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REFLECTION 3: Learning gameplay and narrative structure from Her Story

Awhile back we had this lesson where we played Her Story (2015) by Sam Barlow. I must say that the game is extremely simple in the interface and yet so intriguingly composed in narrative structure.

So you get access to files from a police dept which has been interviewing this woman connected to some sort of a murder case, I think, and you goal is to find out exactly what happened. You do so by searching the database for keywords connected to the case or words you think might be clues. Each of these videos are a few minutes and you have to read between the lines to know what to search next in the database. So for example she mentions some dates or names of people or an item during her interview and then you can search for those things and see what turns up on the monitor. However you can only open the first 5 matches of video to playback.

This is somehow rather connected to the current project that we are working on. And I have also created a search function within our game as well. Although my search function is rather primitive as compared to Her Story. But definitely there is much we can learn from the structure and gameplay elements of Her Story. What I really hope to emulate is the elegant display of the information and context. Because in the computer terminal of Her Story, there is actually some reflection on the monitor screen to show a bit of the lights in the room the user is using the computer within the context of the game. At times, reflection of the user’s face appears in the monitor screen as well. I found that really immersive and was really thrilled to notice this subtle detail as it certainly completes the look. There is also some fun stuff on the side going on like we can close the program and go to the recycle bin within the game’s terminal to see what files have been deleted and this adds on to the idea that we are really using this terminal to conduct the investigation.

The other thing about Her Story, is the cutting of the narrative. Almost like in film how we have jump-cuts. So here each interview video reveals only a portion of the information, but with just enough to allow you to formulate a certain idea or clue and search for a new piece of evidence. I think this formula is handled very well in Her Story, because I felt throughout the experience of playing it that I am getting more and more interested to get to the bottom of the mystery.

I feel that Her Story is certainly inspiring to play and learn from. Although I think we also wish to really devise our own game mechanics and structure, but hopefully we can successfully apply some of these learning points to our project as well.

REFLECTION 2: On Fanthoming The Garden of Forking Paths

This short story is certainly captivating, although for the most part of the first 3 pages I was really trying my best to get a bearing over the situation as it unfolded.

The very first paragraph is a short preamble to kind of straighten things out where I understand that Dr. Yu Tsun is writing the statement that is to follow. And then I am told that the first two pages of this are missing. Thrown into the deep blue. I encounter with much intrigue a multitude of facts and clues to find out gradually what this story is about. I learn that it is about espionage, about Dr. Yu trying to evade the capture of Capt. Richard Madden until he could accomplish the mission of informing Germany of an eminent attack on the city of Albert. We are also told that Dr. Yu already knows that he will die at the end of this story. So there is already these sort of framework and foretelling where the narrative has set expectations for the reader or even rules for itself.

Yet there are many sort of ‘dualities’ in the story. So all these events, characters are both this and that at the same time and there are then these many possibilities that the story could have gone. Yu Tsun appreciates Albert’s respect for his ancestor’s literature and yet he has to kill Albert. Yu Tsun and Albert are both friends and non-friends.Capt. Madden has won the battle because he manages to apprehend Yu Tsun. However Yu Tsun has won the battle too, as he manages to alert Germany with Albert’s death published in the British Newspapers. Yu Tsun was both a spy working for Germany and determined to carry out the mission yet he is not truly loyal.

Yu Tsun mentioned that he took ten minutes to plan this elaborate scheme. Yet how much of this story could he have foretold at that point in time? There is a lot of descriptive detail going on and for the most part rather mundane and unimportant to the events of the story. Like what was in Yu Tsun’s inventory, how much cash he had left or the people he happened to see at the train station. So I really get the feeling like all these thoughts are still rather floaty and Dr. Yu is really trying to recall the events transpired here.  Coupled with that are his imaginative spells. I am both following along and getting lost in his stream of consciousness. This is the charming thing about the story that kind of intriguing haziness yet there is still a logic to it.

