AESOP -- Authoring Electronic Stories for Online Players

        Researching An Interactive Fiction and 'Stealth Learning' Game Generator

 We learn from the stories and experiences of others primarily by immersing ourselves into their story worlds, feeling empathy for the characters in their stories, and transferring and taking ownership of their meta-level insights. Thrown into the role of the 'hero,' we might also discover that we have picked up the new skills and knowledge needed just to survive to the end of a game. The game-playing public is rapidly aging— its been over 30 years since Atari was a best seller— and today games appeal to people of all ages and socioeconomic strata. This public also has an insatiable appetite for media-delivered stories and soaps, and increasingly, for sharing their own stories on the internet, on talk shows, and in other media-related forums. One might ask, why not combine these divergent strands into stealth learning that's fun, contextually embedded, visually appealing, performance improving, easy to play, and community enhancing?

Provided the learning curve is not too steep, the laity should be capable of not only playing games, but of generating their own stories into games. The following are several principles incorporated into AESOP that we believe can effect both the usability and the quality/value of story based learning games, "edutainment".

  1. PLOTS
    1. ROLE PLAY
    2. GOOD vs. EVIL


Useful Links

Selected References

1) PLOTS --  Though countless in variations, there are only a few basic story types. A classic example of a story type is the 3-act hero's journey (Campbell 1973). AESOP is a tool that would help game writers create engaging and individualized stories out of simple yet useful story structures. For example, AESOP could support story templates relevant to a given topic-area (such as medicine or business thinking), and it could also increase the interestingness of  these templated stories through devices such as non-linearities and story reversals.


1a) SHARED DOMAINS -- In general, story structures might share similarities across a community or a topic relevant to a community. In healthcare, for example, a useful story structure to teach methods of prevention often involves disaster scares followed by behavior change possibilities. Alternately, a community sharing stories about chronic conditions might require the story template to address difficulties that don't show up until after years of self-neglect, with the classic flashback to what life would be like if only conditions had been different from the start of the storyline. As another example, games that purport to teach children the hurtfulness of teasing and bullying often need to demonstrate the golden rule through a myriad of instantiations. The game might allow the child-player to bully a character in Act I, but in Act II that child-player would be surprised to find that he is the victim.

1b) NON-LINEARITIES & REVERSALS --  Linear plots can be tedious and overly confining for players used to wheeling around freely. Adding non-linearities requires significant forethought and programming skills that might be beyond our target authors. AESOP would alleviate this difficulty by facilitating several kinds of non-linearity: by automatically re-ordering sub-story quests based on player selection, by dynamically morphing the hero's nature and appearance in response to user play (good or evil), and/or by helping the author insert plot and encounter character reversals based on the player's choices throughout the game.

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 Three dimensional and intriguing characters make stories easier to imagine and enjoy. Even the simplest stories can be transformed into gripping tales if the characters in them have to struggle with particularly human themes, issues, and frailties. AESOP includes character description templates that facilitate adding descriptions of character personality, mannerisms, and appearance. This is aimed at helping authors to increase the players’ empathy for these characters.

2a) ROLE PLAY --  Interactive gaming is the only medium that permits viewers to directly control a role in the story. One way to involve the player is to give him a character to control, an 'avatar' who is the story's hero. This allows the author to direct some of the dialogue and actions for the hero, while the player can direct other dialogue and action pathways. The author must delicately balance pre-scripting the choices that are necessary to bring the player closer to the goal of the game with choices that may entertain or satisfy the player. Entertaining dialogue and actions also requires extra efforts for the author of the game.

2b) AUTONOMOUS CHARACTER-DRIVEN SUB-STORIES -- Some of the characters in a story may be autonomous, and may act to fullfill their own needs as events arise and as the story progresses. Certainly it is relatively easy to assign autonomous roles to members of crowds in the background and to small-part players. However, some of these characters may act in surprising ways as behavior emerges in response to story events. We permit this type of emergence in some of the characters and are specifically researching ways to enhance it further. Specifically, the author can setup up autonomous characters by fine-tuning physiological parameters/needs, stress thresholds and coping options, emotion drivers and wants, and decisionmaking styles. There is also a way to alter character culture and motivations (see Silverman et al. 2002).

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 Fables need morals, and for this project we are interested in stories that teach. Yet people learn subjects best when they must teach materials to others. Our avatar therefore needs to struggle with mastering the material well enough that he can help other characters in the story world. This learning and teaching should be done stealthily and should be embedded within game play as part of what the player's avatar does as it progresses through the adventure. For example, in a heart attack training game, if the avatar is solving a crime, the allies who can give him clues might need to be rescued from their own heart attacks before they can help the avatar.

