Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Interactive narrative: Lessons from Telltale

Back in the 1990s, when the potential of interactive audio-visual media was first brought to the general population through affordable personal computers coupled with the extended storage capacity of CD-ROMs, technology commentators speculated wildly about the impact this would have on the creative arts. What would happen if you had a truly interactive novel, in which not just the reading experience but the actual storyline was shaped by the reader as well as the writer? Or a drama, in which you could, say, take on the role of Hamlet and choose to avenge your father’s death in the first Act instead of dithering around until Act III? Was the whole concept of a linear narrative with exposition and conclusion itself dead? Star Trek: The Next Generation provided a convenient cultural reference: the TV show's 1987 opening episode realised the concept of “virtual reality” through a room on the starship in which computer-generated holograms and force fields could simulate both a physical environment and people in it. The crew used this “holodeck” not only for training but for recreation; Captain Picard enjoyed role-playing Dixon Hill, a private eye from a 1940s-style crime thriller, and Captain Janeaway took on the role of the governess in a Jane Eyre-like gothic “holonovel”[1]. The optimism about digital technology’s potential for interactive narrative was summarised in Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck (1998) [2].
"Basically, I am assuming that this movement is analogous to the invention of the movie camera a hundred years ago, and asking: if the digital environment (multimedia, networked, desktop, VR, arcade, etc.) is the 'camera,' then what will be the equivalent of the 'movie'? The holodeck provides one provocative model."
(Interview with Michelle Ellen Green)
Ten years later, this confidence had largely collapsed, not merely because virtual reality was proving to be technically a more clunky affair then early enthusiasts had hoped, but because authors were finding it just too hard to write truly interactive narrative scenarios that anybody would actually want to play. They discovered what the writers of adventure games had known for some time: that you need to anticipate and provide for anything the player may decide to do – hard enough when dealing with physical objects, but mind-bogglingly complex when dealing with non-player characters and narrative storylines. If players are going to be able to take the story in any direction they want, then you can’t write something as dramatic as Hamlet, because if the player kills Claudius in Act I then the story either has to end there or else you need to have provided additional material to allow it to go somewhere else. Even if you limit the number of choices the player has at each stage, as long as each branch leads to further choices then the tree of potential storylines quickly grows to an impossibly large size. If you try to write discrete scenes which players can encounter in any order, then you never know what they’ve seen previously, which means that every scene needs to do its own exposition. limiting how far it can develop the story. Taken together, these problems meant that interactive narratives tended towards the bland and purposeless, with largely meaningless choices about which it was difficult for players to feel much investment.[3] The few interactive narratives which are generally reckoned to have succeeded (for example, Façade, Her Story [4]) operated within a very restricted setting; the remainder never got beyond the stage of experimental works and sunk into obscurity.

This is why it’s extraordinary that Telltale Games has become successful, both commercially and artistically, in producing interactive narratives. As Dan Connors the co- founder of Telltale has commented: “We just chose the four things that people had given up on: digital distribution, episodic gaming, licensed gaming, interactive narrative, and said: You know what, it CAN be done, and we're going to do it." (Documentary ‘Telltale Games: Story Mode’, quote at 0’32”.) Ignoring modernist ideas of non-linear narratives, they’ve focussed unapologetically on good old-fashioned story-telling. Their characters and settings are strong and dynamic, drawing on the proven dramatic possibilities of pre-existing media franchises: Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, The Walking Dead (their breakthrough title), Game of Thrones, The Wolf Among Us (based on a comic series), and Tales from the Borderlands (based on the Borderlands role-playing game). The storylines are exciting, with suspense and resolution and a dramatic ending to each episode – essential for motivating players to buy and download the next. And (it should go without saying) their writers, animators, voice artists and music composers are first-rate, all combining their efforts in the service of the story.

