Storytelling and Computer Games: Past, Present and Future

Listen along with the transcript, in .mp3 (8 MB) format

Transcript Contents

  1. Greeting & introduction
  2. Brief history of Interactive Fiction
  3. About the command-line interface
  4. E-narrative in the humanities
  5. Challenges for authors of interactive stories
  6. MMORPG as carnival
  7. Works cited
"Computer-mediated storytelling has always been about what you do, right here and now, while you are sitting at the keyboard. That's where the story comes from. It's not about what somebody else did, once upon a time, in a land far, far away." -- Dennis G. Jerz
Jerz:  Welcome to the UWEC English Festival panel, "Storytelling and Computer Games: Past, Present and Future." I'm Dennis Jerz. I'm an English professor. I do a little bit of computer programming. I haven't played many of the modern commercial computer games in the last couple years, really since I took this job about three years ago, which was also about the time my son was born -- and there's a connection between those. But, I do play a lot of text adventure games and I would like to extend a special welcome to our panelist of honor, Mr. Scott Adams, creator of "Adventureland," the 1979 text game; founder of Adventure International, a tremendously influential computer gaming company dating from the early 1980's. And for those of you who might not be familiar with the Scott Adams name we'll say first of all, not Dilbert -- different guy, same name.

Having Scott here to share with us his thoughts on computer games is not unlike what it would be like to have Alfred Hitchcock here to talk about suspense films or Jane Austen here to talk about the history of the British novel. If you don't [think you] know Scott Adams, you still do if you've [ever] looked at a computer game, because computer games and designers of computer games can't get away from the effect of people like Scott Adams.  There are only a handful of names up on that tier. And Scott, correct me if I'm wrong, but you did market the first computer game commercially, or as far as we know. Others were available online but he's the first one who started making a living off of it.

I'd also like to introduce Amanda Fullan, who is a student in my Writing Electronic Texts class, and her project is writing a text-based computer game. And she's had no programming experience before my class and has done a really good job of getting all the things together; so, come on in, Amanda. And also, Jake Okun, another UWEC student, who has spent time working for three graphic computer game companies, and does beta testing now.

In about maybe the next twelve minutes, I've got a sort of formal introduction, after which I'd like to turn things over to Mr. Adams, and then ask Amanda and Jake to sort of give us their view on it. And I'd like to end with just audience discussion, kind of the same thing we were doing before we started. I see a lot of young faces in the audience -- that's great -- so I imagine a little bit of a history lesson will be appropriate. Some students in my class will probably remember some of these things, but I'll mention it anyway. 

Dennis G. Jerz greets the audience & introduces the panelists

In the mid 1970's Will Crowther, a programmer and an amateur caver, having just gone through a divorce, was looking for a way to connect with his two young children. Over the course of a few weekends he slapped together a text based cave exploration game that featured a sort of guide/narrator who talked in full sentences and who understood simple two word commands that came really close to natural English. Crowther's children reportedly loved the game. [See: "A History of 'Adventure'".] Actually, Crowther later told me in e-mail that his children only humored their father. --DGJ]  They were excited that they could talk to a machine, and even more, that the machine could talk back to them. Some time later Stanford graduate student Don Woods came along, and he came across an unfinished copy of this game on a mainframe computer. He expanded it and released it on the Internet. (Yes, there was an Internet back in those days.) 

Scott was one of many [other] people who came across this [version of the] game, on a mainframe machine that you could use [only] after hours to play games. They were huge, refrigerator-sized -- or multiple-refrigerator-sized things. He wrote "Adventureland," a tiny game, as I mentioned; the first commercial computer game, as far as anyone knows. It was dinky, because it had to be very small to be played on the ridiculously small, cruel memory restrictions of computers at the time.

We're talking -- well [turning to Adams], I'll let you talk about that and give us a sense of what it's like. But this was before computers even had diskette drives; you saved and recorded games on ordinary cassette tapes. It was very, very slow. You don't get a lot of transfer off an ordinary audiocassette.

