Thursday, March 1, 2012

Blog 6- Prompt 1--Ben Fellows

Cup of Death and Skyrim: Interactivity

Interactivity’s foundations are with the two separate entities responding to the options presented. When it comes to interactivity associated with books and video games, interaction with the medium is heavily reliant on the options presented, and the quality of the various options. Therefore, any medium that has enough depth in every option presented to the user has the potential to be highly interactive. Shannon Gilligan’s Cup of Death has limited interactivity due to very low quality options, while Bethesda Softworks’ video game Skyrim presents many high quality options, many with considerable depth, that allow this video game to be highly interactive.

Shannon Gilligan’s Cup of death advertises on its cover, “The classic series is back! Choose from 23 possible endings”(Gilligan, cover). While this statement may be technically true, of the 23 endings presented, there may not be a single ending that actually gives the reader any sort of satisfaction with the choices they made. When going over the endings, I found that there were three endings that resulted in injury to a protagonist, seven endings with death, seventeen endings that result in no bowl, and only six endings with actual success. With that said, these endings are a success only in the fact that you safely have the tea bowl returned. One of these successes can hardly be considered that since the ending results in a phone call to the police, saying, “If you come to the following address within half an hour, you can catch the criminals, and probably recover the bowl”(Gilligan, 113). This ending blows my mind with how absurd it is. Not only does it lack a resolute ending, it actually uses the word “probably” when referring to your success. In a novel where there are many fakes, this ending leaves the reader completely in the dark as to what actually happens here. None of the other endings are much more satisfying. They consist of: A fortune teller predicting the bowl being returned, three endings deal with Akiko and her grandfather, and the bowl simply being returned with no explanation TWICE. Of the three endings with Akiko, the reader’s character is scolded with ruining a ceremony and must sacrifice the national treasure you are searching for as a result. Simply stated, the interactivity of this book is terrible. None of the choices the reader makes are worthwhile, with the endings happening in no time at all after a few choices, and a majority of the endings have absolutely no satisfaction to be gained from them at all. Even when you make choices that you believe could open up a realm of possibilities, Gilligan prevails with cutting those possibilities short with a bullshit ending. With all of this said, I cannot believe that there would be anyone who would get satisfaction out of reading this book after going through it more than a few times.

One of my favorite newer video games is the recently released Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. This game builds off of where the previous game, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion left off, adding more options for the player to explore in a whole new world. From the very start of the game, the player is given a host of options regarding what character you want to play as. The player selects gender, race, and appearance. While gender and race affect gameplay, the appearance of your character is an option that holds no significance aside from aesthetics. After this, the character goes through the tutorial and begins training skills. This is expanded from Oblivion in that instead of having to choose your skills from the start; one may choose them as they progress through the game, with some options being better than others based on the race and gender selected. So from the very start the options are almost limitless considering there are 2 genders, 10 races, and 18 skills to level up. With these skills the player has the option to level any of them up at a rate specified by them based on their actions.

Now as far as actual gameplay is concerned, the interactivity levels vary. Every character has a humongous list of quests they may complete as they progress through the game. While many are standard for all players, many of them can be completed in any order that the player wishes, with exception to those that form a quest-chain. On top of this, quite a few quests vary depending on choices the character makes. You are given multiple options on what to do, whether it means befriending someone, tricking them, stealing from them, killing them or whatever. Each option has a different consequence that has the potential to impact various aspects of the game. One particular example of a situation that is surprisingly interactive involves stealing from a woman in a cabin. If you steal from someone but are not seen, you will be able to walk away without being pestered. What is surprising is that the Non-Player-Characters are able to realize if something has been stolen from them, and from there think about potential suspects. In one such case, stealing from a woman’s cabin on a cliff led to bounty hunters meeting your character in another distant town. These enemies start attacking you for what appears to be no reason, until your character kills them and searches their bodies. One of them carries a note from the woman you stole from, asking these hunters to teach you a lesson. This kind of situation can happen with anyone you steal from in the game, where there are literally hundreds of people to steal from. This level of interactivity is amazing and gives the player seemingly infinite options, each guaranteeing satisfaction with the game.

Is it fair to be comparing a children’s book with a major video game that has been upgraded over time with new releases? Probably not. However, this comparison helps explain what is necessary in order for a work to be truly interactive. Shannon Gilligan’s Cup of Death severely limits the reader’s actual true interactivity. Instead, the book answers the reader’s choices with an ending that had very little to do with the decisions made. Thus, this is fake interactivity. True interactivity responds to the choices with situations and conclusions that are achieved due to choices made. This is why Skyrim works very well with interaction, as it is programmed to respond to the choices the user made with a customized outcome. In order for a story to have high levels of interactivity, it must reward the user with resolutions that the user in a sense customizes for themselves through choices made. Skyrim achieves this, while Cup of Death falls flat.


Adam said...

I could have done with a definition of interactivity here. I mean, the general term is clear enough, but understanding what you mean by high and low quality options, for instance, would have helped a lot.

I haven't played Skyrim, but as an aside, I did play Morrowind (two games previous in the same series, and in the same style), and I quit after a while mostly because I felt the world was all style, no substance - that is, that there was nothing to "really" interact with. For my own (very flawed and personal) part, Cup of Death is more interesting (though not, honestly, necessarily more interactive) than Morrowind... But let me get back to your essay.

Your attempt to deal with the book by quantifying the varieties of its endings is a great idea. While praising the approach and not being opposed to your vehemence (without actually agreeing with it), I'd like you to think of "endings" in a different way.

Playing an RPG, we "end" - in the sense of one of Gillgan's endings, since we end and then start again from a known point - over and over again. Even in an easy RPG, we usually die many times. In truly challenging RPGs (Wizardry 7!) death - or desperately trying to avoid it - are really deeply part of the structure of the game.

What I'm getting at is that in almost any rpg, ending over and over again (and getting frustrated at least periodically) are part of the game. Regardless of your annoyance at Gilligan's style, are the repeated bad endings in Cup of Death any different from dying a few times to get past a tough boss in, say Final Fantasy IV?

My interpretation of your third and fourth paragraphs is that you are making the equation of "truth interactivity" == "variety or number of interactions." In other words, you are looking for quantity over quality (as a Bethesda hater, let me point out that many, many, many quests and interactions are really copy-and-pastes, with no essential difference among them).

I am not, at all, saying that this is incorrect - maybe this is the correct, or a useful, way to approach interactivity. But I think this needs some kind of theory behind it - what are you calling interactivity (I'm deducing a definition, not following one), and why do you value it?

For the record, I think the pseudo quantitive analysis of Gilligan's endings is good - I just feel like we need to understand what you're looking for and why here, in order to understand Skyrim as *more* than Cup of Death with a few orders of magnitute more options, or to understand why simply adding *more* options takes it from false interactivity to true interactivity, which seems to be the case you're making.

Amy Friedenberger said...

I've never played Skyrim, so as far as I can tell, you've done an effective job at describing interactivity in the game.

For "Cup of Death," I think you need to focus a bit more on analyzing the different endings instead of just offering a blunt opinion of whether they are good, bad, and "terrible." I think this will allow you to tie them in a bit better with the game. Your thesis is very basic, but if you delve more into the relationship between the endings of both games, you can construct a complex thesis with consequences.