THE HYPERMODERN MUSE
Presented at the Game Writers Conference
Austin Games Conference
October 26, 2005
Long Island in August.
It’s the middle of the night.
Everyone’s asleep. My wife. Our one year old daughter. The friends whose house we’re staying in. I’m the only one awake, but then again, I’m not on Long Island either. I’m on Myst Island, trying to figure out how to turn a tree into an elevator. Trying to figure out how to turn a book into a world. I’m the last man in the universe, and I’ve cranked up a generator in a lighthouse and scurried down a long tunnel into an underwater chamber. I’m trying to puzzle out a riddle when suddenly the lights go out. I literally gasp.
I can’t remember the last time a book made me gasp.
A movie, maybe. But I don’t make movies. I write books. I’d like to believe that someday I’ll write a book that makes people gasp, but in the meantime… I go to sleep dreaming of clicking on everything I see. There are magic doors everywhere. Other worlds hidden just out of reach.
The next day, my body is walking through Manhattan, but most of me is still on Myst Island. Everything glows with a numinous inner light. A simple lightswitch is no longer merely a lightswitch; it contains infinite mysteries. Yes, the world is new today. The wedge-shaped Flatiron building is exactly as strange as the petrified galleons in the Stoneship Age.
Prior to that day, walking along a street in New York, I would have been wondering, “How can I write a story about this? How can I take all these sights and sounds and sensations and put them into words?” But today, as I walk along looking at the people and buildings and cars, all I can think is, “What kind of game could you make out of this?”
At that point I’m blissfully ignorant of poly counts and texture memory limitations and localization costs. Why not build Manhattan in a game. Why not build a whole city and populate it with crowds of people and give them all clever things to say to you?
My muse, unseen but ever present, walks alongside me. She’s jabbing me with a misty finger: That’s not what we do, she says.
At dinner with my agent and my editor, I rave about Myst. I tell them I want to make games. They’re nodding at me, but I must sound a bit like a lunatic. I’m not sure they see the attraction.
I can see little else.
A year later. 1995. August again, but this time it’s Tokyo.
Crows and cicadas and heat like a steam iron bent on flattening me.
But it’s cool in the offices of Synergy Studios. I’m at a table with the creators of Gadget. An artist, a programmer, a chain-smoking producer, and a writer.
The writer and I examine each other. It’s a little bit odd. We both wear plastic hornrim glasses…we both have a moustache and goatee…. We both seem to have been issued the same international uniform.
It’s been an interesting year.
On my return from Long Island, with Myst only partially played, I wasted no time trading in my monochrome amber-screened word processor for a gaming rig with all the frills: A Pentium 60 with a CD-ROM drive. I tear through Myst, and when I’m done, I feel an emptiness.
Must also justify the purchase of this new computer.
My friend Mark Frauenfelder is a newly appointed editor at Wired. I ask him if there might be any games lying around the offices of Wired waiting to be reviewed. Mark says sure, come on by, he’ll see what he can dig up.
When I get to his office, he reaches under his desk and pulls out a garbage bag crammed with CD-ROMs. I sling it over my shoulder and head home, and spend the next couple days raking through interactive swimsuit contests, interactive Kama Sutras, not to mention interactive port conflicts and soundcard issues. It’s as if Santa dropped his sack on the hearth and a hundred pounds of horse manure poured out. Garbage bag indeed.
I work at a San Francisco lawfirm. One day I’m typing up documents when a young patent lawyer named Charlie Kulas says, “Have you played Descent? My brother made it. Here’s a demo disk.”
I buy a joystick. I punch my way through into another dimension.
I call up Charlie’s brother Mike and interview him and soon sell Wired a short piece about Parallax Software.
Charlie feeds me demos and reviews from PC Gamer. “This looks good,” he says. “You might like this.”
I forward the requests to Wired, or to the marketing departments of various game publishers, and pretty soon I’m playing games like Ecstatica, Relentless, and this extremely surreal, David Lynchian game called Gadget.
It turns out Wired has already run a review of Gadget, so…no point in reviewing it. But before too long my agent calls with an amazing bit of news.
An editor at Simon & Schuster has played Gadget and become obsessed. Now Simon & Schuster wants to do a Gadget tie-in novel, to go along with a coffee table art book they’ll be putting out. Am I up for the job?
My muse breathes an audible sigh of relief. At least it’s a book. None of this crazy game stuff.
