Storytelling in Computer Games: Panelists; Audience Q and A

Listen along in .mp3 (12 MB)


  1. Current story-driven games
  2. Scott Adams on EverQuest
  3. Scott mentors a Young Sir
  4. Overdevelopment in Ultima Online
  5. Jake Okun describes why story is uneconomical
  6. Amanda Fullan gives a newbie's perspective
  7. Parser fun with the "Adventureland" bear
  8. David Shih recalls playing an Adventure International game
  9. Scott on violence in computer games
  10. Scott on Napster and copyright
"I don’t like the player-killer servers, where the desire is to go out and kill the other players. That’s not for me. I don’t like that. I’d like to see less of it myself. I think a world that works together and teams together against a common evil is going to be a far better world than one where you’re going head to head." -- Scott Adams on violence in computer games.
Jerz: (To co-panelists) Amanda, or Jake, and also David Shih. David Shih is a colleague of mine in the English department. And he has boxes and boxes of Scott Adams games in his parents' house back in Texas. And when we were talking about this, he thought he would just love to come by. Thanks for coming. 

I've spoken with all three of our sort of [co]-panelists here. Dave, come on over here. Pull up a chair.

Go ahead; go to it. Ask some questions or give your feedback. Scott has been very generous with our time... with his time.

Co-panelist David Shih arrives.
Audience: (To panel) If you guys have something you want to say or if you want to take some questions but... (to Scott) How much have you felt story-telling has improved in video games over time?
Adams: Okay, that's a real good question.  There have been a lot of different games out there. Of recent note probably one game sticks in my mind more than anything else, two games actually, as fantastic storytelling opportunities that they took advantage of. 

One of them, the first one, was "Half-Life." Anyone hear of that? Ok. Anyone here play it? Hands, hands. Ok, a number of you. 

Current games driven by stories

Basically what Half-Life is, is a science fiction first-person shooter. You're plunked down in this world with literally nothing, and you're thrown into a world where a disaster happened of an extra terrestrial nature and you're going to save the world, literally. The thing is, the writers did a very good job. They suck you into the story. You, after a while, feel like you are the player[-character]. There was something awesome about walking down this darkened corridor, seeing this monster coming -- no, I'm sorry, walking down this brightly lit corridor, just having accomplished this great task, and I'm walking back and all of a sudden, one by one, the lights start going out. And the next thing I knew is I hear a roar down at the end of the corridor. I was like this in front of the computer, OHH!! 

The artist who wrote that sucked me into his world. He was telling me a story and I was living it. That was excellent. 

Another game that recently came out that also did the same thing was "Deus Ex". Yes, it's from the old Greek [actually, Latin --DGJ] "deus ex machina," which meant basically "from God", but it meant the hook that would come in and rescue the protagonist when they're put into a situation that they couldn't get out of...

Jerz: God from the machine, deus ex machina
Adams: A lot of people will pronounce it "deuce ex," but the game itself was unique and one of the first to do it and you'll see a lot of them coming out that are going to imitate it. You're put into the same type of thing, first-person shooter -- except it's not. You can go in and solve any one of the problems. You can be the guy with guns blazing, blowing out the marines at the front door, or you can decide you want to play this as a computer hacker, come around the back, hack the computer, and have their weapons that are there to protect them turn and shoot them. You can decide that you want to play it as a thief and sneak through the tunnels and through the air-conditioning ducts. You play the game not exactly the way you want to, because there are constraints, but your freedom to play the game is greatly expanded.  

This was tremendously difficult for the game developers.  Not only did they have to provide all the different routes in, they had to make sure that every person that was playing the game and wanted to choose a particular route would have that available to them.  Also, as you played the game, the character you were playing would grow, and you'd come to choices.  He was like The Bionic Man, he came to section where he could get implants.  But depending on which implant you pick now, that would mean later you can't pick a different implant, so a lot of choices were made, a lot of branches. But the whole thing has to come to a conclusion at the very end, and that was kind of hard to do.  I see a head nodding, did you like that one? 

Audience: I love that game.  The four different endings I thought were amazing.
Adams: Exactly.  Not one ending, four endings that you could choose from. 

This is one future of interactive fiction or interactive game playing.  The other one is, as he was mentioning, is the massive-multiplayer online role playing games.  I recently got sucked into, it was about three weeks, I haven't been playing it long, EverQuest.  If you've never tried a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game, that is something worth trying.  

Scott Adams on EverQuest.

Right now, it used to cost $50 for the game and $10 a month to play, right now they brought back the classic version.  It costs $10 to buy the game, they give you the first month for free, and you can cancel it at any time.  So basically, you can try the game for $10 for a month. 

