Masters of Narrative Design 9™: Chris Crawford – The Narrative Design Exploratorium™

Chris Crawford

Chris Crawford – Author, Teacher, and Interactive Narrative Designer

This is an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Masters of Narrative Design™. While ‘narrative design’ is not a term in common usage, the design of story experiences is nothing new.  As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful interactive narrative experiences, looking at the lessons learned by these masters becomes increasingly valuable. Today’s master is the Moses of game design himself, Chris Crawford. Chris began the renaissance we all now exist in with the likes of Alan Kay. He taught himself how to program and brought the legend of Atari to life. Chris famously exited the videogame industry in his 1992 GDC talk “The Dragon Speech” to pursue the elusive beast of interactive story. His most recent venture Storytron has been a fanatic voyage into the possibilities of tomorrows interactive storyworlds.  I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and sheer audacity.

Stephen E. Dinehart: First of all thank you. It’s because of brave artists like yourself that I am able to exist, that my field is able to exist, we still fight, but your successes have been our stepping stone and for that we are forever grateful.

Chris Crawford: I tend to think of myself more as the soldier who falls on the barbed wire so the others can climb over his body.

We’ll get more into your selfless nobility later, you are currently Owner of Storytron can you explain what you do there?

CC: We have built an entire development environment for interactive storytelling. It consists of an engine for running storyworlds, a set of editors for the words used in the storyworlds, a scripting system, and a number of analytical tools to make life easier for the author. It’s a large and complicated system, but it does a great deal of computing for the author.

You wrote the book on game design, both figuratively and literally, and rejected the field some 15 years later. Is interactive story design an affront to game design, or is it a wholly different craft?

CC: I see interactive storytelling as the next challenge beyond games. Games are just fine as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough for me, because they fail to address the most important element of entertainment: people. Games are about things, not people, and until we can deliver interactive entertainment about people and social interaction, we will not have come close to realizing the potential of interactive entertainment. Interactive storytelling is to games as cinema is to cartoons, or as literature is to comic books. Cartoons and comic books are fine as far as they go, but could you imagine living in a world with cartoons but no cinema? A world with comic books but no novels? That’s our situation with interactive entertainment today.

Balance of Power 2000 - Screenshot

Storytron’s Balance of Power: The 21st Century

Your latest game Balance of Power: The 21st Century (BOP2K) is a fanatic linguistic adventure through modern politics and the resulting wars. What have you learned for this impressive experiment?

CC: Mostly negative lessons. I do not consider BoP2K to be an adequate demonstration of interactive storytelling in general or the Storytron technology in particular. It’s too narrow in scope and does not permit the player a wide enough range of activities. It needs many more verbs; I rushed it out to meet a deadline and it wasn’t really finished. Someday I will have to come back to it and get it working right. But I have also learned that, even with all of our editing and development tools, building a good storyworld is extremely difficult. We need even better tools, and I’m not sure how to handle that challenge.

BOP2K takes an incredibly complex open system abstracts and closes it, how do you approach taking on such large scale ideas and scooping them for design and production?

CC: That part was one of the easier aspects of the design process. I started off with Crawford’s First Law of software design (“Always start by asking, ‘What are the verbs?’”) and came up with the basic actions that I wanted the player to be able to perform. I knew that I wanted the player to be able to make deals, and to apply pressure to other countries. From there it was easy to add the concept of appealing to another country’s good will as another aspect of policy. I then added a few military options. However, I was not able to come up with a fuller range of policy options, and I think that the storyworld suffered for that failure.

Is BOP2K an interactive historical fantasy novel?

CC: I don’t know; it’s interactive, and it addresses current events, and you engage in fantasy scenarios — but it doesn’t have any serious social interaction, which is its greatest weakness.

"Balance of Power" Box Art

“Balance of Power” Box Art circa 1990

What is interactive story?

CC: Here are a few pithy descriptions: “games about people, not things”; “a story in which you are the protagonist”; “social interaction games”. The important idea to understand is that interactive storytelling is not about plot, it’s about character interaction, and the player gets the most interesting interactions. And by the way: I call it “interactive storytelling”, not “interactive story”. The difference is that a story is data, a fixed thing, whereas storytelling is a process that generates a story as its result. You can’t interact with data (story), but you can interact with a process (storytelling).

As an interactive story designer, how do you differentiate between computer games and interactive stories?

