Some Thoughts On Interactive Storytelling

Recently, Chris Crawford announced that he was ending the pursuit of his lifelong goal of at least inspiring a new generation of developers to pursue the vision of interactive storytelling that he had been trying to kickstart for decades. I had been passively following Crawford for some time, eagerly awaiting another chance to try out the Storytron engine, which the recent open source release has finally given me a chance to do. The end of his pursuits saddened me a bit, in large part because he is ending his time working on interactive storytelling without even a fraction of the attention that his exit from the games industry brought over two and a half decades ago. However, what was said got me thinking and, while I have yet to read through all of his findings and thoughts on his vision, I have begun to formulate some opinions on the subject, which I am approaching from the view of a game designer and someone who critiqued games for a living for four years, rather than that of an interactive fiction writer. I feel that approaching the topic from this viewpoint is important, in large part due to Crawford’s struggles to make his more “gameplay”-heavy ideas fun.

Crawford’s vision is notoriously AI-driven. The way that I’ve interpreted it is that there’s a world of AI actors that can interact with and influence each other. The player interacts with those actors and they respond based on various traits/qualities/what-have-you, including what they may have heard about interactions that the player has had with other actors. Player choices are important and the effects of said choices affect the narrative greatly. Perhaps most importantly, however, the narrative isn’t particularly set in stone. The author defines scenes and the narrative emerges from the way that the player interacts with those scenes – this distinction is important because it’s what separates the output from that of similar, simpler games. The overall gameplay is largely socially-oriented, which makes sense, as Crawford has long held that games don’t challenge players’ social intelligence nearly enough. The way he’s gone about reaching this goal over the years has been increasingly choice-based and firmly rooted in a tradition of largely text-based systems.

My immediate question is “how does this (incredibly complex concept) improve the player experience?” and my immediate answer is that it doesn’t. There are a number of reasons that it doesn’t, many of which are explicit design decisions that Crawford has made over the years and some that I gather just can’t be done at present due to the insane level of complexity that they imply. However, for the sake of this essay, I am going to distill them down to three key problems.

Problem 1: The choice to continue to use a text-based system

Before I proceed, I want to be clear: There’s nothing wrong with text-based systems. I simply don’t believe that they are the right choice for what Crawford wants to achieve. Because of the way that you have to portray space in a text-based system, any sort of behaviors dealing with movement or space have to be abstracted. This is important because movements are important in real life. Even something as seemingly innocuous as where you stand, when you stand there, and how long you stand there can drastically alter a person’s perception of you – not least of which in the context of the scenes that are likely to be created in a system like Storytron. Reason tells you that everyone participating in a conversation is within two feet of at least one other person in the conversation, but it may never be explicitly mentioned, in part because authors expect you to intuit such details based on context. This alone railroads players into a specific way of perceiving the storyworld, one that ultimately shapes their interactions with the game.

This extends into explicitly socially damning actions, such as peering over a person’s shoulder to sneak a peek at what they are currently doing. Not only would it be difficult to implement every such action, and more difficult still to implement them in a way that wouldn’t make gameplay awkward, important details are simply impossible to rationally define. Who saw you peer over that person’s shoulder? From a game design standpoint, the most obvious answer is “everyone in the room/scene,” but that would make any action like that completely useless and isn’t a reasonable assumption. At any given point in time, the actors could be wrapped up in their own conversations or anything else that they are currently doing, but the exact nature of where they are and where they’re looking is difficult to define in a text-based system, even if not impossible. For truly meaningful interaction, you then have to allow them the same actions as the player, which complicates matters.

However, even if you were to create such a system to simulate AI movements, it would be odd to not allow the player to move as the AI do, but it would be nearly impossible to implement a system of player movement that both mirrored the AI’s capabilities and wasn’t incredibly clunky.

But there’s a greater underlying problem here. In graphical games, you can use a few actions and phrases to sort of fake the notion that something completely new is happening. You can’t really do that in text-based games. Everything that happens has to be explicitly defined, which will inevitably lead to overlap. What’s more, that overlap is more damning than that seen in graphical games because the patterns are easier to see and, when it comes to actions, there’s generally no room for interpretation.

Problem 2: The choice to remain choice-based

It’s odd to me that, in a system that is idealized as having a narrative that is largely shaped by the player’s interaction with the world, player agency is heavily restricted by a choice-based system. However, beyond that apparent contradiction, the choice to incorporate choice presents a number of issues.

The first major issue is that players can only do what the author tells them that they are able to do. Players could think of 20 different actions that could be taken at any given moment, but, if the developer only implements five, then they can only perform any one of those five. Rather than responding to the narrative naturally, they are then railroaded into the developer’s way of thinking, which, in my opinion, defeats the purpose of having the advanced AI in the first place. However, because of the way that text-based systems works, the process of adding each individual action is costly and, in a case such as this, should be tailored to each unique situation. It could also lead to tons of ultimately meaningless actions – the kinds of actions usually relegated to emotes in a graphical game – having their own unique text describing how they did nothing. Conversely, these actions may be significant in other contexts, so you can’t exclude them. Furthermore, you may be thinking “can’t I just include them situationally?” and my answer would be no. You can’t underestimate the value of actions having an effect situationally. That moment that that otherwise pointless emote means something is a moment that could have a lasting impact on your player. That could be the moment that is burned in their brain as memorable.

It’s because of this that a choice-based system simply isn’t ideal for achieving this goal. In order to make any one choice truly meaningful, you would simply have to create too many choices with too many passages of text – regardless of how you decided to achieve this goal, be it stitching paragraphs together based on tons of stat checks or explicitly writing out each result, you’d still be writing a lot of text – many of which would only be of use contextually. That’s not to say that it couldn’t be done, but simply that the benefits of creating such a game probably wouldn’t be worth the time invested.

