Interactivity and Entertainment:Thoughts on Telltale’s Game of Thrones

I’ll open with Full Disclosure: I have not read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. At least, I have not ead all of it. I did read A Game of Thrones and get halfway through its sequel, A Clash of Kings, before my interest in Martin’s characters and world building was overcome by my impatience to see the story told. Therefore, my familiarity with the series is primarily rooted in the HBO television series — which is good, because Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones adventure game exists in the television universe, rather than the literary one.

 

The first episode (we’ll get to that in a moment) is titled Iron from Ice. My intent is not to review it — there is a good one here at GameSpot for those who are interested — but suffice it to say I very much enjoyed it and found it compelling enough to write this post based on my experiences with it. I played it while on a four hour flight home from San Juan, entirely in one two and a half hour or so sitting, which makes it about as long as one might expect a film to be but it felt just about the same length as an episode of the television show.  Just a note: I played it on an iPad 2, which meant it did not look great and the frame rate was a little choppy, but I do not think it impacted the experience too negatively. I plan on purchasing the complete series for either my PS3 or my gaming PC, so neither of those issues should be a concern for future episodes.

 

Before I continue, I encourage you, if you have not played the game itself or read a thorough review, to go to the GameSpot review linked above and give it a read before continuing — or, better yet, head over to Steam, the App Store or other game retailer of your choice and pick it up and play through it once. First of all, I do not intend to recap the story in detail (though there may be more than a few SPOILERS for the game in the rest of this post) and second, I am responding to the nature of adventure games in general, Telltale games in specific and this one in particular when I am discussing “Interactivity and Entertainment.”

 

That all said, let’s get right to the core of the matter: Telltale’s Game of Thrones Episode 1 – Iron from Ice is  a story which the audience experiences both passively (just like the television show, for example) and interactively (like a more traditional video game). I know that is a little controversial to say, but allow me to explain : Iron from Ice is a story because it has all the qualities of a story (a plot, character, setting, themes, mood, and so on) and while the interactive elements are compelling, they ultimately only have a superficial impact on how the story plays out. The story elements, while mutable to an extent, still exist as prescribed by the creators, so the “game” aspect of it is mostly an illusion. This is true of most adventure games, though most adventure games rely less on story on more on discrete puzzles to engage the player. This is also true of many games that do not even fall within the genre of “adventure game.” A game like the original God of War, for example, is mostly a linear series of set pieces that must be solved in a specific manner (aka puzzles) and a specific order, with frenetic combat thrown in to make it seem more like what we usually think of as a “game.” By contrast, something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is more game than story. There is a main quest line, of course, and a number of subplots all prescribed and populated, but all of those can be ignored in favor of looting dungeons, hunting dragons, collecting books or a million other things. While the game-story dividing line is broad and blurry (with even Skyrim only just on the “game” side compared to something like Pong) but Iron from Ice very clearly rests comfortably on the “story” side of the line. If you disagree, I encourage you to let me know in the comments or on the facebook page where we can discuss it further, but for now I am going to move forward with this definition in mind.

 

An interesting aspect of both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones is that these properties are highly successful television shows (of course spawned from comic books and novels, respectively) with well established and consistent tones, atmospheres and styles. Both shows leverage not only the source material but deviating from the source material, and each uses surprise and even shock to enhance its storytelling (rather than to replace the need for good storytelling, as a lot of lesser shows and films will do).

Exhibit A — Reactions to the “Red Wedding” on the  Game of Thrones television show:

 

You do not get this sort of visceral response unless the audience is fully invested in the story, which in itself is a sort of interactivity in the fiction. It seems inevitable, then, that the next logical step is the more properly interactive, immersive and invested world of electronic games for these properties: it is no longer enough to gasp at the knife as it is drawn across the throat, but also to be responsible for it by choosing the words and actions of the character whose life now flows freely onto the cold stone floor.

 

In both Game of Thrones and Walking dead, the story that telltale creates centers not around the protagonists of the existing properties (though many of those characters weave in an out of the stories) and instead star new characters. These characters are carefully integrated into their respective worlds and, especially in Game of Throne, echo archetypes from the source material, but new characters provides both a sense of ownership for the player as they make choices for those characters, but also a sense of uncertainty important to their properties.  Both Game of Thrones and Walking Dead have made it clear that no one is safe. A new character otherwise unconnected from the source narrative means an unknown fate and, by that, potential doom at any point. After all, the game presents enough other characters — you control four in Iron from Ice and a fifth is strongly hinted at — that sudden death does not necessarily mean rebooting to the last save. All of this combined for a more immersive experience.

 

The interactivity fuels that immersion and is fueled by it. Often, when the player chooses dialog or an action for the character they currently control a little note appears in the corner, telling the player that this character or that noticed it or will remember it. It says to the player, “Your choices matter,” even if they really do not. And, ultimately, that the player thinks the choices matter is far more important to their enjoyment than that those choices do matter. The stories are so well crafted that the apparent choices seem to lead naturally to the outcomes presented, even if those outcomes are prescribed anyway. Therefore, the interactivity of it, the choosing it and being immersed by it and feeling connected to the characters and the world, is both the goal and the means to the goal. Yes, Telltale has a story to relate, but you are responsible for getting there and along the way you find yourself deeply connected to the events of that narrative.

 

I think there will always be a place for passive entertainment — reading a great book, watching a great movie or listening to a great album. But technology has finally gotten to a place where a whole new world of truly interactive, immersive entertainment — going for beyond simple stories and games, I think — sits before us. Telltale has managed to dare us to dip out toe into that future.

