Classic Computer Magazine Archive ATARI CLASSICS Volume 2, Issue 3 / June 1993 / PAGE 6

The Garret
The Garret


Ed Hall, AC Staff Columnist

Once There Was A Colossal Cave...
    It was discovered by two guys named Crowther and Woods, and for awhile it was a very popular spot, being full of adventure and profit. Then a curious malaise set in, and the cave became a dusty, seldom-visited place. Eventually it was made an historic site, and a small plaque was placed at the entrance. Unfortunately a great controversy ensued, for some thought the plaque should contain only text, while others wanted graphics as well.

So What Happened?
    In its day, people played Zork as compulsively as Pacman, and most of the larger game companies had at least one text adventure in their line-up. But while other games steadily improved, text adventures didn't; they lost their appeal and were finally shouldered aside by RPG's (role-playing games). The three companies most closely associated with text adventures (Scott Adams, Infocom, and Level 9) either stopped producing them or folded up entirely.
    To learn why, we must first get a clear understanding of what a text adventure is, and what it is not, and this involves shedding some of the hyperbole spouted by the game companies. The crew at Infocom billed themselves as "master story tellers" and Synapse/Broderbund called their product "electronic novels."
    Text adventures have always been games first, fiction second. Their use of the three essential elements of a story (plot, setting, and character) is usually minimal. Most text adventures are little more than a collection of puzzles tied together by a storyline.
    There is, of course, a very good reason for this approach. Text adventures can't compete with ordinary works of fiction in two key areas: price and userfriendliness. Reading lots of text is easier on a page than a computer screen, and a paperback is significantly cheaper than a software title. In order to succeed, text adventures have to offer something that books can't, and that "something" is interactivity.
    Now, there are many ways to "interact" with a program, but the area that came to dominate text adventures was the puzzle. It offered a challenge to the user that books didn't have, and drew out the length of time it took to reach the end. Thus, one of the measures of a good adventure was the length of time it took to complete it. If it could be finished in a single night, it was usually considered substandard. (Not a complaint you'd ever hear about a paperback.) Unfortunately, the puzzles often had illogical solutions, and the novelty of puzzle-solving eventually wore off.
    Scott Adams was convinced that the future of text adventures lay in the incorporation of graphics, and struck up a deal that seemed a sure-fire winner: a line of illustrated text adventures based on comic book characters. The deal was with Marvel Comics, and three programs were produced, including Spiderman, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four. It was a brave attempt, but it came just at the time of the great videogame/computer recession in 1983-4, and the line faded away, as did Scott Adams.

Infocom, Of Course
    The most innovative producer of text adventures was Infocom. Its parser (a program or routine which recognizes words) was one of the best; its text was literate and humorous; its packaging was inventive; and its range of games covered just about every genre: mystery, horror, romance, humor, and science fiction. The company attracted a best-selling novelist to its ranks (Douglas Adams), and it continually explored new avenues in the field. But eventually even mighty Infocom bit the dust.
    It was a sad event. When it happened, I remember thinking back to a survey conducted in Infocom's newsletter, The Status Line (originally the New Zork Times), which asked the question, "How can we improve our games?" To me, the answer seemed obvious, and was far more crucial than the dispute over graphics: improve the parser. Though Infocom's was often praised, there was still much room for improvement.
    It was advice which could have been applied to all producers of text adventures. How many times in a game have you run into a situation like this?
    >Examine furniture
    >Examine painting
    YOU CAN'T.
    When it happens often enough, you begin to lose interest.
    At first this situation was due to hardware limitations. It just wasn't possible to pack in a vocabulary large enough to handle all the situations and responses that could arise in a program; and even if it could have been done, processing speed was likely not up to the task. But that was five years ago. Imagine what kind of text adventure could be implemented on current machines. Throw in some articifial intelligence and a 50,000-word vocabulary, and you'd get some pretty decent interactive fiction. Try this:
    >Examine furniture
    ANYPLACE IN PARTICULAR? >Pick the best spot
    One of these days, someone's going to come out with a killer text adventure.