It’s extremely addicting because it’s not only do you go in and you’re fighting the monsters. That’s fun. Everybody wants to fight monsters, sure. What you’re doing is you’re building a character. You basically come into the world in a loin cloth or a bikini, depending on the sex or gender you’re playing, and a couple of cents in your pocket and a wooden club and you go from there. You’re not just fighting the NPC’s, which are non-player characters. It’s the PCs in there. 

At any given time when I log on to the EverQuest world there are literally 50 to 100,000 people playing at the same time. Now we’re not all playing in the same world, they are divided up into multiple servers. The world that I’m playing in usually has about 2000 people online at the same time. 

So you have all these people playing together. We’re not only relating to the monsters, we’re relating to each other and that is the fascinating part. 

Here’s an example. First day I’m playing this character, I get into the world and there I am in my loin cloth and my wooden club and I said, 'I’m going to role play.'  You can role-play or you can be an avatar. Role-playing means that I am a creature that really lives in this world. I’m acting

Somebody comes up to me and says, 'Hey man, what level are you?' And I say, "Excuse me young sir, I am a new apprentice and do not know what this level is that thou talks about."

"I said what level are you!!!"

"Please do not shout at me I am just a lowly apprentice and do not understand this strange talk." 

Jumping up and down, "What level are you!!!"

By this time he has attracted a crowd around us, I don’t know why. So we have other players standing around looking at this guy jumping up and down, yelling at me, "He won’t tell me what level he is!!"

(Sniveling voice) "I am a lowly apprentice. Please sir, don’t hurt me." 

A woman walks up dressed in big flowing robes and a crown on her head and a scepter in her hand. Obviously not a new player. And she starts talking to me and she says, “Is there a problem here?” 

And I said, “O noble lady, please I am but an apprentice and do not understand the strange ways of this land.” 

We start talking back and forth, meanwhile this guy is over in the corner—“What level are you!!” 


One-track mind, OK. 

Talking to the nice lady, every thing going well, every once in a while she would turn and say, “Shut up!” 


Still no good, he’s still bouncing up and down. 

She turns and she gives me 10 pieces of platinum. A platinum is approximately a thousand dollars in this game world. I have the equivalent of fifty cents in my pocket, starting as a game player. She suddenly gives me ten thousand dollars. This is a tremendous boost. 

By the way, when you go into this game, it doesn’t matter who you are, rich, poor, whatever. Everybody starts the game at the same level, starts with the same things. Everything you want, you have to get for yourself or have somebody give to you as you build up your character. Socialization is very important in this game. It is amazing. 

So she gives me the 10 pieces of platinum and I turn to the other guy and he’s looking at me... (Crying sound.) She just gave me a small fortune and he’s going, “What level are you?” 

So I decide to take pity on him and I go OOC mode, out of character mode. It means that anything I say, I’m deliberately not role playing, I’m talking person-to-person, and I say to him: “I’m role playing, I’m not really mad at you, I’m not upset -- I’m just simply role-playing a character."

And he types back, “What’s role playing?” 

Scott relates one of his early EverQuest experiences.

Listen along in:
MP3 audio (1.5 MB)

Audience: (Gasping and murmuring.)
Adams: Very serious. So I proceed to explain to him and all of the sudden on his avatar was like “DING”. A light bulb goes on over his head -- and he’s role-playing now. 

He gets into it a little slowly but he falls into it and we play that night. I played with him. So I was having fun. We went out and killed monsters and looted their corpses. And he was a level 7! Ooh! I was a level 1. So he could go after monsters I didn’t dare attack. And he got some loot that there was no way I could get. And he gave 90% of it to me. He was really generous and friendly. 

At the end of the day I said to him “This is really nice. You were a tremendous friend to me.”  I kept calling him Young Sir. “You were a tremendous friend to me, Young Sir. I shall always remember you when I become a famous fighter.”  And I had a plan to become a tailor. I know, sounds funny, but hey, it pays well -- let me tell you.

And I said, “Maybe someday I’ll be able to help you out.” And he says, “Ha ha ha, I’m a level 7. You’re a 1. You’ll never be able to do anything for me. Never mind, just forget it.” 

Yesterday, or just last week, I was playing and I ran across him again. I’m a level 12 now, he’s a level 7 still. I was able to help him tremendously and I told him it was because of the nice things he did for me while I was first playing.

The key to this whole thing is, though: I’m getting sucked into this world these designers created, and I’m creating the story as I go along. And there are a thousand other people doing the same thing at the same time. We’ve got guilds; we’ve got groups that play together. It is utterly amazing, what is happening.

