Phrontisterion 1

June 19-20, 1999

24 participants graced the conference:

Gordon Walton
Licia Rester
Douglas Sharp
Chris Hecker
Laura Roden
Jim Bizzocci
Tim Emmerich
Thom Gillespie
Laura Mixon
Walt Freitag
Benjamin Fallenstein
Michael St. Hippolyte
Ron Gilbert
Casey Muratori
Edward J. Carmien
Jean Lamb
Todd Gemmel
Jim Mackie
Dave Walker
Dan Lyke
Brian Moriarty
Michael Valeur
Chris Crawford
Raph Koster

We discussed the following series of questions:

Should we piggyback on the games industry or start afresh? This brought out the first major disagreement. In general, the techies were more in favor of evolution, while the arties preferred revolution.

Who will be our customers? Once again, the group divided, with some people arguing for maturing gamers, while others felt that fiction readers were the better customer base.

What new technologies are available? I described the Erasmatron, Doug Sharp described his Dramaton, and we all wondered aloud about other technologies such as Brutus, Pirate Software’s IS technology, and Zoesis.

What lessons, positive and negative, can we learn from related technologies and industries?

Can we bootstrap our industry or will we need big launch funding? The feeling was that, one way or the other, we’d need funding. Bootstapping on the web didn’t have many supporters.

What do we want from an ideal technology, artistically and technically? More division as some people wanted great front ends with cinematic potential, while others wanted to emphasize the storytelling.

How can we overcome "Two Cultures" frictions? We didn’t.

Where will we find the talent to staff our industry? What existing talent pools can we draw on? This question generated agreement that we really wanted staff equally comfortable with art and technology, but such people are rare. Therefore, the industry would have to rely heavily on tools created by technologists and used by artists.

Artistically, are we literature, cinema, games, or...? There were proponents of each view.

Should we sell over the web or in stores? Some people argued for bookstores, some for the web, and a few for software stores.

I asked each participant to provide a personal reaction to the conference; taken together, these provide the most useful assessment of the entire experience.

Brian Moriarty
By attending the conference, I hoped to answer some very basic questions: Given the current state of the art, why would a storyteller choose interactive media over some other media like film or print? Why haven’t any established writers or film directors embraced it in any meaningful way?

I brought up these issues on two or three occasions in various splinter groups. The challenge was generally sidestepped. Everyone seemed to assume that interactivity held great potential for storytelling, but nobody could explain how, or point to any past or existing products that justified their faith. One person mentioned an aging 3D shooter as a flawed but promising example, but nobody else had played it.

Finally, I pinned down the creative director of a major interactive publisher and asked him point-blank whether he would make movies instead of interactive stories if he could. Without hesitation, he admitted that he would rather be making movies.

Jean Lamb:
Impressions: At this conference, we were beginning the beginning. I could see people realizing that this elephant was a heck of a lot bigger than any of them thought, and had a lot of different shapes depending on who was talking at the time. There’s a quote from Bujold’s _Komarr_ about achieving new and higher levels of bafflement. Sometimes that’s a good thing.

We’ve got ourselves quite an elephant here, but I think now most of us are fairly certain it really _is_ an elephant, and not just the small piece that they happen to be holding just now. There are still some parts missing, I think; I don’t know if any were invited and couldn’t come, but it would have been nice to see someone from the virtual reality industry there to see what they thought. (I wasn’t kidding about wanting a holodeck.)

Good things about this conference: No personal snits or flame wars. Already this is progress! We took each other seriously, offering and receiving respect as if we were really grownups. Not so good: the techies tended to split off. This is understandable, but we all need each other. Maybe the techies can run a short tutorial on what they do, and the humanities folks can run one, too? (And we’ll all listen intently to the business people!)

Next year I think we’ll be able to fill in more of the outlines of what interactive ficion ought to be, without necessarily putting a straitjacket on the industry. I’m looking forward to a listserv where discussion can take place, and to learning more about the technical needs and desires as well as what I would like to see.