A few days later, I’m eating spaghetti in Tokyo with Haruhiko Shono and his team. Over spaghetti, they tell me what huge fans they are of David Lynch and Philip K. Dick. It’s pretty obvious from their game that this is the case. But the William Morris Agency has been messing with their dreamy heads. According to the agents there’s going to be a Gadget movie and a Gadget TV series. We all want to believe the world can encompass such things, that creepy surreal visions are synonymous with a million bucks. But I can’t bring myself to tell them how unlikely it seems. I want to believe. I want to make that world more real. We talk about the book I’m going to write, not a novelization of the game, but a novel that could be something characters in the game might want to read.
Myst Island and Long Island, Manhattan and Tokyo and the world of Gadget. The worlds are bleeding into each other.
Tokyo blurs into Mesquite, Texas. The crows and cicadas and steamy heat are almost identical. So is the hotel air conditioning, and the sense of surreal destiny. It’s all dreamlike, except, in a weird sense, the dreams.
It’s my first big assignment, a feature for Wired Magazine. I’ve come to talk to the owners of id Software about this game they’re working on—this thing they’re going to call Quake.
The night before my interview, I dream I’m standing in the id lobby. It looks like any other lobby. There’s a couch, a front desk, a receptionist. But when the receptionist waves me through, I find myself in a railyard, a steel mill, a foundry, a mine—all fused together in a nightmare of grinding metal sparks and solder and arc welders. The game designers wear heavy asbestos aprons; they lean against chainlink topped with barbed wire, tip back their tinted helmets so they can suck on cigarettes, and throw down the butts into a gravelly yard of fused slag and iron clinkers. The air is smoky except when the smutty light of furnaces lights it from within. And way back in the shadows I can barely make out a huge engine coming to life. Impossible to tell if it’s a cast-iron robot or a steam locomotive, an agent of destruction or one of transportation.
“So,” I think, “this is the game industry.”
A door has opened.
The last of the seven portals yawns.
I’m playing Hexen and Heretic now. I’m playing Quake. First person fantasy games, wordless but intense experiences. In place of plot or story, these games have architecture. But it’s rigorous and compelling. It’s chock-full of conflict, that’s for sure. Pressing the last of seven buttons, the world unfolds like a massive low-res flower, and again…there is a mystery at its center. It’s nothing but a portal perhaps, yet another opening into yet another world. But that’s enough. As I hurtle along through these blotchy colorful dimensions, there’s plenty to fuel the stories I’m telling myself.
In the offices of id, I watch enviously as level designers wield godlike powers. They are telling stories mutely–writing with Lego blocks. Secret passages, turbulent skies, skulls and daggers…it’s the stuff I scribbled all over notebooks when I was in grade school and showed to my friends. But these are worlds you can enter. Stories that build themselves around you.
My muse whispers, Shouldn’t you be writing?
I should be, yes. And I keep trying to figure out how to inject myself into this process. But Quake doesn’t need a writer, and I respect its self-sufficiency. It’s a lean, stripped down, sinewy jolt of horror. It doesn’t need the padding of words. It doesn’t require explanations. It doesn’t need a Boswell.
But my frustration has reached a peak. I don’t want to watch from the sidelines anymore.
I want in.
I decide to become a level designer.
I work for a bunch of patent attorneys who hang out after hours to play Quake. Their happiest moment isn’t when they’re granted a patent, but when they’re accepted into the beta tests for Diablo. Half the guys in the photocopy center are members of a Quake clan. While I wait for them to make a hundred copies of a class action pleading, we talk about deathmatch. Clayton, the copy center’s manager says, “Have you heard of this level editor, Worldcraft? You can make Quake maps with it.”
At lunchtime I wander through EBX and stare at all the boxes, all those worlds, more than I can ever possibly play even if I could afford them. It’s the way I used to feel going into bookstores when I was younger; the sense that I wanted to write or have written everyone of those books. All those worlds… Wondering how I’m ever going to make worlds of my own. My head exploding in slow motion.
My Pentium 60, which once seemed so powerful, labors through the night, grinding away at my bedside, compiling maps.
The first level I make is a room with two green boulders floating in it, bathed in a sourceless light. Among the plainest levels ever made, even today the thought of it brings a sensation like an electric charge. This completely imaginary world, made real. It was a satisfaction as substantial as that of finishing a story…and more tangible. It was like having a dream and then looking up to see it projected on a TV screen.
Using Worldcraft, I make a plain rectangular room with a long table and a podium at one end. Clayton takes my map and uses it as an online boardroom, meetingplace for his Quake clan. I never did see it in action, but I picture a bunch of Quake guys standing on that table, since I didn’t provide any chairs. They’re jumping on the table, jumping on the podium, running around the room hacking each other with axes and going, “HUNH! HUNH!”
