Sunday, 1 December 2013

On the analogy of game masters as conductors; and how one can extract the philosopher's stone from something as mundane as a car advert

A few years ago I posed a question to a friend, who was studying to be a composer.
"Is it possible for a conductor to guide an orchestra into improvising a piece of music, while he's watching a film, in real time?"

I had previously been exposed to the idea that music itself can be seen as a kind of narrative.
And I was trying to find the answer to what to me is the philosopher's stone for RPGs: this balancing act between game and story, between the non-linearity of choices and the satisfactory narrative that linear media offer. 

If this imaginary conductor could pick up the changes in the pacing of the film, and somehow guide the musicians into translating that into a musical work that follows the rules of rhythm, melody and harmony... then perhaps my imaginary game master could also use some of the same techniques. To be able to react to player's choices in a game session, reinforcing some of the themes, to shape a narrative that would be coherent and aesthetically pleasing. 

I can't remember what my friend's reply was - it was over a decade ago after all. Only that it wasn't a resolute yes. More likely the reply was pointing out the difficulties in meeting such a challenge. 

The more I thought about the conductor/game master analogy the more I noticed the differences.
In music there is a commonly accepted notation to write scores in. And the theory (covering rhythm, melody, harmony) is so much more mature. (Or at least so I'm told, having no knowledge of music theory whatsoever.) By contrast, narratology texts (at least at the time) seemed to be oblivious to the very existence of roleplaying games. Although these were useful, it seemed to me that the complexity and demands of an interactive, real time narration were very different to other narrative media. 

A lot have changed since then. One notable example is Robin D. Laws' exploration of narrative structure that started off as a series of blog articles to develop into what eventually became Hamlet's Hit Points - which (although I haven't got round to reading it yet) includes a system of notation for narratives. 

Another is Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World - with it's lucid deconstruction of the objectives of the game master during the session. This is presented as a list of MC moves, following that game's terminology. You could say that the MCs moves equivalent in the conductor analogy would have been the different instruments in the orchestra.

So it's true to say that, in the past few years, developments in the art of roleplaying games have been encouraging to say the least. In fact, so encouraging that it's sometimes difficult to keep track of the many ways in which designers are breaking new ground.

But still, watching this advert this morning, I was excited to find out that the answer to the question I was asking a decade ago has been answered with an awe-inspiring yes. And even though this imaginary conductor is algorithmic - and what he is watching isn't a film, but someone driving... I can't help but wonder what that could mean for RPGs of the future.

More about how it was made possible can be found here.

And Yuli Levtov, one of the people that worked on it, talks about what he terms dynamic music here.