Does gameplay have politics?

Article posted on www.game-research.com on April 13, 2004

Much attention has been devoted to the scholarly issue of whether games should be thought of as rule based systems (ludology) or stories (narratology). Real games, however, obviously occupy both camps; some are more linear than others. Thus, two aesthetics compete for the players’ attention. On one side we find simulation-type games in which a limited number of variables create an open unpredictable world and on the other we find narratively oriented games in which the direction of the plot is given overriding importance. These two aesthetics are often seen as favouring different political world views. This article examines the claim that game design ideals can or should be seen as political statements.

A recent article in Reason (a magazine devoted to “Free Minds and Free Markets”) claims that “Video games are evolving into a grand anti-authoritarian laboratory”. The reason for this is the shift from “pre-rendered animation and simple behaviour to physical modelling and advanced artificial intelligence…”, a shift that “takes power from authors” (Parker, 2004 22). The author airs his dislike of storytelling games and goes on to claim that games in fact “as a class… appear to favour civil and economic liberty.” (26).

The author, then, clearly sees a connection between games which provide open worlds, freedom and libertarian ideals. This more than indicates that he considers more rigid, story-based games as somehow connected with anti-liberalist ideals: socialism, in so many words.

In this article I examine the connections between general design ideals and political ideologies.

Games are clearly…

During the last few years a debate has raged (or at least been claimed to rage) within game studies. In this debate the perspective of ludology has been contrasted to that of narratology. The term ludology was introduced into computer game studies by game theorist Gonzalo Frasca who early on suggested that ludology be thought of as simply the “discipline that studies game and play activities” (Frasca, 1999). Expanding on this however, Frasca on his popular webpage has specified that a ludological stance implies that “games cannot be understood through theories derived from narrative” (Frasca, 2001).

Over the years, the ludology label has been associated with notions of a radical anti-narratologist stance. This is hardly justified by Frasca’s mostly non-confrontational formulations (see also Frasca, 2003). Others, however have been more direct. For instance, Jesper Juul, in a 1998 paper stressed how “Computer games and narratives are very different phenomena. Two phenomena that fight each other. Two phenomena that you basically cannot have at the same time.” (Juul, 1998). Juul has later softened his position (Juul, 2003) and any truly radical ludology is now mostly associated with Finnish theorist Markku Eskelinen (e.g. Eskelinen, 2001).

Although examples can be found it is a widespread observation that the alleged opposition, the narratologists who hold that computer games can and/or should be understood as stories only exist in highly limited quantities. However, it may also be the case that the games-as-narratives perspective can be thought of as a sort of folk theory. While not many scholars may have held this belief a large number of non-involved (or only casually involved) people may well have considered this common sense. For instance the Danish Broadcasting Association in 2001 aimed to raise some €12,5 million for a project with the working title Metropol Scandia. Described as a “storytelling game” the product would see real actors interacting based on user decisions in a “virtual landscape” based on “Flash technology”. According to one account the project leader saw this as a promising alternative to computer games, which supposedly are “so simple that you can easily guess that you have to go through a specific door, collect a specific item and so on…” (Thorhauge, 2001) .

In 2004 nothing has yet come of this ambitious project. Arguably, it was a manifestation of a (to some) intuitive idea that for games to be better they must tell better stories. The ideology here is mostly conservatism; a belief that for “new media” to be worthwhile they must mostly mimic the old. More importantly, however, it may be a consequence of a pervasive predilection for ‘narrative’. Briefly, postmodern philosophy (and theorists within cultural studies) in the 1980s tied the concept of narrative to the idea of social constructionism. Most radically, scientific conclusions (or “truths”) were considered mere narratives, and thus everything was political. Such thoughts – of which many, of course, were more tempered – found an odd bedfellow in the idea inspired by various concepts from cognitive science, that people understand their world in a cognitive format which looks much like classical conceptions of narrative (i.e. is temporal, has clear causality). Within film theory such notions were advocated most forcefully by David Bordwell (1985) and Edward Branigan (1992). Branigan was specific that “Making narratives is a strategy for making our world of experiences and desires intelligible. It is a fundamental way of organizing data.” (1992 1).

It is not entirely obvious how to travel from the understanding that people understand in terms of narrative to the normative ideal that media producers (and indeed companies and products) should tell stories. Nevertheless, marketing disciplines working with branding and storytelling have made this leap often claiming that consumers (or perhaps mostly modern consumers) react favourably to “good stories” and are less concerned with facts.

I shall return below to the question of whether ludology can reasonably be tied to a full-scale political ideology. For now, however, we can note that ludologists do actually see themselves as something more than merely “students of games”.

