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What's Next? Chris Crawford says storytelling is our greatest challenge
What's Next? Chris Crawford says storytelling is our greatest challenge Exclusive
September 25, 2013 | By Patrick Miller

September 25, 2013 | By Patrick Miller
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    38 comments
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design, Exclusive, GDC Next



[In advance of November's GDC Next, GDC's Director of Online Community Patrick Miller reached out to many games industry luminaries to see where they think the future of video games is headed. This interview is the latest installment of a multi-part series that will run up until shortly before the 'future of games' conference, which takes place in Los Angeles, CA from November 5-7, co-located with the App Developers Conference.]

I can't continue this series of GDC Next interviews without including Chris Crawford. Not only was the Balance Of Power creator the original founder of the Game Developers Conference (then called the Computer Game Developers Conference; it started in his living room), but he has been concerned with the future of games – specifically the medium's potential for interactive storytelling -- for a long time.

Read on to find out what keeps Crawford going in the quest for a truly emotionally engaging game.

Patrick Miller: You've been in and around the game industry for a good while, now; how have you seen the way people relate to games change? What do you think is next?

Chris Crawford: We've settled into a pattern: youngsters who love playing the games charge into the industry, eager to put their own mark on the games. However, because they don't know much more than the games they have played, they don't have a broader view of what games could be. Instead, they think of adding clever new tweaks to the same basic designs. They do this for a while, get bored, and eventually move on to another career.

The players follow a similar curve: they play with great intensity in their youth, but lose interest as they age, because the games are really the same as the ones they played in their youth. So they stop spending money on games. But the number of new players is equal to the number retiring from games, so the industry remains stable.

There are two confusing twists on this: first, the market continues to expand overseas as the more people become wealthy enough to spend time on games. Second, there is a small crowd of indie developers who are determined to come up with new ideas. As with every other creative field, 99 percent of what they produce is junk, but the remaining 1 percent is very, very interesting.

The greatest challenge facing the games field is the problem of developing interactive storytelling. The industry has dabbled in the field, but so far all that has been produced is just an elaboration on what I have called the "interleaved story/game." You alternate between a non-interactive story and an interactive game.

The belief is that if the integration is done well enough, the game takes on the characteristics of the story. This is a delusion: until you can actually interact with characters in a dramatically meaningful way, you haven't really solved the problem. I'll emphasize, however, that the problem is immensely difficult: I've been working on it for more than 20 years now and I still have not solved the problem.

PM: What do you think would be an ideal "pipeline" into the industry -- one that would promote the kind of creativity you'd want to see?

CC: Georgia Tech had a nice program where the students played a wide variety of games, including boardgames. That's certainly helpful. But the rut is so deep now that people have a hard time breaking out of it. I think that, for the short term, we'll just have to rely on geniuses like Jason Rohrer who break the mold. After enough of these truly strange games, I think we'll see people thinking in broader terms.

PM: It seems to me that the industry has changed quite a lot since you gave the "Dragon" speech. Have you seen any games that have done what you wanted to see done then? What works and creators inspire you, these days (both in games and outside of games)?

CC: At 63 years old, it's hard to be inspired; one really gets the feeling that he's seen everything. There are some designs that are impressive in terms of creativity, but I have a narrow focus on the aspect of social interaction, which has not seen much progress. A game by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, Facade, was the first genuine interactive story world. I have high hopes for Emily Short's new work, but so far it's in early stages of development.

I'll add that I don't play games anymore; I get too frustrated with seeing the same old stuff over and over; old wine in new bottles. I sometimes look at reviews of games, which is as far as I'm willing to go. This may be difficult for people to appreciate, but when you've been doing it as long as I have, you can see inside a game very quickly by looking at a screengrab and reading a review or two.

PM: It's hard for me to relate with "it's hard to be inspired; one really gets the feeling that he's seen everything." What motivates you to keep working at building a workable model for interactive storytelling if not, at least, the books you're reading or people you're talking to? What informs your vision of what an interactive story would look like and how you'd want the player to engage with it?

CC: I suppose the most important factor in my continuing labors is bull-headed stubbornness. I now realize that I took on a challenge much too big for anybody to handle. Nevertheless, I think I'd be dissatisfied with myself if I had aimed lower. So I just have to trudge along, making slow, steady progress up a mountain that now looks impossibly high. I think I'm making progress but I now know that I won't live long enough to truly solve the problem; the best I can hope for now is to show people the right path. I doubt that many people appreciate just how difficult genuine interactive storytelling is.

