Even Text Adventures Should Be Well-Designed

If there is one thing that I have found to be consistently true about me, it’s that getting me to do anything consistently is a chore. Take blogging, for instance. At the slightest disruption (you know, leaving one job for another, little things), my routine is OTFW: Out The Fucking Window. Routine and I have a passing relationship at best already; adding OTFW to the equation… well, let’s just say it doesn’t make things improve.

This isn’t always a bad thing. For example, my brief hiatus over the past week has brought forth evidence that there are people out there (actual human beings) who reading this skree. I was astonished and humbled at this. Hello there, Dear Reader, whoever you are.

It’s a little bit like Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (an absolutley marvelous play with a not-so-marvelous movie attached to it); here I was, lingering in my own secret backstage null-zone, blabbing away, only to find that the audience had crept in. Very strange.

Anway. That’s neither here nor there.

I posted a while back about text adventures (and will do so again! I cannot be stopped!), and got some interesting responses. Here’s one, from one of my eloquent friends:

So, I finished Spider and Web. It was surprisingly addictive (I got it the same day I got God of War, and yet I still haven’t played God of War,because I wanted to finish this). [ ed. note: If you haven’t already, go play God of War. Right now. Put down the keyboard, and just walk away. ]

In the end, I only had to look at the walkthrough once to [ put a big spoiler in my email. ] Admittedly, I got lucky with the “Big Puzzle” – I knew that my [ spoiler ] was being brought to the [ spoiler ], so I decided to hook the [ big spoiler ] up to the [ shhhhh ] so I could [ I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you ]. Imagine my surprise when I [ spoiler’ed ], only to have [ I ain’t telling you the rest ].

Anyhow, despite all my obsessive playing, I’m not entirely sure that I *enjoyed* it. There’s just this element of frustration (punctuated by brief periods of Aha! pleasure) that seems endemic to the genre. To be fair, this game had some of the most logical and least arbitrary puzzles I’ve seen, but it still felt like you are playing the game in shackles, looking at everything through a keyhole, if you know what I mean.

This is exactly what I was hoping would be clear. Let’s read that again.

To be fair, this game had some of the most logical and least arbitrary puzzles I’ve seen,

Word. And, the point that I’m trying to make is that illogical and arbitrary puzzles have nothing to do with the genre of text adventures. They have to do with the fact that text adventures were last developed at a time when all video games suffered from illogical and arbitrary puzzles (that would be the late 80’s). Every single one. I don’t know if you remember, but think back. Finishing a game at all didn’t used to be a testament of stamina, but was instead an indicator that you either a) were a frickin’ genius, or b) you asked someone how to do it.

The corollary to this point is very simple:

Applying contemporary game design principles to the text adventure genre would completely transform genre into something pleasureable and unique. This is long-overdue; too long have text-adventure aficionados mimicked the ancient mistakes of the old masters. They didn’t know any better, guys, and they aren’t making games in that way any more. Neither should you.

My friend continues:

It’s a tough balance. Either you severely restrict what the user can do/see,in which case the user feels constrained, or you give the user lots of freedom in which case the puzzles get really hard because there are just too many possible solutions.

No, no, see, this is what we’ve started to figure out in game design of late. What you do is you give the player many things to do in your interactive world, which generates immersion. You insure that only a few of these things to do will permute your puzzle space (it’s safe to be able to move items around, but it’s dangerous to be able to flood the whole complex). Then, you make the solution(s) to any puzzles you put in front of the player clear, but challenging. That is to say, it should be clear what you have to do, and the how should require some kind of mental dexterity (and require few, if any, short mental leaps. Long mental leaps are excluded entirely).

The best text adventure puzzles are built this way, and are deeply satisfying to complete. Say it stronger: the best games are built this way.

There is a list of items about 10,000 long that text adventures need to blow through to come up to speed. They include things like checkpoints, a “main menu”, clear help systems, clear reward / scoring / objective systems, tutorials…

Simple enough to think about. More complicated to do.

But, it’s text. It can be done.

I’m glad I played the game, though – it’s definitely memorable. Thanks for turning me on to it.

You’re welcome.

Published by


I design.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *