Circular Cruises/On User-Directed Narratives

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This is the first of three "gaming rants" which I wrote, completely by coincidence, in March of three successive years. The other two are Token Trading, Colored Locks, and Pixel Hunts and Five Conflicts.


On User-Directed Narratives

17 March 2000


BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING

When I say "user-directed narrative," I am mixing my metaphors. This is what comes of a dual background in writing and computers. A writer would probably rather say "readers" than "users," but since the whole point here is that the distinction between "reader" (passive role) and "participant" (active role) is blurred in this sort of narrative, I'm going to stick with "user," which can encompass both.

A user-directed narrative is a story where the user is given the opportunity, at various points, to affect the course of the plot. Most people have encountered a few examples before, and probably have a mental image of what that means. But the definition is a lot broader than you might guess. The term can encompass a lot of different styles of storytelling and user input.

Sometimes a user-directed narrative is really a user-influenced narrative - all you can do is nudge the story a bit. A story where there are only one or two decision points would be an example. No matter how crucial those decisions are to the eventual outcome of the story, the user can't really be said to be in control; mostly they're just along for the ride.

At the opposite extreme is a certain category of computer game where the user literally makes every decision for his/her onscreen surrogate. Many computer games, of course, don't bother to tell a story, but the ones which do tend to offer the user a lot more freedom than the average "Choose Your Own Adventure" paperback, which only prompts the user to make choices at specific intervals.

A SHORT HISTORY OF UDNS

Most of us between the ages of twenty and thirty, when asked about UDNs, think of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books and others of that type. In the paper world, most UDNs have been juveniles. I believe that's a sad thing because it discourages people from writing them for adults - but I'll come back to that.

I have only two UDNs for grown-ups in my collection: You Can Be the Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison, obviously intended as a novelty, and Behind Closed Doors by Alina Reyes, which is erotica. (Sex is an easier sell for this medium than most genres. I'll discuss why later.) Rayuela (Hopscotch in English) by Julio Cortazar, a famous novel, is often cited in this category, but is not quite the same. It's a novel where the user is invited to rearrange the parts after he/she has finished.

UDNs for adults generally get dismissed as "experimental" fiction or even as pure art pieces. Nothing wrong with considering a book a work of art, mind you, but in this case the underlying assumption is that it's impossible to really read them, to enjoy them as a work of literature. There's some justification for that. Flipping those pages and trying to find where to go next does distract from the story, especially if you suffer from Find The Best Path Syndrome (which I'll explain at length later). Clearly the ideal medium for UDNs is one where you don't have to do the "flipping" at all - where you can just say "I choose this" and the medium takes you to the correct place automatically.

The film industry has flirted with this off and on. I don't remember any titles, but all such efforts have been fairly horrible. There are technical and social reasons for this. First, these films are seen as a "gimmick" and rarely attract good directors or actors - or much production money to get good directors and actors.

Second, if the film is being shown to more than one person at a time, the audience has to vote on an outcome at each decision point. Pardon my bias, but I feel this really encourages bland, crowd-pleasing product. You also can't go back and try other choices.

In fact, those other choices may not be there. Every one of the various filmed UDN experiments I've heard about - I know of three or four, just can't remember their titles - has cheated ... they offer the user more choices than there actually are. In fact some of the choices merge back together into the same plotline (and there may even be choices where the outcome would be the same no matter which the audience chose). In general these films only have two major plot paths and two endings. (An early experiment accomplished this by having the projectionist cover half the film as needed to "select" the appropriate plotline - the film had the two plots in splitscreen.)

The reason for this technical trickery is that changing film reels is non-trivial. A very linear, very simple story with four outcomes

        |
        *
       / \
      *   *
     / \ / \

has three reel-changes (asterisks) just to choose between those outcomes. A story with the complexity of the average Choose Your Own Adventure book would require dozens of reel changes only one or two minutes apart. Obviously no human projectionist is up to the task.

However, magnetic media (computer disks) and optical media (laserdiscs, CDs, DVDs) don't have this problem. So it makes sense that these are the only media where UDNs have taken off in a big way. This is not a recent development. Some of the first games ever played on computers were text adventures - UDNs in disguise. The famous Infocom games, which are UDNs, are the heirs of the first proto-Infocom game, Zork ... and Zork is a fairly direct adaptation of a game which was written at MIT before the advent of the personal computer. The original Adventure, which we can consider the starting point for this family tree ("The Colossal Cave closes at nine o'clock!"), was written in 1976.

Meanwhile, on the optical front, a few games surfaced in arcades in the eighties which used laserdiscs, the most well-known being Dragon's Lair, with animation by Don Bluth's studio. This game was a very linear, very binary decision-making process - at every decision point, if you moved the controls in the proper way, you survived to continue to the next decision point. If you did it any other way, you died. Simple. The game only contained maybe a hundred of these decision points, and was surprisingly quick if you didn't get any wrong - the correct decisions were all on the main line, and therefore you never noticed any pauses or gaps if you did everything right - it flowed like an animated cartoon. I stood and watched a player "run the game" once (there were several players who had the whole sequence of movements memorized - right, right, left, up, et cetera) and I don't recall that successful completion took more than ten minutes. Of course, most of us didn't last beyond one or two decision points, since the whole game basically had to be learned by rote! Clearly this was not the future of UDNs.

