November 8, 2004

Hypertexts and Interactives at ebr

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 7:30 pm

There’s a new section of First Person live at electronic book review. This section, “Hypertexts and Interactives,” includes essays by:

Of course, as with all sections of First Person, there are also new responses. Adrian Miles offers an ebr-specific response to the full section; while folks like Henry Jenkins, Camille Utterback, and Ken Perlin respond to particular essays; and there’s even an excerpt from GTxA driver Andrew Stern’s contribution.

20 Responses to “Hypertexts and Interactives at ebr

  1. Grand Text Auto » Bernstein’s Bait Redux Says:
    […] my response, written four years ago, taken from the book (that you won’t find in the abbreviated version on the web): “Even if we could experience Hamlet o […]

  2. Matt K. Says:

    Noah, any idea when my response to the Readings section is going to go up?

  3. noah Says:

    Well, I shouldn’t speak for the ebr editorial staff, who have the final word on timing. But I have the impression that we’ll be seeing the remaining three sections (“The Pixel, The Line,” “Beyond Chat,” and “New Readings”) going live in the next couple months.

    We could probably get a more precise answer by asking the ebr folks…

  4. noah Says:

    On a different thread, Jonathan wrote that current work in interactive narrative is good at generating from algorithms that respond to user input a narrative which might be acceptable as that of a story or play. However, the user might not experience it as such, for example, because he might be seeing himself as an actor in a play, which immediately eliminates his ability to experience it as a narrative.

    I said that this reminded me of the “My Friend Hamlet” argument put forth by Mark Bernstein — which he and Diane Greco do a nice job with in their First Person essay. I’d like to quote that essay (link above) to explain where I see the connection:

    Even if we could experience Hamlet on the Holodeck, it wouldn’t work. Tragedy requires that the characters be blind (as we ourselves, at times, are blind). If you let a sane and sensible reader–protagonist into the room, everything is bound to collapse.

    Jonathan, do you see the connection, or am I misunderstanding your argument?

  5. Jonathan Beyrak Lev Says:

    < <>>
    Noah, there is some connection, however it is one of contradiction. Let me explain with a specific example from Crawford:

    In his latest book he asks, how could a player playing, for example, the part of Juliet be moved to commit suicide of his own accord. The solution he offers is that there be a virtual audience who passes judgement on the way the player acts, rewarding believable and passionate acting with applause and the opposite with disapproval.

    This would make Juliet commit suicide when she learns of Romeo’s death, it would keep Luke from joining The Dark Side, it would make Abraham consent to sacrificing Isaac, it would make Jesus not reply to his accusers. The player will be behaving exactly the way he should.

    But how will the player be feeling? Would it be anything like Juliet’s despair? Unlikely. I expect, if presented with the options:

    1. Commit Suicide.
    2. Become a Nun.
    3. Run Away to a Distant Part of the world.

    That the player would go through a mental process like this one:

    “Let’s see. Commit suicide?! The poor girl’s got enough trouble as it is, I’m not gonna kill her now! Becoming a nun doesn’t seem like a good option either. Maybe she could go to Turkey or something, marry a sultan and live happily ever after. I got it! Oh, Waydaminnit, that’s not how she’s supposed to be acting. After all, this is her true love we’re talking about, the audience’ll never let me get away with that one. Oh well, poison it is.”

    Sure, we want players to be doing rash, irrational and suicidal things. But we do not want them to do these things so that we get an externally acceptable story, which would convince outside spectators. What we want, first and foremost, is to move the player, to make her identify, in her own subjective experience, with the choices she makes, so that she makes them out of her own feelings and personality.

    I believe Bernstein’s argument is along the same lines as Crawford’s, in a sense. Both are concerned that a reasonable and well-rounded person wouldn’t make these drastic choices which cause drama to be so interesting. But Bernstein’s solution seems, to me, inadequate. I believe the whole point of interactivity is to let you, the user, make the most important choices. I know that this is the kind of experience I want to have, but Bernstein’s solution is the explicit denial of such choices from the player. Crawford goes further in offering a solution that is more agreeable to interactivity, but one that I still disagree with.

    But I beg to differ on this topic. I believe that the proper application of art COULD move otherwise sane and reasonable people to extreme actions. I offer Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werter” as an example where said has moved many people to REAL suicide. Surely imaginary suicide would be easier to accomplish?

    I do not presume to offer a solution to this very big challenge. However, I can offer a start. First of all, the choices available to the player should be less clear-cut than those offered to characters of non-interactive drama, but when they aren’t, we can phrase them this way:

    1. What good is my life without my one source of happiness? My true love? I will not take another breath in excess of Romeo’s.
    2. Well, I guess I have no choice. I’m gonna be a nun. Beats ending up like Romeo.
    3. Ah, who cares, anyhow? Boys are a dime a dozen. I’m going over to Turkey to get me a nice, rich sultan.

    This makes things look different, doesn’t it?

  6. noah Says:

    Jonathan, forgive my perhaps too-personal response, but I want to urge you to choose different examples in the future. I’ve had a couple people close to me kill themselves. A book didn’t “move” them to do it. A book doesn’t ever do that. (And, no, computer games don’t either. And interactive drama never will.)

    That aside, I think we all agree that it would be a good idea to have menu items be well-written. But I guess I fail to understand why a system would provide the player with any choices (however leadingly written) that run counter to the experience the designer is seeking to create. If the player feels faced with choices determined by you, wouldn’t you want all of the possible choices to potentially further the experience?

  7. nick Says:

    Noah, I doubt that Jonathan meant any slur against people who kill themselves or meant to scoff at the real occurrence suicide in any way. The example he started with is Chris Crawford’s, not his own, and his reference to the “Werther Effect” – media representations of suicide being correlated with increases in suicide – while it is an unpleasant topic, seems to refer to a real correlation; it doesn’t seem to be some distasteful joke or slight. I will stay out of the issue of which examples to choose, but I don’t think this one was chosen out of heartlessness.

  8. noah Says:

    Nick, thanks for pointing out how that sounded. I didn’t mean to criticize Jonathan for choosing Juliet, and I didn’t mean to suggest that I think it’s impossible for media and suicide to be related. I think it’s entirely possible that media may have an impact on the timing and method by which some people kill themselves. But it would take a whole lot to convince me that media “move” people to kill themselves who wouldn’t otherwise (by some other method, at some other time). In fact, I’m pretty sure that it’s spreading a false and dangerous idea to suggest that.

    BTW, do you have any thoughts on the more GTxA-like topics we’re discussing?

  9. nick Says:

    The two-week absence of my PowerBook has disrupted my regular thinking and blogging routine – even though I have a backup computer and all my data, oddly enough – but I am going to try to return to normal conversation here after I get my regular computer back. Hopefully that will happen in the next day or so. Sorry to be mostly silent in the conversations that have been going on here, which I have been reading with interest.

  10. noah Says:

    Nick, no general criticism was meant. I was just asking if you had any thoughts for this thread. Good luck with your computer troubles!

  11. andrew Says:

    Jonathan, imagine a non-menu based interface, one in which players can express themselves and make choices in their own words and naturalistic gestures. Without being led by leadenly written multiple choice menu options, i.e. if players are given more expressive freedom, do you think Bernstein and Greco’s concern about interactive tragedy is still solvable?

    Echoing what I wrote in First Person (which is only excerpted on the web at ebr), it could be that some traditional story forms, such as the classic tragedy, where the protagonist is blind to his fate, may not be possible to implement interactively in a pure way. However there will be other flavors of drama that will be possible.

    But let’s think about how an interactive tragedy might work. Generally speaking I think one way players will be compelled to perform dramatic acts in interactive dramas is that they will become skillful performers, for sake of the performance. With experience, and after watching others play a drama “well”, players will learn how to milk the most drama out of the experience. It could even work for tragedy, or film noir; It will be really fun to get all tragic, to act blind.

    Generally speaking, this is probably a significant way that interactive drama will differ from games; the goal is not to beat an AI adversary, but instead to collaborate with the AI drama manager.

    At the same time, players should never be forced to act in any particular way. They should have the freedom to bust the drama at any time, to turn it into a farce if they wish. (The system should be robust to warn the player that the drama is becoming farcical, to allow them to pull back before it’s too late; I imagine Crawford’s virtual audience booing, throwing virtual tomatoes or leaving the theater. Or, realizing it’s become a farce, laughing their virtual asses off.)

