Friday, January 30, 2015

Beyond Zork

Thirty posts in and I still haven’t written a single word about what this blog is named after.

For those not in the know, Popular Enchanting was a fictional magazine in the world shared by the Zork and Enchanter series, as well as a few oddball games that didn’t really fit with the rest, like Wishbringer (or Return to Zork for that matter).

These games were produced by a company called Infocom, which specialized in these text-based adventure games that are now referred to as Interaction Fiction (IF). It really is a medium unto itself, distinct from both gamebooks and videogames, IF's two closest relatives.

No computer game has ever come especially close to the experience of playing a tabletop RPG with a real life group of actual people, but the best IF games can get pretty close to what a game with one PC & one DM feels like. You get a brief description of your surroundings, and a prompt to tell the game what you want to try and do. You get to examine whatever you want to more closely, and most objects have hidden details for closer inspection to reveal. Of course, if you thought of doing something that had never occurred to the programmer, the game would just sort of tell you it was confused, and the game certainly couldn’t use your first adventure to feel out your interests and base a campaign around them, but those games were always about exploring and figuring out how to deal with weird shit in the same way that D&D is about those things at its best.

I first played re-releases of these early IF games as a tiny child in the mid-80s, through my older brother since I couldn’t read yet, so I suppose this was my earliest exposure to anything like the RPG format. To be honest, I didn’t completely make the connection for a long time, but I’m glad I finally did. My D&D games have gotten to be a lot smoother and more fun since I decided that mapping and navigation should skip the complications and just use the Infocom flow chart method, and I’ve looked to these games for inspiration in both designing and running puzzles.

These games were commercially viable when they first came out because computer graphics hadn’t yet evolved to the point where they could do a good job of evoking a setting (Infocom started publishing games the same year Rogue came out). The only images that computers were good at displaying back then were so abstracted that blocks of text were actually much more immersive.

Years later, I discovered that the internet had spawned a hobbyist-driven revitalization of IF, much like the one that D&D experienced with the birth of the OSR. There are thousands of short games, many of which push pretty hard at the edges of the medium, freely available on the Interactive Fiction Database. I’ve only ever played maybe a couple dozen of them, but there’s a few of them I’d recommend no matter how much or little experience you have with IF games.

Uncle Zebulon’s Will — Of all the games I’m writing about here, this is easily the closest in feeling to those early Infocom pioneers. The IF format is better at implementing puzzles than any other type of adventuring challenge, so that’s what those games, and this one, give you. UZW also has the same computer-nerd-when-that-was-weird sense of humor that permeated the Zork universe. The end of this game implies one or more sequels, and it’s a little sad that they never happened.
Unlike the other games on this list, this one’s old enough that it was written in a language called TADS instead of one called Inform, which means that you have do what this page says, instead of just playing the game in a browser window. It’s a little bit more of a pain in the ass, but it’s still free, and I think it’s worth it.

Beyond the Tesseract — This is another puzzle heavy game, but it’s a little more abstract due to the subject matter. Basically, if you’ve ever been disappointed at how far Shadowrun fell short of how cool the hacking stuff could have been, you need to play this game.

Photopia — This was the first of the experimental IF games that I really got into. The narrative keeps switching back and forth between the story of a teenage girl’s senseless death, and the interactive stories she uses to entertain the much younger girl she babysits. I guess you could say that it’s sort of like Maus and Memento and The Books of Magic all at the same time but that wouldn’t make any god damned sense. If nothing else, the storytelling portions are actually a pretty good example of how to DM an immersive game.

Lost Pig (And Place Under Ground) — First off, pretty much everybody loves this game, even people who usually give zero shits about IF. You are an orc who had one job; to keep track of a pig. The pig is now lost, possibly in a place under ground. Your name is Grunk. This game has a few classic puzzles, which are fun, and a well-written gnome NPC, but it’s really the orc’s POV narrative style that makes it shine. From the game:
Grunk orc. Big and green and wearing pants.

Speaking of point of view narration…
Heroes — This game is based on classic D&D tropes just as closely as Lost Pig. The goal of the game is to recover a certain piece of treasure. Standard enough. This game’s twist is that you need to attempt the heist as each of the former members of an adventuring party. They all interact with their environment completely differently from each other, not just in that their abilities differ, but also in the strikingly different ways they perceive the same set of surroundings. An object that is crucial to completing the heist as the enchanter will completely escape the notice of the thief, for example.

Galatea — This IF piece really isn’t a game in any traditional sense. There isn’t really a goal in particular, except to satisfy your own curiosity as the player, but there is a seriously well fleshed out NPC/magic item to interact with and learn the story of. That’s all there is, really, but I think it’s probably good practice to try and make sure at least one side element (room, NPC, item, spell…) of an adventure is just as detailed as this game’s namesake.

The Edifice — This game uses a narrative device that basically amounts to time-traveling reincarnation to take you from our early hominid ancestry, through a few of the most important advances in the development of the human race. There’s also a really elegant built-in hint system that offers you help, if you need it, without doing what most of the IF with hint guides do and breaking the fourth wall. This is another game that plays with the narrative voice to be more immersive, in almost the same way Lost Pig does. Nowhere near as funny though.

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