3a) GOOD vs. EVIL --  The player can learn just as much about a topic area by directing the avatar toward evil as toward good. In the example of the heart attack training game, the avatar would be able to join the criminals and cause as many heart attacks as possible. In the case of either good or evil, the more the player understands the topic, the more he can excel in the direction he is steering the avatar. Though this might sound perverse, the players are in fact playing at a game. They know the people are not real people, and killing them off can alleviate tension and bring some levity to a serious topic. I've seen a group of grown healthcare industry folks take delight in trying to kill off an elderly frail woman having a heart attack just to see the impact their mischief would have in the game world. They were even more amused when a pedagogical character swooped in to rescue the victim, admonish them sternly, and shoo them off.

3b) BEHAVIOR CHANGE DYNAMICS --  A vital aspect of many story domains is that subjects are not easily convinced that the moral is in their interest. To teach subjects the importance of acting in this moral way, they need to experience, through the characters of the game, the consequences of ignoring the moral. Often, merely being aware of the moral is not enough to persuade subjects to shift their behavior. In addition, they may need help with the behavior change process.

 The theory of persuasion involves three steps: unfreezing the subject's old ways, moving them to the new view, and re-freezing in the new patterns so they don't backslide. This is the model used in many 12-step programs, for example in treating alcoholism or in changing eating patterns. The unfreezing step is often easily accomplished with a simple "aha!" realization. The moving phase involves dealing with the more complex and pervasive obstacles such as the social norms, efficacy, and attitude issues that must be eroded and supplanted before re-freezing can be successful. Also, for new patterns of behavior to be readily transferred, one must have the skills needed to apply them in realistic settings. Hence the need to convince several story characters to realize the moral (experience the "aha!") and also to shift their behavior. AESOP would understand this behavior change model and assist the author in incorporating it into the personalities of the characters involved in the story.

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 The three act, character-driven soap or adventure story is a proven formula both in the movies and on TV. Experienced professionals work in teams to create entertaining stories. How can a layman working individually create reasonably high quality stories to compete with those born of trained professional groups? More specifically, how can the layman's story retain its originality and not appear highly formulaic and repetitive? We believe that a layman will do best if he is only authoring small episodes within a larger serial story or franchise game. He will do best when taking an existing hero and casting him into episodes that help expose the layman's individual story. AESOP would help authors to seamlessly blend his personal insights with reasonable quantities of character depth and story progression.

(In this next section we describe the overall process that concerns the creation of a franchise game, an ongoing serial, and we discuss some of the artifacts needed to support this process. This is not all done via computer support, but the computer can help guide the process and facilitate each of the following steps. Early versions of AESOP would just elicit these items and provide templates and simple tools to support the process. Subsequent versions would provide rich pallets of reusable widgets, a multimedia library of successful past examples, and related tools and adjuvants.)

4a) PLOT VISUALIZATION --  No game is likely to succeed if it cannot be summarized in a sentence or two to make it sound compelling and fun to play. This summary should also indicate the goal or epiphany that would result from playing.

4b) PLAY GAME ON NOTECARDS --  Before he can create his game on the computer, the game writer should put down a concise version of the game on note cards so that others can play it and try out the game in real life. Flipping through note cards should allow players to experience the opening scene (Act 1 note card), the various quests in Act 2 (1 note card each), any reversal of plot (flip side of each note card), and what happens to the hero and other characters along the way and at the end of the game (Act 3 note card indicating possible outcomes). The writer must ask himself if this note card version of the game conveys the substance of the lesson as summarized in plot visualization (see 4a).

4c) CHARACTER; ACTION CONCEPTUALIZATION -- Since good characters can draw the player into the game and help move the plot along, it is vital to conceptualize each character's life trajectory and what they are doing as they pass through the few scenes that the author writes them into. This back-story should include the character's personality traits, mannerisms, motivations, and desires, as well as his purpose, the props he uses, and the actions he takes in each act and scene (as written in the note cards). The writer must avoid stereotyped characters and assure interesting dimensions, mannerisms, and frailties that make the characters seem real. Perhaps the writer might create a strong villain who is the external embodiment of the hero's internal weakness. The important characters in the game must develop and change throughout the story, and by the end of the game these characters must somehow reveal how they have changed. Fresh plot ideas and fun story twists will also arise from this type of character-driven writing.