    Once viewed that way — that farce is a viable, entertaining outcome for interactive drama, and just as important, that players may truly enjoy working with, not against, the drama, for the sheer joy of the performance — then Bernstein and Greco’s eyes-wide-open Hamlet and Frasca and Mateas’ gun-toting Gandhi arguments sort of go away.

  12. Michael Says:

    Frasca and Mateas’ gun-toting Gandhi arguments sort of go away

    Andrew, I think you and I are in total agreement about not wanting to coerce the player. But the “gun-toting Gandhi” argument still applies. Notice that we didn’t put a gun in Grace and Trip’s apartment. The “extreme agency” argument against interactive drama says that in order to give the player true freedom, you have to give them every possible verb, including, for example, killing the other characters. So, by this argument, we’re “coercing” the player by not giving them the means to kill Trip and Grace. But if we had given them the means to kill Trip and Grace right at the beginning, then the story would be irretrievably derailed (it’s not farce at this point, it’s just broken). Conclusion: interactive drama sucks because you either have to coerce the player (destroying agency) or give the player agency and destroy the progression (not even farce, just broken). My response to that is to say, no, why do I have to give the player verbs that are completely unrelated to the dramatic context? The player will experience agency if they have verbs that are appropriate given the story potential (the formal affordances) of the experience. So the interactive drama designer doesn’t have to deal with the player being able to do everything (in “traditional” games the player has a limited set of verbs available as well).

    In addition, and this is the point you’re making here, an interactive drama doesn’t have to magically turn a cow’s ear into a silk purse; if the player doesn’t “play ball” with the system, the story may terminate prematurely. The designer should make this entertaining (we’ve tried to do this in Facade); but hopefully the player will also want to see what other kinds of stories (more completely, more complex) they can make with the system. Playing interactive drama should be skillful, just like playing any game. An interactive drama should be “learnable” without being coercive. A good player will be able to experience a larger part of the potential story space, and see more interesting individual traces through that space, than a poor player.

    Also, in regard to the natural language vs. menu-based argument, see the earlier GTxA discussion on games and natural language understanding.

  13. Jonathan Beyrak Lev Says:


    Please accept my sincere apology if I have offended you in any way. I have chosen this example because it appears to me the most appropriate to express my point, but that doesn’t justify hurting anyone.

    I think we may agree that art changes the way we think and that changes the way we act. I hope this example proves less offensive: When I listen to Bach’s passions I get the feeling that I’m a Protestant Christian, and I start to feel a strong connection with the Christian faith. Now, it should be easy for a Christian believer to react this way, but I am both an Atheist and a Jew.

    >I think we all agree that it would be a good idea to have menu >items be well-written. But I guess I fail to understand why a >system would provide the player with any choices (however leadingly >written) that run counter to the experience the designer is seeking >to create. If the player feels faced with choices determined by >you, wouldn’t you want all of the possible choices to potentially >further the experience?

    I should’ve been clearer on my intentions. The last thing I meant was for the menu items to be leading or coercive. What I meant with that example was to suggest that the author should give the player an idea of the emotional consequences of her actions. If action reveals character, wouldn’t it be appropriate for the player to understand what character would be revealed by each action? Perhaps the example I have given was too extreme, because it gives the impression of leading the player to a specific choice. What I meant was that players might feel inclined to make extreme choices if they could empathize with the feelings they represent. Considering that a good interactive drama should have the player in a very emotional state, she could make these extreme choices if she perceived them as emotional instead of rational. Computer games all demand the player to be very rational and analytical. I believe Interactive drama should require her to be sensitive and impulsive.


    >Jonathan, imagine a non-menu based interface, one in which players >can express themselves and make choices in their own words and >naturalistic gestures. Without being led by leadenly written >multiple choice menu options, i.e. if players are given more >expressive freedom, do you think Bernstein and Greco’s concern >about interactive tragedy is still solvable?

    I believe that as long as the player’s attention can be drawn to the emotional significance of her choices, my answer to Noah above applies whatever the interface.

