Schrödinger’s Joystick: Games And Why Great Storytellers Should Care

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Several months ago I was forced to shoot my best friend and this got me thinking. I was playing the game Black Ops II from the series Call of Duty and this is not a series known for its meaningful player choices or deep story: in fact, it’s ridiculed as the opposite. I assumed, therefore, when the bad guys brokered a deal where I would shoot the evil terrorist from long range while he was tied up and gagged with a shroud over his head, that I had no choice but to comply. The problem was (spoiler here), I have an IQ, so I’d already figured out that it wasn’t really the terrorist leader I would shoot. It was my in-game character’s best friend under the shroud.

My students (High School Sophomores, who love Call of Duty’s lack of meaning and shallowness) informed me that a player can shoot for the leg, saving the friend’s life. That interactivity in the narrative got me thinking. There are excellent, well-written games out there where player choices influence the story . What if there was a game where player knowledge influenced the story? If I could somehow let the game know that I knew the execution was a trick, maybe that could change what happens next. And it doesn’t have to be a violent story – what kind of story wouldn’t be better for reacting actively to what the reader knows?

New possibilities in the way human beings tell stories are meaningful even if you’re the kind of person who’d rather clutch a snooty Pilsner flute of microbrew and practice French pronunciation thinking about life’s little pleasures than shoot virtual people to see how many ways you can make their torsos explode (Mutuellement exclusifs? Je ne crois pas!).

Recently games have been slowly rising in respect among the learned. You would still hardly dare bring them up in cultured discussions about stories or ideas (I would, but you wouldn’t). I fear this might be because in judgments about culture and stories, women tend to be smarter, and unfortunately they’ve traditionally disliked video games. Also, teenagers have traditionally liked them, and teenagers are stupid. Now TED Talks and books by people like Jane McGonigal reveal research that games can improve self-confidence, coordination, and even positive thinking. And an article in this month’s Geek magazine (biased source aside) reveals that the average gamer is an employed, educated person in their 30s – and 47% of them have vaginas!

One of my professors at Northwestern wrote on the Best American Poetry blog about the lack of respect that literary “play” is given when compared with super-serious, pretentious writing. But all the famous writers in history are famous because they “played” at something new and overthrew the stuffy traditions that were around. Shakespeare himself spends like three pages of Hamlet punning about Fate’s vagina, for Chrissakes – and probably like 1000 pages of his life’s work punning about vaginas overall. Players never get any respect when their form of playing is new but eventually they show us playing is good.

New kinds of media are opening up all these new and innovative narrative possibilities that change what a story can be.

Since humans first started telling stories, the gradual revelation of plot-centric information has been a crucial element of effective structure. It’s a matter of careful plotting and planning and revision, techniques like foreshadowing, and most of all, writing that’s just plain skilled. One of the most frustrating things about being a smart reader is having to go along with stupid characters who haven’t figured out what you know is going to happen.

When this is deliberate it’s called dramatic irony and frustration is part of the fun, like when Daffy Duck is always just about to step on that land mine (and, no, Daffy Duck never actually encountered war-remainder army land mines in his cartoon; that would be a very dark episode of Looney Tunes, what is wrong with you).

But what if there was a medium that adapted to how much the person experiencing it has figured out, and the story changed in response, adapted, creating a new experience?

It also opens up all sorts of fascinating questions about narrative theory! One example. I was tormented by this question when I was a kid reading Choose Your Own Adventure books, and couldn’t figure out why it didn’t make or break everybody else’s world too: Can the story itself actually change retroactively because of the decisions you make as the reader? Or does that universe of the book remain consistent up to the point you make your choice?

For example, in a CYA book about a bike race I remember, if I chose to hide under a car and eavesdrop I found out a major character was secretly a criminal traitor and he killed me. But when I re-did the story and didn’t eavesdrop, he never turned out to be a traitor in the first place. Or was he a foiled traitor the entire time, and I just didn’t have that information? Can the new story change the unknown elements that came before? Did I erase his evil with my new choice, or simply hide it from the universe’s view like the tree in the forest that falls with no one around?

If I open a door can one thing be there, but if I don’t open the door can it turn out there was something completely different there the entire time?

Isn’t that what we do, when we justify our old decisions based on the new ideas and feelings that we have now, looking back? Aren’t we creating our past life’s narrative with each new choice? These are smart, self-aware issues of storytelling that interactive games can tackle.

If we can get more smart, self-aware people into games as soon as possible, the landscape will bend towards smart, self-aware games more quickly, and that means we’ll get to see these ideas and stories get explored earlier in our lifetimes. As writers and as readers, we should be pretty excited. So are you the next one to push the button?

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