Dreams, Stories, and Games

I’ve heard entirely too much talk of "stories versus games". There seems to be a notion that stories and games are somehow antithetical. Occasionally this crops up as an argument over the conflict between interactivity and plot; I addressed this last April in my essay, "Plot, Interactivity, Free Will, Determinism, Quantum Mechanics, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics". That essay, however, was too obvious, too intellectually narrow. This time I really want to go off into the ozone. My chosen vehicle is dreaming.

It seems to me that people don’t give dreaming its due. All too often dreams are described in overly simple terms, as if they were stories. People talk about dreams in much the same terms they use to describe movies. They talk about the visual experience, in some cases using technical terms from moviemaking:pans, zooms, cuts, and so forth. I can’t accept this; dreams aren’t videos. I hope it’s not too obvious to point out that, when you’re dreaming, your eyes are closed; visual experiences don’t exist during dreams. Whatever you may imagine you experience during a dream, it is most certainly not a genuine visual experience, so why should it be constrained by the logical realities of the visual experience?

Another aspect of dreaming that strikes me as important is its nonlinear nature. Stories must of course follow a linear sequence of some sort (the plotline), but dreams don’t have to follow that rule. My own dreams don’t follow a coherent plot line; why should they? Indeed, when we report a dream, we often provide logical connections that may not have existed in the actual dream. "And then Itook the bowl off my head" may be something that our conscious minds insert because we remember having the bowl on our head at one point, and shortly thereafter it was no longer on our head. We therefore insert the logically obvious connection but where is it written in stone that dreams must be logical?

This brings me to assert my own personal opinion about dreams. I believe that dreams are a consciously appreciated subset of more complex mental activity. This is predicated on the assumption that our consciousness represents only a subset of our overall mental existence there’s a lot more going on inside our brains than we are consciously aware of. When we dream, our brain cuts loose and lets the mental activity fly. Our consciousness is like a three-year-old observing a raucous party with loud music, flirtation, political debate, and one-ups-manship all taking place simultaneously. Unable to appreciate the complexity of the experience, our consciousness strings together whatever it can find meaningful, and we call the experience a dream.

Digression: Nonlinear versus interactive
One of the points of confusion that I often encounter in talking about interactivity with writers is their confusion of nonlinearity with interactivity. They recognize that conventional stories are linear, and interactivity isn’t like a conventional story, and at this point in their thinking they insert the concept of nonlinearity. The thinking seems to be that, if they could only design a "nonlinear story" (whatever that might be), then they’ve attained interactivity, or something worthwhile.

I consider the term "nonlinear"to be about as illuminating as the term"unstorylike". It emphasizes the negative; it is only an attempt to get away from something (linearity)rather than getting toward something (interactivity). There are a million ways to run away from linearity; there are far fewer paths toward interactivity.

What, exactly, would a "nonlinear story"be?Is it one in which the events do not follow a logical path?Or is it one in which the events are not necessarily arranged along a single path, but instead follow something like a tree or a network? I think we’re wasting our time thinking in terms of nonlinearity.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...
So, what does any of this have to do with games?(You notice I ask that question frequently in my essays.) The answer is, the relationship between the experience of playing a game and the intellectual structure of the game itself is rather like the conscious experience of a dream and the dream itself. The actual dream is a vastly complex process that cannot be fully appreciated by the consciousness of the dreamer. In the same way, a game is a vastly complex structure that simply cannot be understood from a single playing.

This implies something about the talent required of the game designer:the designer must be wiser than the player. The designer must see the world in larger terms, terms that the player can appreciate only in direct instantiation. Thus, Ias designer create the following relationship for my interactive story:

"A character’s inclination to kiss another character when the opportunity arises will be equal to that character’s affection for the second character, plus the second character’s sexiness multiplied by the first character’s lust, minus the first character’s faithfulness to any significant other that first character may have a relationship with."

This is esoteric stuff (and is simpler than what I have actually used in my work). I certainly can’t expect a player to understand, appreciate, or enjoy this concept. But if the player experiences this instead:

"Jessica gazed into Brad’s eyes; she had never seen him in this way before. Before he had been nothing more than the delivery man, but now she could see his chiseled features, his tanned face, his gentle eyes, his tight buttocks, and she knew in her loins that she wanted him. In a single whirling flash, Frederick was forgotten and she was wrapped around Brad, kissing him frantically."

Now, that’s something that most people can appreciate. Yet it is really nothing more than a flowery instantiation of the earlier statement. Moreover, the esoteric statement can also be the driving force behind this:

"Tina stared longingly at Mickey. She admired him, she liked him... but she couldn’t banish the image of Bo’s crestfallen face from her mind. Yes, Bo was a loser and Mickey was... well, Mickey was everything she had hoped for. But she couldn’t bring herself to hurt Bo."

Again, we have in this example something that most people can appreciate. But the talented designer does not deal in this currency, at least not directly.The talented designer creates esoteric generalizations that can produce such entertaining instantiations. Thus, the internal structure of interactive entertainment lies beyond the ken of the typical player.

This implies that the game designer must be wiser and smarter than his players. This in itself is nothing new; after all, storytelling has for millennia been a means for wise and experienced members of society to impart their wisdom to the younger ones. But what happens when technological constraints insure that the only game designers are young programmers with no wisdom to impart?Must we wait for a generation of game designers to mature before the medium can blossom?I don’t know.

This also explains why a game has replay value. The player tries out the game numerous times, each time experiencing a different instantiation. In this way, the player builds up a mental image of the truth of the game. It’s as if the player must circle around the truth, experiencing it from many different angles, each angle being a single instantiation of the game. Only after the player has seen it from enough angles can he assemble a complete mental image of the truth of the game. But consider this: this inductive process of assembling a mental image of the truth of the game, this is fundamentally an unconscious process. We don’t sit down after a series of games and analyze them consciously. We don’t take notes during the game and review them afterwards to figure out what the game is about. We just do it, and let the experiences percolate down into our minds, where they are digested by more profound mental talents than we can consciously muster.

This suggests that the game is really a form of indirect communication. I may want to tell you about some truth of the human condition, but if I say it in conscious or explicit terms, it will sound too academic, too intellectual, and you won’t hear me. But if I wrap my message up inside a game, and let you experience its manifestations rather than its intrinsic nature, those manifestations can penetrate your consciousness and work their way down deeper, where the true message can be induced from the instantiations and understood.

Ultimately, the most profound truths can only be appreciated as part of the fabric of our understanding. If I insist on teaching you in my own words, you will never learn what I have to teach. Imust teach you in your words but I don’t know your words!The resolution of this dilemma is provided by interactivity, which allows us to translate ideas into experience that are customized for the player and experience is ultimately the only thing that we all have in common. Experience is the only true universal language. The truth inside each game is the same for all of us, but each of us must absorb it in his own way. That’s why interactivity is so important.