Sunday, January 29, 2006

Death of the Protagonist

There has been a lot of talk about 'co-ownership' of characters, lately; and Vincent has proposed that perhaps we can let go of the idea that players play protagonists. Perhaps, he offers, we can "let the events of the game's fiction choose" whether a character is a protagonist or a supporting character.

Apart from the minor quibble that the fiction isn't really the kind of entity that chooses anything, this is a neat idea. Is this possible? Could it be fun? Could it, for instance, be fun to play a character that suddenly dies a deprotagonising death and is thus shown not to have been a protagonist?

Certainly. What's more, it could not only be fun, it could also be important. It opens the possibility of a new kind of narrative, a kind of narrative that is a critique of traditional kinds of narrative. The death of the protagonist (those who heard a resonance of Barthes in the title of this piece were absolutely right) is an important step towards the coming of age of roleplaying games as a form of art.

I will leave the abstractions now and speak about something very concrete: George R.R. Martin's beautiful A Song of Ice and Fire series. I recently read the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, and although it may not have been the best book in the series, it has not changed my judgement that Martin is writing the best fantasy epic ever.

But this fourth book made something clear to me that I might have seen earlier if I had been older when I read the previous books (Martin is not a fast writer), but which this fourth book made even more clear: A Song of Ice and Fire is not only the best fantasy epic, it is also the last fantasy epic. Not in the sense that it somehow ensures that people won't write epics anymore, but in the sense that it mercilessly exposes and destroys the ideology of the epic. It takes a traditional kind of narrative, seems to follows its rules to the letter, and then suddenly breaks them where it hurts most.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, being good and honourable, or even kind and innocent, doesn't mean that the author will protect you against evil - it generally means that you will die at the hands of those who are more ruthless. Here, a war doesn't end in victory, glory and things being set right again - it ends in Phyrric victories, death, a devasted countryside, plague, famine and horrors untold. Here, in a trial by combat the innocent person can die. As one of the characters was fond of saying: "Life is not a song", and "Knights have no honour".

But Martin's most powerful weapon is protagonist death. Or, in Vincent's words, letting the events in the world decide that someone was a supporting character after all. In A Song of Ice and Fire, focal characters that we have followed for many chapters sometimes die, out of the blue, suddenly, and utterly senselessly and in a deprotagonising way. More than once, I looked at the words in shock an horror as I stammered: "but, but... that wasn't supposed to happen!"

But happen it did. Life is no story. You can hear Martin laughing in the background and saying: "the ideology of the epic is false. You should learn to accept the reality of life, where fate intervenes suddenly and without human concerns. Life is not a song". After A Song of Ice and Fire, all other epics will be recognised by the reader as the lies they are.

(Whether Martin will be able to keep to his anti-ideological stance even when he writes the climax of the series is, of course, as yet unknown. But one can hope. I sincerly hope he'll levae us with both the ruins of Westeros and those of the epic.)

If I were to make a roleplaying game based on A Song of Ice and Fire, one of my main design goals would be to make sure that player characters could die in a sudden and deprotagonising fashion, without anyone at the table being able to prevent it. I would do exactly what Vincent proposes. These destructive blows against the very notion of protagonism are what make Martin's books the jewels they are. Sudden, unpredictable and senseless 'protagonist' death packs the punch that drives the message home.

It would be a game I'd love to play. (I suppose it is far too much to hope that the Game of Thrones RPG, which does exist and is called after the first book of Martin's series, is this game. But maybe I should check it out.)

No matter how innovative games like PrimeTime Adventures, My Life with Master, Polaris and Dogs in the Vineyard may be, the tales they can be used to tell are always safely embedded within a structure of human meaning. Taking away that safety will open entire new realms of possible tales - and dropping the idea of protagonism is one important (though by no means the only) way to make this happen.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Introduction to Interactive Fiction

I want to talk about interactive fiction in the future, partly because many of the theoretical advances in roleplaying theory of the last few years are very much applicable to this field - and, I think, such application could truly benefit interactive fiction. I have the first paragraphs of a (long) essay on IF and GNS theory lying around somewhere, and a much shorter post about IF and the GM/player divide is also lurking in the back of my head. But since this blog is read by people who are into the theory of roleplaying games, it might be a good idea if I first told you people what interactive fiction actually is.

