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Category: ‘Research’

Some thoughts on games and narrative

[Research] (10.24.09, 12:12 pm)

I have been lagging on writing, and there is list of things I ought to be writing about which is growing ever larger. However, I wanted to bypass that to describe something that has been on my mind recently. Last week there was a panel here on games and narrative. Cleverly entitled “What is Narrative”, and it featured Espen Aarseth, Fox Harrell, Janet Murray, with Celia Pearce and Ian Bogost moderating. (This is of particular interest to me, what with my thesis committee either on or moderating the panel.) There’s a recording of the thing online. It’s all intensely academic, and is oddly political. Not political in the sense of policy, but in the sense of power and authority. The whole ludology-narratology thing goes far back and does not seem like something that will ever get resolved. I am reminded of a notable quote by Wallace Sayre: “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” This is something of a digression, but it raises the question of what is this whole conflict about, and why do we seem to care about it so much?

One argument concerning the emergence of ludology is that when academics started studying videogames, many scholars looked at games from the perspective of narrative theory and film theory, frequently bypassing the importance of rules. A problem with this explanation is that it is something of a straw-man. It is hard to imagine this perspective as being unjustified, but I’ve never seen any sources to back it up. Whatever the cause of this frustration, scholars have been arguing about the differences between games and narratives, and arguing over whether the rules are important or the story is important, and so on. Lately, by Aarseth’s most recent talk, the question has become one of “How are some games narratives?” My favored response to this is to turn this question on its head: Yes, some games can be understood as narrative, but many stories and story worlds can be understood to operate according to rules; so, how are some narratives (or story worlds) like games? Much of what I am going to say is reacting to Aarseth in particular, but the idea that I’m proposing runs a bit deeper.

The problem that’s at the root of this debate is seeing games and narrative in opposition. The classical argument is that there is an opposition between stories (which are fixed), and games (which are interactive). However, as anyone who has spontaneously come up with a story and told it to a child will know, stories can be flexible. Cases such as oral storytelling, tabletop roleplaying, and improvisational theatre all refuse to fall into the oppositional structure of games and narrative. Each of these examples share qualities with both games and stories. Instead of seeing pure extremes which create a spectrum on which any given example must fall, we must acknowledge that the reality of the situation is much messier. Opposition does not effectively describe the relationship between games, stories, and all the ambiguous and edge cases.

There is also a distressing tendency for some scholars to perform a bit of ambiguous metonymy and substitute parts for wholes. I’ve heard Chess described as narrative because its structural resemblance to European monarchy in the layout of its pieces, because of its simplified and idealized representation of gentlemanly war, and because of the fascinating history of the most powerful piece on the board. However, in cases like these I think I have to agree with Aarseth, that to call this narrative is to dilute the term beyond meaning. However, while characters and history do not make the game into narrative, they are still important in thinking about Chess as a game, particularly as a game whose rules say something about its players and the culture which produced it.

To borrow from Barbara Stafford’s work Visual Analogy: We are too caught up in thinking about differences. (And I might add, we are too caught up in thinking about categories.) We should pay attention to how things are similar. This is notoriously hard to do, as we are naturally disposed to think in terms of comparisons rather than likenesses. What is missing from this discussion is the matter of how are games and stories similar: what they have in common? What do games have in common with stories, and what do stories have in common with games? Naturally, we should not look at them universally or as poles, but rather as collections unified by common ground.

For instance, suspense novels are frequently organized into chapters which structure the flow of the reader’s tension and anticipation. Tabletop roleplaying games are organized into sessions which often tend to have similar patterns of anticipation and conflict. Action games are typically organized into levels which have their own arcs of anxiety, tension, and resolution. This is not to say that these three examples should be made out to be the same thing, but it might be fruitful to consider how they are similar, and what that says about them. Games might use a common narrative construction, such as “character”, but use them in a variety of ways. We can look at differences within a group, and then find similarities across media. For instance, games might have very shallow characters, or maybe caricatures or stereotypical characters. Characters might be introspective, or not. There might be some allusion to inner lives, or there might be only surfaces. Novels and film too use these varieties of characters. We can borrow from Scott McCloud’s treatise Understanding Comics to understand how the depth of characterization affects identification, and apply this to characters in fiction and in games. We can look at the types of rules involved in controlling characters in games, and see how they resemble the methods used in film and fiction.

