Friday, February 02, 2018

Using interaction in a narrative media to enhance the focus on character perspective - sketching a high-level vision

I'm interested in a kind of narrative media where a primary focus (in the whole, or elements of it) is placing the 'player' within a character's shoes (immersion to foster empathy with the character), and where serving this goal is the primary focus of the interaction.  Computer games already use interaction to place the player within a character's shoes, but I think there's some directions they haven't yet explored.

What I'm interested in exploring (at some time, post-PhD) is a bit like a computer game, but not necessarily a game, and a kind of interactive storytelling, but not necessarily focused on a story.  I'll try to give a high-level view of these thoughts here.

A word of warning: this is all based on intuitions that I can't, at this moment, fully articulate or back up.  Seeing if anything could be made of these ideas could only be done by experimenting and actually trying them out.  In this post I'm trying to flesh out a kind of launching-off point for such experimentation.

Imagine a life pretty removed from our everyday modern lives.  Like a lowly worker on a sailing ship in the 17th century spice trade.  What was their day to day life like?  What sorts of activities did they undertake, and what was the character of those activities?  How did they see the world, and interact with the other people (of various stations and standings) on the ship?  What did they want out of life?  Imagine if you could see their day to day life through their eyes, and hear their thoughts, and use interaction to have a role in carrying out the activities they go through.  This the kind of thing I'm thinking of.

You could try doing this kind of thing as the main focus of the entire work, or it could be done here and there within a more conventionally narrative-focused work.  Again, experimentation would be required to see if either of those would work.

I suspect that the basic way of achieving the goal would be through something akin to quick-time events (QTEs), and the overall work being made up of QTE sequences.  The primary purpose of the QTEs would not be, as is sometimes the case, providing a challenge for the player, but placing the 'player' in the character's shoes.  To try to get them to perceive and think about the details presented to them in a different fashion to how they would the details in a novel or a movie, more like as if they were in that situation and getting more into the character's mindset.

Here's some thoughts about how this could be done.

(And yes, QTEs can suck, but I think there's scope for exploring different ways they can be implemented.  The devil is always in the details, and subtle differences can make all the difference in practice).

QTEs could be used in a more granular way, which would mean more frequent interactions.  The rationale for this is that the activities the character undertakes have a structure (there's a number of moment-to-moment steps the character undertakes to help set up a sail, for example), and if we want to place the 'player' in the character's shoes, then we want them to click/tap/swipe to "step through" each element of what the character is doing.

To help place them in the character's shoes, the 'player's perspective could be either a first-person one, or a third-person one such as an behind-the-shoulder one that provides a view of what the character is doing but which is still relatively-close to a first-person view.  So the QTE interactions would be presented from such a perspective.

As well as using the interactions to initiate elements of an activity, they could be used to shift where the character is looking or what they are focusing on.  So if they are reefing in some ropes but then need to look up to the sail to see how much of it has been pulled up, the 'player' could click to shift the character's perspective upwards.

There could be text labels on the QTE targets, indicating what the action is that the player will be initiating, to help them understand what the character is doing (or rather, about to do).

As well as, or instead of, such labels, there could be narration from the character, about what they are doing and/or thinking.  (There might also be a way to engage the 'player' by having them predict or anticipate what the character is going to do, and in some small way reward them for correctly doing so.)

A typical narrative tends to show only plot-relevant details.  What I'm thinking of could include more of the details that show what it's like to be in the character's shoes, such as showing the detailed steps of what they are doing in setting up the sails.  Such details would likely be tedious in a non-interactive format -- just detail after detail after detail*.  The hope is that such details can be interesting, rather than boring, if the player has an interactive role in carrying them out, and can comprehend what is going on (such as from the visuals, text labels, narration and clicking the targets when they are ready rather than it happening in real-time).

[*] I suspect that if you tried to present such details visually in a first-person format, it would be jarring and a bit incomprehensible, as the camera would need to jump around a lot, and without the interaction you wouldn't know where it was going to jump next.
The hope would be that we could show -- that is, demonstrate -- what the character's life is like.  That if, in effect, the player could experience what a day in the life of the character is like, they could see it from a perspective that they couldn't get by a more condensed or descriptive account of the character's life (like you'd get in a novel or movie).  Let them spend the time doing the work the character would be doing, let them get a true feel for how much rest time the character gets. 

Certain details are hard to appreciate without experiencing them yourself.  Like really appreciating how much of a particular kind of job involves X (e.g. paperwork or cleaning or just sitting around). Or on a grander scale, understanding the culture of a place, and understanding why people there hold certain beliefs or act in certain ways.  It's hard to convey this in a book or movie.  You need to have experienced the place yourself over a period of time.  Imagine if an interactive narrative experience could provide a sufficient proxy for actually experiencing such things, to the extent that it would allow the 'player' to appreciate such cultural details.  That is, at least, something to aspire to being able to achieve.