Electron Dance
31May/11Off

Radio With Pictures: Brian Moriarty

This is the first article in the Where We Came From series.

The Atari 800 home computer was an integral part of my childhood. Back then, the only way to learn more about your particular machine and what was happening in the world of computing was to subscribe to print magazines. The definitive magazine for Atari enthusiasts was A.N.A.L.O.G. Computing, run by editor Lee H. Pappas. A.N.A.L.O.G was staffed by a "dream team" that inspired its audience to write and code just like them.

I mourned the loss of its original technical editor who left for greater pastures, the interactive fiction mothership Infocom to be precise. Originally taken on for his programming ability, he had to prove himself worthy of writing IF. He started out with Wishbringer, Infocom's adventure for younger players, and with this success under his belt he went on to write the ambitious and acclaimed Trinity, a time-travelling meditation on the atomic bomb. After Infocom's fall, he moved to Lucasfilm Games and developed perhaps his best known work, the graphical adventure Loom. These days you can find him at Worcester Polytechnic Institute where he is a Professor of Practice in Game Design, although he's been known to turn up for the occasional GDC presentation and cause the internet to implode.

For your eyes only, I present one Brian Moriarty.

HM: So, Brian, after getting an Atari 800, you soon found yourself working as part of the staff of A.N.A.L.O.G. Computing magazine. In those pre-internet days - how did Lee Pappas assemble such a talented cast and crew for his hobbyist magazine?

The process was rather mysterious. I first met Lee in 1978. We were working as salesmen at separate Radio Shack stores in Worcester, Massachusetts, selling stereos and TRS-80 micros. After I left the Shack, Lee and I were out of touch for a few years. But in late 1981, when I was shopping for an Atari 800 and walked into a local dealer to buy one, I found Lee standing behind the counter! He and his friend Mike Deschenes had started the store, and were also publishing a newsletter which had started to grow into a major Atari magazine. They'd just hired a couple of guys from Missouri, Tom Hudson and Jon Bell, to help with the expansion. Soon afterward they lured me away from Bose Corporation to work as Technical Editor. We all became close friends, and still are. It was a small group of nerdy guys in their 20s who loved computer games, ate the same junk foods and went to see the same science fiction movies together.

HM: A big part of home computing was type-in listings, as there were no downloads and buying a disk subscription was an expensive option not everyone could afford. Charles Bachand turned down my one A.N.A.L.O.G. game submission, but it's okay, I don't bear any grudges. But there is no such thing as type-in listings any more. I used to tear apart the listings in magazines, trying to understand how code worked. Would you say a part of the hobbyist culture has been lost?

It's hard to believe people were willing to spend HOURS typing in those games from magazines, line by line. But it's true! I did it myself a few times. It's hard to communicate the excitement of those days, the enormous hunger for new games and graphics demos, trying to grasp what these marvelous machines could do. The early days of radio must have felt much the same. A few people still share that spirit, but most have little interest in the technology of games. They just want to play them.

HM: However, the barrier for entry into the hall of games development is incredibly low right now. The tools are accessible, cheaper and many. Anybody who wants to make games, can. Sites for Flash browser work such as Newgrounds and Kongregate, for example, are bursting at the seams with games.

It's certainly true that the tools available for developing games are more powerful and less expensive than they were in the past. The same is true for music and video production. Hopefully this will increase the likelihood of experimental breakthroughs, and of talented people finding a voice they might not have been able to realize before.

HM: After A.N.A.L.O.G. you joined Infocom. You've stated elsewhere that Infocom was probably the best work experience you've ever had, full of smart, well-read people. There, games writing and design were one and the same but writers in the current games industry always speak of themselves as being at the whim of designers. Was Infocom a unique product of its time?

Every entertainment technology seems to enjoy a "golden era" that is epitomized by small, intense companies of highly creative people, which later assume the status of legend. For silent movies, it was Biograph with D.W. Griffith, and the Keystone Film Company with Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin. For radio, it was the Mercury Theater with Orson Welles. For television, it was the comedy team surrounding the Sid Caesar Show. And for computer gaming, it was Infocom. As these early endeavors grow into commercial industries, they eventually come under the control of money-changers, and the original magic is inevitably lost. I feel incredibly fortunate to have found myself in the right place at the right time.

HM: My favourite of the presentations you have available on-line is "Pile of Dirt, with Trees" a parable about how we should view posterity and the quest for personal immortality. Present day, interactive fiction is now a niche interest but refuses to disappear. Are we waiting for a revival of the written word in gaming? Or is interactive fiction a dead end and we'll eventually move on?

