Vintage Chris Crawford Videos
May 23, 2007 7:04 AM   Subscribe

Chris Crawford puts up videos of some of his earlier talks and interviews. So far, there are four pieces but he says there will be more to come. These are the direct links to Quicktime movies that are also in his forum post which is the initial link. An Interview in 1982 about his nuclear power plant simulation Scram (52 MB), 1990 interview on Balance of Power (62 MB), half-hour interview with 30 seconds of Crawford about Excalibur (331 MB), lecture at the 1990 Computer Game Developers' Conference entitled "The Mystique of the Loop" (657 MB).
posted by Glow Bucket (13 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Balance of Power was a great game, way ahead of its time. If I recall, it was released using a runtime version of a new program called Windows.
posted by Dave Faris at 8:25 AM on May 23, 2007

A quick explanation of who Chris Crawford is would be very helpful.
posted by ghastlyfop at 8:31 AM on May 23, 2007

Crawford is one of the crankier figures in video game design, a self-proclaimed expert on 'interactive storytelling' (and yes, a master game designer) who feels that video games have outlasted their interest and that the next leap forward in electronic media will be, in essence, a kind of algorithmically-arranged narrative form. Not interactive fiction as presently constituted (vastly more interesting lineal descendents of Zork), but dynamically-generated character-driven drama of a type not yet successfully made. He's considered something of a genius crackpot by many in the community, not least in the scholarly game studies community (where technical expertise like his is a rare commodity). He hosts (or used to host, I can't remember) a yearly symposium on interactive storytelling at his ranch in the Pacific Northwest, Phrontisterion, a jewel of a get-together for game-designer/theorist types willing to immerse themselves in the world of a man who appears to like almost no one.

If you're a comics fan, think of Crawford as the Dave Sim of game design, in temperament and not politics - committed to financial/production independence as a necessary creative principle, professional contrarian, a master of his craft. Sim is a great deal more prolific than Crawford, particularly in recent years, but they occupy similar spaces in their fields (Crawford is less of a pariah than Sim).
posted by waxbanks at 8:46 AM on May 23, 2007

Heh, I was a QA play tester on "Balance of Power" for its Mac version as well as the Amiga version.

After that game was released, I also did some play testing on a game he developed that was very much like Sid Meier's Civilization (but a year or two before Civ I was released). The software company dropped the game because I kept finding too many bugs.

I also interviewed Chris Crawford for that company's gamer newsletter and remember being almost too nervous to talk to him on the phone.

That was all a very long time ago.
posted by briank at 8:49 AM on May 23, 2007

I guess I have few role models on this planet, but CC is one of 'em.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 9:05 AM on May 23, 2007

thanks very much for this.

@ghastlyfop - Chris Crawford is a visionary game designer (or perhaps ex-game designer might be a better description). Like many visionaries he's also a little eccentric, and seems to have lost his way a little. In the early eighties he produced some very important games (Balance of Power being particularly influential - certainly for me), but then became unfortunately obsessed with the idea of narrative. Ever since he's been working on a series of ever more complex narrative generation engines which attempt to allow an author to create a narrative "world" rather than a particular story. In essence, he's trying (really, really hard) to make a really meaningful interactive narrative (as opposed to a map of branching possibilities).

His engines generally model a narrative by means of setting up characters with particular traits, and then putting them in a world which affords certain types of interactions between them. The player then generally plays one of the characters and gets to interact with the others. His simulated characters keep track of things like how they feel about each other, significant events they've witnessed etc. They will even try to do things such as influence each other by spreading gossip etc. The result (at least the last time I played with it - which was admittedly about 7 years ago) is occasionally interesting, but more often pretty baffling for the player and uncontrollable for the author. It's hard to build in things like a dynamic rhythm into the story, for instance, so it tends to just meander about.

Chris pretty much disappeared into the hills for the last fifteen years or so to work on this, and his single mindedness is probably his biggest handicap. He cares only about cracking this narrative problem, so things like the aesthetics of the pieces and tools he produces are completely neglected - hence playing one of these things is usually pretty much a totally sensually barren experience. Which is a pity. As much as I'm *extremely* dubious about the possibility or even the desirability of narrative in games I'd really like him to succeed. He's a man of honour and integrity, but one who's probably a bit too prone to wearing purple tunics.
posted by silence at 9:06 AM on May 23, 2007

on preview, pretty much what everyone else said. only longer and more waffly.
posted by silence at 9:07 AM on May 23, 2007

ghastlyfop, I was unsure whether to include a Wikipedia link as to the whois of Chris Crawford and decided against it. Now I see that I should have done so. And thanks to you others who filled him in.

