Central Issues in Interactive Narrative Part 4 – A discussion with Chris Crawford

In part 4 of the discussion, Chris talks about his latests project Siboot and identifies “five killer tasks in IDN,” while I bring up the question how the audience understands IDN.

Part 1 part 2 part 3

Chris writes:

You’re right that the Holy Grail is beyond our reach; I have tacitly admitted as much with my Siboot project, which is half-game, half-storyworld. The interactive storytelling in Siboot uses only about three-quarters of the technology in SWAT; I have ripped out a lot of the more complex components. I dumped the ability to travel to stages; that’s all handled directly by the Engine. I limited Actor attributes to just three; I replaced the Tinkertoy Text system with an iconic system that is computationally simpler. Only two actors are allowed on a stage at once; no three-party interactions are allowed. There’s no hiding, no spying, and no automatic lie detection. I can’t recall some of the other simplifications I have made.

I do believe that we should be able to get something like soap opera working in a few decades. The trick is to purge our thinking of plot-related notions and concentrate exclusively on character interaction. Yet even soap operas have mini-plots. I’ve been thinking of the idea of a set of mini-plots that are abstracted enough to permit different actors in each of the roles. The engine would then launch a new mini-plot whenever the count of active mini-plots fell too low. We’d need to come up with an abstraction of the idea of plot; I have some ideas about how to do that. Then we’d stock the story world with a goodly set of mini-plots.

I have some dissatisfaction with the point you make about exploring new narrative structures. The source of my discomfort is the long history of that notion. I still recall a contentious Phrontisterion in which I was trying to coax the group into coming to some sort of conclusions, no matter how vague. A good number of the participants refused to support ANY overall conclusions, arguing that the field is simply too poorly-developed to admit any such thing.

My objection to this is that we have to start somewhere. We have long since learned that branching trees don’t work very well — yet we’re so open-minded that we don’t discourage newcomers from pursuing that goal; time and effort are wasted re-inventing square wheels.

I recently wrote a piece listing what I believe to be the five killer tasks in IDN, the central problems that must be solved before we can hope to accomplish anything. I place them in order of increasing importance:

1. An IDE customized to the system; IDN is simply too complicated to be built in a general-purpose language.
2. The display of faces with emotional expressions appropriate to the context.
3. A personality model that is USEFUL for guiding actor behavior, and SIMPLE enough to be practical.
4. A narrative engine for executing everything,
5. A linguistic user interface. You simply cannot meaningfully interact with actors without using language.

I’ll offer this argument to justify the replacement of boolean variables with floating points, which you accept but don’t seem to consider to be of great importance: how can you differentiate between the affections that one person holds for others in a group? Does John love Jane, hate Mary, love Tom, and hate Jim? If you don’t use floating points, how can you handle this kind of problem?

I agree that simulating the real world is all wrong. Instead, we must simulate the narrative process. Putting in floor plans for houses, weights and values of different objects, distances between different points — all that stuff is a waste of time. We’re  simulating PEOPLE, not things! So we simulate how people respond to different events, depending upon their personalities and histories.

The idea of the genius-led project is not to limit everything to a single genius. What I envision is a large number of projects, each with its own genius. The creative act is, for the most part, the act of one artist. There can be many specialists who assist that artist, but the artistic vision cannot be seen by any committee. The cinema has developed a good system of specialties that support the central genius: the director.

The problem we have seen with collaboration, as you have already noted, is the incompatibility of visions that makes such collaboration possible. Everybody has their own idea of how to do it; indeed, we don’t even have a common vision of what it is that we’re doing. Is it “interactive storytelling” or “interactive digital narrative” or “ludic narrative”? Think of all the different terms we have seen here.

Of course, this line of reasoning supports your argument that we need more exploration before we start nailing things down. But I grow impatient with what seems to me to be floundering. Sure, we’re exploring lots of opportunities — but we haven’t actually discovered anything yet! Perhaps my impatience is due to having struggled with these things for 20+ years. Perhaps it is due to the distant cloud of mortality that I spy on my horizon.

As to Siboot, I have far too much to say about it, and what I would say is constantly in flux. You could struggle through some of the essays in my Siboot design diary (http://www.erasmatazz.com/library/design-diaries/design-diary-siboot/index.html). It’s all rather disjointed, because it’s a diary, not a final design document. But reading a few of these might convey some idea of what’s happening with the design.


Hartmut replies:

You make many good points. I like your list of important tasks and your pluralist take on the genius. I am aware of the difficulties of collaboration, but have not given up yet. I’ll read the Siboot documents to learn more about the project.

I am also a bit more optimistic in regards to what has already been achieved. From Toni Dove’s work and Brenda Laurel’s projects to Balance of Power, The Sims, Facade, Dear Esther and the Walking Dead Game, there are quite a number of milestones.

However, I feel you circumvent the point I make about the audience. Let me put it differently, then.

Michael Mateas has always urged people to stay away from “cheap tricks” like random functions and instead favored complex computational processes. I understand this view and deeply appreciate it. However, things are different, once we switch to the audience’s perspective. A computer program is opaque to the majority of its users and as a result, members of the audience create their own abstractions and assumptions of the underlying mechanics. The perception of the output of a random function can be identical to one that results from a sophisticated algorithm. Audience members therefore might feel led on or “tricked” in the sense of cheap stage craft if they do not have an understanding how a particular reaction and turn of events has come about. At the same time, to the algorithm’s creator this can be a frustrating experience, as her/his work might not be fully appreciated.  Reacting to this problem, Michael Mateas in his 2010 ICIDS Keynote talked about the need to make the underlying complex AI mechanics more visible to the user. For a concrete implementation he showed a screenshot of Prom Week with many value meters (the published version has less of these indicators).

I feel that Michael’s comments indicate an epistemological problem here – so far, we have operated under the assumption that once we get the mechanics and the experience right, all will be good and people will just intuitively understand and appreciate what we are doing in enabling a novel way of expression that can communicate the complexity of the human condition in a post-modern reality.

However, our creations do not have the advantage of being easily perceptibly different from the moving image of TV. Yes, there is the controller and the clicking, but my point is there is not the immediate gut reaction to the first showing of film in the  late 19th century. With film, the difference in perception was undeniable, with interactive narrative, it is a lot less obvious. Roy Ascott already in the 1960s saw this problem when he urged artists to make cybernetic systems but cautioned that such works would be perceived as coming from the “old mold,“ as versions of the object art of old.

What does not help in this regard, is the way many in the field relate their work to earlier forms. The devil is in the comparison. If we aspire to make something that is like something else, the danger is that what we create might be perceived as iteration of the original and not as something that should be understood in a new way. Consider what you wrote “I do believe that we should be able to get something like soap opera working in a few decades.“ With “soap opera“ there is already a comparison. The problem is, once your system runs perfectly, it might look and feel like a soap opera. And to be clear, I am very aware that it is very difficult indeed to talk about what we are doing without resorting to comparisons with earlier forms.

Maybe the way out could be to escape the box. A work like Text Rain makes the difference obvious. Toni Dove’s earlier work did, too. Maybe the Holodeck is a good metaphor in exactly this way. Not in the sense of the perfect illusion that the Star Trek series depicts but as a way to differentiate from the TV box and the cinema screen.

There is work needed to give the audience a frame of reference other than the fixed narratives of old. We need not only get better in what we are doing, we also need to get better in making people understand what we are doing.


Am 25.10.2014 um 14:44 schrieb Chris Crawford <chrisc@storytron.com>: