book review

An artsie review of *Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling*

Joris Dormans (2005)

When
Chris Crawford speaks many people stop and listen. When Chris
Crawford speaks about interactive storytelling I rush to the nearest
bookstore and get the book. As an Atari veteran from the early
eighties, he published several games, articles and books on games.
His *Art of Computer Game Design *(1983) is a fixture on the
list of references of many academic books and articles. He is one of
the few people that try to bridge the gap between the "techie"
culture of the industry and the "artsie" culture of the
academia and his name carries weight on both sides of the divide.
Does he succeed in bridging that gap with his latest book *On
Interactive Storytelling *(*OIS*)? Well, that is a difficult
question to answer, but I am afraid he does not. His book is technically sound, but
it fails to cater for the appetite of the artsie reader.

The
"two cultures" problem is addressed by Crawford in chapter
4 of *OIS. *It is a problem that has been identified by C.P.
Snow nearly 50 years ago. The two cultures are those of science
("techies") on the one hand and those of the arts and
humanities ("artsies") on the other. These two fields grow
increasingly apart and there is much misconception, disdain, and even
hostility between the two. The gap between the techies and artsies is
felt very strongly in the fields of computer games and interactive
storytelling because there the two cultures meet as games and
interactive stories are both technical and artistic objects. Crawford
comes from the techie culture as he admits himself (p. 73). As a
result he is aware that his perception of the artsie culture and
their take on interactive storytelling is somewhat flawed. The
perceptive witticisms of the fictional lectures on the "the
semiotics of Mario Brothers" and "mimetics in text
adventuters" aside, his work does suffer a little from
Crawford's ignorance to the finer issues that occupy the attention of
the artsie culture. At least it does for someone whose background
stems from that side of the divide. Someone like me.

However, first and foremost
*OIS *is an impressive work. This should come as no surprise as
Crawford's experience and experiments of the last twenty-five years
went into its making. His insights, logic and intuition is spot on
most of the time. Furthermore, *OIS *is written in an accessible
style. There are many examples, and the use of pseudo-code is easy
enough to follow for anyone with an interest in games. Crawford uses
an 'alter ego' that raises objections and asks questions at
appropriate moments, and the dialogues that follow are an efficient
way to deal with some of the more fundamental issues without being
dragged into lengthy academic expositions. Although some would say
that this method lacks academic rigour or does not do justice to the
persons who raised the issues in the first place. I am not to
bothered by it much. After all the book seems to be aimed more at
game designers and developers more than at the game scholars.

The
build up in *OIS *is sound. Crawford begins by discussing the
core concepts of narrativity, interactivity and interactive
storytelling. He makes a strong case for the notions of abstraction,
mathematical representation and verb thinking which are pivotal in
his implementation of interactive storytelling. In short, abstraction
tackles the problem between artistic control over a plot and the
freedom of the player by redirecting the artistic effort to the level
of the 'metaplot'. At this level the author lays down the rules of
engagement rather than directing every dramatic instance. Dramatic
potential, and by extension the artistic expression is, realised by
these rules instead of a fixed set of dramatic developments. This
potential is better represented mathematically, as the mathematical
pseudo-code indeed only defines the potential and while the details
are left to be filled in by the player or a random generator. With
verb thinking Crafword stresses the importance of the player's
activity. Repeatedly he asks us to consider what it is the player
does. With verb thinking it is easy to see the problem with many
commercially produced games. Whereas the industry has revolutionised
the technology, the things the player does have not changed that much
at all. She is still only "shooting, moving, sneaking, hiding
acquiring, and so forth" (p. 244). This way the resolution of
conflicts, which is central to both games and stories, remains
violent and primitive.

Crawford goes on to discus different strategies of interactive storytelling. He dismisses a large number of strategies that have been tried in the past. Branching tree plots, with or without 'foldback', storified games and emergent stories are all considered poor strategies. He sees more potential in 'data-driven' approaches such as the application of Vladimir Propp's universal functions of the fair-tale in a storytelling engine which yielded "impressive results" (p. 166). But in the end Crawford puts most faith in 'language-driven' strategies. This approach takes as his basis the language of interaction between the human and the computer. The shape and scope of this language ultimately determine the shape and scope of the stories told with it. If the expression of the player is limited to a handful of violent actions this is going to affect the narrative potential of the story.

