"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.
Storytelling as a Tool
Much of this associative learning takes place on subconscious levels of the psyche from which significance emerges when needed, so the game player need not understand or even be aware of the learning process. Associative learning is not lecturing. By association, substantive storytelling will result in more significant player choices and substantive, authentic learning. If having certain skills and knowledge is necessary to make "good" choices, games have as much teaching potential as we want to program into them. Like any other medium, games can teach by association, but the higher degree of interactivity in games makes them potentially better teachers than other media.
Among their greatest pedagogical potentials are superior student motivation and a more personalized learning track. Games have the potential to teach more effectively because students identify with the process more intensively and make their own choices within a story environment programmed just for them-as advertisements are tailored to target groups. In these targeted games, the game-winning sequence can have the same structure as the traditional story.
If life is a story, we all know that taking various paths to its conclusion constitutes the spice of life, but the basic narrative is always the same. We are born and go through predictable stages of infancy, early childhood, adolescence, adulthood, maturity, old age, and death (achievement of Initiation). This is the story that the Journey of the Hero portrays, and its narrative is universal notwithstanding the fact that each person's journey is unique. Story plots (both traditional and interactive) are based on this Journey of Initiation, but the stories are as infinitely varied as the audience. Interactive stories may provide the player with choices that have visible consequences, but under the surface is the program for choices that allow the character to win the game.
Video games have a psychosomatic dimension. Games stimulate the soma (body or wetware) with psychological-emotional potential according to the same psychological dynamics as novels, television, or film. The dynamic process is as follows:
Serious game research has proven that games influence dexterity, and it is common knowledge that complex learning takes place when games are used as flight or surgery simulators. We have known for some time that Pavlov's dog will salivate by association, but I don't think it is necessary to spend too much time on research that demonstrates this potential in video games. Extensive research has already proven that the media = real life. Studying the influence of media (primarily television) on people, Reeves and Nass proved that, "All people automatically and unconsciously respond socially and naturally to media."
Pavlov's Dog, the game.
Storytelling as Entertainment
In most respects, story telling in games has the same structure as in other media genres including novels, television, and film. Observance of the unities and the rules of the storytelling craft creates better stories, but in all of these media, interactivity between the viewer and the story is primarily psychological in nature. Interactivity is not merely a matter of pressing buttons to get observable responses on a screen. Just as psychological interactivity allows for a suspension of disbelief in literature and film, psychological interactivity allows for suspension of disbelief in games. In literature and film, the viewer or reader identifies with the character and, so, becomes interested in the plot and action. The degree of audience identification determines the success of the medium, and there is no reason why such identification cannot be achieved in the electronic game medium by using traditional storytelling skills.
In the infancy of electronic gaming, the physical aspect of interactivity has taken precedence over psychological/emotional dimensions. But the reason games are so popular is largely due to their psychosomatic influence on the player. Games are entertaining. Entertainment has an emotional component (fun in many varieties) and an intellectual component (puzzles and choices).
Certainly, games appeal to some inner need of the player (dominance, success, catharsis, "acting out")-but the industry has assumed that only the physical dimension is important. In part, this is why the other dimensions of the interactive family have been orphaned. The industry hasn't paid attention to them, so they have not yet been allowed to develop. From the psychological perspective, games have even more narrative potential than literature or film, and that potential resides in the refinement of purpose, premise, and quandary in story-based games.
This psychological, psychosomatic, interactivity is the reason why the emotional (sex & violence) content of games is so important. I get really bored with people who argue that such content isn't important and advocate "anything goes" when it comes to these important media issues. Such a narrow view of reality and such ignorance of existing research is reprehensible and grotesquely irresponsible. Viewed from the psychological perspective, the vaunted influence of interactivity in games becomes very serious.
With regard to their influences on players and culture, all games must be considered serious games. If we do not feel deep emotion while playing games; if we feel no tug at the heart when AI characters meet with an unjust fate; if we feel no tension when faced with a quandary in the course of the game, it is because the characters have not been skillfully developed-they have insufficient depth or believability. It is obvious that when playing video games, young men have physical responses to naked girls. These psychosomatic responses are quite real. Games have the same capacity for psychological submersion as any other artistic genre. The question is, "Why are we not probing some of the higher responses related to honor, justice, or love?"
