Maybe I write too much about text-based games, but in my defense the written word is awesome. It’s the closest you get to a digital medium without actual computers (what, with letters and words being discrete symbols by definition), and one of the most flexible as well. Communication doesn’t get more pure than a stream of symbols flowing back and forth; you can write them down on paper, ticker tape, or walls, going left or right, up or down, and even lay them out in three dimensions, as the Ancient Egyptians amply demonstrated. You do have to pick one path when reading, but hey, that’s what we call hypertext nowadays.
Early computer games, from Hamurabi (Doug Dyment, 1968) to Adventure (Will Crowther, 1976) were limited to a linear stream of text, simply because they had to run on teletypes. For the same reason, input was also limited to typing words on a keyboard. But that limitation also meant you exchanged words with the computer from equal footing — what people in the real world call a chat.
And so, a command line remained the defining way to interact with text adventures, helpers like a clickable compass rose notwithstanding. Oh, there were always a few games that tried to emulate the pick-a-choice interface popularized by gamebooks in the 1980s. But those were hardly on anyone’s radar until 2009, when Twine swooped in. At which point it became impossible to ignore all the people shouting that the emperor is naked.
Hello, everyone. Not one week ago word got around the Web that old issues of their magazine were on the Internet Archive, and Nintendo promptly took them down. At least they have the decency to admit they’re just being control freaks, rather than pretending it’s somehow still about money. Oh well.
While on the topic of magazines, SPAG #64 is out is out — a very high-brow issue that’s about much more than just interactive fiction. So is Jason Dyer’s history of the original Adventure: an excellent illustration of why the public domain is as important in gaming as in any other artistic medium. Having recently reimplemented a public domain game myself (for my upcoming book), I can’t stress this enough.
Last but not least, over at Rock, Paper Shotgun Emily Short writes about the power of text as a medium. Knowing how little and poorly we make use of this power in most games (heck, most books), I welcome more discussion on this topic. Or preferably, more experimentation.
Thankfully, that’s happening aplenty. Stay tuned.
Born of technical limitations, parser-based interactive fiction has proven to have enduring qualities. Fans of the medium invoke the natural feeling that you’re simply having a conversation with the computer, as well as the impression of freedom — that for a while you can suspend your disbelief and pretend you can type anything at all at the prompt. Myself, I like how you can easily see what you did a moment ago, so there’s less to remember, and just as easily repeat a recent command, with or without changes, no matter how complex it is.
The downside to that, of course, is that the illusion of complete freedom shatters all too easily, and that presumes you were able to enter “the zone” in the first place. Which just isn’t for everyone. Commands have to be learned, you can’t just stumble upon them like in a graphical game, and despite many attempts at tutorials, both interactive and less so, beginners still struggle. Perhaps because tutorials can teach you the form, but not so much the mindset — the method behind the madness, that you need in order to intuit new commands by yourself. The latter is something you must figure out alone. And sooner or later, you will have to.
Because, you see, not only does interactive fiction partly rely on discovery — on making some possible actions non-obvious — but there are way too many commands to teach them all outright. If I’m not mistaken, top-tier authoring systems each provide about one hundred default verbs, of which three quarters will be completely irrelevant to any particular story. But you still have them at your fingertips, and unless the author takes great pains to steer you away from all that fluff (an undue burden, considering how many other details they need to take care of), you’ll be left to navigate a maze of fake options in search of whatever nuggets of meaningful interaction are sprinkled throughout.
It’s one thing to gently weave a consensual illusion, and another to actively mislead the player, then shrug and smile when they call out your lie. (continue reading…)
Having recently played a very nice text-based RPG made in Twine of all things, and tested a new (to me) authoring system in addition to resuming work on a text adventure, I was once more prompted to think about the similarities between different genres of text-based games. For example, nowadays we associate parser-based interfaces with brainy puzzlefests, or else sophisticated story games, but Adventure and Zork had RPG elements and a strong exploration component. And while works like Hunter, in Darkness or Kerkerkruip are generally seen as experimental, Eamon has always explicitly been an RPG engine, and proudly so (yes, I know people who still swear by it), despite looking for all the world like an interactive fiction authoring system. After all, is there really that much of a difference, mechanically speaking? It’s still a world model based on a graph of discrete locations, with objects that can be manipulated in the same basic ways: examine / take / drop. And the parser itself, as a mode of interaction, has inherent appeal to at least some players, orthogonally to the content. We shouldn’t mix up genre and medium here, like we do with videogames at large, where Heretic and Doom are seen as largely interchangeable simply because they’re based on the same engine and core verbs.
