Interactive Art

GameArt

A lot of people have argued that video games are not art, because they allow the player to change the story. This somehow changes the original author’s ability to make any kind of important point through the game. One reason I think this is funny is because so many games have linear stories, which the player cannot change no matter what they do. My other arguments against this view will take some explaining, so prepare yourself.

One quick point I would like to make is that games obviously include art, such as 3D models, textures, music, cinematography, voice acting…all of these are considered art on their own, but the fact that they are put into a game somehow negates the possibility that the whole is art. If we look back, film was the same way; it took people a while to consider film to be an art. Games are the same way, and eventually I think Interactive Storytelling will also have it’s issues with being accepted by the public.

I see art as the way that people (sometimes called artists) express what is inside of them in a way that people outside of them can understand. Think of it this way: a person has an idea inside their head, such as a story, and art is how they choose to express that story. They could use good ol’ prose to express themselves, or they could go with film, or graphic novel, or even video game.

That’s my definition of art. I understand that it is very broad; seen this way, pretty much anything could be considered art. But is that wrong? Should we limit what is allowed to be considered art? Some things are easy to place boundaries around, such as the Sciences, but art is not something that we can measure, such as a volume or mass. art is a part of humanity, and humanity is infinitely complex. Therefore art is infinitely complex.

I would be interested in hearing how you define art. Leave a comment, and let me know.

Premise

Oh no, it’s that word again. Did I ever actually promise that I wouldn’t use it anymore? whether I did or not, here it is. So what does premise have to do with art?

Premise could be one of those ideas that a person has in their head, which they want to express to the world. Maybe they’ve gone through some life-changing event and want to show the world that life’s short and we shouldn’t wast time hating people. Rather than writing some blog post about it that nobody’s going to read (can you detect the sarcasm?) they put it in a story about a person who’s perhaps gone through the same life-changing event, or they could do something more subtle, such as show the futility of hating people, and the benefit of loving people.

The use of premise in an interactive medium, such as video games or interactive storytelling, is no different from the non-interactive mediums. This is a topic I have already discussed at great length in another blog post, but it is worth repeating. The author of an interactive storyworld can express their premise through characters the player can interact with, or the world the player is in.

The World

A writer can say a lot about their worldview just in how they create the world of their story. Think of something like Star Trek; no matter what the characters chose to do, the world was always the same, and it expressed some very foundational truths (in Gene Roddenberry’s eyes) about life, the universe, and everything. Ideas such as humanity is important, people are basically good, there are aliens out there and they evolved from primordial goo; whether you believe any of this or not, it is obvious that the creators of Star Trek did, and they wanted to express that not only through the stories and the characters but through the world itself. A sci-fi universe with aliens and one without will both express very different views of how the universe works.

Games such as Mass Effect and Fallout do this as well; no matter what your character chooses throughout the game, you cannot change the basic worldview of the people who created the game. There will still be aliens in Mass Effect, and people will still be basically evil in Fallout 3.

The Characters

The premise can most definitely be expressed through different characters. Sometimes a single character embodies the main premise of a story. A story about an underdog that succeeds is going to be very different than a story about an underdog that fails.

Think of characters such as Frodo in The Lord of the Rings or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Both of these stories would be very different if Frodo was an adventurous mountain man or if Luke was an old oracle. The character of Frodo shows that even small (short?) people can save the world. Luke kind of shows the same thing, but a little different…I’ll leave that discussion up to you.

The point I want to make is that characters with different personalities can personify different premises, and they don’t even have to be part of a certian plot, but if put in the right setting, a character can make a huge difference.

Conclusion

I hope this post has cleared up some confusion about art that is interactive, such as video games and interactive storytelling. I’m sure some people will disagree with me, and if you do, leave a comment! I am curious to hear other people’s opinions on this somewhat controversial topic. Hopefully we can learn more about each other’s views through this interaction.

Book Review: Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, Second Edition

Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling

I recently finished reading the second edition of Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, by, well, Chris Crawford. It was very good, and I thought it made a lot of improvements over the first edition which was published way back in 2005. The second edition brings updates which discuss Storytron, the successor to Erasmatron. Chris also dedicates more page space to discussing other forms of interactive media, such as Interactive Fiction, Role-Playing games, and video games in general.

He talks a great deal about the different methods of interactive storytelling, but spends most of the time talking about the best methods in his “Arrogant Opinion.” His words, not mine. He talks about personality models, where he presents a model which is slimmed down from the one presented in the first edition.

