Friday, May 04, 2007

Game Friday: Lessons in Environmental Storytelling from an Imagineer

There's a game design source I used extensively at the beginning of development for Operation Spy: Gamasutra. If anyone out there is considering creating an industry catch-all site for museum-related content, I highly recommend Gamasutra as a model. It combines a job bank with news about developments in the gaming world and, my favorite, an impressive collection of feature articles on the art, business, and production of games.

Two of the articles that most influenced me were written by Don Carson, Disney imagineer turned video game designer, about "environmental storytelling." (You may need to create a free Gamasutra account to read part 1 and part 2.) The first one opens with these comments:

If I have an all encompassing desire for any computer game I play or themed attraction I visit, it is this:

Take me to a place that:

  • Lets me go somewhere I could never go.
  • Lets me be someone I could never be.
  • Lets me do things I could never do!

When I read this list, my mind leaps to fantasy. The “imagined world” Carson talks about can be highly themed (as at Disneyland) or abstract and minimal (as in board games). In both cases, there is a strong unifying theme that orients and surrounds the user. But it’s not just the immersion that makes the experience entertaining and compelling to users; it’s the roles and actions the users get to take.

When you play a good game, you don’t think of yourself as a player manipulating objects. You aren’t moving Pacman around; you are Pacman. You aren’t telling Link where to go; you are Link. You aren’t on a rollercoaster that is themed to look like a Wild West train ride; you are on a Wild West train ride that happens to be implemented as a rollercoaster.

Can museums afford to indulge in this kind of fantasy? The Spy Museum has been both lauded and criticized for “Disneyfying” the museum experience by designing in a hefty dose of narrative, themed immersion. The unifying story is espionage, and the game-like question: “Do you have what it takes to be a spy?” is explicitly posed to the guests at the beginning of the experience. One of the things I think guests enjoy about the Spy Museum is this invitation to play spy, to get a taste of seeing/being/doing something fantastical.

Getting people to play scientist or art historian may be a tougher sell than getting them to play James Bond. But incorporating good environmental storytelling techniques from the game world doesn't mean you have to put on mouse ears (or a trenchcoat). What makes a great immersive experience? Here are some lessons I've learned from Carson...

Orient People to the Unifying Story or Theme. Hanging a sign that says JUNGLE LAND is not enough to sell people on the idea that they are entering a jungle. Carson argues that environments have to answer two user questions immediately: “Where am I?” and “What is my relationship to this place?” If a person can confidently answer both these questions, he or she is ready and open to experience the environment without constantly wondering how they are supposed to feel or what they are supposed to do.

The answers to these two questions define what Carson calls the "story" of the experience. This story doesn't have to be a narrative he said she said; it can be as simple as "we are monkeys swinging through the jungle" or "I am Pacman. I eat dots and avoid monsters." Little kids are excellent at coming up with these kinds of open-ended, non-linear story spaces ("I'm the teacher, you're the student," "we're in the circus," etc.) that combine strict rules with a wide range of possible actions.

It drives me nuts when I’m in a museum that has made a half-hearted attempt to thematically connected galleries or exhibits. If a museum makes a choice (as many science and some art museums have) to disaggregate and somewhat randomly (from a guest perspective) distribute exhibits, okay. When I’m in MOMA, at least I know that as I go from room to room of the main collection, I’m not “missing” any particular era, genre, or artist. In my head, I say, “I am in a museum. My job is to float around and experience things.”

But when a museum exhibition makes a weak or partial attempt at aggregation, I start to get confused. Where am I? Am I in the red wing or the blue wing? The Human Cell or The Beginning of Life? Did I miss a period in history by skipping a room or did the exhibition just gloss over that decade?

Similarly, exhibitions that are unclear about my relationship to the space are confusing. Am I supposed to look respectfully or explore exuberantly? Can I touch? Am I supposed to do something? Confusion over the “rules” of visitor relationship to museum content has led me to have many humorous experiences with museum guards. In most situations, I didn’t willfully “cross the line” of museum acceptability; I just had no idea where that line was. I want a little kid's designation: this is a bunch of art you can touch. This is a human heart you can explore like a little red blood cell. Which leads to the second requirement...