CC: The essential difference is that interactive storytelling is all about social interaction, and games have zero social interaction. Of course, social interaction requires a much richer set of verbs for the player, and so interactive storytelling requires a linguistic user interface (LUI) instead of the simpler graphical user interface (GUI) used in games. That linguistic user interface in turn imposes all sorts of requirements on the technology and the design.

At your 2008 AGDC talk “15 Shifts for the interactive storyteller” you mentioned the importance of moving from GUI to Linguistic User Interfaces (LUI); do you remain as firmly committed to that concept?

CC: Absolutely! If anything, I have grown even more assured of the necessity of this approach. You simply cannot have a meaningful interaction with another character in a storyworld using the tiny number of verbs that you can access using a GUI. Games typically offer about a dozen primary verbs and then another dozen secondary verbs. “Lite” applications such as browsers and email programs usually have less than a hundred verbs; and “pro” applications such as Photoshop and Excel have hundreds of verbs. Note that “pro” applications are accessible only to those people willing to make a big commitment to learning how to use the GUI for the application. The fact that “lite” applications have fewer than a hundred verbs suggests to me that GUIs start to break down when you ask them to handle more than a hundred verbs. That’s the upper limit of utility for GUIs: about a hundred verbs.

Now consider the “Little Golden Book: The Little Mermaid”, a book for very young children. It is only a few dozen pages long, is full of pictures, and uses very large fonts. Yet this tiny little book for young children uses more than 120 unique verbs to tell its story. That’s more verbs than a GUI can comfortably handle. In other words, a GUI can’t conveniently handle the number of verbs used to tell the simplest of child’s stories. What good will a GUI be when we try to tell a more sophisticated story?

The first post-main-menu prompt for Chris’s “Balance of Power”

How about with a Semiotic User Interface? Something that translates a games verbiage into symbols?

CC: There have been a number of attempts in this direction; I did one of the first with the iconic language used in Trust & Betrayal, published in 1987. That was really a primitive LUI, and it was pretty good by the standards of 1987. Indeed, with the possible exception of Facade, there hasn’t been a game with as much interpersonal sophistication as Trust & Betrayal — and that game was 23 years ago! Don’t hold your breath waiting for the games industry to make any progress on this front.

It seems that you think there no room for plot in interactive storytelling is that true?

CC: Yes, plot is inimical to interactivity. If you’ve already decided the plot before the player sits down, you’re not giving the player any opportunity to truly interact with the other actors. But this problem is not that serious; it’s really just a variation on the old theological problem of free will versus determinism. Plot is deterministic; how can you have free will if your fate is predestined? The theological answer is to accept free will and reject predestination. We must use the same logic with free will for the player and plot. Let the player decide for himself. Yes, the storyworld author is the god of the storyworld, but is the author a god who specifies every piddling detail of the storyworld, or a go who specifies only the principles under which the storyworld will evolve, and turns the player loose to exercise his free will in that storyworld? I argue that the latter kind of god provides a more satisfying experience to the player.

Chris’s “Balance of Power”

Where is story if not for plot?

CC: There are two broad strategies for creating stories. Some authors like to assemble a very clever plot; some authors like to assemble a cast of interesting characters and then let them interact inside the author’s head to generate the story that the author writes down. Thus, there are two approaches: plot-driven and character-driven. Interestingly, there seems to be some kind of gender selection in this: men seem more interested in plot-driven stories, while women seem to have a slight preference for character-driven stories. Compare, for example, Hemingway’s stories with Jane Austen’s. The plots in Austen’s stories are not the major architectural constructs; what’s important in these stories is the endlessly complex social interaction. Consider soap operas: they don’t even know what the plot will be until a few days before they shoot. Soap operas are about characters, not plots; that’s why they can go on and on and on for years without ever coming to an end.

Is the storyteller, or fate, in Balance of Power: The 21st Century not plot?

CC: No, Fate reacts to the player’s actions and so the development of the story is not predetermined. Think of it this way: the author of a storyworld creates the specific dramatic principles that guide the development of the story. But the player provides the specific actions that trigger the application of the author’s dramatic principles. The result of this interaction between player’s actions and author’s principles is a story. The author and the player together create a story. Here’s a greatly simplified analogy: the “author” of a calculator establishes the principles of arithmetic that guide the development of a calculation. The “player” of the calculator provides the specific numbers that trigger those principles of arithmetic. Together, the “author” and the “player” create a calculation with a result: a number. The number is just data, and you can’t interact with a number. But you can interact with the principles of arithmetic to creates zillions of possible numbers.

