Central Issues in Interactive Narrative – A discussion with Chris Crawford

I wrote a paper summarizing central issues in interactive narrative, to be published in the Springer Lecture Series in Computer Science: Five Theses for Interactive Digital Narrative.

My intent was to start a discussion on the state of affairs in the field, on achievements, pertinent questions and areas for future research.

Chris Crawford reacted quickly and we entered in an ongoing discussion, which Chris and I decided to present here, inviting readers to comment and offer their views.

As it has grown long (and is still continuing at this point) I decided to present it in installments, although the complete discussion will be available, for those who want to read it in its entirety.

Several overarching themes appear in the discussion:

– The state of the art of the field: Where are we, what has been achieved

– Science vs. Art: Interactive digital narrative is an interdisciplinary effort that includes computer scientists, artists and humanities scholars bringing different perspectives and goals

– Genius vs. Community: Is it the single genius/beacon of light project that will continue to drive development in IDN. An important sub-topic here is the question of collaboration

– Concepts and Practice: How do conceptions of interactive narrative influence research and practical implementations? How do they influence the audience?

Enough with the intro. Here comes part 1:

part 2

Chris’ initial email :

I just read your paper and I have one immediate reaction to your Point #5 (IDN Needs to be Author-Focused). This was fundamental to my work, first with the Erasmatron and later with Storytron. I now believe that I erred in designing the system for less technically-inclined authors. The killer truth here is that storytelling is complicated. It is not possible to build a clean, simple, easily-grasped system for interactive storytelling; any workable system is necessarily big and complicated. That in turn imposes a steep learning curve on the author.

A second killer factor is the primacy of algorithm creation. Storytelling is fundamentally about human processes. Drama is not a static statement of human facts, but instead a description of human emotional processes. Such processes can only be described using algorithms, and algorithms can only be expressed adequately in mathematical form. Even boolean math is too simplistic to capture the subtleties of human emotional processes. Fully-fledged numeric algorithms expressed in algebraic form are required.

This imposes a huge constraint on the author base. Let’s face it, there are damn few decent storytellers who can also sling around algebraic expressions.

I have come to the conclusion that, for the nonce, we must place all our hopes on that tiny number of people who combine artistic talent with mathematics nous. I think that the ideal arrangement is something like Joseph Brook’s proposal in The Mythical Man-Month: the surgical team, in which a single expert surgeon is aided by a team of enablers. I have not been able to assemble such a team; perhaps you can.

The necessity for such an arrangement will, I hope, be temporary. Once we have trained a cadre of talented individuals who grasp both sides of the problem, we will be able to build standard tools enabling a larger group to tackle the work. Until that time, standardization is premature. We need broad exploration, along with many failures, in order to discover the best standards.

Moreover, we must recognize that building interactive storyworlds is a complicated task requiring considerable expertise, expertise that can be developed only through years of training and practice. As yet we cannot ask talented people to make the huge commitment required for this; we need some pilot projects clearly demonstrating that such efforts can yield worthy results.

Thus, I think we need to focus our energies on a few “Manhattan Projects” (“Apollo Projects” for the less bloody-minded) to demonstrate the power of the medium. We need a Hiroshima (or a moon landing) to motivate the world.

Hartmut’s reply:
I absolutely agree on the need for more authors and that they need to be educated about procedurality. However, my approach is from the other direction, the low end of procedurality, and rather than the “Tiger Jump” approach a la Façade/the Manhattan Projects/, I have an iterative approach, slowly building up capabilities.

This has to do a lot with my background – before I entered the field I worked in tech support and as a journalist writing articles for computer magazines. In both capacities I learned how little most people know about computers. I’ve walked countless people through seemingly fail-prove software installs, learned that even highly intelligent people could find computer tasks challenging and that without extensive training programs, computers would go to waste even in seemingly well-run companies.