We should move beyond essentializing arguments about what is narrative or what are games and focus instead on the important properties that they share in common.

The Sims 3

[Games,Research] (08.26.09, 3:24 pm)

Generally, my point of interest is in comparison to other Sims games. My interest here is not the way it plays exactly, but the changes in the simulation. These changes are primarily the new systems of character traits and moodlets. These are promising from the perspective of useful character simulation.

I don’t mean to suggest that I want to adopt the mechanics and model that are used in The Sims 3, but rather, I mean to illustrate that these mechanics solve a major problem in simulating agents that are believable as characters. Sims characters have always been only somewhat believable. The characters are dolls: they are not characters, but rather they are objects from which we can interpret characters. The work here lies in the player’s imagination.

My problem with The Sims has always been that it is very difficult to create fundamentally different characters. In both the Sims 1 and 2, characters were differentiated in that they had several numeric stats. These are: sloppy/neat, shy/outgoing, lazy/active, serious/playful, and grouchy/nice. The Sims 2 expanded this by adding another layer on top of this model, which is aspirations and fears. It was thus possible to create several conceptually interesting characters, such as a very shy person who aspires to popularity. However, with an intention to create a specific character, or create characters referenced from fiction, the system of statistics is awkward.

Furthermore, the statistical model itself is difficult to apply to other domains. The example I tend to consider in these situations is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Considering the main cast of characters, we can come up with values for them in the sloppy/neat sorts of parameters. However, we cannot distinguish exactly what it is that makes Mr. Collins horrible in these statistics. A possibility would be to extend the statistical model, and for instance, have numeric statistics that represent the spectrum of differences between the characters: for instance, there might be an axis of gentlemanliness, one of stuffiness, or rakishness, but these are clumsy and artificial. What’s worse is that these parametric systems create dangerous middle zones: what does it mean to be halfway between rakish and gentlemanly? Most frustratingly, it conceals and muddles the complex relationship between the inner and surface lives and natures of the characters.

While the mechanics present in The Sims 3 does not provide a solution to this problem, it offers a pleasing shift in perspective. The trait system offers several traits that sims can possess. Each sim may have 5 traits, plus a lifetime aspiration. Traits may be things indicated by the earlier sliding-value system. For instance, a character may be neat or a slob. But the trait system also distinguishes between several more subtle social qualities. A character could be flirty, friendly, or charismatic. Each trait represents something slightly different. These give more detail and subtlety to characterization. There are also other sorts of social traits, which guide how the characters might act in social contexts. My favorite of these is “inappropriate” which causes (permits, really) sims to do things that are socially inappropriate.

The traits system also defines how sims respond to the world around them. In a simple example: a sim who is neat will get more pleasure out of being clean than a slob, but a slob will not mind dirty surroundings as much as a neat sim. These differences are manifested mechanically through moodlets. Moodlets last some period of time, and usually have a positive or negative effect on a single mood variable. The character’s overall mood is thus the sum of a base value and all of the sim’s moodlets. What is more, an NPC might respond favorably or unfavorably to the actions of a player controlled sim. The NPC behavior is controlled by their own traits and moodlets, which are usually opaque to the player. This creates a very simplified resemblance of an inner-life.

