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Interactive Narrative, Edgar Allen Poe and Art

A game from the 90s did some things right when it came to artful storytelling.

The Dark Eye: Narrative, Games and Art

The Supreme Court has declared that games have the same protections as any other art form.  We’re all mystified that it took so long, given the variety and realism of the exploding zombie heads we can do.  In any case, seven out of nine of those folks in the stylish black robes believe that games have at least a shot at making Art with a capital A.  Now we have to get everyone else on board – including, it seems, some of ourselves.  Just weeks before the court decision, Brian Moriarity gave a pretty persuasive GDC talk arguing that games are NOT Art and aren’t intended to be.  I don’t agree with Mr. Moriarity, but I appreciate the rigor and breadth of his reasoning.  By contrast, the tone of the comments sections wherever his talk is posted is rather discouraging.  Most commenters stand against Moriarity’s position, but with an off-putting defensiveness, often arguing along the lines of: “Hey! Some people think quilting is Art, by those rules, we totally count!”  Defining Art down is not indicative of confident artists, sure of their powers. 

Not so long ago, the industry decided that creating games that could get people to cry was our ticket to Artsville.  And by George, we hit it!  We can proudly say that games exist that can make people cry.  It turns out, however, that most soap operas and some puppy youtubes can also make people cry.  The resulting failure to get automatic admission into the Art club apparently left some of us embittered.

But that’s behind us now!  The Supreme Court wants us to go for it, and the fact is: of course we can produce Art.  It’s completely within our grasp.  The only thing standing in our way is a little fuzzy thinking.

To that end, I’d like to humbly offer some suggestions based on a game I worked on long, long ago that may or may not be Art, but at a minimum came pretty damn close.  Over fifteen years ago I worked on The Dark Eye.  Anyone remember that one?  Based on the tales of Poe, William S. Burroughs did VO, Thomas Dolby did the music.  Anybody?  (crickets)  Okay, well, you’ll just have to take my word for it – we successfully translated the content, feel and impact of several of Poe’s tales into a video game.  Of course, the game has aged – today it seems rickety with its Myst-like navigation and various technical problems.  But as an experience, it holds up remarkably well.  By a combination of art direction, source material, acting, sound design and especially interactivity, we managed to create a game that approached something, um, Art-like.

But first, why even make an interactive Poe?  What distinguishes it from just another movie?  One of the qualities of most Art is its ability to pull us into its evocative world. We might call this quality of Art immersion.  Well, hey, baby!  We make games!  We’ve got immersion wholesale!  We can give you intellectual immersion, emotional immersion, aesthetic immersion, physical immersion and more.  If you’re going for the classic kind of Art that Moriarity is interested in (you know, “the human condition” kind of thing), in narrative terms that means that your objective is to bring about catharsis (an emotional outpouring) for the player.  That’s what we wanted to do for The Dark Eye, so we set our sights on emotional immersion.

(I should note: there are forms of drama – and some important game designers – that aren’t interested in catharsis.  I’m not claiming that catharsis is the only way for games to achieve Art status, but I am saying that mastery of classical methods is a prerequisite for more rule-breaking forms.  Without Chopin there can be no John Cage.)

 

So how did we do it?  Certainly we aimed for a high level of realization in terms of sound, visuals, acting, etc; but we also made a series of important decisions:

 

  1. Strive for Psychological Depth.

Storytelling-wise, games hold one clear advantage over other dramatic forms – an advantage that isn’t exploited nearly enough.  All storytelling requires a certain amount of exposition.  For screenwriters and playwrights, getting the exposition across efficiently and engagingly is generally considered a problem that must be solved before moving on to the really enjoyable action of the story.  In games, it’s relatively easy to plant story elements in an explorable space in a way that turns exploration into an active way for the player to absorb the exposition.  In The Dark Eye, we pushed this advantage one step further.  Since the player was playing a character in a Poe tale, we invested objects in the environment with psychological significance.  A player would interact with an object that’s important to his character, a pressed rose perhaps, and would see or hear a thought or a memory tangentially related to that object.  In this way, exploration of physical space became exploration of the character’s psychological space.

