December 26, 2007

Commentary: Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling

CCoIS, Chris Crawford's latest book, is partially an examination of the problems of storytelling and interactivity and partially a guide through the technical problems of creating a Storytronics-style interactive storytelling engine. The first part is full of insight and useful lessons for game designers and storytellers. The second provides an interesting glimpse into the technology that Crawford has spent years cooking up.

For those that don't know, Storytronics is Crawford's current approach to implementing true interactive storytelling, and it's what he sees as the first major step of the new medium he is founding. And he really does consider it to be a new medium; his book, along with most of his speeches and writings, drips with contempt for games. Video games, he proclaims, are adolescent nonsense, defined by simple and often violent themes. Interactive storytelling, on the other hand, is about people.

I'm not so sure that IS is so far separated from games, and I'm not convinced that games really are so limited, but I'd love to play what Crawford describes. He rejects branching-tree stories or foldback schemes in favor of a language-based playing experience and personality modeling. Storytronics provides an authored storyworld with characters and situations in place, and the player navigates this storyworld, forging a storyline.

Some parts of Crawford's approach still look like they might present problems. Consider, for example, the problem of interactive tragedy. The most dramatically compelling ending for Romeo and Juliet is the double suicide at the end. But the player is trying to win! Crawford's solution is to change the definition of "winning" to the dramatically compelling ending rather than the character's best interest. He thus proposes that the player be rewarded with "applause" upon completing the tragedy. I'm not sure that players will find that truly rewarding, and I worry that it breaks character identification. You're forcing the player to role-play rather than powergame, and that won't work with everyone.

Crawford also concludes that interactive storytelling cannot support a creative "third option" to problems. His reasoning is that, should he offer the choice to the player, it becomes obvious and no longer is a player-created solution. Within the language-driven context he describes, I understand this limitation, but I know that in Deus Ex my most powerful experience was a third option involving shooting a previously-friendly character. The game did not present the choice to me directly, but it existed in the background. I worry that accepting this large a limitation is cutting off a powerful playing experience.

But despite my few misgivings, the majority of the concept of Storytronics sounds solid, and I'm looking forward to playing it.

The primary reason I read the book, however, was for the insight it gave into the more general fields of storytelling and interactivity. Crawford offers plenty of useful lessons. Stories are about people, not things. Interactivity is a multi-agent cycle of listening, thinking, and speaking. Stories are not based in spectacle. The choices that the player is offered should not be black and white, or even black and white and gray, but ALL grays. Every design decision constrains future design decisions, so do the tough stuff first.

I still feel beholden to games, and I'm not willing to totally abandon them in favor of IS, but this book contains enough insight that I'm happy to have read it.

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