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Has anyone seen Chris Crawford’s Dragon recently?

I recently discovered Chris Crawford’s legendary ‘Dragon Speech’. That’s the one that has become notorious for Chris Crawford’s rather outlandish exit from the games industry (in case you’ve missed it – he draw a sword, made some final closing remarks to his talk, and then charged out of the room brandishing his sword whilst shouting, “CHAAAAARGE!”).

I don’t know why it took me so long to get round to actually watching it, but by now I’ve seen it referenced so many times that it seemed to be the kind of thing that people know happened, people mention happened, but no-one’s actually seen. Most recently it was an article on that was the most recent ‘reference’ that got me looking for the talk on YouTube (although I don’t know why I could only find a poor copy…there must be a better one surely?!).

It was also really useful reading through a transcript of the talk after watching it.

Now, his presentation style is not to everyone’s taste. To my ears, his accent is rather penetrating and whiney, but you cannot deny the fact that he’s a great showman, and so this doesn’t matter quite as much as it might have otherwise done. He also has a penchant for grandiose analogies (which, not being a D&D fan nor having read Don Quixote, were a little lost on me really) which can seem slightly pretentious if you take them at face value.

But I was amazed, not only by how insightful his talk was then – 1992 (23 years ago!!), but by how insightful his talk still is now. I spent a while going through the transcript and making notes after watching the video and, looking back and reading them, they would still be a revolutionary today as they were 23 years ago.

So why is that? Why has so little changed in this supposedly ‘fast-moving, ever-changing’ field we call the videogames industry? Moreover, why hasn’t Chris Crawford or someone else offered up some kind of solution?

If you were to listen to Chris Crawford, the reason would be lack of dreaming big. To underscore this, he cites how he wrote a book to fully understand what it was that he was after. That book – The Art of Computer Game Design, whilst dated in some respects is still highly recommended reading in design circles. It’s worth bearing in mind.

I think it’s partly true. In an industry where each developer/company seems to only be as good as their last release, there’s a tendency to not feel able to dream big. Can you blame them? There is often too much money at stake to risk on dreaming big and getting it wrong, and publishers are not in it for the love of it – they want their money back. So one point is that there is little in terms of money flow that will encourage or allow this kind of large-scale experimentation.

But I think it’s also because, even when there is opportunity for people to attack this problem (indie developers running on smaller budgets, hobbyist developers, creative side groups in large publishers etc.), there’s a lack of will to do so. I’ve said many times before, in talking about my PhD research to people, that as developers we often sell ourselves short and only let ourselves think about a very small number of possibilities.

We’re an industry that is obsessed with technology, and in obsessing over the next technological leap, be it pixels, texture resolution, 3D, AI, draw distance, lighting effects or (most recently) VR we’ve collectively forgotten about what makes games, games.

It’s about interactivity.

This is what is special about our medium. This is what’s different to all other mediums out there, but we don’t focus on that and exploit it for all it’s worth. This is what Chris Crawford was getting at all those years ago. He saw computer games as the perfect communication medium – where efficiency (being able to reach a large number of people) meets effectivity (people are actively engaged with the message, rather than passively listening or watching as with a lecture or film).

But most people seem to have forgotten this, and just how powerful it could be.

“I dreamed of computer games encompassing the broad range of human experience and emotion…”

I find it almost strange that I am still saying this 23 years later! Even spookier is his rejection of the notion that everything in games has to be ‘fun’ (whatever that is anyway – no one knows!), which was part of a talk I gave in March., before I knew anything of his lecture in 1992.

Finally, another part of his talk is scarily ahead of it’s time is where he talks about ‘who plays games’. Except he doesn’t go into gender, racial or age demographics like most other people do in these discussions. He talks about people, players and aficionados. ‘Aficionados’ are identified as the smallest but the most dedicated group who spend the most money and time on the hobby, and that the games he wants to make are for ‘people’ and ‘players’. This meant he was at odds with the ‘traditional’ audience of the industry, hence his departure.

Isn’t this still the case? There’s still this stupid attitude about hardcore/real gamers and casual/not-real gamers that pervades vast swathes of gaming culture be it consciously or not, and it’s not helpful. The mainstream industry is still making games for the hardcore of yesteryear whilst mobile reaches out beyond the aficionados and grabs the audience that the traditionalists couldn’t be bothered to reach, or didn’t think exist.