Tired Old Stuff
    Sure, you say, that's fine for folks with 486 machines and CD-ROM drives, but what about us poor 8-bitters? Are we doomed forever to substandard fare? Not at all. I think interesting text adventures for our machines are still possible; it's just a matter of getting out of the rut we've fallen into. For example, aren't you getting a little tired of fighting demons, wizards, and trolls? For me, these characters have worn out their welcome. If you're thinking about doing a text adventure, and feel that you absolutely must use these cliches, then at least try to bring something fresh to them, the way Level 9 did with Knight Orc, which cast the player not in the usual heroic role but as that of a despised orc.
    Likewise with pointless mazes and stupid puzzles. These are not essential elements of a text adventure: we've just been brainwashed into thinking so. Why not try some innovations in story-telling technique? Here are a few suggestions to get you thinking.

New Blood
    Back in the late '60s science fiction was revitalized by a movement which became known as the New Wave. This movement had existential roots, and resulted in stories with very strange titles and some interesting technical innovations. A British author named J.G. Ballard began writing stories known as "condensed novels." They were very odd, often consisting of paragraphs which seemed to have been lifted out of a longer story, shuffled, and placed on the page in a rather arbitrary order. The computer, it seems to me, makes an ideal place to pursue this sort of non-linear approach to fiction. (By the way, it was Ballard who later wrote the semi-autobiographical "Empire of the Sun," from which came the movie of the same title.)
    Many years ago I came across an experimental novel which had no beginning and no end. You opened up the book and started anywhere. Plotwise, the last chapter preceded the first chapter. This sort of thing could be carried off more elegantly on a computer than on paper.
    Or, what about a story in which players could instantly change their point of view from one character to another? You can't do that on paper! If some of these ideas sound a bit too far-out for the average text adventure, good! We don't need any more average text adventures. The old corpse needs new blood.

Still More
    There are other, less avant-garde possibilities. I'm thinking in particular of a type of book sometimes known as a choose-your-own-adventure. It consists of page after page of numbered chunks of text. At the end of each passage you're given a decision (e.g. turn left or turn right), and then referred to a number. In this fashion you follow a particular plotline through to its end, which may be short or long, and conclude in success or failure.
    Not only could a computer handle this form of fiction more efficiently (by removing the need for constantly flipping through pages), but also the programming would be dead easy: a simple branching affair with no parser required.

Vaporware Revivals
    Or, why not try out some interesting techniques used in games which never made it to Atari 8-bits? Here are some titles that never migrated to the Atari 8-bit game market:
    Nine Princes in Amber - This is an illustrated text adventure based on the novel of the same name by one of my favorite writers, Roger Zelazny. Touted as a game of negotiation, politics and intrigue, it has 40 possible endings, depending on the alliances you form.
    Portal - This unusual program consists of 11 databases that must be explored to find out what happened to Earth's population, which has vanished without a trace.
    Bureaucracy - This was Douglas Adams's second game, after his successful Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I've never played it, but the idea seems absolutely inspired: what better place for mazes, puzzles and baffling obstacles than a bureaucratic setting?
    Border Zone - Two different ideas in this spy thriller. First of all the game is played in real time, which adds a sense of urgency. Secondly, the game is broken up into three different parts, with the player taking the role of a different character in each part.
    Bert & Nord - This release consists of eight short stories which use word play (puns, homonymns, spoonerisms, etc.) as the central conceit.
    Though none of these games ever made it to our platform, and all but Bureaucracy received less than favorable reviews, I applaud their experiments. Why not try them out in your own text adventure? What's that? You've always wanted to write one, but don't know spit about programming? No problem. Next issue we'll look at resources and tools you can use. [Editor's Note: Why wait till next issue? Check out Ron Fetzer's "Modular Programming" feature elsewhere in this issue for a jump-start on BASIC programming. -BLP]

Whatever Happened To...
    Several years ago Covox advertised in ANTIC a text adventure called Escape from Planet X. The game was controlled with voice commands, apparently through the use of their VoiceMaster Junior hardware. However, despite the advertisement, the game may have been vaporware. Anyone know whether or not it actually came out?
    And Nat Friedland, in one of his last editorials in ANTIC, mentioned "a vast sequel to the original Text Adventure game." Anyone know what happened to it? Till next time...