But the choice to remain choice-based presents another major problem: abstraction of time. Because of the decision to remain choice-based, actions are carried out in a turn-based manner. This means that, if the AI are going to interact, they can only interact in-between your decisions. The decision you have to make is set in stone and won’t be altered by waiting. You can stay at that decision for eternity and it will still be exactly the same decision with exactly the same underlying stats.

Games like Telltale’s try to model a real-time system by incorporating a timer that essentially says “if you don’t answer before time is up, you will remain silent,” but it’s still not ideal. Truly challenging players’ social intelligence means that you have to allow them the opportunity to break their silence, which isn’t an option that is given very often. Even when it is given, it’s given on a follow-up question/statement, with the previous question/statement’s silence etched in eternity. The reality of conversation is that it’s not just the act of being silent that affects others, but how long you choose to remain silent. Details like this are important in a real social setting, but are abstracted away in a choice-based system.

Problem 3: An inability to describe how actions are carried out

In Crawford’s essay “What is the Essence of Computing?”, he places emphasis on how actions and objects are equally important, seemingly trying to opine that games are far too object-driven. While that may be true, there is another issue that holds existing systems back in terms of simulation of social interactions: You can’t describe how you are carrying an action out.

Imagine that someone asks you to move a box, as some game might actually make you do in some sort of tutorial. You could do it cheerfully – after all, you’re helping them out and that makes you happy – or you could do it begrudgingly – after all, why can’t they just move it themselves? It’s this lack of definition that keeps actions from being meaningful. If you move the box cheerfully, it could make the actor who requested the help happy, but it could also make any others that are helping to move boxes frustrated with you, as you are cheery while they’re miserable. If you move the box begrudgingly, any others that are helping to move boxes could commiserate with you, whereas the actor who asked you to move the box might resent you for it and wonder why you didn’t just decline to help.

Distinctions like these are fairly important, but the details are left up to the author. You perform the action the way that the author envisions your nameless character performing it, which can be frustrating enough on its own when an action isn’t perceived the way that you expected it to be. Some authors attempt to fix this by defining two or three ways that you can perform an action, but you’re still stuck on their path, which is problematic in a setting filled with socially aware AI.

To be completely fair, the Storytron system does include the ability to define adverbs, but it’s not really in the way that I’m describing. Storytron turns adverbs into a series of values and those values are used to give additional options to, for example, how much you are attempting to pressure Afghanistan. It allows for the difference between a feeble and forceful attempt at pressuring an actor, but it doesn’t – easily, at least – allow for distinctions between cheerfully, begrudgingly, angrily, or neutrally accepting an offer to help move a box. Due to the way that its algorithms work, the system is best suited to a scale, wherein the option that affects the numbers the least is the weakest version of a single form of augmentation while the option that affects the numbers the most is the strongest version. Parallel adverbs that affect the numbers to similar extents, but in different ways, aren’t really supported. As described on the Storytron Wiki, “Some Sentences may also have an Adverb. This is really just a Quantifier, describing the intensity of the Sentence in question.” Furthermore, you are still locked into the author’s way of thinking – each action has a set of adverbs assigned to it and adverbs may be conditionally removed, depending on the action – even if it makes sense that you would be able to both begrudgingly accept an offer to move a box and begrudgingly look for food in the freezer in the garage because the fridge inside is empty, the author may not see it that way and only allow you to begrudgingly accept the offer to move the box.

The fairly obvious problem with any attempts to fix this is that it’s simply too complicated. Every single adverb that you add to the list of possible adverbs potentially multiplies the complexity. You have to write text for each and every adverb-verb pair relative to the nouns that they are being used with, which simply isn’t practical. Simply throwing more numbers at a system can’t exactly solve this either, as they still imply predefined responses to each action, even if they are on an actor-to-actor basis. As such, I’m not sure that there is a good solution to this problem just yet.

Perhaps a starting point would be a graphical game where players can opt to select moods – even the happy/sad/angry/neutral lineup would allow for a decent amount of player agency. The player’s chosen mood when performing actions could then affect the way that actors perceive them.

Personally, I feel that the field would be better suited to a system in which authors define actions and reactions, rather than interactions, a distinction that I may go over in more detail in a different post. In short, however, players should have a set of social actions that can be performed at any time and a set of adverbs that can be used to augment each of them. Each actor should have a predefined response to each action in the context of the social action-adverb pair being directed at them and at every other individual actor, something that could be algorithmically defined by that actor’s relationships with each of the others. They should then have exemptions to those rules – for example, Actor A may enjoy you being rude to Actor B on a normal day, but, if one of their relatives just died, such behavior would be socially unacceptable. These building blocks would then be used to algorithmically create an interaction, rather than having each one explicitly defined. It’s the difference between “you chose this action with this adverb so it has this result” and “you chose this action while augmenting it with this adverb, so the computer chose this result.”

The topic of interactive storytelling, as defined by Crawford, is a complex one, a goal that is seemingly out of reach at present, which is likely why many have opted to remain working on more traditional efforts. There are many considerations to be made, many of which I’m not entirely sure have been made yet, as Crawford seems to be devoted to a singular vision of interactive storytelling that he chased for years. The thing is that, as many of his blog posts and player comments about his games seem to say, I don’t think that this vision is conducive to creating something that’s fun. It’s a vision that’s so entirely devoted to the systems that it almost seems to have forgotten how the player interacts with said systems.

Note: To that end, I’d love to see Storytron’s Storyteller client remade in something like Electron with a completely new, more modern interface.

Now, that’s not to say that I don’t like the work that he’s done over the years – in fact, I rather like the Storytron system, even if actually building something with it is insanely difficult. Rather, I simply don’t believe that the Storytron system was the best step towards his definition of interactive storytelling. I believe that, for the reasons outlined above, a graphical system is better suited to the sort of social awareness required for such a simulation.