But what about the interactive element? How is playing a Telltale game different from watching an animated film? The first thing to be said is that their interactivity is quite limited.[4] Although as a player you have choices, some of which seem as though they have decisive significance, you cannot actually affect the overall storyline; even when it seems you have freedom of movement, you are in fact travelling on rails. But the second thing to be said is that the interactivity which the games do afford is precisely that which enriches and deepens your involvement with the story. In other words, rather than trying to provide for whatever the player might try to do – which would be impossible – Telltale have focused on providing what is most important in terms of its impact for the player.

Here’s how it works in Tales from the Borderlands. You alternate between two characters: Rhys, a middle-ranking executive in the cut-throat Hyperion corporation, who descends to the wild-west planet Pandora in a desperate attempt to reverse a career disaster, and Fiona, a Pandoran con-artist whose ambitious scam goes wrong and is driven into an uncomfortable alliance with Rhys in the hope of winning even greater loot. The thrilling storyline has many moments of tension and danger for your characters, and one of the ways the game increases the suspense is by introducing uncertainty through dialogue choices. An early example of this is when as Rhys you have to ask the way from a violent-looking gang of bandits while your friend Vaughn is very obviously carrying a briefcase of money chained to his wrist; as Fiona, your first challenge comes when you need to talk your way past a huge bar-room bouncer, while a Wanted poster with your face on it is prominently on the wall beside him. From the point of view of the storyline, your dialogue choices make no difference; no matter what you say as Rhys, a fight will break out, and even if you completely mess up your lines as Fiona your sister Sasha will rescue you and get you into the bar. But what the choices do is make you identify with your characters: like them, you are forced to make a decision about what to say in a difficult situation which could turn nasty at any instant.

Other sequences get you to share your characters’ uncertainty and confusion by making you search for the way to advance the story. When Fiona returns to the home of her friend and mentor Felix, she is looking for something which will explain his recent actions, and what she finds is a sequence of clues which lead her to a hidden message which he left for her. When Rhys arrives at the concealed Atlas base, he has to find where it is and how to get in by tracing power cables. In such sequences, as in a conventional point-and-click adventure game, you can move your character freely around the immediate environment, examining and using any objects which he or she finds there. For a few minutes at least the tension of the story relaxes, and like your character you experience a period of quiet uncertainty while you hunt around to find something which will help you move on and get closer to your goal.

But it is never long before the pace picks up again and you find your character in immediate lethal danger. In such situations, the game requires you to react quickly. When a bandit is swinging an axe at Rhys, an arrow appears on the screen and you have to swipe in that direction to make him dodge; when Fiona is struggling to close a door before a gunman takes a shot at her, you have to tap the screen repeatedly until a progress bar is full; at other times, targets appear on objects which you need to tap quickly in order to hit them, throw something at them, or jump onto them. If you fail to do so within the time limit, your character dies. The skill challenges are not difficult, and the penalty for failure is not harsh – you simply go back to just before your death so that you can try again – but the need for constant alertness increases the tension and emotion, and the sense that you are protecting your character’s life deepens your investment in them.

Less obviously but more interestingly, the dialogue choices build your involvement with the playable characters by allowing you to fine-tune their personalities and relationships so that they feel realistic and convincing to you. For example, at the start of the second episode, Fiona and her sister Sasha fire their caravan’s turbo boost to get out of danger, but Rhys and Vaughn fall off the back in the middle of the desert.; there is no way that they can stop the caravan and go back for them. “You think the guys will be okay?” asks Sasha. You as Fiona have the response options: “They’ll be fine” / “They have a chance” / “They won’t last the night”. Your choice doesn’t affect the storyline (beyond the immediate dialogue), but having to make it prompts you to work out how you see Fiona’s character and her relationship with Sasha, and what you think about her developing attraction to Rhys (she flirts with him, and you as Rhys have the option whether to flirt back or not).

