A Brief Bibliography of Interactivity and Narrative

By James Wallis

To accompany the BBC Writer's Room talk 16th Jan 2006 (revised version)

BOOKS

A Theory of Fun for Games Design by Raph Koster (Paraglyph Press)

Raph was the lead designer on a number of well-known games and MMORPGs and is now doing something senior at Sony Online Entertainment. In this book he tries to analyse what 'fun' is and how to make sure that interactive experiences have it, with the aid of a cartoon crocodile. Mostly he and the croc succeed. Some of the references may go under your feet if you're not up to speed on classic arcade games of the early 80s, but apart from that this is an accessible, insightful and often funny book. If anything is going to get your juices flowing for the potential of interactivity as entertainment, this is probably it.

Raph Koster has his own site at http://www.raphkoster.com/

Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling by Chris Crawford (New Riders Games, 2004)

Chris Crawford is one of the grand old men of computer game design, wrote some of the classic titles of the 1980s, founded the GDC, founded the first journal of game design, and is currently working on the game-story engine Erasmatron, which has swallowed him for the last ten years or so. His seminal 1982 book 'The Art of Computer Game Design' is downloadable as a free PDF from http://www.mindsim.com/MindSim/Corporate/artCGD.pdf and is still an excellent primer to the fundamentals of the field, but doesn't have a lot to say about interactivity or narrative -- hey, it was 1982 and we still thought Pac Man was pretty cool.

Here's SF writer Laura Mixon's description of what the Erasmatron is, and what it may be able to do: http://www.erasmatazz.com/library/PILGRIM2.html

Interactive Storytelling: Techniques for 21st Century Fiction by Andrew Glassner (AK Peters Ltd)

I don't actually have a lot of time for this one, though others rate it highly. As with Crawford, the author's preconceptions and prejudices seep through all too often, but I prefer Crawford's more visionary and idealistic take on the field to Glassner's, which is often a bit dogmatic.

First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game ed Noah Waldrop-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (MIT Press).

Sometimes worthy, sometimes wanky, this is an academic introduction to the current ideas behind story, performance and narrative in new media and interactive entertainment. Often a bit dry for those who are less than fluent in Academic, but good nonetheless. Borrow, don't buy, unless you feel that books containing the word "cyberdrama" have a place on your shelf. There's a sequel out this year, Second Person, about storytelling techniques and character portrayal in interactive media. I have an essay in it about designing games that create stories instead of just retelling them, so be warned.

These next two are more impinging on Kim's area than mine, but are still worth a mention:

My Tiny Life by Julian Dibbell (2001)

Explores, among other things, the ramifications of a rape in virtual space. [Julian Dibbell is currently trying to get a ruling from the US tax office as to whether his virtual income is taxable under US law... KP]

Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games by Edward Castronova (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

A very good overview of the whole phenomenon of massively multiplayer online games and virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life, covering their personal, cultural and economic implications. I don't seriously believe that you're going to spend your money on buying this overpriced tome (the BBC's money is another thing entirely, of course) but here's a useful and blessedly short interview with Castronova about it: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/096262in.html [James - it's not the BBC's money, it's the License Fee Payers' Money! KP]

CONVENTIONAL GAMES

Fahrenheit and Still Life

These two games came out about the same time last year, both claiming to be 'interactive movies' or something like them, both are about mysteriously long-lived serial killers, and both are object lessons in how not to do this kind of thing.

Still Life is painfully slow and revolves around solving tedious puzzles only semi-relevant to the story. Fahrenheit has thoroughly irritating controls that distract attention away from the narrative, and makes you micro-manage the central character's actions right down to urination. Both are extremely linear: the storyline does not branch if you fail or try to do a task differently to the way the game is expecting: instead it stops and makes you do it again until you get it 'right'. As a result the player is controlling the protagonist but not, in any meaningful way, the narrative.

I consider them both failures, but Fahrenheit is an interesting failure while Still Life is just dull, and makes mistakes that other, better games were making in the late 1980s. Still, if you've got a PS2 or Xbox lying around you can probably pick them up cheap on eBay and they're good examples of what happens when a games designer tries to make a movie.

Facade By Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern (free 800mb download at http://www.interactivestory.net/).

Facade is an attempt to create a realistic and truly interactive human drama within a computer game. Personally I don't think it works terribly well -- human conversation is still beyond any parser's ability -- but at least people are trying it, and it's interesting as a proof-of-concept, if not as a real game. Worth a look.

Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (by Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky; Infocom 1984; BBC 2005).

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/hitchhikers/game_nolan.shtml This game is 22 years old. It won an interactive Bafta in 2005. So much for the state of the art.

Final Fantasy VII

Fearsomely linear narrative, with a convoluted plot full of nonsense words with Capital Letters, characters described in numbers rather than words, set in a fantasy world that makes no sense at all, long and often repetitive -- and yet, according to many players, the only game that has made them cry. Brief article from Wired magazine about it here: http://www.wired.com/news/games/0,2101,69475,00.html

And it does other things too: a friend's six-year-old son taught himself to read so he could understand what was happening in the game.

If you're looking for the original game, it was released for the Playstation in 1997, and for the PC a couple of years later. Try eBay.

