Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Storytelling with Amnesia

via Marxchivist
While I hate to harken back to Halloween, having now passed Thanksgiving, there is one ritual associated with the former holiday that I feel has year-round appeal; ghost stories.  This past Halloween I managed to engage in two forms of the modern ghost story- I watched both a marathon of 'American Horror Story' episodes (verdict: I like it) and Sean Plott (better known to Starcraft fans as Day9) live stream his play-through of the critically acclaimed horror computer game Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  While both played on familiar horror tropes- dramatic lighting, eerie music and action 'jolts'- I found myself more intrigued with Plott's play-through of Amnesia, in part because it was a computer game (yes, I'm a nerd) but mostly because I immediately sensed that this was a new type of ghost story in which I was participating.  Not only was there the appeal of the main storyline being 'told' through play, but Plott also displayed in his live feed a camera on himself that allowed viewers to see his reactions to horrific elements interspersed in the game.  Plott also set-up a chat room for viewers to espouse their comments (or taunts/jeers), making the experience interactive and not simply a one-way netcast.  While there were moments of tedium, anytime tense or scary moments developed I was engaged and watching with bated breath to see what would happen to Plott's character.  Even though I wasn't playing the game I was still drawn into viewing its narrative effect not simply for the story but also to watch the reaction of players recording or streaming the game because in doing so I felt like a participant in the communal act of telling scary stories.

Screenshot of the Sewer in Amneisa- via Frictional Games
Go search YouTube for Amnesia videos and you will see that I'm not alone- there are several examples of others recording themselves playing and reacting to the game's many scary moments.  After watching only a few it becomes obvious that the makers of Amnesia, Frictional Games, developed a truly immersive and deeply frightful environment.  In his GDC Europe 2011 talk, 'Evoking Emotions and Achieving Success by Breaking All the Rules', lead designer Thomas Grip discussed how the Amnesia team made several unconventional (for the Horror genre) choices in the basic mechanics of the game, those being no death, no weapons and no competitive mechanics.  While Grip does a fine job of explaining why these choices were made in his GDC Talk, I believe this quote from his post reviewing 'Heavy Rain' on the blog 'In the Games of Madness: Unspeakable thoughts on horror game design and development' provides a good summation:
What I think happens is that as we interact in a videogame, there is feedback loop between us sending input to the game and us getting information back from the game (in the form of visuals, audio, etc). which builds the basis of us feeling present inside the game's virtual world.  The better this loop works, the more we feel as a part of the experience.
Eschewing traditional mechanics in horror games- the fear of death, the need for weapons, and 'gaming the game' to defeat the various monster obstacles- Amnesia instead relies upon the circulation of information between the game and the player to capture interest and create a compelling atmosphere.  By removing the more obvious 'game' mechanics Frictional Games paradoxically created an even better 'game' that borderlines on interactive storytelling.  Yet players don't feel like the game is a movie- indeed, one of the reasons for Amnesia's emotion evoking success is how easily (perhaps deceptively) it convinces players that their agency in narrative action is real and has consequences that a flowing movie-like narrative structure wouldn't allow.  Thanks to tweaks in how important mood elements (the sanity meter and appearance of monsters) operate, Amnesia creates effortless feedback loops that, honestly, rely much more on the player than the game to provide both fuel and production of emotive responses.  In this regard playing the game is akin to listening to a ghost story.

via William Cromar
This, alone, would be impressive in and of itself.  Yet Frictional Games went a step further and released mod tools for the player community to use for creating their own Amnesia 'stories'.  The results were impressive, as noted by Grip in his post about Amnesia, one year later, found again on 'Games of Madness':
Another pleasant surprise was the amount of custom stories that have been made.  In Penumbra we only knew of a single attempt to make a user-created level and that one was never released in public.  For Amnesia at least 300 custom story projects have been started, and 20 or so have actually become completed, high quality, experiences.  There has even been a Tetris clone with the tools! … It really show that supplying users with creation of tools is well worth the time.
Over at the ModDB 'Amnesia' site there are listed 75 'story' mods in various stages of completion.  One of the most impressive stories in terms of its scope and complete reworking of the original Amnesia setting is 'White Night', created by Turkish Computer Engineering student Tansel Altinel.  On the 'summary' page of White Night's ModDB entry, Altinel makes it clear up front: "White Night is a total conversion mod for Amnesia: The Dark Descent; and focuses on mostly storytelling." (Emphasis in original)  This is evident the moment you boot up the 'story' as Altinel has clearly spent a lot of time on crafting not only a new environment (Amnesia takes place in a castle, White Night at the Denver Mental Hospital) but also new objects, like the box lightbulbs come in, for the player to pick up, examine and toss about the various rooms in the asylum.  This level of detail only adds to the 'feedback loop' Grip describes above and brings the player deeper into the story experience.

