“A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama and Games” – Michael Mateas

facadeIn “A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama and Games,” Mateas argues that while progress have been made in our ability to build “believable agents” and while progress has also been made in the development of “interactive plot,” little progress has been made in combining believable agents into interactive plots in order to create a “full-fledged dramatic experience” (19). He contends that the reason the two have not been combined is due to a lack of theoretical framework to guide attempts to do so. Thus, Mateas sets out to create a foundation for a theory of interactive drama. Mateas bases his theory on Aristotle’s dramatic theory, but extends it “to address the interactivity added by player agency.”

Mateas begins by defining his terms. In defining “interactive drama,” he borrows from Brenda Laurel’s definition which understands interactive drama as a one in which the player assumes the role of a first-person character in a dramatic story and is immersed in the story (20). While Aristotelian/Dramatic stories must contain action (enactment), intensification of emotion in condensed time, and unity of action wherein the incidents that occur are all ‘”causally related to the central action,” Mateas points out that very few interactive story experiences are able to accomplish all three (20-21). Those that fail to do so, Mateas regards as interactive narratives rather than as interactive dramas which must distinguish themselves by maintaining the three criteria of drama. Mateas then extends his understanding of interactive drama to include those criteria set forth by Janet Murray to analyze interactive story experiences: immersion, agency, and transformation. Of these criteria, Mateas contends that only agency is essential to the formation of an interactive drama, while Murray’s other two criteria remain in the realm of interactive narrative. Even so, the trouble of blending the criteria provided by Murray and of Laurel is that Murray’s criteria of phenomenological while Laurel’s are structural (22).

To incorporate agency into Aristotelian drama theory, Mateas first outlines the difference between formal cause (the authorial view) and material cause (the audience’s view) of the drama. The difficulty of interactive dramas is combining these two causes for the player to engage with simultaneously. In order to add interaction, two new causal chains must be added at the level of character: material for action (alongside material cause) and user interaction (alongside formal cause) (24). If the four causal chains work together:

the understanding “of the formal causation from the level of plot to the character…helps the player to have an understanding of what to do, that is, why they should take action within the story at all…by understanding what actions are dramatically probably, the player understands what actions are worth considering” (25).

Mateas argues that when material and formal constraints are balanced, the player will experience agency in an interactive drama. The balance is key; if one constrains out measures the other, agency will be lost. Having integrated agency into Aristotelian drama theory, Mateas returns to Murray’s concepts of immersion and transformation. Put simply, Mateas states that if a clean transparent interface is provided, the player has the potential to be immersed. In attempts to incorporate transformation, Mateas points out that:

“agency is a first-person experience induced by making moment-by-moment decisions within a balance interactive system, while transformation as variety is a third-person experience induced by observing and reflecting on a number of interactive experiences” (27).

Thus, in a single play-through experience a player has agency, but does not have the variety of transformation. Upon repeat playthroughs, however, the player is also an observer in the third-person. Thus, if the replay is always the same experience, the player gains transformation but loses agency. To maintain both, the experience must be constructed in a way in which the player’s experience of the story is clean and unitary, but also contains multiple dramatic story experiences.

“The trick is to design the experience such that, once the end occurs, any particular run though has the force of dramatic necessity” (27).

Based on the criteria established, Mateas attempted to apply them to an interactive drama experience: Façade. As a testing ground for a theory of interactive drama, Façade validated the importance of Mateas’s criteria and the need to balance the 4 types of causation. Outside its creation as a form of testing ground for a theory, the dramatic experience is, unfortunately, less successful.

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