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  • Premise: The Key to Interactive Storytelling

    [04.03.07]
    - Stephen Schafer

  •  Making It Happen

    The next stage in story writing is to consider premise. The writer must consider how to express the purpose of the story in terms of plot and character. The writer must be able to spin the purpose into a premise that is achieved by a sequence of "good" choices made by the protagonist of the story. Choices constitute the plot of the story because they result in action. In order to make good choices, a character must have some depth. Once this depth is designed into a character, his/her choices must be consistent with the character. In order to achieve the premise, the character should make good choices that lead to some epiphany.

    Therefore, the programming of a sophisticated story should entail the development of a series of choices, consistent with the purpose of the story. Poor choices will not lead to winning the game, but "good" choices will result in winning. From a psychological standpoint, a player that wins a well-designed game will also win by association with the protagonist, purpose, and premise of the game. If a player identifies with a story (immersion), s/he can learn from it in the same way s/he can learn from literature, film, or life itself. I have dealt more thoroughly with the psychology of this assumption in a previous Gamasutra essay, "Curriculum and the Dream Paradigm." In that essay, I argued that story-based games could form the foundation of a revolutionary approach to education based on the use of serious games.

    Designing believable characters with emotional/psychological depth:

    Each character in a story may have his/her own premise, but before a premise can be established a character must be designed. Character design has been addressed by many students of drama, and the tools for designing characters with emotional depth and psychological believability[3] It is an established literary practice to use Jungian archetypes, Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and other psychological constructs in the design of a story's characters. In addition to these tools, in my classes I emphasize mythic structures associated with the principles of astrology. All of these symbolic devices can be condensed and employed to program complex characters in serious story-based games. No doubt, eventually we will have libraries of complex characters pre-programmed according to such mythical/psychological/scientific parameters. Employed as curriculum, such libraries in conjunction with student personality profiles could prove useful in personalizing curriculum games to specific player motives, needs and learning objectives.

    Constructing interesting plot sequences based on authentic character choices and quandaries:

    If writers have employed Jungian archetypes in their design of characters, they have used Joseph Campbell's Journey of the Hero as a template for plot. Simply defined it is a sequence of increasingly difficult trials leading to an objective. That there are many variations on this narrative is of little consequence.

    Seen in its mythic dimension, The Journey of the Hero is a symbolic pattern-a paraphrase of human evolution which the mystery schools throughout the world preserved in their rites of Initiation. The reason the journey includes a sequence of increasingly difficult trials is that evolution and striving toward a goal seems to work that way. The number of initiations (or acts in a play) depends on the story, but the essence of Initiation is to overcome limitation. This process can be relatively minor like striving to win an award for penmanship or epic as in winning one's soul. Because, by definition, humans are limited (fallen from grace or a condition of conscious unity), an infinite potential for story plots exists. For purposes of plot design, initiation boils down to the choices a character makes. Each person's struggle is a story of the "road of trials," and each person's success result in "crossing another threshold" into a "mysterious world" representing the next lesson to be learned-the next challenge to be faced.


    Campbell's Journey of the Hero

    A perfect representation of this initiatory journey is the sequence of increasingly difficult levels in a story-based game. Another representation is the graded sequence of steps in our system of public education which consists of phases or scenes in a three act play (elementary school, high school, college).

    A third example of the initiatory journey is shared by every human being that lives. It begins with uterine development leading to birth; infancy, early childhood, youth; maturity, middle age, old age, and death leading to rebirth. Any phase of this spectrum may constitute a story, and reaching his objective requires the protagonist to make a series of choices resulting in discovery-untangling the knot of the quandary.

    Establishing inter-action by connecting story purpose with character premise:

    At this point, I would like to provide an illustration of how an understanding of purpose and premise can be employed in the design of choice sequences that have significant value-such as the sorting out of an ethical quandary. Once the writer has defined his purpose for writing and roughed out his/her characters and plot, the narrative action can be addressed in terms of the sequence of choices the protagonist will make during the progression of the story.

    Interactive story telling would include segues into variations on choice sequences arising from "wrong" choices. These parallel plot corrections would provide alternate opportunities for the player to correct for unproductive choices, and the more varied the alternatives, the more interesting and realistic the interactivity would be. These variations are not new plots-they are just opportunities to adjust choices.

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