Adventure Games - Interview with Lee Sheldon

Interview by Peter Smith (October, 2001)
The Riddle of Master LuLee Sheldon worked as scriptwriter on TV series like Charlie's Angels before getting involved with computer games. He first worked for Sanctuary Woods most notably on "Riddle of Master Lu", and then he worked for Southpeak Interactive. There he was largely responsible for "Dark Side of the Moon" as well as being involved with such games as "Temüjin", "Wild Wild West", and the abandoned "20,000 Leagues".

He left Southpeak Interactive before it was closed down and became involved with the development of several MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online RPGs.) Very recently he was working with Cyan on their future game codenamed "Mudpie" (internally at Cyan called "Parable"). He also gives talks on story telling in computer game contexts at various conferences.

Lee Sheldon has his own website which contains lots of good stuff. Stuff like news about his books, talks, interviews, work in progress, and much fuller resumes than this one.

Peter: Can you say anything about your involvement with Cyan's "Parable"?

Lee: Not much I'm afraid. Other than they seem to prefer the codeword "Mudpie." ;-) You've probably seen how tightly they're keeping it under wraps. I do think that if they succeed in all they've set out to do fans of MYST who want to play multiplayer won't be disappointed.

Peter: Does "Temüjin" contain many loose ends? Were alternative endings considered?

Lee: "Temüjin" was well along when I arrived at Southpeak. After some outside writer/designers turned in a not very good design document I was asked to rewrite it in something like a week or two. I rewrote dialogue, and tried to add puzzles even where video had already been shot. Considering how fast the end product was put together, I'd be surprised if there weren't some loose ends. I'm not sure if alternative endings were considered. Other than a couple variations in the final sequence I know multiple endings weren't.

Peter: I think you have said you might like to remake "Dark Side of the Moon"? What changes would you make? The game interface in DSOTM has been criticised.

Lee: I said that? <lol> Well I was probably just feeling handcuffed by the engine. But it was that video engine that first attracted me to Southpeak in the beginning, so I have no one to blame, but myself. The idea behind it was brilliant. But in actual practice it was simply a bit too clunky. Players weren't interested in the incredibly complicated magic we were using to make the video work like a virtual 3D environment. They just wanted it to play as smoothly as one, and we never quite got there. I still think there is a way (probably as expensive as "Video Reality" was to pull off) to do video properly in games. I still miss true human beings in games. But I don't see it happening any time soon.

Peter:The writing in DSOTM had rare brilliances like the response you get to ringing the mining company. This changes when you as Jake go on the run from the law. The new response advised you to turn yourself in.

Lee: Well, thank you. :) One of the things that makes a film or game memorable are the little touches, even afterthoughts. They aren't something that is planned in the initial design. They didn't help sell the game. They won't go in the ad copy. But in the best cases they can infuse the gaming experience with the unexpected, wholly appropriate little moments that touch us in real life. The experience is made more real. The characters feel more rounded and human. I love "finding" those moments as I write, because as I said they are not usually planned. They are as much a discovery to the writer/designer as they are to the gamer.

Peter: What would Southpeak's "20,000 Leagues" have been like?

Lee: Pretty awful in the form it ended up in. Certain people who know nothing about writing, game design, or adventure games in general, took over the project, and reduced a really wonderful game to an unreleasable mess

Peter: Is the story-telling still the poor relation in games compared to the graphics?

Lee: And compared to programming. Unfortunately until companies realize that it takes a professional writer to create compelling story just as it takes professional artists to create arresting images and professional programmers to create functioning code, I don't expect this to change.

Peter: Is the way a game writer should inform the player about the game world different to other media? Often game players have to sit through long monologues.

Lee: Long monologues, or stacks of dusty books and parchment. Despite what E-Books will tell us, outside of email people just don't seem to have much fun reading on their computers. And email's success may be because that's simply where it is (or PDAs or cell phones, etc.)

TemüjinIt doesn't have to be that way though. We can convey story in games through puzzles, NPC interactions, quick bursts of exposition between quick bursts of gunfire. These are new applications certainly, but are the techniques so new or different? Good storytelling has never -relied- on long monologues (although a good monologue is something to enjoy, not skip over). Puzzles are just obstacles. The solving of them can tell story and reveal character. Same with NPC dialogues (and they can be as succinct as our skill can craft them), and exposition through action has always been the way of good drama. Action in this case does not necessarily mean violence of course, only what is happening at the moment.

Peter: Is there a big untapped market for computer games?

Lee: Yes, the computers are there. The interest is there. Every so often it results in sales (MYST), but not often! The mass market emotional elements remain missing, or badly handled.

Peter: What's your opinion on the current state of Adventure games?