I send my maps to the gang at id. They send polite responses; no job offers. The programmer Michael Abrash points out that as a level designer, I’m a pretty good writer. He diplomatically suggests that since I already have some skills in the area of writing, I might want to think about using those to get my foot in the door.
But I’ve been staring very hard at the first person shooters. I’ve seen so little sign of writing or anything like storytelling in those games. It’s hard to know quite how my skills would apply, or where to fit in.
I’m having so much fun with Worldcraft that I’m hardly thinking about writing. One day call up its creator, Ben Morris, in Victoria, BC. I tell him I want to review Worldcraft for Wired.
Soon after that I get a message from some place called Valve. They want to hire Ben but he’s a Canadian citizen; they need letters of recommendation for INS. I fall into an email exchange with Valve’s cofounder, Gabe Newell, and the conversation turns to game design. I send him my latest map. He forwards an extremely gentle critique from one of Valve’s designers.
Gabe asks if I want to come up to Seattle and meet Ben.
I’m sitting in Starbucks. It could be a Starbucks anywhere, but outside the window it looks like Kirkland, Washington. Gabe Newell sits across from me and says, “I just want to be clear that I’m not really sure why I asked you here.”
“That’s okay,” I say. “I’m not really sure either. It’s just cool to see what you’re up to.”
I finish the first of a thousand cups of coffee I’ll be drinking in that Kirkland Starbucks, and Gabe takes me on a tour of Valve. It’s rather different from id, a bit more like Synergy Studios. People have pillows on their desks…there’s a sense that anything is possible if they push themselves hard enough. They’re building a mysterious epic of science fantasy called Prospero. Everything we talk about triggers a flood of story ideas.
Toward the end of my visit, one of the programmers says, “Well…we need a new writer. Maybe you could help out with that.”
But the next day I’m on a plane home with no resolution. There’s a vague notion that I might help them out long-distance with story issues, but that’s it. Back to the law office.
My muse pats me on the arm and says, There, there. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.
A month or so later, when the offer from Valve comes through, she’s singing a different song.
She says, You can’t fire me, I quit.
I say, Who said anything about firing you? I’m going there to tell stories. I still need you. I’m not leaving you behind. I’m bringing you with me. Please don’t go.
She doesn’t answer. She stalks off in a sulk and leaves me hanging.
I’ve seen this behavior before and it doesn’t do any good to chase her. But I have to admit I’m scared witless. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done.
Am I really going to have to drag my muse kicking and screaming?
Does it work like that?
When I go home, it seems as if my muse and my wife have been having the same discussion. Fortunately, I can reason with my wife.
The other one lets me stew for a good long time.
At first I’m so busy moving my family from San Francisco to Washington that I can’t worry about how long she might stay away. But once things settle down, and I’m finding my way around the offices of Valve and trying to figure out what role a writer can have in a game company, I have plenty of time to wonder what the hell I’ve gotten myself
into. We have these long meetings I can’t believe we’re having. Hours and hours of talking about…monsters.
For the first month or so, I’m immersed in Prospero. It’s going to be a huge game. So huge I can’t quite picture it. The edges of possibility are unclear, and it’s hard to write without limitations. I write backstory, generate character sketches, come up with scenarios, and generally take my cues from the other designers…who seem to believe that everything and anything is possible.
One afternoon Gabe’s partner, Mike Harrington, asks me to help out with this other game they’re working on—Half-Life. They need a bit of work to get the story hammered out before they push on. The game has to be ready for Christmas and it’s nearly August now, so they only have a few months. Mike says they’ll only need me for a week or so.
Now secretly I’ve been envying the guys on Half-Life. They’ve got some very cool sets, some nice creatures, it looks like a tight little shooter. Must be nice to do something simple and action oriented. I’m delighted to be invited to work on it, even if only for a week.
After all, they’re going to ship for Christmas of ‘97.
Half-Life eventually ships for Christmas of 1998.
Prospero falls by the wayside. Half-Life absorbs the whole company. After a while it’s hard to remember that anything else ever existed.
But one afternoon I’m working on a little scene set in a mysterious test chamber, and I realize there’s a presence at my shoulder.
She’s been there quite a while without me realizing it, whispering in my ear. Like a cat that sneaks into your lap when you thought it was locked outside.
She looks a little dazed.
And she’s not just mine anymore. She’s larger. We all have glimpses of her from time to time. It’s as if she’s beckoning to us from just over the horizon, and we’re moving toward her in unison, always just about to get a glimpse…just about…
Until one glorious morning, when she appears for the first time, wholly realized, almost blinding us. An explosion of green sparks and stars in the Black Mesa test chamber.
