Violet

This is a text adventure where you have to force your character to overcome writer’s block and make progress on your dissertation while there is still time. Not just to complete the thesis, but also to save your disintegrating relationship. Though it’s a few years old, it has contemporary resonance for current-day students.

The game is played through an online gaming website (you’ll need Flash enabled) which unfortunately is one of those with distracting and garish ads and icons across much of the screen estate. If you can block those out of your vision, it’s a standard text in visual appearance and operation. Alternately, if more technically minded you can possibly download and install the game onto your own PC or Mac.

Sample of gameplay from Violet.

From the website:

The problem? You’re a graduate student working on your dissertation, but you haven’t gotten any writing done in months. Your girlfriend Violet has put her life on hold, waiting for you to finish, and she’s getting fed up. If you don’t get a thousand words written today, your relationship is over and she flies home to Australia. Unfortunately, your office is full of every kind of distraction, from the window overlooking campus hijinx to the computer on your desk, always ready to show you the latest blogs and web comics instead of your chapter-in-progress. So you have no choice but to shut out everything that’s causing you distraction so that you can turn in a few hours of solid work for once.

The game is the winner of the 2008 Interactive Fiction competition, has won several other awards, scored highly in reviews and gets regular (positive) mentions from the academic press and PhD students for both its accuracy, and as a suitable distraction from completing your thesis in real life.

Gameplay from the text adventure Violet

Game designing, again. At last.

I haven’t designed, written or coded a digital games in … a long time. Years. Too many years. My first attempts, back in the early 1980s on a Sinclair ZX81, were unsurprisingly crude. A few programs did make it into computer magazines as boringly long code listings for people to type in; there’s a vague recollection of being excited by this, and not realising for several years that I wasn’t getting paid for my work.

I did, however, get paid for a basic (in every respect of the word) flight landing simulator which was published as an actual game that you bought on a cassette and spent an eternity loading. But not richly paid as it sold five copies on the shelf of Evesham Micros (when this was a tiny store in Evesham, the location of which ironically is now my solicitors), and I was left with a stock of C60 tapes from WHSmith in anticipation of doing multiple production runs to keep up with demand. Thankfully, I’d cornered the market at school in Panini football sticker trading (irony: never liked football) and so I was able to support failed enterprises such as ‘Independent 13 year old Game Designer and Publisher’.

Snippet from text adventure I’m designing

Rolling forward over a third of a century and I’m using an online service called inklewriter to, well, write Interactive Fiction. I’ve never, to be honest, got on well with traditional branch-oriented Interactive Fiction. You know, “To hit the goblin, turn to page 36; to run away from the goblin, turn to page 112”; that kind of book. Typically, I’d become quickly bored and try to reverse-engineer the entire story by reading it sequentially to figure out the path to the end. The better – or more frustrating – IF books were designed so you’d have to read the entire thing, and draw a complex graph, to figure this out.

Me: more of a location-oriented computer game player; the classic text adventures from Infocom, or The Hobbit from Melbourne House, and the like. “Exits are North, South, or West” – that kind of thing. Over the years since, I’ve tried various bits of software that help (or claim to help) the construction of such stories, but with limited success or interest held. Twine, for example, I’ve been playing around with of late but has some fussy shortcomings that bog me down to the point of giving up. I may return to it in the future as it has some interesting functionality, to be fair.

Pulling in a picture from my Flickr account
Pulling in a picture from my Flickr account

However, more recently – and this may yet come to nothing – inklewriter is proving intriguing and surprisingly easy and fast to work with. It has very limited options in terms of look and feel; just one style of display (see the screenshots in this post of things I’ve been writing with it), though you can incorporate some outside content and interesting randomness within. And the logic operations are also few and simplistic – but, I’ve noticed, just about functional enough to make something like a location-oriented games possible.

I’m a little reluctant to say more at the moment because, as said, this may still go wrong. Also, spoilers and meta-spoilers. Oh, and it’s a free and web browser-based bit of software that isn’t actively supported, so it may disappear at any point and is therefore somewhat risky to use.

Another text adventure snippet
Another text adventure snippet

But there’s some potential here so I’m tentatively building an Interactive Fiction adventure that, surprisingly to me, is starting to take a playable shape. There’s a major arc plot, an end-goal, a fair amount of content already, and several puzzle concepts at various stages of implementation which provide different degrees of difficulty. Construction and testing are a fun exercise and it’s forcing me to confront game design decisions in a logical and unavoidable manner. More on this as it hopefully progresses; I’m keeping a design log which is already useful and, if and when it’s all done (there is a rough plan for this), this log and other materials, as well as the game itself, will be publicly available.

Old school text adventures. Set in old schools.

Online searches often turn up interesting text adventures, either new or – from more technologically simpler times – historical. Pleasingly, a query in late 2014 revealed some text adventures from a quarter of a century or so ago which were set in academia.

From 1988, Dudley Dilemma is set in Harvard University. From the screenshots it appears to be a basic and standard text adventure. From even further back in 1987, Infocom themselves released the acclaimed Lurking Horror, which though initially set in a large MIT-like American university, soon veers off into somewhat unsettling horror.

Two other text adventures from back in the/that day I’ve been playing of late are Save Princeton and Ditch Day Drifter. Both of these can still be played by using a TADS-compatible interpreter (I’ve been using Splatterlight on my Mac).

The former of these, co-authored by Jacob Weinstein who also provided much of the information in this note, is unsurprisingly set in Princeton University. This is an “exaggerated, slapsticky version of life as an undergraduate”, where the aim of the adventure isn’t immediately apparent. A screenshot from near the start:

Screenshot from Save Princeton

Ditch Day Drifter, on the other hand, was developed in 1990 and is set in Caltech. According to Jacob this is closer to real life than some other text adventures situated in a university, since it portrayed Caltech’s “Ditch Day“, which is basically a big real-world adventure game. Another screenshot:

Screenshot from Ditch Day Drifter

Both games are quite enjoyable to play and, as you do with text adventures, experiment with to see what the parser recognises, allows and acts on.

> Examine Infocom archive

Infocom, founded in the late 1970s, was a software company in Cambridge (the USA one) which specialised in interactive fiction (IR) – more commonly known, then and now, as text adventure games. You may have heard of Zork, or the video game version of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Both were produced by Infocom.

Skip to but a few days ago. And lo, this appears online, the first of several batches of digitised content.

Yes, an archive of Infocom materials, the originals meticulously stored by Steve Meretzky of Infocom fame and scanned in, page by page, by Jason Scott of textfiles.com fame (and that in itself is a huge internet rabbit hole to fall down). He describes the process, with lots of lovely screenshots, in fascinating detail.

There’s a lot scanned in; enough, I hope, for several future research projects by games scholars. Related to this is GET LAMP, an Interactive fiction documentary by Jason from 2010. If you’re into adventure or text adventure game design and philosophy, and are okay with watching 90 minutes of interview clips then it’s an interesting video: