March 14, 2008

Interactive Narrative at UCF

by Nick Montfort · , 8:43 pm

UCF’s Interactive Narrative conference kicked off today with a really wonderful keynote talk by Chris Crawford. It was like a live-action video visit into the human brain, with a powerful conclusion about what artists should learn in order to drive the creative potential of the computer forward. Here are my notes – completely unofficial jottings, but ones that I hope will give you a sense of his argument. After these keynote notes, I discuss our encounters with the StoryBox environment.

C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” applies to using the computer as a medium of artistic expression. Science & techie people: Computer games, technologically awesome but “utterly devoid of social and artistic merit.” Arts side: A mirror image of the problem; haven’t mastered the computer. Nothing points the way to the future. But, we also had no idea about what to do with movies in the early days: Photo-plays. We use the computer as an instrument for creating other media, but don’t use it by itself, in its own right, as a medium of artistic expression. The excuses (departmental divisions, etc.) don’t address the problem, which is deep and has to do with how the human brain works.

A (generalized, simplified) story about evolution: Neuron developed to coordinate muscles. Eyeball developed so critters could see where they are going. But recognizing what you see is tough. Want to determine: Predator, prey, mate? Not easy. Orientation, lighting, and so on prevent you from just looking up an image. So: Pattern recognition. Neuronal arms race began: Prey capable of more computation could get away, predators had to get smarter brains… Neurons require about 8x as much food as other cells, so are metabolically expensive. Still, they keep developing: Some can discern whether dinosaur footfalls are approaching or receding. Needs sequential thinking, not just the pattern recognition neurons were built for. Add linked neurons to give a delay, a memory. Costly – 200 neurons of a kludge were needed for a two-second delay – but worth it. Ambush-style hunting works if your prey wanders by, by mammals developed stalking – moving when the prey isn’t looking and then striking, another example of sequential thinking. After many millions of years, a form of very sophisticated sequential thinking: Language. Human brain tripled in size in the last 3 million years.

On to the Greeks. Why did they do so many special things? Economics and geography – no river valleys, didn’t develop the same system of bullies exploiting farmers that was later called monarchs and aristocracy. Can’t live very well on olive oil, wine, and fish, but wine and olive oil could be traded on great terms. Merchants ran the societies. The Greeks invented rationalism, that you think your way through problems. Hence, Odysseus, a super-clever guy, triumphing. Aristotle invented the syllogism and a way to combine these and make logical deductions. Generations of people were trained to think logically during the time of Scholasticism, and then powerful mathematics and science and technology were developed.

This is the story of the development of sequential thinking, which is the basis of technology. But the arts? They are based on something like metaphor, which is pattern thinking. They are different! This didn’t start 50 years ago when C. P. Snow discussed it, but hundreds and millions of years ago. Education exacerbates this split. To use the computer as an artistic medium, you need to be good in both ways.

The unhappy conclusion: People on both sides are going to need to work to develop the other side – a major effort! Highly-paid programmers don’t have an economic incentive to solve this problem. The artist are the ones with the lean and hungry look about them; I think they will provide more people who have both abilities.

What you need as a basis:

1. First year, first semester high-school algebra – know it well enough to be able to teach it.

2. Learn how to express ideas mathematically. Anything can be quantized and modeled; the model may be useful or not, but it can be made.

3. Learn how to program – not HTML or Flash, real programming! Don’t be world-class, but be able to write the code that embodies what you can express in step 2. You have to control the core concepts, not sockets and file systems and everything.

My project, Storytron, is 90% written by “real programmers” – but I control the engine and have written everything in those modules. You need to be able to do this for your projects.

This group can take on the painful task of learning these types of thinking, and work to exploit the untapped potential of the computer as an artistic media.

I didn’t takes notes on all of the Q&A, but during that time, I asked: How do you it? Could collaboration work, or how?

