No Outlet

No Outlet

Back of a stop sign at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines, Washington in the winter of 2017.

I pass this sign when I walk from my house to the beach. It is a stop sign on the way from my house toward the beach. I have never stopped walking when I passed this stop sign. On the way back from the beach, I pass the sign and enter the region that is here declared as no outlet, a set of dead ends and cut-de-sacs, and I walk a trail that leads into the forest. I pass along this trail through the forest and have a choice of where I would like to exit. I can pass along behind a row of houses along a muddy track and come out onto a paved cul-de-sac in a development of houses built in the mid-1960s. Or, I can walk along a road that ends in a gate that has never been open, and then walk alongside the road on a shoulder that is not really meant to hold pedestrians. Blackberries hang from the maple trees and a fence. Or, I can walk up to a set of bridges that cross over the canyons where the paves roads end and then the creek cuts through narrow gullies that finger out into the subdivisions built along Pacific Highway South.

There is clearly an outlet at this point even though the sign declares to anyone paying attention that there isn’t one. I routinely ignore the warning labels and laws with their clearly stated does and don’ts and I don’t know at what point in growing up I learned then and at what point I learned that I should not follow them.

No Outlet does not apply to me when I am on foot. I know this because nothing impedes me when I am on this path. If for some reason I had found that I encounter dead ends and locked gates, I would know that actually, yes, there was actually no outlet. I don’t know how I would read this sign if I were coming it for the first time from the beach side. I encounter the sign for the first time when I took this picture. I had not realized it said no outlet for the hundred other times I passed by the sign. I just ignored this notice because I was on my way from one location to another location.
In telling interactive stories, the story maker encounters a fundamental problem of story design from the beginning. Is this is a story with hard branches or is it an ‘open world,’ meaning that is world that offers to the participant in the story a freedom of movement. Hard branches are typically the kind of choices you might encounter in a text-based game like Zork. Nearly all narrative video games use this structure. If you were to diagram a story that uses hard branches, each environment or event in the story would branch with a set of choices.

Walking from the beach you come to a sign that says No Outlet. It is under a stand of Douglas fir. Next to the sign is an abandoned caretaker’s cabin with the door ajar. You can hear a radio delivering static ad “Stand By Me,” either coming from the trees or the cabin.

Do you:
A. Open the door to the caretaker’s cabin.
B. Enter the stand of Douglas Fir.
C. Walk up the No Outlet road.
D. Turn back.

Each of these choices is a hard branch, and this does not really replicate reality well. It does replicate what we tend to do when we encounter any sort of environment or event. We evaluate what we can do, and then we do something. Although we can always refuse to do anything or wait. This could be modeled by adding a choice, “Wait.” But we could if we wanted to sit down and have a picnick, we could walk into the forest that is not the stand of Douglas fir trees, we could if we had a cell phone call someone, or we could examine a map and make choices about what we would do next.

A graphic version of the same choices, would have paths that would be open in the hard branches. All other choices would be blocked with virtual walls. For instance, instead of entering the forest at any point other than the stand of Douglas fir, you would encounter impassable bushes. You would be unable to use the interface to perform actions such as check your cell phone or sign. The location would loop through is environmental variables if you waited, perhaps eventually triggering some kind of event after waiting for a period of time. But this would still be a set of hard branches.

The hard-branch is represented in code as procedures. Maybe the hand-off between procedural sets would be handled in an object oriented way, but in fact, you would be interacting with a forest of logic branches.

An open world on the other hand would not necessarily present you with such proscribed choices, but in practicality, every object placed into the environment could only be interacted with a set of proscribed interactions. The caretaker’s cabin could only be entered through accessible access points: the door. Maybe the windows might open on the cabin, and you could open the windows. And if could somehow shrink yourself, you could climb down the chimney. Likely you could enter the forest and wander in the forest. Each tree and bush would be a malleable object in the forest.

The open world is represented in coder as objects. Each object has a location in the world (itself an object) and the participating point-of-view location would also be an object. These objects can interact through interfaces.

In many ways the open world presents a more organic simulation of the how we interact with reality. In reality we never encounter “no outlet.” There is very little that intrinsically tells us that we cannot pass. But rather we are encouraged to stay on the proscribed path and not to wander too far.

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