One could imagine a more robust authoring system whereby it is possible to author new types of traits, moodlets, and all of these other details, which could be authored modularly. So, with the earlier example, it would be possible to create a Mr. Darcy by having traits of “gentleman,” “proud,” and “shy.” Austen has a trend wherein in each of her books there is a “talky” character, which could be manifested as a trait. Similar sorts of traits could be attributed to every character. This solves the issue of ambiguous in-between values, and also opens up a method for thinking about the characters not just in Austen’s works, but in other character-driven story worlds. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think that the Sims 3 mechanics are exactly what I want to use, as, after all, Mr. Darcy changes considerably over the course of Pride and Prejudice, and the system as described is not capable of representing complex relationships, but it is a good system to keep in mind.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorElectronic Arts
TitleThe Sims 3
Typebook
Context
Tagsai, games, simulation, social simulation
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Lost: Via Domus

[Research] (08.01.09, 11:08 pm)

Ubisoft and ABC Studios released Lost: Via Domus in February, 2008, for the PC and a couple of the major gaming consoles. The game was not received particularly well, getting mediocre ratings and poor reviews. A lot of this is due to a variety of reasons, many of them technical. My focus here is to look at it as an adaptation, and understand whether it is a good or bad adaptation of the television series Lost.

I’ll preface this by pointing out a few of the glaring problems with Via Domus as a game. The gameplay is based off of the adventure format, and places the player within the world, to interact with other characters and objects. The visual feel is meant to have the same crisp, vivid atmosphere as the show, so everything is meant to be photorealistic. This proves to be a major undoing, as the implementation of the game is not quite up to that level of detail. This is not to disparage Ubisoft which developed the game, but the multitude of characters that are present in Lost, and the variety of poses, scenes, and expressions, is far beyond the normal development practice for most games. Ultimately, the voice acting is often off, and the animations and expressions of the characters are stiff and awkward. As Audrey put it, it looks as though the characters emigrated from the uncanny valley. Another problem that particularly irks me is that “Via Domus” is grammatically incorrect Latin. As anyone who has seen Life of Brian should know, the locative case of “domus” is actually “domum.” As it stands, “Via Domus” means “House Road;” to get the intended translation of “The way home,” the title should have been “Via Domum.” Putting these assorted complaints aside, it is possible to examine the game from an adaptation standpoint.

I’ll summarize some important elements from the game, and then will compare these mechanics to the mechanics of the show itself. Judging Via Domus as an adaptation requires building an interpretation of the TV series, and I will try to do that.

To start with, the player has amnesia. This is a little cheap as far as introductions go, many games have used giving the player character amnesia as a convenient method to introduce the player to the game setting without forcing them to know what to expect from it. The player character, Eliot Maslow, who does not even know his name for quite a while, has a complex history. Discovering this history is the primary goal of the game. There are other ways of introducing complex character histories, but this requires making the character having goals and motivations that the player does not know about at the start. This is a slight flaw in the design of Via Domus, because none of the characters in Lost ever have amnesia. Rather, they have backgrounds which direct their actions, but early on, their goals are related to the immediate predicament of survival. Giving the character amnesia puts the player and the character close together, because they will be at the same level of knowledge, and presumably goals. Without amnesia, the player and character are at odds, having potentially conflicting goals, being in a position where the character has more knowledge than the player. This is a strategy used by the television show, where the audience follows one character, observes their behavior, and then gradually, though the flashbacks, comes to understand the motivation, and why the character does what he or she does.

The mechanism for recovering knowledge, and restoring Maslow’s memory, is through flashbacks. Flashbacks in the television show are given throughout an episode, and serve to contextualize the events. The game creates a game mechanic for flashbacks, which is actually very successful. Maslow is a photographer, and in the flashbacks, the player sees a scene which has filters applied to seem hazy and indistinct. Then the player must use the camera to point at some specific and significant detail, and then take a picture of it. This amounts to finding the critical element in a scene. Following that, the player sees the scene play out in focus and in color, representing the return of the memory. Instead of occurring throughout the episode, the flashback occurs in the middle of the episode, so there is a part on the island before the flashback, and then afterward. The flashback is used to give the player some insight or clue as to how to handle the situation on the island. In comparison to the television show, instead of the flashback being a mechanic to explain why a character does certain actions, it explains how the player can do certain actions, or what the player’s goal and motivations should be. I believe the adaptation of flashbacks is successful, that it takes a mechanic used in the series and then finds an appropriate analogue which has an effect that corresponds and is appropriate to the medium.

