What is interactive storytelling and what are we really trying to accomplish?
Suppose a small group of children gather and “play house.” They are engaging in interactive storytelling. Each child is a character in the story and there’s no script anyone must adhere to. As with the planchette of a Ouija board, nobody knows where things are going to go until they go there. It’s a form of roleplay, perhaps a sort of informal improv group.
Nobody seeks to “win” when playing house. The idea of a victory condition doesn’t even occur to the participants and why should it? The experience is to explore what it’s like to be someone you’re not (“Applause, Not Victory” – #30 in Chris’ IS lessons).
Now picture a Renaissance faire, social gatherings where the participants dress up in medieval, Renaissance, or Victorian garb, depending on the festival’s theme, and behave as though they were really there in that time and place (or at least the idealized Hollywood version of that time and place). Imagine a hypothetical Renaissance faire where everyone is really into the whole thing and everyone has a complete character with his own goals, desires, and motivations and they act accordingly — it can be as lofty as “I want to be king” or as mundane as “I want to go out with that girl.” If you can join in and influence events, you’re engaging in interactive storytelling.
So in a way the concept is thousands of years old. All we’re trying to do is put it into a computer so you don’t need a large number of highly imaginative like-minded friends to have the experience (“roleplaying” would be a much better name than “interactive storytelling” if only it weren’t tainted by its association with RPGs). You don’t need to arrange a date and time and place; you don’t need to squabble with other people over the setting and characters. You just click an icon or two and you’re off and running.
The computer also adds focus. If we take the analogies above too literally we may end up with experiences that are ultimately unfocused and aimless. MUDs and MUCKs already offer an online version of the experiences I’ve described above, but they have a way of devolving into “Hi, Bob, how are you doing today?” (or, worse, “lol u guyz r all noobs”). It isn’t enough to just create a setting and put in a few appropriate characters. There need to be things that motivate the player to get involved. Perhaps the player character has a friend who has a problem. You want to help your friend, so you try to resolve the problem. But wait! You have a friend B who doesn’t like friend A and is actively trying to impede him. Helping friend A could damage your friendship with friend B. Ah, now we have conflict! So the computer also acts as an enforcer of quality, ensuring that the player’s experience is always dramatically interesting.
I believe we need to start with a compelling experience and build the technology to deliver it, not build the technology and search for a compelling experience to make with it. If we accept that interactive storytelling is roleplaying with a computer, it would make sense to design a scenario by actually roleplaying one – as in you, me, and anyone else who cares to join. When we’re done, we analyze the resulting story and ask ourselves, “How can we put this experience into the computer?” This blog has a shiny new forum that can be accessed on the right sidebar, and it should be great for this task.
Who’s with me?