Fighting the Dragon
By Anna Rettberg
Casey Muratori
Let’s be realistic. Even if I’m lucky, in about ten years it’ll probably be time to put me out to pasture. I’ll be fifty, and I’m guessing by then my hands will be arthritic and RSI’d to the point where I won’t be able to do much programming. That’s just the sad price you pay for coding a lot throughout your life.
Before choosing Molly’s latest project, I felt it was time to honestly ask myself, “what is the most important project to work on right now?” Since I knew I wouldn’t get the opportunity to work on that many more, choosing judiciously felt incredibly important.
The more I thought about the question, the more I kept coming back to the same answer. For almost thirty years I’ve been thinking about interactive story technology, and throughout that entire time, I’ve never actually worked on an interactive story engine. I’ve worked on lots of difficult engineering problems, but that was never one of them.
So that’s why Molly Rocket’s Volitional Fiction Project  —  for lack of a catchier title  —  was started. Its mission is simple: finally solve the technology problem I laid out over the past six blog entries. And not just claim to solve it, or publish some papers, or make some tools that never really pan out, but actually solve it for real, where there’s a game to hold up as unequivocable proof that the technology works and finally makes great stories that are deeply interactive.
Yes, this is an incredibly difficult problem.
We know that’s true because if it was easy, someone would have solved it already. People have definitely tried. But they haven’t made much progress.
However, we don’t think that means the problem isn’t solvable. Hard problems take a long time to solve, and they have to be solved in steps. The first traditional FPS wasn’t Call of Duty, it was Wolfenstein 3D, and the vastness of the technical problem space that lies between the two is hard to overstate.
So what we’ve set out to do is to ship a series of games, each featuring a new set of technological improvements, so that we can study and break down the problems of volitional fiction in much the same way as the industry did during the development of modern 3D rendering.
We think there’s something very important about this process  —  about the intersection of research and commercial development  —  that drives the development of real, practical technology that actually works. So our game plan looks like this:
Step 1: Put together a great art team and a great graphics engine.
We don’t want to ship anything that isn’t gorgeous. We want everyone to be excited about playing our games, not just people curious about what the improved fiction technology will play like. And more importantly, we want to be able to clearly see if the tech holds up when it must drive compelling visuals, since that’s the way modern games work, and technology that falls apart when it has to literally show what’s happening simply can’t be considered good enough yet.
Happily, we’re just about done with this, so that part of our project is essentially complete. Which brings us to…
Step 2: Iterate, iterate, iterate on the fiction technology until it’s great.
And that’s what we’re starting on now. We know we can hit a certain level of fiction interactivity with a level of tech we already know works, but we want to push the tech as far as we can with each game. So we’re planning on spending about eight months of solid iteration time improving the fiction technology. That’s what we’ll be doing all this year, right up until we launch the game.
After that, if we’re lucky and the game does well, we’ll start on the next one, where we’ll push the tech even further. And the same with the one after that. And the one after that.
Step 3: Flame out on the last hard problem.
Yes, that’s really Step 3. I have a long list of specific technical problems that I believe need solving in order for volitional technology to be considered complete, and I see pretty clear paths to solving all of them except for one. It’s only required for very specific types of fiction, but it’s a super nasty problem and I’m not sure if it’s solvable or not.
So if we get all the way there, and we’ve solved everything else, we’ll do one last volitional fiction game and try to solve it. And probably totally fail. But, hey, that’d be a great place to be, because it means everything else  —  which is way more important  —  got solved already, and that would be totally awesome.
So that’s the situation as it stands.
We’ll be announcing the first game in the project real soon now  —  you’ll know it’s coming, of course, when you see Humphrey Bogart Pterodactyl peek his brooding face up above the cloud line. If you’re interested in supporting our project, please consider signing up for our mailing list in the footer of this page so we can keep you up-to-date. In order to succeed in the long run, we need lots of help from all you folks out there, for everything from spreading the word about the game, to alpha- and beta-testing the engine so we know it’s rock solid.
It’s a tough road ahead, to be sure, but we’re up for it if you are. Yes, tackling such an apparently insurmountable problem as volitional fiction with a small team and limited resources is much like trying to kill a dragon with your bare hands. But I for one never forgot the lesson of the Colossal Cave I learned back when I was three:
When the little prompt in your head asks you if you really want to try to kill a dragon with your bare hands, the best answer is usually “yes”.