Escape from Colditz as Procedurally Paced Narrative

Escape from Colditz is a board game about the German castle that during World War II became a prisoner of war camp for prisoners who had already escaped at least once from some other camp. The idea of putting all the most clever and resourceful prisoners together in an old building riddled with hiding places and odd physical quirks was, arguably, not the brightest; those imprisoned found an astounding number of escape possibilities, and the whole story became the basis of a surprisingly strong British TV show. The board game doesn’t touch on the more complex issues here, but what it does accomplish is in its own way remarkable: a skillful pacing of events that creates a sense of growing narrative urgency.

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Complicity: Building Interactive Narratives

London, August 24: Alexis Kennedy (of Echo Bazaar and Varytale; Failbetter Games) and I are running a day-long seminar on writing interactive stories.

We’ll be looking at concepts like complicity, exploration, and exposition in an interactive context; structures for choice-based narrative; types of choices and varieties of player roles; types of feedback for the player; ways of pacing interactive narrative.

These are all things that we’ve written or talked about before, separately and together, but this will present them in a more unified format and with space for back-and-forth discussion. The seminar will not be geared explicitly to either IF or EBZ-style games, so if your interests lie more with choices and interactivity in some other presentation format, you’re very welcome.

The Failbetter blog is one of the best places on the web to read about narrative structures in interactive contexts, and I’m very excited to be presenting with Alexis.

Event details, including a longer description of the content, can be found here.

Plotting for Interactivity: The Set-Piece or Crisis

This is the first post of a sequence on plotting and interactivity, each taking on a traditional fiction-writing task and then talking about how that task is altered by the presence of player choice. The series is agnostic about whether interaction is through challenging gameplay (solving puzzles, shooting, etc., as in old-style text adventures and modern video games), is expressed through multiple-choice options (as in choose-your-own-adventure books), or is communicated in some other
way.

A set-piece is a big scene the reader can see coming and can look forward to a while, either in fear or in hope, before it’s reached… seeing a scene like that coming, watching it build to crisis, is one of the major ways of creating tension, drama, and suspense in a story. — Ansen Dibell, Elements of Fiction Writing – Plot

A set-piece needs, more than any other scene, to be tightly paced and move forward quickly. It needs to meet player expectations — deliver information we were expecting to find out, bring in conflicts or connections we anticipated — and yet it needs to provide a spin on the narrative that sends us off looking for something new. Those are the story requirements.

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An Alternative Taxonomy for Interactive Stories

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked about Narrativist games, and despite a lengthy (and interesting) discussion in comments, there wasn’t a lot of consensus about a corpus of narrativist IF/videogames; indeed, some commenters thought that it was more or less impossible to do narrativism properly except through a human GM.

In general, I think there are two problems with using GNS theory outside of the human-run RPG context. First, the narrativist approach in particular requires a lot of freeform input from the player, which it is difficult to express in computer mechanics; and second, most of this theory does tend to assume that there’s a more or less one-to-one relationship between characters in the story and players, whereas many computer games and interactive narratives disrupt that assumption.

It may be more successful to think in terms of the relationship between player and story. Even where the player character is the protagonist and the player is assumed to share the protagonist’s goals, there are plenty of distinctions to be made (and not just the “characterized” vs AFGNCAAP distinction, either). But that’s just the beginning. Some of the more common possibilities that don’t identify player and protagonist together:

The player controls a character who is really just a foil to the real main character, whoever that might be. The player-character’s interactions with the real protagonist serve to reveal and/or develop her character, but our own character remains something of a cipher.

  • Both Portal and Portal 2. GLaDOS is far more developed, and undergoes more change, than Chell.
  • Digital: A Love Story.

The player is most like the hand of fate, or the protagonist’s own failings. He guides the protagonist through various challenges, but in a way that leads the protagonist to an unhappy outcome. The player may be explicitly aware that he’s moving towards an unhappy ending, or the protagonist may be framed as a villain/antihero.

