In Which Our Hero Considers His Habits, And Adventure Games

Every time I get a solid writing gig, I’m essentially going to be writing about one of two things.

  • Movies
  • Video Games

Without fail, about three months into whatever job I get, I get incredibly bored and disillusioned by the topic I’m writing about at the moment, and leave that job to pursue the other thing. This is called “The Mascott Cycle,” and it is demonstrated here in this flowchart. You can actually see the progression of this cycle in old editions of The Rewind. As time went on, I would insert more and more comparisons and references to games into my articles.

As you might imagine, a compulsion such as this bodes well for neither myself nor my sometimes employers. It’s really a flaw of mine that no one can hope to explain or understand; like the Voynich Manuscript, or Bieber Fever. So, really, the only time I can fulfill all my needs when it comes to writing is when i’m writing for myself, when I can write about whatever topic I want to. This is, of course, just an extrapolation of what a blog is for, but from the point of view of a writer. So, as a blogger with my own blog, I’m now making the executive decision to write about video games for the first time since the last episode of The Mascott Speaks in October 2009.

AND NO ONE CAN STOP ME.

*squee*

*ahem*

Back in August of 2009, I really didn’t have much to do – I had just finished my run on a production of Damn Yankees and went from every day being filled by rehearsals to having an assload of free time. The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition had just come out and I found myself willing to give the world of adventure games another shot. I consumed games for about a week and a half – Leisure Suit Larry, Gabriel Knight, King’s Quest, Space Quest, Tex Murphy, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max – I even found myself sidestepping proper adventure games, playing descendants in their pedigree – things like Snatcher, Myst, and Radical Dreamers. This sidestepping, an attempted (and failed) playthrough of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and an article by Scott Sharkey led me to the genre formerly known as text adventures. Apparently, text adventures had undergone a snooty makeover and were calling themselves “Interactive Fiction.”

Interactive Fiction (IF) proved to be such a strange beast the more I looked into it.  It was almost as if IF was a perfect cross section of the rest of the literary world, but built up from an entirely separate environment and set of circumstances. There are annual award ceremonies, there are  there are short stories, there are long stories, there are superstars and there are niche authors. And all based around text adventures! Text adventures! Before I saw all of this, I had made the assumption that text adventures were at least five times deader then Elvis. (You’d think that would be a safe thing to assume!)

There are even people who have the ability to become very passionate and argumentative when you refer to any work of IF as a “game.” Lets be clear here, there is not a universe that exists in which text adventures are not games. If it looks like a game, talks like a game, and walks like a game, I’m going to go ahead and say that my first instinct is I’m playing a game primarily by reading it, not some futuristic advanced form of literature that I need to immediately give the same respect as Shakespeare. If Othello were interactive, I’m pretty sure we all would have typed, “strangle Iago” the moment he walked into the room, regardless of how little any of that has to do with my point. (Because that’s how you win at Shakespeare.)

But the most intersting part of IF, at least to me, was how the content is created. There’s a program called Inform 7 that is used for making these games. With all of our alien future technology, it makes sense that the simplest form of computer game would have the simplest method of creation. It uses a coding system called “Natural Language,” which you could basically say is “How you would explain the complexities of the world to an alien.” Here’s an example.

The Apartment is a room.

Simple, right? You’ve just created the room the player character starts in, and it’s called “The Apartment.” No modelling, physics definitions, nothing. To enter the description of the room, you’d put some stuff in quotes after you define that the room exists. Maybe I’ll put some things in the room.

The desk is a supporter in the apartment.

A supporter? What’s that mean? Well, it means that it supports other things, that you can put stuff on top of the desk. Like a computer!

The computer is on the desk. It can be switched on and off.

I am just droppin’ so much knowledge on you people. The computer is on the desk, and it can be turned on and off. Or maybe you don’t want the player to be able to switch off the computer, just to get in the state of mind of the character?

Instead of switching off the computer, say "Those pornographic torrents aren't going to finish themselves, don't screw with it!" The computer is not portable. Understand "turn off" as switching off.

So I just said that if the player tries to turn off the computer, they would basically be told that “Mascott want porno.” I also said that you can’t pick up the computer, and that if the player were to say “turn off” instead of switch off, (Because we’re not eighty.) the game would behave the same way.

Basically, Inform is this incredibly versatile and easy language – when you figure out how to do something interesting, it’s a triumph – you’ve beat the system. It also comes with wonderful documentation, and examples of how to do damn near anything.

I had a month before school would start, and I decided that what I wanted to do on my Summer Vacation was to write a text adventure.

And after two weeks of work, here’s what I got. You can play it right in your browser.

The problem was the same as when I tried to do anything with coding. I would always mess up one thing for weird reasons, or not be quite sure how to word something to make it work properly. It was easier to work with natural language like in inform, but it was almost more frustrating, having to ignore rules I had learned to write English in order to make the output correct. The examples in the documentation never quite fit what I was trying to do, despite knowing exactly what I needed to implement. I just became frustrated.

So there’s the Mascott game. It’s never going to get finished, (Mostly because I never had anything really planned,) but it was fun to work on to dip my toes into game development. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever actually work in the business of game creation, but it’s always fun to see what’s on the other side of the screenshot.

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