On “Interactive Movies” — Part 3: User Agency

For Those of You Just Tuning In

In my last few posts, I’ve been talking about the CD-ROM interactive movies of the mid-1990s. They are said to have been, for the most part, commercial and critical failures, and I’m exploring the reasons why. I’m making this up as I go along, doing minimal research and with virtually no direct experience with the subject — but, hey, that’s why this is a blog and not a university research paper. (University research papers are my wife’s department.)

Insufficient User Agency

Today I’m going to turn my attention to the problem of user agency. There’s a principle in the design of interactive entertainment (and interactive systems in general — that’s where the “interactive” part comes from) that the user should have the ability to influence the experience, rather than just sit back and be influenced by it. When you’re playing a video game, you want to be playing it, not to sit back and watch it play itself. And you don’t want your word processor to type your documents for you, leaving you with no say as to their contents. (Well, some people might, but let’s forget them for the moment.)

Similarly, when playing an interactive movie, you should be able to influence the movie’s content and direction. Not completely, of course. You’re not making the movie yourself; you’re just playing it. But you should be able to influence it to at least some extent, and probably to a greater extent than allowed by any interactive movie thus far created.

The Branching Problem

Why is it that the existent interactive movies have tended to do such a crummy job of offering user agency? Well, as I explained last time, the most common means used to provide it is branching — at certain discrete points in the story, the player is offered a certain number of choices, and each choice branches the story off in a different direction. The problems here are (at least) twofold.

You Can’t Think of Everything

First, no branching scheme can offer a sufficient number of choices to make every user happy. Let’s say there’s a scene in which the character with whom the player, is, uh, most strongly associated is told that her darling baby boy was just eaten for dinner by her next-door neighbor. (All a terrible misunderstanding, you see; the neighbor had misplaced his glasses and was under the impression that he was defrosting a ham.) So we offer the player a number of pre-scripted emotional or violent responses that he or she can choose on behalf of this poor and distraught (though mercifully fictional) woman.

Let us further posit, however, that our theoretical player here is the sort of individual commonly referred to in polite society as a fruitcake. Upon contemplating the scenario with which we have presented him, his thoughts run like so: well, if this were to happen to me in real life, clearly my response would be to lick the nose of the person delivering this gruesome message. His decision made, he enthusiastically searches the list of choices which we have made available, seeking the “lick nose” option.

Instead, however, he finds only the choices that we have actually made available: “burst into tears,” “pound on the wall in mournful anguish,” “shoot self,” or “wipe brow with relief as she didn’t really enjoy the company of that particular small child anyway.” Naturally, our player would find this list of choices to be rather frustrating as, to him, none of these choices are plausible responses to this scenario. “How could they have left out nose-licking?” he cries, as he pulls the CD-ROM out of drive, tosses it into the trash, and swears off interactive movies forever.

More Branches Than You Can Shake a Stick At

There is very little that can be done about this problem with the state of the art, even using story-generation techniques that aren’t based on branching, which I’ll discuss further on down the line.

So, fine, we’re stuck with it. But say that you, enterprising interactive-movie-maker that you are, not one to be held back by a few minor problems here and there, concede to offer a fixed number of choices to the player at each branch point, even though you’re fully aware that it won’t be enough to please all of the people all of the time. Say, further, that the fixed number of choices that you decide on is three. (Sound familiar?)

The problem here is that, by the time the player is only six choices in, you’ve already got seven-hundred twenty-nine branches to keep track of. And, unless your interactive movie is about as long as the typical You Tube video, you presumably want to offer the player far more than six choices through the duration of the experience.

Since you don’t have the mental capacity (let along the time, patience, actor longevity, and budget) to film several million scenes, what are you going to do instead?

Why, rely on foldback schemes, of course.

What’s a foldback scheme, you ask?

Tune in next time to find out.

(But, sneak preview: They’re not nearly sufficient to solve this problem adequately. This I can tell you from personal experience — but you should play Drinking With God anyway.)