The Wrong Tree
[An augmented version of a comment posted on Boing Boing concerning the public release of Chris Crawford’s ‘Storytron’ interactive storytelling engine. I should write something longer and more thoughtful about this endeavour, because I’ve never believed that there was anything to be gained from the approach, and yet Crawford’s passion is real. I presented a paper years ago at an academic conference at which he was one of the star speakers, and he’s the mad prophet of the gaming/interactive fiction world — Howard Beale without the rage.]
I also tend to think that Crawford is barking up the wrong tree. Worse, I have a nagging feeling that there isn’t a tree there at all. Notwithstanding his talent for grandiose self-promotion — not that that’s unusual in AI circles — his insistence that what he’s doing has anything much to do with stories is making a rod for his own back. What he’s doing is (still) interactive game design. Nothing wrong with that, obviously, except when it pretends to be something it isn’t.
This sort of story-world as pinball machine — build all of this machinery, give the user some small element of input, analogous to flipper control, and then expect what comes out of the other end to be a story — is a problem in all sorts of ways. Firstly, building the worlds is extraordinarily difficult. It’s basically the AI world-knowledge problem. That means almost no-one can/will take the trouble, as I think Crawford has discovered. Secondly, a sequence of events — even a perfectly coherent sequence of events — is not at all the same as a story. Stories need an authorial hand, not just the laws of physics.
I’m also far from convinced that ‘interactive fiction’ is something people even want. Maybe I’m lacking imagination, but the most profound value in fiction is that we don’t interact with it. It’s a time when we get to enjoy the skill of the author, into whose hands we willingly place ourselves.