Ken Perlin responds in turn

Ken Perlin responds in turn

2004-05-02

Insisting on the centrality of character (in literature no less than gaming) Ken Perlin responds to Victoria Vesna and Will Wright.

To Victoria Vesna

I completely agree that the literal translation of one medium to another is a recipe for disaster. After all, the few truly successful film adaptations of novels have not attempted to put the novel on the screen, but rather have used the language of film to tell an emotionally equivalent story. One example that comes to mind is Horton Foote’s brilliant screenplay for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Unfortunately, examples are legion of films that have failed to capture the novel because they race through the plot, sacrificing those key moments of character that are the very anchors and soul of the original.

The Chris Columbus film adaptation of the first Harry Potter novel is merely a recent and obvious example. I suspect that Steven Kloves, a screenwriter who has written screenplays for much better films than this, was not given much control on the project. For example, I was startled by the omission of something as fundamental as an emphasis on Ron Weasley’s decision to stay at Hogwarts over Christmas, sacrificing Christmas with his own family to give Harry the first real Christmas he had ever had. There are many more such examples - omission of plot points that are key only because they define character. By eliding all these powerful and wonderful personal moments, while concentrating only on visual textures and other superficial aspects of the book, the film somehow achieves the feat of feeling like the best version so far of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This was probably unintentional.

Similarly, the new and somewhat tenuous medium that I attempted to describe will certainly not succeed by transposing some existing game or novel or film on the terms of the original. Certainly, I have no issue at all with the early MUDs and MOOs. These rightly built their appeal on the interaction between players, as those players built worlds together. As Victoria Vesna points out, these succeeded on their own terms; by not trying to emulate traditional narrative, those experiences tapped into another sort of experience, extremely rich in its own way.

The main point on which I take issue with Vesna’s response is her characterization of what I’m proposing as a sort of “hyper-realism.” More accurately, I’m proposing a sort of “hyper-believability,” as compared to the game genre in its current form. It would be wonderful to give audiences a way to buy into characters, to feel the illumination from some sort of inner life within those characters, in an interactive experience. I certainly agree with her point that the way the interactivity is designed will be key, although I would rather say that this is “necessary but not sufficient.” Of course, in any genre, new or old, only three things ultimately matter in one’s ability to reach an audience: content, content, and content.

To Will Wright

I take the thrust of Will Wright’s response to be an objection to the idea that games should aspire to tell better stories. I would argue against the notion that the linear dramatic arc is the central scaffolding around which story is built. Rather, I would argue that media are defined by their limitations, and those limitations are what force artists to be creative in interesting ways. A linear dramatic arc is merely an artifact of a particular kind of genre limitation. It’s not a bad limitation, but it is nonetheless a defining one.

I agree with the analogy to a garden. Intrinsic to the entire notion of interactivity is the concept of a space for exploration. But in addition, I would argue that the central purpose of most literature (not the only purpose, but the central purpose nonetheless) is exploration and explication of character. In this context, linear form is merely a tool, albeit a very useful one, imposed as a technical constraint that characterizes various linear media (film, novels, theater). If you separate out linearity from explication of character, you can still maintain the latter. But first you need a rich enough medium in which to do so. Clearly, playwrights and screenwriters rely on the abilities of actors, and make their own creative choices knowing that their work will be channeled and focused through those talents.

In contrast, in implementing The Sims, Will Wright quite properly used a certain degree of abstraction and fuzziness in his representation of characters, since he didn’t have the option of interpretation by actors in the run-time engine, which allows the players to use their own imaginations to fill in appropriate details. This approach, as he points out, was nicely described by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics. Yet, he is not doing this as a goal, but rather as a way of dealing with the limitations of the current state of a medium.

I am looking forward to (and working on) an interactive medium which contains virtual actors capable of greater fidelity in the direct representation of a character’s mood, personality, and intentionality. I am also quite eager to see what Will Wright will do with such tools in The Sims III or IV. I suspect that he will find ways to use his non-linear botanical garden as a vehicle to allow people to explore character in new and fascinating ways.

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