(Since the original date of this essay, Dragon's Lair has been released on a DVD which can be played using your player's remote control. The DVD also has an option to display the whole game as a sequential cartoon with all the right moves made automatically, and as I suspected above, it's about six minutes long.)

In latter-day computer games, the UDN thrives, although in disguise. Infocom games and other similar games by companies which used to specialize in them (Sierra, LucasArts) have fallen into disrepute as "give the tuba to the ostrich" games - where you are reduced to random transactions or object-hunting to keep the storyline moving: "I know I have to give the farmer something in order to get the eggs I need, but I have no idea what he wants. I'll just offer him everything in my inventory and see which one he accepts." This is a sign of bad game-writing - it doesn't have to be that way. More importantly, it shows that no one was giving serious thought to the story. If the farmer were a real character, if his motivations and your surrogate's had been well-described, you probably wouldn't need to guess what the farmer wants.

On the other hand, I have played several games in the last year or so where the story was so compelling that the other mechanics of the game became invisible. Half-Life is ostensibly a run-and-shoot sort of game (these are not typically noted for plot), but its horror-movie storyline had me breaking into a cold sweat while playing the game and worrying about what happened to characters. System Shock 2 is also supposedly a shooter, but it's really all about the story (of a hive mind and an artificial intelligence using you as a pawn in their battle to destroy each other in deep space, of all things). Planescape:Torment and Daggerfall are both "role-playing games" in the Dungeons and Dragons ilk, which normally would be a bad sign, but they give the player complete freedom to wander the game's universe, choose a career path, choose when to uncover more of the underlying story, and so forth.

I present those examples at some length to show you how genre conceals UDNs in the game business today. I find it a little annoying that games with strong stories are obliged, these days, to hide that fact to one degree or another - as if story was a detriment. Meanwhile these games get kudos and awards and few people stop to consider that it's not primarily because of the graphics or the quality of the combat portions. But I digress.

So, finally, we come to the web - the revolution of the last few years.

On the web, the user doesn't need to know about the underlying medium. That's why I distinguish it from "magnetic media" and "optical media" above. What you see on the web is (ideally) all presentation. The physical nature of the storage is irrelevant.

UDNS, HYPERTEXT, AND SAVED STATE

Assuming you want to write a UDN that's more like a novel than a computer game, hypertext seems an ideal medium. The user is instantly taken by link to the correct page when making a decision, and the Back button on the browser is a nice solution to the "oops, I didn't really want to do that ... now what page did I just come from?" problem. (I remember reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and leaving five or six bookmarks in various places.)

Hypertext does have one big problem that computer games have managed to overcome - the problem of saving state. An example is the best way to show what I mean by that.

Suppose, in a paper UDN, that on page forty you are given a choice of whether to pick up a red ball lying in the street and take it with you on your adventures. Much later, on page one hundred five, a character in the story is only inclined to help you if you can return his beloved red ball to him. Now, how does the book know whether you've picked up the ball or not?

In a printed medium, which cannot save state, there are two ways to do this. One is insufficient and the other is fiendishly messy. The easy but corrupt way is simply to say:
"If you picked up the red ball back on page 40, go to page 102.
Otherwise, go to page 112."
This assumes that the user remembers correctly whether they picked up the red ball (harder to do than you might think, once all these plotlines get tangled in your head), and it assumes that the reader isn't going to say "Hmm, the red ball sounds important, let's try that." (Of course, it's none of your concern whether the reader "cheats" that way or not, but purists like me will be annoyed.)

The hard way is to have two plotlines that diverge completely at every single point where you do something that affects your "state." In other words, from the point where you can choose to pick up the ball, the rest of the narrative splits into two separate-but-mostly-equal narratives. In most cases the story will be exactly the same, because the ball doesn't affect the story at all until the character asks for it later. You essentially have to create a redundant clone of your narrative just so you can "save" the information that the user has picked up the ball. Having once tried to write a UDN in hypertext exactly this way, let me assure you that you don't want to do this unless you have only one important piece of "state" information to save - the workload gets astronomical very fast.

There's a better answer, but it involves dragging in some programming. By using a CGI (a program that works in response to web input), you can store state - that is, save a record of what the user has done and seen so far. There are two options for storing state:
- On the author's end (this means a small data file for each user on the web server)
- On the user's end (this means a "cookie" record on the user's computer)
Both work, and both have their drawbacks (that's a discussion unto itself).

I have written a UDN system which keeps track of what the user's done, saves their place in case they want to leave and come back, et cetera. The programming to do this isn't difficult, but "difficult" is relative - if you're a casual user who just knows a little HTML and wants to fool around with a UDN, the idea that you may have to write a program just to save your place is a little daunting.

In fact, the workload involved in even a HTML-only UDN is fairly high. This brings me to the next section, which asks the big question of this essay.

