Wednesday, January 10, 2007

What are the differences here 1: Literature and Interactive

Recently I was reading a book (Slapstick) by one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, and I decided to try and outline why exactly I liked him so much – in 50 words or less. What I came up with was this, in 8 words: He lets my brain play with his words.

Now let’s get in to what I think this means. The human brain organizes information and paints pictures using two things: visuals and emotions. Visuals represent the author telling the reader about the setting, situation, and the actions of characters: the tall golden red bridge that the protagonist is walking over (the wind was blowing through the trees loosening the golden brown leaves that finally signified the end of summer in Golden Gate Park). Emotions are more difficult to communicate, but are also (usually) communicated through the same channels – some authors are better at this than others. The combination of these two things allows us to develop an idea of what is going on in a story, or a dream, or any other visualization. Action (shallow) with emotion (breadth/depth/meaning). Rinse and repeat.

Don’t forget that there’s no real reader choice in how the story progresses, so the author can set up events which will have an emotional effect on the reader (choose your own adventure books don’t count).

Of course, all of these visualizations are taking place in our brains. This means that any time we assimilate information, it flows through a filter that applies our own personality, memories, and desires to that information transparently. When a character appears in a story, sometimes the author will provide information as to his or her appearance. Sometimes the author will not. In this case, our brain will make up the difference and provide us with an image of what we believe the character looks like. This is far more personal than in a Movie or Video Game where the author and not the narrative/player determine what the main character looks like (MMOs and Sims are an exception, but where is the emotion in those games?).

In Vonnegut’s writing he adopts a very casual tone, as if he’s speaking to the reader. Actions are outlined (sometimes), but more often than not actions are not the most important part of the story. The thoughts and feelings of the protagonist are what are communicated, along with some settings and actions in the background. But the emphasis is not on these actions, it’s on the mental and physical state of the main character.

In interactive systems, the game provides the visuals, the sounds and the actions (in the form of visual representation). Each of these is concrete and not open to much interpretation – we can see it on the screen and hear it from the speakers. The only thing left for the player to interpret is the emotion, and usually this is helped along by suspension of disbelief. There’s not a lot of imagination there. So I guess the question we have to ask is: How do you suck players into a story that can’t really be personalized?

“Well look at Final Fantasy,” you might say. That doesn’t really count because the story is largely told through pre-rendered cinematics that are so similar to movies there is virtually no distinction. Then we have some titles coming out this year such as Hellgate: London and Crysis that promise to provide two different ways of sucking the player in a little more.

Hellgate is (purportedly) going to provide a slightly different path through the game to each new player in the form of randomly generated levels. This way each player plays a different form of the same game. This doesn’t mean anything though, because some players will respond to the game and some won’t. The game is not really intelligent. Maybe this is a step in the right direction, but instead of addressing the problem it really only examines ways to expand the gameplay experience within the same construct.

Crysis is a little different in a not-so-cool way. Basically it allows the environment to be nearly completely destructible by the player. This provides a different kind of immersion from Hellgate, but really it’s the same concept: How can we make things better without changing what we’re doing?

I think there are a couple of ways to change how this works, and one of them can be done within the current system.

The Laid-Back Approach

Let’s imagine a game that can change the way that the game looks and feels based on the player who is engaged. To simplify this concept, let’s just say that the player puts on a little skull cap with 2500 wires coming out of it and acts like a lobotomy patient every time they want to play. This way, the game could gauge reactions to content based on the actual response of the player’s brain. After a little tutorial, the game would have an idea of who the player is and how to personalize the game to mean more to the player. This way, visuals could be designed and colored so that they have the desired emotional response from a given player instead of being constant to all players.

The More Hardcore Approach

This has more to do with putting players in a place that they will most likely feel uncomfortable in order to illustrate a point. The game would force them to do things that emotionally jar them, and while using a method like the one above would help to determine that, it’s a lot easer to surprise someone politically or socially than it is to appeal to their softer, more vulnerable inner core. For this reason, this method is a little more reasonable to think about in terms of what’s possible and likely with technology widely available (and priced at a level people can afford).

Another Possible Approach

Back to Vonnegut. How can we apply principles taught to us by current authors to game development? We already determined that a lot of the reason that books make us respond emotionally is due to the personal aspect of all the characters and situations. We feel for the characters – no one feels for the characters in games. Further, the reason that we feel for them in books is because the human in the equation has to make connections between situations and prior knowledge. The reader is forced unknowingly to apply his or her own interpretation to the content of the story or novel. This doesn’t occur in games because the story, visuals, and characters are already concrete – there’s not very much room for personal interpretation.

I guess what I’m getting at is that maybe, if we remove something from games, we might leave a little room for the player’s brain to fill in. Puzzles are great, but it’s important to give the player a more active roll in determining what things mean. Maybe, instead of making a game fun for the reason they’re already fun, we can make games fun by using the same techniques that make books fun to read. Then we can use games to tell stories and communicate real meaning in a tasteful way.