Silent movies are still being made by small communities of artists and hobbyists. So are pinhole photographs, radio dramas and text-based interactive fiction. These "lost" forms of expression have unique aesthetic properties that appeal to certain people. They're only a "dead end" if your chief concern is earning a living with them. Interactive fiction is especially challenged by the decline in general literacy and attention span among young people, which is all too evident to college professors like me. But if you're a devoted reader and enjoy programming, IF offers a rewarding creative outlet that is supported by excellent tools and a great community.

HM: Going on from this, do you think we need to stop reinventing old favourites and start with a blank slate more often?

Truly blank slates are rare. Nearly all creative forms grow on previous work. Early movies looked like stage shows. Early television was like radio with pictures. Zork was a response to Crowther and Woods, and Mystery House was Scott Adams with line drawings. It's a continuum that expands into many branches, some of which flourish and evolve, while others whither and die. The best you can do at any historical moment is grab onto whatever form captures your imagination and see where it leads.

HM: Your words are to be used in Jonathan Blow's "The Witness". Blow's opinion of the current game industry is polarising, and I could paraphrase it as "most games are deceitful time wasters". What's your take on this?

There's nothing wrong with recreation. When I come home from work, it's relaxing to play a few levels of a favorite game. I claim an absolute right to "waste" some of my free time this way! However, video games possess an addictive quality that is especially dangerous for procrastinators like me. And, as I get older and increasingly jealous of my free time, I find myself demanding more from my entertainment. I want thoughtful works that offer perspectives on my real-life issues, like having a child with a disability, or caring for elderly parents, or religious and political questions. For me, computer games have not yet demonstrated an ability to serve this need the way the great works of literature and music can. I don't know if this is because great artists have not yet been attracted to the medium, or because of a structural deficiency in the medium itself. After three decades in the business, I'm still waiting.

HM: There has been an explosion of experimental games in the last few years, the so-called art game movement. Amongst this body of work there's a drive to do something different, to mean something more. However Emily Short, one of our present day IF luminaries, was unimpressed with "indie-art-game prose". Nonetheless, there's a body of more thoughtful work available right now. Do you look at these games and think this kind of exploration of the medium is taking us in the right direction?

There are certainly people who are working to move games in thoughtful directions. Alas, I may be one of them. And it's obviously possible to incorporate artistic presentation elements in a computer game, such as story, music and visual art. But a great presentation doesn't make a great game. I illustrated this point in my recent GDC lecture, where I showed a silly platformer with background art by Michelangelo, dialog from Shakespeare, characters from Ingmar Bergman movies and music by Bach. Everything about the game smelled like "great art," but it was still just a platformer. The same is true of most "art games." They may have an arty veneer, and explore important topics and themes, but it's all bolted on to familiar game mechanisms that are not essentially synergistic.

But maybe I'm being impatient. It may be expecting too much to expect anyone to grasp the artistic possibilities of interactivity after just a few decades of experimentation.

HM: Lastly, you threw your own opinion into the "games are art" debate. Could the answer to this question have real consequences for gaming, or does it make no difference which ever way we call it?

The finest thinkers in our culture are not interested in video games. They write books, compose music or make movies. Unless this changes, video games may succeed as ephemeral entertainment and as an economic force, but they will never attain the lasting power of sublime art, and they will continue to play a minor role in our intellectual and spiritual lives.

HM: Thank you for taking the time out to speak to Electron Dance, Brian.


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Comments (15) Trackbacks (3)
  1. Great interview, HM, and I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.

    It reminded me again of a type-in text adventure in an Amstrad magazine that I ‘converted’ to MSX basic as a kid and which made me happy for a whole week. Seeing how all those DATA statements fitted together into a playable game (example – http://www.ncus.org.uk/files/CRYSTAL.TXT) was pretty amazing.

  2. Love the interview! That’s also how I learned the fine art of game programming… by typing in BASIC code into our microcomputers. And then, figuring out how to convert from one form of BASIC to another (i.e., from one that worked on a TRS-80 to the one on the Apple II).

  3. @Chopper: Thanks, there’s a real mix of stuff coming up! It’s so strange – especially as I never had any experience with an Amstrad – but looking at that code filled me with nostalgic shudders of analysing listings. I used to spend time looking at the listings for other computers simply because other people’s games always looked more interesting…

    @David: Thanks for the compliment! I did work on a few game conversions myself from other computers to Atari BASIC. Of course, you always got unstuck if you ran into a few machine language calls specific to that computer, but in the very earliest days the programs were usually quite simple and porting was straightforward.