But the main thing that Crawford spoke about that is still as true as ever these days, no matter which way you cut it, is that computer games are still always about things, rather than people. Even when they do feature people, they’re made into things (and yes, I think that includes romantic sidequests in Bioware games – they’re still quests with rewards, right?).

It’s amazing and yet disheartening to see how little has changed, despite the many many waves of creativity that have come and gone in the interim, between then – with their large pixels and text, and now – with all the polygons, textures, world-building tech and lighting effects you could wish for.

Do people care? Is anyone else interested in Chris Crawford’s Dragon?

My talk at #IGC15

IGC15 Logo

IGC15 Logo

I recently gave a talk at the Indie Games Conference in London. First proper full length speaking engagement! I’ve done a couple of small panels and micro-talks before, but nothing like this – 45 minute slot including Q&A!

Title was “Open Your Heart: Thinking About Emotions in Games”. Thanks to the wonderful efforts of James Coote and his videography you can watch my talk on YouTube (see embedded link below). Rather useful to watch yourself afterwards as well and see how you looked – not an option you often get!

I think it went really well actually. Lots of people came up to discuss what I spoke about at the end – some with similar opinions and shared ideas, some not! But that’s exactly what I wanted really – I don’t think any of us really improve until we’re challenged, and it either means your thinking is off or that you need to communicate your message better the next time you talk about it.

For those who weren’t at IGC15, it was a great conference (that I sadly could only make one day of – it was 2 days) with an interesting and diverse line-up of strong speakers on a wide array of topics. I learnt a lot! Thanks to Byron and Jake for organising it and here’s looking forward to next time.

Love in Games

The other week I was party to an IGDA London event on Love in Games – which was great! Being closely aligned to my favourite topic (emotion in games) this was stimulating evening with an interesting array of viewpoints on the title ‘Love in Games’. If you’re in London regularly then you could do worse than join the IGDA London Facebook page. It’s not active all the time – talks are ad hoc rather than regular, but they put on some good events (usually at LSBU near Elephant and Castle) and you should check them out.


Esther MacCallum-Stewart was first up by offering a more academic take on things. As an established academic who’s written extensively on sexuality and love in games her main beef was, “Why do games always have to be about f*cking?”. Good question really. She drew well-deserved attention to the crudeness of how love it dealt with in video games, and that we miss out on the nuances and multi-dimensionality of the phenomenon we collectively refer to as love.

Ste Curran – journalist, radio presenter, performer and general gamey-dude-at-large took his (usual) tangential take on the topic. Instead of speaking directly to the topic in hand in a kind of problems, how-to, solutions kind of way like most of us would do, he instead took an approach that challenged us to rethink our relationship with love altogether. How many ways it can be experienced, how fleeting it is and how subjective our experience of love is.

Christos Reid always has an interesting viewpoint on things – his passion and practice being autobiographical games, and so he opted to talk about how games could be made to explore the difficult situations that romance often puts us in. His example – first dates! I look forward to seeing a short game by him sometime on the subject, since this would be an excellent example of how the role-playing aspect of games can force us to play as and then understand someone else’s point of view – whether we find it comfortable or not.

Finally, my favourite talk of the evening was by Aubrey Hesselgren. He didn’t have anything particularly to say about love and its portrayal within video games, but he is the first person I’ve ever seen try and propose a system for representing and handling emotions in games. Essentially, the idea is to use 3D vectors to represent different aspects of an emotion or emotional experience. In this way you can plot them in 3D space, discern relationships between them, and then track the emotional journey through 3D space. It was a honest attempt to abstract out emotions into a workable system. I need a dedicated beer with this man! This will be a most interesting thing to keep an eye on….

Should video games be shorter?

Are video games any longer than they used to be? If they are, is this necessarily a problem and is there a case for shorter games?

So I was watching this episode of the excellent PBS Game Show on YouTube (which, if you’ve never seen it, is well worth a watch and there’s a good range of topics to choose from.):

I haven’t had chance to catch up with the discussion around the video yet (this is usually summarised at the end of the video the week after), but a quick look at some of the discussions of this topic on the internet left me pretty amazed at how narrow-minded people were when it came to this topic. Many of the most vocal voices in these conversations were essentially repeating different versions of, “the longer, the better, the more value for my money. If you don’t finish a game then it obviously wasn’t good enough.”

