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The Myth of Interactivity

Or

“Press RB to Detonate Nuke”

If you’re near my age, you might remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books.  For those unfamiliar with them, they are pieces of relatively short fiction, told in the second person (as in “You are walking toward the old haunted house”), and throughout the story, you’re asked to make choices (as in “To open the front door, turn to page 45.  To run away screaming, turn to page 88”).  As a kid, I thought this was an impressive feat of interactive storytelling: putting me in control of the action.  I soon discovered the text-based version of the video game “save point.”  (Keeping my finger on the previous page so that if a decision resulted in falling down a mineshaft or being vaporized by an alien death ray, I could simply turn back and make the other choice).

Looking back, I see this for what it was:  novel, but ultimately a pretty cheap trick.  It was fun as a kid, but there’s a reason that there is no significant example of “Choose Your Own Adventure” type fiction for adults.  The medium was inherently limiting.  They had to stick to a relatively few number of possible outcomes, and even that greatly increased the amount of text that had to be included in the book.  What you end up with is something the length of an independent reader chapter book that reads like a handful of short stories with slightly different endings.  The other limitation is that the story was not truly interactive.  There tended to be only one or a few “right” or “winning” outcomes.  (Lots of falling down mineshafts and not much finding the treasure, or whatever).

I recently finished Dylan Holmes’ excellent book A Mind Forever Voyaging: A History of Storytelling in Video Games, and Holmes points out that many video games are plagued with the same issue as the Choose Your Own Adventure series.  WARNING – THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS CONTAINS A SPOILER FROM THE END OF HALO 4 – IF YOU HAVE NOT FINISHED THE GAME AND YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDING RUINED, SKIP TO THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH.

Right at the end of the action of the game, you find yourself far above the Earth, at the heart of a doomsday weapon that will effectively wipe out every human being on the face of the planet.  You’ve brought along a nuke, but, surprise, the remote detonator is fused.  With the nuke in your hand, the view pans up to the weapon, then back down to the nuke, then straight ahead, and a prompt comes up, which gave this entry its subtitle:  “Press RB to detonate nuke.”

So here we have the greatest lie of the majority of video games showcased for us:  the idea that we have a choice.  Of course on one level, there is always some agency, the choice to continue fighting or just to let our character die, for example.  But with Halo, there aren’t multiple outcomes.  There aren’t even multiple ways to arrive at the one winning ending.  Completing the game on higher difficulty levels will reveal longer and different cut scenes, but this amounts to further explication of the one story, the one ending.  In the end, we are forced by the game to be true to the character of the Master Chief, who will stop at nothing to save his home, even if it means detonating a nuke that he is holding in his freaking hands.  That’s just how he rolls.  He’s the Master Chief, and he’s a badass.

EVERYBODY BACK?  OK, GOOD.  This lies at the heart of an issue that is raised by Holmes in his book: what it means for something to be interactive is not as simple as it may appear.  If we look back to Halo (no spoilers this time), we can see that there is a great amount of control over many aspects of the experience.  We control where we move in an environment.  We control what we look at.  We choose vehicles and weapons, giving us control over how we move through a mission.  We control what we shoot at and what we don’t.  The question is whether or not control over those things really amounts to an interactive experience.

I’d like to pause for a moment to say that I adore the Halo franchise.  The Halo series are my absolute favorite games, and they encompass one of the most compelling story worlds I have ever discovered.  All that being said, while the Halo games have been among the most innovative and cutting edge titles in terms of gameplay, and while the story is positively wonderful, they do not represent groundbreaking interactive storytelling.  I can pick up a DMR instead of an assault rifle, and I can choose to go around that plasma turret instead of destroying it, but regardless of those choices, I am still railroaded by the ludic elements into either completing the one winning ending or failing to do so.  There are no other options.

So where does that leave interactivity in an age of ostensibly interactive entertainment?  Some games feature branching decision trees which allow you to change the way you arrive at the ending, and others even have multiple endings.  This is necessarily programming intensive and costly, but is one way to punch up the interactivity of a game.

Another method that some developers have used is to allow the player to determine how much and how he or she interacts with the “story world” of the game.  A game like Borderlands, for example, functions pretty well as an arcade shooter.  Go here.  Kill this guy.  Grab this thing.  Bring it back to this other guy.  Surprise, he’s evil!  Kill him, too.  But the story world of Borderlands has become incredibly rich as of the release of the second game, and in addition to the story elements inherent to the arcade action, there is a lot of history and other points of interest to discover while you roam around the planet.

From a literary standpoint, this method of storytelling is very similar to the epistolary novel, which is a fascinating (and unfortunately, largely defunct) form of fiction in which the story is told through letters between the characters.  In modern novels, there is often an omniscient or partially omniscient narrative voice which constructs the story for us, knowing the thoughts, words, and actions of all the characters.  In the case of an epistolary novel, the reader is that all-knowing narrative voice.  The form of the story forces us to construct the overarching world for ourselves rather than simply spelling everything out for us.  And since we bring a large amount of ourselves into this construction, the act is necessarily interactive.  If you and I read the same epistolary novel, we will likely end up with slightly (or quite, or entirely) different conceptions of the story when we’ve finished.  This is of course true in the modern novel as well, but in the epistolary novel the effect is concentrated.

This method, of leaving pieces of info scattered around the game world for the player to find, induces a player-game relationship similar to the reader-story relationship in the epistolary form.  The outcome and events of the game may well be fixed, just as in an epistolary novel the events are fixed, but the player is allowed to engage with the story world and construct it for him or herself, and to bring his or her own experiences and biases into the mix.  Thus, if I play Halo 4 and you play Halo 4, while we will necessarily encounter the same events, we may have very different experiences of the world in which the game takes place, as we construct it from information gleaned in the terminal videos.

To some, this may seem like a poor excuse for interactivity.  It certainly is not as grand as radically changing the outcome of a story, but I think it’s truly remarkable.  Since video games are so visual, we have often had these landscapes constructed for us by artists and modelers and programmers.  Games like Halo and Borderlands, and before them System Shock, bring the player into the process, not just as the thing that pulls the trigger and kills the bad guys, but as an active participant in the creation of the story world.

This is being taken to some fascinating places.  In Holmes’ book, I read about the game Dear Esther (available on Steam – check it out!) which is…unusual.  Some people are not even sure that it qualifies as a video game.  It’s like a first person shooter without the shooting.  There are no enemies, no allies, no non-player characters of any kind.  And you cannot affect the environment in any way; no opening doors, no picking items up.  You walk around a deserted Scottish island and you find clues.  Narration, journals, pictures in the sand.  What makes Dear Esther truly unique (and truly interactive, I would argue) is the fact that there are no discrete events in the game—nothing to railroad the player into a particular ending or timeline.  All that’s left is the backstory you piece together from the clues on the island, and that backstory is specifically designed to be open to a extremely different interpretations.  It is an incredible piece of interactive storytelling, set in an environment that is not really interactive.  Whoa.

Titles like Dear Esther bring fascinating new elements to the table of video games, and they also show us how much innovation is still possible in the medium of interactive storytelling.  These titles remind us that for all our advancement in technique and technology, the medium is still very young, and there are many, many worlds yet to visit.  I don’t know about you, but I’m super excited.

As always, thank you for reading.  More to follow.

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