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  • Premise: The Key to Interactive Storytelling

    [04.03.07]
    - Stephen Schafer
  •  "The premise is the truth that is learned by the character as a result of his experiences. Note that this is a very personal truth. It's not a universal lesson for all people, not a "message for the audience to take home. Rather, it's the personal conclusion that the character comes to as a result of his actions."

    "The value of the premise is that it provides a test for the inclusion or exclusion of every element in the story. If some action, dialog, scene, chapter, or other element contributes to the premise, then it is a contribution to the story and should be retained. In other words, we can ask ourselves whether some given piece of the story helps propel it in the direction of the lesson that the character learns."

    Andrew Glassner's book, Interactive Storytelling, may provide the game industry with a key that unlocks the portal leading to new game dimensions where the genius of both entertainment games and so-called serious games are combined. To release this inter-dimensional Genie, we need only rub the bottle. However, to realize our wishes we need to get this dynamic power under control. If interactive story writers aspire to serious purpose and a higher standard of art in game stories, they must begin producing stories that have significant depth of purpose and significant artistic quality. They must learn to define significant purpose, premise, and quandaries in their stories.

    The challenge is how to accomplish this with the interactive genre. Many have debated the problem of interactive storytelling, and some dismiss the potential of traditional storytelling in games by arguing that the narrative medium is diametrically opposed to the interactivity of games. Their theory is that in traditional story telling the author must have complete control of plot sequence and action in order to create suspense but, in games, the player is in control.

    Not true! In games, the programmer has control, and the game player only has the appearance of control. Game stories do not need to be open-ended, they only need to offer choice sequences among which some are game losers and some are game winners. In traditional storytelling, the protagonist makes choices designed by the author, and the reader/viewer of the story learns through identification with the protagonist.

    With interactive storytelling, the game player makes choices for the protagonist (avatar), but the programmer takes the place of the author in designing choices. Like the author in traditional forms, the programmer has the ultimate understanding of the story and of which choices are losers and which choices are winners. Interactive stories may segue into a greater variety of scenes leading to choices, but the story ending-winning the game by making a predetermined number of correct choices-is under the control of the programmer as author. It is not surprising that programmers tend to overestimate the virtue of programming in the overall artistic process, and it is mostly ignorance of psychology and literary art that results in their devaluation of the traditional craft.


    Player takes the role of the protagonist in Half Life. 

    Good game play, like any learning process, requires making poor choices and correcting them, so making poor choices is just as instructive to the player as making good ones-if all choices were good, there would be no game. In order to win the game a player must learn what "good" choices, are, and it is the same with learning in general. Players naturally identify with winning choices, so in a game story players will tend to identify with choices that win the game. Because the human mind is naturally associative, if game stories have some substance (character depth, purpose, and premise), players will associate story substance with winning action and games will become powerful teaching tools.  

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