True interactive storytelling is character-driven, not plot-driven. The player interacts with characters in dramatically significant ways. Right now the character interaction people have achieved is pathetically primitive. We need to go a lot further before our characters have any emotional power.

PM: What do you think of the current state of storytelling in games? It seems to me that modern triple-A action games are largely streamlined into a length of ~10 hours, minimal wandering, and an emphasis on setpieces as starting points for organizing a narrative; do you think that's a step in the right direction?

CC: As I wrote above, I don't think that storytelling in games is very impressive. There's a good book out there for games people who want to jam a story into a game: "Interactive Storytelling for Video Games". It describes in great detail the state of the art in games storytelling. Then read my book on interactive storytelling. Compare and contrast the two; you'll see how primitive storytelling in games is.

The notion that you can get a good story by whittling the gameplay down to ten hours is absurd: what other storytelling medium requires ten hours to tell its story? War and Peace, I suppose. But games are not War and Peace, not by a long shot. Storytelling is about people and their relationships. Games are about hand-eye coordination, puzzle solution, resource management, and spatial reasoning. That's a fundamental incompatibility, and that's why stories are tacked onto games the way you'd bolt a jet engine onto a Volkswagen -- it's been done but it's damned clunky.

PM: Sometimes it seems like the best ideas in tech and games simply didn't happen at the right time. Is there anything you think we might see come back (perhaps a spiritual successor) once the time is right?

CC: Interesting question. The first example that popped into my mind was my own game Trust & Betrayal. That was 25 years ago, and it was too ambitious for the hardware. I'm redoing the game now in a completely different way, and we'll see if I get it right this time. I can't think of any other failures that could now succeed with better hardware. In the first place, it's hard to remember failures (except one's own). In the second place, games have never been held back much by weak hardware; observe that many of the games from the early '80s -- the Atari and Apple stuff -- are still fun. The modern games do pretty much the same thing with vastly improved graphics and animation.

The big question in my mind is whether interactive storytelling will evolve independently of games or whether it will be integrated into the games industry. I suspect the former will eventuate, because the games industry has a well-defined audience that is not primarily interested in stories, and (more importantly) the people who would pay money for interactive storytelling are put off by the somewhat tawdry image games have with the rest of the world.

PM: As you said, most people get into this industry primarily inspired only by the games they played; got any recommendations for games that tried (successfully or no) to create an interactive story before the interleaved story/game became the dominant paradigm?

CC: I suppose that the only game I can think of that tried to accomplish interactive storytelling was my old Trust & Betrayal. It was, as I say, pathetically primitive, but when I look back on it and realize that I did that 25 years ago, I can't shake the feeling that Trust & Betrayal was way, way ahead of its time. Certainly there has never been a game, I think, with anything remotely as dramatically sophisticated as Trust & Betrayal -- which is a truly sad observation.

I am now coming to the realization that there is a fundamental paradigm shift that must occur before people can "get" interactivity. I'm working on a lecture for the SIEGE conference, and I'm really starting to nail down the nature of this profound shift in thinking that people will have to go through before they get it. I look at myself allegorically as the mutant who just happened to have the right mental gene for the situation; had I been born twenty years earlier, I would have been considered a weirdo, because my oddball way of thinking just wouldn't have fit into the intellectual culture.

I'm sure that there have been plenty of other people with the same mental mutation, but I just happened to be the one at the right time and the right place. If it hadn't been me, it would have been somebody else. In any event, it will take decades to centuries for this way of thinking to sink into our culture.

Registration is now open for GDC Next and the co-located ADC. The first 500 attendees who sign up can save over 30% on ADC, GDC Next, or a combined VIP Pass -- but reduced-price passes are selling fast, so register soon! For all the latest news on GDC Next, subscribe for updates via Facebook, Twitter, or RSS. Also, check out the previous 'What's Next' interviews with Starr Long, Thomas Bidaux, Teut Weidemann, David Cage, Warren Spector, Sunni Pavlovic, James Paul Gee, Raph Koster and Chris Pruett.


