Recently, my research on new media performance has led me to investigate the interface between performativity and video games. Having played the one-act interactive drama game, Façade (2006), whereby the player is invited to salvage the failing marriage between Grace and Trip through a series of dialogical exchanges with them, I am interested in examining the player’s ability to shape the narrative of an interactive drama game that features more than two characters who are engaged in dramatic intrigue. In particular, I want to know how the player can propel the dramatic action of game by performing different relationships with various characters in the virtual game world. Building on the interactive dramatic gameplay in Façade (2006), Prom Week (2012) seeks to test the limits of interactive narrative in game design. Using a purpose-built social artificial intelligence system, Comme il Faut, the game designers at the Expressive Intelligence Studios (EIS) of the University of California, Santa Cruz, created an assortment of dramatic characters with individual histories and preferences.
The game is set in the week leading up to the annual prom at a high school. Players are able to explore the stories of eighteen characters, ranging from the high school bully to the ‘goth’. Each character has varying moods (e.g., embarrassed or happy) as well as a unique set of personal relationships with other characters. However, only up to eight characters can appear on-screen at a time, even though the others can still stay in touch with each other through text messages. Each character in Prom Week perceives another character in one of three ways – friendship, romance, and cool factor. The game models the dynamism of real-life connections between friends in a virtual gaming environment by complicating the relationships between the characters, such that two characters who have fallen out can still possess romantic feelings for each other. Because the characters tend to have a complex history with one another, their motivations for making friends or enemies vary according to the behavioural choices made by the player through her chosen protagonist.
Consider for instance the choice of the character Zack, a bespectacled, geeky teenager who wants to be the new Prom King. His path to fame is hampered by Buzz, who is also in pursuit of the coveted prize. As such, the player has to figure out a way to let Zack ‘get his way’ in the game world. To this end, the game actually advises the player on how she should go about attaining Zack’s goal of becoming Prom King. The most obvious way would be to turn other characters against Buzz. But if the player does not want to be vicious by destroying Buzz’s reputation among his friends, she can choose to establish – through her chosen protagonist –cordial relationships with Zack’s friends or even the head of the Prom Planning Committee. In essence, the player can choose to be either a vindictive or a conciliatory force in the game.
Rowan Kaiser, in his review of the game for Paste Magazine, writes that “the core issue with Prom Week as a game, instead of as a relationship simulation, is that it doesn’t do a good job of storytelling” (para. 11). Kaiser believes that the game fails to adequately contextualize the story that it attempts to relate to the player:
The narrative it gives, when you start a chapter, is simply the premise of your character’s goals. This is a decent way to begin, but the game fails in continuing to contextualize the story. Your character’s relationship with the others changes, but you see this primarily through the meters of representation, instead of through the actions your character can take. Likewise, it’ll say that your character is “depressed” but other than acknowledgment, it’s unclear how that depression affects the game mechanics. (para. 11)
I take Kaiser’s point that the game does not explicitly address the way in which the protagonist’s emotional state at different points in the game affects the player’s control of that character. However, I do not agree with his claim that any change in the character’s relationship with others is seen only on the level of its representation in the game world rather than the behavioural options that are available to that character. Whatever action the protagonist takes in the game depends on the choices made by the player. These choices are capable of influencing the behaviour of the protagonist, which in turn would affect her relationship with the other characters. Similarly, the mood of the protagonist (e.g., jubilant or angry) at any point in the game can shape the behaviour of the other characters. For example, if I choose to let my chosen protagonist, Naomi, insult another character, this action might alter the way in which Naomi’s friends relate to her. Perhaps they might distance themselves from her in order to register their disapproval of her abrasive demeanour. Or, they might reinforce her behaviour by complimenting her. Either way, her action at every step of the game does have an impact on the reactions of the other characters, thereby affecting the outcome of the game itself.
In Computers as Theatre, Brenda Laurel revisits her earlier definition of interactivity as existing on a continuum that is characterized by three variables: “frequency (how often you could interact), range (how many choices were available), and significance (how much the choices really affected matters)” (20). While interactivity involves the player’s engagement with the game world, such an involvement has to alter the elements of the game in a quantifiable way. Laurel believes that frequency, range, and significance – important though they may be – are not the only characteristics of interactivity. She surmises that it is possible to derive the feeling of “participating in the ongoing action of the representation” from other sources such as “sensory immersion and the tight coupling of kinaesthetic input and visual response” (Laurel 21). The concept of dramatic performance inherently entails such sensory phenomena, as the experience involves the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic senses of both the performer and the audience. However, in an interactive video game such as Prom Week, whereby the player is both the performer and the audience of the gaming experience, her visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic senses are fused together through gameplay.
