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Volume 41, No. 1
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The Book in the Xbox
Can a video game be literature? Gaming guru Don Daglow '74 and others are looking beyond blowing stuff up to explore new ways of telling stories.

By Adam Rogers '92 / Photos by Robert Durell

The clack clack clack sound, insistent and machine-like, stopped Don Daglow ’74 cold. He’d just walked through the front doors of Mudd-Blaisdell dormitory, headed for his room. But he’d never heard a noise like this one, coming from a door he’d never noticed. So he did what any self-respecting English major with a playwriting concentration would do: He went to check it out.

That’s how, on November 5, 1971, Daglow stepped into the headquarters of the newly founded Pomona College Computer Science Study Group, and the sound turned out to be coming from a typewriter-like teletype printer. It was one of two, tied into a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-10—a mainframe computer housed at Pitzer, the only time-sharing computer at The Claremont Colleges.

Daglow doesn’t remember which group member was staffing the desk that day, but he does remember the first thing he saw: games. “I think they showed me horseracing,” he says. “But then they showed me Eliza.” It was an early bit of software that pretended to be a therapist. “You look at Eliza as a playwriting major and you go, ‘Oh my God,’” Daglow says. “I was absolutely hooked.” Over the next few months, Daglow wrote the first computer baseball game, an improvement on Eliza and an enhanced early text game based on Star Trek (already a proto-geek touchstone).

Back then, mainframes were more the province of Boolean search algorithms and data analysis. So why think of the primitive terminals as a vehicle for storytelling? “When I walked in and looked at it, that was the first thing that came to mind,” Daglow says. “It didn’t have pictures. It was printing text, and I’m a writer.”

Daglow went on to make a career in videogame design— today he has a venerable resume that includes a Technology & Engineering Emmy Award for Neverwinter Nights. And at every stage, Daglow’s challenge was to combine what he knew about theatre into a medium better at executing bright colors and explosions.

Most games have a story, or at least what you might call a premise. Even chess is supposed to be a battle between two armies, each equipped with plentiful cannon-fodder infantry and more powerful elite troops. Typically, though, that veneer makes no difference to actual game play. As John Carmack, one of the founders of Id Software and a creator of the ultraviolent first-person shooter Doom, famously put it: “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”

But in the past few years, with the advent of massively powerful, game-dedicated console systems—video games have changed from exercises in guiding bits of colored light at other bits of colored light into a fully realized vehicle for narrative. Forward-thinking artists are working out the grammar and boundaries of a new kind of storytelling, capable of conveying emotion, meaning and subtext. Today’s game-makers are giving birth to a new form of narrative for anyone with the hardware to play along.

THE XBOX 360 IS Microsoft’s top-of-the-line gaming console. It looks more like a desktop computer than a video game system from the old days, has a cooling fan that roars like a window box air conditioner, and it’s attached to a foot-long power adaptor. The controllers—nobody calls them joysticks anymore—are about the size of a fresh pretzel. They’re meant to be held in both hands, and have two triggers for each index finger, mushroom-shaped omnidirectional levers for the thumbs, a directional pad for the left thumb, four buttons for the right thumb and three more switches in between. They are daunting, is what I’m saying.

I tend to be what the industry calls a “casual gamer,” which means I play quick puzzle games, the descendants of Tetris. (It also means I am old.) Today’s marquee games aren’t aimed at gamers like me. Halo, Gears of War and other titles on the A-list are movie-like adventures designed to take dozens of hours to play from beginning to end, and to use every single button on that controller. They are supposed to be experiences, as life-changing as a great novel or as emotionally fulfilling as a blockbuster summer movie. At upwards of $50 a pop, they’d better be.

Video games didn’t start out that way. Well into the 1980s, when an Apple IIe with a monochrome monitor was the height of home technology, the most popular games were computer text adventures very much like the ones Daglow first started noodling with. For geeks of a certain age, the opening line of Zork—“You are standing in an open field west of a white house with a boarded front door”—has as much emotional resonance as “Call me Ishmael” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” (just to pull two classics at random).

“They told stories in the traditional way, with words,” says Ian Bogost, a games theorist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In Zork and many of the text games that followed, the nominal object was to explore a world and gather treasure, but that wasn’t the underlying game mechanic. “It was less about narrative and storytelling and more about puzzling and problem-solving,” says Bogost.

DAGLOW DELVED INTO designing games professionally for Mattel’s Intellivision console system during this time, and he was eager to break past storytelling limitations. At Mattel he designed the first game to use the concept of camera angles, a baseball title that mimicked TV broadcasts. “I was absolutely thinking, ‘How do we apply the principles of theatre, so that someone interacting with a machine has the same sense of surprise and willing suspension of disbelief?’” he says.

Part of the answer came to him when he was working on the beloved multiplayer game Neverwinter Nights for AOL in 1989: He’d let the players do it for him. “We would treat the worlds as challenges that inspire stories, not as repositories of stories. We had to suggest characters rather than draw them.”

Daglow had hit upon a property called “emergence.” In any one of the various massively multiplayer online role playing games—MMORPGs—like World of Warcraft, or even the online world Second Life, people explore different identities and activities collaboratively with fellow players. More than 11.5 million people play WoW—a huge cast. Maybe that quantity of people interacting, combined with better graphics, really can create a self-weaving tapestry of story. Researchers have been arguing as much since multiplayer universes were little more than Dungeons and Dragons-based chat rooms.

