Problem-solving is fun! I learned this lesson not from my teachers, not from
a book, but from computer games. Specifically, from text adventure games like
Zork, Lurking Horror and Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Typing
in commands like “go north,” “take candy,” “ask sam about instrument,” allowed
you to move around and do things in these entirely text-based environments.
I’ve decided that my somewhat creative approach to life’s problems — how I tend to keep trying different things until one works, confident that there’s an answer out there, and not being worn down by failure — is something that I picked up from these games. Finding a place to sleep in a new city when I don’t have any money or friends may not be a puzzle that has a predestined answer concocted by a game designer, but I’ve fruitfully approached it with the same playful attitude.
The good text adventures had more than a series of puzzles to solve; they had as much atmosphere and clever writing as a good novel, and I decided in Grade 8 that I was going to merge my love of writing and computers to become a writer of interactive fiction. I set my sights on getting a job at Infocom, the company that made the best text adventures.
Then graphics came along and ruined everything.
While the mass market for text adventures was mostly washed away by arcade-style games, scattered pockets of enthusiasts remained. The internet allowed them to interact, most notably on usenet groups like rec.arts.int-fiction, which I discovered roughly 10 years after Infocom went down in 1989. And not only were people still playing the games, they were writing them, too! There were tonnes of how-to resources that were particularly good as interactive fiction programmers not only know how to code, but also how to write.
Every year there’s a competition held for the best new game, and the deadline’s a great catalyst. I should know, because it inspired me to realize my childhood dream of writing a text adventure. My entry to IFComp 2000 puts the player in the shoes of a young kid who’s just given himself his first mohawk. Now he has to earn it by pissing off his teachers and impressing his peers until he earns enough punk points to escape the suburbs. Punk Points placed 22nd in a contest of 53 entries, but I got enough feedback from the few people who really liked it to make it worthwhile.
For IFComp 2003, I’ve decided to play the part of judge, as can anyone who logs on to www.ifcomp.org before Nov. 15. Did I mention that these games are free and work on PC, Macs, Palm Pilots and pretty much anything with circuits? Here’s some of the more interesting games I’ve played, and a comparison to something in another medium:
[WARNING: FOR THOSE WHO ALREADY INTEND TO JUDGE IN THE COMP, AND ARE WORRIED ABOUT BEING BIASED OR READING SPOILERS, YOU MIGHT WANT TO DO YOUR JUDGING BEFORE READING THESE CAPSULE COMMENTS.]
In Gourmet, you run a restaurant named Mack an’ Geez, a ’40s theme restaurant complete with pneumatic -tube food delivery, war memorabilia and a big band. You’ve been having food-supplier and employee trouble, so naturally tonight’s the night that the influential food critic is popping by. For people who liked Fawlty Towers.
Amnesia‘s first description rambles “A cool beach where you should have washed ashore and not have been able to remember anything because you where [sic] supposed to have amnesia, which you didn’t, which completly [sic] ruins the whole storyline this game was going to have, so now the auther [sic] will have to make a game up on the spot, enjoy. By the way if you want to learn about me just type ABOUT.” When you type ABOUT, he tells you his “whole life story” and then says that he hopes you give him points based on the fact that he’s only in high school. For people who find teenaged chatrooms curiously fascinating.
The Erudition Chamber has a neat twist — you come to a room with apparently no exit, a door with no handle. If you take the axe and smash it down, you become a Warrior and play the game one way. If you find the passage behind a tapestry, you become a Seer and play it another way. For people who found Lord of the Rings really quite good.
In Cerulean Stowaway, Earth has made alien contact. But instead of you being humanity’s last, best hope against the invaders, you’re the president of their fan club! (They are the variety who intend to cure cancer and all that.) You’re kind of bitter that only the dignitaries get to visit the home planet, when you’re the one rushing home from your job as a janitor to answer their mail, so you decide to sneak aboard a ship. For fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or other self-aware, goofy science fiction.
The Temple of Kaos gives all its descriptions in couplets: “Chamber
of the north, so empty, still, all noise grates / Black as night the chest your
thought awaits. / The other chamber southward lies / Cloaked in mystery’s disguise.”
For people who have discovered a 50 per cent ironic, 50 per cent genuine love
of Black Sabbath, or people who never stopped loving Rush.