Sunday, January 11, 2009

Actor stance, make way!

Internisus writes:
Are you familiar with Victor Gijsbers's experimental Figaro? It's an IF in which, at specific points, the game asks the player what s/he would like to see in the story. For example, you're spying on a scene, and a guy walks in. Now the game pauses to ask you whether you want the guy to be, say, your shady uncle or your romantic interest's boyfriend. You choose which way you want the story to go, and the narrative continues. It's a normal IF in every other respect. Victor wrote a short paper explaining the thinking behind this idea, and I wrote something on raif explaining why I absolutely hate it. Is it hard to see why? It's vaguely promising for some applications, perhaps, but for the most part in any title where you play a character with all the mortal and finite restrictions that apply to being a person, you absolutely should not have godlike control over the narrative. Some things are just out of your control--that's life! Who that guy is that walks in should be just as much out of your hands as the fact that there's a guy walking into the room in the first place.
"Some things are just out of your control-that's life!" It sounds like a truism, but in this context it is nonsense. In Figaro, the identity of the person who enters the room is not out of your control, and it is a forteriori not "just" out of your control either. It is within your control, although your control is admittedly limited to choosing between three pre-programmed posibilities.

In the previous paragraph, the word "you" is intended to refer to the player, not to the character Figaro. Obviously the identity of the person who enters the room is out of his control; but the character is not the player, and I'm sure we can all keep the two apart. Those who cannot should never play an interactive fiction, for bad things might happen. (Just imagine someone who thinks he is Varicella!)

Perhaps the crucial statement in the quoted paragraph is this: "in any title where you play a character with all the mortal and finite restrictions that apply to being a person, you absolutely should not have godlike control over the narrative". But this is a very puzzling statement. In any title where you play a character with all the mortal and finite restrictions that apply to being a person, you do not have godlike control over the narrative. If you had, you wouldn't be playing a title of the indicated kind, but some other kind of title, a title in which you have more, or a different sort of, influence over the unfolding narrative. So the whole argument has the form: "If something is green all over, it shoudn't be red all over; and Figaro is red all over, so I hate it."

Bad as the argument may be, it nevertheless points to a prejudice that is perhaps prevalent among players and designers of interactive fiction, a prejudice from which it is very hard to free ourselves, and which it will be fruitful to discuss. This is the prejudice that the player of an interactive fiction must necesarrily take what I will call the actor stance, that is, that he must identify with a certain character in the fiction, and think of his interactions with the game as corresponding to fictional interactions of that character with the game world (and thus subject to the same limitations qua power and knowledge).

The actor stance has never been ubiquitous. Saving the game at dangerous moments, consulting the score and letting changes in the score affect our behaviour, restoring in order to try something else, these actions were never interpreted to be actions done by the fictional character. But in the gross and scope of our interactions, we did use the actor stance.

We don't have to. The player of an interactive fiction can be given a more authorial role ("author stance") than the character within the fiction; and I know of no prima facie reasons why this could not lead to satisfying games. Figaro is only a very modest example of a game in which the player is not confined to the actor stance; but I think great and interesting things can be developed along these lines.

Indeed, great and interesting things were done in the field of pen and paper roleplaying games after people stopped relying on the actor stance. Letting the player be actor, director, scenarist and dramaturgist all at the same time, while nevertheless subjecting him to certain structural constraints, turned out to work very well. (If people would like to hear more about this, just ask. It would be fun to discuss some examples.) All the innovative indie RPGs of the past 10 years have dropped the exclusive reliance on actor stance for something much broader, and could not have been made without this change in our conception of what it means to play a roleplaying game. Perhaps we will say the same about interactive fiction in one or two decades. Perhaps not; but it has to be tried.

Now one important lesson from early experiments in roleplaying design is that "godlike control over the narrative", as Internisus calls it, is not a good thing. There must be some limitations; total freedom does not make for good gameplay. Again, these limitations do not have to be the limitations of the actor stance; they may be something else entirely; but they must be there.

