Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, second edition (Chris Crawford)

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 10.07.49 PMChris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling (Chris Crawford). Long ago, I wrote about the first edition of this book. Since then, I got to know Crawford a bit, and attended one of his Phrontisterion sessions; he solicited IF community input on a second edition; he kindly sent me a review copy of the second edition, but I was too busy to get to it (this feels like my permanent condition of existence); I then failed to write anything about the second edition. I also wrote recently about Chris’ Encounter Editor project. But now, as I’m going back and looking at the variety of writing available on this topic, I’ve taken that review copy down so I can finally do what I should have done a couple years ago. Apologies, Chris.

In the interests of getting a fresh perspective on the book, I have read it without referring back to the first edition or even rereading my review of the first edition.

This lead to some thoughts like: was this in the first edition? I don’t remember it from the first edition. I feel like I would remember if I’d read this before:

“Your designs should aspire to the ideal of metaphorically having sex with your users.” (37)

especially as it is followed a few pages later by

“The overall quality of an interaction depends on its depth as well as its speed.” (40)

But these moments aside, the second edition is — as I remember from the first — opinionated, sometimes correct and insightful, but also at times reductive, patronizing, or willfully indifferent to work done outside his own sphere. Crawford is passionately committed to the procedural power of computers, and so pays even less attention than usual to related art forms like immersive theatre, tabletop RPGs, LARPs, or other rules-based interactive story structures. Indeed, he thinks that if you don’t share his emphasis on procedurality, you don’t belong doing computer-based interactive storytelling, or you are, in his words, “prostituting your Muse.”

He also doesn’t have much time for standard video games and largely ignores their contributions. Unlike many of the other contributors to the advice-for-interactive-writing genre, Crawford is no longer actively engaged with the game industry and has no interest in perpetuating industry norms, outfitting readers to become professional games writers, or staying on good terms with potential employers. He sees himself rather as a prophet unappreciated in his own era, a quixotic seeker who may not have time to find what he’s looking for before he dies, and his aim is rather to inspire and instruct the next generation on a quest for the holy grail of storytelling. He tends to assume that the reader of his book is technically very ignorant, and talks down on a regular basis, including little admonitions to get over one’s fear of elementary algebra, even if one does not in fact experience such a fear. And his view on women, expressed at several points in the book, is that they are socially gifted but nervous of math and possibly logic in general; and will need to be bucked up a bit in the numbers department in order to make the contribution to interactive storytelling for which they are otherwise destined.

At the same time, there is much that I recognize. Chris shares my own desire for a future of interactive storytelling full of dynamic, persuasive characters who react to the player in rich ways. In that pursuit, he’s brought passionate commitment and dedication over the course of decades, and made many attempts, both paid and unpaid, to build what he wants to build. We are very different in temperament, style, and our approach to projects. But the purpose that underlies this book speaks to me much more than the purpose underlying a lot of game writing manuals about how to keep your game cheap and appeal to the broadest audience. The latter considerations are valid, to be sure, but I wouldn’t be in this business in the first place if it weren’t for the thing I want to achieve.

So I read through a haze of mingled familiarity, sympathy, and exasperation. I don’t think any of that reaction will surprise Crawford himself: the review copy is inscribed to me with a wry note acknowledging both my help and the fact that the finished product isn’t likely to be universally pleasing to me. Here is what I found.

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End of July Link Assortment

Events

August 5 is the next SF Bay Area IF Meetup. The proposed agenda is to look at the games released for Introcomp this year.

August 7 is the deadline to apply as an exhibitor at November’s AdventureX. This is an application to demonstrate your game(s) at a table during a two-day narrative games conference in London. Both textual and graphical games would be suitable; you will need some kind of working demo to apply, even if it’s not finished.

August 10, Nottingham, UK, the Hello Words IF writing group meets at the National Videogame Arcade.

August 17, Cambridge, MA is the next meeting of PR-IF, the people’s republic of interactive fiction.

August 14-17, Cape Cod, MA is the Foundation of Digital Games conference, including a workshop in procedural content generation. The PCG workshop has a theme this year:

What do our generators say about the underlying systems we have designed and the designers who create them?  Our theme aims to explore the biases inherent in PCG and the potential with which to subvert it.

