July 24, 2006

Sandcastle Construction

by Andrew Stern · , 2:00 pm

Tadhg Kelly over at particleblog (whom I recently linked to) has posted a good rant about the “interactive storytelling community’s” misguided notions of the nature and feasibility of interactive stories. In particular he points out that stories are delicate structures, so how can they be made interactive? The age-old question, but I like Tadhg’s take on it.

Please read his full post before reading my comments below, which I also posted on his blog.

Stories are certainly structures, and I like how you point out that they’re exceptionally delicate and brittle ones, where good stories (not derivative formulaic ones) each have their own particular custom structure.

I also agree with you that labeling gameplay as story (e.g. gameplay in soccer or Counterstrike), even games set in fictional worlds, is mistaken.

I don’t see why you resist the idea that two parties, i.e. the human player and the system, can each make meaningful “moves” (action and dialog), either symmetrically in a turn-taking fashion or even asymmetrically, to achieve a collaboration that, albeit loosely and messily, builds a structure over time.

Take the metaphor of two parties building a sandcastle together. It requires collaboration. The sandcastle is brittle. There are millions of interesting castles that can be built. If one person destroys part of the castle, it is possible for the other to work to repair the damage; the overall castle will be blemished, but it can still hold. Certainly it’s easy for one party to destroy the castle quickly, in one or two bold strokes. It’s even possible to inadvertently destroy the castle. That’s the nature of the beast. To alleviate this fragility, one party could be observant and warn the other party if they’re about to destroy the castle (purposefully or not).

But it’s too pessimistic to deny the possibility that complex structures can be built collaboratively. It takes cooperation, and forces responsibility. But control and responsibility is what agency is all about.

Further, in the case of a structure that is temporal, i.e. a story being created in real time, it’s not as easy to nitpick over the structure of the story as whole; you can get away with a little more messiness in its construction, I think, especially if the process of building the structure has frequent moment-by-moment rewards.

In a nutshell, the term “story” has too much baggage. Fuck terms. The point is, there are interesting systems we can build here that are capable of collaborating with the player to build a structure, if the player feels like working with the system. The structure may be haphazardly built, blemished, limited, weak in some spots and strong in others — but a structure nonetheless, and one co-created by the player, rewarding the player with a sense of creative accomplishment and personal expression.

Tadhg wrote, Interactive storytelling, on the other hand, tries to square the circle, regarding players as actors, games as sets of stories, and lots of other misguided notions that derive from linguistic tricks, misunderstandings of the principles of both games and stories, and a healthy invocation of the Technology God as a lodestone of possibility.

I have a few responses here. First, the term interactive storytelling is a poor one; an interactive story that offers true agency, which is what we care about here, is more of an interactive story generation experience, with no “telling”. There’s no perfect term (“movies” was a nice, short catchy invented term for moving pictures); “interactive storymaking” is better, at least.

I agree there are many misguided or ultimately unfruitful approaches to structuring an interactive narrative experience.

As regards to the Technology God, it’s true that technology is a key part of solution to creating a creative, collaborative AI system. Design and interface will play major roles too. Some of us engaged in such efforts write up detailed descriptions of the capabilities and limitations of our technology and design, which can help demystify or debunk the hype that surrounds the work.

Mostly, however, the notion continues to propagate because it keeps a variety of people in the news and mentioned in magazines. Like many other sources of self-propagating publicity (of which the industry has too many), it should be actively debunked. But that’s a subject for another article.

Yes, hype in general needs to be debunked. But don’t forget one source of hype (such as hyperbole in the press) is the strong desire by so many players for the experiences we’re talking about here. People want this stuff, it’s worth the effort to try to build something that achieves at least some of what people want.