While some of this may seem nitpicky or unreasonable, think about it. The only way to truly challenge players’ social intelligence is to semi-accurately model social interactions, even if the interactions are ultimately abstracted and simplified. That simply cannot be done when so much about your interactions is left up to the author. In the system that Crawford has created, the author defines the abstraction of space. The author defines how actions are carried out. The author defines how actions are perceived on an actor-to-actor basis, rather than defining the context for which certain actions should be perceived and letting the computer decide the actual perception in each individual situation.

But I guess that some of that comes down to confusion about the ultimate goal. Is the goal to create algorithm-driven literature or is it to create emergent stories that challenge players’ social intelligence with a backing social simulation? Does either really need fun gameplay or, despite his dramatically exiting the games industry in 1992, does Crawford believe that gamers are the only ones that he can market his creations to? If the goal is algorithm-driven literature, does it even need all of the complexities that Storytron has? Furthermore, if the goal is simply algorithm-driven literature, how does it challenge players’ social intelligence any more than socially-inclined games that already exist? These are questions that whoever takes up the reins next perhaps needs to answer before progress can be made in the field.

I decided to ask Crawford the first question, as well as whether order of events was important. He rather cryptically responded that he was aiming for “interactive storytelling,” rather than an “interactive story” and proceeded to say that, in this vision of interactive storytelling, there was no order of events, as such. He also laced the relatively short response with multiple insinuations that the difference was hard to grasp.

Regardless of the actual difficulty of grasping the concept, the question we have to ask ourselves is, again, how it affects the user experience. Does this improve it? Will the user be able to tell the difference? Does this actually advance the field in a way that isn’t strictly academic, which the many closed source academic attempts at such a thing might imply? My own reasoning would tell me that the answer to all of these questions is no, that such complexities would be nice, but are ultimately unnecessary.

At the point where there is no longer an order of events, that the experience is so far personalized that the order of events is driven by how the computer interprets your actions, there are only really two ways that the writing can be handled. Either it is stripped of most of its dramatic implications, due to the need for it to be allowed to happen in any order, or the computer itself has to generate it, which Crawford himself says removes the “soul” and artistic vision of the work. Regardless of which method you choose, it is still a long and arduous process, one that is incredibly messy and prone to error. It’s a process that, if you get it right, probably shouldn’t be noticed by the player, but may not actually provide a better experience than that of a more traditional story. However, as mentioned above, I believe that a graphical approach would be more conducive to such a goal, as the details are explicitly defined by visuals and changes to those visuals don’t need to be explicitly written out, leaving only the speech to be written by the author.

In gaming, such independent AI interactions as those that are described as being important in interactive storytelling have been attempted in simpler form in many games and they rarely pan out. Oftentimes, it devolves into a player carrying out an action that will be viewed negatively, such as thievery; getting caught by a single AI; and everyone in the vicinity suddenly knowing instantly that you are, for example, a thief. Similarly, several wargames over the years have tried to model chain of command and time to transmit orders in various eras of warfare, but that usually ultimately comes down to timers that seem reasonably realistic in systems that already provide layer upon layer of abstraction, rather than any sort of actual AI interaction. More serious attempts have been made, but I’ve never seen one turn out right. Every single attempt that I’ve seen to create independent AI that you can interact with directly has provided either no visible benefit, due to the models being too shallow to actually provide such a benefit, or created an awkward user experience. Now, that’s not to say that it can’t be done, but simply that it hasn’t been as of yet – not even in a traditional game.

But the question that I keep asking myself is why go to such lengths at all? Literature is dramatically interesting because it was written that way. Similarly, can’t you use a quality-based system like StoryNexus or Varytale to make a story that is dramatically interesting, but also provides enough variation to allow the player to believe that they have some agency or, at the very least, the same amount of agency that they would believe was provided by a system like Storytron?

Therein seems to lie my greatest problem with Chris Crawford’s vision of interactive storytelling and why I think that the overall vision may need a reboot. Crawford has been chasing down the same goal since he left the games industry in the 90s. He’s been using the same games that he first made in the 80s as proofs of concept for his new software. Using that mindset will inherently lead to results that are less than satisfactory and, ultimately, I think that it’s led to a situation where several parallel goals have been wrapped into one goal that is more cryptic than the rest. Is it important to challenge players’ social intelligence? Is it important to have dramatically interesting choices? Is it important that the narrative is driven by the way that the computer interprets your responses? Any one of these goals could be achieved independently, perhaps even in existing software, but the problem seems to be that he’s been so laser-focused on achieving them all simultaneously that he’s failed to achieve any of them in a way that lives up to his standards, which may in large part be due to the fact that the technology that he’s using has barely changed since the days of Erasmatron.

We need a new take, a new approach, one that isn’t so firmly rooted in the traditions of literature – because, let’s face it, it’s not important that storytelling be done with words, a point that Crawford seems to have missed despite viewing interactive storytelling as analogous to cinema. In Crawford’s own words, we aren’t using computers to their full potential, so let’s start doing that by taking this field into the graphical realm that we all know that they’re capable of.


  1. Chris Crawford

    You nailed it with this comment:

    “… and some that I gather just can’t be done at present due to the insane level of complexity that they imply.”

    Complexity is the fatal flaw of the Storytron technology. The damn thing is just too hairy for people to grasp. Even I would sometimes hesitate while using the system, unsure as to the implications of a particular authorial decision. However, this is definitely a Scylla and Charybdis problem, as storytelling is intrinsically complex. Everything I have seen steers close to simplification; I made the opposite error.

    On the other hand, you are flat dead wrong about the role of spatial reasoning in storytelling. Spatial factors play almost no role whatever in narrative. Characters simply disappear from one stage and reappear on the next stage. The requirement that they must be close together, say, to kiss, misses the fact that drawing close together is an intrinsic and assumed component of the verb “kiss”.