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Comments


Simon Love
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For those interested in Chris Crawford's progress on interactive storytelling, check out erasmatazz.com.

I have also been interested in true interactive storytelling since my early days as a gamer. While my approach is not similar to Mr. Crawford's Sympoltalk system, I can testify that the problem to solve is overwhelming in complexity.

Tim Conkling
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"I'll add that I don't play games anymore" - but here's my opinion on WHAT'S NEXT for games. Good grief.

Sjors Jansen
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Obviously he is keeping an eye out. And he was asked for his opinion.

So, Streetfighter. That has great storytelling.
This is only true if you think of the story as "A fight".
And the storytelling as the movement and actions of the characters. And the resulting mind games in the players' heads. (You need to be proficient at controlling the game for this)

If you approach story and storytelling the traditional way, you would look at the backstory of the characters, the evil organisations and such presented in the cutscenes and say that streetfighter has a horrid story and storytelling, depending on your tastes maybe.

That's what Chris Crawford is talking about imho.

Streetfigher is a game about 1 word. Think about the scope of a game about many words.


I'm somewhat amazed at the negativity here in general.

I think the idea of storytelling being the interactive way that static story data is experienced is very strong. Regardless of medium basically.

I also don't see the implementation being limited to word based games, that's just the least amount of work. It's about their meaning, and how those meanings interact, have consequences when they meet. That's the first hard problem he's solving. Then you would have to visualize all of that. Which he also started trying with facial expressions etc. Those are two humongous tasks.

I'm not saying these are the only ways to go, but it seems to me a lot of people feel rubbed the wrong way when good points are presented by a critical person. (Jon Blow often being another case.)
It seems likely to keep you in a confined mental space if you only accept ideas from people you like.

Tim Conkling
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If you read more about Chris Crawford and his thoughts on games and design, you will discover that Street Fighter does not at all fit his notion of what constitutes "interactive storytelling."

I have inherent respect for anyone willing to diverge from the mainstream and attempt to blaze new trails, and there are many other bright lights in the interactive drama world. What's frustrating about Crawford is not that his ideas are different, it's that he's stated in no uncertain terms that he considers everything else happening in games to be a waste of time.

Sjors Jansen
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Sure but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot to learn from a conflicting perspective.

Paul Tozour
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Mr. Crawford, in your soapbox article at the very end of the June 1997 issue of Game Developer Magazine, you stated that "Someday, my seedlings will be mighty oaks towering far over the heads of the weeds." It's now available online at

http://
twvideo01.ubm-us.net/o1/vault/GD_Mag_Archives/GDM_June_1997.pdf

I am not sure whether by "weeds" you were referring only to the worst of the clones, or to the entire videogame industry, or something in between. I am wondering if you could clarify this statement?

Jay Anne
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I have read every book he's written and played many of his games. I've been following the development of his StoryTron project with eager anticipation. I don't believe he will be the one to crack this problem because he goes in with too many personal dogmas and a closed-mind. It took him 15 years to come to the realization that it is really really difficult to create the sophisticated AI to power procedural drama, and it's really difficult to create content for that AI to use (I use the term AI liberally). At every step of the way, it appears to have taken a whole lot of time and sweat to come to some difficult realizations, such as the explosion of complexity that comes from just a small set of story variables and the inherent difficulty of supporting every kind of dramatic narrative. Ultimately, he believes that these games will be primarily written-word based like Interactive Fiction is, as opposed to visual like adventure games. And that will probably relegate it to a small niche audience. All in all, he makes the problem more difficult than it has to be, without acknowledging the victories that other story-oriented games have found (albeit flawed victories).

This "interactivity" that he talks about is most likely a very sophisticated form of AI, and I don't believe there is a very good chance it will be implemented successfully. The last I heard, StoryTron will attempt to bypass the problem by making it a multiplayer game and the AI would be handled by other people. I believe this further relegates the product to an even smaller niche unfortunately.

Bob Johnson
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Futile waste of time. It is a problem that can't be solved practically speaking. Look at choose your own adventure books. They just haven't taken off.

I agree with him on how story games today are a rotation of linear story and interactive game and it never quite feels right. And how games today are just old wine in new bottles.

But the interactive story telling thing? I guess when you get so invested in something you don't want to give it up especially at 63. So you keep working on it.

