Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Adventures in Text

Even as a kid, I made a distinction between console video games and computer games. In the early 80's, my family had a couple of consoles at home (Atari VCS and ColecoVision), which were pretty much under my older brother's authority. I had no say when it came to playing his video games. I assume now that he kept the consoles under his reign because he needed something to do on rainy days after he and his friends got high. I remember spending more time on the Commodore Vic-20 my father had bought. It was a fairly inexpensive computer that was underpowered even for the time, so the focus of their software was gaming and educational software. Despite this early start on computers, I never became that genius wiz-kid my father had envisioned.

Home computers at the time had such a limited graphical capability that a new genre of entertainment software was created: text adventures. These days known as "Interactive Fiction", text adventures are games where all the action is described instead of depicted graphically. A narration on screen describes your (the player's) location and circumstances, then waits for your input (i.e. "look west" or "throw dung at peasant").

These games really allowed my imagination to soar as a kid. I'm sure I gained some good reading comprehension skills from playing these over and over again.

Here's an example of a typical text adventure exchange between the player and the computer:

You are sitting in a chair in a darkened room. The only light source is a bright heat lamp that is dangling from a power cord 2 feet above your head. Your wrists and ankles are fastened to the chair's legs with duct tape. Almost invisible among the shadows, a small figure appears to be smoking a cigarette in the corner of the room.
>examine small figure
I do not understand what you are trying to say.
>examine figure
The figure steps out of the shadows to reveal an angry-looking dwarf wearing a fedora that barely covers his sweaty, bulbous forehead. He takes a drag off of his cigarette before stamping it out under his pointy alligator-skinned cowboy boots. The dwarf then approaches you as he fishes in his pocket, pulls out a butterfly knife, and flips it open in one swift, menacing move. He snarls at you and asks you "Do you want to live to remember the worst day of your life or do you want to die and lose all consciousness for all eternity?"
>eat shit!
This game does not understand "shit."
>hit dwarf
Your hands and legs are taped to the chair, remember? You must break free to move. The dwarf is tapping his feet impatiently.
>talk to dwarf
Right as you open your mouth to talk to the dwarf, he flashes a quick smile and brings a finger to his lips in a motion to shush you. He raises the knife and starts cutting through the duct tape that binds you to the chair. He frees you and, laughing maniacally, runs out of the room through a door to the east.
You are now in a large hallway to what appears to be an abandoned prison. There is an open door to the east. Construction debris blocks the hallway on the south. You can continue down the hall to the north. The smell of sulfur hangs in the air.

Basically it goes something like that although most text adventures don't read like a David Lynch screenplay.

One of the more interesting features of text adventures is the limited vocabulary that is understood by the computer. Typically, input commands were regulated to verb + noun. You would type "open door" to open a door. If you typed "open the door," the computer would start spitting out smoke and sparks because of the complexity of the input command.

The Commodore Vic-20 had a bunch of great text adventures. We had a few at home. I'll tell you more about them in my next post.

Until then, remember: This game does not understand "shit."

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