4d) ACT; SCENE DIALOGUE FLOWCHARTING --  Each line of dialogue must potentially serve three functions: one, to advance the plot; two, to reveal a character's personality/desires; and three, to set up any local situation such as humor, irony, dropping a hint, etc. To manage and constrain the flow of each scene, the writer should flowchart the major conversations and speech acts that transpire, act-by-act and scene-by-scene. This is not the process of actually writing out the dialogues, but rather of visualizing what they will entail, who will participate, what branching will exist, and what possible endings may come out of each scene. Given the interest in providing branches, non-linearities, and reversals, the results of flowcharting will often be a fairly bushy graph of possible ways to play through the game. In computer terms, this is a top level of the Markov chain for the finite state machines that each character will represent. It is reasonable to add debugging tools to the graphing process that advise the author on potential circularities, dead-end chains, overly lengthy sequences, and related concerns.

4e) RELATIONSHIP VISUALIZATION -- Generally, it is easiest to keep stories concise if the writer assumes that most characters have a prior relationship with each other or at least know of each other, as in a sitcom where all the characters are familiar with each other’s mannerisms, issues, etc. For this purpose, it helps to draw out relationship triangles (such as Romeo and Juliet and their feuding clans) amongst all the characters and to specify the primary dynamics at play. Though the hero may be in a different triangle in each scene, often the characters are just diverse embodiments of the same underlying tension between the hero and the forces of good and bad or of knowledge and ignorance. Also, since all characters potentially know each other (or of each other), the triangles can usually be linked into an overall web of relationships. Conceiving of this web helps reduce transitions into new scenes and tedious character introductions, and it allows the characters to bring up the topics most relevant to the game early on in each scene.

4f) STICK THEATER; BRINGING IT TOGETHER --  AESOP uses the items produced thus far to elicit the actual dialogues and actions/props/sound effects on a scene-by-scene basis. The wizard that elicits these dialogue branches also includes a game engine (written in Macromedia Director) that can play out the scenes with stick figures -- something we call "stick theater". This helps the author to immediately hear the dialogues spoken, try out interactions between characters, and adjust these elements in the absence of distractions over artwork, choreography, and use of props and sound effects. After dialogue dynamics are roughed out, one can focus on migrating them out of Stick Theater and into the actual set layouts, and on managing choreographic details, sound effects, voice-over recordings, and character artwork and animations. To support this, AESOP would offer graphical support via pallets of characters and settings, with characters faces and wardrobes easily morph able to conform to the writer's image of the characters in his mind's eye. During these steps, dialogue and action updates will be suggested to the author and several iterations might be needed to balance all of the mechanics.

4g) REFINING DIALOGUE, ACTION/CHOREOGRAPHY; SOUND --  Based on multiple choice dialogue options, there are many pathways the avatar can pursue in the game world. Shortening the dialogue is a vital step for inexperienced writers who often include superfluous or redundant phrases and words that slow down the pace of the game. It is also difficult for the untrained writer to recognize whether each conversation includes a satisfying and captivating set of multiple-choice utterances, as well as a reasonably appropriate manner (voice) in which the avatar utters them. Since there are so many possible paths to take the dialogue, printing the script is not a linear, easy to read affair. However, since it is helpful to see the dialogue in print, the system would make it possible to print the entire script with easily identified nodes. Alternately, one can use the system to print random paths of dialogue through the entire game to see how they flow, and to help the writer refine and edit them one at a time. The same agent that prints out random paths also accumulates statistics on character speaking and acting times, and the writer can use these statistics to flag scenes that appear overly wordy or weighed down by too much action. These tools will not help address the more serious issues raised above of inappropriate utterance choices and/or voicings. For those errors and related refinement concerns, we currently hire professionals who help us refine and minimal the text, as well as shift unspoken messages to some of the other media such as visuals, actions, sound effects, and/or intonation.

4h) PLAY TESTING -- Next, there is no substitute for playing the game repeatedly and for asking others to play-test it. Play testing allows the game makers to accumulate statistical information on everything from keystrokes to playing time, score, and outcome. For such statistics, it is necessary to have some ways of visually examining player patterns, sticking points, and frequently versus infrequently traversed pathways. One also needs to offer play testers a few instruments (an online suggestion box or, for those with a lot of patience, some questionnaires) to solicit direct feedback and ideas. Ideally, there should also be a knowledge and behavior intent quiz, both before and after play, to determine if the player learned any of the lessons and epiphanies that were designed into the story. We have developed a bank of these various instruments and are currently attempting validation results on them.

