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Walking, not Violence, Kills Interactive Narrative

What destroys interactive story isn't the button labeled Shoot. It is the joystick labeled Walk.

Ron Newcomb

March 29, 2009

3 Min Read

A thought experiment:  add up every step of every character you've ever played as has taken.  A game like Final Fantasy probably will produce a number in the low thousands, for example.  Add to that every rotation of the front-right tire of every vehicle you have ever driven.  Anything driven by propellors, jet engines, or starship drives increases the sum for every time it moves a distance equal to its length.  Avatar-less games add one for every second of panning or zooming camera movement.  Do this for every videogame you have ever played in your life.  


Write down this prodigious total.


Separately, add up every occurrence of "went", "drove", "walked", and similar verbs that express travel in all the fiction you have ever read.  Don't count in-place gestures like "squatted" or "paced", but do count other verbs appropriated for movement, such as "Mr. Darcy grumbled all the way to Elizabeth's."   As an example, let's consider this snippet from a non-fiction book on the basics of writing fiction:


"If nothing interesting happens on a journey -- no character development, no plot revelations, etc. -- then the journey should be skipped with a sentence or two."


Zero movement there, but one observation:  Darcy's sentence communicates his frame of mind upon entering a new scene.  The physical movement is more of an excuse to relay that information than the fact of movement itself.  This is so common in fiction, the soft hiatus was invented to "narrate" the bare location change.  Fiction doesn't travel -- it teleports.  


Like destruction, movement is technically very easy to accomplish in a videogame, which is why it is nearly always present in a videogame.  Many 3D games resemble little more than sightseeing pinball games, comprised of oddly-shaped objects exhibiting unusual propulsive or existential behaviors.  Since some of those objects happen to be people, we perceive violence.  Game violence is an emergent property, one that falls out of rules unrelated to people or propriety.  Blaming violence for diluting story misses the true cause.


Alfred Hitchcock famously said, "Good fiction is like life with all the boring parts taken out."  Shooting someone is certainly not a boring action, so we must keep the Shoot button (preferably over the mantelpiece, not in our pocket).  Rather, our mismatched travel totals show us what's wrong.  We must retire the exposition of mathematically precise, beautifully animated, and narratively dead, movement.  



[Ron Newcomb wrote "Permission To Visit", a plug-in module for the interactive fiction authoring tool Inform 7.  The module replaces the default compass-based movement with verbs such as VISIT, FIND, and ATTEND, and replaces the default lock-and-key gating mechanism with character-based permissions and invitations on non-public spaces.]


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