The approach raises many questions. Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts? Are they really stories, when they are really environments? And most of all, are they better stories than the more popular and proven ones in the cinema, on television, and in books?
On this measure, alas, the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films. That’s a problem to be ignored rather than solved. Games’ obsession with story obscures more ambitious goals anyway.
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In retrospect, it’s easy easy to blame old games like Doom and Duke Nukem for stimulating the fantasy of male adolescent power. But that choice was made less deliberately at the time. Real-time 3-D worlds are harder to create than it seems, especially on the relatively low-powered computers that first ran games like Doom in the early 1990s. It helped to empty them out as much as possible, with surfaces detailed by simple textures and objects kept to a minimum. In other words, the first 3-D games were designed to be empty so that they would run.
An empty space is most easily interpreted as one in which something went terribly wrong. Add a few monsters that a powerful player-dude can vanquish, and the first-person shooter is born. The lone, soldier-hero against the Nazis, or the hell spawn, or the aliens.
Those early assumptions vanished quickly into infrastructure, forgotten. As 3-D first-person games evolved, along with the engines that run them, visual verisimilitude improved more than other features. Entire hardware industries developed around the specialized co-processors used to render 3-D scenes.
Left less explored were the other aspects of realistic, physical environments. The inner thoughts and outward behavior of simulated people, for example, beyond the fact of their collision with other objects. The problem becomes increasingly intractable over time. Incremental improvements in visual fidelity make 3-D worlds seem more and more real. But those worlds feel even more incongruous when the people that inhabit them behave like animatronics and the environments work like Potemkin villages.
Worse yet, the very concept of a Holodeck-aspirational interactive story implies that the player should be able to exert agency upon the dramatic arc of the plot. The one serious effort to do this was an ambitious 2005 interactive drama called Façade, a one-act play with roughly the plot of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It worked remarkably well—for a video game. But it was still easily undermined. One player, for example, pretended to be a zombie, saying nothing but “brains” until the game’s simulated couple threw him out.
Environmental storytelling offers a solution to this conundrum. Instead of trying to resolve the matter of simulated character and plot, the genre gives up on both, embracing scripted action instead. The player’s experience becomes that of a detective, piecing together narrative coherence from fragments conveniently left behind in the game’s physical environment.