Saturday 31 July 2010

Short Story: The Day The Dolphin Spoke

Way back before I decided it might be fun to write games, my medium of choice was the short story. It was how I learnt the trade, it was the format I studied at university, and it remains a creative escape for me when all the stuff I'm supposed to be getting paid for just feels like too much hard work.

'The Day The Dolphin Spoke' is what happens when you're finding excuses not to do the work you ought to be doing and end up reading philosophy papers about the qualification of dolphins as 'people'. You sit down to write space marine dialogue and for some reason you end up with this.

'This' is a first person monologue, the style being something of a pastiche of Michael Crichton / old school sci fi. Centrally it's concerned with asking questions of self-awareness, rationality and the human belief structure - and somehow making that more palatable than it probably sounds. It's also about talking dolphins. If you're at all interested to know what my writing looks like 'naked' - ie without the creative direction imposed by everything from publishers to marketing to the budget - this is the place to be.

It's around 10 - 15 minutes' reading, and I hope you enjoy it.

Update: Damn, my old marketing manager would kill me if he knew I'd posted this without an extract.
   What you have to understand is that we weren't really trying to communicate. Not fully. Our grant was to automate existing communication, it was monkey work. The thing was, our program worked better than we expected. It was a joke, really, that first question. Quinton tapped it in after one too many espressos.
   //Can you understand us?
   The dolphin watched us for a second, from the murk at the far end of the tank, and then slowly, deliberately, swam over and nosed the pedal we installed so she could tell us when she was hungry.
   White mice are smart enough to hit a button when they’re hungry, it’s not really intelligence at all, just habit. We draw a line, in animal biology, between instinct and intelligence: the latter indicates self-awareness. When a dog sits because you told it to it’s not that it understands; it doesn’t have a thought process which runs “If I sit I will be rewarded”. It just has a natural instinct that prompts it to act in ways that have previously proved advantageous. The difference between a person and an animal, it’s held, is that a person has an interim stage between motivation and action, and we call that stage 'the self'. It’s the bit that looks at the motivation and decides how best to act.
   It’s the bit that bothers to say “I am”, as opposed to just getting on with being.
   Thing was, she wasn’t asking for food: she'd just been fed. This was a response. It was an answer. It wasn’t until days later that we figured out what was going on in the code...
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  1. I've got a thick skin - any and all feedback welcomed :-)

  2. It's downloading as we speak, so I'll get some feedback after I've read it. There was something you mentioned at the start of this entry that really interested me, the part about writing games in the model of a short story. I guess you could say that a lot of indie games have applied this model, but this would be assuming that they are based upon short stories simply because they are short, but some have had some pretty great ideas. I've often considered taking my ideas and an axe to Valve's hammer editor and seeing what I can come up with, Dear Esther/ Post Script style, using narrative a major influential element of design. Could be cool, could be atrocious.

  3. I wasn't expecting much going in, but I really got into your story. I'm not much of a short story critic, but I really got into the middle part where the two were figuring things out. It had about a perfect pace for what it was doing, where you sort of forget what your doing and your only thinking about the story. The beginning and end could use some work in my opinion. The beginning has those parenthetical comments, and they really took me out of the story. The whole 'if you see a building with metal shutters' bit was pretty weak in my opinion. I can't really complain much about the ending. I really just wish the whole story was merely an introduction to further exploits with the two scientists and a new set of dolphins maybe. I really liked how you tackled some really heavy philosophical issues in such brief form without it seeming stiff and lifeless.

  4. Tom, I'll probably shoot you my thoughts by e-mail.

    I've just got to look up softer alternatives in Roget's Thesaurus for "pathetic" and "disappointing" first.

    I'm just trying to describe the work of a colleague for a 360 peer review, that's all.

  5. @miles
    Hope you like it, mate. I agree, the idea of the short story as applied to interactive narrative is an interesting one. I suppose you could suggest arty micro games like Inside a Dead Skyscraper would be the closest comparison, though they tend to be more abstract and more closely analogous to poetry IMO.

    The idea of developing a 5 - 10 minute game with a very tight, focussed plot is a really appealing one. Someone get on it please? ;-)

    Thanks Kris. I think you're right, those instances you've picked out are where I think I'm losing the voice and switching more into my own. Though perhaps in another context I do rather like the metal shutters joke ;-) Glad you enjoyed it, at any rate.

    I suggest 'deplorable' and 'inadequate'.

  6. Fear not my good man, these kind of games are in my VEINS.