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Game designers of the future? Now they play role-playing

Game designers of the future? Now they play role-playing

Janet Murray is a very kind and chatty middle-aged lady. She is so helpful that when you talk to her you don’t get the feeling that you are arguing with a scholar who was called “one of the greatest digital and cultural innovators” a few years ago by Wired magazine.
Years ago, Janet imagined having a Holodeck – one of those devices in which Star Trek characters watch holographically represented interactive stories – and wondered if and how it would be possible to stage Shakespeare’s Hamlet using that technological means. The most immediate answer is that it would basically be a problem of interactivity, that is to project the user of the hypothetical holodeck into a character of the story and to credibly represent all the reactions, including the emotional and impulsive ones, of the other characters.

This answer sounds quite dated today, but in fact in the 90s it marked a milestone in the “ennobling” of videogames from pastime to expressive tool: Janet argues that how the invention of cinema has revolutionized the way we tell a story ( could you imagine a Pulp Fiction-like plot told by a novelist of the 1800s?), just as the development of video games will have profound consequences on the narrative of the coming decades.
The “procedural authors”, or the game designers of the future as Murray imagines them, will be partly writers, partly designers and partly similar to the dungeon masters of today’s “tabletop” RPGs.

If the Holodeck is unfortunately a gadget that will hardly leave the Enterprise spaceship for many years to come, on the other hand there are already several more or less advanced tools for creating complex interactive narratives. In fact, in addition to some attempts made alongside more classic video games, such as the multiplayer option of Vampires: Redemption, which allows a party to play online while the story is coordinated by a real-life player-storyteller, there are also other dedicated software.

One of the most promising in the latter category is Storytronics, currently in the public alpha stage. Chris Crawford, the mastermind behind Storytronics, lives in Oregon with his wife, two dogs, ten cats, five ducks and three donkeys, is one of the deans of the game design industry and founded the Game Developers Conference, an annual event that now gathers thousands of participants but which originated in 1987 with a seminar held in his living room.

The Storytronics system is based on several different concepts and tools. Each interactive narrative is called Storyworld and is built with the “Storyworld Authoring Tool” utility, also referred to by the acronym Swat. Once completed, the Storyworld is loaded by a software called Storyteller and is enjoyed by end users. The narration is carried out in a simplified standard English called Deikto, which constitutes both the channel of representation of the events and the interface for communicating with the user – similar to the old text adventures of Infocom.

Currently Swat is not completely complete but it is still downloadable in the form of an alpha-version: both tutorials for programming stories and forums for discussing technical aspects are available on the site. In addition, Chris is posting a diary online where he tracks the development of the first demonstration games he is developing in Storytronics.

The narration generated by the Storytronics system is, at present, completely textual. In contrast, the ABL (A Behavioral Language) system, developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta by two Murray collaborators, provides for graphic output. ABL is not yet publicly available, although it will soon be free for academic use, but in the meantime you can download Façade – the first story built with this system. In Façade you play the role of an old friend of a young couple who is arguing: the basic idea is that every action of the player can have profound repercussions on the evolution of the story and above all influence the behavior and emotional reactions of the two characters. managed by the computer.

Ultimately, the “narrativist ludologists” – the scholars of the game followers of Murray – predict that in the future the profession of game designers will be more and more similar to the organization of a role-playing session in which storytellers have to care more about psychology, of the emotions and reactions of the characters rather than the actual game mechanics. An excellent starting point, one could say, to play more often. And, in case this prediction were correct, we could advise aspiring designers to become familiar, as well as with the utilities presented in this article, also with some good role-playing and storytelling: once in a while it is not necessary to mention American products, because they exist. the excellent On Stage conceived by prof. Luca Giuliano de La Sapienza of Rome.

Gabriele Ferri

GF, semiotic of interaction, is co-founder of Studio Semioticamente