However, this lesson seems to be not very important for interactive fiction. There is just no danger that we will let freedom get out of hand and forget to implement constraints; and this is one of the great differences between interactive fiction and pen and paper roleplaying games. In a roleplaying game, the default situation is that everything is possible; people can say anything they want; and the task of the game designer is to impose fruitful constraints. In an interactive fiction, the default situation is that nothing is possible; the program reacts to nothing with more than a parser error; and the task of the game designer is to create possibilities--and he always thinks of many more interesting possibilities than he has time to implement. There is in interactive fiction, pace Stephen Bond, no real danger of making the freedom of the player too great.

So, let us experiment with going beyond the actor stance, and let us see what happens!

9 comments:

  1. "All the innovative indie RPGs of the past 10 years have dropped the exclusive reliance on actor stance for something much broader[...]"

    Sounds interesting. Which games would you recommend?

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  2. It certainly seems like an interesting form to experiment with, but I don't see the 'author stance' ever replacing the 'actor stance'. We sit down in front of games to experience someone else's world or story. To try and interact with them in semi-realistic - preferably pre-defined - terms.

    Including in those terms some god-like meta-commands to change characters and motives could produce some thought-provoking works, but to me it seems like it would break your emotional involvement in the game right away. Insta-death for mimesis. (I'd suggest that the reason it works in RPGs is because these are collaborative stories, and a more authorial stance ensures that no participant is left disappointed.)

    Basically, if you want to write a story, why not just write a story? Why put it in a restrictive IF framework at all? To me it seems like the worst of both worlds. You lose the engagement of a coherent world and characters, but you don't have the unbounded freedom of typing into a word processor.

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  3. Brian, some games with which I have consistent success are My Life with Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, Breaking the Ice, The Mountain Witch and Inspectres. The first is about the emotionaly insecure and despicable minions of an evil master, who try to find love before they are overwhelmed by weariness and despair. The second is about groups of gun-wielding preachers trying to fight sin in a fictional Utah, and finding themselves confronted with the question: "Are you willing to kill for this?" The third is a two-player game about two characters dating; very human. The fourth is about ronin facing up to their destiny while on a mission to kill the evil mountain witch. The fifth is a humorous game which gets more than a little of its inspiration from Ghostbusters.

    And if I'm allowed to do a bit of self-promoting, there is also my free game Shades. I and others have good experiences with it.

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  4. Pacian, I'm not advocating replacing the actor stance with anything--getting inside a character is a useful technique for storytelling. Indeed, Figaro is an example of a game where actor-stance and author-stance coexist peacefully.

    What I do disagree with most forcefully is the idea that there is a strong link between emotional involvement and mimesis. As far as I am concerned, "mimesis" (which seems to mean something like "forgetting that you are playing a game through identification with a character", something I certainly have never experienced) is not a goal at all; and I know from my RPG-experiences and even from my reading experiences that it is not a necessary condition for emotional involvement.

    I don't think you can say that once one drops the reliance on actor stance, one could as well write a story. Playing an interactive fiction always will be interacting with a narrative system that someone else has already created. All I'm indicating are more ways of interacting with such a system; I'm certainly not suggesting that the system itself be removed from the picture. I'm not even suggesting that the player have more freedom, just that she have a different kind of freedom. Also, such pieces would certainly not have to do without a coherent world and characters!

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  5. Ah, so 'make way' as in 'make room for the new guy' rather than 'take a flying leap'.

    I think in using the word mimesis I was kind of pulling the pin on a grenade without really knowing what it was. Likewise, I think I meant 'consistent' rather than 'coherent'.

    In any case, I'm willing to be convinced. I just feel that in letting players alter the narrative itself, rather than merely act within it, you can't help but break their sense of being a part of it - and that seems like something likely to be undesirable for most works.

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  6. Victor,

    what I find very interesting about your posts is that I know nearly nothing about IF. I've played a handful of games (after being re-introduced to them via The Baron (a game that blew me away, mind)) and that's it.

    So, when I'm confronted with the sacred cows of IF I'm always mystified.

    like, Actor Stance is considered a sacred cow in a form that tends to rely on puzzles? Really? I can't even make sense of this. The puzzles require the input of the player, not the character.

    Does Figaro have Puzzles? I admit I greatly dislike the puzzle aspect of IF (to the point where, while I enjoyed the concept of Fate, I wasn't able to play it very long), but I am intrigued by Figaro.