Ludology has been framed in emancipatory terms, claiming to oppose theoretical imperialism or colonialism (humorously commented upon by Jesper Juul’s Game Liberation, a small game in which you as the player have “to defend games (and yourself) from the imperialism of a thousand theories.” – http://www.jesperjuul.dk/gameliberation/).

Game Lib illustration missing

More clearly, ludologists have essentialist tendencies. Espen Aarseth, whose seminal Cybertext (1997) is the explicit foundation of much ludology, held that “To claim that there is no difference between games and narratives is to ignore essential qualities of both categories” (5). This is a nebulous statement. To see why, let us turn to a discipline which has struggled with the idea of similarities and differences for centuries. In biology, various systems have been constructed to tell organisms apart. In some regard, Aarseth’s statement would be comparable to the proclamation that “to claim that there is no difference between human beings and animals is to ignore essential qualities of both categories.” To a biologist, of course, that is not immediately obvious. But more importantly, the “no difference” part is very vague. While no-one would disagree that we can point to various differences between humans and other animals we have no general way of deciding whether the two categories are mostly different or mostly similar. And we certainly have no way of deciding which differences are “essential”. We could stress that humans live in cities but we could just as well stress that dolphins communicate by sonar and display certain behaviour patterns inviting the conclusion that dolphins are essentially different from all other organisms. This is not to say that Aarseth’s statement is not meaningful (surely we can follow his larger argument that games have interesting characteristics not shared by, say, novels) but referring to “essential qualities” is not a strictly academic practise. Academically, categories are arbitrary and to claim that they are not is to engage in politics. The politics here, however, are those which come wholesale with the establishment of research programs. Although this may be done with varying degrees of modesty (and initial modesty is likely to be beneficial at later stages) such programs, if not framed in purely local terms, will always be arguing that one method, perspective or basic set of assumptions is superior to others.

In terms of games, ludologists can easily be seen as advocating a certain aesthetics. Significantly, most ludologists are not arguing against narrative in games. However, by stressing their scepticism towards some kinds of narrative (e.g. games that seem to mindlessly translate storytelling conventions from older media) they can be said to support game designs which take a simulationist approach. This, however, is merely one of several possible approaches to game design. In the following, I will present the two main approaches; the simulationist and the story-telling aesthetics.

Open worlds, closed stories

One way to distinguish between games is to look at their degree of openness. This can be thought of in a number of ways. For instance, we can understand games as being world-centred as opposed to protagonist-centred. In the former case the game is a world with physics in which processes take place without the protagonist necessarily being involved. In protagonist-centred games, however, the entire game system revolves around the protagonist and nothing noteworthy takes place outside the action radius of the protagonist. In her humorous account, game journalist J. C. Herz (1997) referred to the former approach as the “Old Testament approach to game design” stressing that the designer here creates the basic material and the basic rules (analogous to the laws of nature). This, she contrasted with the “‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ syndrome, where you feel like you’re on some kind of monorail through the game.” (154). These two approaches were addressed further in my article ‘The Road not Taken’ (Smith, 2000).

Another, and more precise, distinction was made by Jesper Juul who described games as being on a continuum between two basic game structures: ‘emergence’ and ‘progression’ (Juul, 2002). Emergence, to Juul, is “the primordial game structure, where a game is specified as a small number of rules that combine and yield large numbers of game variations…” (324). An example is chess, in which quite simple rules combine to enable an enormous (if technically finite) number of individual chess matches.

In progression games, on the other hand, “the player has to perform a predefined set of actions to complete the game.” (324). Juul stresses how this game form is practically unique to computer games. Clear-cut specimens include adventure games such as Myst (Cyan, 1994) and Gabriel Knight III (Sierra, 1999).