    The matter of spatial reasoning versus social reasoning is a large and complex topic; I don’t have time here to give it the detailed explanation required to fully explain the issues. An oversimplified summary is that males live and breathe spatial reasoning where females live and breathe social reasoning.

    I don’t understand your concerns about the provision of choice in interactive storytelling. You correctly observe that it’s complicated, but you seem to be saying that it’s just too complicated to handle. Are you saying that interactive storytelling is impossible, or simply too complicated to be attempted? You offer no suggestions as to how this problem can be addressed. If the problem is one of overwhelming complexity, then does it not make sense to rely on a strategy of reducing the player’s choices to the most dramatically significant ones?

    Your extended discussion of the problems arising from “moving the box” hinges on the fact that moving the box has no intrinsic dramatic significance, yet you wish to imbue it with dramatic significance. I suggest that the problem is readily solved by using verbs that have intrinsic dramatic significance. In this case, the relevant verb is not “move the box”. The relevant verb is “help”, with the modulating adverb conveying the relevant degree of enthusiasm in providing assistance.

    You’re certainly right in that my work is not fun. Game players insist that games must be fun, and I’ll concede that point. That’s why I left the games field to work on interactive storytelling. I’m not aiming for fun, I’m aiming for drama. Macbeth is not fun. “War and Peace” is not fun. The Arthurian legends are not fun. Fun is a tiny subset of a much larger world of storytelling, just as candy is the “fun” subset of a much larger universe of food. I think it’s time we broke out of the tiny world of fun and moved into the larger world of narrative.

    Here’s an interesting statement of yours:

    “I believe that, for the reasons outlined above, a graphical system is better suited to the sort of social awareness required for such a simulation.”

    What do you mean by “a graphical system”? If by this you mean a spatial system, then are you are saying that social reasoning is best addressed via spatial reasoning?

    Your plaint that the author has too much control over the narrative certainly knocked me for a loop. I see the opposite problem: storytellers control EVERYTHING! They specify what the protagonist sees, hears, feels, and thinks. There is no player — merely an audience. We have two extreme poles here. At the first pole, conventional storytelling, the author has 100% control and there is no player. At the other pole, there is no author, and the player has 100% control. This pole corresponds to personal fantasizing. Currently we have a few games in which the author yields a small percentage of dramatically significant choice to the player. I’m trying to expand the amount of control available to the player, and you are complaining that the player doesn’t have 100% control.

    Oops! I have a dentist appointment now, so I’ll have to break off. Why don’t you respond to some of my points and we’ll take it from there.

    Best wishes,

    1. Post

      Hi Chris,

      Glad to see you engaging with this post. 😀 I’ve been following Storytron for quite a while and I had a lot of thoughts that I wanted to put out there, which is what this post was meant for.

      So, to get it out of the way, the box thing was just a simple example that I could use without having to provide too much background information that distracted from the other points. I could have chosen a more dramatically significant example, sure, but it just wasn’t particularly relevant to the points being made and it’s a fairly malleable situation, at that, due in part to its insignificance, allowing me to carry it through the post. But that’s ultimately neither here nor there.

      By graphical system, I do mean a spatial system. Something in which you can move around freely in and characters can react to what you’re doing, even if what you’re doing is intrinsically insignificant. Because that’s the thing. As a person, you don’t define what’s a significant interaction; the people that you interact with do. For example, in your last core paragraph, you may think that your point about control was the most significant bit of text, but what stood out to me the most was your use of the word “complaining,” as it came off a bit hostile in response to something that was simply meant to be an observation and critique of the situation as I see it. You didn’t define the significance of the text. I, as the person that it was directed at, defined the significance. That one choice of word changed the entire tone of your response, and at the end of it, no less!

      To that end, intentionally creating a system that not only encourages, but fully relies on, dramatically significant choices is an inherently flawed pursuit because no author can ensure that every single choice is dramatically significant to any reader, much less all of them. No author can ensure that the single dramatically significant choice that each reader wants to make is in place. It’s a system that espouses the idea that readers drive the story, but then relies on the author to actually include the choices that drive it. Not enough of the actions are implicitly defined to truly allow the freedom to drive the story, which is why I believe that the system didn’t really achieve its goal. You don’t have this base set of actions that players can use at any time that may or may not have any effect. Instead, the only options that you have at any given point, not even throughout the entire story, are those included in the set that the author thought might be relevant to any given choice.


      You also have to ask yourself, at the point where you’re paring it down to a point where only “dramatically significant” choices can be made, why not just give them only one choice, the most dramatically significant one? Why not just ensure that everything is dramatically significant by writing it as such? Why not just write a book?

      Dramatically significant choices appear dramatically significant because so many other choices don’t. But, at the point where every choice has dramatic significance, how do you ensure that it *feels* that way? How do you ensure that the choice after, say, “beheading the king,” feels as significant as, you know, beheading a king? The answer is that it probably won’t. It will feel like a means to an end to the next dramatically significant choice. Do you know why, though? Because readers have a different level of investment and a different set of expectations for choices that they make themselves.

      Context is important, but it’s also not dramatically significant. You can’t create context without conceding to create content that won’t be dramatically significant.

      But there’s another problem: From what I’ve seen of Storytron worlds that have been made, a lot of the choices themselves could be defined as “dramatically significant,” but the actual actions that follow don’t feel that way at all. This leads to a situation where it’s hard to get invested because there’s no real payoff. That really comes down to the author to make them feel dramatically significant, but it leads to another problem with the system that encourages storyworlds to be written in that way: the text laced with boxes that are meant to represent text that changes. That just does not, in any way, lead to “dramatically significant” text. It makes it really obvious what parts of the story are meant to change over the course of multiple read-throughs, which, in turn, makes it seem as if these actions aren’t significant because they could be changed in the blink of an eye. Of course, we know that they could change anyways because we’re making choices, but the job of the author/system developer is to make sure that we ignore that suspicion long enough to get invested in the story. In short, it really quickly and easily destroys any suspension of disbelief, but it also just encourages writing habits that make the text feel really bland.

