On “Interactive Movies” — Part 1

The interactive movie was an artistic form (or, arguably, a video game genre) that surfaced briefly in the early days of CD-ROM drives, utterly failed to impress anyone, and vanished, never to be seen again. In my last post, I mentioned that Drinking With God and the other (future) Bleating Sheep Theater titles might best be described as interactive movies, rather than as games.

The problem is that if they were, nobody would play them. This is because interactive movies have a horrible reputation.

What went wrong? Why did an entire new art form, bright and shimmering, full of potential and promise, and poised to completely overtake popular culture, slowly but surely whither and die?

How should I know? I’ve only ever tried three of them: Star Trek: Klingon, Star Trek: Borg, and Quantum Gate — and that was long enough ago that I don’t really remember anything about them. So everything that I have to say here about interactive movies is based on vague recollections of various articles, essays, game reviews, and blog entries that I’ve read over the years, with no reflection on the three aforementioned products in particular.

I gather that there were two basic problems: mediocre production values and insufficient user agency (and that, perhaps, these two problems have become conflated in the minds of the game development and game playing communities over the years).

Let’s look at these problems individually, starting with production values. What does it mean to have low production values? Well, say you had gone to watch a movie — a plain ol’ non-interactive movie. And say you came away hating it. I ask you, “how was the movie?”

“It was a completely terrible movie!” you say.

“Ah!” I say to you in turn. “This is because the movie was, in one or more areas, probably lacking in its production values.”

To elaborate: perhaps the actors were unconvincing in the portrayal of their characters. Or perhaps the sets looked to be constructed of styrofoam and cardboard. Maybe the audio was static-y, or not properly matched to the action on screen. The lighting might have been uninspired. The camera angles might have been oddly chosen. The editing might have been distracting, with inappropriately long pauses between each line of dialogue or violations of the 180 degree rule. Or (perhaps most importantly) the writing may have been inadequate, with a hackneyed plot, implausible characters speaking unrealistic lines, jokes that fell flat, and an unsatisfying conclusion.

But why are these things important to the movie-viewing experience? Why is it that when any one of them goes wrong, the quality of the movie (or game, or — where they apply — novel, comic book, theatrical production, or radio play) as a whole goes down in flames?

Well, to me at least, the most important attribute of any narrative work is its capacity for immersiveness. Its main purpose is to let you “step through there, and lose yourself in another world.” (Strangely compelling, isn’t it?) It should enable you to forget who you are and where you are, and to completely drown yourself in the alternate reality that it’s presenting to you. (I know — many objections no doubt spring to mind in response to this. I hope to address some of them in a future post.)

Now, a problem with a film’s writing, direction, acting, lighting, editing, and so forth is, artistic considerations aside, going to be distracting. How are we supposed to maintain empathy for the poor couple trapped freezing to death in the arctic circle when the snow begins to fall and looks more like powdered sugar? How are we supposed to believe in the mother’s passionate plea for the life of her child when it’s delivered in a tone that suggests its speaker is more interested in her next coffee break? In these and similar cases, our suspension of disbelief is shattered, and we eagerly begin to wait for the end credits to roll so that we can go out and get ice cream.

The impression I have is that the production values of nearly all of the interactive movies of the 1990s were so abysmal as to completely destroy any possible sense of immersion. There are several reasons why this might have been, which I’ll talk about in my next post.

What’s in a game? Part 2

In my last post, I left off in the middle of explaining why I believe that “game” is a reasonable term to use when describing Drinking With God (and its future Bleating Sheep Theater cousins), even though it isn’t one.

What it boils down to is this: there isn’t really anything better to call it.

Sure, there are more precise things to call it; “cinematic, quasi-interactive narrative” comes to mind. But that isn’t exactly a term that’s already out there in the hearts and minds of the general populace. And that’s exactly the problem. I need the name of a medium that’s out there in the common use, and the only one I can think of that might reasonably characterize Bleating Sheep Theater is “video game.”

(Of course, I could bill it is something entirely new, but I don’t think it really is new and different enough to warrant that. Using some completely different term would probably just confuse people — “Hey, I thought I was going to get to kwahrk a floojum, but I’m just playing a video game!”)

There is, though, one possible alternative that did sort of nose its way out into society about a decade and a half ago: “interactive movie.” (I’ll sidestep the obvious objection to the use of this term, that Drinking With God is only “quasi-interactive,” by saying that it is my intention to allow for significantly more user agency in later Bleating Sheep Theater productions.) The problem is that so-called interactive movies have a pretty horrible reputation. They appeared shortly after the debut of consumer CD-ROM drives in the early-to-mid 90s, failed abysmally in the marketplace, and were quickly abandoned.

Those who remember the Interactive Movies of the 1990s think back upon them with horror and revulsion — or so I gather; I haven’t actually really experienced them for myself. But that’s reason enough not to reappropriate the phrase (at least for now); I don’t want people to be turned off at first glance. “Wait, an interactive movie? Didn’t we already find out that those were a terrible idea fifteen years ago?”

