James Ryan recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz, and he was kind enough to make available his dissertation, Curating Simulated Storyworlds, for anyone to read. Of academic work coming out recently, this is one of the more interesting to the interactive fiction crowd, and I’ve already recommended it to quite a few people. I’m going to be writing about it in a few posts, since it’s long enough that I wasn’t able to read it in a single sitting.
As with other posts about academic work, I’m aiming partly to make interesting academic work on interactive narrative visible and accessible to hobbyists and people from the game industry; but I also use the opportunity to record my own thoughts and reactions to the material, and these are often based especially on the history of interactive fiction. So while Ryan’s dissertation is not primarily about text adventures, I will sometimes draw connections from his ideas to work from the text adventure community.
The basic idea: Ryan is interested in the kinds of emergent stories that can be built by Dwarf Fortress-like simulations — large, complex worlds that generate many many events over many simulated years of interaction, often with striking and memorable chains of causality. But from a narrative perspective, experiencing these worlds is not always satisfying. Sometimes they generate fascinating emergent plots. Sometimes they just seem unfocused or dull. Hence: curation. We need either a human being or a second AI system capable of extracting the good stories from the simulator and presenting those to the reader:
To understand the successes, we might ask this essential question: what is the pleasure of emergent narrative? I contend that the form works more like nonfiction than fiction—emergent stories actually happen—and this produces a peculiar aesthetics that undergirds the appeal of its successful works. What then is the pain of emergent narrative? There is a ubiquitous tendency to misconstrue the raw transpiring of a simulation (or a trace of that unfolding) as being a narrative artifact, but such material will almost always lack story structure. (xii)
This is an area that a few others have touched on; Jacob Garbe’s Dwarf Grandpa project is essentially about curating a simulated storyworld.
In essence, Ryan’s assertion at the beginning of the dissertation appears to be that the difference between good and bad emergent narrative generators is simply whether anyone is sufficiently interested to bother curating the output: so Dwarf Fortress and the Sims are good emergent narrative generators because people retell their constructs, while some academic projects are not because no one is moved to retell those. To me this did seem to miss some points about what makes generators effective, including
- whether they use a number of systems that interlock in interesting ways (this is a somewhat handwavy description, but Tarn Adams describes the point much more effectively)
- whether the systems account for the possibility of stakes and motivations, or whether they mostly model less interesting things
- whether the components of the systems are polysemous or symbolically rich, thus capable of supporting additional interpretive constructions beyond what the author might have intended
- what range of outcomes and story shapes can be achieved; the expressive range of the generator
…though it may be that Ryan will come back to those or similar points later in the dissertation.
Ryan’s approach includes an explicit, extensive discussion of the aesthetics of emergent narrative. Why are we even bothering with this, and what experiences are we attempting to achieve? What does emergent narrative make possible, and what are the problems with it?
I was very glad to see this, because I think this kind of discussion is of critical interest for people who approach these systems from an artistic perspective, and they’re often entirely omitted or at best not very thoroughly considered in academic writing on procedural narrative systems.
The dissertation is sizable, so I’m going to be talking about it in a multiple chunks here.