Special: Interactive Drama

A BRIEF HISTORY

Interactive Drama (ID) focus on narrative features and are not properly interactive movies. To define the genre, we have to start from its origins that are well represented by the famous arcade game Dragon’s Lair (1983), an interactive animated film in Disney style recorded on laserdisc.

Gameplay is based upon the so-called Quick Time Events (QTE): the movie is formed by several segments, in certain moments the player has to impart  quick commands to Dirk the Knight: left, right, up, down, jump, use the sword; right choices activate the next movie segment , bad choices lead to game over. It wasn’t the only title on laserdisc but it is certainly the most famous.
To experience games similar to movies at home, and not in arcade rooms, it needs the advent of CD-ROM, 10 years later. Some titles of the 90’s take advantage of FMV (Full Motion Video), real movie segments with real actors; but production, script, acting and filmmaking are really poor, quality is less than a TV show. QTE are integrated in the graphic adventures “point and click” gameplay; the player can move his avatar by one click and interact with objects in the static scenarios, which are photographed and rendered or simply drawn. FMV are used as cut scenes and are activated during the multi-choice dialogues. Developers experimented with alternative endings following the player’s choices, but these innovations were very limited by the small storage capacity of CD-ROM. Typical examples of this genre are The 7th Guest (1993) Phantasmagoria (1995) and Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within (1995). Playing these titles today is really a weird experience!

An Outsider: The Last Express (1997)

From Prince of Persia creator, Jordan Mechner, it’s a milestone in game narration reminescent of The Maltese Falcon (1941) by John Huston. A wonderful Art Deco stylized graphic adventure and cinematic spy story set during the First World War; just like the movie, it’s a pessimistic reflection about human greed inevitably leading to mutual and racial hatred and therefore to war. Unforgettable characters, charming atmosphere and some gameplay innovations make it a masterpiece. However, for today players experience may result difficult and limited because of  semi-animation, point&click step motion and not so easy puzzles. Player take on the role of an american guy who accepts an invite by a friend to join him on the Orient Express, days before the start of World War I, only to become involved in a maelstrom of treachery, lies, political conspiracies, personal interests, romance and murder, upon boarding the train. The game is unique in how it was created, in its non-linear story, and in how events in the game are conducted within real-time. Events within the game are scripted and thus occur at specific times denoted by the in-game clock . When on the pause menu, the player can rewind time, either to a specific point, or to a specific destination on the express’ route; you can also fast forward to a later time, up until the current point in the story.

The game’s story features around thirty characters, each of whom has their own AI and individual agendas; as such they conduct actions that allow them to complete their own personal goals, only changing their plans due to player intervention. The game uses a non-linear approach to story-telling, in which the player’s actions affect how the story plays out; the great number of events led to the script being around 800 pages long!!!

The game’s story features multiple endings, depending on the player’s actions. Around thirty of these are game overs, involving the main character being killed or arrested. Four are alternate endings, with only one of these being the “true” ending. Remastered for PC and mobile devices in 2013, but the porting is questionable.

The Shenmue Revolution

Later DVD advent and technological evolution of computer graphics opened enormous possibilities. 3D third person action adventure Shenmue (1999) focuses on story and makes a massive use of dialogues, cut scenes and quick time events filmed entirely in computer graphics, so that it can be considered the precursor of modern Interactive Drama. It’s a seminal open world game ahead of its time that heavily influenced the narrative and expressive evolution of Video Games. Interactive Drama by Telltale and Quantic Dream, and even open world games like GTAIII, Mafia and Yakuza series, Deadly Premonition, etc. are all influenced by Shenmue. For a complete review see here.

Rising of Quantic Dream: FAHRENHEIT

Fahrenheit aka Indigo Prophecy (2005) was developed by David Cage‘s Quantic Dream and released for PS2 and XBOX and later remastered for PC. It is an early example of interactive drama in the noir genre able to offer a complete cinematographic experience.

