No Time To Play

Seltani and the future of text-based virtual worlds

by on Aug.23, 2013, under Review

Myst Online URU

I don’t care for puzzles, as for stories, suffice to say that I play text adventures (and many videogames) mainly for the joy of inhabiting a virtual world which I can explore and play around in. That’s also why I was attracted to MUDs, the text adventures’ multiplayer cousins. It’s an amazing feeling, being able to not only play with your friends in a fantasy world, but to build that world piece by piece from within even as you play.

But MUDs suffer from the same problem as text adventures, namely that nowadays most computer users have been educated to fear command lines, not to mention equate videogames with flashy graphics. Moreover, as the Web has pretty much subsumed the Internet, to the degree that many don’t realize e-mail exists outside the browser, explaining to potential players why they have to download a dedicated client can be hard. And putting a command line inside a webpage comes with its own set of issues.

And that’s where Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin comes in with his newest creation Seltani.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably thought of making something like that years ago, but never got around to it. I mean, it’s a fairly obvious idea: a kind of wiki, with links to move between pages, er, locations, some sort of scripting language for dynamic elements, real time chat and a nice graphical interface for building.

It still blew my mind that someone actually went ahead and did it.

Then again, Mr. Plotkin isn’t just anyone, and in all honesty nobody had much trust in hypertext before the recent CYOA revival. Seltani had to wait for its time to come. But now that it’s here, how does it fare?

First of all, the concept is immediately proven by the fair number of visitors, many of whom jump right into creating their own Ages. (And yes, the Myst theme was also obvious in retrospect. Still a very nice touch.) The just-announced Seltani is already a lot more animated than most MUDs, and that’s just from (blog-based) word of mouth.

Incidentally, that also highlights the biggest problems with Seltani. First, it’s all too easy to forget that you have the game open in another tab, and miss players trying to engage you in conversation. An audible signal for activity in the chat window would be most welcome (thanks, 3Phen).

Second, even finding other players in the first place can be an issue. Seltani may not seem so big right now, but between all the interesting nooks and crannies of the main Age and all the player-made ones there are plenty of places to hide, even without meaning to. So far, the Plaza is a good bet for meeting someone, but the addition of a /shout command would make things much easier.

So, what’s it like to build in Seltani? Basically, you just type text describing the various locations, with simple markings to indicate dynamic features. That includes basics such as moving among locations, so make sure to at least skim the tutorial. But if you’ve ever edited a wiki, you’ll feel right at home. Coming from the other direction, MUD builders will find familiar features such as exits with succ/osucc/odrop messages, as well as an easy to use +view/looktrap system. Building isn’t any less tedious than from a command line, but messages of the form “[$name] slams the door behind [$them]” are a lot more intuitive than the Perl-like substitutions of traditional MUD codebases.

Ages so far range from simple mood-setting areas such as my own City of Dead Leaves (sorry, there’s no way to deep link to it; check out the recent additions in the Book Gallery) [ed: as of 2013-10-08, you can] and all the way to Talgrea, a full-blown RPG with NPCs, quests and whatnot. The system supports the entire range with ease and elegance, and even though it’s still under development, what’s already there works and suffices for many purposes.

Going forward, it remains to be seen what people will do with Seltani. Roleplaying and education are two obvious applications. For tinkerers, the entire system is written in Python and offered under a liberal open source license; I can easily see it becoming the next big thing in text-based virtual worlds.

But now, if you’ll excuse me, I have more Ages to write. See you there!

(Illustration by Massygo; CC-BY)

Creative Commons License
Seltani and the future of text-based virtual worlds by Felix Pleșoianu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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2 Comments for this entry

  • Andrew Plotkin

    I didn’t think of it until earlier this year! I don’t think it’s *that* obvious.

    /shout as an Age-wide (rather, instance-wide) communication command is a good point. (Myst Online has it.) I also want a way to keep a friends list in the booklet and speak to that. And group management, etc. But /shout is easier to set up!

  • Felix
    Felix

    I didn’t mean “obvious” as a criticism. In retrospect, a lot of things are… that’s the genius of an inventor, they think of it before anyone else.

    And I’m glad to hear /shout is easy. I initially meant to suggest channels, but then started thinking of what else could achieve 80% of the same effect with 20% of the effort…

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