Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Text based interactive games in an age of extreme graphics

In the 1980s, when I started using a computer, I had to program my own games in BASIC on my SHARP MZ PC (featured in this post). Dad had brought three fat Japanese gaming manuals from a trip to the country.  Since the manuals were in Japanese, I could not read the descriptions of each game. I would have to look at the name and any accompanying visuals and decide which ones I wanted to program. Entering the code for games took up half of my summer holidays - and checking and correcting code took up the other half. When you enter hundreds of lines of code, there is ample scope for error. Even back then, it never struck me that I hardly got time to play the games that I had so painstakingly entered. I was triumphant if they just played correctly!

Most of the games that I played were arcade games. But there was one, which was my special favorite, took the longest to enter and enthralled me like no other game. It was a text based game called Bannockburn Castle. In terse 1 line sentences of text on my green monochrome monitor, the computer would inform me 'monster is attacking, do you 1) fight 2) run away 3) use magic?"

Or it would paint a graphic, if brief picture of my surroundings and help me to visualise it "you are standing outside a dense forest. Sounds are coming from the trees. To the right is an old castle.  There appears to be someone coming towards you."

In this age of high resolution graphics, this may seem boring, but it worked for me back then. Maybe because it was an age when I was reading more, and watching less of visuals, and my imagination could actually paint the picture of the game in my mind.

And there was a kick in finding that the computer could actually understand and reply to me. I would type 'enter forest' or 'get key' or in frustration 'give clue' and I would get a couple of lines back. This was my first encounter with Artificial Intelligence, however rudimentary - a recognition that the computer, however imperfectly, could speak my language.

So I was delighted when I discovered and downloaded Frotz on my iPad. Frotz is an app that lets you play interactive fiction games. The games run on a virtual machine called Z Machine, created by Infocom, the company which pioneered and developed interactive gaming. And you don't need an iPad to play - in fact, because of the amount of typing involved, I would actually prefer to play on a laptop or PC, or of course, with a bluetooth keyboard connected.

I have been enjoying the interactive games like Zork, Curses and All Roads, on Frotz, but it's clearly an acquired taste. If you like zooming objects, loud noises and generally enjoy action, this may bore you. But if you love reading, want to play at a leisurely pace and don't mind stopping to think, this may be your cup of tea. It's a joy to play well written detective or horror fiction on Frotz. The goose bumps rise and a sense of being helpless and really trapped in the game, rises rapidly.

Not to say that interactive games do not have their limitations. Commands remain rudimentary and it's awfully easy to get 'stuck' and not knowing how to get out of a situation. For instance, I am trapped in a dungeon with my hands tied, the key to the door is at my feet but I can't use it till my hands are freed, and I do not know what to use to free my hands! Being in a decision limbo is the biggest frustration in interactive gaming. You could just lose patience and quit the game. There are no instructions on how to come out of limbo, you have to figure  it out yourself, through repeated play. This can be frustrating, but it's also an art to learn how to talk to the computer!

I would love to see a revival of interest in interactive gaming. Maybe it needs to be fuelled with more titles, a more communicative (sic) computer and even a bit of a graphical or illustrated background. As an aide to imagination, not a substitute for it. I can also see interactive gaming as a great educational tool for kids, with the right titles.

Can I get back my library memberships, this time on my iPad?

I have been a fan of libraries all my life. Growing up, it was Easwari Library in Chennai, where I first got introduced to Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Alistair MacLean, Dorothy Sayers and a bunch of other authors. When I was in college in Pune, I was very proud of my British Council student membership. I found the best books of literary criticism, great magazines, and best of all, beautifully bound hardbacks for sale at cut-price rates.

When I went to work in Bengaluru, a colleague introduced me to Eloor Library. I credit Eloor with introducing me to a wealth of non-fiction writers such as Fritjof Capra and Douglas Hofstadter.

Then I came to Mumbai, and it was goodbye libraries, forever more. I did not have time, I did not have patience, I was glued to a computer screen and frankly, I ran out of excuses to avoid commuting to the British Council Library in Nariman Point. I don't know exactly why no flourishing libraries have come up in the city - maybe the retail economics does not permit, maybe we are too time-starved to read. In any case, for many years, my library has been my own bookshelf.

And this long burst of nostalgia was triggered when I read on TUAW that the British Council has created a 19th Century Historical Collection app for the iPad. To quote from the BCL Site;

"The app takes advantage of the form and function of iPad, bringing a renewed sense of wonder to the discovery and enjoyment of antiquarian and historical books.

Currently the app features over a thousand 19th Century books, but it will provide access to more than 60,000 titles by later this summer when details on pricing for the service will be announced. The 60,000 books, which are all in the public domain, are part of the British Library’s 19th Century Historical Collection and span numerous languages and subject areas including titles such as "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley and "The Adventures of Oliver Twist" [with plates] by Charles Dickens."

