The calculus of true love

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I have to admit I got all a-twitter when I started listening to WRT’s interview with Chris Crawford and I got a little shout-out at the beginning. It’s tiny-tiny but still, it’s kind of cool to be on the same, er, stage.

So it turns out Chris Crawford’s up to his old tricks. He’s “commercializing” his old work with the Erasmatron with a new doodad called Storytronics. Now before I write anything else, I should warn you that Chris thinks that Gimcrack’d is obsolete, and as such I am very inclined to go all Linus vs. Andy on him:

There have been three main approaches to creating interactive storytelling technology: the unsuccessful “Branching Narrative” and “Narrative Game”, and Storytronics…

… Many of the choices offered to the reader lead to an uninteresting story; one that was cut too short, ran too long, repeated itself or made no sense. Second, this method imposed severe restrictions on the player’s freedom of choice. There is no practical way to construct a flow chart large enough to give the reader true control – such a flowchart would require literally billions of nodes, linked together in an astoundingly complex logical structure.

Instead, Branching Narratives usually give one the feeling of choosing “the lesser of two evils” between two options, because one is not allowed to do what one really wants to. Furthermore, many such narratives employ a technique called “foldback”, where two or more options lead to the same practical result.

Basically, Chris postulates that a human being can’t begin to try to create a truly interactive story because there are too many possibilities to consider. I think that’s true. He then proposes that the way to solve this problem is to generate your storylines programmatically — you set up some initial conditions that predispose the characters of the story toward conflict (hopefully), and then let ‘er rip. The reader gets to be a character who can screw around with things and lead the story toward a particular outcome.

I have two criticisms: first, I think he’s got the cart before the horse. Basically, these initial conditions boil down to working with theme. You make a story generator that deals with betrayal by making the characters more or less willing to screw each other over, depending on how much they trust the other person. You make a story generator about love by… well, I don’t know. How would you calculate your attraction to someone else?

But my main point is that theme is something that floats in the background as I write, but it’s never what drives my creative process. I have a vague idea about what a story I’m working on is about, but that changes as I write. I think in my best writing, I may be able to see the end of the story as I work but only just; I’m not sure where I’m going on a conscious level, but there is something working itself out deep down.

Secondly, I think Chris puts a little too much stock in interactivity. — Which may be a weird thing for someone allegedly writing interactive stories to write. But I don’t think people really want a storyworld where anything is possible. For one, we already have real life. But it’s not the range of choices that really makes an interactive story compelling; it’s their significance. And I think that’s where human intelligence and gasp craft comes into play. Deciding what choices to offer the reader, what outcomes to write, is an artistic decision.

Anyway, here are some interesting notes from Laura Mixon, who wrote the only story I know of with Chris’ system: An E-Pilgrim’s ProgressShattertown Sky: A Post-Partum, and I Can’t Believe I Did That.


It’s just a game, man

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People have invented all kinds of names for this mess we’re in: hypertext, interactive fiction, even something called ergodic literature. But there’s one word that doesn’t come up that often is game. This is probably for the same reason people invented the term graphic novel — comic book sounds a little too kidlike and, well, light-hearted. Games imply a certain superficiality… and for good reason. The overall audience for video games has aged a little bit, to the mid-twenties if not early thirties, but the bottom of the demographic is still somewhere around ten years old. Even so, it’s a pretty narrow range. You don’t really think of Dickens as a males 18-24 kind of writer.

But you can’t really deny that video games provide a ton of examples of how interaction can work structurally. When I think about how I want a story to work, it’s games like Silent Hill 2, where what seem like innocuous choices determine how the plot’s resolved, that give me signposts.

(That’s another reason I think there’s a bias against games in serious analysis… you just sound dumb citing something like Metal Gear Solid 3 in what’s supposed to be a serious paper.)

The thing that video games have been consistently terrible at, though, is provoking an emotional response through interaction. Fanboys typically talk about Aeris biting the dust in Final Fantasy VII as a huge emotional moment… but hey, characters have been dying melodramatically since forever! If you compare stuff like that to even an ordinary short story, it comes out looking pretty poor.

One exception I can think of offhand is Ico, which not only managed to move me but also did almost all of its storytelling without language. Which is great… but kind of hard to draw from as a writer. Photopia and Shade would be up there, too, and fortunately they’re both made entirely out of words.

Ironically, I had an aha moment yesterday about how to structure the story I’m working on… but it had nothing to do with video games. Rather it was this Web activity, which was written by an incredibly smart guy I used to work with, that gave me an idea on how to make things work.

The otherworld of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

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The night I unlocked the second city of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I dreamed of being a year younger, going to my sister’s college graduation. But it was in Baltimore City this time, and I wandered onto the streets into an apartment building just because it looked interesting to me.

Inside, there was a man who was a painter, and he had three children to take care of — somehow I knew that none of them were biologically his, though I didn’t know how he had acquired these kids. He was kind of fat in that friendly sort of way, and had a beard, too. He seemed like he had never even thought of being worried about life. His painting was too important. He was teaching his oldest the beginnings of his craft; he gave him a bucket of red paint and let him do what we wanted to his studio walls.

He took me to a room with a mirror and said: “This is what we call the otherworld.” And then the mirror was not a mirror anymore. It was a window.

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