Classic Computer Magazine Archive Article from Compute! magazine

Michael Crichton

Reflections Of A New Designer

Micheal CrichtonThere are new ways of presenting information other than the traditional ways in which the viewer or reader is required to be passive. A few years ago, I realized that 1 didn't know about these things, and that I'd better find out about them. The only way I could learn was to actually go and do one. So I said, "Well, I'll just make a game and then I'll learn." And I certainly did.

Interactive fiction-the adventure game-is one of those new ways. And Michael Crichton is one of the newest authors in this genre.
    Crichton is better known for his work in fiction and films. His novels include The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, and Congo. As a filmmaker, he has been involved in the writing and directing of Westworld, Coma, The Great Train Robbery, Looker, and the recently released Runaway.
    The rapid growth of technology-and the decisions it necessarily forces on societies-has been a major theme in much of Crichton's work. He's been interested in the artistic potential of microcomputers since the start, and owns several himself, including an Apple, a Commodore 64, a Radio Shack Model 100, and several IBM PCs.
    Crichton has used his micros primarily for word processing and game playing, but was especially intrigued by the possibilities that lay in adventure gaming, and disappointed that games weren't being more cleverly designed.
    I simply didn't understand the mentality that informed them. It was not until 1 began programming myself that I realized it was a debugger's mentality. They could make you sit outside a door until you said exactly the right words. Sometimes you had to say, "I quit," and then it would let you through.
    Well, that's life in the programming world. It's not life in any other world. It's not an accepted dramatic convention in any other arena of entertainment. It's something you learn to do when you're trying to make the computer work.
    So in 1982, eager to explore this participatory art form, Crichton started to script his own adventure game. Since the only computer language he knew well was BASIC, he hired programmer Steve Warrady to help translate his story into graphics and text using Apple assembly language.
    I wanted to make a game that tended to reflect my own prejudices. My prejudice is that I'm not a fantasist. I don't like magic spells to get me across the river and I don't like to meet trolls and dwarfs. I got tired of that when I was six.
    So I wanted to have a more realistic world. In Amazon, when you get to the river and find the boat that has a hole in it, there are three ways to patch it. And they're all things that would work with a real boat. You just use your head and say, "What would I do with the material available to me in the real world-this tangible world we all know about-that would work?"
    Another prejudice: In Amazon, you can't solve your problems with violence. In general, as you go along, you'd better be more clever than violent.
    And another: The mazes in this game are only there for punitive reasons. I loathe mazes. I think they're a programmer's trick. They make the game slower and longer without being a very complicated programming task and not very interesting. If you make a mistake in Amazon-and it generally has to be a bad mistake-you get dumped in a maze.
    Crichton discovered something surprising along the way: There wasn't much difference between writing an adventure game and scripting a movie.
    Every consideration in making a movie is to try to see what the audience is thinking. Have I shown them this long enough? Did they get this point? Can they tell what this sound is?
    In writing an adventure game, those considerations are merely formalized, since the audience will in fact be literally responding. So 1 have to think, "If they're outside this door, what will they think? Will they be afraid to go in? What would a person do in this situation?"
    Here's what I found out early on: You can't have extremely varied choices that don't seem to matter. 1 can go north, south, east, or west, and who cares? You can only do that for a while, and then if you don't start to have an expectation of what will happen, you'll stop playing the game. You'd better get right going and you'd better start to have something happen.
    If I play a game for a half-hour and it doesn't make any sense to me, I'll just quit and never go back. Say I'm locked in this house and I don't know what the point of the house is and why I can't get out and there's no sort of hint to me about the mentality that would assist me in getting out-I don't know. I could say "Shazam!" or I could burn the house down or-give me a break. I just stop.
    Crichton, a professional storyteller, took tremendous care with the plot, the actual story line of Amazon. I think about a plot as being a story where you can imagine the consequences as you go. It's like the little guy who yells at the screen, "Look behind you, Hoppy!" You must know something the character doesn't. The audience has an expectation-if you go in this room, the bad guy will be there. That's plot.
    At a certain point in the process of designing Amazon-after all the material was generated, all the possible plot twists, and settings and characters were either accepted or rejected-Crichton started treating the game like a movie. He and his programmer and graphic designer collaborated like the creative and technical forces of a film crew collaborate.
    The game took 18 months from start to finish, perhaps a bit longer than most videogames, but as Crichton says, they were all learning. We're not a professional software company. We're just some people making a program.
    Trillium approached Crichton to acquire book rights about the time he was polishing Amazon. They came to me and said they wanted to do a series of adventure games based on novels and I said, "Guess what? I just finished one." It was absolute coincidence.
    Amazon has its share of bad guys, but they're generally human, unlike the high-tech villains in many of his other creations. Technology, though, is not the enemy. Crichton thinks that he may have been misunderstood in the past.
    Everyone remembers the scene in Westworld where Yul Brynner is a robot that runs amok. But there is a very specific scene where people discuss whether or not to shut down the resort. I think the movie was as much about that decision as anything. They just didn't think it was really going to happen.
    I don't see technology as being out there, doing bad things to us people, like we're inside the circle of covered wagons and technology is out there firing arrows at us. We're making the technology and it is a manifestation of how we think. To the extent that we think egotistically and irrationally and paranoically and foolishly, then we have technology that will give us nuclear winters or cars that won't brake. But that's because people didn't design them right.

