July 11, 2003

Responsive Narratives

by Andrew Stern · , 10:36 am

Surfing around I came across a new book to be published this Fall, called “Tomorrow’s Stories: How Responsive Narratives Will Change Storytelling”. The author is Andrew Glassner, perhaps best known as the creator and editor of the Graphics Gems book series on computer graphics. According to his bio, he’s also written a novel, directed a short animated film, and designed some interactive fiction / game prototypes. I heard Glassner opine on the “Future of Fiction” panel Noah co-organized at SIGGRAPH 2000, and remember him as thoughtful and articulate.

His forthcoming book “addresses the fundamentals of how and why successful games and stories work. It is the first book to give a reader a practical understanding of both the structure of story and the structure of participatory gaming. This knowledge helps the reader see why and how today’s models of interactive fiction succeed and fail, and provides a foundation for developing new storytelling art forms that harmoniously integrate interaction and narrative.”

He sees limitations in branching narrative / hypertext approaches. “These ideas, and their cousins, have been tried time and again in the marketplace but have yet to achieve mainstream success. There are some very good, specific reasons for this lack of success, and those reasons can be found by going back to the basics of what stories and games are, and how they work.”

I look forward to reading the book, and applaud anyone that articulates their understanding of how to navigate, as Glassner puts it, “the dangerous waters of interactive fiction”. That said — and I don’t know to what extent this is the case in Glassner’s book, since I haven’t read it — but I’m wary of approaches to tackling interactive fiction that rely primarily on design, without offering new technology to support the design. Don’t get me wrong, design is a critical component of any interactive experience — and in fact is what is sorely lacking from most technology-heavy academic CS research in interactive fiction. But design alone is inadequate.

My feeling after spending 4 years with Michael on the problem of interactive fiction, looking for a magic design solution to the problem, is that sadly there is no magic design solution. It is fundamentally a very complex thing, that will require powerful new generative architectures to make real progress beyond where we are today. In Facade, a design-heavy and technology-heavy project, we’ve been chipping away at the complexity of the problem, with bits of success, but realizing the field has a long, long way to go.

Design-heavy / technology-light solutions essentially back off from the complexity of the problem, by necessarily reducing or virtually eliminating player agency. They do their best to immerse players in a story, using tried-and-true storytelling techniques (“the basics of what stories are”). In fact some designs specifically focus on giving players the illusion of agency – leading them down a single path, while trying to hide the fact that there is only a single path. This can be an enjoyable experience, but mostly for the same reasons that a good movie or book is an enjoyable experience.