Thursday, August 22, 2013

What to expect from an expecting economist

It is not every day that a new book about parenting comes out from an academic economist. This time around, however, the book was not about parenting but pre-parenting. Emily Oster, a University of Chicago Booth School economics professor, became obsessed with the rules being laid down for her when she became pregnant; so much so that she decided to research them and now write a book about what she found. The book is called Expecting Better and I have to say that I picked it up with relish in the hope that I could start this review with "well, I was expecting better" but instead, I have to say, upon reading it cover-to-cover in a single sitting, "I was expecting worse."

Here is what I was expecting: a fairly dry review of the medical basis behind lots of pregnancy advice with a high degree of qualification that would really only be of interest to people while they or their spouse was pregnant. In other words, I didn't think it would be interesting to me as I was more than done with pregnancy but I did hope it was something I could recommend to the pregnant.

Instead, what was delivered (pun intended) was quite a personal account. Here is the story of a woman who finds herself completely at sea and out of control in what is most likely the major transformational event of her life. She receives a raft of rules set down by convention and medical dictate that have the immediate effect of making her life worse and more stressful. And so to cope she does what surely many have done before her and asks, why? 

The problem most people face when they ask "why" is that they are not equipped to wade into the medical literature and sort something useful out. There is a raft of terminology, a myriad of journals (if you can get access to them) and then there is the methodology behind the studies. Oster believes that it was her training as an economist that gave her the skills to take on the challenge of answering the why question but, in fact, she was much more than that. Oster is a health economist and one who has already delved deep into the medical literature for her research. To do so again for this task was, in fact, quite natural. Indeed, as I'll come to in a bit, Oster has received huge amounts of criticism for her findings, many of which claimed she had no right to write this book as an economist. However, when you look at her research, that charge is completely unfair. Compared to some of us who make pronouncements on things outside of their economic expertise, Oster was close to her core speciality here.

But it was the style of this book that gives it power. It is a narrative of Oster's own pregnancy with her first child and takes us through those stages. But along the way she explains to the reader statistics, the importance of distributional assumptions, selection bias, correlation versus causation, and decision theory. While the subject matter is special, the explanations are first rate. A great example is the chapter on prenatal screening and testing. This involves the decision to undertake noninvasive and invasive tests for chromosome disorders in your baby. This is actually a situation where parents have some discretion over what to do. But Oster convincingly takes the reader through the real probabilistic calculations (including conditional probability) in a very accessible way. That entire chapter would surely be one of the great cases to give to MBA students. I only wish we had thought about half of the issues there when making our decisions 15 years ago on this issue.

Not all information was as hard to parse as prenatal screening and when it is easy, Oster is straightforward about it. Even so, she finds the underlying studies and presents them. There is hardly an issue from conception timing to choosing whether to induce that she does not touch on. To be sure, she skirts the entire subject of whether to prepare the baby's room prior to pregnancy and also whether her pre-birth house changes actually ended up making sense but, for the stuff where there is a medical literature, Oster is there. That said, she never touched on the issue of whether father's should deliver their own babies (as I ended up doing) but I suspect there just isn't a literature on that.

Inevitably, coverage of this book has been controversial. Not surprisingly, her publishers put out extracts, not on whether gardening is a good idea or even whether to take anti-nausea medication (although one wonder's what Oster's mother-in-law thought of the chapter title "Nausea and My Mother-in-law"!) but instead that it was OK to drink alcohol and have coffee in moderation. This flies in the face of the general blanket advice and also the cultural lore on pregnancy. And before Oster, millions of mothers have forgone much for the "good of the baby" and surely had built a mindset that it was all worth it. Here, Oster was saying that maybe it wasn't worth it and, it was hardly surprising, that this was seen as an affront; the sort of affront that can get you many one-star Amazon reviews from people who clearly had not read the book.

I can sympathise with that. I've been there. I mean, I suggested that parents should think about themselves when getting a baby to sleep. How dare I!

