May 10, 2003

introductory post

by Andrew Stern · , 8:14 pm

Hi world. I’m Andrew Stern, happy to be making the first post on our new group blog, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Nick Montfort, Michael Mateas, Stuart Moulthrop and I have been meaning to get this blog started for some time now. We’ve got lots of stuff we need to discuss about digital narrative, poetry, games and art, with each other and anyone who wants to join in.

We’ve been greatly inspired by the other wonderful, thoughtful, substantive blogs out there on digital practice and theory, such as Gonzalo Frasca’s, gamegirladvance from Jane Pinckard / Justin Hall / et al, Jill Walker’s blog, Greg Costikyan’s blog, etc., just to name a few.

For me this will be a chance to have a focused public discussion about where things are going with digital fiction, and some ways to get there. By digital fiction, I *don’t* necessarily mean what one might call stories, or games. More generally, I mean deeply interactive experiences involving characters, situations, and conflict, in whatever new forms these experiences may take.

For example, my current interactive drama project, Façade, a collaboration with Michael Mateas, is really more of a dramatic psychological situation than a tightly-plotted story. The characters, a young couple Grace and Trip whose marriage is falling apart, have the potential to go through major dramatic changes during the experience, driven by your interaction. You are the catalyst for their change, or lack thereof. The pleasure of the experience (we hope) is less about traditional “storytelling”, but more about the effects you have on them as you talk with them, provoke them, experiment, play. You matter.

Previous to Façade I spent over 7 years in the game industry building personality-rich, emotional virtual characters, Dogz, Catz and Babyz. In these works the player nurtures, plays with and can form long-term relationships with their adopted virtual pets and babies.

Not quite games, not quite stories… but, still, fiction.

Frankly I’m still waiting to see a digital fiction that satisfies me. My belief is that it will require greatly increasing player agency, and generativity, beyond what we see in today’s works. But more on this in future posts.

I’m more a practitioner than a theorist. I spend most of my waking hours building finished, polished work intended to get out into the world. I occasionally write about it. Once in a while I get paid for it. My business card calls me a designer and software engineer. If you asked me, I’d call myself an artist/researcher.

Here’s a partial list of burning issues that I hope we get to over time in the blog, in no particular order:
– finding a capable middle ground between structured narrative and simulation
– creating an independent games movement
– why artists need to program
– modeling of play, modeling of relationships
– issues in story generation, such as knowledge representation
– working in industry vs. academia vs. starving-artist mode

also, thanks to Georgia Tech for hosting this site on their servers! (hence the in the URL.) But you can just type to get this site.

10 Responses to “introductory post”

  1. nick Says:

    Andrew, thanks for getting things set up for us. All of you wheel men have done good work to make this happen, but I particularly appreciate your making the push to get the blog running. Eeeagh — I can’t stop making corny automotive references, even when I’m not trying.

    To throw down or pick up the first burning gauntlet (ouch!), I think that looking for a “middle ground between structured narrative and simulation” may be like looking for a middle ground between narrative and poetry. The Odyssey isn’t a strange artifact in that middle ground; it’s a narrative poem. It’s completely both of those things. The question might be whether simulation and narrative can be made to work together as well as poetry and narrative. Or maybe we’ll wonder how to manage that. But I don’t see some category of really cool semi-narrative semi-simulation things waiting to be developed in a middle ground.

  2. Athomas Goldberg Says:

    Andrew, et al —

    Congratulations on the initiation of grandtextauto!

    In the hopes of fanning the flames of these burning issues of yours, I’ll toss a few thoughts in the fire:

    1) I agree with the previous post regarding simulation and narrative. I ultimately believe there may be something we might call “structured simulation” that is not midway between structured narrative and simulation but exists at a “meta” level to both of them. I believe it is possible, though it perhaps has yet to be proven, to develop contexts, rules and constraints that may be generative of either a fixed narrative (in the mind of an author creating a novel or a play for instance) or a dynamic simulation (in the experience of an interactor) but which maintain the same overall structure in either case. I know these are gross generalizations, but I will elaborate further in future posts.

    2) The big question/challenge for those of us who passionately believe in the necessity of an independent games movement is “how do we make it affordable to create games of real substance?”

    3) This one I’ve got mixed feelings about. As an artist who programs I certainly understand the benefits of this, but then, I’m also a painter who mixes his own oil paints from dry pigments. That said, I also think it’s possible for artists working in established (digital) media to produce great works of art without knowing how to program, by working with existing tools, or with collaborators who are software (or hardware) engineers. It all depends on the nature of the art.

    4) This I could talk about for hours, but I (and I think a lot of other people) would rather hear what you’ve got to say on the subject.

    5) This goes in part to my earlier issue about trying to make deep, sophisticated, meaningful interactive art on the cheap. Knowledge representation and more importantly experience representation, are two of the technlogically stickier wickets for the more “right-brained” artist trying to develop a serious structured simulation. (if I use the term one more time it officially joins the lexicon!)

