Interview with Hobbit designer Veronika Megler on Storytelling by Luke C. Jackson
In 2015, while undertaking a PhD in which I examined the role of a writer in creating narrative-driven games, I was fortunate enough to speak to four expert writers, each a pioneer in video game narrative design. One of these experts was Veronika M. Megler who, in her early twenties, was just about to graduate from a Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne when she was asked to co-write The Hobbit for developer Beam Software and publisher Melbourne House.
One of the first dungeon-crawlers, The Hobbit was a narratively ambitious title that would go on to sell more than a million copies, cementing its place in the early history of video games, and Megler’s place as a pioneering writer in what was then an emerging medium. In the intervening years, Megler has completed her PhD in Computer Science at Portland State University, working with Dr David Maier in the emerging field of “Smarter Planet” and big data. She now works for Amazon Web Services in the U.S. as a Senior Consultant in Big Data and Analytics. Her interests include applications of emerging technologies, big data and analytics, scientific information management and spatio-temporal data.
In this interview, Megler shared her views on what constitutes effective storytelling for games, and how she believes that narrative has changed over time. She also suggested ways that she thinks narrative might, and should, change to meet or exceed players’ expectations and to leverage changes in computer technology. Her comments are presented in abridged format, with answers related to my broader study removed for ease of understanding.
How did you get into the games industry, such as it was in Australia in the early 1980s?
It was completely by accident. I was a student at Melbourne University in the computer science department. I had started out headed for statistics and did some computer classes because I thought they would be useful for a statistician – ended up in computers. I had a part-time job that was not convenient and that I didn’t enjoy much, as a computer operator on nightshift, and was looking for something more interesting when I saw a small advertisement looking for some students to do some programming. So I replied, and met Fred Milgram. At the time, there wasn’t a games industry. There was a guy called Fred who thought it would be cool to write some games, in what he saw as a potential growth market. He hired me. I remember only a very short discussion before he gave me the very simple goal of, ‘Write the best adventure game ever’!
My experience up until that point was that I had played Space Invaders and Pong, the two big arcade games that they had in the student union building at Melbourne university. And I had played Classic Adventure: Colossal Cave on the Unix system at the university. It had ‘the Maze of twisty little passages’, and a dragon who sat on a pile of gold. There was a troll. It had a relatively straightforward map, and once you mapped it, that was it. And the instructions were all two-word: “Go West,” “Kill troll.” Very static. The troll didn’t move locations; the dragon was in one place and he did one thing.
The Hobbit is based upon one of the most well-known and well-loved fantasy novels ever written. How did you treat the source material during your own writing process?
I was very familiar with the book. I had read it multiple times. I went through the book sequentially and tried to figure out how to extract the map, how to capture the characters, which puzzles I was capable of coding with the technology at the time, and just really did it linearly. What makes a story compelling, for me, is when the characters and the situations they’re in connect with you in some deep way, and you begin to care. You become passionately interested in their lives and the choices they make, and the reasons for the choices they make.
The Hobbit – my adventure game – became a collection of characters who were each – I’m not sure I’d be so grand as to call it ‘each living out their own lives’, but each expressing their own character – and then those characters interacted in a particular way. We had the idea that the player was just another character. Just because the player isn’t doing anything right now doesn’t stop the other characters from playing the game, so the game would go off and play itself, even if you just sat there.
Back then, I was in way left-field. I was not developing games the way games get developed. I thought, ‘If I wanted to represent the character of the Hobbit, or a troll, or Gandalf, what would that look like?’ What set of behaviours would I create that would allow somebody to look at a character and say, “Yep, that’s Gandalf and that’s what Gandalf does!” even if Gandalf is in a situation he’s never been before. The characters were built on a fairly short line of behaviours that were generically applied to any object that happened to show up. Gandalf’s behaviours included: if there was another live animal in the room, saying something to it; picking up some random object in the room and putting it in his pocket; going someplace else; picking some random object from what he was carrying and dropping it somewhere, or giving it to some random animal that happened to be in the room, and then cycling back through. So it was a list of maybe 6, 8, 10 steps that he just continually cycled through.