There is, however, a deeper issue here. I know many people who like to understand where blanket rules come from and to decide for themselves. This is hardly surprising as academic economists constantly are asking why and challenging one size fits all approaches. However, there are also people who prefer to be told what to do, especially when it comes to medical issues of which there are possibly consequences. Do you really want to have personal responsibility for issues when you can leave it in the hands of professionals? After all, when it comes down to it, in no place did Oster give advice that it was OK to decide what to do when the baby's health was at risk. Whenever that happened she unambiguously advised against breaking conventional norms. Instead, what she does is reduce the set of rules that you have to obey. For some people, being given discretion may not give them satisfaction.

This book is not for them. It is for, I guess, those on the more neurotic side of parenting who want to know what is going on. Oster serves them well. She takes her own angst and has generated a public good that may actually go along way towards making people's pregnancies easier, more understandable and less stressful. We could have used this book 15 years ago and my spouse would have had more sushi as a result. 

But I couldn't help but think what is coming. Oster is a parent now and if you think the advice is ambiguous prior to birth that is nothing compared to what it is post-birth. I can only imagine Oster is devouring those studies and will in a year or so produce the next volume in the series. For me, that involved a more rigorous application of economic theory than books on parenting had ever done. However, I look forward to the data on those issues being neatly synthesised. It will be doubly interesting because Oster's parents, both academic economists, did the same thing using Oster as a three year old subject; finding that baby babbling in a crib was actually coherent. Actually, make that triply interesting, as Oster's husband, economist Jessie Shapiro, will likely be a stronger part of that (he was kind of hands-off during pregnancy) and has already, as pointed out on page 1 of Expecting Better, delved into controversial parenting subjects in his own research. I definitely have high expectations for that work now.

Monday, August 19, 2013

5 Core Elements Of Interactive Storytelling

Over the past few years I have had a growing feeling that videogame storytelling is not what it could be. And the core issue is not in the writing, themes, characters or anything like that; instead, the main problem is with the overall delivery. There is always something that hinders me from truly feeling like I am playing a story. After pondering this on and off for quite some time I have come up with a list of five elements that I think are crucial to get the best kind of interactive narrative.

The following is my personal view on the subject, and is much more of a manifesto than an attempt at a rigorous scientific theory. That said, I do not think these are just some flimsy rules or the summary of a niche aesthetic. I truly believe that this is the best foundational framework to progress videogame storytelling and a summary of what most people would like out of an interactive narrative.

Also, it's important to note that all of the elements below are needed. Drop one and the narrative experience will suffer.

With that out of the way, here goes:

1) Focus on Storytelling
This is a really simple point: the game must be, from the ground up, designed to tell a story. It must not be a game about puzzles, stacking gems or shooting moving targets. The game can contain all of these features, but they cannot be the core focus of the experience. The reason for the game to exist must be the wish to immerse the player inside a narrative; no other feature must take precedence over this.

The reason for this is pretty self-evident. A game that intends to deliver the best possible storytelling must of course focus on this. Several of the problems outlined below directly stem from this element not being taken seriously enough.

A key aspect to this element is that the story must be somewhat tangible. It must contain characters and settings that can be identified with and there must be some sort of drama. The game's narrative cannot be extremely abstract, too simplistic or lack any interesting, story-related, happenings.

2) Most of the time is spent playing
Videogames are an interactive medium and therefore the bulk of the experience must involve some form of interaction. The core of the game should not be about reading or watching cutscenes, it should be about playing. This does not mean that there needs to be continual interaction; there is still room for downtime and it might even be crucial to not be playing constantly.

The above sounds pretty basic, almost a fundamental part of game design, but it is not that obvious. A common "wisdom" in game design is that choice is king, which Sid Meier's quote "a game is a series of interesting choices" neatly encapsulate. However, I do not think this holds true at all for interactive storytelling. If choices were all that mattered, choose your own adventure books should be the ultimate interaction fiction - they are not. Most celebrated and narrative-focused videogames does not even have any story-related choices at all (The Last of Us is a recent example). Given this, is interaction really that important?

