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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Asteroids Had A Backstory

See the required reading to see where this is riffing from. I'm not necessarily responding directly to anything in those post - mostly just resounding afterwards.

Regular readers of Cathode will be familiar with some of the points I'll be making.

And as an aside, I'm going to to do my best to avoid dragging academic or technical jargon into this post. Reason for that is that I'm sure most academics are quite aware of most of the below.

There are times when the interliterati sect divide specifically interactive fiction from hypertext fiction. I'm not really against this distinction because only when you try and divide the two can you pull together a list of components which makes the formats operate.

Interactive fiction is often defined by what does has whereas the hypertext by what it does not. Interactive fiction employs a prompt which the user can interact with some kind of process. Hypertext fiction does not. Interactive fiction attempts to define an interactive environment which the player can experiment within. Hypertext fiction does not.

To place this within classic gaming analogies - interactive fiction attempts to emulate a GameMaster. The virtual GM sits behind a screen and will respond to requests or questions, if capable. Hypertext fiction is simply the book and you're left to traverse the (albeit sophisticated) navigation.

This might sound harsh on hypertext fiction. So let's reverse course a bit and examine what hypertext fiction includes that interactive fiction does not. For one thing, HF has a straightforward narrative. The story is its backbone. In fact, some early examples of hypertext fiction barely include anything resembling actual gameplay. Many of these stories are simply being formatted in parrellel. The plot is still linear - but you could choose which portion (or in some cases, perspective) of the storyline you were reading.

By comparison, early examples of interactive fiction barely had any story. In fact, I could level many of the same complaints I've made against Half-Life 2 at Zork. The illustration of backstory is not the same as plot. There might be a grand tale of a Great Underground Empire behind Zork - but the actual story is about someone wandering around a dungeon.

As a complete aside - I believe this inherent gap is the downfall of many game to movie conversions. But I digress.

So we have these two formats: one is akin to passing messages over a screen and the other is something like unfolding a map. One seems rooted in gameplay. The other in narration. Clearly they seem distinct and potentially insoulable.

But of course, that's not the case. There are examples of blending all over the place. Take gamebooks, which add RPG elements to a Choose Your Own Adventure format. (aside: Fighting Fantasy books feature both Steve Jacksons).

I'd even say most modern game design is the combination of interactive and hypertext fiction. Take Wing Commander. Every time you are out flying around shooting space cats, you're sending messages to a GM behind a screen (which processes your velocity, shots, shields, etc. into an environment). When you hit the ship and/or cutscenes - you're selectively choosing portions of a narration (or having past events to select them for you).

This could easily be applied to Deus Ex or Deus Ex II. However, non-branching narrations apply as well ... they just aren't as sophisticated. As the headline says, even Asteroids had a backstory. It's true - I stumbled on the manual when I was packing stuff up for The Move. There's a bit about who you are and what you were doing when you were essentially assaulted by big rocks.

It was actually pretty common for those early arcade games. I think the reason is very simple - in general games can't resist trying to merge these two formats. We're not just talking about Asteroids here ... but Clue as well. All of this gameplay versus narration, immersion versus cinematics, prose versus play stuff ... it's just part of entertainment. We like playing. We like stories. We're greedy. Do the math. I bet if you researched hard enough, you'd find a backstory for chess.

There's a big movement to constantly represent these two forms within each other. Some game designers are kicking traditional cinematics out for in-game sequences (thank you, Valve). Many interliterati speak of emergent narratives. OK, that's jargon. They talk about plot which arises from gameplay. I came, I played, I walk away with a story to tell you.

I think that's all grand. But I think it's a tool in the kit and not the holy grail. I think it's important to keep this stuff distinct so that you have all your options on deck. Because while I don't think these forms aren't insoluable ... I think they can dilute each other. If you want to tell a really powerful story - treat it as a really powerful story. Don't expect the virtual GM to accomplish that for you. If want to make compelling gameplay - make compelling gameplay and story be damned.

Huh, this was supposed to end with a look at Randolph Carter and how it blends (and does not blend the two), but this has gone on long enough. Rant for another day.

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Troy Goodfellow said...

Very interesting post. Wish I had something interesting to say in response.

A lot of RTS games that try to create a new mythology run into this problem. Where an historical strategy game lets us off the hook (we know who the Romans and the French are) a game like Rise of Legends throws you into a world where nothing really makes sense.

A lot of Rise of Legends reviews talked about the mythology of the game as if it was really important, but it isn't. It's just backstory, and the backstory doesn't make much sense. The game doesn't need you to know why one group has steam powered tanks and another has fire breathing demons. You can just accept them as different races and move on.

So why all the attention to the Cuotl as Stargate ripoff? I think because there is a sense that if people worked so hard on the story, the story has to be important somehow.

Only it isn't. Not even in the story based campaign.

Josh said...

Another reason to keep the ability to separate them. When you backstory stinks, it doesn't have to drag down your gameplay.

A fault of HL2's, I think. The story/backstory just didn't make much sense and all of it's plot holes were generally in your face.