May 8, 2008

Commentary: Interactive Storytelling by Andrew Glassner

It turns out that Dartmouth has an Interactive Storytelling course, which is awesome. It also turns out that I'm not allowed to take it. Which is something less than awesome. But the professor is quite nice and allowed me to borrow the class textbooks. I already talked about the first, Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, and it's high time I bit into the other, much thicker book.

Andrew Glassner's Interactive Storytelling is straightforward and thorough. The book is meaty and nutritious for game designers, while Crawford served a more exotic dish. Glassner divides the book into the Story section, the Game section, and the Merging section. Each gives an overview of all the fundamentals that Glassner can come up with.

The Story third of the book reviews common plot structures and features of stories (since time immemorial), and it includes some basic helpful hints. Avoid direct on-the-nose dialogue. Villains must feel internally justified. Characters should have interesting internal lives as well as external ones. It's a lot of bread-and-butter advice of the sort that would be most useful to someone coming from a more technical background.

The Game section is easily the weakest. Glassner spends most of it listing the different ways in which games can be classified. While constructing a vocabulary for the medium is important (and even inspired a few earlier blog posts), this sort of listing didn't really build to anything. Glassner never applies his classifications. We're left to wait for Raph Koster's game grammar for that, I suppose. But this section did include a few interesting ideas, such as a few thought experiments borrowed from game theory and an introduction of the Go terms sente and gote.

The section discussing the merging of games and stories is certainly the heart of the book, and most of the interesting analysis shows up here. After a brief comparison of the forms (identifying several polarities), Glassner entertains the idea that perhaps it's impossible to have a game and a story work synergistically. He makes a good case that it can't be done. In fact, he makes such a good case that one starts to reconsider the whole book with skepticism.

But Glassner is willing to offer enough interesting ideas in the rest of the book that the reader's enthusiasm (if not his confidence) is restored. After discussing and identifying several options (multiple-choice dialogue, hypertext fiction) and making some critical observations (loss of control always breaks immersion, "believable" is more important than "realistic"), Glassner concludes by listing a set of hypothetical interactive story "experiments". They're all quite intriguing, and they leave me with some hope that a merger of these media can be accomplished.

My one gripe with Glassner's approach to uniting stories and games is that he seems to require the resulting story to be entertaining to watch. Again and again he makes the (correct) claim that "people are bad actors." But we aren't asking players to act for the benefit of an audience. All we're asking is that they experience the story firsthand.

Call of Duty 4, as the highly-regarded game critic Ben Croshaw pointed out, has a run-of-the-mill, modern conflict grab-bag story. Some Arabs here, some Russians there, throw in a nuke or two and ship the game. But the focus on immersion and the first-person experience made the game ridiculously fun and, more importantly, genuinely moving. It's that sort of focus on the player experience that will establish games as an art.

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