Games People Play

I’ve been looking at Undum. It’s a very attractive authoring system in some ways. The visual display is far superior to the display in any of the current interactive fiction interpreters, and it runs quickly because the whole story is implemented directly in Javascript. An Inform game running in a browser using Parchment or Quixe (Javascript interpreters) is rather sluggish by comparison.

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.

It might be fun to try to splice a traditional IF library (objects, inventory, puzzles, and so on) into the Undum engine. If I were an experienced Javascript wrangler, I’d be tempted to try it. The idea being, keep the beautiful user interface, add the full range of object manipulation, but don’t add a parser or a command line interface. All user commands would be in the form of mouse clicks. If there’s an object you can examine, for instance, it will be a hyperlink in the room description. If there’s something you can pick up, click on ‘take’ in the Commands box and then on the name of the object in the main text, and it disappears from the main text and shows up in your Inventory box.

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.

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5 Responses to Games People Play

  1. Ben Cressey says:

    You do a nice job of summarizing my own take on Undum: pretty, but rings a bit hollow. I generally fall into the pro-command line camp, though; the IF games I like best wouldn’t work without one, so I’m not anxious to discard it.

    What I consider the major weakness of the command prompt is that it’s inherently unsuited to handheld devices with anemic keyboard input: iPhones, iPads, Kindles and the like. Which is a shame, since otherwise these are a great way to experience IF as a portable book.

    So I think there’s room for assistive technologies for input composition: intelligent autocomplete for verbs; hyperlinks that paste the linked object into the command line rather than execute a predefined command. That sort of thing. You have to figure out what to do, but the game helps you type it correctly.

    I imagine this as a set of Inform extensions working in conjunction with a “Publish to Portable” release target that would output an app bundle of the appropriate flavor. In the Apple realm, that runs squarely into the gate around the App Store’s walled garden, but there are workarounds even so.

    Some forthcoming Glk extensions are intended to provided greater control over the command prompt, which should make the assistive stuff more practical in the near future.

    • midiguru says:

      Up to a point, I like the idea of auto-complete. I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen it done in an awkward, intrusive way that made you want to shut it off entirely.

      In addition to an Inform extension, you’d need a rewrite of the existing interpreters so that they could handle it. And … hey, let’s not forget about TADS authors! Like, for instance, me. Personally, I’m pretty much fed up with Inform 7. I’ve written two games in it, partly because I wanted to understand it and partly because I wanted to be able to teach it. So I feel entitled to speak from experience.

      I just don’t care for the fuzzy, poorly documented syntax. But that’s just me. Others obviously would disagree.

      The point is, it would be nice to have a better delivery system that isn’t Inform-specific. If Parchment and Quixe would only run in Internet Explorer, I’m sure we’d hear howls of protest. Allowing people to use their own preferred system tools is a good thing, and fortunately Javascript is pretty much cross-platform (although IE chokes on standard JS code quite a lot, I believe). In the same way, an auto-complete implementation ought to support I6, I7, and T3. Also Hugo and Adrift, which I believe are still being used by a few people.

      Forcing everyone to march in lockstep with I7 in order to get the modern features … Apple is doing that with their mobile apps, and getting screamed at. I rest my case.

      • Ben Cressey says:

        Well, Apple is getting screamed at by developers. End users seem pretty satisfied with the App Store experience. I think the lesson there is that developer preferences don’t carry much weight.

  2. georgek says:

    I think there are a couple of viable JavaScript IF resources; there was a comp game from a few years back (Aunts and Butlers I think?). And there’s a new lib called JIFFEE, which doesn’t have a good interface at the moment, but it’s a start.

    I wonder if you could splice a hybrid command line into Undum somehow, maybe adopting some of the interface ideas from the horacetorys.weebly.com site?

    The whole Glk thing has always confused me a bit, but it does seem like it’s a viable cross-system target for interpreters; JACL for example uses Glk, right? TADS may never use it, but a new system could, and automatically get all the Glk (or is it glulx?) interpreters for its games.

  3. Horace Torys says:

    I think your example is insufficient. Yes, for that particular puzzle you’d either need STRAIGHTEN cluttering the verb list for the whole game, or show up only at that point, which would give the puzzle away.

    But, in your example, you’d either have to hint that it needs straightening, in which case it’s only a small “aha,” or just let them bang their head against a wall until they guess STRAIGHTEN or quit playing.

    LucasArts games had pretty fun puzzles with limited verbs and objects that still allowed lateral thinking but with very limited input (granted, they also had a lot of really horrible illogical combination puzzles).

    I personally think one of the problems with IF for newcomers is the focus on this kind of object-manipulation puzzle. Not many other genres of literature fixate on collecting and manipulating or combining objects (maybe crime scene investigation, mysteries, etc.) and I think if new readers are going to come to IF, it will be for other aspects, not fiddly puzzles. “Other aspects” might include rich characters, agency in the plot, interesting moral or personal choices, persistent world model, exploration, ability to delve deeply or shallowly into characters and background, etc.

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