Chris Crawford’s an unusual person. He’s been committed to the project of interactive storytelling for 30 years and counting. His essays, books, and software are unique and invaluable. Since this blog mainly treats games as storytelling devices, I need to introduce Crawford so I can call on his ideas in later posts. Where to begin, though? Chris Crawford’s an unusual person.
A lot of people have started to hold games to a high standard now, realising that grotesque and antiquated tropes that may arise quite unsurprisingly from the fringes of “bedroom coding” by boy hobbyists have somehow discreetly become the main supporting struts of a huge and high-profile industry. But Crawford was making games in the 80s, alongside the bedroom coders, way before there was a crude status quo to rebel against, before the technology, craftsmanship, and certainly the money were there in sufficient quantity to even start getting things as wrong as they are now, let alone to realise, as more visible writers are starting to, what would be better to aim for. He was among the first to think about game design theory, and the first to publish a handbook on the topic, back in 1984. He’s since written more books — on programming, interactive design, interactive storytelling, his owns games, and… tangram puzzles. You know, tangrams — fitting the wooden shapes together? Chris Crawford’s an unusual person.
Maybe start at the beginning?
After a stint at Atari from 1979-84, Crawford released a handful of Mac games until 1992, when he committed himself completely to pioneering the advancement of interactive storytelling. 22 years later, the potential he saw so clearly is still unrealised, but he continues with what he described in a personal blog post on his sixtieth birthday as his “life’s work”.
So today, although more and more people are starting to hold games to higher standards, they are just beginning to share some of Crawford’s earliest visions of the potential of interactive software. To wit: artistic intent should be realised through gameplay as much as through superficial content; interactivity allows a new kind of communication that should be tapped to send new messages through games; content, superficial or systemic, should not be limited to lazy tropes; games are big enough that the responsibility not to perpetuate oppressive ideas and lazy stereotypes is now overwhelming.
Games today still fall desperately short of even those modest ambitions, and the Crawford of three decades ago already expected far more. Imagine you had been consciously and publicly awaiting this higher sophistication since the 80s. Don’t you think looking at the artistic paucity of games so far would drive you to give up on them and wash your hands of the industry in frustration? In 1992, that’s more or less what Crawford did. But with some panache.
Making an exit
At the 1992 Game Developers Conference, the industry’s famous annual event, still the largest of its kind and getting on for 20,000 attendees these days — an event which, incidentally, was conceived and first hosted by Crawford in his own living room in 1988 — Crawford gave a speech in which he explained his expectations — his demands — of interactive stories. His dream of proper works of interactive art loomed within sight, alluring and terrifying. That dream was a huge dragon that he must face, and the videogame industry, he had realised, was never going to face it with him.
He declared that he would leave the industry — the town he had helped to build — and take his sword and face the dragon. He unsheathed his shimmering blade, held it aloft, thrust it in the air, stared at the beast with clear intent and determination, and cried out to the dragon that he would fight it — “For truth! For beauty! For art!” — then charged, screaming fearlessly at the beast, along the aisle between rows of folding chairs and out of the conference room. Out of the room, out of videogames, not to return until the dragon had been faced.
That’s a true story, but I’ve played it down a little for brevity.
The crowd sat confused for a moment, then clapped tentatively. Maybe they were wondering how he got that sword…
What does he think about games, then?
Crawford’s high standards are perhaps too high. In a 2011 profile on Gamasutra by Patrick Dugan, Paul Eres comments:
“I think he has an unintentionally negative effect on a lot of game designers (probably because he’s the only one with a coherent/systematic theory of game design)”
Crawford is specifically focused on the holy grail of an interactive narrative, and can therefore be rather dismissive of non-interactive elements of videogames. Eres thinks that rubs off on other designers:
“After reading him, they tend to undervalue aesthetics, story, stuff like that, and only care about interaction. But those things are pretty important too. Imagine Super Metroid with just the mechanics, no ambient atmosphere with creepy music, it wouldn’t be as fun even though nothing changed but the graphics and music.”
In my terms, he sees videogames as existing only in the system, and not in the metaphor. That’s more than a little controversial. Perhaps we can meet him halfway and say we should be asking more of the system, and not lazily shopping out storytelling work to the metaphor. It’s something I’d like to investigate in a later post.
For future reference
I have argued before that I think interactive storytelling is something that games are already doing. I think Crawford would strongly disagree. He recently remarked in his essay “Is Interactive Storytelling Stuck?” that:
“I seem to be the only person who has come close to a solution [to interactive storytelling] with my Storytron technology, and that, we all know, is deeply flawed.”
The root of our disagreement on this matter is a very different idea of what could be counted as an interactive story. Crawford conceives of it in a way that makes the problem extremely hard but extremely interesting, whereas I let all sorts of rubbish qualify, while conceding (less often than I ought to) that it’s rubbish.
In a later post, I’ll look into Crawford’s hard version of the project and see what’s going on, and where it fits among all the story games that are supposed to have failed. In the meantime, I’m just noting that whatever I think about interactive storytelling, I haven’t thought it for as long or with as much adamance as Chris Crawford.
But then Chris Crawford’s an unusual person.
Photographer and writer covering Tokyo arcade life – the videogames, the metropolis and the people