Another example, from early in the story, involves Rhys and Vaughn, who have survived their certain-death encounter with the heavily-armed bandits by summoning an even-more heavily armed battle-robot who in a blazing shoot-out despatches them one by one. (Though Loaderbot does the actual shooting, it’s you, as Rhys, who instructs him to fire at each target, thus implicating you, the player, in the killing.) It’s very violent, and there is a lot of (cartoon) blood. Afterwards, Vaughn is left a gibbering wreck (“I never wanna see somebody’s brains come out of their nose, not ever again”) and he starts wondering why they’re still alive and thinking about the bandits who died. As Rhys, you have the three dialogue options: “It’s over now, we made it!”, “They got what they deserved”, and “It was kinda fun”. If you want Rhys to comfort Vaughn, you can choose the first option, and his dialogue acknowledges Vaughn’s fear and disgust while observing that they’ve found they have the ability to come through such situations. Vaughn eventually accepts Rhys’s reassurance: “I guess you sort of have a point, somewhere in there.” Alternatively, if you want to play Rhys as someone who trivialises violence or finds Vaughn’s response irritating, you can choose the third option, and he says: “Aw, c’mon, It was a little fun. Right? You cannot honestly stand there and tell me that it didn’t feel kind of great to kick all those guy’s asses.” Again, after some hesitation, Vaughn goes along with your lead: “Okay… yeah… it was a little… awesome. But I’m sure it was as traumatic as it was fun. We’re probably going to need some therapy in the future, you know that, right?”

By requiring you to respond to the non-player characters and their take on the unfolding drama, the game prompts you to express what you feel about them and the character you are playing, even though in most cases your choice only affects the next line or so of dialogue. However, some dialogue choices have consequences which are fed back to you later: the characters remember what you’ve said and done to them. For example, if as Rhys you choose to instruct Loaderbot to self-destruct during the fight with the bandits, when he later reappears and greets the other male characters with a fist-bump, he will pointedly not do so with you. It’s a painful moment of rejection, for Rhys and for you playing him, because you are implicated in his action. (You as Rhys have the opportunity to make it up with Loaderbot later.) Such choices are flagged to you as the player, after you have made them, with the onscreen message that the other character “will remember this,” thus notching up the emotional impact of the moment by promoting you to imagine what the implications of your decisions will be. The overall story requires that the main characters move from initial starting positions of mutual mistrust and caution to ones of trust and co-dependency, and your decisions do not change that, but your dialogue choices control the speed and manner in which this happens.

Every 15 minutes on average, you have to make a major and potentially story-changing decision, half the time as Rhys and half the time as Fiona. Most of these decisions have to do with trust and betrayal: whether or not to shout a warning to someone who has betrayed you but is about to trigger a lethal booby-trap; whether to meet up with the other main characters and work together or to proceed separately and possibly reach the prize before they do; whether (as Rhys) to put your fate in the hands of the lying and unreliable Fiona or the ghost of the charismatic but psychopathic Handsome Jack whom you used to idolise. Many of these decisions do actually change the storyline, though in a limited way: sometimes there are two alternative branches which then converge; sometimes the same scenes are played out in a different order with different characters present. But once again the extent of the difference is not what gives these choices their emotional impact; in a story filled with thrills and danger, decisions about trust, mis-trust and betrayal are critical to the characters’ fortunes, and by making you take those decisions the game forces you walk in their shoes for a while, even if you end up in the same place at the end whatever you choose. (A complete list of the major choices, and their consequences, is included in this online Walkthrough.)

