July 30, 2004

On Improving the Form

by Andrew Stern · , 1:06 pm

Via our neighborhood ludology blogs, here are links to two articles with ideas on how to improve interactive narrative experiences. First, a new essay by Timothy Burke in which he strongly advocates agency in MMOG virtual worlds.

MMOGs can never be virtual worlds until they abandon the character as the primary unit of persistence. To be virtual worlds, they have to make the gameworld itself the major unit of persistence. … This is the dream of many MMOG players: they beg for gameworlds in which their actions matter, in which there are events of consequence. Developers promise to pursue this chimera, but rarely implement anything even approaching the most modest dreams of players.

Second, an older essay (1989) espousing the concept of game-stories, by Ron Gilbert, veteran developer of adventure games (Monkey Island) and its technology (SCUMM), posted on his new blog. In the essay, which holds up quite well 15 years later (perhaps suggesting how little progress has been made in interactive narrative since then), Gilbert discusses his “rules of thumb that will minimize the loss of suspension of disbelief” in game-stories. Particularly interesting to me, in light of our current experiment in real-time interactive drama, is Gilbert’s rule that “Real time is bad drama”:

One of the most important keys to drama is timing.  Anyone who has designed a story game knows that the player rarely does anything at the right time or in the right order.  If we let the game run on a clock that is independent from the player’s actions, we are going to be guaranteed that few things will happen with dramatic timing.  … The key is to use Hollywood time, not real time.  Give the player some slack when doing time-based puzzles.  Try to watch for intent.  If the player is working towards the solution and almost ready to complete it, wait.  

I agree with this principle, that a strictly real-time interactive experience can be problematic. It’s usually a good thing for the system to slow down or speed up as needed to adapt to what the player is doing and best support a satisfying experience. However, unlike most puzzles you encounter in adventure games and IF, I much prefer interactive experiences that are always moving forward, that keep you engaged at all times, that never just sit and wait for you to act. Perhaps “real-time” isn’t the perfect word to describe this, since always moving forward can still be adaptive; maybe “continuous-time” is better. Continuous-time interactive drama.

Burke offers a solution for how to offer true agency in virtual worlds: interactive narrative. He labels it the “narrative-nudge” model of gameplay. I couldn’t agree more, except with how he would implement it:

The gameworld is constructed around a massively branching tree of preset “narratives” which are associated with present implementations of gameworld conditions. … Players use the actions of their characters to “nudge” the gameworld towards different branches of the narrative tree. Once a set threshold point is reached, the gameworld will at a random moment “launch” a new narrative branch and the distinctive gameworld conditions associated with it. Once the gameworld has moved along a new branch, it cannot return to past narrative junctures.

Burke later describes the fatal flaw with this implementation approach:

An NN-MMOG would have some very serious design difficulties to overcome. First, the effort of designing and programming what would have to be a very, very extensive and wide-ranging series of narrative branches would be enormous, easily equalling or surpassing the challenge that game content poses for a conventional MMOG. (On the other hand, eliminating the endless managerial nightmares posed by conventionally accumulative character-based persistence like levelling or loot would save labor, as well).


Unfortunately, a branching narrative approach just won’t work for solving this conundrum. I wasn’t as sure about this as I am now, until we spent years banging our heads against it, trying to invent a new approach to it.

The real solution — sorry folks, there’s no getting around it — is to create far more procedurally generative architectures. Systems where there are no explicit branches. Story nodes, of as small granularity as possible, that are dynamically generated from very small hand-made chunks of content / knowledge, and are dynamically sequenced. Put simply, a system that is to some extent actually creative.

In Facade, the system is a creative editor, dynamically sequencing a large collection of small grain-size story pieces (individual sentences of dialog), hand-authored by us; the system is able to evaluate which pieces are better than others to choose from, to keep the drama interesting and responsive. That’s not good enough. Even after years of labor there’s nowhere close to enough content in the system, even for a small dramatic scenario.

Such a system needs to be much more of a creative writer. The system needs to be constructing the sentences themselves, not just sequencing them. This doesn’t mean building AI that can creative narrative from whole cloth; even human writers don’t do that. This does mean building AI that has a lot of knowledge about how characters, stories and emotions work, and the rules and procedures for constructing new ones. That’s what people do when they write; they draw upon their experience and knowledge of stories they’ve experienced, to know how to create new ones.

Generativity is what we need to turn our time and energy towards. Once Michael and I finally get Facade out the door, and we each get a chance to regather our wits, I’m hoping to push in that direction. Exactly how, exactly what aspect to push on, I’m still thinking about. (First, a thorough re-reading of the research done to date in generative narrative will be important.)

Over time (years) I’m planning to regularly write about this. I’m sure Michael and others will too. It will be very, very challenging work. Progress almost surely won’t be quick.

(This is not to say generative architectures are the only way to do interesting things in the space of interactive narrative, of course. I’m simply saying that to achieve the level of agency Burke is wishing for, generativity is the only viable solution.)


Burke goes on:

The challenge isn’t just a labor-time issue: it’s a theoretical one. The evident comparison here is to the authorial problems and issues that hyperfiction has faced. I don’t think I’m alone in finding that virtually all works of hyperfiction disappoint both in the number and type of branching explorations they allow. Every branch poses the question of its own limitations. The more expansive and imaginatively branching a work of hyperfiction or ergodic literature is, the more the reader asks why he should be limited to the choices provided.


Also worth reading is Burke’s writeup of his experience at the recent Autonomous Agents conference.