This month, The Pandora Directive will be released by Access Software. Like Under a Killing Moon I and II, The Pandora Directive marks an innovative step in the creation of compact discs. Writing for the new media took a colossal leap with the creation of Under A Killing Moon. Prior to its release, the content of CD's consisted principally in music, games for children and youth and educational resources. UKM was a phenomonal success, so much so, that a second disc using the same characters and time period was developed and released. Aaron Conners, our guest this month, was the writer for the all three projects.
It is a real treat for me to introduce him to you. Aaron has some valuable and fascinating things to say about writing for the new media. I have asked him to talk about how Under The Killing Moon came to be. Welcome, Aaron. We're delighted to have you.
GS: Chris Jones at Access said he wanted Under A Killing Moon to be something entirely new, a hybrid not unlike a game, but containing many of the qualities of a movie. Being there to officiate at the delivery must have been quite a trip. What was it like? And what were some of the considerations that you had to face?
AC: Chris had been designing 'games' for years. His interests had always been geared toward movies, but the technology wouldn't allow him to create what he wanted. When the technology finally arrived, he was extremely keen on synthesizing the gaming aspects he'd developed into a movie-like presentation. The problem was the absence of a blueprint--no one had ever really done it before. The end result was a long and demanding process that took two and half years from start to finish. Under a Killing Moon went through literally scores of overhauls before we felt we had a manageable project. It was all very exciting and, when we finished, we felt like we had taken a giant step in a new direction. Of course, there was room for considerable improvement, both in the integration of game and movie elements, as well production values, quality of writing, etc.
GS: Since Under A Killing Moon was the very first movie to be produced on disc and was such an innovative project, what were your objectives in creating it?
AC: From a design standpoint, we wanted to make the players feel like they had entered a 'virtual world,' where they could get inside the head of this Tex Murphy character and experience his world. We wanted to make the environment as 'rich' as the technological constraints would allow us. In other words, we wanted the characters in the virtual world to be as deep as possible, with real personalities, not just spewing information needed to 'solve' the game. We also wanted to give the locations a realistic look, or at least as realistic as possible. We felt that if we made the environment appealing, players would have not only a good story to unravel, but also enjoy just looking around, seeing what there was to see and finding what there was to find. We also hoped to create characters that would be interesting and entertaining to talk to, and that players would go through all the possible conversations over and over, just to see what they had to say.
GS: That's a tall order. How did you visualize the concept of interaction with the user? In other words, how did you originally plan to combine a game and a movie and make it entertaining?
AC: Many films take the vantage point of the protagonist and, if the character and the story are compelling, we feel a closeness to him/her--we feel their sadness, anger, fear, etc. We wanted to take this a step further by having the players not only take the vantage point of the protagonist, but also give them extensive control over what the protagonist does. Through the players' ingenuity and cleverness, the protagonist moves through the plot. In this way, we hoped to give people a unique experience that was more than just a game or a movie.
GS: And the technology now permits the writer to do that. For traditional fiction writers, interactivity, or hypertext sounds like you might need to acquire a degree in computer science or engineering. Just how much technical background do you need to have in order to write for CD's? What was your background before K.M.?
AC: I would say that a knowledge of what is possible is useful to an interactive writer, but not necessary. The key to writing for interactive media is no different than writing for a film, a play, or a novel. In order to succeed, there must be a good story with good characterizations and interesting dialogue. My background is certainly not the stuff of legends. I went to college and earned a degree in English Literature because it was the only subject that interested me. I had no idea what I would do with the degree, but I figured I would end up teaching. As I was preparing to enter graduate school, I came to work at Access to do technical writing, proofing and press releases. A couple of years later, Chris Jones asked to me to help out on Amazon (the game released prior to Under a Killing Moon). He liked my worked and invited me to write a story for the next project.
GS: There must have been some surprises as you went into development. What were some of the unexpected things that happened when you began creating Under A Killing Moon that you hadn't met in writing for publication?
AC: I'd never really written anything that would prepare me for Under a Killing Moon. The biggest surprise (in retrospect) was the staggering amount of writing involved. Because the conversations were multi-level and branched into many directions, a single exchange between two characters would often consist of forty or more lines of dialogue. A single path through the conversation might reveal ten or twelve lines, but the other bits of dialogue still had to be there. When this 'extra' dialogue is multiplied by over 100 (which is how many interactive conversations there are in UKM), it really adds up. It was also a creative challenge to not only write that much dialogue, but also to write entertaining and/or interesting dialogue. I have to admit that when I finished the writing, I felt pretty spent for several months.
GS: Was it the same for the Pandora Directive? And what accomodations were made for that?
AC: Going into production for Pandora, we had many advantages and really only one disadvantage. The main advantage was that I'd gotten some experience under my belt. I knew my writing was stronger and tighter the second time around. Other advantages were that we knew the parameters from the start. There was no need for the trial and error involved with UKM. We knew how many characters we wanted, how long the story would be, etc. In other words, we knew what we were getting into. This was also the disadvantage. Everyone was burned out after 30 months on UKM. Just the prospect of putting together another UKM made us all sleepy.
GS: How do you compare writing interactive storylines to that of linear storytelling? How is it different and how is it the same?
AC: As I said, good writing is good writing. That's the key. As far as the differences, interactive writing offers both more opportunity and more challenge. Sheer volume is one consideration, but it's balanced by the chance to explore alternate paths. I'm sure most writers who've composed dialogue have come up with two great lines and had to choose between them. With interactive, you can offer both and allow the player to make the choice. It's the ability to let the player choose and 'steer' the characters and story that make this medium so exciting for me.
