This post is for all the creatives out there dealing with audiences that like to get in on the action. Game writers, standup comedians, theatrical actors, software developers -- you guys know all too well that you are dealing with audiences that have minds of their own. This one's for you.
When I first started working in interactive entertainment, I poured my heart and soul into the work. So did the rest of the team. We were so excited to have the chance to tell stories - for a living! Holy shit! It was like winning the lottery. Millions of users would enter our world! They'd fall in love with our characters; they'd care about our plot twists; they'd get lost in the magic.
Is that what you do, dear reader? Do you shed a tear over the drama unfolding onscreen? Or do you do this, instead?
If your answer is "Yes, hell yes, of course I skip them, is that a joke," you are not alone. Most people skip right over them - and we watched them do it, in user-testing sessions, from behind a one-way mirror. In the dark. Glumly. While drinking heavily.
(Dressed just like that.)
We had to figure out what we were doing wrong. (Our jobs were on the line, after all.) Was it us? Did we just suck? Sometimes, the answer was Why yes, in fact, we did suck. So we worked hard and delivered better material. But our numbers didn't improve.
After a while, it seemed like it wouldn't matter if Hemingway himself showed up and took a writing job at the studio - there was no storyline compelling enough to keep the audience engaged when they had the power to peace out at any moment. What was the problem? And, more importantly, what was the answer?
It turned out that we knew the answer all along. We had learned it in high school. We just needed to get back to basics, and take it from there.
As all English teachers know, the main character in a story is the protagonist. And that character is defined by his or her desire. In other words, there is something he wants - very badly - and he is going to have to overcome all kinds of obstacles to get it.
Movies usually feature strong protagonists. Look at Saving Private Ryan. Tom Hanks' character knows what he wants, and he's willing to fight the Nazis to get it. Not Illinois Nazis, either; real Nazis. That's dedication.
So who is the protagonist in a game?
Well...it has to be the player, right?
The player is at the center of the action; that's true. And the player does have a desire line, a strong one, in fact. But it's not connected to the story -- it's tied to the game itself.
Players want to play the game.
If the story helps them progress through the game, they'll buy in. And if the story gets in the way of the experience, they will skip those moments faster than you can say, "But I think you'll like this."
Does this sound like a stretch? Well, imagine that you are playing a game. In the beginning, you are given the assignment to save the princess -- your one true love. So you head out into the kingdom to do battle with dragons and whatnot.
Halfway through the game, you receive some surprising news. The princess is a traitor! Your job is not to save her; your job is to assassinate her.
But she is your one true love! You can't kill her...can you?
Yes. Of course you can. Because guess what? You know it's all make-believe. And you're not going to give up on the game just because some guy gave you some news you didn't want to hear.
Unless your player is four years old, he KNOWS this is all pretend. There is no princess, there is no alien invasion, there is no spoon.
He's right, of course, and no amount of balderdash is going to convince him otherwise. Hemingway himself could write the most heartwrenching scene about how much the princess loves the hero...and 8 out of 10 players will hit X and skip the scene.
(THAT, by the way, is a good example of a weak desire line.)
So the world is a virtual construct, and nothing means anything!
(Try telling that to this guy.)
At the beginning of The Matrix, Neo isn't Neo. He's Mr. Anderson, and he thinks he is a programmer trapped in a job he hates. Remember this scene at the beginning of the movie? Remember how scared he was to climb outside the building? You could have told him, at that moment, "Hey you'll be fine, none of this is real," but he wouldn't have believed you.
All the non-player characters in a game are like Mr. Anderson. Their world begins and ends inside that virtual world. For them, the story IS a matter of life and death.
And this was the moment that changed the way I think about my work -- the moment I realized that the non-player characters were as important, if not more so, than the player himself.
The player is going to do whatever he wants to do. Maybe he'll buy into the story; maybe he'll completely ignore it. There's no controlling him. But as writers, we had complete control over the other characters. If we focused on bringing them to life, making them compelling people with hopes and dreams and fears of their own, then the story would suddenly come to life, too. The player could enter this world, and it would feel real - because, for everyone there, it is.
So how does this insight relate to anything outside of games?
Well, it all comes down to empathy -- taking the time to understand what's driving the other person, and making choices accordingly.
Everybody on this planet is walking around with their own desire line.
For example, comedians have to figure out, Why is this guy heckling me? Does he genuinely hate my act? Or is he just trying to impress his date? Should I placate him, or destroy him? And is the rest of the room with me, or not? Comedians have to make these kinds of difficult decisions from the stage all the time, and when they read the room correctly, it's an art form all its own. (Steve Hofstetter, I salute you.)
Playwrights working on theater projects like Sleep No More have to ask themselves, What does the audience want? What kind of experience are they open to having? How can we break through their shyness and reserve, and convince them to play along?
Empathy is a big topic, especially when it comes to interactive storytelling. There is plenty to say (and write) about it. But this post is long enough as it is, so I'll save that material for a future post.
Tune in next week, when it's going to be all about Hamlet, and puppetry, and the darkness that is Denmark.
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