Here are some screenshots from the app:

Later, the app will also be coming to Android and Kindle Reader. 

And it would be fabulous if the libraries came online through iBooks, Kindle or any other platform and made their collections available to people across mobile devices. This is more than wishful thinking, I believe that it will be necessary to do this for libraries (and our reading habit) to thrive instead of just surviving. I spend more time reading online than I do with a real book. I am not a great purchaser of books. I am a speed reader, and since childhood, my mom figured that it made sense to let me borrow and read loads of books than to buy a few which I would finish in a matter of hours.

In short, I am an ideal candidate for a library. And I am sure that there are many others like me, who would love to access libraries rather than buy and keep books. If Easwari or Eloor  would digitise their connection (maybe using a proprietary protected format to prevent piracy), I would sign up for sure. Maybe I could borrow the book for 7 days for the same sum I pay to borrow the physical book and then it vanishes off my device! There are some wrinkles and legalities to be ironed out but I think in the long run, such a venture would benefit device manufacturers, libraries and publishers.

I could be commuting on a traffic clogged Mumbai road while browsing the Eloor bookshelves. And then I could hop across to Easwari and see if they have what I want....it's a tempting scenario and I hope it comes true!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Android phones rule, for a little longer!

With Apple not committing to a release date for iPhone 5, the spotlight shifts back to the slew of Android launches with cutting edge hardware. Among the manufacturers of Android phones, HTC and Samsung in particular have always raised the bar on hardware specs, keeping geeks' salivating and interested in the platform. Let's be frank - the hardware has often compensated for the buggy OS, or even for the sheer frustration of waiting for updates.

But now, more than ever, seems a good time to spring for an Android handset. The platform is stabilised and Google has begun to work on measures that reduce fragmentation, including regularising of updates across manufacturers, and checks within the Android market place to ensure compatibility of apps with your phone.

Here are some of the hottest handsets that I have had an eye on:

1. The Samsung Galaxy S2
The S2 is a successor to the popular Samsung Galaxy S, whose sales crossed 10 million units this year. While this may pale in comparison to the 100 million units of iPhones' sold, in the fragmented Android market, Samsung has certainly struck gold with the Galaxy S. The S2 continues with the Galaxy pedigree - it packs a super fast dual core processor, has a vibrant Super AMOLED Plus screen, and as a bonus, it is super thin despite its 4 inch plus size.

It's available now on Flipkart or on letsbuy for just Rs.30,990 which I think is pretty reasonable for a phone of this calibre. Both sites are offering a package of free accessories, but letsbuy's deal is a little sweeter, with screen protector, case and HDTV adaptor all thrown in.

(Image from Techradar)

2. The HTC Sensation
The HTC is pretty neck on neck with Samsung in specs. While HTC's Adreno 200 GPU is faster and more advanced especially for gaming, Samsung has gone for a Cortex A9 processor which is blazingly fast.

TechRadar has bravely done a head-on comparison of both phones. As there is little to choose in terms of hardware, it boils down to personal preference. HTC has better build quality and the superb intuitive Sense interface. The Galaxy S2 has a way better screen especially for outdoor viewing, larger inbuilt memory, a bigger battery and longer battery life and as per Tech Radar tests,  it has superior call quality. Finally, Samsung has an unlocked bootloader, facilitating you to root your device and load custom ROMs. HTC has also promised to unlock bootloaders (Sony has already started doing this) so it may not remain a competitive advantage for Samsung for very long!

It's too close to call between both the phones, and the best way to decide would be to try both

 From practical experience, I would tilt towards the phone with better battery life, simply because it matters in daily life. As an aside, it's becoming almost impossible to find spare charging points at any busy airport these days, and I hate having a stress that my battery is going to drain off any minute.

HTC Sensation is listed on letsbuy for Rs.30,499. No freebies with this one.

(Image from TechRadar)

3. And the runners-up got cheaper...

If you do not want to invest at the top of the ladder for a phone, then it's worthwhile to look at the cheaper Android phones which were last year (or last month's) flagship models. They do not have dual core GPUs, but they are plenty fast enough for most daily tasks you would want from a phone.

The Samsung Galaxy S is available for Rs.22900 on FlipKart with Super AMOLED screen and for Rs.19,999 with a regular LCD Screen. While the Samsung Nexus S is also just Rs. 19,999. If you want a slightly obsolescence proof phone, the Nexus is a safe bet as it will load the later iterations of Android without being dependant on the manufacturer rolling out updates.

And if you are an HTC fan, the Desire HD is hovering around the Rs.25,000 mark and the Incredible S at Rs.26,000.