For those interested in learning much more about this topic, Realised Realities’ next Immersive Storytelling course will be held at #UKIE (London) on Tue 12 Nov 2019. Places are still available but act fast as there’s a 16-person limit for this workshop. Click the link to find out more!
Computers struggle with Immersive Storytelling. For all the amazing things our digital creations can do, they can’t yet understand human society well enough to be able to tell us a good yarn. They may be able to pull off a passable JK Rowling impersonation at a distance, but few of us would want to live in these nonsense stories just yet. But a future computer that can adapt and twist a storyline intelligently to accommodate a user’s whims seems increasingly like a distinct possibility.
In real life the closest skill set to this probably belongs to the Game Master or Dungeon Master, the narrator and rules master who ‘runs’ the adventure in a tabletop role playing game like Dungeons and Dragons. The best of these can dynamically weave their own epic tales around their player’s crazy ideas and schemes and deliver complex satisfying interactive narratives over tens or hundreds of hours. YouTube hit Critical Role attracts millions of viewers a month and has delivered over 300 hours of narrative – more than The Simpsons or Grey’s Anatomy – thanks to the impressive improvisational storytelling skills of its host. Every computer Role Playing Game since Colossal Cave Adventure has been effectively trying to replace and automate the Dungeon Master role.
So can an interactive structure, that doesn’t allow this level of authorship, ever produce a satisfying narrative on the same kind of level? Or is it a case of Interactive Narrative still being an immature medium, and its potential audience of millions carrying immature expectations about exactly what the medium is?
The very first stories mankind told around the campfire were interactive stories. They would be re-told and tweaked and tuned in every retelling and for every new audience. The stories that resounded were improved and iterated, the ones that did not were abandoned or adjusted in the telling. For the longest time in our History, this was how all storytelling worked. Theater, long dominant as the primary touch point for stories, has always remained gently interactive and responsive to the audience. But disruptive technologies put a stop to that.
Linear storytelling became the dominant narrative form as technology created and improved new interfaces by which they are presented to their audience. Handwritten books existed for a long time, but it was the development of printing technologies – first woodblock, then moveable type, then Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th century printing press – that caused the dominance of the medium and, at the same time, removed the interactivity from the way stories were experienced. The reactive, adaptive magic of the storyteller gradually became replaced with authors who mastered the fixed form of literature. Radio, cinema and television continued the same interface paradigm in the last century; pre-programmed, one-way conversations where audiences can only watch and listen. For the first three quarters of the 20th Century, the concept of an interactive narrative was more or less absent apart from occasional art-house experiments like Kinoautomat (1967), credited as the first interactive film.
But then the exponential development of computer technology into the home brought interfaces that allowed a two-way conversation between the audience and the screen. In the 1970s and 80’s, as computers became more every-day, it happened alongside an explosion of interest in a new genre of tabletop role playing games, the pen-and-paper role-playing game (RPG). Dungeons and Dragons was the original progenitor of this now-massive sector of the gaming market and remains the most famous and influential to this day. And it continues to rise in popularity, seeing 30%-plus year-on-year revenue growth for the last 5 years.
Videogames and RPGs were a match made in heaven, and the first interactive computer narratives were born. Four decades later, videogames have offered literally tens of thousands of interactive narratives in all different forms and genres and for all different audiences. Computers can deliver a rich interface between the story and its audience. At the same time it can afford players many different types of agency over the outcome of the story’s events. Colossal Cave Adventure, acknowledged as the first ever example of interactive fiction, used a simple text interface to allow the player to interact with an automated narrator that Will Crowther designed, specifically, to replace a human dungeon master.
Today, videogame narratives can offer us increasingly rich, interactive worlds. But as far as we’ve come, the technology and the systems design still haven’t got us to a place where a game algorithm can pull off adaptive storytelling anywhere near as successfully as a human storyteller could.
But it feels like the pace is picking up for Immersive Storytelling. The sheer number of videogames released every month means that more developers, big and small, are collectively moving us more rapidly towards the end goal of an automated Dungeon Master. The titles at the cutting edge of this charge, like the award-winning Divinity Original Sin series, offer rich, deep control over the events of the story. These epic, 200-hour PC games feature complex, dynamic story engines that deliver impressive flexibility and agency to players so they can make the story go their own way. It’s possible to kill your allies, terrorize the villagers you’re supposed to be helping, and completely upend the expected narrative in a myriad of ways. The game’s narrative is less a branching-choice system, and more of a complex story-generating system built around a character’s social and ethical choices as much as the weapons and magic they’re wielding. There’s some incredibly clever writing wrapped around these systems, penned of course by human authors. The immersive storytelling engine offers difficult moral and political choices to players to create a compelling, open-ended tale with all the scope of an interactive Game of Thrones. But it can cope equally admirably with those players who want to break the narrative and see the world burn.
For all the agency games would wish to grant players (and they do so hate to feel constrained), interactive narrative designers always stay mindful of constraining the player. They need to keep enough control over the story that they can exercise their linear narrative tricks and payoffs. They also want to limit interactivity with an eye to keeping the project scope within achievable limits. Everything you want to allow them to do has to be designed, built and tested alongside all the things you’re letting them do.
These constraints might represent a strait-jacket on their agency and influence within the game world, but few players realise that they are for their own good. If we’re to move in a general direction of removing these constraints, then moving away from the Hollywood script approach is the sensible prescription. Trying to cross-breed interactive choice with traditional linear narrative structures makes little sense if you want player choice to feel consequential. This is a fact the games industry has comprehensively mapped out over nearly 50 years of chasing the Dungeon Master in endlessly creative and innovative ways.
For now at least, a human hand is still needed to ensure that narrative arcs are satisfying in the way that audiences expect from linear media. But as technology and clever design make that goal look increasingly achievable, we’re seeing a shift in thinking and approach. We won’t be replacing storytellers with robots just yet, but we’re likely to see AI and clever system design helping mediate between the two. While the computer handles the weird and wonderful whims of the players, a real author will still be needed to give the stories human context and meaning.