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.