(I’d give newer examples, but I’m not aware of any fantasy first-person shooters this side of Hexen; all the famous titles appear to be sci-fi. Did the Daikatana debacle scare off everyone, or have games like the Elder Scrolls and Might&Magic series been covering the demand for first-person fantasy fans? Oh wait, there was Hellgate: London, another commercial flop. Fair enough, there’s a pattern.) (continue reading…)
Oh my. Late again and for once I have no excuse. So let’s get started.
I’m the kind of player who, when sitting down to try out a MMO, spends a lot of time choosing and customizing an avatar. Nightwrath always gets impatient, but come on. Isn’t the avatar supposed to represent me well? This is why this article about dress-up games caught my eye. Not so much the examples they give — Hero Forge is much more to my taste. But that would require going into details. Point is, dress-up isn’t just for kiddies.
Moving on. On the 30th anniversary of the NES launching in the US, we get an in-depth retrospective of the console’s development. And apropos of nothing, here’s a personal history of the text adventure, a thoughtful and informed write-up. Last but not least, it turns out White Wolf has been sold again, from one computer game publisher to another. It remains to be seen what sort of vampire games we can expect this time.
At last we get to a headline actually related to game development. Well, the concept of a complexity budget applies to all software. It just happens that games are often among the most ambitious software projects, and it tends to kill them very dead.
Don’t make that mistake. Keep it simple… son.
I hate it when that happens. Between my project being on hold due to unforeseen circumstances and my mind being on 3D art these days (what started as some illustration work turned into more), I find myself at the end of the week with just one topic for you. One. Pathetic, isn’t it? At least that gives me extra room for comment.
It was via Chris Meadows of Teleread fame that I heard about this virtual tour of abandoned Second Life sites, and while SL is still populous overall, that instantly reminded me of the months I spent in 2009 exploring empty MU*s. And those usually were completely deserted, forgotten even by the sysadmins running the servers. Apart from the medium — text versus graphics — similarities are striking. Outdated announcements stuck to a wall; weird objects in surreal surroundings; the feeling that someone could pop in any time, despite the server stats showing the last login to have been years before.
Which only serves to remind me that Seltani, which I reviewed with much enthusiasm two years ago, became a ghost town before the year was over. Even I abandoned it for the most part, shamefully so. That’s what happens when you fail to establish a tight community, I suppose — absent that, virtual worlds remain a solution in search of a problem, and pretty graphics can’t help. What did we expect when we reacted to the complete freedom of cyberspace by trying to recreate the limitations of meatspace within it?
In completely unrelated news, it’s not often that a gameplay trailer catches my eye, but Rolling Torque looks very much like a low-poly, highly colorful, spiritual successor to Marble Madness, and the retrogamer in me can’t fail to find that compelling. I’d play it, and that’s rare these days. See you next week.
You know strategy games, right? You start with a few units; they harvest resources with which they build buildings; those in turn make more advanced units that can engage the opposition and hopefully win. All while gathering even more resources, upgrading your settlement and so on.
If you thought Starcraft or Settlers of Catan when reading the above, you’re on the right track.
But strategy games didn’t begin with those. They didn’t even begin with Dune 2. One of the earliest such games — the first great hit — was called Hamurabi and could be played with a teletype. Yes, it was a text game, much like the original Adventure and Rogue, and almost as addictive as them. Other famous strategy games were born during that era, such as Star Trek and Trade Wars.
You’d think all of them belong in history books, but during this century a new crop of browser-based multiplayer games have been eschewing graphics again in favor of an interface some people have derisively called “playable Excel documents”. In all honesty, it’s hard to fault them when you look at OGame; at least its competitor Travian still bothers to have a map.
But the joke’s on them, because these games are enormously popular.
I meant to work on my game some more before this week’s issue, but an impromptu trip messed up my schedule something fierce. Luckily, I’m hardly hurting for content.
I’ll start with a fascinating post-mortem. Via Gamasutra, here’s the story of a hobbyist programmer’s game that was 13 years in the making!
The story, itself told with skill and humor, covers six big problems that marked the project. Three of them are very, very familiar.
As if to compensate for the slow week before Easter, the gaming world returned with a vengeance to give me the most links I had since this year started. Luckily I know how to prioritize, so here we go.
The big news, of course, is that I’ve been invited to a game in the Storium beta. It’s a new web-based platform for roleplaying games, currently running a Kickstarter to fund further development. I gave it a try at the insistence of an acquaintance who’s already in love with the idea. In all honesty, I was halfway intrigued by the Kickstarter video, which makes it look like StoryNexus and phpBB met and had a child before moving on.
All right, so I’m going to state the obvious by pointing out it was Easter, so for once I have an excuse to not give you many links.
The big news is of course that Richard Gariott has recovered the source code for Shroud of the Avatar, one of the world’s earliest CRPGs, which he wrote to run on teletypes way back in 1977. And now he’s organizing a contest to have it ported from the original BASIC to modern web-based platforms. A neat idea, but for two little details: (continue reading…)