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The Designer's Notebook: In The Beginning Was The Word

July 2, 2003
 

So begins the gospel of John in the Christian New Testament, but the line applies nicely to the beginning of computer games as well. Certainly the earliest of them, in the days of printing terminals attached to timesharing mainframes, relied heavily on words. Apart from crude ASCII graphics, words were all that the early games had to convey a sense of situation, place and character.

Over the last 20 years or so words have been largely replaced by pictures in games, which convey these qualities much more immediately and allow us to play in real time. Word-based games, or at least those that use whole sentences, can't be played in real time because people read at different rates. With pictures, we can be reasonably confident that everyone can see at the same speed (those of us who aren't sight-impaired, at least).

Unfortunately, as the number of words in games has decreased, their quality hasn't necessarily increased. The writing in computer games was never very good, and - with a few notable exceptions - it doesn't seem to be improving much. This month I want to take a look at words in games, and do a little thinking about just what they bring to our medium. I would never argue that we should return to the days of the printing terminal, but I do believe that words in games have more potential than they get credit for, and that they deserve more attention and care as well.

To start with, let's take a look at the use of words in other media. In the 1960's, as television became ever more affordable and began to get features like color and high-fidelity sound, there was a fear among many social critics that movies and TV would completely supplant books as an entertainment medium. This fear found expression in novels like Ray Bradbury's SF classic Fahrenheit 451, in which books are forbidden as sources of social and political unrest and people are instead encouraged to watch, or participate in, mindless interactive TV soap operas.

While it's true that television has made tremendous inroads, consuming leisure time that people used to spend with books, it hasn't actually replaced books. There are more books on the store shelves than ever. In fact, we're swamped with cheap fiction, from techno-thrillers to chick-lit. Much of it isn't very good, but that isn't the point: there's consumer demand, which proves that TV has not taken over. Non-fiction, too, is enjoying tremendous popularity, and interestingly enough, many TV documentaries are accompanied by books for people who want to have permanent access to the same material in print form after the documentary has aired.

There are various reasons TV didn't replace books. For one thing, books are vastly cheaper to create than movies and TV, so you can turn out literally hundreds of paperback novels for the price of one TV show. It also means that you can aim at smaller niches. A book can make its investment back if it sells a few thousand copies; a TV show has to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people.

A more aesthetically significant reason that TV and movies didn't supplant books is that books can do things that the image can't. Images make the general particular; they make the abstract concrete; they make the ambiguous certain, at least with respect to the appearance of things. They create a distinct instance of an otherwise nebulous idea.

When the first Harry Potter movie came out, there was a great deal of debate about whether various members of the cast were "right" or not. Each of the millions of us who has read the Harry Potter novels has an image of the characters in our heads, and of course they aren't all the same. My Harry doesn't necessarily look like your Harry, and so on. The movie, however, created a definitive, concrete Harry - he looks like the actor Daniel Radcliffe, and now to many people that's what Harry looks like. This isn't necessarily good or bad; it's just a fact. (Actually, Daniel Radcliffe isn't too far from my Harry, but Emma Watson, who plays Hermione Granger, doesn't look anything like my Hermione, and when I read the books I see my own Hermione. It's not Ms. Watson's fault; but the word-picture J.K. Rowling created for me just doesn't look like her.)

What images can't do is create interior monologues or illustrate complex states of mind. The word is capable of particularizing and stating explicitly facts about our unseen lives. Especially good actors can create the outward behavior that might accompany such a state of mind, but they cannot hand it to you on a platter the way the written word can. What the pictures can do for the visual appearance of things - make them specific - words can do for emotional and other mental content.

Here's a simple example. Suppose a suburban housewife is feeling depressed and trapped in her boring existence. She has a sense that life is passing her by and all her youthful potential is being wasted. Then one day she learns that her best friend has won the lottery, and is about to go away and spend the rest of her life traveling and having adventures. Our heroine feels a whole whirlwind of emotions about this: envy of her friend's good luck; a genuine pleasure on her friend's behalf; further depression and sorrow that she is being left behind; anger that her friend is prepared to abandon relationship; and guilt about feeling envious and angry, because she believes a truly good person "should" feel only unalloyed happiness for her friend.

Now it took me all of 15 seconds to tell you about this in words, using bald but clear terms. A serious novelist would weave it, more subtly, in through several pages - or even an entire book - but nevertheless, it can be explained quickly if necessary. On the other hand it would take a good half hour or so for a consummate actress like Meryl Streep to try to bring all this across on screen in a way that felt natural and credible.

