Thursday, March 22, 2012

Revisions on Blog 6

Jacob Pavlovich

Interactivity in Books Compared to Video Games

(underlined parts are parts that were added)

When we think of the media, we rarely get to choose our own destiny with them. With movies and music, it is a very sit back relax and enjoy. Books for the most part are like movies that require you to more or less pay attention to what is going on, or else you will never get to the ending. Then there are video games, which have a long tradition of being more about the player and developing the player’s role by his actions. The focus in this essay will mainly follow video games and their relation to interactivity in a comparative look at books.

Whenever I was a child, I started to play video games. I like to think that most children at some point in their lives play a game or two that they absolutely love. Throughout many of years, I have played hundreds of video games, some I could not get past half way because they were so poorly designed or so poorly written. However there is one series of video games that I love and admire. This series is the Mass Effect video games series. There are currently three games that make up this series( Mass Effect 1 – 3). The reason why I, along with millions of others, find these games not just amazing, but addicting, is because they take into every little choice you make to give you a final ending. The people that you send on missions, to every word that you speak to non-playable characters (NPOs) has an effect on which members of your crew live or die, which alien species will control the destiny of the universe and what ending you will get. In all three games you play as Commander Shepard, who can be either a man or a woman, and can have a multitude of skills and backgrounds. You become the first human Spectre, which is the most elite members of the galactic military. From here you assemble a crew for your ship and end up discovering an evil alien race long thought to be dead. At the end of the first game you battle this alien race and win. Then in the second game you have the option of continuing the story line with your saved data from the first game or starting new, which is a running theme in all games. The second game puts you in charge of a new crew that you assemble and go against another evil alien race, which turns out to just be a pawn for the race that you defeated at the end of the first game. The third game I know little about, except from what I’ve read or heard from friends and the internet because I have yet to play it.

The qualities of this game that I find to be key to making it an interactive wonderland is the fact that even the slightest things can cause a different ending. You can be a morally insensitive person the whole game and then at the end, one kind gesture to the right person can take you down a different path. It is usually not big decisions like which place will you visit first that determine the end of the story line. However it is more so what you do during your adventures that will determine it. The friends you make and how the world sees you. This game gives the player the most freedom of any game out there, with possibly the exception of the elder scroll games. This is how interactivity should be portrayed, it’s the small things in life and in video games that determine the outcome.

Shannon Gilligan however decided to pepper the book Cup of Death with these decide your destiny parts, where the end of the book was largely determined by rather large decisions. When I first got this assignment I was overly thrilled to read this book because, as noted before my other favorite franchise is Mass Effect and it is all about interactivity. Then I started to read the book, and slowly but surely I began to want to burn this book. The writer thinks that if she adds a ton of interactivity that the book will automatically be amazing. In fact, the book just becomes a boring and slightly silly book. The one story line that I followed in it started out with our young adventurers looking for a national treasure, and ended up finding “stolen pearls” and it turned out that the “National Treasure” was indeed just a “nice bowl” (p.120). This is the farthest stretch I think I’ve ever seen. Now to compare that to something that has great interactivity and a great story line, I bring in Mass Effect. This is a series of games that tailors to the customer’s needs. It has a great story line, one of which never deviates too far from a specific path; however it always ends up differently for different people. In the end you always fight the same enemy, however you’re allies might be different. A choice you made might have made one of your comrades’ die in an effort to help you and the rest of your team out. In the first game you might have left the intergalactic council to die, and in that case you create a new one. These are the type of powers a game or a book that is trying to implement interactivity should have. There should be proportional amount of different paths depending on how long the book/game is. However the things that you do during the game subtly create the story before you. Will you be a hard take no prisoners type of guy or a nice guy who always helps a person in need? If Cup of Death would have had only a few alternate endings than I would have gained more enjoyment out of it. With a book that was over 100 pages, I figured there would be more than 10 pages that I would be reading to get to a conclusion.

When we do a more side by side comparison of the two things, we must remember to consider that this book is written for children and Mass Effect is developed for more teenagers and young adults. The interactivity in Cup of Death is one that you make big decisions and then there is an ending based on each different route you take. Thus there is a ton of different endings. This is where a video game has an advantage. Since, in a video game, you are not constantly flipping through pages, you are able to write the code in a way where the reader does not get confused if multiple decision paths can take you to a relative same ending. However I feel as though, if a book was able to make adjustments like this and have smaller decisions to make and intertwine multiple answers to a smaller amount of destiny paths, the novel would become more enjoyable. As I said, there needs to be a few different endings, otherwise people will get mad that all their decisions lead them to the same ending. Cup of Death over did this, instead of leaning on the side of caution and having only four or five main endings, they created too many endings and the interactivity got lost. Compare this to Mass Effect which usually has a few different endings, but different things that happen along the way to the ending depend upon your choices. This is what made this game so popular, in fact, in the most recent edition of this game (Mass Effect 3), the ending was subpar and only featured a limited number of real ending. This outraged the masses, to which BBC did an article on it. During the article one man had this to say, "All these choices you make and you get a choice of three different endings which are exactly the same, minus a couple of tweaks here and there." This game takes over 25 hours to beat which is why some people even expected there to be “16 different endings”.

