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Video games and interactive storytelling.

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Christopher Rayl


Dr. Mandt



Imagination in Interactive Storytelling


We as a species have always immersed ourselves in stories, from the ancient oral traditions and Greek poets, to the traveling bards of the renaissance and the great playwrights. Though those worlds that we imagine ourselves lost in exist in the stories, poems, plays, and songs of old; the manner in which we present them has advanced. We began to escape to these places through radio, and then through television and movies. The next step in this progression may be through the interactive storytelling medium of videogames.


Storytelling has traditionally been a one-sided conversation. The creator creates the story and the consumer consumes the story. With the advent of interactive technology, we have an opportunity to move in a different direction, to a new way of telling stories, one where the story can be affected and even changed by the actions and desires of the audience. A dialog between the creator and the consumer becomes possible.


When video games first emerged as an entertainment medium, the novelty of the genre overwhelmed the need for a cohesive storyline. The simplicity of game play in early favorites such as Pong, Pac Man or any number of space invader type games allowed stories to be constructed in a spartan manner, strung together with an uncomplicated premise: return that ping-pong serve, don’t get eaten by ghosts, and kill the aliens invaders, respectively. As games advanced and became more complex, cursory storylines were created, not to enthrall the player or audience, but to give a basic reason why some action is occurring. These story constructs were simple and quite comical under any scrutiny. For example:


Character 1: Why are we at this martial arts tournament fighting each other to the death?

Character 2: Because some guy invited us.

Character 1: (Shrugs) Good enough for me.



Laughably absurd, but it demonstrates the lack of need for a cohesive storyline to drive the plot.


As time went by, the complexity of the story becomes more important. For some designers a story is simply an accessory a game has to come with to get out the door. Id, a game design company, epitomizes this story-comes-last philosophy of game design. New York Times tech columnist Charles Herold describes the company’s outlook:



Id takes more pains to give the player a story than in previous games, but there is little sense of narrative momentum. In David Kushner's fascinating book on Id, ''Masters of Doom'' (Random House, 2003), the company's brilliant chief programmer, John Carmack, is quoted as saying, ''Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie; it's expected to be there, but it's not that important.'' One feels that little has changed at Id. While games like Sierra's Half-Life have shown how an engrossing story can help immerse a player in the game world, Doom 3's story is more dutiful than heartfelt.(Herold)



Others in the industry, however, see story not as something to be include in the medium, but the purpose of the medium as a whole. Some view the goal of the game to be to tell a rich, engrossing story. Unlike film, theater, of written storytelling, interactive storytelling provides the player with a sense of agency. This agency is difficult to create from a design perspective, however, it is essential to a progressive narrative.


To create this sense of freedom and agency, the designer must imagine himself or herself in the role of the player. The designer must grant the player enough freedom of choice to create at least the illusion of free will. If the player is given no sense of direction, they may simply meander about, choosing not to advance the plot. The ideal is a sense of choice and freedom that may lead to the same story arc and climax but allow the player to approach it in different ways.


Some common ways of creating this freedom can be found in simple, binary choices. In many of these storytelling games, the player can become good or evil based on the small choices they make: the manner in which they interact with Non-Player Characters, whether they choose to solve their problems diplomatically or through violent action, and selflessness and greed can also enter into these equations. Given these choices, the player begins to assume ownership of the avatar, and they identify with the plight of their digital self.


One of the greater imaginative challenges in creating agency is the need to limit that agency to some degree. For example, if the character were able to roam free and cause whatever mayhem he or she desired, the might kill a character that is necessary to the plot. At that point a gear goes missing and there is no mechanism by which to advance the plot. A developer must imagine himself as a player, and try to think up any damage that the player may cause, and find a way to limit it so that the progression of the story cannot be crippled. An imaginative solution to this problem is gauging the importance of NPCs and not letting the player kill these characters, but rather render them unconscious when any non-vital NPC would have died.


For any story to be successful, the main character cannot exist in a vacuum. Well-developed NPCs (Non Player Characters) are essential to pulling in the player and telling the story. A poorly built NPC will be serve only a utilitarian value to the player, usually in the form of cannon fodder. These characters will rarely interact with the player character in any meaningful way, these are not companions for the player, they are simply tools to be used and discarded when they no longer become necessary.


A well-developed NPC, on the other hand, should carry great emotional weight with the player. These ‘successful’ NPCs are developed to harness the powers of the players sympathetic imagination. This is executed very well when the NPCs, over an extended period of time, develop a mentor/pupil relationship with the player character. These relationship dynamics create an emotional investment in the NPCs; they are shaped in the player’s own image, but each with a unique personality and engaging back-story.


In a recently released game Mass Effect, by BioWare, a company known for its captivating story lines, the player reaches a point where they must choose to rescue one of their companion NPCs, and let the other one die. The decision is a difficult one, and this is evidence of the artistry that BioWare puts into the creation of its characters and storyline. It is this connective imagination that can make a storytelling in an interactive environment truly amazing.


Imagination is most heavily used in this area to create sympathetic characters for the player to interact with. The designer will have to put themselves in the mind of the player and create situations and relationships that they feel will both engage and challenge the player. In the above mentioned instance, the player chooses the direction that the plot will flow as they choose which of their friends to rescue.


The key to solid interactive storytelling is found in the ability of the designer to put themselves in the mind of the player. To picture events from their perspective and limit or expand the scope of the player’s world and decision making powers enough to comfortably drive a storyline forward. If the story can be told, yet the player remains able to shape it in their image, then a new product will be created with each play by each new player, and though these experiences will be shared, they will not be the same. That may well be the future of storytelling.














Adams, Erenest. "How Many Endings Does a Game Need?" Gamasutra. 22 Dec. 2004. 03 Dec. 2007 <http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20041222/adams_01.shtml>.


Crawford, Chris. Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling. New York, New Riders Games, 2004.


Herold, Charles. "GAME THEORY; Exhausted by Terror and a Spidery Rescue Routine." New York Times 12 Aug. 2004. 11 Dec. 2007 <http://tech2.nytimes.com/mem/technology/techreview.html?res=9406EEDF163FF931A2575BC0A9629C8B63>.


"Interaction and Agency." Grand Text Auto. 06 Aug. 2003. 03 Dec. 2007 <http://grandtextauto.org/2003/08/06/interaction-and-agency/#more-52>.





Just a little something I wrote the night before it was due. Discuss.

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I had no idea that AJ Mandt gave half a shit about video games.


That said, a very interesting article. Is there any larger body of work on the topic?

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