Build It to Understand It: Ludology Meets Narratology in Game Design Space

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Michael Mateas (1,3) and Andrew Stern (2,3) (co-authors listed alphabetically) 1 Georgia Institute of Technology 2, Zoesis 3 Building experimental games offers an alternative methodology for researching and understanding games, beyond what can be understood by playing and studying existing games alone. Through a simultaneous process of research, artmaking and product prototyping in the construction of the interactive drama Façade (Mateas and Stern 2000, 2003), new theoretical and design insights into several game studies questions were realized, including in the hotly debated question of ludology vs. narratology. This paper describes some of the ways that building games can inform researchers about what game scholarship should be focused on and why, ways that building games can offer new perspectives on existing forms and genres, and some advantages of building publicly playable games. For some designers and theorists, interactive story worlds are a holy grail of game design (e.g. Murray 1998, Crawford 2004), while for others narrative is antithetical to interactive experiences, destroying the high-agency, procedural potential of games (e.g. Eskelinen 2001, Frasca 2003). Player agency lies at the heart of the tension between games and narrative, and it is precisely here where building experimental, agency-oriented games is especially adept at resolving this tension. A player has agency when she can form intentions with respect to the experience, take action with respect to those intentions, and interpret responses in terms of the action and intentions; i.e., when she has actual, perceptible effects on the game world. Player agency can be further classified into local agency and global agency: local agency means that the player is able to see immediate, clear reactions to her interaction; global agency means that the long-term sequence of events experienced by the player is strongly determined by player interaction. In an interactive narrative, global agency means that what the player does in the moment strongly influences what significant plot points occur in the future. Those who argue against narrative games point to a supposed predetermined or predestined nature of narrative -- that strong narrative structures have complex sequences of cause and effect, complex character relationships and sequences of character interactions. Since player interaction can at any moment disrupt this narrative structure, the only way to maintain the structure is to remove or severely limit the player's ability to affect the structure. This effectively eliminates global agency, forcing the player down a predetermined path. Thus, ludologists argue that narrative must inevitably mean a diminishment in player agency, and should not be used in game design. Furthermore, some ludologists argue that narrative is fundamentally inconsistent with interaction, since for them, narrative refers to a completed temporal structure, while interaction refers to a potential temporal structure (the trace produced by interaction). A pro-story response is that interactive stories shouldn't contain a single completed story line, but rather a potential story space -- the trace of any one player experience carves a particular story trajectory through this space. The ludologist response to this is to flatly claim that such a generative story system is technically impossible, as it would require better-than-human AI to build (Aarseth 1997). The process of building the interactive drama Façade, with the explicit goal to explore new ways to deconstruct the potential events of a dramatic narrative into small grained-size pieces, annotated to allow the system to dynamically mix and sequence the pieces in response to player interaction, has helped us understand that there do in fact exist narrative structures that allow for both local and global agency, that can offer a satisfying dramatic experience for players. Our playable results, albeit in need of further refinement, suggest that the ludologists' assumptions about the compatibility of narrative with interaction, including the technical impossiblity of generative story systems, are overreaching and premature. These results were achievable because the Façade architecture was built to offer authorial affordances for implementing both local and global agency for interactive narrative, without requiring AI-completeness or agents that pass the Turing test. For game studies in general, these results suggest that the authorial affordances of a game's engine and authoring environment are critical for understanding a game's features; game tools and architectures define an authorial space that provides a given balance between authorship and control. In fact, the AI architecture can itself become a design resource for thinking about the game (Mateas 2003). Additionally, there are several advantages from a game studies perspective for pursuing the process of building experimental games as artmaking -- that is, to go beyond thought experiments or minimal closed-door laboratory prototypes, to create reasonably well-polished, publicly playable experiences, that could even serve as commercial product prototypes. First, building completed experiences forces researchers to deal with all of the details that are easy to gloss over when doing thought experiments alone. Building completed games helps one realize that the lack of specificity of generic frameworks, such as Propp's, are of limited utility; in fact, authoring frameworks are needed, not generic story models. Finally, and equally as important, building games may be the most effective or possibly the only way get industry developers to pay attention to academic games research. If academia wants to do more than train future game industry employees, they'll need to build games. Aarseth, E. 1997. Cybertext. Johns Hopkins University Press. Crawford, C. 2004. Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling. New Riders. Eskelinen, M. 2001. Towards Computer Game Studies. Siggraph 2001, Art Gallery, Art And Culture Papers: 83-87. Frasca, G. Ludologists Love Stories Too: Notes From A Debate That Never Took Place. DiGRA Level Up 2003, Utrecht. Mateas, M. 2003. Expressive AI: Games and Artificial Intelligence. DiGRA Level Up 2003, Utrecht. Mateas, M. and Stern, A. 2000. Towards Integrating Plot And Character For Interactive Drama. Socially Intelligent Agents: The Human In The Loop, AAAI Symposium, Sea Crest, MA. Mateas, M. and Stern, A. 2003. Integrating Plot, Character And Natural Language Processing in the Interactive Drama Façade. 1st International Conference on Technologies for Interactive Digital Storytelling and Entertainment, Darmstadt. Murray, J. 1997. Hamlet On The Holodeck. MIT Press.
Contact: Michael Mateas, College of Computing and the school of Literature, Communica,
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