Ancient Geek History: Interactive Fiction, Pt.1

25 01 2010

For one of my classes last semester, I was coerced into reading “A Rape in Cyberspace” by Julian Dibbell. It’s an interesting little essay, and it’s pretty colorfully written as well. There’s a lot of meditation about the nature of rape as a crime, as well loads of compelling insights into the way that an internet community regulates itself.

Dibbell’s essay analyzes events that took place in Tiny Society, an online MOO game. MOOs are a particular breed of online text adventure (sometimes referred to as “interactive fiction” by snobs). The term “text adventure game” is pretty self- explanatory. The game describes a setting (“You are standing on a path in the forest. Ahead, there is a fork in the road. Exits are Northeast, Northwest, and South. From the Northeast, a troll appears carrying a sack of trinkets.”). You are able to interact in the game’s universe by typing commands (“Smack troll with enchanted tire iron, steal the troll’s trinkets.) Basically, it’s a “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” novel to the umpteenth degree. MOOs are differentiated from other text-based games largely by their overwhelming lack of anything interesting to do.

When discussing Dibbell’s essay, most people in my class thought the concept of text-based games was pretty absurd, especially the current-generation  console gamers in the group. Few seemed able to comprehend the enjoyment that one could glean from interacting in an environment that is described rather than shown. I was one of the few people that even understood the concept of text-based gaming. And it was at that point that I accepted my status as a walking anachronism.

The reason that I’m one of the select few of my peer group who knows anything about interactive fiction is because I come from a family of unabashed Luddites. We do not like technology, and we’re very skittish about change. We railed against the concept of cell phones for as long as we could. Computers were considered “unnecessary” in our household.  Once, when I was five, my father smashed my Speak & Spell with a stone, decrying it as “Double-A fueled electronic devilry!”

But eventually, in my early teens, I did get my own computer. It was just a patchwork Frankenstein of a computer that I slapped together myself using spare parts I had scavenged from attics across the land. I wasn’t a particularly competent computer technician, but I knew how to hook up ribbon cables, and that’s really all you need to know besides DON’T EVER TOUCH THE MOTHERBOARD, YOU TWIT!

So I built my own computer. But understand this: it was a piece of garbage. It was slow, clunky, prone to error messages, and too obsolete to do anything useful. It was about as interactive as a calculator or perhaps a small chunk of obsidian, and I used it mostly for weighing down various important documents.

Now, this was at a time in my life where I pretty much worshiped Douglas Adams. I had read the entirety of his literary works (with the exception of Last Chance to See), I’d gone through his collected essays online, I’d listened to his radio plays, and I’d watched his episodes of Dr. Who. At that point, I’d almost exhausted the stockpile of Douglas Adams-penned material available on the open market.

But Douglas Adams was a technophile. As such, he saw a tremendous opportunity in the burgeoning videogame market of the mid-1980s. Adams understood that videogames represented a powerful new medium in which artists could create forms of art heretofore unimaginable. So, Adams teamed up with text adventure giant Infocom to create two videogames that reflected his iconic comedic sensibility, namely 1984’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and 1987’s Bureaucracy.

So, once I discovered that there was more Douglas Adams out there to be consumed, I set out to consume it. Luckily for me, text-adventure games are so tiny and simplistic that even my idiot man-child of a computer could run them. Unluckily for me, the games were unforgiving, spiteful little demons that seemed to actively take pleasure in my pain. In fact, most interactive fiction games were nearly-unplayable messes designed to drive sane people to the brink of madness, but many others were absorbing experiences that blended the lush verbal realm of writing with the interactive experiences of gaming in a unique way. But that’s a story for another post. Stay tuned!

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