Narrative experimentation

Hi all. I’m interested in the ability of games to tell deep and engaging stories, and how we can tell stories with games in ways that are completely different from traditional forms. So I’ve lately been trying to steep myself in games which do this.

One such game is Judith, by Terry Cavanagh and Stephen Lavelle, which was just released today. I’ve decided to do something of an analysis of the game. I strongly suggest that you play the game before reading this: it’s a very short play, and requires no hand-eye coordination. It runs on Windows, OS-X, and Linux (with Wine).

[spoiler]Judith has an unusual narrative structure for a video game. In fact, it’s a bit confusing at first: the switch to a different perspective character is a bit jarring, and there’s no explicit communication that it’s happening. But I think this is a well-crafted confusion. It happens several times, and there are some cues - some text color changes, and there’s a fading effect, but the first or second time you see this shift it’s not clear what those cues mean. It’s an interesting decision on the part of the developers that all the dialog is unadorned: there is no “I say,” “She says,” around the dialogue, and the only indication that someone different is speaking is that the color of the text changes - there is never an explicit indication of which color represents which person; we just figure that out from context. Anyway, it soon becomes clear that you’re controlling two different characters - an adulterous man on a tryst with his adulterous lover in an abandoned house, and a woman who lived in that house with her husband long ago (the latter seeming to be a reference to Blue Beard).

This game doesn’t really have any choices in it, although it may seem it does at first. All doors but one are always locked, and the one unlocked door is always the only way to progress the plot. At first the game looks open and there is some sense of confusion - we don’t know who these characters are, we don’t know what exactly we should be doing, and we don’t know why we’re switching perspectives. But after a couple of these perspective switches, we know exactly what to do; we know the rhythm of the narrative. We’re consistently switching back and forth between the present man and the past woman. Every day the woman wakes up, explores her husband’s secret dungeons, and goes to bed. Between each of these days, our present man makes progress in the search for his lover.

Both of these plots end in reaching the same room, but one is chilling and another is a great relief. The woman (who at this point I felt was far too naive, but I was still sympathetic) learns her husband’s final and terrible secret, while the man is reunited with his lover. One moment we’re horrified, but the next we’re relieved.

This game shows that something with very limited player agency and with effectively no choice can still present an intriguing experience. But why does this need to be a game, if it’s linear? Why not just make an animated movie? Well, let’s see.

First, the simple fact that we’re controlling the characters may increase our sympathy with them. It’s certainly not true that simply controlling a character makes us sympathetic to him, as many games with horrible protagonists have shown us, but that’s not to say that our interest in that character won’t be increased at all by our controlling them. I am the man looking for his lover, I am the woman learning her husband’s horrible secrets. When I learned about the prisoner for the first time, for a moment I reacted: jesus, what should I do? This is too much for me! And so I “ran” (that is, very purposefully pressed my arrow keys) out of the dungeon, momentarily relieved to have the door close.

I think another reason that this works so well as a game may lie in another idea which I’ve been trying to crystallize lately. It has to do with explicitly limiting player agency. This comes up in a very interesting way when we, as the woman, approach the dagger in the husband’s armory. For every interaction in the game, there is a simple sentence which appears when the action is possible; most often it’s something like “Open Door” or “Take Necklace”. But when we approach the dagger, the action text is “Take dagger and kill the prisoner”. I had an interesting reaction to this when I saw it – at first, some sort of surprise. Then I thought, well, what else would I do with the dagger? I wasn’t even thinking about killing the prisoner as I approached the dagger; it was just an item in the room and I wanted to approach it, examine it, take it, and see what I could do with it. When we interact with the dagger, our character automatically walks down the hall to the prisoner and kills him, in what I suppose should be called a cutscene. Why did the developers do it this way? Why not just allow us to take the dagger, and if we choose (even if there is no actual choice in order to advance the plot), walk down the hall and have the option to “Kill prisoner with dagger”? I’m not really sure; maybe they just decided that the player might not realize that they should be killing the prisoner with it. Perhaps the message is: This is What Happens. There is nothing else you can do; you must accept what needs to be done and you must deal with the consequences. What’s happening here is that the author is limiting our agency. He’s preventing us from carrying out the actions we want to do at a fine-grained level, and instead giving us a simple option. I think limiting agency can be a very important part of developing immersive games, but the way it’s used here is even more interesting, as if it’s actually reinforcing a thematic point. Or maybe it was a completely arbitrary decision. :slight_smile: Regardless, I think that this is something unique to games. It may seem like it’s just taking this particular game closer to the experience of the movie, but the interesting thing is that it’s happening in the context of greater agency, and so it’s possible to reduce this agency in certain parts of the game, and if it’s done with finesse, it can help to get a point across or at least evoke some interesting emotion in the player.[/spoiler]

So how is this relevant to IF? How can we give these properties to our games, and what will and won’t work in the context of our genre? How can we make linear IF that doesn’t feel claustrophobic and overly limiting?

