How to Make Non-Linear Reactive Stories

by L.B. Jeffries

5 August 2008

 

One of my favorite phrases to throw around in a video game debate is that no amount of naming the chess pieces in a game after something will change the fact that you’re still playing chess. The chief preoccupation is still scoring a checkmate, having nothing to do with whatever title or meaning you’ve assigned to the pieces. It’s simply a way to shake up someone who thinks that all video games need to do is have a more sophisticated plot, a way to make them question the game designs and activities we’re actually doing in games. It also reminds people that the player input is what makes game plots so difficult to manage, though it’s also what gives them so much potential. Yet there must be a way to create meaning in a game despite that huge variable without constantly forcing the player’s hand. A couple of games that are coming on the horizon are exploring just that, as highlighted by a fascinating interview over at Gamasutra with Patrick Redding about Far Cry 2. I made a comment there that was just meant to summarize what Redding was trying to explain when one designs a non-linear plot. The writer creates a series of reactions that relate to one another like vignettes that inter-operate in the game. People seemed to take a shining to it, so after giving it some thought, I figured I should explore what the hell that actually means.

 

Long ago, at the young age when awkward boys are thinking up unique ways to impress girls, I opted to learn how to tell fortunes with a tarot deck. It was just something that fit my personality. This might shock you, but the real key is to not actually believe you’re predicting the future when you do a reading. Instead, pretend you’re giving someone an elaborate ink blot test. It’s like holding up a giant symbolic mirror that will, thanks to our mind’s natural inclination to assign meaning to chaos, create an incredibly personal and profound story for the subject. This means I don’t need to be in control of the meaning the cards create for a person, because I know the meaning they create will be far more powerful anyways. It also means they’ll take care of any flaws in the story I project at them. When I say a lively and energetic man is affecting your life, I don’t have to worry that I’m talking to a person surrounded by boring people. They will, by default, manipulate the data in their head until someone conforming to that image plugs in. So to explain how one might create narrative in a seemingly random video game, I’m going to explain how I can create narrative with a deck of cards.

 

The deck consists of 78 cards representing broad philosophical and personal concepts. The Magus is skill, wisdom, cunning. Death is transformation, change, and destruction but not literally death. You then have the lower arcana of wands (energy), cups (emotion), swords (logic), and discs (material affairs). These are like the houses of a normal deck of cards: each are numbered and represent states or emotions, the major arcana represent types of people or situations, and the ace is a massive concentration of whatever arcana it represents. Each of these cards are visually and descriptively designed to kick off something in your subconscious, and they do so with a variety of tools. I use Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Deck and I chose it because each card has a stunning amount of imagery on it. There’s phallic, vaginal, occult, and anything else they could pack into one little card. It is extremely unlikely that a person looking at one of these things is not going to have it register and connect with something in their head. Whether that association is positive or negative, tarot cards work as narrative devices because they deal with loaded symbolism that people naturally turn into stories. When I slap down the Knight of Wands, shown wielding flaming staves and thundering horses, I know the subject is both puzzled and creating connections without me saying a word.

 

Furthermore, in any narrative there is a great deal to be said for prepping your subject. I’ve experimented with a variety of reading methods and they almost all require the subject to shuffle the cards. While they do so, you have them think about what’s affecting them or what question they want answered. You do this to make sure the subject is already trying to turn the random symbols into a larger narrative. Other mediums use music, labels, etc. in a similar method: you prep your subject for thinking about a particular theme. The sad music in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is as much a signal for my brain to start referencing sad thoughts as the imagery itself. So I tell them to think about a problem in their life and that these cards are going to relate to that problem. Occasionally a person will be extremely helpful and tell me what’s on their mind, but most of the time I like the challenge of sniffing out the issue. This is probably what separates good fortune tellers from bad ones: the capacity to gauge a person’s responses to you. Fortunately, video games are going to be far better at this than me because they have all those graphs and feedback charts. There may still be a lot of cultural bias towards video games being anything except diversions or fun, but for a game that wants to impart a meaningful story one of the key aspects is letting the person know your intentions. As much as you might fear sounding pretentious, if you’re trying to say something complex and deep then don’t pretend otherwise.

 

So once you have a wide and universal array of symbols at your disposal and a subject who is thinking very hard about converting these symbols into something that means something, what is the final phase? The presentation. There are actually a lot of ways to do tarot cards, and most people choose based on their personal skills. I use the Celtic Cross method, which divides the draw into 5 groups of 3. One group represents the conflict, two are potential decisions for the user to make, and the other two are outside factors to consider. That’s a lot to work with, so that even if the subject does not really resonate with the central conflict group, they tend to perk up when I gloss over a successful future or interesting factors in their life. With so many topics to discuss, it means I don’t have to tell a perfect fortune, I just have to get my foot in the door. They’ll do the rest, the morphing and manipulating broad symbols into their life, all by themselves. There are other techniques for the tarot as well. The Egyptian method is to just draw cards until one hits pay dirt, then gloss the rest as significant in other ways. Others have their own unique set of symbols and claims for the subject. The result is always the same: if you mix broad symbols with proper presentation and carefully managed player input, you will have an impact on the subject.

 

It might surprise you that despite my own blunt perspective on the art of tarot, I still tell my own fortune a fair amount. When something is troubling me or I’m unsure about a choice to make, I break out the deck and follow the cards. Not because I expect good advice or even a solution, but because they help generate perspective. Like the ink blot test and sitting on your therapist’s couch, reading those cards makes me think about myself and my issue in a new way. Which is technically what narrative in most mediums is doing with symbols anyways. You find something you can relate to in a story and through that connection find profound meaning. Going back to more linear mediums, a popular symbol would be the mansion. From Faulkner to ‘There Will Be Blood’, that symbol of a big house, the wealth it implies, and its motivation to bloody-minded men is near universal. I don’t need Daniel Plainview to say another word in the film when he says he wanted a mansion as a kid, I and the vast majority of people know what it is to long for wealth. In video games, where interactivity creates such an impossible headache for writers, I think the tarot offers a lot of insights on how meaning can still be created in an environment where the author has little control. A series of reactions like someone crying for help if you shoot them or a dog following you if you feed it could be created in response to the player. Rather than worry about how these relate to some grand linear story, simply leave them as short vignettes that connect and relate to one another through A.I. With enough potent symbols and a willing subject, you don’t really need much control over the narrative at all. The player will create the story for you.


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