There’s an old Sid Harris cartoon. Two scientists are staring at a chalkboard covered with equations. One of the scientists tells the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.” Step two consists of a few scribbled words: THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS.
We can tiptoe around it. We can describe step 1 and step 3. But ultimately, what everyone wants to know about is that miracle. The fact is, I’m not sure it can be described. You can create the conditions for it to occur. If you do step 1 and step 3, then it’s a weird thing that somehow step 2 ends up falling into place.
In terms of writing, I sometimes liken it to construction of a rocketship. You build an enormous tower of scaffolding, bare and ungainly, where you want your rocketship to stand. From the outside it’s not at all obvious what you have in mind. Slowly the ship takes shape within the cage. You can’t really tell that it’s ever going to be
anything. But then one day the scaffolding falls away. The engines spurt fire. The rocket takes off into flight.
No one ever thinks of the scaffolding when they’re looking at the stars. When you think back it’s hard to remember how much of the project was scaffolding, and how little of it was the rocket.
As for the fuel….
It may sound a little strange to talk about the muse in the context of this highly organized, technical enterprise that is a computer game. But once upon a time, writing was high tech…the province of engineers and accountants and farmers. The storytellers probably started wondering right away how to divert this new tech to their own ends, and I’m sure the accountants slapped them down and said, no, this is for bean counting. It has nothing to do with the oral tradition. It’s even possible the muses of those storytellers were highly skeptical that anything worthwhile could be captured in chicken scratches on dried mud tablets. But in the end, we don’t go back to read the Sumerian farm receipts. We go back for Gilgamesh, who invented the Hero’s Journey the way Al Gore invented the internet.
Now I personally don’t work by sorting through lists of the 21 Great Plots or the 37 Meaningful Themes. But the Hero’s Journey and its kin are useful for one thing. They are useful for talking to people who don’t ordinarily think about the tools of storytelling. These may be developers or level designers or CFOs.
They are especially useful when they allow a writer to sidestep the whole slippery, controversial concept of meaning and get straight to the nuts and bolts of storytelling. Which is to say, plot.
Game designers should be in love with plot. It’s the engine of the story. It’s the core tech, that little mathematical nub that everyone can point at and make the subject of proofs and axioms and corollaries. None of these technical considerations serve us very well when we start arguing about meaning, but if you get plot right, then meaning inevitably follows.
I like to talk about plot because it can be directly implemented in a game. Plot is the sum of cause and effect. Whether the cause is something in the player’s control, or something the designers force upon the player, it’s measurable. It can map directly to gameplay decisions, and lead to an outcome or outcomes that are equally tangible. A thorough discussion of plot gives you everything you need to build your story, and your game.
It’s okay to talk about themes and metaphors and meanings, if you don’t get too carried away. An overdeveloped theme tends to turn wooden and ponderous, not to mention pretentious. Deeper themes will naturally emerge in the process of making your game. If they’re not hidden in the rock, then no amount of chiseling will reveal them. If they are present, they will emerge as the inevitable result of the personalities and agendas, the hopes and fears and experience of all the people working on the game. You as writer, as storyteller, can act as midwife to the slowly emerging forms, and help them into the light. But be careful about deciding too early what they are; be wary of imposing meaning or forcing them into being. One reason for this is that you want to encourage the emergence of internal contradiction. You don’t want things to be too neat and tidy. Rigorous insistence on a particular theme tends to stifle interesting accidents, and creates a sterile environment where nothing can truly come alive.
You don’t build scaffolding out of theme; that requires sterner stuff on which everyone can agree. You build that scaffolding with all the rivets. You assemble your rocket. You make sure the fins are welded on and everything is sturdy.
After you have worked on the craft long enough, you may start to glimpse the meaning hidden deep inside…but even then, you have to be careful. You don’ want to leave thumbprints in the nice glossy paint.
But what about fuel? What makes this ship fly?
Here’s where we diverge from the orderly routine of construction.
Here’s where the blueprints are of little use, and writers fall back on their own odd survival skills.
You might be disheartened to learn that the writer’s life at Valve is not all glory. It is not as exciting as you might think to find a dozen ways to write, “RELOADING!”
But the Half-Life games are made up of a huge laundry list of exactly these kinds of lines. And in fact, turning them into exciting dialog is about as thrilling as converting someone’s laundry list would be.
Without inspiration, without our muse, we’d have nothing to cram into the carefully constructed corners of these contraptions.
