Thoughts on interactive storytelling and The Hobbit

19 December 2012
This post was originally published on the blog.

I recently did a talk at AdventureX where I attempted to set out some kind of vision for the future of text adventure games as a rich interactive story medium. This was filmed, so hopefully I will be able to put up a link here soon. I’ll also rework the talk as a blog post (or several) in the near future.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the text adventure format recently, about what kinds of experiments can be done, and what kind of story I could tell using my own software - it is a source of slight shame to me that I’ve been working on Quest for over 14 years now, and yet never released a game using it! This is something I hope to address in the near future. There was much food for thought for me as I watched the other talks at AdventureX, and I’ve found myself with a renewed energy to try and finally get together a game of my own.

Talking of experimentation, Peter Jackson has just released the first film of “The Hobbit” trilogy, and there has been much discussion of his use of a new 48fps format, which is perhaps a bit too realistic for a lot of people. There’s a suitably epic discussion on Vincent Laforet’s blog, which I found interesting despite not really caring that much about filmmaking - and having no interest in Tolkien at all (or perhaps just an insufficiently lengthy attention span).

I think there is an interesting lesson here that applies across all art forms - film, theatre, books, stand-up comedy, interactive fiction. I dabbled in stand-up comedy myself a few years ago, within the safe confines of a course, and one of the only real things to learn about stand-up (the rest being a matter of practice as you can’t teach somebody to be funny) is that “if it doesn’t add, it detracts”.

It takes a lot of effort to refine a one-liner by removing as much extraneous detail as possible, to deliver maximum impact. Most comedians don’t do one-liner “jokes” as such, but still much of the humour comes from what is left unsaid - and the audience putting two and two together in their own minds is a big part of what makes comedy pleasurable.

I often find myself left a bit cold by big budget special effects and CGI in movies - I can have a much more absorbing experience in a theatre, which is usually a lot less “realistic” than anything you can see in a film. I recently saw a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time at the National Theatre in London, and the clever use of the theatre space with choreography and simple props told the story in a highly engaging way. It wasn’t trying to look like exactly the same as the events it was portraying - but that didn’t matter at all. Eight boxes do not look anything like the seats on a train, but as human beings we are highly skilled at suspending disbelief and piecing together our own internal visualisation of a story.

Which makes sense, right, because as a species we’ve been telling stories to each other for thousands of years. When cavemen set around a fire to share ancestral myths, they may have put on voices and waved their arms around, but they certainly didn’t have moving pictures or 3D glasses. Our brains have evolved to take the important parts of these stories and fill in the blanks perfectly well without these technological add-ons.

So it doesn’t really surprise me that when people watch a film in 3D at 48fps, it doesn’t add anything to the experience over the old-fashioned 2D version. If anything the extra visual detail just requires more brain processing, which probably hinders our brain’s ability to do all the other processing it needs to do during a movie, like remembering who all the characters are and what drives them - the things we still can’t see no matter what technology is available.

The human brain is great at shortcutting and making assumptions. That’s how we perceive a vivid, full-colour, 3D depiction of reality, when in actual fact the eye can only clearly focus on small parts of our visual field at any one time, and the brain fills in the rest. This is what leads to interesting phenomena such as change blindness, and our mental shortcuts are what enable magic tricks to work.

So perhaps that is what is missing from The Hobbit - too much detail and too much realism simply don’t let magic work.

All of which gives me much optimism about the future of text adventure games, or interactive fiction if you prefer. Too much visual detail is certainly too much, but if you can tell a story around a camp fire, it seems there is no lower bound - we can do very nicely without any kind of visual detail at all. Words work fine.

The slickness of a modern text adventure game will come from an intuitive user interface, and a story that doesn’t put up roadblocks to the player - something Jon Ingold was talking about at AdventureX in his talk.

We already have the technology to create highly engaging, accessible interactive story experiences that will have mass appeal and can be played on any device. I’ll certainly be trying to create my own over the Christmas break - why don’t you have a go too?