The perfect computer game
From games of old to speculation on games yet to unfold
by Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card is the author of Ender's Game, which won the 1985 Nebula and 1986 Hugo awards. It was followed by Speaker for the Dead, which won the 1986 Nebula and 1987 Hugo awards. Card's interest in computers and computer games is very evident in these books. Card is currently working on a series of novels called The Tales of Alvin Maker. The first book in the series, Seventh Son, was released last July. The second, Red Prophet, will appear this spring. Card lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife and three children.
You remember Pong, don't you? This was back in the mid-70s, so some of you were still ankle-biters—but you old people, now in your late twenties and thirties, you remember.
You put a quarter in, you and a friend each grab a dial, and you control your paddle as you volley a little square "ball" back and forth across a screen.
Hard to imagine now, of course, but at the time it was an extraordinarily captivating game. A quick, exciting contest you could play with a twist of the wrist. No chasing a runaway ball. Ping-Pong for couch potatoes.
It was just the beginning. Breakout was a quantum leap forward—though it achieved "color" with cellophane strips across the screen! There were race-car games. Falling dominos. A bunch of extraterrestrial morons marching downward to destroy us in Space Invaders. Then Asteroids, which for the first time gave us complete freedom of motion, as we blasted and dodged our way through a devilishly crowded outer space.
What was their magic, that they sucked us in? They were electronic pinball machines: we didn't so much play them as they played us. It's like we were paying a quarter for the privilege of having a machine teach us how to catch little cathode-ray dots, just the way pinball players get trained to flip the paddles without stopping to think. Thinking is too slow for games like that. You have to train your reflexes to play the game without your mind hooked in.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not criticizing those early games at all—or pinball, for that matter. I'm an avid pinball player precisely because of that rhythmic, powerful, mindless involvement. Ritual of that sort is a vital part of all games, and the early video games were a hypnotic new way of losing yourself in the game. I remember playing Breakout so long that the angular movements of the "ball" would continue to replay themselves inside my head whenever I wasn't paying attention to anything else. And swarms of Asteroids kept homing in on me when I closed my eyes after an hours-long marathon.
Not everyone likes to end up in a hypnotic trance, however, and the second generation of video games introduced a whole new angle. Pac-Man's idiotic chomping, pursued by colorful ghosts, opened up whole new worlds of cuteness. Donkey Kong was even cuter, but then more serious games like Venture and the marvelous Joust proved that video games might actually grow up into a serious kind of storytelling.
It wasn't just a matter of getting better graphics, but better graphics made it possible. Video games could now tell stories whose flow wasn't absolutely predetermined by the design of the game.
In all the previous video games, you took whatever the game threw at you and dealt with it as best you could. But in Venture, you could choose which dungeon chamber you'd enter, and the open floor space allowed many routes to the treasures. In Dig-Dug, you made underground tunnels that determined the path your opponents would take.
It was no longer just a matter of letting the game train you. You had some freedom of choice.
The game played differently with different players. You could play with style. You became, to a small degree, both an actor in the story and co-author of the script.
Another important result of improved graphics was that gamewrights were creating interesting worlds. In Joust, you could actually ride a flying ostrich over and under islands floating in the air. In Crystal Castles, it seemed there was no end to the deep array of three-dimensional mazes. It was worth playing a game just to explore, to see what came next.
The ritual element of game-playing was still strong in the best of these games—you had to be quick and smart (and, I began to think, it didn't hurt if you also happened to be 12 years old) to find out what was around the next corner. But with more realistic animation, more freedom of action, and increasingly deep and interesting worlds to explore, video games were becoming more like stories.
Playing a video game was getting to be just a little bit like improvising a part in a play. There was a glimmer of a possibility that this stuff might actually become creative. An art.
Bringing the games home
But there remained—and remains—one barrier that arcade games just can't get past: they have to make money. And the way they make money is to take your quarter and kill you off as quickly as possible, while still enticing you to play again.
If you could play for hours on a single quarter, the arcade would lose money. If, to play for hours, you had to keep pumping in the quarters, the arcade would get rich.
One strategy, of course, is to get you to put in quarters in mid-game and continue playing from where you were. That was fine in Dig-Dug and Ghosts and Goblins, but immediate death still loomed over you.
Fortunately, there's a place where you can stay for hours and hours without putting quarters into machines: home. (You have to pay rent, but that doesn't count.) And more and more homes began to have machines in them that could also be used to play games.
In fact, many home computers were bought in order to play games. I know that's why my first Atari 400 found its way into my house, back when it cost $600 just to set up the system with a cassette player and 48K of RAM. I bought every cartridge, then upgraded to an 800 with a disk drive—at a cost of more than $2,000—in order to play disk-based games.
