New Game Interfaces Feel More Real
ORSON SCOTT CARD
From the beginning—from the days of Adventure and the earliest incarnations of Zork—one of the chief drawbacks to story games on the computer has been that those who can't type very well can't play very well.
Now, I'll admit that this made me feel quite smug at first—my Mom was a hundred-word-per-minute error-free typist as I was growing up, and that was the standard I tried to meet. The result? Typing is as natural to me as speaking. So all that typing to get through a text adventure didn't bother me one bit.
That was then. This is now.
Sec, with a text adventure you read the action—you type, and the computer types back at you.
But with an animated story game, you watch the action, so you don't want to be typing your way through the game. You want to act.
Imagine how much fun it would be to drive a car if you had to type in the instructions. "Turn left." "Stop at the 7-Eleven." We wouldn't put up with it. The pleasure of driving comes from the fact that the car seems like an extension of ourselves; it feels as though we move, and the car moves with us. It feels, ultimately, as though the car were somehow hooked into our brain.
So it is with a nonverbal interface for a story game. Even those of us for whom typing is as easy as breathing appreciate a game that feels as though we're performing the actions directly, as though our figure in the game were wired directly to our own heads.
Here we come to the game Loom, designed by Brian Moriarty, formerly of Infocom, now of Lucasfilm Games. It's a fantasy, complete with dragons and magic spells—but it's like nothing you've ever seen (or done) before.
The story begins to unfold with an impressive half-hour audiotape, which tells how Bobbin was born under dangerous circumstances among the guild of weavers. As he grows up, he has to learn something of weaver magic, which consists of short melodies played on a musical distaff.
And that's how you work magic in the game, You learn short melodies and plink them out on the distaff in the lower left corner of the screen. The audiotape contains a couple of short melodies; you'll learn more as you work your way through the game.
The fabric of the universe is unraveling, and, as the only child ever born of the magical Loom, only you have the power to fend off disaster. To do this, you must learn secrets from other guilds—the shepherds, the glassmakers, the blacksmiths.
As you pursue your quest, you never type a single letter—which is only fitting, considering that few characters in Bobbin's world know how to read. You move through the gorgeous landscapes by pointing to the place you want to go—Bobbin always knows how to get there.
(I get tired of characters who can't seem to walk without my constant attention.)
Loom is a work of storytelling art that can stand up well to comparison with other such arts—film, television, drama—without losing its value as a game. The audioplay at the beginning helps immerse you in the tale; the terrific pictures and realistic animation sustain your interest and belief; and the interface is so natural and intuitive that you feel as though you have actually lived through Bobbin's life.
Loom is not as interactive as, say. Rocket Ranger. You don't start out with a map of the world and go wherever you want in any order you want. But the story is good enough that you'll rarely notice how you're being channeled through the sequence of events. As with Lucasfilm Games' adaptation of the popular Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Loom usually offers more than one solution to each problem.
In fact, Last Crusade does something I've wanted to see for a long time. If you come into the game bent on quick, violent solutions, you'll end up playing a violent game. If you come in with a more clever, puzzle-solving style, you'll end up playing a subtle game of wits. You can win either way. The game becomes what you want it to be.
That's a level of interactivity that almost no other games have achieved before—responding to the player's moral choices, not by punishing bad behavior, but rather by letting players experience the moral universe they seem to want to live in. When a game allows that, it has the possibility of making the player a true participant in the creation of the story.
By the way, Loom and Last Crusade are the last story games from Lucasfilm that I'll be reviewing for a while. The very things that I've praised in this column have led me to collaborate with Lucasfilm on what we hope will be a new generation of storytelling games.
In the meantime, I'll continue to write this column, telling you what I think is good—and bad—in the world of computer games. If anything, working as a designer myself will help me be all the more aware of remarkable achievements by the best of today's game designers.