Paying Work

I found out about this one a little too late to include it in my list of paying opportunities in IF, but the Hand Eye Society is looking for IF authors to be artists-in-residence in Toronto, and is paying $50/hour for the person(s) selected.

New Releases

Felicity Banks’ “And Their Souls Were Eaten,” published by Tin Man games, is now complete at 380,000 words; the app in question has now been named Choices That Matter. The app can also be used to access two other stories: “And the Sun Went Out”, and a new piece called “And Their Heroes Were Lost” by Phill Berrie.

Veteran parser author Christopher Huang (Muse, Sunday Afternoon, An Act of Murder, and the Peterkin mysteries) has written a Choice of Games piece called The Hero Unmasked, which looks to be a superheroic romp with twins and mistaken identities.

Meanwhile in the Hosted Games category, Lewis Manalo has released The Spy and the Labyrinth, a story told entirely through documents and journal entries (an unusual format for Choice of Games pieces). The premise involves an archaeologist from Miskatonic University lost in the Amazon. Given Lovecraft’s well-known racism and poor handling of indigenous cultures — and the way that sometimes comes through in other writing in the Lovecraftian tradition — I’m cautious about that premise. On the other hand, CoG as a brand works intentionally to avoid sending racist messages in the works they create or host, and I feel like the editors there would flag a work if it were displaying those tendencies. So I’m not entirely sure what to expect here, and haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

Reviews, Play Reports, and Post-Mortems

craiglocke/mathbrush has completed a year-by-year retrospective on IF Comp, identifying trends and influences in each year. The sequence makes a useful comparison point for some of the other histories of the amateur IF scene. Here they all are linked: 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 20152016

If you’re looking for more reviews on gamebooks and interactive fiction apps, Gamebook News covers them. Among other things, they have recent in-depth review of Nocked!, and an interview with Cubus Games, who made The Frankenstein Wars. Gamebook News’ back collection of articles also includes coverage on Choice of Games and inkle works among others.

Bruno Dias writes for Waypoint about themes of imprisonment and escape in BronzeSpider and Web, and howling dogs.

Touch Arcade profiles a few popular mobile interactive fiction pieces.

Adam Cadre’s Radio K podcast takes on three new games: Finding Martin (Gayla Wennstrom), A New Life (Alexandre Owen Muniz), and Chancellor (Kevin Venzke).

Jon Ingold and Meg Jayanth talk about writing for 80 Days in this recording.

Lucian Smith has a particularly powerful three-part play report from a session playing the LARP “Storm Cellar,” about how the story’s themes intersected with his own life.

Awards

XYZZY 2016 award results are out: congratulations to best game winner Superluminal Vagrant Twin by CEJ Pacian.

The Independent Games Festival is open for submissions. Typically interactive fiction, especially pure text IF, doesn’t do particularly well in the IGF, which is a large, pay-to-enter competition with many other entrants. But there are a few pieces that have picked up visibility this way.

Related Articles and Writing

Julian Togelius offers advice for journalists writing about artificial intelligence. The article provides some good perspective even for people who aren’t writing articles, but just want to some context for all the reports they’re seeing in the news.

Perhaps you will enjoy this Markovian tumblr about programming plus the KJV.

Second Person Storytelling in ASMR

I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while, but it’s well off the normal path for this blog, so a little bit of background first.

Some people experience a pleasant tingling sensation in the head when they listen to the right trigger noises: sometimes whispering, sometimes soft clicking noises, sometimes the sound of brushing or of crumpling paper. The effect also seems to have a psychological component and arise most effectively when the listener feels they’re being personally cared for, as well.

Until the internet, presumably people with this response just assumed that they were individually weird and nothing more came of it.

Post-internet, however, the phenomenon has been named autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). There’s an inevitable reddit group dedicated to ASMR enthusiasm. You can go on YouTube and find many, many, many videos of people making ASMR-triggering noises, or whispering into the listener’s ear. Some of these are random whispers — here’s ASMR Glow whispering words such as LOLLIPOP and BUBBLE over and over again.

But because of the personal care aspect, a lot of others actually take the form of detailed skits about scenarios where someone might be looking after you or offering you some kind of assistance. Spa roleplay. Haircut roleplay. Roleplay of having a doctor clean your ears, or a therapist talk about your anxiety. What appears to be an entire subgenre of ASMR mad scientist roleplay. Softly whispered “tutorial” videos on every subject from towel-folding to the works of Carl Jung.