But I don’t think that’s what the real message of these people is, actually. It’s more along the lines of, “If you can’t be bothered to finish a 60-hour game, then you’re obviously not committed to this medium and you’re not a real gamer”. Few would actually say that, but to me that seems like the sub-text behind most of their responses.

It’s likely that most of those voices are younger players with fewer demands on their time – perhaps students or in some cases still at school, and so they have not experienced the various challenges of trying to maintain a gaming hobby as you get older and have other things (in my case a full-time PhD and a young family) take up your time. But what’s more disappointing is that this kind of mentality is still reminiscent of that which led to the GamerGate fiasco of 2014 – that to be a ‘gamer’ you have to ascribe to certain set of values, practices and aspects of identity. i.e. If you’re not happy with how long games are, you’re not a real gamer.


This thing is, we don’t see this in other media. No-one claims that if you can’t be bothered to listen to a 20-minute jazz track, or a watch a 3 hour 20 minute film then you don’t really love music or love film. Plus, the magnitude of time is important here – 3.5 hours would count as an very short game (Brothers: Tale of Two Sons is about this length). 3.5 hours is a long evening. Anything more is several sittings. I’m playing Persona 4 for the PS Vita on my commute – this game is over 100 hours! How long is that going to take me to complete in real time?

All this raises an important issue as well with regards to the potential for expression in the medium. If we want more emotionally engaging games, or games that do things differently, then we need to think very differently about whether length is all that important. Wouldn’t it be better to have quality over quantity? This is important from two angles:

  1. It’s very difficult to launch a new IP or experiment with the medium when there are so many lofty expectations to be attached to every release. How can we expect games developers and publishers to take those kinds of risks when everything has to be so massive? If people were happier with a shorter form of game, this would encourage innovation.
  2. Games that are attempting to create a deeper and broader sense of emotional engagement (my pet topic, I know!). If you look at most of the games that are known for offering a different and more emotional experience then you’ll notice that they tend to be shorter. Dear Esther, Gone Home, Journey, To The Moon, Papa and Yo, Brothers (already mentioned), individual episodes of the Telltale franchises such as The Walking Dead or Wolf Among Us. It’s difficult to say for sure without further analysis, but this would suggest that perhaps these kind of deep experiences just aren’t possible over longer stretches of time, and that maybe only shorter games can facilitate this – maybe ones that can be experienced and completed in one session.

What is clear, however, is that expectations have got to change. If we want this medium to grow, diversify and not become ghettoised, then we need to allow all sorts of people to be able to approach and engage with games, and that means allowing all sorts of games to be made, and not just judging a game for it’s length-per-pound or how much of our time it will help us waste away.

‘The Art of Videogames’ by Grant Travinor

Grant Travinor’s volume is a welcome addition to the literature on videogames.

There are very few volumes (and very few scholars) that attempt to bring a philosophical analysis and method to the realm of videogames – many people are often writing from the point of view of cultural theory or film studies. I enjoyed reading Travinor’s detailed treatment of games because it was painstaking, detailed and conveyed a lot of love for the medium.


However, I had two big problems with it. The first is that reads more like a volume for older philosophers who think that all games still look and play like Pong or early Mario games from the 70s and 80s. Depsite the frequent references to up to date titles and very clear evidence of his extensive and deep knowledge of the art form, ‘The Art of Videogames’ always feels like a desperate defense against ignoramuses who are out of touch with modern culture. For someone who is very much engaged with them, there is little here of note.

The other thing that bugs me about his account is his focus on visuals and technological advancement. You cannot argue that these have been, and still are, major drivers for the industry and a major part of the appeal of games. But that’s not all that they are. It feels like Travinor has skipped over the key quality of games that makes them interesting and different to other art forms in the first place – interactivity. There is little discussion of rules, systems and mechanics and this feels like a missed opportunity; surely this is what makes games more philosophically interesting in the first place? The implications for identity, and therefore for epistemology and virtual-ontology must be mind-boggling and fascinating for philosophers.

