Friday, July 22, 2011

Breaking the String: Why Improv Acting Bridges Game and Story

Miriam Ushers Tomb
Location: Grabbing the Polyhedra Dice for Nerd-Night

I've had a good time skimming the 2007 anthology Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. I often start reading seriously in the middle of such works, then skipping backward or forward, but when I saw that Greg Costikyan penned the first essay, I waded in and learned a great deal about why I enjoy the House of Usher project so much.

In Fall, I'll run 20 students in a 200-level literature class through our simulation. The essays in the Second Person collection are giving shape, and theoretical grounding, to some of this 3D work.

Games are Not Stories, Are They?

Costikyan, like me, came along in the era of Avalon Hill's classic board games, bound by rules and not exactly the fodder for stories, and TSR's original Dungeons and Dragons, rife for storytelling if a good Game Master (GM) was posing problems for players. Unlike me, however, Costikyan got to design and publish some excellent games, including one of my all-time favorites, Bug-Eyed Monsters.

So when he wrote of the essential differences between narratives that cannot change quickly (MMOs and MMORPGs) and those that can (tabletop and free-form RPGs), then differentiated them from how stories work, I spotted something I'd not yet been able to put into words:
It's hard to see how the lessons from narrativist RPGs and free-forms can be brought into digital media since they depend so heavily upon a gamemaster and player creativity--and 'player creativity' doesn't generally work well in tandem with 'limited pregenerated digital assets.'
"Yabba Dabbo Doo!" I heard myself saying, Thursday being my gaming night, after all. It's a time when such dorky exclamations fill the air whenever a d20 lands on "critical hit."

OpenSim grids, where I'm building the Usher simulation, and Second Life are essentially big sandboxes where amateurs and professionals make pregenerated digital assets. The game may change (or just end) for amateurs with the arrival of mesh in SL, but that is another tale and rather beyond my interest, as I'm done teaching in that particular virtual world.

Unlike a game, in improvisational RP using an acting team (Roderick and Madeline Usher for our build) plays the part of GMs in tabletop RPGs.  A crucial element of story remains, one Costikyan identifies as "a single, linear, driving narrative arc." The actors in the role of the Ushers determine this before the simulation, when they pick, among several predetermined options, what has caused the trouble for the family. Then, during the simulation, they decide when several key plot points occur, such as when Madeline will enter a coma or when Roderick's fragile sanity will begin to further slip.

Meanwhile, the students playing the role of Poe's narrator have a quest, not unlike those sometimes given in D&D: save the Ushers from themselves and a family curse.

Traditional games online cannot permit such latitude with narrative. Virtual worlds can.

How Virtual Worlds Break The String

Costikyan makes a clever point, something obvious but never so well stated to me before, when he notes that "a game is a system of constraints." Thus even the somewhat open-ended "adventure games" can come to resemble "beads on a string," where at each stage of the adventure, or "bead," players have some control over choices until they reach a critical point. Then the players move on to the next part of the game.

I found, in earlier iterations of the Usher project, that we broke this string. The students, wandering in the confines of the House of Usher, really can move from any one setting or group of clues to another. The world they explore, being continuous and persistent, allows them discovery at any point. They need not find a particular clue in order to find another. The only exception are a few locked doors that require a password.  

How the students fulfill their quest, as well as discovering clues and subplots they encounter along the way, depend upon several factors that they very much control. This is very much like what players do in good tabletop RPGs, when their decisions shape the course of gameplay.

Deciding how much choice students can have at Usher is maddening work, I'll admit.  Already I see the development of the simulation as giving me and the students so many choices that they may become overwhelmed in the two hours planned for live simulation with actors.

So now I find myself as constraining certain choices by making more clues point in only a few directions.

That said, in even the loosest form of roleplay a player cannot declare "I'll grow a set of wings and fly away from danger," unless the player's character possesses that ability or finds a magical item that enables flying. I've turned off flying in Nevermore region and students must cope with what they have in their avatars' inventories (we use premade avatars) or can find during the simulation. But choosing which sorts of improvisation to limit is harder than that.

Players will draw upon knowledge their characters could not have, and in tabletop RPGs, the GM can call foul. In the Second Life version of the Usher simulation, my avatar would roleplay the family doctor and provide clues and advice in back-channel IM for the students. Sometimes they'd ask something along the lines of "would my character know anything about medicine?" or "does anesthesia exist in 1847?" and I would chime in with an answer, saving the Ushers from breaking the flow of roleplay by having to step out of character.

We may be able to repeat this in the Fall, though I think we'll be short of actors! If not, I will simultaneously be Roderick and the teacher. GMs can do that well, stepping out of character as a nonplayer character and answering a question about rules or backstory.

Getting Ready to Play and Make a Story

This type of improvisation simply does not--really, cannot--exist in MMORPGs where the game-engine might generate a new monster or peril automatically, depending upon the actions of players.  The game company cannot alter the world or even the arc of an adventure on the fly. When an out-of-character question arises about the game-world or system, the players usually rely on a Web site  or they ask other players in-game. Even so, players cannot really go very far "off script." As Costikyan points out:
Only with the final game style, the tabletop, do we escape the demands of linearity--and we do so, ultimately, only by relying on the creativity of a live gamemaster.
Physics and graphics in a user-generated virtual world will always lag far behind most games.  But story is the strong point of well designed simulations in virtual worlds. Thus a well designed simulation with actor/GMs in a virtual world comes closest, in digital form, to capturing the tabletop RPG experience in all its narrative richness.  It's the potential "killer app" of virtual worlds for educators. I've heard machinima called that; it is wonderful for promoting work done in-worlds to those without accounts, or to a group of fans. It is not, however, an interactive form of art.

One week, as we waited for the crew to arrive for Nerd Night, I watched our host finish a "bead on the string" in Mass Effect. He was playing in single-player mode, and the graphics and action were cinematic. The game has deep backstory, and the space to explore is vast. That said, my friend could not do anything he wished. He also could not ask a GM for advice, in or out of character.

In Usher, however, short of leaving the island or making new items, the students have a great deal of agency in the scenario. Even making things, or perhaps assembling them would be possible if, say, the students wished to build a raft to escape a crazed Roderick.

I do not know if the big commercial virtual worlds can make money by encouraging an online analogue to free-form RPGs with live GMs. Yet they may wish to consider it, as no other 3D technology usuable by amateurs has this potential.


Cecil Hirvi said...

You're awesome Chief.

Viv Trafalgar said...

Excellent thoughts here Iggy. I think you're on to something big - go forth and publish!