Sunday, September 30, 2007

Text Wins

Unexpectedly and to my utter delight, a recent New York Times editorial by Daniel Radosh - in the course of a critical look at the new, super-modern game Halo 3 - claims that text games from the 1980s were the pinnacle of video games’ artistic achievement:

The formula followed by virtually all games is a steady progression toward victory: you accomplish tasks until you win. Halo 3, for all its flawless polish, does not aspire to anything more. It does not succeed as a work of art because it does not even try.
There is no reason that gorgeous graphics can’t play a role in this task, but the games with the deepest narratives were the text adventures that were developed for personal computers in the 1980s. Using only words, these “interactive fictions” gave players the experience of genuinely living inside a story.... Today’s game designers should study this history as a starting point for an artistic revolution of the future.

This is precisely how I feel, and it’s why I haven’t been that excited about the last few generations of extremely popular console games: first-person shooters, car racing games, and sports games. I don’t care how realistic a shooting or racing game looks. I could run through hallways and shoot people, or drive a car quickly, or play football, in the real world. I look to video games for something different.

I recently read an entire Wired cover story on Halo 3, about the psychotic lengths of ultra-monitored playtesting that Microsoft was going to to ensure that players wouldn’t be challenged too much by the game, and would be funneled through the levels one after another, never spending more than five seconds in any room.

Reading this article, it seemed to me that the designers had missed the point entirely. They weren’t making a game, they were making an interactive movie or digitized theme park ride. What’s fun about playing a game that’s had all the moments of confusion or perplexity streamlined by hundreds of hours of group-focus testing sessions? I want a person with some interesting ideas to invite me to explore an interesting world, not a group-tested simulation of what stimulates the average teenage boy. I’d much rather play Pikmin than Halo.

This is why I feel that a lot of the most exciting games of the last five years were purposefully developed for the “limitations” of handheld systems. I find that an excellent Gameboy Advance or Nintendo DS game, Advance Wars for example, is usually ten times as fun as the latest Doom-type game where you run around dark hallways in circles emptying shotgun blasts into peoples’ heads. (Not that that isn’t fun, mind you, but I got tired of it in, oh, 1995 or so.) And this is why I still return again and again to play Infocom games from the ’80s, and to their excellent successors by passionate amateur writers such as Nelson or Plotkin.

Given this huge thumbs-up for text games from no less than the Gray Lady herself, this seems as good a time as any to complete my earlier story about how I put Zork and a bunch of other old games on my new cell phone.


I had no earthly reason to believe that my new cell phone would play Zork, aside from a vague idea that I’d seen something somewhere online about old text games being playable on Palm Pilots. But I didn’t have a Palm Pilot, I just had a phone. This idea was a complete shot in the dark. But what’s Zork? let me back up briefly.

Zork is a text game that I first played on my friend Michael’s computer when I was about 8 or 9, so in 1983 or so. It looked more or less like this.

I played it for several hours, and all I did was read somebody’s mail, find a bird’s nest and fruitlessly yank at a grating hidden beneath a pile of leaves in a forest. Most of the things I typed were met with responses like “You can’t see that here” or “You can’t do that”. But I was hooked.

A year or two later I somehow got (I can’t remember how exactly I acquired things back then... birthday present? saved up allowance? spontaneous gift from easily hornswoggled grandparent?) my own copy of Zork I for our Mac Plus, along with, later, Hitchhiker’s, Spellbreaker, a copy of The Lurking Horror, and a couple others. These games were incredible, but they were extremely difficult to beat without carefully scanning the packaging inserts, paying for hints and/or hearing solutions from other kids, and they scarred me for life. In a good way. But around this very same time, we got our first Nintendo system, and I started to see text games as somewhat old-fashioned. The golden age of the text adventure was drawing to a close.

Several spasmic waves of roughly biennial nostalgia have since prompted me to play through these old games on every computer I’ve owned, and I have even attempted to program a couple things myself in a modern, freeware text adventure creation language called Inform. I currently play this sort of thing on my MacBook using this program, where games look like this:

So, having been playing Zork since 1983 or so, I grasped my spanking new Razr, plugged its USB cable into my computer, and set out to force it to play Zork with me. This rite of passage would take several days of arduous work, eventually shaving years off both the phone’s and my life, but it was a success. I figured out that the phone could play small Java games, and that somebody had made this program, a scaled-down version of this program, for playing old Infocom games on cell phones in Java.

Only trouble is, the only game that the scaled-down program could play was a demo version of Zork 1, in the now-beyond-extremely-obsolete Z3 story file format. It took me a couple of days’ tinkering to figure out how to get multiple copies of the mini Java application uploaded onto my phone, each loading a different story file. But I did it. This is what Zork looks like on my mobile phone.

Being able to carry around in my palm a childhood treasure which, at the time I first played it, required a humming beige box and monitor which together were larger than I was, almost reduced me to tears, and I began playing it immediately. I just beat it a few hours ago.

Never mind that the applet only has one save slot, and that I have to type everything in thumb-punishing SMS style. I now love my new phone, not only because it plays Zork - but that’s a big part of it. Anything that can play Zork is my friend. Is not dirty. Is not fighting me. Is very nice.

(Those last remarks were in the Bengali-Thai-English pigin I’ve been using to communicate with one of my students this week. But that’s an whole other story.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

are you in thailand?
english teacher?

LOL thats cool!