An issue which is problematic for me is the linear gameplay. The narrative in Lost is linear, and the style of adventure game is linear, and furthermore the episodic structure requires a light-state model (deep nonlinear play would require a heavy use of state). However, the flaw with Lost being linear is that the player never feels lost. The only area in which open exploration is possible is the jungle area, but even this has only two exits: where the player came from, and where the player is supposed to go. Movement through this space is also mediated through the use of a variety of artifacts: trail markers, a compass, and at one point, the dog Vincent. Lostness is usually not a desired feeling in games, but in lieu of that, the player simply will get stuck. With the game being linear, the player is forced to find the correct solution to the paths and puzzles. To maintain cinematic presentation, several areas in the game are designed to be seen from one perspective, and cannot be circumnavigated.

Spatial navigation is only a small part of the issue of lostness. In the television show, the characters are lost, but in several senses. They are lost on the island, in that they do not know where they are, but they are also lost in themselves, in a more metaphysical sense, in that they do not know who they are. While the player does not know who Eliot Maslow is, and, since he has amnesia, neither does he, the player is simply not lost in identity. History is part of the matter of identity, this answers where the character comes from, but it is also coupled with a side of agency. The audience does not know who the characters are, but despite this, the characters know their own history. They only come to know who they are when they confront their history and decide on new actions. The player only has a few potential actions, and ultimately has no agency. Many of the puzzles and plot elements are treated as though there is a single correct solution, which advances the story, and anything that is not this solution is a failure. The result of this is handing to the player a solution, which is given as a result of puzzle solving, not deliberation or introspection. Many characters in Lost have taken an exceedingly long time to grow and mature, and during this time they have avoided and fled history, until finally confronting it and moving on (eg, Charlie, Sawyer), or failing to and disintegrating entirely (eg, Jack). In these cases, there is not a single correct solution or answer to the characters’ problems. Rather, there is a difficult and dizzying space of potential actions, and it is rarely clear as to which of these is the correct or best one. This is why the characters in the television show are lost. By making there be a right answer, the game deprives the player of this possible state.

Another issue, though admittedly a somewhat minor one, is the role of canon. Via Domus has an ambiguous relationship with the show’s canon. Lost’s producers have explicitly stated that Via Domus is non canon with the show. While this makes sense on one level, because the player in the game is arguably one of the most important islanders based on the events he experiences, it does not make sense to write-in a new character on the show based on the character from the game. However, the alternate reality game, the Lost Experience is largely considered canon, so there is some murky territory around the games. Parts of the player’s adventure lead to areas in the world which have not been in the show, some of which may appear at some points, and others which may not. The result of this is that the game does not feel quite at home with the Lost world. Like an “artist’s rendition” of astrological phenomena, it is denied authenticity even if the subject, the text of the game, is itself considered a fiction within the world.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorUbisoft
TitleLost: Via Domus
Typebook
Context
Tagsgames, adaptation
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

What is a story world, anyway?

[Research] (05.22.09, 1:10 pm)

Recently I have been shifting my focus from looking at story worlds proper to the mechanics. I think that worlds are still at the heart of the matter, but what a world is may need to be expanded a little. For adaptation, it is necessary to try to get underneath a text to understand what it is about. We can do this in two main ways, I think. The first is to look at aesthetics. Aesthetics is not just visual qualities or imagery, but is about emotional understanding. A work is understood aesthetically when it affects the reader at an emotional level. Aesthetics are experienced bodily and synaestheticaly. The second way to look at works is rhetorically. At the rhetorical level, the work is there to make an argument, to persuade, to say something about the real world. Rhetoric works at a more explicitly mechanical level, presenting an argument in allegorical or analytic form. However, the aesthetic works according to mechanics as well, but instead of using languages of causality, it operates using an emotional language. Both aesthetic and rhetoric are interwoven, and are part of a text’s mechanics.

