Thursday, July 9, 2020

GAMEBOOK ACADEMY _____ Meet JERRY BELICH, creative technologist and inventor of the Choosatron interactive fiction arcade machine, he says the journey, not the destination, is what's most important

NOTE: This is part of a series that explains how to create your own simple gamebooks. More articles here

Please introduce yourself!
I'm Jerry! I'm best known for my design and development of alt ctrl, or alternative controller, games and experiences. I've been a creative technologist as long as I can remember and have a deep love for narrative and world building. My current professional work includes narrative design, technical producing, alt ctrl prototyping, and my current contract is doing escape room design and implementation.

Do tell us about your Choosatron.
The Choosatron journey started nearly eight years ago. I was working at an agency leading a mobile development team and doing research and development on a few of the special projects that came through our doors. One was a huge installation for the Cosmo Casino in Las Vegas where we (the agency I worked at) designed and implemented the software managing the install (syncing simulations across 384 hi-def monitors). One day during a call with the content team (a separate agency), I asked them how they go about prototyping their physical + electronic installations. They told me about Arduino, the hobbyist microcontroller, which I had heard of but never got around to trying. A week later a package arrived from them, a brand new Arduino as a gift!

I'm a fairly methodical person when I start something new, so I went online to Adafruit and Sparkfun and read through their respective catalogues of parts, one by one. I made notes of parts that I thought were interesting to revisit, but it was the thermal printer that really grabbed me. When I ran across the coin acceptor it all clicked. I stopped and said aloud to noone, "I want to make an interactive fiction arcade machine!". A month later, I had! It was built into the cardboard box from some Amazon order and stopped working every time I moved it, but it worked. I was invited to bring it to a local literary event so I built a second one that was more likely to survive. This continued until more and more folks were nudging me to do a kickstarter for it. Fast forward a few years and I had raised $75,080 USD, manufactured about 600 units, and shipped them all over the world. I won't lie, it was an extremely stressful experience and not entirely successful. I never managed to finish and ship the interactive fiction book that was part of the kickstarter, and the authoring software never got to where it was supposed to me. I had a lot of help, but ultimately it was a one person team and that is not how to run a kickstarter or a company.

I delivered as best I could, burnt myself out, and moved on to designing many more alternative controller games and I found a new career direction for myself. I needed space from the Choosatron project but I continued selling units over the years to museums and other customers. About a year ago I finished doing an MFA and teaching at a university and so for the first time in years started revisiting the Choosatron. Microcontroller designs have made some huge leaps in just a few years, not to mention lowered in cost. That combined with everything I've learned in the meantime gives me a lot of confidence that I could accomplish what I had hoped to back in 2013. So I'm working on new designs and tools in the direction of Choosatron but I'm also not going to rush myself.

What's the most interesting response you've had from kids?
They love touching the Choosatron; pressing buttons, handling the growing length of paper, the tactile nature of it all. I think the most interesting was how kids would take their completed stories and compare the lengths, implicitly valuing longer stories over shorter ones. I think that is fascinating and wonderful because what they are saying is, the journey, not the destination, is what's most important.

Why did you decide to work with interactive fiction?
I loved interactive fiction as a kid and read dozens of those kinds of books over and over. Plenty were the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure brand but there were many others. Though even as a kid, I felt like the writing was subpar. I was reading the likes of Tolkein and Douglas Adams at quite a young age so the quality of sci-fi, adventure, and fantasy I was hungry for was high. As an adult I realized I didn't really know of much interactive fiction written for adults, or at least, written with deep care for the narrative and choices being made. I wanted to see if I could change that.

What does it take to write a cool piece of interactive fiction? In under 30 words.
ADHD? I kid, but I think it is one reason I'm able to write it rather quickly. Ok real answer: Recognize the agency of your reader; don't abuse the reader or play tricks on them without a payoff. Craft the story with them, for them, not just at them. Write.

How will interactive fiction authoring skills be useful for kids in the future?
I think it's useful for anyone that gets into a field involving design; that is, creation of an experience for other people. It's great practice in the ability to craft an experience that is inclusive of the user / player / reader, paying attention to their role in what is unfolding. Thinking about the audience as a vital component to design I believe also helps creators develop more empathy toward their audience. I think we need more of that in the world, everywhere, and always.

What's next for you?
As a way to dip my toes back into the Choosatron waters, I've been finishing up a Choosatron story player for the Playdate, a strange and wonderful new handheld game system by Panic. I was lucky enough to get a device early so I could develop for it and it has been a joy. My plan for it is two phases really... First, finish a parser for Choosatron stories as they currently exist (a custom binary format I designed so IF (interactive fiction) stories can be played on very restricted memory systems) which I have already completed. Second, reevaluate the current state of IF writing tools and design a new format that properly bridges the gap between authoring tools and interesting platforms to play the resulting games, such as a new Choosatron or the Playdate. The screen on the Playdate is incredibly sharp and easy to read (it is in fact a SHARP Memory Display, a screen type I've enjoyed prototyping previous to the Playdate). I'm hoping to collaborate with Panic even further to create a strong presence for IF on their platform!


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