Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling

July 5th, 2004

Don’t blame me for that title. I had picked out "Interactive Storytelling" as my preferred title, but Andrew Glassner beat me to the punch (an ironic twist because Glassner denies in his book that interactive storytelling can be realized, offering "participatory storytelling" in its place). I have the good sense to recuse myself from consideration of the title for my works, because I always choose obscure, difficult names like "". The people at New Riders thought that my name sells books, so that was the title they chose. Look for "Chris Crawford on Cooking", "Chris Crawford on Politics" and "Chris Crawford on the Meaning of Life" in the future.

So what’s my book about? Here’s the blurb I wrote for the back cover:

Interactive storytelling will succeed games as the next big development in entertainment software. Everybody knows it’s coming, and plenty of people are trying to make it happen. Although a variety of people have attempted to inject storytelling into their products, the sad fact is, for all the talk about interactive storytelling, nobody has yet produced a viable commercial interactive storytelling product, but Chris Crawford has struggled farther down that path than anybody else. Here he offers the results of 12 years of effort dedicated solely to solving the problem of interactive storytelling. Crawford proceeds in a straight line from clean, simple fundamentals of interactivity and storytelling to their direct consequences for designing interactive storytelling technologies. Along the way, he resolves misleading dilemmas, such as the feckless debate over plot versus interactivity, and then offers detailed descriptions of technologies for implementing interactive storytelling. Herein lies the meat of the book. Instead of vague, hand-waving wishlists, Crawford gives workable solutions. Instead of intellectually pretentious gobbledygook, Crawford explains in plain English what works and what doesn’t. This is the real thing.

Some of the key concepts explained herein:

Verbs: the core concept of interactive storytelling
How to assemble verbs into events
How to build useful personality models
Gossip and the flow of information in drama
Anticipation: how characters modulate their behavior toward others
Inclination formulae: how characters make choices
Sequencing character behavior in dramatically rational ways
Development environments for interactive storytelling

OK, so it’s a blurb, meant to sell books. Here’s the table of contents:


Part I: From Story to Interactive Storytelling
1 Story
2 Interactivity
3 Interactive Storytelling

Part II: Styles of Thinking
4 Two Cultures, No Hits, No Runs
5 Abstraction
6 Verb Thinking

Part III: Strategies for Interactive Storytelling
7 Simple Strategies That Don’t Work
8 Environmental Strategies
9 Data-Driven Strategies
10 Language-Based Strategies

Part IV: Core Technologies for Interactive Storytelling
11 Personality Models
12 Drama Managers
13 Verbs and Events
14 HistoryBooks and Gossip
15 Anticipation
16 Sequencing
17 Development Environments

Part V: Applications
18 The Erasmatron
19 Research
20 Distant Relatives
21 Prognostications

This gives a pretty clear idea of what’s in the book. The only obscure chapter title is Chapter 4’s, which discusses the Two Cultures problem and how it has hindered progress on interactive storytelling. The book also includes lessons, pithy little admonitions about interactive storytelling that summarize important ideas. Here are a few:

The Prime Lesson: Interactivity depends on the choices available to the user.
Lesson #6: Stories take place on stages, not maps.
Lesson #11: Interactive storytelling systems are NOT "games with stories".
Lesson #12: A storyworld is composed of closely balanced decisions that can reasonably go either way.
Lesson #15: Interactivity requires verb thinking.
Lesson #24: The personality model mirrors the behavioral universe of the storyworld.
Lesson #31: Use scoring systems to guide players instead of mandates and prohibitions that constrain them.
Lesson #33: Interactive storytelling requires thousands of verbs.

I spent almost exactly a year writing this book. I consider it the most important book I have ever written, because it fills a bigger hole better than any of my previous works. For example, my book on interactivity design is good, but there are lots of books on interactivity design. My book on game design is also good, but there are a zillion books on game design, some of them good. Two other books have been written on the topic of interactive storytelling, and I consider them both dreck. (This doesn’t refer to Lee Sheldon’s book, which is about stories in games, not interactive storytelling). This book stands out; I believe that it will become the classic that my "Art of Computer Game Design" (written in 1982) has become. I don’t expect it to sell well at first, simply because there aren’t that many people interested in the topic, but with the passage of time interest will grow and sales will increase. That’s my hunch.