Storytelling as Psychological
Within the context of psychologically serious games, the purpose and premise in games wield a serious potential to influence, to teach, and to heal. It is an incontestable fact that stories must have a purpose, but this fact is seldom appreciated in games. Merely winning becomes the purpose, and winning by any means becomes the associative message of games. Such industry policy is not only irresponsible, it is stupid. It fails to perceive the enormous value-both cultural and financial-that games as education represent. If story purpose is rare, premise is nearly non-existent, and this brings us back to my thesis that premise as the key to identification with game stories. Glassner observes:
"Because of its value as a test, the more sharp and succinct we can make the premise, the more valuable it will be. ‘Peace is good' is a premise, but it's vague: there are lots of forms of peace. ‘Refusing to fight leads to personal strength' is better.
A strong story tests a premise all the way through, showing each side of each choice. If the premise is ‘honesty leads to harmony,' then its opposite might be ‘Honesty leads to conflict.' The main character should see in every choice that he makes just how honesty could lead to either outcome, usually in their most extreme forms. Then when the climax arrives, he will have seen both sides of the question and will truly understand the nature of his choice."
Good games have strong psychological components. The more psychological the game, the more intensely the player becomes immersed in it. What the game industry calls immersion, literature understands as "suspension of disbelief." In this state of immersion, the player or viewer becomes a part of the action, and the degree to which this happens depends on the degree to which the player/viewer identifies with the story and its characters. The degree of identification will determine the degree of association and appreciation of the purpose and premise in the story.
The advertising industry knows a lot about association, identification, and suspension of disbelief. Through a very sophisticated psychological process of analyzing focus groups, the advertising industry has become adept at getting people to associate the good, the beautiful, and the true with a product, and, therefore, to identify with the product. There is not room in this essay to consider the research, but the PBS feature, The Persuaders, is a very thorough study of the subject. It harks back to Vance Packard's premier study, The Hidden Persuaders. The selfsame marketing practices are used in the selling of games. Why not use these principles of symbolic interactive storytelling to develop high quality game stories? If game companies can target a group of potential buyers for a game, using the same principles of psychological symbolism they can create stories and characters with which the gamers will identify.
Misused, this psychological power of identification in conjunction with sophisticated storytelling could be very dangerous-a combination of advertising and myth. On the other hand, used carefully and intelligently this same power could be used to teach and to heal-to help players acquire knowledge, gain self-insight, and form values. My point is that creating more sophisticated games that appeal to wider audiences, and have significant, constructive impact on players can be accomplished by employing all the skills of good traditional storytelling. In no way are the traditional skills of storytelling inconsistent with interactive game play. Actually, the fact that players can have a visible impact on the game is of relatively minor importance if we begin to realize that games are and should be played in psychological dimensions.
As I said at the beginning of this essay, the key to sophisticated interactive story telling resides in the skillful use of purpose and premise. The first thing I tell Digipen students in creative writing classes is that if their story does not have a purpose, they are wasting their time. Often, students misunderstand. They think their purpose is to write the great American novel and become famous. I try to explain that such a purpose is their own personal purpose, not the purpose communicated by the story. Story purpose usually has to do with the contemplation of some valuable idea. The story may probe the nature of a concept like, honor, love, or integrity. If the author does not have such a purpose, the story will be pointless, vacuous, and uninteresting.
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 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.
In order to demonstrate the relationship between purpose and premise, I would like to illustrate with the film, The Hunted. The film is highly relevant to interactive games because it deals with a significant ethical problem that is highly relevant to contemporary quandaries that are universal in scope. The story addresses the issue of violence and the violence depicted is well-staged and essential to the power of the statement made in the film. It contains scenes in which killing takes place and ultimately makes a distinction between sacrifice and murder. Extensive martial arts conflicts add to the interest and excitement, but though conflicts are bloody, the blood is not gratuitous in the slasher sense.
The film's potential for translation to orthodox game play is enormous, and its violence would target a good percentage of the young males that play games. However, this game would have deep and valuable significance beyond the orthodox genre. The reason is that the purpose and premise is clear and the story is artfully designed.
