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Chris Crawford and interactive storytelling

Well, here is something, by way of Mark Barrett and Robin, that distracts me enough from trying to get to level 40 in World of Warcraft that I'm going to update my blog.

Two years ago, Greg Costikyan wrote a post-GDC entry on his blog that expressed a lot of the frustration that I think many people, or at least me, were feeling (even if I was a bit more optimistic than Greg). It looks like this year that honor may go to Michael Mateas, over at Grand Text Auto.

Michael makes many points that are worth commenting on, and I will do so later. But first a more personal issue.

Down in the comments, Chris Crawford writes:

Yes, the years of failure have sapped my energy. I don't have the energy to work 10 hours a day on it as I once did. I work for a few hours, then my mind wanders. It takes enormous discipline to sit down and force myself to continue working on a project that the entire world — my wife included — thinks an utter waste of time. I take no creative joy in my work, nor any optimism that it will ever produce the results I hope for. I work now out of towering stubborness, and out of desperate fear of the thought that my life's work — and therefore my life itself — has been an utter waste of time. I'm like a shipwrecked sailor in a rubber dinghy thousands of miles from any possible rescue, stubbornly paddling forward because there's nothing else to do but die.

I remain absolutely certain that interactive storytelling can and will be achieved. Many of the arguments I witness on the topic no longer excite my attention, as I have long answered most of those questions to my own satisfaction. First among these is the "plot versus interactivity" debate. I solved that problem 15 years ago, published the solution, and nobody seems to have noticed it. Fine. They'll figure it out someday. There remain serious problems to be solved, but I no longer consider any of them to be killer problems. They are what physicists like to call "engineering details".

So when others say that they are losing interest or getting discouraged, I can surely second that emotion. This is not an easy problem. It will not be solved by a few brilliant strokes of genius. It demands the solution of a number of gigantic problems. I believe that I have found one approach that solves those problems. I can see others making progress on very different strategies that seem promising. This is going to be a long, hard struggle. But make no mistake, someday we will plant our flag at the top of this mountain. If my role is to be the dead body holding down the accordion wire far below the summit, so be it.

So, a little personal history. At the spring ECTS in 1993, while I was a level 3 beginning game developer working for a small company in Germany and there still was a spring ECTS - remember the ECTS? - Richard Garriott gave me Chris Crawford's telephone number. (For many years, this was my ultimate name-dropping story.) I called Chris, we talked about game design, he recommended that I read the journal he was publishing, the Journal of Computer Game Design, later Interactive Entertainment Design. So together with my good friend Erik I bought every single back issue and a subscription. (Most of the material is now available online.) This had a great influence on my development as a game designer, and I still believe that no-one has written as much quality material on game design as Chris. In fact, if I hadn't read all that, I probably would have written a lot more, and it would not have been very good.

Chris and I kept in touch. I met him in person in Utah in 1994, and I visited him a couple of times in San Jose, meeting his charming wife and his many pets. We met at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 1996 (which started a five year run of me going back to the Netherlands once a year to watch twenty movies a week), and there he told me something along the lines of: "Jurie, you're a smart kid, I want you to be working on interactive storytelling in five years time." Since I'd missed my personal goal of making the Citizen Kane of interactive by age 26, I agreed.

And I missed that new goal too. But interactive storytelling is basically what I've been wanting to do even before I started making games for a living, when I was a demo programmer in the late eighties. Chris's obstinacy and frustration are a more intense version of my own. Even though I took a safer, more circuitous route, pretty much every career decision I've taken was to get me closer to somehow being involved in interactive storytelling. I've seen my share of failures and frustrations, and yet, because I am apparently a stubborn, unreasonable optimist who won't take no for an answer, I keep going.

During all that time, there was always Chris's inspiring example. He has dedicated himself to this endeavor for a ridiculous amount of time, making a huge personal investment. Who was I to call myself stubborn compared to him? I never quite worked up the courage to take the big step and focus on interactive storytelling full time, instead of, ah ah, trying to change the system from within.

This is the first acknowledgment of the cost and the frustration I've seen from Chris (as well as the first acknowledgment that there is more than one way to skin this particular cat). Perhaps perversely, I think it's a good thing: it would have been bad if he had never shown this human side. Nevertheless, I hope it doesn't mark the end of his involvement in interactive (so far the signs are good.)

Like Chris, I think interactive storytelling can be done, it will be done, and it's terrifyingly hard. But why try doing something easy? I can't think of a more fascinating quest than trying to create a completely new artistic medium. Onwards!

Update: Robin has posted a bit more about this topic. She's better at the touchy-feely stuff than me:

So here's me fessing: reading his words really gave me pause. First because… it's… Chris - who has always been a huge source of inspiration (he is heavily quoted, for example, in the first chapter of my thesis). Second because he has always seemed so…. incredibly, inhumanly stubborn and focused - at times, despite his own best interest. Reading such a frank account of his doubts and struggles was just… a bit disarming.

What she said.

And changing perceptions of the industry over time, that's a highly interesting topic of it's own.