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Iain Wheeler
Posted on Saturday, October 14, 2006 - 05:18 am:   

I'm wondering if anyone can help out with some homework. I've got to gather together various opinions on a particular topic, the rather dubious subject I've chosen is 'writing' for games and interactive media. The responses are to be turned into a set of Flash pages. They might well stay on my hard-drive gathering dust but depending how this goes I might try and get someone to host this somewhere. Despite the length of the following I'm not expecting an essay from anyone, comments of any length would be really appreciated. I'm also not supposed to take part in this so if it looks like I've pissed off and left you all to do my work for me this isn't entirely true.

Although I'm (probably) posting this request on the sites of various writers I enjoy I'm not necessarily expecting them to get involved (but happy if they do). I'm hoping to gather opinions and ideas from people who might have a different take on this to gamers. I'll keep an eye on this over the next few days and assemble any responses I get. If anything gets rolling I'll compile something more substantial later. If anyone wants to use the discussion for their own purposes feel free (but let participants know via the relevant boards). It would be good if people could provide their name and possibly a reason for their interest in this.

Anyway this subject is prompted by Peter Jackson's recent teaming up with Microsoft to produce 'interactive stories' for the Xbox; whatever that means. As far as I can tell there's not been much said about this on the net so far. What interests me is these are being touted more as stories than games, possibly a reversal of the current situation where games usually have a nominal storyline tacked on to keep things moving. Sounds promising I know. Possibly not made any more attractive by the fact these stories are based on the game 'Halo'. If you like 'Pirates of the Caribbean' you might not object too much, personally I'm not bothered, I'm just curious what they're going to come up with. Since this is obviously a very expensive experiment it makes financial sense to begin with something that has a guaranteed audience whether the results are good or bad. With all the work going into it they should come up with something to interest non-gamers.

As I'm posting this to the sites of writers and writers groups I've got little interest in considering these products as games although that's what most of them are. I'm interested in how these are looked on by writers. I'd like to know what potential people see for the use of multimedia and interactivity in storytelling. Bear in mind this also applies equally to non-fiction work but there are far less issues involved with this; which is probably why interactive non-fiction actually exists. Hmm, I'm being dismissive of the current state of gaming storylines but things don't seem to have developed that much past 'Donkey Kong'. Please feel free to correct me.

At the moment things seem constrained by financial issues; work is either available free or at a fairly high cost. This means there isn't currently much middle ground between the output of amateur multimedia enthusiasts and professional games developers producing high budget work for a wide, and mainly juvenile, market. I think this situation will probably change within a very short space of time and we might see smaller professional projects made for specialist markets. This might involve the cheap licensing of game engines such as those used to create machinima.

I'm interested in whatever people might want to say about this, but for starters...

Do you see this only as hack work; a possible means of subsidising more creative work? Would you look into this as a source of income if the role of writers were better established?

In what areas could do you see writers making a valuable contribution to a game or 'interactive fiction' experience? For example,

Gameplay

Character Development

Character Dialogue

Artificial Intelligence Design

Environments

Symbolic imagery (perhaps used to reassert a theme or establish a mood)

Plot Situations

Storyline


At one extreme is the writer as concept designer, the other would be as a creator of an emotional experience. I read a Dave McKean interview where he said if his character was stepping through a doorway he couldn't care less what the door looked like, only how the character felt as he stepped through. What are your own feelings on this?

Do you possibly have an interest in this line of work as a source of creative challenges and satisfaction equal to that in more traditional forms?

Do you think that as a visual medium like films or comics there is the possibility of creating work that could not exist in any other form?

If 'interactive storytelling' takes off at all what form do you think it might take?

How do you think writers will avoid the deadening of the mind which usually arises from channel hopping, the current favourite form of interactive storytelling.

To what extent should the experience be channelled and where should more latitude be allowed?

What techniques from other art forms might be put to good use here, and to what effect? Theatre, prose, film, painting, photography, animation, sculpture, games...whatever...

Game characters are already given primitive AI to allow adaptive behaviour. What are the potential advantages and disadvantages to uncontrolled events and behaviours? With the use of careful parameters could this be used to create a more involving experience?

How should the timeline of the game be handled? Should it be played in real time? Should multiple timelines be allowed that allow for different views on game events? Should a player be allowed to skip forwards and backwards in the timeline, or step out of the timeline and under what circumstances?

Do you think there is really any overlap between games and narrative fiction? Or do you think by nature 'interactive storytelling' is unsuited to the creation of works that can affect their audience with any depth.

Lastly, does the loss of control bother you? Do you think that this may be seen as an extension of the circumstances in film where the writers vision is filtered through the directors, editors and actors eyes (to name a few). This anarchic arrangement might produce its share of crap but has produced great work. Given the sophistication of many viewers is it not a good idea to make them a more active participant in the experience? Or does this sound like it would wind up as a drippy, cathartic new age experience. I'm more hoping for something like Rutger Hauer fucking with C. Thomas Howell in 'The Hitcher'.

Does the audience already participate as much as they should? In prose they summon up their own experiences to give the work depth and meaning. In film the audience interprets the visual gestures and timing of the actors to understand the stories subtext; in the cases where the filmmakers don't resort to overdubbing narration, or have their characters dispense soliloquies.
Is it any coincidence that the world's most famous writer is probably the best known exponent of the soliloquy and thereby a writer who guides his audience with an extreme level of control; which makes any ambiguity particularly resonant. Therefore is what being suggested the opposite of this? And does that mean it's also capable of providing a rich experience, or does it just make it crap?

Longwinded rambling over. If anyone's left and actually wants to read a little on the issue of writing for games there's good material on the IGDA site. David Freeman is probably the single most prominent figure in this area and his site freemangames.com has some good introductory material.

Thanks for your indulgence. Please post a comment; even if it's to express your complete disinterest in the whole sorry business.

All the best,
Iain Wheeler

iwheeler@tpg.com.au

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