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Commentaries on this Media!

Artificial Intelligence, Game Dialogue, and Narrative Progression

by Jason Lipshin

 In his essay “Gamic Action” from the book Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Alex Galloway defines video games as an “action-based medium” – a form which fundamentally depends on the dynamic communication between users and machines for its existence. [1] However, many popular commentators and even some new media scholars have misread this cybernetic combination of interaction and material re-structuring as a kind of complete player empowerment and freedom in direct contrast to the presumably more passive audience of broadcast media. Riding on the coattails of Henry Jenkins’ celebration of a Web 2.0 “participatory culture,” Rob Cover, for instance, has argued that, “Interactivity achieves a new stage in the democratization of user participation with the electronic game.” [2] Steven Johnson’s best-selling book, Everything Bad is Good For You, performs a similar operation when it claims that playing a video game always makes the player smarter by requiring her to utilize “abstract skills in probability, in pattern recognition, in understanding causal relations that can be applied in countless situations.” [3].        


While a game without a player is certainly nothing more than a set of stored instructions, over-emphasizing the user’s agency or celebrating “interactivity” point blank often ignores the very real ways in which the possibility space of game play is limited and directed by the programmed rules of the simulation. This clip from David Cronenberg’s film, eXistenZ (1999), is instructive of this tension between the promise of unlimited freedom in interacting with an intelligent system and the material reality of control. Take, for instance, the representation of Darcy Nader, who is meant to represent a non-player character (NPC). At the moment of his first appearance in the film, he appears to be an intelligent agent – the simulation of a human being capable of flexibly adapting his response to the flow of the conversation. In fact, Cronenberg’s representation of Allegra Gellar’s and Ted Pikel’s initial response to Nader’s dialogue would suggest that they have the freedom to respond in any way they see fit – from a ludic perspective, the conversation operates more like a text adventure format (in which the player inputs text) rather than a dialogue tree (in which all the dialogue options are discrete and finite). However, the moment that Gellar asks Darcy a question to which he was not programmed to respond (“Will it [the new bioport] work with an industry standard?”), he immediately diverts the conversation into a direction which he understands. Later on in the clip, when he has taken Gellar and Pikel to the back room for a belabored, expository tutorial, his program literally sends him into a loop – repeating the same action over and over again until Pikel gives him the correct input to advance the narrative and change “the state” of his character’s program.


From the perspective of Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Expressive Processing, this initial impression of conversation with an intelligent being is what he calls the “Eliza Effect.” Referring to the name of Joseph Weizenbaum’s famous AI experiment, Wardrip-Fruin contends that this impression of freedom in user input operates analogous to the way “suspension of disbelief” operates in classical Hollywood cinema. In other words, in order to completely immerse herself in the experience of conversing with the simulation of an intelligent agent (and by extension, to advance the game plot), a user must (half-consciously) constrain his or her actions to fit the demands of the system [4] In this clip, the knowing, non-diegetic asides of Pikel and Gellar often foreground the awkwardness associated with this shaping and relinquishing of user control, but in everyday game play, what we call “immersion” is predicated on papering over the constraining of actions with feelings of total empowerment. Lev Manovich, in his book The Languages of New Media, has even gone so far as to call this tension between impressions of user empowerment and the reality of control a new mode of Althusserian interpellation. [5]


With this clip, we learn that the opportunity for less structured play (paidea) may exist within the possibility space of eXistenZ, but often the act of playing well necessitates learning to think in the terms of the system, to think like the machine. Although the effect is probably intensified because eXistenZ is a cinematic representation of ludic narrative, much of the dialogue in this clip (and much of the run-time of the film) surrounds Gellar and Pikel trying to perform those specific actions which will advance the plot of the game. Thus, in an ironic act of reversal, the pleasurable impression of displaying personal choice much touted by popular discourses surrounding games as the end or the enemy of narrative in many cases becomes a way to suture, to teach, or even to discipline the player, constraining her actions so that they become recognizable as input for the systems. Such a process constitutes a reverse Turing test – it tests how well the player can act like the machine.   



[1] Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, p. 3.

[2] Qtd. in Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games, p. xxvi.

[3] Qtd. in Ian Bogost, “Ch. 8 – Procedural Literacy” in Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames.

[4] Noah-Wardrip Fruin, “Ch. 2 – The Eliza Effect ” in Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies

[5] Lev Manovich, The Languages of New Media, p. 60.

The Sudden Manifestation of Narrative Boundries in eXistenZ

by Omer Levin Menekse

In the first essay of the book, Gaming - Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Galloway calls video-games an ` action-based ` medium. He writes: ` Without the active participation of the player, video games exist only as a static code. ` His observation leads to a simple but potent question; yes, but how much?