The purpose of this film is to address an issue and an ethical quandary of mythic proportions-the nature and significance of sacrifice. At the beginning of the film, Johnny Cash, in his inimitable manner, vocalizes the theme. God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son. For Abraham, this is a quandary-the choice to obey his god and kill his son or to disobey his god. Few understand why a beneficent God would ask a loyal disciple to sacrifice his own son for no apparent reason. Such a quandary resonates with the Christian story of the Christ and the martyrdom of the innocents, the saints, the heretics, and the heroes of all degrees and in every culture.
Why do the good suffer under the dominion of a beneficent deity? Everywhere we see such apparently needless sacrifices, and many lose faith because of this observation. So what is the significance of sacrifice? Sacrifice is a concept of mythic dimensions, the essence of plot in the Journey of the Hero, and a paradox having to do with overcoming the illusion of limitation in the world of form. It is about life and death, creation and destruction, cycles of procreation and generation, hunting and killing. "God told Abraham to sacrifice a son," and this order is fraught with ethical implications. In short, having a purpose to contemplate the principle of sacrifice has significant value and story potential.
A brief summary of the film is necessary: A military teacher trains assassins for the elite forces. The development of killing expertise is a high value for such assassins. For an elite military operative, the call to killing is a heroic sacrifice. In this story, the antagonist, one of the trainees, perceives the teacher as a father figure. As the assassin fulfills his covert function as killer-hero, his conscience begins to conflict with his actions and the atrocities he witnesses in the accomplishment of his missions. His essential innocence conflicts with the killing he sees and commits, and he goes over the edge. He begins to make distinctions between murder (killing for the wrong reasons) and sacrifice (killing for the right reasons). The essential difference between right and wrong has to do with motive, so when motive is "pure" (as in killing for food or killing in a battle for survival) killing is sanctified.
On the other hand, killing without purpose or with base motives devolves into murder. In The Hunted, the assassin turns to killing hunters who have murderous intent (no respect for animals) and ends up killing FBI agents who are hunting him (threatening his survival). In the assassin's mind, the issue has become confused. At this point in the story, because he is the only person with appropriate skills, the trainer (father figure) is asked to hunt the assassin-who is like a son to him. This is a quandary (hard choice) for the trainer, but he agrees to do it. The father/son relationship becomes the protagonist/antagonist relationship in the plot, and the premise for each character is the same, but viewed from different perspectives.
The purpose and premise are directly related. In psychological terms, each character is the shadow archetype for the other, but they have identical morality and skill, so they can be considered a psychological unity. Therefore, there are two premises that are integrated, but at the same time are mirror opposites of one another.
The premise for each character could be stated as: "Killing without a sense of the sacredness of life is murder." Because of their shared values, killing with the right (sacred) motive becomes the objective of the story plot. It is a certainty that killing will ensue. The quandary requires each character to kill out of a sense of the sacredness of life. This is a premise that is serious, notoriously misconstrued, and authentic in terms of the seemingly irresolvable issues facing humanity today. The primary ethical posture they share is that life is sacred, but killing (animals) is, for some, essential to survival. So is killing in war. Therefore, killing must be practiced as sacrifice-a giving and taking that is sacred. In order to contemplate this reality (in which even torture is relevant), most people must transcend their limited views of reality.
The premise is an ethical, spiritual issue that is the subject of many of the world's myths. For example, the crucifixion of Christ should be understood as sacrifice. In The Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu Bible), the hero Arjuna must struggle with his unwillingness to fight in a mighty battle between clans symbolizing good and evil. The Lord Krishna (Christ figure) derides Arjuna for not understanding the spiritual issues. Paraphrasing the premise of that story, Krishna teaches Arjuna that humans living in a dual reality must fight with right motive in order to eventually overcome the illusion of separation.
Another example is the Native American story that sanctifies the buffalo and the hunt as a divine gift for the survival of their race. The assumption is that when killing is done with a sense of the sacred, delusion is overcome and sacrifice is achieved. The Native American Sun Dancer sacrifices himself at the alter of the sun. In the same way, warriors sacrifice their lives to protect the camp and if death ensues, "It is a good day to die." So, the objective of the spiritual quest we call human life is to understand the value of death. All of these considerations redound to the premise of sacrifice.
The ethical implications of the premise are very practical in our modern milieu where life has been devalued, violence is rampant, and atrocities prevail throughout the world. The question is whether this prevailing slaughter is in the nature of sacrifice or murder. Understanding our human predicament entails a review of our mythical/spiritual heritage. Reviewing this heritage requires some understanding of the world as spirit, and having this worldview requires some understanding of at-one-ment (the objective of the Hero on the Journey) in which state there is no death. To live, one must die. To live, one must kill. To sacrifice, one must cherish life. Killing without cherishing life is murder. To cherish life leads to rebirth. To murder leads only to death.