Myst illustration missing

Looking at the history of computer games it is obvious that the initial preference was for simple emergence games. Games like Spacewar! (Russel et. al., 1962) and Pong (Atari, 1972) were easy to learn but took practice to play well. With Adventure (Crowther, 1976) and Zork (Infocom, 1979) however, the player was given a series of tasks (or puzzles) to solve in order to progress through what was essentially a linear story. Arguably, the introduction of adventure games mark a politically charged time in game history as adventure game designers (or ‘authors’ as they often called themselves) attempted to distance themselves from the simple teenage-friendly arcade action games of the time. Adventure game designers may well have had lofty goals. It is hard, however, not to acknowledge the strategic side of their project. In this light the attempt to lean heavily on storytelling media (in particular the novel and the film) is reminiscent of earl film makers’ attempt to draw on the prestige of classical theatre by placing a camera in front of actors performing classical plays. Alternatively, the project can be compared to the rhetorical work of the French Nouvelle Vague movement, who in the 1960s strived to promote an idea of the film director as an author (Smith, 2000). Thus, in a sense adventure game developers saw themselves as more sophisticated than their emergence-inspired colleagues. But their project of framing games as literature (and thus art) failed since in terms of popularity and creative potential, progression games were not (or did not become) obvious candidates for the label “real games”. Thus, it may be that ludology should be seen as a counter-reaction to this failed attempt. In positioning games as worthy of recognition ludology are employing the exact opposite strategy, namely arguing that games are different. Considering the popularity of emergence games this argument is likely to have more impact.This brings us back to the actual games since recent developments seem to contradict any claim that game designs subscribing to a “pure” emergent aesthetics are – or will soon become – the norm. Now, as an example of a computer game with highly emergent properties we can choose SimCity (Maxis, 1989). Here, we find no storyline but rather a sort of sandbox – a term sometimes used derogatorily, see for instance Klug (2002). The player is given an interface through which he or she can interact with a system of individually speaking simple components. The results are not prescribed and are infinite in range. Interestingly, many modern games in fact seem to merge the two basic aesthetics in ways that not many might have foreseen a decade ago. Notably, Half-Life (Valve, 1998) was praised for its seamless integration of story and player freedom. Rather than forcefully advancing the plot by stripping away the player’s options while displaying a cut-scene, Half-Life succeeded in supplying pertinent narrative information while remaining inside the system of the game engine.

Half-live illustration missing

Later games with similar ambitions have even revitalized the much-derided cut-scene, introducing brief, cinematic animations functioning more as establishing shots or drama enhancers than scenes conveying complex narrative details. In Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (Ubisoft, 2003), for instance, dramatic situations are sometimes introduced by a brief swoop of the “camera” showing the layout of the soon-to-be battle field (the game also uses some classical cut-scenes to advance the story).

Prince of Persia illustration missing

The game makes use of modern cinema aesthetics in brief ‘functionalist’ cut-scenes which serve as establishing shots etc.


But the recent game which may have most forcefully demonstrated the potential of merging the two aesthetics is the top-selling video game in the US in 2002: Grand Theft Auto III: Vice City (Rockstar North, 2002). The original Grand Theft Auto III (2002) is in fact one of the game singled out in Kevin Parker’s Reason article for setting the player free (Parker doesn’t fail to note that the player begins the game in the role of a freed prisoner, and comments “Captive audience no longer”). While Vice City has a narrative in the form of a series of tasks which must be completed to advance the underlying plot, the game has been singled out mostly for its advanced physics leading to a world of opportunity. For instance, since Vice City’s vehicles have logical properties and are not just backdrops, the player may use them in highly varied ways. Where, though, does the game belong on Juul’s emergence-progression continuum? While it is certainly true that the game offers more freedom (in any common sense of the word) than classical adventure games, Vice City is actually not emergent in the strict sense of the word. While game objects may become involved in chain-reactions (i.e. large-scale car crashes) the world itself does not actually evolve much in the absence of the player character. Vice City citizens do not live their daily life according to their basic preferences in the parts of the city where the player is not present. Thus, there is no way that the actions of the player will cause large-scale changes in the game world. In fairness, then, Vice City belongs somewhere in the middle of Juul’s continuum and is perhaps not the obvious choice of game for someone arguing that games have reached new stages of ‘freedom’ (MMORPGs, also mentioned by Parker, are more obvious candidates)

Does game design have politics?

Let us now return to our more general question of whether the two aesthetics are tied to political ideologies.

Parker, in his Reason article, doesn’t take it nearly as far, but let us consider an extreme argument: Narrative games are socialist, simulation games are liberalist. With the term ‘socialist’ we shall refer to the idea that central governance is advantageous. ‘Liberalist’ here is the idea that self-governance is advantageous (and morally superior since individuals are or should be free). First of all, the analogy is of course quite obvious. Adventure games (say) have relatively fixed story lines established by an all-powerful author and the freedom of the player is moderate at best. Simulation games have only basic rules (analogous to laws of nature and perhaps basic human rights) and offer much more freedom. In various forms, this analogy is common. Most specifically, interactivity (and the rise of interactive media) has frequently been described in utopian terms (see examples in Aarseth, 1997). But certain forms of texts within non-interactive media have also been described as inherently more free and some of these descriptions have had obvious political components. For instance Umberto Eco wrote of the “open text” which afforded multiple interpretations (Eco, 1989). In media studies John Fiske (1987) called such texts “writerly” and saw them as empowering the interpreter. In film theory, Andre Bazin is often credited (more or less fairly) with the idea that editing had an un-democratic element since the director was assuming too much control. Turning to painting, the “academic” perspective, common since the renaissance has been described as manifesting certain ideologies. And within theatre, Brecht famously advocated the need for new forms of drama not affirming bourgeois values. In other words, the tradition for linking certain media forms (or genres) to specific ideologies is both old and persistent.

