Into the Open Sky

Since we have been studying Interactive Fiction I thought it would be appropriate to take a closer look at yet another text based adventure before we wrap things up. I find that the aesthetics of these adventures are pleasing, probably because I’m partial to black and white things, but also because there is so much complexity behind such simplicity (seriously, don’t ever tell me again that your PS4 game is “hard to navigate”).

This particular story begins with a little background. That’s right, you’re not throw into the woods immediately with a white house and river to your right. You are instead given a little history, and an idea of the mission you are about to embark on. This adventure involves the whole Mario-Peach rescue mission, but without gold stars and mushroom assistants. You are given a little information about your character before you begin, and the creator even gives you a name, as well as your sword, Night — how neat!

 

A big portion of my time was spent trying to figure out the first move. My sword, Night, shot down many of my first attempts telling me we have to “get to the ship running before exploring”, as well as the game itself not really allowing me to do much. I finally got fed up and went to look for a walk through of the game to get things going.

The first command was “insert Night into slot”, which I found to be confusing because I was never told there was a slot. I decided to find out if there were small steps leading up to that one for the confused player like me. There were, in fact, a series of commands that would help you find the slot on the chair. The word “examine” was extremely helpful and elicited good responses, where as “look around console” and “look at chair” kept leading me to “you can see no such thing” even though it clearly told me there were those objects in the room with me.

As I continued through the game I came across the same frustrations with use of words, and it made me think a lot about how syntax and semantics come into play in these text adventures. In linguistics we learn how certain phrases and words are not clear or can mean many different things, and it seems these adventures want us to use the most clear and concise commands we can. Instead of “go through door” which, to me, implies opening and going through the door, the game required I say “open door” before “go through door”, something some of the other text based adventures we played did not require.

This brought about a few important questions for me, hopefully ones that can spark a discussion:

1. Is there, and should there be, an expectation held by the creator that the adventurer has a certain level of education or intelligence to play these games?

2. Does this expectation make these text adventures somewhat of an “exclusive” club? Say, if you can’t figure out the first move or action, are you excluded from the “club” and essentially filtered out?

3. To what extent should there be an expectation of either previous knowledge of text adventures, or an analysis of syntax and semantics for one to be able to participate in text based adventures?

Share your thoughts on the above and I’ll respond with my own. With such a wide range of experience in our classroom with these platforms, I’m interested to see the variety of answers and thoughts on this subject.

 

  3 comments for “Into the Open Sky

  1. Katie Diemer
    February 10, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    1. Good question! I know that some video games tend to have obscure puzzles – I remember playing “Myst” when I was 9 and becoming frustrated because a puzzle required knowledge of the degrees of a compass. Then again, that’s a graphic game, not a text adventure game.
    I tend to have trouble with text adventure games because of the limited amount of description and commands, not the puzzles themselves. I can’t really visually “hunt” for clues like a graphic puzzle game; I have to force the character to LOOK sometimes to pick up more clues. The clues, when I do find them, tend to be fairly obvious. (“You are on a boat. It is covered in barnacles. THERE’S A GIANT GLOWING BOX WITH A HOLE IN IT. You can move north and south.”) I also get frustrated because, like your example with Night, I don’t always know what to do, and the commands are limited (“Why do I have to TALK to the box to open it? Why can’t I BREAK it or PICK THE LOCK?”). I don’t always know that I’m heading in the wrong direction (like Zork, where I wandered in the forest for hours without a single clue). So, I’d say that it’s not the player’s intelligence that makes a text game difficult, but the programmer’s ability to write clear directions and descriptions that change a game’s difficulty.
    2. I suppose it does. When a text adventure game initially comes out, the people who tend to succeed are the ones who keep a careful inventory of their items/paths, and who are very, very determined to solve the puzzle. People like me (who aren’t so determined) tend to either give up or consult walkthroughs, so we don’t have the nice thrill of solving a puzzle on our own. In that sense, I suppose that non-text-adventure gamers are taken out of the club, because they have a different experience of the game.
    3. Since text adventures aren’t as common as they used to be, I think that they should at least start the game explaining the basic commands (“You can LOOK, ASK, etc. and move in the cardinal directions”). I’ve played some games where I wasn’t told I could/couldn’t do certain actions, or move in certain directions, and I was pretty upset. If I didn’t know I could put my sword in a slot because I LOOKed and didn’t see a slot, I’d also be pretty upset, so I think the descriptions in the game should be done well, too.
    I have a question for you: Do you think text adventure games expand creativity (you have to picture where you are, what you’re doing, etc.), or limit it (you can’t perform certain actions)?

  2. Bekka
    February 10, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    1. I’m not sure if education or intelligence, generally speaking, has as great an impact on playing as education or intelligence of text-adventure norms. I rarely enjoy text adventures because I often find myself annoyed when searching for just the right verb to use or trying to figure out what else I need to look at to finally solve the puzzle. I have trouble with text adventures yet I am an intelligent and well educated person. Creators probably trust their players to be somewhat versed in text-adventures if they want to successfully play their game. This leads into the next two questions.

    2. I’d say it does create a ‘club.’ This club would be full of people who are educated about text-adventures and people who are determined enough to try every word combination to get a result. Both of these groups of people are more patient than I am.

    3. I think there is clearly an expectation that the user knows about text-adventures and their semantics. Should this expectation stay? If you want to reach a broader audience, no. But if you are creating a challenging text-adventure for people who enjoy text-adventures and the type of puzzles therein, I think the expectation is reasonable.

    And in response to Katie and her question on whether text adventures expand or limit creativity, I’d say that a well done text adventure can expand creativity – a game that gives vivid description of the world they want you build in your mind – but a game lacking good writing may limit creativity by making the player focus on what few actions they can do.

  3. February 17, 2014 at 10:16 am

    gdraper. You’ve raised some good questions about the linguistic basis of player agency in games. I’ll just answer your first question since the others are sort of spinoffs of the same theme:

    1. Is there, and should there be, an expectation held by the creator that the adventurer has a certain level of education or intelligence to play these games?

    Many times, yes, I think players do benefit from that expectation. Much IF, though, at least those I’m most taken by, work pretty hard to defy those expectations in fundamental ways. Take Dan Shiovitz’ Bad Machine or Andrew Plotkin’s The Space Under the Window. These are games that, regardless of one’s prior experience with IF, one must first learn how to work with. I think that’s a continuum of truth for all interactive texts. There are few cases of 1-to-1 transfer of functionality, expectations, etc. Playing is learning is playing.

    One area of common ground, though, comes via the underlying platforms, which is perhaps best illustrated in your question about the door. Into the Open Sky is programmed in Inform 7, and as you’ll see when we play with that software later on, it’s object-oriented to a fault. What this means is that, with the door, it’s not exactly true that the parser is waiting for the proper sequence of input “open door, walk through door.” Rather, the parser knows that in the world of the game, there is a door. The door is closed until that door is acted upon appropriately, at which point the door becomes open. An open door behaves differently than a closed door, as you discover when you try to go through it.

    This all has to do with language as well. One “fun” thing about Inform 7 is that it tries to interpret natural human language as programming instructions, sort of like the parser tries to understand your potentially idiosyncratic input text in relation to the set of things it knows how to do. But as you note, language is full of ambiguity, inconsistency, and imprecision, and these are things that computers have a hard time with. So to create a door in Inform 7, it turns out you have to be very explicit, writing code something like

    The wooden door is a door north of the storage room and south of the great hall. The wooden door is closable and closed. The brass key is in the great hall. The brass key unlocks the wooden door.

    Not exactly elegant, but it’s language all the way down.

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