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Video Games as Writing

Video games are written, before and during the coding process. They are, after all, stories — from the simple story of a hungry "Pac-Man" avoiding ghosts to the complex stories of modern massive(ly) multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). Yet, some of the aspiring game developers I've met don't quite appreciate how important storytelling is to game success. Blood and guts in high-def will only carry a game so far.

During my early years as a computer geek, I'd sit at my VIC-20 keyboard and create text-based adventure games in BASIC. I continued to do this well into college, because there is something about writing a text adventure that forces you to consider the storyline of a game carefully. While text adventures have declined in popularity, graphical first-person games are still constructed as stories beneath the fancy rendering.

The tool I've used in the classroom to teach video game writing is Inform []. The Inform website has a great history of modern interactive fiction [] (IF), which is the foundation for gaming. There is also a good Wikipedia entry on the topic of IF []. There are a handful of other IF writing tools, including TADS [] and ADRIFT [].

Students imagine you create a world, some simple rules, and then let people play a game. They don't always realize the complex storylines behind the games they enjoy. Teaching students the art of creating IF leads them towards appreciating the storytelling aspect of game creation.

Another benefit of teaching students to create IF is that they learn about programming, without always realizing how much they are learning. Some IF systems are more "natural language" than others, but they all require programming skills.

I wish more teachers would embrace IF. For a few years, it seemed that interactive stories would gain in popularity. The classic "Zork" certainly was popular with many teachers and students when I was in college. But, the trend faded quickly. That's a shame. Maybe we can revive this useful art.
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