Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Whitewash

Posted by midiguru on January 5, 2013

After taking a break from it for a few months, I’m taking a fresh look at The White Bull, my most recent interactive fiction. The sad truth is, it’s not as good as I hoped it would be.

I’d like to roll up my sleeves and revise it, but I’m not at all sure how to make the necessary changes. The story would probably be easier to rewrite as a novel, but I don’t much care for that idea. For one thing, I don’t feel like writing a novel this year. For another, I’m not sure “The White Bull” would make a good novel either.

The limitations of the text adventure game as a medium make handling the story elements rather difficult. Complex characters are difficult — one reviewer complained that the the conversation system was “basic and not extensive,” which just meant that he failed to discover any of the dozens of conversations I implemented. Characterization issues aside, moving the story forward is even harder. If the reader/player has real choices that can affect the outcome, then many players will never find the path to the happy ending. Plus, if there are four significant paths, that’s four times as much work (or possibly 16 times as much). But if the player has no meaningful choices, then the story isn’t interactive — it’s a linear narrative.

My initial idea for the story was that the Labyrinth — you know, the one Daedalus built to imprison the Minotaur — was not only real but still present in some magical dimension. Theseus, in this reading, didn’t kill the Minotaur; he lied about it.

This idea seemed at first blush to lend itself well to interactive fiction, because the most hallowed trope of text games is the maze. The difficulty that immediately leaps up, however, is that players hate mazes. So the Labyrinth can’t be a real maze. I wrote several regions that look like mazes, but aren’t. I’m not sure that did much good. Maybe I should have just made it a giant maze and forced players to by golly work their way through it. Maybe.

A second difficulty is that in the first part of the story, the protagonist (that would be you, or “you”) has no clear motivation to do anything. As a practical matter, you need to collect half a dozen items that you’re going to need later, when you find yourself plunged into the Labyrinth. But you don’t know what the items are or why you might need them, you have no clear motivation to collect them because the story has, during the opening segment, very little sense of urgency, you don’t know that you’ll be visiting the fabled Labyrinth at all — and until you find all of the required items, the story will be stuck in neutral. You’ll never get to the Labyrinth part.

In fact, the Minotaur poses a terrible danger, but until you reach his throne room at the very end of the game, you don’t know that. For all you know while working your way through the game, he might be a pussycat, much maligned but wearily philosophical about it. But if I change the game so that he shows up early in the story and is clearly a menace, that changes everything, not just the characters’ motivations but the physical layout of the story.

While I’m at it, I’d like to make the game more modern in its usage of the interactive text medium. I do get criticized for being “old school” in my game design, and the criticism is not without merit. But I’m not even sure how to do that, and especially not with this game.

The Labyrinth itself needs to be more dreamlike. In the present version, it’s pretty much just a cave, and caves are very old-school. The elements drawn from Greek mythology (and there are a number of them) mostly fail to convey the feeling of a journey into the collective unconscious. They’re just sort of a literary grab bag, and that’s not good at all.

The reviewer who said he didn’t like the music clips, though, because they’re electronic — the hell with him. Unless he gives me $10,000 so I can book a recording session with a symphony orchestra, it’s going to be electronic. I have no patience whatever with people who claim they don’t like electronic music. Go sit on the front porch and play your banjo, if it bothers you.

If I could see a way to improve “The White Bull” as a game, I’d be inclined to give it a try. But at the moment it’s still a muddle. I hate when that happens.

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