Monday, February 21, 2011

Presentation Script

It occurred to me that I should probably post the script for my presentation here:

I will posit that by using thematic elements and psychological architecture to develop a consistent structure for creating choice-driven narratives, we can bring more focus and weight to nonlinear storytelling systems in games.

Narrative choice or nonlinear storytelling systems are becoming increasingly prevalent in the game industry. What was initially the purview of choose-your-own-adventure books and role-playing games has now spread through a variety of different genres, including brawlers and shooters--suggesting that our industry sees a lot of potential in this area of the field and that we are eager to explore it.

The reasons why are very clear. Games are spaces where we learn, develop skills, and explore our emotions in relative safety. Stories do much the same thing, allowing authors to explore themes pertaining to the human condition through dramatic structure. Bringing the two together ideally creates a more direct connection between the player and the themes of a story by allowing them to explore those themes and the relationships used to represent them firsthand; essentially, we substitute parables with experiential learning.

The truth is that narrative choice is handled with a great deal of inconsistency between companies and projects, with every studio developing their own scheme and tools for it,
and there's little in the way of guidelines for writers or content builders to refer to aside from a fistful of developer opinions regarding their current line of experiments.
In fact, traditionally writers themselves have very little to say about the content or subject matter of the narrative choice systems that they help build. They think of it more in terms of the control they have to give up to accommodate the player's sense of "authorship," as some put it.

More often it's the lead designers of a project that have the first and final say in the way that a story develops. There's a good reason for this. Gameplay flow has certain demands that require compromise as far as story structure goes--what kinds of challenges, goals, and rewards we want to see and the pacing between those elements. In exchange, the designer's perspective and its risk-and-reward psychology gives us a lot of the tools we need to make decisions meaningful and allow players to explore various styles of play and express themselves.

This utilitarian perspective isn't without its shortcomings, though. Systemic or metagame elements run the risk of overriding players own interests within the narrative and deny them their interpretation of the story. In the worst-case scenario, though, there just isn't anything to interpret because game content designers simply approach the generation of narrative from a point of view divorced from thematic storytelling elements, being more concerned with the introduction of mechanics and challenges than their dramatic weight.
To give an example, one of the many introductions in Dragon Age: Origins casts players as the son of a noble house. In this scenario you run upstairs to deliver a message to your brother, then kill rats in the larder. That night a visiting noble whom you saw for all of two seconds and had no reason to suspect as a traitor stages a coup d'├ętat against your house and you have to fight your way out of the castle. The ingredients here are interesting--a struggle between two noble houses, political strife between families during a time of crisis--but there's little to no exploration of these thematic elements and therefore no dramatic weight to the events that the characters play out. It is a purely utilitarian scenario, constructed purely to introduce the player to the game's systems when it could allow players to explore a more focused story.

To quote Janet H. Murray, an imaginary world is little more than a costume trunk of empty avatars unless it has been called into being by an external author. Just as someone must write the rules for a game, someone must devise the central themes around which a story is focused and the central characters the story is about and an appealing identity for the player to assume. I will posit that players don't want authorship over the experience, as is often suggested, but rather that they want to interpret or explore an otherwise focused narrative--to personalize their experience, to borrow a term from Obsidian Interactive. They want to be posed questions, assume different roles than they usually do, and learn about themselves through the experience--to project a character upon themselves rather than project themselves upon a character.

Traditional narrative structure is thus quite relevant for developing choice-driven narrative content; themes drive a plot, its dramatic turns, and the struggles of its characters; they're what characters learn and where the interesting issues come from; and therefore it's themes that decision-making systems should focus themselves on allowing the player to explore.
The game designer's point of view gives us some models to build a relationship between the player and their participation--an otherwise unknown factor in dramatic structure. We thus have a foundation--a framework. We know what we want out of narrative choice systems: room for interpretation, and discernable changes in dramatic turns based on our interpretations. But, we're a bit short on the information necessary to build a full narrative choice system--just a goal.

This is in part due to the conflict of needs between these two disciplines, so we must look to a neutral party--one that dictates the terms of both for our answer, and that's human psychology.

