Error, Interface, and the Myth of Immersion

Error, Interface, and the Myth of Immersion

2008-03-18

Jason Rhody argues that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time attains the status of a game fiction by leveraging “narrative tragedy” to enhance “ludic complexity” - creating a game in which narrative and play, far from being opposed, as in most assessments, enhance one another.

Stealing the Dagger of Time is not the last error that that the Prince and the player will make in their adventures together with The Sands of Time. Jordan Mechner reminds us of one of the more effectively self-defeating scenes in the game, in which the Prince activates the palace’s defense system on the well-intentioned advice of a palace guard (a non-player character). The Prince first sees the events that are about to unfold in the foreshadowing “sand cloud,” (which serves to give hints of forthcoming events, while also functioning as a convenient save point). The sand cloud cut-scene unveils both the puzzle that activates the palace defense system and the traps that - unknown to the player at the time - will actually hinder the player’s progress through the game. As the player enters the room housing the defense system mechanism, the camera (not in the player’s control) offers a panning shot around the room, highlighting the player’s goals.

This panning shot is followed by a longer non-interactive sequence, in which a surviving guard asks “Can you help me activate the assault defense system?” after which he provides a verbal description of the puzzle as the camera shows additional details of the room. The guard continues to offer voice prompts to the now-interactive Prince, providing advice, hints, and congratulations, while the player works through the puzzle, managing both an avatar and an interactive camera. The Prince and the guard even exchange dialogue, all channeled while the player manipulates the environment. As the player completes the tasks, the Prince wonders aloud: “What manner of machine is this?” and the guard replies “I told you - it’s the Palace’s defense system. Stop wasting time. Throw your lever!” The player, admonished by the guard, forges ahead (with an immediate response that would have been impossible had this been a fixed cut-scene), pulling the final lever that activates the defense system. The door highlighted in the initial panning shot now opens, allowing the Sands of Time to sweep in, thus turning the misguided guard into a zombie. The player quickly comes to realize he or she made the navigation of the palace imminently more difficult not for the monsters, but for the Prince himself - pointedly reminding the player of the Prince’s earlier encounters with these traps, when he was advised on-screen by the dry subjunctive narrator to “Avoid spiky poles.”

There are multiple modes of narration that are channeled through the interface, including the various cinematic sequences, narrative voices, dialogues, camera controls, and the like, as well as the subtle indicators of status, location, and action implicit in the health bars, power meters, and even audio alerts. They focalize the player’s attention towards a ludic goal that, in this specific case, also supplies a significantly self-defeating moment in the Prince’s retrospective narrative. This unavoidable mistake hinders the player while making the game-play experience more challenging and more engaging. Narrative tragedy, slight as it may be, serves ludic complexity, and it is in the balance of this combination that The Sands of Time finds its success.

The tension between the generally progressive mechanics of story-telling and the potential for emergent, dynamic behavior in game systems has been the source of long-standing debates that have plagued game developers and game critics alike. As Greg Costikyan notes in this same collection of essays, and as summarized by Marie-Laure Ryan. See links below. That games, computer or otherwise, can tell a story seems to be a subsiding debate, dissected by a thousand paper cuts (virtual and real) in the many books, articles, blog posts, conference papers, and other discussions of the topic. This is not to say that games must tell a story, but rather that they can; Tetris and Prince of Persia can live together in harmony. The debate, however, was far from worthless, for the foundational concerns implicit in the discussion remain relevant: effectively balancing the impulses of narration (an authorial drive) against the boundaries of agency (an audience desire); moving away from the questions of the possibility of narrative in playable media, but towards means to measure the quality and methods of those narratives; challenging our understanding of more recognizable, less interactive forms (e.g., novels, short stories, films) when the new border cases of narrative games confront expectations for the role of the audience (formerly “the Reader,” capital-R) in media communication models.

Mechner’s essay offers one of the many essays in this collection to discuss story in playable media, and he brings through the specific example of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time insights into the several ways that the medium requires changes to the method of crafting fictions in a ludic environment. His observations about designing The Sands of Time also illuminate what has remained a vexing issue for game critics: what Marie-Laure Ryan originally dubbed the “myth of the Holodeck,” where she observes a key tension for participatory roles in directed fictions. Ryan’s oft-cited example, which has been adopted often to showcase the limits of ludic narration, Juul notes, “It seems, for example, that a game cannot have the goal that the player should work hard to throw the protagonist under a train.” (See “Games Telling stories?-A brief note on games and narratives.” (See links below.) Cf. Espen Aarseth. “Genre Trouble.” (See links below.) in First Person. pg. 50; G. Frasca. “Simulation Versus Narrative” The Video Game Theory Reader. Pg. 227; Jesper Juul. Half-Real. pg. 161. asserts:

If we derive aesthetic pleasure from the tragic fate of literary characters such as Anna Karenina, Hamlet or Madame Bovary, if we cry for them and fully enjoy our tears, it is because our participation in the plot is a compromise between the first-person and the third-person perspective. We simulate mentally the inner life of these characters, we transport ourselves in imagination into their mind, but we remain at the same time conscious of being external observers. But in the Star Trek Holodeck, which is of course a fictional construct, the interactor experience emotions in the first person mode.

