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.

9 Responses to “Pictures from the Phront”

  1. andrew Says:

    Here’s some links to writeups of previous Phronts, with a few pictures, if you’re curious. Year 1 (1999) had some heavy-hitters, with Raph Koster, Brian Moriarty, Ron Gilbert, Chris Hecker, Doug Sharp…

    1999 (+ Thom’s writeup), 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004

    Each year has links to one or more additional writeups by attendees, always including Rick Smith. :-)

    Interesting to read TG’s prediction at the top of the report from 3 years ago, vis-a-vis Façade.

  2. Jeff On Games » Blog Archive » Writing Escapes me… Says:

    […] to post about a conference some of the guys went to at Chris Crawford’s house called Phrontisterion. Just so we’re clear, I would have given anything to b […]

  3. andrew Says:

    Seeing the 23-year-old photo at the top of the post, I think it’s appropriate to repeat Chris’ quote that I reported in the AIIDE conference notes from a month ago:

    “I offer myself as a warning of the idea of the Renaissance Man… Being a half-assed artist and half-assed programmer doesn’t make me a Renaissance Man, it just makes me a total ass.”


    At Phrontisterion last weekend, Michael and I asked Chris, “but if you’ve got two half-assed artists and half-assed programmers, do all those halves add up to one total Renaissance Man?”

    [Update: Chris’ AIIDE speech, Artists and Technologists, is now online.]

  4. Brian Moriarty Says:

    I have lately become intrigued by the eerie parallels, including the amazing physical similarities, between Chris Crawford and Glenn Gould.

    Has anyone else noticed this? :)

  5. michael Says:

    The Phrontisterion 6 report is available. It includes Rick Smith’s analysis of Facade.

  6. Chris Crawford Says:

    Brian Moriarty opines: “I have lately become intrigued by the eerie parallels, including the amazing physical similarities, between Chris Crawford and Glenn Gould.”

    Would that similarity lie in the intellectual moribundity Glenn and I have shared for the last 20 years?

  7. Brian Moriarty Says:

    For the uninitiated: Gould died in 1983. :)

    I was thinking more of the arc of his career. His early years as an eccentric yet highly successful concert pianist. His bizarre but indisputably brilliant interpretations of classic repertoire, his curmudgeonly manner, his fiendish delight in slaughtering sacred cows. Then his sudden, self-imposed exile from the concert world, preferring to move North to avoid the spotlight, concentrating on private studio work, and lonely musings about how technology would change the art and very meaning of music. His offbeat clothing and odd personal habits. His love of cats.

    And, again, that remarkable physical resemblance.

    On the other hand, I am not aware that Gould ever complained about mountain lions eating his emus.

  8. andrew Says:

    There’s a new interview with Chris in the latest issue of ArmChair Arcade, including a discussion of Trust and Betrayal.

  9. Grand Text Auto » Have You Seen This Man? Says:

    […] xA will recall that Chris told us why, spawning further discussion (1 2). Also read about our visit last June at Chris’ annual gathering.)


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