Mechanics explains how a text works, what it does when the reader attempts to read and engage with it. It is not static and immutable, but is a system that the reader will decipher, play with, pick apart, imagine, theorize about, and understand.  I think that to answer the question of what is a text about, it is necessary to discover how it works. Some, but not all texts work through exploring a story world. A world is some sort of setting or stage in which the text exists and takes place. By its nature, the world must therefore exist beyond the bounds of the text. A story world may accommodate many possible stories existing within it, and may change along with the narratives themselves. The story is thus situated in the world. Because the actual story is about something, and that aboutness can be expressed through its mechanics, there is an intimate relationship between the story mechanics and the story world. Using the metaphor of simulation, we could say that the story world is a simulation of the mechanics.

This understanding of world is very valuable, but has some fuzzy edges. Namely, there is ambiguity as to how closely a world is connected to a story. If we view worlds as analytic tools, we do not need to be concerned over whether the story world technically includes all of the details of the story, but there become concerns when there are multiple stories set in the same world. Many authors make use of fictional universes and write stories that take place within them. These stories will likely have some degree of overlap in what they are about, but are unlikely to be the same, thus, there is probably some sort of core story world that is the base of this fictional universe shared by these stories, within which operates some set of mechanics that is general to each story. Each individual story with its own particular mechanics is a kind of extension of this shared foundation.

It is possible to apply the principle of the story world to other narratives, but in some cases the worlds that might result are confusing or perverse. For example, Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a story that exists in intersections of story worlds, there is something there that ties them together but it is the very process of creating new worlds. The rest of the worlds are simply fragments, but strung together to produce a definitive arc. We could argue for a “world” that encompasses all of these simultaneously, but this would lead to a mess. We can still understand it as a coherent system with clear mechanics, namely, about reading and building new worlds with each novel fragment read. Another corpus that cannot be made into a world is the monomythic collection of Russian Folktales described by Propp. These are well defined formally, and each has a common morphology, but as a whole they do not make a clear world. We could imagine a world where each object or situation in the world can endlessly substituted, and the only thing that remains is the commonalities between the equivalence classes of the substitutions. This schizophrenic world does not exist in time, nor beyond the narrative on which it is based.

So it does not make sense to argue that every narrative or related collection of narratives have worlds, but this prompts a few other questions: What relations make narratives share worlds? Is it spatio-temporal? Is it theme, genre, or mechanics? What narratives may we safely examine as worlds, and when does it become problematic?

Some findings on immersion

[Research] (05.11.09, 9:37 am)

Immersion has been a prickly issue due to a number of points. One is the Immersion Fallacy, which I have briefly written about, as have a number of others. Immersion is an overused and overhyped term that attempts to communicate a lot of ideas. One of these ideas is a sense of presence, where one feels like the world is real and one’s actions in that world are immediate– not just in the sense of instant, but literally without a medium. That idea is closely related to media transparency, where we might interact with an interface but become so accustomed to it that it no longer feels like a surface that we interact with. Game controllers are good examples of transparent media to experienced game players. One tenet of the immersion fallacy is that interfaces obstruct immersion, and should be removed to give a greater sense of “being there”. This is false because sometimes we actually want an interface now and then…

Immersion relates to adaptation in an interesting way, though. If we think of immersion as being about presence, being in a world, and imagine that narratives are essentially about worlds, then it seems that one way for adaptation to work would be to create that sense of being there, and leave it at that. I just discovered Steve Gaynor’s blog Fullbright, which recently made an argument that an often unrecognized method of expression in games is through that sense of being in a new place. It could be argued that architecture is an art form which has that potential as well, but games are more clearly worlds than spaces. Gaynor makes the argument that playing a game can give a similar experience to taking a vacation to a far-away country, to experience something new, but then return having been changed and affected by the experience. Books too offer the capability to experience new worlds as a tourist. Many works of literature make use of this metaphor, and popular childrens’ reading campaigns make use of it as well, for better or for worse.

