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May 27, 2006


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Before watching this I didn't know who David Jaffe is, now he's my hero.

Good stuff, I agree with Jaffe's comments on autuerism. I think if that were more a part of the marketing machine, maybe then smart guys like Cliff and Harvey and you could get funded to do more innovative stuff. As it stands, the real advances in making games about drama and people are happening on the fringes of the indie scene. I suspect that if those advances are going to make a difference in the way the industry makes and markets its products, then the rise of the widely recognized autuer designer may come from the primordial soup of scratchware projects currently in development.

Clint, I recommend you check out Storytron, Chris Crawford's project, and Utopia:

Great interview/panel, thanks for the link!

Patrick, I have to disagree with you. There is of course some interesting stuff happening in the indie scene. There's also just as much, if not more, clones and unoriginal stuff.

Furthermore, for what interesting stuff you see (Facade, Braid, etc) in the indie titles, you see big budge titles taking on the big challenges a small title never could (Spore, Gears of War, ...). As Clint put it in his MGS talk, the "wicked problems" are ones that are going to take big budget titles to tackle.

As for Crawford, I was a fan of his early book, but following seeing that guy at the Game Developers Rant at GDC this year, I have to say that guy has jumped the shark!

Oh, rereading that, I need to rephrase:

>As Clint put it in his MGS talk, the "wicked problems" are ones that are going to take big budget titles to tackle.

Didn't mean to put words in your mouth Clint.

I meant that he labelled them "wicked problems; and that I think it's these that the big budget titles are best positioned to tackle.


I 'get funded' (as do Harvey and Cliff) to do plenty of innovative (though still necessarily commercial) stuff.

I've also loosely paid attention to what Chris has been up to for the last several years, and don't particularly believe that the approach of trying to solve the entire problem of 'interactive storytelling' can be or even ought to be solved in one fell swoop. I believe that there are many, many ways to iterate toward solutions to this problem, releasing successful games with each new conceptual or technological innovation integrated.

I can look at a game like GTA:San Andreas and see that big leaps forward were made in terms of its narrative structure since GTA3 was released. I can participate in a real gang-war which is about territory and respect. Obviously, this is loosely modelled, but compared to the much simpler branching narrative of GTA3 it is a huge leap. It also begs a lot of questions - 'wouldn't it be interesting if it was more like X', or 'wouldn't it be more compelling dramatically if SUM Y could trigger responses of different types at different thresholds', or 'I think the conflict would be more meaningful if verbs A,B,C... were added' etc.

There are at least 20 ways I can write down RIGHT NOW that could improve upon the way the gang-war in GTA:SA functions to make it feel more dramatically compelling. I bet you could plan to include 6-8 of them in the next iteration, end up cutting 2-3 and delivering 3-7 of them, each of which would then raise 2-3 new ideas that could be feasible in subsequent iterations - and every 2 years you're releasing a product that reaches millions of people and helps teach them how to think of such an experience and engage it in increasingly meaningful ways. It also brings in tens of millions of dollars for your company and perpetually funds the future innovations.

And GTA is only one example. While there have been some really interesting and important innovations on the indie side, I think a game like GTA is potentially poised to achieve what we all want - and have it be accepted by the general public - more than some procedural story generator is.

I think the fundamental barrier to so-called interactive story-telling is not in building the thing (I think we can iterate toward it over the next 10 years easily). I think the barrier is in user-acceptance. I think 95%+ of active game players will not know how to deal with a procedural story if you drop a magic box in their laps. I think they'll go 'hmmm... I think I'd rather play Halo'. And then it's over. I think that iterating not only allows us to tackle the problems a few at a time, but it also allows us to slowly 'educate' players so they can deal with a story world and in a sense become the digital actors they may need to be in order to really learn something about the world or about themselves from interacting with such a thing.

But Clint, I may be daydreaming here, but we already know how to generate uninteresting procedural stories that any player will ditch in favor of Halo - we just don't want to do them. :) The breakthrough should be in creating compelling stories generated by the world dynamics and altered / guided / tailored to the player's actions.

The spectator / player WANTS to be at the center of a good story. In classic narrative, he is there once he identifies with the main character. In most games, he has a preset path to follow and his choices don't affect the story - all he can do is basically press play and pause in fun ways.

In interactive narrative, he can make choices that should alter the story. These alterations may take him to uninteresting dead ends (most people are terrible at improv acting), or they may stop being meaningful if all places are interesting regardless what he does. This is the main design problem to solve as far as I can see. Technology wise, the big hurdle is in finding ways to render (communicate) the procedural narrative in an engaging way. Pre-canned descriptions, dialogues or cutscenes won't, er, cut it when repetition becomes evident.