Answer (as best I can represent it in my notes): Collaboration between two different experts can be horrible – it’s better when you’re both sort of dumb. A good thing to do is play, just toy around with the computer. Use languages and systems that are friendly to this.

Into StoryBox

After the keynote, we heard about StoryBox here at UCF: A black-box theater with cameras and a sound system allowing an audience to remotely observe. It’s used with improv actors, “interactors,” doing their work and play as a participant, a “spectactor,” comes into the space. The result is an interactive performance – the interactivity provided by people and viewable by a remote group. We saw actors play some herald-style scenes while a spectactor (Michael Nitsche of Georgia Tech) took part.

Then, we were invited to devise our own ideas for use in the StoryBox. Working with the others at my table, I developed a concept for the StoryBox: “Situation Room.” The idea was to make the StoryBox space a lunar station in crisis; the room we are in would be mission control. (In other words, this was a sort of ripoff of the main, tense sequence from Apollo 13.) After we worked out some details, I pitched it to the whole group in a very condensed form. It ended up being chosen as the scenario we would try in StoryBox with the interactors and a spectactor from our group.

Situation Room was a complete flop – maybe an instructive and interesting one in some ways, but certainly a flop. The idea of “a lunar colony in crisis” was not communicated clearly to the interactors, and they played the situation as if it were Beverly Hills 90210 in space, with one powerful exception. One interactor was – as we had discussed at the table, but not made clear to others – supposed to play the part of the mission controller and elicit information, suggestions, and data from those of us in the audience space, at “mission control.” This didn’t happen, so, without anyone in this role, the main new effect was that walkie-talkies were introduced as a communication link between the audience and those in StoryBox. And, finally, the “audience” (those at mission control) didn’t seem to understand that we were to play parts, which, by the way, weren’t clearly assigned by anyone to audience members, implicitly or explicitly. Few people chose to act rather than watch. Even though I knew what the concept was supposed to be, I started conferring with others about the improv situation rather than trying to stay in character.

Despite these problems with setting up the scenario, there may have been a few useful things learned from the Situation Room exercise. I think the main one is that a room that has already been designated as a space for audience members, observers who are not participants, is a poor context in which to try to get a group to participate as actors. Even if everyone had done something as simple as leaving the room and coming back in, that might have helped the reconsecrate the space as a place where we could act. There were also possibly some ideas about how people liked to try to direct or influence action from afar that could be gleaned from the communication between the situation room (mission control) and the lunar station.

Afterwards, I got to attend a very useful Storytron workshop that Chris Crawford offered. He gave a pretty thorough overview of the system, given the time that was allotted, but perhaps the most interesting and immediate thing I learned in the Storytron sessions is – buckle your seatbelts – that April 1 is the planned release date for the system.

3 Responses to “Interactive Narrative at UCF”


  1. noah Says:

    Thanks for the notes! I hope you have the time and energy to keep them going through the gathering.

  2. nick Says:

    I’ll post some brief updates here in comments, not as extensive as the coverage above.

    We’ve continued to work in the StoryBox. Last night I got to be a spectactor and had an interesting experience. My character didn’t change throughout the experience, and perhaps I didn’t learn to accept or give offers, but the interactors are trained to deal with those who aren’t improv actors and so from my standpoint the experience was fairly smooth, even if I wasn’t often really into it and acting (certainly not methodically). I was at least trying to be in character, and that gave me some hint of a dramatic experience that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. Brian Megerko had an experiment run in the StoryBox where he asked an improv actor to vocalize her thoughts (non-performatively) while acting. He also played as a spectactor, portraying, as it turned out, a singer who was rising to fame. Another idea generated from conference attendees ran in the StoryBox during the day.

    I also went to a very interesting short improv workshop by John Jannone yesterday. This morning, Rudy McDaniel Telep gave an interactive fiction workshop in which we did speed-IF like designs for games, based on objects they brought and provided us. Next up is another session of work with interactors and StoryBox.

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