In some stages you can move your avatar in third person view and explore limited spaces (rooms, shops, city streets, etc.). Melee combats and multi-choice dialogues make use of QTEs. The range of actions that players can perform during QTEs expands enormously, not only right, left, up, down and click, but more composite movements, suggested by superimposed icons. Actions like opening doors, sitting down, having a drink, kneeling, collecting and examining evidences, etc. they require more sensitive and composite action on your controller,  such to increase interactivity so much.
Cinematographic experience is guaranteed by shots, zoom and fluid movements of the virtual camera, in addition to the high graphic realism (in 2005) granted by the advanced Motion Capture (MC) techniques. Characters are real actors virtualized by MC!
Your actions will influence secondary narrative events; primary plot remains unchanged, except three different endings, which are activated by a combination of player’s choices in the last chapter.
Successes and failures affect your mental sanity, measured by an icon on the User Interface (UI); you can dangerously alter your mental stability (depression, nervousness, etc.) and end up committing suicide or to kill someone for no reason. Sometimes you can take control of different characters in the same scene; you are not always playing the same character but 4 different characters.
It was a lavish production in 2005, crowned by Angelo Badalamenti musics, the same soundtracks composer of Brian De Palma and David Lynch movies, e.g. Twin Peaks Theme!

Cage borrows from Brian De Palma the split screen technique, showing simultaneously different scenes or the same scene from different POV, an idea recycled five years later in Heavy Rain. Despite these phenomenal features and innovations, Fahrenheit fails quality of story, which in this kind of games is a decisive factor. The plot has a great and long opening, but in the end it becomes rather incoherent, awkward, implausible and sometimes laughable, so much to look like a B-movie! The need to impress players with supernatural phenomena and  QTE-based fights  takes over consistency, storytelling, atmosphere and artistic direction. QTEs are abused, a lot of actions could be done in real time by your avatar, no need of cut scenes and QTEs in several situations. Graphic interface of QTE is not very effective, making them really hard sometime. Fahrenheit is a work that reaches the highest technical results, showing passion for cinema and a great desire to experiment, but also a lot of immaturity and naivete. However it has strongly influenced later interactive drama such as The Walking Dead by Telltale Games.

HEAVY RAIN

Heavy Rain is another interactive drama in the noir genre, this time without supernatural elements, released in 2010 exclusively for PS3, 5 years after Fahrenheit. From a technical point of view, we are facing a milestone. Textures, graphic details and animations are amazing; realism of characters faces and movements leaves you astonished still today, especially in the remastered edition for PS4. It ‘s incredible how your avatar responds with extreme sensitivity to controller inputs, so that playing trivial actions such as drinking water, brushing your teeth, getting out of bed or a chair, opening doors, putting the car in motion etc. , it becomes a real pleasure; you can feel a sense of immersion and identification with your own avatar never experienced before in a video game, thanks to an innovative motion capture technique that David Cage has used to reproduce actors facial expressions and movements in the smallest details. Interactive narration makes a great leap forward!

Aesthetics are equally excellent: crepuscular light, autumn and winter colors, metropolitan environments, incessant rain, leaden atmosphere, dramatic soundtrack, etc. Everything is made with an extraordinary realism and excellent directing worthy of a modern film noir. Game mechanics are the same as Fahrenheit, but brought to a higher degree: QTE, multi-choice dialogues, control of several characters, free exploration and investigation in third person view. From the technical point of view the only flaw is the cumbersome control system: to move your avatar you have to hold the right trigger and choose the direction with the left stick (similar to Shenmue). Virtual camera has an automatic motion that ensures a good cinematographic effect even in real time gameplay. A very innovative feature is the ability to hear and visualize the thoughts of your avatar, represented by words that hover around their heads and can selected by clicking the suggested controller buttons; the same thing happens for the dialogue options, avoiding the encumbrance of the UI. The trick of the fluttering words was used for the first time by The Path (2009) but with no interactivity. I know for sure that it was later used in The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter (2014), the amazing graphic adventure of the Polish development team The Astronauts.

All the features above makes the experience tremendously interactive and engaging; the feeling of being in a movie is very strong. Investigations conducted by young FBI detective Norman Jayden are very pleasant; he uses augmented reality goggles and a glove equipped with sensors to analyze the environment, track down clues and reconstruct events.
The high-level acting is guaranteed by a faultless cast supported by a production even more pharaonic than the previous one (see Fahrenheit).
Defects are all concentrated in the plot and in the way it is told. The plot is a classic whodunit: who is the “origami” killer, whose victims are children? Unfortunately it suffers from some exaggerations and inconsistencies; certain actions of the protagonists are unfounded, only aimed at creating unjustified dramatic moments full of tension and surprise. Consistency of plot is sacrified to weird and unmotivated challenges, further proof of incompatibility between storytelling and challenges (see here).  Fragmentation into chapters and too many alternative and interchanging sequences does not help, because each segment has its own internal consistency, but taken together, the pieces of the puzzle do not fit very nicely! If you are accustomed to the detective genre, you will discover the killer’s name in the middle of the game, but until the end you are hoping to be wrong, because your suspicion involves a lot of inconsistencies!

