Douglas Adams Interview

In March 1998, I had the honour and pleasure of interviewing Douglas Adams, author of many books, most famously the “Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series, which has sold many millions of copies worldwide.

At that time, Douglas was launching his computer game, "Starship Titanic," and I was working in my spare time for a now long-defunct web-based magazine entitled, "Interactive Fiction Now". He was as wonderfully warm, intelligent and witty in conversation as in his books.

Tragically, Douglas died on 11th May 2001 while living in California and working on the Hitchhiker movie.  This page is my personal tribute to Douglas.

Matt Newsome, 14th May 2001

[May 2010: Seems hard to believe that was nearly a decade ago. Ultimately an excerpt from this interview was printed in "The Salmon of Doubt" (US Amazon, UK Amazon). An audiobook was made, too (US Amazon, UK Amazon). Click here for my bit.]

On Thursday 12th March 1998, I attended the press launch of Douglas Adams' Starship Titanic, the first game from Adams' new company, The Digital Village, and his first computer game since the introduction of graphics. In this exclusive interview, I spoke with Douglas Adams exclusively about Starship Titanic, his previous work, future projects, dogs and cheese sandwiches...

Matt Newsome: Perhaps we could start by talking a little about how the game technology in Starship Titanic compares with that in the old Infocom games...

Douglas Adams: (Laughing) Well, Starship Titanic has graphics!

No, it's a long way in advance of [the old Infocom games] because effectively all you could do with the Infocom games was just sort of two word instructions, sort of "go left", "turn right" or "get red dagger" and the parser we have here now is capable of parsing much, much more complex sentences.

So, you will gradually become aware as you play it that some sorts of input tends to get better reactions than others, so you'll begin to funnel yourself towards that, like when mastering any language.

MN: So, would you say that the parser technology is in advance of the technology which Infocom used?

DNA: Yes. Well another point to make, of course, is that, and in some ways this is a frustration. Simulating a conversation is essentially a three stage process. One is the input, one is the output and then there's the stuff in between. The stuff in between is the parser. Now the input, currently the way that works is that you type stuff in. If we were doing this in a couple of years' time, maybe we'd be using speech recognition, but speech recognition is not that good yet that it wouldn't just create enormous frustration. So, we went for simple text entry.

Again, at the output stage, I was hoping that we might be able to use text-to-speech.

The trouble is that text-to-speech was developed - the best system, I think by quite a long way, was developed by Apple a few years ago. But having developed it, nobody had found a use for it, so it kind of set there languishing. It really wasn't good enough yet to sustain an awful lot of dialogue because all of the characters end up sounding like semi-concussed Scandinavians. So that becomes very wearing on the ear.

So we had to go to pre-recorded dialogue. And, the advantage of text-to-speech is that you really can do stuff on the fly and it can start to feed back parts of the player's actual input. If you do it pre-recorded, you can't do that.

On the other hand, the way you solve the problem of making it as responsive as possible, of making sure that the player really feels they are engaged in the conversation is just to do an awful, awful lot, which is why we have something like ten thousand - ten thousand - individual responses, maybe a word, a phrase, a whole sentence, a part of a sentence. Because part of what you'll get back is a whole sentence but when it works best, you'll be getting sentences composed on the fly with modules in it that get replaced according to context. So really you have the sense that conversations can go on and on and on, and you'll be surprised at some of the things they know about.

MN: So do you get situations, as in an Infocom game, where you talk to a character, and you get the feeling that they perhaps didn't quite pick up what you were talking about?

DNA: Oh yes, I mean you will get that because at the end we are simulating the conversation -- there is no real understanding here. I mean we are engaged... Put it this way, it's rather though if someone goes up on stage and saws a woman in half and puts her back together again, they are not actually engaged in a major exercise in medical engineering. They are in the business of illusion, and we are in the business of illusion. We have not created Artificial Intelligence - so far nobody has.

But the illusion is really tremendously good for an awfully long time. You will get periods when you're off on some little line of questioning that the game really won't get, but you will quickly learn that, ok, this is obviously a dead end, so we'll try something else.