He sold his first copy by taking out an ad in a computer magazine. Shortly after that he formed the company Adventure International, which released many other titles, some by other authors in the first half of the 80's. 

Back in the early days of personal computers, only the most serious techno-geeks had computers in their homes; and these serious techno-geeks knew how to interact with computers. This was long before the days of the graphical user interface, the WIMP interface -- (windows, icons, menus, pointers... WIMP, alright?). 

Brief history of interactive fiction

You used the computer by entering a command, and I remember some commands from those days. You could type "dir *.*", or you'd type something like "run hello.bas" and the computer told you, with a textual output, whether the action was successful. If it wasn't successful it didn't tell you how to fix it, it just said "error" or "abort, retry, or fail." You could type anything you wanted at the prompt. You could type "hi there".  You could type "bleep you" -- and boy, did I, many times. (Laughter.)

The classic Scott Adams computer game was text only. The computer displayed a few lines of description. Here's an example:

You're in a dismal swamp. Obvious exits: north, south, east, west, up. You can also see: cypress trees -- evil smelling mud -- swamp gas -- floating patch of oily slime -- chiggers.  (Adams, "Adventureland" 1979)

You played the game by entering commands. You would type something like "climb tree", or "take slime" and the computer told you whether or not the action was successful. You could type anything in at the prompt. You could type "take tree". You could type "eat chiggers". Not everything worked, and the computer wouldn't always tell you how to make it work. 

That was "fun."


About the command-line interface

(See also: "In the Beginning was the Command Line")

Electronic narrative... or interactive computer-mediated story telling ...ok, ok... computer gaming remains unfamiliar territory for many people in my field, the English Department. Last year, in fact, when I demonstrated a text adventure game in my "Writing Electronic Texts" class for the first time, three literature majors dropped the class that afternoon. Now, within literature, there is a healthy cell of hypertext theorists in the humanities, but hypertext fiction is from one perspective just ordinary prose chopped up into chunks. The computer-mediated textual presentation of interactive fiction is so different from conventional print genres, and so dependent on computers for its dissemination and analysis, far more so than hypertext (which can be and has, in fact, been implemented as printed cards -- flash cards), that literary study has made little headway in addressing it. [See: "Interactive Fiction- How is it different?"]

In 1988, back when text games were still commercially popular, even though many companies were going under at that time, postmodernist scholar Linda Hutcheon noted what she called "a dethroning of suspect authority" and also "a renewed aesthetic and theoretical interest in the interactive powers involved in the production and reception of texts" (Postmodern Culture 77). She was referring to literature in general -- novels that fall apart, novels that address the reader, novels that end up referring to the process of writing the book that you're holding in your hand, that kind of blurring the line between the reader and the author. She cited interactive fiction as what she called "The most extreme example I can think of that illustrates this parallel post-modern tendency." That is, a dethroning of authority (a little play on the word there -- author, authority), and paying attention to interactivity.

E-narrative in the humanities

In a book called Cybertext - Perspectives on Ergodic Literature , Espen Aarseth observes... 

It is a paradox that, despite the lavish and quite expensive graphics of these productions [modern computer games], the player's creative options are still as primitive as they were in 1976. (103)

1976 is the date that many people attach to the release of the original Adventure game, the one that was written by the caver who was writing for his daughters. In other words, [just] like Will Crowther's daughters, computer gamers still spend a lot of time hunting treasures in caves.  [Note: Crowther recalls creating the game in 1975, give or take a year. Woods released his version in June 1976. --DGJ]

Modern designers of games do generally supply a rudimentary plot thread, something like a quest or personal vendetta; a story that contextualizes the battle sequences or the arcade sequences. But programmers -- here's my English professor bias coming through -- programmers who invest energy in things like real time lighting and fog effects and rendering the behavior of fire or droplets of blood rarely end up with stories of any lasting value. In the book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, Janet Murray concludes with an earnest call for the "cyberbard" -- the genius artisan who can take the whole range of new narrative tools that computer technology gives us, and use them to generate lasting art (284). The movie camera was, for decades, a tool for the engineer and the scientist -- before artists finally figured out what the heck to do with it. I've got an example here from James Lileks; this was from an article that Matt Hoy suggested to me. James Lileks is a humorist who writes out of the Twin Cities.