As the player moves the mouse and calibrates the interactions between the protagonist and the other characters on the screen (e.g., to flirt or to insult), she is also listening to the soundtrack that signifies the quality of these relationships. A positive relationship is represented by a melody that is of a high register, whereas a negative relationship is marked by a tune that is low-pitched. By combining the visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic senses, the player is able to alter the story of the game by way of a performative authorship that shapes the behaviour of her chosen character (be it Zack or Naomi), thereby affecting the final outcome on Prom Night. However, while players of Prom Week may be able to influence the story of the game, they do not necessarily experience the game in a linear fashion. According to Jesper Juul, the idea that game sessions are experienced linearly, like narratives, is problematic, as it ignores the player’s experience of the game (3). A novel or a play recounts a narrative that is predetermined. Therefore, the reader or the viewer cannot alter the story, for doing that would be tantamount to writing a new novel or play altogether. However, the narratives in video games tend to be flexible, as it is possible for players to influence the events that unfold in the plot.
While the story of Prom Week is essentially about a high school student who aspires to become Prom King or Queen, there are numerous ways in which this dream can be either fulfilled or thwarted. For instance, each time my chosen character, Naomi, interacts with another character in the game, I can calibrate the manner in which she behaves towards that character. A cordial disposition would most probably help to garner support for Naomi on Prom Night, whereas an antagonistic temperament might trigger a negative response from that character. As Juul notes, “playing a game includes the awareness that the game session is just one out of many possible to be had from this game” (Juul 3). Playing a game involves an exploration of the possibilities that its narrative affords. But there is a difference between the narrative that the player authors through the performance of her chosen character in the game world and the scripted narrative that structures the game.
Gordon Calleja, in his discussion of what he terms ‘Narrative Involvement Model’, makes a distinction between “the alterbiography, referring to the story generated by the individual player as she takes action in the game, and the scripted narrative, referring to the pre-scripted story events written into the game” (115). The player does not write the entire game narrative in Prom Week. Instead, she has to interpret the predetermined events and behaviour of the other characters in the game in order to calibrate the ways in which her chosen character behaves throughout the game session. Calleja explains the interaction between the player and the game environment as follows:
On the moment-by-moment level of engagement, a player’s interpretation of events occurring within the game environment and his interaction with the game’s rules, human and AI entities, and objects result in a performance which gives game environments their narrative affordances. Interaction generates, rather than excludes, story. (115)
The generative potential of the player’s interaction with the narrative elements in Prom Week is predicated upon the reaction of her chosen character towards the actions of the other characters as well as the events that unfold at each specific moment in the game session. In turn, the decisions that the player makes in terms of how her chosen character behaves would generate a narrative that is unique to the game session. As a result, the player – through her cognitive engagement in the development of the game’s narrative and the physical movement of the mouse that directly manipulates the behaviour of her chosen protagonist in the virtual game world – partakes in a performative authorship that is both interpretative and generative. But while the intersection of what Calleja terms ‘alterbiography’ and the ‘scripted narrative’ of the game might serve to elucidate the nature of the interaction between the player as creative author and the game as dramatic theatre, the question of player agency deserves further exploration.
My ability as a player to calibrate the behaviour of my chosen character, Naomi, at a specific point in the game would constitute local agency, while global agency would refer to my ability to control the effects of my interaction with the game over a longer period of time. Suppose I want to cause the other characters to turn against Naomi’s two-timing boyfriend, Buzz, I would have to set Naomi up as a kind and generous character in order to win the hearts of these characters. However, such a plan would entail the combination of local and global agency. Cultivating a strong relationship between Naomi and every single one of Buzz’s friends would constitute local agency, whereas global agency is achieved through the sum of these relationships that would eventually serve to cast Buzz in a bad light, thereby giving Naomi a better chance of becoming Prom Queen. Through the confluence of local agency and global agency, the player affects the dramatic action of the game by leaving traces in its virtual representational world.
Like most role-playing games, Prom Week allows the player to leave traces in the game world through her actions. But in order for this to happen, “the game world must be persistent, i.e. the state of the objects and characters must be consistent throughout the playthrough, and changes cannot be undone after the player leaves an area” (Fernandez-Vara 9). Indeed, the persistence of the game environment is critical to the dramatic gameplay in Prom Week. As such, the player can pause the game at anytime within a game session, so as to return to it at a later time. Upon resumption, the game session would continue from the exact point at which the player left off. All actions and relationships that were established prior to the interval remain intact. Consequently, it is the player’s capacity to control how and when she interacts with the elements in the game environment that instantiates the performative authorship of the interactive drama game.
Calleja, Gordon. In-Game: From Immersion to Incorporation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011. Print.
Fernandez-Vara, Clara. “Game Spaces Speak Volumes: Indexical Storytelling.” Proceedings of DiGRA 2011 Conference: Think Design Play. Digital Games Research Association. 2011. Web. 6 Jan. 2013.
Juul, Jesper. “Games Telling Stories?” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research 1.1 (2001): n. pag. Web. 6 Jan. 2013.
Kaiser, Rowan. “Prom Week Review (Browser/Facebook).” Paste: Signs of Life in Music, Film & Culture. Paste Mag., 28 Feb. 2012. Web. 18 Dec. 2012.
Laurel, Brenda. Computers as Theatre. Boston and New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1993. Print.
Prom Week. Expressive Intelligence Studio (EIS). University of California, Santa Cruz. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.