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.

8 Responses to “EP 3.5: The Game Fiction Dilemma”

  1. Barry Says:

    Hi Noah,

    I wonder if this is a concidence of phrasing rather than particularly meaningful, but I know both myself and Jason Rhody have used ‘game fiction’ as a term that has a meaning in terms of classification. I haven’t read much more than a glancing definition of what Jason means (I don’t think his PhD is complete yet) and wouldn’t expect it to be too close to what I was trying to dicsuss in More Than a Game, but (given that both he and I have also discussed PoP) I just wonder whether it might add some academic context to your disucssion here? Eg: Jason Rhody (2005) “Game Fiction: Playing the Interface in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Asheron’s Call”, or my chapter on PoP in Videogame, Player, Text. I can’t fault the logic of your examples, either — my first DiGRA paper in Utrecht in 2003 was on KotOR, and I just dusted it off and took it into class today, so thanks for the reminder.

  2. noah Says:

    Barry, I think our overlap on “game fiction” is just a coincidence of phrasing, since I don’t mean anything classificatory by the term — but I’d still like to engage your work on PoP in my section, at least in a footnote.

    Is Videogame, Player, Text available in the US yet? The Amazon page here tells me I have to wait until April. Or is your chapter available online somewhere?

    As for Jason’s work (he’s made a couple comments here so may correct me) going back to look at his 2005 DiGRA paper it doesn’t look like the term “game fiction” is classificatory for him. He writes, “I propose the term ‘game fiction’ in order to emphasize the degrees to which different genres of games use fictional devices as native elements of the game to enable the player’s engagement in meaningful play…. Use of this term maneuvers between the ludology-narratology debate so that we can understand how various genres of games, regardless of their intent towards story-telling, can create a ‘feigned state of things,’ a fictive principle, for ludic purpose.”

    I’ve been looking for a way to engage usefully with Jason’s writing about PoP in this chapter (maybe he’ll give me a hand). His focus on the interface is so far removed from mine, however, that I’ve only been able to come up with the idea of that kind of footnote that begins, “Other scholars have approached PoP’s fiction rather differently…” I’d like to take things up a notch from there.

  3. Barry Says:

    April? Maybe copies of the book are tied to balloons, trusting to the vagaries of wind currents to get all that way to your side of the Atlantic. Nick should have a copy, of course ;) I’ll see if I can locate a draft file copy of the PoP chapter and send it on, but I don’t think I’ll be putting it online properly.

  4. noah Says:

    I’d very much appreciate being able to look at a draft of your PoP chapter. Thanks!

  5. JR Says:

    Barry, Noah–

    Indeed, the trade winds have yet to bring your latest to our shores Barry, so if you are willing to share an early draft, I would be equally grateful for a chance to read it.

    While I hope to offer some additional commentary to this section in future, I did want to note quickly that my use of the phrase “game fiction” has become increasingly classificatory since that 2005 DIGRA paper. If you’re interested, you might look briefly at some remarks I posted a bit later here: http://misc.wordherders.net/archives/006054.html

    Game fiction has increasingly become handy shorthand for discussing narrative/narrativity in games without really use the “n” word; it certainly was how I started to employ it several years ago, as the quote you pulled from the DIGRA paper amply illustrates. As the blog post listed above hopefully makes clear however, building on previous scholarship in this area (including yours and Barry’s), I currently use game fiction as a way to describe a broad genre of games with four primary characteristics–competitive, ergodic, progressive (and often episodic), and with a primary goal of narrative actualization–that in combination lend themselves towards enabling narrative (which is to say, the act of narration) within an interactive, ludic environment.

    I would personally argue that games like Prince of Persia and games like The Sims are clear examples of the distinction between a “game fiction” (as I use the phrase) and a game with fictional elements, because there is a explicit intention for narration in PoP (not only the explicit narrator in the form of the Prince, but a broader, narrated series of episodes for the player as a whole), whereas The Sims’ use of fiction is towards a generative, playful, emergent model (what I imagined as an embodiment of your phrase “expressive processing”). Prince of Persia is a game fiction _about storytelling_, whereas something like The Sims is an emergent game, rich in processes that generate stories, rather than narrate them–somewhat akin to Ryan’s distinction between narrative and narrativity, or as I tried to articulate in the post I link to above:
    “With emergent games, the design process is one of stimulating potential. With progressive games, the design process is one of encouraging actualization.”

