A video game for an audience of one

(This year, I’m participating in The Pastry Box Project, a very cool joint blog; I’ll be doing six posts this year. My first went up this week, and here’s a copy of it!)

Two years ago I was trying to think of something to get for my wife for her birthday, and I was stuck. So I decided to go the “heartfelt” route and make her something by hand: The personal touch! But what would I make?

Well, I’m a big nerd from way back, and she’s also something of a nerd too. So I decided that I’d make her something peculiarly digital: A personalized video game.

I downloaded a copy of Inform 7, a free and easy-to-use app that lets anyone create “text adventure” games, where the player navigates a world of text by typing commands and reading descriptions of the rooms they enter (“Go west”; “open mailbox”). My wife and I are both in our 40s, so we’re old enough to remember the first-ever text-adventure games like “Zork”. I still enjoy the stark poetry of “Zork”’s opening scene:

West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

That scene always reminds me of the first few lines of Dante’s “Inferno”:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

I’m probably picking up these resonances because I’m middle-aged, so my grade-6 days playing “Zork” seem awfully far away now, while the cosmic midlife freakouts of the “Inferno” are a lot more proximal. But at any rate, I liked the idea of creating a little playable literary world to give to my wife, a sort of geeky love letter. I began plotting out a text adventure that was based in our years together, with a few dozens rooms and filled with detail and easter eggs (hidden stuff you have to discover inside a game) drawn from our shared experiences. It was fun and not terribly hard to do; I’d never created a text adventure before, but Inform 7 is reasonably straightforward. After several evenings of work, I had the game done, and on her birthday I loaded it onto her computer and explained what I’d done. I was half worried she’d think I was nuts, but to my great delight she loved it.

Here’s how the game opened up:

You wake up in your bed at home. The sun is coming in the windows, and you feel deeply rested. What time is it?

You roll over and grab your iphone, and holy moses — it’s 9:30 am on a Saturday! You hear a beep and look over at your sidetable, where you see an ipad.

Now, here’s the thing: That’s all you get to see.

I’m not going to show you any more.

And that’s because a game like this doesn’t quite behave the way games normally do.

Normally, games are a form of mass entertainment. They’re a one-to-many medium. A single entity — sometimes a big corporation, sometimes an indie creator working alone — creates what is (hopefully) a fiendishly fun system, and gamers try to master it, playing and replaying it again, slowly getting better and better, as with Call of Duty or Candy Crush. With games like this, the designers want as many people as possible to play their titles, of course. The more people they get hooked, the more money they make.

In recent years we’ve seen the rise of something different: Artistic games, where the designers are aiming to create an expressive act. They’re trying to evoke an emotion or a mood, or to make a point. (A superb example of this sort of art game is Jason Rohrer’s “Passage”.) These games aren’t designed to get you addicted, seducing you into playing them over and over again. If you run through “Passage” two or three times, you’ll understand the message and experience Rohrer is trying to communicate, and you probably won’t need to play it any more. Artistic games turn the genre into something that’s more obviously a speech act — games and their rulesets as a way of talking about the world. (The scholar and game designer Ian Bogost calls this “procedural rhetoric”.) Nonetheless, these art games share one thing in common with Call of Duty or Candy Crush: They’re still a one-to-many medium. The game designer creates the experience, hoping that many people will play it, much as a poet writes a poem hoping that many people will read it. The game is made for an audience of many.

The game I made for my wife is something rather different. It was a game made for an audience of one.

The reason I’m not showing you the whole game is for the same reasons we don’t show our love letters to the public. They’re private communications, composed with a single person in mind. Indeed, even if I did put my game online for everyone to play, it wouldn’t make any sense. None of the objects inside the rooms have any meaning to anyone but my wife and I. They’re a rumination on our shared experiences, so if you didn’t experience them, they won’t make much sense. My wife enjoyed the game (thank god) and found it meaningful; you’d find it boring gibberish.

All of which makes me realize that the evolution of games as a medium might be entering a very cool and strange phase.

Every year there are more tools for authoring games, ranging from things like Inform 7 to Scratch or Stencyl. They’re still kludgy, but getting simpler all the time. They remind me of early-stage word-processors in the 70s or 80s. Those tools deindustrialized typography, making it possible for an individual to dash off a document that had a level of formatting previously only available to those who owned a printed press. As games become easier and quicker to make, they enter similarly new expressive territory. A tool like Inform 7 deindustrializes the making of games. And when a medium is deindustrialized, it always get wilder and weirder. Once millions of people can mess around with it, they inevitably do things that are far more diverse and crazy and unexpected than when the medium was in the hands of only a few huge corporations.

We can now start thinking about dashing off a game as a way to joke with a close friend, to invite someone to a party, or maybe to apologize to someone you’ve treated poorly. Games become something you can create for an audience of one.

If you made a game for one person, what would it be like?

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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