One of the first text adventures I ever played was Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". I downloaded it for several reasons:
- I loved the Hitchhiker books and radio show, and was curious to see what the series would be like in other mediums.
- I was curious to see what text adventures were like.
- It is often called a "classic". Nowadays, the word "classic" is used to mean "old", not to describe content. You know, there was a time when it actually meant something. [sigh]
- The game was written by the late Douglas Adams! Has to be good, right?
The first thing I noticed when I started to play it was the amazing strength inherent to the written word. The strength to conjure up a detailed environment and tranquility with minimal words. The strength to provide a meaningful experience.
The second thing I noticed was that the game was using this strength to punch me in the head.
Everything you do in the game is done through extremely simple text commands the player types in, like "look at window" or "take screwdriver". Now, before I start complaining, I'd like you to understand what this sadistic little game is like. I will use the example of the infamous "babel fish" puzzle, and for this I apologize in advance. Your character has just found himself on an alien ship. There happens to be a dispensing machine of some sort in the room. By typing "examine dispenser"
, you find out that there is a button on it and that you will get a babel fish from it. When you "press dispenser button"
, you are told that a fish has sailed "across the room and through a small hole in the wall, just under a metal hook."
So you take off the dressing gown you're wearing, and "hang gown on hook"
. When you press the button again, the fish should hit the gown, and slide to the floor, so you can pick it up, right? No, of course not. "The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, vanishing through the grating of a hitherto unnoticed drain."
So you cover the drain with a towel you got earlier.
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot zips through the panel, and is gone.
So you take a satchel and block the panel with it.
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot plows into the satchel, sending the babel fish flying through the air in a graceful arc. A small upper-half-of-the-room cleaning robot flies into the room, catches the babel fish (which is all the flying junk it can find), and exits.
The solution is (of course! How could you not have thought of this!) to take the junk mail you had picked up earlier and put it on top of the satchel on top of the panel.
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot plows into the satchel, sending the babel fish flying through the air in a graceful arc surrounded by a cloud of junk mail. Another robot flies in and begins madly collecting the cluttered plume of mail. The babel fish continues its flight, landing with a loud "squish" in your ear.
There are two ways to solve this puzzle. The first, which I turned to, is to use the in-game hint system to tell you the entire solution. It doesn't tell you it all at once- it tells you one step at a time, hoping that you'll be able to pick up from where the first few hints lead you. The second way to solve the puzzle is to look at everything you own, try it on everything in the room, and see what happens. This method is not helped by the fact that there is a limit to the number of commands you can use before the game pushes you forward. But even without that problem, this puzzle is not interesting, or funny, or challenging for your creativity, but tedious, and maddening, and mind-numbing. Toward the end of this puzzle, the hint system helpfully comments that "At this point, brave men have been known to break down and cry."
This puzzle is supposed to be funny, and you know what- it may have been funny if you were watching the computer do it instead of having to do it yourself. Douglas Adams, like the most famous adventure game writers, liked making incredibly contrived puzzles, because the suggestion that one should solve puzzles so contrived that no sane person could ever solve them is funny. But if that humor is all they are going for, then the interactivity is a waste of time.
The player is constantly reminded that he is not the character, because the character is to think of things which the player would never think of. He is constantly reminded that he is not the character, because the narrator of the game must fill the player in on what the player is thinking and experiencing. So the player is there to empathize with the character, right? To watch what the character does and what the character is going through, and laugh at it, or think about it, or feel sad about it, or be entertained by it. And if this is the ideal for text adventures, then the interactivity is a waste of time.
How is interactivity useful? In theory, it should allow the player to empathize with the player better, because if you're acting out the character, then you ought to be thinking what the character would think, no? But no. The player will only experience the story if he believes he is in it.
The game must help him suspend disbelief if it wants his reactions to be genuine. But how can you suspend disbelief in a text adventure? By its very nature, you'll be switching tasks every few moments: from the passive experience of reading detailed text, to the active experience of writing minimal commands. How can you believe within such an unnatural medium?
Also, using interactivity in this way seriously limits what the gamist can accomplish. Say you want to make a detective adventure, where the main character is Sherlock Holmes. Well, you can't- at least, not without dumbing down the character. If the main character had the perception and brilliance of Sherlock Holmes, then only a person with the perception and brilliance of Sherlock Holmes could play it, which limits the potential audience to around three people altogether in the world. No, you've got to give Holmes a case so obvious that any moron could figure it out. Ron Gilbert
did this with The Secret of Monkey Island: making the character someone who doesn't know a thing, so that the player is on the same level as him. But any game which features a main character who is not exactly like the player is a bad idea in the current framework. So the character cannot do anything professional, have any knowledge whatsoever prior to the start of the game, have any meaningful relationships with other characters, etc. For a storytelling medium, it is absurd to accept such limitations. In the past, interactive fiction creators have "cheated" their way out of these limitations by sticking in entirely noninteractive segments which develop the main character's personality in a way which does not conform to the player. But this never has any impact on the interactive portion of the game, because once the player is given control, the character reverts to a generic avatar! Better to just make the whole thing noninteractive, then! Have some consistency in the story, not having to provide watered-down challenges which any player could overcome! In this framework for interactive fiction, the interactivity is a waste of time.
What is the purpose of interactive fiction, anyway? If you want to passively enjoy fiction, you read it. If you want to actively enjoy fiction, you write it. These two activities are like night and day, not least because they are two sides of the same. A reader believes he is in the world of the book, and is powerless to change the ending but can feel connected to the story nonetheless. A writer must believe he is outside the world of the book, so that he can think about how the characters will act when they are not like him. But interactive fiction should explore the territory in between the two extremes- where both the gamist and the gamer can contribute to the end result.
The closest thing to this which I am familiar with is improvising on the piano. Eliezer started our tradition of improv in the Academy a year ago. I had been improvising alone (for fun) for a long time, but that was my first experience with duet improvisation. I sit at one grand piano, some other pianist (sometimes Eliezer) sits at the other grand piano, and we just start to play. Sometimes it's with a violin or a saxophone. We're playing, but we're also listening, because we need to complement each other. With these improvs, you never know where it's going, because the other player might suddenly get an idea, and you'll go in that direction with him. Or you might get an idea, and he'll join you. It's fun. But it's very difficult to have a coherent overall structure.
Now say we were to appliy a similar concept to writing. A good work of interactive fiction should be a collaboration between gamist and gamer. Since the gamist is not present to bounce ideas off of the player, AI will have to suffice. The player would not give commands like "press dispenser button", but full sentences like "Arthur Dent pressed the button." This may seem like nothing more than a nuisance, but it would serve to reinforce that the player is above the game, so that he will empathize with characters who are not like him rather than forcing all characters to be like him. As to how, precisely, this would play, I haven't a clue. I'll get back to you.