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The Problem of Narrative*

The problem of narrative, of integrating a linear storyline within an interactive game is widely acknowledged as one of the most intractable problems in the field of games design. Although many techniques exist and will attract developers and gamers for a long time to come, none of them solve the Hard Problem; the problem of creating a truly dynamic narrative, of creating virtual worlds where although the themes and imagery in the world remain consistent, the actions of different players lead to utterly different and utterly credible outcomes.

To solve this problem, we need a way of designing a game where the designer sets the theme, the world-space where the game takes place, and the player can then explore and experience whatever permutations of that theme he or she desires. This seems an impossible goal, and more akin to the lucid dream or Holodeck, but I believe that we can at least lay the theoretical ground work that could make this advance possible in the future.

To create this open-ended story world we need to find a way of defining our game objects and systems so that they produce meaningful narrative changes and promote dramatic tension. We need to embed a theory of narrative into the code itself at a very low level. Just as we can drop an object into one of our game physics environments and see it react to different forces, we need to be able to create game objects that are subject to narrative forces.

In the nineteen-eighties, the well known computer scientist Brenda Laurel put forward the idea of creating an interactive world that was shaped by the "rules" of drama as described by Aristotle in his Poetics. Every action and event in this hypothetical virtual world would be affected by these underlying rules, with the whole game being shaped by them as it progressed (Rheingold, 1991). At the time, expert systems were perceived as the best way of creating such a game, but creating the expert system and quantifying Aristotle's rules in a suitable way would prove very difficult.

Rather than attempt to systematise the ideas of Aristotle, I propose a system based on Jung's model of the psyche. As a dynamic system it already fits in naturally with the way games work, and mathematical models based on Jung's ideas already exist and could be utilised (Sulis, 1998). These models are useful because of the way they can handle "polymorphic sets". They have been used in psychiatry, and believe it or not, in modelling convective systems. The rules of drama, of mimesis and catharsis exist as a subset of Jung's model, in the form of the relations between the ego, the complexes, and the unconscious. Such a system would be, in effect, a simple dream simulator.

In this system, the ego would be equivalent to the player perspective (See Dare, 2001 for an explanation of this term), the unconscious would be equivalent to the game world, and the complexes would determine both the player's character and goals. The game world would be built as a dynamic, hierarchical system of archetypes, with the complexes determining how those archetypes appear and act towards the player. Every object or being in the game world would be defined by its relationship to the various archetypes, and its use and appearance to the player would be determined by his complexes. The player's path through the game would be a kind of "individuation process", working through and integrating the "complexes" that make up the player's identity, with the game world, the storyline and the player character changing coherently as a result.

These ideas are highly complex and I am still in the process of researching them, but I think that using Jung's model of the psyche as the basis of an interactive world could one day prove to be an important development in games design.

On Violence

  Fantasy and Genre
  The Problem of Narrative
  On Violence

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The Series
  The Primacy of the Imagination
  Approaching the Imagination
  The Game as Quest
  Integrating the Imagination