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Chris Crawford Delivers a Sneak Peek at SWAT! (with Interview) at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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StorytronWRT has it on good authority (the authors’) that Chris Crawford, collaborating with Laura J. Mixon, is readying the full launch of an interactive story-authoring system almost 20 years in the making. Introducing “SWAT” (Storyworld Authoring Tool) and Storyteller (the software for playing a SWAT Storyworld). Crawford first took on this epic quest in 1991, developing the system (previously called Erasmatron).

Crawford finally broke down and gave us an(other) interview to discuss the release of this storied project. And since Web 2.0 is in perpetual beta, according to Tim O’Reilly, I’m calling Crawford’s gesture close enough to calling it done. (Read and hear Christy’s previous CC interview here.)

Chit Chat EditorSWAT offers a robust authoring system, which gives electronic literature and game designers easy access to powerful possibilities. (There I go again with my adjectives — when I should’ve been emphasizing my verbs — what Crawford considers the keys to powerful interactive authoring).
Crawford has written, “Interactivity requires verb thinking” (Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling 97).

Of course the new system allows authors to go well beyond verbs as the site describes:

Using our free authoring tool, SWAT, creative individuals with a story to tell can script their own sets of Actors, Stages, Props, and a web of potential interactions known as Verbs. Players seeking a unique new form of computer entertainment can play those storyworlds, engage with the Actors, and explore a wide range of choices and behavior in the dramatically rich environment developed by the author of that world.

The larger set of software includes Storyteller, Rehearsal, Scriptalyzer, an LogLizard. In fact, SWAT authors will find a veritable Lizard Lounge for tools for editing, rehearsing, et cetera. SWAT relies on Deikto (simplified English system used to communicate with the player) and Sappho (Scripting language for authoring). Crawford wrote about Deikto most notably in First Person, reprinted at ebr.

The system features editors for: verbs, actors, relationships, props, and stages. Truly object-oriented story composition, actors have states, locations, modes, and traits, all adjusted via sliders. Verbs can have emotional effects on particular audience, direct objects, timing, and more. At the point at which the verbs enter the authoring toolbox, Storytron shows it’s true mettle (especially to those who have downloaded the latest version of Java). My initial exploration of the authoring system has found it to be mind-boggling rich with potential for processing complexity — even while it eschews the center of processing of most video games. (More comprehensive review to follow this post)

Crawford is still equalizing his first title “Balance of Power - 21st Century,” (”unrelated” to the classic commercial game of the same name and by the same author) but will release that as soon as he is done tweaking (which he promises will be much less than 17 years from now). The download also comes with “ChitChat,” a “mini-storyworld,” featuring a few characters in a bar.

Anyone can author, as:

Storytron has gone to unprecedented lengths in order to “de-technify” computing work.

Crawford’s success will be proved as authors begin to publish storyworlds… (The authoring guide will be forthcoming.)

WRT will be publishing future reviews of the system, but first a few words with our resident authoring tool author, Chris Crawford.

A Chat with Chris Crawford:

WRT: You’ve been known to have a few opinions, where do you see the current state of electronic storytelling (absent SWAT and Storyteller)?

CC: There’s been lots of great non-interactive storytelling done, with quite a few interesting experiments being done. The interweaving of non-interactive storytelling with interactive gameplay has now matured, as shown in products such as Knights of the Old Republic. We continue to see interesting experiments in interactive storytelling, the most important of which was Facade. Sadly, none of these experiments have yielded fruit.

WRT: What are the chief omissions that SWAT addresses (you can break out the list if you’d like)?

CC: The most important conceptual leap in the Storytron technology is the development of a language of interaction that is emotionally expressive yet computable. If you want to interact with characters, you’ve GOT to have language, yet language is not computable. Our “toy language”, Deikto, makes it possible to have completely computable language that is as detailed as the author chooses to make it.

