Rethinking conversation trees

An area of video games that interested me, from a narrative perspective. was that of conversation trees. Conversation trees were explored earlier in this blog with the example of the The Walking Dead: Season 1 (Telltale Games, 2012). In this game players are presented with scenarios and choices which drive the narrative in different directions. This provides multiple outcomes for the gameplay and narrative and asks the player to consider the choices made. As a graphically represented interface occurring during gameplay, choices of dialogue and ways to go etc are mapped to specific buttons on controllers or in the case of PC, keyboard. This example of conversation trees in a digital game presents an interesting way of providing choice, but is it effective? Making the player aware of the choices being made in such a literal way is not dissimilar to ‘choose your own adventure’ books which have existed for some time. In these literary examples, readers have the choice to take many paths at the end of a section of text, and when the choice is made, the book instructs them to continue reading from a particular place in the book in order to follow this narrative direction. They are both similar in the sense that they physically present the choices for the reader/player. The subconscious decisions of player explored earlier in this blog in games such as Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001) in which the decisions which affect the gameplay and narrative are not presented in a graphical choice but simply in the decisions of the player. This way, the actions of the player could be considered more organic, in that they do not rely on a player making conscious decision based on lists and mapped decisions, but simply in their engagement with the game world itself and the characters within it.

The interest for myself in this, with Silent Hill 2 falling under the ‘horror’ genre of gaming also, was that it took a very different approach to the branching narratives available than that of Telltale’s programming. The difference in the sensorial representation in each is particularly intriguing. Players in Silent Hill 2 respond more to the environment and characters on a subconscious level than to graphical representations. However the programming in place clearly makes use of the player’s choices to drive the narrative in a similar way. Perhaps, in creating a free-flowing conversational experience for the user, we can eliminate the graphical representations of the choices, and have them managed by the system itself. Or in the case of immersant communicating with performer, have the performer aware of parameters for the conversation. With this subtle form of conversation mapping, allowing for junctures in the conversation but also allowing for input outside of these fixed moments.

The dilemma of conversation trees, it would seem, is particularly a point of interest for developers, in particular that creating co-authored, provocative experiences for the player is difficult using these fixed graphical options, and sometimes they may work better in other forms.

Having stumbled across this recent discussion and debate among developers we can ascertain a few things. In order for a narrative to be compelling, the user needs to feel a sense of freedom, particularly in the example of the game Pry in which the developer explains the idea of providing different information the player can interact with, as well there being a manipulative space between this, in which the player is able to consider the explore freely. If we mirror this to a model for mixed reality communication in our horror concept, I could consider building the system in a way that allows for a similar idea. By time-lining specific moments of fascination, as well as developing a narrative with the immersant, I can explore the relationship between system, and users.

A specific distinction we must make however in the prototype, is that the system is operated by, and defined by, a human entity in myself. The technology is enabling the mediated experience of the work, but the human mind constructs the narrative. Similarly to work by Blast Theory and other mixed reality performance companies, beyond the initial narrative concept, the human relationships in the system are compelling and could prove to be in the impactful element of performance in horror.

Defining triggers

We must also define timelines and triggers in order to form a system. as a rough example:

Performance begins: Welcome, I trust you are seated comfortably, you may wonder why you are here…all will be revealed.

5 mins: Tell me, what is the thing you most regret in life? What mistakes have you made along the way? What are your sins?

10 mins: Do you believe in god?

This providing of mapped moments in the performance allows for some level of theme and concept, however between these moments, a more personal input from both the performer and immersant, connecting in a free flowing engagement can occur. It is also important to identify what responses to communication give us as further options. for example, the question ‘do you believe in god’ is a yes or no answer, we can program a response in the layout of dialogue/script for the performer, in this case myself, to address the yes or no answer. Of course, in practice human beings do not always simply provide a yes or no, but typically will express something that expresses a positive or negative response to the question. It is therefore plausible to map responses relating to these in order to allow for some fixed content, but also allowing for a variety of experiences for different immersants.

It is my belief that this may form a coherent use of concepts from video games, but with less limitation on the provided experience and outcome. This strategic use of conversation tree concepts, I hope, will provide insight into how an experience can work effectively in mixed reality performance settings.






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