Luckily this time Cage avoids falling into the supernatural banality of Fahrenheit; HR is not a narrative masterpiece but cannot be classified as a B-movie. If you overlook the inconsistencies, some stupid challenges and the narrative hazards, after all the experience remains compelling and intriguing untill the end, when you realize to have played something unique and special.
HR comes with a huge number of alternatives and ending scenes, too many. Their activation depends on your actions, the outcomes of your investigations and explorations, your ability in QTEs and puzzles solving. Although the basic layout of the plot is not changed, the variety of alternative scenes and multiple endings is remarkable. This is an excessive production effort causing a lot of flaws. In fact it can happen that some narrative junctions come into contradiction with the previous ones. Developers have chosen to sacrifice the plot coherence in the name of replayability and variety.

We can learn lessons from HR: developing so many alternative scenes is a waste of time and resources to the detriment of storytelling and expression of contents. This is an example of gamification of stories aka chose-your-own-story entertainment. It’s a wrong approach for  meaningful narrative and expressive  purposes. If you want to tell deep, mature and compelling stories, you have to put care, time and resources in one main plot; at most you can introduce minor variations, but without losing consistency and expressive purposes. Interactive narration is not the same of chose-your-own-story, that’s a misunderstading of interactivity applied to storytelling. Narration becomes interactive when player is immersed in story,  is moving story forward in real time, is protagonist of the story. He feel himself as the engine of the story, the main force moving the flux of events forward; It’s a matter of sensation, illusion; yes, illusion, because art is illusion! Developers could introduce some minor variation depending on the choices of the player, but without disrupting and sacrificing their expressive intents. To let the player do all that he wants to do, it’s an hedonistic and egocentric approach disrupting transmission of contents; it’s not compatible with expressive art!

Rising of Telltale: THE WALKING DEAD 1 & THE WOLF AMONG US

It’s useful to make a comparison with other interactive dramas, like the ones by Telltale Games, the development team of The Walking Dead 1 (2012) and The Wolf Among Us (2013). They are until today (January 2018) Telltale best works, respectively in the horror and fantasy-noir genre.

Game mechanics are apparently similar to Quantic Dream ones: QTE, multi-choice dialogues, control of several characters, exploration and free investigation in third person view. Telltale drama are divided into episodes published at intervals of about one month or two, such as TV series; Telltale titles, unlike Quantic Dream ones, do not aim to mimic the big screen experience, “seventh art” is not among the ambitions of the development team. It’s also a matter of budget: David Cage productions are always monumental, using the most advanced technical tools such as motion capture to chase the best cinematographic realism. Instead, Telltale productions have low or mid budgets; proprietary graphics engine (Telltale Tool) is not so performing; they use 3D animations with cell shading technique resulting in graphic novel aesthetics .
From the technical point of view the comparison is infamous, Quantic Dream is unattainable.

Telltale takes its revenge in storytelling and contents.
The above titles stand for original, engaging and meaningful storytelling, full of humanity, pathos and sociological and existential implications. Narration is smart, coherent, compelling and well built; it focuses on the interpersonal relationships between the characters, their psychology, their inner dimension, creating a powerful and metaphorical collective human drama. Multiple-choice dialogues do the lion’s share; interpersonal relationships can be changed to a certain extent depending on the dialogue choices. You can create friendship or enmity, love or hate; it is up to you determining, although indirectly and not always in a controlled way, who will die or survive, who will be the good or the bad guy, who will turn away from you or who will follow you; sometimes even some gestures or negligible actions will make the difference with unpredictable consequences. But even in this case you can not affect the main plot, but only secondary narrative outcomes.

Telltale titles do not have the great number of scenes and alternative endings such as Heavy Rain, but give you the feeling that your choices are more decisive and have deeper consequences. They represent one of those rare cases where the production limits are overcome by an intelligent use of the few resources available. In HR you have a great number of choices and alternative endings that do not add substance to the drama, on the contrary they introduces inconsistency to the detriment of immersion. Instead, even the small choices available in Telltale’s drama have a big emotional impact, taking you into anxiety, insinuating a thousand doubts; you are always put in front of difficult choices and you can never predict the least painful. Such choices affect your loved ones and your own survival chances within the virtual world; you experience every little consequence with great emotional transport. Players choices do not introduce incoherence, there are no weird challenges sacrificing story to entertainment. Interactivity acquires another dimension, more complex, more closely linked to storytelling and contents; in opposition to Quantic Dream titles privileging action, challenges and gamification of story.
The interactive experiences offered by the two development teams are very different, so it makes no sense to proclaim a winner, the flaws of one are the trump cards of the other one, so both deserve to be played.
The ideal would be a game with the techniques and cinematographic form of Cage’s titles and the storytelling and contents of Telltale’s!