It sure is, but not for making choices. My view is that the main point of interaction in storytelling is to create a sense of presence, the feeling of being inside the game's world. In order to achieve this, there needs to be a steady flow of  active play. If the player remains inactive for longer periods, they will distance themselves from the experience. This is especially true during sections when players feel they ought to be in control. The game must always strive to maintain and strengthen experience of "being there".

3) Interactions must make narrative sense
In order to claim that the player is immersed in a narrative, their actions must be somehow connected to the important happenings. The gameplay must not be of irrelevant, or even marginal, value to the story. There are two major reasons for this.

First, players must feel as though they are an active part of the story and not just an observer. If none of the important story moments include agency from the player, they become passive participants. If the gameplay is all about matching gems then it does not matter if players spends 99% of their time interacting; they are not part of any important happenings and their actions are thus irrelevant. Gameplay must be foundational to the narrative, not just a side activity while waiting for the next cutscene.

Second, players must be able to understand their role from their actions. If the player is supposed to be a detective, then this must be evident from the gameplay. A game that requires cutscenes or similar to explain the player's part has failed to tell its story properly.

4) No repetitive actions
The core engagement from many games come from mastering a system. The longer time players spend with the game, the better they become at it. In order for this process to work, the player's actions must be repeated over and over. But repetition is not something we want in a well formed story. Instead we want activities to only last as long as the pacing requires. The players are not playing to become good at some mechanics, they are playing to be part of an engrossing story. When an activity has played out its role, a game that wants to do proper storytelling must move on.

Another problem with repetition is that it breaks down the player's imagination. Other media rely on the audience's mind to fill out the blanks for a lot of the story's occurrences. Movies and novels are vague enough to support these kinds of personal interpretations. But if the same actions are repeated over and over, the room for imagination becomes a lot slimmer. Players lose much of the ability to fill gaps and instead get a mechanical view of the narrative.

This does not mean that the core mechanics must constantly change, it just means that there must be variation on how they are used. Both Limbo and Braid are great examples of this. The basic gameplay can be learned in a minute, but the games still provide constant variation throughout the experience.

5) No major progression blocks
In order to keep players inside a narrative, their focus must constantly be on the story happenings. This does not rule out challenges, but it needs to be made sure that an obstacle never consumes all focus. It must be remembered that the players are playing in order to experience a story. If they get stuck at some point, focus fade away from the story, and is instead put on simply progressing. In turn, this leads to the unraveling of the game's underlying mechanics and for players to try and optimize systems. Both of these are problems that can seriously degrade the narrative experience.

There are three common culprits for this: complex or obscure puzzles, mastery-demanding sections and maze-like environments. All of these are common in games and make it really easy for players to get stuck. Either by not being sure what to do next, or by not having the skills required to continue. Puzzles, mazes and skill-based challenges are not banned, but it is imperative to make sure that they do not hamper the experience. If some section is pulling players away from the story, it needs to go.

Games that do this
These five elements all sound pretty obvious. When writing the above I often felt I was pointing out things that were already widespread knowledge. But despite this, very few games incorporate all of the above. This is quite astonishing when you think about it. The elements by themselves are quite common, but the combination of all is incredibly rare.

The best case for games of pure storytelling seems to be visual novels. But these all fail at element 2; they simply are not very interactive in nature and the player is mostly just a reader. They often also fails at element 3 as they do not give the player much actions related to the story (most are simply played out in a passive manner).

Action games like Last of Us and Bioshock infinite all fail on elements 4 and 5 (repetition and progression blocks). For larger portions of the game they often do not meet the requirements of element 3 (story related actions) either. It is also frequently the case that much of the story content is delivered in long cutscenes, which means that some do not even manage to fulfill element 2 (that most of the game is played). RPG:s do not fare much better as they often contain very repetitive elements. They often also have way too much downtime because of lengthy cutscenes and dialogue.

