But Undum is, at heart, a CYOA (choose your own adventure) authoring system. In CYOA, the reader can traverse different paths through the story, but niceties like being able to pick up and manipulate objects are pretty much not allowed. The interactivity is strictly of the “choose path A or path B” variety. Undum goes a bit further than a standard CYOA engine, but not a lot further. Nor was it designed to go much further.
The more I think about it, though, the more I think, how much fun would that be?
The point of playing a game, any sort of game, is to exercise one’s cleverness. In different games, this is naturally done in different ways. In graphics-based games, for instance, the set of commands available to the user may be simple and known from the outset: You may get to use the arrow keys, and that’s it. The cleverness, then, lies in figuring out how to dodge the monsters by tapping the arrow keys at exactly the right moments.
In command-line-based interactive fiction, the domain in which the player gets to exercise cleverness is figuring out which commands to use. That’s it. There’s no action to speak of. The kind of deep thought you would employ when playing chess is not likely to be useful. No, what you need to do to win the game is read carefully (because the author may have mentioned something important in the description of the room and disguised it by writing about it as if it was no more than minor scenery) and then think carefully about what sorts of actions might be useful.
I’m going to use a spoiler from one of my own games here, because it illustrates the principle pretty well. In “Lydia’s Heart,” there’s an old trunk in the cellar. Naturally, it’s locked, and you can pretty well guess there’s bound to be something important in it. Not only do you not have the key, there isn’t a key anywhere to be found.
However (and here’s the spoiler) you can pick the lock. To do so requires, first, that you notice the croquet hoops that have been jammed into the dirt here and there in an outdoor location. The hoops appear to be a minor bit of depressing atmosphere, but in fact you can take one of them. You can then insert it into the lock on the trunk — but initially that won’t work. To get it to work, you have to use the command ‘straighten hoop’. Once the hoop has been unbent, so that it’s a straight length of metal, you can pick the lock with it and then open the trunk, and the story will move forward.
The player has to do three things: Notice the croquet hoops (and think of taking one), perceive a non-obvious connection between a croquet hoop and the lock on an old trunk, and then think of using the word “straighten” in a command. Now let’s envision an Undum-based IF engine, in which commands and objects are clickable. The croquet hoops will be highlighted as links in the room description, because they’re objects you can interact with. And the command ‘straighten’ will appear in the Commands box, because if it isn’t there you can’t use that command. As a result, the puzzle will fall almost entirely flat. You’ll still have to think of using the command ‘unlock trunk with hoop’, but two thirds of the puzzle will be gone. And because less cleverness will be needed, the puzzle will be no more than a tedious bit of busywork that the reader/player has to engage in so as to move the story forward.
So I’m reconsidering the question of whether the command line interface is a problem or a good thing. Right now I’m thinking it’s a good thing.
If newcomers to IF are discouraged by having to use a command line, then yes, let’s figure out a way to provide tutorials that will get them going — not huge gobs of explanatory text, which probably nobody has the patience to read, but something within the game that will provoke that “aha!” moment. But if we do away with the command line, the risk is that we’ll be removing the whole point of the interactive fiction medium.
Without the command line, I’m not sure there would be a game at all. And if interactive fiction is not a game, what is it? A story? Not really. A story is a linear narrative. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. IF is not a very good medium for telling conventional stories. If you want to tell a story, sit down and write the story, that’s my advice.
But that’s a topic for another time. Right now I’m celebrating the idea that the medium of interactive fiction is useful for creating games. That is, we’re creating software environments within which players can exercise their cleverness.
I might even release my next game without any built-in hints. There’s a subversive thought.