Sunday, 1 June 2014

Narrative and Games: the same old story...?

Once upon a time...

About 10 years ago (2004) I gave a talk at the European Developers Forum, a short-lived London based competitor to GDC Europe, entitled "Is Interactive Narrative an Oxymoron?". In the audience was Jesper Juul, a respected and reasonably well known games theorist and self-proclaimed ludologist, who commented on his blog that a similar phrase had been used some 10 years previously by the now late Andy Cameron formerly of 1990's digital media pioneers the antirom collective. Andy used the phrase in his Dissimulations article which was published in the Millenium Film Journal in 1995, a piece I had been aware of, not least because it cited the work of my brother Grahame with whom I worked in the mid 1980's -  another 10 years previously - on The Erl King, an interactive video installation work using early Laserdisc  and touch-screen technologies to create a user-driven interactive narrative experience.

So for me, this rhetorical question - to which the simple answer is 'no' - harks back 30 years over my meandering 'career'. Fresh out of a physics degree in 1984 it all made perfect sense to me. A sumptuous assemblage of moving imagery and sound enables the viewer to interactively explore the resonances between a haunting poetic incarnation of an old Germanic folktale and a disturbing passage from Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. Touching the screen evoked translations, juxtapositions and explanations: lines of the Goethe poem daubed grafitti-style on the contorted metal of abandoned cars trashing the no-go streets of 1980's upper Harlem; a psychoanalyst espousing Lacanian explanations of symbol and meaning in the described dream; an acapella gospel quintet sings of hope and death; a small group of chickens with feathers died in primary colours strut around a sunlit forest clearing... the transitions between sequence and subject made all the more smooth and seamless by the evocative musical soundtrack dipping in and out of the famous Schubert lied.

This was The Erl King. My first job post-college, courtesy of brother Grahame and his collaborator Roberta Friedman. They needed a programmer, designer and someone who could eventually take on the reigns of a technical director, I needed something exciting and other-worldly as an antidote to a degree subject I had become disillusioned with. And yes, this was interactive narrative. How else could it be described? The viewer was the interactor, touching the screen to evoke different juxtapositions of images and sound, relating to what they touched and when, and the consequent montage evoked individualised interpretation and Kuleshov-style response. Simples.

Growing older, gaining more experience in life and work, theory and practice... it all complicates things. For a while the idea of making movies - or at least being part of this process - seduced me. A storytelling medium where the originator seems to have both authority and authorship; a sense of control; the film-maker as a creative force, where the surrounding experts in a subsection of the craft subserviently add to the central vision. Of course I soon came to the realisation that this was all an illusion, and a daft one to boot. Film-makers are, like all artists, merely facilitators of the audience's imagination. We choreograph, we compose perhaps, but it is the audience who dances and plays.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

New Beginnings

Some years ago a few of us decided to host a conference as part of the London Games Fringe, which in turn was part of the London Games Festival. The conference was called Sense of Play. The idea was to explore the future possibilities of what we saw as an exciting emerging art form, one which had yet to fulfil anywhere near its potential. We were a ragtag collection of academics, practitioners, journalists and commentators drawn from the far flung corners of games, film, television, theatre and various other creative and cultural industries.

In those days, the games industry was very much that - an industry. Those of us who were foolish enough to attempt to thrive in a small scale independent development environment were hopelessly ahead of our time. Large multinational publishers had a stranglehold on what was and wasn't made: games cost a lot of money to make for the limited platforms available and the certainty of a dedicated audience who would basically consume more of the same outweighed any notion of creativity. Games were made with little meaning or artistry, anything out-of-the-box, or not adhering to the well known formulaic genres (most of which involved shooting, fighting or competitive sport simulation) was out of the question. Halcyon days. Not.

But even then, it was clear that change was inevitable. There was a vast potential audience which remained untapped, and enough creative people beginning to realise that we could do so much more. This was what Sense of Play was all about. Exploring the creative future of the medium, trying to accelerate towards a more meaningful future. Fast forward to today. We are nearly there. Some wonderful stuff is being made, with more to come. With cerebral and ethereal titles such as Journey sweeping the awards scene worldwide, Papa and Yo bringing into play poignant metaphorical and magical realist elements previously confined to the literary and theatrical arts, and transmedia offerings such as Walking Dead offering script and storytelling excellence as good as anything contemporary film, theatre or television has to offer, it does indeed feel like we are coming of age. Meanwhile the prevalence of platforms and their accessibility to creative developers of all sizes is causing a revolution, and is certainly signalling the demise of large publisher stranglehold.

But there is still a long way to go. It seems there always will be. What's holding things back is another story, another post. In the meantime, for those who remember the dreams and discussions we had back in 06-07, welcome back. I'll use this space to commentate, highlight, speculate and occasionally reminisce. Thank you for reading and come back soon...