The way I see it is there are barely that many great novels out there as it is. And the amount of content needed to do a true interactive story would rival all these novels put together.


Jay Anne
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Walking Dead made a bunch of progress towards the problem. It has taken off.

Bob Johnson
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Like what progress?

Jay Anne
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The simple response is to look at its success. Many people developed strong emotional ties to its characters and plot line, and the game was critically and financially very well received, despite primarily being a linear story game and having weak gameplay outside of its story elements.

The complicated response is a bunch of things, but I'll list just a few here:

1) Most of its main scenes were built on a conflict with unexpectedly violent stakes and time-pressure. In screenwriting, the rule of thumb is to always ensure that a scene is a mini-story with a compelling mini-conflict and resolution. So many game stories fail this fundamental concept, and Walking Dead seemed to push this principle as far as possible. Its theme allowed for all kinds of compelling surprises that added time-pressure, and most other games did not have that luxury.
2) The story decisions you make were built around the emotion of guilt. Guilt is great because it sticks with you and is often built around illusion. It does not take much to trigger an irrational guilt response, even though that response often does not hold up upon inspection. There was often no way to choose a solution that would absolve you, but you will still go ahead and feel those feelings regardless.
3) They showed that "depth of interactivity" is not necessarily the way to improve emotional ties and improve engagement. The game is ultra-linear, primarily built on cutscenes, has low production value, the actions you can take are very limited, the morality of your choices are mostly decided for you, and yet it succeeds at making your choices feel weighty and most importantly, makes you really empathize with characters. A lot of the common wisdom about game storytelling was thrown out the window, and it succeeded far past most other games. Violent surprising time pressure and guilt are probably just a few of the many reasons it succeeded. So in light of that, it's hard to take Crawford's dogma seriously (or for that matter, David Cage, Warren Spector, etc).

Michael Joseph
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I think it's a fair point. Walking Dead is part interactive fiction and part point and click adventure game. The puzzles are straightforward but unlike Heavy Rain, the characters in WD are more relate-able and the story is a holodeck simulation more people would choose to play.

The problem is, you can get as much out of a WD "Let's Play" as you can from actually playing it. And it's because as you mention the game is ultra-linear and players invariably traverse every branch in the dialogue trees and so witness the same story albeit with slight variations in the order of events and conversations.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JuxotWssdPY

"A lot of the common wisdom about game storytelling was thrown out the window..."

WD seems to say that if you want to make a really good interactive point and click adventure story, keep the interactivity to a minimum. Because story gets in the way of game, and game gets in the way of story. I don't think that points to wisdom that has been thrown out but rather wisdom that has been reaffirmed.

Jay Anne
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@Michael Joseph
I did both and I did not get the same experience from watching that I did from playing it. Much of the emotion comes from the guilt of wondering if I made the right choice, which does not come on as strong when you watch the video as it does when you yourself make the choices. It's a bit like the difference between reading a screenplay and watching the movie. All stories suffer from the fact that 95% of them end happily, so the fact that the protagonist was ever in peril is really just an illusion that the movie has to earn. When you read a screenplay, it cannot use the visual and audio techniques that a movie would in order to craft that illusion. Similarly, a video cannot craft that emotion of guilt as effectively when you are not in the driver's seat. At least that was my take.

Bob Johnson
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So no progress. Just a game that was critically well received along with a realization that interactive narratives are a mirage

Luis Guimaraes
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"2) The story decisions you make were built around the emotion of guilt."

Guilt worked perfectly in XCOM: Enemy Unknown on Ironman mode, because the player is responsible for everything that happens, but in a scripted plot everything that happens is caused by the writer. Blame him, no guilt for me when I know I would have done better if given an actual system to work with instead of two wrong choices.

Single player video-games are the answer for the "what if it was me" question in linear media. The player gets to go beyond the "what if" and have the opportunity do what they would.

Jay Anne
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@Bob
I think you misunderstood my point. The goal of interactive narratives is not the interactivity itself. A game that is deeply interactive merely for the sake of being interactive is no better than the first movies that wowed audiences by filming an oncoming train barreling straight at the camera, causing audiences to panic in fear. It's a gimmick, which I believe many other current games do with their interactive narrative: see how much story you can change! Watch as you can change your character into an angel or a devil! The goal of interactive narrative is the same as non-interactive narrative: affect the player emotionally and communicate a deep message by creating emotional empathy to its characters. Interactivity is thought to be another way to do that. And Walking Dead succeeded in making some people feel deeper empathy through its interactivity, more so than a non-interactive story could.