There is of course a robust personality model. A number of experiments have used personality models, but those models tend to be limited in scope. Our model is unlimited in scope: the author can extend it indefinitely. More important, the model can be USED. It’s not enough to merely set up a bunch of personality traits; you must also make them easily usable in behavioral calculations.

It’s difficult to communicate just how radically different the Storytelling technology is. It takes people a few months of messing around with it in order to grasp a truly weird system. That’s because we’ve confined ourselves to a box that emphasizes things other than dramatic interpersonal interaction. The Storytron technology starts with dramatic interpersonal interaction as its foundation, and works outward from there, yielding some very strange data structures and processes. But it works.

WRT:You’ve bee working on this for 20 years, can you talk about how your
vision has evolved?

CC: Not quite 20 years yet — maybe 17. The first shift is a matter of broadening. Originally I just wanted to do a good game based on the Arthurian legends. Then I expanded that to be a system for permitting other people to build storyworlds. I started off with a fixed personality model, and that broadened into an extensible personality model. The language structure started off as just a verb with a defined set of attributes attached to it. Nowadays a verb is a much more complex data structure, capable of enormous flexibility. The most recent broadening was the transition from a fixed text system to a scriptable text system.

But these are all more technological in nature. The core vision has evolved considerably. I started off locked into the games mindset. It’s only human that games people just don’t realize how narrow that mindset is until they finally break out of it. In my case, my determination to provide interpersonal interaction forced me, time and time again, to resort to concepts arising from the field of drama. Here’s a simple and early example of that. I started off thinking in conventional spatial terms, just like all games people. Space is measured in Cartesian coordinates (x, y, z) and there’s a map defining what walls, objects, doors, and so forth are at the various coordinates. But that just didn’t work well for interpersonal interaction. After much hand-wringing and flopping around, I had this brilliant idea: set up space as a set of small connected “rooms”. Actors inside a single room can interact with each other, but not with anybody else. I was so proud of myself until a voice in my head said “Those are called ’stages’ in drama.” Duh! This is just one example of how I have been steadily forced into embracing concepts from drama.

WRT: You’ve always positioned yourself as a lone gun or the Storytron Socrates calling out the foibles of the decadent arcade of Athens. Have your audiences become more open to your message or are they still stuck in the same old paradigms?

CC: There are two groups: the ardent games people who are devoted to the existing games system, and those who are dissatisfied with the current state of the art in interactive entertainment. The gamesters tend to be more techie in style, while the rebels, if I may call them that, don’t see technology as the most important factor. In general, the gamesters hate me and the rebels love me.

WRT: I’ve heard you describe your vision of potential authors for this system as newcomers who might not have created electronic narratives using other tools. What is it about your system that might be so inviting to them?

CC: It’s built around traditional dramatic concepts rather than technical concepts. Unfortunately, it has its own technical concepts that can be difficult to figure out. For example, we invented our own mathematical system of numbers that we call “Bounded Numbers”. I’ve been doing simulation stuff for decades, and there are certain classes of problems in simulation that can drive you crazy, and fixing them requires some serious mathematical skill. The Bounded Numbers system eliminates all those problems. It’s a very clever scheme, but at first it seems incomprehensible, almost counterintuitive. Interestingly, if you’re already familiar with programming, it’s harder to understand than if you’ve never done any programming.

WRT:What do authors need to know before they use the system?

CC: Not much. But they will have to learn a truly alien technology. We figure that it will take a reasonably intelligent beginner about three months to become comfortable with the system.

WRT:What does the future hold for Swat and Storyteller? A huge release party? If so, when and where?

CC: Not quite yet. The authoring environment is pretty much finished and a number of people have been using it for months now with only petty problems. But the primary demo, Balance of Power 21st Century, is still undergoing tuning. You can play it right now and it gives you and idea of the potential of the technology, but I have not finished tuning it, so it’s not much fun. And whenever I *do* get some tuning done, a few new bugs always pop up.

WRT:Who do you want to play you in the movie?

CC: Stan Laurel.



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