Vol.32 No.2 May 1998
An Interview with Douglas Adams
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Douglas Adams recently, and this issue’s Artist’s View column consists of lightly edited extracts from the discussion where he shared his thoughts on a wide range of topics pertinent to readers of Computer Graphics. Douglas is the best-selling author of a number of phenomenally successful books, including the Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Dirk Gently series -- the former was also a successful radio and television series, and is currently in the process of making its way to the big screen. He is founding partner and chief fantasist of The Digital Village (TDV), a software multimedia company based in England. One of his and TDV’s latest productions is Starship Titanic, released April 1998.
I thank Douglas and Sophie Astin for taking the time to make this happen.
(G)ordon: When you originally wrote Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy (HH), what kind of world did you envisage we would be living in today? Have things turned out the way you expected, especially with regards to technology?
(D)ouglas: HH was never really intended as a piece of predictive science fiction. Rather, the technology was there as a narrative device. I never really had any intention of predicting what the future might be like, and with the exception of the guide itself, nothing else is really set in “the future,” as it were. It is perhaps surprising that it is almost possible to have guide technology nowadays, however.
G: The HH books have an enormous following amongst the on-line community -- why do you think this is the case?
D: I think it’s a fairly natural thing -- a lot of those people interested in science fiction tend to be early adopters of new technology, and are also interested in the Internet -- such people tend to be there with the first splash of enthusiasm.
G: Would you consider doing an on-line, electronic publication -- perhaps “multimedia-enriched” in some way?
D: Yes! I have thought a great deal about venturing on-line with a novel. People shouldn’t think of the novel in a “sacred” way. By way of analogy -- with the advent of the car, which essentially replaced the horse as a means of transport, things didn’t get “worse,” only different. Similarly, when the book and printing press came along, communication didn’t die, only changed. Things will change again with the next step of on-line publishing.
The real obstacle to on-line publishing is the display technology -- resolution. People don’t want to read on a computer screen given the choice of having something on paper. In addition, computers and their displays are too clunky -- you just can’t take them into the bath or carry them around easily!
The majority of monitor screens today have an extremely low dot pitch resolution, whereas the printed page has a very high dpi. The latest Apple Newton has a dpi of 100, is backlit, and already that is making a big difference -- even “real” books don’t have the backlit feature! When displays start having a dpi of around 200, then things will become really useful.
Books are good, but they do have many negative aspects -- so much wasted paper, for example. There is no religious reason to stick with paper books, and we shouldn’t necessarily try and replicate printed book metaphors on the computer. The medium should stand on its own. For example, it’s not clear to me that a page turning metaphor is all that useful, even if it is familiar. Going back to the horse/car analogy, when the car replaced the horse, there was no need to support the “stirrup and reins” feature in the car!
G: A while back, you worked with the people at Infocom to produce a text adventure based on the HH books (which I thoroughly enjoyed). Do you have any memories of your time there? Did you feel frustrated by what you couldn’t do with technology?
D: There was something curiously perfect about the Infocom games. The canvas was so small, there were so little technical resources at hand, and yet there was still so much that could be done with it. I’d like to go back and “redo” the HH game somehow -- what would be nice to do is to do another pure Infocom text adventure style game, updating aspects.....but I’m having difficulty persuading people that this is something that would be viable. People have grown so used to expecting amazing graphics, that I don’t know if there would still be an audience for a text-based adventure.
G: Which is a pity, given that these games were so rich in content compared to many of today’s offerings....
D: Yes. At the time, there most certainly was an audience -- around 350,000 sales of HH the game.
Another, perhaps more possible idea, would be to have a new version of the HH game, for example, as a sort of “illuminated manuscript,” with embedded multimedia objects that add to the overall story, rather than acting as distractions. Sounds like that would be a good idea! Harking back to the days of the monk and the manuscript.
G: What sort of games were you playing then...?
D: To be perfectly honest....Infocom adventures!
G: …and since?
D: Since then, I spent a long time not being interested in games -- the graphics were getting better, but not so good that things were believable enough -- they were just too clunky -- and too much gameplay was being sacrificed at the expense of taking advantage of this evolving technology. Then, suddenly, Myst caught my attention for its attention to detail. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but reminded me of the quote Alan Kay made of Apple, calling it “the first computer worth criticizing.” Myst was a game worth criticizing! Wonderful landscapes, and atmosphere, although the interaction was somewhat basic.
With Starship Titanic (ST) I wanted to push this even further -- with fantastic graphical imagery, but also concentrating on the interaction between computer and player -- the conversations can be had at great length.
In the Infocom games, we tried to incorporate user input into output with text. I wanted to take this a step further with ST -- we would have liked to have voice recognition working, but it is not quite there yet, so instead we have prerecorded around 16 hours of snippets which can be reconstructed on the fly. Voice actors were taken in and supplied their sound snippets. The result is that we have 10,000 response components, and this helps draw the player into the story.
I strongly disagree with the argument that interactive storytelling is an example of post-literate culture -- done well, interactive storytelling is still storytelling! It’s just another means of expression in which to relate to the audience.