Lee: I'll be honest. I haven't played many new ones. Most have followed the path of what only a couple of years ago we were calling hybrids (like "Wild Wild West"), and I'm simply not very good at playing action games. The non-hybrids I've seen don't add anything new, or are just out-and-out sequels, not bad games necessarily (I liked "MYST:Exile"), just nothing new in their approach to adventuring. For the genre to reclaim a place at the table, it will simply have to come up with something new. RPGs had a resurgence, as did strategy games. Why not adventures? I've been concentrating on MMORPGs and persistent worlds. "The Gryphon Tapestry," a MMORPG I worked on a couple of years ago, would have been as much an adventure game as an RPG with tons of story-telling. I think that there is a great opportunity for multiplayer adventure games. I also think adventure games would work well on PDAs. I know "Colossal Cave" has been ported to cell phones (as it has been ported every place else!).

Peter: Do you consider making games different each time you play them important? Some say replayability is missing from current Adventure games.

Lee: Well, there are a number of ways you can tackle replayability. Coming from Hollywood, my first thought is always: make the experience compelling enough they want to replay it, even if the gameplay is basically the same. If only we could create games that are as emotionally involving as the films people watch over and over again! Then there are the things we can do in games they can't do in movies. I'm very much in favor of creating the game in modules that can be experienced in any order. This is a technique I've been working on since "The Riddle of Master Lu," and I teach it at my GDC tutorials every year.

What I'm not in favor of is hard-wired multiple endings, or even alternate "paths" through the game. It's hard enough coming up with a single compelling experience. Why dissipate our energies by trying to do it multiple times in one product? With a true non-linear (modular) story/game you have to put a lot of initial thought into the structure, far more than if you're doing a linear game simply disguised as non-linear, but once you do, that effort can pay off in a game that can be played any way the player likes. It really doesn't matter. There is no golden path. But in the end you still can guarantee (hopefully!) an experience every bit as compelling as a linear one.

Peter: Why is it so rare that NPCs initiate conversation? Are there unwanted hangovers from text adventures in current graphic adventures?

Lee: I think it's the fault of game writer/designers not knowing how to do it well. Also it's much easier to allow the gamer to click and trigger a dialogue. And also, I suppose, because games have always been about pull technology, not push. Push to many designers feels like forcing players into something, and a common designer mantra remains: "Let the players choose, don't force them into anything!"

Unwanted hangovers? I doubt it these days. People are trying so hard to move away from the style of text adventure storytelling (at least in commercial products), they're throwing out the baby with the bath water: good interactive techniques for storytelling and character development are going down the drain along with long descriptive paragraphs and difficult puzzles. It's a shame.

Peter: Is online multi-player gaming the future?

Lee: It is -a- future, and one I'm very interested in. Heck, it's here now. But the game industry, true to its nature, is wrapped up in "me too" games. They all look and feel alike. The genres seen in persistent worlds are all the same: fantasy as codified by Tolkien, and science fiction set in outer space and on alien worlds. The rest are simply mindless shooters. The nuances, like better PvP or more sophisticated mob AI, are lost on everybody other than the people who are already playing the first generation of these games. I think there's a lot of opportunity in multi-player for some truly unique products. I just don't expect any of the large players to commit to something very different. I think it'll take somebody working outside the major developers to successfully work outside the box. But that product could take the internet by storm.

Peter: Has writing Adventure and other games affected your linear fiction?

Lee: I'm always looking for new ways to tell stories, and certainly developing non-linear models has increased my knowledge. I know my current novel, "Impossible Bliss," is just a straight-forward mystery/comedy. My next novel, "The Keys," will approach the story-telling in a different way however, and that would not have happened I think, if I didn't design games.

Peter: Can you say a bit more about "The Keys", how you are approaching the story-telling? Is that the novel that you'll be serialising on your site?

Dark Side of the MoonLee: I'd planned on serializing the first few chapters. Unfortunately the structural "gimmick" (while not entirely unique) has some aspects that make it unique and copyable, so I'm reconsidering that plan. For the same reason, I can't really say much more about it, other than it is a mystery/thriller, less light-hearted than "Impossible Bliss," and set in the Florida Keys.

Peter: Are you involved with any gaming projects at the moment?

Lee: Since leaving Cyan at the end of June, I've been working on another multi-player game with adventure game elements. The development is funded by a grant from the US government, and in this first incarnation the game (present day/X-Files meets Star Wars) is meant to be played in schools. There is a very sophisticated drug-education element lurking behind all the mystery and action.

I've been approached very recently by three companies to work on games based on licensed properties. One is even an adventure game! I should know shortly which, if any, will happen.

Finally, I've taken the world of "The Gryphon Tapestry" and am attempting to bring it to life using a new program called the MMORPG Construction Kit. Past Tree, the company that makes the kit can be found at It's currently pretty much simple hack and slash due to the limitations of their engine, but they've promised some enhancements. People can check out some screenshots from this new version of TGT at my website

Peter: Will the game funded by the US government show up on CD for everyone to be able to play?

Lee: That's their hope, or at least an expanded version of it is planned. In its current form the idea is for a limited number of episodic play sessions that can be experienced by students during a class period every day for a week or so.

Peter: Many thanks for your time Lee. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

Copyright © Peter Smith 2001. All rights reserved.