Not only designers and producers face such accusations, of course. An illuminating parallel to the games are political claim, may be the idea that science is political. This idea also comes in many forms, one of the stronger being the claim that theories put forth must be understood as manifestations of certain ideologies. Such an argument has been levelled repeatedly against proponents of the so-called sociobiological perspective (see Segerstråle, 2000). To some critics, when sociobiologists have claimed that animal behaviour should be considered in the light of genetics they were really saying that natural dispositions should be used as guidelines for structuring society etc. While specific sociobiologists may of course have held a broad range of views, in general such an accusation is unfounded (see discussion in Dennett, 1995). The naturalist fallacy is the belief that you can infer from is to ought and these critics were in fact committing an odd naturalist fallacy by proxy as they ascribed the fallacy to their opponents who didn’t (as a rule) commit it themselves. In this indirect fashion the idea of slow gradual evolution highlighted by Richard Dawkins (e.g. Dawkins, 1989) and others has been described as an attempt to naturalize self-organizing, non-revolutionary liberalism. In the other trench Stephen Jay Gould’s declared Marxism has been associated with his predilection for the more revolution-friendly idea of evolution by punctuated equilibrium (Gould, 1995).

The operative noun in all this remains analogy. And analogy, as has been aptly shown by many (e.g. Sokal & Bricmont, 1998), is a highly slippery weapon to wield. Mainly, it does not hold that because a person has a certain position within one domain he or she must necessarily hold it in others. Nor does it hold that if someone displays a certain behaviour in one context he or she will also display it in other contexts. For instance, one may believe that the army should be organized hierarchally while society should be organized democratically. Or one may hold the belief that it’s every man for himself in professional chess while people should display community ethics in political life. As to behaviour, one may attempt to strictly adhere to the scientific method in one’s professional life while enjoying The X-Files or romantic poetry in one’s spare time. More to the point one may play, or design, the most Orwellian nightmare of an adventure game story without endorsing any of its content as a recipe for real world legislation.

As a designer or critic it is possible to subscribe to a certain design aesthetic. Significantly, it is also possible to argue that emergence games most elegantly make use of the capabilities of the digital computer. Indeed one may even point to the statistical connection between certain aesthetics and certain ideologies (i.e. fascist architecture) but one cannot sensibly equate a predilection for a certain aesthetic with a certain world view or political ideology. Doing so means committing a universalistic fallacy, to make the mistake of assuming that all aspects of life can or should be judged using the same measures.

None of this means, of course, that individual games cannot way be said to be politically charged (e.g. Taylor, 2003) or to be expressions of political world-views. We can point to the peculiar rule in SimCity which makes it impossible to have a tax-rate higher than about 20% and we can point to the fact that the game was conceived in a US context (and not, say, a Scandinavian one). But we cannot categorize SimCity as anti-taxation propaganda much as we cannot claim that a novel which describes a certain society is necessarily an homage to the society in question.

Conclusions and other perspectives

The freedom offered by games – the agency brought about by interactivity – is often compared to the concept of freedom in private and political (real) life. This analogy, however, often speaks of a universalistic fallacy; the idea that the same measure may be applied to all aspects of life.

Within game studies the attempts of ludologists to ‘set games free’ (from old paradigms) has been associated with an anti-narratological stance. This association is not entirely justified although at the level of game design some ludologists have expressed scepticism as to the possibilities for reconciling (enjoyable) gameplay and narrative. Thus, the somewhat emancipatory project of ludology lends itself to association with what Jesper Juul has called emergence games. The idea that computer game theory and design should be freed from oppression, if only indirectly, ties into the argument that emergence games are somewhat purer or that games based on strong traditional narratives are somewhat limiting. This is mostly guilt by association, however, as the only true political agenda of (most) ludologists is that of advocating certain perspectives in the ongoing endeavour of constructing a (presently rather non-rigid) research program.

Whereas arguing which game aesthetic is inherently purer is mostly a game of words Parker’s suggestion that multiplayer games be seen as political laboratories is an interesting – and generally under-explored – notion. And there is much to learn. MMORPGs, for instance, are struggling with constructing societies which support such diverse requirements as justice, social order, and fun. In this task, MMORPG designers are experimenting with hosts of non-traditional systems for managing deviance and for ensuring a certain level of equality in worlds easily upset by the concentration of power. It is curious how this topic is intensely discussed while very rarely dealt with in a careful academic fashion. It is rare, at least, that political scientists take a genuine interest, whereas their sociologist and economist colleagues are contributing powerfully to our understanding of topically adjacent multiplayer phenomena. Hopefully, this gap will be filled in the near future. Worlds are being built, and there is much to learn for the curious.

References

Bordwell, D. (1985). Narration in the Fiction Film. London: Routledge.

