“Nothing for Dinner” is an interactive drama released last fall by Nicolas Szilas and collaborators, using a tool called IDtension. Szilas works out of the TECFA Lab at the University of Geneva. If you read my writeup on the book Interactive Digital Narrative, you’ll have seen a mention of Szilas’ article there. Though it would have been out of place in the book overview, I wanted to come back and look more closely at what “Nothing for Dinner” accomplishes.
The premise of the story is that you’re a young man whose father has suffered a stroke that affects his behavior and memory. You need to get something ready for dinner, but your father keeps getting in the way, and other events spontaneously happen — a school friend coming over to get back a textbook she left at your house, your sister’s DVD player breaking, a phone call from your mother with extra chores — to add blocks to your progress.
The system is clearly quite dynamic: I played three times, and the sequence of events was very different each time, with some blockers appearing only in one of the playthroughs. Also, the conversation menus are dynamically generated to let you try various approaches to any of the currently-active problems, or to give emotional feedback to the other characters about what they’ve just done.
If you try to cook dinner alone, your father resentfully complains that you never want to do anything with him; if you try to involve him, he may get annoyed and refuse to help you; if you let him cook by himself, he’ll break things and make a mess. And whenever your father gets upset, your grandmother comes over to chide you for not looking after him.
It’s a very effective mechanism for making me rapidly resent my entire family for offloading all the emotional and practical labor onto me: like a time management game, but with more passive-aggressive commentary, and less opportunity to get anything done.
The best success I had was when I first let Paul try to cook on his own, let him break a bowl, and then offered to cook alongside him. Here we are in a charming father/son moment waving knives above our bowls:
Taken either as a game or as a drama, I found this a bit frustrating. It was easy to get stuck in a loop of trying the same or related tactics over and over again — on my second playthrough, for instance, I spent a lot of time trying to get Paul to cook with me but before he’d had a chance to try by himself and screw up. He would refuse, I would try to cook by myself instead, he would get angry that I didn’t want to spend time with him, Grandma would intervene and tell me to be nice to him, we’d calm Paul down, I’d ask him to work on dinner… repeat, repeat, repeat. The system didn’t seem to react to the fact that we’d been through this whole cycle many times before. (No doubt it works that way sometimes in real life.)
When I got frustrated with that cycle and decided to act less productively, though, I still couldn’t break out into a new kind of experience. I yelled at Paul, he yelled back at me… and still nothing really changed. In my internal narrative of the protagonist, something significant had just happened: I’d just lost my patience, stopped accommodating Paul, and started interacting with him negatively. It was a character transition point. But the game had no way to acknowledge that.
I think part of the issue here is that often the obstacles introduced would slow progress, but not in a way that either changed the overall stakes of the situation. Ask Paul to make dinner, he breaks a bowl, I have to go clean up the bowl… and once that’s over, the world state is the same as it ever was. Nothing has been learned and nothing has significantly changed. If there was an element of the engine behind the scenes that was doing overall tracking of dramatic tension, I didn’t detect it.
Another issue was that even the characters without memory problems seemed not to preserve a sense of context for long. I could compliment my sister Lili on an action and then turn around and immediately criticize her for the same action: the game didn’t seem to notice, and it didn’t appear to make any difference either way.
So in general, the cumulative effect of all this was to make me feel as though, even though I was operating in a rich world and drama simulation, most of my actions had little perceivable consequence.
There were also some lower-level issues around polish: the English isn’t always very idiomatic, and the dialogue generated can feel quite stilted.
On the positive side, though, one can definitely tell that the system is generating and directing NPC actions in order to produce particular dramatic effects, and that the characters are constantly reacting to changes in world state. Sometimes the two characters I wasn’t currently talking to would be having their own conversation in the other corner of the room. Sometimes the conversation generator would offer me some pretty complex (but still generated) options about what to say: for instance, asking my grandmother to help me convince Paul to work in the kitchen. There’s a lot of potential expressiveness there, if only the effects of actions were stronger.