Words, Words, Words
Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.
-- Rudyard Kipling
Faced with the prospect of eight actual days of vacation, I faced a familiar conundrum: what to play. Since this vacation is the biennial trip to the in-laws, console games were out. I knew before I even packed it that my DS would be monopolized by cousins most of the time, so this left laptop games.
My first thought was Gametap. Thanks to Gametap, my laptop already has countless old-school games, and I'm behind on Sam & Max episodes. But the problem with Gametap remains its connectivity requirements, and the in-law compound features spotty wireless coverage poached from the neighbors. But then a friendly email to the Conference Call mailbox mentioned text adventures.
Which cued this conversation on AIM:
GWJRabbit: So, favorite text adventure of time?
Certis: Um. None?
The problem with text adventures is that they're dead. Just as video killed the radio star, that first King's Quest (or it's ilk) and an ill-fated business move by Infocom killed the commercial genre for good. At the time, this wasn't necessarily a bad thing; Infocom games had become very hit or miss as the company went into its death throes. Because of this well-documented, well-understood, and perhaps well-deserved death, I hadn't considered playing one in at least a decade.
First stop on the trip down memory lane was my favorite Infocom game of all time. Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy has been rehashed a dozen times, and most recently was resurected with a very thin layer of illustration by the BBC. An hour's play reminded me why the game is so brilliant -- if you've read the book, it lets you re-live the story from a new perspective. It's like re-reading a classic written in a different voice (something brilliantly done by Orson Scott Card in his alternate "Ender's Game" story, "Ender's Shadow").
Stop two was Leather Goddess of Phobos. Tongue firmly in cheek, it remains a blast to play. The game begins by forcing players to choose genders, and despite the lewdness of the plot line, the free-wheeling nature of writing for an adult audience made the prose itself worthy of reading. Unfortunately, playing today on Gametap (or one of the countless abandonware sites) robs players of the best part of the game: the DRM scheme. The original box (which, sadly, I lost in a move somewhere in the big-hair era) contained a 3d comic book and a scratch-and-sniff card which were required in order to get all the way through the game. (Thankfully, you can skip this with the help of online hints).
A few hours between the two titles, and I passed through the nostalgia-barrier and ran into reality. While these are both brilliant games, they suffer from Infocom-itis -- an excessive reliance on constructive puzzles, and in general, length. Text games require significant mental commitment. There are no maps, no convenient clues, no journals one click away to remind you where you are and what you've done. On firing up a text adventure from a save game, you either need notes or a very good memory to remember all the potential clues that have come before. Unlike Phoenix Wright, there's no inventory of conversations and flavor text that might yield the answer to some stumping puzzle. In other words, text adventures are ultimately most effective when played in a single sitting.
Thankfully, what survives of the genre, in the form of a small but productive "Interactive Fiction" subculture, understands brevity. The IF community revolves around an annual competition, the IF Comp. The rules of the IF Comp have a critical requirement, which is that judges may play a game for no longer than two hours before assigning a rating. Consequently, the small band of writers who keep the genre alive write short games, and some of them are flat out brilliant. (A separate award system, with different rules, is run by the XYZZY webzine.)
My first exposure to this new breed was Adam Cadre's 9:05. 10 minutes later, I was done, and realized I'd missed something. I played it again. Different ending, realized I'd missed something. I played it again and I got goosebumps. This incredibly short game is an object lesson in the true power of the medium -- the power of writing in the second person. And in realizing that, I had to face another reality -- text based adventures are, more than anything, works of literature. Not necessarily good literature, but then again, crappy romance novels are in the fiction section of Borders alongside Mark Twain and Herman Melville.
In the world of bookstore literature, the second person "You walk down the hall ..." is unknown, with a few minor, experimental exceptions. But it's the default of every Infocom game, and almost video game -- text based, 3d whizbangery, MMO and everything in between. Done well, this locks the player/reader into the roll of the protagonist. Every First Person Shooter, while putting you in the first person perspective visually, actually addresses you in the second person. Half Life to Gears of War has the action happening to the player, and therefor the games implicitly address the player as "you." A script for Gears of War might read "You shoot the bad guys." As the protagonist in Oblivion or LOTRO or WoW, dialog is addressed to the player in the same way: "Thanks, I really appreciate you killing those 20 bears. Here's your 12 silver."
When you remove the barriers to imagination (the shiny graphics and aggressive soundtracks) and replace them with the simplicity of the written word, the impact of being forced into the role of the hero, villain or victim is much more powerful. Combined with the genre's discovery of brevity, the IF community has reinvigorated the very idea of the short story, and the results can be startling. Vespers, a game by Jason Devlin and winner of the 2005 IF Comp, is my stumbled-upon icon. Set in a small setting (a monastery) the game succeeds where most horror fiction fails -- it's truly horrifying but maintains a pacing that borders on the laconic. It creates a sense of personal connection and inevitability which left me shivering in the 100 degree poolside heat of my vacation. Vespers is so compelling that, ironically, a project is underway to illustrate the game with a hybrid 3d graphics/text adventure engine (which to me seems contrary to the whole point).
Perhaps it's the complete lack of commercial viability that keeps the genre alive. Like modern art, it can be hard to know what to make of the current crop of Interactive Fiction. Some of it is Infocom derivative, relying on mechanical puzzles. XYGGY's 2006 award winner, "The Elysium Enigma" is in this camp. In order to "win" the protagonist needs to solve highly irrelevant "collect these three things and do something inobvious" puzzles. But it's worth playing anyway because the act of discovery is itself interesting enough to skip through the puzzles with the help of the hint file.
This kind of discovery-without-puzzle is where the genre works the best. In Cadre's 9:05, discovery and exploration is all there is. In many ways this means there is no game -- there is no score, there is no winning, there is simply finishing. 9:05 can be played through in 5 minutes, and certainly won't last longer than 15 even if you explore every piece of the, um, game.
When put in the context of text, a five minute game seems no more irrelevant than a sonnet or a 5 minute song. Put in the context of text, two hours exploring Vespers is as moving and terrifying as a well made film. While 9:05 and Vespers aren't Shakespeare, they do compress a tone, an image, and a sense of being into a tight package. And by relying almost entirely on IF's signature feature -- second person -- they lock you into the role of protagonist, and most importantly, refuse to let you go.
And that, ultimately, is the whole point of gaming -- to be someone else for a while.
A Note on Access
Because the current generation of IF lives on the very fringes of gaming, literature, and geek, it can be an exercise in frustration just to access the games. Half a dozen standards exist for interpreting the games and presenting them on nearly any computing device you can imagine. While the IF archive contains all the pieces you might want, the servers for most of the IF community seem to be dirt-slow and poorly organized PDP-11s appropriate to the era from which the genre came. The Brass Lantern is probably the best resource for getting your feet wet, but I've packaged up half a dozen better game files and interpreters here for folks looking to explore.