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April 22, 2003

Computer Games and Me Redux

Michael:

Given your interest in—and frustration with—video games, perhaps a new direct-to-disc film, “Scourge of Worlds” will intrigue you. It’s an animated sword-and-sorcery flick, apparently drawing heavily on “Dungeons and Dragons.” Okay, I grant you, that doesn’t sound too promising, but the interesting part is that it’s at least partly interactive. According to an April 19 story in the L.A. Times (which you can read here):

The movie has multiple breaks in the story’s narrative in which the player must make a decision. Fight or flee? Explore or stand firm? Each decision is registered with the press of a button on a DVD remote controller, which forces the story onto different paths that could include fights with aliens and debates over loyalty and friendship. The movie contains 900 possible story combinations and four different endings.

I admit, that got me thinking about whether such a multiple path/multiple ending structure could be utilized in the context of a somewhat more ambitious production. Granted, to date, “literary” fiction and film has generally preferred the straight and narrow linear story path (even if occasionally presented out of order), but that may have been the result of technological limitations.

After all, it seems like most highly stylized comedies could work out nicely with alternative story lines. I’m confident that Lawrence Sterne would have written “Tristam Shandy” in a parallel architecture if it had been workable in his day. And I daresay Thomas Hardy would have been enthusiastic about such a structure, because then he could have demonstrated that, no matter what choices his characters (or readers) made, they would all still come to bad ends.


Far From Dungeons, Dragons and The Madding Crowd

In any event, in what is news to me, the L.A. Times story maintains that interactive formats have been experimented with before, particularly in the porno industry. (I guess I’m just behind the times once again.) I’ve never seen anything in this format, dramatic, erotic or otherwise, but apparently “Scourge of the Worlds” has obtained a distribution deal from Warner Brothers, and will presumably be available at a retail outlet near you. (According to GamingReport.com, it will be available for a mere $24.95 on June 10.)

Have you ever checked anything like this out? Be interested to hear what you think. (Especially before I chunk out $24.95).

Cheers,

Friedrich

P.S. Another interesting fact from the L.A. Times story—did you know that 87% of the 5600 video and DVD titles released never appeared in a movie theater? The notion of DVDs being a sort of afterthought to a theatrical release is obviously rapidly becoming antique; DVDs seem on the verge of becoming their own medium. I know you're a fan of DVDs--how do you see them evolving?

posted by Friedrich at April 22, 2003




Comments

Most of the articles/studies I've read about interactive movies and/or games with strong plot lines, where you can determine a few different paths to a few different endings - as opposed to very simple "get the Challis of Gringblatt" or "shoot your way out" or "solve the mystery" plots, have concluded that most people lose interest in them because the typical contract in fiction is that they will be told a story, meaning they are a passive participant, and determining the plot leaves most with a feeling of dissatisfaction and ambivalence. They wanted to consume a story, and instead were faced with several pop quizzes (hotshot) which determined the end, but so what? Most of us call that "life" and we play THAT game all the freakin time, and we were just looking for a break here already. We seem to either want a story told to us, or we want to "win." Just making it through the maze, to one of five possible (seemingly random) endings, seems to not be the "killer app" everyone is yearning for. I think it comes down to the difference between a diversion ("shoot'em!") and work ("the lady or the tiger?"). Of course, I could be full of shite, too.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 22, 2003 05:33 PM



I've checked out a couple of these things. Here's a review I stumbled across of an early attempt to blend a nonlinear narrative with a little porn and some game qualities. Not very successful, if I remember right. There was one corny attempt I skipped. It was a movie, and every chair in the theater was wired, so people could vote on which turn they wanted the narrative to take. Very early on, before computers were up to coping with many graphics, there was a whole "hyperfiction" movement, centered at Brown University and coaxed along by the novelist Robert Coover. Some highbrow essays got written about it, I met some of the participants, everyone thought the ol' linear narratives might soon crumble. Trouble was that no one found reading the hyper-narratives at all pleasing. Eastgate Systems -- that was the name of the publisher who marketed these attempts. There was something kind of appealing about the idea -- it was like a prose environment, up to you to explore, like having a collection of poetry in your hands. Read this bit, then that, as you see fit. But you didn't really experience it as story. It was more like a jigsaw puzzle experience. The bits kind of fell in place, with a little misterioso tonal quality about it. I'm not really sure the world is/was waiting for the bust-up of linear narrative. Maybe as life seems to fragment ever more, what people want are stronger narratives. Who knows? Oh, and I tried a couple of those porn DVDs that pretend to be nonlinear something or others. But, heck, once anything's on DVD it becomes basically nonlinear. You can surf around inside it and put it together as you see fit. That seems basic to anything that gets digitized -- it turns into a bunch of chunks that you can retrieve and order according to your own druthers.

Fascinating info about how many movies go to DVD without ever having a theatrical release. I had no idea the percentage was so high. It's fun too that DVD burners are getting cheaper, and that broadcasting on the web is becoming more plausible. What if "America's Funniest Home Videos" becomes the new movie paradigm?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 23, 2003 01:20 AM



Speaking of nonlinear storytelling architectures a la Tristram Shandy, you might be interested in 253, both a print novel and a website, which has a hypertext structure, or Cortazar's Hopscotch.

Posted by: mg on April 23, 2003 01:38 AM



Friedrich

Dickens changed his endings after publication a couple of times that I am aware of and rethought his story lines in the serialized fiction, I believe, based on the public reaction. Wow, someone else in the world who has actually read "Tristam Shandy"

Deb

Posted by: Deb on April 23, 2003 12:16 PM



I don't know about porn, but there are "choose your own adventure" books for children.

"To go in and see if she's okay, flip to page 7. To go for help, flip to page 43."

Posted by: Aaron Armitage on April 23, 2003 03:56 PM



There's a whole academic industry devoted to (wouldn't you know it) "theorizing" nonlinearity. A few bright things do get said, but it's all done admidst dismal amounts of crap verbiage and perfectly-obvious political agendas. Print=linearity=bad, is what it comes down to, their view. Sigh. Fan that I am of the new technology, I'm attached to much about the old forms and the old media, too. And besides, who says nonlinearity is so bloomin' new? Haven't any of these theorists looked at an old Bible, or an illuminated Koran, let alone illustrated volumes of Indian legends? Not meant to be read straight through, full of visuals ... Nonlinear multimedia -- kinda like the web, actually. Robert Darnton, a good Princeton intellectual historian, has studied how people read and have read. One of his conclusions is that we're foolish to think that people in previous generations read straight through. They may have now and then, but they seem to have been as inclined as we are to spend a lot of their time surfing and grazing. They put together their own nonlinear multimedia experiences, in other words. What's new, it seems to me, is that the nonlinearity is semi-enforced by the medium. You've got to deal with it whether you want to or not. So: is it liberation from stodgy old oppressive forms, or release into a new kind of cage? Maybe both?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 23, 2003 06:10 PM






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