Home About EIS →

Interactive Drama and Action: Can we have it all?

‘Kasumi’s Stolen Memory’ is a DLC mission for Mass Effect 2 that adds a new perspective to gameplay in the Mass Effect series. While the DLC contains the formulaic loyalty mission for the new character, it also puts Commander Shepard in a new role in which the player interacts in a formal social setting. Shepard’s mission is to assist Kasumi in infiltrating an extravagant party in order to reclaim Kasumi’s personal artifact contained in the vault of the party’s host. Part of the DLC is a new formal wardrobe for Shepard (pictured below), that while only providing a reskinning, changed my perspective of the character. Playing through this mission reminded me of the scene from the interactive drama Heavy Rain in which the journalist (Madison Paige) needs to infiltrate a nightclub to acquire information from the owner. After drawing this comparison, I found myself asking the question: Can Mass Effect 2 be considered an interactive drama? Can the player have meaningful participation in the development of the plot in an action game?

Madison Paige and Commander Shepard

Madison Paige from Heavy Rain (left) and Commander Shepard from Mass Effect 2

Brenda Laurel coined the term interactive drama in her dissertation as:

a first-person experience within a fantasy world, in which the user may create, enact, and observe a character whose choices and actions affect the course of events just as they might in a play.

One of the requirements of an interactive drama is that it “moves the action forward in a dramatically interesting way.” Mass Effect 2 clearly fits this definition, as the player has control over the outcome of the game. This definition is too inclusive to be directly applicable to classifying games as interactive drama. Michael Mateas further refined the definition in his dissertation claiming that interactive drama requires:

believable agents, autonomous characters exhibiting rich personalities, emotion, social behavior, motivations and goals.

The crux of building interactive drama is integrating autonomous characters into a well-formulated dramatic structure. Given this definition, neither Mass Effect 2 nor Heavy Rain meet the requirements of interactive drama. However, what are the specific elements lacking from Mass Effect 2 that prevent it from being acclaimed as interactive drama?

The distinguishing characteristic between these games is the illusion of autonomy. Mass Effect 2 uses a menu based dialog system in which the player is presented with a clear selection of outcomes. In Heavy Rain the outcomes are not as obvious, because the player first needs to navigate the environment in order to determine which options are available. And once the player determines which gestures can be performed, the outcome of a gesture may not be apparent until it is actually performed by the player. Mass Effect 2 presents the player with an obvious dialog tree, while Heavy Rain requires more exploration of the game space before the player can reach the conclusion that the characters lack autonomy. Where Heavy Rain succeeds in realizing interactive drama is in creating an embodied experience in which the player has the feeling of moving the plot forward by performing gesture-based actions in the game.

This leads to the following question: would the application of Heavy Rain’s control scheme to non-combat scenes in Mass Effect 2 result in an interactive drama? For example, there are several scenes where Heavy Rain’s controls could be directly applied to Mass Effect 2, such as the scene in Kasumi’s mission in which Shepard searches for DNA samples. Perhaps the conventions established by Heavy Rain will become prolific in future games. However, this will not result in new interactive drama titles, unless players are convinced that the characters they interact with are autonomous and exhibit rich personalities.

This entry was posted in Academics, Games and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.