    6) The industry’s undergoing a lot of consolidation in spite of (or perhaps because of) it’s growing successes. Big, old school publishers hell-bent on protecting market and mind share are clinging to proven formulas over new ideas. A CTO of a MAJOR game publisher recently told me that they were not in the business of innovation, but of execution, and that they preferred to acquire (and franchise) games that had been developed by smaller companies which had become successful rather than take a chance on something new themselves. Problem is, as the stakes rise it becomes harder for independent developers and small publishers to fight for increasingly limited shelf space (see #2 above) so we are likely to see more formula and less excitement from this avenue (kinda like network television)

    Academia’s great if you want to work on stuff no one (in the general public) will even see for at least 3 to 5 years. All kidding aside, I think this may be one of the only real avenues left for individuals who want to create “art” as it’s the one arena left where sufficient freedom and adequate resources may found in the same place.

    Finally, I think the “starving artist” mode is kinda hard in this field. Once again, it depends on the nature of the art, and there certainly are cheaper forms of digital creativity, but when we talk about building structured simulations (that’s three!) and the like, we’re usually talking about the kinds of resources that the average “non-digital” artist never has to contend with.

    Simply put, you may have to be rich to starve in this business. (Once again, see #2 above) :)

    — Athomas

  3. andrew Says:

    Responding to Nick’s comments: Yes, "work together" is a better way to put it than "middle ground". I’m not imagining something half-narrative, half-simulation, but something that is both at the same time.

    Actually, I need to open this up a bit. What I’m really after here is to find ways to give the player of a digital fiction what I’ll call a well-formed experience, while at the same time giving her all the freedom and expressivity (agency) that a simulation offers.

    By well-formed experience, I mean an experience where tension and complication builds in a paced and satisfying way, where boring, unimportant events are kept to a minimum, where interesting, funny, compelling dialog is the rule, not the exception. I.e., drama – life with all the boring bits cut out. But I’d rather call this a dramatic experience, rather than a dramatic story. “Story” brings a lot of baggage and expectation with it that may be more trouble than it’s worth.

    Nonetheless, essentially I’m restating the fundamental problem with interactive stories, that we are all familiar with: how can a story be told with a proper narrative structure, while at the same time allowing one of the characters (the human player) to do or say anything they want at any time? (In an interview from a few years ago, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas said interactive stories were “impossible”, but what do they know.)

    I’m not going to go into that whole argument here; it’s been discussed at length over the years. To read up on the debate, for starters, check out the writings of Chris Crawford and Greg Costikyan.

    I’d like to try to relate this problem to the state-of-the-art in deeply interactive experiences. These days we’re seeing the benefits of “immersive simulations”, in games like Grand Theft Auto 3. If you build a detailed virtual world, in which players are given a huge slew of things they can do at any time (invariably physical actions), and you do a thorough enough job of simulating all of the objects in these worlds – that is, programming the basic rules of behavior for each object, allowing objects to act on other in “natural” ways – then players now have a high degree of agency. Akin to “real life”, they can make a lot of stuff happen in a lot of different ways.

    But, like real life, simulations are unstructured. In a simulation there is no guarantee that interesting things will happen any time soon; as the player, you might have to do quite a bit of work to make truly interesting shit happen. For some people, that’s the fun of it; somehow they enjoy spending dozens hours a week slogging through the tedium of such a game (presumably, as a tradeoff for all the agency they get). But for me, I don’t have the patience. I don’t want to have to work for my pleasure. Yet, I don’t want it spoonfed to me either – I do want to interact, I just don’t want to work! Nor, I suspect, do others who are not hard-core-gamers – probably the majority of the population.

    This post is already getting long; I’ll wrap this up for now. Michael and I have described one approach to solving this problem, a particular way of structuring hierarchies of behaviors. I’m curious to hear more approaches, more ideas, and to discuss them.

  4. etoyZAK Says:

    this sounds great! there’s a lack of interesting blogs in this area, looking forward!

  5. miscellany is the largest category Says:
    Grand Text Auto on the Information Superhighway?
    A new collaborative blog is in town: Grand Text Auto. Self-described: grandtextauto is about computer mediated and computer generated works of many forms, including interactive fiction,, electronic poetry, interactive drama, hypertext fiction, …

  6. jill/txt Says:
    An email yesterday announced an interesting new blog, run by Michael Mateas, Nick Montfort, Stuart Moulthrop, Andrew Stern and Noah Wardrip-Fruin: is about computer mediated and computer generated works of many forms, including intera…

  7. d/blog Says:
    Promising new weblog on the topic of “digital fiction.”

  8. texturl Says:
    /Grand Text Auto/
    grandtextauto is a group blog that “smashing up digital narrative, poetry, games and art” and that is”driven” by a great

  9. miscellany is the largest category Says:
    Grand Text Auto on the Information Superhighway?
    A new collaborative blog is in town: Grand Text Auto. Self-described: grandtextauto is about computer mediated and computer generated works of many forms, including interactive fiction,, electronic poetry, interactive drama, hypertext fiction, …

  10. Nic Kelman Says:

    Just found the discussion of my essay in “Gamers” last year on here and thought you all might be interested in my new book, “Video Game Art,” due out from Assouline Publishing in a couple of weeks… Hoping it will bring some of the issues we’re all interested in to a more mainstream audience.

    Oh, and the challenge about “making someone cry” wasn’t intended literally – more as general comment about genre vs. non-genre narrative emphasis in games…and I don’t think doing it in an FMV sequence really “counts” either…

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