From 2000 to 2002 I moderated a roundtable at the Game Developers Conference on the subject of Emotional Involvement in Interactive Entertainment. The subject itself was just being acknowledged as a weak link in the medium of interactivity, and these roundtables were an effort to broaden awareness of the problem while focusing efforts on possible solutions.
Mark Barrett has been a freelance game designer since 1995. For clients such as Massive, Activision and WildTangent he has performed a variety of services including scriptwriting, game design and mission design. A member of the Writers Guild of America, Mark is the moderator of the Interactive Storytelling forum on the Gamasutra message boards, and has written a number of essays and articles on game design theory and practice (available at http://www.prairiearts.com/design.htm). Dark Side of the Moon, which Mark co-wrote and co-designed, was nominated for a 1999 Interactive Achievement Award by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences.
This roundtable seeks to move the quest for emotional involvement beyond old interactive storytelling arguments about how stories, games and technology can or cannot be hammered together, toward a new paradigm in which all approaches and techniques serve to determine and heighten a player’s emotional and imaginative experience. Moderated by a storyteller who has successfully transitioned to interactive entertainment, and who thoroughly understands the limited utility of linear narratives in an interactive medium, this roundtable is intended for participants seeking common ground and common experiences upon which to build. Key to this communal endeavor is a conviction that no one is going to solve the problem by accident, and acknowledgment that reaching the promised land is just damn hard.
Intended Audience and Prerequisites
This roundtable is for people who are interested in what the moderator considers an unsolved problem: how to create deep emotional involvement using the medium of interactivity. Prerequisites are familiarity with any part of the wasteland that currently exists between Doom and Heart of Darkness, an uneasy feeling that computer games are not reaching the immersive depths they’re capable of reaching, and a willingness to listen to the theories and experiences of other explorers.
What is the idea takeaway from this presentation?
Participants will better understand how to deliver emotional power and depth in their works, as well as why such an objective makes sense commercially and critically. Key concepts to be discussed include role, transparency, investment and simulation.
Syllabus or Expanded Abstract
Your chance to describe your class in greater details to the Advisory Board. For submissions using the input box, please limit your expanded description to 4000 characters. For submissions using the file upload, please limit your expanded description to one to two pages (we have to read hundreds of these). Upload file must be in a text (.txt) format. Absolutely no proposal will be considered without a syllabus.
The premise behind this roundtable is that designers and developers are interested in deepening the emotional power of their work, but are frustrated by the fact that past attempts have clearly failed, which means that marketing isn’t supporting new initiatives. If attendance and participation for the previous two years is any barometer of industry sentiment, this premise is clearly correct.
Moderated by a professional writer of fifteen years experience who made a complete transition to interactive six years ago, the roundtable seeks to accomplish two main goals over the course of the conference. First and foremost a supportive marketplace of ideas needs to be created which presupposes that emotional involvement is germane to interactive design. Past failures to graft stories and games together, and the pressures of the market, have driven many proponents of emotional involvement to the sidelines, and that is not a healthy trend for the industry.
Second, various preconceptions and assumptions about emotional involvement need to be openly contested and debated, so that participants can see whether these apparent obstacles actually preclude the game designs they want to create. For example, any design which relies on language AI in order to maintain suspension of disbelief will almost certainly fail, while designs which recognize the limitations of language interaction (e.g. The Sims) will fare much better.
During the roundtable we will constantly explore the issue of creating emotional involvement in interactive entertainment by harnessing techniques derived from every possible source and technique. Key to this exploration is the idea that instead of trying to make stories which are interactive, or trying to add stories to interactive games and toys, the real objective is creating and sustaining deep emotional and imaginative involvement in the player’s mind by any means possible. If we can do that, the currently divisive and stigmatized term ‘interactive storytelling’ can be left in the dust, and we can get on with the business of helping players define their own narrative experiences through emotion, rather than solely through plot or victory conditions.
Issue to be touched on and pursued as they arise during the three roundtable sessions include:
* The inherent conflict between interactivity and storytelling.
* The stigma of ‘interactive storytelling’, and why that stigma is warranted.
* How failed attempts to design interactive stories have crippled and confused further development.
* The difference between pursuing interactive stories versus emotionally compelling interactive experiences.
* The difference between games and interactivity.
* How emotional involvement must be designed into a product intentionally: it doesn’t just ‘happen’.
* How, from the player’s experience, caring about outcomes can equal a narrative experience.
* Techniques and technologies that can help us create emotional involvement, including believable characters, which are not synonymous with human, life-like or realistic characters.
* Techniques and technologies that we should quit pining for, such as transparent language AI.
* Transparency – the gateway to imaginative involvement for all mediums, including interactivity.
* Investment – the primary means by which we can get users to care about outcomes and events in interactive works.
* Role – the ‘ground zero’ of designing for emotional involvement, and why role needs to be clearly differentiated from character.
* Simulation – the non-gaming version of rules-determined interactivity, and why it is the answer to all of our prayers.