MN: So, assumedly there is an assumption on the game's behalf that the player is asking meaningful sentences.

DNA: Oh well if you talk complete gobbledegook, then you're liable to get not very satisfactory answers, but they'll be along the lines of all sorts of variations of characters essentially saying, "I don't understand what you're talking about," but dressed up in all kinds of nice, polite kinds of ways.

So you will find that if you're talking gobbledegook, it won't understand what you're talking about and there will be certain areas of conversation where it won't be able to understand you, but I think people will be genuinely surprised, even startled at how good how much of it is.

MN: One of the impressions I got from reading previous interviews with you was that, of all the things you have done, Hitch-Hiker's the game, and Bureaucracy to some extent, were the things that you thoroughly enjoyed, and chiefly because of the computer aspect.

DNA: Yes.

MN: Were you tempted this time to give Steve Meretzky [see footnote] a ring and say, "Steve, come and get involved."

DNA: No, well, Steve has his own company out in Massachusetts called Boffo Games, but I haven't actually layed eyes on Steve for many, many years now. But I think that, doing Hitch-Hiker's guide, because it was text-only, it was just the two of us. And normally, of course, it would be one of us writing the entire game, and this time it was two because I was not a coder, I was not a professional games designer in the way that Steve was. So I had to bring my limited understanding, though, of course, it grew very rapidly. I was evolving the material I was coming up with and Steve was really helping me through that process and, I guess, being George Martin, I guess, except that he was the one actually playing the instruments as well!

So one person, or in this case two people, was the usual way of doing a game. In the case of Starship Titanic, now you have enormous additional levels of complexity, you have the graphics, the animation, the sound, all this stuff, and it's dozens of people, I mean between two and three dozen people working on it, over a period of two years. So, at the end of it, my role is not auteur at all. It sounds like that, it starts out as me saying, "this is how the game is going to go, this is how the script looks like, this is what I've decided," but really, from the first moment that code starts hitting silicon, we're off into territory where everybody who is working on the project is making decisions, is having a fundamental creative influence on the game. So really, it has been a team job.

MN: So the gameplay in Starship Titanic, is it comparable, would you say, to Hitch-Hiker's? One of the thing's I've felt increasingly as time has passed is that with the advent of grahics, sound and all the other things, the complexity of the task of ensuring good gameplay increases.

DNA: I think people will recognise a certain mixture of puzzles. Some puzzles are fiendishly clever and complicated, others that are plain silly, and everything in between.

MN: Anything as hard as the babel fish?

DNA: I would hope not because that really was probably too problematic. Not only was it too problematic, but it happened too early in the game. An awful lot of people said, "I loved the game, I thought it was terrific and wonderful, and I really enjoyed it, but I got stuck at the babel fish and couldn't do any more." And I think well you missed two-thirds of it! And unfortunately, it was a bottleneck, I mean, you had to do it. So it's one of the things we learnt from.

It's something we actually discussed an awful lot when creating this game, because how you come up with something whereby there are no bottlenecks, there are all sorts of fiendish puzzles. The interesting thing is that with the Hitch-Hiker game, nobody spotted that the babel fish was going to be this fiendish key to the whole thing, it was just simply another puzzle on the way.

But an enormous amount of attention eventually gets focussed on this because it is a bottleneck, and because it is as complex as it is. So, my view is that we don't have anything of that fiendish complexity in the game.

But ask me again a month or so after the game has been out and we suddenly find that there's something that seemed terribly obvious to all of us involved in the game but people out there are really racking their brains about. We also decided that wherever there is something fiendishly complicated, there is usually a simpler way of doing it. So for most of the puzzles, there are usually two or three ways of solving them.

MN: No giving cheese sandwiches to dogs, then?

DNA: Dogs and cheese sandwiches?

MN: Yes, in Hitch-Hiker you have to give a cheese sandwich to the dog outside the pub...