 

  1. Gameplay?

No gameplay.  That sounds pretty radical, but in the course of designing the game, questions kept coming up: shouldn’t we have an inventory?  How about resource management?  Puzzle solving?  As we struggled with these questions, it became clear that these gameplay elements are meant to engage a player intellectually.  Intellectual immersion and emotional immersion are not incompatible by definition, but in practice, and certainly in our project, getting the player to solve a puzzle in order to murder the Old Man would simply distance him from the character he was playing and the environment we’d labored so carefully to construct. 

Be honest, haven’t you played at least one game that had such a good story that you wanted to be able to press A to skip the gameplay and get on with the story instead of the other way around? 

 

  1. Branching?

Another question that came up was, “Shouldn’t player choices change the course of the story?”  In terms of dramatic narrative, Choice is the Great False God of interactivity.  A really good ending (that is, one with a satisfying catharsis) is very difficult to create.  Everything, everything in the story must support that ending: performances, art direction, tone, music and so on.  The idea that a single narrative can result in multiple satisfying endings is a contradiction in terms.  In The Dark Eye, the player has NO choice: you must brick your adversary into the cave in The Cask of Amontillado.  As the victim, you cannot avoid getting bricked in.

In a narrative game the only thing less interesting than meaningless choice is meaningful choice.  That’s a provocative statement, and I’m only half serious, but that half is very serious indeed.  A choice that is meaningful to the game is not the same thing as a choice that is meaningful to me.  And a choice that is meaningful to the game implies multiple, unsatisfying endings.   Okay, so there is one exception: if the single moment of choice is the catharsis itself, that choice is both meaningful to the player and to the game.  That is an effective exception to the no-branching rule.  Otherwise, as in The Dark Eye, everything is taking you to the point of murder.

 

 

But the big question I’ve been putting off is this one:  Why should games try to create catharses when, say, films already do it better?  The answer is: films don’t do it better. Was The Dark Eye more effective than a movie?  Absolutely.   How is this possible given that we refused to employ basic game elements like simple gameplay and branching choice?  We did it by choosing instead those game elements that promote emotional immersion.  These include the free exploration mentioned above, but more important was another aspect that emerged as we worked on the game: the player is able to enter into the narrative as an agent of pacing and timing.  When gamers argue, as I have here, in favor of essentially linear, catharsis-based narratives, they often invoke the simile of the player as a musician in a symphony orchestra – adding their creative input to a larger enterprise that yields a satisfying creative result.  But that image is too limited.  The real goal is to allow the player to become a member of a jazz ensemble.  Sometimes leading the group, drawing out passages, accelerating others; sometimes supporting the current beat.

The most effective moments of The Dark Eye are those where the player approaches a critical point.  For example, when the player is preparing to murder the Old Man in Tell Tale Heart, he can hold off that final, fatal moment for quite some time with the music seemingly increasing in tension with each beat.  I always imagined the player suspended, almost in disbelief that he was about to commit this act, but act he must and finally, finally! he completes the interaction at what to him is just the right moment to  break the tension.  If he breaks it too soon, the moment doesn't get its proper weight; too late, the illusion is diminished.  His input is, in fact, a creative act.  That element of timing brings the player into the experience personally in a way that is deeply powerful, and no other medium can provide it so well. 

 

All those years ago, we created something that really did approach the interactive equivalent of the literary level of Edgar Poe.  Back then, artful storytelling really wasn’t on anybody’s radar, but now narrative has come to the fore.  Stories, stories with depth, maybe even one day, profound stories are increasingly drawing interest and budget.  Developers continue to experiment with narrative techniques and improve their skills.  Captial ‘A’ Art? Of course.

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