The
latter part of *OIS *is largely devoted to the techniques of
interactive storytelling Crawford developed during the creation of
his storytelling engine the *Erasmatron*. These techniques which
range from the attributes of the personality model, how to craft
events, keep track of these and distribute knowledge are very
interesting. They make me want to boot up my C++ compiler to try my
own hand at them, especially as Crawford indicates points for
improvement and problems he has not yet tackled. But this part and
the last part that describes the applications of interactive
storytelling techniques by Crawford and others reads a little as an
appendix to the earlier parts.

All
in all, *OIS *makes a good read and Crawford's voice remains one
that is articulate, experienced and authoritative. But I find one
thing lacking: I miss a spark of life that could lift this work
beyond the technical level and to a level that testifies a clear and
complete vision of the technological and artistic dimensions of
interactive storytelling.

To
be more precise, what I find missing is a more detailed theory of
representation. How does a 'storyworld' make statements about the
world? How is a interactive author supposed put in her vision of
love, the world at large or her government in particular? These are
all important aspects of stories Crawford acknowledges in the first
chapters. The mathematical representation discussed half way through
*OIS *falls short in this respect. The idea of mathematical
representation is illustrated with the climactic scene of *The
Return of the Jedi*. In this scene Darth Vader is shown to
hesitate between his loyalty to the Emperor and his love for his son
Luke Skywalker for a long moment. mathematical formula. Here is
mathematical formula Crawford uses to express the same situation (p.
108):

```
competing
force 1 = Loyalty[Darth, Emperor] + SelfInterest[Darth] –
Idealism[Darth]
```

```
competing
force 2 = Love[Dart, Luke] + Empathy[Darth]
```

```
if
(competing force 1 > competing force 2)
```

then
WatchLukeDie

else
TurnAgainstTheEmporer

However
I think the formula fails to represent one crucial aspect of that
scene: the difficulty Darth Vader has in making this discussion. This
difficulty is represented by the length of the shot and the way Darth
Vader alternately turns his head between Luke and Emperor. This
difficulty adds considerable dramatic weight and significance to the
moment. It is an indication of how far Darth Vader had gone over to
the 'dark side', and of the greatness of the effort and risk of
Luke's gambit to bring Darth Vader back. Moreover, it makes the
decision a "closely balanced decisions that can reasonably go
either way" that Crawford favours for interactive storytelling
(p. 54). The scene in the film ties in with a lot of events of the
same and the previous two films. In particular it echoes the climax
of *The Empire Strikes Back* where Darth Vader tries to seduce
Luke Skywalker to join the dark side. Can mathematical
representations do the same? And if so, how does that mechanism work?
Studies of cinema and literature have developed elaborate theories on
metaphors, references, reversals, satire, and many more structures of
meaning. Artsies often refer to such structures and theories as
'rhetorics' or 'poetics'. Without a poetics of mathematical
representation, many of the examples Crawford offers remain trivial
and lifeless.

The
issue I raise is not an issue with mathematical representation
itself, but with Crawford's discussion of it. Never does he describe
how different mathematical formulae interact. If we take for example
*SimCity* how we can claim that it advocates a left-wing or
right-wing ideal, as has been done? What are the lessons taught to us
by a game like *Civilization*? How can *September 12th
*(Gonzalo Frasca's simulation of the war on terror) inspire so
much debate? I am inclined to argue that it is the combination of the
mathematical formulae, their interaction with each other and with
external ideas or formats that plays a crucial role. Such ideas have
been developed by many cultural inspired theories of representation
such as semiotics and intertextuality, which are more about these and
other (inter)relations than the individual signs or texts. True,
these examples are more simulations than games, let alone interactive
stories, but they are prime examples of mathematical representations.

Crawford does an admirable job in describing the elements of interactive storytelling. The technical detail maybe more than an artsie like me wishes for, but Crawford's easy and accessible style turns it into a valuable lesson for all. Crawford's approach to interactive storytelling is interesting and shows much promise for the future. The key notions of abstraction, mathematical representation and verb thinking are all valid. What is lacking, is a conclusive account of the combination and artistic configuration of such elements. But maybe expecting such an account would be to soon. After all, interactive storytelling is only a fledgling discipline. And in any case, a lot of scholars – including me – would be out of business.

**References**

Crawford, Chris (1983)
*The Art of Computer Game Design*. Available at
http://Vancouver.wsu.edu/fac/Peabody/gaeme-book/coverpage.html

Crawford, Chris (2005)
*Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling*. New Riders,
Berkeley.

Gonzalo Frasca's
*September 12th *can be found
at http://www.newsgaming.com/games/index12.htm

I assume the reader is well familiar with the other films and games I mentioned.

http://www.jorisdormans.nl/article.php?ref=reviewcrawford2005