Who is Chris Crawford?

I’ve realized that many people who’ve read StoryCalc: A New Hope might not know who Chris Crawford is or what he’s accomplished.

Chris is a game designer and if it were not for his passion, hard work, and insights over the past thirty nine years I would not be here today attempting StoryCalc.

Building off his early interest in board wargaming, Chris released his first game, Tanktics, through Avalon Hill. Moving to Atari, he programmed Eastern Front (1941), Excalibur, and Gossip for their Atari 400/800 computers.

After the video game crash of 1983 he left Atari and became an independent game developer before there was such a thing. Programming for Apple’s Macintosh platform because of its consistent and powerful user interface he released Balance of Power in 1985. In 1987 he released his seminal work, Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot, the first glimpse of what he would later call interactive storytelling.

But Chris wanted more.

I dreamed of the day when computer games would be a viable medium of artistic expression an art form. I dreamed of computer games expressing the full breadth of human experience and emotion. I dreamed of computer games that were tragedies, games about duty and honor, self-sacrifice and patriotism. I dreamed of satirical games and political games; games about the passionate love between a boy and girl, and the serene and mature love of a husband and wife of decades; games about a boy becoming a man, and a man realizing that he is no longer young. I dreamed of games about a man facing truth on a dusty main street at high noon, and a boy and his dog, and a prostitute with a heart of gold.

This dream lead him to take the road less travelled.

Chris continued to release games like Patton Vs. Rommel, The Global Dilemma: Guns or Butter, Balance of the Planet, and Patton Strikes Back for the Macintosh but he also self-published The Journal of Computer Game Design and kickstarted what would became the Game Developers Conference by inviting twenty-six computer game developers to his living room to discuss their craft.

In a nutshell, Chris took upon himself the sisyphean task to try and drag the entire game industry into an artistic future that he imagined was just out of reach. But the industry wouldn’t listen so in 1992 he left, delivering one of the most passionate and inspirational call to arms that is known simply as The Dragon Speech (you should watch it). After that he “lit out for the territories,” leaving steadiness and security behind to search for the holy grail of interactive storytelling.

The trail becomes a bit harder to follow then. There was his annual interactive storytelling Phrontisterion conferences hosted at his home in Oregon where enthusiasts would gather and discuss how to advance the state of the art. He wrote books and lectured to audiences around the world about his theories of interactive storytelling. He worked on his next game, Le Morte D’Arthur which morphed into various versions of the Erasmatron, his interactive storytelling engine. Work on the Erasmatron morphed into Storytronics/Storytron, an attempt at commercialization. Sadly, this attempt failed in 2010.

Since then, in true startup fashion, Chris has remained focused on his dream, pivoting with projects like Gossip 2.0, Siboot 2.0, and Le Morte D’Arthur 2.0 to show the world what he sees so clearly.

Patrick Dugan in Understanding Crawford, says this:

It was clear, during Crawford’s period as a game developer, that he was an auteur operating at the top of his form, not always creating commercially successful products, but always pressing at the edges of the possible, always advancing the state of the art. He was an inspiration.

I agree 100% with Patrick’s assessment.

Chris and his work inspired me to spend two years working part time with his Storytron technology, to spend months porting Gossip 2.0 to iOS, to spend hours curating the Phrontisterion Online website, and to briefly join the team working on Siboot 2.0.

Chris is an auteur in the truest sense of the word, interactive storytellings version of D.W. Griffith, the American writer, director, and producer who pioneered modern filmmaking techniques. While other directors in Griffith’s day were content to churn out 10-15 minute shorts for nickelodeons, Griffith worked to refine this nascent technology, creating a new language of film that culminated in 1915 in the twelve reel, three hour epic, The Birth of a Nation.

“Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes”—I am a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant.

Note: Cross-posted to Medium here.

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