GS: For me as well. Aaron, when you set out to build an interactive CD, how did you see the structure? Of what importance was the character of Tex Murphy in adapting to the CD format? Where there "givens" you needed to work around?
AC: Having Tex as the protagonist was very helpful. The benefits were a pre-established setting, some history, etc. Luckily, the two early Tex adventures hadn't gone into a great deal of detail regarding Tex's background and personality. This gave me the opportunity to give Tex some depth. I decided to give him an ex-wife, which would lead to an innate conflict: fear of women balanced by a desire to be in a stable relationship. Chris Jones and I also wanted to make Tex the classic anti-hero--someone who succeeds despite himself. The last thing we wanted was a stereotypical superhuman hero. I think it's this vulnerability and normality of Tex that makes the character appealing.
GS: Under A Killing Moon I and II, and The Pandora Directive all have very strong story lines. What effect does that have on writing the game aspect of the project?
AC: Any detective-style story has game (or 'puzzle') elements to it. In the movie Chinatown, for example, the detective leaves two pocket watches under the tires of a car so he can go back to the scene and find out when the car was moved. In many cases, puzzle elements like these occur naturally in the telling of the story. Since we are making a game, however, we need to add many puzzle elements. Of course, we try to present locations and situations which are conducive to 'puzzles.'
GS: So in some ways, it's not so different. Just the techniques of delivery vary. Elements of storytelling like pace, timing and tension are significant in linear storytelling. How are they handled in non-linear stories?
AC: This is certainly the most difficult aspect of the interactive medium. In order to maintain movie-like pacing, either the players must make the 'right' choices which move them quickly through the story, or the designers must 'force' the players into making the right choices. This is a fine line because the promise of interactivity is freedom of choice. If the players don't choose the way the designers want them to, however, the pacing goes out the window. There is no ideal solution, but we've found that it works best to give as much freedom as possible wherever possible, but then to 'take over' at key junctures and propel the story ahead. While this doesn't make everyone happy, we've found it to be a reasonable compromise.
GS: Tex Murphy is a well defined character. How does the establishment of a single main character influence the story of an interactive piece?
AC: The great advantage to having a central and thoroughly developed character is nuance. If a main character is unfamiliar to the audience (or player), we have to explain what he or she is thinking and why. With Tex, we don't need to spend time exposing him to the audience. People who know Tex hear his first line and immediately put it into the context of who he is and what he's done.
GS: The normal configuration of a mystery consists in a "right" conclusion and a series of red herrings. Would you say that writing a mystery for IF has the same shape? Or is there a more open format?
AC: I've described what we do as 'virtual reality with a plot.' The very nature of a plot is that it has a logically developed storyline leading to a specific conclusion. I personally think that multiple endings bastardize a story. So even though Pandora has seven different endings, I feel like there's really only one true ending. This, of course, is only my opinion. I'm sure many people would have no problem with multiple endings, as long as they were satisfying and legitimate. And since this is an interactive format, practically anything is possible.
GS: How do you offer the viewer choices and lead them at the same time?
AC: Again, this is the most difficult aspect of designing an interactive piece. What we've leaned towards is providing extensive sections where players are free (within reason) to do what they want. Eventually, they will need to accomplish certain things in order to progress. One approach to creating tension and pacing is to incrementally reduce the extent of freedom offered as story elements come to a head. While some may view this as restrictive (or cheating), most people don't mind, since the plot is moving faster and things are--hopefully--getting more and more exciting. The majority of players seem to agree with us that limiting their freedom is an agreeable tradeoff for pacing and tension...provided that their prior choices have meaning, that they are still given some degree of control over the action, and that the payoff is worthwhile.
GS: The Pandora Directive CD is an adaptation from your novel, but the CD version has three narative paths and seven possible endings. This is quite different from the usual novel or the customary movie. How is that variation developed?
AC: The initial version of the plot is the one in the novel. When I wrote it, I gave no thought to puzzles, pathing, or game play. The 'pathing,' in fact, was not introduced into the project until well after the story had been established. What we did was sit down with the plot points and decide on possible variables. Eventually we decided to let the players 'customize' Tex. Many people who played UKM wanted to know if Tex and Chelsee would ever get together. In response, we made it a possibility. Some people wanted Tex to be more serious and 'noir.' In response, we provided the option to let Tex evolve into a two-fisted, bridge-burning bastard.
GS: Access Software has been able to attract fine actors like Margot Kidder, Brian Keith, Russell Means, Barry Corbin, Kevin McCarthy, Tanya Roberts and a director the calibre of Adrian Carr to participate in the creation of CD's. Providing a foundation of a great story is an open invitation for writers to seriously consider the medium. We owe you a debt of gratitude.
GS: Interactive Fiction is only just beginning to achieve recognition as a form of popular media, what can you say to writers wanting to write IF?
AC: I feel that interactive entertainment will someday coexist on the same level (both in quality and popularity) as television and cinema. Once upon a time, people believed that movies would never compete with classical theater. A few years later, television came along and people said it didn't stand a chance of being as popular as the cinema. Interactive entertainment is going through the same process. While some reviews of Pandora have actually compared us favorably to the other mediums, most do not. Some even add that it will never happen. I couldn't disagree more. I honestly believe that--for writers as much as for anyone else--this is a new frontier, full of opportunity and potential. copyright 1996 Gloria Stern