Phoenician Sailor does takeoffs on existing IP, like this Westworld riff or this soothing Voight-Kampf test. A handful of ASMR shows even have a bit of a twist ending: this one (by Gentle Whispering ASMR), the scenario starts out as a generic suit-fitting session, until it becomes clear that the viewer-protagonist has a specific identity. Continue reading

Montage, Narrative Deckbuilding and Other Effects in StoryNexus

empressshadow_smallIn a previous post, I wrote about design considerations for quality-based narrative systems, and mentioned that there was probably room for a standalone article about frequently-used patterns here. (This article in many ways mirrors one I wrote years ago about scene types in parser IF.)

When I write for Fallen London, I find myself using and reusing a couple of standard structures.

Straight choices tied to a progression quality: the storylet is available as step 1 (or 4, or 10, or X) of the story; there are two or more things you can do within that storylet; when you’re done, the narrative advances to step X+1. Maybe some of the things you can do in the storylet depend on secondary qualities, but this is basically recapitulating a fairly tight branch-and-bottleneck CYOA structure.

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Paid Work in Interactive Fiction

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July 19th’s meetup of the Oxford/London IF Meetup covered paid work in interactive fiction, at many different levels. I promised to round up links to the major items announced (by me or by other people), and here is that roundup:

Announced in the room:

Christophe Rhodes invited applicants to the IGGI PhD program at Goldsmiths: not exactly the ordinary kind of paid work, but a position with a potential stipend and the possibility to focus on narrative games.

Fusebox Games shared that they’re looking for writers to contribute to their projects. This was an on-site announcement.

Tech Valley Game Space is located in Troy, New York, but is looking for participants in its digital storytelling mentorship space, and conducts a fair number of its activities online, so even those who don’t live nearby would be welcome to get involved. (I had the impression that involvement was not necessarily paid but was being presented as a networking opportunity instead.)

Pay for completed workSub-Q continues to solicit submissions of interactive fiction for publication; Strange Horizons accepts submissions of hypertext works. Both of these are short story markets that pay accordingly.

Competitions. The IF Competition this year has a new fundraising approach to prizes, so that the top 2/3 of participants receive a cash prize of some variety. Intents to enter are now open and must be submitted by September 2017, with the games themselves due at the beginning of October 2017.

We also spoke about several other competitions, including the Future of Storytelling Prize, IGF, and IndieCade — though I should add that I would consider it an extreme long-shot for text-only IF to win FoST or the grand prize at the IGF. But it seemed worth mentioning.

Royalty and Advance Programs. Derek Moody is looking for writers to contribute to Whodunnit Manor, a murder mystery game intended to be played live by not-especially-veteran-gamer participants. In contrast with classic in-the-box mysteries, these serve their clues to players via tablet software, allowing different participants to learn new information in sync and have different perspectives on the same narrative events. He offers a small advance plus royalties against what he estimates as a fortnight’s work — so likely much less remuneration but also much less work than the other two items in this category.

Dan Fabulich spoke about the process of pitching for Choice of Games — an opportunity fairly well known around here, but he shared a couple of other interesting points: Choice of Games currently has a mailing list of ~160K readers to whom they advertise new work. Writing for CoG can take a year or more (sometimes considerably more) depending on the size of the project and the other availability of the author in question, but the program offers payments in the range of $10K; those who accept the larger royalty package often earn more than that.

The Lifeline series has launched an author program in which they’re inviting new pitches, especially from experienced IF authors. Their current line includes some imagery as well as the text they’ve worked with in the past. More details are available on their page about what they’re looking for, but they look for a writing sample in Twine alongside several short story pitches. Lifeline is happy to work with people who are not physically near to their headquarters in Seattle.

JobsLost My Name creates mutable children’s books customized for different purchasers, and is currently listing three producer positions; producer in this context is a bit different from elsewhere in games, and would involve helping create a sensible narrative structure that can afford many different variants and paths. They’d be interested in hearing from experienced IF authors who write for children. More details about the producer roles can be found on their website.

Pixelberry Studios is looking for authors for the Choices series; the position I’ve linked here requires some on-site training time, which might be an impediment for people coming from the UK, but non-UK readers of this blog might be interested.