This edition cleaned up a lot of the slower parts of the first edition, and organized the chapters in a more coherent manner. It is a good introduction to interactive storytelling for anyone who is interested, but doesn’t really know what it’s all about. I would highly recommend it if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

Chris Crawford is a fantastic writer. I love his cynical, grumpy old man style, which I think is a lot how he is in real life, although I’ve never met him…yet. Sometimes he can go off on a ranting tangent, but most of the time he has control of himself, or his editor made him tone it down a bit. He mentions this in the introduction. If you want the uncensored Chris Crawford experience, just check out his website: http://www.erasmatazz.com/

He also tells a lot of entertaining stories which make the book more enjoyable, and he uses very helpful and informative examples. Mostly they are from movies such as The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, but at least most readers would have seen one or both of these and understand the examples.

What I most liked about this book was that he simplified a lot of the ideas that were a little too complex in the first edition. And of course this edition is updated to include his most recent foray into interactive storytelling: Storytron. It doesn’t explain how it was a failure; for that, check out storytron.com. But it does explain how it was supposed to work, and he does that quite well.

He doesn’t spend nearly as much time talking about practical methods to pursue interactive storytelling; probably because there really are none. He encourages experimentation, although some could argue he doesn’t encourage it enough. Some times he will say that one way is the only way and all other ways are stupid, but then later he will say that he couldn’t get that way to work. It can be a little confusing, but my suggestion is to just ignore those comments and get what you can out of the book.

He also updated the section on existing Interactive Storytelling technologies, removing some of the older, dead projects, and including some newer active projects. He discusses Comme il Faut and Prom Week, and also mentions the IRIS project. He talks about how he thinks these projects succeed, but also how they fall short. He talks down about a lot of things, but he always has good reasons to back himself up. If he doesn’t, he apologizes for it, but beats it down anyway.

Because of the cleaner organization and the updated information, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who either bought the first book already and has read it, or hasn’t read it but is interested in interactive storytelling. Chris Crawford’s book is a great introduction to the subject, and it is a fun read as well.

Simplicity

Dwarf Fortress

 I think we can all agree on one thing: the more complex something is, the more time it will take to make, and the more likely it is to fail. In a previous post I quoted Chris Crawford when he said, “Storytelling is infinitely complex!” In this post I will talk about the necessity to simplify things, so we can actually get something accomplished.

By the way, that quote was in a talk he did at Mesa Community College. If you want, you can watch the video on YouTube. I highly recommend it, because it is a very good introduction to interactive storytelling, and it’s only one short hour. He even makes some jokes!

Why Simplify Things?

First I would like to explain why I think we must simplify interactive storytelling. There are two aspects of interactive storytelling that we could think about in relation to simplification: how the user interacts with the software, and how the software works under the hood. For now, simplifying both of these aspects is important because it will be easier to implement, and simplifying the interface will allow more people to use the software. I’m not saying that people are generally stupid–I don’t really need to, do I?–but people are more willing to try something out if it is easy to use. Also, if the software is difficult to use, then that breaks the immersion.

There are some people who enjoy really complicated things, but these people…I don’t understand them. The problem is, not everyone can really get into complicated, convoluted games, because they don’t want to spend the time. I try to understand that, so I want interactive storytelling to be simple because I want people to actually give it a chance. I don’t want it to be like programming or worse…math.

Focus

In order to simplify a complicated process, you have to focus on your goal. Only amateur game developers say, “I want to make a zombie survival simulation game, where you have to eat a certain amount, and sleep, and drink water, and you get tired if you walk or run too much, and each zombie has their own hunger meter, and you can build shelters and cook all different kinds of foods and I want there to be five hundred different types of enemies and all the weapons known to man and I want the world to be like 100 miles square….”

Yeah, probably not going to happen. I’ve seen people post in forums about things like this…it’s kinda scary how many people do this.

If you want to make a zombie game, you can’t just throw in every zombie-related feature you can think of. Unless your goal is to purposely make it complicated, then don’t make it complicated. Keep It Simple, Stupid! (That’s the KISS principle. I didn’t make it up.) The user should not have to read a big long manual before they can use the software.

You must ask yourself what you want to accomplish with the software. Not necessarily what you want the user to do, or even what you want the software to do, but what you want to do with the software. If your goal is too general, e.g. “Be fun,” then you won’t be able to focus very much. You have to have something more specific. So if you are making a zombie game, you want to focus on the aspect of zombies you most want to portray; survival? Horror? The psychological effect of the zombie apocalypse and how people react to it? Once you have decided your goal, make sure that everything you allow the user to do is related to that goal. If it isn’t, cut it out. If you are focusing on the relationships of a group of survivors, don’t put too much combat into the game. It isn’t about the combat after all; it’s about the people.

