February 13, 2007

Some Joe Schmo Was First to Experience True Interactive Drama

by Andrew Stern · , 4:58 pm

Matthew Kennedy Gould is a lucky guy. Not just because he won $100,000, a trip to Tahiti, and got playfully handcuffed to a buxom blonde while they soaked in a hot tub after wrestling together in a pit of honey. No, Gould is lucky because he is the first person I’m aware of to have experienced true interactive drama.

The good news for us is, it was all videotaped, edited, broadcast on cable in 2003, and is rentable on Netflix.

The vision of interactive drama I’m referring to, first put forth by Brenda Laurel in her 1986 dissertation “Toward the Design of a Computer-Based Interactive Fantasy System” and 1991 book Computers as Theatre, and expanded upon in the mid 1990s by Joseph Bates’ Oz Project team at CMU, has a single naive player entering an artificial, dramatic story world, with all the other characters played by improvisational actors guided by a drama manager, who is monitoring the plot as a whole to fashion a coherent, Aristotelian tension-arc style story, centered around the player.

The Oz team, to test their software architecture before operationalizing it in code, enacted a live-action version of the system with The Bus Station, a short interactive drama centered on an innocent person who gets involved in a life-or-death situation. A theater stage on CMU campus was dressed up to look like a bus terminal, and several improv actors (the interactive characters) were brought in, coached beforehand about their roles in the drama. A director (the drama manager), hidden above the stage, is able to give real-time direction as needed to the actors, each of whom were secretly fitted with wireless headsets. Finally, a naive person (the player, not an actor) was brought on stage, and told to pretend they want to buy a bus ticket to visit their grandmother. Little do they know, a robbery by knife point will soon occur, with a loaded gun thrown in the mix. Afterwards, the player stated it was a very intense, engaging experience; the experiment was considered a success. Much coding was done, character prototypes built, many papers published, and company spun out.

Michael and I essentially picked up where the Oz folks left off, incorporating techniques from Petz, conducting several more years of design and technology R&D together, to build a first complete, playable, drama-managed experience, Façade; we’re now continuing on with The Party.

There are several well-known fictional enactments of this vision, most notably the Star Trek Holodeck (first aired in 1987, preceded by Star Trek: The Animated Series‘ “recreation room” in 1973); and the movie The Truman Show (1998), similar to Philip K. Dick’s 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. There’s a less-known, amazing short story by Richard Powers, Literary Devices, from 2002. One could also draw similarities to lucid dreaming (1 2) and the variety of philosophy and sci-fi about simulated reality in general.

But — it turns out that a satirical reality TV show has gone the furthest towards fully enacting this vision of interactive drama, at least once, for a single real person.

I’ve alluded to the similarities between reality TV and interactive drama in the past, but until now, I hadn’t witnessed the connection realized so perfectly. It’s called The Joe Schmo Show, and it’s rentable and purchasable. I highly recommend it. I found it fascinating, hilarious, brilliant, and instructional.

From the Wikipedia page:

One man, Matt Kennedy Gould, thinks he is one of nine contestants on a reality TV show called Lap of Luxury. Unbeknownst to Gould, everyone else on the show, including the host, is actually an actor, and the show itself is in fact an elaborate hoax centered around him. Lap of Luxury is not a real reality show, but a parody of reality TV, designed to elicit comedic reactions from Gould.

I won’t write up descriptions or spoilers here of the events on the show; you can find summaries of all eight episodes written up on more than one site (1 2), including a second season, that I haven’t seen. But I’ll make a few comments about this reality show about a reality show — this live-action single-player story/game.

In the various incarnations of interactive drama I listed above, it makes sense to distinguish between those in which the player knows the drama is fake (e.g. the Holodeck, The Bus Station, Façade), versus those with a completely naive player (e.g. Joe Schmo, The Truman Show, Time Out of Joint, Literary Devices). The player’s experience should be different in intensity for the two cases, specifically, a completely naive player should experience events more fully, since she thinks they truly are real. Gould in fact got to experience that with Joe Schmo.

But, actually, there are multiple levels of un-reality in Joe Schmo. Gould did know all along he was on a reality TV show — a contrived, constrained version of real life — so he knew to expect some fabricated tension. He just didn’t realize what the true nature of the show was, actually centered around him and the emotion turmoil he was being put through.

As hoped and planned by the show’s drama management (the hidden crew of directors monitoring Gould’s every move and coaching the improv actors), Gould was carefully manipulated over the course of a week into feeling a range of intense emotions, including a very strong catharsis at the end.

Just as interesting, Gould managed to greatly surprise the drama managers and actors more than once with his unpredictable actions, forcing the team to think quickly on their feet and rearrange their plans, and overall cause them to sweat bullets for days. Realize, if Gould were to discover the true nature of the show, it would have been ruined and un-airable, and a financial loss for the production company. (In season 2 in fact, there are two naive players, and reportedly one of them discovers the truth halfway through, and then is recruited to become one of the actors, to keep the other still-naive player in the dark.)

I won’t tell you how Gould took the news when he finally discovers the truth — that’s part of the intrigue of watching the show. I will say though, there were eerie parallels to the scene in The Truman Show when Jim Carrey’s character asks his “best friend” (an actor) for the truth, and the friend boldly lies to keep the deception going.

Although players of single-player digital interactive drama, e.g. Façade-style games, wouldn’t have the benefit (or danger) of possibly believing the drama was real, plus the shock of finally discovering it was fake, I think some of the pleasures and thrill could be of the same nature — just not as intense. However, I wonder, if we set the interactive drama in an online world, where there are both real players and AI’s, perhaps we could create that same level of uncertainty and intensity, if players don’t know if other characters are human or AI. In fact, from this thought experiment, this is the first time I’ve seriously considered online worlds as a medium for interactive drama. Till now, we’ve shied away from the concept of multiplayer interactive drama, since it’s probably harder to build than single player. But now I’m wondering if the payoff of potentially greater intensity for the player may be worth it.

In sum, I think Joe Schmo actually helps to validate interactive drama as a form, and even offers an example solution for those still confused about how story and game can be deeply combined. I say this at least in terms of structure; the show of course required some intelligent improv acting and directing, at a level AI can’t yet pull off. But overall, Joe Schmo is, I think, a lower-hanging fruit to reach for than the Holodeck.

(Too bad I hadn’t seen it before Second Person was finalized!)