The calculus of true love

This post was originally written for gimcrackd.com.

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 Now before I write anything else, I should warn you that Chris thinks that Gimcrack’d is obsolete, and as such I am very inclined to go all Linus vs. Andy on him: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.