I’d like to take the example of the Majora’s Mask, an episode in the Legend of Zelda series that I consider the closest thing to an Alice in Wonderland level classic that the industry has yet created.
Here is a game so intricate it appears to have been designed by Lewis Carroll working in concert with M.C. Escher and a Black Forest clockmaker. Every single bit of this game is intricately engineered to interlock with every other piece, on a scale that is truly beyond my ability to visualize.
Underpinning this game, was a well-oiled development team, fresh from making Ocarina of Time, and an intricate plan. Without this, the whole thing falls apart. And yet, every single piece of this elaborate contraption is exploding with life and character. There is not a single NPC who doesn’t seem to have some completely bizarre backstory. The closer you look, the weirder it gets. And, often, the more poignant.
There’s nothing wasted in this elegant design. Every character also has a very specific reason to be there for purposes of gameplay.
If you’re not familiar with this twisted jewel of the Zelda series, it takes place entirely in the span of three days, with an ominous moon-sized clock ticking toward doomsday. Every time you peel back a layer of the game, you have a chance to set the clock back to the first moment of the first day and save the world from certain destruction. You do this by influencing time, by tipping the balance a little at a time, interfering with the clockwork lives of the world’s inhabitants. Only you, the player, in the guise of Link, are free to move in and out of time. Which is to say, only you can save the world.
What the world is made up of, in addition to the traditional series of Zelda dungeons, is a cast of bizarre characters locked into hundreds of intricate timelooped anecdotes. The game design is perfectly rigid; on some level it is nothing but design, scrupulous and elegant. The stories themselves are jewels set in the frame, the best ones possessing the brilliance and brightness of fairy tales or surreal fables. One in particular has always stuck with me.
In an early stage of the game you visit a desolate plateau cut in two by a dry gorge that once held a running river. On the side of the dry river sits an unmoving millwheel attached to a sad little millhouse.
A little girl comes down the steps from the front door and crouches near the river. If you approach her, she flees back inside. You must restore the flow of the river to lure her out, then sneak into the house without being seen. If you do so, you discover that her father has been turned into a Gibdo–one of the wailing zombies that infest the world of Ocarina and Majora. If you have learned a song of healing, you can heal the old man, which leads to a brief scene of reunion that is more affecting than it has any right to be, considering the truncated animation, the spare text, the cartoony stylization of the scene.
Now…when Zelda fans gather, they talk about stuff like this. They spend a little bit of time talking about the puzzles, the dungeons, the clever weapons that are also keys. But mostly they talk about the odd bits. The things that come like gifts, out of nowhere; that didn’t have to be anything in particular, but end up being perfectly memorable.
This scene with the waterwheel and the father and daughter reunited, is a perfect meld of story and puzzle, but…it could have been anything. From a design standpoint, it need only satisfy the requirement that it be a puzzle with a layered, multipart solution. You need to restore the river’s flow, and in order to do that you need to have solved other puzzles. You need to sneak into the house while the girl is outside. To heal her father you need to have learned a specific song.
To solve the puzzles requires mastery of the larger time dilemmas of the game. Lacking any one of these pieces, you experience slightly more of the mystery; only with all of them in place can you solve it. There’s the puzzle. But is there anything in the puzzle specification that suggests a little girl and her father—let alone a tender reunion? Is it necessary that the reward for solving the puzzle be anything more than the Gibdo mask? Why should it have any emotional content? All of these additional aspects are irrelevant, but without them, would I have remembered the scene? I should mention, this is little sketch of a scene filled me with envy, and it’s only one. The frustrated romance of Kafei and Anju, two lovers who continually elude each other, is structurally worthy of Shakespeare. And the intricate framework of Majora’s Mask allows this kind of character-driven scene over and over again. It is like a Chinese puzzle box full of hidden drawers, a twisting road that is nothing but detours through a fantastic country.
In fact, every story except Link’s is a detour. As the hero, his journey is ultimately generic. He must save the world. How dull!
However, the designers have taken the care to create a world worth saving. They’ve hit upon the fact that it’s the thing our hero cares about that matters most. It’s the weird supporting characters and mysterious moments we remember.
The writer Karen Joy Fowler has pointed out that the heros of most stories tend to be unlike anyone you actually know or care about, and for this reason rather unsympathetic. However, if you cast around in the shadows, while you can generally find someone you can relate to. It may be a sidekick or someone even less conspicuous. There is a lot of magic in an unfinished sketch, a partial glimpse; the mind never stops trying to fill in the blanks of these characters.
