Central Issues in Interactive Narrative Part 3 – A discussion with Chris Crawford

In part 3 of the discussion, Chris expands on the disciplinary divide in the field, before discussing a communal approach versus the single genius. Finally, he lays out his approach and talks about his current project Siboot. In turn, I talk he audience and the difficulty to extend something as well known (by almost everybody) as narrative.

Part 1 Part 2


Wow! That was a great piece. It’s sort of “A Quick Summary of the Field of IDN in 2500 Words or Less”. I don’t keep up with what others are doing, largely because I don’t have access to the printed academic literature and I can’t go to the academic conferences. On a deeper level, I’m a troglodytic lone wolf anyway. I *like* my cave!

I agree and disagree with everything you wrote — and that is my standard for perfection in writing. A good essay should include just enough agreeable content to command credence, and just enough disagreeable content to stimulate thought. I think you hit the perfect balance here.

Your characterization of the two schools of thought (AI versus arts) is an echo of the all-pervasive Two Cultures problem that has bedeviled our culture for more than 50 years. The fact that the former school dominates game design explains its artistic flaccidity.

Being an ornery cuss, I have deep criticisms of both sides. The AI approach seems overly boolean to me. AI has developed so many wonderful tools that AI people can’t help but want to apply those tools to the problem. Unfortunately, they’re all carpentry tools being used on marble. The whole boolean approach imposes an overly simplistic black and white mentality on the infinitely subtle processes of drama. Michael Mateas recognized this with Prom Night and used 4-bit numbers to obtain greater resolution, but I think we need to go all the way to floating point. To put it another way, I think we need to stop thinking in terms of AI and more in terms of simulation. I’m sure that’s a reflection of my training as a physicist, and I confess that this may constitute an unconscious prejudice on my part. But I could be right; doesn’t character simulation seem a more promising route than boolean branching?

The arts side, on the other hand, seems too unwilling to get its hands dirty with actual hardcore programming. I see all sorts of clever ideas emanating from that side that are obviously uncomputable. Many of the other ideas rely on a primitive approach to programming using an overly high-level language. I like to remind people that the Renaissance artists dissected rotting human corpses in order to better appreciate human anatomy; why can’t modern artists find the mettle to get their hands bloody with digital gore?

The fundamental thing that both sides miss, in my physics-centered weltanschaung, is the necessity of modeling character interaction using numeric algorithms. Boolean algorithms don’t have enough resolution to model the subtleties of human interaction, and all those damn fixed branching systems are equally ham-handed.

There’s also the whole verb-centered thing that I have been banging my drum about for decades, but let’s set that aside as old news.

Here’s a point that I think you didn’t quite notice, although you danced around it: the difference between a communal approach and a “genius” approach. You naturally assume a communal approach to solving the problem, and I can’t deny that, over the long run, that is the necessary approach. Interactive storytelling is, as I have already moaned, too damn complicated to be conquered by one person; it will take the combined efforts of many people to truly solve this problem.

But my own personal history inclines towards the “genius” approach, with ME (but of course!) playing the role of Genius. I think that I can lay claim to have made more mistakes than anybody in this business, which gives me a leg up. I believe that I am close to a working system; I have so many technologies working. Of course, that could well be the undying optimism of the troglodytic lone wolf; I clearly lack sufficient objectivity to make a reliable assessment. Then again, nobody else knows enough about my technologies to make a reliable assessment, either.

So far, despite numerous attempts, there is no central concept that has attracted enough credibility from others to provide us with a useful starting point. Just now, we are in exactly the position that the artists crave: a confused array of individual ideas. This is a phase we must go through, but at some point we must begin a crystallization process around one idea that provides the best foundation on which to build. The community can then expand and refine that idea, adding more technologies to it, while the artists act as scouts exploring the peripheries, as is their charge.

For the last six months, I have been toying with the idea of making my technologies open source. That would require some sort of PR effort. I detest PR and am correspondingly wretched at it. So for now, this is just a fantasy on my part; I’m in the process of wondering how that fantasy could be realized.

I know that many parts of my technology can be used separately. I would break it up into independent pieces as follows (I place them in rough order of easy adaptation to other systems):

The three-factor personality model with perceptions, accordances, and weights.
The core dataset of Verbs, Events, Stages, Actors, Props, and Quantifiers
BNumbers for computation
Verb-centered design
The Deikto metalanguage system
The reaction-based engine
The Sappho scripting language

I am certain that some of these technologies would be useful components of any successful interactive storytelling system, but I’m still daydreaming about how to proceed.

Now onto the question of “what interactive narrative is really about”. This question doesn’t stimulate a lot of thought in me, largely because I feel that it has been adequately answered. First off, I think that we can agree that none of the working systems we have seen so far are *really* interactive narrative; there’s nothing we can point to and say “That’s it! That’s the right approach! Therein lies the future!”

For me, there’s an easy answer to the question: interactive narrative is a system that permits the player to engage in dramatically significant interaction with interesting characters. Note that this perception commits me to the character-based school of thought on writing. Some writers are plot-centered: they design a plot and then fill in the details. Other writers are character-centered: they create an interesting set of characters, throw them together, and see what happens. I believe that the plot-centered approach is inimical to interactivity; if you already know where you’re going, you can’t give the player any freedom to interact. The character-centered approach, on the other hand, fits hand-in-glove with interactivity: the player is simply one more character in the cast and does the same thing that everybody else is doing.