I think that the idea of being in a world is important, but I would have to make the argument that in both games and narratives, despite the clear use of world and setting, there is also an element of action. The vacationing tourist does not just inhabit the worlds, but takes action within them, taking part in activities and joining the culture as a participant. To recall anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Bradd Shore, culture is a living and changing document, and it must be enacted to have meaning. A reader of a book does not enact the contents of its passages, but does mentally simulate and imagine them in a mental stage. The player of a game actually participates and explores the world. For example, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus have minimal gameplay (the latter is still intense at points, but spaced out), and the activity of the player is still a very active and engaged exploration, full of movement, climbing, and navigation. Even in architecture, a space is meant to be experienced physically and bodily, but the experiencer is still in the place for a reason, partaking of an activity. The tourist is not passive, but is perpetually engaged.

I am certain that it was not Gaynor’s argument that the player is passive, but I think that a connection can be made between the immersion model of game worlds and the mechanics oriented model.

Worlds, Models, and Mechanics

[Research] (05.09.09, 10:58 pm)

I want to write out some additional thoughts that came up after writing my quals, (but through gross neglect on my part never made it in).

A central tenet to my theory is that narratives take place in worlds. It is a far cry to claim that narratives are worlds, but it is certainly possible to view a narrative as a document through a literary or textual world. These worlds are dynamic, the narrative occurs because time passes in the world and its state changes. The presentation of the events that incur these changes may be rendered in many different ways, and in any concievable sequence, but there is still a story-time in which events take place in a chronological order, where causality causes one event to occur as a result of another.

For a world to be dynamic means that its state changes, the meaning of this is highly ambiguous, but it can be thought to be the space of relevant details and information that is meaningful for changes to be elicited in the world. In fiction, it is clear that some details are meaningful and others are not. Some details are included to provide a background, tone, or mood, but others are provided to be consequential. If this detail was not present, or different, then the story would have played out differently. Classical drama is all about consequential elements, where grander than life characters are introduced only by direct declarations of these factors. In narrative presentation, there is a difference between what details are shown versus told, and sometimes consequential elements are determined by an author, but illustrated only through showing, and are never told explicitly.

Once we have an idea of what a fictional world’s state is, namely, its significant variables, then we can consider what the mechanics of the world are. Mechanics are the rules and conditions by and under which changes occur. Again, mechanics are highly dependent on interpretation. What one reader sees as mechanics of a story world might be very different from the interpretation of another. Novels, particularly, are also “realistic” in nature, though what this means is variable; realism means that not only are there mechanics deliberately present within the story world, but the reader must also incorporate their perception of the mechanics of everyday life into the world. Adopting this sensibility, we can see Frederic Jameson’s Political Unconsicous as documenting the intermingling of an individual’s cultural context with the social world of the fiction.

Exactly what a mechanic is, is also very hard to pin down. How mechanics might be documented and explained in a work is also hard to imagine, because it could be great or little. For instance, a very loose and general mechanic that might be found in English Regency literature could be “if a man loves a lady, he will want to marry her.” This is a very general rule, but it is cogent enough to describe something significant. A more precise and detailed mechanic might be “if two people are interacting, each has a status, and whoever has higher status has social power over the other; higher status can enable the following actions: embarassing, persuading, condescending, or commanding.” This is very specific, but leaves open many questions, as to what exactly these actions are, what their consequences and parameters are, and so on.

I used to use the term model to describe the state and mechanics of a world, and simulation to describe the dynamics. I have found these terms vague and cumbersome, but they are still generally useful in their own right. Model in particular is difficult because it shares usage with many other disciplines, which can be useful to derive synthesis, but sometimes can be misunderstood. In cognition, model is generally used to refer to “internalized models” for use in planning, where an agent plans around a world that is entirely stored in its artificial mind. I have found the term “perspective” to actually be very useful instead, and giving my models an optical metaphor. A model in this case is a way of seeing the world. This can be used to see particularly useful in considering dynamics and mechanics, because the makeup of each is dependent on the interpretation of the observer.

If we see a narrative as a world, where the world is dynamic and controlled by mechanics, there is still a lot that needs to be done before we can bring it into the territory of something that is adaptable. My particular interest is in games, but games are not the only types of adaptations that can benefit from the approach of story-worlds.

