Takeaway: Chris Crawford at Mesa Community College

A ridiculous series of events happened today.  After work, I went to campus and had decided to spend the 20 minutes before my class listening to a public discussion on games between Alice Daer and Elizabeth Hayes (two of my professors). I wanted to eat beforehand, though, so I went into a place I hadn’t been before: Baja Fresh. When I got there, I happened to run into a friend of mine who had also decided to eat there for the first time.  We got to talking and he asked if I were going to the Chris Crawford talk tonight. I did a double take, because I hadn’t even known that there was a Chris Crawford talk tonight. What was doubly strange was that just yesterday I ordered on Amazon Chris Crawford’s book on interactive storytelling. Before I left for the public discussion mentioned earlier, I took up upon myself to find a way to get out of my class early enough to make it to the talk.  Fortunately, the latter half of the class was centered on the very basics of JavaScript programming (of which I am already familiar) so I left with plenty of time to make it to Mesa Community College, where Chis Crawford was giving his talk. I decided that, since none of my colleagues went (or likely even knew about it), I should probably write a little about my takeaway from Mr. Crawford.

Truthfully, I didn’t really know who Chris Crawford was. I knew that he had done some work in generative storytelling as I had poked about his website just yesterday. Otherwise, I had no idea why I should care about someone named Chris Crawford (or what he had to say about game design). It is a good thing, then, that Crawford opened with a description of his career from the Atari VCS to the present.  After that, he spoke about the lessons he has learned and what lessons he wants to give to designers interested in interactive storytelling.

Well, who is Chris Crawford? Crawford released his first game on the Commidore PET. It was called Tanktics and I have never heard of it before.  After that project, Crawford worked to produce Atari games, most notably Eastern Front, which received wide acclaim. After this project, Crawford produced Gossip, a game attempting to put the social, human condition into video games. This was in 1983.  In his own words, Gossip has the most sophisticated algorithm for character relationships to this day.  He fueled the research done via Gossip into a game called Excalibur. This game, released during the video game market crash, did not sell well and Crawford found himself out of a job with Atari.

Eventually came Trust and Betrayal. Crawford purports that this is the most important game he has ever made. He is also not abashed to self-promotion, as he said that the game was a revolution, turning the world on its head by means of not one system, but four. I cannot remember all of them, but I remember that one was a verb-based iconographic language the player used to interact with other characters.  Another was an inverse parser, which only showed the verbs that were appropriate at the time. Another one was that the game had a simplistic personality system that worked just fine. The personality or social system operated on three attributes: Love, Trust and Fear. The last I think were something about interstitial stories with responses. I was somewhat less taken by the slides devoted to this one.

Chris Crawford has done some other things (he worked with NASA for a bit, for example), but his talk centered around what he learned from Trust and Betrayal and Erasmatazz/Storytron (Storytron is basically an evolution of Erasmatazz). Erasmatazz/Storytron were systems that allowed people to create what he calls a storyworld.  I cannot really describe it well, so go check out Storytron instead.

Crawford parted his talk with three lessons for designers interested in interactive storytelling.  The first is that stories are immensely complex, that stories need to reach a critical mass of story bits to become stories. Games don’t need to reach quite so critical a mass, though.  Games can present the ideas of the story to the player in much simpler terms.  Second was that games should operate on a language. But, because stories are so complex, the language they typically use is also so complex that it is impossible to emulate the full range of language into them.  Instead, the designer may create a “toy language” which has just enough words (mostly verbs) that are required for the game.  The third lesson was that, if you wanted to do interactive storytelling, you need to be a master of algebra. Computers are formulaic. The designer must be able to do the mathematics required to make the algorithms underlying the game.

Probably one of the most important things that I could take away from this talk, as a designer was this: The first thing that you should think about when trying to design a game is not what the player sees, or what the player hears or does, but instead it is what you want the player to do.  See what actions the game affords the player.  Translate the game concept into its verbs.  Crawford opened with this bit of information, and I think it was the best thing he said all night.  Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling will arrive sometime next week, so maybe I will connect more from his talk to the ideas in his book. But for now I will be thinking of what my players do in games and constructing the verbs I want in my games.

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One thought on “Takeaway: Chris Crawford at Mesa Community College

  1. Glad you were able to make it: sounds like some useful inspiration.

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