A Difficult Decision

It all crept up on me so sneakily. Last September I decided that it was time to start working on how to fit Encounters (a subset of the Storytron interactive storytelling technology) into the Siboot design. We would also need an Encounter Editor to permit easy creation of Encounters. One of the members of the Knights team volunteered to handle it. I sketched out some rough specs and turned them over him, and he got to work. I already had an Encounter Tester in place, and the Editor comprised an expansion of the concept. 

For the next few months, I was busy working on Siboot itself. Every month I’d ask the programmer about progress, and he’d say that it would ready “real soon now”. In December, after lengthy discussions with the Knights, I decided that Encounters would have to play a big role in the game, so I diverted all my efforts to preparing for their inclusion. I decided that I would want to collect hundreds of Encounters written by dozens of outside authors. But to do this, we’d need to make the Editor accessible to less technical people, and I would have to prepare documentation explaining how it fit into the big picture, as well as how to use it. 

I set to work creating three videos to present the material. It was a huge job, eating up about three months over a six month period. Meanwhile, the programmer working on the Editor kept promising that it would be ready “real soon now”. In March I realized that I would have to tackle the job myself, so I set to work. 

I wrapped up everything — the new Encounter Editor, the manual, and the three videos — right around the first of June. I shipped it out to the members of the Knights team and asked for feedback. Only one member of the team responded, and his comments were minor. So I made a few minor improvements and released it to the world. Nobody seemed to notice. So I put a post up on my Facebook account, along with every other account I had, and emailed the post to everybody I knew who might be interested. Here is that post:

I don’t think like most people. Most people perceive the universe to be a collection of things. I perceive it to be a system of processes. This process-intensive style of thinking is universal among physicists and mathematicians, but is rare in the general public.

Most people are poor storytellers; the stories they tell are flat, dull, and gray. Yet most people consider themselves to be competent storytellers. Their greatest weakness is that they don’t understand that stories are about human emotions. I’m a passable storyteller. I can’t hold a candle to the professionals, because I understand storytelling at only a cognitive level. I know the basics, but I can’t feel story in my guts. It’s not innate in me. All in all, there aren’t many good storytellers.

Interactive storytelling requires competence in both process-intensive thinking and storytelling. We have seen many attempts coming at the problem from both sides. Lots of techies tell themselves “It’s merely a technical problem!” and plunge in, producing ghastly results. All such efforts have failed.

We have also seen storytellers plunge into interactive storytelling. Because they don’t think in process-intensive terms, they just don’t grasp interactivity. They don’t know how to express their emotional intelligence in algorithmic formats. We have seen countless such efforts, and they have all failed.

I built my Storytron technology as a way for artists to build interactive storyworlds with a much reduced technical burden. However, no interactive storytelling technology can dispense with process-intensive thinking. This explains the failure of the Storytron technology to catch on: it required a combination of skills that exists in very few people.

In order to overcome this problem, I designed the Encounter Editor as a clean, fairly simple introduction to the idea of creating algorithms for basic interactive storytelling. It truly is the simplest possible introduction to the fundamentals of interactive storytelling.

Thus, the Encounter Editor is an instrument for measuring the number of people who possess a modicum of process-intensive thinking AND storytelling talent. While many people interested in interactive storytelling are aware of it, we can be certain that only a small fraction of the total candidate population is aware of it.

If the Encounter Editor fails to attract a modicum of authors, then I must conclude that there is nobody to whom I can pass the baton, and that my work has been futile; I shall have to place it in a time capsule for future generations.

I therefore request that you do whatever you can to inform appropriate candidates of the Encounter Editor.

I got a lot of enthusiastic responses. I spent $50 boosting the reach of my Facebook post. Two days after posting it, the web page explaining the Encounter Editor had gotten 1692 hits (most of which were probably spiders) and the software itself had been downloaded 112 times. That sounds good. But so far I really haven’t any feedback indicating that anybody is interested in actually creating any Encounters. My impression is that people wanted to look at it, nothing more.

All this time an ugly fear has been eating at me: that my process-intensive style of thinking is simply too alien for other people to grasp, and I will never find anybody to take up torch and continue expanding the technology. My wife Kathy has a simple explanation: “You’re too far ahead of your time.” I’m beginning to think she’s right. I know that process-intensive thinking is the essence of the computer, that the true content of any computer program is its algorithms, and therefore the central act of creation in writing any software is the design of algorithms. I know that the computer will slowly promote process-intensive thinking in our culture, just as writing promoted logical thinking. (see this page and the subsequent 20 or 30 pages). Right now, most people cannot think in terms of algorithms, but eventually they will. Only then will the Storytron technology truly catch on — but it will probably be hopelessly archaic for anybody to appreciate.

This point was really hammered home to me earlier this afternoon. Somebody had urged me to take a look at a new technology for interactive narrative. I will be coy about its identity, because the point I’m making here is not about that software, but rather what it tells us about the state of thinking.

This technology is a system for creating interactive fiction. The company has had both commercial and critical success with it, so I figured that it has to be good. I went to their website and looked over their stuff.

It’s crap. In terms of algorithmic sophistication, it’s way behind the first Siboot game I published 30 years ago. Way, way behind. It’s at about the level of sophistication of the various interactive fiction systems created in the 1990s. I did some more research on similar technologies and discovered, to my anguish, that in fact nothing has changed in the world of interactive fiction. In terms of algorithmic sophistication, they’re frozen in time. While computers today are billions of times more powerful than they were in the 1990s, the interactive fiction hasn’t budged. 