WHY AREN'T THERE MORE UDNS?

I take as a given that UDNs are fun, and very involving to the user (even if they are, perhaps, better presented as a game than as literature). If I didn't think that, I wouldn't have spent so much time working on them (and reading/playing them!) over the years.

But to a certain extent I am creating UDNs out of self-defense ... because, aside from computer games, there don't seem to be many out there. Why is that?

I can think of several reasons, some of which have good solutions, some which don't. Think of this section as UDNs: The Case Against.

1. They're truly hard to make.

UDNs demand a tremendous amount of time and effort from their author. Proper plotting is essential to a good novel; multiply that tenfold and you'll get a sense of the plotting demands a UDN creates. Plotting a book may require an outline; plotting a UDN generally requires a flowchart, and two or three tracking lists to note all the loose ends you've left while you're in progress, and where they're supposed to eventually lead. Plotting a UDN with a saved-state system is akin to writing a small adventure game.

When you combine this workload with the limited reward, it often doesn't seem like the work is worth it. Which leads to the next reason:

2. They're seen as having a niche audience ...

... which is of course self-fulfilling prophecy. UDNs in this country are considered juveniles mostly because they've always been juveniles, and they've always been juveniles because publishers won't consider buying them for any market except juveniles ... repeat ad lib.

The exceptions, when they happen, tend to be adventure stories and sex stories. These two are an easier sell for the medium, as already noted, because of

3. Find The Best Path Syndrome.

Chalk this up to an anomaly of the human brain: We don't seem to like separate-but-equal endings. A recent game which I have never bothered to finish, The Pandora Directive, has some five separate endings. If you find yourself asking, "Which is the 'good' ending?" then you understand the problem. As it happens, the question for that game is "Which is the 'bad' ending" - the other endings are all different, but mostly successful, outcomes ... which may be a reason I never finished the game.

Do you remember the movie Clue? It had three endings, each with a different "who done it" answer. You didn't get to pick: Different theatres showed different versions, so if you wanted to see the other endings, you had to go across town (or, in some cases, to a different town). This gimmick was a failure for two reasons: First, we want all the paths readily accessible, and second, we want to know that one of those is the "best" path. The videotape of Clue, it's worth noting, remedied both failures: It shows all three endings, one after another, with silent-film slides between saying:

"It could have happened like this ...
Or like this ...
But here's the way it REALLY happened."

When we traverse UDNs, we tend to favor structures where there is one "most successful" outcome and the rest of the endings are very clearly dead ends. This reduces the story to a maze: Ooops, went the wrong way; let's back up and try that again.

This is why sex and adventure are the two genres with a special affinity for UDNs. In an adventure story, the dead ends are obvious, because you die. (See Dragon's Lair, above.) In a sex story, the successful ending is the one that allows the user's surrogate to have sexual intercourse (substitute cruder term there if you prefer). The Reyes book, Behind Closed Doors, is unusual because there's sexual activity throughout, not just as a "reward" for choosing the Best Path after a series of teases and false starts.

This tendency seems a pity - it prevents UDNs from ever going beyond a certain level of complexity - but I can't complain too much about something I do myself. I have already mentioned my childhood habit of reading Choose Your Own Adventure books with tons of bookmarks, searching systematically for the best path. On the other hand, I grew up to be a programmer, so I may have just been strange.

4. The medium is distracting.

I commented above that there's a lot of truth in the idea that paper UDNs can't really be immersive - all that page-flipping tears you out of the story. Unfortunately we've come full circle: Now that we have a medium which seems ideal for UDNs - the web - people fire the same complaints against it: It's hard to get immersed in hypertext.

It's true that paper is more comfortable to read, doesn't give you a headache, and you can sit in all sorts of other positions besides upright in an office chair. Right now, reading hypertext immersively is very much an acquired habit - you have to work at it.

THE FUTURE OF UDNS

However, I see this trend changing. We're gradually shifting to smaller and more mobile computers, electronic books ... and getting more accustomed to the computer as a mainstay of our daily lives (for better or worse). Gradually I expect UDNs to become more and more prevalent, as the computers get more portable ... and as the user base changes.

The current crop of people age twenty and under were raised on films with rapid-fire editing, Nintendo and other computer games, and so forth. It would be wrong to say they have short attention spans. Rather, say that they prefer their information content to be flexible and change rapidly ... and they prefer to control the information they get to a large degree.

These people may have less patience with a narrative they experience passively than one they can meddle in actively. I'm not saying The Novel As We Know It will die off anytime soon (I sure hope not), but I do predict an upswing in UDNs in the next ten years or so.

But first, better tools have to be available. For example, a system that lets users write UDNs which save state, without needing any programming on their part. And better, more portable, electronic books - that's essential not just for UDNs but online narrative in general to succeed.

I'm pleased to see huge amounts of new research and development going on in the latter area. Given the rate of change in technology these days, my "next ten years" may even be conservative. You may find yourself wandering through a UDN in an electronic book while sitting on your sofa in much less time than that.

Watch this space.


Copyright © March 2000. All rights reserved.

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