June 29th, 2010

I try to combat the natural tendency to deny one’s mortality. I sometimes ask myself, “What would happen if I were to die tomorrow? Am I ready?” I have a pair of vases that I use to remind myself that my days are not limitless:

I have had these jars for nearly ten years. There are exactly 3652 beads of each color: one for each day of a decade. The yellow beads at the bottom of the larger vase represent my first ten years of life; the black beads represent my teen years; green for my twenties, orange for my thirties, blue for my forties, and red for my fifties. Yes, the blue layer is very thin but that’s because the vase is wider where the blue beads are. In the smaller vase, the yellow beads represent my sixties and the orange beads represent my seventies. I figure that I shall be productive until my 80th birthday. Therefore, the beads in the smaller jar represent all the days that I have left to finish everything that I want to do in my life. Each morning, I take one bead from the smaller jar and place it in the larger jar, telling myself not to waste this day. As you can see, I have already expended most of my beads; they are behind me. There aren’t that many beads left.

A few weeks ago, I placed the last red bead into the larger jar; I turned sixty years old. To me, that’s a major turning point. You can sweep your mortality under the rug for decades, but there’s something about the sixtieth birthday that makes one’s mortality undeniable. That birthday really drives home the point: you are now an old man. You will be facing death someday. You can no longer ignore it.

I’ve always felt that the acid test of maturity is embracing your own mortality. Until you really know that you will die, you’re not yet a full-blown adult. I’ve really tried to drive that realization deep into my psyche, but I was still unprepared for my sixtieth birthday. Normally dates mean little to me; I recall going to bed at 11:00 PM on December 31st, 1999. I saw no need to stay up until midnight to welcome the new millennium. Dates like this are just numbers, arbitrary conventions without any true meaning. So it should be with a sixtieth birthday. But it wasn’t so for me.

I think that the reason my sixtieth birthday hit me so hard was the realization that I have not yet completed my life’s work: interactive storytelling. I was way ahead of everybody else on this. It was way back in 1983 that I realized that people, not things, were the fundamental element missing from games. I spent the next nine years trying to insinuate real characters into games, and while I made some progress, the games industry went in a completely different direction and I realized that I had to make a complete break with the games industry if I were to continue down the path I considered necessary.

In 1992 I dedicated myself to the task of making games that centered on character interaction. It was about then that I settled on the term “interactive storytelling” to describe my efforts. This was long before anybody else was thinking along such lines (although Brenda Laurel had speculated about drama in games a few years earlier). I remember how my friends in the games industry told me that I was absolutely crazy to pursue this line of development -- nobody was interested in stories in games. I know this is difficult to believe now that everybody is talking stories, but it really was the case that, in the early 90s, nobody thought that stories had any place in games. The biggest hit of that time was Doom, and the team that developed it had famously split apart over a dispute regarding the role of story. The winning faction insisted that “we don’t need no stinking story -- action is all that matters”. The rest of the games industry applauded their clarity of thinking. Stories were for wimps.

As the years rolled by, I pursued my lonely quest, picking up a few like-minded idealists along the way. With little financing, it was slow, painful going. We made a major push starting in 2007, but in the summer of 2009 it became clear that we had failed to garner any support. I put Storytron into a coma and contemplated my future.

Thus, when my sixtieth birthday struck, I found myself bereft of achievement in my most important undertaking. I have always felt a calm self-assurance that I am right, that I have developed ideas that would surely conquer the world if I only gave the world enough time to recognize them. My sixtieth birthday shouted loudly that my ideas had most definitely failed to conquer the world. It certainly looks as if I am a washed-up failure. I don’t really believe that -- I still believe that I’ve hit upon a solid approach to interactive storytelling and that someday the world will appreciate my work. But with each passing day the evidence of my failure mounts.

Let me tell you of an incident in 1960, when I was ten years old. I lived in a new suburb, and a few blocks away was an open area where the developers had piled up a mountain of dirt. It was perhaps 30 feet high and 150 feet long, tapering from its peak at one end down to the other end. One day the boys in our area fell into an impromptu “king of the mountain” game. It was a friendly fight with dirt clods as the weapons. Little boys can’t throw worth a damn, so nobody was risking injury; the worst that could happen was a clod actually hitting you and stinging a bit. At the beginning of the fight my team defended the mountain top against the invading team. I was the leader of my team and we fought well, but were outnumbered and slowly lost ground to the attackers. Eventually all my teammates were driven from the mountain, but I refused to accept defeat. I vividly recall being forced to retreat from the mountain top and descending to a natural redoubt about ten feet below the peak. From here I mounted a determined defense, fighting furiously against the enemy who surrounded me on three sides. The leader of the enemy team stood on the peak and rolled huge clods down at me. The odds were too great; I was driven off the mountain. I rallied my team and we began a systematic attack from the low end of the mountain. Bit by bit we edged forward, flanking the enemy in small steps and driving them back bit by bit. By the end of the day we had regained the mountain top. It was dinnertime, so everybody went home.