But for now I’ll quote from a Doonesbury cartoon that’s over 20 years old: "All is chaos under heaven and the situation is excellent." This is pretty normal at this stage. I have strong hopes that we’ll be able to discover a structure at a time when it will help, not hurt.

Chris Hecker:
- Michael St. Hippolyte’s idea that simply "where the player walks" can be a user input to an interactive storytelling engine. We don’t have to have the user know they’re inputing data explicitly via clicking on thought balloons, etc.

- That Romance is an interesting theme for interactive fiction, as evidenced by three totally different people at the conference who were into it.

- Gordon Walton’s quote: "Time is the only non-renewable resource."

Laura Mixon:
I went to the conference not knowing quite what to expect. I didn’t know who else out there had an interest in putting story into an interactive form or what was being done along those lines, and I came away with a sense that some interesting people are doing (or want to do) some really cool stuff. I was also struck by the diversity of views on what interactive storytelling could end up becoming -- and I think this is a good thing. If this field is going to grow, it needs lots of creative drive, numerous different visions and efforts to get it moving.

I also gained some useful insights. First, I became convinced that this proposed industry will always require a close collaboration between the storyteller and the interactive technology developer. I think that the person who is both will always be a rarity, since they are very different skills, require different mindsets, and it takes a long time and lots of hard work to do either well. The low story content in computer games and the low quality of interactivity in "multimedia" are, I believe, both indicators of what happens when those who are good at one skill set try to do the other, too. Therefore to be successful at interactive stories, we need to devise a means to play to the strengths of each specialty. We need to forge an alliance between these two very different groups, so that each is contributing what it does best.

Second, I came to understand that the multi-user interactive story format poses very different -- and, I believe, greater -- challenges to the storyteller than the single-user format. An interactive story in my opinion should encompass a range of related themes and possible story arcs that the user’s actions affect, and I can envision how this might be done for a single user or perhaps two. But I have a hard time wrapping my head around the complexities of trying to keep dramatic content _and_ quality of interactions high around several different users. Multi-user interactive storytelling will pose its own special challenges, beyond that of single-user interactive storytelling.

I was impressed with the quality of the participation. Several attendees’ remarks gave me food for thought, and I came away with some different ideas than I’d started with.

For me, Phrontisterion was a real success, and I’ll be looking forward to next year’s event.

Tim Emmerich:
Admittedly, as I went into Phrontisterion, my definition of interactive storytelling (IS) was narrow. I had seen ErasmaTron and had some ideas of how to apply the technology for GraceWorks’ products. Thankfully, the scales were removed from my eyes as the discussions ensued. I finally have some of Chris’ vision for an entire new market as we discussed IS’ role in books, games, and yet undetermined products.

I am intrigued by the possibility of infinite reusabililty (replayability) of IS. Previously, this was really only available in true puzzle games (like I hope to fully take advantage of the interactivity. What I have in mind for GraceWorks would be a collective conscience allowing the user to interact more fully each time they experience it ... and hopefully injecting AI (really just memory) to make it as realistic as possible.

Michael St. Hippolyte:
It was a most interesting conference. On the surface, dichotomies were everywhere -- interactive vs. fiction (Walt’s Abyss), character vs. story, single vs. multi, human vs. computer, noble longsuffering writers vs. elite technomages, incremental vs. revolutionary, business vs. Beethoven, books vs. movies, games vs. anything but games. But this merely generated the necessary constructive tension to fuel our own interactive fiction.

We told our stories, prodded both by our deft gamemaster and by the fervor most of us seem to feel for the subject. Each pilgrim’s tale had its own plot and cast of characters, its own comedy and drama. But it soon became clear that we were all talking about the same elephant. The big picture painted by our stories exposed the universal truth behind the dichotomies: making good interactive stories is really hard, and no one has yet stumbled across a foolproof magic formula (though a number of interesting potions are floating around which may be only a few newt hairs or snail toenails away...)