Branigan, E. (1992). Narrative Comprehension and Film. London: Routledge.

Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene (2 ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. London: Penguin Books.

Eco, U. (1989). The Open Work. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Eskelinen, M. (2001). The Gaming Situation. Game Studies, 1(1).

Fiske, J. (1987). Television Culture. London: Routledge.

Frasca, G. (1999). Ludology meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative. Retrieved 29th of March, 2004, from http://www.jacaranda.org/frasca/ludology.htm

Frasca, G. (2001). What is ludology? A provisory definition. Retrieved 29th of March, 2003, from http://ludology.org/article.php?story=20010708201200000

Frasca, G. (2003). Ludologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place. Paper presented at the Level Up – Digital Games Research Conference, Utrecht.

Gould, S. J. (1995). The Pattern of Life’s History. Retrieved 6th of April, 2004, from http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge101.html

Herz, J. C. (1997). Joystick nation : how videogames gobbled our money, won our hearts, and rewired our minds. London: Abacus.

Juul, J. (1998). A Clash between Game and Narrative. Paper presented at the Digital Arts and Culture conference, Bergen.

Juul, J. (2002). The Open and the Closed: Games of Emergence and Games of Progression. Paper presented at the Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference, Tampere.

Juul, J. (2003). Half-Real – Video games between real rules and fictional worlds. PhD dissertation, IT University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen.

Klug, C. (2002, 16th of September). Implementing Stories in Massively Multiplayer Games. Gamasutra.com.

Parker, K. (2004). Free Play – The Politics of the Video Game. Reason, 35, 21-27.

Segerstråle, U. (2000). Defenders of the Truth – The Sociobiology Debate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, J. H. (2000). The Road not Taken – The How’s and Why’s of Interactive Fiction: www.game-research.com.

Sokal, A., & Bricmont, J. (1998). Intellectual Impostures. London: Profile Books.

Taylor, T. L. (2003). Intentional Bodies: Virtual Environments and the Designers Who Shape Them. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19(1).

Thorhauge, C. (2001). DR satser 100 millioner på interaktivitet [The Danish Broadcasting Association bets 100 millions on interactivity]. Computerworld.dk.

Aarseth, E. (1997). Cybertext : perspectives on ergodic literature. London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Dragen på loftet – om rammerne for interaktiv fiktion

Oprindeligt bragt i Samson, Juli 2000

Den computerbaserede interaktive fiktion er faret vild. I følge skribenten bygger den på principper, som er tænderskærende lineære, og derfor er den ikke nogen værdig konkurrent til andre medier. Blandt andet den udmærkede bog. Denne artikel forsøger at skitsere den interaktive fiktions potentiale.

Det virkede ellers så oplagt. For godt tredive år siden sad programmøren Will Crowther og baksede med et lille program, han kaldte ‘Adventure’. Det var egentlig ikke noget særligt – mest af alt var det en kombination af Crowthers største interesser: programmering, huleklatring og fantasy-rollespil. Og så var det mest tiltænkt hans børn. Blandede man disse faktorer med datidens computerkraft, blev resultatet en huleudforskningssimulator, der udelukkende kommunikerede med brugeren ved hjælp af tekst.

Det var denne primitive konstruktion, som Crowther, der snart skulle få travlt med noget så trivielt som at lægge fundamentet for Internettet, kastede i grams ved at gøre spillet frit tilgængelig på tidens computernetværk. Nu var denne gestus hverken akkompagneret af trompetfanfarer eller trommehvirvler, men faktisk havde Crowther hermed lagt grunden for ganske store formuer, nemlig dem som igennem tiden er blevet tjent på såkaldt interaktiv fiktion.

Crowther kan naturligvis ikke holdes ansvarlig for, hvad branchen senere har fundet på. Men på den anden side er der en klar sammenhæng mellem hans valg ved kodningen af ‘Adventure’ og så det, som branchen senere ikke har fundet på. I det hele taget har branchen et betydeligt behov for at lægge historien bag sig.

En genres historie

For at lægge noget bag sig må man dog først forstå det. Lad os derfor kaste et blik på hvad der videre skete.
‘Adventure’ vakte stor jubel på det der efterhånden blev kendt som ARPAnettet. Af denne vej nåede det sidst i 1970erne en gruppe foretagsomme studerende ved MIT i Boston. Her havde man længe forstået det, som først var ved at dæmre i den folkelige bevidsthed, nemlig at computeren ikke blot var en koldblodig talknuser, men måske endda kunne opfattes som et medie. Med dette in mente konstruerede gruppen, der med det samme startede firmaet Infocom, et nyt, større og mere litterært ambitiøst ‘Adventure’. De navngav deres barn ‘Zork’.