Hand in hand with this is the strongly implied (and made partly explicit at points) argument that technological advancement = improvement, which should be obvious is entirely false. Does a painting have more artistic merit or financial value because it’s painted with acrylics rather than water-colours? Is a film automatically better because it has CG effects and colour rather than black-and-white film with actors only? The answer, of course, is no. Whilst spectacle is indeed a major part of the enjoyment for some games, it isn’t for all, and often isn’t for those games that endure. Spectacle is relative – what is amazing this year becomes ‘de rigueur’ the next, and out-dated the next (at least, if photo-realism is the goal).

Having said that ‘The Art of Videogames’ is very readable (there aren’t many philosophical volumes that are this easy to read) and Travinors writing style is excellent and clear cut. It’s also nice to get a little diversification amongst the scholarly literature out there in games studies, but there’s a lot of room for improvement here and, whilst it may convince some of the ‘philosophical old guard’ that videogames merit intense study in and of themselves, it less to those of us who have already decided that they’re worth our time and attention.

How To Do Things With Videogames – Ian Bogost

Disappointing. If I could use one word to describe Bogost’s How To Do Things With Videogames, that would be it.


The book is hit and miss, with far more aimless miss than incisive hit. The title is misleading – it’s not how to do anything and the comparison to Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud made by media scholar Henry Jenkins on the back is, well, pretty laughable. Whereas Scott McCloud’s book is an exceptional discussion and example of the various devices and variety of structure and form of comics as well as in-depth discussion about the nature of creativity and art, Bogost’s volume is a catalogue of a few games that have been made and how they’re a bit different from the public face of games (which is nice enough, although Bogost just can’t resist several plugs for his own creations).

The chapters are of very variable quality, although it’s nice that they’re short which makes the book easier to get through and ensures that Bogost doesn’t get too out of control down one of his (many) rambling avenues. Much of the book’s chapters lack any kind of impact or salient and/or new points.

It does at least do a fair job of making the reader aware of what’s out there to look at. The chapter on ‘Empathy’ is well placed near the start (although it’s kind of obvious that this is a particularly powerful use for games, as is ‘Drilling’ near the end – the educational sector have been exploiting this characteristic forever, even if they still keep resorting to factual recall) and has some good examples picked out, but at the end of ‘Texture’, ‘Throwaway’ (which talks about newsgames?!) or ‘Work’ (ending in discussion about Games With A Purpose?!) you wonder what the point of them being there was. ‘Promotion’ is self-evident (it’s not like branded web games are uncommon these days or at the time of writing – 2011), and the ‘Snapshots’ chapter starts out as a good discussion of personal games (again, misleading title…) which is hamstrung by limiting the conversation to web game tools. A shame.

The relaxation chapter makes for a good discussion though, and sets a good question. Games are often about action, and as such are a ‘lean forward’ media form since they require our attention at all times in order to work. This is contrasted with ‘lean backwards’ media forms such as film and TV, where nothing is asked of the viewer – not even their attention, since the programme/film will continue without their input. So how could we make games that employ a ‘lean backwards’ attitude? Is this even possible?

Labyrinths are touched on since they have a history of being used for spiritual practice and meditation. It’d be nice to think there’s a link but I feel this doesn’t quite work with regards to games. True, games have their labyrinths, but peace and tranquility were really rather far from my grasp when navigating the Lost Woods in Ocarina of Time! What would have been better to examine at this point would be games / interactive experiences such as Flower or Electroplankton. In the modern era, I would have said games like Proteus or HoHoKum would have been worthy of discussion in this sense.

Habituation, despite a strange and slightly misleading chapter title (a theme for the book you may have thought), contains a good discussion about ‘Bushnell’s Law‘, and how it is commonly understood. Importantly, whilst others mainly focus on the ‘easy to learn and hard to master’ part of the quote, Bogost does well to zero in on “…they should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.” This is because not everyone is looking to master a game, nor does everyone play a game for the challenge. Additionally, it is pointed out that Pong was easy to learn, and yet not particularly hard to master – it didn’t really have any deep gameplay to speak of. Instead it’s the playing of Pong vs. other human players that supplies its longevity, thus making it still yet rewarding on the hundredth quarter.