Specifically, in our case, we are interested in the psychology of judgment and decision-making, which is broken down into two major architectures, each of which has its uses.
The first is rationality, which boils down to the risk-and-reward psychology that we as game designers are familiar with. It's defined by a person's preferences as to what variables they wish to maximize and minimize, the alternative choices apparent, how they expect those choices to turn out, and how risky each alternative is. It acknowledges that we tend to act on probability rather than certainty--hence the importance of risk, an element defined by a lot of factors that we simply don't know, don't understand, or can't predict. Most importantly, Rationality states that we construct the world in our mind as a decision tree, not unlike how we define a branching narrative--although it defines risk in much more abstract terms than we know in games, more in line with what we can work with as writers trying to establish dramatic tension and conflict between characters.

Rule-following, on the other hand, sees decision-making as being more a matter of fulfilling an identity; a concept often explored in role-playing; and it deconstructs this concept very thoroughly in terms of social context and experiential learning. It details several tools we use in everyday life to help understand these identities, which in turn are also valuable tools for guiding players into the identities we craft in our characters.

What we get from all this data we've been crunching is a way to break down individual decisions and their purpose in crafting a nonlinear drama--and thus we are able to develop building blocks by now re-examining the concept of the decision tree from the top down.
At the highest level, we look directly at the way the decision tree is laid out--either in dramatic or constructive events. Dramatic choices are places where the story changes direction in a dramatic way; divergent choices, in other words. Because of the technical constraints we face in how many of these we can allow--we can only paint divergence with a very broad brush--it doesn't allow for a high degree of personalization within the narrative on its own, but it presents clear opportunity for calling attention to dramatic turns and major overarching themes.

Constructive, or non-divergent choices, on the other hand, are extremely flexible, able to be arranged either sequentially along a branch or in a non-mutually-exclusive fashion with optional events. Whatever the case, these create the opportunity for experiential learning and identity-building, which provides context for the more major dramatic turns.

Looking a bit deeper, we next must examine the logic with which a given decision is made. A decision can be direct or indirect; IE, it can be a prompt spat directly at the player, or it can be determined from other actions that the computer reads and catalogues for the purpose of interpreting the player's character. A good example of this in action would be Silent Hill 2, where the game uses the percentage of time the player spends at low health to determine whether or not the player-character is suicidal or values his life.

And finally, we have the dramatic impact the decision itself makes on the narrative within the player's mind, which is where our psychological principles really come into play as we're now dealing with questions of the player's preferences. I break these down with respect to either immediate preference or preference with respect to the whole of the product as well as bias towards either rationality or interpretation. On the immediate scale, we're dealing with rational problems--clear in-game goals, obstacles, and information--or, conversely, just personal preferences; what type of ice cream does your character like, for instance. On the overarching scale, we're talking about wholly practical issues in the player's mind regarding the metagame, or else moral issues regarding overall outlook on the themes of the story.

Bringing all this together we are able to show, from a writer's perspective, clearly and efficiently, the building blocks and logic that makes up a decision tree with respect to dramatic principles. Pictured here is a single scene broken down in terms of the choices a player is able to make using these building blocks and the purpose each one serves in creating dramatic context for major decisions. This scene specifically details the player, as a major crime boss, meeting with a rival crime boss to discuss why he's suddenly horning in on the player's turf. The player is faced with a number of choices that allow them to build their characterization and context, then an overarching moral decision that brings the theme of mistrust to a head as the player must decide whether Fat Larry is too much of a threat to let live, or whether they feel comfortable trying to compete with him and don't want to risk open warfare over him.

This is phase 1 of my visual component, its purpose being to clearly demonstrate each type of narrative choice as I've detailed them--and I have a demo to showcase the scene, simple as it is.

Phase 2 will be a complete narrative at a length of about one hour, also constructed in UDK for the sake of flexibility. Preproduction will begin once my thesis is approved, will continue through March, and then I'll begin production on phase 2, which will continue until August, when I'll initiate a content freeze and focus on bug testing. November will mark the final focus test.

To conclude: Though the needs of different productions between companies will obviously vary, giving writers and designers building blocks with which to structure narrative decision-making systems in terms of dramatic events presents an opportunity to enhance players' experiences as they take part in meaningful, thematically-driven stories.

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