What is Storytronics?

You can divide Chris Crawford’s interactive storytelling work over the past twenty-seven years into two categories — Storytronics and Storytron.

  • Storytronics is a collection of principles that outline what Chris’ version of interactive storytelling is.
  • Storytron is Chris’ attempts to create tools that enable the creation of storyworlds built on Storytronic principles.

Storytronics puts the priority on people and their emotional actions and reactions instead of on things or places.

In a theater play, characters enter, exit, and move around the stage. They converse with other characters. They monologue their innermost thoughts to the audience. While they use scenery and props to support the fictional world they’re creating, their primary focus is on the other characters and their interaction with those characters. The same thing happens in a Storytronics storyworld.

For this to happen in a dramatic way appropriate to the storyworld a character’s motivation, emotions, and history must be algorithmically represented so varied and nuanced responses, not pre-scripted ones, are possible for a particular situation. For this to happen, a personality model is needed.

Personality Model

The personality model is the blueprint that is used to create each character. It consists of several components:

  • Intrinsic traits
  • Perceived traits
  • Moods

All traits and moods are represented by bounded numbers. A bounded number is a number whose value is always between -1.0 and 1.0. Bounded numbers allow internal calculations to be performed without overflow. In practice a bounded number calculation will always approach it’s upper or lower limit but never reach that limit.

Each actor’s personality is an instantiation of the personality model. Let’s look each of the traits and moods that make up the personality model in more detail.

Intrinsic Traits

There are three intrinsic traits in the personality model — bad_good, false_honest, and submissive_domineering. The three traits control how a character will behave in general, independent of how they feel towards another character. They are unique to each actor and they are constant, a character’s personality will not vary during play.

  • The bad_good trait indicates how pleasant and helpful to others someone is. A person with high, positive bad_good will perform kind and generous acts; a person with low, negative bad_good will be argumentative and stingy.
  • The false_honest trait indicates the integrity and truthfulness of a person. People with high, positive false_honest are fair and true to their word; people with low, negative false_honest are unscrupulous and exploitative.
  • The submissive_domineering trait represents charisma and force of personality, not physical strength. People with high, positive submissive_domineering are born leaders; people with low, negative submissive_domineering are meek, unassertive followers.

You can think of these intrinsic trait values as ranking characters relative to the other characters in a storyworld.

  • A character with a bad_good value of -0.4 is more generous and friendly than 30% of the population and more mean and unfriendly than the remaining 70%.
  • A character with a false_honest value of 0.0 is more honest than 50% of the population and less honest than 50% of the population.
  • A character with a submissive_domineering value of 0.8 is more authoritative and commanding than 90% of the population and less charismatic than the remaining 10%.

Because they involve only one character, intrinsic traits are frequently referred to as P1 traits.

Perceived Traits

A perceived trait involves two characters and is an indication of one character’s perception of the other character’s intrinsic trait. They can change over time. There are three perceived traits in the personality model — hate_like, distrust_trust, and fear_disdain.

  • The hate_like trait reflects how good one character believes another character to be. It is linked to the P1 trait bad_good. Noble, friendly actions by one character in another character’s presence should increase the latter’s hate_like towards the former. A character with a high like for another character finds them admirable and pleasant to be around.
  • The distrust_trust trait represents how false or honest one character believes another character to be. If one character lies, cheats, or steals from another character should decrease the former character’s distrust_trust for the latter.
  • The fear_disdain trait represents how powerful one character finds another. A soldier who is treated well by their commanding officer would have a high fear_disdain for that officer while insubordinate soldiers would have a low fear_disdain.

Because perceived traits involve two characters they are frequently referred to as P2 traits.

Here’s an example to illustrate how perceived traits relate to intrinsic traits. Three characters — Jack, Kate, and Sawyer — are stranded on a desert island in the Pacific. First, let’s look at each character’s integrity and honesty, represented in the personality model by the P1 trait false_honest.

  • Jack tries to do the right thing and operates from the maxim that “honesty is the best policy.” His false_honest of 0.50 means he will usually do the right thing 75% of the time but he is no paragon of virtue.
  • Kate is a felon with a shady past she is trying to hide. Her false_honest of -0.25 makes her more than willing to dissemble if it suits her purpose but she still has moments of integrity.
  • Sawyer is a con man and his first thought is “what’s in it for me.” With a false_honest of -0.50 he will manipulate a situation to his advantage if at all possible 75% of the time. But he is not totally without virtue.

These false_honest values for each character will not change during the entire time that the storyworld is played. They are fixed.

The perceived traits of characters in a storyworld start off set by the author but their values can change as the storyworld is played.

Intrinsic and Perceived Traits—Jack, Kate, and Sawyer

A character’s perceived trait towards another character can change during the playing of a storyworld depending on the second character’s actions towards the first character and how they differ from what they have said.

If Jack continues to behave at his 0.50 honesty in all his dealings with Kate and Sawyer, their distrust_trust for him could increase, approaching but never reaching it’s upper limit of 1.0. But if for some reason, Jack believes it is not in his best interest to continue behaving at 0.50 honesty (which he might do 25% of the time), Kate and Sawyer’s distrust_trust towards him could decrease towards -1.0 and the two of them will behave accordingly.

What holds true for Jack also applies to Kate and Sawyer. Their deeds and words in the storyworld will affect Jack’s distrust_trust towards them.

Moods

Moods represent a character’s current emotional state and are self-evident values, which means they can be perceived by other characters. Combined with their P1 and P2 traits, a character’s moods can play a role in determining what actions a character will take when presented with several choices.

Like perceived traits, moods are not static. They can change as the storyworld is played. However, moods seek an equilibrium, relaxing towards zero at a fixed percentage if not affected by another character’s actions.

There are four moods that make up the personality model.

  • sad_happy
  • angry_fearful
  • disgusted_aroused
  • tired_energetic

The traits and moods described above are just a starting point. Depending on a particular storyworld’s goal and theme it might be necessary to add or subtract from the traits and moods listed above.

Faces

Since Storytronics places a high priority on character relationships and social reasoning above spatial navigation, resource management, hand/eye coordination, or puzzles, faces will be a big part of the storyworld interface.

Teen Talk User Interface

In order to convey a character’s emotional state these faces need to be linked to the underlying personality model so they can accurately reflect what a particular character is feeling and how they feel about another character.

Teen Talk Faces (left to right) - Adorable, Great, Nice, Pleasant, So-So, Unpleasant, Not Nice, Nasty, Hateful

The facial styles should lean more towards caricature rather than realism since caricature makes it easier to convey emotion and intent.

Over the years Chris’ games have all included a facial component. Here’s a few of the variations that he’s created.

Faces in Chris Crawford’s Games (clockwise, from upper right)- Gossip (1983), Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot (1987), The Global Dilemma: Guns or Butter (1990), Le Morte d’Arthur (2010), Siboot Remake (2015)

Verbs

Characters in a storyworld have to communicate with one another for any meaningful dramatic action to happen. To do this they need a language.

Iconic Language from Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot (1987). Icons are on tip, icon values are on the bottom.

Building off a variation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis Storytronics maps that language to the reality it represents.

Every word in the language includes all the algorithms and data structures that define its operation in the storyworld. Because of this 1:1 mapping language and universe are one and the same.

This language is tailored towards the specific type of storyworld being created and consists of a web of verbs that the characters can use at appropriate times to construct sentences when interacting with other characters.

Each verb has its own customizable sentence structure made up of wordsockets. There is an upper limit of 15 wordsockets per verb.

The first two wordsockets are fixed — the first is the subject and the second is the verb itself (every sentence always has someone doing something). The remaining wordsockets can contain any of the standard word datatypes (items in Bold are an instance of the type):

  • Actor – Vetvel want-to-find Wiki
  • Prop – Vetvel read-about mind-combat
  • Stage – Vetvel want-to-go-to Kendra-house
  • Verb – Vetvel desire-to kiss Zubi
  • Quantifier – Vetvel greets Skordokott sincerely
  • Attribute

Even with these limitations it is possible to create complex sentences, sentences like “Vetvel offer-to-reveal Gardibore Katsin [if] Zubi [reveals] Locksher Shial.”

Besides wordsockets, each verb also has a set of roles and each role has a set of options. When a sentence is performed, actors react to it by creating plans. A verb’s roles and options determine what plans the reacting actors can make.

Each roles represent a different points of view that an actor might take based on a given sentence. For example, if Vetvel, Skordokott, Wiki, and Zubi are in the same location, and Vetvel says “Vetvel tells Wiki [that] Kendra betrayed Zubi,” there are four roles that are available to be taken:

  • The one revealing the betrayal (Vetvel)
  • The one who the betrayal is revealed to directly (Wiki)
  • A neutral bystander (Skordokott)
  • A bystander who is the victim of the betrayal (Zubi)

When actors in the same location react to a sentence, each actor determines which role they best fit into using the inclination scripts associated with the role. If a role is appropriate for an actor they assume that role and experience any emotional reactions associated with that role (this could affect their moods or perceived traits).

Each role has a one or more options attached to it and each option represents an opportunity to react to the original sentence (each option is really a link to a previously created verb).

Once an actor assumes a role, they create a plan using one of the role’s options, the option choice being determined by the acceptable and desirable scripts attached to that specific option.

Once a role option is chosen, the actor fills out their reaction plan, i.e. creates their sentence, by assigned appropriate words to the option verb’s wordsockets. The type of word datatypes available for each wordsocket is controlled by acceptable and desirable scripts attached to the individual wordsocket.

Since Chris estimates that you would need thousands of verbs for a satisfying interactive storytelling experience the person playing would use an inverse parser to select options and create sentences.

Inverse Parser from Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot (1987)

Inverse Parser from Storytron Siboot (2010).

Inverse parser from Siboot Remake (2015)

Plans, Events & History

The sentences created by characters come in two types: plans and events. A plan represents an intended action, one that will happen, while an event represents an action that has already happened.

All events are stored in a history book so they can be referenced by actors or by the narrative engine and Fate.

Narrative Engine & Fate

At its simplest, the narrative engine is a loop that starts the storyworld in motion and moves it one sentence at a time to its dramatic conclusion.

To do this the engine keeps track of storyworld time, advances the storyworld clock and, as the clock moves forward, process all character plans created to date. Based on each plan’s verb, roles, and options, it manages the process by which other characters come up with their reaction plans to a character’s actions.

The whole process continues until either nothing happens, i.e. there are no plans to execute, or the story reaches a satisfactory dramatic conclusion.

To help it reach a satisfactory dramatic conclusion the narrative engine has the services of one of the most important actors — Fate. Fate exists in every storyworld.

Fate makes things happen in a story outside of normal character actions.
Fate knows everything that happens in the storyworld and, based on a storyworld’s state or the progress of a particular series of events, it can trigger other events to heighten the drama or spin the storyworld off into a new direction. Fate is the author’s avatar in the storyworld, their deus-ex-machina.

It was Fate that made Han Solo come back at the right time to save Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: A New Hope. It was Fate that brought Gandalf back at the right time to save the fighters at Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. And it is Fate that will keep an eye on your storyworld’s meta-state and provide dramatic plot points at the appropriate time.

Encounters

Encounters are vignettes or scenes that provide colorful glimpses into the storyworld milieu while allowing the player to influence their character’s relationship with the other characters. They usually occur based on Fate’s interventions and are handled outside of the normal action/reaction loop. Encounters can use verbs found in the storyworld’s verb web or they can provide more “natural” responses.

Encounters from Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot (1987)

Chris estimates that it would take hundreds of encounters to flesh out the storyworld experience properly. One of his last pieces of work was a general purpose Encounter Editor.

Encounter Editor

Anyone interested in delving into any of these topics in greater detail can find a wealth of information at Erasmatazz, Chris’ personal site, or the old Storytron site.

Note: Cross-posted to Medium here.

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