UCSC graduate student is a new kind of storyteller

Aaron Reed's award-winning games use computer technology to explore the possibilities of interactive fiction

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Aaron A. Reed

Aaron A. Reed is a storyteller for whom writing involves both words and computer code. Currently working toward his Ph.D. in computer science at UC Santa Cruz, Reed is already a prominent author in the world of interactive fiction, merging literary storytelling techniques with the technology of computer games.

“Telling stories with words is one of the oldest ways that we have of telling stories, and telling stories with games is one of the newest ways,” Reed said. “Some of this stuff we figured out how to do over the last several thousand years, so what of that knowledge can we bring into this new ground?”

Reed came to UCSC in 2009 for the Digital Arts and New Media program, earning his M.F.A. in 2011. His initial exploration of new ways of storytelling through games had two goals: to involve the reader in the outcome of the story and to develop an interactive story in a way that didn’t require a Ph.D. in computer science. Eventually, however, he decided that advanced work in computer science would give him the best tools to address some of the storytelling challenges he was facing as a writer. So he moved on to UCSC's computer science graduate program, working with faculty in the Expressive Intelligence Studio at the Center for Games and Playable Media.

Interactive storytelling

Reed’s games experiment with different approaches to interactive storytelling, and the experiments are paying off. One recent project, 18 Cadence, has earned accolades from both the literary community and experimental game developers.

Interactive fiction (IF) has its origins in the analog world of print with books like the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series popular in the 1980s and 90s. Readers of those books encounter decision points throughout the story, and their choices send them to different pages to continue reading, influencing the outcome of the story.

Today, a vibrant online community exists for writers and developers of interactive fiction, which is being produced in a variety of digital forms. One form involves a player typing commands to a character in the story, like “get key” or “go east.” Reed experimented with this type of storytelling in Blue Lacuna, a long-form interactive novel released in 2008 and acclaimed by the IF community.

Reed said he thinks interactive fiction structured like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book can be problematic for both players and writers. Gamers are always aware that a decision causes them to miss part of the story, and writers have to produce content that a gamer may never see. A structure that engages players in an expanding storyline by creating branching plots at each decision point burdens writers with ever-expanding content development.

18 Cadence

Reed has been exploring new ways of engaging the player in the story without tasking the writer (usually him) to generate overwhelming amounts of content. In 18 Cadence, for example, players move fragments of narrative around the screen as if they were magnetic refrigerator poetry. It gives players the ability to mold a story like sculpture and create a personalized narrative with the words Reed provided in the game.

The narrative fragments in 18 Cadence are people, locations, and objects inside one fictional house throughout a century. A player chooses how to juxtapose fragments from each category, and the game merges connectable fragments into sentences. Players continue creating sentences to make a story, which they can choose to share with others.

Reed said that in reading the shared stories, he has been surprised by some of the ways in which people use the game. Some have stacked words on top of each other to make new sentences. Others created a collage of things that had been in the kitchen over the 100 years from when the house was built, in 1900, to when it burned down in 2000. These inventive uses fulfilled one of Reed’s main goals for his projects: that someone reading an interactive story feels like they are collaborating with him.

Kirkus Reviews, a leading magazine for the book industry, named 18 Cadence one of the best book apps for 2013, and the game won an honorable mention in the 2014 Independent Games Festival. Reed said he was pleased that experimental gamers recognized the novelty of his experiment, while the literary community also thought the game was worthy of recognition.

Ice-Bound

His latest project, Ice-Bound, has not been released publicly yet, but it has already earned Reed honors at UCSC. In May, he received the Alumni Association Award in engineering for his presentation at the Graduate Student Research Symposium. He has just submitted Ice-Bound to IndieCade, the International Independent Games Festival held in October. Reed is developing the tablet-based game together with Jacob Garbe, another writer from the DANM M.F.A. program who also moved to the computer science department to continue doing games research.

The premise of Ice-Bound involves an author’s unfinished masterpiece that becomes popular decades after his death. To satisfy readers’ demands for an ending, a publishing company recreates the author using artificial intelligence (AI) and asks the AI to finish the book. The AI author soon becomes consumed by self-doubt regarding the proper ending, and players provide information to alleviate that doubt. The game uses that information to identify possible trajectories for the rest of the virtual story.

Ice-Bound changes the mechanics of a standard “Choose Your Own Adventure” game because the game doesn't follow a set path based on a player’s decision. It also continues the idea of sculptural storytelling that Reed explored with 18 Cadence.

Reed explained that in addition to releasing finished products, some of what he and other researchers at the Center for Games and Playable Media are doing is the game design equivalent of pure research. For-profit game developers can’t necessarily afford to create experimental games just to test a storytelling idea.

“I think games will be—or maybe already are—the dominant medium of the 21st century,” Reed said. “There’s still a lot to learn about how they can be most effective at conveying information and how they might change the way people think about a story or a system.”

For Reed, players’ reactions determine whether he considers a game successful. He hopes people enjoy interacting with his games and are inspired to make something similar.