Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Thesis Prospectus

Nonlinear storytelling systems offer a chance for players to explore and actively interpret themes and relationships within a dramatic narrative. However there is no consistent structure for writers or game designers to use in developing this type of media and such systems are often made with respect to utilitarian, game design-oriented goals rather than a sense of dramatic interest. By combining dramatic structure with principles of interactivity and examining their relationship with respect to the psychological architecture of judgment and decision-making, we can deconstruct nonlinear storytelling systems to their most basic components. We can apply these building blocks within the context of their impact on dramatic narrative and player interpretation to create more impactful and satisfying nonlinear stories with a greater sense of thematic focus.

In developing this system I first identified the ideal tenants of narrative choice, those being personalization, discernability, and narrative integrity. It goes almost without saying that a nonlinear narrative should still be a good narrative; one with a logical flow and with strong themes to explore. As stated earlier, the themes that drive a story provide grounds for decisions to be meaningful; meanwhile logical structure is fact doubly important as a nonlinear story is derived from decisions made firsthand by the player as much as it is from an external author's machinations, and therefore it must make sense in the player's head as much as it does in the designer's.

To that end the principle of discernability--the ability with which the player is able to perceive the impact of his or her choices on the flow of the narrative--is important for establishing this sense of narrative integrity within the nonlinear narrative and bringing its events to a conclusion that is psychologically satisfying as well as dramatically satisfying. This principle is derived from the rationality, a school of thought regarding judgment and decision-making. It details the risk-versus-reward mechanisms that people use to make calculated decisions in their everyday lives and a general architecture for how our expectations of risk are built, namely in terms of uncertainty and our limits in processing and retaining information; we do not tend to make willful and certain decisions so much as educated guesses. Discernability is reflected in the risk-and-reward principles that games already encompass, but also provides a means for us to develop logical, discernable, and reasonably unpredictable consequences in a decision tree.
The principle of personalization, meanwhile, speaks to the player's sense of interpretation, that being a key term for this thesis; authorship and agency on the player's part aren't our focus so much as providing players with room to personalize their experience. This is achieved through providing the player with the opportunity to build relationships between themselves, their player-character, and other characters and concepts in the setting, combining elements of character growth and development with experiential learning and identity-building. These principles are defined in a second school of judgment and decision-making called rule-following, which details devices we use to build identities and how we use those identities as heuristics for how to make choices appropriately. Many of these concepts parallel role-playing, which is in itself the act of taking on and interpreting the identity of a character and a driving element of many choice-driven narratives.
With these tenets in hand I have developed a system for outlining nonlinear narrative, plotting it out by different kinds of choices at different organizational levels in a decision tree, encompassing divergence or non-divergence in the decision tree itself, decision-making logic, and dramatic impact.

At the highest level, we look directly at the way the decision tree is laid out--either in dramatic (divergent) or constructive (non-divergent) 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.

These types of choices are organized by the ideals of narrative choice that they are meant to satisfy--discernability or personalization--and therefore also by the psychological effect that they have on the player with respect to the two schools of psychological thought: the risk-and-reward psychology of rationality, and the identity-building principles of rule-following. They are then filtered into dramatic narrative terms, thus making them into a viable tool specifically for the writers who are charged with developing nonlinear scripts for games, giving them a way of finding a sense of focus, consistency, and control while also understanding the importance of the choices they're developing to the player's experience and outlining their input in that experience in a way that a game designer can easily respect.

Currently I am outlining the overall process by which these building blocks are meant to be used, which entails identifying a set of themes, characters, and a setting for the player to explore, maintaining focus on those elements, and using a series of constructive choices to satisfy that sense of exploration and build context for divergent choices with strong, long-term dramatic impact. I will illustrate this process by developing a short game with a nonlinear storyline, aiming for a play time of roughly thirty minutes. In my conclusion I will examine the effectiveness of this development model in planning the game content alongside the narrative content as well as the project's impact on players during tests.

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