I’d rather have the thousand words

If a picture is worth a thousand words, when it comes to a story, I’d rather have the thousand words. — Dennis G. Jerz, on rec.arts.int-fiction (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

Only the truly geeky will appreciate just what it means to find yourself in someone else’s Usenet tagline. I happened upon a reference to my name on a Usenet group where I’ve never posted. It seems that one of my pearls of wisdom has made it into someone’s tagline — that is, the pithy saying often appended to a newsgroup posting. (You young whippersnappers can think of it as “away message” for the previous generation.) I assume it came from this list of taglines, compiled by Linus Akesson, because that collection includes my platitude along with more sensible quotations from Shakespeare, Socrates, the Bible, the TV show Frasier, and Guybrush Threepwood.

I blush to see my narratological bias so baldly professed. I was, of course, posting on a newsgroup devoted to interactive fiction (aka text adventure games), and thus perhaps the privileged position of text is to be expected. In my further defense, I was responding to a troll who asserted “there simply isn’t an excuse to not use pictures in an IF game,” and constrained the pro-narrative statement as follows:

I can think of a lot more things than I can render graphically. If I started thinking of stories that consisted only of things that I can render, then I’d tell a lot of stories about spheres and planes. If a picture is worth a thousand words, when it comes to a story, I’d rather have the thousand words — at least until such time as the Holodeck frees me from the burden of having to render everything I can think of.

In context, I was stating my own preference for using words rather than pictures as my tools of choice for storytelling. Someone trained in graphic design, who only dabbles in writing, would have a very different opinion. And of course, regardless of whether the primary medium is images or text, does a game need a story in order to be successful? “Tetris” is the canonical example. (We need to be able to relate to the game world in some way, but a complex story is only one way to relate.)

I have created a few short interactive fiction games, and one that I entered in the IF Competition did fairly well despite its flaws, and received some fairly good reviews. In order to gain a more visceral understanding of a different genre of games, a few months ago, I shelled out a few bucks to purchase a copy of The Games Factory, a point-and-click utility for designing console-style 2D action games. My version of the software is dated 1996, so it’s hardly cutting edge. I had already created some animated GIFs of Rainbow Hector, so I got started right away. The documentation is less than impressive, which slowed down my progress considerably. After a few false starts, I began to make some progress.

When I first heard the term “level designer” as a profession within the games industry, I laughed. If someone else designs the characters, and someone else codes the behaviors, and someone else handles interface, how hard can it be to put all the pieces together? But the more I learned about side-scrollers, and the more I got to know my PC and his relationship with the game world, the more skilled I grew at identifying aesthetic and philosophical flaws in various parts of the world. Yes, that metal I-beam structure looks cool, but what’s it doing out there in the wilderness? Yes, there needs to be a monster there in order to give the PC something to jump over, but why would the monster hang out there when there is no PC to menace? What does the monster want? And why are these monsters here in the wilderness in the first place?

While the library of pre-coded objects and behaviors is impressive, the code describing those behaviors is sealed in a black box, safely away from the fumbling efforts of amateur programmers. Which would be fine, if I knew absolutely no programming, but which is extremely frustrating when I want to find out why, whenever my PC jumps sideways, a single frame of the face-front view of my PC flickers on the screen just as he lands. I have also spent far too much time tweaking a routine that, when the PC accelerates in one direction over a certain distance, scrolls the screen ahead slightly faster, so that the player has more time to react to objects that scroll into view.

The more I think about it, the more I notice, and the more critical I become of my own work, and the more aware I am of the criteria by which to evaluate the far more polished and accomplished work produced by others.

I have also been toying with the Half-Life 2 developer’s toolkit, which includes a CAD suite that permits even the marginally geeky to create new 3D spaces. It’s a simple matter to change a bitmap, perhaps to give a character a Seton Hill University T-shirt. But if I wanted to create, say, a small creature with a round head, no body to speak of, and six legs that end in stubby paws, drawing the bitmaps would be easy, but defining the 3D body parts and articulating them as the creature stands, sits, jumps, falls over, fires a weapon, receives a blow to the head, etc., I would quickly be in over my head. Still, even if I limit myself to the existing character bodies (perhaps repainted with different bitmaps), I should be able to record my own dialogue trees, which will help propel a story set in a virtual space of my own design.

Game design toolkits come with ready-made objects with behaviors that can be turned on or off with a few clicks. For instance, The Games Factory lets me control the PC directly with the mouse, or steer it like a car, or make it run and jump on platforms like Mario. My PC can shoot objects that fly across the screen. When these projectiles reach the edge of the screen, I can destroy them, make them bounce, or make them spawn new objects. When objects overlap, I can make them destroy each other, add points, scroll the screen, play a sound, load a web page, or do a hundred other things. In the Deus Ex toolkit, I could drop a cat and a dog in a room together, and by default the cat will flee and the dog will pursue. The AI is simplistic, but because I didn’t have to code it up from scratch, I can focus my energies on tweaking it.

My mind boggles at the possibilities…

I’ll always love interactive fiction, but when I started examining it seriously, it was just an obscure branch of literary studies. I have no delusions about creating a “real” 3D game, but I do feel compelled to experience the issues game developers face and sample the creative processes in which they participate.

I haven’t yet seen a tool that I could use out of the box in a course for non-programmers (as all my courses are likely to be). It would take time to develop good documentation and a set of tutorial games, but in the right learning environment, what I’ve seen so far could work.

When Scott Adams, creator of the first commercial computer game, spoke at a panel I organized at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire in May of 2001, he said,

You’ve got to have the tools in place that allow you to become more and more creative. People like Amanda here [an English major who created an IF game as a term project –DGJ], shouldn’t have to be a programmer to put into the media her creative thoughts. Today you have to be. Five years? I don’t think that will be the case.

With the recent release of Inform 7, we’re a step closer.

P.S. I was also surprised to find that my son is also quoted in the same list of taglines, as part of an exchange I posted to Usenet around the same time:

While reading ordinary books to my son (who turns three next month), I frequently stop and ask him questions about the story… his favorite book of late is “101 Dalmatians,” and sometimes I ask him, “If you saw Cruella De Vil chasing after those puppies, what would you say?”

One time, he said, “I would tell her, ‘You don’t hit puppies because that’s mean.’ ”

“And what would Cruella do?”

“She would get back in her car and drive away.”

“And then what would the puppies do?”

“They would get into a helicopter and fly home.”

“And what would you do?”


“I wouldn’t do anything because I’m not in the book.”