June 30, 2005

Pictures from the Phront

by Michael Mateas · , 1:16 am

Andrew and I were at Phrontisterion VI this last weekend. The timing was perfect – we’d just finished our final build of Façade (!!) a day or two before the Phront.

A regular thread of discussion on GTxA is the artist/programmer debate and related issues of procedural literacy for digital media artists and theorists. In this light, it was nice to see this 23 year old magazine cover depicting Chris as an artist/programmer hanging on the wall.

[Update July 6: Chris’ conference report is online.]


We of course brought Façade with us and encouraged people to play. Much of the discussion this year centered around comparing/constrasting the Façade and Erasmatron approaches. Here Rick Smith plays while Laura Mixon (author of Shattertown Sky, the most complex Erasmatron world build to date), Gordon Landis (a member of the indy RPG community), and John McCullough (one of two Harvey Mudd students there) look on.


We camped in tents in a meadow. It was beautiful, if a bit lumpy from all the gopher mounds. Nothing like sleeping under the stars, waking up in a meadow, and opening up your laptop to discuss the intersection between agency, narrative and artificial intelligence.

We arrived late at night, around 11:30pm on Friday. While we were setting up camp in the dark, two large dogs came to visit. We were nervous for a moment – hoping that they were friendly. But they never barked once (apparently we seemed harmless), and even spent the night sleeping outside our tents. Moose is the one on the left, Auggie on the right.


All the discussion took place in a circle under the trees. Selene Tan, another Harvey Mudd student, is sitting between John and Gordon in the lower left. Mark Covey, an Army intelligence officer interested in games for geopolitical hotspot simulation, and Dave Walker, a former EA developer who, along with Chris and Laura has been part of the triumverate thinking about the Erasmatron over the years, are in the lower right.


On the first day of the front, Chris spent the morning describing the design of Erasmatron 4, specifically focusing on the logo-graphic language Deikto. In Erasmatron 4, the player and the autonomous characters all speak to each other in Deikto.

Another picture of Laura and Chris.

In the afternoon Andrew and I gave an informal talk on Facade, describing our design motivation and design approaches, technologies, and authoring experience.


During the breaks I visited Chris and Kathy’s many animals. The pig, Spam, enjoys the Phront because he gets to eat all the leftovers. On the right he’s chowing on the remains of lunch.


Most of the cats are indoor-only cats, and in fact stayed behind closed doors (we were warned not to open any closed doors, as apparently the cats are carefully separated into the groups that get along). But this little guy was very friendly, and spent most of the Phront wandering around in the circle.

The runner ducks used to run around free, but the racoons kept killing them. Now they live in a pen. I didn’t get a picture of the burros, and the emus are dead (damn that mountain lion).

Andrew was keeping it chill. Kathy, who was a great hostess and kept us all well fed, is standing in the background.

A warning in the bathroom. Keep your patches up-to-date.

In the evening we had a nice dinner on the covered bridge.


We spent the second day discussing a number of issues raised on the first day. Each of these issues easily deserves its own post; I’ll just mention them briefly here. One issue is continuous time versus discrete time. Chris has argued in the past that interactive storytelling requires discrete time because the dramatic decisions that can have a real impact on the plot are necessarily discrete. Façade offers a working counter-example, though the storylevel decision points are also discrete. My understanding by the end of the discussion is that, with the Erasmatron, Chris directly exposes the decisions that make a difference (the deep structure), while Façade, in addition to having a deep structure, also has a surface structure of “sub-story” player interactions, that are incorporated into the more discrete deep structure. That is, Façade is more like a simulation in its moment-by-moment operation while having the simulation “feed” a more discrete, globally constrained, deep structure. I suggested that it might be dangerous to wear your deep structure on your sleave, as it may negatively impact player agency. Other discussions (which I may blog about in more detail at a later time), included the pros and cons of natural language vs. artificial languages, discrete space (stages) vs. continuous space, the commercial future of interactive drama, the tension between authorial control and autonomy (cashed out as the tension between abstraction and instantiation). Good discussions. Sitting between Laura and Andrew is Steve Kearsley, a graphic developer at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and the art director on Conspiritus, an interactive biofeedback journey.

Patrick was videotaping the proceedings for posterity.


Chris gave us a tour of the property. It was nice to stretch our legs after hours of intense discussion.

Rick, a longtime friend of Chris. He would pace during the discussions (something I appreciate as a pacer myself), and then stop to offer heartfelt insights. He has recently joined a new studio that is building games that “take language seriously”, though he couldn’t say much about what they’re up to.

Chris’ confidence in the success of Deicto as a player communication language for Erasmatron 4 is partly based on his experience of using a logographic language in his 1987 game Trust and Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot. Since I hadn’t played Trust and Betrayal, I asked if he had a copy I could have (I was just hoping for an electronic copy). He graciously gave me, and several other folk (including Andrew), original shrinkwrapped copies. Throwing caution to the wind, I immediately ripped off the shrinkwrap (so much for being a hard core collector) and asked him to sign mine.