This is a capsule summary of Ernest Adams’ presentation from this year’s GDC, entitled ‘A New Vision for Interactive Stories’. Although Ernest operates under the banner of my company (his opening slide states ‘I’m a member of International Hobo’), I still rely upon his GDC presentations as a key means of exploring his thought process, as our regular exchanges are more focused on business issues. This year I felt he was in sterling form, and have decided to present this as my final report on this year’s GDC convention. I personally guarantee that I have misrepresented Ernest at some point in this summary, probably by interpolating and synthesising my view with his. I hope you enjoy it nonetheless!
begins by disclaiming the pomposity of his own title, noting that there is
hubris in the word ‘vision’ and arrogance in the word ‘new’. He covers his
modesty by stating that the content of the talk is perhaps not new in any
absolute sense, but at the very least, it is new to him.
Aristotle, Campbell & McKee
conference description paints this session as an open attack on various sacred
cows of narrative, Ernest is quick to explain that his actual content diverged
significantly from the written description. He presents in his first slide what
he calls “the Holy Troika” of narrative: Aristotle, Joseph Campbell and Robert
McKee. Each is addressed in turn.
In the case of Aristotle’s Poetics et al, Ernest observes that Aristotle's work is not necessarily applicable to games. The idea of a story having a beginning a middle and an end falls by the wayside in games, because they can have multiple endings, multiple middles and even multiple beginnings! Additionally, the three act structure works adequately for plays and films, which run for a few hours, but not necessarily for games which can weigh in at some forty hours or more.
In the case
of Joseph Campbell, he is keen to note that
In regard of Robert McKee, Ernest notes that he has interesting things to say, but his comments are always rooted in the assumption that what is being discussed is a screenplay, not some form of interactive content. With this in mind, its applicability to games must necessarily be limited.
He sums up
this introductory segment by noting that if everyone had slavishly followed
these three templates, we would not have the world’s greatest literature.
Templates are useful for understanding, but they are not panaceas, and in
particular, they may not be relevant in the context of interactive stories
which, after all, are very different from traditional static narrative.
experience of trying to understand interactive narrative, Ernest suggests, is:
you are in a maze of twisty little passages, all different! He makes amusing
reference to Dragon’s Lair, referring to it as “the decision tree of
death”. [For those who have not played it, the game consists of a branching tree
of actions, almost all of which result in player death. The ‘play’ of this game
is in knowing which set of decisions will permit the player to survive to the
He furthers this basic idea by identifying three traditional assumptions about interactive stories:
goal is to create a sandbox that allows maximum freedom”: this is presented as something of a
utopian fallacy, based upon the assumption that ‘some day we will be able to do
anything’. Although most game designers have shared in this dream at one time or another,
pragmatically such a state of affairs is far beyond our realistic or
“Interactive stories shouldn’t be games”: this is a difficult position to validate; after all, the scope of the term ‘game’ is in itself quite ambiguous. The feeling that an interactive story should be something apart from what we conventionally consider to be a game follows from presuppositions that need not be true.
player shouldn’t have to think about rules”: the idea here is that in a story space, the
rules should be part of the underlying architecture, not presented to the
player as part of their experience.
In the case of all three rules, Ernest does not intend to support or deny the traditional assumptions, but rather presents them as a foundation for the rest of his discourse.
Façade, as I’m sure most readers are aware, is a one-act interactive drama created by Procedural Arts (principally the work of Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern). Ernest notes, as an aside, that it is also (to his knowledge) the first and only Dogma 2001 game. [I presume everyone now knows this game inside out – so look elsewhere if you don’t yet know about it].
He presents – apparently tangentially – a bizarre Façade
playscript in which the player has decided to play a character, Audrey, who has
been shot prior to arrival at the apartment where the drama plays out.
Naturally, the main characters ignore the player’s references to being shot,
resulting in an amusing mismatch between the player’s text and the game’s
responses. Here’s part of the transcript:
(Audrey knocks on the front door.)
(Trip opens the front door.)
TRIP I'VE BEEN SHOT!
Hi! It's so great to see you! -- (interrupted)
Well come on in...
Uh, I'll -- I'll go get Grace...
THERE WAS A MAN WITH A GUN
HELP ME I'M BLEEDING
I'M GOING TO DIE
Hi! How are you? I'm so happy to see you after so long! -- (interrupted)
(and so forth. The whole thing can be found somewhere in here if you are interested).
