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Interactive Storytelling: Techniques for 21st Century Fiction [Paperback]

Andrew Glassner

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Book Description

26 Feb 2004 1568812213 978-1568812212
We are on the verge of creating an exciting new kind of interactive story form that will involve audiences as active participants. This book provides a solid foundation in the fundamentals of classical story structure and classical game structure and explains why it has been surprisingly difficult to bring these two activities together. With this foundation in place, the book presents several ideas for ways to move forward in this appealing quest. The author has a conversational and friendly style, making reading a pleasure.

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"First, this is a book that everybody who wants to make compelling games should read...", October 2004

About the Author

Andrew Glassner is a writer-director, and a consultant in story structure, interactive fiction, and computer graphics. He has carried out research in 3D computer graphics at the NYIT Computer Graphics Lab, the IBM TJ Watson Research Lab, the Delft University of Technology, Bell Communications Research, Xerox PARC, and Microsoft Research. His research work has resulted in a half-dozen patents. He is currently developing a feature film for Coyote Wind Studios. The New York Times wrote, "Andrew Glassner [is one] of the most respected talents in the world of computer graphics research."

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.0 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
72 of 94 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Amazing 2 Nov 2004
By Jonathan Beyrak Lev - Published on
I never would have believed that someone could talk so much without having anything to say. I'm positively amazed.

I've waded through this book for hours trying to find even a shred of a concept among the heaped piles of trivia, irrelevancies, flawed arguments, bold and baseless assertions, large amounts of poorly analyzed information and fantastically impractical propositions, not to mention the incessant repetitions of said.

The fact is, this book contains neither illuminating theories nor useful practical suggestions, but only seemingly random (albeit grammatically compatible) sentences strung together in what must be the most extravagant display of Da-Da intellectualism to ever see print.

For example, after stating that on the one hand, the merging of games and stories seems natural and desirable, and on the other hand it has proven more difficult than expected (by whom?), the author treats us to this piece of sublime poetry:

"The quest to find a way to combine storytelling and gaming has all the qualities of a great story or game: there's a noble goal to be achieved, difficulties to overcome through understanding and insight, and success to be won by the careful use of skill, planning and execution".

This self-indulgent babble fills the book's pages to the point of choking. Another episode of it is exemplified when the author is considering the proper term to call users of his "participatory storytelling" idea, kindly sharing his profound thinking processes with the reader:

"What shall we call the people participating in these stories? I like players; someone taking part in a game is called a player, as is a performer in a play or film. Since a person participating in a story environment is doing a bit of each activity, the term "player" seems both fitting and economical".

Thanks to Mr. Glassner for his enlightening elucidations.

Later in the book, the author arrives at a conclusion that several difficulties that he claims to be inherent to interactive storytelling require the transition to a new aesthetic goal, which he calls "participatory storytelling". In addition to the fact that it is impossible to yield from this text either an intelligent overview of these difficulties, a coherent argument as to the superiority of "participatory storytelling", or even a solid definition of it, it seems the author has actually no grasp of the considerations relating to the subject matter. Mr. Glassner suggests, for example, the use of a fantastic science fiction technology he calls "living masks". A living mask, we are told, is a form of "interpreter" assigned to the player, who translates that player's input into the story world, transforming it into a more professional performance. In other words, this "mask" is supposed to be able to understand the player's intention, and then express it in a way that is more theatrical and more "in character" than a non-professional player would be able (or, Mr. Glassner claims, would want) to achieve. A computer rephrasing a human's speech to be more theatrical! Changing his tone to express more emotion! Manipulating his facial expressions to be more like "professional" acting! If this is at all possible, which is in doubt, this technology would certainly consume lifetimes to achieve!

But technology is not the only thing that the author seems to have no grasp of. Not by a long shot. The book drudges through an exhausting overview of what differentiates stories from games (Based, of course, on the mislead assumption that Story + Game = Interactive Storytelling). Since this comparison is about as appropriate as asking what differentiates a symphony from a papaya, Mr. Glassner has to invent some highly imaginative points of comparison which, other than providing an opportunity for several obscene atrocities committed against the English language as regards the definition of certain terms, stretched beyond recognition to be applicable to both stories and games, like the claim that both stories and games have a "referee" of some sort, have very little value. But even within his own twisted semantics, he simply doesn't seem to grasp the core concepts. When comparing the rules of games to those of stories, he focuses on stories, saying that their rules are hard to define because they are dependant on many practicalities - the laws of physics, the capabilities of the characters, or the ramifications of some actions. He's got it all backwards - all of these are the exact considerations which decide the rules of computer games. Stories, all stories, have one, and only one constant and inescapable set of rules - the rules of narrative.

It seems Mr. Glassner's understanding of interactivity is no better than his understanding of storytelling or games. He bemoans what he calls "The Myth of Interactivity: more interactivity makes any experience better". It's hard to say who exactly Mr. Glassner thinks are the subscribers to this "myth". After all, I've yet to hear someone express a wish that food or music, for example, were interactive, however that could possibly be achieved, yet these activities are among those most enjoyed by people the world over.