Ultimately, I was greatly inspired and encouraged by this gathering, and by the fascinating experiments and explorations underway. Our goal now as a community should be to continue to learn from each other. Now that we have the campfire going, let’s start throwing some real marshmallows in. I want demos, papers, insights and crazy ideas. And will endeavor to supply same.

Benjamin Fallenstein:
What I considered best about this "talkshop" was to meet people who work on Interactive Storytelling. The discussion, following the outline Chris had set with his set of questions we talked about, whirled around what our industry would be like, if we’d be more like movies or books and if we should put IS in games or sell them as distinct products. We didn’t talk much about how Interactive Storytelling could work in practice. All in all, the questions were interesting -- very interesting -- but they would have been more interesting if we would have tackled the "core problem". (Keep in mind that this isn’t really a single problem you could clearly define in a few sentences, though!)

Coming to the discussion topics, I really hated that discussion if -- how Chris put it -- we should "piggyback" on the games industry or start afresh. The one main point was: If we don’t start within the games industry, who should pay us and take the risk of publishing something entirely new? The game industry, however, has the need for new ideas to improve their games. The opposite point was: When we start within the games industry (if that is possible at all, what Chris of course after nearly two decades[?] of trying to convince it of the importance of IS cannot believe) we won’t be able to get out of it, to (most important) reach different customers. -- But hey, why can’t we have some people making games with IS parts in it (I’d really love to see a game of the Civilisation subgenre with an interactive storytelling system in it) and others doing stand-alone products (I believe that there are quite a lot of people who will do that without big budgets)?

Another very promising idea that actually hit me during the conference (I had thought about a similar concept for games before -- what would be much less interesting -- but the idea to apply it to IS came to me while we talked) was to bundle IS-expiriences with books. Actually, many stories have a wide-spread background that you can’t interact with in any way; that’s one of the problems of IS: How to get the player into the story without a lengthy non-interactive intro? But the key benefits of this kind of bundling would be different. The production industry for it exists (bundling of books with CDs is done quite often) and the books could get directly into the parts of the bookstore where you would find books of this genre (Fantasy, Horror, High Literature, Whatever). This way, we could reach all those people we want to reach -- women, people older than 30 or 35 -- at the place where they actually go. (We talked a bit about the problems many people have to go to a game store -- it could easily be a sexshop.)

Objections other people made to this concept are two-fold: First, as [what-was-the-name-of-the-sceptical-guy] put it, when he buys a game, he doesn’t want to read Part #1 in a book, he want’s to play it -- that’s an artistical decision (certainly not _every_ IS product can be bundled with a book). Second, you have to confirm a publisher that this new concept is something that can make money -- well, I must confess I don’t have a solution to that problem. But why don’t we give it a try?

Dan Lyke:
I didn’t come away from Phrontisterion with any particular changes of heart or huge revelations. However, I returned energized. It was very motivating to find other people who believed that there was something to taking story beyond the static retelling that we’ve been saddled with by mass media, despite our differing visions on how the future is going to be implemented.

I’ve obviously been hanging out with the movie making people too long.

So I’ve got a list of papers to read and resources to follow up on, and I hope that we’ll either find a reasonable forum in the mailing list, or make individual personal connections to take some of the ideas we talked about further.

And I’m in the process of writing some longer pieces that can’t be summarized in a couple of paragraphs on why I disagree with what I felt the conference consensus of what interactive story should be, and how I came to those conclusions, and the issues that I see that need the most pressing attention. I’ll make them generally available as I finish them.

Thank you all for getting me motivated again. I’ve been caught up in the details of obscure bug fixes and porting issues and such too long and need to get back to the work that feeds the soul.

A few questions we had at the very end:

I don’t like the idea of an obligatory scholarship fund, but if people find someone they think would be a really good addition to the conference who isn’t coming because they can’t afford it and can make a good case about it I’ll be happy to make that decision personally. I’ve seen enough good ideas come out of nowhere that I’m fairly sure there are more of the European folks who think a market of ten thousand is huge and therefore have trouble flying over for a weekend, or a high schooler somewhere toying with the Erasmatron or similar, who can provide some fresh perspectives. I want to talk with those people, and am willing to give money and resources to see those connections happen.

