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Designer's Notebook: How To Be Weird

February 12, 1999
 

Yeah, yeah, I can hear the snickering now about the title of this column. "You must be the expert," you’re saying. But I’m serious. If you want a more boring, academic sort of title, then this column is also called "Inducing Complex Emotions in Interactive Media Participants." How’s that?

Several years ago there was a debate in the game developers’ round table on GEnie (remember GEnie?) about whether or not a computer game could make you cry. It was already well-demonstrated that one could make you laugh. Computer games can make you feel frustration (though not always intentionally), excitement, exhilaration, suspense, horror… but can a computer game make you cry? Or to put it in a broader perspective, what are the emotional limitations of the medium?

Now, some will of course ask, "Who cares? Games are about fun! Who wants to feel anything else?" But that’s too narrow a viewpoint. Games may be about fun, but interactive entertainment is about, well, entertainment, and there are lots of ways of being entertained. Books and movies inspire an entire range of emotions. Should we be restricted to "positive" or "happy" emotions, just because our medium is interactive, or non-linear? I certainly hope not.

The answer the GEnie crowd came up with was, yes, a computer game can make you cry: consider the death of Floyd the robot in Planetfall. Planetfall was an Infocom text adventure in which you spent a fair amount of time in the company of a rather smart-alecky robot named Floyd. Eventually, however, Floyd gave up his life for you, and there was no way to avoid it. It was a sad moment.

The scariest experience I ever had playing a computer game was with the original Adventure, Colossal Cave. I was playing very late at night on a terminal in a cavernous, but empty, computer center. It was very quiet. I was completely mesmerized by the game, trying to find my way around without getting lost or being killed. All of a sudden, as I moved from one room to another, I got this message:

You hear footsteps in the darkness behind you.

I practically jumped out of my skin. I hurried away to another room, but the footsteps followed. This happened for several more turns. Eventually I lost them, but I was still terrified – alone in this enormous, mysterious, dangerous cave, surrounded by darkness, carrying only a flashlight whose batteries were weakening by the minute…

Even Doom never gave me that sense. Doom had its creepy moments, and it often startled me, but the world’s a lot less scary when you’re carrying a rocket launcher around with you.

I was thinking about this the other day, and began to wonder if a computer game could make you feel weird. Unsettled. Disturbed. There are movies that do this extremely well. Rosemary’s Baby, for example, is a classic creepy movie – not a slasher movie, not a monster movie, but a psychological suspense movie. Rebecca is another, although it’s more of a mystery. In both cases, we’re sympathetic with the lead character’s growing fear and disorientation, but we – and she – can’t tell if these emotions are justified, or the products of an overactive imagination.

I think it’s particularly difficult for our medium to generate this feeling. Interactivity is about giving the player the power to make choices, to control her own destiny to some extent. The protagonists in Rosemary’s Baby and Rebecca both seemed trapped, unable to get away. Myst has a weird feel to it, but that emotional tone is muted by the artificiality of a mechanistic user interface. I click here, I go forward. I click there, I go back. I think perhaps one of the things that creates weirdness is a changing, dreamlike quality to the spaces we’re moving through. That suggests a) that we need analog rather than digital control over our motion; and b) that the connectivity of the spaces must either change randomly, or preferably, according to some subtle underlying principle. In dreams, you can walk through a place and it somehow changes around you and becomes another place. We need to investigate that.

Another characteristic of dreams is that labels and objects get mixed up. You will be with a person whom you know is Fred, but who looks nothing like Fred. In fact, he looks exactly like Joe… but you still know for a fact that he’s Fred. I don’t know quite how this could be implemented in a computer program, but it’s worth thinking about.

Another problem that we have is that nothing matters. As players, we’re too used to dying and going back and trying again. We’re very aware that what we’re doing is a simulation, that it’s just tomato-sauce blood, that it’s all make-believe. It’s all make-believe in the movies, too, but somehow we suspend our disbelief. We worry about whether Rosemary is really being used by a coven of witches in a way that we never do when playing a computer game. ("Oops! You’re pregnant and Satan is the father. Do you want to restart the level?")

The other game that made me feel really weird, in a very different way, was Balance of Power, which came out in 1986. Balance of Power was a simulation of global geopolitics. You played either America or the Soviet Union, and the idea was to increase your global prestige and decrease that of your opponent by supporting the governments of countries that were friendly to you, and fomenting coups or revolutions in countries that were unfriendly. You could do this by sending economic or military aid, signing defense treaties, and other means. But every action you took was being scrutinized by the other side, and might provoke a crisis. A lot of prestige was at stake in a crisis, and whoever backed down first was bound to suffer mightily. (If you didn’t ever back down, you risked a nuclear war, which ended the game.)

