AGDC 2008: Crawford fires up Storytron

Veteran designer kicks off this year's Austin Game Developers Conference, discussing the conceptual shifts required to create a great interactive story.

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AUSTIN, Texas--If there was any indication that a Category 2 hurricane had ripped asunder much of the Gulf Coast not 200 miles away, it would be the terse yet warm breeze ruffling the leaves on a mostly clear day in the Texas capital. The Austin Game Developers Conference kicks off today despite the ominous greeting over the weekend, as game makers from around the country flock to the burgeoning city for three days of seminars, covering topics ranging from online worlds to dynamic writing.

Chris Crawford, no doubt fixin' to do something.
Chris Crawford, no doubt fixin' to do something.

Even though the late-night schmoozing and elbow-rubbing won't hit its stride until later in the day, one of the first sessions of the show--Chris Crawford's "15 Conceptual Shifts: Moving From Games to Interactive Storytelling"--drew a bleary-eyed crowd not quite filling the cavernous Ballroom A at the Austin Convention Center. Although not quite a household name, Crawford is well known among game designers, having gotten his start at Atari back in 1979. The prolific game maker has since gone on to contribute to 14 games in a variety of capacities, not to mention having written five books and having organized the first Game Developers Conference in 1987.

Crawford is currently the chief technical officer at Storytron, a company that he founded with science-fiction writer Laura Mixon that creates the SWAT interactive story-authoring tool. Sleight of frame and balding, Crawford began his early-morning session talking up the technical nature of interactive storytelling, spit-firing through his 15 conceptual shifts that writers need to make to leap to interactive storytelling.

First, Crawford noted that when telling interactive stories, players must top the priority list. The focus must be on human relationships, he contended, and this is a focus that the games industry at large can't come to terms with. He argued that the focus is currently on the mechanical interactions, such as puzzle-solving or shooting things, and this emphasis is what prompted him to walk away from the industry to found Storytron 16 years ago.

Crawford then pointed out what he calls the primacy of interactivity, a point that the games industry has broadly accepted but a concept that storytellers have problems coming to terms with. He said that interactivity is the sine qua non of all software, whether it be games or otherwise, but given that it is a difficult concept to grapple with, storytellers are inclined to leave it by the wayside.

He conceded that his next conceptual shift would draw groans from most game makers. "Screw graphics," he proclaimed. If interactivity is of paramount importance, then the graphics are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. Graphics exist to support interactivity, and as such, they are nonessential to the storytelling process.

Sure to irk storytellers, Crawford contended that plot needs to be tossed by the wayside as well. In a bout of semantics, the designer noted that there is a difference between stories and storytelling, saying that the difference between the two is the same as that of a noun and a verb. "Story is a fact, an entity," he says, "while storytelling is a process." As such, the plot will come out in the end, and storytellers need to focus their efforts on other issues.

"It is called inter-ACT-ivity," Crawford said, so the stories need to focus on what the user does, and not what is seen or heard. As such, it is verbs that define an interactive story and give them expressive power, which led to his next point.

He continued by mentioning that verbs have traditionally been a tricky topic in software design, and he launched into the history of user interface that begins with the unfriendly command-line prompt and extends to the limited usability of current-day graphic-based models. Crawford bemoaned the fact that the average GUI recognizes only 100 verbs, pointing out how ridiculous that is from a story perspective. For example, his copy of The Little Mermaid, a 24-page reading primer, has 122 unique verbs by his count.

Consequently, a flexible linguistic user interface is needed, one that can mimic reality by using a natural language instead of the unwieldy or limited interfaces of old. However, seeing as how natural language is impossible with current-day technology, Crawford said that a toy language for a toy reality must be created, and Crawford's next few points trumpeted his software's ability to do just that.

Crawford then yielded the stage to his partner, science-fiction writer Laura Mixon, who went into more depth about just what it means to write interactive stories. Mixon said that Myst was the first game that gave her the sense that games had potential to be excellent vessels for stories. The game, she said, wasn't about solving puzzles or shooting people; rather the heart of the player experience was emotional drama.

To implement emotional drama into games, Mixon first pointed out some of the differences between traditional fiction and interactive fiction. Although many of the same elements found in traditional stories also make the transition to an interactive environment--actors, props, characters, setting, and so on--she said that the main issue is the linear string of unbroken events. Interactive stories must be broken down into incremental actions that must then be spun into a web of player choices. These choices must result in meaningful consequences for the player, she said.

Mixon advocated spiral storytelling that lends replayability to the proceedings. Examples of spiral storytelling from traditional media include Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and the Guy Pierce-led Memento. To keep replayability from devolving into the duo's much-loathed mechanical game-design philosophy, Mixon noted that a spiraling story must provide meaningful feedback. To do so, storytellers must ramp up tension, as well as continually increase players' access to new choices. Players must form a connection with other characters, Mixon said, and this means that players must care what happens to them.

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