Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 10 (October 2000)

The Future of Fiction

I don’t know about you, but I’m hardwired for stories. Stories help me understand and remember things and communicate ideas. If you give me facts and figures, my eyes will glaze over. Tell me a good story, and I’ll hang on every word.

I'm also geared for games. Games help me play, stretch my imagination, and solve problems. Give me an assignment, and I'll approach it with little enthusiasm. Turn it into an exciting game, and I'll dive right in.

While both stories and games are forms of entertainment, I've always thought that the two activities had little else in common. In a story, the author carefully works out the plot for the audience to passively follow. In a game, the designer creates a world for the players to actively control.

But are stories and games, by nature, mutually exclusive? Or is it possible to combine these two ancient pastimes? After attending a panel discussion on the future of fiction at the recent Siggraph conference, I'm persuaded that new technologies can help make it possible to finally merge storytelling and gaming in profound new ways.

Until now, perhaps the best attempt to combine a structured story with an interactive game could be found in improvisational theater, in which skilled actors create structured stories while ad libbing. "It's fun to watch when people are really good at it," noted writer Andrew Glassner, a Siggraph panelist. But the problem is that it requires a lot of work, he explained. "Most of us are not trained improv actors, and we don't want to be. We want to have fun. And when we're having fun, we're thinking emotionally and spiritually, not structurally. Yet structure is what narrative is all about."

A compelling solution to this dilemma was proposed by fellow panelist Bryan Loyall of Zoesis Studios, creator of interactive children's entertainment on the Web. Loyall cited research that his company and others are conducting on "interactive theater," which he defines as a simulated computer environment that immerses you in a story written by an author, not co-written by the participants. When you enter one of these "storyworlds," he says, virtual characters respond to you in a variety of ways depending on your actions, but at the same time you will be guided to complete the pre-defined story.

Loyall contends that interactive theater will combine the strengths of the two most dominant fields of entertainment-movies and computer games-and will appeal to both our love of stories and of interacting in fictitious worlds. He also boldly predicts that interactive theater will become one of the most popular new forms of fiction.

If Loyall is right, the potential demand for such interactive storyworlds could indeed be huge, but the technical challenges will be just as great. In fact, realizing this vision will require the combined efforts of those with technical expertise in computer modeling, character animation, game design, and Web development, as well as those with artistic skills in storytelling and acting. Most important, the end result will have to provide a better way for authors to communicate stories and a richer way for users to experience them.

If computer graphics professionals recognize this opportunity and step up to the challenge, they could reap huge rewards-and we just might witness the birth of a new art form.

Phil LoPiccolo: Editor-in-Chief