Living the Story – Interactive Linear Dramaturgy

Soon, I will have to write my master thesis. I’m still not absolutely sure if I should follow the chosen topic, so I’m posting the synopsis of my idea here to get some feedback.

For example: Is the title too lurid? ^_^

Update: I chose to work on this topic, but I focused it on the dramaturgy part. I did not think that building the formerly proposed installation would be possible in this timeframe.

Part I: Interactive Linear Dramaturgy

The history of interactive story telling on computers spans more than three decades. It has been commercialized in adventure games, undergone scientific research and spawned a subculture-like movement of “interactive fiction”.

Two directions dominate the current works in the field: Linear stories which have been embedded in game-like environments (mostly called “adventures”) which is usually found in a commercial environment and experimental interactive drama which is primarily found in research projects.

The first kind uses stories which are basically linear, but take place in a world which the user can navigate in. Typically, the user has to solve problems or “puzzles” to let the story progress further. While this has resulted in a large number of great stories and games, it generally has one downside: Dramaturgy suffers. Stories are interrupted by long processes of problem solving which breaks the dramatic tension.

Scientific projects focus more on techniques to create truly non-linear stories which the user can heavily influence. Being an incredibly difficult task, not much break-throughs have been made yet. The probably only convincing and dramaturgically compelling non-linear story so far is Façade by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern (2005).

I want to follow a different approach, which has not gained much attention yet: Telling an interactive story with hidden linearity. I want to let the user enact the story, but craft the plot in such a way that there is not much choice which could derail the mostly linear story. The user is part of the story, but the dramatic events flow in such clearness that the user won’t decide to take a different path.

For example, if the evil villain threatens to kill hostages if the user does not retreat immediately, the user will most likely comply and retreat. It is an interactive action and the user chose this path, but it is nevertheless linear, because there is no other way.

This should create a story with the dramatic quality of well-crafted linear stories and the immersive quality of interactive stories. The goal is immersion, not influence.

Further thoughts

It might be necessary to integrate a “low level non-linearity” because not every behavior of the recipient can be calculated in detail. In the former example, someone might think that the villain is bluffing and decide not to retreat. The story might then change a little and let the villain kill one hostage. Afterwards, the user would see no point in letting him kill more hostages and retreat, which ultimately leads to the same story path again.

Also, it will most likely be necessary to include optional story parts which make sure that the story keeps flowing. For example. if the user decides at some point to do nothing and wait, the dramatic tension would eventually break. If possible, the system should then provide an additional incentive to keep the user going.

This kind of interactivity requires a certain commitment to the story from the user. If he acts “out of character” to test the system – for example by inactively letting the villain kill every single hostage – he will find the boundaries very quickly. This is not a project to demonstrate advanced artificial intelligence, though. It is merely a system to let people live a story. If people decide to work against the story, there is no point in trying to adapt the story to it – sooner or later they will succeed, even if the story was told by a creative human being.

Below follows a description of part II which is no longer part of my thesis. I keep it posted here for historical and inspirational reasons.

Part II: Distributed Installation

Most interactive stories are being told in simulated worlds rendered on a screen. This imposes severe limitations on the level of immersion – for most users it might be difficult to get immersed into mysterious dark cave when they are really seated in an office chair in bright daylight.

One way to change this is to embed the story in an interactive installation. The idea is not to describe or simulate the story world, but to create it in reality. Such an installation would most likely need to be spread over several locations since only few stories play in only one place.

Such an approach raises a whole load of interesting problems in itself. Can people be motivated to physically run into different rooms without breaking the dramatic tension? Is it possible to experience the story with more than one user? Can they play together? Can they play separate episodes which are interwoven at some point? Can the story even provoke interesting conflicts between the players?

However, the feasibility of this part of the thesis remains quite unclear at this stage. The workload might be too much and technical resources too limited or too expensive. Maybe there will only be a theoretical part.

Part III: The Story

The story itself still needs to be found. This will most likely prove to be the most difficult part of this project. Whether I will create my own story, or try to adapt an existing one is still undecided.

The story will have to play in a setting which can be built in the installation rooms. It will also have to live with more or less no characters, at least none that one could want to interact with (because this would either require live actors, or jolly good AI).

Especially the last part is worrying, because most stories live of their strong characters. Creating a story where the user is the only character might prove more than difficult. In the adventure world, there have been examples of such stories, like Myst or Zork. Whether this can be transferred to an interactive drama remains to be seen…

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