DNA: Oh, yes, I beg your pardon, of course! It's so long ago! Yes, for instance, there are a lot of problems you can solve by getting one of the characters to solve it for you through the dialogue. But that may or may not work for a lot of people, so there will be physical ways of doing it - switches you have to push, or whatever. There's usually, as I say, a different way of doing it.

One of the things I personally feel particularly pleased about, because it was very much my puzzle, one that I got stuck more deeply into the implementation of than anything else, which is a music game. In one particular room, the music room, there are a bunch of robot musicians, and they're all playing the parts they've got, but they've all got out of synch with each other. So some of them are playing their parts too fast or too slowly or at the wrong pitch or back-to-front or upside down presumably. You have to go and adjust all of these different settings until they're all playing together. Then you have to go and record that piece of music and take to another part of the ship where it enables you to do something else.

Creating that particular puzzle was something that I was much, much more involved in than any other part. I wrote the piece of music, I designed in great detail how everything worked. I'd always loved the idea of doing a puzzle where the player not only has to be a genius, but also has to master harmony and polyphony at the same time! As always, there is a back-door route, but I'm not going to tell you what it is!

MN: Yes, well, you played guitar with Pink Floyd, didn't you?

DNA: I did, yes, although not on a regular basis, I have to tell you, but merely one guest spot, and to date penultimate performance which was on the tour they did about three years ago now. It was a forty second birthday present to me from Dave Gilmore.

MN: On which track?

DNA: Brain Damage and Eclipse, the last bit of Dark Side of the Moon. It's that little guitar fingering that any seventeen year old guitarist can play.

MN: Well, that's not my understanding, I understand you to be a very competent guitarist.

DNA: Well, essentially my route as far as playing is concerned is folk music finger picking. I'm not and could never, ever be a blistering lead guitar player. But give me something to finger-pick and I can usually finger my way though it.

MN: Perhaps we could take this opportunity to ask you for some definitive answers to some of the questions being asked on USENET as the moment?


MN: Firstly, what is Avatar Forest?

DNA: Avatar Forest was a television project which actually I wasn't involved with. It was one of the projects which The Digital Village started going on and then basically, while were trying to do a whole range of different things, it was one of the ones that moved to the back burner and then fell off. Avatar Forest is, as of this moment of speaking, non-existent, but who knows. But, as I say, it's not my project anyway.

MN: Dare I say it? "Salmon of Doubt" / "Spoon too Few"?

DNA: (Laughing) Spoon too Far. Or was it Spoon too... We had a number of silly titles and Salmon of Doubt was meant to be a silly title, but my editor though it was rather a good one.

Salmon of Doubt was a Dirk Gently book, but I got about a third of the way through and thought, "this isn't working." So that was really kind of, not a crisis moment for me, but, I thought, "I really don't feel I want to sit down and make another book work. I need to do something different, I need some mental crop rotation." Because, when I started out I was doing radio, television, this, that - all sorts of different things, I loved moving from one thing to another. But I felt I had allowed myself to become painted into a corner where all I did was sit in a room typing. I just kind of lost it.

Now that we've got this out of the way, I have essentially two projects down for this year. One is getting going on the Hitch-Hiker movie which is now up and raring to go with Disney. The other is an all new book, which is not going to be the Salmon of Doubt. This new book, I won't even give a title to it... the current working title is "The Different Engineer", but it won't be that, that's just what I'm calling it.

MN: As in Difference Engines?

DNA: Yes, it was a reference back to Babbage at the very beginning, but then somebody pointed out to me that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling had written a book called, "The Difference Engine", so really calling this book, "The Different Engineer" won't work.

The thing with Dirk was that I felt I had lost contact with that character, I couldn't make that book viable, which is why I said, "Okay, let's go off and do something else." Then looking back at all the ideas that were there in "Salmon of Doubt", I looked at it again about a year later and suddenly realised what it was that I'd been getting wrong, which was that these are essentially much more like Hitch-Hiker ideas and not like Dirk Gently ideas.