The graphics are still relatively primitive compared to going to see a movie or something like that. But the interaction between people is what makes the game a lot of fun. And there are those people who get in that simply go in, kill the monster, get what you can and get out. That’s fine. You can play it that way. They don’t know what role-playing is. For those who jump into the world and wrap themselves in it and want to become an actor, it’s fascinating.

Now... you had a question.

Audience Member: Yes, I played Ultima Online, which was another online role-playing game.  I played that back in school and I thought it was interesting how we would travel different worlds that you could play on all basically the same map, but eventually the game got so popular that you could build houses. All the land where the people would run around and kill deer and do stuff like that it was all being overrun by houses—

Overdevelopment in Ultima Online

Adams: It was all being built up. 
Audience: Yeah, actually you had people like lobbying for conservation and it was kind of funny.
Adams: Could you imagine this in a role playing game? The Green Party! Yeah!!

Yeah, absolutely and these types of things happen. And you’ll get another group that comes in. There’s a very popular thing, in Ultima Online originally, and it still is, players, meaning humans on the game, could kill each other. Normally, you’re playing on the game and you walk up and you want to kill someone, you can’t. You fight. Fight it out till the death. Alright. EverQuest came along and they thought, this is driving a lot of people away. They don’t like the inter-player conflict so we’re going to make it optional. In EverQuest you can be a player killer, or not be a player killer. And if you’re choosing not to be a player killer the other players, in general, can’t hurt you. But they may not help you either. In general the majority of the players are not player killers in most of EverQuest. But there are a couple of servers where anybody logging on to that server is in a player killer world, and there’s no choice. So they have it both ways for the people that want to play it. 

Jerz: Jake, really quick, you have experience in the industry, the stuff that we’ve been talking about, graphics versus story-telling; what’s your experience of that from your side? 
Jake Okun I’m more the opposite of you guys. 

I designed games and stuff that were, lacked form and lacked substance in a sense where the player is seeking immediate gratification. I’m talking about first person shooters and stuff. And the 3D graphics. 

When you essentially, again, Ultima Online and stuff, those games lack a form of story line. In that sense, consumers can replay the game. A game like Quake 2, those games are still really popular, because there’s no story line and it’s constantly...

Jake Okun explains why story is uneconomical

Adams Dynamic.
Okun: …dynamic. It’s replayable. You don’t play through the story line once because there is no story line.
Adams: Like Deus Ex or Half-Life. Good example, you play through Half-Life and you’re not going to play it again. You’ve already played through Half-Life.
Jerz Story takes a lot of resources. When you run out of story, you’re done with the game. 
Adams: Plus you can only put so much story in there. And if you’re story driven you’ve got a one-shot game, so it’s hard -- how do you make it?  Now Deus Ex sort of changed that, because then you can replay it being a different type of character. But still there’s only one type of story in there. 
Okun: And even most single player games out there now, you’re talking about a max playtime of 48 hours, and to invest that much time and resources in developing story lines just is not practical these days.
Adams: Now there are some that are different. A good example would be Baldur's Gate 2, which recently came out. It’s a fantasy role-playing game, something like Ultima Online, but single player. You go in and you control up to 6 characters and you have a story through it. 

They literally have close to two or three hundred hours of game play in there and what’s happened is some people say that’s too much. That they get tired of it, doing the same thing over and over. So sometimes there’s got to be a balance between the two to. 48 hours is an average. There are some games that are even shorter. 20 hours and somebody says, “Hey, I paid 50 bucks for this game, and I only played it for 20 hours, and I wore it out." 

Jerz: Amanda, you are writing a game for my class; tell us a little bit about your experiences, learning what gives... what you have to get rid of, in order to use the strengths of the interactive media.
Amanda Fullan: Well, a lot of the problems I ran into in the beginning was learning the program language. Like Dr. Jerz said before, I’d never done any programming before and this is very new to me. 

So, a lot of my creations were limited by my programming ability and so I originally wrote out a transcript of things that I wanted to happen in the game and when I went to program it, there would be glitches in things that I couldn’t put into those things that I wanted. 

So I ended up cutting out a lot of that original material and some of it is stupid things like you forget to put in a comma and the whole thing won’t work. For someone who’s not used to that kind of thing it’s very, very frustrating. 

Amanda Fullan gives a newbie's perspective

Adams: Computers are very, very literal. If you say one thing they take it exactly the way you say it and not what you meant. ["Garbage in, garbage out" -MH.]
Fullan: And so that works with your processes...
Adams: It plays havoc with your creative process! 