I based the characters on those in the book, and then I just said, “You guys go off and you guys live your lives and do what you guys do, and see what happens next!” And I was like, “Wow, that’s interesting.” They are off living their life, and then suddenly a connection occurs – it inserts itself in your life where Gandalf runs into the room and he has a bag of stuff, but it’s completely different to the set of stuff he was carrying last time he walked into the room – and that is how you know that that person’s behaviour has been continuing even when you’re not present.
The Hobbit also became known for its non-traditional approach to problem-solving. How did you come up with this approach?
There’s a bunch of complexity research, complex systems research, and if you look for example at the incredible patterns that are made by flocks of birds, or flocks of fish, it turns out that there are two or three very simple underlying rules that get applied that create incredibly complex behaviour. The Hobbit was really that: I came up with a few very simple rules that I applied, and was then pleasantly surprised by the complexity of the behaviour of the system that I got back. I had a map that was not hardcoded, meaning that I could insert any map and create a different game’s setting by just replacing the map. Add a list of objects, a good randomizer, some characters and basic character behaviour together, and presto, you have a complex system.
I tried to build a model of the world where objects behaved the way they did in the world. The old games would task you with “Kill goblin” and if you had the sword, you used it to kill the goblin; if you didn’t have the sword, you couldn’t do that. My way of thinking was that there are lots of ways to kill a goblin: you can pick up a rock and beat him over the head; you can use a sword; you can use anything; you can use the lamp and set him on fire. Some of these objects happen to be alive and running around, but if you kill them, then they’re just a dead object. So you could in fact pick up the troll, and beat the goblin over the head with the dead troll; it was a perfectly valid thing to do.
Once I made the shift from instead of applying a verb to a specific hardcoded object to apply that verb to any object that has that set of characteristics required, it meant that people went off and did all kinds of stuff that it never occurred to me that anybody would do. So I would have an intention that said, “In order to solve this particular problem, here’s how you would do it. This problem is solvable in the following way,” and I knew what that way was. And then I would find these magazines, and they would be using a set of people and objects that it had never occurred to me could be used in that way. You know, people talk about how buggy the game was, but the game was buggy because people did stuff that never occurred to us, that it never occurred to me that anybody would even try, so it was never tested for. It was all written in Assembler, anyway, which was impossible to test back then in any reasonable way.
What would you say the ‘legacy’ of The Hobbit has been?
I get a lot of letters from fans telling me about The Hobbit and the effect that had on them. Many of them talk about how all they had played was shoot-em-up games, but that the shoot-em-up games became boring to them, and they got really captured by The Hobbit, and The Hobbit caused them to change their lives in terms of beginning to be interested in characters and other people (which is truly scary when you think about the characters that were in the game), and to learn English in order to read. One guy wrote to me that he’d gone from the equivalent of Enid Blyton in Portuguese, to reading the entire Tolkien series, in English, because of how the game captured him.
If you were to design a game today, how might it differ from The Hobbit of 1982?
I left before The Hobbit made it to market, but if I had stayed and written the follow-ons, I probably would have done something even more off-the-wall, I imagine. Could have been quite fun.
I mean, when I developed that game, was a kid. I was interested in the technology, and in applying the technology to an existing story. And taking what was in fact a very complex story for those times, and trying to figure out how to make it into a game in a very limited piece of technology, and do it at all. I think I might do more, in future games, in terms of developing plot lines for each individual character. But that’s then a much more interwoven set of plotlines and set of problems, rather than a just simple straight line and back again.
We did have a primitive version of multiplayer. At one point, we started thinking, what would happen if you had a couple of different players playing different characters, so you could have one character being Gandalf, and then overriding his behaviour list with its own behaviour list. But it was starting to get kind of too big and too complicated, and taking too long to get out to market, and so we stopped a number of those threads; we didn’t develop them any further.
Then again, if I were to go back to these sorts of games today, I actually think that I could probably do less. Often, true creativity comes from the constraints.
How do you see games changing over the next few years, and how could/should storytelling change in response?
I think that how they’re going to change is all driven by money these days. People set off to design something like – oh, what of some of those huge, MPG games that they have in Korea and so on, you know, a million people playing at a time and stuff. Big budget, expensive, very complicated things. And that’s really about a business model. Then you get these little things that come out of left-field, that are, I think, the things that actually change the industry more, where somebody just gets passionate about something and builds something that’s actually quite simplistic in terms of the technology, but has those qualities of being compelling. Those are the ones that haunt your heart.