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“Eaten By A Grue” music video, & my ramblings about computer gaming’s wealthy wasteland

Filed under Can't Stop Thinking

Here’s a fun thing: a music video for MC Frontalot’s ‘It Is Pitch Dark’ (you are likely to be eaten by a grue). It’s an homage to the Infocom text adventure games of yore, and it even features a cameo by Infocom designer Steve Meretzky (above right). Meretzky has been idolized as a Game God by PC Gamer Magazine.

Steve Meretzky was the author of the text adventure Planetfall – which I think, after 24 years or so, is the best computer game I ever played.

I think that because I’ve never encountered another game that came so close to being a new narrative art form. The form is necessarily different from prose fiction or film because the medium is unique.

The game uses a form of storytelling that is interactive, and therefore doesn’t even exist until its audience takes action; but unlike almost every other attempt at interactive storytelling Planetfall and some of its Infocom siblings manage to create feelings other than fright or shock. It evokes an actual emotional response from the player as a result of things the player has chosen to do. And while it may have been a primitive thrust in the right direction, that is exactly what interactive, narrative art needs to do. And has not done.

Imagine that thirty years after the invention of the printing press, nobody had time to write because all they were doing was designing new typefaces. That’s exactly where digital entertainment is today.

During the 1980s Infocom had a tremendous run in popular computer games. Their interface itself was incredibly simple – just a text prompt, and responses to the player’s typed actions. That meant two things:

1. The game engine was completely portable. Any computer could print lines of text. So Infocom games were available on just about any computer you might own, and in those days there were a great many of them.

2. Only minimal technical work was necessary to create a new title. All the game’s development, or nearly all of it, was devoted to designing an engaging experience and writing reams and reams of text – because one of the remarkable things about these games was how they could give long, involved responses to all sort of unlikely things a player might do. A new game didn’t rely on graphics advances, new features, or other spinnable hype. It would succeed or fail based completely on its content.

So then what happened? It’s easy, and correct, to say “graphics happened”. But there’s more to it than that.

Still, graphics did happen. Implementing a graphic game across a large number of computer platforms was a much more difficult and expensive task. With all its success, Infocom was in a position to have a go at that, and they began to do it at about the same time they were purchased by a pre-bankruptcy Activision (then, as now, a heavy hitter in the games business).

Yet as Infocom tried to become graphical it found that things simply didn’t translate as well. The designs of the games themselves needed to depend on, and be improved by, the graphical content. And it was obvious enough that while it’s relatively cheap to write about any event at all, it was much more expensive to show it. Given a couple of years they might have solved those problems. But they fell prey to one of the game business’ periodic slumps, during which their assets seemed too risky for an embattled Activision – which eventually fell into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It was several years before Activision came back, and one of their early successes was a reinvention of Infocom’s Zork franchise (Return to Zork: I did the intro animation for that one).

Like I said, though, the thing that I believe killed this sort of narrative fiction wasn’t just graphics: it was realtime, 3D graphics. And specifically the first-person shooter.

Castle Wolfenstein and Doom laid the 2D groundwork for realtime 3D games and that’s the way the industry headed – because publishers correctly believed that what their public wanted was an experience that was as much like a movie as possible. A moving camera was necessary for that, and the best solution to that problem was realtime 3D.

Now in theory, there’s no reason why an intelligently written narrative game can’t be made using realtime 3D rendering. That’s just mechanics, and the mechanics don’t preclude real content. Yet almost without exception, games today are all shooters in the heritage of Doom and Quake. You run really fast through… someplace, and you kill everything you see. Why so little variety?

I think there are a couple of reasons for that.

1. Money isn’t imaginative

Game projects, while they are sometimes insanely profitable, are always very expensive. Games have become bigger and bigger over time. While I started at a time when – just barely – a game could be created by a couple of determined people, they now require huge teams and loads of money. And when loads of money gets involved, the decisions are made by the money. New projects tend to be a lot like projects that have already made money. These days that means almost every project will be a shooter. A few realtime strategy games will trickle out – especially if they’re successors to a franchise like Starcraft or Warcraft – but even those aren’t exceptions to the rule that you’re going to see a lot of what you’ve seen before.

2. It’s all about the hardware

The second reason is one I think is even more costly and limiting. Games and their promotion are now tightly linked to new developments in graphics cards. That landscape is constantly changing – and in order for a game to get made it has to show that it’s pushing the envelope of the technology. Game after game, year after year. Vast resources are spent, constantly, on reinventing the same thing – putting images on the screen.

This is true whether a developer licenses an engine or, more rarely, develops a rendering engine in-house. New rendering features are given tremendous importance. They become the focus of development, and why not? – since all the publisher wants is a shooter with a few bullet-pointed features that are sold as innovation. Cooperative team play. New weapons. More violent animations. Things that go “bounce” before they go “boom”. As cool as these things may be to look at… they have nothing at all to do with content.

The whole development process revolves now around technical issues. This is the exact opposite of the situation I described above, when Infocom was in its heyday – when almost all development resources could be spent on content.

The games industry has been eaten by technology.

So what can be done about that? It’s probably not my question to answer. I left that business over two years ago, and I won’t be going back – in retrospect I think that I pretty much wasted close to two decades of my life there.

But there are a couple of things that I believe are encouraging. One is the recent success of Nintendo’s Wii – a system whose graphic capabilities were already behind the times at launch,. but which has enjoyed tremendous success because of its emphasis on gameplay.