Contrast this with the our field. All of us are highly-skilled computer geeks (yes, this includes the artists and humanities scholars) FROM THE PERSPECTIVE of the average person out there (yes this includes most prospective authors). To be entirely clear – we might NOT SEE OURSELVES as anything approaching technical geniuses, but for the average Jane and John we might as well be. This fact creates a huge barrier to overcome, maybe much more psychological in nature than related to the actual lack of skills.

Many existing tools are still an order of a magnitude too complicated for the target audience of prospective authors. There is even less of a chance that specialized programming languages like ABL will become commonly used. This is why i created my ASAPS system on the low end of computational complexity. I can teach a college student to use it and produce an interactive narrative in one term. Right now I have more than 90 works created with it, including one published the AppStore for iPads. I believe in slowly building up the capabilities of the system, but also in fostering collaborations with other researchers and their systems.

Jay Bolter told me once that everybody wants to have their own system in our field. That practice seems wasteful and unsustainable in the long run. I think we should focus more on how our tools can work together. Nicolas Szilas et al have published an exchange standard (Oparis) and that is a good start, but we need more. In May, I started to work with other researchers to hook up my ASAPS system to their AI system. The idea is that ASAPS would provide a front-end, but also a meta-narrative layer for the autonomous agents in their system. What we discovered in our discussions was that there is a need for an exchange layer between the systems, one that contains abstractions that both sides understand. I would be very open to more collaborations.

I do believe that advanced computational algorithms will play an important role in future IDN systems. However, the task is not done when that algorithm has been created and implemented. Nor is it done when it has been demonstrated in a single milestone project. The (mostly overlooked) challenge is to find an abstraction and concrete user-facing implementation that allows the average author to grasp the concept and use it well in her/his projects. In a sense what we have right now is the equivalent of the computer before the gui – we have neither the abstraction of the desktop metaphor nor Steve Jobs’s genius in polishing and packaging the parts and brining them to market.

The question of abstractions is crucial and it is here, where theory and humanistic perspectives enter the picture. Roy Ascott already in the 1960s (!!!) saw the opportunities offered to artists by digital technology, but crucially he understood that most people will fail to see the true novelty of systemic/cybernetic/procedural works and therefore will describe them as variations of non-procedural artifacts. This problem continues to this day. The static, fixed artwork still provides the lens through which procedural systems are understood. Only very slowly, through institutions like the ZKM and ars electronica, through the electronic literature foundation, curators and specialized art dealers, the perspective, the lens, is changing and the constant comparisons to „proper artworks“ become less prominent. However recent discussions wether video games (referenced here) can be art are testimony that the process is far from over.

In interactive narrative, we are only beginning to create abstractions that allow people to grasp the difference and specific opportunity in comparison to traditional fixed forms. As long as interactivity is understood only as an „add-on“ feature, the attraction will be low. Most people are quite fine with movies, novels, and the stage play as they are. They do not see the need for interactive fiction, interactive movies, or interactive drama. The point is that IDN is a new expressive art form, and needs to be understood and promoted as such. Instead of shoehorning concepts or metaphors of old (Freytag’s arc, Aristotle’s concepts of the well-formed plot and complete action) into the world of computers, we need to work on fitting metaphors and terminology that marks the difference.

This work is as important as the work on the technical side. People cannot see what they do not understand. Michael Mateas’ frustration with the fact that the average user did not understand the brilliance of the underlying AI in Façade and his determination to make it more visible in Prom Week is an expression of the problem. Most people might never fully understand AI, but they could appreciate a framework of abstractions that explains to them what an reactive procedural work is that lets them try different courses of action and experience the resulting consequences and outcomes.

I do not believe that any Apollo project will solve the abstraction problem. Audiences might be in awe, but still not understand. Is Façade a game? Not to me or you, but that’s how it was described in most publications. Not that I have a big problem with using the term “game“, but it creates the wrong frame of reference.

We need more bridges between he technologists and the abstraction people (humanities scholars and artists), who in turn need to start emphasizing on what is different. We need to connect our tools because the problem is too big for any single person or research group. Finally, we also need to educate people, conceptually and with easy tools, so they can move on and start creating works.

part 2 part 3 part 4


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