ďNo Knife-Fighting in the Dollhouse, PleaseĒ

Mark Stephen Meadows


Video games are becoming moral. They might even be getting preachy. They might go so far as to get religious in tone, with Right and Wrong being decisions determining whether youíve won the game. Itís not about being a good shot. Itís about being a good player. And I donít mean skillful. I mean Good.

Of course, in ten or fifteen years, weíll still have the good old staple of shoot-em-ups, things like Deus Ex or Max Pain, and these stories will sort of ferment and get even better, like Louis Líamourís Westerns, always being interesting to people, for some dusty reason. But thereís a new set of games that are appearing and getting ready to shake their thin white fingers at such stories as Quake and preach, in that parental tone of parochial reproach, ďPlay Nice.Ē

Hereís why.


Back in the day, some, say, 2200 years ago, stories were about kicking ass. Theyíre called Epics. The story is about a hero (Achilles, or Odysseus, for example) who goes out, kicks a lot of ass, collects booty, and runs home. In many of these stories The Hero is so tough that he doesnít just kill The Bad Guy, and he doesnít just kill the Bad Guyís minions either, but The Hero is so kick-ass that he kills everyone. Thatís how tough these old-school literary heroes are. These are the characteristics of a good hero (and theyíre not, by the way characteristics you want members of society to be exhibiting).

The Epic trend of literature is a lot like a game of Doom. You kill everything. In many ways the first-person shooter (FPS) is the same old-school plot as The Iliad. Itís epic, itís about kicking ass, and itís about collecting booty so you can kick more ass later.

But our opinions of these stories have shifted over the centuries. After about a thousand years of these Epic tales, people began asking whether kicking ass was the best thing to do (after all, civilized people donít do this). Around the 3rd century, theologians started to tell stories that orbited the topic of morality. Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Blaise Pascal and a healthy host of other godly scholars, called up this question about harming someone else, taking their stuff, and then running home. Maybe this isnít how we should all behave, they asked. They proposed socially-organized systems (nowadays we call them churches) through which power could be gained, clear roles of social structure would be rewarded, and social interaction would be designed to provide a mutually profitable system for the folks that play the game. Churches did, as we know, become quite powerful, so there was a new social order forming around the time these guys were asking moral questions.

The trend towards moral behavior (at least as we understand objective morality now) is just a more complicated interaction between people. Options other than slash-and-stash are available. Like talk about things. Being kick-ass was fine, but what was really kick-ass was being Jesus and saving everybody. This basic idea - this question of what, really, is moral interaction - has been great fun for thousands of storytellers through the millennia. Some of the stories, such as The Passion, still make for box-office hits, as Mel Gibson has shown us. And Epics, such as this summerís movie, Troy, do too. So these literary genres donít die out, they just end up being the sediment that supports the stories that come later. And the stories that come later on always have a more complicated system of interaction. So as literature progresses, whatís really progressing is how people interact. And today stories are, largely, about how people interact. If you donít believe me turn on the TV and watch any sitcom, drama, horror show, or comedy.

But letís look at a third major literary trend - the Romance. Example: King Arthur (another movie thatís been released this year). In this world of dragons and dungeons there are still kick-ass heroes, such as Lancelot, but thereís also the characters, like Merlin, that represent a hidden world of retribution and power. Someone has to keep a moral eye on the high stakes in a Romance novel. Urgent emergencies, hasty decisions, and love affairs are all there - all the stuff of Epics - and thereís the added layer of more complicated interactions among the characters. Like a love triangle. And so the question of morality is turned up a notch.

In each of these three trends, from the Epic to the Romance, character interaction gets more complicated. Itís what has made literature evolve. In Brothers Karamazov, a novel by any definition, there are over 100 different characters and possibly three protagonists. Part of this is because, by Dostoevskyís time, literature had developed tools to allow for this complicated interaction. Scene shifts, change in voice, in tone, and most of all in symbology. It was the technology of literature that allowed such an advance in character interaction.

