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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.

About the author:  Ben Weber is a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz. Read more from this author

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  1. Gabriel Kabik
    Posted June 22, 2010 at 12:40 AM | Permalink

    The distinction between Heavy Rain’s and ME2’s approaches to autonomy and narrative are really the products of intelligent design philosophies that work for those games. A blending of the two in any way (though I’m aware this is a theoretical discussion so you didn’t mean this literally) would likely provide experiential contrasts for the user that would confuse them intuitively as well as emotionally.

    In Heavy Rain, the game splits action amongst 4 different characters, and seems to not shy away from toying with the player’s sense of autonomy in the game, for the reasons you mentioned. This toying (by the way you forgot the brilliant “blurring” effect they use) is clearly a source for building tension as well as (later) replayability, two exceptionally important elements to what Mr. Cage et al. envisioned when they conceptualized how this game was to be experienced by the player.

    However in ME2, the player’s sense of total autonomy is integral to the way Bioware wanted the player to experience the game. Whereas the player of Heavy Rain would only feel empathy for the characters of Heavy Rain about as strongly as they would over a particularly moving film, the player of ME2 is immersed in options for customizing Shepherd, and I don’t mean just visually. Choosing the gender of the character (a decision that Bioware took pains to make far more than cosmetic in relevance), their background, their decisions and (most importantly) the reasoning behind their decisions, all stem from the player deciding “Who do I want to play as?” and then exploring that decision within the parameters of the game.

    In many ways, the thrill I got from playing my Commander Shepherd was less in the decisions I made and more in rationalizing how I came to make those decisions for my character. In Heavy Rain, my decisions were goal-oriented, so my characters were largely a function of story, whereas in ME2, it was the reverse. As a result, I felt like playing Commander Shepherd was a first-person narrative, whereas Heavy Rain felt like a third-person narrative with maybe a bit of an unreliable narrator thrown in.

    I promise to get back to addressing your question now. I think a game could be made that possibly blended the two philosophies of these two landmarks in modern interactive fiction, and maybe that’s the holy grail, who knows? But in order to do so, it would have to be wholly cognizant of how these two approaches differentiate in how they make the player feel about their characters. Otherwise, it will have shed all of the usefulness of these innovations.

  2. Posted June 23, 2010 at 4:51 PM | Permalink

    The arguments about the customization of the character and different roles the player takes on are interesting. There is something immersive about how Heavy Rain presents the characters that is difficult to capture in an action game. For example, in Halo 3: ODST the player takes on several roles throughout the game which cannot be customized. However, the role is only relevant during the cut scenes, which breaks the illusion of embodying the characters.

One Trackback

  • By Good Reads: 23rd June 2010 on June 23, 2010 at 9:56 AM

    […] Interactive Drama and Action: Can we have it all? An interesting piece by Ben Weber which discusses the meaning and classification of Mass Effect 2 and Heavy Rain. As a writer of fiction, of particular interest to me was the sole comment on the piece by Gabriel Kabik, who compared Mass Effect 2 to a first person narrative, and Heavy Rain to a third person. Even though the presentation of both games, from a gameplay perspective, is third person, the way characters are developed in each game differs to the point where a distinction in the “narrator’s” perspective can be made. It’s not something I’ve thought about before and has changed the way I think about those titles. [Expressive Intelligence Studio Blog] […]