      :END EDIT:

      I did offer alternatives to the current system, but only in a spatial (or, as I put it, graphical) system. I don’t really think that what’s being set out to be achieved in this system can be achieved without a significant investment into an AI director of sorts that manages everything on a level that’s more intricate than the quasi-quality-based system that’s in place now.

      I think the point that’s being missed here is that the choices that you’re omitting from this system are carried out implicitly by characters in pre-written stories. They have no significance because we expect that they will have no significance. Every now and then, you’ll get text like “they slowly moved closer, appearing ever more ominous,” but we just sort of expect that their movements will be explicitly defined for us if they are considered to be “odd” or “out of place,” but won’t really matter otherwise. In a system where you want readers’ interactions to matter, you have to allow them to use those interactions in the first place.

      For example, a lot of games have “restricted zones.” Entering these zones is a bad idea, sure, and enemies will attack you, but what if you just sit on the border of that zone. In some games, the guards will do nothing. In others, the guards will just yell at you endlessly, but otherwise continue about their pre-defined paths. In others still, standing on the border of that zone will lead to you being attacked. In these situations, spatial reasoning can be dramatically significant because it’s the difference between you being attacked and not being attacked. The other thing to note is that, to experience this interaction, all you had to do was stand there for a few seconds and wait. To experience that interaction in Storytron, you would have to make an active choice to wait through multiple screens.

      Sure, that example isn’t really relevant to what you’re trying to achieve with most of your Storytron works, but you also did try to write a battle system for Le Morte D’Arthur, so it may also be more relevant than one would initially think.


      Oh man, I got diverted from one of my main points. So, here’s the thing about your argument about social reasoning: Is it really social reasoning if all you’re doing is selecting one of a small number of actions and then adding an intensity modifier? What part of that is social reasoning? Most works will have a small number of choices because, as we said before, it’s too complex to add a significant number of choices, but most choices in a small set will be fairly distinct, which makes the results fairly easy to predict. It’s a problem that you see in any choice-based narrative. The choices are focused less on the social aspect and more on the action aspect. You basically always know what is going to happen if you pick a specific choice because it’s less about how that character will respond to a particular situation and more about how *anyone* would respond to that situation.

      :END EDIT2:

      Having said all of that, I will leave you with a reiteration of something I said in the post. You keep bringing up that point about how Storytron isn’t really meant to be fun and that you left the game development world to pursue a version of storytelling that wasn’t “held back” by the prerequisite of fun, yet many of your proof-of-concept Storytron worlds were remakes of *games* that you made before the infamous Dragon Speech. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

  2. Tomaz Corral

    (Let me place myself into this conversation just because)

    I’ll be playing devil’s advocate here but I do believe that when the author phrases:
    “are those included in the set that the author thought might be relevant to any given choice”
    “if all you’re doing is selecting one of a small number of actions (…) What part of that is social reasoning?”

    That does bring about an interesting set of questions, after all, if we do believe that Processes are more Interesting than Data, then pre-authored sentences of supposedly/subjectively greater Dramatic Value aren’t the most Process-Intensive approach;

    Ideally a Narrative Engine should be able to calculate and extract possible sentences from the current Context (considering past events) for any Character, but particularly for the Player Character and present those Sentences as Choices for the Player (here the authorial content would be the Characters and the Environments and how they’re likely to interact and respond to stimuli)
    (*); As well as calculate possible following events given any current story-state;

    Such technology is obviously not feasible (yet), so this leaves us in an odd place of trying to find a middle ground that could be achieved in the following years to come (which I believe might be the main source of conflict of this conversation).

    (*):(Some of these choices would/could contain authored Verbs and Adverbs or perhaps the Player could modify aspects of the sentences herself)

    Whenever Players say out loud why they’re choosing one branching narrative choice over the other in a piece of entertainment software you realize they aren’t choosing in terms of “most interesting choice dramatically” they are probably choosing out of whim (perhaps choosing the choice that they most identify with or the choice that builds towards what they think the character they are trying to play as would do) or out of trying to “game the system” (keeping a mental model of the narrative tree in their heads and trying to navigate it in their favor);

    I’d say it doesn’t really matter if the choice presented is the most dramatically-interesting as possible, what matters is that it is the most engaging to the Players at that moment, so it only has to be believable and in-character enough and present something interesting enough for the Player to ponder;
    It’s the same with games versus simulations, really, if you’re flying a plane – what matters is the emotional reality, not how accurate the flight trajectories are!
    That’s also why stories are full of idiosyncrasies and characters behaving in non-logical ways
    (stories are about emotional reality), and all that matters is whether we’re invested or not and whether what’s being explored is novel and worth it.

    In short – Even if the Engine generated mediocre choices and events, were they believeable, in-character and interesting enough they would still be worth more and be more interesting than a system of pre-designed choices and events; After all it would be a more process intensive and more interactive system.

    As for the sentence:
    “most choices in a small set will be fairly distinct, which makes the results fairly easy to predict”

    I don’t believe lesser choices are necessarily the better option here; We do owe the player a great deal of affordance when dealing with complex systems like this one (specially when trying to calculate why Jane left John it is important to present that info to the Player in a good manner) but let’s not simplify our problem just for the sake of feeling good about ourselves.
    Example – In a system I’m currently working on I present the dialogue choice right next to a picture that conveys the Character’s Emotion should you choose that option (through a facial expression).

