Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Attention-Driven Scenography

  Luke Skarth-Hayley (2018 cohort)   www.lukeskarth.com

Game Engines now find use beyond the production of video games as Real-Time Engines, across television and film production, and many other fields. Beyond real-time virtual production for the screen industries, game engines combined with streaming services bring real-time interactive media to new audiences.

While video games are becoming more accessible through this combination, there are more game engines can do for audiences, with novel design opportunities to explore. Game Engines offer unprecedented possibilities in the production of interactive narrative experiences and rich virtual environments. In synthesis, the production of interactive narrative spaces can enhance immersion and provide encounters other media do not. However, the same patterns of interaction and narrative design persist, such as the branching narratives decided by single choices by the player at key points.

This research asks what novel forms of interactive narrative design are possible with Game Engines, and more specifically what novel forms are possible in an interactive narrative space making use of environmental storytelling. It asks what roles exist for the audience between viewer and player, and how new approaches to interaction and narrative design can provide narrative experiences that react to user attention in virtual environments. It explores what other non-linear forms of narrative are possible, with a focus on those involving narrative in virtual spaces, organised to primarily be experienced spatially rather than temporally. An overview of existing forms and key examples is provided.

My thesis presents the contribution of Attention-Driven Scenography (ADS), a novel form of environmental storytelling-focused interactive digital narrative design. ADS tracks user attention via the proxy of camera view in a virtual environment, and uses this to provide tacit and implicit interactions with virtual objects that respond in the moment and over time to the amount of attention given, resulting in engaging environment- and object-based experiences, and the possibility of customising entire sets of environments and scenes over time to adapt an experience to what is perceived to be of interest to the user based on their proxied attention. Situating audiences between viewer and player, this thesis suggests the term “percipient” (one who perceives keenly) given their attention influences changes in the environment and story.

The presentation of ADS consists of the design work that led to and informed it, the emergent ADS design framework, and the formalisation of the framework in a plugin for the Unity Game Engine. Example experiences and prototypes are provided, which were then evaluated through observations and studies with users to ascertain the value of ADS as a novel form of interactive storytelling.

Studying ADS through the exemplar experience Woolgatherer showed that participants responded positively to the concept once they began to understand its mechanisms, though there were questions raised about consistent interaction patterns, and induction into this novel mode of interaction between attention and environment. Some also felt uncertain about the ADS system inferring attention to drive changes in the story and environment that they did not feel they intended.

Future avenues of design emerge, particularly around balancing percipient agency with their attention and memory in a densely interactive environment, and the designer’s intent to create a cohesive but varied experience. As the ADS concept has been formalised as a software plugin, engaging other artists and designers in its use may provide further useful examination of the concept. In conclusion, there is an interesting tension in using attention to drive a spectrum of interactions from explicit through tacit to implicit, and situating users as percipients in a complex position of agency where their influence is stronger than they realise. ADS is emerging as a useful set of interaction designs that particularly suit dense and complex storytelling environments that support multiple possible readings and interpretations.

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/L015463/1) and BBC.