Another is the popularity of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. In the current state of games, I think that it’s these ongoing worlds that probably have the most potential for storytelling. While I’d love to see closed systems that can be more driven by game design, and where you’re less likely to be randomly assaulted by a teenaged whatsit, these games are the closest we’ve seen to a roomful of people behaving like their characters in a traditional RPG.

So what would one do with those bits of encouragement?

Stop thinking about technology.

Nintendo’s shown you that people will respond to good content, regardless of how it’s presented.

Don’t attempt to compete on the playing field of new features and spiffy effects. In fact, consider using an old game engine that’s inexpensive to license, and… concentrate on content.

A Couple of Things for Free

Here are some observations about ways that interactive fiction can work. Trust me: they’ve hardly been used.

1. The player character is a Puppet. The Puppet is not the key.

No matter what you do, a game player will always know that he’s controlling the player character. The player character is just a puppet.Why is that significant? I mean, when you’re reading a book or watching a film, you know the protagonist isn’t real, right?

Sort of. In fact a writer tries to make you forget that, by developing a character who feels real and is – usually – someone you can identify with, and who you want to be successful. It’s a measure of a writer’s skill, and a director and actor’s skill, that this suspension of disbelief is possible.

But when you’re a game player making a character do your bidding it is almost impossible for you to achieve that suspension of disbelief. You’re actively directing the actions of the player character, and you know you are. You can be startled or shocked or frustrated, but that’s pretty much the limit of your involvement with the character you’re moving around the screen.

And even there, you know that if the Puppet dies you just need to back up to a saved game position, and go again. There’s not a lot of drama in that situation.

For that reason I don’t think a game designer should even bother too much with trying to create an emotional involvement with The Puppet. Back story, check; goal, check; obstacles, check. But the Puppet is not the key to engaging a player’s emotions.

On the other hand, the nature of the player character should have everything to do with the game’s setting, its complicating details, and the solutions to the Puppet’s problems.

That’s just good storytelling. Everything arises from the nature of the characters. Everything. The situations they’re in, the obstacles they face, the way they resolve their problems: these things must come from them – and can’t come from them if the storyteller doesn’t know who the characters are.

You think you do. But judging by the results, you actually have no idea who your characters are.

2. Non Player Characters are the key

The characters who inhabit the game world need to have goals, back stories, and personalities. They need to move around convincingly and as though they have needs and purposes of their own. The player should get to know those needs and purposes. The player’s actions should affect those needs and purposes. The player’s actions should have consequences, and those consequences should affect the game world and the people in it.

Because they are the key. Although a player character can’t benefit from suspension of belief, the non player characters are your best shot at achieving it. Make them and their world believable. Let the player help them. Let the player screw them up.

Always make sure that the player sees the results of his or her actions – because here is the place where you aim for the suspension of disbelief and a real emotional connection with the player. Through others.

3. Stop saving the worlds and fighting the forces of evil

It’s just boring. Not to mention amateurish. Really interesting stories are about people. They’re not about cosmic events.

So, okay, who am I that you should pay attention? Nobody, really. I just think that if interactive fiction is ever going anywhere it won’t happen while we obsess about the hardware. That has nothing at all to do with making fiction of any kind.

Like I said way up above:

Imagine that thirty years after the invention of the printing press, nobody had time to write because all they were doing was designing new typefaces. That’s exactly where digital entertainment is today.

Smarter people than me have written things that touch on this. here are a couple.

And here are some relevant links:

5 responses to ““Eaten By A Grue” music video, & my ramblings about computer gaming’s wealthy wasteland
Kinsman says:
September 15th, 2007 at 7:17 am

Hi – I came across your post because I’ve got a Google Alert that looks for anything matching “interactive storytelling”.

I find myself thinking the same way. What’s interesting is that for the longest time beforehand, I didn’t care so much – there were (some) adventure games, and action games, and that was that; it’s only recently that I started thinking about games in terms of their art, or how much art they could offer to the world.

I think that there’s hope as long as we still have the people who were around at the beginning of video games, and who had influences such as tabletop board games or RPGs affecting how they thought about video games. It’s that influence that has kept back video games from becoming purely like movies, and invented its own devices such as elegant charts of information, the text marquee beneath a talking head, and so on.

I also think the problem with resources will be solved in about five or ten years. While large teams with money will almost always provide more production values in a game than a single person, the tools for making games have been improving over time while the end visuals have been reaching the point of diminishing returns; eventually, there will be a tool that does for 3D games what Flash did for 2D games, and who knows what’ll happen then.

Bradley W. Schenck says:
September 15th, 2007 at 12:26 pm

If very high level development tools on the order of Flash were used on a large scale I think we might not see a solution to what a programmer I worked with called “the tyranny of the resources” – because I’m less sure that this would result in smaller teams – but it would mean that everyone’s attention would move from technical, rendering issues and on to content. It’d be nice to see.

Steve Meretzky says:
September 17th, 2007 at 10:46 pm

Great post. Thanks for the kind words about Planetfall. Perfect analogy about the printing press and designing typefaces!

Bradley W. Schenck says:
September 18th, 2007 at 12:27 am

Everything I know, I learned from Floyd the Droid.

Eric Daniels says:
November 5th, 2007 at 8:36 pm

Hey, I remember Planetfall… I loved that game! I don’t remember a lot of the details anymore, but I remember it being VERY involving. And I remember being quite proud of finishing it. Thanks, Steve, for creating such a great game!

And Brad, I like your take on the game industry… but, then, I always appreciate your writing. It’s always nice to check back into your web world after being away from it for a few months.

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