May 16, 2006

Glassner's Interactive Storytelling – [books]

Scene 1: An apartment. The walls are covered with Academy Award-winning movie posters. A man slouches on a couch, his hand resting in a giant bowl of popcorn. A pile of DVDs tumbles off of a coffee table. The drone of music and the chatter of voices can be heard from a small television screen.

The phone rings. A hand reaches for the phone.

Man on couch: Hello?

Voice on phone: Glassner! Some maniac has left another package for the mayor in the basement of the Cartwright building. Get your butt over there pronto!

The camera turns to reveal the face of our protagonist, Andrew Glassner. His eyes glint with the excitement of another bomb to be defused.

Glassner puts down the phone. He takes a remote control out of his pocket and pauses the movie on the television. He grabs his keys from a table, and picks up a black bag marked "Bomb Squad" by the front door. Before we can fully comprehend the speed of his actions, we see the front door closing. Glassner is on the job.

Scene 2: A dimly lit room with bare bulbs and exposed pipes, some kind of utility area. In the center of the room is Glassner, standing in front of a large bomb-like device. Two uniformed policemen, nervous, stand near an open doorway.

Glassner: You two get out of here. I can't have you at risk.

The two policemen leave. Glassner looks down at the device. His hand traces a wire from the timer to the detonator. He smiles.

Glassner: I think good old number two should do the trick.

He opens the black bomb squad bag and takes out a flat zippered case. He unzips the case and lays it on the table. Inside is a vast assortment of small pointed objects: knitting needles, hairpins, tweezers, toothpicks, chopsticks, pipe cleaners, and so on. We see Glassner's hand confidently move across the implements, searching for one very specific tool.

The hand pauses at an empty slot shaped like a pencil. We see Glassner's face as it changes from a confident expression to one of confusion.

Cut to: Glassner's apartment. On the edge of the coffee table we see a folded piece of newspaper showing a half-completed Sudoku puzzle. A yellow pencil rests diagonally across the puzzle.

Cut back to: Glassner standing by the bomb. He looks panicked.

Glassner: Does anyone have a pencil? I need a pencil!

Frantically, Glassner pulls various implements out of the case and uses them to try to defuse the bomb. The toothpick breaks. He drops a needle. His hands fumble the chopsticks.

Glassner: Oh hell.

The timer reaches 0:00 and we see the Cartwright building explode in a brilliant fireball.

* * *

I think this is a deserving fate for Mr. Glassner, after providing us with the largely worthless volume titled Interactive Storytelling: techniques for 21st century fiction.

At first, given the title of the book, you might think there will be some value in combining the narrative qualities of film with the interactive qualities of games, but after 400 pages it is pretty clear that Glassner doesn't like the idea at all.

Although he never states it explicitly, Glassner is a big proponent of "suspension of disbelief". He wants entertainment that relentlessly pulls you in. He doesn't want interactive fiction where the player can make decisions about the character, decision about the plot, or activity that requires any amateur acting ability. He doesn't want any interactivity to interfere with the creative process.

And of course he doesn't like hypertext, or interactive fiction, or adventure games, or most of the conventions that delimit the field of interactive narrative.

* * *

The book itself is a hodgepodge. Glassner talks about game theory, the Prisoner's Dilemma, "flow", Braitenberg vehicles, chaos theory, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and on and on. Almost none of these subjects are integrated with the rest of the book.

Braitenberg vehicles are introduced as a lengthy tangent in Chapter 12: Story Environments. The argument here is that the appearance of sophisticated behavior can arise from simple systems, with the implication by analogy that believable characters should likewise be easy to build using simple systems. The argument isn't complete, however, as Glassner never elaborates on the functional role of these characters, much less if such roles could actually be satisfied by the emergent behavior of simple systems. He is repeating the common sentiment that interactive entertainment will make use of emergent behavior, something I've heard over and over for about ten years now.

By far the book's greatest weakness is too great a reliance on the collective wisdom of Hollywood filmmaking. Glassner finds Hollywood to be the apex of good storytelling, with its idiosyncratic heroes, well-worn genres, and audience-approved plots. He also assumes that the reader is familiar with Hollywood terminology and the essentials of film production. From that perspective, he takes a scornful look at hypertext narrative, and provides a lengthy litany on what he doesn't like about computer games. By the end he is convinced that interactive stories should be like movies, only they should use interactivity to be even more engaging.

* * *


On page 9: "A big part of the problem is that video games are signnifcantly shaped by their underlying technology." [sic]

On page 180, a diagram indicates that Chess is "all chance" and the card game War is "no chance".

"Chess" does not appear in the index.

On page 285, Glassner defines "machinema" as an in-game animation (cut scene) made with the game's graphics engine. Machinema is more commonly defined as using a game engine to produce motion graphics for use outside of the game environment, a creative endeavor that hijacks the technology for a different purpose than it was designed for.

* * *

Glassner, Andrew S. Interactive Storytelling: techniques for 21st century fiction, A K Peters, Natick Massachusetts, 2004.

Posted by B Rickman at May 16, 2006 03:07 PM

I'm glad I didn't read that, I'm impressionable enough at my age.

Posted by: Patrick Dugan at June 2, 2006 07:27 PM

Very good reading. Peace until next time.

Posted by: WaltDe at August 31, 2006 03:09 PM

spam confusion

Posted by: prevacid at March 13, 2007 03:29 PM
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