Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

Summary of First-Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game–Chapter 1, “Cyberdrama”

First-Person Website

This chapter on Cyberdrama contains three pieces, all concerned not only with how interactive experiences can be presented as narratives, but also with developing theoretical approaches to these new interactive narrative experiences. Janet Murray and Ken Perlin both examine the complexities and potential approaches to creating and interacting with “cyberdrama,” while Michael Mateas attempts structure these theoretical issues into a modified version of Aristotle’s’ dramatic theory.

In “From Game-Story to Cyberdrama,” Murray advocates a move from “game-stories” (digital gaming experiences driven by heroic quests, first-person shooter games, RPGs) to an even more immersive form that emphasizes a more compelling narrative experience. Murray cites several names for this form: Aarsath’s “ergodic literature,” Stephenson’s “ractive” and her own term, “cyberdrama.” Regardless of what term we use, what is important for Murray is that we have some way of marking “the change we are experiencing, the invention of a new genre altogether” (4).

Before speaking about directions for this new genre, Murray defines the connections between games and stories. She says that even the simplest game tells a story. In the most basic sense, all games are about “winning and losing” (2). However, digital games contain more of the vital components of storytelling than any other single medium. They are “procedural,” “participatory” and they draw on cinematic and literary elements in the context of a virtual and interactive space (2). Games and stories also share the structure of “the contest” (competition in any sense, from the mundane to the sensational) and “the puzzle” (the challenge of constructing narrative and problem solving, particularly in the mystery story) (2). Finally, stories and games, while they may have consequences in the outside world, are somewhat isolated from “real world” activities and events. Even so, we bring many conventions of gaming and narrative to our daily lives.

As Murray sees it, we are at the beginning of a new evolution in narrative and contemporary designers such as Will Wright (The Sims) and groups experimenting with interactive video, will be the forerunners of this new brand of interactive, dramatic text. Most important to Murray, is that such work presents visions of a mutable world where “things can go more than one way” (6). In this vein, Murray sees a promising path for cyberdrama in the form of “replay stories” (6), which offer the viewer many experiential possibilities.

Ultimately, Murray suggests that new media practices should attempt to blur the boundaries between game and story existing in older media. For Murray (and all the authors in this chapter) the most important way to foster this new narrative form is by emphasizing and intensifying the user’s experience of agency. The best way to achieve this intensity of experience is by constructing a world where user interactions have a “dramatic effect” and produce a “starting change in physical and emotional perspective” (10).

In “Can there be a Form between a Game and a Story?” Ken Perlin discusses the importance of characters in creating an immersive, interactive narrative. He notes that when we watch films or read books, we are invited to become passive and to suspend our disbelief. Perlin calls this a sort of “transference” (12) where we follow the narrative, empathizing with the characters, comparing their experiences to our own. However, this “transference” happens because we consent; we allow the writer/filmmaker to direct the plot and the character action for us.

In traditional linear storytelling, the reader/viewer sets his or her agency aside for a time. However, as Murray suggests, agency is a vital component in the success of cyberdrama. How then, can narrative maintain user agency, while simultaneously offering the experience of transference found in earlier narrative forms? As Perlin points out, a game such as Tomb Raider features a main character with very little personality. Instead, the game relies on the agency of the player to bring the character to life. However, in reading a book like Harry Potter, we see Potter as a “real” character, existing apart from our own actions. Films and novels invite us to experience other characters’ agency and plots serve to deepen our understanding of these characters. When we play video games, however, we are invited to experience our own agency and the characters simply exist to get us from one end of the plot to the other.

To navigate through these dichotomies, Perlin suggests finding a middle ground in the form of a game character whose presence is “somewhere between ‘me’ and ‘other’” (16). In his view, the most effective way to achieve this is by focusing on the development of virtual actors. By developing characters that can express emotions through dialogue and body language, Perlin hopes to create “an intermediate agency” (18), allowing players to maintain some agency, while also investing themselves in the characters on the screen.

Like Murray and Perlin, Michael Mateas is looking for ways in which cyberdrama can become a fully realized and more sophisticated form. In “A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama Games”, he proposes a theoretical approach to interactive drama, bringing together Aristotle’s theories of drama, Brenda Laurel’s consideration of Aristotle and interactivity and the aesthetic categories proposed by Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck (1998). Creating such a framework would help to answer the questions “what should I build?” and “how should I build it” (19)?

Mateas outlines Murray’s three aesthetic categories for analyzing interactive drama: “Immersion” (being part of the action in another world), “Agency” (the feeling of empowerment that comes from interacting with the virtual world) and “Transformation” (as masquerade, variety and personal transformation). While these categories are phenomenological, Aristotle’s categories deal with structure. The integration of these two approaches is key to understanding interactive drama. For Mateas, like Murray and Perlin, agency is the most important of these categories and he integrates this aesthetic with Aristotle’s structure.

Aristotelian drama is composed of six categories: “Action (plot),” “Character,” “Thought,” “Language (Diction),” “Pattern” and “Enactment (Spectacle).” Mateas explains that these categories are all connected by formal (“the authorial view of the play”) and material (“the audience’s view of the play”) causes (23) (This distinction is called into question by Brenda Laurel in her response to this piece.). With the addition of interactivity, the Aristotelian model changes and the player’s agency becomes a factor in the formal causation of activity within the narrative. Moreover, the material causes in an interactive drama interface “afford” certain actions to be taken by the player by placing positive and negative constraints on actions within the drama.

Ultimately, Mateas uses this model to emphasize the importance of balance. He writes “A player will experience agency when there is a balance between the material and formal constraints” (25). While he places his emphasis on creating a balance to produce a sense of agency, he also returns to Murray’s other aesthetic categories in relation to his new model. He proposes “Immersion” as a useful tool to constrain formal and material causes and create balance in an interactive drama. “Transformation” for Mateas, is also about finding a balance. The user must be provided with enough choices to produce a feeling of agency, but these choices must leave room for the development of a plot.

Mateas’ model endorses a first-person interaction with the story, agency being a central component to this experience. In terms of technical development, he suggests that this model be used as a guide for designers who wish to improve Artificial Intelligence and create a more successful interactive experience. Mateas calls for technical development that “blurs the firm plot/character distinction usually made in AI architectures for interactive drama” (29) and concludes with a description of his own project, Façade, which was guided by this hybridized, Aristotelian model (Façade can be downloaded at http://www.interactivestory.net/).

1. Murray says that all games tell a basic story. What is at stake in continuing to privilege the narrative form in media? What of games that place an emphasis on navigating though space over time?
2. Most of these authors seem to have personal computers in mind when considering interactive drama. Can the technology that mediates our interactions with games or interactive drama affect our level of experience? Immersion? Agency?
3. This book was published in 2004. Are there any examples of interactive fictions/games the writers should have considered in their discussion? Have any interactive fictions/games emerged since the publication of this book that you see as a more evolved form of cyberdrama?
4. These authors mention many popular games, but do not fully accept them into a cannon of interactive drama. Should games be considered? Are games and drama mutually exclusive? If an interactive form invites the user into an immersive, narrative experience, is it still a game?

Thu, February 8 2007 » seminar summaries