She goes on to assert that “Interactors would have to be out of their mind-literally and metaphorically–to want to submit themselves to the fate of a heroine who commits suicide as the result of a love affair turned bad, like Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina.” Comparing media forms is a natural critical impulse in an increasingly transmedia world. Ryan rightly notes that certain types of plot better lend themselves to various modes of narration, and that the failure in Murray’s original example is really the failure of immersion. The myth of the Holodeck exists in part because the Holodeck is presented as a non-mediated environment, a truly immersive world, lacking interfaces of control Outside an invisible oral/aural call and response to the computer at the borders of the narrative.: truly in all respects the ur-“first-person perspective.”

Yet, in our current slate of game fiction examples, in which The Sands of Time certainly stands out, we can see that rather than the promise of Immersion, we have the prominence of the Interface. The interface not only complicates but completely disrupts the notion of a single, dominating user perspective - no longer first, second, or third person or even the internal/external dichotomy proposed by Ryan. Instead the player is offered myriad perspectives, some within her control, others - like the Prince’s voice-over narration - outside of it. The screen, with its ability to present the illusion of three-dimensional depth, overlapping data sets (using varying opacity, for example, so that textual data, can easily overlay other visual data), and additional input/output devices present to the user not just camera controls and avatars, but the potential for visual, audio, tactile, and textual data that situates the user and details possible negotiations. Along with avatars and cameras, we have “heads-up displays” (HUDs), maps, menus, bars, macros - in short, interface features - so that as much as we may play a character, we are also playing the interface. Rather than diegetic embodiment, For a discussion of avatars as mechanism for diegetic embodiment more akin to Ryan’s internal mode, see Bob Rehak. “Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar.” The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge, 2003. 103-128. we achieve the status of master controller, character, and director. Lev Manovich remarks, “Directing the virtual camera becomes as important as controlling the hero’s actions” (The Language of New Media, 84), evoking a more external mode in Ryan’s sense. The player can adopt both internal and external roles in game fictions. Just as the internal informational landscape becomes more complex, the number of tools, models, and modes of status representation place us within a point of that landscape and feature numerous channels of information so we might navigate it. Negotiation becomes the name of the game - negotiation of rules, of information channels, of data points and hit points, status bars and radars, cameras and audible dialogue - all of which can be used, as it is in The Sands of Time, to move towards narrative actualization. And yet for the sense of agency provided, this kind of game is still a narrated event, in almost all senses plotted.

The balance to be achieved is one of control against agency - voice-over narration (see Mechner’s Rule #7) only rarely conspires to take physical control of the Prince. Dialogue between Farah and the Prince also follows this rule, so the player can continue to control The Prince while hearing not only guidance from Farah, but subtle (and not so subtle) signs of romantic interest. Dialogue becomes precious in an entirely different sense from Mechner’s (see Rule #9); because it generally blends effortlessly with our interaction, its effects are felt rather than forced. When a single channel dominates, it must do so for maximum effect and purpose - to truly focalize the player at the most appropriate moment, For a discussion of focalization in 3D video games, see Michael Nitsche,. ‘Focalization in 3D Video Games.’ Digital Proceedings of Future Play, Lansing, MI October 13-15, 2005 (digital proceedings). See links below. reflecting Mechner’s call for efficiency (Rule #3) alongside agency (Rule #1).

Story may not be king (Rule #2), but in most aspects, the path for the Prince in The Sands of Time is fixed, narrated, controlled. Despite this narrative rigidity, the player still is provided an ergodic, engaging experience, a challenging game. How? “Break as many rules as you can get away with” (Rule #6). As it turns out, focalizing a player’s attention through interface manipulations so that they create tragic mistakes effectively conjoins narrative and ludic goals. After all, tragic mistakes lead to greater challenges.

The Prince - and the player - make many other grievous errors in their adventures, some that are explicitly understood as tragic and unavoidable, and others in which a potential solution turns into a greater problem. For the former, we need look no further than the battle sequence in which the Prince’s father, now a horrific monster, blocks progress to other parts of the palace, forcing the Prince to slay him. And ultimately, by actualizing the entire game sequence, the Prince and the player correct their grand mistake by going back in time to defeat the Vizier. The completion of these ludic goals, however, brings no small bit of loss and tragedy for the central character. Though he prevents the theft of the Dagger and the Sands, and thus saves his father and countless others, the Prince also erases his relationship with Farah, who over time through subtle cues and playful bits of banter, the player comes to appreciate as a love interest for the Prince. Though hardly the equivalent of throwing one’s character under a train, actualizing this particular narrative string does bring with it a large measure of sacrifice for the main character, and arguably an emotional sacrifice for the player as well.

The lasting effect is not just an effective game story, interwoven with suitably tragic and self-defeating elements, but rather a game fiction, analogous to prose fiction, yet a genre unto itself - a progressive, ergodic, competitive narrative that is to be actualized by a player. Finally, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is nothing if not a game fiction about storytelling - the impositions of authorial control within the constraints of a reader’s, and a player’s, imagination and agency. The Prince’s voice never fails to remind the player that we are playing through his recollection, while the available controls allow us to play through the sequence with detailed grace and, when appropriate, with helpful instruction from either the subjunctive narrator (in writing) or a friendly ally such as Farah (through a dialogue channel). The delicate balance of synchronous and asynchronous channeling of interface elements leaves the player in and out of control at different moments, but in control enough to maintain that important sense of ergodicism where the Prince’s tale and our own create a well-formed experience.

Links

Greg Costikyan

Marie-Laure Ryan

Jesper Juul

Espen Aarseth

Michael Nitsche