Lizzie’s Game

In the decidedly limited labyrinth of false choices (Interactive storytelling, Part 1)

“[…] The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us. In the present one, which a favorable fate has granted me, you have arrived at my house; in another, while crossing the garden, you found me dead; in still another, I utter these same words, but I am a mistake, a ghost.”

“The Garden of Forking Paths” (“El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”, “GoFP”), Jorge Luis Borges¹

Elizabeth Bennet: It is your turn to say something, Mr Darcy. I talked about the dance. Now you ought to remark on the size of the room or the number of couples.

Mr Darcy: I’m perfectly happy to oblige. Please advise me on what would you like most to hear.

Pride & Prejudice (P&P

This pair of quotes illustrates the difference between the promise of interactive storytelling and the reality.

The promise is that you can “choose your own adventure”—that there is an ever-widening possibility space leading down paths unique to your own experience through ramifications ever more varied, that you are making meaningful choices in a vast world.

The reality is that this system almost always yields an unsatisfying experience: The choices fail to provide real agency because they are necessarily limited, and even the choices that are allowed are often false ones. And typically in the end, you are just trying to guess what the designer wants you to do.

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze used Borges’ story whence the first quote is drawn to demonstrate the Leibnizian concept of several impossible worlds existing simultaneously as well as to address the problem of future contingents first discussed by Aristotle. The many-minds, and many-worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics, and the idea of the multiverse also relate closely, and have drawn inspiration from “GoFP”. The possibilities created by its model increase exponentially, rapidly cascading towards the infinite. Borges’ “The Library of Babel” (“La biblioteca de Babel”) and “The Book of Sand”(“El libro de arena”) also discuss infinite texts. He also had a profound loathing of mirrors, which is also reflected (yes, I did) in “The Other” (“El otro”) and “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” which discuss them. This last work also contains the line: “Mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of men”, which bears on both elements.

Unfortunately, this Borges tale also inspired the idea of interactive storytelling.

In the 1945 children’s book, Treasure Hunt, pseudonymous author Alan George allowed the reader to choose among a set of actions at the end of each section of the story. It appeared only a few years after “GoFP”, so it’s hard to know if there was an influence, but the book’s cover does declare it “A MAZE In Volume Form”, so at the very least it’s a convergent work. In the world of computer interactivity, the mechanism described by Borges seems to have been favored from early on: from 1964–66, a program called ELIZA, used the format in the creation of an interactive artificial therapist. And with the advent of computer and video games, the idea really took off, appearing from quite early on, and rapidly becoming ubiquitous, particularly in visual novels, dating sims, adventure games, and RPGs.

The essential problem with this schema is how rapidly it grows in size. Even the absurdities that Borges perpetrates are well thought out, however, though he warns the reader subtly: When his Doctor Albert says GoFP (That is, the fictional book, not the short story in which that book appears) is “incomplete”, it is because he realizes that containing infinite possibilities within the physical and therefore finite form of a book is not possible. And indeed, even freed from the bounds of a physical book, creating a large number of meaningful branches is difficult in reality.

As envisioned by Borges, the decisions at each node are binary—likening it to a labyrinth, he essentially says you can go left or right at each fork. If you created a work of interactive storytelling on this plan, with only a pair of choices at each branching the amount you would need to write would expand exponentially. By the time you get only 10 choices deep in this tree the number of branches would be 2 to the 10th, or 1024. Every time you add one level of depth the number of branches doubles, so 11 would take you to 2 to the 11th, or 2048. The Lernaean Hydra is an embodiment of the terror inspired in the Ancient Greeks by geometric progressions as its multiplying heads develop in this exact fashion.

Most of the history of this trope then, is concerned with ways to limit these choices in order to make production even possible. One way this has been done is through a structure called a foldback, which has been described in various other ways, perhaps most entertainingly as the well-fed-snake model. It essentially means that regardless of the choices that are made, eventually the branches reconverge, then bifurcate again, then reconverge again.