As another thing of interest, Chris has made available a digital version of his book "Balance of Power" from 1986 as a plain text file (direct link) on his Erasmatazz page. The forum thread wherein he discusses this can be found here.
posted by Glow Bucket at 9:38 AM on May 23, 2007

Speaking as someone who's been keeping up, a bit, with Crawford's work, I'd say that he has not -necessarily- lost his way. The idea he's working on is Storytron, which has a website with demo software on it.

It's not particularly easy-to-use software, and I have yet to make much headway into understanding it, but it's something.
posted by JHarris at 9:59 AM on May 23, 2007

Oh Christ... This whole time, everytime I read design shit from Chris Crawford, I was confusing him with Chris Taylor (mobygames link)

BTW MobyGames is a great resource to find out info on games and developers. I likey...
posted by symbioid at 10:13 AM on May 23, 2007

Balance of Power was one of my favorite sims / games. I even bought the book he wrote on game design and mathematical models.

Three years ago, I saw that he put the game on his site for free. I wrote him and told him how much I appreciated it, and how the game still held up after so many years. I got a friendly reply from him. He said that he hopes to someday do Balance of Power 21st Century.
posted by zippy at 10:57 AM on May 23, 2007

@JHarris - By "lost his way" I didn't mean that he wasn't producing anything, more that he seems to have wandered off the yellow brick road and found himself caught up in some very dense and thorny undergrowth.

I've never been convinced that narrative was a good idea in games, and personally think that the extraordinary power of Chris' games (like Balance of Power) is a testament to everything that games can do well that narrative doesn't.

You see, narrative tends to reduce the systemic to the individual and personal, for a start. It's impossible (or certainly very very difficult) to make a story which actually gives a sense of something like the mechanics of global politics. A story will personalise the idea, and tell it from the point of view of specific characters, and then use metonymy and other devices to try to imply the whole. This can lead to a terribly distorted view of the world - one in which history is read as the actions of series of heroic individuals, for instance. A game like Balance of Power is able to actually convey the nature of systems and the play of forces within them in a way that a story never could.

My opinion is that this reduction of everything to narrative is where the power and danger of US culture comes from. The US has developed a culture (through the Hollywood movie) which places enormous value in the idea of the metanymic story of the individual. I personally think that the US has got to its position in the world in large part by selling the rest of the world on its stories (the American Dream) - and its still pretty much the only country I've been to where people actually believe their national myths.

So as far as I'm concerned, stories are a seductive trap for a game maker to fall into. When you listen to US game makers they will even claim (in a corny lined borrowed from listening to Hollywood film directors) "it's all about the story". It's NOT all about the story. It's all about the game. It's about the amazing things that are possible with the subtle play of agency and systems, with entrainment and critical thinking. Yes, I can understand the seductive pull of the emotive, I really can, but even there the greatest successes haven't been great stories - the great successes have come through erasing story to its barest outline and filling in the spaces with something far subtler and more difficult to pin down than plot.

I understand Chris wanting to work with something more human and delicate and intimate than games like Balance of Power, but perhaps it's better to acknowledge that Real Humans do that best of all, and if we want that human connection we go to see a gig or a play or a film. Or we play a game with another human.

So in summary, I really do think Chris Crawford has lost his way. He's been seduced from the path by the smell of all that sugar and candy in the wicked witches' house. I hope one day he'll realise that all that sugar isn't really very good for him and come back with a new Balance of Power, because when I was a kid he helped me to understand the world with that game, and I think the world could do with a bit of explanation right now.
posted by silence at 11:16 AM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

the videos weren't actually encoded too well, so there are better versions now hosted on my server :

Nightline interview
Balance of the Planet (incorrectly refered to in the posting as Balanace of Power)

The final movie seemed to be corrupted - as soon as I get a copy of it that works I'll post that too.
posted by silence at 12:19 PM on May 26, 2007

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