In another Zelda game, The Wind Waker, it’s not Link’s sailboat journey that haunts me; it’s the thought of the residents of all those myriad little islands and their lives going on forever in that hermetically contained dream archipelago. There is so much room in our field for odd characters, bizarre situations, wild invention.
The wonderful thing is whatever we invent is simultaneously completely arbitrary and absolutely necessary. In Wind Waker, each island, no matter how surreal, must be a puzzle, with the form of that puzzle dictated by game design. The form of the puzzle then suggests the characteristics and culture of the island’s inhabitants, which in turn give shape to dialog choices that are recursively linked to the puzzle itself. You end up with an intricate little set-piece that is grounded in the reality of the game, yet completely surreal, because that initial impulse was to design not a story but a puzzle.
This is the zone where storytelling becomes something new, something it has never been before. This is where we glimpse the frontier. Art and technology in fusion. Step 2: A MIRACLE OCCURS.
Games are continually creating new territory; the magic carpet weaves itself underfoot, just as we step out into space.
Now, to show chaos in action, and the writer’s role in clambering about on the scaffolding, I’ll talk about how we applied some of this crazy Zelda wisdom to a bit of Half-Life 2, and how we went a little mad in our own way.
First, the example of Sandy and Laszlo.
There’s a section of coastal exploration in Half-Life 2, right after you lose your jeep, where you’re traveling on foot into a stretch of sand infested by antlions. If you walk on the sand, the antlions instantly hear you and swarm you. But there are rocks jutting out of the sand, and if you jump from rock to rock you can progress without being attacked. The designers of this area wanted a way of telling the player to stay off the sand, and keep to the rocks to avoid being swarmed. The initial request for this area was pretty much that simple, and it’s representative of the kind of dialog requests that a game writer can expect to receive: “We need to tell the player to stay off the sand.”
The first iteration of this scene involved a human character standing on a rock, telling the player exactly that. “Stay off the sand or the antlions’ll hear you!” The next version, slightly more elaborate, added a dead body on the sand below. “Poor Tobias. He forgot the antlions could hear him if he walked on the sand.”
We continued to iterate, moving away from pure exposition to something more like a scene.
Where we ended up, as the player enters the area, both characters are alive. One (whom we called Laszlo) is lying on the sand, injured; his buddy, Sandy, is perched on a rock, telling him not to move. It’s too late for Laszlo. No matter what happens, he struggles and the antlions swarm up and kill him. But if the player is quick, he can save Sandy’s life. And at this point we run a little scene. If the player ignores the scene and runs right through, we just assume they’re not interested in the characters; presumably they’re not adverse to fighting swarms of antlions either. But the player who saves Sandy is rewarded with a performance. Sandy depairs over the death of his friend. He says, “Poor Laszlo…the finest mind of his generation…to come to such an end…”
Now, you can imagine the bug reports this sort of scene can generate. “Who is Laszlo? Why do we care? What does this have to do with anything?”
You must learn to callously ignore those kind of reports. The answer is that we may not care, but Sandy clearly does. And while this has nothing to do with the current action of the game, it has to do with everything else. The NPCs don’t necessarily share the goals of your protagonist. They can act as chorus, or as a reminder that there are other agendas; they can set up mental processes that are not neatly resolved by the death of the end boss. So while Laszlo dies on a deserted stretch of coastline, in the mind of the few players who stopped to try and save him, he lives on. And they’ll always wonder, what did we lose when we lost Laszlo?
Another Zelda example. Two characters appear in both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. I think they’re referred to as Honey and Darling. In Ocarina they dance in the town square, oblivious to Link. If you interrupt them they make it obvious they have no time for you; they are wrapped up in each other. In Majora’s Mask I think they own a shop, and if you presume to enter, they make it quite clear they can’t wait for you to leave so they can get back to admiring each other. That’s all there is to them, and it’s enough. They are utterly self-contained…a tiny perfect cameo that somehow seeped out of their world and into mine. And in one of those tasks that makes life worth living, in a daily cycle of requests for a dozen versions of “reloading,” I was driven by the idea of somehow finding a place for someone like them in Half-Life 2.
What we ended up with probably wouldn’t remind anyone else of Honey and Darling without this annotation. But near the beginning of HL2, Gordon Freeman passes through a depressing tenement and comes upon a man and woman comforting each other on a couch. They loop a little bit of dialog: She says, “I can’t take it anymore.” He says, “Don’t worry.” “When is it all going to end?” “We’ll think of something.”
