Ancient Geek History: Interactive Fiction 2- Electric Boogaloo

3 02 2010

For those of you who have not read the thrilling prelude to Interactive Fiction 2- Electric Boogaloo, I suggest you check it out here. For the rest of us, onward and upward.

The main reason that I wanted to blog about interactive fiction was because I started playing IF games around 2002. By that time, text adventures were ludicrously outdated. I might as well have been smashing two rocks together and watching the spark for all of the technical capacity that text adventures require. How the hell did this come to be?

As I mentioned in the earlier post, it’s all Douglas Adams’ fault. He led me to Infocom’s back catalog of games, and I was mostly unimpressed. Most of the games involved pretty abstract puzzle solving logic. Much of your time was spent wrestling with the parser, trying to phrase your sentence in the exact way that the game designers thought you should.

Infocom went the way of the dodo in 1989, staggering along as an undead fiend bewitched by Activision’s voodoo magic until around 1996. And frankly, after that, there was very little commercial interest in interactive fiction. But never underestimate the drive, creativity, and inventiveness of the wackaloons on the internet. As soon as something becomes archaic, esoteric, or difficult to use, a certain type of person is bound to celebrate it. Now that interactive fiction had moved beyond the commercial realm, it was primed to become a medium for the people.

Internet communities began to form around text adventures and interactive fiction. Enthusiasts began to congregate. Soon, pioneers like Graham Nelson and Micheal J. Roberts developed new programming languages for text adventures. By 1993, about anyone with sufficient time could write an IF game. And some of them were even pretty good at it.

The text adventure games that were my favorites were always the fan-produced ones. The ones penned by people on their personal computers, over weeks of programming and testing. The good ones were always labors of love: weird, idiosyncratic, and fully realized. I think it’s fascinating that people would choose to express themselves in a unequivocally obsolete medium. It would be like if I wrote my stupid little pop-culture blog in a mixture of Latin, Esperanto, and Klingon.

For a long time, there was a pretty dedicated community of IF programmers releasing their own games and participating in interactive fiction competitions like the XYZZY Awards. Even today, there are still a select few IF true believers who are pumping out purposefully archaic games. So why does this ostensibly dead medium still have legs?

I can think of a few reasons, the least noble of which being nostalgia. For whatever reason, people have gotten it into their heads that the 80’s were a decade worth remembering. Personally, I think the only good things to come out of the 80’s were The Dead Kennedys, A Fish Called Wanda, me, and the 1988 Dodge Shadow. But some people wistfully hope to reclaim that pimply period of their lives where they spent hours staring into a glowing screen that had half the computing power of an iPod. And God bless ’em for it.

More importantly, interactive fiction allows for a different type of interactivity than what most videogamers are used to. Current generation videogames are marketed on, and ultimately hindered by, their ability to render graphics. That is, you can only interact with the environment based on what animations are programmed.

Imagine yourself playing the next unavoidable installment in the Grand Theft Auto series. Say, for instance, that you want to put down your Heckler & Koch HK53 for a moment and give a nearby puppy a loving kiss on the nose. You will likely find that this action is unsupported. No “puppy-kissing” animation has been created, no “puppy-kissing” button has been assigned, puppies cannot be kissed. In a text adventure it’s much easier to allow the user to interact freely with his environment, because of the simplicity and versatility of a text interface. It’s relatively easy to code the command “Kiss Puppy” in your IF game (“The puppy wags it’s tail enthusiastically. You appear to make friends very quickly.”), and even if it’s not necessary to the “plot” of the game, it’s still very rewarding to the user.

Lots of text adventures abandoned the idea of a set “plot” in favor of increased interactivity. There are lots of “toy” games where the object is to interact with your environment in interesting ways. Many games forgo traditional puzzle-solving in favor of creating a branching plot where your interaction with the environment alters the course of the game.

Games with graphics try to pull this trick off, but just can’t. Ultimately, you’re tied to the mechanics of the game, the environments that have been created, and the cutscenes that have been designed. There might be a little bit of variation allowed, but by and large gamers must color within the lines. No real meaningful changes to the course of the game can be made.

Interactive fiction can allow people to change the course of their experiences within the game. The nature of the games allows for lush detail and obsessive description, often creating a very fully fleshed out universe. There is no other type of experience that is analogous to playing an IF game, it is a specific medium with bizarre  set of limitations and advantages.  It allows for a type of interactivity that contrasts strongly with the type of videogame interactivity we’re used to. In the hands of a skilled designer, it can be an experience that defies explanation. But that’s a story for our next installment of “Ancient Geek History.” Tune in next time for, “Interactive Fiction 3- With a Vengeance.”

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