Games in Text

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been spending some time thinking about text adventure games. Or Interactive Fiction (IF), which is what most of the people actively writing and playing these things call it.

It’s interesting, as someone who hasn’t paid more than casual attention to this area of games since childhood, to see where it’s ended up. There’s a very lively online community of people working in text games, but it’s primarily amateur, unlike most other areas of game creation [1]. It also seems pretty insular, in the same way that leads Elizabeth Bear to describe science fiction short story writing as a club scene [2].

One of the general things that caught my attention is that there’s a ton of informed, well-considered discussion within this community about storytelling in games, and about game structure and technique in general, but the scope of games in practice seems much narrower. If, like me, you’re not likely to touch anything involving medieval fantasy, fairy tales, or steampunk, that can really limit your options. I’m finding that the text nature of the game means I’m much more likely to judge the game on whether I find the story compelling, not just whether I find the gameplay enjoyable.

Most of the things that normally combine to make play compelling are absent here, as well. There’s rarely a timing or physical performance issue [3], moves can be made at any speed the player desires, and while many games do award points for solving puzzles, that seems to have more of an effect on the sense of pacing (if you have 4 out of 6 tokens, you’re about that close to finishing).

Anyhow, enough general babble. Here’s what I’ve been playing and what I’m using to play it.

Lost Pig. This is my favorite so far, by a long shot, so I’m listing it first. You’re an orc, and you have to get the missing pig back to the pig farm where you work before daybreak or you’ll lose your job. It’s funny, well-written, and IMO the perfect size and scope for this sort of game. It also succeeds at one of the things that cause many text games to fall flat for me: everything you do enhances the story, instead of only helping to solve the game puzzle.

The Dreamhold. I started here because it was rated newbie-friendly, and I’d agree with that. I didn’t find the story very interesting, but the gameplay was fine, and after getting through a couple of puzzles I was interested enough to finish.

9:05. Short and meant to be re-played to get the full tale. It’s not hard, and has a funny twist.

Aisle. Even more than 9:05, this is primarily an exercise in storytelling, rather than a full game. You get to do one thing, something will happen, then the game starts over. You build up the whole story by reading what happens as you try different things. It takes place in a grocery store.

Violet. This is a game where you’re trying to work on your dissertation, but distractions keep getting in the way. Violet is the girlfriend who is going to leave you if you don’t get the writing done. There were many things I liked about this one, but for me the pieces were better than the whole. I got frustrated several times when the game told me I couldn’t resolve a puzzle a certain way because Violet didn’t approve. In the end I wanted to give up on the PhD, dump Violet, and go play in the park with the zombies and mole men.

Anchorhead. I really wanted to like this, because I’m a Lovecraft fan and it was highly rated on IFDB. Alas, I had multiple “throw the book across the room” moments within the first hour. The game map is wide open at the start, so if you’re not clear on what it expects you to do, you can wander off and completely screw up your ability to continue [4]. On round 2, I found the PC’s husband in the university library, attempted to talk to him to figure out what I should be doing, and wound up so frustrated I wanted to punch him (the game insisted that was out of character). Eventually I consulted the walkthrough, which told me my first move was to do something that seemed entirely out of character for someone who is dressed in “a tasteful ensemble from Ann Taylor” [5]. So I yelled at the game for a few more minutes then quit.

Enough games. Here’s the other part, about software for playing and writing them.

The first thing you should know is that IF games are generally not distributed as a complete executable package. Instead there are game files in formats like z-machine and glulx, which you open in an interpreter. There’s a push to make the most common game formats easily playable in a web browser through Javascript or Flash-based interpreters, which lets authors link to a version of the game on the web ready to go, but this doesn’t appear to be the default approach currently.

The main interpreter I’m using is called Frotz. It’s available as an iOS app that comes preloaded with several games to try, and you can download more through IFDB. For me, playing on a mobile device instead of my laptop is ideal, because I like to get away from the computer at the end of the day. I’ve also tried a couple of games using Parchment, and I downloaded Spatterlight but don’t have anything loaded in there yet.

To create games, I downloaded a program called Inform. Inform is very neat. It’s a natural-language DSL for creating games (z-machine or glulx), and so far it hits that sweet spot between ease of use and power very well. I’m currently in the middle of working through the tutorial by writing a model of my apartment. Next I plan to do something with zombies. [7]

More results to come.

[1] The electronic ones, anyhow. Is there a good category term for games that includes console, internet, and computer ones? Software games? I know there’s a certain amount of non-commercial activity in tabletop and RPG gaming, so I want to distinguish between that and this.

[2] Meaning a community where work is created by and for the participants.

[3] Depending on how well you type and spell, I suppose.

[4] I got lost in a twisty maze of streets, all alike.

[5] Obvious clue the game was written by a guy: the description of the PC’s clothing doesn’t mention shoes at all, but everything else suggests she ought to be wearing very plain pumps (probably in beige). If I were climbing on trash cans in anything with a heel, you can bet I’d notice, but the game blows right past that detail without remark. [6]

[6] There were many other things I found annoying, like not being able to get drunk or glare at people, but if I keep going I’ll have to rename this post to “Why Anchorhead Sucks and Everyone Who Gave it 5 Stars is Wrong”.

[7] Zombies and unconferences and learning to kill zombies at the unconference. I suspect the audience for this game will be about three people, but what’s wrong with that?

2 responses to “Games in Text

  1. WIN! ~ Good post. Love me some IF. Reminds me of choose your own adventure and early KQ games…

  2. This post rocks Audrey! Thanks so much for gathering these all together.
    I didn’t know half of these existed!