Something like a definition

We can speak about interactive fiction in a broad and a narrow way. In the broad way, interactive fiction pieces are works of fiction that require a more active participation by the reader than merely reading them. Examples are text adventures, choose-your-own-adventure books, hyperfiction (fiction that your browse using hyperlinks), and even such strange literary experiments as Queneau's "Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes". Roleplaying games are not interactive fiction even in the broad way, since a roleplaying game is not a work of fiction.

However, when we speak about interactive fiction, we normally speak about interactive fiction in the narrow way. This is a subset of the broader definition in that it encompasses works of fiction that have all of the following characteristics:
  1. The work is software, and is read using a computer.
  2. The computer simulates a model world.
  3. The reader interacts with the work by typing sentences, which are processed by a parser.
The first characteristic doesn't need an explanation.

The second characteristic is that the computer simluates a model world. Often, this involves at least a number of locations, linked up in some way, and object than can be present in these locations. The computer then keeps track of where every object is in the model world, and based on these locations the player character can or cannot see or take the object. In general, the computer will track much more than this (whether objects are inside each other, whether doors are open or locked, whether objects are clothing, whether they are animate, whether they are sources of light, whether they are transparent, whether they are hidden, and so forth). The computer uses this model world to decide what effect a command by the player has. So if I type "take key", the computer will check whether the key and the player character are in the same location, whether this location is lit, whether the key is not hidden, and so forth - if all conditions have been met, it prints something like "Taken.", and changes the location of the key.

In this sense, interactive fiction works very differently from choose-your-own-adventure books or hypertext: in those, all options have been thought up by the author and it has been explicitely stated what text must be printed in each case. In interactive fiction, the author often defines only general aspects of the world, and lets the computer generate appropriate responses to many standard actions.

The third characteristic is that the reader interactis by typing commands, and the computer interprets these using a parser. What is a parser? It is the piece of software that changes the commands of the player into commands that the computer can understand. As a player, I might type "get key", "take key", "get the key", "take the key", "take the bronze key", and so forth, and I'd want all of them to have the same effect. The parser is the piece of software that changes all of these into the same basic command that the computer can understand (and which is probably something of a form that the player wouldn't!). The parser may also do such things as ask the player to disambiguate his command. "Take key" "Which one, the bronze key or the iron key?" "Bronze"

In practice, computer-based choose-your-own-adventure is also sometimes called 'interactive fiction', mostly because it is often made with the same programming tools.

Right. Text-adventures.

Yes, the old text adventures fit nicely within the narrow definition of interactive fiction, and they are where the genre came from. Collosal Cave / Adventure, the Zork trilogy - these are the first works of interactive fiction. In their time, they were a big commercial success. Infocom, the makers of Zork, made the critically most acclaimed pieces that got to have much more story and depth, better writing and a better parser than the old games - some titles from this period where A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity and Suspended. Many of these titles where pretty innovative, but the basic concept stayed the same: you collect objects and try to solve devious, very hard and often deadly puzzles. Solving puzzles unlocks new parts of the story.

Then the 90's came, interactive fiction lost its popularity to computer games with graphics, Infocom collapsed - and there would have been no post about the genre in this blog if that was were it ended, because I'm too young to remember the heyday of commercial IF.

The indie scene

But that was not were it ended, and it didn't end because of the internet. Through this wonderful web of ours, people got into contact which each other, and decided to start writing this stuff themselves. Two major languages for writing IF were designed - Inform and TADS (Text-Adventure Development System) - and people started writing their own games. The scene is quite alive. There are dozens of entries in the Interactive Fiction Competition each year.

And here is the interesting thing: although there is, of course, a lot of crap, the best of these independent pieces are in my humble estimation much better than the old commercial pieces. More daring, more like works of art, and - important for me - less focussed on puzzles.

Sounds familiar? Through the internet, people who liked X got to know each other, started talking about it, then started developing X on their own. These indie developers dared to think out of the box, and what they made was often much better and more interesting than what the commercial guys had to offer. Also, they started to put more emphasis on story and less on puzzles.

For X, 'role playing games' can as easily be substituted as 'interactive fiction'. The big difference, though, is that the roleplaying companies are very much alive, wheres the IF companies are very much dead.

So, this new stuff is good?

It is. From the brilliant Lovecraftian horror of Anchorhead to the brilliant narrative decpetion of Spider and Web; from the puzzleless Photopia to the budding narrativism of Slouching towards Bedlam; from the disturbing little one-room piece Shade to the dark and sinful Vespers; from the study in NPC design Galatea to the cruel political puzzle game Varicella; from the old school The Dreamhold to the logical time travel paradoxes of All things devours - there is a wide variety of great pieces.

And you can try it out today, because everything I just named is free. (Almost everything is, in the IF scene.) Perhaps this is the best place to start. Most of the best games are written in the Z-Code format (using the Inform language), and that site will tell you how to obtain one for your OS.

The above are all great pieces, but not all of them may be suitable for beginners. Varicella is very difficult; Photopia is very easy, but takes a lot of its power from not doing what IF is supposed to do (which you might miss if it's the first thing you play); Galatea is especially impressive once you've seen how difficult it is to create a convincing NPC. Those three might not make the best places to start.

If you like puzzles, The Dreamhold and Anchorhead are very good places to start. The latter is number 1 in the IF ratings, so it's a good place to start for everyone. Shade and Slouching Towards Bedlam aren't too difficult, and very good. Spider and Web is a work of genius, but sometimes a bit picky about which input it accepts, so you may have to try finding the correct verb now and then. If you like your puzzles logical and mathematical, try All things devours. Walkthrough for all these games can be easily found on the web.

Have fun.

Monday, January 09, 2006

IF: Non-Comp Review Project 2005

If you are into interactive fiction, go and check Greg Boettcher's Non-Comp Review Project 2005, which contains reviews for all the pieces written in 2005 that were not released in competitions (such as the Interactive Fiction competition and the Spring Thing). One review, of the Z-Code game The Great Machine: a fragment was written by yours truly.

If you are not into interactive fiction, remind me to post an introduction here soon. The subtitle of my blog is, after all, "Musings on the theory and practice of roleplaying games and interactive fiction" - but until now, the roleplaying games have gotten all the attention.

Actorial and experiential distance

Over at Mo's blog, I wrote a bit why Universalis and Shades are both not very immersive (in the weaker sense of that word), but not very immersive in a different way. Here is an attempt to explicate that difference.

In some roleplaying games, you are very close to your character - it is easy to see the world through her eyes and see her actions as your actions. In the terminology I developed/stole earlier, these will generally be games where it is fictional that you are your character.

In other roleplaying games, such as Universalis and Polaris, you are much more distant from your character. In the first, you don't even have a character - you and the other players are like gods who move the pieces in the world, conjuring them into existence and battling each other about their fates. In the second, you are cast into the role of a storyteller telling tales about a time long ago that, paradoxically, nobody remembers anymore.

I suggest that this distance from the character can be dissected into at least two different components: actorial distance and experiental distance.

You are actorially close to a characters if your actions and decisions as a player generally mirror the actions and decisions of the character. You are actorially distant from a character if your actions and decisions as a player generally do not mirror the actions and decisions of the character.

GM: "You brother stand before you, mocking you with that silent smile upon his lips. What do you do?"

Player: "Damn! I get out my sword an run it through his heart. I will not be mocked!"

This is an example where the player's decision and the character's decision closely mirror each other.

Player: "And Lord Giauzar grabs his starlight sword and beheads t he demon with one fell swoop."

Player: "But only if his black blood streams forth copiously, poisoning the surrounding land for decades."

Player: "It shall not come to pass."

This is an example (using the Polaris rules) where the decisions of the player (shall I trade these things for each other?) do not closely mirror those of the characters.

You are experientially close to a character if the way the fictional world is described by or to you puts heavy emphasis on what the character (fictionally) experiences. You are experientially distant to a character if the way the fictional world is described by or to your puts heavy emphasis on things that the character does not (fictionally) experience.

The Game Master says: "You are standing before a closed wooden door. Behind it, you hear muffled sounds, as if some people are moving heavy furniture - or fighting." Here, the emphasis in the description is on what the character experiences.

