December 15, 2003

Interactive Storytelling Exam

by Nick Montfort · , 1:35 pm

Although I should have been studying for my preliminary exam on Wednesday, today in the department I heard an unusual WPE-II presentation: “Interactive Storytelling: Coupling the Emotional Range of Drama with the Engagement of Interactivity.” (The WPE-II is the paper-and-talk that is the last of the preliminary exams here in the Department of Computer and Information Science at Penn, and will hopefully be my next stop after Wednesday.) The topic of Michael Johns’s talk (which was possibly closer to interactive drama than interactive storytelling) was hardly alien to me, but it was a bit different from the graph-theoretic or expectation-maximizing algorithmic goodness that we usually get around here.

Johns’s talk covered Façade by our very own Mateas and Stern, a system by Cavazza, Charles, and Mead at the University of Teesside, and Actor Conference by the Liquid Narrative Group at NCState. Although relatively few aspects of Façade were discussed, and there was little mention of the ability of actors to coordinate in Façade (discussed as the main feature of Actor Conference), I (and I think others) still got the impression that Façade was the real state of the art system here. Since I know less about “the competition,” it was interesting to see Façade in an interactive drama shootout.

I was left uncertain about how the second system discussed differed from Talespin; it used the simple idea of autonomous characters following conflicting goals. As best I could tell, the differences are the Unreal interface, the use of characters from Friends, the ability of the user to tinker with the world during execution of the program, and a new planning system. But it seemed basically like $talespin ~= s/bear/Ross/ s/honey/box of chocolates/.

In some ways, I must say that the conversation reminded me of some less productive humanistic/interdisciplinary discussion of these topics five or ten years ago: how we make it look like things are less constrained that they really are? Pull the user through the experience along a particular path? Keep the user from doing things that mess up our great story? I suppose we’ve had a discussion about this discussion not too long ago on here. The conclusion at this talk was, I think, pretty much what I’ve concluded: that if you’re asking lots of these sorts of questions all the time, you’ve probably framed the issue in an unproductive way. I just wish we were through with that conversation, I guess.

On the conclusions slide was the comment: “It has been notoriously difficult to incorporate the desires of professional writers into games.” Leading me to wonder: How about the desires of professional jugglers? (Or, to make less of a joke, architects?) I don’t think the difficulty of incorporating professional desires of any sort is a problem in and of itself — perhaps the issue is that traditional writing tends to help us much less than we expected in creating interactive experiences. What’s wrong in this case? It could be that we don’t know how to apply traditional writing techniques properly — or it could be that traditional writing doesn’t directly map onto this new form in any useful way.

I would suggest the ideas of potential narrative (or potential drama) and of simulated world provide much more effective ways of looking at these sorts of new media creations. “Game” and “story” map onto things like Façade much less directly, if at all. Brenda Laurel and others have been applying ideas from drama to interactive experience with care for decades, yielding some good results, but that’s because they made the implicit realization that an interactive computer program isn’t itself a drama; it’s part of a system that can provide an interactive and dramatic experience.

Anyway, I’m pleased that there’s interest in these topics in the CIS department. I hope that some computer science insights can aid in addressing problems faced in many disciplines when considering these sorts of systems, and I hope that students in CIS will be willing to look to narratology, potential literature, and other types of study which could prove as productive as Brenda Laurel’s interjection of a dramatic perspective into computing.