February 8, 2008

EP 3.5: The Game Fiction Dilemma

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 6:31 am

Authors of game fictions have worked hard — through conventions such as the quest-tracking journal and tree-driven conversations presented as menus — to avoid the Eliza effect. Rather than conceal the operations of their processes, game fiction authors seek to expose them to the audience. But, despite this, game fictions still face a dilemma remarkably similar to that outlined at the end of the previous chapter.

Both Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time take advantage of what games do well — in particular, simulated movement through space and combat. The relatively free-form actions allowed to players in these areas might be seen in parallel with the free-form text composition allowed both to those interacting with Eliza/Doctor and to the students involved in Harold Garfinkel’s yes/no therapy experiment. The difference, again, is in what changes to the state of the system, and influence on future operations, can be produced by this interaction.

PoP’s fiction, like Garfinkle’s experiment, has an extremely narrow range of possible responses to interaction. Either the player’s actions successfully move the fiction to the next stage (a progression signaled to the player by the triggering of a scripted sequence) or they don’t. The story system is, as players put it, “on rails” — and its structure can be completely exposed to the audience by letting them know when they are departing for the next metaphorical station. PoP’s non-player characters, meanwhile, are mostly only available for combat (the sand demons). The major exception (Farah) will occasionally offer a linguistic interjection in response to non-linguist actions in the world, but this is another very narrow interaction conduit.

KotOR’s fiction, on the other hand, while not allowing the free-form textual input of Eliza/Doctor, does accept many more actions in the world as input into its system of quest flags and dialogue trees (e.g., whether, when, and how to take on quests, take quest actions, speak with NPCs, move between worlds, etc.). Further, as this chapter has shown, such a system can have many more elements to it than the railroad system of games such as PoP (authors can produce huge amounts of data for the quest flag and dialogue tree processes, different subsets and orderings of which can appear with each playing). The result, as with an Eliza conversation, is that the number of potential outcomes is huge. Unfortunately, there is a mismatch between the great variety of situations in which KotOR is expected to perform a fiction and the very simple model of fiction and character embodied in KotOR’s processes — just as there is a massive mismatch between the complexity of human language to which Eliza must respond and its extremely simple model of conversation (as a series of transformations). The result, in both cases, is breakdown that takes a shape determined by the underlying processes. And, as with Eliza, the processes of KotOR are of a basically uninteresting shape.

To put it succinctly, the practices of the mainstream game industry present authors of digital fictions with two bad options for going forward. One is to “design around” breakdown, as PoP does, and essentially forfeit the processing power of digital media at the level of the fiction. The other option is to attempt to layer a semi-flexible story — organized as a set of ordered milestone progressions — over a much more flexible game world. This creates a space of play that, if embraced by players, leads to unsatisfying breakdown.

In short, the time is ripe for a new approach to game fiction. But just as Doom could not be built upon the approach to graphics in Myst, this will require an approach to fiction and character that is fundamentally different, more expressive and flexible than quest flags and dialogue trees. Luckily, this work does not need to begin from scratch. Instead, it can begin by building on a history that has been present as a strand of practice within the artificial intelligence community since the time of Eliza. The coming chapters explore this history.