Ligesom i ‘Adventure’ bestod interaktionen med ‘Zork’ udelukkende af tekst, men ‘Zork’ var så sindrigt konstrueret, at dets sprogforståelse – den såkaldte parser – var i stand til at opretholde historiens flow, selvom denne parser reelt set ofte måtte give fortabt overfor selv de mest simple sætningskonstruktioner. Skrev spilleren for eksempel ‘Hit mailbox with hand’, ville spillet respondere med ‘I’ve known strange people, but fighting a small mailbox?’. Selvom spillet reelt set ikke forstår en meter af, hvad brugeren siger, opfatter parseren, at brugeren forsøger at slå ‘noget’ med ‘noget andet’ og svarer på en måde, der søger for at holde brugeren inden for rammen af spillets begrænsede muligheder. ‘Zork’ var en overordentlig stor succes.

Senere blev konceptet videreudviklet med først en grafisk over- eller tilbygning fra og med Sierras ‘Mystery House’ (1981). ‘Mystery House’ var lidet kønt og brugte primært grafikken til at pynte på den endnu rent tekstlige interaktion, men i senere spil blev grafikken ‘levende’, i og med at spilleren kunne styre en figur omkring i de tegnede miljøer. Når det gik højt for sig, havde grafikken endog en fortællende rolle som ikke blev gentaget af teksten.

Men behøvede man overhovedet tekst? Kreative folk hos LucasFilms spilafdeling LucasArts fandt det ødelæggende for oplevelsen, at spilleren skulle tvinges til at gætte præcist, hvilke ord parseren forstod. I deres ‘Maniac Mansion’ fra 1987 var det slut med den sproglige gætteleg. Ved hjælp af et såkaldt point-and-click-interface kunne brugeren (med joystick eller mus) kombinere en række verber fra en liste med spillets grafiske elementer. For eksempel kunne man trykke på ‘open’ og derefter på en dør. Læseren kan selv gætte hvad dette medførte, og dette var netop pointen – det var logisk og ligetil.

Myst (Bröderbund, 1995)Den nye brugerflade fungerede så godt, at den med enkelte modifikationer endnu bruges. Den væsentligste udvikling siden ‘Maniac Mansion’ skete, da man i de tidlige halvfemsere, i kraft af CD-ROM-lagermediets indtog, kunne begynde at lagre større datamængder. Dette førte til en audiovisuel eksplosion med særlig forkærlighed for digitaliseret film. Men da støvet så småt havde lagt sig, stod mange tilbage med en dårlig smag i munden. Følelsen af, at lækkerierne dækkede over manglende fortællemæssig opfindsomhed, var udbredt.

Der skulle mere til, og det kom der med det dvælende ‘Myst’ (Bröderbund, 1995), der nåede helt ind i bogelskeres hjerter med sit litterære finish og eksplorative fokus. På trods af at ‘Myst’ er blandt de bedst sælgende spil nogensinde, gik det fra midten af halvfemserne langsomt ned ad bakke for genren. Mens ‘Doom’ (ID Soft, 1994) og dets børn overhalede indenom, erobrede strategispillene ethvert netværk med deres oplagte multiplayerfunktioner. Adventuregenren – altså den type computerspil, der lægger særlig vægt på ‘den gode historie’ – var på vej mod en tidlig grav. Bevares, på det seneste har Sierra og andre forstået at drage fin nytte af landvindingerne indenfor 3D-grafik, men det er som om genren, udviklingsmæssigt set, har hamret hovedet ind i en hård mur.

Og det er der en rigtig udmærket grund til.

Den lineære skruetvinge

På trods af alle spildesignernes, forfatternes og for nylig endog Dogmebrødrenes snak om interaktivitetens velsignelser er de fanget af fortiden. De skriver bøger med få valgmuligheder forneden på udvalgte sider, og de laver spil, som nærmest er at sammenligne med film, der af og til stopper, indtil brugeren har løst en kryds-og-tværs. Hvis dette er, hvad man kan præstere, er det ikke underligt, at nogle bogelskere kun har hån tilovers for computerens evner som fortællende medium. Men det skyldes alt sammen en misforståelse.

Hvis vi skal give nogen skylden for forvirringen, kan vi kaste os over stakkels Will Crowther. For ‘Adventure’ havde en begyndelse og en slutning, og det dur simpelthen ikke. Hvis spilleren skal ledes mod en bestemt slutning på en måde, som giver logisk/kausal mening, kan det kun ske på bekostning af handlefriheden.

