Text adventure games are still new

29 January 2013

Cross-posted to Gamasutra. This blog post is based on part of my AdventureX talk from December - hopefully a video of that will be available soon.

Every couple of weeks, it seems, another games journalist writes an article about how they’ve rediscovered the long lost art of the text adventure game. After a few minutes looking through Wikipedia, they write an article which will inevitably talk about green screens, clattering keyboards, and grues. Then they will talk about a somehow thriving yet hidden “scene” of people who are still creating and sharing these games like some kind of long-forgotten tribe that had been cut off from the rest of the civilised world.

As the creator of a text adventure engine, Quest, these pop up in my Google alerts with tedious regularity. They are so boring and predictable. And more importantly, they are utterly short-sighted.

Many people think of text adventures as an old-fashioned game form, something that was maybe acceptable in the 80s but which we have now outgrown and left behind. But I think the opposite is true. Right now, we are early in the history of text adventure games. Their time to shine is just beginning.

Le Voyage Dans La Lune

The image above is from the film Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon), a French science-fiction film from 1902. For me, it’s the image that immediately springs to mind when I imagine the very early days of cinema. You can watch it on YouTube if you have a spare 10 minutes. If you do, I want you to notice one thing…

It doesn’t look very much like a modern film, does it?

That’s because it’s over 110 years old, of course.

Nearly 40 years later, Orson Welles released his first film, Citizen Kane. You can watch various scenes on YouTube too. This film pioneered many aspects of modern film-making.

It took 40 years to get from Le Voyage Dans La Lune to Citizen Kane.

Forty. Years.

40 years from the early days of film-making to get to something that even starts to look like a modern film. And this wasn’t forty years of hobbyists dabbling with making little movies in their spare time, to be enjoyed only by other hobbyist film fans. This was 40 years during which films were a mainstream entertainment format.

And of course film continues to develop today. Citizen Kane looks somewhat different to Inception, for example (yet I wonder if it’s closer to that than Le Voyage Dans La Lune?)

The first text adventure was written in about 1975, which makes text adventures only 38 years old. Text adventures have never really been a mainstream entertainment format. IFDB attempts to list every work of interactive fiction, and it currently lists 4,444 games. As a comparison, IMDB currently lists 48,525 films created during the period between Le Voyage Dans La Lune and Citizen Kane.

So, there are hardly any text adventure games, really. In that light, it seems completely ridiculous to think of text adventures as some kind of ancient game form. We have barely even begun.

We cannot possibly argue that text adventures have matured. We cannot reasonably declare that we know how a text-based interactive story should work. We will need a lot more games to be written, and a lot more experimental works to be created, before we will be able to see which direction this particular art form is taking.

Therefore when thinking about the future of text adventure games, I like to pretty much ignore the 1980s entirely. Those games have interesting historical value, but will look pretty quaint when we put them next to the text adventure games that will be created over the next few decades.

Citizen Kane

There is a quote from an interview with Orson Welles which I find particularly inspirational:

Interviewer: What I’d like to know is, seeing that you’d never in all your life, ever made a film before Kane, and had never so far as I’m aware been in a studio before Kane … where did you get the confidence from to make a film with such -

Welles: Ignorance. Sheer ignorance, there’s no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession, I think, that you’re timid, or careful.

What I take from this is that it doesn’t matter if you don’t know much about the existing text adventure games - just the vision and desire to create an interactive story will be enough. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

And right now is a great time to start reimagining what a text adventure is. Why?

Because this never happened:

Playing text adventures in bed

And this never happened:

Playing text adventures on the tube

(My Photoshop Masterclass was, coincidentally, another thing that never happened - but you get the idea).

Desktop computers, terminals and laptops were never really the right devices for playing book-like games. Tablets and smartphones are the natural home for interactive fiction - and it’s only in the last few years that these devices are in everybody’s pockets. People are used to taking their phone out of their pockets to play with something for a few minutes, and text adventures can perfectly fill that need. Apps can bring text adventures where they belong - in front of people who want to read, wherever they are.

