Chungking Espresso

Benchmarking Fiction & Interactive Drama

Posted in Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on September 21, 2009

“Speaking in Djinni” spoke directly to my childhood self: I remember quite clearly, after seeing Disney’s Aladdin, pondering for hours how I would perfectly phrase my three wishes so as to maximize their potential and avoid fatal misunderstanding (I was terrified of the tale of Midas). Harrell relates the difference between human language, which vaguely describes phenomena in highly subjective ways, and the imperative languages of djinni and computers, which literally have the power to create but only produces satisfactory results when worded carefully and in the proper grammar. The argument that follows shows how the peculiarities and affordances of programming languages inform the software and development kits that are built upon them, which in turn constrain and guide the actions allowable within the artifacts constructed with those digital tools. This work can be seen as a direct antecedent of the work of Bogost and Montfort on creating the Platform Studies series for MIT Press.

“Benchmark Fictions” seems to be a relatively early work in comparative media studies; I say this because of its matching of a strong conceptual frame with a disappointing proof-of-concept executed in tedious early digital standbys such as wikis and chatbots. Benchmarking fiction takes its name from benchmarking software, which tests the performance of the computer hardware that runs it through a series of procedural pings. The prime directive is to separate the “content” of a literary work from its original printed or digital “form” in order to learn more about both through a series of procedural translations or adaptations. A major problem here seems to be that the authors quickly write off the suggestion that form and content really can’t be separated, just before they mangle a fairly revelatory short story by attempting a number of crude digital “adaptations” that have little or nothing to do with what or how the story means. They also note how the interaction models of games require novel forms of adaptation, but the best they can muster is a chatterbot that responds to pre-scripted questions with coy hints as to who is The Lady and who is The Tiger.

Mateas and Stern finally answer that final question for the authors of “Benchmark Fictions,” by recognizing the possible antagonism between interactivity and narrative before finding an out in Laurel’s work in interactive drama. Drama is an ideal model because it already involves actively constructing a “story” arc through acting. It also operates on a model of causally connected actions with a tight rising in tension. Mateas takes the Aristotelian hierarchy of drama and substitutes “character” for “user/player,” showing that in an interactive drama that player is the inferred formal cause of all meaning except the action/plot which undergirds the experience. We can see this at work in their Facade, a game that will always progress from introduction, to initial signs of unrest, to drinks, to open conflict, and finally to either a happy resolution or the player’s expulsion from the apartment. Yet within each of these major stages, procedural variation and player choice lead to a number of possible conversations and revelations.

Years before “Benchmark Fictions” had been written, two satisfactory procedural translations of complex source texts had already been undertaken. Chris Crawford left his job at Atari to create Balance of Power for the Apple II. The game allows the player to take on the role of lead negotiator either for the United States or the U.S.S.R.; the goal is to avert elevating tensions leading toward mutually-assured destruction. In fact, this game was Crawford’s interpretation of the memoirs of Henry Kissinger; while working under Nixon, Kissinger speculated that the U.S.S.R. would run out of fiscal security sometime during the 1980’s–the way to “win” the cold war was to survive until that occurred. Nixon and Kissinger embarked on a number of compromises with Soviet authorities that both conservatives and liberals in the U.S. disparaged. Balance of Power communicates this tangible sense of danger and walking-the-tightrope.

Will Wright and his team at Maxis, on the other hand, created one of the first popular citybuilding simulations called SimCity. This game allows players to build basic public utilities such as transportation and power, specify three city zoning types (Residential, Commercial, and Industrial), and maintain growth and the public interest through taxation rates and law enforcement. Wright came up with the idea for the game after studying Forrester’s Urban Dynamics, a book about urban growth and decay cycles containing both reflective analysis and prescriptive suggestions for managing public welfare, sprawl, and re-gentrification. Most infamously, Forrester argued that social spending on underprivileged minorities in the inner city would decrease a city’s worth instead of increasing it; on the other hand, he also had the foresight to predict that the construction of the Interstate system would lead to the neglect of areas in between major highway hubs. Wright attempted to model as much of these principles and arguments in SimCity as he could, including the famous example of encoding a correlation between rising tax rates and social unrest.

Crawford worked alone, rigorously working and reworking his procedures and datasets until he could fit all the information and complexity he desired into the constrained memory that he had available. The programming language and platform had a massive influence on the finished product, so much so that Crawford spent nearly twenty years crafting his own “Storyworld” development kit and scripting language in order to present Balance of Power again. SimCity, on the other hand, has gone through a number of translations and versioning for every new operating system that emerges. The countless number of spin-offs to the series, some more popular than the original thread itself, provides us with an ideal model for how benchmarking fiction should work. These games also show us how the expression of the same idea changes based on the imperative languages and development kits used to create each new iteration.

1) Do you think it’s possible to separate form from content? Or do you think a better experiment toward finding the essence of digital media art would be to construct novel works such as Facade?

2) How convinced are you by the solution of substituting a dramatic arc for narrative? Are Mateas and Laurel overly relying on old Greek paradigms of meaning creation in their insistence of an arc-like structure with tension, climax, and denouement?

3) Benchmarking experiment, following my work in Ian’s project studio: in groups, pitch two different kinds of games (from editorial, documentary, infographic, or puzzle) dealing with the same public issue (traffic, healthcare, the war in Iraq, etc.).

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