Geoffrey Long
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On interactive narratives, part I.

I'm sure that this is going to be just the first part of a long-runnng series of ruminations on the art of interactive narrative, hence the tacked on 'part I' above. Still, this is something I've been thinking about for a long time, now more than ever.

In recent years, there's been a quite heated debate going on – in academic cricles, at least – between narratologists and ludologists. Narratology in this sense is different from the Barthes-Genette-Kristeva type of structuralist narratology; here it simply means that story is of the utmost importance. Ludologists, on the other hand, argue that the play's the thing, so to speak. I've spoken to die-hard zealots in each camp and I've found both sides to be equally myopic. I think that when we say "video games," we need to have in mind something as general as "books" or "films". A narratologist might assert that story is a critical component to video games, but how silly is it to assert that story is a critical component to books? How, then, to explain economics textbooks, or books of poetry, or books of photographs? A ludologist might argue that it's the interactivity that takes point of pride, because that is what video games do that no other medium can, but saying so would be like chastising intimate character-driven cinematic dramas because they don't take full advantage of the giant screen and surround sound environment that only movies can offer. (Well, fine – home theaters can now afford the same luxuries to standard TV fare, but I digress.)

Chris Bateman recently posted a piece to his blog called "The Nine Basic Players (Maybe)", in which he describes – surprise, surprise – nine basic classes into which players might fall. I applaud the exercise, but if we were to attempt to classify all readers into nine categories, or all filmgoers into nine categories, I would find myself equally skeptical. In truth, people pick up books or watch movies for a myriad of different reasons, and trying to whittle those reasons down into narrow categories feels overly constrictive. Academia is especially guilty of trying to slap these kinds of restrictions onto the games universe because as a media, games are new. Games are sexy. We want to map out games with our labels and terms, drive flags into the field and claim new models and concepts for our own, make names for ourselves and mark our territories. That's what academics do; it's a side effect of the whole "publish or perish" phenomenon. We have to make names for ourselves. Come to think of it, maybe this isn't something that just academics do... But again, I digress.

I feel that story is extremely important to games as a form in general, and especially so to the subset of games that I myself find particularly interesting. Of Bateman's nine classes, I'm a definition Wanderer. Story's my thing, as is purely exploring the wide world. I get annoyed when games like World of Warcraft place artificial constraints on my ability to see what's over the next hill, and I thoroughly enjoy little things like the way the stars come out at night in Azeroth. I'm impressed by design, by character, by narrative, by plot. I am also utterly willling to concede the ability to shape the direction of a plot if I'm assured that the person to whom I'm surrendering that control will tell me a good story. Interactivity is important, yes, but I also feel that the industry is in danger of swinging too far into the sandbox camp, swinging too far away from providing storytellers with the control to carefully plot out and develop their stories.

Similarly, I feel that the recent rash of gamemakers bemoaning the full-motion video clip between gameplay 'chapters' is equally overblown; dogmatically insisting that the verbal exchanges take place using the game's own engine seems to me to unnecesarily concede the gamemaker's right to cinematography. And yes, I know many of these same characters will rant and roar about using cinematic terminology to discuss something that is not, in fact, cinema – but I also subscribe to the McLuhanian concept that each new media contains that which came before; text contains speech, drama contains text, radio contains drama, and so on. We should not willfully ignore the volumes of learning that we've acquired while developing film, but pick and choose from the wealth of information they provide. I think we should use cinematography in games, making as many frames and sprites into art as possible.

I'll return to this topic soon, but I'd like to leave with a quick rumination on Bioshock and Lost Planet – there's something in me that reacts brilliantly to both of these games, even though my experience with each has been limited. The worlds in which they're set appear to be rich and robust, with a look all their own. What is it that excites me about them, then? Is it the thrill of exploration and discovery? Is it the hope for a fantastic story? Is it the desire to see more of the stunning artwork that's previewed in the blogs or zines?

My answer is 'yes' to all three of these things. I just haven't fully fleshed out why.

Anyway, I'm falling asleep at the keyboard. There's tons yet to say on this topic, so stay tuned for part II.

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