Chris Crawford’s Unflinching Look at His Life

Chris Crawford is a visionary game designer. He began his career at Atari and created some of the earliest computer-based wargames. He founded the Computer Game Developers’ Conference and The Journal of Computer Game Design. In 1985 released his best-known game, Balance of Power. In it, you played either the President of the US or the General Secretary of the USSR and worked to gain as much prestige for your country as possible without lighting off a nuclear war.

Even then, though, his real interest was in making games that told stories. In 1992, dismayed by the direction in which the computer games industry was going and frustrated by a lack of progress on true interactive stories, he gave The Dragon Speech in which he declared that he was leaving the games industry to pursue his dream of interactive storytelling before charging out of the room.

For the last twenty years he’s been working on this problem. He released the Erasmatron system in 1997; in 2007, he released the updated Storytron system. I’ve not been impressed with either, and not just because he considers interactive fiction a dead end. He has taken a reductionist approach to modeling human interaction, boiling it down into variables to be tracked and formulas describing their interaction and then attempting to create an emergent story from those variables and formulas. My experience mirrors Emily Short’s: I have yet to find a story built entirely from such a pile of numbers that has the power of a more deliberately authored story. As Crawford’s own Erasmatron showed, procedurally generating entire stories is hard.

Earlier this year Chris Crawford turned sixty. When he did, he wrote a meditation on reaching this milestone. Most striking to me was his willingness to face his mortality head-on through the concrete metaphor of beads in a jar and his clear-eyed assessment of how successful his life’s work has been.

Thus, when my sixtieth birthday struck, I found myself bereft of achievement in my most important undertaking. I have always felt a calm self-assurance that I am right, that I have developed ideas that would surely conquer the world if I only gave the world enough time to recognize them. My sixtieth birthday shouted loudly that my ideas had most definitely failed to conquer the world. It certainly looks as if I am a washed-up failure. I don’t really believe that — I still believe that I’ve hit upon a solid approach to interactive storytelling and that someday the world will appreciate my work. But with each passing day the evidence of my failure mounts.

I do not know if I could make such a ferocious, unflinching critique of my life as Crawford has done of his. I have not agreed with his approach, and am not one who is in awe of his ideas, but I am in awe of his willingness to give up safe choices and iterative development and instead run headlong, screaming a battle cry, in a two-decade-long attempt to slay his chosen dragon. Crawford’s ideas may not have won me over, but as the trajectory of my own life begins to curve downward, I could do far worse than to be won over by his tenacity.

2 thoughts on “Chris Crawford’s Unflinching Look at His Life

  1. I see your point, but I am not convinced that level of tenacity is a healthy thing. I found Crawford’s essay, as I find most of his opinions, pretty harsh. What I will give him is that he is as willing to criticize himself as he is to praise himself. He’s no hypocrite.

    1. I don’t know that it’s healthy, no, but I can admire his willingness to stick to his guns while also turning his critical eye on himself.

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