Walking into a room rendered in the Q3 engine can be lovely and impressive, but when you've only got 16K to tell a story, you have to rely on the gamer's imagination to provide the details. Just the words "You are on a beach" can summon vistas no game can provide. (29 Jan 2001)

Aarseth is editor-in-chief of Game Studies, a new (2001) humanities journal devoted to the cultural and aesthetic study of computer games.
Consider designing an interactive Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Some stories are going to be better than other stories. Huckleberry Finn -- the timeless story of a young white boy and a runaway slave. If it were really interactive, you could turn Jim in and get the reward money and spend it on beer. [But] that wouldn't make a classic American work of literature. 

So, I pull from the book Joystick Nation by J.C. Herz (a history of computer games):

The mathematics of this quickly become nightmarish for the designer, who now has the delightful job of writing 256 versions of the same novel.  Even if someone tried to do it (and God knows what kind of masochistic soul would undertake this Dickensian task), he'd end up with a narrative sand castle whose towers and turrets were continually toppling over. Some choices make better stories than others and constructing a compelling narrative is not a particularly carefree enterprise. It involves a lot of ditchdigging and bridge building and sign posting. And most people don't want to work that hard. (149-150)

The intellectual effort required to manage so many potential plots and trying to create a satisfying aesthetic experience out of every possibility is a job that only a detail-loving programmer could manage. However, most literary humanists, the kind of person who decides what makes a good story and what doesn't, are probably not equipped to recognize the accomplishments of an author who attempts such a task. 

Imagine, then, the additional complications of turning the story into a multimedia production -- one that involves voice actors, background music, 3D models of characters, flowing water. It's little wonder that commercial computer games are not pushing the envelope of interactive narrative. They're too busy doing other things. 

Challenges for authors of interactive stories

Enter something new. Not brand new, since many people in this room will know about it. I'm talking about democratized, distributed, networked, storytelling. I'm referring, of course, to massively multiplayer online role-playing games, where most of the action is improvised by hundreds or thousands of players. This kind of gaming has changed the role of the author, perhaps beyond recognition. 

The result is less like a narrative, that is, a single coherent story related from one person to another -- a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end; and more like a carnival, where you are the event and the event is you. The line between spectator and actor is blurred. Computer-mediated storytelling has always been about what you do right here and now, while you are sitting at the keyboard. That's where the story comes from. It's not about what somebody else did, once upon a time, in a land far, far away.

And I'd like to turn it over to Scott now. Don't worry, I'll give you a little more of a segue in there. 

I was delighted to find out that one of Scott's current jags is "EverQuest."

MMORPG as carnival


Yay!! EverQuest! EverQuest!
Jerz: Scott has been known for generations, two generations of computer gamers now, for his games that are violence-free, that parents and kids can sit down and play together.  Dry humor -- bone dry humor.  And what I call "headthunk" moments.
Adams: I'll play with you, man!
Jerz: Ok. And something I would love Scott to talk about is, expand a little bit on, or debate with, whatever, you take it -- whatever you want... the idea that I have to tell my freshman composition students is that if I mention a weakness in your arguments, you can't generally improve that argument just by adding more words. Sometimes you got to take stuff away, sometimes you've got to get rid of the fat and cut down to the bone so that you can have a good solid structure. When you're dealing with 16k of memory, 4k of active memory, then you make certain decisions. 

Scott confirmed this, my suspicion was when I was looking at the list of objects you supposed to be able to see in the dismal swamp:  "floating patch of oily slime -- chiggers".  It doesn't say "and chiggers," since the amount of programming that would go into keeping track of which was the second to last item of the list, so that you had to print the word "and", would have meant that something else would have to go. So the grammar suffers so that the story can continue.  

OK? I'd like to turn it over now to you Scott... 

Works Cited

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03 May 2001 -- panel took place
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