June 12, 2008 12:00 PM |
['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist.]
Retrosabotage has recast a number of classic arcade games with new themes. Some of these are pure one-shot jokes, playing on the collisions between one idea and another -- Tetris crossed with Duck Hunt. Some are clever reworkings of old game mechanics so that you have to play a familiar level in a new way.
But one of them -- called "Twenty Lines" -- takes the mechanic of Tetris and places it against the background of scenes and music from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What's awesome about this version is the way the interaction of the original game has been revised to support the revised theme.
Instead of trying to get rid of lines of blocks, you're now trying to build the black monolith. Completely filled lines sink to the bottom, exposing lines that still have holes in them. Problems rise to the top, so that they're easier to resolve. There are no hard sides to the game space, either: if a block sticks out past the borders of the monolith, the extra squares simply vanish.
Cinematic effects change the way the player perceives the game, as well. At first the monolith is distant from the player, placed in an alien environment, a bit difficult even to see clearly. The first lines of the game vanish into a hole in the ground, only half visible, and surrounded by gibbering primates.
I found this immensely frustrating to start with, especially when I hadn't worked out why some lines seemed to be sinking and some squares vanished into thin air -- which unexpectedly makes a puzzle out of a mechanic that we all think we already understand.
But work out what you're supposed to be doing, and real progress becomes possible. Lines are completed. The music changes. The scene shifts. We see the monolith closer up, but at an angle; then from a distance, but backlit so that the remaining holes are clearly visible; then closer and more clearly...
Each leap takes us forward in time within the pseudo-narrative of the work, but also offers a better understanding of what we're trying to do.
Those modifications change the arc of the interaction from "you inevitably fail (and it's just a question of how soon)" to "you inevitably succeed (and it's just a matter of how quickly you understand what you're trying to do)".
The later parts of the game are substantially easier, more comfortable, more reassuring, than the opening stages, but the activity of placing the blocks has taken on a narrative meaning. The doomed struggle for survival, the pressure of evolution, has been replaced by movement towards a goal, and revolutionary progress for the human race.
When all is said and done, I'm not sure whether it's right to call "Twenty Lines" a game: there's too little challenge, too little danger of losing, too little potential for anybody's playthrough to be better than anyone else's. Nor is it really an interactive toy, a sandbox in which you can do whatever you want and see the results. There's not nearly enough freedom for that.
Very well. So is it a story? And is it in any sense a more effective story for being interactive?
If so, it doesn't fit any of the categories of interactive storytelling I usually think of. The interactive component this time is not about making significant plot decisions or rising to difficult challenges or even (to any serious degree) about exploring and making discoveries.
Nonetheless, the form of "Twenty Lines" offers the player the experience of progress from the
inside: of starting out confused and then coming to understand; of trying to survive, and then realizing that the game isn't about survival. In an odd way, I found it more effective than the movie on which it's based -- though that may just be because I get impatient with the more self-indulgent and slow-moving passages.
Certainly "Twenty Lines" is highly derivative, in that it would make little sense unless the player brought both the imagery of the movie and the preconceptions about Tetris mechanics to the experience. In another sense, it's highly inventive and novel.
The fact remains, though, that it doesn't really tell the story on which it draws. So maybe "interactive story" isn't quite the right name for it either. Maybe it belongs to a slightly different category of art.
For example: the poet Ovid wrote a collection of letters from mythological heroines to their lovers. Those letters don't really retell the myths, either. They assume the reader is already familiar with the plot; what they contribute is a different perspective on familiar characters. Achilles' captured slave Briseis doesn't get much chance to speak her mind in the Iliad -- she just gets traded back and forth between Greek men, treated as nothing more than a marker of prestige and honor. Ovid gives her a voice.
Her letter is not a story that stands up on its own right, but an exploration of an interesting corner of a pre-existing story, looking into emotions and perspectives that the original left unexplored. The Western tradition has produced a great deal of this kind of art, from the ancient world to the modern day, and some of it is very powerful and inventive, for all its functionally dependent nature.
In other words, it's fanfic.
Whatever we decide to call it, "Twenty Lines" endows the familiar mechanic of rotating and dropping little blocks with far more narrative significance than I would have imagined possible. It's an edge case in interactive storytelling -- and a surprisingly cool one.
[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]
Categories: Column: Homer In Silicon