Jerz: Oh, Scott, could you tell us the story about the bear and the parser. 
Adams: Ok, here’s a very good example of an unintended side effect. I told you about my first game Adventureland. Well, to conserve space in the 16K world, I only looked at the first three letters of the nouns and verbs that people typed in. There’s a section where there’s a bear on a ledge and you’ve got to get past this large bear and, being a pacifistic game, you’re not going to be able to kill the bear no matter which way you try. You can give it honey if you want, but honey is one of your treasures and you’re going to end up wasting your treasures. 

The "Adventureland" bear reveals an amusing game "feature" 

Jerz: That’s why I didn’t get the full score!!  Listen along in:
MP3 audio (1.5 MB)
Adams: There is an alternate solution. What I wanted the player to do was to yell at the bear, to scare it off. You could also “scream” at the bear too, as an acceptable synonym. 

Well, I got a fan letter in that just had my whole company rolling in the aisles. It said:

We got to that bear on the ledge. We tried giving it the honey and he ate it up and boy that was a treasure and that was no good. So we reloaded the saved game and we went back to that bear. We pushed that bear, we prodded that bear, we tickled that bear, we have gotten so upset with that bear we could get nowhere.

Now the following is rated PG-13 so if you don’t want to hear it, please close your ears. Ok. Continuing.. 

So we finally said "Screw the bear!!" And the game replied, "The bear is so startled he falls off the ledge!"

(Roaring laughter.)

They thought I was a genius programmer! 


Jerz: Dave, from your childhood playing Scott Adams games, do you have any experiences like this with one puzzle that you’ve just never been able to solve, and you would like to ask Scott now how to get past it?
Shih: Yeah.

I hope I’m remembering this correctly. This was around 1981 or 1982. This was before we got the IBM PC’s. We had a TI 99/4A

David Shih recalls playing Scott 's games in the 80s

Jerz: Oh, yeah!
Shih: The one that was talked about by Bill Cosby. Actually you probably don’t even remember these commercials but…
Adams: Anybody remember Bill Cosby??
Yeah, you remember Cosby. 
Jerz: Great Jell-O commercials. 
Shih: It came with a very expensive single sided floppy drive if you wanted to have that. But, what most people had was a cassette recorder, and you kind of hooked it into the computer. That’s the way that I would play the Scott Adams adventures and you had to get a cartridge that you put in and you would purchase these cassette tapes with the games. The one that I remember the most is, I think it was called "Tomb of Horrors." I’m not sure if "Tomb" was in the title, but there was this moment when you were in a kind of pyramid…
Adams: Pyramid of Doom.
Shih: Pyramid of Doom, right. Pyramid of Doom and you’re supposed to move this block somehow and I’m not sure you’re supposed to get on top of the block to go through kind of a passage way, but you’re supposed to do something to this block and move it out of the way. 

I swear I must have spent a couple of weeks (laughter) trying to figure it out…

Adams: Screw the block!

Shih: I guess I should have been more profane. 


I was twelve.

But would you remember that situation?

Adams: A very funny thing about Pyramid of Doom.... I didn’t write it. 

This is an interesting story.

I did seven adventure games, and was starting to think about number eight, when I get, in the mail, a letter from a fan. A fellow by the name of Alvin Files. He’s a lawyer. He still is, I had email from him recently. But anyway, he was a lawyer and he loved my adventure games so much that he disassembled my source code and figured out my system. I couldn’t even figure out my system. (Laughter). He literally was able back up everything that I had done, figure out how I did it, and he wrote an adventure game and he sent it to me. He wanted to see if it would be alright if he sold it. And I thought wow, this guy really has got something on the ball. To take my code, literally, and take it apart bit by bit, and figure out what it was doing, figure out the system and write a game. 

That’s what Pyramid of Doom was. I didn’t write that. 

Shih: Hmmm, do you have his email address?


Adams: Yes I do. Actually I’ve got hint sheets on my website so they can download and see how to get past it. 

I did play the game and I did edit it with him. I went back and fourth and I said we can’t do that. This is going to be a non-violent game, but in general 80% of the work is his. 

I honestly don’t remember the stone thing.

