Any designer who wants to talk seriously about the possibilities of storytelling through games really ought to have some experience with improvised theatre. And if you read only one book on impro, then these two are it. Written by the father of modern Theatresports, they go well beyond the games and discuss why they were first invented and what they were designed to teach. For the teacher, they are a humbling example of how to be sensitive to the needs of your class and free your students from the fear of failure, but to the game designer they provide the most valuable thing: a shining example of the real possibility of “interactive storytelling” in all its glory, along with practical advice on how to achieve it.
The fundamental rule of improv is to accept the offers made be other players and then advance the action. ‘Offers’ are any statements or actions which commit to some truth about the story world. So an offer could be a statement like “Welcome home, son” which establishes both a place and a relationship between the players. Or it could be as simple as a mimed wall or table.
Once the offer has been made it must be accepted by the other player as truth. To fail to accept an offer is to “block”. So to block to the first offer above you might say “You’re not my father!” or “But this is a bus stop”. Blocking occurs when the second player already has a preconceived idea of what the scene is going to be and is unwilling to relinquish his idea and accept his fellow player’s.
The opposite of blocking is accepting and advancing. To accept the first offer you might say “Are you still living in a bus-shelter, dad?”. Unlike the block above, this accepts the ideas of ‘home’ and ‘son’, even though it gives them an unconventional meaning. It is both an acceptance and a counter-offer. New information has been added which advances the scene.
From this simple process of offer, acceptance, counter-offer remarkable scenes can arise. While theatresports improv is generally played for laugh, improv is by no means constrained to comedy. I have personally been part of some powerfully affecting improvised stories. Being involved in the co-creation of such a story can be a remarkably moving experience.
As designers of digital games, we need to consider how these principles can be built into our games. Some questions that come to mind are:
- What offers does our game make? Are they made clearly?
- Are we able to accept offers made by the player and advance them meaningfully?
- In a multiplayer setting, how do we encourage players to play this ‘offer-accept-counteroffer’ game with one another?
- In general, how do we convince the player to accept the ‘contract’ necessary for meaningful co-creation?
I think there is some connection here between ‘offers’ and ‘affordances’ in the user-interface sense. If a game makes offers, then the player should be able to accept them, and vice-versa. Sometimes we can design our games to appear to offer affordances which are then blocked when the player attempts to accept them. The interactive narrative Facade comes to mind here. It’s greatest weakness, in my opinion, is that it appears to offer much more than it can accept. The tricky social situation it models offers the player a subtle and nuanced relationship with the characters. The natural language interface allows the player to respond with similarly careful counter-offers, but the game’s understanding of the player is poor and only the broadest of meanings (yes, no, flatter, disagree) is understood, if anything. A lot of the time it blocks the player’s input completely and continues with its own agenda. This is a violation of the improv contract, and it is not surprising that players give up their side of the contact also and play the game for laughs.
There is much more to it than this, and Johnstone goes in depth into all the various forces that help or hinder the process of story creation. Can we incorporate these forces into computer games? That remains to be seen. Is it worth trying? Yes, I believe it most certainly is.