The examples given by Mr. Glassner serve both to undermine his point as to the overestimation of interactivity and to demonstrate that he, himself, has no idea of what interactivity is:

"Interactivity itself is hardly novel or interesting: an ATM is interactive... and the automatic doors in front of a supermarket are interactive. The whole world is filled with interactive experiences, from waving down a cab to sharpening a pencil".

For all of these activities save the last, the author is correct in claiming that they are, strictly speaking, interactive. The part about the pencil sharpening is outright puzzling. However, all these activities are perfect examples of why increased interactivity is better: first, they are the simplest, silliest forms of interactivity. Supporting a claim to the overestimation of interactivity with these examples is like supporting a claim to the overestimation of reading with the example of bumper stickers. Furthermore, each and every one of these activities could be improved with more interactivity. The interaction with an ATM would be much more interesting if, for example, it gave you financial advice instead of just spewing out cash, listening to your concerns and recommending a proper course of action. A door at the supermarket would be much more interesting if you could ask it for directions to the different products you're looking for, and a cab ride is improved immeasurably if you have an engaging conversation with the driver. Improve the interactivity of these experiences, and you improve their value (To learn more about interactivity, read Chris Crawford's book on the subject, and while you're at it, read his one on interactive storytelling, too).

What passes for a main argument in this forgettable book is that interactivity and stories conflict because stories are meticulously construed by master craftsmen and therefore cannot brook interference from the audience without being destroyed. And since this "interference" is the essence of interactivity, the two are incompatible. If Mr. Glassner were correct, which he most certainly is not, then it would be impossible to wed the two - this would be a shotgun marriage with neither party gaining anything, and the only question being how much each would lose on behalf of the other. As Mr. Glassner would have it, the interactive part would lose dramatically while the story would lose little (The storyteller retains control of the main characters, their actions and emotions, with the players making secondary contributions). An understandable position for a screenwriter.

However, what the author fails to see is that story and interactivity can actually be combined in a way that benefits both parties instead of simply making both lose their soul. This, however, requires a major paradigm shift because it is simply impossible to deal with the concept in the terms of current artistic media. The result will be nothing like traditional games and it will be nothing like traditional stories. It will have a different contract between storyteller and audience than that Mr. Glassner is howling like a frenzied fundamentalist to preserve, and it will have a very different kind of interactivity than that of a computer game, let alone the sports games that Mr. Glassner seems so interested in for some reason (being, is it were, the farthest thing from relevant to the subject which can still be termed "game"), and it will have a very different definition for the role of storyteller - to create a system of narrative possibilities out of which hundreds of thousands of moving and powerful stories can be constructed using the user's input. Is it possible? Yes. Do we have the technology? Yes. Will Mr. Galssner's book take us any closer to it? Don't bet on it.

After having despaired and having been irritated beyond measure in my attempts to extract even a modicum of benefit or interest from this oversized doorstop, I literally threw it away with force. Avoid doing the same with your time and money.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A deeply flawed introduction to the subject. 6 May 2008
By Ernest W. Adams - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The first part of the book is a decent introduction to both storytelling and games, at least for novices. If you know nothing at all about stories, his discussion of the three-act structure, Hero's Journey, etc. are useful primers. The same is true of his remarks on the basics of game design: challenges, competition modes, scoring systems, and so on.

Unfortunately, Glassner runs off the rails when he starts to talk about combining gameplay with storytelling. He frequently makes theoretical arguments founded in preconceptions from traditional storytelling media, while ignoring the practical experience obtained by professional game designers over the last forty years. His chief argument against branching storylines, for example, is that they haven't caught on in mainstream media such as books, television, and movies. At the same time he acknowledges that branching storylines are one of the most popular ways of doing interactive storytelling on computers. The fact that flipping through book pages and rewinding the VCR is awkward, while a computer can deliver a branching storyline seamlessly, does not seem to have occurred to him.

Worst of all, his perspective seems to be based more upon what he WANTS players to want rather than upon what they actually DO want. He proposes what he calls the "Story Contract," in which the author is granted exclusive control over both the psychology of the main characters and the plot sequence. Having done so, he treats this contract as axiomatic for the rest of the book -- but a good many game designers and players would strenuously object to both provisions.

In addition, the book contains a great many irrelevant digressions into territory with which the author is clearly unfamiliar. He categorically condemns settable game difficulty modes (easy, medium, hard, nightmare, etc.) and airily proposes that all games should include dynamic difficulty adjustment. However, he doesn't address the points that dynamic difficulty adjustment is hard to do well, not necessarily suited to all game genres, and above all, that some players LIKE to choose a difficulty level at the beginning of the game. And what this has to do with interactive storytelling, I cannot imagine.

In short, I second Jonathan Lev's conclusions, though perhaps not in such vitriolic terms. The first two hundred pages are good basic material for first-year undergraduates. The rest isn't much use to anyone who actually wants to build interactive storytelling experiences.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dreadful - indulgent and contradictory 15 Oct 2008
By Slartibartfast - Published on
I don't know who is writing all these five-star reviews, but I suspect they are by friends of the author. My advice is to listen to the two and one star reviews.