Now let’s give a quick look at other interesting titles.

BEYOND: TWO SOULS

Released in 2013 by Quantic Dream, BTS is an overlooked game for sure. It tells the story of a special girl named Jodie, following her life since birth to adulthood. She has the gift, or the curse, depending by the point of view, to be bond to an incorporeal and invisible entity named Aiden. Since her birth, she is showing supernatural powers through her psychic link to Aiden, growing from adolescence to adulthood while learning to control Aiden and the powers they share. Since her childhood, she is helped by doctor Nathan Dawkins, a researcher in the Department of Paranormal Activity and Jodie’s surrogate-father-figure. One day CIA goes knocking on Dr. Dawkins’s door to put the fantastic powers of Jodie at its own service…

BTS is appreciable for well integrated storytelling and  gameplay, avoiding inchoerences, absurd situations and silly challenges typical of Heavy Rain.
It’s able to give you a smart and high quality entertainment you shouldn’t miss! It comes with peculiar gameplay: you can switch from Jodie to Aiden with a click. When you are Jodie, you have a third person view; when you are Aiden, you have a first person view, looking at the world through a sort of mystical haze; you can fly through walls and people and you can move and throw objects, giving birth to typical paranormal phenomena; and, yes, you can take possession of other human being!  You can also play in coop mode, with a friend controlling Aiden.

BTS is a mix of interactive drama and 3D action adventure, not the usual interactive movie. When you are Jodie, you are not facing only the usual QTE and multiple choice dialogues; sometimes you are also facing more traditional action challenges, even fighting and shooting in a 3D environment! It’s not good to put everywhere weapons and fightings, but it’s good to have different game mechanics in the same game. You’re not controlling a whatsoever avatar, you are controlling the motion captured actress Ellen Page, the beautiful Kitty Pride in X-Men movies and Ariadne, the graduate student of architecture in Inception by C. Nolan! And you are not interacting with whatsoever characters, your surrogate father figure is the motion captured actor Willem Dafoe (the Green Follet in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman)!

I particularly loved the not linear storytelling; it doesn’t follow the time line of Jodie’s life but goes on jumping and alternating episodes from childhood to adulthood. I liked so much the chapter set at Jodie’s home; it’s good in a narrative game to deepen the more personal and human aspects of characters. There are also a few alternative scenes and endings, but not so many and not conflicting each other as in Heavy Rain. By the way, contents and narrative consistency of some episodes are light and questionable, e.g. the episode of the Navajo’s curse. Sometimes D. Cage yields to a superficial Hollywood-like writing.

BTS shows the way for better implementation of narration in gameplay: multiple avatars, alternation of third and first person view, decrease of challenges and QTE, major focus on narration and characters, varied game mechanics (traditional fight, shoot and stealth mechanics, flying in the air, riding horses, multi-choice dialogues, taking possession of people, creating paranormal phenomena, complex interactions through peculiar controller moves like in Heavy Rain, etc.), taking care of human and personal aspects of characters, not linear plot, varied situations scenarios and contexts, several characters with deep psychologies etc.  It’s better to pay attention to such narrative aspects than to waste resources and time in a lot of unnecessary alternative scenes and silly challenges.

For extented review, see here

LIFE IS STRANGE

It was developed by French team DontnoD and released in 2015 using the same Telltale’s policy: five episodes of about 3 hours published at intervals of 1 or 2 months. It implements the same features of Telltale’s drama but in a more refined way: textures are hand-drawn with a beautiful watercolor effect and actors are filmed in Motion Capture. It introduces the exciting game mechanic of time rewind, giving rise to really smart narrative implications and high interactivity and immersion. Multiple choice dialogues are at the-state-of-art. Construction of storytelling is really complex and excellent, the best in the genre so far. LIS approaches deep themes about adolescence and lost of innocence with great sensibility and particular care of protagonists. We cannot say the same for its unnecessary prequel, Before The Storm (2017), developed by Deck Nine on behalf of Square Enix; just a commercial speculation.

You can find a deeper analisys of LIS here.

