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How to steal like an artist

· Interactivity,Storytelling

Have you seen Westworld? My game developer friends are going nuts over that show, because it's using the world of games to tell a story. It is exciting but not surprising, because Jonathan Nolan is one of the show's creators, and he and his brother Christopher Nolan have provided case studies in how to adapt interactive storytelling into a visual medium.

Exhibit A: Inception. That movie is a game.

Nolan’s entertainments, the best ones, anyway, are games. I don’t mean that they resemble puzzles or tricks (though they do that, too), I mean that they are most satisfying when understood as games, not as novelistic narratives. They are contests with rules and phases, gambits and defenses, many losers and the occasional victor, usually a Pyrrhus type.

This line from Inception foreshadows Westworld:

"We create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into that dream, and they fill it with their secrets."

In her excellent book Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray describes what happens when a new storytelling medium arrives (like film, or computers). The first thing that happens is that creatives working in the new medium make a complete hash of things as they experiment, and fail, and stumble around in the dark, learning how their new tools work. The second thing that happens is that artists working in the dominant medium of the day look over, see what's happening, get excited about the possibilities, and start playing with these new tools themselves.

So, for example, look at movies. Early films were pretty basic. They just set the camera in the tenth row of the theater and filmed the play. At some point, somebody must have said, "There must be something else we can do with this thing." So the filmmakers started playing around with things like cuts, and camera angles, and closeups. "Do we have to show him crossing the room and THEN opening the door? That takes so long! Can't we just cut to the chase? The audience is smart, they'll figure out what's going on."

What was the dominant storytelling medium of the early 20th century? It was the novel. If you go back and read books from that era, you'll see novelists describing, in words, things like cuts, and closeups, and other moviemaking tricks. Surprise, olde-tymey readers! Here's something you haven't seen before!

Filmmakers like the Nolans are presenting something that's new to filmgoers, but not to gamers. We can even name some of the tools they're using. Inception presents levels, and a game designer (disguised in the story as an architect). Westworld has NPCs. Other tools don't have a name yet. What do we call an object that keeps the player/audience rooted in a level of reality, like the totem in Inception? What do we call it when we don't know whose story we are watching/playing? We don't have names for these things - yet - but one day we will, if only so that people working on these projects can explain their ideas to each other. "Do that thing where you push the camera in real close! You know, close up!"

Movies have been borrowing videogame story techniques for decades. Look at Groundhog Day. Why does Bill Murray's character come back to life a million times? Who knows! Who cares! It's a tool that we're familiar with - we come back to life in games all the time, after all - and it's a tool we can use to tell a funny story, so let's use it.

And here's one of my favorites from back in the day: Run Lola Run.

We are still learning how to tell stories in this new medium. Even small experiments can pay big dividends. When I worked on Far Cry 2, we used a very basic system that was surprisingly effective, because it hid the story from the player.

When the player approaches an NPC, the game triggers a line of dialog. That line is heavy on gameplay information, light on story. For example, imagine approaching an older, heavyset man in a village. It's someone you already know, so he cuts right to the chase and says, "You know Mbutu's hut on the other side of the hill, yes? Listen: I'll give you a hundred dollars to burn it down."

At that point, the player knows what the game designer wants him to do, and he can carry on. But if the player stays, a second line plays. This one is an equal amount of gameplay advice and story reveals, something like "If you're smart, you'll take the ledger that's hidden underneath the cot. The man kept a second set of books." So now we have an extra action to take (find the ledger) and we know something new about the world (the village leader is corrupt, and now we have some leverage over him).

If the player continues to stick around - if he wants to really know what's going on - a third line plays. "Tell him I sent you. Tell him it was me, his brother. I want him to know it was ME."

This line has nothing to do with gameplay, and everything to do with character - HIS character. This is an NPC with an inner life. But it's hidden from the impatient player. You never need to discover it - unless you want to. The experience is yours to define. 

And isn't that how all relationships are? They only deepen if you stick around and pay attention.

The example I just described above is not high art. It's not even great dialog. It's just a small, simple example of how to use structure to create an interaction that feels real.

A playwright once told me how hard it is to be innovative in her medium because people have been writing plays for thousands of years. "It's all been done," she said. The opposite is true in this medium: so LITTLE has been done. We've barely scratched the surface.

Storytellers like Nolan see the potential and use the tools, to incredible effect - but there are still more discoveries to be made.

This form of storytelling is a lot like a magician's act.

As Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Of course we've all seen interactive storytelling that feels about as magical as this:

But you've gotta start somewhere.

PS - Have you read Steal Like An Artist? It's great. Go get it.

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