There is little in this 'book' of real value. Many chapters are given over to simple ranting about how bad particular concepts are, without offering any kind of insight or solution.

But the worst sins are the contradictory arguments. In one chapter he decries the use of branching narrative as completely broken and useless, that narratives are not meant to branch - and in the very next chapter he complains about the limited number of choices characters are given in the games he's played!

This is without doubt the shoddiest, most badly-researched book I've ever read. I physically tossed it away, and when I came here to read others reviews, I was unsurprised to hear someone else had thrown the thing across the room too. Believe me, this work demands action.

Let literary darwinism take it's course, and steer well clear.
7 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exploring the convergence of Games and Stories 10 Nov 2004
By Steven Drucker - Published on
Lots of people have been thinking recently about the holy grail of computer games, that is the melding of good quality stories with fun computer games. On the surface, this seems like it should be easy, get some good writers together with some game programmers and voila, great things should result. This excellent book shows why things are not nearly as simple as they might appear to be.

The book first starts out with a basic summary of story structure peppered with examples from common movies and familiar literature. While this is a review for many, it serves as an easy read for the game programming side of the audience. It also helps establish a language so that everything can be discussed in a common way.

The next section discusses all games, not just computer games and looks at some of the elements that makes these games engaging and entertaining. Also a review for many, but helpful for the author side of the audience.

Finally, the really important section of the book looks at why these areas come into conflict. One fairly basic idea, which is that authors advance a story through conflict in the characters and that if a person has control of a character, they might justifiably choose to avoid conflict puts the author and the gameplayer at odds with each other. Another example shows why the commonly held notion of branching narrative structure has yet to yield a compelling experience.

While many of these ideas seem obvious, it's clear that they are NOT obvious to many of the game designers out there who over and over again fall into the same traps that are described clearly in this book. The great part of this book is that it pulls together these ideas in one place, with a common language for discussion all in a clear, conversational style. While the book doesn't offer a silver bullet solution to the merging of narrative and interaction, it does show clearly where first, naive assumptions can lead to supposed solutions that simply don't work.

This book is for anyone who's interested in the principles of game design from a high level, and not just pushing bits to make the next, best looking, video game. It belongs on the bookshelf along with other great explorations in the field including Chris Crawford's The art of Interactive Design.
6 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brings interesting ideas into the mix 8 Nov 2004
By Eric Haines - Published on
This book first gives an education in the elements of storytelling and in game design. Once this basis is established, the book then delves into the various issues and contradictions involved in the idea of interactive storytelling.

The first half of the book is an introduction to the fields of storytelling and of game design. While I already was fairly well informed about some areas covered, it was worth reading through, as there were interesting tidbits along the way. Glassner's writing style is engaging and enjoyable, and his frequent use of real-life examples makes even normally dry, definitional material interesting.

The meat of the book is its exploration of the contradictions inherent in the idea of interactive storytelling and its proposal of some solutions. How do you resolve the idea of someone designing a story with dramatic elements yet have a player feel in control of his destiny? One extreme is the "Planescape: Torment" school of having only one story path you can follow. It can be an entertaining one, but the person playing is mostly doing tasks so that the next part of the story is revealed, vs. making the story himself. The other extreme is "The Sims", more a dollhouse than a game (though "The Sims 2" is more gamelike), where there are a few story-like elements and considerable freedom of action. Here the story is told almost entirely inside the player's head, as the player imbues his character's actions with meaning (e.g., "my character is staying home on the couch because he's depressed about his inability to get into art school").

Glassner explores what is good and bad about current offerings and offers some possible solutions. Classic problems are covered, such as how some computer game task cannot be overcome by the player, thereby breaking the story flow and also making the game unfinishable. One solution he discusses is having the game notice when such a hurdle is encountered and attempt to make the task ease up in order for the game to progress. This goes against the grain on one level, as people consider getting through some games as accomplishments; if the challenge changes depending on the player, this feeling is diluted. But if the goal is to actually allow all interested players to finish the game and the story, this solution makes perfect sense.

It is the exploration of ideas like these that make the whole book a worthy addition to the literature. Is the goal of the experience being designed to tell an engaging story, or to provide the reader mental and physical challenges within some themed framework? Can both elements ever coexist? Games that purport to tell stories have, to me, been mostly a failure to date. Yes, there might be a climactic series of challenges to overcome at the end with a certain dramatic tension, but my normal feeling at finishing such games is "whew, glad that's over, it was a ton of work to overcome all those starfighters/dinosaurs/orcs at that last system/island/dungeon." Or worse yet, the relief is often along the lines of, "thank the gods I don't have to do that repetitive task/walk those corridors yet again/delivery yet another frobitz to those people anymore." Compare this to reading a book with a wonderful ending, where there is no sense of work or boredom.

So, what is great about this book, for me, is that it challenges me to rethink many of the elements of storytelling and gameplaying and how these can work together. It brings these areas and their overlap into focus, questions current flawed attempts to reconcile the two, and, ultimately, makes you think about what entertainment itself is. Some ideas from this book have stuck with me; you owe it to yourself to read it if you have an interest in this field. It won't change your life, but it's likely to influence how you think about things.
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