Another, similar one involves what’s called cycling, where specific branches turn back to other nodes than the one they branched from. Often a work will use both of these together in various combinations.³

The problem with these solutions is that in both cases the choices you make don’t matter. The things you thought you were choosing collapse, or turn in directions you didn’t want to go. In her irony-impaired article, “Why in-game dialogue and character conversations matter”,⁴ Megan Farokhmanesh says:

Although dialogue can branch—and often will—depending on player choice, writers must be aware that only one nugget of information will move the player forward. Everything else must eventually fold back into that conclusion. […] Part of a writer’s job, then, comes with thinking up many different questions that ultimately lead to the same answer.

And in Brent Ellison’s article, “Defining Dialogue Systems”, he describes this type of technique, thus:⁵

One common technique employed to give the player a greater illusion of freedom is to have multiple responses lead to the same path.

To be clear, both of these sources are talking about how to make lack of choice look to the player like choice.

To get more concrete, I recently played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which features branching dialogue. At the beginning of the game, you meet a mysterious Old Man, and the dialogue options essentially allow you to either treat him with trust or suspicion. And it doesn’t matter. If you react the former way, he is glad, if the latter, he shrugs it off. You’ve made an hour’s worth of decisions that have changed nothing, and the game’s just begun. Once in a while what you choose does make a difference though—you just don’t know, unless you either replay repeatedly or go online and find out what you’re supposed to do. I’m definitely not saying that this isn’t a great game, I just don’t think this element was needed.

One marginally acceptable reason for employing this system is to attempt to force players to pay attention to the dialogue instead of simply clicking through it as quickly as possible because they think it might matter. But frankly I reject this as well—you can just write more engaging dialogue that doesn’t pretend to offer a choice instead.

Additionally, most of the decisions we make in reality are much more complex, with many more options as to both what we choose to do, as well as to how. Add more than a binary choice though, and the expansion of branches becomes even more explosive. Treasure Hunt’s choice nodes were limited to the ends of sections because the book allowed several choices—essentially the creator of such a work must decide between breadth and depth. And regardless of how many options are given, the chances are good, people being what they are, that there will be other choices that they wish they had.

One of the things that people who like this trope reference is the multiple endings that such stories can have, however, this again is a production issue as to how many can be provided.

In interactive novels many endings were often given, but the preponderance of them were simply different ways to die. Indeed, what better way could there be to end a branch? Writers got extremely inventive about it, to the point that many such works are less choose your own adventure, and more choose your own death—the interactive equivalent of the Final Destination movies.

Turning to electronic entertainment, these paths, which are essentially fail states, could go on much longer: an object that should have been picked up several scenes ago was not so preventing the player from progressing being a common one.

LucasArts’ The Secret of Monkey Island was a breakthrough in 1990 because it was impossible for the protagonist, Guybrush Threepwood, to die. It was probably the first adventure game I ever completed because it also made sure you had all the items you needed to progress. There was nothing interesting to me in being killed off by game designers; many of these “clever” games were quickly shelved.

In addition, The Secret of Monkey Island’s dialogue was extremely well written, and even branches that ultimately led nowhere were at least entertaining. The puzzle-solving, though skewed, fit well with the wacky gameworld, a consistent internal logic instead of a lesser designer’s punitive “because I said so”.

In games where branching dialogue is the primary gameplay focus, the player’s choices often affect game characters’ attitudes toward the player’s character in one way or another, with the player attempting to guess the “best” response in order to maximize game character disposition in their favor. And ultimately, these characters are stand-ins for the writer, who typically desires a specific response attitudinally, even beyond the strictures of a system that seeks to falsify choice.

And this gets back to the P&P quote: similar to these game mechanisms, Elizabeth Bennett requires Mr. Darcy to respond in a very narrow range and she’s ready with a verbal fusillade when he missteps. His reply in the quote, intended to charmingly evade the trap, draws a fairly cold:

That reply will do for present.

Still, it’s better than a character taking the response you felt was kind of close to what you actually wanted to say as a very personal slight that can only be solved via extremely one-sided personal combat. If that sounds far fetched, you haven’t played a lot of these games.

Even the term “interactive storytelling” in the context of video games has always bothered me. Good storytelling is always interactive regardless of the medium; a conversation between the creator and the audience. Akira Kurosawa’s (黒沢 明) Rashōmon (『羅生門』) provides an excellent example of how effectively that dynamic can be used: the viewer is presented with four versions of a story, and must choose which to believe, or, as indeed is the point, which elements of which stories to select to construct the real truth as the accounts all carry the biases of the tellers.

