‘Walking simulator’ as technique, not genre

Games like Gone Home, Firewatch, and The Stanley Parable are sometimes called “walking simulators,” a term that started out as derogatory before it was appropriated, or at least accepted, by people who like these games that focus more on story and exploring a space than on puzzles, fighting, and whether you win or lose. But in reading an article about the making of the interactive short film Solace, I was surprised to see the term applied to something that isn’t a game at all:

The original concept could be boiled down to a cartoon you could play with. Like a more traditional film, I wanted the story to be front and center — the interaction should not overpower the narrative. The challenge was to balance playability with the joy of sitting and listening to a good story, well told.

From the start it became apparent that there was a conflict between listening to the narrator’s voice and playing with the interaction. If any of interaction was too complicated, or absorbing, users would miss key moments in the narrative. On the other hand, not being a traditional animation, if the interaction wasn’t strong enough, a user would get bored. This was an experience that couldn’t use traditional game mechanics, or puzzles in general. It had to be closer to a film that you are mindlessly toying with. Nothing to solve. Nothing to complete.

Through numerous iterations and user testing, the end result can be described (in the trendy parlance) as a ‘2D walking simulator’. The user plays with each of the 17 scenes, but their actions don’t drive the narrative. Each scene and the interaction within the scene is a metaphor for the story at that particular point. Sometimes it is as simple as what the narrator says is what the user sees. At other times, the interaction referred or alluded to greater themes of the story.

This offhanded comment by Evan Boehm does something brilliant: It redefines “walking simulator” as a storytelling technique rather than a game genre, a technique that strikes what I think is a very satisfying balance between player agency and authorial control.

Quietly personalized stories

Sam Barlow, the author of Her Story, is now at a company called Eko, thinking about interactive storytelling without the need for explicit choices from the viewer:

Barlow was uncertain how much of the “WarGames” tracking mechanics he should reveal to the viewer. “The two-million-dollar question is: Do we need to show this?” he said. He believed that interactive films will increasingly resemble online ads: unobtrusively personalized media. “When ads first started tracking you, for the first few months you’d be, like, ‘How did they know?’ A couple of months later, you’d be, like, ‘Of course they knew. I was Googling baby formula.’ And now it’s, like, ‘I’m still getting spammed for vacation properties around Lake Placid, and I’m, like, Dude, we went. You should already know!’ ”

The entire article, “Will interactive films be this century’s defining art form?,” is worth reading. 

Hypertext narrative contrasted with interactive fiction

As I continue to figure out the different types of interactive storytelling out there, this dialogue between Emily Short and Mark Bernstein was helpful:

Emily: I like the distinction between calligraphic (sparsely linked) and sculptural hypertext (densely-linked, controlled by rules); though I think I tend to associate hypertext only with the former kind of work. When I hear “hypertext”, I assume something with minimal modeling behind the scenes.

Mark: This is an interesting – perhaps the interesting – distinction between the IF and hyperfiction traditions. IF is inclined to model story, while HT is inclined to model — or to believe itself to be modeling, plot. I don’t believe this has ever been stated clearly. Has it?

UPDATE: Mark Rickerby gets at something similar:

The core distinction [between parser games and choice fiction] is between the story unfolding through actions modifying a world model and the story developing through predefined narrative branches.

 

Writers of writers

In a couple previous posts, I wondered about what it means for humans’ role in the creative process when computers begin generating texts. Will we be promoted to editors and curators, or be out of a job?

Ross Goodwin provides a different metaphor:

I would have been more nervous about sharing the machine’s poetic output in front of so many people, but the poetry had already passed what was, in my opinion, a more genuine test of its integrity: a small reading at a library in Brooklyn alongside traditional poets.

Earlier in February, I was invited to share some work at the Leonard Library in Williamsburg. The theme of the evening’s event was love and romance, so I generated several poems [1,2] from images I considered romantic. My reading was met with overwhelming approval from the other poets at the event, one of whom said that the poem I had generated from the iconic Times Square V-J Day kiss photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt “messed [him] up” as it seemed to contain a plausible description of a flashback from the man’s perspective.