I’m not saying that there can’t be any combat in the game, I’m just saying it’s not the most important part, so minimize it. While Frictional Games was designing Amnesia: The Dark Descent, they experimented with adding some combat to the game, but they found that it wasn’t having the right effect; it wasn’t scaring the player. It either bored them, or it frustrated them. Neither of these responses was the right one; they were supposed to be scared, and you’re not scared when your frustrated or bored.

Interactive storytelling won’t only be focused on the emotions it can elicit, but it will have another focus: proving a premise.

I know, I know, I promised to stop using that word so much. OK, theme, then? Tomatoes, tomatoes. Oh, this is text, so you can’t hear how I’m pronouncing…nevermind. To-MAH-toes. There.

Anyway, if you were writing a story, and you wanted to show that people could overcome their fear in the face of disaster (zombie apocalypse), then you wouldn’t spend a lot of time describing how they foraged for food and fought off some zombies, and had to keep collecting ammunition or they would run out, etc. You would have these in the story, but you wouldn’t spend a lot of time about them.

Or if you were writing a book about how obsessive revenge eventually leads to death, you wouldn’t spend pages and pages talking about whales, their body parts, and the history of whales in pop culture. Well, maybe you would. Who am I to judge? I just run this pathetic blog, hoping somebody reads it.

So yeah, simplify things or risk boring  or frustrating people.

Eliminating Duplicates

There are many methods of simplifying systems, which I won’t get into here. One way that I will discuss, though, is eliminating duplicates, or, to use one of Chris Crawford’s words, orthogonality. Basically this means to merge two features that are almost identical, or eliminate one of the duplicates. In other words, their should be only one way to get to a certain effect. Chris explains this quite well when he talks about personality models, but now I must say one thing that I don’t like about Chris Crawford’s view of interactive storytelling.

Chris has very strong opinions about what he thinks is important in storytelling. He believes that psychological factors are the most important, and other factors, such as physical attributes, are so unimportant as to be unnecessary. Now I agree that sometimes it’s not important what the character’s eye color is, or what their hair style is, or what they’re wearing, but that really depends on the story. Sometimes what someone is wearing is really important to the story, other times it is not.

A General System

Chris Crawford spent a lot of time, money, and effort creating a general system for interactive storytelling: Storytron. And I think we all know how that turned out. If you don’t, follow the link; Chris writes some interesting articles about the rise and fall of Storytron.

The moral of the story is this: I think we need to focus on specific interactive storyworlds and creating systems for them before we can create a general system for interactive storytelling. Each interactive storyworld is going to be different, and creating a general system to handle all the possibilities is infinitely complicated. I think we’d do better to create software similar to Facade; it focuses on one genre, one location, few characters. It’s a very specific type of storyworld; it would not work for anything else. However, we can take what we learn from these specific systems and apply them to more general systems someday.

Methods for Interactive Storytelling

Fractal

Thinking about interactive storytelling is kind of like trying to see the entire earth while standing on its surface. You look around, see a part of the planet, and think OK, that makes sense. But what about that waaaay over there? So you start to walk to that other spot, and you look around, and you think, Got it. But now I can’t see where I was before; how are these to areas connected? You walk back, but there’s still the whole other side of the planet you haven’t even walked to yet. If you keep going back and forth like this, you’ll never get to the other side of the planet, but if you just walk to the other side of the planet, you won’t understand how all the areas are connected. Ugh. As Chris Crawford said: “Storytelling is infinitely complex!”

I am hesitant to nail down specific methods for interactive storytelling, because once an idea’s in the human brain, it’s very difficult to purge that and look at a problem from another perspective. I try to keep an open mind when it comes to interactive storytelling, but I’m sure from my previous blog posts you’ve noticed me lean towards one method or another. I talk a lot about Chris Crawford, but he’s not the interactive storytelling god. He has some very strong opinions on what interactive storytelling should be, and he has been working on the problem for a very long time, but don’t be afraid to traverse the unbeaten path or even go back to a more simple form of interactive storytelling and try to improve it.

However, that is not the topic of this post. In this post I am going to discuss some very specific methods of interactive storytelling, so that you can get a few ideas and at least understand what has been accomplished and what has yet to be accomplished.

Storytelling

The way someone approaches interactive storytelling is defined by how they understand storytelling. Other things affect this as well, their understanding of interactivity, drama, and even fun. I tend to look at storytelling more as a simulation of human character and emotion, which is enhanced by the setting, theme, and to some small degree the plot. I try to let conflict and plot arise naturally from the character and setting, but I would be lying if I said that I don’t plan out some of the plot and certain conflicts. The problem is, if I approached interactive storytelling this way, it would be infinitely complex! The human mind is an amazing organ, but the computer is nowhere near being able to do the things a writer’s brain can do. In my idea of storytelling, everything affects everything else, but storytelling must be simplified for the computer. This means the designer has a choice to make:

Plot or Character

Ah, that old question. A question as old as…well, actually I have no idea where or when the question originated, but it’s been around for a long time. Do authors come up with a plot and then create characters that fit in that plot, or do they create characters that naturally create their own plot? Lajos Egri refined the character-based approach by using a premise (theme, whatever) to guide the creation of the characters and how they acted. Honestly, I don’t think this question can be answered one way or the other. I think most authors find a mix of the two, whether they come up with the plot or the character’s first. Speaking from my own experience, I usually come up with a very simple story idea (a plot) and then I create characters that I think would make that plot more interesting.

