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This chapter is from the book

The Moral of These Stories

Over and over we see the same idea: To grow intellectually, and to understand and cope with more complex problems, we always move to higher levels of abstraction. This can be summarized in a simple lesson.

Recall that in Chapter 3, “Interactive Storytelling,” Lesson 13 resolves the dilemma of control versus interactivity: “There is no conflict between process-driven narrative and interactivity.” The solution to the dilemma is to exert control at a higher level of abstraction. As with all the examples, that abstraction will be more difficult to understand, but it will extend our intellectual reach. Many storytellers, locked in the traditions of conventional storytelling, will be unable (and perhaps unwilling) to grasp such abstractions and will reject the whole concept. No matter—there will always be plenty of room in this world for traditional stories. But interactive storytelling demands that we move to a higher level of abstraction.

To understand the abstractions presented in this book, you must first let go of the very notion of plot. A plot is a fixed sequence of events that communicates some larger message about the human condition. In interactive storytelling, we replace the plot with a web of possibilities that comprise the same truth. Since this concept confuses most people, let’s look at a number of examples at different levels.

Let’s use the classic movie Star Wars: A New Hope as our starting point. Here is the direct representation (sequence) of the story:

  1. Luke Skywalker leaves home, meets Obi-Wan, travels with him to Mos Eisely spaceport, and flies away in a spaceship. But their ship is captured by the bad guys; they fool the bad guys, rescue Princess Leia, and escape from the Death Star. The bad guys attack the last bastion of the rebels, and Luke helps to attack the Death Star. Luke destroys the Death Star and gets rewarded by the princess.

Now let’s look at the same story in a more abstract fashion:

  1. A young man ventures out into the world, makes new friends, and experiences many adventures. He learns much and triumphs over adversity, winning the admiration of a pretty girl.

Now let’s make it even more abstract:

  1. A boy confronts the challenge of growing up to become a man. He faces many difficulties, but ultimately triumphs over adversity and establishes his manhood.

It is at these higher levels of abstraction that we design storyworlds. Instead of thinking about Luke Skywalker, we think about a young man—any young man. Instead of thinking about space combat, we think about adventures—many different kinds of adventures. Instead of thinking about blowing up the Death Star, we think about triumphing over adversity.

We don’t assemble storyworlds event by event. Instead, our high-level design requires us to construct storyworlds concept by concept. There aren’t many variations of “rescue Princess Leia,” but there are millions of versions of “faces many difficulties.” Put another way, there is only one version of the first story, but there are thousands of versions of the second story and millions of versions of the third story. For now, the third level of the story is too abstract. But, if you think in terms of the second level, then you can design a storyworld that can generate thousands of different stories. Remember, there’s no such thing as an interactive story; if it’s already a story, then it has been nailed down and you can’t interact with it. Instead, we’re pursuing the concept of interactive storytelling, which springs from a storyworld—and a storyworld is what you create, not a story.

As long as you think in terms of a strict sequence of events (a plot), then you’ll never understand the concept of interactive storytelling. Instead, you must think in terms of an entire dramatic universe of potential stories: a storyworld.

crawfordsmall.jpg Can you be more specific?

Sure. Consider these sentences from different stories:

“You look magnificent, darling!”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody as beautiful as you.”

“You’re such a dashing fellow!”

“Ooh! You’re so strong and brave!”

I’m sure that you’ve read thousands of variations on these sentences, all of them cleverer than these. They all boil down to this single statement:

“I compliment you.”

crawfordsmall.jpg Yuck! The abstract version is cold, lifeless, and utterly mechanical. You can’t seriously propose that we present something like this to our audience!

No, I’m not proposing that we present “something like this” to our audience. Instead, we have to use one of several strategies for presenting the idea behind it. Internally, our interactive storytelling engine will still be thinking in terms of “I compliment you,” but the presentation of that idea can be dressed up into a more palatable form. (I explain how to do this in Chapter 18, “Scripting Languages.”)

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