Postcard from GDC 2005: Interactive Narratives Revisited: Ten Years of Research

Ten years ago, also at the Game Developers Conference, Adams addressed the difficulty in videogame narration in a lecture titled “The Challenge of the Interactive Movie” concluding that there was no such creature as an “interactive movie,” and that we should abandon all notions to the contrary, suggesting instead that we should be focusing on what he calls interactive narratives. Today he revisits interactive narratives with ten years of research.

Ernest Adams

With his thick, graying beard, slouched posture, and towering black top hat, Ernest Adams kind of resembled a horribly miscast Orson Welles preparing to address Gettysburg . And while the things this experienced designer, writer, and teacher had to say might not be quite as historically important, the heart was there all the same.

Ten years ago, also at the Game Developers Conference, Adams addressed the difficulty in videogame narration in a lecture titled "The Challenge of the Interactive Movie." During that time, what we've come to call "classic" adventure games were kings of the hill in terms of both narrative and selling power. His focus was on this genre, using examples such as Full Throttle , Phantasmagoria , and Voyeur in order to determine how, exactly, one can define an "interactive movie." His conclusion, in a nutshell, was that there is no such creature as an "interactive movie," and that we should abandon all notions to the contrary. Instead, he suggested, we should be focusing on what he calls interactive narratives.

Adams opened this year's lecture by admitting that his interactive narrative research over the last ten years had become "haphazard, unorganized, opinionated, and of little commercial value," and further warned that "therefore, this lecture will be haphazard, unorganized, opinionated, and of little commercial value."

The first order of business was a brief review of his original lecture, for those of us who either weren't there or didn't keep our notes in order for the previous decade. He identified three problem points in trying to devise interactive narration: internal consistency, narrative flow, and amnesia.

Internal consistency refers to the problem of the player being outside of the designer's control, affecting the narrative chain in ways the writer does not intend. He gave the example of Casablanca being told as an interactive game. He argued that if, for example, a player's interaction caused Ilsa to shoot Laszlo and run away with Rick, the story would lose almost all of its emotional impact. The problem of narrative flow refers to the challenge of preparing the player for the dramatic climax of the story, making sure all of the pieces are in place so that the emotional impact can be, well, impactful. And finally, the problem of amnesia refers to the way that many times, a character in a game does not seem to have inhabited their own world. "You don't wake up in the morning and check every drawer in your house," he argued.

So how does a designer counter these problems? One solution used is to not give the player's avatar any depth, neutralizing the issue of emotional impact and narrative flow. "The problem with that," Adams said, "is that you're telling a pretty bland story." Another solution we've seen is to limit player interactivity to the point where they can not possibly stray from the intended narrative's path, which would kind of offset the entire point of the interactive medium. We have also seen games set a time limit on the player, forcing a sense of urgency. That, he argues, turns a narrative into a race. The most successful antidote to be used against these problems so far, he said, is to tie plot advancement to player actions, as we've seen in most adventure games. "That feels mechanical," he argued. "There's no sense of urgency if you can get away with sitting around and twiddling your thumbs all day."

His ultimate conclusion, then, was that one can't possibly maximize both narrative control and player freedom. There has to be a balance.

"It's not our job to tell stories," he finally concluded, "it's our job to build worlds in which stories can happen."

Today, Adams went on to claim, narratives are being used in much more than just adventure games, and that the quality of the stories themselves are improving. He gives the example of Metal Gear Solid which, while good, is "still just a story about shooting things." It's limited, he said. He further argued that the "hardcore" gaming crowd is becoming less and less important to the market itself, so that where a "hardcore gamer" might try to skip past a game's cut scenes, preferring to get back to the game, a more casual player might be more interested in advancing the narrative.

Still, he says, the story remains secondary in modern interactive narratives, and that the original three problem points still persist. The problem of amnesia for example is still present, he claims, with the exception of both mysteries and heroic quests. "So, of course, we made a lot of mysteries and heroic quests," he said. "We'll never realize the potential of this medium with just mysteries and heroic quests."

Games, Adams went on to say, are repetitive by nature. This is tolerated in gameplay, but not in narration. Narratives are not a simple recounting of events, he argued. "You can tell the story of a hockey game, but that would be boring."

Adams went on to talk about massive multiplayer online games, claiming that they come close to his original conclusion of building a world in which stories can happen, in which emotions such as envy, jealousy, and (for some) lust are generated on their own. However, he argued that inspiring emotion is only part of a story and that, in a literary sense, it's difficult for a player to feel very unique or hero-like in this scenario.

Adams ' personal dream these days is, he admits, a long way off. He would like to see something along the lines of a dungeon master, as in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, done entirely in A.I. "Good DM's can take a player's needs into account and shape the world around them," he said, "and a piece of interactive narration should do the same." Adams concluded the lecture with one final analogy, this one related to Star Trek:

"I think we may actually get the physics of the Holodeck done before we write the software. Thank you."


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