So, there will come a point I suspect at some point in the future where I will write a sixth Hitch-Hiker book. But I kind of want to do that in an odd kind of way because people have said, quite rightly, that "Mostly Harmless" is a very bleak book. And it was a bleak book. The reason for that is very simple - I was having a lousy year, for all sorts of personal reasons that I don't want to go into, I just had a thoroughly miserable year, and I was trying to write a book against that background. And, guess what, it was a rather bleak book!

I would love to finish Hitch-Hiker on a slightly more upbeat note, so five seems to be a wrong kind of number, six is a better kind of number. I think that a lot of the stuff which was originally in "Salmon of Doubt", was planned into "Salmon Doubt" and really wasn't working, I think could be yanked out and put together some new thoughts.

MN: Yes, because certainly some people have heard that, "Salmon of Doubt", was now going to be a new Hitch-Hiker book.

DNA: Well, In a sense, because I shall be salvaging some of the ideas I couldn't make work within a Dirk Gently framework and putting them in a Hitch-Hiker framework, undergoing necessary changes on the way. And, for old time's sake, I may call it, "Salmon of Doubt", I may call it -- well who knows!

MN: I was wondering if Trillian's daughter in "Most Harmless", Random Dent, was in any way inspired by the fact that, I understand, you have a young daughter yourself. Is that true?

DNA: Well, no, because Polly, who is my daughter, came along after Random.

MN: Right, because she's three and a half?

DNA: That's right, yes, she's three and a half.

MN: Oh good, well at least that bit of research was correct!

DNA: (Laughs)

MN: Certainly in "Mostly Harmless" you can see aspects of "Last Chance to See" coming in, with the Perfectly Normal Beast, etc.

DNA: Well, the thing that set me off in the direction of "Last Chance to See" was a trip I did to Madagascar in about 1984/5. And that trip certainly featured in Dirk Gently, although I recast it for various reasons as Mauritius.

MN: Right, yes, the dodos.

DNA: It's the same part of the world. And it was only subsequently that I actually went to Mauritius as part of "Last Chance to See". Though, yes, all these different things sort of cross-fertilise each other, and in fact there is - I probably shouldn't say this - there are discussions beginning to take place about maybe extending "Last Chance to See" into television, which I must say I'd be thrilled to do.

Where it fits into the schedule, god alone knows! (Laughs)

MN: Hmm. I remember Mark Cowardine saying that he felt radio worked particularly well for "Last Chance to See" and succeeded where perhaps television wouldn't have.

DNA: We both felt that. I also felt this very strongly coming from a background where I felt very loyal and even evangelical about radio. And I made a very deliberate decision along with Mark that we would do this for radio rather than television. One of the effects of television is that changes everything it looks at -- it's a kind of quantum device! And, even though that inevitably remains true, there have been very, very significant changes that have occurred in the technology since we did that in, what, 1988? You know, it's ten years later, and with modern digital cameras, they're very small, almost the size of the tape recorders we carried around with us for "Last Chance to See" when we did it.

So, the possibility - I mean, I could never be non-interested in television, but you can be a great deal less interested. So I think there all sorts of things to explore there.

MN: Well, perhaps I could finish off by asking you, "Starship Titanic -- why should people buy it?"

DNA: Why should people buy it? Because it's great! Because it's great! (Laughing) And because I spent two years of my life on it!

MN: Douglas Adams, it's been wonderful talking with you -- thank-you very much. We wish you every success with Starship Titanic and in the future.

I would like to sincerely thank Douglas Adams for granting this interview. I'd additionally like to thank The Digital Village, Zablac Entertainment and, most of all, Christina Erskine and Simon Byron at Bastion Marketing for organising it all.

Starship Titanic is released on 2nd April 1998.

[FOOTNOTE] Steve Meretzky co-authored the original "Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" computer game with Douglas Adams. [END-OF-FOOTNOTE]

© 1998, 2001, 2006, 2010 Matt Newsome. All trademarks ackowledged. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with Invariant Sections being this entire text (including images) entitled "Douglas Adams Interview", with no Front-Cover Texts and with no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is available here.

Matt Newsome,
15 May 2010, 09:51