If you bother them, the most they do is give you a look. They’re caught in a loop. They’ve got their own little story going on, although it’s one that doesn’t progress. In fact that’s the point of it. In the later stages of the game, you encounter them again. This time the city is a warzone. They’re still on a couch, although dressed in citizen soldier gear. But for them, nothing else has changed. “I can’t take it anymore.” “Don’t worry.” “When is it all going to end?”
Now this script is even less justifiable than the Laszlo sequence, since there’s no pretense that these characters are in any way coupled to gameplay. What they do add is the sense that the world continues beyond the boundary of the map, that not all the stories began on day one or will end with the final battle. In the early stages of the game they deepen the sense of tragedy, the horrible state of the world; but the second time you come across them, they are clearly intended as a joke. So what does that tell you about how seriously to take them in the first place? In games we are accustomed to seeing the same tokens over and over again in different contexts—identical monsters, identical characters. Usually this convention is used to milk every last drop of gameplay from a set of limited resources. I think it’s fair to seize upon this kind of repetition for the sake of the story. For the sake, if not irony, then at least a puzzled laugh. We probably shipped Half-Life 2 with a few open bug reports related to these characters. Not that they were broken, but…they suggested a broken world.
I also had to ignore a few bug reports regarding Colonel Odessa Cubbage.
Colonel Cubbage inhabits the seacoast town of New Little Odessa. He exists solely to give the player a rocket launcher. That was the extent of the original design for the guy, and for a long time he was known simply as rocketman.
Well, okay. In the old days, you would just put that rocket launcher in the middle of a room, maybe give it a spin, and expect the player to run over it and pick it up automatically. The underlying goal has not changed at all. We’re about to bring out a big monster. It’s time to give the player a weapon that can handle it. But once you’ve made the decision not to simply leave the rocket launcher in the middle of the floor, well, the sky’s the limit. In this case, we found ourselves with an opportunity to create a character, and a scene. Odessa Cubbage is a name I found in my spam filter, and it seemed to carry quite a bit of character with it. He was initially a random citizen in the town, but one whom all the other citizens looked up to for some reason.
Initially, Odessa was rather a tough guy. When gunships show up to attack his town, he rushes out and takes a few shots, demonstrating to the player exactly how to bring one down; but then he was to die, leaving the player to carry on. However, ultimately, the issue of Odessa dying became a sticky tangle. It proved necessary to have him remain in his basement, giving orders but never straying outside. From that point, it was a fairly small step to decide that Odessa Cubbage was actually a royal coward. He ordered his starry-eyed contingent about but never exposed himself to any actual danger. We gave him a fake English accent to make the player suspicious, and in the final detail work, we put a little dye in his hair. Everything about him reeks of the dubious. In some ways, the legend of Odessa Cubbage is as much fun to create as the legend of Gordon Freeman. And yet essentially he is one step up from taking that rocket launcher and sticking it in the middle of the floor just as a gunship shows up.
But I like to think that the group tasked with handing out that rocket launcher and faced with the dry task of training the player how to use it enjoyed their days a little more because they got to spend them with the utterly unreliable Odessa Cubbage.
As a footnote, a year or so ago when I googled “Odessa Cubbage” to make sure I wasn’t using someone’s actual name, I was able to find one entry, distantly related to that original spam mailing I had received. In preparing this talk, I tried to track down that entry. I discovered that, among many other references, Col. Cubbage now has his own Wikipedia entry.
The Muse…made flesh…
It’s another day in Seattle. I’m many miles and several years from Manhattan. I’m walking past coffee shops and thrift shops, people on park benches, a little league game. Crap in the gutters; cars blaring. There’s a chill in the air. A quickening in the blood. There’s a feeling of being alive. A glimpse of people talking in a steamed up window, an outstretched hand, an old swollen paperback.
Forget about everything I wanted to do when I first walked through New York with my head full of Myst. I’ve been beaten down by the reality of game design. Beaten but also exalted. Who needs miles of skyscrapers and crowds of people anyway. Forget the vast scale. How do I do the little stuff? The haunting and intriguing details? How do you cram this into a game? What is the game equivalent of this personal, mystifying sensory overload?
Back in San Francisco, after such a walk, I might run back to my desk and start writing. It seemed barely possible to evoke through words whatever felt important about that walk. Starting with a tumble of words, eventually I might figure out a plot to encompass it. This has always been one of the impulses behind writing.
Can games do this?