All this might sound a little dry, even dull. The user interface for Balance of Power consisted of a map, some newspaper headlines, a few dialog boxes… and it was in black-and-white, no less! It ran on the original Macintosh or on the PC under, believe it or not, a standalone version of Windows 1.0. But the extraordinary thing about Balance of Power was the way that your opponent behaved. Each time you played, the Russian leadership was different. Sometimes they were particularly tough and hard-nosed, driving every confrontation to the brink of nuclear disaster. Other times they were pushovers, backing down at the slightest complaint. Sometimes they were adventurous, interfering all over the world – even in Mexico, right next door! Other times they stayed quietly at home and didn’t get involved in foreign entanglements.

Now here’s the weird part: I normally played Balance of Power from the American perspective. But one day, I tried playing it from the Russian side. I discovered then that the game was not symmetric. The Russians had a lot more manpower, but a lot less money. Although they could easily send in troops to prop up a government they were supporting, they couldn’t buy much friendship with economic aid. And that wasn’t all. They were surrounded by a ring of steel: NATO in the west, Japan in the east, Canada over the pole. Even though China was a Communist country too, it was hostile and suspicious. While the U.S. had Britain, France, Germany, and Japan for allies, most of the U.S.S.R.’s friends were poor as church mice.

For the first time in my life, I got a direct and immediate insight about why the Russians seemed so paranoid, so confrontational (this was during the Reagan administration, remember). The hugely powerful United States and its allies had declared that the entire Soviet way of life was wrong, and were using their unimaginable wealth to turn the world against them, hedging them in, denying them their rightful role as a great power in the community of nations.

It sounds simple, even silly, in retrospect. But getting a personal understanding of what the Soviets were up against left me with an odd feeling that lasted several hours. You can learn a lot by playing the other side.

I don’t get that feeling playing the Germans in a World War II flight simulator. I wasn’t raised to be suspicious and unsympathetic towards the Germans, the way my country taught me to be towards the Russians. I was born fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, and the (West) Germans were our friends and allies. It’s now nearly fifteen years since the end of the Cold War. Maybe children born now will be able to regard the Russians as friends and allies too. I hope so. But the lesson I learned from my experience playing Balance of Power is that challenging your assumptions is entertaining and instructive and weird in an extremely worthwhile way. I think we need to do more of it.

Being too weird, however, is antithetical to puzzle-solving, winning, or any form of goal-oriented play. If you’re trying to get something done, weird behavior on the part of the computer just becomes an obstruction, an irritant. If a product is going to act strangely, it had better not require achievement, and that means that it isn’t really a game, although it could still be interactive entertainment. It might even be (gasp) art.

A couple of weeks ago I spent a day at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Among the works on display there is a curious electronic device. From a small box on the floor, two heavy armored cables twist up along the wall, each ending in a rectangular cathode-ray tube, not mounted in any kind of frame, just stuck to the wall. The two tubes were flickering and displaying, in yellow monochrome, still images of various things, static, and occasionally the words "NOT" and "BROKEN." This piece is called "Not Broken," appropriately enough, and is the work of a Bay Area artist named Alan Rath.

Rath has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from M.I.T., and his work appears in a number of places including the San Francisco airport. It’s intelligent, interesting, funny, and strange. Some of it is also interactive. "Joy Lick" consists of a joystick in front of a CRT which is displaying a human mouth with a tongue licking its lips. As you move the joystick around, the tongue moves around.

I don’t know that Rath is telling us anything in particular; I don’t know that he has a message or a theme or any of that other deep art stuff. I do know that his works are weird and entertaining to look at. I also like them because they demonstrate engineering competence, and thus at one blow Rath shatters two stereotypes: one, that artists are too sensitive and airy-fairy to handle mathematics and engineering; and two, that engineers are too humorless and nerdy to create art.

I’m going to end this column with a quote from Bruce Sterling, the science fiction author. He delivered a brilliant banquet speech at the 1991 Computer Game Developers’ Conference called "Follow Your Weird." Among the many fascinating ideas he gave us that night was this:

"What computer entertainment lacks most, I think, is a sense of mystery. It's too left-brain... I think there might be real promise in game designs that offer less of a sense of nitpicking mastery and control, and more of a sense of sleaziness and bluesiness and smokiness. Not neat tinkertoy puzzles to be decoded, not ‘treasure-hunts for assets,’ but creations with some deeper sense of genuine artistic mystery."


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