I think that the reason my sixtieth birthday hit me so hard was the realization that I have not yet completed my life’s work: interactive storytelling. I was way ahead of everybody else on this. It was way back in 1983 that I realized that people, not things, were the fundamental element missing from games. I spent the next nine years trying to insinuate real characters into games, and while I made some progress, the games industry went in a completely different direction and I realized that I had to make a complete break with the games industry if I were to continue down the path I considered necessary.
In 1992 I dedicated myself to the task of making games that centered on character interaction. It was about then that I settled on the term “interactive storytelling” to describe my efforts. This was long before anybody else was thinking along such lines (although Brenda Laurel had speculated about drama in games a few years earlier). I remember how my friends in the games industry told me that I was absolutely crazy to pursue this line of development – nobody was interested in stories in games. I know this is difficult to believe now that everybody is talking stories, but it really was the case that, in the early 90s, nobody thought that stories had any place in games. The biggest hit of that time was Doom, and the team that developed it had famously split apart over a dispute regarding the role of story. The winning faction insisted that “we don’t need no stinking story – action is all that matters”. The rest of the games industry applauded their clarity of thinking. Stories were for wimps.
As the years rolled by, I pursued my lonely quest, picking up a few like-minded idealists along the way. With little financing, it was slow, painful going. We made a major push starting in 2007, but in the summer of 2009 it became clear that we had failed to garner any support. I put Storytron into a coma and contemplated my future.
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.
Part of me praises his ability to look mortality straight in the eye. The other part of me laughs at his ego. “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.” Really. Perhaps only the unreasonable man can change the world. I still haven’t seen anything out of his output over the last x years that resembles anything but the most stereotypical portrayals of the Chinese room. I hope he succeeds, I believe he will fail.
For better or worse he will be remembered for Balance of Power and probably not much else. History says he’s been irrelevant for too long for it to be likely he has another hit or impact game in him at this point.
I know this is difficult to believe now that everybody is talking stories, but it really was the case that, in the early 90s, nobody thought that stories had any place in games. The biggest hit of that time was Doom, and the team that developed it had famously split apart over a dispute regarding the role of story. The winning faction insisted that “we don’t need no stinking story – action is all that matters”. The rest of the games industry applauded their clarity of thinking. Stories were for wimps.
Back then, people were smarter than they are today!
Wow, it makes me sad to think of him thinking of himself as a washed-up failure, even if only momentarily. I guess very few of us get to make some kind of big cultural impact on the world and have it remembered in any way. But… hmm. Maybe where Chris has gone wrong is in committing himself to one particular implementation of his “big idea” about personalities and stories and just hammering away at it. Lots of people have done little experiments with different kinds of gameplay that are, in different ways, attacking the same question, and some of those experiments have been pretty successful and interesting. Some have had just as little impact as the storytron, of course. But… if you make lots of little failed experiments, it gives you something to work with on the way to your next bash at the problem. Trying to solve a giant problem with one giant, all-encompassing solution in one step is a big ask… and a big risk. If it doesn’t pay off, it’s hard to take heart and pick yourself up to have another go at the next thing.
Ego’s crack hard. But i can’t see his life work as being a failure, Chris has always been an amazing intellect and for me his most important ‘legacy’ has been all the still relevant articles and documents he has written about game design.
He really does understand games, and i’ve enjoyed many of his games(Eastern Front on the Atari 8bit, Balance of Power, even Guns and Butter.), but have always enjoyed what he had to say about games and game design much more. There is nothing wrong with being a great teacher imho.
If you measure success in life by having your ideas conquer the world, then yeah, most of us will be a failure at 60. While it’s good to be introspective, and good to aspire, I think he needs a dose of realism.
Having never played any of his games, and now seeing people bring up Balance of Power (even Chris Crawford himself thinks of it as one of his greatest achievements), I have to ask, what do you think of peterb’s assessment of BoP? (Since I can’t post links, you’ll have to google “site:tleaves.com balance of power” to find the articles.)
