Anomalous Behavior

This post is about how real life stories amaze us and how games (or more specifically interactive stories) can learn from this.

Amazement is a form of surprise. When we are amazed, we are witnessing something that contradicts our current understanding. So when a real life story amazes us, it is because the anecdote breaks our system. What sets it aside from regular surprise is that the feeling compels us to not only figure out what is going on, but to also explain and comprehend it.

Real life anecdotes break our system, because our simplistic subjective interpretations of the universe can’t explain the phenomena. For example, A Maze’N Things have optical illusions that contradict depth perception and spatial awareness. There are probably some people that manage to perceive space by unconventional means, but everybody else would be amazed by these kinds of illusions.

As I noted before, fictional stories heavily utilize our current understanding of the real world. If a fictional story fails to temporarily change our understanding of the fictional universe, then anomalous behavior will be met with disbelief and the narrative will be met with criticism. The story-teller has to make sure that the audience is fully aware of any differences in the fictional world relative to reality and it would also be wise for the story-teller to cater for different interpretations of the real world. An example of a story taking these measures before beginning, would be The Hurt Locker. In the prelude to The Hurt Locker, the film introduces a character as the protagonist and gives him the same sort of treatment that a protagonist would receive in other stories. The main difference though is that, the “false protagonist” dies in the first scene. This prepares the viewer to accept an atmosphere that lacks safety.

Now, for the part that interactive stories can draw off of. The reason why real life stories are amazing and believable is because, we know(consciously or not) that behavior in our world is governed by rules, not by the arbitrary creations of story-tellers. Observe this quote;

“Einstein argued that there must be simplified explanations of nature, because God is not capricious or arbitrary. No such faith comforts the software engineer.” -Fred Brooks

If a games storyline is dictated by low-level rules that abstract into higher-level order, than they can evoke amazement and possibly change the player’s understanding of the world. If the rules defined, establish emergent order similiar to real life, but not quite the same, than anomalous behavior can occur. The player will not question the realism of the story, because it is not of the artist’s arbitrary creation, but rather the artist’s design. So long as the story that emerges is somewhat comparable to reality. If the fictional world isn’t mechanically similiar enough, than the amount of involvement required from the audience will outweigh the emotional involvement that the story can evoke.

Simulation-based story-telling is not only a way of creating compelling and/or amazing experiences, but is also story-telling that is most parallel to what games are as an art form. The painter defines a piece by how he/she places brushstrokes on a canvas, a musician defines a piece by sequential patterns and a game designer defines an artwork by rules.

I’m not saying that this is the definitive future of video-games, but it is a mighty fine possibility.

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Imagination anyone?

When most people are enjoying a work of fiction, they usually interpret it as a virtual world. When people are observing a fictional work from an analytical point of view, it is obvious that this is not the case. A fictional film is seen by many as a window into a different world with similiar mechanics to our own, when really it only provides vague snippets of audio-visual info. The mechanics of the fictional world are merely the educated imaginings of the audience. Imaginings that are educated by the knowledge of our own world.

For instance, if a character gets angry, the audience has to guess the stimuli for their aggression. The audience guesses by looking at other elements and crosschecks them with probable causes. Without knowledge of anger, the audience has no hope of determining the reason for this anger. Imagination is where the mechanics come from, the story is actually executed in the viewer’s head. Sympathy comes into play when the audience needs to choose from the separate stimuli for aggression. The audience either has to sympathize with¬† the character or apply a generalized archetype, the choice depending on how well the character is portrayed or ‘fleshed out’. The french film Welcome to the Sticks (Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis) puts the audience’s ignorance to good use. As the characters are slowly portrayed, the audience’s understanding changes and is almost synchronized with that of the protagonist’s.

The elements of fiction displayed in a Venn Diagram.

Of course, it isn’t all the responsibility of the audience in order to figure out the events in the story. It is the job of the cinematographer to provide hints by employing techniques of editing. the Kuleshov Effect demonstrates this idea. It is the job of the author to present ideas in a way that hints the reader, maybe using metaphor or implicit declaration.

Games are a bit sketchy in their method of portrayal. I have still yet to play a game that uses irony in it’s story. There is no widely accepted technique or viewpoint as to how imagination is utilized in games. Imagination and reasoning are already employed in game-play, but it is rarely used as a means of story-telling.

Most games (now-a-days) construct narrative methods with the goal of delivering as much as information as possible in the most explicit and comprehensive way. So that the player’s cognition can be wasted on other things like: solving puzzles, killing badies and grinding for more level-ups. Most of the time these game-mechanics have little effect on how the player perceives the fictional world. That’s why I refer to games like Call of Duty as being films (poor cinematography by the way) with combat game-play attached. But recently there have been a few hopeful titles; Bulletstorm, Portal 2 and LA Noire.

The front cover of the game M.U.L.E.

Quite a few old games utilize imagination for story-telling, because at the time they simply did not have the rendering power to tell the whole story aesthetically. M.U.L.E. for instance, conveys its premise through the consequences of the player’s actions. When the player figures out the premise, it is a “Eureka” moment. Another example is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where most of the settings are described in dialogue. The actual spatial aspects of the game are merely shells of a larger picture made by the player’s mind. The social aspects of game-play are micro views of large scale trends that the player calculates.

The failings with many games is that they attempt to tell the story without regard to its impact on the player. I seriously doubt that games can tell powerful stories if they only use the story as a fictional justification of the game-play. Considerations for implicit narrative aren’t required to create a powerful experience, but they are required to make a compelling story and provoke emotions that are actually relevant to the story.

Interesting links relating to story-telling:

Finding Games True Voice – Frictional Games Development Blog

Realm Of New Fictions – Huge Entity

The Deaths Of Game Narrative – Gamasutra(Darby McDevitt)