Reinforce and Uphold the Story and "Rules" of the Environment.
Obviously it’s much easier to answer these questions about place and role when you are playing within the “rules” of a game or ride. When you are strapped into a roller coaster car, you are fairly confident of your role and relationship to the space. When you play chess, you have a good idea about what’s acceptable and what’s possible.

We usually think of rules as confining the realm of possibility, but Carson argues that strong structure and adherence to rules enhances guest comfort to "play" within the imagined environment. As he puts it:
Most important of all is once you have created this story, or the rules by which your imagined universe exists, you do not break them! These rules can be broad, but if they are broken your visitors will feel cheated. They will be slapped in the face with the contradiction and never again allow themselves to be as lost in your world as they might have been at the onset.
Many exhibit designers are already familiar with situations in which rules work in our favor. Keeping exhibit labels consistent throughout a gallery supports visitor expectations about the type of information to be found on those labels. Consistent light levels, spacing of artifacts or exhibits, size of exhibitions, can all contribute to visitor comfort and familiarity.

But games don't try to make you comfortable in a baseline situation; they try to make you comfortable in a typically uncomfortable situation. Dance Dance Revolution is a fabulous example of this. Would you dance in front of strangers in a public space? Couching that experience within the rules and construct of a game system turns wallflowers toward boogie fever.

Some of my favorite museums and museum exhibitions take serious risks with their basic story but do a fabulous job of reinforcing that story and using it to encourage visitors to test out new, potentially uncomfortable experiences. The Museum of Jurassic Technology combines puzzling content, low light levels, winding passageways, and mysterious labels to create an environment of ambiguity that supports curiousity tinged with apprehension. The City Museum of St. Louis throws open every nook and cranny to be crawled through and explored. The Holocaust Museum immerses you in a dangerous history and uses the design to reinforce the threat and horror of the situation.

When experimenting with these kinds of immersive stories, it's important to think about the limitations and opportunities of different presententation media. For that reason, it's worth remembering to...

Design for believable interactions within the context of the story.
In his second article, Carson comments on the paradoxical fact that we will accept a wide range of "leaps"--of plot, location, and time--in stories when we passively receive them (books, film, plays) but not when we experience them as active agents. He gives the example of the problem of reoccuring characters. In a movie or play, we expect to see the same character again and again, in different locations, at different ages. But if there's a Rocky the Raccoon graphic that welcomes you to the tree exhibit, and other graphics throughout the exhibit feature Rocky, you don't think it's the same character moving through the exhibit with you. You think there are lots of copies of that same graphic.

In museums, more broadly, there's a problem with the way we often characterize visitor roles when we invite people to "play." There are many interactives of the "YOU BE THE X" type, in which visitors are invited to play art critic, historian, or scientist. But often these feel contrived. From a museum perspective, the general consensus is that they seem contrived because they are not the "real" thing. But from a game design perspective, they aren't contrived because we can't perfectly simulate reality; they are contrived because we don't couch them in the context of a strong, structured story or rule set. The rule set doesn't have to be complex. When you play the board game Operation, you feel like a surgeon--in the context of the rules for being a surgeon (i.e. don't touch the borders) the game creates.

In support of making it "as real as possible," museums often have a tough time setting up legitimate rule sets and accompanying stories. When designing Operation Spy, we constantly slammed up against this problem: how do you let an untrained visitor feel what it's like to be an expert at something? If cracking a safe, unearthing a fossil, or tracing genealogy is incredibly complicated, how do we let people try it without them feeling like what they are doing is fake?

I'd like to see more museum exhibitions that satisfy Carson's three desires to go, be, and do things that are outside the realm of normal or even physically possible experiences. Museum exhibits allow you to explore the inside of human cells, the extremes of space, the deep past and the possible future. But there's a big difference between experiencing these wild and unusual things through fantasy games and through exhibited reportage. I believe that experiencing content as an active agent, as a player, makes the experience clearer, more personally connective, entertaining, and, dare I say, educational.

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