Casablanca pic from GDC RadioErnest Adams’ talk, Interactive Narratives Revisited: Ten Years of Research, given at the 2005 Game Developer’s Conference is now available as a podcast at GDCRadio. Listen to the lecture and read along with the transcript Adams’ has put online, where he links to papers he cites. Here is the blurb of the GDC talk:

In 1995 Ernest Adams gave a lecture at the GDC called “The Challenge of the Interactive Movie,” in which he outlined some fundamental problems with interactive narrative at that time. He identified three in particular: the problem of internal consistency; the problem of narrative flow; and the problem of amnesia.

In this lecture, Adams looks back on the last 10 years and examines how both academic research and the game industry as a creative business have addressed these and other issues in the design of interactive narratives. He draws on the published literature and on his own experience as a player and a professional game designer to illuminate the progress that has been made, including numerous examples from real games.

This lecture will also be a partial summary of Mr. Adams’ Ph.D. research.

The lecture brings the attendee up-to-date on the current state of the art and offers direct suggestions for further work. It includes a history of efforts to merge interactivity with narratives; a statement of the key issues faced in combining the two. It includes an examination of the work done over the last ten years, with comments on the degree of success of different approaches, and examples taken from published games. It also includes concrete proposals for future research, development, and experimentation.

He acknowledges that the talk does not emcompass all the research that has been undertaken. But he does cover a lot of the main issues in a lucid and entertaining manner.

5 Responses to “10 Years of Interactive Storytelling”

  1. 1 Jeremy Douglass

    Thanks for turning me on to this Chisty - the discussion of Lindley’s paper looks like it has cross-media applications. I just finished writing up a long abstract, and I thought I’d post and a couple comments below.

    Mark, are you familiar with Doug Church’s Gamasutra article on “Formal Abstract Design Tools”? Adams cites it discussing sports and narrative, and it reminded me of an earlier conversation of ours.

  2. 2 Jeremy Douglass


    In his GDC 2005 talk “Interactive Narratives Revisited: Ten Years of Research”, Ernest W. Adams reviews his description of “three problems for interactive storytellers” from GDC 1995 - internal consistency (choice v characterization), narrative flow (choice v pacing), and amnesia (player v character knowledge). At that time Adams rejected interactive narrative as an incoherent buzzword, calling instead for game developers to create “playgrounds for the mind.” Now Adams surveys the emergence of narrative elements over the past ten years in game genres including rail shooters, action-adventure hybrids, and strategy games with hero units. Revisiting the problems, he suggests replacing amnesiac characters with carefully crafted introductions, and recognizes the partially-constrained hero as sufficient for internal consistency given that “players don’t want to violate a character’s essential nature anyway.” Still, Adams sees these strategies along with the general “resurgence of linearity” as sidestepping key challenges in interactive narrative, and he blames lack of progress on both unproductive critical vocabulary (talk of conflict or dramatic tension ignores that gameplay tension allows repetition and randomness) and infighting in academia (ludology v narratology turf wars and postmodern politics). Criticizing over-reliance on Joseph Campbell or on the Aristotelian three-act structure, Adams also deplores trivial themes and emotions in games, and responds with ten quality guidelines whose bottom line is “interactivity is not an excuse for bad writing.” On the more positive side, he covers Marc LeBlanc on emergent narrative (including caveats on quality) and MMOG storyworlds (including caveats on lack of roleplaying). He also credits productive academic researchers including Janet Murray, Henry Jenkins, Joseph Bates, and in particular Craig Lindley’s paper on structural plot generation based on Proppian analysis. Adams concludes by listing research projects including the Erasmatron, Zoesis, Extempo, and Façade, describing his own vision of the future is an “AI dungeon master.”


    I enjoyed Adams’ talk and its focus on the utility of theories from a developer’s perspective. It was interesting to read Adams on amnesia as a narrative device, since this has interested me throughout my own work on IF (although I never considered it a problem so much as a solution). I was also unfamiliar with Extempo… and Lindley’s paper, which contains several interesting resonances with our Benchmark Fiction initiatives in describing how “the same story may be expressed in many different narratives, either within the same medium or across different media.”

    I like the attitude Adams takes towards utilitarian structuralism, and I generally enjoy his taste in sources and his enthusiasm for R&D projects (e.g. Façade). Given that he began by disclaiming that there was an explosion of research that he just hadn’t read, however, his “Academia Earns a B-minus” evaluation was a bit strange. My only other nitpick was with odd slips that seem to lack historical perspective - talking about 1995 comments that “anticipate” emergent narrative, or dating Propp’s work to the 1960s instead of the 1920s. If we want to talk seriously about what needs doing, it helps to be clear about what has already been done. Still, overall, Adams’ talk delivers a great summary of the field and the time from a development perspective, and is well worth reading.

  3. 3 Christy Dena

    Jeremy, what does the term “cross-media” mean to you? I’m interested because it can be read in so many ways.

  4. 4 Jeremy Douglass

    Christy, I was thinking of cross-media as “the publication of a single message, narrative (or more broadly storyworld) distributed across multiple media.” So when Adams quotes Lindley’s paper that

    “The reason for separating the story as a different level of meaning from the narratives that express it is the fact that the same story may be expressed in many different narratives, either within the same medium or across different media” [my emphasis]

    the implication that a unitary composition stage might proceed a distributed cross-media publication stage is an interesting one.

  5. 5 Christy Dena

    And I’ll ask one more question before I respond if I may?: what does the term “transmedia” mean to you?

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