ToaskSmall.jpg['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. This article looks at the problem of separating player and protagonist goals.]

Last year I participated in a panel on tragedy in interactive storytelling. One of the big questions there was: if the player identifies with the protagonist and is motivated by the desire for the protagonist to "win" or "succeed", how can satisfying interactive tragedy exist? Won't the player always be trying to avoid actions that propel the story to an unhappy conclusion? What can an interactive tragedy offer to the player in place of traditional metrics of success?

My ideas then were largely about tapping into the player's desire for other kinds of gratification: the desire to see the end of the story; the desire to make significant choices (even if those choices lead to endings that are unhappy in different ways); the desire to explore the constraints of the universe in which the story takes place.

To that list, I would now add: the desire to precipitate a dramatic crisis.

The player faces a situation where he could do something risky and stupid, with negative ramifications for the protagonist, which would nonetheless be narratively interesting. He's probably curious about what would happen if he did.

How does the game get him to go ahead? How is the player cajoled into doing something that sets the protagonist back?

The clearest example in my experience comes from a game you almost certainly haven't heard of: "Treasures of the Slaver's Kingdom", a text adventure by RPG author S. John Ross. It's set in the parody-RPG universe of "Encounter Critical", and was marketed primarily to Encounter Critical's existing fanbase -- namely, people who enjoy a spoofily ridiculous mix of elements from Star Wars, Star Trek, Conan the Barbarian, and similar geek-sacred texts.

To discuss how "Treasures" gets the player to betray the protagonist, I'll need to spoil it a bit. Details after the jump.

The protagonist in "Treasures" is a metal-and-furs-style Barbarian. His sword is broad, his wits dull. He makes regular visits to a Delicate Doxy, who treats him to the sorts of pleasures a Barbarian enjoys most (for a very reasonable fee). The player likes her too, because she's got lots of useful plot information.

On the second or third visit, the Barbarian notices that the Doxy doesn't look like herself. She appears to have grown antennae and to be making a strange buzzing noise. But he assures himself that this is nothing to worry about, and is eager to proceed with the usual transaction.

Now the player, who has by this point seen several references to evil bee people, cannot possibly be so credulous as the protagonist. But when I played I felt no compunction about walking the protagonist into the obvious trap -- in fact, I enjoyed doing so. It was in character for him. It was much more interesting than getting away. Moreover, I was pretty sure that whatever happened next, I wasn't going to ruin the game for myself.

Several things have to happen to create a context for such dramatic choices. The connection between protagonist and player has to be attenuated a little: I have to sympathize with my protagonist while at the same time not feeling that my fate is bound into his. My primary commitment has to be to the story, rather than to my avatar. That allows me to enjoy and get something out of a narrative that features set-backs for the character. And there has to be a guarantee of safety. I'm not going to play with the interesting but potentially negative outcomes nearly as much if I think they might later interfere with my ability to finish the story.

"Treasures" addresses all of these points. It accomplishes the player/protagonist separation through one of the most straightforward means available: it draws the protagonist as significantly less intelligent than the player. The text of the game frequently describes things in such terms that the player understands them better than the protagonist (a trick also used by the award-winning "Lost Pig").

This is not difficult to do in prose, since a reader will often recognize from a literal physical description what something must be, even if the protagonist doesn't know the name of what he's looking at. A graphical interface would have to work harder to create such a separation between protagonist and player perception, perhaps offering access to the protagonist's thoughts via a voice-over or other hints; and the characterization still needs to be deft enough that the player enjoys spending time with his stupid protagonist, even while looking down on him.

"Treasures" also takes full advantage of the conventions of its genre. The barbarian warrior is supposed to be proud, strong, and stupid, so "Treasures" plays that to the hilt: the protagonist frequently notices the manliness of his own thews. The player is more or less forced to regard him as an example of a type, rather than a fully-fleshed person.

Finally, "Treasures" makes it feel safe to experiment with the dramatic possibilities through external assurances that the game will never become unwinnable: as the website memorably puts it, "If your arm falls off, that's part of the story, I promise."

This still doesn't get us all the way to interactive tragedy. "Treasures" is certainly not one, and some of the techniques it uses wouldn't be appropriate for a tragedy meant to be taken seriously. "Make the protagonist thicker than bricks" isn't exactly a design methodology suitable for all seasons.

Some of the other techniques are more widely applicable, though: guaranteeing that the story will never become unfinishable; offering the player options that are in-character but disadvantageous to the protagonist; and setting up scenes in which the question of what's behind the door marked DANGER is just too fascinating to leave unexplored.

The player's curiosity provides a game-play reason to try the dangerous action. The protagonist's flaws (if not stupidity, then pride, vanity, greed...) provide the narrative justification.

It can be done.

[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.]