UNTIL DAWN

It was developed by Supermassive Games in 2015 on behalf of Sony Entertainment as PS4 exclusive. It’s a very rich production, just as Quantic Dream’s, but has not the same cinematographic appeal, it’s more like a TV production; a matter of film direction, not good as David Cage’s. However the “packaging” is really attractive and well made, from a technical point of view the quality is very high, ten times the quality of the Dark Anthology episodes from the same developers. UD is an  interactive horror movie, very funny and worth to be played if you like horror with not too much intellectual aims. Do not expect for a masterpiece; it’s just funny, aimed at pure entertainment, but atmosphere is very good. Story is good but linear and not so original; it has no expressive purposes, except for the characterization of the protagonists. They are teens, unpleasant, silly and forgettable just like their conversations; the antipathy of the developers towards a certain kind of American teens is blatant! In the cast stands out Rami Malek, before becoming a celebrity in the shoes of Freddie Mercury in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). UD is something similar to horror movies for teenagers, just as I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), but with a TV series “flavouring”. It comes with a lot of alternative scenes and endings, but the only differences are the numbers of victims and the way they die, plus a bonus ending.

The ingenious use of the Dualshock sensors for additional control of avatars is worth of a mention. Avatars-players interfacing is a major issue for narrative games. The goal is to have total and easy control of avatars, allowing for a lot of refined actions and interactions with the environment. It makes easier to immerse in story, so every further step in such direction is welcome.

1979 REVOLUTION: BLACK FRIDAY

Title characterized by a mature approach to the interactive medium, developed by InkStories and released in 2016. It’s the reconstruction of the iranian revolution of the late’ 70s in the form of interactive drama with high historiographical value.
The innovation is not in game mechanics, which are borrowed from Telltale 3D third person interactive novels, but in how these mechanics are combined with serious contents, psychological depth and historical accuracy.

Your avatar is a young iranian photoreporter; you share doubts, contradictions, dangers, anguish, terror and pain about an event larger than life, which finds him inevitably unprepared and changes his life forever regardless of his will. The main plot is about the personal drama experienced by the photoreporter, the memories of his childhood, his complex family relationships and his hard experience in prison, where torture is commonplace.

1979 Revolution is a collective drama that combines beautifully micro and macro history. Prepare to face a deep experience of universal value, a reflection about History, about social, political and economic dimensions: dimensions that, locked in our blind individualism, in our small courtyard, we tend to underestimate and ignore, but which at any moment may invest and devastate our daily lives and our certainties with the force of tsunami.
The pleasant graphic novel aesthetics will bring you among people, palaces and streets of iranian cities, getting closer to a world we perceive so far and different because of our outdated mental images, full of prejudices and distorted by media; a world that instead it is quite similar to ours, inhabitated by people like us.
We will have opportunity to attend important historical mass events, to hear the words and feel the strong influence of charismatic leaders immortalized by mass media of the time, such as Ayatollah Khomeini.
Our main task is to take photos, each of which will be the starting point for a deep historical study, without making the game didascalic as a documentary.
In conclusion an adult game, a must for videogames art lovers; the writer is the same Richard Pearsey who wrote F.E.A.R., SpecOps: The Line and Resident Evil 7.

For a deeper review, see here

DETROIT: BECOME HUMAN

Detroit is the latest interactive drama from Quantic Dream (2018). Let’s say right away that it has the best story so far in comparison to the previous titles of the French software house. At its core it has meaningful contents expressed through coherent screenplay. Detroit is the sci-fi transfiguration of a story of discrimination, social segregation, slavery, fear of diversity; victims are not black people, Native Americans, Mexicans etc. but evolved androids very similar to humans. Developers show androids as the slaves of the future, their purpose isn’t to write realistic and scientific plot about machines and AI. Sci-fi suggestions remain in the background; David Cage chooses romantic, imaginative, allegorical, metaphorical approach. Theme of the deviants is typical of sci-fi literature and cinema, movies like Blade Runner have similar approach. In Detroit we follow the stories of three main characters, the three androids Kara, Markus and Connor; their stories will somehow intersect and influence each other, but for most of the time they can be experienced as three parallel stories in their own right.