Many adaptations aim on filling out a single story world, and a single flow through time of that world (the history of the world is static, and cannot be changed), but can offer new perspectives and other details. It is in this sense that adaptations are built as transmedia artifacts, that develop a single canon. Here, there is one story world, and each adaptation offers a new perspective of some part of that story world. This is particularly common in many popular pulp and science fiction works, where each narrative builds to the richer sense of the world. This approach runs counter to the notion of the text as variable, but does easily segue into exploring things that could happen.

Games are important to explore in adaptations, and I would argue that the are actually crucial. Games can render the dynamics of a story world, and have the potential for getting outside of the linearity of narrative, and outside of the idea that the story world is fixed. This does not always happen, though. Many games, in particular many adaptations do not have a potential to vary or change the outcomes in the story world that they are based on. There is still a dimension of play, but this is not in the sense of playing with a system. It is important to remember that the play is the name of the button on the VCR and DVD player, that it is the name for theatric productions. In these cases, play is not about playful manipulation, but about executing a process, about movement, about enactment. In most game adaptations, the player is given control over a character, and is able to move that character around, essentially piloting the character through some environments from the original narrative, and being able to stumble on nodes of plot in order to progress in the story. There is still play, the player virtually enacts the deeds of the character, but does not control them.

Games have mechanics as well, and this dates back to the simplest pre-digital games. The mechanics of games are their rules, the criteria by which the state of the game may advance, and describes the potential actions of the player(s). The mechanics of games are themselves representative, and evocative of the mechanics of systems encountered in everyday life. With analogous or allegorical interpretations, the mechanics of a game might be said to represent many other dynamical processes found in everyday life. Games can have a significant communicative, rhetorical, and emotional power even when the representative power is small.

So, there is a connection, but not necessarily a clear path between games and narratives. Both are dynamical systems, and both have mechanics. However, it is worth being reminded at this point that the mechanics of games, particularly the capacity of games to be played, are not the same thing as the mechanics of story worlds. In order for game mechanics to work, they must be playable. Not all story world mechanics are playable. The example earlier that “if a man loves a lady, he will wish to marry her” clearly makes sense as a story world mechanic, but does not make all that much sense to be played. In a tabletop enacted roleplaying game, or in an improvisational theatre performance, it would probably be doable, but not in a videogame. I think it makes sense that the taks of the adapter then, is to transform the mechanics of the story world into the game. This involves finding out what mechanics can be played, and finding clear ways to reproduce them.

In many game adaptations, the adaptor usually starts with the question of “what is this original work about?”, and tries to design mechanics for the result, but there is a lot of room in that question. I think that examining the types of mechanics of the storyworld and the types of mechanics in the game provides a clear methodology for analysis and criticism of game adaptations. With any luck, it may also form a method for creating adaptations as well. Ultimately, though, things are still just a matter of perspective.

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Historical origins and AI in fictional worlds

[Research] (04.20.09, 5:56 pm)

The following extrapolates some notes taken earlier today.

I have been looking at a lot of AI papers, and these have tended to fall within two camps: modeling characters, and modeling stories. There is also a number of works that fall between these ideas, so they can be seen to represent something of a spectrum of AI work that addresses games and narrative. The group that aims on modeling characters seeks to create intelligent agents within worlds, and these agents generally form their actions according to metaphors of planning. Based on their goals (which may be subjective), they plan actions that will be instrumental in achieving those goals. The second group aims on controlling the story, implementing a story as a system that can be executed within a game. A player’s interaction can be directed to go along with one of the branches or possible directions that the story can take, and usually a director or drama manager can enable or disable parts of the world that will facilitate the player’s progression through the story.

I believe that these approaches are flawed. Hybrids will not solve the problem because there is something missing. Fiction takes place in story worlds, and in simulating these worlds, the most significant element should not be character or story, but mechanics. A story works in a particular way, within fiction, the events that occur happen because of a particular set of values and rules. What is created in fiction is a particular story that happens to occur within a space of many potential stories. It should not be the agenda of adaptation to reconstruct the original story. The character based approach also will fail unless it accounts for the mechanics and values of the fictional world. For instance, Pizzi and Cavazza’s Madame Bovary project takes enormous strides forward in representing emotional logic, but the rules of the world might have been better served by mechanics that explore the sensation of bourgeoisie boredom, dissatisfaction, and romantic disenchantment.