A mirage that works is a good thing. Many of the principles of why films affect us are equally as silly, though its hard to see through it because they're so ingrained. Gutters in the form of cuts, close ups of faces to trick us into empathy, etc.

My guess is that you judge interactivity the same way that Chris Crawford is doing. You believe that depth of interactivity is the goal and only if you are able to change so many things about the story and affect characters very deeply, then it's worthy of being called successful.

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Michael Pianta
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"Storytelling is about people and their relationships. Games are about hand-eye coordination, puzzle solution, resource management, and spatial reasoning. That's a fundamental incompatibility, and that's why stories are tacked onto games the way you'd bolt a jet engine onto a Volkswagen -- it's been done but it's damned clunky."

I think this is true, but the question is, is there a problem with that? Most of the most successful games to me have fairly minimalist "stories". They use the narrative to set up a premise and this is functionally useful in so far as it contextualizes game play and makes it easier to understand. But the appeal of the game is always the problem solving stuff, basically. This doesn't bother me in the least. I guess I just have trouble relating to the whole desire for interactive "stories" in the first place. We have storytelling mediums that work fine and we have games that are fun and good at the things they're good at - why do the two have to be mashed together? And what would be the point of an interactive "story" anyway? Would it even be a "story" anymore? And why would we assume that such a thing would be in anyway similar to a video game?

Jay Anne
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Stories are usually about character conflicts. The protagonist has a problem that needs solving. Currently in games, you get to solve their gunfight problems, their fistfight problems, their navigation problems, but you don't have gameplay to solve their character relationship problems or their internal struggle problems. In a video game about The Dark Knight, you'd fistfight, you'd drive the Batmobile, but you wouldn't interact with the Joker on a character level. You would not use dialog tools to explore his psyche or interact in the "morality chess game" they were competing in, or resolve the inherent conflicting philosophies that keep you two as enemies. An interactive story would let you take part in those things somehow. It's a tall order. There may not be a viable game that actually deals with those issues fully.

Michael Pianta
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I appreciate what you're saying, but I think, on the one hand we already have that at a simple level (in games like Mass Effect) and on the other hand the more complex and meaningful you make such a mechanic, the less control you have as a designer - including storytelling control. I can imagine a future in which all the NPCs in a game are basically sophisticated chat bots, and if the game was open ended enough to respond to all the possibilities that creates it could be neat, but that would come at the expense of "story telling." Similar perhaps to Minecraft, which is an excellent game and very open ended with regards to how the player can interact with the environment. But you wouldn't say it has good level design.

The sheer multiplicity of options implied by a truly interactive dialogue system makes characterization of the player character impossible. You brought up Batman talking to the Joker, and I realize that was just an example, but to carry on with it, how could you have a meaningfully interactive dialogue with the Joker as Batman and still be Batman? The conversation has to go a certain way doesn't it? I think by necessity you would have to be a blank character, like in a Bethesda game. And the more interactivity you have with regards to the dialogue and the outcome of events, the more uncontrollable the plot and pacing and structure will be. Less like a good story and more like just a simulation of the world.

The problem is not just technological or an issue of labor. It is a deep philosophical problem. To me a multiplicity of choices and outcomes is basically antithetical to what a good story is.

Lou Hayt
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Great interview, I'd like to see interesting Character Models in simulation games, it may be a good step towards Story Worlds.

Alfe Clemencio
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While he does know about the shift in thinking does he know about the issues with getting players to actually shift their thinking? One issue is that players are so jaded that even if you threw something interactive at them, they wouldn't get into the interactive parts because they assume it's about as interactive as everything else out there.

