Sunday, 29. May 2005

Predictability vs. Unpredictability, Pt.1

The approaches of writers and engineers to creating interactive characters often seem incompatible. I'm here trying to spot some of those incompatibitities and to look at what's behind them.

Here's an example: I'm reading Rob Zubek's dissertation, where on page 28 he writes: "Authoring is important because
designers need to create consistent and predictable behavior." But when I turn to what John Milius said on his E3 panel, I read: "You have to make your characters compelling and unpredictable." So the engineer wants to achieve predictable character behavior, while the writer wants to achieve unpredictable character behavior. What's going on here?

Two parties thinking on different levels of abstraction is what's going on here. And it's important for both parties to understand how the other one gets to a result that seems to contradict one's own, because otherwise, no common ground can be found.

What we need is some identification. As Anatoly has it: "I am the Other."

To get them right, a writer has to identify herself with each of the characters she creates in a story. I'm emphasizing "in", because the story is the system that connects all the characters, and all the character behaviors, plus the sequences of interaction in which they are presented, have to "make sense" in the story to get the story's message across to the audience. This always involves a conflict of values between characters, an argument - represented by character behaviors and their mutual impact -, and (ideally after an exhaustive argument, in which all the characters have put in their weight, using all of their Character Elements) a judgement pertaining to the usefulness of those values in that story: "Predictability or Unpredictability - which one is better in this case?"

There are many people teaching proven-to-work methods that aid the writer in the character development process: Syd Field is very popular (as a rough approximation of his perspective: he suggest molding the characters as they are needed by the plot, which I see as analog to procedural programming, i.e. it's like using C), as is Linda Seger (another rough approximation: she suggest molding the plot as it is needed by the characters; analog to functional programming, i.e. using LISP), but there are many many others, just as there are many many programming languages. It's impossible to know all of them, but generally, the more you know, the better your chances are to find one that is right for you and for the job at hand (it's a matter of identification again: "You are your material").

If I set out to create a Grand Argument Story, my experience is that I can integrate the results of any method I choose to use into a Dramatica Storyform (as I said, YMMV, but that variability usually can be explained by assuming a writer creating a story that is not of the GAS type).

So I'll model the "Predictability vs. Unpredictability" story using Dramatica. If you downloaded the demo, you could replicate the process. I'll assume that you're doing this, so I'll give the necessary directions.

Start up Dramatica.

You'll see a window containing 12 tiles. Cick on the one labeled "Characters", in the upper right corner.

The "Character List" window appears, with a strip of tiles down its left edge. Counting from the top, click on the fifth one, which is labeled "Main/Obstacle".

The "Main & Obstacle Characters" window opens. This window gives you one view (there are others) on the relationship between the Main Character and the Obstacle Character, which are the two Subjective Characters of a GAS.

So now I need a couple characters, which, incidentally, I've already sketched up a while ago: they are Mel, my model of an engineer, and Scheuring, my model of a writer. They share a goal: both want to progress in the art of creating Interactive Stories and Characters. But they have a conflict:
What we need are characters that
behave in a predictable way.

No, you're wrong, Mel. Dramatic
characters are only dramatic if
they are unpredictable.
That's just a fact.

I'll show you a fact! The fact is,
I have this random generator here.
Try to use it, and see if you get
an Interactive Character that way!

No, I won't. You're confusing
Unpredictability with Randomness.
There's a huge difference there.

In your dreams, bub!



In the next installment, I'll show how I set up this conflict in Dramatica. In the meantime, you might want to play a bit with the controls of the program. Hint: I've already specified my Story Goal as Progress; you can set that up in the Story Engine, which you reach by clicking on the "Story Engine" tile in the main window. See how this reduces the number of available Storyforms from 32,768 to 2,048. Find out why this is so.

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