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  • Premise: The Key to Interactive Storytelling

    [04.03.07]
    - Stephen Schafer

  •  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.

    • The choice to hunt a student he trained to kill because the student had killed hunters.
    • The choice to hunt a killer (a son much like the father in terms of values and skills) because the police are hunting his son for the purpose of murdering him. The moral distinction is that the police are intending to kill out of a sordid desire for revenge, but the assassin killed as a matter of survival. The protagonist says to the FBI, "You have to decide how high you are willing to take the body count if you let these guys declare war on my boy." In this case, the motives of the police parallel the motives of the hunters who kill without a sense of the sacred.
    • The choice to sacrifice his son to prevent the murder of his son.

    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.

    • Serbs hunting Albanians (slaughter of everything-genocide)
    • Covert assassins hunting Serb leader because he is murdering the innocent Albanians
    • Deer unters hunting animals (Physically, humans are animals.)
    • Deer hunters "sweeping" animals
    • Assassin hunting and killing hunters because they murder animals
    • Police hunting assassin to kill him like an animal
    • Father hunting son to keep him from being murdered

    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.

    1. Albania: Serbian massacre of innocent Albanians
    2. Albania: Assassin kills Serbian general who is a murderer
    3. Woods: Assassin kills hunters who do not cherish the lives of the animals they hunt any more than the Serbs cherished the lives of the Albanians, "I think I'm losing it." (Losing the sense of the sacred?)
    4. Tracker saves white wolf, symbolic of his sense of the sacredness of life
    5. Tracker finds the hunters who set the snares, and deals with them harshly, demonstrating the consonance of ethical premise for both father and son.
    6. Tracker is asked and agrees to hunt his student after seeing photos of the hunters that the student/son slaughtered. The trainer senses that something is wrong. "No one would butcher human animals unless they intended to eat them." (A perversion of sacred killing?)
    7. The tracker tracks and finds the assassin. They fight to establish relationship and equation of skills and values.
    8. Assassin wins fight, but he is captured.
    9. Agents ask the tracker, "One of yours?" He answers in the affirmative
    10. Interrogation of Assassin; establishes his values. He asks, "What would humans do if a higher order had no respect for them?"
    11. Assassin wants to tell about (confess) covert operations that he has taken part in.
    12. Assassin taken by CIA to prevent him from telling the truth.
    13. CIA agents are extreme examples of murderers. They are like the higher order that has no respect for human life (They are eager to kill their own operative in order to conceal their own murderous acts.). They are also liars, claiming a caring for innocent lives, but having none.
    14. Assassin kills the CIA murderers and escapes
    15. Children playing hide-and-seek scene in airport. Tracker helps a little girl find her playmates. This symbolizes his desire (like the desire of his "son") to confess about murder in which he has been indirectly complicit. The tracker sees TV coverage of the accident in which the assassin has escaped.
    16. Tracker joins police as they begin the hunt for the assassin
    17. Assassin kills FBI hunters (survival)
    18. Police hunt the assassin (for revenge); female FBI agent puts on the mask of mother-as-Kali, the destroyer who crushes her children under her wheel of life
    19. Tracker hunts assassin to prevent his murder by police; he takes on the mask of father-as-spirit
    20. He sets aside his fear of heights; spirit can't be afraid of heights
    21. He finds his son, but the son is successful in making the father realize his worst fears. The son pushes the father off a cliff. He falls from the heights, but is able to survive the situation (symbolic of overcoming limitation prior to final test).
    22. Tracker now knows he has to sacrifice his son because his son will righteously fight him to the death
    23. The fight between father and son
    24. Son sacrificed by father
    25. Next to last scene stare-down between the cold eyes of the murderer (mother as Kali, the great destroyer instead of the true mother as nurturer that takes her children back into her womb after death) who has failed and the father-spirit-sacrificer who has succeeded.
    26. In order to become spirit, the earthly father must atone, rise above temporal limitations and be willing to sacrifice his son. He must demonstrate understanding that death is illusion, that every righteous death is followed by rebirth, and that sacrifice is the union of father and son. On the other hand, failing to atone, the father and son are not re-united, the journey is not completed, and corruption must be re-lived until atonement is achieved.
    27. Last scene where tracker is back in the north, solitary-as is the white wolf symbolizing the spirit of the son-now at-one-ed.

    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.

    • Wide eyes of the assassin in conjunction with little Albanian girls as they view massacres symbolize the essential innocence of the assassin.
    • Teddy bear (symbol of combined innocence and cherishing of animals)
    • Kids playing hide-and-seek (innocent hunting)
    • Sacramental knives: flint vs. iron; youth vs. age; cycle of life; journey; innocence to wisdom (father/son relationship)
    • White wolf demonstrates protagonist's cherishing of life and animals
    • Stag (symbol of sacred spirit)
    • City as jungle (survival of fittest)
      Street scenes teeming with human (animal) life of all sorts, living and dying
      Bones of new construction (new life, change, and growth)
      Bones of old dead buildings (death)
      d. Juxtaposition of natural areas and urban areas 
    • Relationships disclose inner qualities of protagonist and antagonist:
      a. Girlfriend of assassin and her child reflect the loving side of the antagonist
      b. FBI lady reflects the female, nurturing, but deadly side of the protagonist
      c. Assassin vs. hunters (symbolic of comparison and contrasts between sacrifice and murder)
      d. Father vs. son; Son vs. father (symbolic of the many variations on the premise)

    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).

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