And I couldn't even pretend I was buying these machines for work. All my word processing was on a Z-80 Altos. My Atari was there because of the worlds it promised to me, the stories I knew it could tell.
I wasn't the only one. Admit it. There are a lot of you out there with STs right now, who started out with 8-bit machines like I did, and even though you told your parents or your spouse or your friends or the dealer in the store that you were getting the machine to do your taxes or write letters or keep your mailing list or balance your checkbook, nobody was fooled.
Heck, maybe you actually did those things. Maybe you keep the grandma of all databases on your ST. Maybe you've got the Great American Novel asleep in the megabits of RAM. But you know and I know that your ST isn't really alive unless it's playing a game.
And at home, you can play forever. Time is no longer a limit on the game. Gamewrights don't have to try to kill you off as quickly as possible. They can create games that are thoughtful, games that have limitless possibilities, games in which you stay alive for hours, days, weeks. Games that you don't just play—you live them.
One kind of game has never been in the arcade: the text adventure. Since the early days of Adventure, as thousands of players figured out that you have to bring the bird and turn it loose to frighten away the huge serpent, text games have posed us with puzzles that took many frustrating, wonderful hours to solve.
The puzzle is the third aspect of game-playing, after ritual and story, and while it has had a minor role in arcade games, the puzzle has always been at the heart of text adventures.
Text adventures rarely attempted to use computer graphics at all. By using words, far more complex and detailed worlds could be created in limited memory.
Where Scott Adams's pioneering BASIC adventures tended to focus almost entirely on puzzles, which had to be solved in a particular order, Infocom virtually reinvented the text adventure, not just because their parser could handle something closer to English, but because their worlds could be explored in almost any order. The player was in charge of far more than in most text adventures.
Infocom has brought us, step by step, to amazingly deep games that can be explored almost at will.
Is the game a story?
But when they call their games "interactive fiction," is it true? Are these games the real computer storytellers?
I don't think so. Since every possible outcome of every possible situation must be expressed in language that must be programmed in the computer from the beginning, there is a limit to the number of possible endings to the story.
Now, this is hardly a drawback to calling it fiction, is it? After all, the average novel has only one outcome, and nobody complains about that. (We may complain about what the ending was, but not that it had just one.)
But the computer game and printed fiction are two different arts, with different strengths and weaknesses. While the reader can't choose what should happen next in traditional fiction, can't even decide the order in which things happen, there is a feeling of truth.
Yes, truth. Even though fiction is designed to be lies, we still think of what "really" happened in our favorite books, and resent it when the movie version changes them. There's one true story. It isn't negotiable.
The strength of the computer text adventure is that the story is negotiable. The weakness is that it isn't as real. There's no "true" version.
To put it another way, while it is very important that Frodo threw the One Ring into the cracks of doom in Lord of the Rings, it is not all that important that Fred Bliss in Piskatoxee, Arkansas finally got the last of the clues to allow him to get into the hidden final room in Dog Star Adventure.
And that's fine. Computer games aren't books, and books aren't computer games. Computer games don't get "better" the more closely they resemble books. They get better the more fully they exploit the possibilities of computers.
The perfect computer game
Text adventures are terrific, but they're a dead end. They can't get any realer than they are. There's a limit to what words can do.
In the days when 48K and a single disk with less than 100K of storage and four colors on the screen at a time meant you had the best home computer, text adventures could make much better and realer worlds than graphics games.
But that just ain't so anymore.
Computers are finally getting so much speed, so much RAM, so much fast disk space, so many on-screen colors, that realistic animation and vivid settings are not only possible, they're almost common-place.
And you're reading this magazine because you own—or wish you owned—one of the best graphics machines, period.
There are brilliant games in your ST just waiting to get out.
I'm not going to point to games on the market right now. Few games have yet appeared that really use the power of the ST—most are designed first for other, lesser machines, then ported over, almost guaranteeing that the ST's power will go largely unused. Of those actually designed for the ST, those I've seen are still pretty much in the stage of trying to dazzle us with the machine's tricks instead of coming up with any great depth of gamemaking. Besides, by the time this issue comes out, there'll be better ones available than any I could name right now.
What I'll do is point in the direction that games can, should and must go. Judge for yourself which games come closest to measuring up.
A world you can live in
The perfect computer game will have a real world. Like the best stories, the hero—the player—won't come out of nowhere, riding on his charger, to have a couple of adventures and then split. Instead the hero of the perfect game is closely involved in the world around him. He has jobs to do. He has limitations.