What do you think about the conflict between authorship and agency?

CC: That conflict exists only in the minds of people who haven’t gotten past the free will versus determinism problem. That problem was solved centuries ago. Get with the times, people!

What about pioneering interactive entertainment is most difficult for you?

CC: I’d say that the most difficult part has been maintaining the effort through all these years of financial and professional rejection. When the whole world tells me over and over “What you’re doing isn’t worth a penny” and so many people dismiss my work as pointless, it’s hard to keep plugging along. Fortunately, there are people who fervently believe in this work, who contribute their time to advance it, and who offer their own encouragement. They’ve provided a great boost to my morale. Equally fortunate is my own towering ego, which permits me to sneer contemptuously at the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I’ll probably be buried a pauper with a sneer on his face.

"The Global Dilemma" Box Art

Box Art from Chris’s “The Global Dilemma”

Is there a particular method you use to create interactive story structure?

CC: I start by asking what kinds of dramatic problems I want the player to face. Most people, when asked what a story is about, talk about the events in the story, not its meaning. For example, Star Wars is not about Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. It’s about coming of age, about a boy becoming a man and confronting his father. A story is not about its characters or its plot: it’s about the human condition. The author conceives something about the human condition that they wish to express. Then the author instantiates that abstract idea into a particular situation, with particular characters and particular events that exemplify the author’s point. The recitation of those characters and their actions constitutes the story. The audience receives the story, and then abstracts the events to the more esoteric message about the human condition. In other words, storytelling is an indirect way to talk about the human condition. In interactive storytelling, you must directly express the ideas about the human condition that you wish to convey. Your authorial abstractions are then turned into a specific story by the player.

You are credited a range of titles that span over 20 years, what has it taught you?

CC: I don’t know; that was a long time ago, and games have changed completely. I was the last of the lone wolves, turning out commercial products all alone. The selling point of my games was their originality; nowadays that’s not as important as the chrome. I’m glad I got out when I did; I was obsolescent.

What can games teach players? Or what can’t they?

CC: Games teach players how to hone their hand-eye coordination. They are excellent in this dimension of teaching. Unfortunately, skill with hand-eye coordination is devoid of redeeming social value. Games also teach some things about resource management, spatial reasoning, and puzzle solution; these have some value. The most valuable lesson of games is that effort is rewarded; if you keep plugging away at it, you can master anything. This is a valuable lesson for young people to learn. Unfortunately, games have fallen far short of their potential to teach so many other topics, largely because the designers still don’t have a good grip on the fundamentals of interactivity.

Are there interactive stories that stick out to you above the rest? Which?

CC: Facade is the obvious example; indeed, I consider it the only working example of interactive storytelling. The core idea behind Facade — boiling all expressions down to one of 19 core verbs — was immensely clever, but I think that Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern erred by using all the pre-recorded voice.

Do you have a set of criteria by which you judge that?

CC: There isn’t much point in having criteria when there isn’t much to judge. Of course, there are certain minimum requirements: some sort of interpersonal conflict; the player’s ability to respond in a dramatically meaningful fashion; and the accessibility of dramatically meaningful resolutions.

What do you see as an ideal future for interactive storytelling?

CC: Not sure how to answer; I just want to see it happen somehow.

Now I’d like to get to the meat of this, the Dragon:

I have committed myself, I have dedicated myself, to the pursuit of the dragon. And having made that commitment … all of a sudden, I can see him! There he is, right in front of me, clear as day.… You’re so much bigger than I ever imagined, and I’m, I’m not so sure I like this. I mean, yes, you’re glorious and beautiful, but you’re ugly, too. Your breath reeks of death!… Am I so pitiful that you can sneer in my face like that? Yes, yes, you frighten me! You hurt me! I’ve felt your claws ripping through my soul! But I’m going to die someday, and before I can do that, I’ve got to face you, eyeball to eyeball. I’ve got to look you right in the eye, and see what’s inside, but I’m not good enough to do that yet. I’m not experienced enough, so I’m going to have to start learning. Today. Here. Now. Come, dragon, I will fight you. Sancho Panza, my sword! (He picks up a sword from the desk behind him, which he unsheaths from its scabbard.) For truth! For beauty! For art! Charge!

Yes that Dragon. Are you still fighting the dragon?