  4. Great interview! Either Brian said the exact right amount of stuff or you edited it down to the perfect length. Not one of those long screeds but long enough to sink your teeth into and have a good ‘think’ about.

    I can very easily trace my love of programming to an old BASIC GAMES book I bought at a church yard sale in junior high. Typing the code into the computer was the easy part.. the anticipation was almost unbearable! Of course, I am talking old MS-DOS and not Atari, but I think that is an experience no one would forget, and one that is hard to reproduce nowadays.

  5. @Todd: I just got off Skype with the fourth interviewee and I’ve got 10,000 words to sort out. The last one may not be so short!

    I think the feel of typing in programs is one of those experiences that are now lost to posterity. The downside, apart from the time spent on doing the typing, is that you had to track down your typing mistakes. Not every typo ended up as syntax error, did it? At least on the Atari, most of the magazines eventually used a checksum system that you could use to catch typos.

  6. Great read. Brian Moriarty is one of those few individuals who has a reserved space in my intellectual mind share; always worth making time to read/listen to his thoughts.

    And yes, it was a good length. I’m such a sucker for the succinct. Can’t wait for the rest of Where We Came From series.

  7. Great interview, HM, but I’d like to call a bit of bullshit on the dreary tone, especially in the last part.

    It’s an awful generalization to say that all the great thinkers are tied up in film, music and books. There are equal parts geniuses and blunderers in each medium.

    I’d also like to do the typical young guy thing and call out te pretentiousness inherent in people who were around and old enough to experience the text-based games of the ’70s and ’80s that were some apparent pinnacle of artistic expression in games.

    I respect Brian and his opinions but I think his outlook is too bleak and even unfair. There /are/ great minds making games today.

  8. @Jordan: Thanks Jordan. This is the shortest interview of the lot, I think. The next interview is in 4 weeks time.

    @Max: I’m not here to defend Brian, he can do that himself. I don’t agree with his general sentiment either and we all have a variety of opinions of the game/art debate.

    Where I would find common ground is this: In 30 years, I can’t remember a single video game that has ever changed the way I think about something. Certainly I have had profound experiences, but these are games in the “emotional simulator” format, not of “and the next day, I saw things differently”. TV and film have both changed my opinions and understanding of the world, music possibly, but games – so far, score zero. That’s not to say it won’t happen – I think Fate of the World explores the complexity of climate change in a way a documentary could not hope to, Michael Abbott talked about how Newsgames affected his students, and Molleindustria’s Memory Reloaded was perilously close.

    I wouldn’t agree that Brian was saying Infocom was the peak of artistic expression, remember Brian doesn’t even think we have any artistic expression in gaming. Where I was going was that Infocom was the role model of artistic aspiration during the splurge of home computer gaming in the 80s. Everything back then was new and never been done before, “genres” were only just starting to form.

    Text was eventually replaced by graphics in people’s hearts (and there’s something to be said about the “parser game” being a barrier, a topic interviewee #4 will touch on) and Infocom lost that position of role model. There was great sadness when this came to pass. In video game terms, Infocom was the “Google” of its day, the kind of place you’d love to work at but didn’t think you’d ever have the smarts to aspire to. (Then again maybe Google isn’t Google any more.)

    Gaming during this decade was very rough and exploratory and developers didn’t get a lot of things right – but we played them anyway. This was the nature of the times, we didn’t know things would get as good and polished as they are today. It was broken and coarse, the days before GUI entered common vernacular.

    It’s not that these were the best gaming times we ever had, more the “first days of game”, much like building a settlement, a colony on untouched virgin land (minus the whole kicking out the Native Americans thing).

    That is a completely different type of excitement to that of moving forward an existing medium.

  9. It’s funny you bring up gaming with rough edges- I try to inform my game purchasing decisions by trying to keep repetition down (i.e. Why play Mega Man X3 when X5 offers many of the same things?), but then it’s easy to forget that the experience is different when you don’t judge how it fits into the overall picture.

    Gimmicks and design mistakes feel entirely different when you don’t see them that way. When people say the difficult controls make Resident Evil scary, it definitely sounds stupid. But when no one realized it or rationalized it, it seemed to make perfect sense. It would be like if every person was told outright that people in movies cheat towards the camera and aren’t really standing realistically.