    [By the way – I do believe another authorial content would be formalizing and inserting tropes onto characters and storyworlds, and preferrably in a way such that tropes can be recycled, shared and modified between Storyworlds]

    And – As a Computer Science Geek – I always love to point out that perhaps we should take a look at borrowing and abstracting systems from the Affective Computing field of studies (that specialize in Personality AIs and Emotional AIs).
    {As I believe that would help to solve the probelm of only being able to say how much you are attempting to pressure Afghanistan vs being able to say how begrudgingly you are attempting to pressure Afghanistan} {By the way, shouldn’t we think of Adverbs in terms of functions that take Verbs as arguments instead of constant multipliers?}

    Also, I would like to point out that I agree very much with the paragraph:
    “Personally, I feel that the field would be better suited to a system in which authors define actions and reactions, rather than interactions, a distinction that I may go over in more detail in a different post. In short, however, players should have a set of social actions that can be performed at any time and a set of adverbs that can be used to augment each of them. Each actor should have a predefined response to each action in the context of the social action-adverb pair being directed at them and at every other individual actor, something that could be algorithmically defined by that actor’s relationships with each of the others”
    But that I don’t believe such system should be in opposition to having moments where the control of the Verbs/Adverbs is taken away from the Player and given back to the Author!

    I have to agree with Chris, however, that a graphical system (although appealing) isn’t the solution here! In that regard the Author has crossed way out of line!

    Finally, I’d like to ask the Author what would be the difference he makes of Action, Reaction and Interaction as that subject interests me very much!

    1. Chris Crawford

      Mr. Corral, you make many interesting points. Herewith a few off-the-cuff reactions:

      I certainly agree that an procedurally generated AI response to a player’s action is preferable to the AI selecting a response from a menu of options. However, that solution lies far in the future. Let us keep in mind the cruel fact that even the simplified approach used in the Storytron technology proved to be far too difficult for authors to cope with. A procedurally generated solution would require superhuman intellectual prowess.

      My own conclusion is that I must step WAY back and try something much more simple-minded if we are to get the ball rolling. My vehicle for accomplishing this I call the “Encounter Editor/Player”. The Editor is in good shape but I must build a good Player into the system.

      As to action/reaction versus interaction, I am surprised by the comment, because the Storytron approach definitely breaks the process down into action/reaction. After all, that’s intrinsic to the situation: one agent can handle only one side of the two-step action/reaction pair of an interaction, no?

      I define interaction as “A cyclic process in which two agents alternately listen, think, and speak to each other.” This last step, “speak”, is the action taken by one of the agents. As such, you can regard that as either action or reaction; operationally, they are indistinguishable.

      You mention using a face display presenting emotional expressions. This is the solution I relied upon for more than 30 years now. I have developed two different technologies for handling this. I’d be happy to share either or both technologies.

    2. Post

      Apologies for responding to this so late.

      So, a point before I get into the other stuff: When I advocate for a graphical system, I get the feeling that there’s this sense that it’s one or the other, when it really doesn’t have to be (if you read below, Crawford seemed to handle my arguments against choice-based narratives with a similar “if it’s not explicit choices, then there is no choice!” attitude). Graphical systems bring about distinct advantages, as outlined above, but can be intermixed with textual systems in a number of ways. There’s a middle ground here that’s more advantageous than either is alone for challenging the social intelligence of players/readers. That being said, I concede that it isn’t the best way to create an interactive book, as such, which plays into my statements about Crawford appearing to have conflicting goals over the course of his work.

      As for the other points you’ve made, indeed! As someone who’s played video games since his youth, I can tell you that many of the most memorable and interesting moments that I’ve had were the *least* dramatically interesting. And that’s the thing about choice-based narratives such as this one. When you give players/readers control, you have to *really* give them control. You have to make sure that they have a way to interact with whatever it is that they want to interact with. They assign significance to each action, not the author, and you need systems that accommodate that. What is the point in having advanced AI if they allow less complex and interesting actions than in systems with less advanced AI? The games that I enjoy the most give me systems that I can interact with and toy with however I want and, I will admit, some of the most fun I had in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was exploiting the AI in bizarre ways, such as kicking them off of cliffs or literally getting difficult opponents to jump to their death by having them follow me down a cliff in ways that they simply weren’t capable of doing. Interactive storytelling *feels* like it should work in a similar manner, only with “gameplay” that challenges social intelligence above all else.

      However, I am not trying to imply that the author should never have control over the narrative. As mentioned, at this point in time, completely removing control of the narrative from the author would lead to an interactive experience with an ill-defined narrative. However, I do believe that the vast majority of interactions should be driven by the player, rather than the author.

      As for the difference between action-reaction and interaction, since you have shown interest in the discussion, I may very well do a write-up, albeit it will likely be much shorter than this one. I had originally intended to write it up shortly after this post, but this post saw no attention for two months, which lead me to believe that there was no interest at that point in time.

  3. Chris Crawford

    I have tried four times to post a response, but it has never appeared. Perhaps it’s too long. This is a test to see if the software has banned me for some inscrutable crime.

  4. Chris Crawford

    OK, so now I can indeed post replies. Here is the reply I attempted to post yesterday, but I’m breaking it into two parts:

    Ouch! That’s a very good point about audience perception and my use of the word “complain”. Sorry about that.

    “no author can ensure that every single choice is dramatically significant to any reader”

    Yes, but is this not also true of every work of art? There will always be people who think that Shakespeare is boring, that the statue of David is dull, and that the work in the Sistine Chapel is silly. So what? No artist can satisfy everybody. That doesn’t mean that art is a waste of time.

    Interactive storytelling still requires an author: a person with something to say to the world who says it through algorithms. Yes, those algorithms constrain the player. Those constraints are fundamental to the artistic message. Sure, the player might not like those constraints. So what? The audience might not like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. That’s not Beethoven’s fault.

    “why not just give them only one choice, the most dramatically significant one? Why not just ensure that everything is dramatically significant by writing it as such? Why not just write a book?”

    Interactivity. Having less than an infinite number of choices is not the same has having no choices.

