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USC Interactive Media Application: Graduate Writing Sample - Category III

A one-page description of an interactive media experience that has inspired you to enter the field. What were the qualities that touched you?

Most story-driven video games take at least ten hours to play through to completion. In early 1999 I found myself clocking hour forty-one with Might & Magic VI, a boilerplate 3D fantasy role-playing game for the PC. Pushing back from my point and click search for the Third Eye gem (required to open Archibald's vault), I realized two things at once:

Firstly, video games have immense power. There was no other type of media product I had spent so many hours with. Even my youth spent watching Apocalypse Now repeatedly had only added up to maybe thirty hours - just barely close to Might & Magic VI. Video games engaged me for dozens of hours at a time, and no other type of fictional world tied me up like that. Dozens of hours playing a video game is time spent in a specific mindstate - surrounded by the creations, the writing, the sound effects, and the gameplay dictated by some far off designer. I had given this crew of people over forty hours of my life. During that time, I had been teaching myself the skills necessary to succeed in their game world. And I had taken on the goals of the game as my goals! Playing through Might & Magic VI, I realized that video games have some serious potential to shape minds, to envelop them, feed them a vision, and motivate them within that fiction. Astonishing power!

Which lead me to my immediate, second realization: video games at that time were not living up to that potential. People like myself, with somewhat adult minds, were stuck clicking through mostly puerile filler. The worthy, sophisticated video games were too few and far between.

The dialog in MM6 was hackneyed, to use a charitable term. Nondescript rulers handed out useless "FedEx" quests. "Fetch that necklace from that village!" they commanded. I wondered, why can't I just pay one of these nameless peasants wandering outside the castle to run and get it for me instead?

Those nameless peasants frustrated me most - the game presented a virtual world, populated by people positively devoid of personality. You turn a corner in Silver Cove and one of the random townspeople ("Frank - Merchant" or "Brenda - Ditch Digger" for example) is staring unblinking at you. Their proximity alarm has been triggered by your presence and they are waiting for you to engage them on one to three randomly selected topics: goblins, guilds or gold pieces. And that's it. And I thought about all the great characters from literature, heck, all the great characters from real life! Where was the anxiety? The passion? The ambiguity? I thought to myself, why am I wasting time clicking on these people to hear their idiot lines?

I decided I could write better characters than that. This was my first impulse to work for the game industry - to populate games with better characters. A little more insanity. A depth of cultural reference. Provocative musings. Why not have a character in a game worth remembering? Where was Walter E. Kurtz?

After playing Might & Magic VI, I applied directly to work at a number of video game companies. That didn't work out, but I found work as a critic, pushing a vision for smarter games through reviews and journalism, covering the rapidly evolving medium. Through this writing, I learned some of the intricacies of game making, and I learned some of the limits on simulating human interaction in the limited space of electronic entertainment. I am eager to push those limits.

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