  10. @HM — Question: which TV showed changed the way you think about something and how? I think film, music and literature are mediums hold a certain prestige (and I don’t know necessarily that, in every instance, they should), but I wasn’t aware TV was held in that kind of esteem.

    If you ask me, TV — at least in the US — is pretty much garbage.

  11. @Jordan:
    TV is where people go for mysteries, I think. A film like The Maltese Falcon would probably be an HBO miniseries these days. I’d guess that a detective movie like Sherlock Holmes was put to film solely because of its huge action setpieces- those don’t get much of TV’s real estate these days.

    The original Star Trek TV series was also a big deal- not only for its interesting sci-fi content, but also for having the first interracial kiss on American television (and being racially progressive overall in its casting). Then again, games still have a chance to be a popular form of media with progressive tendencies. We can start by eliminating chainmail bikinis and move forward from there.

  12. @BeamSplashX: I have a very particular thought-scratch about the “rough edges” of ancient gaming that I really need to itch one of these days. I don’t think it quite works as part of Where We Came From, but mark my words, I’ll get to it one day. I think three months of “retro” articles will be enough for everybody. Oh and that Star Trek kiss was banned from being shown in the UK for some time, but apparently it was to do with the madness and torture aspects rather than the kiss.

    @Jordan: Recently, that’s an easy one. The Wire. I felt like I learnt so much from that series about the never-ending drug war and how politics is a lot worse than you think. Yet, in the end, it’s really about the system that channels our efforts and shapes our daily aspirations. Their followup, Generation Kill, also made me reflect on the plight of the American ground troops in Iraq – no mean feat for someone was against the Iraq invasion – and what has happened to them as people.

    Also currently watching Adam Curtis’ “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” on BBC – his stuff is always mind-blowing, managing to draw together the most disparate ideas into surprising conclusions. Have a look at The Trap for example. These are labelled documentaries, but really are much more than that.

  13. Actually there are games which do make me think… but about game design. There’s plenty of meta game-commentary being made.

    I cannot leave without mentioning “Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer” which is a grand statement about the environment of online dev forums (something I didn’t pick up on but Kieron Gillen did). Kind of meta as well, but it wasn’t talking about game design.

  14. Fascinating interview Joel and I’m glad you put forth Blow’s view on the current games industry (you just knew I’d latch on to that!). Brian’s response was very well articulated and reflected some of my own thoughts since my salvo of comments on The Retired Gambler. I think the sentiment is slowly crystalising for me: some people simply want to take more from a game than a fleeting sensual thrill, they want to be informed or provoked, or come away feeling as though they’ve grown in some personal way.

    Looking back at my comments, I must have been in a bad mood or something. Or perhaps it just relates to my girlfriend’s mum only playing Wii Fit to lose weight and ditching it the moment she realised she wasn’t losing any. Yeah, don’t play it for fun or anything. I think that’s it: I just don’t like the idea of dismissing a game because it’s not productive in any obvious way, even if it’s crazy amounts of fun.

    Anyway back on topic: The earliest game magazine I ever remember owning was Your Sinclair (gad, I must have been about seven) and I’m not sure whether they had demo tapes or these code-your-own-game things. I can’t imagine the joy of finally getting one of those working after so much work. There’s me thinking that sitting through the “It’s part of The Experience!” Spectrum load times was a lengthy build-up.

    Love Brian’s high art hodge-podge platformer as well, what a great idea/example for a lecture. And the link to Emma Short’s article was really interesting — I see Braid got some flak in the comments section.

  15. Howdy Gregg. I wasn’t intending for the interview to focus too much on the “worth of games” side of things but it does seem to have attracted the most attention.

    I actually think Brian’s high-art-platformer misses the point because it’s the various presentational notes clash and do not take consistent aim at any theme. Go back one whole year to my post “Overlooking Ambition” and I was originally on the same side as Brian here. A pretty veneer over familiar mechanics? Does that move us forward at all?

    In that time I’ve come to accept that presentation is what informs mechanics – bare mechanics mean nothing at all. Calunio’s Beautiful Escape is just a dating sim stapled onto tower defence but dear sweet lord it evokes much revulsion in its players purely through the meaning conferred by presentation. Clint Hocking also talked about this at the recent GDC. Brenda Braithwaite’s Train is just some board game – until its actual meaning is revealed – which is the perfect example of presentation upsetting gameplay.

    Hey imagine if we had to load modern games by tape. Half-Life 2 would probably take 2 weeks to load!

    Short’s article is a bit TLDR but definitely worth the read.