Two highlight scenes provide the expressive measure of Detroit. The descent-ascent of Markus from “hell”, a junkyard of broken androids, is very suggestive, meaningful, metaphorical; it makes us understand that androids were considered pieces of plastic and treated as waste; it also expresses Markus’ path towards rebirth, revenge and freedom. It is not a scene that wants to be realistic and plausible, it would not make sense to throw androids in that way, leaving them “alive”, without recycling components and materials. It has to be interpreted as poetic and metaphorical narration. Realism at all costs is not always the best choice; it depends, authorial choices like this one are certainly effective, they provide story with the right allegorical sense. The best time in Detroit is probably the sequence of the March for Freedom. In the shoes of Markus we conduct a protest march while gradually recruiting followers; with the exception of a very short cut scene, the sequence is all in real time and manages to immerse the player in the virtual context and make him feel all the emotions of the moment!

This scene makes us think once again about the greatest limit of interactive drama: excess of cut scenes and QTE breaking the continuity of gameplay. Avatar’s control should be as much as possible in the hands of players. Many actions should be done in real time by players, without relying on cut scenes or QTEs that interrupt interactivity. Cut scenes are fine when you want to underline specific movie-like expressions of actors, but without abusing it; it’s okay to mix the two media, but better not to overdo it.

For example, there is a scene where Markus has to paint a white canvas for showing his artistic inner nature; player should have complete control in real time of the brush in his hand, no need of cut scenes and QTEs here, but just of scripted sequence aimed at drawing; player should move Markus’ hand without interruption of gameplay by continuosly swiping his finger on the touch pad just like a brush. On the contrary, you use the touchpad just for triggering QTEs. Another example: when Markus has to climb the walls of the junkyard, it has no sense to use QTEs by pressing sequences of keys; player should be able to control avatar in real time as in standard action games and climb the walls just as in Assassin’s Creed. The same principle of “free action” should be adopted in urban guerrilla sequences; at most you would use scripted and well-defined paths for players to proceed properly. What’s the point of cut scenes that show avatar running, when player can run on his own just as in any action game? It is full of such examples; e.g.  a cut scene shows Kara entering the bus: useless, entering the bus it is something that player can do on his own very well without interrupting gameplay.

Nevertheless Detroit cannot be defined interactive cinema, it would be a reductive label; we have complete avatar control when exploring the game world and solving environmental puzzles There are also many action sequences where interactivity is quite high, for example in the urban guerrilla we give orders and outline attack strategies; multiple choice dialogues or the different narrative junctions depending on player’s choices are examples of commendable interactivity. In some cases QTEs can be precious; they should be just one of the many interactive solutions, but not the only one. Before the release of Detroit I was hoping Quantic Dream to take an evolutionary step forward by integrating QTEs with real time innovative mechanics. With Beyond: Two Souls, David Cage gave positive signals introducing interesting real time mechanics, Detroit shows a bit of involution. Beyond offers the opportunity to interchange two characters in real time: a third-person view avatar, Jodie, coming with “free” mechanics in the action sequences; and a ghost in first person view, Aiden, able to float and move in 3D space, go through walls, take possession of people, trigger off phenomena of telekinesis, etc. In short, Beyond shows richer interactive mechanics. In Detroit, interaction is weaker, cut scenes and QTEs overwhelm real time mechanics; a ratio that should be turned upside down in favor of the fluidity and continuity of gameplay. Contemporary games as Edit Finch show that interactive narration can be achieved with no use of cut scenes and no interruption of gameplay.

However David Cage in Detroit has managed to pack a much more consistent story despite the many multiple endings and the many alternative scenes intersecting each other, depending on the player’s choices and actions. A few scenes are questionable: what’s the point to interrogate the deviant android in order to discover what he did, when you can examine his memory just like a computer? No sense! By the way, this time Cage did not succumb to the temptation to build silly challenges for challenges sake at the expense of plausibility of plot, a mistake made especially in Heavy Rain. On the contrary challenges arise from the narrated events and integrate quite naturally with them. Good job!

The principle of “gamification” of story is always true: the more you “gamifie” story by means of an excess of alternative scenes, the more difficult it is to write screenplays really deep, meaningful, original, unusual, etc. Gamification tends to segment the story, to fragment it, and each fragment is like a piece of a puzzle that has to match the others; so it places severe constraints on the composition and writing of the single piece and on the way the global picture comes out. This is why the plot of DBH eventually moves without excessive originality and depth. Too many alternative scenes! Indeed it is a true miracle that quality level remains fairly high, above the average of many titles; without reaching the level of masterpiece, Detroit has decent narrative and expressive features. It’s not particularly original, you feel like you’ve seen it before; plot, relationships, contents etc. everything is a bit linear but coherent. After all, this is still a mainstream product, but it achieves a good appreciable compromise, so that I highly recommend it.