Ernest uses this as an example of violation of credibility. Façade is unable to respond intelligently to what the player has entered, because it is being presented a situation entirely outside of the scenario it encapsulates. It posits the existence of a gunman which was invented entirely by the player, and which has no existence in the game world.
He presents an idea from Ken Perlin, which he presents as a Law (although he is quick to point out that Ken did not present the idea in this context – people seldom declare their own laws):
Ken Perlin’s Law:
“The cost of an event in an interactive story must be directly proportional to its improbability.”
There is, in effect, a “credibility budget” in any interactive story. (Ernest notes that Ken didn’t specify credibility as the economic context, but nonetheless, this is how he has chosen to run with it). Both the designer and the player draw upon the credibility budget. If the designer blows it, the player becomes lost. If the player blows it, they lose the designer.
example, materialising a chicken into an interactive story space out of nothing
but thin air should be an expensive operation! The designer is quite entitled
to say that you cannot materialise a chicken as it will completely blow the
The idea, therefore, is that a story generation system must maintain a credibility budget, and this this protects the story space from being pushed beyond its natural limitations.
The term ‘role-playing’ has become practically devalued by overuse, but it still has at its heart a clearly defined context. Ernest suggests, in a stylised show of Eureka-like realisation, that Façade is a role-playing game. (But it is not a dungeon crawl). Ernest notes that in a typical cRPG you not a hero, but rather an itinerant second-hand arms dealer. Façade is not D&D but it is a role-playing game – all interactive narratives are role playing games, because there is a role you are playing.
Role-playing does not mean total freedom – it still has rules and a magic circle. When you play a game, you must accept the premise of the game. You can play a business simulation as a communist, or a wargame as a pacifist, but you will lose.
industry, Ernest suggests, we’ve been treating the player like the reader of a
book – a tabula rasa – but in fact we are co-operating with the player to make
the story. He follows this by suggesting that the lack of a requirement
specification for an interactive story is a part of the problem facing the
creation of interactive stories.
We can impose laws upon the player, because the player accepts as part of the premise of play that their experience is bounded. We can impose physical laws – we may absolutely refuse to violate the physics (no materialising chickens!) We can impose social laws – inappropriate behaviour will get you locked up. We can impose dramatic laws – bad role-playing can cause the story to end. There is a balance between interactivity and narrative (a point Ernest has frequently raised in the past) which is mediated by the social contract of role-playing.
A classic approach to interactive story is that of the branching narrative. These suffer considerably because the finer the granularity of the decisions or branching conditions, the worse the combinatorial explosion (imagine a set of ten binary choices – that’s 2^10 = 1,024 different paths!). However, this is a cost of development argument against this approach, not a philosophical problem. That said, there are other elements which are highly restrictive in this method. Time is implicit to the tree in a branching approach – events must occur in the strict order specified by the tree. Furthermore, decisions are constrained to affecting the plot, and not the characters (at least in general terms).
opposite end of the narrative landscape are emergent narratives. To these,
Ernest comments that “conventionally trained writers are not used to generating
narrative events in Excel.” He contends that trying to devise the ultimate
social simulator is overworking the problem – there is no need to determine the
states of every character at every moment.
Instead, we can consider a procedural approach in which situations are functions and people are parameters. As a whimsical example, the following function is presented:
function murder (victim, murderers, relatives)
e.g. murder (King, Cladius & Gertrude, Hamlet)
By building interactive stories at a procedural level, and creating situations which are character
agnostic, we have the potential to explore the problem from a wholly different
Two specific games are cited as formative steps towards this approach: King of Dragon Pass (the IGF winner from 2000), and Against the Flying Circus (by Tuonela Productions). [The core International Hobo team has also experimented with procedural narrative in a few projects which did not proceed to full development. I may try and get permission to reprint some of the concepts from these designs into this blog if there is interest].
The talk comes to a close by reiterating the idea that credibility is the currency of all narrative, and that the social contract of role-playing mediates the tension between interactivity and narrative.
No other form of interactive entertainment tries to be all things to all players. Why should interactive stories have to shoulder that burden? It’s time to stop apologising for not working miracles and get on with the job of creating interactive stories.