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Memories Of Memories - A Conversation With Michael Bywater
I was a bit nervous when it came down to interviewing Michael
Bywater. After all we are talking about THE Michael Bywater.
Accomplished writer of numerous books, long-time friend of the
late Douglas Adams (Michael was even the inspiration for Douglas'
Dirk Gently character), a regular columnist for "The Independent
on Sunday", and contributing editor for iconic "Punch"
magazine. He wrote for, to only name a few, "The Observer",
"The Times", "Cosmopolitan" and the "Daily
Telegraph", is a regular broadcaster for the BBC and certainly
no stranger to computer gaming.
only did he happen to write my all-time favourite Magnetic Scrolls
game, but was also involved in the making of such great gaming
experiences as Infocom's "Bureaucracy" and "Hitchhiker's
Guide to the Galaxy", or Douglas Adams' "Starship
to say my excitement knew no boundaries when Michael agreed
to do an interview for the Magnetic Scrolls Chronicles. On the
following pages, you, gentle reader, will learn everything Michael
has to say about his time working for Magnetic Scrolls, the
writing process of their third game "Jinxter" and
his thoughts on interactive fiction in general.
first of all let me thank you for taking the time to do this
interview. Before we start revisiting your time at Magnetic
Scrolls, is there anything you'd like to say?
Certainly is. What I want to say is this all took place over
twenty years ago and the actual Magnetic Scrolls bit was a small
part of my life, so memory may be inaccurate. Inaccurate memory
usually works in one's favour, of course. But it's still inaccurate
so take what follows as memories of memories and not necessarily
to fill people in who are not familiar with your work - can
you talk a little about what you did in the times before Magnetic
There was not really a time "before" and "after"
Magnetic Scrolls. It was something I did a bit of, largely for
fun and because I think we all thought then that interactive
fiction (IF) was a new sort of literary form which would get
bigger and bigger. It didn't. Which I think was a shame. I could
go into why I think it didn't take off as we all expected, but
that would take hours and hours and probably would interest
nobody but myself.
a few thoughts from you on the matter would be really interesting
I think IF didn't take off as I expected it would -- as a
lot of people expected it would -- largely because it was superseded
by the lure of graphics. I don't know whether it was because
people bought more graphics games, or because the IF companies
thought more people would buy graphics-driven games;
but like anything else, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
There were all sorts of peripheral things involved, like the
unstoppable rise of the games consoles etc, but the primary
reason, I'm sure, was that as PCs became more powerful and graphic
complexity became more feasible, people felt the need to use
that power and complexity. Feature bloat at the expense of narrative
subtlety (but the narratology of IF is another story altogether).
Bywater in 1999 (photo taken by Nigel
Spalding and used with kind permission)
was sleeping with the boss. No;
there is still a small but thriving, non-commercial IF-community
out there that churns out quite good games now and again. Did
you ever check out any of the recent IF?
Not really. I've been rather out of that world for
a long time now, but I'm thinking of dipping a toe back into
I think the problem with IF, apart from the
fact that the average gamer seems to prefer graphics and whizz-bang
special effects, is that it imposes all sorts of narrative essentials
on the writer. Primarily I think the idea of the puzzle-based
narrative is a big limitation but I can't see in general how
to overcome that. See, with ordinary linear paper-based narrative
- fiction or non-fiction - the author can propel the thing along,
keep the reader turning the page, by a whole lot of little tricks
we all learn at mother's knee. In IF the reader/player expects
to be invited to interrupt the narrative at regular intervals.
That means puzzles, until such time as we have a much more sophisticated
game engine running underneath. You can fudge the business of
NPCs acting independently; you can make something that looks
as if the player is able to interrogate NPCs (as in the Infocom
detective-style IF); but it's not really convincing. I think
Starship Titanic was an example of a game which was graphic-based
in look but IF in feel and we totally overshot the mark. We
kept thinking "We have to move beyond Magnetic Scrolls
and Infocom" which was fine, but we then went on to think
which means bigger, better, more complicated puzzles"
which wasn't fine at all.
said that, one of my next projects has got me interested in
IF all over again and I've been trying some things out in Inform,
which (if anyone doesn't know this already) is a wonderful IF
authoring system that works in pretty much natural language
and I wish we'd had it around years ago. This project, about
which I can't say too much obviously, is perfectly-suited to
IF. The paper text is sort of puzzle-based; its primary attraction
is the world in which it's set (which is very strange but only
when you look closely); and the puzzles don't involve NPC interaction.
So it suits IF well.
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