This means that we have to throw away the whole idea of the drama manager (whom I call Fate) built around plot. Instead, I think we must think more in terms of soap opera: the open-ended series of interactions among characters. Fate umpires the interactions but does not provide long-term planning. (Although there are some easy ways to insure long-term development without intruding on the free will of the player).

An interesting aside: I clash with academics on terminological issues. Most academics prefer to shanghai a term that’s close enough to their meaning to be plausible, yet far enough away to permit them to assign it a precise meaning for their discipline. I prefer to take use terms from closely related disciplines, such as fiction and theater. Thus, academics say “agency” where I say “free will”. Academics say “character” where I say “actor”. Their “locations” correspond to my “stages”, and their “physical objects” are my “Props”. I wonder what it means.

I’ll conclude by observing that I agree with  you that a modular approach is most promising, but I fear that we’ll never be able to agree on any modules, no matter how simple or fundamental. I believe that the first two items on my list above are no-brainer modules that provide us with an excellent starting point, but I very much doubt that others will accept them.

My current estimate is that the only way to get the ball rolling is to get something actually working, something impressive enough that people will sit up and notice and be so impressed that they’ll embrace the underlying technology as something to build on. That’s my goal with Siboot.



I agree with much of what you are saying, but maybe I can emphasize and clarify some aspects. Let me start at the end: I’ve grown more and more skeptical of the Holy Grail of the big, wonderful work that convinces everyone how amazing and necessary interactive narrative is. Kevin Brooks’ system didn’t do it, Toni Dove’s performances didn’t do it, Erasmatazz didn’t do it, Façade didn’t do it, GRIOT didn’ t do it, Prom Week didn’t do it. And all of these are wonderful, groundbreaking works.

The one masterpiece to bind them all, open their eyes and let them see the wonders will not come. But I am not convinced anymore that we actually need it. What we need instead is an audience who understands and appreciates procedural, varied, and reactive narrative. An audience that is literate in digital media. This audience is growing up now and will develop an interest for deeper characters and more involved narrative development than the average AAA game can offer. Its members come from Diabolo and Skyrim and Bioshock and The Sims and many other games and will understand the intricate mechanics of Façade much better than many mainstream journalists who wrote about it. It will be a gradual process, but eventually, the digital generation will demand space for procedural masterworks in the galleries and library collections.

But we are not there yet. The majority of the potential audience is far behind in comprehending what we are working on. Sliding Doors, a movie with one (!) branching point, is a good indication in this regard. Most movies that attempted to show more branches/parallel narratives were not very successful (e.g. Cloud Atlas). I am NOT putting the blame on the audience here, but we need to acknowledge how fundamental a change is we are working on. What we are trying to do is to extend – and thus change – narrative, something that most people feel they have a pretty good understanding of, one that is based on thousands of years of tradition. This is why I maintain the best way to convince people that interactive narrative is something worth looking into is by exploring new topics, modes of interaction and sequencing.

An IDN work might perfectly simulate a stage drama, a novel, or a short story and as such will be a major achievement; however the full extend of this accomplishment will only be appreciated by the initiated few. For the rest of the audience, it will be derivative of the original form, an „interactive add-on“ to something already known. I am convinced that „interactivisation“ of existing forms is not the way, instead we should boldly go where narrative has never dared to venture. IDN will come into its own, once it presents narratives that traditional media platforms cannot. Characters that are nasty or nice and everything in between depending on the participants decisions and behavior, the experience of consequences resulting form the participant’s decisions, cross-session memory, a plurality of views between which the users can switch at will. And then it comes to forms and genres we are only at the beginning.

Early on in the development of AI characters, the researchers determined that life-like behavior and intelligence was not the main goal, but instead believability. I feel the same is true for the overall product of interactive narrative, which means as long as the participant had an engrossing and satisfying experience, the underlying technology has shown its value. Yes, I can absolutely understand how the move from binary two 4bit and floating point dramatically improves the range of possible expressions. However, I am not convinced that this development will automatically yield better characters.

The problem with the simulation is what to simulate. Narrative has always been the art of exaggeration and compression. A protagonist who stands in for many others, a village that represents the aspirations and psychological afflictions of a whole country, the space of a century covered in a book. I think it was you who has classified the The Sims as „life with all the boring parts put in.“ I tend to agree with this one, especially given an acceleration mode, so you do not have to wait forever just to see you SIMS sleep. Janet Murray suggests in a chapter in the upcoming book I co-edited to look at dramatic narrative situations in classical texts such as the King Arthur sagas as the „source’ for the simulation, and not real life. Such characters do not have to have the fidelity of real life humans’ emotional palettes, but they have to be convincing in their role.

I am skeptical of the Genius approach, the single leader to the promised land, and that might also has something to do with coming from Germany. Yes, I believe in a modular and communal approach. And I do not think we need to agree on an overall vision for narrative or specific modules to be able to have technical standards that allow us to combine different people’s work. I envision something more akin to a plumbing system, a TCP/IP networking layer. A draft exchange standard, hosted on a web server, together with a repository of components. The different components of your work could find a place where, as well as the works of many other researcher. This central platform could also solve the PR problem.

I feel given the potential gains we should make collaboration a priority. I’d be happy to see your knowledge on verbs applied in in another researcher’s or artist’s work.

Can you say more about Siboot?



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