A game at times feels like a massive supertanker, moving through treacherous waters while it is still under construction. Sometimes, for a few minutes, the writer might actually be the pilot. Or stand at the pilot’s shoulders. But even then, can you steer that massive craft through such a narrow passage? Do you do it by putting your hands on the wheel? Or do you do it by shifting your weight…by picking just the right place to stand? What if there’s no map? What if you’re charting those waters while you’re piloting them for the first time in that still under construction ship?
This is the task before us.
Just to put things in perspective, writers, in the game industry, are essentially unnecessary.
Don’t just get over it.
Revel in it.
We’re a luxury item.
Movies without stories fall flat. Games without stories can still be plenty of fun.
We’re not the bread and butter. We’re not even cake. We’re icing. The cherry on top.
The game industry explodes with invention. New types of game are born all the time. We jump into the middle of this, and there’s a great feeling of liberation. It’s not entirely up to us. We can afford to take some chances. If the story seems strange, or not exactly something you could see crammed into a novel or a movie, so what? If the game is solid, people will play it. There’s little risk there. Why not take chances with the story?
Ironically, it seems to be the writers who are taking the fewest chances. With the exception of some new and original modes of storytelling such as the Alternate Reality Games, we are playing it safe at the most basic level. Now, it could be said that even a familiar story well and solidly told is better than no story, or a horrible wreck of a story; so for purposes of getting on an even footing with your team, it may help to sit down together and hash out the salient features of the 37 Classic Plots and the 12.5 Guaranteed Formulas for Success.
But we can’t stop there. Even if good prose writers worked this way, which in my experience they generally do not, there’s no reason to hamper a medium that offers truly new ways of storytelling and new kinds of story to tell.
So far, writers aren’t even using a fraction of the techniques they wouldn’t think twice about deploying in a slightly adventurous novel. It’s as if we’ve restricted our arsenal to slingshots and peashooters. Where we do see storytelling innovation, it can often be attributed more to interesting game design than to the story itself. I recently played a bit of Killer 7, which is so intent on bending the conventions of gameplay that it bends the whole notion of story right along with them. While I haven’t gotten very far yet, it seems to be not merely a story about psychosis, but an actual evocation of psychosis. Which is to say, you start to feel as if the game was designed for a madman, and that you are that madman. This is really cool stuff. I don’t know anything about the team that designed it. I don’t know if the narrative element was driven by a writer, or came naturally out of decisions were purely gameplay driven (which is what seems to be the case). I’d like to know more about it. I’d like to see more games of this sort. I get very excited when I see new forms of game emerging, because they provide jumping off points for the rest of us. I’ve been playing Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney, a truly engaging text adventure for the DS. The story is quirky and fun, and it’s not hard to imagine a whole range of other genres taking advantage of this format. Ico was a marker for a new range of atmospheric narratives that I keep waiting for people to make. If there is any level of frustration that I have with the Half-Life type of game it’s that it is so limited, it’s hard to imagine how it directly feeds or leads to the next generation of story-rich games. We have an unspeaking viewpoint character. Writing scenes that work within that format is challenging and I think rewarding, but it’s obviously not a convention that many games would want to adopt.
So we need to be open to new forms offered by games, without losing touch with the things that stories do best. To take the example of a very old game, one at which I’m terrible incidentally, let me drag in the chess term, Hypermodernism. A hypermodern strategy revolves around taking control of the center of the board instead of doing whatever chess masters were doing before they got all hypermodern. Apart from the approach, nothing else changes. The rules and goals are the same. Hypermodernism is just a new strategy for putting the king in check.
Games afford us a hypermodern strategy for storytelling. We have a completely new means of communicating, but our aims are the same as ever. We want to evoke timeless human emotions. We want people to laugh and cry and gasp and give a damn about what’s happening. There’s nothing like the feeling of sitting in a playtest and watching a player gasp, laugh, scream as the result of something you’ve put into motion. (I’ve watched people read my books and, although it may be a poor reflection on my prose, I’ve never seen anything approaching this level of physical response.) Games may do this better than any other form of entertainment. They have the power to actively astonish, to make us experience things we could not experience otherwise, and in a form that has never existed before now. The emotions aren’t new, but they’re newly felt.
So…what an opportunity for writers! How can we resist wanting to be part of this? We’re working for the most passionate audience imaginable. Our fans are begging us to exceed their expectations. I used to think I was dragging my muse, kicking and screaming, into this new country. But I see it differently now. A line of poetry I came across recently (unattributed but probably by Rumi) caused this thought to crystallize:
I asked my muse, “Why have you been hiding from me?”
She said, “It is you who have been hiding.”
The muse has been here all along. It’s time for us to stop hiding.
Copyright 2005 by Marc Laidlaw