4i) EVALUATION -- Finally, in academic settings, one is always concerned with the impact of a game. Here we are interested not only in the educational or training value, but also in its ability to engage, entertain, and transport. And of course, how useful is it to have training while one is entertained? Recently we have produced a report containing several instruments for evaluation of the impact of a specific interactive fiction, however, we believe these instruments are relevant to many interactive fictions and related types of games. This report presents instruments for measuring the training and aesthetic dimensions of edutainment with particular focus upon interactive drama games that serve as health behavior change interventions. After overviewing the specific Heart Sense game that we created, we explain the instruments and our plan for both validating them and using them in a clinical trial. Overall, in addition to a demographics instrument we have developed instruments for metrics in both training dimensions (Knowledge, Stated Intent, Willingness to Pay) as well as in aesthetic dimensions (Narrative Engagement, Game Entertainment, Usefulness, and Usability). We also make use of two previously developed instruments on decisional conflict and need for cognition. The draft instruments are provided in the Appendices.

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 The set of steps just described can be daunting even for a project team. We do not envision many authors going through all these steps. Act I introduces the hero and his/her ambitions, character, and personality to the audience. It also sends him/her off on a grand quest (to be resolved in Act III) in which s/he will undertake a number of smaller Act II quests involving various allies and enemies s/he picks up along the way. Most authors who identify with the topic area would find it easiest and probably most logical to create additional second act scenes or episodes for the hero to deal with. For example, in the "franchise" story on heart attacks mentioned earlier, the hero needs to solve a crime in Acts I and III. He picks up clues from allies throughout Act II but first must save each ally from a heart attack. If a medical practitioner wanted to specialize this game for some of his practice's patients, he would tend to insert more episodes within Act II. These would be simple, one-act stories highlighting a type of heart attack presentation and/or some behavioral delay issues commonly encountered by the patients in that practice. AESOP would help elicit them and tie them into the larger, ongoing serial.

To support this type of authoring, AESOP does not need to support all the process steps in #4, but rather only an essential kernel. Thus, research is needed on AESOP's configuration and on its usability and intuitive capability. Some of the best support might come from having libraries of easily reusable character sketches, quickly adapted scene flowchart elements, and readily modified stories and dialogues. Also, one must ask how "snap together" widgets can support the process? At present, AESOP exists as an editor (without wizard) that supports steps 4d, the stick theater for supporting 4f, and extensions with Macromedia Xtras to support portions of 4g for specific franchise stories or implementations. We also have a variety of efforts underway and separate tools for supporting the remaining other steps.

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6) SOME INTERACTIVE FICTION GAMES -- Here is an array of types of interactive fiction games that should stimulate useful discussions about this genre and its appeal across age groups and genders. Many more great examples exist and this is just a pointer to a few of them:

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Useful Links:

Selected References:

Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series/Princeton University Press 1973.

Cowden, Tami D., Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders, The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes, Lone Eagle Publishing, Hollywood 2000.

Green, Melanie, Brock, T.C.  "The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5),  May 2000, pp 701-721.

Johnson, Robert A., We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, Harper & Row 1983.

Kinder, Marsha, Playing With Power, in Movies, Television and Videogames from Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, University of California Press, London 1991.

Luthi, Max, The Fairytale as Art Form and Portrait of Man, Indiana University Press 1987.

Murdock, Maureen, The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, Shambala 1990.

Pennebaker, James W.  Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotions. New York: Guilford Pres, 1997.

Propp, Vladmir, Morphology of the Folktale, University Texas Press 1979.

Ryan, James, Screenwriting from the Heart: The Technique of the Character-Driven Screenplay, Billboard Books, New York 2000.

Silverman, Barry G, Holmes, John, Kimmel, Steve, et al., “Modeling Emotion and Behavior in Animated Personas to Facilitate Human Behavior Change: The Case of the Heart-Sense Game,” INFORMS’ HealthCare Management Science , 4/3, Sept. 2001, pp. 213-228.

Silverman,  Barry G, Johns, Michael, Weaver, Ransom, O’Brien, Kevin, Silverman, Rachel,  “Human Behavior Models for Game-Theoretic Agents,” Cognitive Science Quarterly, v.3/4, Fall’02

Vogler, Christopher, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters A Michael Wiese Productions Book, Ann Arbor 1992.