esides characters and stories from books and movies, other famous personalities and trends have been incorporated into entertainment software.
    The recent awareness of breakdancing has spawned at least two computer games: Break Street, by Creative Software, and Breakdance, by Epyx. Both games feature breakdancers performing various steps, and allow you to choreograph your own dances or imitate routines already created.
    Epyx has also released three other programs based on famous faces. In Barbie, you can do the same things that young girls have done with Barbie dolls for 25 years: shop for or design clothes, style and color Barbie's hair, and dress her up. G. I. Joe, taken from the familiar child's toy, lets you select a battle situation and outfit your soldier to fight. And everyone gets to try for revenge on Mr. Hart in 9 To 5 Typing, a typing tutorial using characters from the movie 9 To 5.
    J.R. haters don't have to wait until Friday night to see their favorite villain. Datasoft's Dallas Quest, a text and graphics adventure, puts you in South Fork and pits you against the TV show's bad guys as you try to succeed in a dangerous task given to you by Sue Ellen. Datasoft has also recently released Conan, based on Arnold Schwartzenegger's musclebound hero, and Bruce Lee, based on the karate expert of film fame.
    Commodore and Marvel Adventures, along with the programming talent of Scott Adams, have designed an adventure game based on the television show The Hulk. The player controls the intellect of both Bruce Banner and his alter ego, the big green guy, as he struggles to unlock the riddle of the Chief Examiner.
    Cartoon characters continue to show up in games, too. Sierra On-Line, which brought you BC's Quest For Tires, has licensed some of Walt Disney's creations for use in educational software. Donald Duck's Playground helps develop money-handling skills, as well as shape, color, and letter-matching abilities. Mickey's Space Adventure promotes the development of mapping and problem-solving skills while teaching about the solar system. And Winnie The Pooh In The Hundred Acre Wood encourages good mapping and reading skills.
    Spy vs. Spy, the cartoon strip series from the pages of MAD magazine, is now a computer game, published by First Star Software. In it, the White Spy and the Black Spy play tricks on each other and oppose each other in competitive, humorous, and dangerous situations.

big name doesn't guarantee a superior game, but it may improve sales. And when a personality doesn't just endorse a product, but is actually involved in its design and production, you've probably got a better than average program-if the individual was working within his or her own area of expertise.
    Filmmakers and play producers try to get "names" for their shows, not only because they'll draw bigger crowds, but because, generally, that person had to evidence some talent to become a name in the first place.
    Will people buy software if a superstar was involved in its making? Does Michael Crichton think that his name will influence people to buy Amazon?
    "I don't know. What do you think?" he says. "I don't think it matters. I think what's important is that it's a good game."