Balance of Power, for various platforms, is yet another Crawford game that takes someone else’s great idea and makes it boring. The idea of a superpower game of brinksmanship, risking prestige and war, had already been done right by SSI and Bruce Ketchledge in their gripping game Geopolitique 1990. Crawford took this basic idea and added a few things: an arguably better user interface, more minor nations and random events, and an insufferably preachy tone (“We do not reward failure,” the game lectures you when you lose, which is clearly true, since I was never rewarded for the epic failure of purchasing it). Every moment spent with the game is a moment you miss doing something more entertaining, such as clipping your toenails.
If you hate yourself and your life, you can subject yourself to Crawford’s java-based beta of “Balance of Power: 21st Century” at his web site, storytron.com. The graphics and user interface aren’t as good as the original game, but to make up for that, it’s even less fun.
Balance of Power: The 1990 Edition by Mindscape. No score given for this game: We do not reward failure.
Chris Crawford wrote games that weren’t any fun.
I think that Crawford gets a pass on this from so many commentators because he developed games in an era when there simply wasn’t as much competition. So anyone of a certain age who writes about games has played his games. Therefore, when people talk about 1985′s Balance of Power, they’re not actually talking about that game, but about their memory of playing the game as a 13 year old.
To take Balance of Power as an example: it wasn’t “innovative”; it was basically a rehash of Bruce Ketchledge’s 1984 game Geopolitique 1990, published by SSI. The main difference between the two games is that Crawford made some changes to suck all of the fun out of it. Specifically, in Ketchledge’s game, making too many significant mistakes could result in a war, which the player then had to resolve. In Crawford’s game, making a single mistake resulted in the game immediately ending with a snotty little lecture from the programmer ending with “We do not reward failure.”
I have to agree with that assessment of Balance of Power. Leaving aside the snide, preachy “I refuse to show you a nuclear war screen” fail screen, it was pretty much a pointless exercise in bidding. You’d move money or troops into a region. The AI would object. You’d either back down or escalate. If you escalated, the AI would either back down or escalate. Whoever backed down first lost, but if you just kept going eventually you got that “war sucks” screen and lost. There was no real way to tell when you should stop bidding, and every move you made ended up with that stupid bidding war. When players objected, Chris’s response was “so why did you escalate to nuclear war over Vietnam?”, which showed how completely clueless he was when thinking about game design.
He did like to preach. I recall that one thing that really bugged me about Sim Earth, which was only remotely a game, was that at the Civilization stage it equated the energy output of muscle power with that from fossil fuels and nuclear. The “right” way to play was to rely on muscle and solar power, since your civilization would burn through both oil and uranium very, very rapidly. Very green, but it kind of overlooked the reason why we’re so hooked on oil is the order of magnitude difference between horse carts and trucking.
Or in other circles, “See one, do one, teach one.” That’s what attendings tell surgical residents, at least.
There are plenty of story-driven games around. Whether any of them conform to his idea of perfection in “interactive storytelling” is another issue all together. What would his opinion be of Heavy Rain, for example?
it’s all great that mr Crawford aspired to make interactive storytelling his lifelong pursuit… but its not like he was alone. tons of developers have gone far since BoP, maybe he shouldnt have locked himself up in his ivory tower! problem is this guys really does not seem to be a ‘gamer’… kind of backwards the medium he is trying to advance… hes really not participating in actively… or at least that i know of.
and i played balance of power as a kid (my parents thought it would be good i learned about the world or something, they had no idea it was a geopoilitical simulator). great almanac game… sorta like an ‘adult’ version of carmen san diego.
He’s actually been very busy creating first Erasmatazz and then Storytron. He hasn’t been visible much, though, except to a small group of people interested in what he’s trying to achieve. Teaching has been only very occasional lectures, not his job.
Crawford intentionally left games behind. He views what he’s doing as something rather different. He’s not trying to make games as we know them. His stuff can of course be compared with them but it’s not the stated intent by any means.
I’m pointing to something like Charles’s point. The man’s been culturally irrelevant for a long, long time now (even moreso in this medium), to the tune of me finding his name vaguely familiar but being totally unable to name a single thing he’s actually done.