Here's a study from Bowen Research that cites in passing the emotional richness of the Final Fantasy series, and talks about how games can elicit an emotional response compared to other forms of entertainment: http://www.bowenresearch.com/studies.php?id=3. This is a paraphrase of the full article, which I haven't read because a copy costs $999. Lovely BBC people?

Planetfall

Actually, there is one other game that often comes up in discussions of true emotional response, and that's a text-adventure from the early 1980s called Planetfall. As the game unfolds you can get kind of attached to your quirky robot companion Floyd, and then... well. People have wept. There's a description of the game and a downloadable copy of it (not 100% legal but the game is in the grey area known as 'abandonware' and it's unlikely that anyone is going to object) at http://www.the-underdogs.org/game.php?id=3488. Planetfall was written by Steve Meretzky, who also wrote the Hitchhikers game above. Talent will, it seems, out.

The Movies (Lionhead Studios, runs on PC)

Out on release right now. Peter Molyneux is the finest games designer we have in this country, and this is a splendid idea: a movie-business simulation that actually lets you make movies using the game engine. Players aren't just interacting: they're creating entirely new experiences and sharing them with their friends, their community, or in some cases the world. It's not the best machinima engine out in the wild (slippy feet! slippy feet!) but as an introduction to the field of moviemaking it beats dropping a grand on a video camera and editing software. Comprehensive if rather geeky review: http://pc.ign.com/articles/665/665338p1.html

On 29th November, French gamer Koulamata released this Movies-created commentary on the race-riots in France, ''The French Democracy": http://movies.lionhead.com/movie/11520. It's 13 minutes long, and was produced by two guys, using one program that cost them 29.99.

Let's go over that again.

Welcome to the future.

ARGs

Augmented Reality Games, or Alternate Reality Games: sprawling play-experiences that start off on one medium (usually, inevitably, the web) and bleed through into other media (phones, newspaper adverts, real-world experiences), creating huge impromptu web communities along the way. The first half of the Wikipedia article on the subject is very good (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternate_reality_game) but descends into trivia and twaddle after talking about the first few ARGs.

The Beast

The Beast wasn't the first ARG but it was by far the biggest at the time - created by a team at Microsoft (put together by games-design legend Jordan Weisman) to promote the movie A.I. There is a very complete walk-through of the whole game at http://cloudmakers.org/guide/: if you're insomniac it's a good read, but if not then the first few sections will give you the flavour for how it worked, how people played it, and how the experience played out. The Guide, incidentally, was compiled by Adrian Hon who is now working for...

Perplex City (www.perplexcity.com)

Probably the biggest ARG running right now. It's also British, and the only professional one I've seen that's financially self-supporting, rather than created to promote a big brand. There are live Perplex City events kicking off in New York and London in late February and it's not too late to sign up and go along - more info at http://www.perplexcitysentinel.com/archives/2006/01/pcag_mind_candy.html.

Jamie Kane (http://www.bbc.co.uk/jamiekane/)

If you were at the BBC weriters' room event in mid-January then you'll have heard more about this. It's not technically an ARG because there's no true community aspect - your fellow players are fictional characters - but it is a bold experiment in episodic narrative. Once you find the actual game, stick with it: it's very well done.

MACHINIMA

William Gibson wrote 'the street finds its own uses for things' and the net does too. Let loose on a 3D game engine, geeks will find the most extraordinary things to do with it - far beyond what the creators ever imagined. This is not strictly relevant to the whole subject of interactive narrative but it is interesting, and is a good reason to consider not tying down your tools too tightly and letting people do their own things with them.

What is Machinima? http://www.machinima.com/article.php?article=186

Red vs Blue (http://rvb.roosterteeth.com/home.php)

The home of a series of machinima movies made using the Halo and Halo 2 games in multiplayer mode. Now up to 71 episodes, and producing new ones weekly, the series has a regular audience of around half a million. They sell DVDs of previous 'seasons', as well as tee-shirts and other merchandise. It is, apparently, a living. Halo, incidentally, has proved a popular choice for machinima because all the characters wear full-face masks, thus doing away with any problems involving lip-synch and displaying emotions and stuff.

Strange Company (www.strangecompany.org)

The UK's largest specialist machinima-production company. The fact you haven't heard of them says something about what that means. Though apparently Spike TV in the US is running a series filmed in machinima, and back in late 1999 Sky 1's SAturday-evening show Skyrocket included an animated segment where viewers voted on the outcome of a cartoon, which could be re-composed on the fly using a Flash-based engine. Illumina TV was behind that.

OTHER GAMES

In a fit of rampant self-publicity, here are a couple of ways to create narratives interactively on the fly without the aid of any technology at all:

Once Upon a Time (Atlas/Trident)

A card-game in which a group of players create a fairytale together, each one competing to finish it with a different ending. Has sold a quarter-million copies worldwide, so I'm quite chuffed with this one. Available from specialist games shops like Playing Games in Museum Street, London, or mail-order from Amazon.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Not currently available but will be included as an appendix to Second Life, the MIT book I mentioned above. If anyone's interested in seeing an award-nominated game of competitive lying in a storytelling context, where dice and counters are replaced by money and fine wines, drop me an email and I'll send you a PDF.

I remain:

James Wallis

james [at] erstwhile.demon.co.uk
2006-01-17