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Nick Harris
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Story is merely the history of a collection of interrelated characters elevated to art by an underlying theme. A neophyte movie screenwriter is often told the maxim: "Show, don't tell" to curb their expository monologues, yet few videogame creative directors are told the equivalent: "Touch, don't show" to take advantage of the tactile and manipulable aspects of the medium. Reading long passages of text, or listening to non-interactive, unskippable NPC monologues, or even just comparing weapon and vehicle stats based on a simple bar chart is to deny the opportunity for discovery, to feel the charging thrum and aftershock of a devastating weapon allied to surround sound subwoofery, or the force-feedback wheel conveying the dynamics of your cornering vehicle. Far better to accurately simulate these weighty systems and then cloud all of those dry statistics in mystery, so your tenacity and experience is rewarded by hard won mastery. These props are kinaesthetic fragments of a burgeoning history of habituated use and respect, in a sense having more of a chance of becoming characters than the average NPC who is denied analog inputs and a broad range of subtly inflected responses. Pursuing a theme means that you can let go of the restrictions of a pre-scripted narrative 'corridor' that dictates the nature and order of events you encounter, a game need only constrain the dynamics of the simulation to ensure that the theme is repeatedly reasserted and the history of player actions would automatically become a story when they get entangled with the digital lives of the NPCs they encounter from which their missions are procedurally generated to complement the broader simulation. It certainly isn't Rocket Science to 'coauthor' a videogame.

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Nick Harris
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Why not? What text book are you referring to? What is your idea of a great game? How would you solve the fundamental incompatibility between linear narrative and non-linear gameplay? Your one sentence is insufficient here...

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Kyle McBain
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If interactive storytelling evolves into a place that is not games where will that be? It's obvious to me that there is no better place for it. Can't really think of a resource or tool besides games that has the potential to give you the same amount of power over story. Maybe it hasn't been effectively done but looking at the tools that are responsible for producing games it's obvious that they have the most potential for this.

Tired of these older gents talking about how depressing games are without offering any real advice or even being gamers themselves. The only specifics that came to mind for Mr. Crawford that were not even so specific were reminents of his own game. This is just depressing.

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Kyle McBain
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Okay but how do you go about artistic expression... well there are many tools for this. Forcing pure reason, again this can be done with the same tools that surround game making. Spiritual undersanding.... that goes back to what I was saying about not being specific. All of these things are subsets of the game. So yes obviously games are where its at.

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Jakub Majewski
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I must say, it took me a full two days to get around to looking at this article, mainly because I find Chris Crawford to be such a strange, bitter old bird, I figured he wouldn't have anything remotely interesting to say. As it is, this turned out to be a pretty interesting read.

His diagnosis of why we have a problem with creativity in games is, in my view, spot on - most of the younger designers I've worked with only know other games. They do love games, but they know nothing but games (and usually, nothing but the games released in the last half-decade). They're woefully narrowminded, and often remarkably touchy - if you tell them that X and Y is not a good idea because it doesn't fit the game, they get upset because X and Y had been done in super-popular game Z, and how can I possibly say it doesn't work? They lack any sense of wider perspective, and often lack any real interests outside of games (yes, they have hobbies, they play the guitar, they ride bikes, whatever - but read a book? Ugh, what a waste of time...).

However, the big problem I have with Chris Crawford remains: it's not that he's obsessed with his own solution to the problem. That's fine, it's great, actually - the more obsessed people get about their work, the better their chance of success. What bothers me is that he's unwilling to accept that there are many, many people who are perfectly content with the solutions he is disparaging. People who do think, as a matter of fact, that interleaving passive storytelling with active gameplay is a satisfying form of story, and really just needs to be technologically improved to make the integration better. Yes, it's not interactive storytelling - but hey, neither is what Chris Crawford is proposing, because in his quest to tell a story more interactively, he's clearly trying to dump the storytelling and replace it with participative drama.

Narrative and drama are simply not the same thing. I'd love to see Chris Crawford achieve what he's been trying to accomplish - it surely would be an interesting game. But for me, as someone who is interested in storytelling, as opposed to making the player an actor in a drama - his is not the best path to follow, and the current model of passive storytelling between active gameplay segments is far more satisfying.

Nick Harris
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When you play a game who do you play it as?

Your self - bound by your own morality and ethics.
Your alter ego - free to escape from the strictures of society.
Your adoptive role - resolutely in-character for the duration of the narrative.
Your whim driven avatar - unable to consistently role-play without veering off-track.

Jakub Majewski
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All of the above, Nick, depending on the game and the situation. I'm likely to be more myself in open-ended games (e.g. Skyrim), while in story-driven games I usually make an effort to stay within the set role.

Matt Cratty
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Creating gameplay that isn't banal is our biggest challenge.


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