The constraint is not with the computers; it’s with the people. They simply refuse to think in terms of drama as a process; they insist on thinking of it as a thing. And you cannot interact with a thing; interaction comes from processes. 

In other words, after all these years, people STILL don’t understand what a computer is. An entire generation that was raised from infancy with computers has no idea of what computers truly are. 

Hence my despair. My efforts are futile. I’m trying to teach ancient Romans how to use a cell phone. I’m trying to teach ancient Egyptians the theory of evolution. I’m trying to explain the Big Bang theory to Erasmus. These people are every bit as intelligent as I am, but they just don’t have the mental context needed to grasp the concepts. 

I must choose between three options; the choice will hinge on my assessment of the state of human comprehension of the computer.

Option #1: Give up
If my interactive storytelling technology is truly lost upon people, then I am wasting my time trying to teach them about it. I am wasting THEIR time, too. If I want to accomplish anything, I should simply step way back and try to communicate simpler ideas. I should bundle up all my technology, wrap a red ribbon around it, and put it in a time capsule for future generations.

The main argument against this option is that it seems a tremendous shame to throw away 25 years of work.

Option #2: push on alone with Siboot
Perhaps I simply haven’t provided people with any incentive to invest huge amounts of time learning my technology. In all these years, I have never once actually shipped a working interactive storyworld. The closest I came was with Balance of Power 21st Century, and that was crap. I tried to produce something that was both educational and entertaining. I bit off more than I could chew and failed miserably.

Lurking in the background is the fear that my technology itself is crap. With Siboot I have gotten a basic system up and running, but I must confess that it lacks sparkle. I tell myself that this is because the hard core of the system can’t provide the color needed, and that the Encounters will provide the color, and the Storytron technology will provide the deep interaction. But what if I’m kidding myself? What if the basic Storytron technology is a dead end? What if it simply cannot deliver the dramatically significant interaction I have aimed for? I have yet to prove that it can, and just now I don’t see an easy path to accomplishing that. Perhaps I have wasted 25 years of my life chasing a chimera.

I have been trying to write Encounters on my own. I know the technology inside and out, yet I can’t seem to write anything. Is it because the technology is crap, or is it because my own creativity has dried up? Is it that I am demoralized? Am I too old to create any longer?

But if I could put all the pieces together, working alone, I could show the world the power of the Storytron technology. Why not make one final push, wrap this damn thing up, dump it onto the world, and THEN walk away? Would that not be more satisfying? 

But what if that one push exposes the bankruptcy of my thinking? What if I succeed in proving my own folly?

Better to fail courageously and honestly than with cowardice in the face of the impossible. Better to die fighting the dragon than run away.

Option #3: push on with text-only Siboot
In this option, I abandon the entire graphical version of Siboot and revert to the Storytron technology of ten years ago, delivering only a text-only version. This would allow me to skip all the headaches of all that damn graphics garbage. I have wasted years chasing graphics. Screw all that and concentrate on my basis of competitive advantage! 

Option #4: push on with text-only Excalibur
The Siboot design presumes a symbolic language communicated by ESP. I can’t do that in text! So would I have to revert to a completely different design??? What a demoralizing thought!

This is the current state of my thinking. I shall discuss this document with other people and make a final decision in early July.

Further Thoughts: Monday, June 26th
I continue to think of little else than this issue. One point that I failed to mention above, but which remains a serious consideration, is the betrayal of the people who have invested so much time in this project: Alvaro Gonzalez, Luc Tupense, Chris Conley, Laia Bee. They put a lot of effort into making this thing fly and here I am considering throwing away all their work as well.

I have pretty much rejected Option #1: Give up. That’s too radical. 

I have also concluded that the concepts in the Storytron technology are beyond the ken of most storytellers. I’m sure that there are plenty of techies who could master the technical side, but they would not know how to use it effectively. There are very few people who could utilize the Storytron technology effectively, and I doubt that I’ll ever find one. So there’s no point in trying to push it onto the world. 

Instead, I must give it a proper funeral. That doesn’t mean abandoning it. I cannot walk away from it until it has at least one good demonstration storyworld. I must complete such a storyworld and then create a bundle containing the storyworld, everything required to run it, and everything required to build it. The whole shebang, so that some future generation that grasps the ideas of process intensity can see one of its earliest, most primitive manifestations. 

But there remain several crucial decisions:

Text Siboot Versus Graphics Siboot
I am currently building a graphical version of Siboot, but will the important material in it — the storytelling technology — be lost amid all the graphics material? Shouldn’t I strip it down to the bare essentials so that they are most readily discerned? Will I end up wasting months fighting stupid graphics problems instead of storytelling problems? But will making the transition to text Siboot also cost me months of conversion time?

My Encounter Editor or Dave’s Encounter Editor?
Dave Walker is building a very nice version of the Encounter Editor in Javascript, and it looks great. The style and layout is superior to my version, and by having it available on the web, we could attract more users. Of course, twice zero is still zero.

One of the most frustrating things for me as well as for potential users has been the huge chasm between my understanding of how everything works and their perception. I have gotten at least half a dozen questions whose answers seemed obvious to me. Am I that detached from the rest of the world? Do I need to dedicate a lot of time to providing more answers? Or will more documentation merely create more “Page 888” problems, in which the documentation is so vast that users can never find the answers they seek?

I expended about three months working on the lectures. How much more time do I have to invest in documentation?

The Bucket List
There are so many other projects I need to complete before I can depart this world. There are at least three books to write. And would my objectives be better served by writing a book about the nature of process intensity? If people are held back from understanding Storytron by their weakness at process intensity, is that not what I should focus my energies on?

Next: Luc’s Suggestion