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Posted On 2/12/2012
Prom Week is the creation of a group at UC Santa Cruz that includes Michael Matteas, one of the people involved with the creation of Facade. Like Facade, Prom Week is an attempt to create interactive drama, a sort of theatrical story with multiple characters and some agency by the player to shape the path and outcome of the story.
True interactive storytelling is, of course, an enormously difficult technical problem that many have attempted to solve without great success, despite the efforts of some of our most creative designers. Facade succeeded, in a limited way, its success and also its limitation dependent on the fact that it did not try to solve the general problem, and instead create a single, hard-coded, and specific work.
Prom Week is an ambitious attempt to solve the problem more generally. In a fashion reminiscent of Crawford's Trust & Betrayal, it tracks the social graph among a handful of characters, particularly how much they like or dislike each other. The underlying engine also tracks specific traits of the characters, and how they respond to traits of others, and provides a dialog system, not unlike the story-telling system of Tales of the Arabian Nights, that interpolates specific terms into generalized but prescripted dialog in response to certain conditions.
In a series of levels, you are assigned a handful of goals for one character to accomplish. For example, you might have the goal of landing a date with another character while socially ostracizing a third character, eliminating their friendship relationships with others. You do this by selecting one character, then a second, and seeing what social options the first character may initiate with the second -- flirting, insulting, and so on. This can affect not only the direct relationship between them, but also each character's relationships with third parties -- if I insult a character who is enemy with a third party, that third party may think better of me.
In other words, you manipulate the characters not only directly, but through their social graph connections. This works particularly well in a sort of high school environment, wherein who thinks what of whom seems absurdly important to the participants. Actions are, however, only binary, which would seem a flaw in a system of interactive drama; while there are any number of scenes in theater than involve two characters, there are also many that involve more. Also, it reduces character relations, in essence, to a single dimension, a drastic simplification: in real life, I might dislike you but think you highly competent, for instance, two dimensions there. And, of course, many stories are less dependent on interpersonal relationships than other factors.
As a game qua game, I personally find Prom Week fairly dull; the game, in essence, wants me to act like a teen "queen bee" type, manipulating the people around me to improve my social status at the expense of others, behavior with which I have very little sympathy, nor much desire to explore for long.
Still, it is an impressive technical achievement, and a notable advance in the state of the art of interactive narrative design.
Prom Week is a 2012 IGF nominee in the Technical Excellence category.