More about stories in games

3 January 2011

Let me tell you about the man named Chris Crawford. A legendary game designer, he created several landmark war- and strategy games, and most importantly wrote a good deal about it. His 1984 book The Art of Computer Game Design (available for free online) is pretty much required reading in this business. For at least 15 years, he's been working on a system for interactive storytelling called Storytron — formerly Erasmatron — which he hopes will revolutionize gaming.

After reading my recent article about games and stories, a friend pointed out that my ideas sound a lot like the concept that underlies Storytron. Unfortunately, that wasn't my point at all, and whether the misunderstanding was my fault or his, a clarification can only help.

See, Storytron is based on this idea that stories in the real world emerge from the natural interaction of people pursuing their goals within an environment. Which is pretty much what I wrote... except for a key detail: as I pointed out in my article, most stories in the real world aren't interesting. Nobody wants to read the story of a random Joe getting hit by a bus; that was only a convenient example. And this is why I think Storytron misses the point big time: it uses artificial intelligence to simulate a whole virtual world with people, goals and situations. Even if that works right (I haven't played yet, so I can't tell), it stands to reason that most stories generated by the software will not be the kind that are worth telling.

But there's another major way in which Storytron misses the point, and it is indeed my fault for not going there last time: it's not just the story itself, but also how you tell it. Disney's Snow White, Star Wars, Cameron's Titanic: they're all retellings of classic stories. But instead of detracting from the audience's enjoyment, that's part of the charm. In the previous article, I concerned myself with the "why", but the "how" can make the difference between Star Wars and Harry Potter. Well, how does Mr. Crawford's automated storyteller tell its stories? In a highly simplified pseudo-English pidgin, similar to the way a small child might talk. That's necessary to make the AI work, but pleasant reading it ain't.

There's only one thing that Storytron gets right, namely that it enables player participation to a degree that other kinds of games can't hope to match. But remember that many game developers don't even try, and that's the real problem that needs to be solved. Attempting to replace human storytellers, with their understanding of real life and artistic skill, is about as useful as building a car with legs.

On the other hand, I can think of a few Hollywood movies that would have been better served by using Storytron instead of a scriptwriter...