I could go on and try to answer those questions, but I’ve been writing for long enough, so I think I’ll just end with that.

I was able to play this tonight, and I’ve just finished reading the comments on the TIGSource front page. With the caveat that I greatly enjoy Terry’s and increpare’s other games, I have mixed feelings about taking the mechanics of Judith that you talk about and applying them to IF, for a couple of reasons.

First, IF already has done linear narrative with limited (and an elastic sense of) player agency, and done it well; the examples almost are too numerous to list. However this is a fairly new idea in the kinds of genres that games like Judith (or Passage, Passages, Don’t Look Back, etc.) are borrowing their mechanics from – FPSs, sidescrollers, platformers and so on. I think it feels fresh and different partly because these games are subverting the traditional expectations of those genres. But I feel it would be a mistake to think what makes Judith feel fresh and different would also make IF feel the same.

The second reason follows from the first, really – if new ground is retread with old concepts, even if they’re in a different vehicle, I don’t think IF will be going in any new directions. I’m not one who only wants to go new places, but I definitely enjoy doing so ;D.

However to go back a little on my previous comment, I do think a concept of limiting a player’s specific agency can work with IF in some new ways that haven’t been explored a great deal until recently. I say specific to contrast it with a general concept of agency, the choices the player has at a particular moment. By specific I mean narrowing down those choices to a small number of verbs relevant to and intrinsically tied into the work itself, verbs which by their very presence in the work reinforce the nature of the work itself. By expanding and limiting that specific agency I think you could do some interesting things.

As George said, IF has already explored limited player agency - whether it’s in the likes of Rameses and Photopia, or, at the logical extreme, in CYOA games. I think why Judith works so well is that it places this limited interaction at the narrative level within a 3D environment that you can explore physically (only, you know, a virtual kind of physicality).

To me, the potential for limiting player agency in IF should be more about preventing people being flummoxed and undercut by the immense number of syntactically valid commands. Ideally, I’d even like to see Judith kind of reversed in a game with text input and output: letting you explore the narrative with a nice amount of freedom, while the physical concerns of geography and action are handled automatically.

So yeah, the thing that Judith does relies on the list of verbs or displaying the possible action that is mostly an adventure/RPG game thing these days. A kind of, “surprise! you weren’t expecting this option to be here, were you?”. Although, there are definitely some opportunities for this kind of thing in IF…

It’s interesting to me that elements of game UI that are purely utilitarian at first can become dramatic parts of the narrative if you twist them at certain parts of the game. One extreme example of this in IF is Shrapnel, where even the main UI element of IF - text printed on a screen - is distorted as you play. The status bar and prompt could also be fun to play with, and I’m sure other games have done so. Maybe the “topics suggested” thing that I’ve seen TADS games use (like your Dead Like Ants game, Pacian) could also be used to “surprise” the player this way. “You could talk about her wings, herself, your sisters, or your crushing emotional despair at never having been loved by your mother.” :slight_smile:

The thing at the end of Photopia was pretty cool, and I thought it was kinda nifty that he decided to describe the actions that the character does in terms of command prompts, but essentially that was just a cut-scene. I think a cooler example of this player agency stuff is in (you guessed it, a Cadre game) . Granted, this is just a jokey 5-minute game in response to a comment someone made on his blog, but I think it’s a better example of manipulating player agency than Photopia, since the manipulation seems more “connected” to the player’s commands.

Speaking of players being flummoxed by vocabulary: I was thinking the other day about how neat it would be to write an IF game where the only verbs are >USE, >JUMP OVER/ON, and >TALK TO (in addition to the basic movement verbs. although…) I’m going to bet that there’s been a Mario parody done in IF already. :slight_smile:

Also, I should apologize for the last few sentences in my original post. I had written up the entire thing for my blog or a forum, but at the last minute decided to post it here. “Oh, I need to relate this to IF somehow.” And so my tired mind produced those questions. I didn’t mean to imply that limited player agency and linear plot hasn’t been done in IF; I know very well that it has, since my main interest as both a player and a writer has been in linear, story-strong IF.