G: Can you say a bit about how you have tried to make ST “feel” more like an interactive, inviting experience than other adventure games? How difficult was it to direct such an effort, and what difficulties did you face?
D: ST is not there yet, but we think that we have taken things further than they have been taken before. When we started on ST, we looked at what was already there, and the best were things such as the LucasArts titles. Even these looked not so good -- they were quite feeble in some ways. People hadn’t really got it -- it’s quite funny to imagine that pointing and clicking is a good way to interact and communicate with game characters -- clicking on a character and being told a list of things you can say to that character is not entirely natural.
We think we have solved the interaction problem, as we appreciated and understood from the beginning that the interaction problem was the important problem, rather than dealing with it as an afterthought.
G: What do you think of the future of the Web for on-line gaming ? Several on-line projects have suffered from interaction problems…
D: I think there are interesting possibilities. However, when planning for ST and looking out there -- the gameplay is essentially still a person working too much against the computer -- instead should have players playing other players using the computer as a medium.
For interaction on the Web to become feasible, and to be able to take and expand upon an ST-like experience, there is a need for much better connections, and lower latencies. T1 makes for an enormous difference, but we are not there yet.
G: I believe that you are familiar with the work of (and friendly with) the evolutionary zoologist Richard Dawkins. On a related note, how do you feel games can be made more intelligent by the use of “learning” agents, AI and artificial life (as witnessed in games such as Creatures). Will it be possible to have the computer convincingly act a paranoid Marvin? Should Richard enter the game business?
D: I’m really excited about the possibilities for artificial life...I was able to spend some time with Chris Langton at the Santa Fe Institute.
When I first saw the Creatures game, I was very excited! It was an interesting case of scaling down a problem to a meaningful size in order to come up with a solution -- even so, it still had a bit of story and history. When I saw it I thought, “Wow -- this might be the real thing.” I referred the Creatures people to Richard, and he came back saying “they’ve done it!.” It’s small beginnings, but may be the basis of something big.
G: At SIGGRAPH a couple of years back, you mentioned that we should exploit our limitations -- while we still have them. Can you elaborate on this remark? Are these limitations disappearing faster than possibilities expand, and who do you think are the people truly exploiting and pushing the boundaries?
D: I remember seeing something humorous recently -- something about people choreographing a ballet in space. I found this funny because as far as I can tell -- isn’t gravity the very thing that makes ballet work? It may be a limitation, but exploiting that limitation is the very thing that makes ballet.
Imagine if a sculptor were to say -- “it would be perfect if only I could get rid of the grain!” At some point, the medium needs to speak back to you, and call that a limitation if you will, but that’s where creativity occurs.
The best example I can think of is the classic Raiders of the Lost Ark scene. Harrison Ford gets ill during shooting -- he had a great long scene prepared involving a complex sword fight with one of the bad guys that ends up, of course, with the hero winning. The problem is -- Harrison is really ill, and so he sits down with the director and says, what about I just pull out my gun and shoot him? And that’s what happens -- you end up with Harrison Ford shooting the bad guy instead of having 10 minutes of sword fight. It’s one of the best moments of the movie, and yet it came from something completely unexpected and unplanned.
Another example -- I was recently speaking with George Martin (the music producer). With so much musical technology, artists have access to so many sounds and so many possibilities that they are not exploiting. Because there are so many more possibilities, people are being less adventurous. In the Beatles days, if they needed or wanted a certain sound, they would have to go out and find it!
Yes, it is more difficult with more limitations, but more creativity comes from the “bottom end” of the heap, where it is harder.
G: Are you still writing in the traditional sense, and what other projects are upcoming?
D: I’m actually very busy right now. I’m working on four fiction works in the coming year (one preliminarily entitled The Difference Engineer) -- so, yes, I’m still writing! And then there’s the movie of HH coming up, produced by Disney.
G: Will you have much input with the movie ....?
D: That’s the good thing -- I hope to be as involved as possible but ask me again in a year, and wish me luck!
G: In your opinion -- are computer games set to be the television of the next decade, making (twitching) couch potatoes of us anew, or do they instead open the door for the possibility of new forms of interactive storytelling?
D: Will computer games become the next TV? Actually, I don’t see this as a bad thing. The time has come for something different and more interactive. I heard of the three year old child who someone caught banging the television with a slipper and asking if this was all it did! Children expect more than “just” TV....
G: How do you see technology improving lives (if at all), and what can we do to make this happen more effectively?
D: As far as technology improving lives -- in itself, no, I don’t think so. Are people happier now than people were 50 or 500 years ago? Probably no. The sum total of happiness/unhappiness is probably unchanged. It’s an illusion that technology improves life. However, it does allow us to do more interesting things as time goes on -- now is an exciting time to live!
G: A last quick question -- how close do you think we are to having a “real” Hitch Hiker’s Guide?
D: The most important thing for the future is real, seamless connectivity. I want to have a little device that I can carry around in my pocket and not need to think about, and be able to ask it for information. Perhaps that’s not so far off after all!
G: Thank you for your time, Douglas, and good luck with your current and future projects...