Monday 22 October 2012

Reader / Character separation in an interactive comic

Fighting Fantasy gamebooks traditionally adopt a second person narrative mode. You are the hero, and you choose what happens next. This has meant that we get information only from the protagonists point of view. What if we played with this established convention? Would we break the magic gamebook formula?

There has of course been exploration of the subject, but most of this examines the scope for text based interactive fiction and does not fully explore the potential for visual storytelling techniques.

The videogames industry has been debating the pros and cons of first person versus third person camera for years, and there are certainly insights we could glean from their discussions, but mostly this centers on game mechanics and playability which is only partially relevant to the Mysterious Path project.

Mysterious Path will employ a comic book format and so already separates the reader's experience of the game world from the characters, as the 'camera' looks in on the action rather than through the eyes of the main character (although possible, a first person only view would be difficult to sustain). Therefore, Mysterious Path should seek to exploit and celebrate this separation in perception of reader and character to create a unique experience.

Well, that's the dream.

I have identified 3 narrative modes available for use in Mysterious Path (these modes already exist as literary/cinematic constructs, but what could they mean for the gamebook?).

The modes are:

1. Where the reader knows the same as the game character

Game character thinks: She seems like a nice girl
Reader thinks: She seems like a nice girl

The reader sees what the character sees (more or less). The reader knows what the character knows.
The reader is the character for all intents and purposes. This relationship between reader and character is direct and logical, we share the POV. This is as close as the comic book format will come to the gamebooks traditional 2nd person narrative mode.

2. Where the reader knows more than the game character

Game character thinks: She seems like a nice girl
Reader thinks: Don't smile at her, she's got a knife you fool!

In this mode the reader can see what the game character can't. The camera angle is providing the reader with extra visual information unavailable to the character.

So how can we use this device to improve the story/game experience? Here we are foreshadowing the relationship between the player character and the NPC. The reader is in on the secret, we sense things may not turn out the way our game character expects. In literary terms this is called dramatic irony.

This creates a problem for interactive stories. In our example, the 'extra' information will undoubtedly affect a reader's choices regarding any interactions with the NPC. We could address this by providing choices only consistent with the game characters point of view. This might be perceived by the reader as unfair/frustrating as the reader may feel unable to adequately respond to the situation, now he is burdened with superior knowledge to the game character.

There are lots of exciting applications of this narrative mode:

1) To misdirect the reader and play with his expectations by laying false clues to the nature of certain characters and locations (situational irony)

2) To expose the reader to information completely outside the game characters frame of reference to heighten tension/dramatic impact. For instance, the details of a plot exposed through dialog between shadowy figures back at the castle while the character is out on the quest.

3) To allow the control of multiple characters, enabling the reader to experience contrasting perspectives on the story's themes and issues. You could play both rival brothers on the same quest.

Could this layering of viewpoints, beyond the main characters, reduce our connection with the protagonist? Would we feel more observer than participant? Would it destroy our reader's belief that their decisions are affecting the story? User control is a core premise of the gamebook and we must be careful not to undermine it.

3. Where the reader knows less than the game character 

Game character thinks: You!? I'll cut you down
Reader thinks: She seems like a nice girl. What's going on!?

In this view the game character is alert to a danger the reader is not aware of. We are holding back information like an unreliable narrator. There is a hidden truth, deliberate omissions have been made in the narrative. There are no clues to the treacherous nature of the NPC, yet the main character is drawing his sword. The reader, hopefully, will ask 'Why?'

Here a back story is revealing itself. A mystery has been introduced. Have the characters met before? Why such hostility? What has happened between them? This could, if executed correctly, serve to deepen the readers engagement with the story and create a desire to unravel the mystery.

This could prove interesting when the reader is presented with the choice to either discover this hidden truth or stay to on track and complete the mission objective. Who is your quest's patron? Why do they want this artifact? Once the truth is out the information might influence the reader's future choices. It may make the reader question his past decisions (made without possession of the full facts). 

As neither a professional writer nor comic artist I am aware this post is rather simplistic. I am also aware that I have not fully explored the implications of these devices on gamebook mechanics. The best way to develop this thinking is to try it out. Watch this space.

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