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Actors in Text Games, Part One
June 24th, 2008 by Ice Cream Jonsey

When I made A Crimson Spring, I was learning a new IF programming language, drawing comic book-style art after a lengthy layoff, getting music integrated, and displaying graphics. I didn’t have nearly enough time to get all that stuff presented professionally before the 2000 Competition deadline.

So when it was time to make the next game, I decided to use actors and eliminate music. I had learned how to use Photoshop a few years earlier when I was working as a printer driver tester at Xerox. I was just basically hitting a print icon over and over, so there was, ah, a lot of downtime.  I knew I wanted the graphics to reflect the distorted reality of the protagonist (Delarion Yar, in the game Fallacy of Dawn) and the effects that Photoshop came with were pretty good for this goal.

I did not have a digital camera in 2000. I bought a scanner for A Crimson Spring and that was the extent of how futuristic I felt like getting, so for FoD, I just used a regular 35mm camera for photos. It was about December of 2000 when I started taking pictures, and it was snowing, so that is why Fallacy of Dawn is set in the winter. (The game’s design doc says that it takes place on December 26th, 2014, a Friday. I think I picked that day and then forgot about it while developing, since nobody asks anyone else what they got for Christmas. Presumably because nobody cares enough to give presents? An unintended side effect of a dystopian future!)

But I also needed someone to play Delarion, someone who I saw all the time and who would put up with the enormous hassle of being told things like, “wear this shirt and sometimes hold a fake, orange gun up to the camera.” This person became my brother Michael, since I was living with him at the time in Fort Collins.

It actually annoyed the hell out of him, too. But he was also very, very patient with me, and very forgiving. The shirt I used was a Cafe Press-printed, long-sleeved shirt with an “Old Man Murray” logo on the front. The cut of the thing is just crazy, quite billowy, and it really does seem more like pajamas than anything else. To this day I am not 100% certain that my brother knows what the game was about. But with someone you are very familiar with, it’s pretty easy to set up scenes and go on location and get the shots you need.

I also enlisted the help of several friends that dropped by our townhouse. It has been my experience that people are glad to help you the first time you ask them to act in a video game, the trick is to just not make it take multiple sessions, where you are dragging them back and making the process tedious. This is somewhat problematic due to how I put together the plot for my games – I essentially have an outline of the various scenes, and the bare minimum of what needs to be said or communicated to advance the plot. I leave myself a lot of room for how the scene develops, because I can’t stand looking at a batch of strict requirements and then having to creatively write to it. So with IF, I just jot stuff down like, “at the end, the player must have a piece of paper that says THIS IS A CLUE.” I try to develop a couple ways (at least for my current work-in-progress) for the player to arrive there. Of course, I find that 90% choose the same way when there are options, but what the heck.

Anyway, this does sort of leave game photos and the state of the plot at odds. It’s difficult to tell a potential actor that you want them to investigate a dead body in a very specific way, weep openly at someone very close to the PC dying, and to then eat some Ice Cream Cones cereal… when the programmer only has “FRIEND DIES, FUNERAL IS ONE WHERE YOU EAT AT” written down in his design document. Oh, and the friend hasn’t been cast yet.

So I try to take lots of shots of locations – those are easy to get, easy to manipulate, and you do not have to worry about someone looking fat when it’s just a brick wall with a mud splatter on it.  There is also a fine tradition of first person shooters giving you a first-person perspective of the action.

I have many more friends that live outside of Colorado than within, so this also has me writing text files for potential actors and actresses, with the best approximation of scene descriptions at a given time. The longer I wait to send those out, the more in-step the pictures are with the game, but when I close out a given room, I like to have the pictures completely taken care of. I find that my memory gets poor the longer I am away from a room or scene, so I am somewhat reluctant to go back and integrate a late batch of pics. It’s a juggling act, I guess.

I did finally get a digital camera. Well, Dayna has one, so I just borrow hers. It’s nice, it shoots up to something like 2,000 pixels by 2,000 pixels. While I eventually bring the graphics down to a 600 pixel-wide rectangle, I need a lot of source material to get the effects right. But while in Vegas last year I had a chance to take some photos with Jason Scott’s freaking uber-camera, while shooting Jon Blask for the next game. That was an absolutely amazing piece of modern technology. The difference between our Canon A60 and that was much more dramatic than I had thought. Which is a bit unfortunate, as I really, truly do not need to add photography to the list of hobbies and interests I have going. I totally can’t EVEN afford to, and I am sure I will convince myself that it’s “just one camera, that’s just one thing!!” before I tackle the next graphical adventure, because I have unbelievably poor impulse control and a crippling case of the gimmie-gimmies.

OK, for part two I will try to link some specifics between what I scribbled down in a game’s design doc, and the actual photo taken.  


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