    “Context is important, but it’s also not dramatically significant. You can’t create context without conceding to create content that won’t be dramatically significant.”

    I don’t understand this point.

  5. Chris Crawford

    So far, so good. Here’s the second part of yesterday’s reply:

    The paragraph beginning with “But there’s another problem:” strikes me as paradoxical. You seem to be saying that changes resulting from choice rob events of dramatic significance. I don’t understand that.

    I want to stick to my guns on the matter of spatial reasoning versus social reasoning. Males, especially young males, are so obsessed with spatial reasoning that they perceive everything in terms of spatial reasoning. When I was a young man, I was completely clueless about social reasoning. Young women often complain that “Guys just don’t get it!” and they’re right. Guys can be really clueless about when it comes to social reasoning, and they freely admit it when they say “I just don’t understand what women want.” I’m not saying that spatial reasoning is wrong or bad; my point is that we are overflowing with games about spatial reasoning. Indeed, there are damn few games that don’t have a map buried somewhere inside. Can we PLEASE break out of this rut? There are many mental modules inside the human mind; why must we build EVERYTHING around just one mental module?

    “Is it really social reasoning if all you’re doing is selecting one of a small number of actions and then adding an intensity modifier?”

    Here’s a situation for you: the date is ending and the guy and gal are at the gal’s front door. You don’t think that the gal is thinking hard about exactly how encouraging she wants to be with him? In any case, the Storytron technology does not require adverbial modulation for every verb. Sure, we can use the verb “kiss” with varying degrees of passion, but we can also have a bare “goodbye” option without any adverbial modulation.

    “…It’s a problem that you see in any choice-based narrative.”

    Inasmuch as choice is central to interactivity, I gather that you reject the very concept of interactive storytelling.

    “…yet many of your proof-of-concept Storytron worlds were remakes of *games*…”

    Those games were early attempts at social interaction designs that were roundly condemned for being insufficiently fun.

    1. Post

      Alright, so, rather than try and deconstruct your argument once again, only to have this become a cycle once again, I’m going to try a different approach because the cores of my arguments seem to be being diluted along the way.

      To the first major point: I still think that there are a few parallel goals here that are clashing with each other more than they’ve ever actually matched up. As of this moment in time, the Storytron system is a unique system, but I don’t think that it facilitates games that encourage social reasoning more than any other system. It’s a stepping stone on that path, but that’s what you have to see it as: a stepping stone. And, as with quite a lot of software over the years, stepping stones don’t always mean clear and apparent differences for the end user.

      To that end, I think that continuing to argue that the future of interactive storytelling is choice-based is unnecessarily locking us to the old ways in a format that should be brimming with new ideas.

      You also seem to have completely missed the point that I’m not saying that this is a matter of spatial reasoning vs. social reasoning. I’m simply saying that spatial reasoning plays more of a role in social reasoning than you seem to realize and that a game that truly challenges social reasoning will take into account the role of spatial reasoning in a social setting. I’ve outlined this with examples in the main post, so I won’t go into a lengthy discussion of it here, but this exact conundrum is one of the primary reasons that you seem to have parallel goals going on here.

      Choice may be central to interactivity, but a choice-based narrative is not. There are other options and I’ve tried to outline some possibilities in this post.

      You also seem to deflect responsibility a lot, saying that what I say could be said of any art. The thing about that mindset is that if you keep saying that you’ll never reach outside of a tiny niche of like-minded individuals. You can’t think “oh, if they don’t get it, they’ll never get it” and exclude them from the discussion entirely. There are fundamental problems with the way that Storytron attempts to reach its goals and I’ve tried to outline those clearly.

      And that’s not to mention that resorting to such statements in an argument is a sort of stonewalling tactic because you can just continue to repeat it in response to any sort of response that’s made. If you want to continue this discussion, let’s maybe avoid that and focus on the points at hand, yeah?

      Nowhere did I say that Storytron *requires* adverbial modulation.

      As to the points you don’t understand, I’m genuinely not sure how to make those points any clearer.

      I think the other point you’ve missed is that you’ve been remaking the same games for thirty years now and that you claim that they’ve never succeeded. Is it not time for a new approach? Perhaps that alone is proof that a new outlook is necessary if the field is to advance at all.

      Yet another point that you’ve missed is that these works may not be “fun” in terms of content, but readers/viewers *enjoy* reading/viewing them. There is a core element of enjoyment, rather than fun, in every successful work. People have to enjoy themselves, even if the core of the work isn’t “fun.” Is this possible with Storytron? Sure, but I don’t think that it will be without a major UI overhaul because it’s the hideous, yet simplistic, UI that is truly holding it back. Also of note is that this observation doesn’t tie into my argument about social reasoning whatsoever.

      I’ll leave you with one last thought. The digital frontier is a wholly new one. Art made here isn’t like the art that came before. Not everything that’s made gets to be considered art, much less stand the test of time. In reality, much of what we make will probably be forgotten in another 50-100 years, relegated to some archive where it’s always on file, but no one ever views it. Evolution is a necessity. Evolution in user experience, especially, which is a key facet of evolution in the digital landscape that you ignore when you say things like “oh, but it’s art and that’s true of all art.” Nonetheless, it has wide-reaching consequences that can ultimately single-handedly kill any project.

      My questions to you are: Do you think that Storytron represents a proper 30 years of evolution, especially in such a rapidly evolving field as computing? Do you think that your responses to my thoughts are indicative of you being open to evolution or, at the very least, evolution that doesn’t match your narrow set of self-mandated requirements for “interactive storytelling?”

      My answers are no.

      1. Chris Crawford

        I’m sad to see that you are approaching this as a personal conflict rather than an exploration of ideas, but nevertheless I’ll make an attempt to clarify some of the issues.