On the other hand, on honoraria for big names, I hope that we, as participants, are interesting enough to make the more well known folks from other disciplines interested in coming. If not, then I need to find another place to explore my opinions or become more interesting.

Gordon Walton:
Key for me was realizing that there were so many incongruous views on what interactive fiction is or should be. I felt the vast majority of the discussions were quite interesting, possibly because of this lack of agreement on the subject matter. The most difficult question (after what is interactive fiction), is what the business model / distribution model will be. Without this, the entire effort will be stillborn as just something hobbyists and academics play with. This defeats the artist’s purpose of reaching a significant audience and being able to make a living while doing so.

Laura Roden:
1. Two Observations

As a group we are surprisingly unfocused regarding what technological advances we need to make or have access to in order to facilitate accomplishment of creative goals. Does this indicate limited imagination, limited articulation, or that all our technical problems have been solved and we are only lacking creative inspiration? I don’t believe all our technical problems have been solved; so, either someone else is out there solving them (and we should invite them to the next conference) or no one is working on it which means we won’t soon get where we need to go.

There are two, maybe three, radically diverse perspectives on what Interactive Storytelling means. Briefly summarized and generalized, they are: a) using electronic equipment to tell a story requiring user participation to reach predefined outcome(s) with predefined meaning(s) - sort of electronically enhanced storytelling b) using electronic equipment to enable particpants to create and shape the outcome of stories using predefined tools and parameters - sort of collaborative storytelling Very different types of products, different genres, different technical requirements, different marketplaces, different usage patterns, therefore different pricing... because of this I think it would be very interesting to opening compare and contrast these approaches in terms of business models and resource (creative and techincal requirements.)

2. Things I really liked:

Sitting in a big circle

Casual food and drinks

Directed "stop" times to prevent overdrawn out discussions (day 2)

Self introductions at the start

Name tags

3. Things I’d recommend adjusting:

Increasing size to 40-50 attendees to encompass more diversity of experience & attitude;

Scheduling in more time for demos;

Picking 1,2 or 3 places for dinner each night for informal rendezvousing (i.e., "Groups wishing to go to a, b, or c should meet there at 7 pm tonight. Show of hands?")

Jim Bizzocchi:
I am struck by several aspects of the event, mostly as a series of yet-to-be-answered questions and tasks. There is much in Phrontisterion that elicits (and is worthy of) future work, and I am very pleased with the conference and with this overall result.

First, I am very aware of the occasional split between the technical/gamester people and the artistic/narrative people. Some see this as problematic, I see it as a potentially energizing and positive state. It’s clear that there are differences in history, preferences and style between some people in the groups. It is also clear that the commonalities are at least as strong. The gamesters are drawn to opportunities for complexity, affective richness, and psychological context that games are not currently providing. Conversely, while the narratoids are deeply committed to plot, character, and story; they are also reaching for a dimension that is lacking in traditional narrative modes. In the words of Cyndi Lauper, they also "just want to have fun".

The possibility for synergy is apparent , as is the desire to work with each other, so I see good things coming out of these differences in the future.

Related to this is the oft expressed desire for common terminologies. Although beginning with definitions can be a dry and sometimes counterproductive exercise, in this case it would probably prove useful. Common language can help facilitate real communication. I am sure there are ways to do this without degenerating into a boring academic snooze-fest. One way is to set some time aside early on in future events, and have selected participants illustrate key definitions with real examples. Well-chosen examples can have two related effects: they will make the definitions more concrete, and they can act as common and tangible reference points for downstream discussion. Besides, they will be fun to watch, and fun is a high value for most of us (ibid Cyndi Lauper).

Finally, I am left to ponder the "wave-particle" duality that we were teased with briefly. This phenomena clearly does show up in a variety of guises (plot vs. character, algorithms vs. data, developing services vs. producing goods). This distinction may be connected in some ways to the split between gamesters (process) and narratoids (character). More broadly, it seems like an awfully interesting analysis to apply across a broad range of situations.