Lad os tage et simpelt eksempel: En mand går ind i en kiosk for at købe en avis. Denne lidet sindsoprivende historie kan fortælles på et utal af måder. Men skal den fortælles interaktivt er valget af hovedperson (en mand), handling (at vælge én kiosk blandt flere for eksempel), ambition (at købe en avis) allerede fastlagte. Der er med andre ord ikke særligt mange interessante valg tilbage at træffe, og situationen er næppe særligt interessant for brugeren. Til gengæld vil en formidlingsekspert, eller ‘kunstner’, kunne formidle historien på en fascinerende måde i sit medium. Og netop dette er et stærkt argument mod den interaktive fiktion – brugeren er jo ikke ekspert. Brugeren er rent faktisk oftest en luset amatør, der for øvrigt ikke har den tid, det tager for eksempelvis en dedikeret filmklipper at tilrettelægge stoffet optimalt. På dets egne præmisser er dette argument ikke til at slippe udenom. Men det er også noget vrøvl, for det forudsætter, at brugeren skal motiveres til at træffe de samme valg, som kunstneren ville have gjort.
Og er dette tilfældet, er det hele blot en ureflekteret overførsel af gammelkendte principper til et nyt medium.

Brugeren som problem

Traditionelt har interaktiv fiktion altså været forstået og designet som fortællinger med begrænset handlefrihed – primært af typen ‘Vil du gå til højre eller til venstre, først?’
Med inspiration fra den danske spildesigner Michael Valeur kan tankegangen illustreres som på Figur 1.

I kapitel 1 har brugeren et vist spillerum, men for at komme videre til Kapitel 2 må vedkommende underkaste sig handlingens retning og acceptere en væsentlig frihedsreduktion i forbindelse med det man kunne kalde historiens ‘plot points’. Det nytter for eksempel ikke, at brugeren slår skurken ihjel i kapitel 1. Michael Valeur har selv sammenlignet modellen med en lejlighed. For at komme fra køkkenet til stuen må man gå gennem entreen og så fremdeles.

Men selv om dette er en meget præcis beskrivelse af, hvordan adventurespil typisk opbygges, er det også en højst mærkværdig konstruktion. Designere, der arbejder med denne model rammes ofte af angst for, at konsekvensen af brugerens valg vil forgrene sig i det uendelige, medmindre man opstiller stramme restriktioner. Man foregøgler en bruger, at han er fri, og så bruger man alle sine kræfter på at opretholde denne illusion.

Men hvad ville der ske, hvis man gjorde alvor af sin ambition og faktisk gav brugeren fri?

Brugeren som ressource

Ovenstående spørgsmål bør ikke stilles til en forfatter. Det bør stilles til en arkitekt. Arkitekten bygger rum, træder tilbage og lader folk bruge dem. Arkitektens bygning repræsenterer en række ydre grænser for folks aktivitet, mens naturlovene sørger for, at samme folk ikke begynder at gå på loftet. Det bemærkelsesværdige er, at det, at vi ikke kan tage en spadseretur med hovedet nedad, er noget, de færreste af os går og lader os irritere over til daglig. Vi kan sagtens acceptere grænser for udfoldelse. Hvad der derimod kan være sværere at håndtere, er et klassisk problem for adventurespillet: Døren kan ikke åbnes, fordi den ikke skal bruges – endnu.

I stedet for at kræve at brugeren skal gennemgå en fastlagt erkendelsesproces på sin rejse gennem lejligheden, kan man forestille sig følgende opsætning: Brugeren starter i et slots forhal og på loftet placeres en drage. Dragens adfærd reguleres af et antal parametre, heriblandt vrede/glæde, aggressivitet/passivitet, mod/frygt med videre. Hvis dragen og brugeren mødes, tolker dragen enhver handling fra brugeren som et udtryk for et ønske og reagerer på baggrund af de parametre, som designeren har fastsat.

Med selv et begrænset antal parametre vil det være snart taget umuligt for designeren at forudsige forløbet. Til gengæld er angsten for tælletræet helt væk – systemet er selvjusterende, og mens en stor række hændelser er mulige, er ingen hændelser påkrævede. For der er i realiteten ikke noget mål.

Der er altså tale om en slags ‘udgangspunktets poetik’, løst illustreret ved Figur 2.
Dette er en strukturløs model eller for nu at sige det, som det er: det er en ramme. Men når rammen er udstyret med mønster, er det for at påpege, at den er yderst vigtig.

Deistisk narration

Den såkaldte ‘deisme’ er troen på at Gud opstillede rammen og spillereglerne og derefter lod os mennesker overtage initiativet. I al beskedenhed er det netop sådan, designeren bør arbejde.