Unlike early film, the tools are available to everyone. My own engine, Quest, is free and open source. You don’t need any programming experience to get started with it, and it can run entirely in a web browser so you don’t even need to download anything. The system is open and hackable, with a core library written in Quest itself which defines the default behaviour - so you can change fundamental things about how the system works, even without going into the source code.

Quest is built upon web technologies, so games can run anywhere, or be packaged with Phonegap and be turned into offline apps. Hyperlinks mean that “guess the verb” is a thing of the past - if you want to, that is, because authors can disable hyperlinks if they choose.

HTML5 opens up a lot of possibilities for experimenting. For example, using Canvas we can dynamically draw maps:

Game with map

Of course, HTML is designed for laying out text - so there is plenty of room for experimentation here. For example, why not split the screen in two:

Split screen text adventure

The images above are very basic protoypes, but of course you can tap into the full power of CSS and JavaScript to give games your own look, and build your own UI. Perhaps you would want to remove the command bar entirely, or add your own information panes? Maybe change the UI for each scene in the game. Have players type inside a speech bubble, or inside a newspaper column. Make text move, blur, melt away. There are so many possibilities - so many things that have not yet been tried. Some will work, some will not, some will simply inspire other authors to do better.

And even within the writing, there is much experimentation to be done. Text adventures are typically written in the form “You can see… You can go…”. Why not in first person, or third person? Why does it have to be the present tense - why not past tense? Maybe the future tense could even work. We just don’t know - yet.

What about other technologies and APIs we could get a game to tap into? How could we use geolocation within a game? The ability for players to take photos and record sounds? How can we have players interacting over the internet?

There is so much unexplored potential for text-based games. With new devices and technologies, we are really only just getting started. I think we need a new generation of authors to come along, unhindered by 1980s expectations of what a text adventure should look like, and in the spirit of sheer ignorance, create games that will excite and inspire us all.

I hope that Quest is a platform that will enable that - but I’m sure there are many ways it needs to be improved to let that happen. I’m always open to ideas so please get in touch if there’s anything I can do to help your vision become reality. You can email me at [email protected] or find me on Twitter @alexwarren.

Quest 5.3 is released

14 January 2013

Quest 5.3 is now available. You can download the Windows version, or you can use it in any web browser.

A quick recap of what’s new:

  • automatic map generation
  • web fonts
  • cover art
  • text effects
  • background images
  • changeable player "point of view" object
  • light and dark rooms and objects
  • automatic display verbs
  • new UI for Windows player (identical to the web-based version)
  • Windows player UI is now powered by Chromium

For full details on all of these, see the beta announcement which goes into more depth.

Many thanks once again to Phillip Zolla, Pertex, James Gregory, Aleksandar Hummel and Jay Nabonne for code and contributions towards this release.

Don’t forget, Quest is completely free and open-source software. If you want to get involved, please take a look at the CodePlex site where you can find all the source code and the issue tracker.

I’m working full-time on Quest again for at least the next few months, so hopefully you can look forward to some exciting new features and more announcements. If you’d like to show your support, you can help me work on Quest by making a donation.

Thanks for all your support so far - even if you can’t contribute code or donate money, you can help by simply using Quest, releasing games and giving your feedback. Please keep it coming - and help to make Quest 5.4 even more awesome!

Quest 5.3 Beta 2

2 January 2013

Happy new year! Just a quick note to say that I’ve updated the beta build of Quest 5.3, to fix various bugs that were logged. This release also improves performance and reduces memory usage.

You can download the beta for Windows, or you can access it online in any web browser.

For details on what’s new in Quest 5.3 Beta, see the original blog post from last month.