Shih: Yeah, yeah. 
Adams: So sorry. It was an interesting side note though. 
Audience: What do you think of the effect of violence in video games nowadays, how it's… 


Well, I play EverQuest. And in EverQuest the idea is to act and kill the monsters. It is not graphic though. You are sitting there swinging the knife and they're sitting there clawing at you or whatever. You don’t see blood going or you don’t see blood gushing... it’s cartoon violence.    
I have seen some graphic, very graphic games. Soldier of Fortune is one that comes to mind, where shooting someone in the groin they kneel over, grabbing themselves, screaming in horror. My feeling of that is it’s too graphic. I don’t need that. I went to see the latest 'Hannibal' movie and walked out halfway. I don’t need that. I don’t need those sort of images burned into my head. 

It’s not fun. It’s disgusting. There’s by nature a violence in us, and man is a violent animal. We’re not herbivores. We are omnivores who are out there. And in general the male of the species is more violent then the female. There is a need to express that violence, whether it's in professional sports --  let's face it, professional sports is not a knitting club, there’s a reason for this, that's the way it is. It’s man’s violence against men, being channeled. And I can see channeling in video games -- there’s nothing wrong with that. Taking it to extremes though I think is wrong, and going to cause more problems in our society than anything else. That’s my personal opinion. 

In general, I like, myself, writing games that I know anybody can enjoy. I don’t have to put a label on it and say this is just for "R" rated or "X" rated. When I do a game I just say anybody can play it, anybody can enjoy it. 

I can understand writing games for an adult situation. What I can’t understand is writing games that give people the desire to cause more hurt to other people. I don’t like it. 

The games I enjoy playing are cooperative. I love playing a cooperative game of EverQuest. I work with people, against the evil that confronts us. I don’t like the player-killer servers, where the desire is to go out and kill the other players. That’s not for me. I don’t like that. I’d like to see less of it myself. I think a world that works together and teams together against a common evil is going to be a far better world than one where you’re going head to head.

Scott on violence in games and society

MP3 audio (1 MB)

Audience Member: In regards, starting with games and violence and certainly does with EverQuest, I don’t know (inaudible)...
Adams: Three weeks.
Audience Member:  Did you hear about the (inaudible) incident that they want to place EverQuest (inaudible). Well this happened, I suppose, about two months ago now and they talk about the role-playing in the game and how they’re playing to be (inaudible).
Adams: What server? 
Audience Member: (Inaudible) 
Adams: Well if you want to come on Tribunal, look me up.
Audience Member: Do you want to join a guild I just started? 
Adams: I just started one too. 
Audience: (Laughing) 
Audience Member: Anyway, this is about, you know kind of a role playing in games, and that happens in games but then it gets dry. Out of the game where the message boards on the internet, people are writing stories either about things that happened in games or stories that they make up based on this world and they get them posted, and on the (inaudible) server there was one character who invited me to be a (inaudible) and the character in the game was a female. The person that actually wrote it was a male. So he wrote this. He played evil characters. Pretty much all of his characters were evil. People that posted on this one board that I frequent sometimes, they were all, most of them all were geared more toward evil. 

He wrote this one story that depicted a rather graphic rape scene. And it would take place in the EverQuest world. The people running the board never did anything about it. They just let the story go because they decided to let people have the freedom to write what they wanted. 

Well, the company, Verant, the publishers saw the story and didn’t approve of it, so not only did they ban that person from the game, they also then forced all the boards where the story was posted to be removed. 

Adams: A copyright infringement. There was a legal basis there. 
Audience Member: So now I sort of switched my perspective wondering, do you see, how long have you seen this in the past, was there experiences, or a precedent? Do you see that being a problem with copyright infringement and evil corporations trying to shut down people?
Adams: Now we can get into Napster. (Laughter). Anybody have any opinions on Napster? Here’s just a quick bottom line as far as copyrights go -- being a published author, one who relied on copyrights, one who went out of business because my copyrights were not honored by those people out there.  

I have to say I am 100% against Napster and the idea of Napster-like things. When you have something that you create and you sell it to somebody it’s no different when you creatively make a story and wish to sell it to people, you still own it. When you infringe on somebody else’s copyright you are simply, bottom line, stealing from them. No different from going into Wal-Mart and shoplifting. Stealing music, stealing anything else that somebody else owns, that they have not let you do, is stealing. So I am dead set against copyright violations. 

Scott on Napster and copyright

MP3 audio (0.4 MB)

Now what Sony was doing there [Sony owns Verant, the publisher of the EverQuest series of games- MH.] was not because this guy was stealing from them. Sony just totally disagreed with the direction that they were twisting their universe into. It was certainly not family friendly to have these virtual rape stories out there. So they were using that as a legal maneuver to get it shut down. I would have to say, from my point of view, what Sony did was probably 100% legally correct and probably 90% morally correct. I don’t have a problem with the way they handled it and that they did. I think they did the right thing.