CC: Yes. It seems like I’ve been battling him forever, and I have to take longer rests between bouts, but he’s still out there and I’m still here.

What have you learned in your battles with this seemingly mythical creature?

CC: I can’t win, but I can’t stop fighting, either. It’s a Sisyphean task, but it’s also a meaningful one. Are not most of our labors doomed to eventual reduction to ashes? At least this one might someday yield an irreversible advance.

As the borders of the pioneer city (game design) you founded pushes further into what was once untamed wilderness, do you feel that it is encroaching on the dragon’s layer?

CC: Not at all. Indeed, I don’t think that the city is expanding much; mostly, it’s just building higher and higher, doing the same old stuff over and over, better and better, but without any real creative expansion. Yes, there are plenty of people slowly pushing outward, but their efforts are still limited by their own mental blinders. So long as you think in terms of games, you just keep repeating the same old mistakes. You have to think in broader terms to break out of the creative rut that the games biz has sunk itself into.

Tanktics Box Art

Box Art from Avalon Hill’s “Tanktics”, Chris’s first “Official” Credit

For those of us inspired by your righteous rejection of your own Frankenstein Monster (game design) in an effort to fight a greater foe, the dragon, what can you tell us which might prepare us to face the same beast you so bravely fight alone?

CC: Don’t attempt this until you feel that you have no other options. Let me tell you one of my favorite digressive stories. During World War II, paratroops were on some occasions able to accomplish remarkable feats. The expectation was that they would drop behind enemy lines and sow havoc in the rear areas. In practice, it didn’t work out that way; paratroops are too lightly armed to do much damage. Their real value lay in the fact that they were surrounded and so they fought with desperation. When you’ve tested your mettle and hardened your resolve, and when you have nothing comfortable left to fall back on, then and only then can you tackle the dragon. Perhaps fighting the dragon should only be attempted by those who already know they are doomed. Everybody faces the dragon alone; you can’t attempt this until you are ready to face him all by yourself.

You seem to return from the wilderness from time to time, why?

CC: Frustration with the lack of progress elsewhere. For example, the all-day course I teach is really just an expanded version of a lecture I first game more than 20 years ago at the GDC, called “Fundamentals of Interactivity”. I expected that these basic points would become conventional wisdom in five or ten years, but now, 20 years later, people are still weak on the fundamentals. After I’m gone, who’s going to take my place if people are still struggling with the fundamentals?

I sure hope to, and I know I’m not alone. You have created a great golden ladder, and many marvel at its height.

Is the dragon any clearer to you than it was in 1992?

CC: Yes, definitely. Had I known in 1992 what I now know about the dragon, I would not have had the courage to attempt it.

Does it remain singular, or is there a race of them, a family perhaps?

CC: Each person has his own dragon. Few people are fortunate enough to be able to go after their own dragon — they’re caught up dealing with mundane little lizards like making a living, cleaning the house, building a marriage, raising kids, and so forth. I was lucky to be able to hunt my dragon so early in my life.

How has adopting the philosophy of Don Quixote helped and hurt you in your effort to tame this elusive beast?

CC: Tame? Ha! That’s not in the cards. It’s important, though, to recognize the quixotic nature of any such endeavor. It *is* crazy to attempt something like this. I am approaching my 60th birthday, and I am stalked by the fear that my life’s work has been an utter failure. Was I nobly crazy or just stupid-crazy?

From over here it seems very noble, from the right angle courage and bravery may seem like tomfoolery. Recently you appeared as a visiting artist at Columbia College Chicago and left quite an impression on my game design students. I myself feel like a student whenever I have the privilege of chatting with you. Are you accepting apprentices, offering seminars, or otherwise teaching?

CC: I’m delivering some all-day courses at a number of schools here in the states as well as in the UK. I greatly enjoy teaching and would like to do more, but I can’t figure out how to proceed.

I’ve done my best to toss the fishing net out for you, I know there are many schools that would be honored to be graced with your presence. Let’s send out the message in the bottle and hope it makes it to the right shore. Thank you with all my heart for sharing your thoughts with The Narrative Design Exploratorium; it was truly a pleasure.

Chris is founder of video game design as a craft and interactive storytelling to boot.  His fevernt honesty, and experience make him a incredibly compelling person to speak with. He remains committed to interactive stories and taming the dragon he spoke of 18 years ago. I know I have learned, and I hope you can say the same. For The Narrative Design Exploratorium™ I’m Stephen E. Dinehart.

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