Please report any bugs you find - the final version should be released in a couple of weeks. Then I can get started on Quest 5.4…

Thoughts on interactive storytelling and The Hobbit

19 December 2012

I recently did a talk at AdventureX where I attempted to set out some kind of vision for the future of text adventure games as a rich interactive story medium. This was filmed, so hopefully I will be able to put up a link here soon. I’ll also rework the talk as a blog post (or several) in the near future.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the text adventure format recently, about what kinds of experiments can be done, and what kind of story I could tell using my own software - it is a source of slight shame to me that I’ve been working on Quest for over 14 years now, and yet never released a game using it! This is something I hope to address in the near future. There was much food for thought for me as I watched the other talks at AdventureX, and I’ve found myself with a renewed energy to try and finally get together a game of my own.

Talking of experimentation, Peter Jackson has just released the first film of “The Hobbit” trilogy, and there has been much discussion of his use of a new 48fps format, which is perhaps a bit too realistic for a lot of people. There’s a suitably epic discussion on Vincent Laforet’s blog, which I found interesting despite not really caring that much about filmmaking - and having no interest in Tolkien at all (or perhaps just an insufficiently lengthy attention span).

I think there is an interesting lesson here that applies across all art forms - film, theatre, books, stand-up comedy, interactive fiction. I dabbled in stand-up comedy myself a few years ago, within the safe confines of a course, and one of the only real things to learn about stand-up (the rest being a matter of practice as you can’t teach somebody to be funny) is that “if it doesn’t add, it detracts”.

It takes a lot of effort to refine a one-liner by removing as much extraneous detail as possible, to deliver maximum impact. Most comedians don’t do one-liner “jokes” as such, but still much of the humour comes from what is left unsaid - and the audience putting two and two together in their own minds is a big part of what makes comedy pleasurable.

I often find myself left a bit cold by big budget special effects and CGI in movies - I can have a much more absorbing experience in a theatre, which is usually a lot less “realistic” than anything you can see in a film. I recently saw a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time at the National Theatre in London, and the clever use of the theatre space with choreography and simple props told the story in a highly engaging way. It wasn’t trying to look like exactly the same as the events it was portraying - but that didn’t matter at all. Eight boxes do not look anything like the seats on a train, but as human beings we are highly skilled at suspending disbelief and piecing together our own internal visualisation of a story.

Which makes sense, right, because as a species we’ve been telling stories to each other for thousands of years. When cavemen set around a fire to share ancestral myths, they may have put on voices and waved their arms around, but they certainly didn’t have moving pictures or 3D glasses. Our brains have evolved to take the important parts of these stories and fill in the blanks perfectly well without these technological add-ons.

So it doesn’t really surprise me that when people watch a film in 3D at 48fps, it doesn’t add anything to the experience over the old-fashioned 2D version. If anything the extra visual detail just requires more brain processing, which probably hinders our brain’s ability to do all the other processing it needs to do during a movie, like remembering who all the characters are and what drives them - the things we still can’t see no matter what technology is available.

The human brain is great at shortcutting and making assumptions. That’s how we perceive a vivid, full-colour, 3D depiction of reality, when in actual fact the eye can only clearly focus on small parts of our visual field at any one time, and the brain fills in the rest. This is what leads to interesting phenomena such as change blindness, and our mental shortcuts are what enable magic tricks to work.

So perhaps that is what is missing from The Hobbit - too much detail and too much realism simply don’t let magic work.

All of which gives me much optimism about the future of text adventure games, or interactive fiction if you prefer. Too much visual detail is certainly too much, but if you can tell a story around a camp fire, it seems there is no lower bound - we can do very nicely without any kind of visual detail at all. Words work fine.

The slickness of a modern text adventure game will come from an intuitive user interface, and a story that doesn’t put up roadblocks to the player - something Jon Ingold was talking about at AdventureX in his talk.

We already have the technology to create highly engaging, accessible interactive story experiences that will have mass appeal and can be played on any device. I’ll certainly be trying to create my own over the Christmas break - why don’t you have a go too?

AdventureX: Quest

16 December 2012

This talk was given at AdventureX, London on 16th December 2012.

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