Yesterday, Chris Crawford put up a post with the following plea:
I’m asking everybody to consider an important post I have made at erasmatazz.com/library/intera…. There’s 25 years of work hanging on this.
He also emailed me the same message directly. So I had a look.
The basic premise is as follows: Chris’ long-running Storytron system, designed to make interactive storyworlds, needs a lot more content in order to show off its hypothesized strengths. In particular, it needs content that feels handcrafted to some degree, to go with the procedural descriptions of characters gossiping, falling in love, and fighting. Or, as Chris puts it,
After many years of trying, I have learned the hard way that the procedurally intense interactions provided by the Storytron technology lack the color that most people expect from traditional storytelling. There’s a repetitive, mechanical feel to those interactions, and while they are dramatically more intense, more significant, they are like the skeleton of the story, the core elements, in need to fleshing out with muscle and skin. That’s the purpose of Encounters. They provide a more data-intense form of interaction that is shallower in dramatic significance, but more colorful.
To build this, he created an encounter editor. The Encounter Editor lets people design encounters that:
- are locked or unlocked by certain prerequisites consisting of other encounters
- start with a description of a meeting with another character
- let the player make a choice in response
- provide several possible reactions for NPCs, including some variable-based probability around which of those reactions they’re most likely to choose
In other words, the encounter bears a strong resemblance to storylets in StoryNexus. The editor looks like this:
It’s a little more constrained than StoryNexus about how prerequisites work — they can only depend on what other encounters the player has run into, not on the whole range of variables in the world state.
Conversely, there’s a more math-y approach to reactions, which are now not a stats-based roll against some threshold, but can instead be based on a blend of multiple character stats. (You could achieve something like this in StoryNexus given that you can write in equations to describe thresholds for story outcomes, but in practice one usually doesn’t; it’s very hard to get players to understand complex requirements in SN, which lowers their sense of agency over the whole situation.)
And of course the math here involves floating point arithmetic rather than integers, because in Crawford’s view floating point is required to express the concept of nuance in interpersonal relationships.
The system also provides some basic name/pronoun replacement, and requires that every encounter have an antagonist. So it’s inherently more relationship-focused than storylets, because it focuses the writer on the variables controlling the interaction with another character, rather than player-v-world state.
The final major point is that all this is designed to plug into a Storytron world, with (I assume? it’s hard to know without playing a sample) other processes mediating the characters’ variable states, and a fuller palette of verbs. Crawford has written elsewhere that a good storyworld requires a hundred or more verbs to work.
Or, as he says:
The ultimate goal of the Encounter Editor is to have lots of people like you writing Encounters that we will include in the final game. There will be no payment of any kind for your services. This entire project is a non-profit community effort in which NOBODY gets paid. We have been getting some money from a Patreon group, but so far it’s not enough to provide a month’s pay for a decent programmer. But hey — we’re starting a revolution here, and we got no room for no stinkin’ capitalists!
With this in mind, Crawford’s prospective writers are instructed to read the enclosed two novels (one in PDF form, the other in Pages and ominously titled “Novel Draft 13”) in order to get up to speed on the background of this story world so that they can begin contributing story elements that will go into a gameplay context that they can’t actually directly experience themselves. As far as I can tell, the names of Crawford’s characters are in fact baked into the tool, so you couldn’t use it to build anything else.
The PDF novel is 230 pages long and begins with the sentence “Once upon a time there was an ordinary nebula.” Considering that it starts with this astronomical grounding, 230 pages is really on the trim side; the novel spends twenty pages on moons, continents, and extinction events before you get characters. It’s not a hook-y read, and in particular it doesn’t perform the key mission it has in this particular context: to get prospective writers excited about writing for this universe. What is there (cool setting? inciting incident? unrevealed mystery?) to get my mind spinning about the narrative possibilities?
If it were me doing this, I think I’d provide either a starter piece of game (as I did with Alabaster), or else something akin to a short RPG manual: something designed to communicate the key setting and story hook, and to lay out the meaning of the core stats.
Curiously, Chris’ manual goes into relatively little detail about how stats are to be understood. There’s a good/bad stat, but how is “goodness” measured in this universe? Not stated; potential writers should presumably share this value intuitively. Honesty is separately measured, so presumably honesty and goodness are not the same. Are they orthogonal? Maybe they could be, but many people’s value systems would describe honesty as a form of goodness. If I were trying to work with this myself, I’d probably use honesty to describe truth-telling and interpret “goodness” to mean something more like empathy, since it’s possible to be an empathetic liar or an honest sociopath. But that’s a construction I’d be placing on the instructions, not included in the actual document.
This may sound like a bit of pedantry on my part, but it’s actually centrally important, when trying to build story systematically around a set of stat mechanics, to understand what those stats mean and why they’re vital to the story you’re telling.
So, in short: salience/QBN-style approaches are useful and under-explored in IF, and it would be good to play with more systems that use them. (I’m not completely sure how these encounters are triggered; it’s possible that the selection of the player’s next encounter is controlled by the system rather than the player.) And embedding salience/QBN content in a more generic simulation is an approach with some history, and which might produce further interesting results. It feels like it’s not a million miles off from something like Black Closet, for that matter.
Whether this particular exercise actually gets the uptake Chris hopes for is another question. The results may say more about specific skinning and marketing choices than about the conceptual merits of a relationship simulator with embedded storylets.