Let’s Play House

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?

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11 Responses to Let’s Play House

  1. furrykef says:

    I must add that my intention was to use our shiny new forum to hold any roleplaying experiments. (I’m not sure why mention of it was removed from the article.) There’s a link to the forums in the Discussion section of the Sidebar.

    • Bill Maya says:

      I don’t think the forums are the best tool for that sort of thing and I didn’t want attention called to using it for that purpose so I removed it from your post (otherwise, good first post).

      You might want to check out Role Play Haven for your experiments. It’s a chat room designed specifically for roleplaying. If you decide to use it then let us know in this post’s comments and I’ll add a link to the Tools section of the Sidebar.

      Update: I removed the mention of the forums from Kef’s post for the reason stated above and I stand by it but I neglected to get Kef’s signoff on my edit before publishing his post. I do apologize for this mistake and will put some sort of process in place so authors can review any edits to their posts before they are publicly published. I will also update the Contributor guidelines to reflect this information.

      • Kef Schecter says:

        Well, there are reasons I’d prefer the forum. One is that the forum is not a real-time medium, which means there is no pressure to come up with a response right away. Another is that we could have discussions of events without necessarily interfering with the roleplay, which is harder to do when involved in a real-time discussion. Yet another is that the forum is better integrated into this site than a roleplaying chat room would be, and I think any attempt at roleplaying at a site such as Role Playing Haven would wind up involving a different community, which may defeat the point because they won’t share our goals.

        My issue with your removal of my mentions of the forum is I think it’s the community’s place to decide. If you decide what’s worth our time and what isn’t, I think the situation is rather lopsided. It means you can veto my ideas but I can’t veto yours. I understand of course that there is a need for curation, as you put it — it wouldn’t do for off-topic discussions to take over the place, for instance. But I think we shouldn’t go overboard with it.

      • Bill Maya says:

        Kef – I don’t agree with using the forum in that way but I’m willing to let the community decide.

        I’ve created a Role-Playing area in the Phrontisterion forum for the experiments you outlined and I’ve restored the “shiny new forum” text in your original post.

        It’s not my intention to have veto power over anyone’s ideas but merely a desire to keep things on-topic.

  2. Alex Vostrov says:

    This is something that I’ve thought a lot about after reading a couple of books on theatre improvisation. One of the cardinal rules of improv is to never negate the reality created by the other actors. You’re always supposed to say “Yes, and…”.

    If you use Chris’s metaphor of a conversation for interactivity, we can actually see that there are 3 broad classes of games.

    1) Arguments – “No, because…” – This is pretty much all games like Chess, Go, Poker, etc.
    2) Collaboration – “Yes, and…” – All games that involve creativity like Sims, Minecraft, etc.
    3) Negotiation – “No, but…” and “Yes, but…” – This is under-explored and it could lead to some interesting things. You could say that the original Siboot, Balance of Power 2k and Civ all have this element, but none of them sharpened negotiation to a level that Go sharpens argument.

  3. Chris Crawford says:

    Kef, are the verbs open-ended? Are they defined by the game or by the players?

    • Kef Schecter says:

      That’s an important point, of course — the possibilities we exclude are as important as the ones we include. But perhaps whether the rules are defined by the game or by the players are two sides of the same coin. When a roleplaying group gathers, they are largely united by a common vision; everybody knows more or less what they want from the experience. If somebody tries something out of character, like Sir Launcelot saying “let’s go to a bar and pick up chicks”, then the rest of the group has the option of vetoing it (and a player who tries to override such a veto will probably find himself cast out of the group altogether).

      In a digital storyworld, we enforce constraints by simply not allowing nonsensical actions in the first place. I think an ideal storyworld — as in, it might not be realistic, but it’s what we aspire to create — would allow all dramatically reasonable options and disallow all unreasonable ones. If the user is still dissatisfied with his options then he’s obviously playing the wrong storyworld, just as our hypothetical Launcelot is clearly in the wrong roleplay. So I think the end result is the same — the player’s actions are constrained by dramatic considerations — even if it is accomplished by different means.

      • Chris Crawford says:

        How do you decide what options are dramatically reasonable?

      • Kef Schecter says:

        To be honest, I’m not sure where you’re going with this. I’m guessing your point is that the limits of a storyworld are controlled by one person (the author), whereas in my roleplaying scenarios this responsibility is diffused among the actors. While that’s true, I’m not sure it’s relevant. I was talking more in terms of abstract ideals we aspire to, not what we can actually achieve.

  4. Chris Crawford says:

    Kef, my concern here is with the fundamentals of the design. There’s a basic choice between an open-ended design (players decide the verbs and the effects of the verbs) and a closed design (the designer creates the verbs and programs their effects). It sounds to me like you’re going the open-ended route. If so, then I don’t understand how this design differs from conventional RPGs.

    • furrykef says:

      If two children are playing house, are they playing a “conventional RPG” due to their use of an open-ended design? I’m still confused here.

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