Within this authentic and complex mythic framework, the violence as it is authentically portrayed in The Hunted is necessary to the purpose of the story. The premise is to contemplate the motives for violence. Without the violence, the seriousness of the premise could not be expressed or felt. If our culture faced this quandary with such honesty and seriousness, our understanding of life and death, creation and destruction, good and evil might help our people resolve the ongoing confusion about violence in the media. It could help us better understand an American foreign policy that has often seemed diametrically opposed to our ethical origins. Presently, we are more confused about violence than the assassin in the story. For example, many in our culture believe that creating and perpetuating violence upon the cities and people of Iraq should be considered heroic (sacred), but creating violence upon the city and people of the United States is considered terrorism (murder). Understanding the ethical issues of sacrifice might help us understand the quandary.
In The Hunted, the protagonist faces a series of three primary quandaries. Each quandary is related to the established premise, and together they represent a sequence of increasingly difficult choices for the protagonist. Resolutions of these quandaries could represent winning choices to be made at various levels of a game. If the player avoids making the choices s/he does not progress. Instead, game play would segue into parallel choice sequences that always return to the affective choice that must be made to continue the game.
Themes and Scenes
In The Hunted, each of a variety of themes is consistent with the purpose and premise of the story. All of them have to do with variations on the definition of sacrifice.
The following scene sequence illustrates how each scene is relevant to the purpose and premise of the story. Each scene may be logically tested as to its order and relevance, and (as game play) the scenes disclose a sequence of choices that lead skillfully to the principle quandaries.
Just as the use of symbolism dignifies literature, the use of symbolism in games may contribute greatly to their purpose and significance. In order to embed symbolism in a story-game, the measure of premise must be applied. Without viewing the film, its symbolism is difficult to detail. However, the reader can apply the premise to the following instances of symbolism in order to verify their meaning.
The above symbols and scenes reflect serious purpose and depth of character that can be applied to a game. How character depth was developed in The Hunted could be illustrated by detailing various tools of character development such as character diamonds and nested masks, but it should be clear that premise is the key to designing interactive stories. If the elements of the story (scenes, symbols, characters, action, and dialogue) have been tested in the crucible of the premise, there is a good likelihood that by the end of the story, the character will have achieved insight as to the significance of the premise. By association, the reader or the game player will also have achieved some insight.
I may be naïve, but I don't think creating excellent interactive stories in games is as difficult as some believe. Perhaps this is because I understand the term interactive differently than game industry commentators who consider only half of the interactive dynamic. I understand interactivity to be a two way process. The player influences the game, but the game also influences the player. This should be obvious. If the game did not influence the player as fun (emotion) or challenge (intellectual stimulation) s/he wouldn't play the game. Therefore, the psychological definition of the term transcends the merely physical cause-effect relationship between pushing a button or moving a joystick and seeing the result on a computer screen. The problem is not that games are inconsistent with good storytelling. The problem is that the game industry has not been interested or has not known how to program good stories.
For seven years, Stephen Schafer has been a faculty member at Digipen Institute of Technology. His primary responsibility there has been to teach Composition, Mythology for Game Designers, Creative Writing for Game Designers, and Elements of the Media and Game Development to students in the RTIS program. To a degree, all of his classes reflect his longtime interest in human motivation, mass communication, and cultural transformation. Over the years, Professor Schafer his augmenting his knowledge of psychology, language, mythology, and literature with studies in physics, metaphysics, comparative religion, marketing, and the media. During the past ten years he has specialized in research relating to the part symbolic language plays in cultural transformation. He is currently completing two books, The Media of Dreams and a textbook, The Alchemy of English.
Glassner, Andrew (2004). Interactive storytelling. Natick, M.A.: A.K. Peters, Ltd. (On p. 70, Dr. Glassner refers to Jon Franklin's Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner. London: Plume Books, 1986.)
Reeves, Byron & Nass, Clifford (1996). The media equation. Cambridge University Press. (p. 7)
David Freeman (2004). Creating emotion in games. USA, New Riders Publishing. & Glassner, Andrew (2004).