Other topics of discussion. We also talked a bit about some of the successful recent Kickstarters in the IF space, including Southern Monsters, Alcyone, and Thaumistry; and Olivia Wood (Failbetter Games) and Meg Jayanth (Freelance) were kind enough to talk about their experience moving into paid positions, requirements of those jobs, and related considerations.

Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames (ed. Chris Bateman)

Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames is an anthology collection from 2007.

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The list of contributors and subeditors includes a lot of familiar names: Richard Dansky, one of the major organizing forces at GDC Narrative summits; Rhianna Pratchett writing on the topic of video game player demographics and representation; Wendy Despain, who has edited at least two other game writing texts I’m aware of… actually, I’m going to stop listing, because almost everyone associated with this book is someone I’ve heard of before in some capacity, and it would just get awkward to go through the whole list. It’s pedigreed, is what I’m saying; and the group in question is professional game writers with a lot of cumulative experience in writing for AAA and AA games, industry contributors rather than primarily indies.

I’m actually on my second copy of this book: I bought it once before and then lost it, I think possibly in the process of a transatlantic move, and then got another copy of it for the purposes of this review survey. I remembered it being one of the more effective of its kind, even if it dates from a decade ago.

Several of the other books I’m looking at in this overview spend most or all of their time on basics of narrative in general, serving up standard Hollywood screenwriting instructions with a side of game examples, or else talking about the process of working as a game writer in a studio. Both of those topics are covered here, but rather more briefly. Stephen Jacobs covers The Basics of Narrative, dutifully running through the Hero’s Journey, the screenwriting advice of Syd Field, and the example of Star Wars and a few other hints from Aristotle’s Poetics. Refreshingly, Jacobs doesn’t treat either Joseph Campbell or Field with undue reverence, but points out that these are useful tools at most.

On the business of studio-based writing, there are some notes on that general topic in Richard Dansky’s introductory chapter; Ed Kuehnel and Matt Entin discuss approaches for getting team signoff and collecting appropriate phased feedback in their chapter, Writing Comedy for Videogames.

But the majority of the book is about topics unique to the confluence of story and game, not introducing the industry. In chapter 3, Writing for Games, Richard Boon introduces concepts like progress structure (how the game controls access to story beats), pacing, agency, and funneling (how the game guides the player back towards elements of the critical path). Though the terminology doesn’t always precisely line up with the terminology used in the IF community, these are all familiar concepts; and they lay the groundwork for a lot of the craft advice that comes later in the book.

In chapter 4, Mary DeMarle talks about Nonlinear Game Narrative and the inherent challenges of giving the player significant freedom; a basic coverage of linear, branching, and branch-and-bottleneck structures; and the difference between high-level plot and moment-to-moment experience of a story. She doesn’t hold out a lot of hope for significant plot variety, remarking

When attempting to construct stories for nonlinear games, the general goal is to integrate linear stories into nonlinear gameplay (accepting for the time being that nonlinear stories are expensive propositions…) (79)

Much of her other advice is likely to feel familiar, though: guidance about layering detail into different aspects of a gameplay experience; the focus on bringing critical details into unavoidable moments (like cinematics and unavoidable choice moments), while relegating less important details to environmental storytelling; methods of identifying which bits of your story could possibly be told in any sequence.

Chapter 5 sees Chris Bateman on directing the player:

In a game world, freedom can be seen as the capacity players possess to step away from the set path and define their own play and their own implicit story. At the furthest extreme of freedom, the player may be afforded so much autonomy that a conventional narrative can no longer be supported, and the role of the game writer ceases to be involved in story construction, but in a more complicated game design exercise beyond the scope of this chapter. (86)

In other words, Bateman breaks this chapter off right about where Chris Crawford would want to get started — on the construction of complex storytelling worlds in which authorial intention is abstracted into rules rather than presented through specific guaranteed plot beats.

Andrew Walsh’s chapter 6, on game characters, strikes a good balance between conventional narrative advice and acknowledging the special role of characters in games; Richard Dansky’s chapter (7) on cut scenes contains a range of observations that would apply to cut sequences in textual IF as well as in conventional video games.

