Thursday, February 16, 2006

Relinquishing Control

I play games for a lot of different reasons. I play them to relax, I play them to escape, I play them to be pulled along for a ride, I play them to get my adrenaline pumping, I play them to be drawn into a story. Some games have no other purpose than to be a way to relax. I can sit down and play something like Chuzzle for half an hour (or more) at the end of a day, when my brain is fried and I’m tired. I can let puzzle and simple action games just flow and play around me; I don’t have to reason or think, just react. Occasionally I’ll have to do a bit of logical figuring to get out of a tight spot, but I don’t have to engage to do it. But none of these games have the power to draw me in for extended play.

But those aren’t the games I want to talk about right now. Sure, they exist. They are part of a broad “Video Game Spectrum” that makes this pastime more colourful and varied than any other. I want to talk about games that bring The Story. You see, I have a deep seated resonance with these types of games. Good ones draw me in as much as any good book. They string me along, and I find myself playing far later that I should; trying to get past the next room, boss, or puzzle so I can delve deeper into the story. They give me characters that I can relate to, situations that are interesting. The have conflict, and purpose, and a great many other characteristics that form all sorts of social and relational bonds with me.

You see, these are the games that I really want to make. Sure, I want to learn to break down the ludic side of games and figure out how to make a really great puzzle game, or a fun little arcade game. I want to make sure that any game I make has inherent rules of play that make it fun and challenging. But more that all of that, I want to tell stories within worlds that I create in my head and express through the computer. I want to be able to create characters and situations that people can relate to. I want to make something that people won't just fall into at the end of a day, but will be sucked into by the sheer force of story. The juxtaposition is: as I learn more about the ways of design, I’m learning that to make something truly great, I may have to give up some control.

You can picture (in a crude sort of pencil-drawn way) the spectrum of authorial control existing on a linear axis. Imagine a line: at one end resides Authorial Control, the other is Player Control. On this line we can put any sort of story, interactive or otherwise, and determine how much is predetermined by the author or designer and how much is truly in the hands of the player.

Authorial Control

Far to one side of our line exist non-interactive stories: books, film, stage drama, and other such linear forms. The author (or director) is the guide. They mold the characters, tune the setting, and carefully lay scene after scene to move the story through its paces. Everything that is good or bad about the story is in their control. Full authorial control is also where many people first experience Story as a concept. It is where they first learn to read and write. In many ways, this is the beginning of anything created. An idea, born of imagination, creates a setting, characters, and eventually conflict. The first draft is always in the hands of the author. It is the oldest form, and the most foundational to our ways of thinking.

You need only look as far as your favourite book, or play, or movie (or TV show, or poem) to find a story with complete authorial control. The audience is a spectator only, along for the ride. The nearest form of interactivity is the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. Perhaps the closest form of game is a poorly written Point-And-Click Adventure with only one path, or something akin to Dragon’s Lair (or Brain Dead 13) where the user must simply complete Simon-like actions to progress.

At this end of the spectrum, the audience chooses to release complete control of the story. They put their faith in the author, and trust him to write a story compelling enough to pull them along. If the story is good (in all of its elements) then they are rewarded with emotion. Suspension of disbelief becomes easier, emotional connections to the characters and the world are formed. The social and emotional parts of your brain get to be active. There is joy, anger, love, hate, and above all, passion.

Player Control

Now lets traipse across to the other end of the spectrum, where player control is king. This land is inhabited by sandbox-style games. Simulations that are less games and more given to free play within a virtual world. You can build virtual cities, virtual theme parks, virtual anything (almost). Or you can create and control virtual people, pets, or creatures. This end of the spectrum is more about play, and about letting the audience create its own stories.

The designer gives up control of story to let the player have a world in which he can play. The role of the designer is focused on creating a fully functional world in which the user can play. Setting, style, and the underlying rule set are all that the designer needs to create. In terms of technical difficulty and overall assets, this usually takes more than a tightly controlled game would, because there has to be lots to play with.

By concentrating less on story and character, and providing a world in which many things can happen, the designer encourages the player to create his own stories. These games are usually devoid of carefully crafted characters, instead relying on elements of AI to create something more interactive. In some cases, the characters are created, but their depth is limited. Only with play and player interaction do the actors in the game take on any real life. The player has to infuse all the elements with their own character choices and story.

