Is Interactive Storytelling Stuck?

May 21st, 2014

There hasn’t been much progress in interactive storytelling in the last decade. There have been a lot of exciting initiatives, but they didn’t seem to come to much. The most impressive of these was the IRIS project in Europe. It began with high hopes and definitely made progress, but in the end, I don’t think that it inspired any followups. 

That pretty much summarizes all the work I’ve seen in the last decade. People rush into the field, bubbling with ideas, struggle with the immense problems it poses, and eventually slink off with their tails between their legs, searching for some more achievable target. I’ve been refereeing papers for conferences for years now and there just isn’t much new under the sun recently. 

One of the few bright spots is the annual ICIDS conference. They have plugged on since 2001, and every year they publish the proceedings of the conference. I have not followed the most recent conferences, but again, my impression is one of slowing progress. 

One indicator is the GrandTextAuto blog, which originally included a goodly amount of material on interactive storytelling. Sadly, its content no longer includes much in the way of interactive storytelling; I suspect that this is because there isn’t much to say. 

I have not seen a single promising idea for interactive storytelling in years and years. It seems that people are just recycling old concepts with a few new twists — which never seem to solve the problem.

Meanwhile, we see the gaming design community continue to spin its wheels with the ‘interleaved story’ ploy. This is an old wheeze in which the game alternates between some non-interactive storytelling and some non-dramatic interactivity. The latest of these that I came across is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It achieves a new high in mixing the two unconnected aspects seamlessly. It’s a conventional graphic adventure with the puzzles one expects of games in this genre. There is a twist: the player controls TWO onscreen actors, using two thumbsticks, so considerable hand-eye coordination is required. Of course, at no point does the player ever make a dramatically interesting choice. He runs, jumps, climbs, and swims through the obstacle course, with regular breaks for details of the story to be presented non-interactively. This kind of thing has been going on since at least 1990 with Wing Commander, and the only progress I have seen is in the smoothness of visual integration of the two sides of the game. Some people seem to think that this is the future of gaming. It isn’t — it’s the past, done with the latest technology and a lot of money. 

Time to do something
All this has led me to conclude that nobody else is going to come up with a solution to the problem. I seem to be the only person who has come close to a solution with my Storytron technology, and that, we all know, is deeply flawed. Nevertheless, it appears to be the only foundation on which we can build something, so we’ll just have to use it as a starting point. 

So I’ll be releasing the technology as “opening source”; it won’t be straight anything-goes open source, because the simple fact is that I am the only person on the planet with a proper understanding of the technical issues. Other people won’t be able to make a useful contribution until they have gotten their hands dirty (very dirty!) with the technology. 

Of course, we have to fix its worst flaws before we can use it as a platform. I believe that the primary flaw in the technology is its overweening complexity, and therefore the first step will be to strip out much of that complexity. I already have a hit list of features to destroy, but I don’t want to take any serious action yet.

I am busy making Siboot work; that will give me more direct experience with the simplified version of the technology that I have used for this project. That will be my primary avocation for the year 2014. However, as soon as Siboot is done, I’ll want to plunge into this new project, and I think it appropriate to begin preliminary discussions about this effort soon.

I hope to recruit a small group of people willing to make a commitment to making this happen. If you are interested in the possibility, contact me using the link above.