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Interview: What's next in game narrative, with Emily Short

Telling a compelling narrative in a game is hard enough with just one player, but can you create a memorable literary work with more than one player? Emily Short thinks so -- as long as you keep an open mind.

Frank Cifaldi, Contributor

October 11, 2012

9 Min Read

Emily Short spends a lot of time thinking about how to tell stories in ways that only video games can. Not only has she been writing works of interactive fiction for over a decade, she also has been working on an experiment in multiplayer interactive online narrative for Linden Labs, which we reported on earlier this week. We sat down with short to discuss where game stories are going, and if telling a compelling narrative with more than one player is even feasible. I'm of the belief, and I'm sure you probably are as well, that interaction itself is possibly our most powerful storytelling medium, once it's been fully explored. (laughs) Sometime during the next 2,000 years. Exactly. And I do think we'll get to the point, if we're not there already, where we can have as moving of an experience playing a game as we might reading a canonical work of fiction? That's definitely possible already, especially if you can accept that the way it will be moving might feel different from your experiences with fiction. I've definitely had experiences with games that, in their way, were as memorable as things that caused me to ask questions about myself or about other people, or realize things about the way the world works that were profoundly powerful. I think Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia is an amazing example of that. It puts you into that situation in a way that just a written memoir would be a little bit different, a little bit distancing and not as visceral. And there's a lot that you can convey as a visceral experience through interaction that's hard to do in any other medium. You've been experimenting with multiplayer narrative with your work at Little Text People and Linden Labs. Is it possible to have that sort of solitary, moving narrative experience while playing with other people? I don't see why not. If you're going to do a powerful multiplayer narrative, then ideally you want to explore in a direction where everybody is having significant agency over what's going on, and it's not simply a matter of the characters each exerting a skill. It's not a raid, it's not people teaming up in an RTS or something. It's about your charter making decisions, my character making decisions, exploring why. Our project wasn't really headed in this kind of super artsy direction... which when I say it sounds pejorative, which I do not mean at all. It wasn't meant to be an art game, I guess is what I'm saying. But I think there's a lot of potential in the idea of two-player games or larger multiplayer games to explore the different perspectives that people bring to situations, and the fact that people have different reasons for why they do things. I think that very interesting games can be made exploring contact between strongly contrasting world views. Where maybe you come back and replay the game from the other side, and that's where you understand the other perspective. Doing emotionally powerful, sophisticated, thematically meaningful material in single player is already really hard! So you sort of want to do your beginning level homework first. But I think there is space there. Designers have always had that sort of puppet master problem, of trying to find the balance between leading a player down their directed narrative path versus having them feel freedom. It's a problem I don't really think we've come close to solving even in single player games. I think that's something you have to embrace as a design issue, rather than running from it. I'm not sure there's a simple solution to it. You can either say I can make the constraints part of the point of this work, or you can say I'm going to make the openness as part of the point of this work and I'm putting it on you to mean something. Those are both valid structures. Is this problem even more daunting in a multiplayer game? In a sense it's a harder problem, and in another sense it's the same problem. If you're building a story that has certain points of freedom, or has certain mechanics that allow people to push how things go one way or another, most likely in a multiplayer game, the constraints that apply to one person are more or less going to be the same restraints that apply to everybody, with some variation for people having different skillsets and that kind of thing. There's likely going to be parallel experiences. So in a way, I'd say it's one and a half times as much work. Because you do have to account for the interaction between people, or else you're not going to make there be a meaningful interaction between players. Something that I tended to think was unfortunate about certain MMO storytelling... you get these narratives where the NPCs have lots of really emotive things to say to you, and they want to throw you into this narrative. Then on the other hand, your interaction with the characters played by humans -- even if they're inclined to play it in a very role-playing way and they're not running around shouting trollish remarks and that sort of thing, even if they've entered into playing that role, because of the way it's structured, none of the conversations you ever have with them are ever going to be acknowledged by the story as meaningful pieces of the story. And that seems weirdly frustrating. You've got other people who are the greatest possible source of dynamic content to the material, you the author did not have to create this, but there's no way for the system to acknowledge that interplay. To some extent, the project that I was describing in my talk solves that in a brutalist fashion by... forcing you to go through the simulator. On the one hand, that actually leeches out the possibility of anybody role-playing anything that hasn't been fed in in the first place. Now of course, because at least because it's possible for people to create their own dialogue overrides and so on, that means that they could have, in advance, prepared a character who is a bit different from what you might have expected. So that is sort of the channel by which their personality could enter in. But in the moment, they're not going to say anything that's not being tracked by the simulator, that's not being scored. You're forced to make these things meaningful. But what we found with playtesting was that people responded surprisingly strongly to knowing that the funny remark that was said in the room was said by their friend and not by an AI. And that additional awareness gives it an extra significance that you might not have had. It seems like it would be incredibly difficult in a multiplayer narrative to control the pacing of the story, the sort of hills and valleys of dramatic storytelling. Is that possibly the wrong way to think about it? I don't think that's the wrong way of thinking about it at all. I think those pacing issues are really important. In some ways, you make it a lot easier for yourself to do this if you keep the pieces of narrative short. Telling someone a short story, it's a lot easier to control the pace of that than if you have people logging in and logging out and running around a continuously active game world. Obviously it's a lot easier to control pacing, to control that kind of narrative variability within a tightly constrained, like, "This is a tight story, it's going to last 45 minutes of your life. The possible branches are here, here, here, and here." That's a much more manageable multiplayer experience than a world that people drop in and out of. People are really kind of making their own level of engagement with the story in a way that you can't entirely control and maybe don't even want to control. Assuming that interactive storytelling is something we're all collectively working toward trying to improve, what one thing do you think we should all be tackling and possibly trying to solve? It's funny. Chris Crawford asked me this question a few months ago, and I frustrated him with my answer. Possibly I will frustrate you as well! I do not think there is any such thing as the one grail we should all be searching for. If there's something we should all try to do, it's communicate with each other better about the different things that we're trying, for several reasons. I really do not think that there is one silver bullet to this. In my own projects, in the things that I've worked on, which range all over the map in terms of project size and complexity and how much it's procedural... it's not that one of those was the one right way, and the best possible product, and all of the other things I ever worked on sucked. It's that there are different tools for different artistic aims and different types of experiences and different types of expressiveness. And I think if we want to really advance the frontiers, then we need to be exploring all of those things, not just one of them. We need to be talking to each other better, and we need to be making tools available as much as we can. Obviously there are commercial pressures on this and it's always a challenge, but to the extent possible, I'm an enormous believer in having creative tools that are available to indies with no money, to people who are not part of the industry, who do not have a stake in it, do not have special sources of access. Because that's how we get the additional voices that we need. That's how we get exploration of the kind that might not otherwise happen. You're saying there's no one problem, but what I'm maybe hearing from your explanation is that there might be one, which is a lack of diversity. Well, there's a lack of diversity, but there's a lack of an understanding of the different ways we could be going with this. What I'm aiming at here is, we want as many people doing as many interesting things with this as we possibly can get. We want industry people, we want indie people, we want people who are writing a game for the first time as part of their media English class. We want all of that, we want to foster it and encourage it and communicate about it, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.

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