What it was though, was familiar. Table tennis (ping-pong) was well known across America by the time of Pong’s release, and it was this familiarity coupled with it’s easy to learn nature (enshrined in the well-known line, “Avoid missing ball for high score.”) which propelled it to true fame. This is further touched upon with the brief introduction of ‘cognitive itch’ (for example, when we can’t get a catchy tune out of our head until we hear it being played again). In essence, good games are perpetually rewarding and get into our heads and make us come back to them – they are catchy, rather than addictive (Bogost makes a good point – why would we choose the word ‘addictive’ as something positive to describe our art form?!).

Not much to do with habituation, but some good points raised all the same. Even when he does talk about actual habituation, he self-contradicts: In one section he talks about how games/media that make cultural connections transmit their ideas to players/consumers etc. and people become habituated to them, only to later ramble on about games that simulate torture and suggest that we “play torture games to renew our disgust for them.”

Hold on? Didn’t you just say that ideas become habituated in the mind of the player/listener/viewer? Indeed, have we not seen a gradual habituation to violent content in games in the same way that horror violence from films of the 60/70s seem rather tame by modern standards?

This could have been, and should have been, a promising and inspiring volume. As it is, there are some very good points and some food for though peppered throughout several misleading and meandering chapters where the analysis never really comes into focus. As an eye opener to uninitiated academics to the field it will serve some purpose, but for the designer, the informed academic or the average games player, there is nothing to be had here.

It’s a shame, because we really can do things with videogames. Indeed, Bogost has done several different things with games – it’s just that he hasn’t elucidated that understanding in this book like I might have hoped.

AdventureX 2014

So, another year and another AdventureX – a point and click graphics adventure convention that’s in its fourth year (and which I’ve had the honour of attending from its small beginnings in its first year!). Despite losing the UEA London campus from last year (the building was sold), AdventureX has managed to retain a good central London location thanks to the help of Siobhan Thomas of LSBU.


Regrettably, with my new childcare duties I was only able to attend Saturday this year (as opposed to the Sunday as well), but it was still well worth showing up!

Nice selection of panels with some good topics chosen – branching narrative in adventure games (see my previous post which was sparked from it), decision-making in storygames and others.

You can see some of panels which were recorded on the AdventureX Facebook page actually, if you wanted to be there but couldn’t. The live stream wasn’t working on the day due to the flaky internet of LSBU, which was a shame since the denizens of the AGS forums (the original supporters and reason for AdventureX getting off the ground) are a fairly far-flung bunch.

I always find AdventureX inspiring and I always come round to it thinking, “Damn! I still haven’t started/made an adventure game yet! Got to sort that out!” The people there are great and it’s amazing to see a fair few people be so committed to the community of what is still a pretty niche genre. Award this year goes to Francisco Gonzalez (otherwise known as Grundislav) for coming all the way from USA!


For some reason, adventure games have always struck a chord with me. There are so many that I haven’t played – it’s not as though I have an encyclopedic knowledge of all the classics or the modern releases made in similar vein (many of which are made with Adventure Game StudioWadjetEye Games being of particular note). I think it’s because I grew up playing many of them as a child/teenager. My strongest memories of late childhood videogaming are of LucasArts adventure classics and the odd Sierra game (although I never got into the  “‘Quests“).

It’s a genre that I strongly feel peaked well before it’s time (notice how I’m reticent to say that ‘adventure games died‘, because, well, they didn’t!), and I’m glad there’s a subtle resurgence of them, with more and more independent developers finding themselves able to rely on them for a (however modest) living.

Maybe I’ll have something to exhibit next year. We’ll see…


Branching narrative – Real? Wanted? Possible?


As part of my day at AdventureX the other day, I attended (and contributed a little) to a panel on branching narrative.

There was a lot of interesting discussion, with a lot of reference to commonly cited examples of ‘branching narrative/storyline’ such as Heavy Rain, The recent series from Telltale Games (The Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us etc.) and it got me thinking….

Do these games actually use branching story line at all?

To answer that we have to first ask: What is ‘branching story line’? In my mind, that’s when there are choices within a narrative/story and the results of those choices have SIGNIFICANT effects on what happens further on in the game.


Now, I don’t feel it has to be exactly like the diagram above in order to be branching. It may be sensible or appropriate sometimes to allow the player to jump between branches. Even if that does happen, the player has had a significant effect on the outcome of the narrative.

So what’s my problem with the examples named above, seeing as everyone is raving about them being at the forefront of ‘branching narrative’?