Denver State Hospital Entrance
Denver State Hospital Entrance found in 'White Night'
What's even more interesting is how both the original Amnesia and the player created 'stories' allow for more than just single-person interaction when the players themselves either record or stream their gameplay experience.  In the case with Sean Plott's live stream, which included a chat room viewers used to comment, the back and forth between player and viewers produced a mix of teases, taunts, even helpful suggestions.  Even though some of the chat room participants, and probably many of the viewers who watched the archival video, already knew the Amnesia story through previous play, they spent time watching Plott play the same game because there was participatory value in watching him encounter and experience the same frightful moments as they did. Much like those who gather around campfires or held flashlights to tell ghost stories, viewers/commenters of Amnesia or its mod derivatives are engaging in a community-themed narrative experience that heavily relies upon the feedback loop between the story and the listener.

One key difference that viewers/streamers/recorders of Amnesia have over the campfire/flashlight crowd is that they are engaging the narrative story in an augmented reality whereby the experience can be shared online for others to view and engage.  Campfire stories are limited to the time and space they are told, whereas Amnesia stories can be told over much longer spans of time and greater distances thanks to their presence in the analog/digital intermeshing that is augmented reality.

Had Frictional Games instead decided to keep the weapons system they first designed for Amnesia instead of cutting it (watch the GDC Europe talk), I'm not sure the streams and recordings of play-throughs would possess the same narrative impact.  The same goes with repeated death moments or the inclusion of competitive mechanics (the game hunting the player down).  These mechanics would be fun for the player (maybe) but not necessarily for the viewer.  By focusing on the immersion, the feedback loop, Frictional Games instead created a narrative experience that could become communal- something I'm not sure would be as possible without the presence of an augmented reality.  Perhaps, as the various player created 'stories' for Amnesia indicate, there is a future for this new type of narrative experience.


  1. This is a wonderful post, I have to say. I'm always on the lookout, myself, for the invasion of oral traditions (and, inspired by you, augmented realities in general) into releases of established, slow media, and this confirms my own thoughts about the resilience of certain emergent, or should I say pre-existing, modes of play and/or interaction (that is, I'm lacking for words here; please accept "emergent," "play," and "interaction" in lieu of more informed terminology).

    In particular, I find the following assertion amazing, almost incredible: "Amnesia creates effortless feedback loops that, honestly, rely much more on the player than the game to provide both fuel and production of emotive responses." On the one hand, I'm suspicious about the possibility of pre-programming such experiences into any non-human-mediated interface and expecting the same orality to emerge as it does in an actual ghost story. In other words, how can you expect to have a ghost story without a human teller? The very experience of the ghost story relies on someone having a feel for his audience. On the other hand, however, I find myself inserting a personal assumption of my own of such human mediation into your essay, thus understanding you to mean that human mediation is somehow already there when one enters such a game. In other words, though not having played this game, I'm somehow assuming not only that the ghost story experience of this game requires a human storyteller, but that it somehow has this very storyteller somehow, perhaps contradictorily to my own assumption, built-in.

    In short, I'm not exactly sure whether your jump from the gameplay of Amnesia to the storyteller/modder function, your modal linking of the two functions, works, or whether these are two mismatched ends of a fairly complicated and subjective set of pipes that just won't fit all that well. Perhaps using mismatched pipe-ends, so to speak, is inherent in the nature of augmented realities. But then, is it fair to claim, as you seem to do, that one framework of augmented reality matches another one? Or is there a small but critical leak here?

