Cyberdrama

Cyberdrama

2004-05-01

Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin introduce Cyberdrama, the first section of First Person.

Janet Murray, who coined the term cyberdrama, uses it to discuss a new type of storytelling – and a new type of story – that she sees emerging as the computer becomes an expressive medium. Cyberdrama appears to tell the story of our lives now, much as the novel emerged to tell the story of a previous culture and time. As Murray writes, the term emphasizes as well “the enactment of the story in the particular fictional space of the computer.” Inevitably the term also turns our attention toward those (“dramatic”) new media artifacts that resemble theater, cinema, or television – as we were similarly directed by the title of Murray’s seminal Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997).

Murray’s Hamlet followed Brenda Laurel’s Computers as Theatre, which had, six years earlier, made dramatic experience a central topic of discussion in the new media community. Laurel’s book was itself picking up themes from her 1986 Ph.D. thesis, which focused on forms of interactive, first person, computer-enabled storytelling. In both works Laurel offered Aristotelian dramatic experience as the model toward which designers of interactive computer experiences should aspire.

It is generally agreed that cyberdrama must give human participants an experience of agency. Usually this has meant that the participant’s actions have an appropriate and understandable impact on the world the computer presents to them (though the term is given a somewhat different spin by Ken Perlin in his essay included here). Other goals defined by Murray include immersion and transformation. To achieve these goals through a combination of experience design, computer graphics, and artificial intelligence – especially in a form reminiscent of interactive Shakespearian tragedy – has become a sort of “holy grail” for cyberdrama.

There are profound difficulties in achieving these goals, but the three authors presented here continue to work actively on the design and development of cyberdramatic experiences. They persevere, perhaps, because they and many others believe that a large number of new media’s most successful creations (Zork, Myst, Everquest, The Sims) incline toward cyberdrama. Perhaps also because cyberdrama exists as a powerful force of imagination (on- or off-board the (Enterprise) even if it has not yet been fully realized.

The essayists in this section are theorist-practitioners of cyberdrama, and each addresses a major question for cyberdramatists (also a primary theme of this volume): Is there a game-story? Many in the new media field see cyberdrama as an attempt to marry the structures of games and stories – and many of cyberdrama’s harshest critiques come from those who believe this to be impossible. The first essay here is from Murray herself, who postulates that the “game-story” question is fundamentally misformulated. Ken Perlin follows, who finds engaging characters to be the element missing from even the most successful game-story examples to date. Finally, Michael Mateas offers what may be the “unified field theory” of Laurel’s and Murray’s work; giving a definition of neo-Aristotelian interactive drama, as well as describing the project he and Andrew Stern are creating through its guidance – a project that may allow them finally to take hold of cyberdrama’s grail.

Responses

Jane McGonigal’s response to Cyberdrama

Mark Barrett’s response to Cyberdrama