Also parallel to that story is the myth of Dr. Yu’s great grandfather Ts’ui Pen. Dr. Yu and Albert discuss about the conceptualization and interpretation of Ts’ui Pen’s literary labyrinth. Center to the narrative is this ideal maze of character, events, concepts and narratives that are explained to be a writing about time not space. This is contrasted with two non-fictitious great works of literature – 红楼梦 and 1001 Arabian Nights. These 2 works although vast in their amassing of  narrative are not infinite and all-encompassing. However Ts’ui Pen’s work is a true work of the labyrinth of narrative and time – “various future times but not to all”. Simultaneous outcomes, solutions, points of departure for the continuation and discontinuation of the narrative, a network of dominoes if you will. And I found that that was the true mystery of the short story. Can something like that even be written?


The Garden of Forking Paths (1941) by Jorge Louis Borges is a great read and it kind of attempts to write with much efficiency a taste of that sort of complex, conflated narrative like the ideal literary labyrinth of Ts’ui Pen’s. This is a great challenge to the traditional linear literary structures and I would say that The Garden of Forking Paths is a very conceptual piece that has and will continue to inspire many to the possibilities it has open and invites.

REFLECTION 1: Some notes on Eric Zimmerman’s Four Concepts

Eric Zimmerman’s light-hearted attempt at unpacking and explaining the ideas and concepts surrounding the narrative and interactivity is indeed a great read. I personally am drawn to the text simply by his sense of humour. There is something playful about it. All about it in fact. And that makes reading an “interactive” experience in some sense; I feel like I have just had an interview with the guy. Of course, I am using the word “interactive” rather loosely here. Zimmerman will probably comment that is undesirably naughty.

This text is a great start to discussing about the concepts at hand. As opposed to simply being fixated on definitions, Zimmerman provides us with points of departure, from which we can let our imagination take flight. And let the game begin. I like that for each of the concepts (Narrative, Interactivity, Play and Games), he lists possible modes, categories, elements, attributes, avenues for us to explore how we might best grapple with this whole matrix of ideas. Through this whole process of becoming more aware of the media that we are dealing with, Zimmerman encourages a sort of excitement in searching for breakthroughs, or as he puts it himself “not to replicate existing forms but to invent new ones.”

Apart from opening up all these more theoretical and conceptual mappings of the concepts, Zimmerman also illustrates his points by raising a few great examples.

Chess, as the example of a game that simulates a two-player interaction and more of a cognitive interactivity in this battle of wits. But at the same time there is a narrative of war, heroes and playable characters, triumph in stratagem, albeit unconventional, yet there is a narrative structure there.

Pac-Man was another example which he employed to show us how even the most explicit interactivity can have sophistication in its use of narrative. This widely played arcade game is a story of life and death, the society at large with all these embedded into the game-play itself. And we recognize these things in a very integrated level through the playful connection with the Pac-Man character.

I feel that the reading will serve as a good guide in brain storming and conceptualizing ideas for interactive narratives. However, the conundrum of the mash-up of concepts continues to be daunting to me. And I would want to really take time to figure my way around a little. Where do I position myself within the whole process, as auteur, as facilitator or as a participant amongst the audience as well?

Also, there is this definition that Zimmerman offers us regarding Play. Wherein he says that play is freedom of choice within a fixed structure. Play exists because of the rules and constrains and in spite of them as well. Here, I find that either I do not understand it enough or I might need further exploration, as I am concerned about how to be convincing and compelling enough that this play will be able to take place within the systems I create.

In conclusion I think that Zimmerman was really trying to push for a certain kind of value in all these things and how we might exact pleasure from it. Pleasure from the media that is intrinsic to the media itself, differing from say a book or a film. I think his points will be good to negotiate this and find a way to start. I hope, though, for the ideas to form more organically and in a way not prioritizing or setting limits for any of these interconnected concepts.

“I think the key divide between the interactive media and the narrative media is the difficulty in opening up an emphatic pathway between the gamer and the character, as differentiated from the audience and the characters in a movie or a television show.”

Steven Spielberg