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Overview

The development of techniques for interactive storytelling in computer games is a personal goal of mine. I recently finished a masters degree researcing tecniques to this aim, and I am presently designing my next project along the long path that implementing. I already knew from my research that Chris Crawford has dedicated more than a decade of his life to the problem, so when I saw that he had released a book, I immediately ordered a copy. When it arrived, I was absorbed in reading it from cover to cover. Chris Crawford has eloquently summarised nearly all the issues behind interactive storytelling in one book, something that it took me a year on my own to research previously.

Content

The content of the book is split into five sections, each of which contains several chapters.
In Part I: "From Story to Interactive Storytelling", Crawford explains his view of the nature of stories and interactivity, and how these should be combined for interactive storytelling.
In Part II: "styles of Thinking", Crawford explains how the typical mindsets of programmers versus artistic writers fail in tackling interactive storytelling, and introduces his "verb thinking" approach for dealing with the domain.
In Part III: "Strategies for Interactive Storytelling", Crawford covers all the traditional methods used for storytelling in present games, models used in literature such as Aarne-Thompson, Propp and Polti, and methods for dealing with language.
In Part IV: "Core Technologies for Interactive Storytelling", Crawford outlines how in his Erasmatron system he had dealt with personality models, drama managment, events, dealing with history and information flow (or "gossip"), anticipation (logical inference), roles, and development environment tools.
In Part V: "Applications", Crawford provides a review of existing interactive storytelling systems, such as his own Erasmatron, reseach projects from academia, and other approaches used in different industries. He then finishes the book with a chapter on the problems and potentials facing interactive storytelling in the future.

Review

Firstly, a note about the topic of this book. This is a book about "interactive storytelling". It is not a book about writing stories for games, or how to implement an RPG, or anything along those lines. Interactive storytelling is about providing dramatically compelling situations which are shaped by the choices made by the audience (or player). Chris Crawford also stresses that his work is completely different from the present definition of "computer games", and sees interactive storytelling as a different kind of artistic beast. This does not mean that the book is useless for traditional game developers (for example I am seeking to marry the power of interactive storytelling with traditional styles of gameplay), but it is important that you do not expect to be the book to be something that it is not. Also, do not expect source code in this book; this book is about issues and design, and does not claim to be anything else.

Secondly, Chris Crawford's strong personality is reflected in his writing, and due to his background he has a strong aversion to the commercial computer game industry. This means his writing style and some of his comments might rub you the wrong way, depending on your preferences. He does tend to be a bit derogatory toward ideas that are counter to his, although in a way that I feel to be light-hearted (although the derision is a lot stronger for opposing ideas that are more fundamental to his way of thinking). Also you should be warned that, because Crawford is a very well read man, his vocabulary is very extensive; once or twice I had to consult the dictionary.

Since there are precious few books dealing with the issue of interactive storytelling (most books that claim to be in the area are really books for story writing for games, a different thing entirely), this book fills a void that I really think needed to be filled. As far as I know, there is no other book that covers the introductory material to interactive storytelling to nearly the same degree as Chris Crawford does. Furthermore, unlike some of the more theoretical books that discuss interactive storytelling (such as Janet Murray's "Hamlet on the Holodeck"), Crawford's presents an approach that will actually work, as he has implemented the system himself.

To be truthful, I did not learn an awful lot of new material from this book. However, this is because I have already spent a couple of years researching this topic myself; I have read some of Crawford's notes on his website, and read a lot of the same sources that Crawford has. Even with my background work, reading Chris Crawford's presentation of the material helped me remember a lot of what I had forgot, and linked ideas together in new ways. If you want to understand the issues to interactive storytelling, then you really should buy this book. Even if you do not agree with Crawford's approach, his review of the background material is reason enough to buy it.

So after all that glowing praise, you might be wondering why I am not giving the book a perfect score. This is partly because I like to review books (and games and films) on a Bell curve, and anything above the half-way point I find useful. This book is, by my standards, quite excellent. But there are a few small issues that need to be considered with Crawford's book.

Crawford's approach to interactive storytelling is understandably skewed towards the techniques used in his Erasmatron system (which frankly I expected). This means that there is quite a lot of detailed material of the core aspects of his system, such as the modelling of the personality of characters and information flow. However, he skims over some of the more high level aspects of drama control and plot structure, which is the fundamental basis of my approach to the problem, because his approach does not focus on that aspect to nearly the same degree. There are a wide range of different approaches to this problem (admittedly nearly all of which have not currently met with much success). Because Crawford writes mostly about his approach (and with such a strong personality about this ideas), someone who has not read all the background material may think that his technical approach is the only one to take. If you have a different view for what you wish to use interactive storytelling for (such as use in games), you will have to prepared to do some adaptation.

The problem of the Erasmatron system focus is not really a flaw in itself, as you would expect a book called "Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling" to be about, well, Chris Craword on Interactive Storytelling! But there is a second, more serious problem for a budding interactive storytelling system creator who reads this book; Chris Crawford has been awarded a patent on his Erasmatron engine. While he deserves one for all his hard work, and I honestly do not expect any nasty legal claims in this area unless you really try to rip off the Erasmatron, it is something that needs to be kept into consideration, and makes the focus in the second half of the book on specific Erasmatron implementation issues less useful. I woud not let this deter you from buying the book, as a lot of the core ideas have been around for ages (for example; numerical character personality models and actions based on arithmetic operations on these models has been around since the eighties, so is safe to use). By the way, personally I am using a different design altogether, based on artificial intelligence techniques used for decades and published well before the patent issue date,

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