January 2008 Archives

The Joy of Text

| | Comments (0) | TrackBacks (0)
text.pngThis post started out as a review of The Baron and I had enormous difficulty writing it, for two reasons. First, because The Baron is a deeply complex game with many interesting features and powerful thematic elements that I did not want to spoil. And second, because reviewing games is not really what I'm interested in doing here. So instead of reviewing The Baron I will simply say, "The Baron is a deeply complex game with many interesting features and powerful thematic elements; you should play it," and then address a couple interesting points about interactive fiction.

I am not an expert on interactive fiction. Honestly, although I'm a fan, I have pretty limited experience. I only played a few pieces of IF last year, and of those the only one that provoked the same sort of contemplation as The Baron is Floatpoint. In these two pieces, however, I'm impressed at how well an in medias res approach to storytelling works. In each piece, the player is dropped unceremoniously into a complex and unfamiliar situation. In each, the first order of business is an exploration of the narrative space to answer some fundamental questions: Who am I? Where am I? What is my relationship to this place and to these people? What is my role in the world, and what is my goal? These elements of the story are authored, not left up to the player, but they have to be discovered or inferred by investigation of the game world. Certainly, this is not an approach common to all IF games; nor is it something that is likely to appeal to all players, although I love it when it is done as well as it is in these games. It seems a technique that is much less common in mainstream games, however, and although that may have something to do with the fact that IF is already a niche genre and therefore attracts more niche styles-of-play, I think that text-based games lend themselves more to this sort of technique.

Graphical systems, by their nature, are capable of conveying much more information at a glance than text-based systems. In games, this functionality is largely devoted to representation of space. In the typical 2D or 3D game, at any given time the majority of the player's screen will be filled with some sort of view of the world. Because of the visual nature of this representation, almost all information about the player character's environment is conveyed implicitly. In a 3D game, the player may have to swing the camera around to see things from a different angle, but he or she doesn't have to make an express effort to get an understanding (at least, a basic or superficial understanding) of the composition of the space surrounding the character. In contrast, the explicit exploration of space is one of the common processes by which a player interacts with a text-based system. In order to come to an understanding of environment, the player does have to make this sort of express effort to investigate elements of the scene. At the beginning of The Baron, for example, a basic look command will inform the player that the room contains a table. It's necessary to examine the table to discover that a framed photograph rests on it; it's further necessary to examine the photograph to find out what it depicts. This sort of interaction is not at all unreasonable in a text-based system, but no analogue occurs in a graphical system where the table and photograph are apparent in a cursory inspection.

It seems to me that this sort of spacial exploration runs nicely parallel to the narrative exploration that in medias res storytelling demands. In fact, in many cases the character and general backstory can be folded into the description of space and significant objects (including non-player characters) in the environment. In the case of the photograph on the table, examining the picture could trigger a memory or some other description that relates the character to the world. (This technique is used in The Baron, although not at this particular moment; I believe this sort of "folded-in" discovery is also employed in Floatpoint, along with more explicit exposition.) This makes the process of narrative exploration much more natural - or, at least, piggy-backs it onto a more natural process - to mitigate player confusion and frustration. In our graphical analogue, the player has no reason to explicitly examine the picture, since it is already visible, and therefore there is no place for secondary information to be accessed intuitively.

This idea of exploration is particularly interesting in The Baron because of the cyclical nature of the game. On the first pass, the player is exploring the physical space and the narrative space, trying to come to an understanding of the environment and the character. Subsequent passes are devoted to exploring the possibility space of user interaction, trying different actions and seeing what the consequences are; because of the cyclical set-up and the thematic focus on motivated action, this sort of exploration of possible actions becomes a central game mechanic over the course of multiple plays-through of the game. Using the process of choosing an action as a game mechanic in this way is another area where I believe the text-based interaction of IF has an advantage over graphical games.

The set of valid options may be just as limited as with a graphical interface, but the set of potentially valid options is larger. Usually, in a graphical interface, there will be a limited number of points of interaction (places to click, for example) and a limited number of types of interaction (items to use, for example). The set of potentially valid options is a combination of interaction types and points. This set may be very large, which could make finding a valid option non-trivial, but it is clearly finite and, moreover, can be easily enumerated. The set of potentially valid options in a text-input interface includes any imperative phrase the player can think of. Even if, depending on the sophistication of the game's text-processing system, this set is severely restricted by practical considerations, it is still usually much harder to enumerate than its graphical counterpart. (Technically, it is just as enumerable, but for the player - who usually doesn't know the extent of the set of valid commands - it is harder to process.) This can makes the player feel like he or she has unlimited options - at least until it becomes apparent the fact that a subset of the potentially valid options will not be understood by the system. This, unfortunately, is another inherent quality of text-based interaction, and I would say it is the major drawback and the reason that text-based games has fallen so far out of favor. And perhaps minimizing that particular player frustration is a reason to avoid text as an interface mechanism, but games like The Baron both prove that great experiences can come out of a text interface and remind us of some of the things we sacrifice when we make graphical games.

Happy New Year

| | Comments (5) | TrackBacks (0)
jenga.pngHappy new year, everyone! I've been on vacation for the past couple weeks, but now I'm back in L.A., trying to overcome this holiday inertia. And you know what that means: obligatory end-of-the-year post! Er, admittedly, a couple weeks late. Nonetheless! With a little prompting from Ethan Kennerly, I'm going to run down the list of favorite moments from gaming in 2007.

10. Super Mario Galaxy - I lent my Wii to a friend for the end of the year, so the only Mario Galaxy I got to play was an extended romp following Thanksgiving dinner at Jamie's. I'm not sure that I'm ready to accept the proposition that it's as much fun as Mario 64 was, but it is fun. Long-jumping off of a platform and into orbit around it is one of the more satisfying things I've ever done in a game. But that isn't why Mario Galaxy gets a favorite-moment mention. I love collective play - when many people connect with each other over the shared experience of a game as it's being played - but I don't get nearly enough opportunities to play games in the environment you need to achieve it. The night I played Mario Galaxy, however, I was playing with a room full of happy, friendly, and turkey-stuffed people sharing the experience. A collective intake of breath accompanied every near-suicide as I attempted to navigate the Sweet Sweet Galaxy, and only by our collective force of will, and Jamie's cat-like reflexes as my P2, did Mario clear that last platform to safety. I think it was one of the few times this year that I got to feel the sublime sensation of shared play; certainly it was one of the most fun.

9. Bioshock - I still haven't played enough of Bioshock to give it a proper review, but I've played more of it than I had when I reviewed it the first time. And I have to admit, there's a lot to like about this game. It deserves a spot on this list just for the absolutely stellar atmosphere and environmental design. As for a favorite moment, well, on several occasions through the game I've experienced a quiet awe as, after clearing an area of zombie-like Splicers, I had a chance to walk around and take it all in. Perhaps my favorite such instance occurs before Splicers even enter the picture when, upon entering the lighthouse at the start of the game, I found a space somehow cavernous and claustrophobic, beautifully and lovingly and richly decorated, yet disquietingly empty. The air was filled by that haunting music, and I felt like I was looking in on something that had once been grand, and was forsaken.

8. Trauma Center: Second Opinion - I don't know why I love Trauma Center the way I do - it's much too hard for me, and that usually turns me off right out of the gate. But there's something entrancing about it, especially at the early levels, when I know that I can succeed as long as I don't screw up, and that knowledge makes me work furiously to finish before the patient flatlines. My favorite moment comes when Derek shouts, in one of the only bits of voice acting in the whole game, "I will save this patient!" It's cheesy, maybe, but the character's frank determination is infectious. And it's refreshing to play a game where success involves saving lives, rather than taking them.

7. Sam & Max: Season One - I was vaguely aware of Sam & Max, as a franchise and as a modern episodic game, before I picked up Season One this summer. I didn't realize that I would get quite such a kick out of it. After too long, this was my return to adventure gaming, and it was easy to remember why I loved the genre. The games are witty and clever but simple; the lack of complex or abstract puzzles puts the focus squarely on the story, which is fun and funny and nicely compact. Playing six 2 to 3 hour games made me realize that, while marathon games like Oblivion have their place, short games can be an incredible joy. My favorite moment was getting thrown into an old-school text adventure in the episode Reality 2.0. I'm just that much of a geek.

6. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass - You may remember that I was a little skeptical about Phantom Hourglass in the days leading up to its release. Drawing a path for your boomerang would be cool, no questions asked, but the whole concept of drawing on your map seemed a little gimmicky to me, and I was afraid it would bring down the whole game. Boy, was I mistaken. Phantom Hourglass is fun, although due to the onslaught of games this holiday season I haven't gotten to play as much as I'd have liked, but my favorite part by far was the dawning realization that I had seriously underestimated how developers could use that little gimmick to add innovation and depth to the play mechanics. For as many times as I've talked about data as content and information as currency, I had to play the game to understand how well treating information as a prize could work.

5. Once Upon a Time - I played Once Upon a Time for the first time during the week after Christmas, with my sister, while we were snowed in up in the mountains. I was extremely pleased to see how simple the game is, and how much fun it was to play. It falls into an odd and delightful cooperative-competitive category, where each player is ostensibly trying to win in a zero-sum fashion, but really everybody's goal is just to keep the story going. My favorite moment was when Captain Bart, the king-cum-pirate, instructed his lover to poison the kindly old woman who had cooked them nothing but potatoes every day. That's the kind of plot twist you just don't see in many of your commercial games.

4. Elite Beat Agents - Rhythm games have always held a strange appeal to me. I'm terrible at them, which is what makes it so strange. Also, I tend to get bored relatively quickly. I have a Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix mat gathering dust from the brief period when I was bursting with excitement about that game. Ditto the bongos from Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. In fact, the only rhythm game that has stayed consistently fun since the time I got it is Guitar Hero II, which I guess is what I love so much about Guitar Hero. I got tired of Elite Beat Agents pretty quickly, too, but damn was that game fantastic while I was playing it. I absolutely love the idea of people being able to overcome any problem with a little luck, perseverance, and the support of a team of snazzy male cheerleaders dancing to pop hits. The wonderful, cheery absurdity of the story was like, well, music to me. Favorite moment: Cheering on a parrot in a scuba helmet to the tune of Y.M.C.A. Also, the phrase "Agents are GO!"

3. Mass Effect - Mass Effect was, by far, my most anticipated game of the year. And it lived up to it's promise as a worthy successor to Knights of the Old Republic, which is one of my favorite games of all time. Certainly, the game isn't perfect, but most of its problems boil down to the fact that some of the secondary systems aren't as well designed or polished as the rest of the game. In other words, it's important to continually stress how not-perfect the game is because it's really so damn good. As with KOTOR before it, I'm partial to the romantic subplot in Mass Effect. I guess that my favorite moment of the game was when I ultimately turned down Kaiden's advances in favor of pursuing Liara. I'm used to any romance in a game like this being linear, if optional. Having to make a choice, and follow through with it by explicitly rejecting a character that I had rather gotten to like over the course of the game, was emotionally potent, especially because the characters and situations were so well presented.

2. The Baron - The Baron deserves a proper review, and I'm still planning to give it one eventually. For anyone who isn't familiar with it, this is a work of interactive fiction that I found through the Play This Thing! blog last summer. It's a cyclical game, meant to be played more than once, and on the first play-through it's a good example of what the form brings to the table. The game is structured as a short series of encounters, where the overall organization is almost entirely linear, but there are many ways to navigate each individual encounter. The text interface makes me feel more of a sense of freedom in my interaction with the world, and it's worth playing the game just to remember what we lose by using graphical interface systems. There's a moment of realization at the end of the game, however, that imbues the whole experience with an additional layer of meaning. Maybe because I didn't really see it coming, or maybe because of the subject matter of the game, this was one of the most powerful moments I've ever experienced in gaming.

1. Portal - Come on, what's not to love about Portal? I can't even count all the favorite moments that came out of this game: perfecting the double-fling, discovering the graffito-ridden back rooms, Jonathan Coulton's song, reading the history of Aperture Science on aperturescience.com, the cake... Clearly I'm obsessed, but Portal is in many ways a masterpiece of a game. If I have to pick just one favorite moment, though, it's the line, "There was even going to be a party for you. A big party that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend the companion cube. Of course, he couldn't come because you murdered him."