The perfect computer game will have a wide world. You can explore for hours, just going here and there, and still not discover the limits. There are towns or planets or castles or caves that you will not discover until the tenth time, the hundredth hour that you play.
In fact, the perfect game will be capable of generating new worlds, so that it will be impossible ever to run out of new places to explore.
The perfect computer game will have a deep world. The hero won't be the only human being in it. There will be other characters that he has to talk to, query, help, fight, or simply enjoy. And they won't be cardboard characters who have only one thing to say, who always stay in the same place; they will be living their own lives, going from place to place on their own schedules, and responding to the hero according to their own needs. In short, each character will be living out his own story, which will be different every time the game is played.
A moral dimension
The hero of the perfect computer game will have a soul: the soul of the player. While there will certainly be built-in puzzles and challenges, and the player will have to learn the rituals of play, the story itself will be an honest reflection of the player's own character.
Do you play violently? Then you'll find yourself surrounded by violent characters, both friends and foes. Do you want to settle down somewhere and simply live? Some adventures will come to you, yes, but you'll also have a chance to build something that lasts, have some achievements that don't involve killing people or getting treasures.
I'm not saying that find-the-treasure and kill-the-aliens games are somehow bad. Not at all. What I'm saying is that with virtually limitless memory and speed and graphics and sound, the perfect computer game should allow you to play it in many different ways, and respond to you according to the type of game that your own play determines.
You should be able to have a completely different playing experience than anyone else. Like the best stories, the perfect computer game will help you better understand who you are. That's how the computer game will become ‘true,’ as the best fiction is true.
It takes a machine
Now that I've described such a game, is it really possible?
Yes, I think so. And it won't take a whole new kind of computer. The perfect computer game wasn't possible on an 8-bit Atari. It is possible, right now, today, on the ST.
Now, I'm not calling for perfect animation, Disney-quality figures moving around. Though I can envision the possibility of feature-length computer-generated animation that will be as realistic as real actors, that isn't what the home computer is for—that's the kind of thing somebody else will make and sell you on videotape.
The ST already has good enough animation to give you a player-figure and a marvelous world, not photographically realistic, but close enough that it makes no difference. It will be marvelous to look at, and that's all that's really required.
What the memory and ever-growing disk capacity should provide is not over-done graphics, but something more for the graphics to be about. More things to do. More people to meet. More places to go. Broader, deeper, realer worlds.
And above all, more possible responses to your character as you play.
There is one piece of hardware that no game has yet used that will make a difference, though: the compact laser disc. If all the graphics images for each part of the world, if all the basic data for hundreds of characters, if all the facts and puzzles and possibilities were dumped willy-nilly onto a compact disc, there'd still be room left over for even more imagination. The gamewright would have, at last, no limit to the depth and breadth of his world. (And, with the perfect game to sell it, the computer-laser interface would be commercially worth producing—cheaply.)
Then your regular read-write disk would be used for storing only the information you generate in the course of a game—a complete history of all your actions, for instance.
Imagine that: playing a magnificent game, and then giving the computer a command that plays the whole thing back, like a movie, like a story, so you can watch the adventure that you helped the game-wright create.
What took you hundreds of hours to play might take only a few hours to replay—a full-length feature film.
At last the collaboration between game-wright and player would be complete. The gamewright would truly have prepared a vast movie set, with other actors and thousands of extras, hundreds of places you can go; and then, using the world he has created for you, you will tell your own story.
And if you think you have a terrific game, you could make copies of your game disk and pass them around. Upload them onto Delphi or other on-line networks. Since a laser-disc-based game has built-in copy protection, there'd be no limit to the copies you could make of the record of your own play. Instead of playing once and having nobody else see what you achieved, you could have an audience. You could be a true artist, a performer; the Olivier or Hepburn of the perfect game.
The serpent in paradise
Yeah, that all sounds great. But the fact is, once the perfect game is made, we're quickly going to discover that not everybody is a perfect player.
The way games are now, either you achieve the goal or you don't. Either you win or you die.
But in the perfect game, there'll be many, many ways to win. Many lives to live. While the game you play back when you're through may be rich with fascinating, important adventures, it may also be unspeakably repetitive or dull.
All these years you've been playing computer games and reading reviews of them. And you've loved it when some incompetent game designer got sliced to ribbons by a clever, merciless critic.
But now, as you take your place as a player of the perfect computer game, offering your game for others to see, the reviewers wouldn't just review the game- wright's work.
In fact, I'll almost certainly be one of the critics. I just can't wait to watch you play.