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Inspirational As Fuck

On Sunday, March 9, 2014, Fox (the entertainment channel, not the “news” channel) began their broadcast of the new COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey television series.

 

The following video pretty much sums up my reaction:

 

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Whoever that kid is, here is hoping she remembers this in 20 or 30 years.

 

Watching the new COSMOS was an interesting experience. As a fan of science and science edutainment in general, I was pretty familiar with most of the actual scientific information conveyed by the show’s amazing host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. The fact was, in fact, that there was not a lot of it there (although I must say that historical information surrounding Giordano Bruno was new to me) which I found mildly disappointing. That is, until I realized that science, or at least specific scientific facts, are not the point of the new COSMOS. It was only when Tyson, at the end of the episode, gave his very personal account of a meeting with the late, great Carl Sagan that I understood what COSMOS intended to be:

 

Inspirational As Fuck.

 

Take a look at that video linked above. THAT is why this new COSMOS exists. Scientific literacy and interest are at an all time low and the future of human spaceflight may not sit with America. In light of this turn of events in the latter quarter of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, a show like Tyson’s (and Seth MacFarlane — yes, the Family Guy guy) COSMOS is not just a good idea, but a necessary step in the war for the minds, hearts and dreams of the next generation. Both Tyson and MacFarlane have expressed in multiple interviews the importance of making sure the show would be broadcast on a national network as opposed to a niche cable network like Discovery Channel. In short, it comes down to navel gazing and preaching to the choir: viewers like me, who search out NOVA and The Universe for our edutainment don’t “need” COSMOS. Arguably, my kids don’t either, because I have already exposed them to science and science based entertainment. But, if America is to regain its prominence is science and technology and have a shot at competing in the new, global space race, the next generation of American Idol viewers to fall in love with, well, the cosmos.

 

As a writer of science fiction, I think about the future a lot. My views, whether I am optimistic or pessimistic, vary over time, depending on my mood. I must admit that right now, I am in a pessimistic mood regarding humanity’s future as it relates to technology and especially human exploration of and migration into space. I don’t necessarily believe that we can summon the wherewithal to achieve great advances in human spaceflight before circumstances — over population, climate change, imminent asteroid impact, or what have you — make it necessary. I would be more surprised, frankly, in a human exodus to the other planets than I would in the complete collapse of human civilization. Even if we leave this cradle, I do not think whatever it is that leaves would continue to be able to be called human: human is a very specific creature, evolved on a very specific world, to which life in orbit and/or on an alien world is inimical.

 

But then, I watch as Neil deGrasse Tyson guide me through a visually stunning tour of the cosmos and a little part of my old, optimistic self flutters to life. For just a moment, I imagine a clean, Rodenberry-esque future where dedicated research and the intentional rejection of divisive politics, religion and economics has allowed us to solve the scientific and engineering challenges inherent in the idea of not simply human habitation in space, but human mastery of it. For those few moments, before all my fears of human weakness, greed and stupidity quash that vision, I see the future that COSMOS is offering.

Teledildonics: Sex and Futurism

Quick Edit: First draft was a little on the harsh side. I don’t know John Aziz or his work. That said, I still hold the linked article is not very well written.

 

Over at The Week writer John Aziz discusses (poorly) the emerging field of teledildonics. For those without their finger (or whatever) on the pulse of sex-tech, teledildonics is what Geordie LaForge might call web enabled sex toys, designed for use by individuals on opposite sides of an internet connection — which could be in the other room or in orbit.

Aziz says

It’s easy to condemn such things as weird or bizarre.

And I’d say that’s for good reason: Hooking up via vibrating plastic accessories attached to an internet-connected computer is clearly not the most obvious way for two people to be intimate. It is rather like a Rube Goldberg machine: an extremely complicated solution to a simple problem. Why go to such trouble to create virtual sexual experiences when real-world sex is possible without all the technology getting in the way?

In addition to being insulting, the above is obtuse. Why go through the trouble? Perhaps because a spouse or lover is separated by geographical distance. Perhaps because that lover has a medical condition that prohibits intimate interpersonal contact. or, perhaps, because it is fun to do something a little different — you know, some of the same sorts of reasons people include non-tele-dildonics in their love lives.

Aziz notes the importance of “porn” in advancing technology (though he fails to qualify that as “consumer technology” which is a relatively important distinction) but then steps over the line to suggest its inevitable powerful impact on robotics. Futuristic sex robots are not likely to push the technology in the same ways as video buffering, however. The adult industry as refined technology and applied it to consumers in new ways, but high end R&D is outside that industry’s purview. Sex robots won’t arise from the adult industry, but may well overtake it when lifelike androids become standard in our culture (which may never come to pass, of course).

Ultimately, sex with robots arises from the same place of desire as does sex with prostitutes: it promises (however unrealistically) to be both novel and to fulfilling in a way that sex with a partner (as in an equal) cannot be because partnership demands both familiarity and equitibility of pleasure. Sexbots would, one assumes, be whatever the user desired and also do whatever the user desired — like picking a girl up out of the lineup of the Bunny Ranch but with none of the human (or legal) restrictions).

More likely than the emergence anytime soon of the sexbot will be the integration of teledildonics into the adult industry. The convergence of cam girls and teledildonics seems not just inevitable, but natural. How it will be construed in regards to anti-prostitution laws is an open question and certainly one worth exploring. Include the ever-inching-forward technology of virtual reality and the future looks bright for both the long distance relationship and the virtual sex worker.