Ikke blot er rammen de love, der gælder i designerens univers. Rammen er også alle de genrekoder og kulturelle referencer, som indkorporeres i fiktionens udtryksside og derved opfordrer brugeren til at spille sin ‘rolle’. Har designeren eksempelvis konstrueret et koldt og undergangstruet fremtidsunivers, vil brugen af film noir-cues kunne anvendes strategisk til at anspore brugeren eller brugerne til at påtage sig roller, som er forlignelige med dette univers (for eksempel rollen som hårdkogt detektiv snarere end rollen som frygtløs ridder). Tilsvarende har arkitektens konstruktion af en bygning betydning for, hvad den sandsynligvis vil blive brugt til.

Idéen med den deistiske narraton er altså helt grundlæggende, at historier ikke behøver at være noget, man har. Det kan lige så godt være noget, man får.

Teoretiske afveje

Sætningen ovenfor er dog genstand for nogen kontrovers. Mens adventurespillene upåvirkede fulgte i ‘Adventure’s begrænsende fodspor, fik en række forskere – primært af litteraturvidenskabelig overbevisning – øje på fænomenet. Efter alt at dømme har disse forskeres baggrund dog været dem en klods om benet.

Forfatter og spildesigner Michael Valeur skriver ganske fornuftigt: “Frihed og forførelse peger grundlæggende hver sin vej”. Det kan man næppe være uenig i, for forførelse er jo netop en passiv overgivelse til fiktionens præmisser – det er vanskeligt at blive forført med en mus i hånden. Men det er ikke præcist det, Valeur mener. Problemet er, at Valeur i nogen grad sætter lighedstegn mellem fortælling og forførelse: “Når man fortæller en historie, altså forfører folk, så har man brug for en lineær dynamik til at lokke dem med.”. Valeurs “man” er forfatteren – og ikke brugeren. Hermed ignoreres muligheden for, at gode historier kan opstå på baggrund af de rette narrative præmisser, og selvom Valeurs overvejelser er blandt de mere interessante, må han netop på dette punkt siges at fægte løst i luften.

Han får dog støtte fra den norske litteraturforsker Espen Aarseth. Aarseth tager emnet forbilledligt seriøst, men vil alligevel ikke fralægge sig princippet om, at adventurespil selvfølgelig skal fortælle historier. Dog hævder han, at der er en grundlæggende modsætning mellem fortælling og interaktivitet. Igen er argumentet det fuldt forståelige, men lidet interessante, at det er svært at fastlægge et forløb og give brugeren stor indflydelse på dette samtidigt.

Det virker grangiveligt, som om at disse teorier bygger på en fejlagtig præmis. De søger at definere den interaktive fiktion i forhold til et fortællingsbegreb, der er alt for løst og traditionelt stort set kun har skullet dække lineære fortællinger. Går man, som disse teoretikere gør, til Aristoteles og får at vide, at en historie kræver en begyndelse, et midterstykke og en slutning, ja så har man jo samtidig defineret interaktivitet som en modsætning.

Den fejlagtige præmis er, at definitioner af denne type begreber er noget, der eksisterer i virkeligheden og derfor kan opspores. Det er forkert. Definitioner er noget, man bruger. Jeg kunne i begyndelsen af denne artikel have defineret interaktiv fiktion som pantomimeteater. Det ville sikkert have virket fjollet, men ville ikke desto mindre have været helt reelt. Den intense jagt på adventurespillets ‘natur’ kan derfor – hvis man skal være flink – kaldes spild af tid.

Kunsten at bygge verdener

Især adventuregenrens kommercielle nedtur har affødt kreative refleksioner hos en mængde designere. Revolutionen indvarsledes så småt i 1997 med Origins Ultima Online. Spillet – og begrebet begynder at flyde – er en verden med en række narrative vektorer. Enhver beboer i spillets verden – uanset om denne person er styret af et menneske eller af en computer – har evner og præferencer. Der er ingen, der kender verdenens fremtid, for ethvert valg har betydning, og mængden af valg som foretages hver dag af de mange tusinde spillere er uoverskueligt.

Rammen er konstrueret med stærk inspiration fra traditionelle fantasyuniverser: elvere, dværge og orker hører til dagens orden. Men valget af denne genre skyldes jo kun konservatisme og segmenttilhørsforhold i designgruppen. Det er oplagt at tænke sig digitale verdner opbygget omkring andre tidsaldre eller omkring genrer som kriminalromanen, horrorfortællingen eller endog mere lyriske alternativer.

Nostalgiske fans af adventuregenren græder salte tårer. De føler, at deres yndlingsgenre er ved at afgå ved døden. Hvis de løftede blikket ville de se, at fremtiden er lys og fuld af fortællinger.

Anvendt litteratur

· Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext – Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. The Johns Hopkins University Press. London. 1997.

· Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck – The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. The MIT Press. Cambridge. 1997.

· Valeur, Michael. Blackout – erfaringer omkring arbejdet med interaktiv manuskriptskrivning. Speciale, RUC. 1998.