Fictional Narrative Evolved (part 1)

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by: Rick van der Wal

One of my key interests in virtual reality, or virtual environments is the way it is able to communicate an experience, linear immersive experiences (otherwise known as stories) in particular. We use stories for more than entertainment, stories hold tremendous value for social progress and preservation of culture (history), the industry (advertising), creativity and inspiration (fiction), expression and nearly any other field of human interest.

To communicate these stories we’ve used a number of media types so far, and very effectively at that, but they all seem to struggle with the up and coming trend of the 21st century: Interactivity.

Traditionally, storytelling has a problem with interactivity. A linear path pre-writen by an author doesn’t play nice with the viewers/readers urge to influence and participate in such a story. The static medium of books and movies are ill-suited for this new ‘demand’ of the public we’ve gotten accusomed to through games and the internet.

I remember when I used to think the next step in stortelling would be ‘the interactive movie’. With the arrival of the DVD big Hollywood productions would offer open endings whihch could be influenced by the viewer. Does Batman go left or right? Does he chase the Joker or save the girl?  – these choices would give the user somewhat control of the movie and customize the experience. Looking back I’m not sure that’s an all that interesting way of watching a movie, constantly interrupting for different choices and shaping your own ending rather than appreciating the creativity of the director and professional writers. Apart from any technical implications of having to shoot thousands of possible scenario’s on traditional film.

The gaming industry however, has done a much better job of providing ‘interactive stories’, shaping the often linear experience through the narrative in games. One of my earliest experience of a game that had a compelling cross between gameplay a fiction was Dune (a story originally written by Frank Herbert and told in book-form on the war between 3 ‘houses’ over the planet Arrakis, or ‘Dune’). Through ‘cut scenes‘ and a linear storyline based on the missions you were doing more than just ‘play a game’- you read a pretty compelling book at the same time.

Later on I discovered games with a more prominent position for narrative, such as the ‘Baldurs Gate’ series by Bioware. The story was the game and some of these ‘RPG’s (Role playing games) allowed different paths towards different endings. With the RPG ‘Morrowind‘ the ’sandbox model’ was introduced, a completely open-ended world, not entirely unlike the virtual worlds of today where the player was in complete controll of nearly every aspect of the storyline. Eventually this has evolved in the almost Oscar worthy narrative in Grand Theft Auto IV, the incredible cinematic productions Blizzard creates for their major releases, and the latest from EA: Hollywood actors and screenwriters in their games.

This last step by EA is really blurring the lines between Hollywood and the gaming industry. For the third episode in the RTS (real time strategy) classic Command & Conquer ‘Red Alert’ the emphasis on the story and telling the story through both the game and cinematics is impressive. The list of A and B Hollywood actors shows EA’s dedication to bringing a truly cinematic experience to the interactive game:
  • Gemma Atkinson (Hollyoaks)
  • Tim Curry (Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Hunt for Red October)
  • Andrew Divoff (LOST)
  • Kelly Hu (X2, The Scorpion King)
  • Jenny McCarthy (Scream 3, former Playboy Playmate of the Year)
  • Ivana Milicevic (Casino Royale)
  • Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean)
  • J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man, Juno)
  • Autumn Reeser (The OC)
  • Peter Stormare (Prison Break, Armageddon)
  • George Takei (Star Trek, Heroes)

Back to the problem of a demand for interactivity and the lack thereof in traditional story telling media. Though games are often concidered a genre on their own when it comes to telling a story, with developments as mentioned in the previous paragraphs its obvious the lines are quickly blurring. In The Diamond Age Neal Stephenson (author of the sci-fi novel Snow Crash) describes a different type of ’story experience’. One of the major themes of ‘The Diamond Age’ is the constant failure of Artificial Intelligence to copy human intelligence, and therefor the genuine experience. To compensate so called ‘ractors’ – real humans playing the part of interactive actors in the movies of the future. Think of it as a virtual, live theatre:

“…humans are able to earn a living as “ractors”, interacting with customers in virtual reality entertainments. Since ractors are more expensive than AI, the only reason to use them would be that the customers could tell the difference, implying that in the world of the novel, the marketplace of virtual reality entertainment has become one ongoing Turing Test, and software is continuously failing it.”

Now the logisitics of this seem pretty impossible – having a real life actor play the part of James Bond every time someone watches ‘Casino Royale’. But this is where virtual come back into play. Social worlds already somewhat facilitate this ‘racting‘ by making the medium social. In Role Play servers in the MMORPG World of Warcraft people are playing their character as thought they are this fictional character (i.e. behave as an orc would rather than how they would have responded as a person). Even social, non gaming spaces such as Second Life offers Roleplay on a number of levels – one of the most popular ones the type of roleplay in area’s such as ‘The Crack Den’ (SLurl) – an urban setting not unlike the setting of Grand Theft Auto. Each, real player plays the part of a gangster, a policemen, addict etcetera, and let the story develop from there. Taken from each players perspective each other real player is another ‘ractor’ with whom you share an interactive, open ended story.

What this could mean for the future of storytelling, and how to move these stories beyond the role play community into valuable integrations and applications for every day life (through education, business and entertainment) is still open – but to me its a fascinating process of improving communication. I’m planning to make this part of a series, exploring these applications of immersive storytelling through virtual environments and various aspects related to virtual storytelling.

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