Still, many of today’s most popular games tend to have premises rather than stories. They’re exquisitely-rendered automobile races, kung fu battles or gunfights that’ll give you a rush of excitement and adrenaline followed by relief upon the achievement of an objective. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But some games—popular ones, to be sure—aspire to more. Bioshock makes a pass at commenting on the futility of Ayn Randian objectivism. Far Cry 2 is full of political intrigue.

“We’ve spent the last 20 years making the colored bits look better,” says Bogost. “For the last five years, we’ve been in this crisis. How do we make meaningful games, games that do more than titillate adolescent fantasy? One answer is, we need better story.”

THE NEWEST GAME in the works at Pandemic, a Los Angeles-based game maker, is called Saboteur. It’s set during World War II, which is a cliché so tapped out that newer games generally make the Nazis into Nazi zombies, just to change things up. But Josh Resnick ’89, Pandemic’s CEO, promises this one will be different. “You have a personal revenge story,” he says. “We have found in our focus groups and testing that people really want to keep playing this game. They want to find out what happens to the character.”

At Pomona, Resnick studied international relations and business, and went on to get an MBA. But he’d been a gamer since high school, beneficiary of the world that Daglow helped create. So when Resnick got out of grad school he got himself hired at Activision, a heavy-hitter in the games world, and then spun off Pandemic, which, to be honest, is better known for action than narrative. One title, Mercenaries, was more “about the experience of being able to go anywhere, do anything and blow everything up,” Resnick says. That’s not a knock; it’s true for the bulk of the industry. You race a car, or kill vampires or play a sport. Sometimes you do it against the computer. Sometimes you do it with friends, or with strangers over the Internet.

But for Saboteur, the company wanted broader appeal. “We spent an enormous amount of money and resources and thought developing that character and coming up with a compelling story,” Resnick says. “In the past, you’d look at your team and kind of as an afterthought say, ‘We need some story beats. Which one of you designers has taken a writing class?’ Now people are hiring professional talent.”

Exactly what that talent is supposed to do is an open question. One compelling approach to games criticism says that this new medium differs so much from all the others—from books or theatre or movies—that it shouldn’t be thought of in terms of beginning-middle-end, narrator/audience models at all. Bogost’s book Persuasive Games is just one of dozens wrestling with this epistemology. As he points out, books and movies don’t abide by those strictures anymore. Why should games?

From that perspective, videogames are almost unavoidably postmodern. Sure, a protagonist faces increasingly consequential challenges leading to a climactic action—that’s very Aristotelian. But in videogames, the player is both protagonist and audience simultaneously. That should yield huge gobs of empathy, but in my experience it’s actually more distancing. It’s not really me in there, shooting giant steampunk robots in Bioshock or murdering Saracens in Assassin’s Creed. It’s, you know, just a game. But at least my life as a character has meaning— or something like it—in those titles. Vast “open sandbox” games like Grand Theft Auto, let the player just sort of wander around, exploring. (People love this: In its first month, GTA IV sold 8.5 million copies.)

This is where things get tricky. In old-style media like books and movies, the interface is well-understood. You open the cover, you turn a page, you look at the words. Imagine how much harder it would have been to figure out Chinatown if you’d never seen video before. Now imagine trying to figure out that freakish controller for the first time, while simultaneously trying to work out how you feel about being a malaria-infected mercenary in Africa in Far Cry 2. Trust me: not easy.

Eventually the control interface will disappear altogether. Nintendo’s Wii console system is highly intuitive, dumping most of the buttons on its controllers for a sensitivity to acceleration and motion. And at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles last June, Microsoft unveiled a controller called Natal, essentially a camera that captures the motions of a player and transduces them into a game. In other words, there’s no controller at all. Just you.

The software itself will get smarter, too. Researchers at MIT are experimenting with artificially intelligent bots, characters within a game, that learn to behave the way their real world counterparts would. And a couple of tech-minded artists at UC Santa Cruz built their own “drama engine” that changes the story and dialogue depending on what the player does—and far from being a typical shoot-’em-up, their game Façade is about a marital spat.

What most people who think about videogames agree on is that their universe is still inchoate. It can take years—decades— for new art forms to find their true voices. The tools and techniques for conveying emotion and narrative in games are improving, and the possibilities engross Daglow, something of an industry guru these days. He developed games for every generation of console hardware, and for most of that time, he and his teams knew that nothing they created was going to look like real life. The best they could do was mimic the kind of camera moves you might see on TV. But the latest hardware has enough computational oomph to produce images of near cinematic perfection—which gives you the ability to make other elements, like character or conflict, more sophisticated. Daglow calls it, with only a little humility, Daglow’s Law: Storytelling expands first to fill the technological bandwidth of a medium, and then the emotional bandwidth. (You also have to have the cash. In 1988, his Stormfront Studios developed its first game for $70,000. When the company folded in 2008, it was working on two games with a total budget of $20 million.)

Obviously, 30 years has radically remade the videogame industry, but Daglow is back to designing a new game. The audience of players is hungrier, savvier and little by little they’ve been trained to expect more from their games than beautifully exploding zombie heads. “I’m trying to create a new genre,” Daglow says. “If it succeeds, people will view it as very different and innovative. And if we’re wrong, then we’ll be hearing crickets when we go live. But so be it. That’s the chance we take.”

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