The Joy of Text

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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.

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