  2. I've been thinking more about this experience of watching someone play Amnesia on YouTube, and I feel I need to revise my earlier comment. Indeed, the YouTube experience is precisely where, to me, the storyteller function lies. To be sure, the person both playing and on-webcam isn't varying his or her story in any collaborative sense, but perhaps the experience is still actively social, even conscientious in a real-time fashion. In all, via your game analogy, I'm beginning to better understand your use of the notion of augmented realities -- *other* augmented realities than those in the various quasi-traditional settings of oral ghost stories, but still a shifting midpoint between critically different modes of information transmission, which allow for on-the-spot re-arbitration and/or re-interpretation of rules, conditions, meanings, etc. My own concern still lies within intuited emotional connections, which must change radically between compared in-person and on-line events of any sort, but there's no reason to reject the new connections simply because they don't match up with, or aren't even clearly defined by, the terms of the old.

    Thanks again for the post. I hope you don't mind that I used your comments area as meditation space. Sorry if it is an inconvenience.

  3. Ishai,

    Thanks again for the supportive and constructive comments. Let me see if I can address your points.

    From the the first comment:

    About using 'informed terminology'- I think the terms you used are pretty good. At the end of my response I will post some links to readings that use those terms to describe human interaction with games.

    'Pre-programing such experiences'- In order to explain how I came to the statement on effortless feedback loops, I need to give away a bit of the 'mystique' of the Amnesia game engine as revealed by Thomas Grip in his GDC Europe 2011 talk that I linked to in the post above. (It really is great to watch, so I recommend viewing it if you've already watched youtube video of people playing the game) Grip stated that the design team didn't know how to address the issue of monsters, given that they abandoned weapons, and still maintain the atmosphere and immersion they sought. Their solution was both elegant and, I think, genius. Here's how it works- if you trigger the appearance of a monster (by progressing to a certain part of the map or picking up an item) the game tells you to hide in the darkness so the monster can't find you. In game terms, the AI knows where the player is, so the design team just programed the monsters to walk very close to the player and pause by them before walking away. There is no secret place to hide, no other mechanic than the monster walks close to the character- yet, as you've seen in the youtube videos, these encounters are so intense and terrifying for the players they often freak out and run away from the monster. The point here is that the player provides all the fear, all the emotion, that the game's atmosphere is trying to create. Instead of programming a monster that hunts the player down, they created the illusion of being hunted by a simple rule and let the player do all the emotive work. The human storyteller in Amnesia is the player themselves. Once you know this, the scariness of the game is somewhat (perhaps greatly) diminished. That's why Grip says in his GDC talk that part of the task of creating immersion is keeping the game 'opaque' to the player so that they can't 'game' the system through play.

    This is why 'modding' the game to create unique stories for others to play still holds up as a new kind of ghost story- the system is designed so that the player brings all the needed emotion and engagement and the game (the narrative plot) needs only to prod the player along to produce the chilling effect. Even viewers of the game bring this emotive potential to the story, although the effect might be diminished due to the 'second order' nature of viewing a replay or live-stream.

  4. Response to Ishai, part II

    From your second comment:

    Yes, you are correct that viewing an archived video on YouTube is not collaborative in the traditional sense of a 'campfire' ghost story, but you can leave comments or even take the footage and remix it for various creative purposes. (Telling a new story, so to speak) But when viewers live-stream their playing, then we are approaching a much closer resemblance to the collaborative atmosphere traditional ghost stories entailed. Your understanding of what 'augmented realities' are is spot on and I think a great way for it to be defined. The real key here is that 'augmented realities' are facilitated by a the presence of online communication networks, like the internet, in order for the 'on-the-spot re-arbitration and/or re-interpretation of the rules, conditions, meanings, etc.' to have a greater transformative potential and effect to a wider, networked, audience. To be sure, people heard ghost stories and then re-told them or changed parts of the story when they re-told them, but that variation of the story could only spread as far as the oral teller traveled and told the story. 'Augmented Reality' creates new connections and means of interpreting information, so it does behave differently than 'the terms of the old'.

    If you have more comments, let me know.