Last year, I attended the Annual BAFTA Games Lecture with David Cage (you can listen to the audio here) and even he admitted that Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain and Beyond: 2 Souls didn’t use branching narrative. He used the idea of  ‘bendy or elastic stories’. There is a shape that stories naturally are, but sometimes you allow the player to stretch it in one way or another a little before it snaps back to its original shape. Stretch it too far and it breaks. So whilst you can momentarily distort the story, you can’t really change it.

It was refreshing to hear this from Monsieur Cage because I’d had the veil unceremoniously torn from my eyes whilst playing Fahrenheit several years ago. Upon completing the game and watching the end credits I saw some scenes/events that I hadn’t seen in my game. So I started a new game, thinking, “How will the game turn out if I choose something different to what I chose the first time round?” The answer was more or less nothing. Very little that I did or said made any difference to the game flow. Nothing changed for Heavy Rain (hence the encouragement to only play once!).

As for Telltale, I haven’t replayed significant portions of it yet, but it’s clear that the same kind of smoke and mirrors is going on. In The Walking Dead, your choice of who to save makes precious little different to the events that come after it. It may change a few lines of dialogue, if that. The only reason people think they’ve got some kind of agency is because the game lies to you (“Clementine will remember that…” etc.). It lies very well and with style, but it still lies. The only real results of your actions are that 5/6 of them are recorded to compare with what other games players ‘chose’ when faced with the same decision at the end of the episode.

Since branching narrative means you can make choices and have a significant effect on the game world and how the story plays out, and since you really can’t in these examples (which are often touted as solid examples of branching narrative), I think we need to stop holding them up as models for this particular idea.

So, do any games have branching narrative? Maybe, but they’re often confined to the worlds of text-heavy games such as old-school RPGs and text adventure type games.

During the panel, a point was made that if the player thinks that they are making significant choices, then that’s all that matters. I disagree. Due to the fact that it’s all based upon a reasonably candid lie, I think that any consumer/player with an element of critical faculties will be able to see through this fairly basic smokescreen. When that happens, the game loses a kind of authenticity – analogous to when we realise that the new drink we’ve just purchased at the bar might still taste nice, but it doesn’t make us more attractive or stylish. So no, it does matter whether the branching is real or not, and it isn’t enough to just create the illusion and hope that no-one never notices.

Do we need branching? Do we want it? Is it desirable?

I think so. Greater agency promotes greater involvement and deeper engagement with the systems and story of the game. The problem with branching as illustrated above is that the story tree beings to look like the fractal picture. Not only is this difficult to handle in terms of narrative integrity, but the assets and (wo)man hours involved in producing this would be immense, especially since not all players would access that content.

But does branching narrative have to look like that: an exponentially bifurcating tree diagram?

This diagram from the blog of film student Sean Wilkinson makes a useful suggestion. In this context Sean is pondering how to make a 10 minute film that could be made up of 1 minute segments, and yet give the viewer some choice in what they see.


When people talk about branching narrative, they’re usually talking about the diagram on the left, or a straight line with a few deviations, like the bottom diagram below (taken from this slideshow):


This is more or less the same as David Cage’s ‘elastic stories’ idea that I spoke about above.

Another recent idea (spoken about in the slideshow referred above) is to build emergent systems which give rise to ad hoc stories that arise from the interplay of systems and mechanics in a game rather than traditional methods such as characterisation, dialogue and cut-scenes.

I don’t think we’ve really exhausted the possibilities of predetermined narrative structures quite yet. The ‘Classic Pyramid Narrative Structure’ illustrated above provides more agency and more individuation for each player, without a corresponding increasing pressure to create resources. So why hasn’t this been adopted by anyone?

Maybe it has, but I can’t think of any well-known examples.

Furthermore, what about a web of narrative? Imagine that there was just a conceptual grid of interconnected narrative units that the player navigated, choosing which ones to view/play. Later on, the mind of the player would put it back together in their own special way, using their own interpretations born of their life’s experience and the units they happened to play. Maybe there could even be different entry and exit points, depending on choices made?

That may not be branching narrative, but it does give control over to the player to choose which bits of narrative they engage with, and create the potential for a myriad of interpretations and engagement. For certain, it’s non-linear, and isn’t that really what branching narrative was trying to solve and overcome – the predictability of linear narrative?