The player is most like an actor, improvising a performance to a script of the author’s creation. Play turns on things like gesture and style, focusing the player on motive and personality while not allowing him to control action.

  • Heavy Rain, successfully in some segments
  • Dinner Date, though perhaps unsuccessfully
  • Lost Pig. The performative aspect is not the core gameplay, since that’s still chiefly puzzle-oriented, but a lot of the humor arises from finding ways to act in-character for this particular protagonist.
  • Some segments of Fable III, not least the ones where the player is actually on stage in some way: for instance, the scene involving re-performing the lost plays of a famous playwright, or the mission riffing on D&D, both of which can be performed in different ways with comic results.
  • The Act of Misdirection, the first scene: the player can perform the magic trick here well or badly, and is likely to do better on a replay than the first time around.

The player is most like a reader, though maybe of poetry rather than of prose. There are no real challenges at all, but the ergodic process of gaining access to different parts of the work encourages the player to be conscious of structural points she might not otherwise notice. Interaction often focuses the player on thematic links between apparently unrelated elements.

The player is most like a student, being quizzed with challenges depending on how well she understands the terms of a story that she doesn’t fully control (or perhaps doesn’t control at all).

The player is most like a coauthor, directly manipulating aspects of the story at a high level. Not a lot of these exist, but I might include

Hmm. What other possibilities are there in this space? Translator, director, prose editor, reteller?

[Edited to add: Ruben and Lullaby might come close to being directorial, though it’s low on specific event content, so possibly this is at the expense of plot. But still.]

Narrativist Games

I recently got this question (slightly rephrased for brevity):

Off the top of your head, what are the key [narrativist] games one should know about? Do any particularly stand out? Any recent games I should rush to read? I am thinking primarily in terms of GNS, or — even more loosely — along the lines of games like My Life With Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, Stalin’s Story, and Little Fears. But I’m not dogmatic here.

This is a different question from the big storytelling games thread we had a couple years back — and in any case new stuff comes out all the time. So I thought I’d put some of my own thoughts here but also solicit feedback from the community, because I’m sure I’m missing a lot.

The wikipedia page on GNS theory defines narrativist play as follows:

Narrativist play relies heavily on outlining or developing motives for the characters, putting them into situations where those motives come into mutual conflict, and making their decisions in the face of such stress the main driving force behind events.

…and I’d say these features are fairly uncommon in IF and in video games in general, perhaps because it’s not easy to come up with mechanics that specify protagonist motivation. The Baron and Fate are obvious exceptions, with The Baron in particular stopping frequently to ask the player why he’s chosen to do something. Arguably Rameses also belongs in this category, because the player’s interaction is almost entirely about specifying what he wishes the protagonist had the guts to do, before Rameses’ neuroticism quashes the impulse.

A softer approach to this problem is to ask the player interpretive choices without extensively acting on the answers. Echo Bazaar occasionally asks the player to reflect back on a past event or action, or to express an attitude or intended action for the future. The “Free of Surface Ties” card, for instance, asks the player to choose an attitude towards the current game situation. The Countess storyline involves a similar choice. When the player’s decisions here don’t affect the gameplay but purely express motive, EBZ’s authors refer to this phenomenon as reflective choice. Very occasionally in the later stages of the game, however, motives do come into direct conflict: for instance, if the player builds up a lot of connection with two opposed social groups, he may encounter a card that demands him to pick sides. Still, a lot of this content is optional and it makes up a small percentage of the plotlines in the EBZ universe. So I wouldn’t say that the story is mostly driven forward by conflict between motives that the player has been able to select.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Bioware has also done some storylines in which the player makes some choices about affinity or loyalty and then is challenged on those as the story unfolds. I haven’t had time to take in anything as enormous as Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age II lately, but that sounds like the kind of territory they might be exploring.

So what do people think? Are there other games (IF or otherwise) that really qualify as “narrativist” in this sense? I’m sort of mulling over my own alternative taxonomy of interaction in computer-mediated storytelling, but I’d be curious to hear thoughts about the GNS approach.