TWIN MIRROR

In December 2020 Dontnod churns out a real gem; while not reaching the innovation of LIS1, TM stands out for convincing narrative cohesion and depth and maturity of contents. For the first time, an ID by Dontnod is released in a single solution, no longer fragmented into episodes. In comparison, the two previous Dontnod’s IDs (LIS2 and Tell Me Why) looks like mass-produced titles, a collection of clichés; they repropose the same features of the first LIS but with less or fluctuating inspiration. Luckily TM moves away from those models. It has very little to do with Twin Peaks, aside from the word Twin and the setting in an American provincial town; nevertheless there is a piece of the soundtrack, Daddy, which is a tribute to the “sick” atmospheres of Lynch’s movies. All the soundtrack is worth of your attention. I found greater affinity with Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski) and with games like The Wolf Among Us (2013 Telltale) and Deadly Premonition (2010, Swery65). In the shoes of investigative reporter Sam, you interact with the game world and its inhabitants through the usual mechanics of IDs. Multiple choice dialogues are divinely written and are the core of the experience from which a dense network of emotions, moods, relationships, atmospheres and existential reflections unravel. Free exploration of environments and the ability to observe and examine objects and people through the thoughts of the protagonist are fundamental interactive mechanics that allows you to identify with Sam and immerse in the game world. They are flanked by two peculiar and pleasant mechanics. The first one is the mental reconstruction of crime scenes following collection of clues and environmental analysis; a mechanic that we can find in other investigative titles such as the Batman series (Rocksteady) or The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (2014, The Astronauts) or Remember Me (2013, action adventure, first game by Dontnod). The second one is the so-called Mind Palace, a technique for mind concentration and organization of thoughts and memories, a sort of inner self-discipline that fans of the Sherlock Holmes TV series know very well. Every time you enter the Mind Palace, Sam ends up in a surreal and dreamlike parallel reality located in his mind that recalls the limbo where Max gets lost in the last episode of LIS1; here Sam can access memories or confront his DoubleHim.

One of the peculiarities of the game is the physical presence of such alter-ego, who acts as Sam’s companion; only Sam can see and hear Him because he is the product of his mind. Him is a positive character, he constantly dispenses advices and helps Sam to face the difficult and dangerous investigation. At the same time he is the tangible manifestation of the inner conflict that torments Sam’s conscience to the point of making him sometimes fragile and insecure. Precisely because of this inner conflict, on a few but significant occasions action goes in stand by and you’re called to take crucial decisions, another mechanic typical of IDs starting from the seminal The Walking Dead Season 1. In TM the alternative endings are by no means a simple diversion; taken as a whole they become a powerful expressive tool! The two opposite endings (I’m not considering a few minor variations) are two sides of the same coin: each of them concretizes each of the opposing worldviews competing for Sam’s consciousness; in other words, they project the opposite poles of Sam’s personality into reality and show two complementary ways of dealing with the world. But the message is only one, and it is very harsh, it exposes hypocrisy and conformity of our daily lives, and it is greatly amplified by the two apparently antithetical endings. Cynical, ruthless but absolutely brilliant!

To my great joy Dontnod has raised the bar. And when you raise the bar, you have to take into account that you limit the audience that can appreciate your work, especially in gaming. That’s ok, you need the approval of competent audience, eventually the others will follow. We need to tear down invisible walls in the gaming market, honor and glory to Dontnod for the courage to propose an artwork with no compromises! Finally no superpowers, no metaphorical fairy tales, no puzzles for challenges sake! The main protagonists, with only one exception, are no less than 30-40 years old! Aaah, it was time for Dontnod to break away from teenagers and target more mature gamers. Under the well-tailored dress of an investigative thriller it lies an existential drama that makes us reflect deeply on the individual-society relationship, on the relationships we establish with places and people around us. I believe that many people my age (in the advanced forties) have at least once faced the existential dilemma that grips Sam’s conscience and whose extremes are beautifully eviscerated by the two endings. As Dante Alighieri writes in the Divine Comedy: “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”, a verse that is well suited to Samuel Higgs! Troubled relationships, guilt, sad memories from the past, the provincial town in decay, all this combine to create a dramatic, dark, melancholic atmosphere. The real investigation takes place on an existential and psychological level; it accompanies us on an immersive trip into the individual and collective unconscious, a journey as suggestive and enchanting as its conclusion is hard and disillusioned. It is an x-ray of individual and collective behavior. The existential thoughts are deep, sharp, adult and without discounts. Again Dante Alighieri: “Through me the way is to the city dolent; through me the way is to eternal dole; through me the way among the people lost. All hope abandon, ye who enter in!

