Recently I have read
about so-called programmer abuse
-- the practice of grinding developers with inhuman work hours and impossible deadline
s. I'm not sure how many of these folks have children, but if they really want to be under the gun, they should announce to their kids that they are writing a game for them.
That's what I did. I started a text adventure game for my two older boys, aged 10 and 12. Now I am paying the price.
"Hey guys," I said. "Look at this."
I was a few levels in to it. From a programming standpoint, it's not even remotely elegant. Written in C, it consists of several functions, switch() statements and a score keeper. I've put some randomness in there so they can't just memorize the choices and blow through it. Mind you, the boys -- A students, athletic, musically talented, artistic -- are tenacious when presented with a new game. Terriers shaking a rat, winter-starved grizzlies after an elk. Why I didn't realize this before I openned my big mouth is beyond me.
"Where's the graphics?"
The reason I began the project, besides the fact that I thought it would be fun, is I wanted the boys to realize computer games can be more than purely visual overload, that a world can be entered that is similar to, but more interactive than, a book. Anything I can do that will involve them with more reading, I'll do. I briefly explained the idea behind text adventure games.
I expected them to politely back away -- "Oh, that's, uh, pretty cool, Dad, really." -- and go back to what they were doing, rolling their eyes on the way. However, after a few moments they leaned closer to the screen. "Can we play it?"
"It's not quite finished yet."
Then they started in on me.
"You ever see those guys spinning plates on tall sticks?"
"That's kinda what making this is like."
"But you do this stuff all the time. It shouldn't be a big deal."
"Let's play what you've got."
I pressed Ctrl-F10 to run it. The story is set in a haunted castle with many passages, bloodthirsty monsters at every turn and a healthy serving of skeletons, ghosts and large rats. The idea is to rescue a child monk who bears a remarkable resemblence to my four-year-old son.
"Cool. Which thing should I choose?"
"It's up to you," I said. "It's your game." Unfortunately, he chose an option which dropped him 40 feet in to a spike-filled pit where his body was feasted upon by rats and maggots.
"Holy crap, Dad. That is so neat. Can we do it again?"
I ran the game once more. This time they went carefully, treading down a dark hallway to a dimly lit outline of a door until they tripped on a skeleton and the candle they were holding blew out. Their next move ended the game.
"Oh, man! That's it?"
"I told you it wasn't finished. Besides, you've got other options to choose from."
"OK. Let's play it again."
We did this a few more times. Sometimes they purposely picked gruesome deaths. Other times they got to the end of the game. Some parts were longer than others.
"How long until you're finished with it?"
"I don't know, really."
"What? How about this weekend? Can you have it finished by Friday?" This happened a few Wednesdays ago.
"I doubt it."
"Because there are some more things I want to do with it."
"Will there be weapons?"
"There's no kissing in it, right? Kissing ruins it."
"No kissing. I promise."
"Can I take it over to Jared's house?"
"When it's ready, sure."
"But that'll be this weekend, right?"
"I don't know. I'll try."
"Try? You can do it, Dad. I know you can."
"I'll do my best."
"I'd like a machine gun. Can you put a machine gun in there somewhere?"
"You're in an old, haunted castle. No guns."
"How about the next next weekend. That'll give you a whole week to work on it."
I checked my watch. "Whoa, look at the time. Time to brush teeth and get to bed." Groans and grumblings followed as they marched to the bathroom while I saved and closed everything.
I kissed them and tucked them in. The oldest one said, "What are you going to do now?"
I was tired. My eyes burned, and a yawning fit had recently pummelled me. I really just wanted to flop in to bed with a book and doze off after a few paragraphs. "I'm not sure. I might putter around a little bit."
"Are you going to work on the game?"
"Can I see it tomorrow?"
Cue the internal sigh. "Of course."
I turned out the light and closed the door. Back at the PC, tapping the keys like a lullaby, I added some hints from an apparition of the child monk to help get through a door before a monster eats them alive.
The next night they asked to see what I'd done, played it a few times and left me with a "we can't wait until it's done." Since then, I haven't been able to work on it as much as I've wanted, but that doesn't prevent them from requesting daily project status reports. When I tell them there has been little, if any, progress, they say low and dejectedly, "Oh, OK. That's fine."
I'm sure paid programmers have to deal with plenty of stress and pressure, but I don't know how many of them have to deal with guilt brought on by disappointed children. The text adventure is a fun little experiment, and I'm glad I started. The response and expectation are beyond what I could have imagined. I recommend it to all parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. Reading, writing, coding, games -- what's not to love?!
One of these nights I'm going to have to stay up with a huge mug of coffee and a plate of oatmeal cookies and finish that thing. The boys will be stoked.