I recently had the opportunity to meet and converse with pioneering electronic game programmer and designer Chris Crawford. Crawford, who began his career with Atari in the late 1970s, was on the campus of Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, where I teach interactive storytelling, among other subjects. In an open exchange with faculty, and later in a presentation to the larger campus community, he shared a thumbnail history of the game industry—the “games” (plural) industry, in his words—and his current thinking on where electronic games might be heading.
That’s not entirely accurate. Crawford, at this stage in his career, is avowedly more interested in interactive storytelling than in electronic games per se. And there is a difference, in his view. “Games are about things,” he said. “Entertainment is about people.” He expresses his preference for the latter in his efforts to create, through his organization Storytron.com, computer-based experiences that offer users/players entertaining character interactions in scenarios that develop in response to user/player choices.
That’s the interactive story in a nutshell: The plot, for lack of a better word, evolves in a direction influenced by user/player choice. Many electronic games function according to the same principle, of course, but their plots are encoded along a game “spine,” with the consequences of choices following a narrow range of encoded paths that often lead back to the trunk of the narrative, thereby creating a perceived sense of user/player influence over the narrative’s direction. In true interactive stories, in contrast, the consequences of user/player choice are more varied and more sensitive, propelling the narrative through a more open, less path-bound virtual space or scenario. Interactive stories of this type aim for an experience that more closely simulates interaction with an artificially intelligent character or entity; such interactions are rich, varied, and complex.
Crawford pointed to Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’s groundbreaking but inchoate project Façade (image at the top of this entry) as the most fully realized example of an electronic interactive story available today. Façade remains in an experimental stage and can be downloaded free of charge. It’s buggy but, in my opinion, fascinating. Indeed, its shortcomings suggest the monumental challenge of creating a mechanism that simulates the wide range and complexity of human interactions possible in even a simple one-on-one exchange.
Crawford’s presentation came on the heels of a stimulating class discussion in which my students and I revisited some of our basic assumptions about such fundamental concepts as game, story, and play. We find the definitions of these words, in the context of computer-based experiences, to be very much in flux. We envision a range of experiences that blend these values in innovative ways. Following Crawford’s presentation, I reminded my students that Crawford sees some applications for interactive computer-based experiences in corporate training as well as in entertainment, although he cautioned that, when one tries to combine entertaining and training, the result is often neither.
I take this warning into my work as the faculty liaison with a game development team creating an electronic game that combines soccer simulation gameplay with an instructional message about preventing violence against women. Save us, Sabido!