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Looking at "Get Lamp" and the Art of Interactive Fiction

In this blog post, I write up some of my thoughts after watching "Get Lamp", a documentary of the art of Interactive Fiction and of my first impressions after playing my first session of Zork.

I just watched a very interesting documentary film about text adventures. It's called "Get Lamp" and was directed by Jason Scott. If you're into game design and the art of story telling, regardless if it's movies, books, games, music or whatever, then I dearly recommend this film to you. It's really interesting and also captivatingly done as a documentary.

So the film basically contains a load of interview snippets with influential people such as Scott Adams (Creator of Adventure Land) or Mark Blank (Co-Creator of Zork), as well as people who are just really enthusiastic about Interactive Fiction and love it with all their heart.

It takes a look at the history of the text adventure genre, the broader definition and characteristics of interactive storytelling and also at a look at the current state the art form is in, with a shy look at the possible future.

I personally never actually played a text adventure game intensively. Yesterday I found an online version of Zork and played for a good while, getting accustomed to this unusual way of playing a game. I reached the point where the player goes down the trap door and then I got killed by "grue". I hadn't saved the game so I left it there for now.

I must say I have some differing feelings from that first session of playing a text adventure. For one, I immediately was skeptical of the limitations of text based input. It requires a parser, which is only a replacement for an AI that can truly understand written language. This means that even if my input makes sense in the context, it can fail because the parser wouldn't understand that particular succession of words. Well, one sort of gets used to it and learns to write their input parser-friendly, using the game's keywords. Instead of "check if the grating is locked" you'd write "examine grating".

One of the good sensations I had when playing was the immediate cozy feeling that I get when reading a book. Which is totally understandable since most of what you do is reading and imagining things just like with books. The cool part is then that after a little paragraph of text, you actually get to input some action you'd like to do and - if the parser understands - you have the book react to your action. If you compare this type of interactivity to the complex worlds of WoW or Call of Duty or any of the modern AAA titles, it sounds all very VERY basic. You give some input, and you get some output, the basic principle of computer software itself. Where IF stirs fascination that for me WoW does not, is that IF doesn't have graphics. Yeah, that's a plus in my opinion.

IF is not really comparable to games like Super Mario or Need for Speed. I wouldn't even really say IF is a form of gaming. Well, to be strict, it is. It's interactive and it's entertainment of some form so I suppose that makes it gaming. But it feels much more like reading a book, only that you get to read it in bits, thus giving it a certain kind of pacing as well as getting to poke with your input at the current state the story/plot is in.

One thing I have been thinking about is that text is really the most powerful medium of communicating to a person and addressing their imagination. Sure, visuals and audio each aren't exactly inferior, but it's just that text has so many advantages to it when it comes to telling a story. You see this all the time in gaming, that graphics get bitched about, and companies employ art teams of dozens of people to create their visually stunning 3D environments and characters. I don't mean to underestimate their work. They are artists and I appreciate their hard work a lot. Same with sound artists. There is a huge load of work put into the sound of a good game, but often it is much more subtle than the graphics so players often don't quite appreciate a good game audio as much as graphics. Story is nowadays mostly told using cut scenes, essentially copying the art of film making. I love me a game with good cut scenes. Metal Gear Solid is one of my most favorite games of all time. Then there are games that give you a bit more control during cut scenes to enhance the feeling of "being there in the moment", for example Modern Warfare.

While all these different disciplines add a lot of meat and awesomeness to games these days, IF's, only relying on the power of text are not inferior. They are hardly comparable, because each speak to their audience through different channels. Text is a wonderfully simple medium. If you can read and write, you can create huge and fantastic worlds where the imagination is the limit. Text can easily be stored. Just write on a piece of paper or on a computer and save it in a text file and there you go. You can easily share it with people. You only need to show them your text, be it on paper or as a text file. The written word has the power to immediately speak to the reader's imagination and create an amazingly strong sense of immersion, something that AAA games try to reach often to much lesser effect.

The imagination of a person is always going to create the more personal and more appealing version of a place, a person or a sound than what all the artists in the world can create. Our brains are already capable of immersing themselves into entire worlds of thoughts without the need to try and trick our senses into them. If you ever had a nightmare, you know how strong your imagination can immerse you into a fantasy. It can get so strong that you can break into sweat and wake up screaming.

I must say that I really enjoyed the first session of Zork. It's been quite some time since I had a game make me actively think about a situation, a problem. I also played a bit of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and of course, the writing is great, and the same sensations as with Zork apply here, too.

So anyways, I think IF is a separate branch of story telling - one that hasn't really been advanced as much as I would've liked to see. It was thought that the graphics were the logical step in the evolution, but it only led to a side arm. No, IF needs to leverage the more sophisticated technological means we have today.

At the end of "Getting Lamp", the interviewees were asked where they see the future of IF and, it saddens me, most of them didn't see much of a bright future or a revival of the genre. Commercial success is believed to be almost impossible nowadays. Here are a few thoughts of mine:

Interactive Fiction shouldn't put itself into the category of video games. It is a lot more like an evolutionary step to classic literature, but by no means a replacement thereof.

Interactive Fiction has by no means reached its limits as an art form. There are so many ways that the power of computation can advance IF.

I think commercial success can be reached if authors try to IF-ize actual literature, just like Hitchhiker's Guide succeeded in being a book and a audio-book and a text adventure. It can work. I'd love to play an IF version of Harry Potter for example. That'd be a total WIN.

IF has a low barrier of entry, which should really be of advantage for an eventual revival of the art form. I can imagine iPhone, Android, iPad IF "games" being released, voice controlled and read out loud like audio books to create a really interesting experience for casual audiences. A perfect platform for IF's to be a core component would be the E-Readers such as Amazon Kindle. Imagine Amazon opening an IF AppStore of some kind, or just pre-installing a version of Zork. This could really reach a lot of people unexpectedly.

IF can become non-linear. I have a plan for a game like that and am work on the finer design details on that. So till then!

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