Central Issues in Interactive Narrative Part 2 – A discussion with Chris Crawford


In part 1, the discussion started around the question of authorship in interactive narrative, this second part concentrates on the issue of computational story models and how different perspectives in this interdisciplinary field affect the discussion and research agenda. I also bring up the question of enabling collaboration through exchange standards.

Chris continues

I am pessimistic about the prospect of making interactive storytelling authorship available to Everyman. This was in fact the goal of the Erasmatron, and it was a spectacular failure — the system required was far to complicated. With Storytron I made some aspects of the technology more accessible, but the underlying model grew more complex.

The central problem, however, is the difficulty of creating a computable model for storytelling. Every effort I have seen relies on a different conception of the structure of a story and the process of storytelling. We cannot collaborate because we all see storytelling differently.

I often illustrate this problem by telling two stories:

Itsy bitsy spider crawled up the gutter spout.
Down came the rain, and washed the spider out.
Out came the sun, and dried up all the rain.
And the itsy-bitsy spider crawled up the spout again.

This is a complete and well-formed story in four sentences. It has a protagonist, an antagonist, a crisis, a resolution, and even an edifying moral. Furthermore, any 4-year old child can immediately grasp it.

Once upon a time there was a handsome prince who lived in a shining castle atop a hill.
One day he leapt atop his white charger and galloped out of the castle, over the drawbridge,
and into the forest.
Where they fell into a hole and they both died.

This story contains many of the components of stories: the handsome prince, the castle, the white horse — but it is most definitely NOT a well-formed story. Any 4-year old child can recognize that.

Challenge: write a computer program that can accept these two stories as input and determine which is well-formed and which is not.

What boggles the mind about this challenge is not that we think it difficult — we can’t even think of HOW to solve it. The processing capability that any 4-year old child has is beyond our ability to conceive.

So yes, we desperately need some kind of abstraction that permits us to design systems for understanding and controlling the storytelling process. We need a science of interactive storytelling before we can have a technology of interactive storytelling.

But science did not spring fresh out of the minds of great scientists. The first true scientist, in the modern sense, was Galileo, and he often worked backwards from engineering and technology to induce the underlying physics. If you read his book on physics, you realize just how hands-on this guy was; the book is chock-full of examples taken from real-world construction techniques.

So we need some storytelling engineering before we can develop the storytelling science that will help us build good interactive storyworlds, The snake eats its tail.

I have walked a long way down one path, thereby generating a lot of experience. I can tell you a million ideas that don’t work, because I’ve tried them all (but there are billions more ideas to explore).

Here’s another kicker: because storytelling is so complicated, anything we build will necessarily be huge in order to adequately reflect a minimum level of fidelity to storytelling’s complexity. That cannot be accomplished by a single person. Yet there are no Apollo projects in interactive storytelling. We need an Apollo project that starts off with a Mercury program (just getting an astronaut into orbit), then a Gemini program (long duration space flight, orbital docking), before we can have an Apollo program. I think of my Siboot project as a Mercury project. It will get something working that just barely qualifies as interactive storytelling.

Perhaps the onus is on me to take the time to get the funding to build the team to complete this Mercury program.


Hartmut replies:

Fundamentally, there are two approaches to interactive narrative. One comes from science, the other one is based on arts/humanities. This became fully apparent to me at the final panel of ICIDS 2009 in Portugal, where Marc Cavazza and Martin Rieser discussed the next steps in the field. Marc emphasized how the focus should be on the “hard work“ in AI in making better algorithms, while Martin talked about the need for experiments to explore new forms of narrative.

This is a very foundational difference in perspective. In theory this is what makes this field interesting and vibrant, the interdisciplinary nature. Unfortunately, the reality is more complicated, since the two sides might not fully understand each other. As a humanities-schooled scholar and an artist, I am on the side represented by Martin here; yet as a systems builder I sympathize with and understand Marc’s perspective.

For the sake of discussion, let me abstract (and purposefully exaggerate) the two positions:

Science/AI: We need to work more on understanding and simulating existing stories/stage dramas/improv actors to build computational systems that can output narratives as convincing as the aforementioned forms.

Arts/Humanities: This is an opportunity for novel ways of expression that go beyond established forms of narrative. We need to experiment with this wonderful new artistic toolbox to see what we can come up with, but it is clear that we can do things impossible in non-interative media and that the results will not look and behave like traditional forms.

So this is where the crux of the problem lies: what interactive narrative is really about. The artists/humanities position (again exaggerated for the sake of discussion) feels that the science/AI people spend their time modeling OLD narrative forms, while what drives the artists is the opportunity for NEW narrative forms. In other words – the artists feel that the science people are busy modeling BEFORE we even know what we want to model. Artists are very skeptical regarding the underlying notion that structures and tropes from non-interactive media can be successfully transferred and will yield interesting results.

