Thursday, November 29, 2007

Final Paper

Don Bui
Professor Amy Alexander
November 29, 2007


What is the Rashomon Effect?
My piece which is called the Rashomon Effect is an experimental narrative adventure game. The purpose of the game is to experiment with narrative structures within video games. Often the games that are popular or achieve critical acclaim within the game community rarely innovate and experiment in the same manner as film community. The major motion of the game's story is to attempt to bring the multi-perspective narrative of Akira Kurosawa's film, Rashomon, into the video game medium. Rashomon's story is about the murder of a samurai and the people who are involved in his murder. The story jumps from one character's perspective to another's to unveil the entire story and explain how the samurai was killed. Such a narrative method was so unique at the time that the cognitive science community dubbed a recently found phenomenon after it. The Rashomon Effect is when many witnesses experience the same event but recall different findings.
I am tired of many of the cash cow games which have done nothing to elevate and evolve the medium. Many of these top-selling games only polish, refine and update video game genres which have been in existence since the late 1980s. My hope is that with my contribution to the experimental game community there will be a greater push and acceptance of innovative narration and interaction in the video game industry and community.
The game's story revolves around the murder of a motel bartender named Bill. Cheryl, the maid and cook of the motel discovers Bill's room empty and covered with blood one evening and thus begins the story. In addition to Bill and Cheryl there are three other people who were in the motel at the time, John, Aaron, Richard. John was one of the local police officers until he was discharged on police brutality allegations and he's also a usual at Bill's bar considering it's one of two bars in town. Aaron was a big name murder mystery author until a few years ago when his stories started losing their edge. He's on his way through California on a research vacation to find new material for next book which could be his last. The final character is Richard, the manager of the motel and former NYU business school graduate. He's not exactly pleased with the fact he ended up in the middle of nowhere managing a motel so Richard is aching to leave town when he can.
All of these characters all have some sort of logical reason for wanting to kill Bill. John's wife cheated on him with Bill, Cheryl owes bill plenty of money from her gambling addiction, Aaron is crazy enough to do anything for a good story, and Bill caught Richard stealing money from the motel's accounting books. As the player plays through each scenario or chapter a piece of the puzzle is found and characters' innocence are confirmed or questioned. Then upon completing all five chapters the story is unveiled to the player and he or she knows what really happened.
The Rashomon Effect is coded using Macromedia's Flash Professional 8 and all of the photographs were edited in Adobe Photoshop CS to give it a pseudo-comic book feel similar to Max Payne. The photographs are taken from a real motel and the character images are taken from murderers or those that have been murdered.

What category of art does it fit into?
The Rashomon Effect falls into the category of experimental narrative game design which has been a focus of research and development in the game design. Many in the game design field have recently been experimenting and developing new methods of playing video games as well as new ways to experience them. These experiments have lead to such new and innovated games as Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, Fl0w, Darwinia, and many of the Wii games that incorporate the Wiimote. All these games were considered industry risks because they strayed from the tried and true genres but have proven to be popular successes on the web as well as on the market.
While The Rashomon Effect itself is not meant to ever become a commercial product, it's the concept behind the narrative structure within the game that I would like games to consider. The complex, intricate, and variety of narrative structures found in literature and film could greatly benefit the game community and possibly ascend the medium to full art status. For now though, The Rashomon Effect is an attempt to experiment with the narrative structure using the video game narrative.

What else is going on in the world of game design experimentation?
Facade by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern was deemed as one of the first great experimental video games. Self titled as an interactive narrative, it is just that. The game revolves around a couple you knew in college and you are stopping by for a visit. As you converse with the two you realize how their lives are not as lovely as their new home. The best achievable ending in the game is where the two make up and stay together but in all the other ending they break up and one of the two storm out of the room.
Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern developed and created one of the most compelling dialog based games by incorporating a complex text parser. The player would interact with the characters by typing in dialog and the range of emotions that the characters respond with is amazing. Some people would brush off Facade as a standard text adventure game with an upgraded 3D engine but it's more than that. The game itself has no real game over in the sense that you can't really lose. You can just have as normal of a conversation as you can with them and let the story play itself out or players can poke and prod the characters for information behind what's going on. If you chisel away at the characters you'll discover that one is cheating upon the other while one blames the other for their career troubles. But it's all entirely optional. You can choose to be Curious George and dig deeper into the subtle hints of disfunction between the two or one can let it go and enjoy a mildly awkward evening with your old college buddies.
Considering it's a thirty minute game at most, it's very surprising how much back story one can uncover in the game. Great voice acting and scripting played a huge role in implying the subtle clues that things aren't right. This element was brought in from literature and film and greatly helped to give the story a surface, faux happiness from the couple while deep down they're both miserable and hating each other. It's a lot more complex than a story about a space marine discovering a race of aliens bent on destroying Earth so you have to stop them. It's not as grand but much more natural and thought provoking.
Facade is a great example of experimentation and similar to my game it is attempting to show that games can be a versatile medium. But who is talking about narrative in video games? Well plenty of people are starting to talk about games now but one article which I found to be fairly relevant to The Rashomon Effect was an article by Jill Walker titled, A Network of Quests in World of Warcraft. In the article, Jill Walker, talks about the quest structure within the popular online roleplaying game. She explains that for the most part, the world tells one common story about two major factions vying for control of the lands. Where the player contributes a small part to the scripted storyline. Similar to the Rashomon Effect, World of Warcraft allows the players to experience the story from different perspectives in the form of the different races inhabiting the world of Azeroth. Unlike my piece though, playing from each perspective is necessary to see the greater picture of what's going on in the World of Warcraft rather it's a matter of preference from the player.

Limitations of The Rashomon Effect
One limitation is the web-based delivery which limits the size and experience of the whole piece but broadens the potential audience. With web-based delivery of the game file size is a huge factor since people don't want to wait forever to play the game. Since it is in Flash 8, the potential for full 3D navigation is impossible so a classic 2D navigation is necessary for the game. I'm also limited by the length of production time since it is only two quarters to work on it and by myself so the scale of the game must greatly be reduced. But the goal of the game still remains to experiment with the narrative, it might not be the greatest story but it is an attempt try out new methods in video game narrative.

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