Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Get Lamp

This is the classic text adventure documentary "Get Lamp." It is worth watching, as the text adventure genre is entangled with the early days of role-playing and shared storytelling. The film goes through the history of text – based adventures and speaks with many of the pioneers of the genre.

Randomness as Puzzle

What strikes me about this documentary and text adventures in general is the complete removal of randomness from the game. You will see concepts such as mazes and puzzles discussed here, concepts similar to dungeon based adventures in role-playing games that use dice. In general, players and designers of these games hate mazes and love puzzles. My tastes also agree with this generally.

One could say that randomness, character design, character builds, and combat strategy is merely a puzzle to figure out based in statistics. That is what I find fascinating about watching a documentary such as this and seeing the designers talk about puzzles and how they love them, and then taking this fact role-playing games and how pen and paper gamers love character design and combat strategy within the rules. It seems to me that "doing well" within a pen and paper game with dice and character design is just a puzzle to figure out. How do I improve the odds?

How do we survive in this impossible situation? What gives me as a character the best chances of winning? What gives us as a party of characters the best chance of winning, based on synergies and strategy?

The puzzles in today's are all based around statistics and rules design, and players eventually figure them out and find "best builds" that give them the greatest chance of succeeding against challenges and enemies. Once this puzzle is figured out players tend to lose interest, and the factor that holds them in the game the most is story. I get this feeling the same is true with text based games.


There is a freedom in both text based games and pen and paper games that does not exist in normal videogames. The designers of text based games tried to make as much as possible able to be examined and manipulated by the player. You could pick up a brick and look at it, and it may or may not have a use later on in the story. A lot of items could be manipulated like this, more so than in normal videogames.

Of course in pen and paper gaming the interaction is only limited by the imagination of the referee. Text based games were still limited, but they had the freedom to do a lot more than a typical game that you would find on a video game console.What I find with text based games is that they approach the interaction ability of pen and paper games, at least the well-designed ones do. If a designer puts a lot of thought and work into a text based game you could have thousands of objects and interactions, with everything being able to be manipulated and examined by the player. It is almost an order of magnitude higher in the level of interaction between a player and the objects in the world than a videogame on a console.

The Fall and Rise

And the documentary chronicles their fall from grace, and limited rebirth. I get why people don't like text adventure games, they are fiddly bits of figure out the parser and type commands in while beating your head against a wall exercises of frustration - at first. Once you learn the rules of the road they apply to most text adventure games, how to examine, how to move, how to look, how to get, how to drop items, how to open up containers - all the basics. We get into implementation problems where the designer didn't account for everything, and the obvious to a player becomes an impossibility because the designer has not accounted for the interaction.

My Experience

When I first encountered these games I shied away, mostly out of fear I would mess something up or "not get it." I had this almost instinctual reaction of "not for me can't figure out" and walked away. Or that the text-adventure game would "punish me for being stupid." You know the feeling, like a designer would walk an inexperienced player through obvious choices and then make them look like a fool for taking what was the obvious route to someone who didn't know better. You have died. Next time try smarter!

These days, I love exploring and reading, so my patience has adapted my tastes more for text adventures than when I was younger and wanted to be wow'ed by great graphics and tight controls. I do admit liking a certain style of game, one that doesn't punish you for mistakes, can be solved with enough careful effort, understands you may have difficulty with the concepts and puzzles, and gradually expands and changes based on where you are in the narrative. I don't want to map and get lost in a maze (unless that is the point and we know going in). I want to have unexpected results to my actions, and my clever manipulations to be rewarded.


And I fire up games like Grand Theft Auto or other open-world games and they feel empty. Despite the promise of an expansive, unlimited world, once you know how things work they do not seem to change. The pedestrians and people that inhabit the world are all the same. Nobody lives and works there, they just spawn in. People obey a very limited script. There isn't much you can do with the objects in the world except collide with them. Few items are interactive, but they typically have a very limited set of interaction associated with them.

Open world games probably highlight the most why the promise of "true interaction" has failed in the world of video games - one you know the envelope of how the world reacts, that is all you can do and expect from the world. I typically lose interest shortly after this moment and then wait for another open world game to see what they add to the formula.

The Future?

I see hope though. There are already interactive fiction games on the Amazon Echo and Alexa platforms, where the text-to-speech and speech-recognition functions narrate the world for you in speech and audio. I would love to see an Inform interpreter for Zork-style games on the Echo platform where you could just sit and explore through spoken commands to the device, and have it listen and take the place of the flashing command prompt. Perhaps this is the future the documentary was searching for, an experience beyond the command prompt and purely in the mind.

Maybe that interface layer has finally been broken and we just can't see it yet. Maybe we are entering another golden age of the text adventure. Perhaps this is a new path, unexplored, and we have not yet stepped into this deep and foreboding cavern - just through what we hear - and interacting with just what we say. While I still like reading, this offers another way forward and perhaps a new realm of adventures to explore.