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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

[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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