My particular domain of focus has been Jane Austen, and she emerged from the tradition of the epistolary and the picaresque (the traditions of Richardson and Defoe, respectively). Epistolary novels frequently described love, loss, and class boundaries, while the picaresque portrays rogueish realism. An important detail about Austen is that she wrote her novels first in epistolary form, but then rewrote them in third person. This in of itself is a form of adaptation, but also frames the story as taking place within a coherent world, supported not only by narration, but also by a “backstory” of letters, essentially in-world communication. This idea follows in the tradition of the Brontë family, who began writing only after having created an entire imaginary world, originally inspired by toy soldiers. In this tradition, the stories are not the original works, but threads that emerged from this rich and deep world. What is most fascinating is how the evolution of the Brontë’s imaginary world resembles, with stunning similarity, the emergence of tableop roleplaying from war games. This tradition of building imaginary story worlds has continued, and can be seen in the cultures surrounding multiplayer games, and also appears within literary works as well, for instance Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawhpa County.

Summarizing research

[Research] (04.17.09, 8:06 pm)

This documents some of the general notes on my research that have been floating around in my head. Important elements to be discerned later are:

  • Define the problem space, “Here is the problem that I have defined”
  • Define methodology, resources, approach, “Here are my tools to address the problem”
  • Define what results and conclusions have been reached, “Here is the deliverable”

I apologise for the extremely rough nature of these notes, but I want to put them up somewhere rather than having them disappear.

Summarizing research:

* project goal: adapting novels into games.
* focus: Pride and Prejudice

* Narratives, and novels in particular are already simulations
* Focus for adaptation should be WORLD, not plot
* world works according to model (mechanics)
* model is tied to the work, makes the work what it is (functionally)
* interpreting a model from a work is intrinsically creative

* games and simulations about mechanics (rules)
* games can simulate mechanics of a system (adaptation)
* vocabulary of mechanics used commonly in games is a set of tools

* adaptation involves 2 parts: carry-over, adaptation (analogous extension)
* can involve moving tropes/conventions from one medium to another (mystery novel ->

adventure; action film -> action game)
* specific thing to look at is conflict resolution

* need a critical aesthetics for game adaptations
* we do not want fidelity criticism, but there are games that are better and worse
* believe better adaptations will adapt the underlying mechanics well
* what mechanics are necessary and sufficient for the adaptation to work?

* technology is not a barrier for making game adaptations
* technology may enable better representation of characters

* there is barrier in games that disinclines adaptation of other types of fiction
* we must be open, as a culture, to recieving new types of games

* concern is not reproducing emotion exactly as in original
* concern is not reproducing plot of original
* plot is up to player, player has tools to drive own experience

* perspective is integral to perception of a work
* perspective is tied to how we understand systems
* adaptation of systems gives power to expose new perspectives

* many adaptation ideas lead to percpetions of game mechanics that depart from mainstream
* potential for advancement of reception, understanding of games

* meaning in novel comes from understanding novel as social world, reader simulates
* reader understands (or can understand) characters as deep, with inner lives
* novel is a kind of social laboratory (Lukacs)

>>>> more specific to P&P

* world is social; mechanics are social
* mechanics must be built from social rules, hence sociology
* social mechanics and games reveal character

* for simulation, characters must have autonomy
* we depart from conventions of planning in AI (conflicting goals)
* characters act according to situation and according to social context (thus, cannot be

transplanted without addressing context)

* thus, to simulate P&P, necessary to find how to describe social contexts, and how they

function
* development of AI is thus not in character, but in social world itself
* this method can be applied to other texts

* focus should not be to derive supremely general schema for human behavior in any context
* focus is about specific focused contexts, and representing those clearly
* avoid AI complete pitfall

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