Since then I have never been daunted by huge odds against me; I have always known that I have whatever it takes to prevail in the end. I just have to accept some setbacks and a few stinging clods but keep at it, never giving up. But now, with the occasion of my sixtieth birthday, I seem to have been truly defeated. The clods are raining down from all sides; the fates are rolling huge boulder-clods down the mountainside at me. The day is late and dinnertime is nearly upon me.

For my sixtieth birthday, I promised myself this: I will take one last shot at it. I will build Le Morte D’Arthur. I may fail. But I will give it one last try. This will end with either an epic triumph or my acknowledgement that my life is a failure and I truly am a washed-up loser.

Postscript November 6th. Apparently somebody started talking about this essay on a website, because I got a flood of viewers over the last few days, as well as a number of emails from concerned well-wishers. Their emails gave me much to think about, and so I wrote this little piece to explain myself a bit more clearly:

I suppose that I should not be surprised at the reactions that the essay has generated. As with so many of my essays, I did not write it in anticipation of others’ reactions, I wrote it for myself, to clarify my own thinking by sorting it out on paper. The most abnormal aspect of my personality is apt to create confusion in the mind of the reader.

I do not consider myself particularly intelligent; I have known some real geniuses and the feeling of utter inferiority I feel in their presence drives home the mediocrity of my own intelligence. However, I do possess one personality trait that has been of great utility: absolute, brutal honesty. I never, ever, under any circumstances, succumb to the temptation to view the truth in terms amenable to my own well-being. That brutal honesty permits me to look myself in the eye and say, "The evidence strongly suggests that you will fail in your most important life goal." I can even contemplate the statement "I am a loser" with, well, maybe not equanimity, but without shrinking from it.

I owe this abnormal honesty to my father. From an early age his harshest criticisms of me were directed toward anything he perceived as conceit. At the same time he pushed all the children to strive hard to achieve whatever they sought: "You can accomplish anything you set your mind to" was a common refrain in our house. The combination of these two teachings impelled us all to grandiose aspirations and humble appreciations of our actual achievements. For me, this was especially tricky because I did seem to be accomplishing a great deal, but I concentrated my attentions on my deficiencies, not my trophies.

The value of this brutal honesty is negative: I’m not a genius, I just don’t make the stupid mistakes that most people make every day. It is difficult to appreciate just how much human dishonesty cripples human thought. Every day, we lie to ourselves hundreds of times, in ways both big and small. Lying to oneself is so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that few people notice it. It has taken me decades to appreciate just how deeply this evil has insinuated itself into our minds. Even after sixty years, I still find myself slipping; it’s a perennial fight to maintain even a modicum of personal integrity.

Brutal honesty has a nasty side effect: it’s nearly impossible to prevent it from seeping out onto other people, and they don’t like other people being brutally honest with them. Over the decades I have become better and better at translating my actual thinking into terms that other people won’t bridle at, but I have certainly rubbed many people the wrong way with my ferociously honest responses to them. It has taken me a long time to realize that I am talking not to ideally objective thinkers, but to Pleistocene hunter-gatherers trying their hardest to act like civilized people -- and only occasionally succeeding. I subject people to only the faintest glimmers of the brutality of my honesty, yet even that is enough to outrage many.

This essay was an exercise in brutal honesty. I had to admit to myself that I am failing in this most important of my aspirations. And it has led to a salubrious conclusion, one that I could not have reached without first admitting to myself the brutal truth of my failure. That conclusion is that I have to murder Storytron. Not just the company, but 18 years of work, two patents, several hundred thousand dollars, and the good-faith efforts of a number of people who trusted me. All this stuff – the software, the engine, the ideas – must be thrown away. That’s an immensely difficult thing to do, especially because there are some truly brilliant ideas in there: the Sappho scripting language, "bipolar arithmetic", Roles, Options, Inclinations, the magnificent debugging system that Facundo Dominguez devised, and so much more. It must all be trashed, and the abandoning all of that beautiful work takes determination, honesty, and humility. But it must be done, and I have gathered enough strength to do so.

This liberates me to consider other fundamental strategies for interactive storytelling. I know of three others, and I am now considering them. I already have my favorite, but I’m not going to rush into this. There are many profound questions I must answer about these strategies. I’ll be posting essays as I develop these new ideas. One must die before one can be reborn.

Anyway, there’s no cause for concern as to my well-being. I’ve been through the wringer before. This is my toughest ride yet, I confess, but I’m handling it. Indeed, I am already cooking up some interesting new ideas.

Followup: Sixty One