I got my start with Storytron, it was my first real trip into professional development, and let me tell you, I´ve seen this thing delayed more times than the Bush administration lied. Wait, let me tabulate that... no nevermind, Storytron was delayed roughly thirty times and the Bush administration lied over 900 times, but you get the idea. I´m happy to say that Chris Crawford has finally delivered, and the great messianic engine bears its promises with grace.
I can´t really review Balance of Power 2k1 without also reviewing the underlying engine. Storytron offers one approach to games about people that is very data-driven, characters are defined by floating point values like -.53 Honesty, .23 Intelligence, and so forth, and the engine is driven by a linguistic tinker-toy data-structure. You make inputs by selecting verbs and adverbs and direct objects, and the system gives you feedback in the same way. While Facade takes a highly procedural and real-time approach to dramatic interaction, and The Path uses very minimal interactivity driven by an AI system based on whimsical randomness, Storytron is the epitome of Crawford´s conversational metaphor for interactivity. I prefer to think of games as drug trips or sex (why not both?) but I have respect for the platonic kind of turn-based pacing that Crawford is going for. For years he resisted all attempts to add animation, successfully, and now that I see the basic, iconic faces juxtaposed with the cleaned-up linGUIstic scheme, I get it. Storytron has lots of potential and I might just make The Aristocrats using it, should I?
Then the question is, how effective is BoP as a sequel to the original cold war strategy game, and at the same time how effective is it as a demonstration of Storytron?
The game puts you in the role of President Bush, except by virtue of your reading this you clearly "do the Google". You are faced with tough decisions regarding terrorism and geopolitical control of global resources, with the relationship with China being the main theme that emerges deeper in. You have all manner of tools at your disposal via a series of goal settings and then actions, you can employ economic sanctions, diplomacy, direct military intervention or shady CIA-type stuff. In other words, same verbs as the original, the difference this time is that the world is multi-lateral and the engine´s treatment of countries as characters suits that thesis well. Furthermore, the Storytron engine is oriented towards verbs, lots of verbs, so the Cold War era verbs you start the game with unfold to more contemporary kind of hedging and diplomacy. You don´t have to worry about which countries will side with Russia, you have to worry about what independent opinions various countries will form. In this manner, it makes sense that China wouldn´t be available as a protangonist, though it could be easily in the engine: the game is largely about how out-classed a national superpower is in the age of information. The interface is so duanting, Crawford decided to offer you decision nodes with ten verbs instead of three or four, you feel tempted to ask for advice and do what your advisors tell you. What normally seems to be a consequence of niche design actually serves to make you sympathize with Bush, if only for a nanosecond. Most of all, a regular person can play this for a bit and appreciate that a whole order of magnitude of complexity has been added to geopolitics in the past few decades, a sense highlighted by the complexity jump between Storytron and most other games in existence.
On the long-side, the game has pretty good flow as you try different tactics and nuance your diplomacy attempts. Wonks who dig foreign policy like wargamers dig military history will find this their equivalent of Hearts of Iron II. In that sense, this probably succeeds as a sequel to Balance of Power, it stimulates thought and has considerable strategic depth. However as a demo for Storytron it suffers from its own grand ambitions, Crawford likens it to the "Pong of interactive storytelling" but it´s somewhere closer to the first turn-based strategy game, if we were to consider this part of a new high. Also, for my tastes, I would have liked to play a version where monetary policy is a critical factor - what China does with their t-bill reserves has a lot more impact than what they do with their nukes (up to about the fifth nuke or so). Hopefully Crawford will make this game open source, as a learning tool and as a way to make arguments through design.
So what´s the combined verdict, on the game and on the engine as it is represented? Was Chris Crawford right? Are videogames a vegetable on life-support, with the game industry putting in shit and getting shit right back out? Is Interactive Storytelling a baby being born down the hall? I´ve built some stuff with Storytron and played a few other less developed storyworlds, so I´ll put it this way: the engine has powerful and systematic means of combining enjoyment of play with the haunting effects of a game teaching you something about yourself. Other individual games are doing this, but the engine allows you to do it quite easily. The sense of getting unexpected responses from the characters makes you look past the lo-fi visuals and amplifies even the basic facial expressions, you laugh, you get angry, you get crafty. There´s a whole new form of play in trying to infer the social machinations of others, and there are many, many permutations. Finally, the publishing barriers with Storytron are just the time it takes you to get up the learning curve and make something. Games that move us and set new highs have been exceptional instances of talented people working hard with little funding, we´ve reviewed a lot of these games, but I have hope that Storytron, in it´s own zany, Crawford-esque way, will contribute to an ecology of many people making games that matter. We could be near an inflection point where meaningful play is the rule rather than the exception, and the old wizard has weighed in on this great transmutation.