Limitations of interactive storytelling

I received an email from Stede Troisi that raises an interesting point. He posted the same message on the forum, but no response has appeared as yet, and I think his point deserves some contemplation.

He asks, “Is interactive storytelling even storytelling?”

He spends several paragraphs wrestling with the issue, but seems to come to the conclusion that interactive storytelling is not the same as storytelling because a story is a fixed collection of data, while interactive storytelling is intrinsically a process. The result of a player’s interaction with the story world is not explicitly predictable by the author, so how can we call this creative person an “author”?

The simplest answer to this question is to ask if the designers of a smartphone have anticipated every conversation that will ever be carried out through their design. Of course not! The smartphone implements a process, the transmission of audio between two locations. That process encloses within its purview every conversation in the universe of possible conversations. Thus, by focusing on the process rather than the data, the designers are able to build something far grander and more useful.

The same principle applies to interactive storytelling. In the ideal case, the author would program the fundamental process of storytelling into the story world, and then let the players combine the author’s processes with the player’s own data (decisions) to produce a unique story.

But the fundamental processes of storytelling lie far beyond our intellectual reach. I cannot begin to articulate them. Sure, there are lots of books on the nature of narrative, the structure of a story, how to write fiction, and so forth. These solutions, however, are couched in terms that remain outside the ken of computing. Sure, it’s easy for a book to admonish the prospective author to “prefigure major events” — but how do you say that in C++? Even the basic terminology for narrative theory is way beyond what we can express in code.

Suppose that you want to build a code-level dictionary of English. You want a program that includes the definition of every one of, say, the 10,000 most frequently used words in the English language. Let’s put aside the complexities of grammar and syntax and consider only the semantics. How do you define a word?

Obviously, you define a word using other words. But there’s a circularity here: how do you define the other words? Consider Samuel Johnson’s definition of a network:

Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

So where do you start with your dictionary? How do you define the first word in code?

Oops.

The sad truth is that we are far, far from achieving genuine interactive storytelling. We cannot begin to conceive how we would express any of the basic principles of narrative in code.

Instead, we must set our sights lower, aiming for the crudest, simplest version of storytelling that still (barely) meets our standard for storytelling. What traits CAN we develop in code?

IMAO, (A is for ‘arrogant’) Storytron technology represents about the best that is conceivable just yet. Its reach exceeds its grasp, for it is too complicated to actually be built. It’s rather like an airplane with so many controls that no human pilot could possibly get it off the ground. Thus, the Storytron technology represents the best we can hope for, for now: verbs with repercussions that link to other verbs with repercussions in a directed graph. No overriding structure, no sense of plot or dramatic arc, no implemented version of “beginning, middle, and end”. Instead, a maze of behaviors that alter state variables; the story ends when the state variables reach some critical state.

There are a number of other strategies that MIGHT work, but the few attempts I have seen in that direction have all been failures. The most intriguing of these is the data-driven approach. Suppose we could somehow assemble an organized database of every story ever written, then mine that database to produce responses to player decisions? It sounds good, but the killer problem is the system for translating prose into some sort of universal language of narrative. That has been tried many times, with no luck so far.

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7 Responses to Limitations of interactive storytelling

  1. Stede Troisi says:

    Thank you for your response. My biggest concern now is how easily you equate processes to storytelling. I feel storytelling is a unique activity where the storyteller communicates with the listener. It is not a two-way deal. So calling it interactive storytelling seems like an oxymoron. I don’t think you can have it both way.

    The story is in the details, not the structure. The details can get lost by the player’s interaction, causing something completely different from the so-called authors original intent. I am not saying that games focusing on communication rather than things isn’t worthy on its own, but I wouldn’t have the word storytelling in it.

    What you are talking about is more like the scenarios in most strategy games. The author provides structure, not storytelling. The player provides the details. When the game is over you have a history, not necessarily a story.

    I would like to make this conversation more concrete, so I will use Charles Perrault’s version of Red Riding Hood. Let’s assume Charles is called a storyteller, You are a Storytron author and will be referred to as the author, and everyone else reading this thread is called the player.

    How would an author use Storytron to construct a scenario that plays out the way a storyteller wants? How could an author limit the player to the thoughts, decisions, and feelings of a naive little girl walking to her sick grandmother’s house? I simply wouldn’t make the same choices.

  2. First off, let’s not get caught in this trap:

    1. Take an existing non-interactive story.
    2. Add interactivity.
    3. Is the result any better than the original?

    That’s rather like saying that a hamburger with ice cream topping isn’t as good as a hamburger with ketchup. Interactive storytelling is not the same as stories. The process of interactive storytelling is instantiated in a single story world. When the player interacts with the story world, the record of his interaction constitutes a story.

    I’ll offer a simple example of a story world that is not interactive but could be made interactive: the world of a soap opera. The basic elements are in place and every day the scriptwriters put the elements together in new ways. Although we could never make a story world as rich as that used in professional soap operas, we could certainly make something with that kind of flavor.

    I’m currently struggling with Siboot; if I can get the damn thing working, we’ll see what interactive storytelling looks like when done that way. In the meantime, why don’t you look at some of the items listed on the right as “Works”?

  3. Stede Troisi says:

    “Interactive storytelling is not the same as stories.”

    Oh excellent, I think we agree, yet I do have one stumbling block left. What makes an interactive story different than any other mainstream game with a story? I assume conversation is used as the weapon of choice in interactive storytelling.

  4. BlueJay says:

    Why do we need a beginning and an end in a storyworld? Why can’t we step in in the middle, learn about the people in the world, interact with them for a while, and then step back out. Maybe we could have little microstories, little pieces of interaction that have dramatic arcs, but I don’t think we necessarily need one overall arc.

    Children playing make-believe may use the same setting over and over, reusing the same characters without the world proceeding to any ultimate sort of outcome. Why not model storyworlds around that? The process of play wouldn’t have to involve achieving an ultimate goal, it could be just be wandering and learning more about how the different characters behave, how they’ll react to thinks, their thoughts, emotions, beliefs. The things they get angry over, the things that make them take action, or the things that make them run away.

    It would be like floating rather than swimming, perhaps. At least it certainly wouldn’t have to be like swimming in a race.

    • Good point. Yes, given that we cannot provide the kind of backstory presentation that is so easy in novels and movies, it’s best to rely on an established world. That, in effect, is what television series do; once you know the basic dramatic universe, you can build all sorts of dramatic interactions into it.

  5. Stede Troisi says:

    Who says the beginning is the beginning or the end is the end. A good story generally takes place in a world were other stories existed before and after. Look at the world of Westeros in Game of Thrones. There is a entry point that you might consider a beginning, but isn’t it just a continuation of a much larger story?

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