's
Drama Manager model showed that in fact you can dynamically create
compelling interactive experiences for the first person--even when
the third person perception deems the story lame.  The point is that
the audience hated the play...  while the player loved it.

The underlying truth of Marian's proposed law is both valid and
invalid.  Yes, interaction is directly opposed to traditional
narrative. The only way to interact with a traditionally defined
story is to flip the pages back and forth. Truth. For in that
medium, the story is indistinguishable from the concrete words on
the page.

However, it should be apparent that one can experience being the
hero in a story--and that is completely independent of our ability
today to create such experiences.

This is my biggest frustration with this thread. Far too many people
are pointing to the current state of the art and saying "Look! It
doesn't work!" and then asserting that this must be the determined
state of things.  "Bunk!" I say.

It would be far more profitable for us to clearly understand and
define what it would mean to have a successful interactive
story--with some new definition of story. Marian suggests that the
need for a beginning, middle, and end precludes an MMO from having
interactive story. True, to an extent.  If you must define the
entire MMO as *the story*. But that's like saying 11 years of
_Cheers_ has to be *the_story* of the series. The fact is, every
episode was a story. And rarely did the long-term story arc depend
on the story arc in each episode. There is no reason that
interactive stories--with full dramatic effect--cannot take place in
MMOs, and even be the heart of the player experience just as the
episodic stories of Cheers were the heart of that program.

Paul Schwanz (Phinehas) wrote:

> The data-intensive approach.  Here, the developer *tells* a story
> to the players.  The emphasis is strongly on the authorial will of
> the developer.  The players lose much of their ability to interact
> with >or influence the resulting story.

and then

> The process-intensive approach.  It seems to me that there may be
> a middle ground between the above extremes.  Or maybe even lots of
> middle grounds.  I believe that a developer can be very deliberate
> about introducing theme, context, and structure in the form of
> process.  In some cases, they can even introduce very specific
> data, but still leave most of the story unfinished.

Unfortunately, there is no clear logical link between the authorial
direction of the game and the player's loss of ability to interact
with or influence the resulting story. Many people have asserted
that this is a fundamental and unavoidable obstacle to interactive
story. That is only true if you define the story as the words
written on the page--as a single concrete manifestation.

The simplest counterpoint is the canonical grandparent telling a
story to a grandchild. The story may start out with a certain
direction, but with a willing storyteller, the child can influence
the unfolding plot as well as the setting, theme, and props. (We'll
ignore the fact that this need not be the case; since it can be the
case it is a useful example.) In real-time, the grandfather responds
and modifies the story while typically maintaining the story arc
from introduction of characters, rising complications, climax and
ultimately "happily ever after".  The point is that interaction and
impact need not be limited when crafting a true story arc.  Note
that this also requires that the story NOT be defined as a
particular sequence of words or events, no matter the dramatic

Which is to say that the theoretical possibility of true interactive
story is alive and well. And MMO*s are one of the most viable means
to explore a possible solution to the puzzle of implementation.
Some have argued that single-player games are much more suitable,
thanks to the mutable nature of the "subjective" universe in which
those games take place. The thinking continues that the "objective"
universe shared in an online world is inherently antithetical to
allowing each and every player to be the hero in their own story.
The "objective" real-world universe does a pretty fine job of
allowing each and every one of us to be the hero in our own story.
No one actually plays the role of Guard #3 in our lives--unless our
life is that guard, in which case our life story becomes "The Guard
Story" and we are again the hero-protagonist.  There are lessons to
be learned here which become more apparent when one takes the time
to figure out how to resolve the questions of interactive story in
MMOs rather than single player games.

Jeff also wrote:

> What strikes me as a terrible idea is the notion that we should be
> crafting these stories and shipping them to the players, then
> stomping all over the story that the players would be creating, if
> our story wasn't getting in their way, in order to shove our story
> down their throats.

Absolutely!  Stomping all over player's stories is
BAD. Evil. Fascist!  Only short-sited single-player game developers
would ever do something so despicable.  And so, it cannot be part of
the definition of true interactive story. Don't assume that authored
stories must get in the way of the player's story--the goal is for
them to seamlessly be the same thing. Naturally, smoothly, and
without oppression.

So, what is true interactive story?

  Is it sandbox-style games where context and tools are provided and
  the players must craft stories post-facto?

  Is it sport-style games where competition amongst teams is the
  emotional rallying point and again, stories are crafted

  Is it force-fed narrative where the player has no control over
  their story actions other than solving puzzles and outwitting or
  out shooting enemy NPCS?

  Or is it Hamlet on the Holodeck where you ask the computer for a
  Sherlock-Holmesian story in which Moriarity is capable of
  defeating you, and a completely interactive simulation is
  constructed in real-time that responds to your (and other
  player's) actions and weaves it into a dramatic story arc?

We can settle for the earlier models. In fact, we already have
settled in the games currently on the market. We probably will
continue to settle for most of the games currently in development.
But we don't have to settle for it forever.

Let's understand what it would take to reach that holy grail. What
would it mean to achieve it? What is the player experience? What is
the authorial role? What must the system provide?

Only by understanding these questions can we hope to implement
products that achieve the ultimate interactive
entertainment. Stopping the conversation before it gets started--or
blankly proclaiming that it cannot be done--is as bad as the Pope
proclaiming that the earth is the center of the universe, which was
official dogma well into the 20th century.


Joe Andrieu
Realtime Drama

joe at andrieu.net
+1 (626) 395-8045

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