In eXistenZ, the players are in control of their narrative for the most time. But there are instances, such as this scene, where the game directly takes control of the player for a very specific outcome. While it is true that a game, by design, will reduce the amount of choices a player would have - for example, a player cannot choose to fly in a basketball game -, this kind of direct intrusion is antithetic to the idea of `playing` a game. However, one might say while this scene portrays the direct intervention of the game to the agency of the characters as absurd and comical, this phenomenon is actually quite common in video games in the form of `cut-scenes`. Galloway defines cut-scenes as: ` Segments in which the operator ( the player ) is momentarily irrelevant. These cinematic interludes are highly instrumental and deliberate, often carrying the burden of character development or moving the plot along in ways unattainable in normal game-play. ` Not only do characters move in ways which might otherwise be improbable, but make per-programmed choices regardless of the players intentions. These choices, that are made without the players consent, are weighty ones and have great impact on the narrative.

For this very reason, most of the game characters are broadly defined and face no tough choices, unless the game is suitably structured. ( Examples: Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain. ) The game does not want to break the bond of empathy it constructs with the player, and thus caters to the common denominator. Mario can not be a complex character, because he has an obligation to save the princess in the end. Even the goal itself; saving the princess, has been positioned and simplified in such a way that no other plot-lines or outcomes could be considered. And because the majority of the gamers, mostly males, have a natural proclivity to attain their object of desire, they continue to immerse themselves into the experience. Those of us who want to see Mario suffer a mid-life crisis and buy a Porsche, however, are out of luck. 

eXistenZ, the game in the movie, has a lot of depth in terms of game-play. A player can jump, move, wiggle their fingers, have sex, wave, take a step forward or back, punch… In terms of commands, there is no limit to it. In terms of narrative depth, however, the game is obviously lacking; the non-playable characters talk in slurs and have no potent motivations. They do not reply unless they are fed certain sentences. And likewise, the characters provided to the player are not allowed to be complex either. The male and the female protagonists must have sex, just like Mario has to rescue the Princess. The outcome is this comical scene, in which the authenticity and the immersive quality of the experience is shattered. Thus, Cronenberg aptly describes a way a shy, emotional young man might feel when his on-screen avatar chooses to copulate with every single female in his ken. ( The Witcher is a good example to this phenomenon. ) However most young men do want to copulate with beautiful women, and most of us, the audience for whom the game is made for, do want to see the male and the female have sex in fiery passion. Thus, they are forced to obey.  

Investigating the line between human and computer controlled narrative in eXistenZ.

by Spencer Boyle

David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ  explores the implications of character involvement in the creation, sustention, and completion of a narrative structure within a game.  He crafts a world in which players willingly give up their free will in order to participate in multi-user, interactive story.  This clip highlights the mechanic that thrusts the narrative forward and ultimately foreshadows the sacrifices that must be made by human players in order to make the storyline flow.

In Gonzalo Frasca’s article, Ludology meets Narratology: similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative, Frasca meditates on the intrinsic problems of video game narrative structure.  In particular, he lauds the potential of the human dynamic in multiplayer games while still lamenting their inherent limitations.  Human controlled characters create a “kind of realism and conversation” that are far superior to traditional computer based characters, but that realism comes at the price of narrative cohesion.  He presents the example of a human taking control of a “shy, calm nun.”  While the character may be created with pacifism in mind, there is nothing to stop a person from using that character to procure a gun and conduct acts of violence.  Thus, the character will possess extreme intelligence, but there is no guarantee that it will act the part it was meant to play.  Frasca goes so far as to suggest that doing the narrative legwork in a multiplayer story is akin to cleaning public toilets in real life.  He concludes that human characters will act on their own volition and will refuse to play the dirty little roles that are needed to construct a well told story.

eXistenZ approaches this conundrum by forcing its players to act out the story.  In order to progress in the game the characters must say very specific lines of dialogue.  The dialogue then acts as the engine that powers the narrative.  The characters become stuck if they refuse to verbalize what the storyline requires.  Another actor may be suspended in a repeating animation, waiting for the correct line of dialogue, as the owner of the game emporium, D’Arcy Nader, becomes in the associated clip.  Or the character a person inhabits may literally say the lines for them, as Ted Pikul does when aggressively rebutting D’Arcy’s line of questioning.  Both techniques achieve the intended effect.  The plot of the game is created, and furthered, by the human players.

Cronenberg hints that the mere experience of being part of an interactive narrative structure is pleasure enough for even the most minor roles.  Every player at the end of the film exclaims their satisfaction.  This type of sacrifice is very rare in today’s world of interactive media.  In my experience, every player wishes to be the star, the game designer, not the gas pumper.  While, presently, the multiplayer driven narrative of eXistenZ is a thing of fiction, perhaps, in the future, it will become a reality.  

eXistenZ game mechanics

A scene from eXistenz highlighting the game mechanics and mise en abyme structure of the narrative.

from eXistenZ (1999)
Creator: David Cronenberg
Posted by Critical Commons Manager