In discussing some of my older posts on players, characters and stories, I often come across a logic that says stories are interactive, games are also interactive, and therefore games are stories. Which makes sense except for one crucial detail: Stories are not interactive.
Interactivity is not how you react to what you see. It is how you change what you see. To be interactive, a game (or any art) needs to be capable of being intentionally altered by the viewer’s actions. It may sound obvious, but games are about the doing, not the viewing.
Participation or Interaction?
Using a model created by Umberto Eco, Elrod describes how a reader constructs a ‘fabula’, a combination of resonating with what they read and logically deducing the consequences. The story that they see in their mind is somewhat larger than the plot on the page. Elrod’s opinion is that this is interaction and, since games are also based on interaction, games are therefore stories.
It’s not interaction at all. It’s participation.
Whether it’s a statue, a show, a novel or a radical reinterpretation of a hit pop song, the artist is the broadcaster and the audience participates. They interpret, respond, pay, cheer, boo, emote, riot, dance, discuss, critique, troll the creator on Twitter and so forth.
Participation creates a kind of feedback loop between creator and audience. Actors, musicians and stand-up comedians know that sometimes there is an energy in the room that propels their work. On a good night it can lead to a great performance, a shared experience. On a bad night it can be like yelling into the void.
Interactivity, however, is different. A concert maintains the artist-audience barrier but a jamming session that anyone can join is interactive. An author giving a reading of her novel and receiving feedback is participatory, but the Million Penguins project was interactive. Rather than react to the work, the audience takes an active hand in shaping it.
Interaction is making, changing, breaking or otherwise manipulating what you see so it becomes something else. It’s taking a lump of clay and creating a statue of your own, moving pieces on a Chess board in order to win, filling in a Sudoku so that it is completed, or getting to the last level of Call of Duty. Active involvement beyond turning a page is essential for a work to be interactive, and that creates a tension for game designers: It means interaction has to be fun.
Participation AND Interaction
Narrativist designers often talk about wanting to take games beyond fun. What they are searching for is a kind of collaborative creation based on interaction that places the player at the heart of his own story. Instead of fun, they want meaning, emotion and significance.
So they develop interactive projects to explore this idea, but the results are invariably anaemic intellectual exercises like an easily beaten meta-game, a curiosity toy which players subvert, or an adventure game that telegraphs its emotional moments to the player. They lack strong boundaries and goals, which sounds mature (where fun is held to be immature) but often leaves the player adrift. Aiming for something grander than mere fun, what they end up creating is projects that players actually play like this.
Successful games set boundaries to enclose the player. They define goals, win conditions and rewards. The player agrees to be bound by the rules, yet is able to change the course of the game at the same time. He has agency but also the expectation that his play will result in payoff.
So games are both participatory and interactive, and fascinating fun is the glue that holds it all together. A game designer has to be willing to both create a world and let players be themselves in that world. The world has to be robust enough that it can handle players playing (interaction), and at the same time magical enough for them to want to come visit that world in the first place (participation).
Narrativists understand the ‘magical’ part but struggle with the ‘robust’ part because they want pure interaction without the limits of fun and winning. Robust in the game interaction sense means more game yet less story, more rules yet less character development, more storysense and less storytelling.
Unfortunately for storytelling ambitions, robustness is at the heart of what games are. You can’t go beyond fun any more than stand-up comedy can go beyond laughter. The player plays for fun and as a designer your role is to satisfy that.
However she also bears witness as she plays. A massive part of the appeal of all games is that they sell a world to player, whether as a real place that they might touch, or an iconic activity that they might enjoy. This gives you the opportunity to create.
That is also at the heart of what games are.
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