Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Helpless Witness Part One

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Deathtrap Dungeon. Forest of Doom, City of Thieves – if any of these off-the-peg fantasy titles are ringing a bell it’s because you remember Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s ‘Fighting Fantasy’ series which ran from 1982 through 59 titles up until 1995. Each was, as the cover claimed; “a Fighting Fantasy gamebook in which YOU are the hero!” For those of you unaware of this phenomenon (get to the back of the class) – they were stories in which the reader made choices and determined the plot, along the lines of; “If you want to open the door, turn to page 250. If you want to run away, turn to page 135.” It was full interactivity in a book! A fully flexible and responsive narrative arc; the future of storytelling! I recall wondering as a witless 12 year old whether I’d ever go back to choiceless, linear narratives again.

Very soon however, I found I’d pretty much mined the seam. I began playing these games in a certain way as I’m sure did every other geeky child of the 70s and 80s did – no dice rolls to determine whether I survived a battle with a monster; always keep a surreptitious finger at your last page in case your choice was a bad one; and if you die, skip back to where your choices began to go wrong, and pick it up from there.

Interactivity, I quickly found, came with its own set of drawbacks.

And I was reminded of this discovery when recently reading an interview with Jason Vandenburghe, a games designer and programmer, in Edge magazine. It was a sobering discussion that has a lot to say about the nature of narrative, drama and character generally, I think.

Here’s the gist.

Vandenburghe was one of a team of programmers working on a game conversion of Chris Carter’s seminal TV show The X Files. The game clocked up a million in sales but was a flawed piece of work, and Vandenburghe’s assessment of its failings is interesting.

It was composed, essentially, of a series of pre-shot film clips featuring David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and the rest of the cast: no expense spared. It worked like this; the player made choices and the game reassembled these filmed clips to tell the story. You essentially got to build your own episode of The X Files depending upon your responses to key events and your code-breaking and deductive skills.

Here’s the interesting thing.“Working on The X Files” says Vandenburghe, “proved to me that interactivity and drama directly oppose each other. That was a devastating realisation. Drama is all about being a helpless witness to events. The moment you give the viewer agency, the emotional spectrum shifts from tension to curiosity.”

And so it did with those Fighting Fantasy gamebooks all those years ago. Tension became curiosity. As a youngster, without really knowing why, I judged the experience to be ultimately lacking because I wasn’t a ‘helpless witness to events’. Perhaps then, the more helpless we make a reader feel, the more tension and drama we generate. I’ve a half-memory of Aristotle saying as much regarding Greek tragedy.

It’s not often a blog post starts with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and ends with Aristotle, my friends – and probably with good reason. 

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