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Interactive Storytelling

People, Not Things

Editor-at-large Michael Swaine recently talked with Chris on his 40-acre retreat in southern Oregon.

DDJ: Chris, you've been pursuing this dream for 14 years. What was the original impetus?

CC: Around 1979 I was having a conversation with my supervisor at Atari [about how] "game designers are going to be like rock stars." Facetious, but we both knew there was a strong element of truth in that. And I remember saying, well I look forward to the day when computer games are viable artistic media.

That started me down a path. I hadn't the faintest idea what that meant or how to implement it, but one thing clearly emerged for me: that games had to be about people, not things.

DDJ: I think I've heard you quoted to that effect.

CC: That became a sound bite. But I didn't know how to do computer games about people. I did some experimental things, a game called Gossip that was really a study for [another] game. But I was still very much at sea. The next big breakthrough came in 1986 when I designed Trust and Betrayal. That cracked some of the crucial problems: The problem of presenting language as a two-dimensional display, the idea of using an inverse parsing system. But [that] was very much an ad hoc design.

DDJ: While you were pursuing these experiments, weren't you and the games industry on divergent paths?

CC: The games business was narrowing. It reached its broadest at about 1986. By 1990 it was positively excluding "unconventional" games. I spent much of the late '80s and early '90s trying to convince the industry to broaden its approach. And I was totally unsuccessful. The output of the industry just became more and more formulaic.

DDJ: What about the Sims? Hasn't Will Wright done something original?

CC: The Sims is neither interactive storytelling nor a game. Will considers himself a toy designer. It's the finest toy anybody ever developed, but it's not interactive storytelling. So anyway, I just sort of announced to the games industry, I'm out of here.

DDJ: Rather dramatically, as I understand it.

CC: Yeah, the "Dragon Speech." That was the best speech I ever gave in my life. And it had the best ending. I galloped out with my sword...

DDJ: Never to return.

CC: Yep. Never to return. At that point, I committed myself totally to interactive storytelling.

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