Chapter 9 covers Writing for Licenses, looking a little bit at the business considerations that come into such a project, but also delving into how to be true to an intellectual property’s world, tone, and characters — a set of observations equally applicable to interactive fanfiction.

Some of the later chapters get into comparatively technical topics, such as preparing for localization, or Ernest Adams’ chapter on Interchangeable Dialogue Content. This chapter looks at how to write for voiceover that’s meant to be stitched together, for instance to produce dynamic audio of a sports commentary where different players’ names and score numbers might need to be swapped in.

At the high end, audio techniques have come along somewhat since this book was written. But not everyone has access to the latest cutting-edge technology in this space, and for others, the recommendations are instructive. Moreover, Adams’ description of how to prepare to write this kind of dialogue is also arguably relevant to the domain of procedural text generation in general:

To study the speech space of a sports game, you should do two things: listen to real sports matches and read the game’s rule book for events that the commentators should talk about… You will soon spot general categories of commentary that include interchangeable content… Try to find, or create, a category for every sentence spoken. If your word processor offers a highlight feature, assign a different color to each category, and then highlight every sentence that belongs in that category with the appropriate color. This will enable you to go back through the transcript quickly to find all the sentences that discuss related material and see how they vary from one another.

Finally, chapter 14, again by Chris Bateman, covers Dialogue Engines, a topic especially close to my heart. He divides these up into three categories: event-driven, where lines of dialogue are served in response to events in the game world; topic-driven, where the player has some ability to select areas of interest, e.g. by showing off topical items in an adventure game; and dialogue trees.

In parser IF terms, Bateman’s categories would break down like this:

  • NPC who randomly comments on your actions, as in A Day for Fresh Sushi: Event-driven
  • >TALK TO FRED: character-based topic-driven system, where the situation determines how Fred will respond
  • ASK/TELL dialogue such as >ASK BOB ABOUT THE PINEAPPLE: token-based topic-driven system
  • Menu-driven dialogue 1) “Bob, where is the pineapple? What did you do with the pineapple, Bob?” : dialogue trees

There’s no real equivalent in his categories for some of the hybrid topic/choice systems in play in parser IF — for instance the methods used in Threaded Conversation or in Eric Eve’s TADS 3 libraries, where the system can prompt the player with possible questions to ask but there is a model of topical relation between subject matter. Which is reasonable enough, as that kind of dialogue is not common in industry games and was not even all that well worked out in IF at the time the book was published.

Bateman concludes by talking a bit about attaching conditions and cases to dialogue lines, touching a bit on text substitution and branching options, but not particularly getting into salience models for dialogue selection, for instance. (Though, again, this book came out well before Elan Ruskin’s dynamic dialogue speech at GDC 2012: please note that I’m not criticizing the absence here, just pointing out an area where the book might not go as far as readers in 2017 might want.)

*

Of the books on professional games writing I’ve encountered, this is possibly the best, and definitely in the top three. Most of my specific nitpicks about its content boil down to “in 2007, the authors did not talk about developments that occurred in 2012 or later,” which is fair enough. It won’t teach unusual narrative models or cutting-edge approaches to AI-driven dialogue, and it’s not mostly that invested in talking about what makes for a powerful choice (something of an obsession point for IF craft writing).

But the book does go into the known-and-proven aspects of video game writing in a lot of detail, while keeping an open mind towards more experimental or future-facing possibilities. It’s also been very well edited, so that it feels coherent and joined-up despite pulling together the work of many contributors; and the tone is consistently helpful and informative but not condescending.

*

Finally, a few other books of possible interest that I’m not covering here in full.

Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing (ed. Wendy Despain) and Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG (ed. Wendy Despain) are both collections of chapters from a range of experienced game writers, and I found some chapters more interesting or useful than others. The book on genres is arranged around the specific challenges of writing for particular game styles. Uniquely among the volumes in this list, it specifically acknowledges writing for interactive fiction as a relevant topic, with a chapter on parser IF contributed by J. Robinson Wheeler. It is, admittedly, from a somewhat earlier era of IF, and it doesn’t really speak to the current commercial landscape; it’s more likely to be interesting to you if you’re also in the market for, say, the IF Theory Reader.

Again: if you’re interested in paid work in IF writing, or hiring IF writers, that will be the subject of the July 19 London IF meetup.