Games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead comes close to feeling like an interactive narrative, but fall flat at element 2. These games are basically just films with interactions slapped on to them. While interaction plays an integral part in the experience it cannot be said to be a driving force. Also, apart from a few instances the gameplay is all about reacting, it does have have the sort of deliberate planning that other games do. This removes  a lot of the engagement that otherwise come naturally from videogames.

So what games do fulfill all of these elements? As the requirements of each element are not super specific, fulfillment depends on how one choose to evaluate. The one that I find comes closest is Thirty Flights of Loving, but it is slightly problematic because the narrative is so strange and fragmentary. Still, it is by far the game that comes closest to incorporating all elements. Another close one is To The Moon, but it relies way too much on dialog and cutscenes to meet the requirements. Gone Home is also pretty close to fulfilling the elements. However, your actions have little relevance to the core narrative and much of the game is spent reading rather than playing.

Whether one choose to see these games are fulfilling the requirements or not, I think they show the path forward. If we want to improve interactive storytelling, these are the sort of places to draw inspiration from. Also, I think it is quite telling that all of these games have gotten both critical and (as far as I know) commercial success. There is clearly a demand and appreciation for these sort of experiences.

Final Thoughts
It should be obvious, but I might as well say it: these elements say nothing of the quality of a game. One that meets none of the requirements can still be excellent, but it cannot claim to have fully playable, interactive storytelling as its main concern. Likewise, a game that fulfills all can still be crap. These elements just outline the foundation of a certain kind of experience. An experience that I think is almost non-existent in videogames today.

I hope that these five simple rules will be helpful for people to evaluate and structure their projects. The sort of videogames that can come out of this thinking is an open question as there is very little done so far. But the games that are close to having all these elements hint at a very wide range of experiences indeed. I have no doubts that this path will be very fruitful to explore.

  • Another important aspects of interaction that I left out is the ability to plan. I mention it a bit when discussing Walking Dead and Heavy Rain, but it is a worth digging into a little bit deeper. What we want from good gameplay interaction is not just that the player presses a lot of buttons. We want these actions to have some meaning for the future state of the game. When making an input players should be simulating in their minds how they see it turning out. Even if it just happens on a very short time span (eg "need to turn now to get a shot at the incoming asteroid") it makes all the difference as now the player has adapted the input in way that never happens in a purely reactionary game.
  • The question of what is deemed repetitive is quite interesting to discuss. For instance, a game like Dear Esther only has the player walking or looking, which does not offer much variety. But since the scenery is constantly changing, few would call the game repetitive. Some games can also offer really complex and varied range of actions, but if the player is tasked to perform these constantly in similar situations, they quickly gets repetitive. I think is fair to say that repetition is mostly an asset problem. Making a non-repetitive game using limited asset counts is probably not possible. This also means that a proper storytelling game is bound to be asset heavy.
  • Here are some other games that I feel are close to fulfilling all elements: The Path, Journey, Everyday the Same Dream, Dinner Date, Imortall and Kentucky Route Zero. Whether they succeed or not is a bit up to interpretation, as all are a bit borderline. Still all of these are well worth one's attention. This also concludes the list of all games I can think of that have, or at least are closing to having,  all five of these elements.

Here is some more information on how repetition and challenge destroy the imaginative parts of games and make them seem more mechanical.
This is a nice overview on how many storytelling games give the player no meaningful choices at all.
The Last of Us is the big storytelling game of 2013. Here is a collection of thoughts on what can be learned from it.
Visual Novels are not to be confused with Interactive Fiction, which is another name for text adventure games.

Thirty Flights of Loving
This game is played from start to finish and has a very interesting usages of scenes and cuts.

To The Moon
This is basically an rpg but with all of the fighting taken out. It is interesting how much emotion that can be gotten from simple pixel graphics.

Gone Home
This game is actually a bit similar to To The Moon in that it takes an established genre and cuts away anything not to do with telling a story. A narrative emerge by simply exploring an environment.