    On the other hand, I believe that more is lost than gained in giving the player the ability to interact in such a natural way as you describe. This approach poses great technical difficulties, and besides, there are only a few dramatically significant things any given character could do in any specific situation, and I think that giving the player any more options would dilute, not enrich, the experience (I agree wholeheartedly with Michael on this).

    >But let’s think about how an interactive tragedy might work. >Generally speaking I think one way players will be compelled to >perform dramatic acts in interactive dramas is that they will >become skillful performers, for sake of the performance. With >experience, and after watching others play a drama “well”, players >will learn how to milk the most drama out of the experience. It >could even work for tragedy, or film noir; It will be really fun to >get all tragic, to act blind.

    The original point I was trying to make with my post was that I disagree with this approach exactly. While the activity you describe could be extremely enjoyable, I think it would create for the player a sense of emotional detachment. No matter how good an actor it would make her, I believe this approach will not cause the player to experience the suspension of disbelief required for catharsis. Check my earlier post for the kind of mental process I expect the player to undergo.

    >Generally speaking, this is probably a significant way that >interactive drama will differ from games; the goal is not to beat >an AI adversary, but instead to collaborate with the AI drama >manager.

    I offer a third approach: a new contract between author and audience. The author provides a “narrative simulation” which is responsive to the player’s actions, and the player agrees to act emotionally within it (of course, the author must succeed in making the player emotional in the first place). Finally, the author agrees to provide a moving and satisfying experience to the player whatever the choices she makes.

    I believe this contract makes no excessive demands on either party. It may not work for every combination of author/player, but then, neither does the writer/reader contract.

    Finally, I think that for this to work, we must adopt a more flexible approach to narrative. After all, the current classifications of types of drama all depend heavily on the personality of the protagonist. Tragic characters tend to be headstrong and impulsive, Bildungsroman characters tend to be naive at first and grow cynical, and so forth. If we have the player as protagonist, we cannot decide from the outset what her behavior might be, so we cannot decide what kind of drama we’re going to have. Therefore I believe Crawford’s notion of creating an algorithmic “Metaplot” would yield the best results, as it would not only allow the drama to react to the player, but it would also allow it to change its very nature to accommodate the player’s behavior.

    N.B. I want to thank all of you for this great conversation. It’s rare to find a combination of such good courtesy, criticism and ideas.

  14. Jonathan Beyrak Lev Says:

    I’m still hoping for a reply…

  15. advertiser Says:

    Regarding the difference between a story told with the reader as 3rd person and interactive games – I think this is because most games try to get the player to indentify with the characters on the screen – 1st person shooters are the most extreme example of this, where the goal is complete immersion.

    Some games like strategy games – “age of empires” and especially the “age of heroes” type variations etc., though, put the player more into the 3rd person perspective like reading a novel does. In games like this where there is not so much personal identification I think the reader/player is free to enjoy the game more they way a reader enjoys a novel.

  16. Jonathan Beyrak Lev Says:

    I don’t undesrtand exactly how that relates to the previous discussion, I’ll be happy if you could explain the connection.

    Anyway, I must disagree on the point about identification – novels, as well as films and plays, are based on emotional identification, no matter the point of view. Strategy games are neither about emotions nor do they try to create a narrative experince or generate catharsis, which is why they don’t need identification.

  17. nick Says:

    I don’t think it relates at all – it’s a vaguely topical-sounding piece of spam from a now-blacklisted merchant whose business involves destroying public conversational spaces like this one. This is why I just changed the “author’s name” and accompanying link.

    I appreciate your reply, though, as there are sometimes pieces of spam that can be appropriated back into useful conversation…

  18. Jonathan Beyrak Lev Says:

    I was almost certain that’s what it was. I thought i’d just give it the benefit of the doubt. i’d be happy if you had anything to say, though, as I was really enjoying this conversation and I think it’s ended quite abruptly.

  19. andrew Says:

    Hi Jonathan, I plan to respond to your comments, I’m just currently tied up with moving from the east to west coast (Boston -> Portland), and the holidays.

  20. Jonathan Beyrak Lev Says:

    Great. Wish I was moving to anywhere in the US. Happy holidays!

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