I have often made the analogy between games design and learning design (for example here and here), so what are the lessons for learning design from games such as Tales of the Borderlands? What Telltale have done is to abandon the fictional holodeck as a model for interactive narrative, rejecting the techno-fantasy of total freedom and total empowerment for the player / reader, which is neither possible nor desirable; they have returned to the traditional strengths of good story-telling, focusing on just those interactive features which deepen players’ involvement, increase their emotional stake, and give them a sense of agency in moving the story forward, The lessons of this for learning design, I believe, are that we do not have to apologise for the traditional strengths of good teaching – compelling topics, clear explanations, well-designed cognitive scaffolding - and that when we seek to enhance these with technology we should focus our efforts and resources on features which really increase value for the learner. Increasing value through cognitive effectiveness is familiar territory for us; for example, when designing simulations for learning, as I’ve previously observed, we focus on simulating those things which learners are most likely to get wrong, so that they can make those mistakes and learn from them. But another way of increasing value is to deepen learners’ involvement, emotionally as well as intellectually. The emotional aspects of learning, though present in our design practice, barely figure in our design thinking: we have an intuitive sense of what will be interesting for learners, what they will find fun or challenging, and how we can work the occasions for such emotions into the design of our learning experiences, but we do not have well-established ways of thinking and talking about this.

When I first started writing distance learning materials back in the 1990s, I was taught to plan my units in terms of a “storyline” or narrative sequence, which would put the necessary topics into a logical order and give a satisfying shape to the whole. This practice, which I believe originated at the Open University, seems to have fallen out of use, because I've not encountered it since. The metaphor of the narrative and the analogies between teaching and story-telling, between learning design and the design of a reader’s or player’s experience, are I think overdue for a revival.

Notes

[1] Star Trek’s holodeck was introduced in Encounter at Farpoint (Wesley Crusher falls into a stream) and further demonstrated in Code of Honour (Tasha Yar shows that a holographic opponent can throw you to the dojo floor). Captains Picard and Janeway were seen fantasy role-playing in The Big Goodbye and Persistence of Vision respectively. Many episodes showed the holodeck being used for training (for example, Chain of Command Part 1, Worst Case Scenario) or recreation (for example, Fair Haven), while introducing the more sinister possibilities of holodeck addiction (Hollow Pursuits, Pathfinder) and of being unable to distinguish between holodeck and reality (Ship in a Bottle, Projections). Some holodeck characters were or became self-aware: Professor Moriarty (Elementary, Dear Data), Vic Fontaine (His Way), the Emergency Medial Hologram (Caretaker), and Michael Sullivan (Spirit Folk). The holodeck also allowed the scriptwriters to indulge in genre spoofs: the Western (A Fistful of Datas), James Bond (Our Man Bashir), a French Resistance drama (The Killing Game), and Flash Gordon (Night, Bride of Chaotica!).

[2] See a review by John McLaughlin, and links to other reviews here. See also Murray’s ‘Inventing the Medium’, her introduction to the book New Media Reader.

[3] The problems with interactive narrative are summarised by Steven Johnson in Wired, 'Why no one clicked on the great hypertext story'and by Ernest W Adams in his 2005 lecture to Game Developers’ Conference ‘Interactive narratives revisited: ten years of research’. An academic article summarising the issues is Mark O. Riedel and Vadim Bulitko ‘Interactive narrative: an intelligent systems approach’ in AI Magazine 34 (2013), 67-77.

[4] In the celebrated Façade, you play a guest visiting the home of a couple who are on the edge of breaking up; the narrative is not disrupted by conversational non-sequiturs or failure to respond to your remarks, since the other characters are supposed to be bickering and preoccupied with their own thoughts. (See an article analysing its design by Alex J. Champanard.) In Her Story (many reviewers’ Game of the Year for 2015), you are viewing video clips of police interviews following a suspicious death; the game's interactivity is limited to providing you with clips on the basis of your keyword searches, but the construction of the narrative is entirely yours as you try to understand the story of the woman being interviewed. (See the short discussion in my Seen and Heard blog entry for September 2015, and reviews in Adventure Gamers, The Guardian, and Rock Paper Shotgun).

[5] Indeed, Adventure Gamers website, although reviewing the titles (very favourably), excluded them from their 2016 Adventure Game awards on the grounds that they were pure stories, including neither exploration nor puzzle-solving.

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