There is much more to consider and to follow up from a very rich two day conference. I look forward to ongoing echoes and future iterations. (Hmm, yet another wave-particle duality...)

Raph Koster:
The principal thing that struck me was that we didn’t even have a common vocabulary for what we were discussing, to the extent that we weren’t even sure of what interactive storytelling was. The gestures towards identifying common vocabulary, defining terms, and thus by extension defining approaches to the problem, seemed to me to be the most valuable thing achieved.

Several key differences and polar opposites seemed to emerge over the course of the discussions. To wit: is interactive storytelling intended to be spatially structured or narratively structured? Is it a form of game, or a form of play? Is it narrative or experiential? Is it about emergent narratives or about branching (possibly rhizomal) narratives defined in excruciating detail by the author? Is collaborative storytelling possible, desirable, and on topic? If so, to what extent is that an a priori experience versus a post facto one? What about authorial intervention, is that all done in advance by preconfiguring branches, characters, etc? Or is it still interactive storytelling if the author intervenes at specific time intervals (which might be as frequent as in a roleplaying session, or as infrequent as altering the plot of next week’s episode after input from viewers/participants)?

It seemed to me that there were some underlying biases and assumptions regarding the "right" answers to the above (and other questions). To me, they all seemed to be merely approaches, with any given style merely a point on a spectrum. Hence the whole "is it a game?" debate seemed fruitless to me, since it was largely a semantic issue. Many of the academically-generated hypertextual fictions (talking here about the whole Eastgate-Moulthrop-Joyce-Bolter-et al crowd) seem to focus on interactive storytelling as a form of play, with an experiential bias rather than a narrative one, using thematic structures rather than narratives, heavily biased towards trying to be art. Whereas even stuff like Shattertown felt-not to say it is-like a game, with an emphasis on narrative, a spatial bias in the structure, and intended to be entertaining (though not sacrificing artistry in the process).

Ultimately, I think that unless the field can talk about itself a bit more coherently, it will be very difficult to assess the success and/or failure of work done within the broad label of "interactive storytelling." But the conference did seem to end with a clear sense of purpose in that everyone seemed eager to actually generate this shared vocabulary so that future conferences could exchange information and ideas more fruitfully.

Walt Freitag:
It’s 1900. The Dreamer talks about how cool and useful it would be to be able to fly, and speculates about wax and feathers; the Complacent Practitioner talks about how ballooning, while still having room for improvement, is the proven way to do it; only the Questing Practitioner wants to talk about how a wing should be shaped to generate lift.

Now here’s the thing: whether by design, unforeseen causality, or chance, the Phrontisterion group consists entirely, or almost entirely, of Questing Practitioners. To my knowledge, this is a first. (The aviation analogy isn’t meant to imply that being a Questing Practitioner implies being a "techie" rather than an "artist"; the wing-shape metaphor could represent e.g. how the narrative dynamic should be shaped to engage the audience’s emotions.) It’s worth noting, and it’s also worth building on. If all of us come back in one year with new creative work to show or report on -- an Erasmatron storyworld, a design for (or realization of) a narrative-oriented multi-user online world (however fragmentary), an unconventional interactive fiction, a piece of AI code relevant to narrative direction, a concept for (or realization of) an authoring tool, some useful story metrics, _anything_ outside the current envelope -- then we’ll have more than doubled the number of interesting new interactive storytelling projects out there.

One other note: there are a variety of opinions about the quality and relevance of the book _Hamlet on the Holodeck_ by Janet H. Murray. But the resources Web site for the book, at

is useful regardless. It casts a very broad, probably too broad, net (including such things as Tamagotchi, movie rides, The Spot, virtual fish tanks, and the like) but it appears to cover most of the interesting research lines and (past or current) artistic approaches as well. Scanning all the linked pages (yes, ALL of them -- are you really sure there’s nothing you could learn from movie rides?) and reading all the interesting ones might be a several-week spare time project (or one really brain-addling full-time week) but anyone who does so will be able to tell me to get stuffed the next time I harangue you about our overall level of interactive storytelling "literacy." Wouldn’t that be nice?