    What I find interesting about Director Stance in IF (and the idea of which character enters the scene is definitely something I would call Director Stance) is that it parses out the narrative to the player. Too many IFs I just felt like I was along for the ride. Pure audience. But hopefully Director Stance (like consequential choice in The Baron) will make me feel like I'm engaged with something truly interactive.

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  7. Well. There is perhaps little for me to say in reply other than "touché." I concede that I had been conflating personal preference for principled fact; in the intervening months, I have tried to become more conscious of my various opinions regarding game design as but one viable "school" as opposed to some one, true way.

    However, I still believe that the idea represented by Figaro is troubling in its execution. For the player to simultaneously control the actions of a protagonist and the structural points of the plot he encounters seems intuitively disingenuous in that it combines control of story from both within and without. If Figaro were redirected such that the player does not direct the actions of the actor but only has say regarding those higher-order narrative events, it would be a more focused and agreeable experience. As it is, the integral meaningfulness of actions chosen for the actor is compromised because of the meta-story choices afforded to the player; what weight do consequences carry when a single agent directly affects both action and reaction?

    Additionally, I take issue with your arguments against identifying with the actor. One of interactive fiction's most interesting capabilities is the development of interesting player-character relationships, such as when a character withholds information about him/herself from the player, and I think that the reason why such situations can be interesting is because we as players default to an actor stance; works of this sort force a wedge between the player and actor, causing the player to actively struggle with the relationship. If identification with the principle actor was not our most natural inclination, such attempts would not enjoy the success that they do.

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  8. "What weight do consequences carry when a single agent directly affects both action and reaction?"

    There's a rule of thumb in rolling around avant-garde small press rpg design that says something like "Choosing what to attempt, saying how hard it is, and describing the results of the attempt: No one player should ever be doing all three of these for one action." And I think the reason is obvious in light of your objection: it hamstrings the feelings of import and impact.

    But that said, I don't know if the objection applies in this specific case. Since your "meta-story" choices are limited (I think I would prefer some other term, since all events and situations in the story are simply part of the story, not meta-anything), you are able to shift the conditions of some of the main-character-focused actions, but can't fully obvioate those actions. That is, I assume you can't tell the mystery man to solve the puzzle for you. Rather, you can have him be one of several different people, with each of whom you can have one of several different reactions/approaches. In RPG terms, you're just throwing in some details about your attempt to solve the puzzle, while the difficulty and result remain in the power of the parser.

    Also, I think that historically, Interactive Fiction does lend itself to actor-stance, but that it's hardly necessary. I can certainly imagine a game that I interact with using a parser that doesn't even have an avatar/main character. Something like Mind Forever Voyaging crossed with Startopia, maybe. And certainly, I don't necessarily associate the text medium with an authorial stance, so why should making it interactive limit us so much?

    Of course, this is all said without having, you know, played the frickin' game. Grain of salt.

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  9. It seems to me that actor/director (or whatever you call the role of the player) stance is essentially an arbitrary selection of a constraint set.

    The actor stance is merely the familiar one, of an individual entity operating in a presented envioronment that mimics a 'real world' one. Because it is familiar, it aids immersion. A game which does not use actor stance at all needs to put effort into explaining the constraints (whether that be in the form of options, instructions, tutorials or other, sneakier methods of framing the player)

    There are a wide variety of games which do not use anything even approaching an actor stance - or use it selectively.

    Traditional RPGs do usually use it - I consider this a historical oddity more than anything else. The idea of playing a role - which presupposes an entity - is presumed in the concept of an RPG. Think of describing what a role-playing game is to someone unfamiliar with the idea.. likely the first sentence goes like.. "Where you play a character who [interacts with a world]".. so we have identity and agency within an undefined actor, all within an externally defined world.

    To take Spore as a counter example, it exhibits a large number of RPG elements, however the play experience is certainly not exclusively in actor stance. This easily accessible 'director mode' hasn't prevented it from being a massively popular mainstream game - though at it's core I'd still call it a (form of) RPG.

    I'm suddenly having a vision of a game where the player's metaphor is of a hive mind. Hmm... Now that would be an interesting trick if you could make it make sense.

    That was a bit of a random ramble. I liked the article, it made me think. Cheers!

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