Still, when you get right down to it, “interactive movie” is probably as good a description of what Bleating Sheep Theater is trying to be as anything else. A conclusion that one might draw from this fact, perhaps, is that Bleating Sheep Theater is a terrible idea, too. But (presumably unsurprisingly) I prefer to think about it a little bit more optimistically.

In my next post, I’ll talk about where the “interactive movie” genre’s horrible reputation came from, and how, perhaps, it can be salvaged.

What’s in a game?

Several game developers have put forth their definitions of the word game. The one that’s always stuck out in my mind (for no particular reason, since I’ve never really found it sufficient) is Sid Meier‘s, “a series of interesting choices.” You can find some others here.

I have a definition of my own: a game is a toy whose user is presented with goals in the toy’s manipulation.

Okay, then, so what’s a toy? I say that a toy is any system with variables that can be manipulated.

Yes, I know: if you accept these definitions, then life and the universe are both toys. (Well, or games — but that’s a question for personal ideology.) So what? That doesn’t sound incorrect to me at all. I see almost everything as being a toy, in some way or other.

Where, then, does that leave Drinking With God? Is it a game?

By the above definitions, not really. Yes, when you’re playing there are variables that you can manipulate, but you aren’t presented with any goals. You’re free to guide Violet in her interactions in any way that you wish, with no particular encouragement to go in any one direction. But you aren’t presented with any explicit goals.

Nonetheless, I still call it a game, even though I know that it isn’t. Why? Well, first of all, there isn’t a reason not to. There’s plenty of precedent in using the word “game” to describe things that are actually software toys, like SimCity, The Sims, Spore, and possibly event some titles not developed by Maxis.

But the main reason I call it a game is pretty similar to the reason that Chris Crawford refuses to describe his interactive storytelling work as a game — market perceptions. (And I wish I could find a URL to cite in support of this, but you’re just going to have to trust my creaky memory. Apologies if I’ve got this all wrong.) His feeling is that the word “game” is associated in people’s minds with interactive systems that involve the manipulation of things rather than interaction with people, that focus on flash and pizazz rather than depth and emotional substance. Whether or not this is true of all games, or has to be true of all games, isn’t relevant — this (he claims) is simply how people have come to think of video games and computer games today, and so to appeal to the people who want more than that, who want narrative depth and real emotions, we need to leave the word “game” behind as a misleading distraction.

The definitions I provided above should tell you how I feel about that. If as many things are games as can fit into the scope of that definition, then thinking about games in disparaging terms doesn’t make sense at all. The whole universe might be a game. Do you hate the universe? (Don’t answer that.)

Of course, it was market perceptions of the word “game” that he was talking about, and the world as a whole probably doesn’t subscribe to my definition or my opinion — after all, how often do you hear the phrase “just a game” bandied about?

In my next post, I’ll continue assembling my thoughts on why I feel “game” is still the best way to describe Bleating Sheep Theater, even though it isn’t one. Check back here next week!

Thanks to my sister Frumie for unwittingly inspiring this post!

Wellspring of the mind

Douglas Adams said that each time he told the the history of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he contradicted himself. Eventually, in the introduction to an omnibus edition, he decided to set the record wrong, once and for all.

Now, Bleating Sheep Theater is no Hitchhiker’s Guide, and I’m certainly no Douglas Adams. But people have asked me about the origins of Drinking With God — and I am, quite frankly, sort of vague on the subject. So, with that tenuous connection firmly established, on to what might very well be the history of Drinking With God. And where it is inaccurate, it is at least definitively inaccurate.

One night I was lying in bed trying to come up with an original story idea for a computer game. I already knew that I wanted to create a short, simple interactive conversation. My objective was to provide myself with a context in which to build up a set of general tools and techniques for cinematic interactive storytelling. But who would be talking to whom in this conversation? And about what? And why?

One thing that I knew I didn’t want to create was a courting game. Or at least, not a courting game in which the player character was a young male, attempting to win the attentions of a young female. This was mainly because I felt that such a game would almost certainly degenerate into a male adolescent wish fulfillment fantasy. (You know, like Final Fantasy VII. Which, if this parenthetical statement is your introduction to the Final Fantasy series, probably isn’t what you think it is.)

Not that there’s anything wrong with adolescent wish fulfillment fantasies, but that simply wasn’t what I was after at the time. A romantic comedy would have been fine, or even a straight romance, but I wasn’t sure I was up to tackling either of those with any sufficient degree of sophistication.

So it appeared that the boy-meets-girl idea was out. No matter; how about the myriad other aspects of human experience? Surely, somewhere within, there existed material to be mined. There was even the possibility of originality. Sure, at this point pretty much every possible story has been done to death — but that’s in other media. In videogames, the idea that two characters might smile at one another instead of beating each other up is still something of a novelty.

So, yeah. Didn’t need to do boy-meets-girl. There were a ton of other ideas to go with.

Like… say… girl-meets-boy! Yeah! That was the ticket! Girl-meets-boy! And isn’t really that impressed! But has to cope anyway.

And, hey, what if the boy in question happened to be God?

