rl_phone_screen.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at "Ruben & Lullaby", a short emotion-centric piece for the iPhone.]

"Ruben & Lullaby" is a new kind of interactive story, developed specially for the iPhone. It calls itself an "opertoon", "a story you play like a musical instrument."

This is a fair description -- if you're a little loose about what you mean by story, and if your ambitions for musical instrument fall considerably short of the iPhone Ocarina.

This opertoon begins with its two main characters, Ruben and Lullaby, sitting on a park bench. They are lovers about to engage in their first fight. You get to conduct.

Tipping the phone left or right moves the story along, while leaving it flat can create long pauses; tapping the phone directs the characters to look towards or away from one another; stroking or shaking the phone makes the currently pictured character angrier or calmer.

As you play, the game improvises its own jazzy soundtrack. Sometimes this is melancholy, sometimes irritably discordant, sometimes angry.

This trick works pretty well, though on replay I found that there was less total musical content than I had initially expected. To a large extent that doesn't matter, though, because the soundtrack is accomplishing two things: communicating moment-to-moment mood, and encouraging the player to keep an overall pace.

I found that it felt natural -- and this is where the "play like a musical instrument" part comes in -- to move the story along fairly frequently during intense portions, and then to slow down at other points when the characters seemed to be in a more contemplative mood.

The tactile qualities of the interface come into play here too. Since you shake the phone for anger and tip it for story advancement, a furious exchange ending in break-up plays faster and more vigorously than one that ends in reconciliation.

One of the things that I consider an underexplored strength of console-based games is the possibility of using the player's physical involvement for emotional effect. We're animals, not just brains in jars; and while sometimes physical manifestations (laughter, crying, laughing, applause) often express our reactions to art, sometimes they're actually a way of engaging before we've really formed a reaction at all (sitting forward, sitting back, holding one's breath, singing along).

Traditional-media arts use those aspects of human nature, perhaps more than we tend to appreciate. Novels are a bit exceptional in this regard because they don't call on any particular physical mode of reception, but poetry asks us to read aloud, and live performances depend heavily on the house mood produced by the audience as a whole.

This is rich territory for video games, and only partly explored. I've played plenty of titles that got me energized or nerved up, and some that made me dizzy or nauseated or stressed out by frustration, but few that used the expressiveness of physical gesture to provoke or explore gentler feelings. "Ruben & Lullaby" does go there, and it's really cool to see.

The feedback of the game is largely body-oriented as well, since, in the absence of dialogue, most of the story comes from reading facial expressions, which need to convey a whole range of fury, indignation, surprise, sorrow, concern, reserve, and disengagement. Amazingly, this works. Ezra Clayton Daniel's images are the stuff of graphic novels for grown-ups: they're stylized without being childish, and they convey a lot of nuance.

I don't want to oversell. There's a lot that isn't present here that one might reasonably look for in an interactive story. "Ruben & Lullaby" is pretty low on surrounding information about its protagonists. The text in the tutorial -- the only text in the whole piece -- explains that Ruben is a bike messenger, Lullaby a project manager at a non-profit. They've been together for five months and are now having their first fight. From the drawings we can also infer that Ruben isn't the snappiest dresser and that his backstory includes some poor choices about sideburns.

This is more or less the extent of their characterization, and even the details about their careers really don't matter much. The help explains that you "get to choose" what the fight is about, but this is choice in the sense that you're invited to project your own fantasy entirely outside the application. At no point does the player have a choice to make within the game about why they're fighting, what the stresses and motivations might be, and so on.

So in one sense, the story can be whatever you want; in another sense, it's simply lacking. And it is, ultimately, personal detail that creates compelling characters. I didn't feel as though I came to know either Ruben or Lullaby. I could give them certain reactions at will, but who knows why Ruben experienced that sudden flood of empathy I forced on him, or what he said that set Lullaby off so badly to start with?

As I played, I couldn't help comparing "Ruben & Lullaby" with "Facade". (There are after all only so many game/interactive experiences that thrust the player into the middle of someone else's romantic discord.) The two complement each other in odd ways, one getting right what the other didn't. In Facade, the characters were specifically drawn, abounding in motives and neuroses, often to such a degree that I wondered why my character was friends with them in the first place.

On the other hand, it was often hard to tell how my actions were controlling the outcome of the game, and interaction -- typing full sentences of dialogue -- was clumsy. Things I wanted to say were often woven into the wrong place by the time I hit RETURN. (And I'm a pretty fast typist.) In fact, the comparison is more or less a case study in the value -- and danger -- of using verbal content in games. Dialogue characterizes, clarifies, makes specific. At the same time it's hard to interact with and potentially confusing.

The opertoon website suggests that "Ruben & Lullaby" is just the first in a possible line of productions like this. I would be curious to see more. At the same time, I'm not sure whether the range of input in this particular opertoon could stretch to provide meaningful agency in many different stories.

This piece -- being so simple, so general -- may be close to some essential archetype of all the conflict/resolution pieces that could conceivably be built around this mechanic. People meet; there is a problem between them; during the confrontation they react to one another with anger or calmness; confrontation ends with destruction, resolution, or stand-off.

The experience would feel a bit different, I'm sure, if recast with different music and presented with a pair of generals facing off in a war-torn region, or opposing cheerleaders at a dance, or a father and his estranged son. But wouldn't it ultimately feel like the same game?

If the interaction doesn't change with the content -- if the story aspect of the game doesn't introduce some variation in the player's behavior -- then is it really an interactive story at all? I suspect I'd play every other opertoon just as I played this one -- shaking the characters at the beginning to set up the premise of their anger, then calming them down for the pleasure of seeing them reunite. The story provides no motive or framework to do otherwise.

In order to make a significantly different narrative, I think one would need to introduce some element that would complicate the concept a lot: a story structure consisting of multiple scenes (for instance), or speech bubbles, or more ways for the player to control the situation.

I do wonder how a gesture-based handling of emotional feedback might fit into the context of a larger game or interactive narrative, and that's where I think future potential lies. "Ruben & Lullaby" is memorable, but gains a lot from being formally unique -- it's the new experience that draws me in, not the specifics of a tale that I could retell to someone else.

Though I admit I feel warm and fuzzy when I can get the two of them to hug at the end.

[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.]