        I still do not understand your objections to the matter of choice. You reject choice. OK, but we have long since established, and you appear to acknowledge, that choice is central to interactivity. Accordingly, I conclude that you reject the very notion of interactive storytelling. I won’t claim that you are wrong in this; instead, I will observe that we are pursuing radically different goals. I have no idea what your goal is, but my goal is interactive storytelling. You can follow your path, and I can follow my own.

        You claim that the Storytron technology is not capable of providing dramatically significant interaction. I readily acknowledge that I have not proven that it can, but you have not even attempted to prove that it can’t. It is a matter of personal judgement. Inasmuch as the people who have truly wrestled with the technology appear to agree that the Storytron technology is indeed capable of providing dramatically significant interaction, and you have not used the technology, I think it appropriate to declare that your judgement must take a back seat to the judgement of those more familiar with the technology.

        You write: “you’ve been remaking the same games for thirty years now and that you claim that they’ve never succeeded… Perhaps that alone is proof that a new outlook is necessary if the field is to advance at all.”

        I suggest that you read my comment more closely. You have completely misunderstood it and so your conclusion is not justified.

        You write: “There is a core element of enjoyment, rather than fun, in every successful work.”

        I suggest here that you read Aristotle’s work “Poetics”. You are describing what he calls comedy. You are not addressing what he calls tragedy. It’s certainly true that in our culture tragedy has been yielding ground to comedy for decades; I’ll even admit that popular entertainment includes no tragedy. Nevertheless, I insist that elements of tragedy remain crucial to artistic expression. Moreover, there have been a number of important movies that were tragedies. A few that spring to mind are “A Man for All Seasons”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Much of Hemingway’s work was tragedy as well.

        As to your questions:

        “Do you think that Storytron represents a proper 30 years of evolution, especially in such a rapidly evolving field as computing?”

        My assessment is that the Storytron technology is best analogized as Babbage’s analytical engine: a total failure that was far ahead of its time. That’s why I am falling back to the much simpler Encounter technology.

        “Do you think that your responses to my thoughts are indicative of you being open to evolution or, at the very least, evolution that doesn’t match your narrow set of self-mandated requirements for “interactive storytelling?””

        Disagreement with you does not indicate narrow-mindedness. I am happy to explore our differences, but you seem to be getting a bit emotional over those differences. Can we not disagree with mutual respect?

        1. Post

          I’m going to try one last time and, depending on how you respond, I’m recusing myself from this conversation because, after starting out with a hostile tone (which you admit you made a mistake in doing), you’re now trying to say that I’m becoming emotional when I’m simply observing and posing what I observe as questions to you in an effort to establish why I think that you’re not being receptive to the ideas I’ve proposed and thus attempt to get you to see that your way of thinking is not absolute.

          Before I go into it more, I want to recognize that it is quite literally impossible for this to not feel personal to you on some level and I am trying to be respectful of that, but my tactics may be becoming a bit more pointed as you push back on some of the most basic of arguments, which you may be misinterpreting as an attack. You yourself represent something like 90% of the work done in interactive storytelling and, thus, much of what I am disagreeing with is inherently going to be your work. However, acting as if every disagreement is by someone who “doesn’t get it” is how things stagnate rather than evolve.

          “I won’t claim that you are wrong in this; instead, I will observe that we are pursuing radically different goals. I have no idea what your goal is, but my goal is interactive storytelling.”

          It’s statements like this that are what led to my question about “narrow set of self-mandated requirements.” Every time I’ve tried to put forth an opinion that isn’t 100% compatible with your own, you state that I am inherently not working towards interactive storytelling or don’t understand art. You make blanket statements that are demonstrably false in an attempt to avoid addressing problems with the core of your methodology. This is not me taking it personally. This is me analyzing your argument and reading it back to you.

          Based on this argument and what I’ve read on your blog (including the most recent one that seems to be an effort to disagree with the content of this post without actually referencing this post), interactive storytelling must:

          – At its core, rely primarily on text.
          – Be choice-based.
          – Be algorithmic in nature.

          This is limiting. This is, by definition, a “narrow set of self-mandated requirements.” As the only “authority” in interactive storytelling until now, you’ve been able to set those requirements, and that’s fine, but to continue to adhere to them is to admit that we as a community that could potentially build around the medium that we don’t want it to evolve. If we continued along this path, the algorithms could become better and, thus, the results could become better, but the core of the system would remain the same, which wouldn’t solve other core problems.

          You say that I reject choice, but that, again, is demonstrably false. The paradigm of choice-based narratives is defined by systems like Storytron and hyperlink fiction such as Undum. It is a paradigm by which you make a choice from a selection of choices and the results are read back to you. No matter how complex the algorithms are underneath it all and how they are presented, they belong to the same category of narrative and provide the user with a similar experience.

          My argument is that the choices should be less explicit. Readers/players should be given a set of mechanics to work with and they should implicitly make choices by interacting with the world around them using those mechanics. Choice-based narratives inherently rely on explicit choices, which do not challenge social intelligence the way that implicit choices do. However, to accurately model implicit choice, we have to move away from choice-based narrative and, in my opinion, the best way to model it is in a spatial setting.

          “My assessment is that the Storytron technology is best analogized as Babbage’s analytical engine: a total failure that was far ahead of its time. That’s why I am falling back to the much simpler Encounter technology.”

          On the contrary, I believe the opposite. I believe that the Storytron technology is but a fraction of what is necessary for a complete interactive storytelling package. It’s a starting point for the algorithmic necessities of the medium, but it’s a starting point built on 30 years of work that has barely evolved conceptually since the Erasmatron in the 90s. Its UI was horridly out of date when it was released years ago and interactions just do not feel fluid at all. There are a lot of good ideas there, but they’re wrapped in a package that is desperately clinging to an era that is long gone.

          And, again, because it seems to be necessary to say it, this is not a personal attack. It simply is the reality of the situation. Interactive storytelling as a medium must evolve if it is to get anywhere.

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