Will Wright made specific design choices when making The Sims that would allow and encourage this kind of story-building play. None of the Sims actually speak. Some time and effort was actually put into designing the gibberish that they spout so that emotion could be conveyed (based on their evaluated state-of-mind) but no specific words could be made out. He found that in testing, a large number of people filled in the gibberish with their own interpretations of the character's words. They had created the characters, and in doing so had infused them with more than just looks and basic personality traits. They had created a story for them.

By shifting the control of story from designer to player, we see a completely different style of play and story emerge. Player control creates games that are far more social in nature. Designers put their minds into the world, the underlying ludus, having faith that a sufficiently diverse world will encourage players to invent stories of their own. There is creativity, creation, adaptation, interpretation, and overall a sense of social connection.

Finding Middle Ground

So where is the middle ground, and why are there so few games that seem to find it. When you start to place games on our line between authorial control and player control, you’ll find that they tend to group themselves to one end or the other. The more the designer tries to control the Story, the less Play the game seems to have. The more control the player is given the less story is communicated. I’m being obvious, aren’t I? Because our concept of control is linear, we have difficulty finding a place where design and play can come into harmony.

The fact is that, as an aspiring game designer, I’m looking for ways to tell stories while at the same time allowing players the freedom to go where they want and form their own relationships with in game actors. Any game that has claimed to do this sort of thing in the past has either been lying, or has huge amounts of content to provide the experience. Except that adding more content is expensive, and ultimately hard to do.

This is where the next generations of games have to go. Interactive Fiction is appearing as an interesting buzz-word to watch in this regard. Believable characters, with an authored story and setting, but enough choice and divergence to allow for true play within the world. Façade would be the current go to example. But even Façade, though innovative and highly promising, seems to fall flat. It took Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern 5 years to get it to where it is, with almost no funding. An amazing feat, to be sure, and very worth while as they are breaking new ground in gaming using poor tools to do it. Every line (said or left unsaid by the AI actors) had to be painstakingly written, recorded, and proofed to ensure that it fit in context. Whenever something is said, it has to maintain a consistency of voice over the range of emotion that the characters express.

So you see, as a game tries to move towards the middle of the spectrum (or perhaps have the ends wrap around to meet each other) the creation process gets harder. Design becomes less focused on specific control and more focused on content and story, while simultaneously building something free form and mutable. The good news is that with new technology this will become easier. Languages like Deikto will provide the AI Actors with a relational context. Voice Processing and Synthesis will allow for easier and more dynamic communication between AI Actors and Players. Parallel processing technology and development of Massively Multiplayer Infrastructures will help support living worlds for people to interact in. Each new development will provide something more to build our story worlds from, allowing designers to concentrate more on the stories that can be told and less on the specifics of content.

Letting Go

To get to the best kind of story, of course, both side have to learn to let go. Designers have to realize that while they have control of the world, they have to make it as multifaceted as they can. Players need to realize that a well written story can impact them as much as a fun time. And not everyone is looking for a game with a story to tell.

I can start to see the shape of things to come, in the recent interest in story-worlds and interactive fiction; in MMOGs that bring many people together and let them explore the intricacies of a virtual world. There is something forming in the games that we play now that might just be the place between Author and Player.

The goal is to relinquish control, both sides, so that we can create something more than just a story and more than just a game.


  1. Hey Duncan, I too am an aspiring game designer with a young blog and an interest in interactive storytelling. You seem like you're pretty smart, you understand the basic deal with ludus vs. paidia (and even manage to minimize the academic speak) and you recognize the content creation dillema that really underscores all the problems in the game industry now.

    I used to think of paidia and ludus as a linear spectrum, like how I used to think of liberals and conservatives, but lately I've been wondering if maybe its one big circle. If you have absolute paidia you have no agency, and highly structure ludus, like Chess, enables a lot of room for focuses play.

    So, if it is a circle, maybe the key to interactive storytelling is to evoke a sort of nautilus spiral, which begins by letting the player get a feel for structure, then groped around a bit, then come back in for a focused goal orientation, and so on, until the period of the wave between free periods and goal-oriented periods lessens, honing in on the interactive climax.

  2. The line analogy seems to fall flat when describing authorial control within an interactive narrative as well. Especially since I can picture in my head how a system should be able to be both focused by the author AND widely conrolable and explorable by the player.

    I think that we need to come up with a better way to visualize Rules vs. Play vs. Story. The biggest thing that I am conviced of, though, is that the deeper you try to take your story the more focused you have to become in creating all content so that it doea not break the user out of the context and setting you have pulled them into. If you want to teach them something you have to do it within the world in a way that makes sense.