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I truly believe this leads to one, inevitable conclusion: We need outsiders, indie developers, academics, two guys in a garage somewhere, to point us in new directions, to show us a new way to involve players in stories and take this medium to a new level. And there are academics, researchers and even some expatriate game developers like Chris Crawford working on some cool stuff. Frankly, a lot of industry types, even the most creative industry types, look askance at the work of the outsiders, but I'm finding myself more and more drawn to the schemes some of these guys are coming up with.
When you find yourself reading whitepapers and interviews and such with these guys, and feeling more kinship with folks with the letters "P," "H" and "D" after their names than you do when you hear what your peers have to say, there's something weird going on. I've been arguing for years that industry and academia need to work more closely together and this - the need to develop tools for collaborative and truly interactive storytelling - seems like a great opportunity to do so.
I'm not going to pretend to understand how universities work, but I kind of get that academics have as profound a need to find funding as game developers. I believe there are, however, a couple of things they don't have to worry about - commercial success and 12- to 36-month development windows. And that positions them pretty much perfectly to tackle hard problems that will take a long time to solve - longer than we industry-types can afford to devote.
We're already seeing some of this in the work of folks like Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, Chris Crawford, Ken Perlin and Katherine Isbister (and others I'm sure I've just offended by not mentioning them). These people are asking great questions, tackling many of the right problems and making some progress.
Even if you think these guys are nuts, or their belief in procedural storytelling is misguided, or their specific approach is a dead end, you have to respect the fact they're tackling hard problems. You have to respect their audacity and their commitment. And I, at least, respect them for looking further downfield for their inspiration than developers typically can. Even our most "out there" story efforts are still mired in action-movie tropes - our rallying cry might as well be "Let's make an interactive Star Wars! Yeah!"
The Outsiders are looking to Moby Dick, to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to Scenes from a Marriage. That takes chutzpah of a sort I find sorely lacking in even the most daring "insider" efforts to transform storytelling in games. These guys may strike out, but they're swinging for the fences, and to a guy another of whose mottoes is "Fail gloriously!" that's worth a lot.
"I think of the writer ... as a moral agent ... someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better or worse, what is repulsive and admirable, what is lamentable and what inspires joy and approbation."
- Susan Sontag, At the Same Time
Susan Sontag, in a posthumous collection of essays and lectures, At the Same Time, called on writers to "be serious" and to act as "moral agents." She urged them to think about moral problems; about what is just and unjust, what is better and worse, what is repulsive and admirable.
Change "writer" to the more generic "storyteller" or the more appropriate for us "game developer," and how can any of us not step up to that kind of challenge?