Tacking actual gameplay (fun way to interact) on top of all that is yet a different problem, which is why I think Chris Crawford has tried to differentiate his project from games.

Or maybe I'm deluded by my programming mindset into believing that we have solved more things than we actually have. I'm certainly not an expert in design or writing. :)


I agree completely. but I think the design problem of how to handle your two concerns (some stories lead to uninteresting crap, and if everything is uniformly interesting then nothing is) is an almost trivial one: its the same way we handle basic systems and interaction design in any game. We design by selecting which verbs the player is permitted to express. A 'storyworld' does not need to be able to tell every conceivable story. That would be pointless (and it would put us all out of business, because once it's done once - the end).

GTA - for example - tells a story about gang war and all of the verbs that can be associated with that. I would not suggest allowing the game to remain interesting if I leave Los Santos and become an insurance broker in Nebraska. The game should only be interesting and meanginful within the domain of what it is about - in a thematic sense. The simulation boundary of the game is placed at the exit points from the theme.

We should no sooner allow the player to 'do anything' in a 'storyworld' than we should in Pong.

Yeah, I usually take for granted that an interactive story product will be limited to a certain universe, but it's a point worth repeating aloud. Thanks for that.

It doesn't seem to me those design solutions are as trivial, other than from a theoretical point of view. Transitioning from gameplay mechanics embedded in a preset world, to gameplay in a sandbox, freeform play world, was a breakthrough achieved by the likes of GTA. In theory, the answer was already well known: "build an ecosystem of interesting and interrelated dynamics and balanced tradeoffs"; in practice, few if any had managed to make it a reality. The what-ifs were overwhelming.

Perhaps another way of looking at it is that we lack an array of subtle techniques to handle the player's interaction with a story, and thus the dynamism in a procedural story swings too easily. We accept a number of gameplay abstractions to focus and guide the player activity (like health meters, failed missions that are magically reset, or characters that carry a crapload of weaponry under their t-shirt), but what are those abstractions in the domain of narrative? How obvious can they be before the player stops believing in the story being created?

As you say, it's going to be an iterative process, but there needs to be a breakthrough in the form of the first game that successfully manages to build a storyworld. Such a game will need a critical mas of things it gets right, sort of like Dune did for RTS or Wolf for FPS.

Heh, I finish writing all that crap about abstract tools for narrative, and a minute later I find Gamasutra's latest article:

That is an interesting article Jare. Thanks.

In my presentation on Simulation Boundaries - which cuts to the heart of this discussion and that artile - I said something like 'by contstraining action to a meaningful set, all action becomes meaningful' which is a pseudo restatement of 'Perlin's Law'.

I always find it fascinating that so many designers are reaching the same conclusions independently and from different directions. Too bad we're not better at dividing up the theoretical work and not wasting so much effort :(

Hey, just restumbled onto this thread.

In the time since I made that comment I've come to realize that Crawford's approach is highly flawed and probably won't be all that fun. It will provide lots of interesting experiments, which is good, but it certainly won't "solve" "interactive storytelling" as you suggested (both are terms which are problematic anyway ;).

I do believe that radical innovations must happen on the indie side because of the nature of the funding model for this industry. However, once the core innovation has been shown to be worthwhile, say via a few tens of thousands of sales, that innovation can (and should) get picked up onto a bigger budget and iterated upon in order to reach maturity and be re-integrated with other advances.

Your comments on acculturating the audience are very practical, and my approach to dramatic play (which I think is a better term than "interactive storytelling") is much more friendly to the terms, "game", "fun" and such. I'm working on an indie project which takes a much simpler, but I hope, much more enjoyable approach to drama than Crawford's monolith. It'll still have many of the trappings of a juicy indie game, rather than be something wholly alien, and will feature combat as part (but not the majority) of play.

After aculturating a portion of the hardcore market (particularly role-playing fans) to character-based dramatic interaction, the next step is to capitalize on the demographic diversity of the burgeoning casual market, perhaps with a drama game that wholly eschews combat and any semblance of power fantasy, other than the purely social variety.

And Clint, your talk on Simulation Boundaries was great stuff. Intentional play was good, but I think your '04 talk was the best you've given. The line about players being drawn to complexity in the same way that eyes are drawn to light was a great way to sum up a key aspect of our medium.

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