Plot-based Interactive Storytelling

Mass Effect Dialog

If your the kinda person who comes up with a plot and jams a few characters into the cracks, then this will make more sense. Think of something like InkleWriter, or any Choose-Your-Own-Adventure (CYOA). Games such as Mass Effect and Telltale’s The Walking Dead also use this form of interactive storytelling. Basically, you have a scene of the story, and then it ends with a choice that is presented to the player: Greet the stranger kindly, Greet the stranger angrily, or Shoot the stranger in the face.

Depending on which option you choose, you will be presented with a different scene. For example, if you choose Greet the stranger kindly, the next scene might involve him inviting you over to his house for dinner. If you choose Shoot the stranger in the face, the next scene most definitely will not involve him inviting you over; it will probably involve his buddy who witnessed the whole thing shooting you in the face. This is basically a branching-tree; each scene of the story is a node which has options that branch off to other nodes. This can be accomplished in HTML, or if you want something more advanced, InkleWriter can use flags to change certain text or hide certain options.

800px-Dialog_tree_example.svg

This may seem like a simplistic, pathetic approach to interactive storytelling, but in the past it has also been the most successful. It has several advantages. For example, a story written in scenes even if separated by choices is very cohesive. This is because the author wrote it that way, and he knows every possible permutation of the story. He knows exactly what happens when you shoot the stranger in the face, or if you greet him kindly, because he wrote each scene.

Another advantage is that because it’s so simple, a full story can be created by one person. More complicated methods of interactive storytelling will probably require at least small teams, just to get all the programming done. I would love to be proved wrong, however.

There’s another issue I should address before I move on. Some of you, if you’ve read anything by Chris Crawford, might be thinking, Well, a CYOA isn’t interactive storytelling. That’s just a story with some interactivity thrown in. Honestly, I agree with you. What makes interactive storytelling interactive storytelling is that you are interacting with the process used to create the story. You’re not interacting with a plot, you’re interacting with a process. Chris Crawford would be proud of me, but others would probably say things like “Crawford is going for the holy grail of interactive storytelling, and he’ll never reach it,” or other such things. That’s quitter talk! If you believe that, then you might as well stop reading this right now, because I believe that there is a way to tell stories interactively using the computer. Sure it’s not gonna be easy, and the road will be rocky, but hey, sometimes the biggest rewards come after the biggest trials. Of course, sometimes the biggest failures come after the biggest trials.

Character-based Interactive Storytelling

Another method of interactive storytelling would involve creating basically a character simulator. It would use personality models and advanced AI to simulate how characters would act in certain situations. Facade is one example of this, Versu is another.

Depending on how this is done, it could be much more interactive than a plot-based technology, but it could also have a less-powerful story. That brings me to the main difference between these two methods: the quality of the story, or the quality of the interaction. At this point in the story of interactive storytelling, choosing between a well-written story with a few choices and a truly interactive storyworld that isn’t able to tell powerful stories is a very valid choice. Many who have come before have chosen the more plot-driven, linear method of interactive storytelling; as I said, most, if not all video games that claim to be “Interactive stories” are really just linear stories with a few choices thrown in that change some small amount of variables.

Let me explain a little how character-based interactive storytelling could work. Since it is based on the characters and their personalities, there must obviously be a way to model these personalities. Chris Crawford has discussed at great length some methods to create personality models. The IS engine would then be programmed to make decisions based on the values set in a specific character’s personality model. There can of course be many other systems involved as well, that help the characters make decisions, but it all boils down to decision-making processes defined by personality variables.

Afterword

Well, I think I’ve rambled on enough in this post. I hope this brief talk on methods for interactive storytelling has been somewhat useful; if not, let me know in the comments. Be mean, even, if you want, but I probably won’t respond to rude people.

I feel that I haven’t encouraged you all enough to write comments, so if you did make it this far, let me know in a comment. Tell me if you liked my post. Tell me what you want to hear more about. Tell me about your ideas, because truly, I want to hear them. I have quite a few ideas for future posts, so I am going to try to be more consistent than I have been in the past. I mean, who wants to read a blog where the guy only posts every two months?