On the Role of Peril

February 21st, 2011

Stories often include incidents of peril for the protagonist. Bad guys appear out of nowhere, ticking time bombs abound, precipitous cliffs are everywhere, and of course there’s plenty of gunfire and high-speed car chases. The protagonist somehow survives one peril and moves on to confront another. Indeed, many movies are basically turbocharged versions of “The Perils of Pauline”, comprising little more than a long sequence of perils. Good examples of this style can be found in “Speed”, “The Taking of Pelham 123”, “The Spanish Prisoner”, the “Diehard” movies, and many more.

Many games have distilled this basic structure to its essence: the game is one long sequence of perils that the player must overcome. A single slip in the face of peril, and the player loses a life or perhaps the game. As soon as the player overcomes one peril, another one appears. It’s just one damn thing after another.

This architecture works great for games and action movies, but it doesn’t work so well with conventional storytelling in general and interactive storytelling in particular. Sure, there are plenty of movies that sport this architecture, and a goodly number of popular novels. But if you restrict your thinking to the great classics of literature -- Shakespeare’s plays, the Iliad and Odyssey, Tom Sawyer, Don Quixote, that crowd -- you see that peril plays little role in the classics. Yes, the Iliad is about a war, but the characters spend most of their time yakking, not killing. Sure, Shakespeare’s plays sport swordfights and battles, but again, their role is subsidiary to the main action of the play.

Peril poses interactive storytelling with a nasty problem: in conventional storytelling, the protagonist always somehow survives the peril. Indeed, in many movies, the protagonist performs amazing feats to overcome the peril. Tom Cruise leaps from a helicopter to a train inside the Chunnel just before the helicopter explodes. Trinity leaps out of a doomed helicopter and swings on the end of a rope held by Neo as the helicopter crashes into a building and explodes. Indiana Jones stumbles while fleeing from a huge rolling boulder, but regains his footing and just barely escapes. The authors of the story make us believe that the character is about to die, but just barely evades death. We catch our breath as death looms, then sigh with relief when the character cheats death. But this doesn’t work in interactive storytelling: if the player is to perceive a genuine risk of death, then the player must occasionally die. If the player always overcomes the peril, then it inspires neither dread when it arises nor relief when it is vanquished. Players of games accept the inevitability of death, but interactive storytelling has a different style: how would you feel if you killed off Luke Skywalker, Neo, or Frodo? The notion of these characters having lives that can be expended in pursuit of an objective is ludicrous in interactive storytelling.

Combine this with the earlier realization that peril need not play so dominating a role in literature -- that in fact, the “Parade of Perils” architecture is a modern development associate with movies -- and you come to the conclusion that we would best dispense with peril in interactive storytelling, or at least reduce it to a minor element of the overall architecture.