The idea popped into my mind in a sudden flash. So I leaped out bed, raced to my computer, and began typing. Before long a branching screenplay began to take form, with hyperlinks connecting decision points to the continuation of the script.

After only an hour or two (or was it a day or two?), the screenplay was complete. At fifteen pages, with only two characters and virtually no set, I figured the game should take me only a month of two to put together, leaving me with a nifty tool set to use for all sorts of other exciting cinematic interactive narrative stuff down the line.

So I sat down and got right to work — on the Sheep, a character who didn’t even appear in the script. But, hey, you can’t have Bleating Sheep Productions without a Sheep that walks across the screen and then bleats. Right?

So, a year and a half later, here we are. I finished the game about two weeks ago.

Quite a story, no?

No? Okay, I got a better one. Or at least a different one.

Because it might have happened the other way around. The whole God-trying-to-pick-up-a-girl thing might have just popped into my head apropos of nothing, triggering a mental “hey, maybe this would work for the cinematic interactive conversation thingy that I want to do.”

You might be wondering why I’m trying to confuse you like this. Is this, you are no doubt asking yourself, some sort of strange dual-realities experiment?

But no, it’s nothing as interesting as that. The problem is that I don’t actually really remember where the idea came from or why I decided to write it down. For all any of us knows, both of the histories related above are complete fabrications.

But they sound convincing enough. And that’s what counts, right?

Who do you play as?

Who do you play as in Drinking With God?

It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, for such a character-driven game. In a Mario game you play as Mario. In a Sonic game you play as Sonic. In some games, the perspective switches, so when you ask the “who do you play as question” you get back a list of two, five, or twenty characters instead of one. But the answer is usually nonetheless fairly straightforward.

But what about adventure games? (And if there’s an existing genre out that that Bleating Sheep Theater falls into, adventure is it.) Who do you play as in an adventure game?

In the Monkey Island series, you play as Guybrush Threepwood, right? Well, usually. What about the times when you pick a dialogue choice, and he chooses not to respond with your selection, but instead to say something more prudent to his situation? Sure, those deviations from the ordinary behavior of the game mechanics exist primarily as an opportunity for humor, but once players have lost agency to that extent, can they really still be said to be in control of that character?

Adventures are replete with such examples. “I can’t use these things together.” “I don’t want to go that way.” “Uhm… no.” Manny Calavera, Sam and Max, April Ryan… these characters all have minds of their own. You’re not controlling them. At best, you’re at one remove, a sort of personal spirit, hovering nearby, able to influence their minds, but not to control them outright.

Does that mean, then, that in adventure games you pretty much always play as God? Or may not capital-G God, of whom our society tends to conceive as being all-powerful, but a god, at least?

Where, then, does that leave Drinking With God? You’re certainly not playing as God — any god — in that game. God Himself is hovering there right next to you.

And you’re not playing as Violet, either — the game doesn’t offer you enough agency for that. True, she never flies in the face of a dialogue choice you’ve made, as Guybrush Threepwood was sometimes prone to do — but I’d be surprised if there’s anyone who’s played the game and not wanted to make at least one dialogue choice that wasn’t available on the menu.

Besides, you’re not always making choices for Violet; sometimes, in the introductory sequences, you’re making choices on behalf of the “audience,” whoever they are. Does that mean that you’re playing as yourself?

It comes to a lot of questions. Ready for the answer? Here it comes:

Durned if I know.

What, you were expecting me to provide a coherent, conclusive resolution to all of this? If you’re expecting coherent conclusions from me, you clearly you haven’t played the game, yet.


Hi there. My name is Yossi Horowitz, and I’m the creator of Bleating Sheep Theater.

What, you ask, is Bleating Sheep Theater? Well, the quickest way to find out is to go play it!

But for those who need a little background first…

If forty-hour RPGs and classic Adventure Games are story-gaming’s answer to Hollywood’s epic films, and the more recent offerings from Telltale and Hothead correspond to episodic television, then Bleating Sheep Theater endeavors to be the video game equivalent of vaudeville and the seven-minute animated short. (This, perhaps, does not bode well for Bleating Sheep Theater, as neither vaudeville nor the animated short have been financially viable for decades.) “Drinking With God” is the first in a hopeful series of self-described long-winded, quasi-interactive, unfunny comedy sketches.

I’ve already got plans for the second one, and that’s where this blog comes in. You see, I need a way to keep you (yes, you) coming back to this site on a regular basis (or at least tracking it with an RSS reader), so that you’ll still be around on that great day several months hence when Bleating Sheep Theater makes its triumphant return.

So, how am I going to do that?

Beats me.

Well, by talking a lot, I guess. And hopefully, once in a while, some of it will be interesting or entertaining — just enough of it, I hope, to keep your attention.

Now that all of you are thoroughly familiar with my insidious master plan, does anybody want to help me execute on it? Is there anything that anybody would like to see me talk about in this space? If so, please leave a comment or drop me an email, and I’ll try to cover it in a future entry.

In the mean time, thanks for visiting, please pardon our dust (the business of administering a web site is very new to me), and thanks for playing!