Like you said, successful, convincing narrative is hard. And while we like to think of narrative as a general concept that transcends time and media, when it comes to practical training, writers, filmmakers, game designers, and oral storytellers go to different schools for a reason. In other words, successful implementations are platform specific. Film had to develop its own concepts from the development of montage to continuity editing to specific framing to time-lapse to slow motion to the opportunities offered by color film, CGI, and 3D. Currently, practitioners are in the process to find similar conventions in interactive narrative. What kind of topics seem to work best? What kind of structures emerge? What kind of genres? What modes of engagement are satisfying for users?

In practice, these positions are less clear cut, but some broad trajectories can illustrate the point about different perspectives further. From Brenda Laurel to the OZ group to Façade, interactive drama focused on making (neo-) Aristotelian drama interactive by means of AI. Michael Mateas explicitly draws the connection to the ancient predecessors by writing that each walkthrough should have the emotional force of Greek drama. Marc Cavazza was involved in building an interactive version of Madame Bovary, i.e. an interactive novel. Post Façade, Michael has focused more on simulating “social games“ (as in Prom Week) and has lately advocated (FDG 2014) to read books about people’s behavior in society as a basis for interactive narrative. Brian Magerko works on understanding and simulating improv actors in his research lab as a basis to build more convincing virtual characters.

On the other hand, artists like Toni Dove, Martin Rieser, many members of the ELO organization or the Tale of Tales duo create interactive narratives as a way to experiment with new narrative forms, with little regard for existing frameworks and concepts. Pamela Jennings in 1996 already denounced the Aristotelean model as unfit for the digital medium, although her substitution (cyclical narrative based on African oral traditions) is not automatically more convincing. Janet Murray’s fundamental understanding of digital media as defined by specific affordances and phenomenological qualities points in the same direction (and this aspect might be more important than the vision of the Holodeck). Her description of the “Cyberbard,“ a new type of procedural creator also marks the departure from the traditional author. Similarly Ian Bogost’s consideration of “unit operations“ offers a fresh perspective on understanding narrative mechanics in digital media – as does your book.

Marie-Laure Ryan and other scholars focused on the analysis of interactive narrative can be seen as representing a third perspective, which could help to bridge the gap between the other two, especially once the question of work vs. artistic statement is explored more. In literature studies and any related related discipline, it is well understood (Barthes “Death of the author”) that works can and should be analyzed by themselves, regardless of author’s biography or claims regarding the work. Michael Mateas might very well see Façade as a neo-Aristotelan one act interactive drama, but good arguments can be made that it is altogether a very different work, one that is more narrative experiment than it overtly announces.

With this perspective in place, let’s look at your examples. You are absolutely right, the discussion about which is the right kind of model will continue indefinitely as long as we are focused on this aspect. However, the artistic/experimental side might find neither example particularly interesting and instead ask you for accessible tools to experiment with, irrespective of your particular model. Instead of the complete solution, they might ask you for building blocks and connections. Once people start using an incomplete solution, they will figure out what they can do with it and they will ask for the specific enhancements they want. This is my experience with ASAPS and it means that I sometimes work through the nights to accommodate my users’ wishes.

I don’t see why different approaches cannot be combined to great effect. I feel what needs to happen is a perspective change that allows different people to work on different things. The world wide web is a success story of how one can build an infrastructure that grows over time. The initial technical capabilities might not have been that impressive and were clearly inferior to Ted Nelson’s vision of hypertext. However, the capabilities have expanded greatly and during the more than 20 years now, the WWW has survived browser wars and attempts at hostile takeovers. Altogether this might be a better model than the Apollo program, which, while successful has not be sustainable and as far as I understand could not even be replicated right now, as the construction plans have been lost.

What I envision is a modular approach, where you could offer a component that speaks to your particular strength, maybe one that allows artists to explore verbs in interactions, where Brian Magerko’s actors could be NPCs, Michael Mateas’ drama manager would control the sequencing and ASAPS could supply a meta-narrative structure. And in another instance, Aylett/Louchart’s agents would take over, combined with Michael Young’s work, Mark Riedl’s sequencing and Jichen Zhu’s story generation. Ideally, artists could supply elements in this way, too, for example some of Toni Dove’s work. Many more scholars and artist could be mentioned in this regard, this list is only meant as an illustration, and the potential for growth is huge.

For this to happen, we should work on the HTTP/HTML standard equivalents for interactive narrative. And we should think about the equivalent of a W3C organization to manage the standard and help it grow. This could also be a clearing house for ideas and it is here where your vast experience in things that work and millions of things that don’t would be invaluable.

Maybe we should try to get funding for this organization.



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