The other thing that really lacked in a Cup of Death was the story line itself. The stories need to follow one main idea and follow it to the end, or multiple endings close together on a spectrum. However like I stated above, Cup of Death’s endings were too far away from each other and seemed sometimes silly. The writers of books like this one, need to keep in mind that you can’t sacrifice good writing for interactivity because they go hand in hand. In Mass Effect the story line is a compelling one, that the interactivity helps to draw you into it. This is how it should work in a book also, if we take away the interactivity and follow just one destiny path, we should still think the book is an amazing book. The interactivity is just a tool that is used to help the reader (player in video games) become more involved in the story and actually believe that he is the main character.

If we were able to create a book today that mimics the interactivity of a video game like Mass Effect, it would have to do a few things correctly. It would be nice if you could create your own background and your character through a few options at the beginning. This might make the book a bit bigger, but it would add to the concept of I’m actually playing this game. Then they would have to add a point system that would keep track of where your character stands morally and on different issues. So say you answer a question being a nice person, you would say only get one point, but if you answered it like a jerk, you would receive 4 points. The reader would have to keep track of his points, and when there came to the end of a chapter or a break in the story line a little bit they would check their score and see where they would be going next. Then the book would have to have a good ratio of endings to time it takes to actually complete the book. This would cut down on the desire by some authors to just make a ton of different endings for a book that takes 10 minutes to read. It would also help authors not fall into the same trap that the developers of Mass Effect 3 fell into where there was not enough endings. These are the main ways that a book like Cup of Death can become a true interactive playground for those reading it, rather than an illusion of interactivity.

A child might be fascinated with this book, however if a writer was creating a book for an adult that was going to be interactive, they would need to rethink their strategy. There would have to be a ton of different things you can do, however the outcomes need to be relatively near the same thing. This way the writer can still control the plot and make sure that the plot doesn’t just degrade into something where you have no clue how you’ve gotten there. Book writers can take a lesson from the video game industry, as we see them getting more creative and engaging the consumer, we still see the same old types of books. Sit there and try to read through this and every once in a while a great writer comes along that captures our attention where we don’t fall asleep half way through the book. Interactivity could be an amazing revolution in the book industry, but it will only become a revolution if it is done the proper way.


(Mass Effect 3, Time to Beat)


(Mass Effect campaign demands new ending to series)


1 comment:

Adam said...

I think defining true or worthwhile interactivity through "the small things," as you do here, is a perfectly worthwhile approach. Causes, even small ones, should have effects (I think it's Brian who in his revision talks about this in relationship with the butterfly effect).

But, while I appreciate the complexity of writing articulately about the path a video game takes to its ending - you'd need to spent some time playing and taking screen shots, etc., to make it work - it bothers me greatly that you approach Mass Effect's interactivity *solely* through broad generalizations. You do absolutely nothing to show us how the small choices matter, or to (even more boldly) try to explain how *much* they matter - you just tell us that they matter, and leave it at that.

One thing you seem to center on - and it's interesting, if underdeveloped - is that Gilligan is focused on big changes and Mass Effect on small ones. While intuitively I think I can understand why you'd find that true interactivity comes with small changes and small effects, I think you could do a lot more to explain it.

You spend too much time focusing on ways in which Cup of Death is bad. While that might be true, if your argument is about interactivity as such, the quality of the work you're less interested in just doesn't seem terribly relevant to me.

The discussion of the point system is kind of a tangent, but one that could be developed into an argument. If you'd discussed this with me in advance, I would have directed you to look at the Lone Wolf books, or the Fighting Fantasy books, which do this kind of thing in a limited way (although the statistics have to do with combat rather than morality, which seems to your real area of interesting.

You have interesting ideas here - large vs. small changes stands out, as does, in a different way, the point system - but a fundamental flaw remains. As an essay about Mass Effect, this is not effective. Your discussion about it remains on a wholly general level, more as a fan than as an analyst. To follow your argument (I think I only understand it at all because I've played through some Bioware games myself), and to accept it, you would need to work through the nature of cause and effect in the game in *real* detail. It would be hard work - surely several hours of effort, possibly more - to play through even a small part of the game and think about its consequences (or you could try to do so through forums or faqs - unconventional but possibly effective) but for this to really work well as a coherent argument which doesn't rely massively on generalizations, that's what you needed to do. There simply isn't enough here, especially about Mass Effect itself, for it to be highly effective.