The Game Master says: "Ron and Vincent are fighting down in the basement, but there is a locked door between you and them." Here, the emphasis is not on what the character experiences.

So, with this terminology in hand, we can say that in most traditional roleplaying games you are both actorially and experientially close to your own character. In Universalis and Polaris, on the other hand, you are generally both actorially and experientially distant from the characters / your character. But the two don't have to go together.

In Shades, you are actorially very distant from your character - mostly, you are thinking about the narrative on a very high level, trying to tie things together and introduce or resolve contradictions. The decisions you make and the decisions your character makes often do not mirror each other at all. But you are experientially very close to all the player characters, as the majority of the story is narrated as their memories and inner monologues, in first person even. This makes it feel very different from the two games I mentioned previously - you are there, and yet you aren't. Quite ghostly, actually, which is all to the good given the idea of the game.

So, are there games where your relationship with your character is actorially close but experientially distant?

Friday, January 06, 2006


Here is an update on the Journal of RPG theory. After getting more information about PUSH from Jonathan Walton, Nathan, Joshua and I decided that it is a good idea for theorists to focus on this publication for the present. If time reveals that PUSH leaves something to be desired that a Journal of RPG Theory could offer, we can always start a new project.

So, keep an eye out for the first issue of PUSH, which is coming soon if I understood Jonathan correctly. Also, start thinking about what theory topics you would like to write about in the second issue. I suggest you start writing such an article right now, in the form of blog posts which can be discussed by the community. That seems the right cycle to me - first discuss in blogs, then write an article which incorporates the results of those discussions. The article may spark new controversy, or it may not, but even if it only succeeds in capaturing the insight that results from lively and informed discussions, it is a great boon to the community.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Are we making entertainment?

On Attacks of Opportunity, Tony Dowler asks what your most dangerous thought about the hobby is. Paul Czege responds (these are my words) that roleplaying games have a great potential for bringing about social change; they are a radical form of art that can change people's perception of the world around them, and affect their actions. I quote:
Imagine the social and economic impact of a truly fun roleplaying game that infects players with an ability to resist powerful advertising messages and more consistently make purchasing decisions they feel good about in retrospect. Or one that exposes the extent to which our educational system works in service to corporate america and the economy and not in the interests of the individual.
He is partly right, I think - roleplaying games do have a great potential for changing our perception of the world around us. But do they also have a great potential of bringing about social change - that is, can they ever reach a big enough audience to do so? Have we already found the right techniques to make people think and see and reconsider their previous opinions? Does roleplaying have advantages over traditionally authored narratives, in this respect, and if so, what are these advantages? These questions must be asked. I will certainly return to them in later posts.

For now, though, I want to pose a question to every game designer out there.
Are you making entertainment?
This is a crucial question. You can either make entertainment, or make something of social importance, but you cannot do both. This is not to say that socially important art cannot be fun or entertaining - what I am saying is rather that if you want to actually achieve something socially relevant, if you want to make art with a message or a meaning, if you want to bring insights to people or have them develop their own, you must akcnowledge that to yourself and make it your most important design goal.

Your game should be entertaining, certainly, or almost nobody will try it out. (I'm thinking of my own Vampires - an interesting manifesto, perhaps, but not even I would play it.) But you must recognise that changing people will always lower the pure entertainment value of your game. Changing is uncomfortable. Thinking outside the box, re-evaluating your values, experiencing that something is wrong with your current behaviour - all of that is uncomfortable and will make the game less 'entertaining'.

So what is your goal? Is it entertainment, fun and having a good time? Or are your goals more lofty than that?

They don't have to be the same for every game, of course. Monsters we Slay is pure entertainment; Shades is low risk social engineering, supposed to be fun all the time; Stalin's Story, my Ronnies entry, will - if I decide to go through with it - be high risk socio-political hands-on experience. It should be fun, yes... but you should also accept that it can go quite horribly wrong and might teach you most about power if it does.

One more thing. This post has an implication, and it is this: the question to ask an aspiring designer is not necessarily "what will make your game more fun than other games"? Nor is the best advice you can give him advice on making the game more fun. It might be, but it need not.