Although Borges’ views of the movie are difficult to ascertain, he was known to be a fan of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介) upon whose short story, “In a Grove” (「藪の中」, Yabu no Naka) the film is based. Somewhat oddly, the film takes its name from another of Akutagawa’s works. It also involves the subversion of the mystery genre, just as Borges did in “Death and the Compass” (“La muerte y la brújula”), as well as going on to play a game with the reader questioning the existence of objective truth. I can only think Borges would have approved.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2: Those Frumious Jaws


Notes

  1. In Spanish, the work is “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”, Collected in Fictions (Ficciones), 1944.
  2. I’m quoting the 2005 film adaptation.
  3. Image by Dcoetzee via Wikipedia.
  4. In Polygon, 2014.
  5. In Gamasutra, 2008.

The Unfit “King”

I didn’t cry and there’s nothing wrong with me (Gladwellocalypse, Part 2)

The new season of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, is really good. It started off with one on golf, which was a bit of a softball—I don’t know the demographics of the podcast’s listeners, but I somehow don’t think the rich jerks and CEOs the piece puts in its sights are among them, or if they are, that it remotely hurt their feelings. But then he moved on to some pretty deep and serious topics: terrorism, desegregation, the Civil Rights Movement, racist Winston Churchill—discussing the Bengal famine of 1943, which I’ve also written about indirectly as one element of British imperialism in India. And then came one on country music.

Now as a writer I get it: sometimes you need to lighten things up, or if nothing else, go a bit afield from the topics you usually cover—the eclecticism of my own articles is evident. And also, you can’t always please everyone. Finally, if Season One of RevHist was an indicator, there’s going to be one that I just disagree with. This, it seems, is that one. So in spite of my wife hating it when Malcolm and I fight, here goes:

I know that he’s not intending to be scientific by comparing Rolling Stone’s list of top 100 rock songs as if they were emblematic of what all the writers, performers, and listeners think about the genre, to the small sampling of individual country songs he has handpicked for their tear-jerking qualities. The corpus of rock music is much larger than that of country, and covers a wider range of topics.

And rock isn’t really a genre at all, and hasn’t been for a long time, but a supergenre—maybe even a megagenre. Even the list he quotes demonstrates this when it mentions The Ronettes and Nirvana in the same breath. Wikipedia lists some 43 genres of rock in their article on the topic, which links still more articles that get even more specific. Many maps and family trees have been created and argued about regarding how all of these interrelate.

One of the exemplars Gladwell puts forth is Unwed Fathers, and specifically the line:

Your daddy never, meant to hurt you ever
He just don’t live here, but you got his eyes.

Right from its name, the song is not about these two—the mother and child have no agency in the tale, and only exist as the hapless victims of the titular men. These are generic, not specific people, and definitely not real ones.

Just to stick to the same theme for something like an apples-to-apples comparison, I offer Everclear’s “Father of Mine”. I’m not even really a fan of this band—I own no CDs and no songs and never have, but just from catching it on the radio, this one gets me way more—the refrain “Daddy gave me a name/ then he walked away”, is pretty raw, but then it has lyrics like:

Father of mine,
Tell me where did you go?
Yeah, you had the world inside your hand
But you did not seem to know.

These seem to me to drill down into that sense of loss much more effectively than the country piece. Maybe because Gladwell had a fairly idyllic upbringing, while mine was less so, my feelings are a bit more attuned to the story Everclear’s Art Alexakis tells from his own experience as a child abandoned by his father. He writes about the sadness, but also the bitterness, anger, and how hard it is to let other people in afterwards. That’s quite specific and also quite real.

And I’m talking about specificity because Gladwell offers that as the reason country music’s lyrics are sadder. While I’ve already offered a counterexample, I’d also disagree with the point as a general rule. Detail can actually make songs less relatable. Turning back to “Unwed Fathers”, the lyrics make sure to let you know that it’s an “Appalachian Greyhound station”, but its story is one that happens everywhere and at every time.

There is a device, used across a variety of media called a cipher, also known as the everyman after a 15th-century English morality play of the same name, as well as by a variety of other names. The idea is that the audience is presented with rather undeveloped elements, particularly around place and character, and they fill in the details, or more specifically, their own details—putting themselves into the work. A listener not from the Smoky Mountains listening to “Unwed Fathers” might feel excluded; that there is something about this experience that is outside of their understanding, when there’s really not.

