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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deus ex (machina)

Deus Ex Machina is a literary device whereby a seemingly unsolved problem is resolved by a new character, event, ability or object.

Deus Ex is a videogame whereby the player character resolves issues that were seemingly inextricable. So in the case of Deus Ex, the player character is the deus ex machina.

This ties in a lot to Warren Spector’s design philosophy. Stories that aren’t just told to the audience, but told with the audience. The game is called Deus Ex, because it is a deus ex machina that is missing a machine(or the closest human equivalent).

Hedonism and Meaning

In many elitist circles, people tend to classify what is art and what is not. Most of the time in these circles, the conclusion is drawn that anything made for the expressed purpose of either stimulating feelings of adrenaline or sexual arousing the viewer is not art, because these feelings usually do not produce memorable experiences. The genres they are referring to have derogatory terms; pulp-horror, dumb-action, torture-porn.

I must admit I’m not fond of this hedonistic entertainment either, but not for the same reasons. When a fictional experience is designed solely as an emotion-driven experience, the narration of the story takes higher priority than the story itself. This usually results in the story becoming unbelievable, over-dramatized or stretched. I’m not saying that these kinds of works are bad, I’m just saying that it is not my cup of tea. Whereas these elitists wouldn’t even recognize it as tea at all.

I have noticed that this phenomena doesn’t just pertain to dumb-action, it occurs in almost any genre, regardless of which emotion it prescribes. Whether it be happiness, love, sadness, anger or even nostalgia, the over-abundance of such emotions usually leads to stories without meaning, stories that aren’t believable or shallow stories that don’t discuss themes thoroughly. For example; soap operas like Neighbours, fantasy romance books like Twilight or overstretched dramas like Lost.

Unfortunately, there are also consequences when the story is written without intent for effect. Although these stories can enlighten the audience with a thorough and in-depth discussion, the emotional value of these stories are not as high and can be less holistic. Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic seems to be written for believability and contemplation. The individual contexts that are in the game are very well constructed. Each planet has its own unique social, political and economic virtues, as well as some intriguing conflicts as a result. But Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic is also quite dry at times and most of the dialogues are plain information dumps. This is probably intended to suit the Jedi ideal of emotional neutrality and self-control.

A truly great story needs to have symbiotic balance between story mechanics and narrative effect. Mass Effect 2 does so quite masterfully (except for its combat game-play). The story/strategy structure of Mass Effect 2 is designed in a way that facilitates intellectual contemplation and emotional involvement. Here is a flowchart that sums up the story:

The synopsis of Mass Effect 2.

Blue indicates the general strategy from the perspective of a robot. Black is the story in relation to the long-term strategy. And Red is the emotional effect of the story and strategy. Not only is Mass Effect 2‘s emotive impact holistically considered and realized, but the storyline is quite believable and the economic decisions made by the player make sense from a robot’s perspective. As far as I am concerned that’s a recipe for a damn good dramatic game.

Mass Effect 2 isn’t the only game containing this kind of structure. Beyond Good and Evil has a very similiar structure:

The synopsis of Beyond Good and Evil.