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This chapter is from the book

Playing God

The same concept of resorting to a higher level of abstraction provides a partial solution to the knotty problem of free will versus determinism discussed in Chapter 3. This solution embraces physics and rationalizes faith. It says that God is omnipotent with respect to process, not data. That is, God controls the universe through its laws, but not through the details. God does not dictate the position and velocity of every electron and proton in the universe; instead, he merely declares, “Let there be physics” and then allows the clockwork of the universe to run according to his laws. In an indirect way, we could say that he does control everything that happens in the universe, but it is abstract control. God determines the principles under which the universe operates, but grants us free will to choose as we wish within that universe. He even works a little randomness—in the form of quantum mechanics—into the system to ensure that we aren’t automatons responding robot-like to our environments. The important point is this: God is an abstract designer!

The king who formulates laws is controlling his kingdom in a similar way. He doesn’t wander through the kingdom, ordering people to reap this crop, milk those cows, or build that house. Instead, he creates a set of rules constraining their behavior. His rule can be benevolent or harsh, but it is always abstract and indirect.

And the same resolution works with the apparent conflict between plot and interactivity. If you are a data-intensive designer, then you are a deterministic one. Like some Bible-thumping fundamentalist, you insist that every single word you write be obeyed literally by the characters in the story. The fundamentalist focuses all his or her beliefs in the explicit data of the Bible rather than the abstract processes behind it.

But if you are a process-intensive designer like God, then the characters in your universe can have free will within the confines of your laws of “dramatic physics.” You must abandon the self-indulgence of direct control and instead rely on indirect, abstract control. That is, instead of specifying the data of the plotline, you must specify the processes of the dramatic conflict. Instead of defining who does what to whom, you must define how people can do different things to each other.

crawfordsmall.jpg This is too esoteric, too indirect to allow the richness of tone that a good story requires.

True, but consider what a story really communicates. A story is an instance that communicates a principle. Moby Dick is not about a whale; it is about obsession. Luke Skywalker never really existed; the truths about growing up and facing the challenges of manhood are the movie’s real messages. Stories are false at the direct level yet true at the abstract level. The instances they relate never happened, but the abstract principles they embody are the truth that we appreciate. They are false in their data but true in their process.

Given this, consider the nature of the communication between storyteller and audience. The storyteller seeks to communicate some truth, some principle of the human condition. Rather than communicate the truth itself, he creates a particular set of circumstances that instantiate the truth he seeks to communicate. This instantiation is what he communicates to his audience. The audience then interprets the story; it figures out the higher, more abstract principles from the story’s details. Note, however, the circumlocution of this process. The storyteller seeks to communicate some truth of the human condition; the audience seeks to learn the same. Instead of just telling the principle, the storyteller translates the principle into an instantiation, then communicates the instantiation; the audience then translates the instantiation back into a principle. This is truly a roundabout way to get the job done.

Interactive storytelling alters this process in two important ways. First, the process of translating principle into instance is delegated to the computer. The storyteller retains full artistic control, but now she must exercise that control at a more abstract level. The basic process of translating principle into instance is retained, but is now performed by the computer in partnership with the player. This, of course, entails considerable effort in algorithm creation. The second difference is that, because the story is generated in direct response to the player’s actions, the resultant story is customized to the needs and interests of the player. Thereby, the story more than makes up for any loss in polish with its greater emotional involvement.

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