Gladwell next advances the idea that since everyone is from the same area, they all have a shared context, and that’s what allows them to be more specific. Here I think he’s delved into complete nonsense.

Maybe my take on this comes from having lived in Japan, a large, highly homogenous society. I can tell you that in their case, at least, it leads not to more, but to less specificity—their shared worldview means that they can say less and still be understood perfectly.

In fact, this is the idea behind haiku, and its predecessor, tanka. the Japanese, and particularly those of the imperial court were bored of hearing so many words, and the strictures of the syllabic poetic form were created, at least in part, so that rather than being explicit, composers would be forced to employ metaphors. Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉), one of the masters of the haiku is famous for the piece:

古池や蛙飛びこむ水の音

An ancient pond
A frog jumps in
The splash of water

This seems simple and pictorialist at first blush, but as Dorothy Britton notes:¹

It carries one, in imagination, to the veranda of a temple in Kyoto, perhaps overlooking a landscaped garden hundreds of years old with a moss-edged pond. One hears the sudden plop of a frog jumping into the dark water on a still spring afternoon. But the thought process started by this poem go on and on. The pond could be eternity, God or the Ultimate Truth about this universe and man. And we, brash mortals with our works and investigations—each one of us no better than a frog jumping—make but a moment’s splash, and the ripples circle and die away….

Gladwell talks about “layering” in country songs; this is layering.

Next he interviews Bobby Braddock, songwriter of the showcased pieces, and the main subject of the story, searching for the source of his weepy lyricism:

Your… kind of … tolerance for emotional volatility seems extraordinary.

Braddock replies:

I guess “tolerance” is probably a pretty good word for it.

I kept expecting Gladwell to circle back and replace it with wallowing. Instead, he says, much more favorably:

[…] Braddock is from the musical side of the United States where emotion is not something to be endured, it’s something to be embraced.

He goes on to detail how Braddock used to eavesdrop on other people’s cell phone conversations, which presumably inspired some of his works. That’s just creepy, and voyeuristic would indeed be a good descriptor for many of the country lyrics Gladwell talks about.

“He Stopped Loving her Today”, the Braddock song that Gladwell dwells on most, is again, pretty creepy. It’s about a couple that breaks up, but the man never stops obsessing about her until he dies. That’s not a touching sentiment in my book.

And there’s also a certain inauthenticity that comes from observing these emotional states and perceiving them from the outside. Braddock is looking for tools to extract tears from our faces not telling heartfelt stories of things he has actually experienced.

I’d liken it to ER—I had to stop watching the show, even though the acting and characters were great, because every time a pregnant mother came into the hospital, you knew she was a Chekhov’s Gun, and it was just a matter of when and how they were going to use her to shoot you square in the feels. Real, heartfelt emotion does not have a North-South divide, but I don’t want to have my feelings manipulated by made-up narratives with nothing but a profit motive revealed when the layers are peeled back.

Part of the premise of Gladwell’s piece was shown in its subtitle: “A musical interpretation of divided America”. In other words he’s saying our political differences match those in the emotionality of our preferred musical styles, with rock standing in for the North and country for the South. And maybe he’s right—maybe I’ve just touched on why Astroturfing and wedge issues work better in the red states.

To conclude, let me throw a gauntlet back at Gladwell: listen to Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up”. Again, I’m not a fan of The Boss, but even before I read his recent autobiography, Born to Run, I could tell this song was highly personal. After reading the book I know that the album it comes from, Tunnel of Love, was written during his first marriage that was just not working out. If you don’t consider this New Jerseyan’s sparely worded tale of a dysfunctional relationship, blue-collar squalor, drinking to forget, and potential marital infidelity to be on a par, if not far beyond, any manufactured melodrama delivered in a folksy twang, maybe you’re the one who’s beyond help.

But only in this regard; I look forward to more RevHist. Between the writing and publication of this article, two further RevHist episodes have come out, both about racism in the legal system and they were also excellent.


Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 2 Addendum: Golf No Softball

Part 3: Descent into the Absurd


Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: The Limits of “Revisionist History”


Notes

  1. In A Haiku Journey, 1980.