I was reading Peter Weyrauch’s thesis today and got to thinking. Well, not precisely thinking, more like griping. I thought that I’d take the occasion to share such gripes with you.
I don’t have anything against Greek theatre or Aristotle, both are valuable and fascinating and serve an important and influential place in history. What I’d like to write about now, though, is going to be quite critical of both. I don’t mean to be critical of Aristotelian Drama in of itself, but rather its extension into Interactive Drama. Interactive Drama, in principle, isn’t intrinsically bad either, but something about it troubles me. There is a certain preoccupation in interactive drama with getting this ideal user experience that conforms to a precise dramatic arc. I can totally sympathize with this idea, especially as a lot of the targets for interactive drama are things like adventure games and interactive fiction, whose experiences, which can sometimes be breathtaking, are most often confused and incoherent. Anything that can direct and heighten the experience of a confused player is a good thing, right?
Maybe it’s just me, but I get a feeling of deep unease when I hear that someone is going to make my experience conform to an arc. The problem with interactive drama is that it shifts the focus to the idea of experience as opposed to content. Experience is certainly important, but when that experience is crafted to a honed edge, the underlying value of the experience is compromised. The theatric experience is intrinsically contradictory with interaction. The fact that drama is restrictive is not bad, all games from interactive fiction to Grand Theft Auto to tabletop roleplaying must impose restraints on what the players can do. Having the experience conform to an arc though will disempower players from having control over their own experience. Much like a 3d game with scripted camera angles, a dramatic arc forces the player to see things the way the designer wants them to be seen as opposed to the way that the player might want to see them.
The ideal implied by Aristotelian drama is the pure cathartic experience. Characters are larger than life, paragons of strength and virtue, archetypal even. Tragedy attaches to the hero some flaw, a stray thread which unravels and destroys his otherwise sturdy character. Plot and story are central, but they are also eternal. No one would attend a performance of a tragedy ignorant of the plot. The purpose of a performance is to bear witness to the spectacle and see the moral tale at the heart of the performance. Actions are spectacular and stunning, filling the audience with awe, shock, and sorrow. There is nothing subtle about Aristotelian drama, no room for the wide middle ranges of emotions, no ambiguity. The Greek theatre had a cultural and social function which was to lay out and emphasize the morals and values of Greek culture. The whole purpose of the cathartic function was to make the moral lesson be experienced bodily, and its importance and value felt thereafter in the heart of the witness.
Now, with that description of Greek theatre, some examples of things that you might expect to follow the traditions of Aristotelian drama might be things like… Spielberg or Bruckheimer films, propaganda videos, or motivational workshops. Things that you might not expect might be interactive fiction about a detective or mystery story, or a game about a dissolving marriage. Dramatic arcs are relevant and worthwhile tools, but they are tools that need to be put to some sort of use. One reason why Aristotle is so heavily borrowed from in game studies is that games are seeking legitimacy, and the possession of a dramatic arc is a property of many legitimate works. Aspiration for legitimacy is not an appropriate use of the tool, though.
It is also odd to see games looking to Aristotelian theatre and not, for instance, Japanese Noh theatre which is surprisingly similar in terms of moralizing. Noh theatre has many themes and tradition that involve transformation, nonlinearity, and improvisation, all of which sound much more related to qualities intrinsic to games.