    And this might be what you intend to argue with the chapter on The Sims, an exploration of the expressive processing that generate experiential outcomes. What is a bit unclear to me in this specific section is the critique I see in your conclusion of what I would consider simply a different category/class/genre of games, such as KotOR and PoP, which of course fail to be great examples of expressive processing because they are meant to be narrated experiences, not generative ones (i.e., they are weak in expressive processing, but strong in other areas… the trade-off required for pre-determined narrative structure). Which is to say that I wonder if it would be more advantageous to your argument to discuss this as a difference of genre, rather than a measure of either quality or potential?

    Thanks again for sharing your work with us in this way; I’m really looking forward to future chapters, as what you’ve posted so far has already informed my thinking in a number of ways. Apologies for any lack of clarity in the above, hastily posted during a few quiet moments.


  6. noah Says:

    Jason, that’s a much-appreciated clarification. If you and Barry are both using “game fiction” to talk about a particular subset of games, do (either of) you think it introduces confusion for me to use it in the general sense — more like your 2005 paper?

    As for the question of genre, I think you’re right that the ambitions of KotOR and PoP:SoT are quite different from those of The Sims. But I think I’m talking, here, about the ambitions that are present in KotOR and PoP:SoT. I had the feeling, playing KotOR, that the ambition was for me to be able to move geographically as I pleased, encountering characters and story elements along the way, and not have the kinds of failures I experienced — but that is very hard and expensive to accomplish with quest flags as the underlying structure. I know from Mechner’s writing that he wanted Farah to be much more of a character, but the amount of development time that would have required (using the brute force methods currently employed) was not available.

    So I’m hoping this chapter poses the question: How can games like this meet their ambitions? Using the current computational models, we either have to scale back the story and characters (unsatisfying) or do an incredible amount of hand authoring of content that most players won’t experience (wasteful, probably not economically possible, and likely to be plagued with bugs). So my answer is to consider the possibilities of new computational models. Not exactly those of The Sims, but considered with an eye on how successful The Sims has been at taking procedural complexity up a level.

    I’m going to take another look at the blog post you mentioned and probably write more later today. Glad you’re liking what’s been posted so far.

  7. JR Says:

    A belated response to say that I think that you should use the phrase in the way that best suits the needs of your argument. Since “fiction” is in common use (Barry, Juul, others) as a way to talk about narrative/narrativity in games, and since it seems central to your argument, you might simply be more specific how you intend to use it, and, as Barry suggested, footnote that others use the phrase as well, and in different ways. I don’t think anyone has more claim than others over the terminology. It’s also perfectly reasonable to use game fiction in both senses, just as fiction alone (sans game) describes an instance of “imaginative invention,” as well as a genre.

    It makes sense that you are looking for what is possible in future, and I suspect that you’re entirely correct–that some measure of convergence of technologies will occur such that Farah does not have to be 20% of what they hoped she would be. At the same time, we might recall that Faulkner thought different colors of ink would help him better display Benjy’s chapter in The Sound & the Fury, and yet the compromise of italics did not result in an unremarkable product. Constraint, as we all know, does not always create imperfect results. So while the bugs in KotOR’s dialogue trees certainly distracts and shows the limitation of that technology (or reveals bugs in its implementation), I’m not sure that Farah’s “incompleteness” is a fault. It could be that a 20% Farah is entirely more lovable from a player’s perspective than a more developed NPC could have been–it’s hard to say, although an intriguing question…

    More thoughts later, when I have a chance to catch up on reading.

  8. noah Says:

    Jason, I certainly agree with you about the potentially positive power of constraint. I just mean to say that we don’t need to look to a new genre (though I hope we will continue to create them) in order to see the potential role of more flexible computational models of character and story.

    I’m also glad you’re happy for me to use “game fiction” more generically. I know where I can point readers for Barry’s more specific use. Is there somewhere I can point them for yours?

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