An Alternative Taxonomy for Interactive Stories

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked about Narrativist games, and despite a lengthy (and interesting) discussion in comments, there wasn’t a lot of consensus about a corpus of narrativist IF/videogames; indeed, some commenters thought that it was more or less impossible to do narrativism properly except through a human GM.

In general, I think there are two problems with using GNS theory outside of the human-run RPG context. First, the narrativist approach in particular requires a lot of freeform input from the player, which it is difficult to express in computer mechanics; and second, most of this theory does tend to assume that there’s a more or less one-to-one relationship between characters in the story and players, whereas many computer games and interactive narratives disrupt that assumption.

It may be more successful to think in terms of the relationship between player and story. Even where the player character is the protagonist and the player is assumed to share the protagonist’s goals, there are plenty of distinctions to be made (and not just the “characterized” vs AFGNCAAP distinction, either). But that’s just the beginning. Some of the more common possibilities that don’t identify player and protagonist together:

The player controls a character who is really just a foil to the real main character, whoever that might be. The player-character’s interactions with the real protagonist serve to reveal and/or develop her character, but our own character remains something of a cipher.

  • Both Portal and Portal 2. GLaDOS is far more developed, and undergoes more change, than Chell.
  • Digital: A Love Story.

The player is most like the hand of fate, or the protagonist’s own failings. He guides the protagonist through various challenges, but in a way that leads the protagonist to an unhappy outcome. The player may be explicitly aware that he’s moving towards an unhappy ending, or the protagonist may be framed as a villain/antihero.

The player is most like an actor, improvising a performance to a script of the author’s creation. Play turns on things like gesture and style, focusing the player on motive and personality while not allowing him to control action.

  • Heavy Rain, successfully in some segments
  • Dinner Date, though perhaps unsuccessfully
  • Lost Pig. The performative aspect is not the core gameplay, since that’s still chiefly puzzle-oriented, but a lot of the humor arises from finding ways to act in-character for this particular protagonist.
  • Some segments of Fable III, not least the ones where the player is actually on stage in some way: for instance, the scene involving re-performing the lost plays of a famous playwright, or the mission riffing on D&D, both of which can be performed in different ways with comic results.
  • The Act of Misdirection, the first scene: the player can perform the magic trick here well or badly, and is likely to do better on a replay than the first time around.

The player is most like a reader, though maybe of poetry rather than of prose. There are no real challenges at all, but the ergodic process of gaining access to different parts of the work encourages the player to be conscious of structural points she might not otherwise notice. Interaction often focuses the player on thematic links between apparently unrelated elements.

The player is most like a student, being quizzed with challenges depending on how well she understands the terms of a story that she doesn’t fully control (or perhaps doesn’t control at all).

The player is most like a coauthor, directly manipulating aspects of the story at a high level. Not a lot of these exist, but I might include

Hmm. What other possibilities are there in this space? Translator, director, prose editor, reteller?

[Edited to add: Ruben and Lullaby might come close to being directorial, though it’s low on specific event content, so possibly this is at the expense of plot. But still.]

19 thoughts on “An Alternative Taxonomy for Interactive Stories

  1. Translator made me think immediately of The Gostak, but I think that’s in the context of a larger role. Deadline Enchanter? Possibly it is stretching too hard.

    • I’m not sure I’d call Deadline Enchanter a game that you translate, but it’s definitely got to go somewhere interesting on this chart. Arguably there’s a meta-puzzle of trying to figure out just what is going on, and making sense of the structure, that might put it closer to Le Reprobateur and Life Flashes By than anything else?

  2. One possibility is the player as shaper of the environment through which the protagonist moves, removing (or placing!) obstacles to guide the protagonist a certain way. I don’t know of any IF that does this, but it’s basically what’s happening in Samorost (but not Machinarium); a lot of the things you do affect things that the protagonist wouldn’t be able to reach and just clear the way for him, though other times you’re controlling the protagonist himself. There are some similar platformy-puzzle games where the protagonist goes on and you do things to the environment to make them go the right path (like Enemy 585, though there you’re controlling a foil).

    Of course the platformers tend not to have a strong story (though the opening sequence of Enemy 585 is worth watching — the game itself is a little too hard for me), and Samorost is deliberately surreal and nonsensical; but it seems like this is another option.

    • Adam Cadre’s original concept for Lock and Key falls along those lines (as he discusses in his commentary text).

      The actual game is also somewhat along those lines but it isn’t “pure” in that the player is still a character in the story.

  3. How about player-as-conscience? I’m thinking about Rameses and Hotel Dusk.

    The character is free to ignore their conscience (quite blithely in the case of Rameses) or take suggestions grudgingly (in the case of conversation in Hotel Dusk).

    • I was thinking of that as a subset or variation on player-as-protagonist rather than one of the other categories. Though arguably this is kind of blurry, if I’m willing to include hand-of-fate or player-as-dark-force on this chart. Still thinking about this.

  4. … because the game is very careful never to say it’s “you” who are doing things. In fact, the protagonist is basically dead from the beginning, yes?

    • I’m not sure that’s exactly true. The game does avoid specifying any person at all (0th person narration?), but I think that’s intended to promote ambiguity about the nature of the protagonist. Or, to put it another way, you may not be exactly who/what you think you are at the beginning, but that’s a problem that the main character in the story also has. The player’s agency in the story is coterminous with that character’s agency.

  5. In this system, is Braid inhabiting a protagonist, or is it the player being invited to be, effectively, a Student of Space and Time? Portal and Portal 2 seem like they would fit pretty neatly into the “Student” bin as well as the “foil” one. Chell may not be AFGN, but she’s enough of a CAAP that the game can be seen as an exploration of motion and impossible architecture.

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