Doug Sharp:
What a sweet way to spend my first weekend as an ex-Microsoftie: the setting, the people - some old friends and some new, the conversation in and out of the ring of chairs, the demos, Casey’s unrequited pining for the pig...

I liked the fact that we had a range of people from grizzled old interactive bards to rank wannabes to novelists to geeks to beancounters. It wasn’t efficient in terms of focused, results-oriented discussions, but I didn’t expect that.

I do expect a higher yield next year. I want demos that we can critique in depth. I’d like more representation from the academic, pie-in-the-sky guys.

It was significant for me that I was able to give the informal little Dramaton talk. I haven’t given a talk at a conference in over 2 years, so it felt great. And I was touched that Casey worked so hard to get the King of Chicago demo running for the con.

For me it was a kick in the pants - motivation to get back into the fray and again do something significant in the field. Next year I will demo a web-based Dramaton server running multiple shows with a couple different front ends. Wait’ll you see The Maniks. The conference lit my fire.

I’ll notify everyone when the mp3’s are ready. The recordings came out swell. My audio software doesn’t have a duck-filter plug-in, however.

Hope to see most of you next year, if not sooner.

Licia Rester:
I took away:

1) The importance of creating a multi-level marketing strategy for interactive fiction so that the fiction has longer than a few week shelf-life. This would include creating characters that are cross-media, as well as selling in a variety of venues (i.e., bookstores, software stores, direct mail, etc.) The Hollywood approach for cross-marketing of product is a good model.

2) Great idea to market IF in bookstores. Seems appropriate for wider target audience and exposes it to women’s market.

3) Still think women’s market is a huge untapped market for IF.

4) Other company’s licensed characters could be used in IF as long as the inherent traits of the character could be controlled (i.e., pre-described personality algorhithms in the case of the erasmatron).

Chris Crawford:
I was struck by the chasm between the arts/humanities people and the science/technology people. The AH people had greater uncertainties, more general questions, and broader interests. The SE people had a clearer idea of their objectives, a dismissive attitude toward generalities, and an impatience to get on with the job. The most ironic moment of the conference arose during the discussion of the Two Cultures problem (the gap between AH and SE people). Most of the SE people left that discussion for a more techie-oriented discussion elsewhere. Talk about patent demonstration of the magnitude of the problem!

This problem is best addressed by getting the SE people to focus on toolmaking and the AH people to focus on content. This does not strictly segregate the two groups, but it does allow each group to focus on its area of greatest concern. Accordingly, next year’s conference will have as its two tracks, one on toolmaking and another on content.

How frustrating it was to hear frequent repetitions of issues that, to me, are no longer issues. Time and again as I listened to problems being voiced, I thought, "yeah, I used to worry about that, too, but the answer is filed on my website under..." You don’t know how many times I had to restrain myself from interrupting the discussion with a quick 30-minute lecture on The Truth According to Crawford. Aren’t you glad I have such iron discipline? The truth is, nobody learns from answers that are simply dumped in their faces. You’ve got to ask the questions yourself before you can appreciate the answers. Besides, the answers are all inter-related -- a single answer in isolation sounds pretty silly. So we’ll all have to sidle up to the solutions in crab-like fashion.

The conference convinced me of the need to shift my efforts from building a demonstration storyworld (Le Morte D’Arthur) to creating the next generation of the Erasmatron. Most desperately needed are better tools for the AH people, so that’s what I shall concentrate my efforts on.

The conference was certainly marred by the absence of certain key people. Greg Roach, Joe Bates, Barbara Hayes-Roth, Janet Murray, and Brenda Laurel would each have added much to the conference. For next year, I shall make a point of twisting their arms, and the success of this year’s conference will surely add to the pressure. If in the next twelve months you should bump into any of these miscreants, shake your head disapprovingly, wag your finger, and intone, "You shoulda been there!"