I had been worried because, as I once heard Allison Parrish say, so much commentary about computational creative writing focuses on computers replacing humans—but as anyone who has worked with computers and language knows, that perspective (which Allison summarized as “Now they’re even taking the poet’s job!”) is highly uninformed.

When we teach computers to write, the computers don’t replace us any more than pianos replace pianists—in a certain way, they become our pens, and we become more than writers. We become writers of writers.

“Writers of writers.”

Anybody interested in machine-generated text should read Goodwin’s “Adventures in Narrated Reality”: Part 1, Part 2.

What makes Gone Home a game

In a previous post on the story app Karen I wondered whether it was appropriate for The New York Times to call it “part game” since there is no way to lose. Turns out, Steve Gaynor, the writer and designer of Gone Home, presented a very thoughtful answer to this and related questions about what makes a “story exploration video game” a game in a 2014 presentation.

He lists the aspects of Gone Home that have been criticized for being un-game-like:

  • No combat/puzzles
  • No story branching/player builds
  • No failstate
  • Short runtime

And then lists the things that Gone Home does have that, by his definition, qualify it as a game:

  • Variability of player experience
  • Central focus on player agency
  • A spirit of playfulness within its themes and rules

The whole video (55 minutes) is well worth watching.

Video: “Saschka Unseld – Uncovering the Grammar of VR”

Lots of interesting contrasts in this video between film and VR:

  • “In VR, if a story is told well, it actually is all about you.”
  • “If someone falls on their face right next you, it’s not funny.” (As opposed to pratfalls in film.)
  • “In cinema you have something like the fourth wall…between the [film] world and the audience. In VR there is no such thing as a fourth wall.”
  • “In a movie if you have an intimate scene, you would normally use a close-up shot… [But in VR] that is not what a close-up is. A close up [in film] is using a really long lens and being far away with the camera. But [in VR] because you are sitting really close to someone who is about to cry, that is not comfortable. But if the character sits back there in the corner and is about to cry, you actually have a lot of empathy for him.”

Manipulation as a mode of reading

Roger Ebert, in his arguments that games are not art, made a point about art forcing the viewer/reader to hand over control to the creator, and being transported. But this passage from interactive fiction writer Nick Montfort about a seminal text game suggests a framing for understanding interactivity and its place in art that I think is more promising:

Although at first Bad Machine seems to resist reading, it teaches the persistent interactor to read in a new way — not to glance at a surface and appreciate the play of symbols, not to see a confusion of code that communicates only through its visual aesthetic, but to read and understand the novel description of the IF world, and then to move on to understanding its systematic nature. To gradually accomplish this, it’s necessary to investigate the world, manipulating it.

Manipulation as a mode of reading. Forget (for a moment) the relationship between the audience and the absent creator, and the formal attributes of interactive vs. other kinds of art — What does a reader do with that? What does it mean to “read deeply” in that context, when one often cannot explore every path or aspect of the world being presented?

(Hey, I think I just rediscovered reader-response criticism. Maybe I should label a gameshow wheel with different critical approaches and spin it and see what insights fall out.)

Stories—interactive, generative, interconnecting, API-accessible

Robin Sloan is the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. He also has an email newsletter you can subscribe to. Should subscribe to. I mean, look at this:

I love the Star Wars API and the Marvel API: databases packed full of interconnecting stories that you can query and… well, right now, you can’t do much with whatever you get back, because of course the material is spoken for — copyrighted and locked down. But even so, I love what these projects suggest. APIs for story! APIs for lore!

[…]

You consider all these things together and I think you start to get a sense of where I’m going. I am interested in a new way of telling stories that is sparse and generative; more text than pictures (but pictures help); native to the internet, and to interactive screens; and led by an author, but open, somehow, to everyone.

*blink*

What does that MEAN, exactly? I have some notions, but I’m not going to share them yet, both because they are rough and because (frankly) I think they are really good. I’d rather share a junky prototype than a lofty description, and in 2015, I will.

That’s all I’m quoting, because Sloan doesn’t publish the emails on the web for a reason. (Secrets.) So consider this your inside tip.