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.