So the question is, Why are so many video games based on an interaction that was used in literature 2200 years ago?


Iím going to talk a bit about video games now, and Iím going to propose that theyíre following an evolutive literary trend, just like books did.

Video games started off with simple mechanics - Pong, Galaga, Asteroids, etc. There was a simple device (a triangle of a spaceship) that interacted with other simple devices (a disc of another spaceship). This basic gaming approach gradually grew up into a story-telling technology we now call video games. As stories got more and more complicated more and more people wanted to see characters in the stories. Mario turned us on to the idea that a character in the game adds personal investment in the game because we humans have a strange thing we do called character identification. When thereís a character in the game we tend to think, in some strange ways, that weíre actually there. We identify with the character and so the video game seems more real to us.

And so the little characters (and arch-characters) replaced the little triangles (and discs) of early 1980s video games. Mario, Sonic, and Pac Man were big hits and it dawned on video game designers that character identification was key to player participation. Having characters on the screen begged for better background stories, and so stories seeped up from between the silicon until eventually someone had the bright idea to put two characters in there. Itís a simple step to make.

But there was a problem; What do the characters do with each other? It seemed to make sense that the characters fight. Oddly, most simple kinds of ďplayĒ can be read as battle simulation. Board games like chess, team games like football, and even the games that small boys play with swords, or dogs play when it looks like their actually fighting, are all simulations of a fight. So, someone seemed to think, video games might then, too.

So the characters fight, or at least, compete, but how? How do we represent that when all we have is a monkey, some barrels, and an Italian guy with a bow tie? It had to be simple; the technology, unable to do anything other than simple, required it. Of course, back then it didnít look simple, it looked damned complicated, nearly impossible, and those of us lucky enough to have computers at home in that era, frantically learning our MS-DOS and BASIC, marveled at our screens as if we were witnessing the eighth wonder. Now, two decades later, the systems look simple and it is clear that the interaction between the characters was simple. Donkey Kong throws a barrel at Mario. Mario needs jump. If Mario does not jump, then he is dead. Castle Wolfenstein, in 1986, was a marvel. You could shoot at other guys and theyíd shoot back. Incredible. How did the computer know?

It was simple.

But here is the key: the simple technology required that the interaction be simple. And the simplest interaction in the world is probably the oldest, most bestial, and most epic: the interaction of slash-and-stash kick ass.

This was how storytelling in video games began. We are still at the earliest stages of a storytelling technology that will take many more decades to ripen. Online worlds are bearing some fruit - we can see trends emerging. One of them is that, like books, interaction is becoming more complicated.

In most games now there are vignettes in which characters ďtalkĒ to each other, and engage in a little non-violent interaction. This is a relatively new trend started by Ion Storm, in Austin. This character interaction that happens in the story is a session of game play, a cinematic, in which the protagonist character (Max Pain, for example) talks with a supporting character (The Police Chief). Itís not an active part of playing the game, but it is an important part of learning the story. Alas, despite substantial budgets the quality is still primitive, showing that these interactions between the characters are still baby-steps (the acting is crappy, the camera work is poor, the lighting is off, and - gah! - put a little blush on those polygons!)

But, each year, progress is being made and we can see the character interaction ripening.


Iíd like to stop for a minute underline a distinction between Interaction and Interactivity. Interaction is what a person does with another person. Agamemnon and Achilles have an interaction, as do Guinevere and Arthur. You, however, engage in interactivity with your computer. Interaction is social, interactivity is technical.

Technical problems have been crippling the increasingly social interests of gaming. For good reason. Itís damned hard to make Donkey Kong and Mario interact convincingly and non-repetitively when current AI and AE systems are so primitive that they donít even know what ďsleeping togetherĒ means. Not that Donkey Kong needs to take his monkey suit off, but it sure would be nice if we had some new interface - something other than a joystick - to provide a little freedom of social interaction in games. What will happen when we can talk with the characters instead of just shoot at them?