That's the efficiency of verbal description. Where complex states of mind are concerned, words are extremely high-bandwidth. Reading about them doesn't always have the visceral punch of images, but it does have the power to create situations that are impossible to represent visually. For example, you can read the sentence, "Joe was furious inside, but he never let it show," and you know what it means. But such a sentence is un-filmable: if he never lets it show, you can't see it.

 
In some films, silence is golden.

I believe that this is what interactive fiction is really trying to explore. I know a fair number of commercial game developers who dismiss fans of interactive fiction as a bunch of sad losers who are stuck in the past, people who can't bring themselves to admit that Infocom is out of business and text adventures are dead. But that's a perspective based on an assumption that the only thing worth exploring in game design is something that's going to make money. From a creative standpoint, it's actually a very limiting point of view. If you insist on commercial viability before beginning any kind of creative research, you're not going to accomplish very much because the only things with proven commercial viability are things that have already been done! A game like The Sims was groundbreaking precisely because it was trying out ideas whose commercial viability had not yet been proven.

Once you abandon the a priori requirement of commercial viability, you're free to try out new things. The people working on interactive fiction aren't actually trying to duplicate what Infocom did, or to pretend that their work is commercially viable - after all, Infocom itself was aiming for commercial success. What these people are doing is exploring the power of interactive words, an area that we have largely neglected since about 1986. They've realized that there are things words can do that pictures cannot, and they want to find out more about it.

It's worth noting one more thing about TV and movies: they are actually word-dominated media themselves. Very few movies can get away without any words. There have been fringe examples like Koyaanisqatsi, and 2001: A Space Odyssey had very little dialog, but for the most part movies are about people, and people spend a lot of their time talking. Movies need words in order to establish relationships and explain the basis for the emotions that we see displayed.

From Agatha Christie's "Miss Marple" series, which aired on the BBC.

For example, in one episode of the Miss Marple TV series ("The Moving Finger," for fans), the story opens as an attractive young couple, Gerry and Joanna Burton, arrive at a little English village where they are about to make their home. A few days later (in TV terms), we see various women of the village giving the eye to Gerry, a charming fighter pilot. He doesn't do anything to discourage this, and in fact strikes up an odd, quasi-romantic friendship with another of these women. Is he cheating on Joanna? No, because Joanna is not his wife, but his sister. But the only way to know that is because the show told us so specifically, in dialog. On appearances alone, you could easily jump to the conclusion in the first few scenes that the two are married: they have the same last name, are of a similar age, are obviously closely acquainted, and setting up housekeeping together.

Without the words to explain the relationships and obligations among people, we are left unable to interpret the meaning or emotional consequences of what we are seeing. And even the most action-packed movie -- something like Arnold Schwartzenegger's Commando, for example, which offered the least plot for the largest number of explosions I've ever seen -- still has to have a little setup at the beginning to explain who these people are and why we're supposed to care.

Words are still used in quite a number of places in games: menus, obviously; dialog; mission briefings and debriefings; journals and other kinds of books found in adventure and role-playing games. Someone has to produce those words, and if you care about the impact they make, the influence they have on your players, that person needs to be a competent writer. She needs not only to write clearly and appropriately for the characters and setting, but also tersely. I don't know how many games I've seen with long, long introductory sequences in which the writer is clearly ticking off the boxes, telling rather than showing. I'm an unusually patient gamer, and the content matters a lot to me (sometimes even more than the game mechanics) -- so when I'm bored, you know it's going on too long.

Words will seldom make or break a game financially, but they are often the difference between a good game and a poor one, a believable premise and a laughable one. Your character animations may flap their lips, but what really matters is what comes out of their mouths. Unless you're developing arcade games or something highly obvious like a racing game or a flight simulator, words are part of how you set the stage - not the visual stage, but the social, emotional, and dramatic stage. Give them the attention they are due, and they will serve you well. And don't forget: words are a vital part of game design as well as the game itself. Even before the first concept drawing is made, the high concept of the game will have to be expressed in words.

In the original Greek in which the gospel of John was written, the term used is logos, which was translated as "word," but also means "thought," or "will." Both are essential tools in the creation of a game design. The game designer is the god of his game world. So as you start your design, don't forget John 1:1: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.


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