Story, characters and contents come from the heart and mind of the authors, conveying a sincere and heartfelt authorial vision, no matter how uncomfortable it is. With TM authors go beyond the previous IDs, they dig deeper, touch on universal and timeless themes; and in my opinion they do it with greater sincerity, without suspicion of pleasing the majority or creating mediatic echo. On the contrary, I believe that the dramatic reflection on humanity is crude, visceral, nonconformist and not at all populist and demagogic. Playing TM is like reflecting on a piece of real life, a sort of anthropological and psychological study of social behavior. There is more. TM provides realistic and convincing portrait of a small town in the American province after the collapse of the economy based on coal mining. Although Basswood is a fictional town in West Virginia, it is an excellent representation of the real situation of many towns in the American province, as also evidenced by the indie game Night In The Woods (2017, Infinite Fall). I particularly appreciated the focus on the lives of miners before and after the collapse of the economy; some dialogues on the subject turn out to be an interesting lesson in political history. I believe that TM brings the authorial anxieties that animate Dontnod’s works to the maximum degree of maturity. Once again the protagonists of the story, in particular Sam and the little girl Joan, are a sort of social outcasts; they do not integrate well into the community, they are misunderstood, excluded or kept on the sidelines, they do not conform to society, as consequence they challenge “the system”. Even if you stop at the surface, the game works well as crime thriller, because everything takes place within 24 hours; the events follow one after the other without letting their consequences become evident to the point of confusing or compromising the plot. Actions and choices of Sam and other characters are well motivated, logical, coherent, plausible; dialogues and thoughts are never out of place. Most of the characters are well-curated and psychologically detailed, the flawless acting completes the good job. It doesn’t come with the bombastic Hollywood style, it’s something more intimate and introspective. Perhaps TM would have needed better direction, more powerful images, more fascinating aesthetics, greater visual impact, higher technical quality, richer production . It would have been a true masterpiece! In conclusion, TM is a refined existential and psychological drama with peaks of sociological and political reflection. If I had to demonstrate to a skeptical and snobbish friend how video games have evolved and become a sophisticated and adult interactive narrative medium, I would have him play Twin Mirror. We are living in a magnificent era, step by step video games are approaching the heights of expressive storytelling. And TM is the empirical proof.

(Next game to add: Alfred Hitchcock – Vertigo by Pendulo Studios)

CONCLUSIONS

Interactive drama are aimed at a mature audience wider than hardcore gamers obsessed by challenges; you don’t need special skills for playing. They focus on story, characters and contents and tend to have a lot of realistic and rich scenarios, like movies. But they aren’t interactive movies, characters and scenarios are CGI; you can take control of motion captured actors embedded in virtual scenery and execute many interactive mechanics. Not to be confused with the new wave of narrative games such as What Remains Of Edith Finch, incorrectly called walking sims. The biggest difference lies in gameplay. Interactive Drama make use of a lot of cinematic scenes, multiple choice dialogues, QTE events, many alternative scenes and endings. On the contrary modern narrative games such as Edith Finch or Firewatch try to embed storytelling in ordinary 3D gameplay through real time narrative mechanics, coming with very few cut scenes or nothing at all; they show major care for aesthetics without the need of realistic scenarios or movies “flavoring”. Both the genres tend to go beyond challenges and focus on narration and contents.

I think that in the next future developers should try to create a fusion of such genres, with the following features:

  • telling stories more and more through gameplay and real time game mechanics instead of passive cut scenes interrupting player’s control; QTE and mulptiple choice dialogues are ok, but it’s better not to overdo.
  • extremely varied gameplay, mechanics and interactive contexts, all aimed at narration, relationships, life-like situations, contents;
  • richness of characters and scenarios;
  • going beyond challenges;
  • care for dialogues, aesthetics and contents;
  • major attention to main plot, avoiding too many alternative scenes not useful for expressing contents;
  • increasing interactivity and immersion through innovative narrative mechanics, scripted sequences, in-game AI (environmental AI and NPCs’ AI), creative use of controllers and player-avatar interfaces for executing refined actions;
  • multiple avatars;
  • alternation of first and third person view;
  • targeting wider mature audience and not only hardcore gamers.
  • VR could have a major role in the evolution of interactive narration.
Advertisement

12 thoughts on “Special: Interactive Drama

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.