This step amounts to allowing players to have social interaction with non-player characters. This is an important step for games to achieve. The goal is for video game designers to combine interactivity and interaction, or, more simply put, to find a way to allow interaction between players and characters.


So the question is, Why are so many video games based on such a primitive interaction; an interaction that was used in literature 2000 years ago?

And the answer is, ďBecause weíre at the same stage traditional writers were at 2200 years ago. Computer interactivity just isnít as advanced as human interaction and so interactive plots suffer a rather primitive condition of representation. Plus, violence sells now as well as it did then.Ē

Combining interactivity and interaction caused us to suffer a 2200 year setback. Video games are at an evolutionary stage equivalent to the Homeric epic. In the big tradition of literature, weíve hit a kind of speed bump. Itís temporary, but itís slowed down narrative development just the same. Weíre seeing very simple interactions among characters. But the technology, unless itís multi-player, doesnít support intense character interaction. The interactivity isnít developed enough to support the interaction. After all, it ainít easy, getting a computer to act like a human. It ainít easy getting a sentence to act like a human, either, but after two millennia of development the technology of language carries a richer set of symbols and meaning than do computers. At least for now.

Things are changing fast. There are video game plots in which character interaction is more advanced than fighting. The Sims is a game almost entirely about human interaction that is post-battle. They live together, leave for work, eat, and buy things. Like a dollhouse, itís the real-world elements that appeal to many of the players of the game. The design solutions, and counterbalances against a primitive technology, are obvious: Will Wright and others chose to abstract the language, limit the vocabulary, quantify desires and preferences, and link dislikes and discomforts. The essential elements that define personality are there, but weíre still kept at arms length, couched in third person cameras, as if Wright knows that getting too close will let us see through the illusion. A Tale In The Desert is another example of a game that relies on more advanced forms of interaction than battle. In ATITD social coordination generates power in the game, not slaughter and treasure. And there, too, simple language is was a key design element for the authors of the game. It had to be simple for the same reasons Mario had to be simple - the tech.

If we are indeed moving out of a Homeric era of narrative evolution, and if we are really seeing progress in graphics, artificial intelligence, artificial emotion, and networking (as we are) then it is up to writers to imagine more rich forms of narrative using the tools we have around. Back in the day, once moral questions had been addressed, the Romance genre emerged. That was their solution then, wrestling as they were with their own technologies and mishaps. The trends that were followed in written narrative will be the same trends followed today in interactive forms of literature (video games being one of them).

I donít think that we will have to live through a literary period in which video games will be interpreting The Bible, fortunately for all of us. I do think that video gaming will follow a similar trend as traditional literature. And so a phase of some similarity will appear.

Much of this genre of video games will be a reaction against the violent games that preceded it (because thatís what every art form and media type does; they comment on whatís just happened), but then, as literature did, gaming will move into more self-defined territory and pose moral questions for players, always within an entertaining framework.

The Bible itself depicts violence that is, well, of biblical proportions. Itís not a book about violence. Itís a book about morality. But if someone were to make a video game about God that had rivers of blood and fields of corpses, it would get an M rating, Iím sure (and Iíll bet it would be entertaining - an interactive version of something like Danteís Inferno is an environment Iíve wanted to design for years).

Art forms are a reflection of the world they live in. Violent video games are just reflections of a violent world, which is part of the reason this genre will always be popular - itís part of what humans are (after all, play is battle simulation). Computer interactivity just isnít as advanced as human interaction and so interactive plots suffer a rather primitive condition of representation.

Whatever video games are evolving into they are certainly evolving past the slash-stash kick ass method of interaction. The interaction in these interactive systems is becoming more sensitive, more social, and more complicated. The process is one in which interaction is more carefully presented in storytelling.

And in the end, any time you ask a question about morality, what youíre really asking is a question of interaction. Itís all a question of freedom.


Los Angeles, CA
June 01, 2004