Word Play

[One from the vaults I lob back online on a whim, on the use of text in videogames. Wrote for Edge a couple of years back, and ended up being their cover feature. Which was gratifying (Edge being the one magazine which occasionally bases its cover on an editorial article rather than just a videogame). [Ed Note: As the ever-lovely Tony Mott says in the comments thread, I’ve got my head in a muddle here. My cover feature for Edge magazine was the one about game modifications, and had a splendid mod-circle cover. Since I think they’re the only two really big non-specific game related features I’ve done for Edge, somehow their relative narratives got merged. Sincere apologies to all concerned.] Obviously written in Edge’s voice, so a little more sober than usual and in third-person. I still proud that I once got a phrase akin to “Edge is a trifle peckish” into my Eve Online feature. Easily amused, me.]

In the beginning was the word. And the word begat a phrase. And the phrase was “Avoid Missing Ball For High Score”. Gaming’s public relationship with words started here, and continues to this day. It’s these first furtive fumblings which produced the most lasting signifiers which define games in the public eye, and will continue to do so as long as the form continues to exist in its current state. Icons like “Extra Life” and “High Score” are as much a signifier of gaming as any of the corporate mascots.

But this isn’t an article about words in games in the past — but their continuing use today. Words remain one of the more enigmatic and efficient tools available to a professional game designer, and certainly one of the most overlooked. And Its efficiency cannot really be overlooked — both in terms of player and development time. “Language (and prose in particular) remains an important tool for game designers because it’s malleable,” notes Sheldon Pacotti, writer on Deus Ex and now Game Systems Designer at Secret Level, “One sentence can go from the Bronze Age to 21st-century Shanghai to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Imagine the development budget to represent that last sentence visually.” The reverse is equally true — while with enough of a budget, through montage or other effects, you can duplicate much of what words can do, it eats up time. For any amount of given time with the player, words can present a greater flow of ideas. While each of these may lack the impact of a single image, the developer can send barrages of concepts to send the player reeling.

This has traditionally found its home in either role-playing games, adventures or games hybridised with their tendencies. Consider the most extreme — and artistically satisfying — example of what words can allow in recent times, Black Isle’s Planescape Torment, which crammed 800,000 words into a relatively short for the genre, but impressively dense, RPG.
“We just thought that there was so much you could do with written description — facial expressions, motions of the hand, etc, that we didn’t have the art resources to represent,” remembers Chris Avellone, lead designer on Planescape: Torment, and now working on Knights of the Old Republic 2 over at Obsidian, “To do all the cinematics, animations, and movies to capture the memory sequences, companion expressions, and other moments just would have been impossible.”

Torment’s also interesting in that most of the most important moments in the game only vividly appear in the text. To choose a memorable example, it’s a game whose “best” endings close with a conversation rather than the traditional open brawl with the end of game baddy. That these conversation trees prove so memorable is a testament to its power. “I think written descriptions of moments allows the player’s imagination to paint how the scene plays out (and fill in the gaps), and it ends up being stronger for it,” considers Chris, “The more you let the player bring to the experience, the better.”

An interesting parallel is the first generation of “Talkie” graphic adventures, while often extremely commercially successful, were often at the receiving end of the typical complaints that book-to-film conversions face in the multiplex: that the characters simply didn’t sound like how people imagined them. Text happens inside the mind, and so can be more personal. Of course, if a game is dense enough in words, it’s not as if there’s even the option of full voice-acting. Planescape, like many other RPGs, only voiced the first line of a character and the important scenes. “It was just a practical decision — there were just too many words,” remembers Chris, “but I think many people would rather have heard the game rather than read it. Still, voice acting wouldn’t have jived with the stage directions in the dialogue, however, which could have been jarring”.

Words can also carry meaning by their mere presence. Take the presence of English words in Japanese games, even those which will never be shipped outside of that marketplace. “The Japanese people see the US English with a very cool image,” explains games analyst Shida Hidekuni, “From the very begining of the game development in Japan, the developers used the poor English they knew at that time to make their game sound cool to users.” In other words, English text used purely as an aesthetic iconic form. “Even if Japanese people don’t speak very good English (or not at all),” continues Shida, “they have a some kind of natural attraction to it. So English is used in everything in Japan, sometime with not much sense and often mixed with Japanese. If you look at ordinary devices like Fridges, the buttons are written in English. Games are only part of this cultural phenomenon.”

Words also have another subtle, indirect use. The modern world is, by its nature, packed full of words. You simply can’t avoid them. When trying to model a world, a way to add to the realism in a non-intrusive way is to include a selection of them. It’s the technique that been used to flesh out the more non-linear worlds of PC RPGs for time immemorial. Even if the players don’t read these background texts — and the majority of them really don’t — their presence creates the illusion of a more authentic world by implication. In the same way that that even though, outside of the Sims, no-one ever actually feels the need to use a toilet in games, their presence in a modern day office is required or the world would seem fault. Even when they’re not being read, words are being seen and can make up an important part of the conceptual scenery. “In Torment, we had to give the illusion that the player was surrounded by thousands of dimensions and planes, even though he was only travelling to two or three,” notes Chris Avellone, “and item descriptions and stories NPCs told went a long way to making that more believable to the player”.

“It’s somewhat telling, though,” thinks Sheldon Pacotti ruefully, “that we need to make an argument for language at all. I agree completely that some game developers need to be convinced even of the value of words. What I’d like to see is a growing awareness that game design itself is words.” Words exist in the superstructure of any gaming experience. Games are more than pure phenomenological reflex. “Good entertainment in any medium begins with words, which are the tools we use to organize thought,” he notes, “But most game design proceeds in a very chock-a-block fashion. In such an environment, words are just another system or feature, when what we should be striving for is a game experience that doesn’t segment easily into different components.” Text is a tool, like any other available, and part of its charm is how it integrates and sublimates with all others. “How nice it is to play a game like Civilization, in which drama, strategy, text, and game mechanics all blend together seamlessly,” Sheldon laments, “It’s like reading Erasmus or Proust. Such experiences are all too rare these days.”

While words may be best understood in mainstream games in a holistic sense, as one of a game designer’s many multimedia tools, there is one corner of the modern games scene which it is dominant. This is the form which Graham Nelson, programmer of Inform whose release precipitated the modern scene, memorably described as “a narrative at war with a crossword puzzle”. That is the Interactive Fiction — or “IF” — Community. Or, as they were known in the eighties, text adventures.

In the commercial sense, the text adventure was dead as the nineties rolled in, with the mainstream concentrating on the full flowering of Lucasart’s graphical adventures. However, like most of the eighties forgotten genres, it begat an underground cult of devotees collating on the newsgroups. Prompted by complaints that all the good games were in the past, Graham Nelson created Inform which allowed the creation of Interactive-fiction-masters Infocom-style adventures. Since then, with the simultaneous growth in popularity of the web, hundreds of adventures, of various sorts have been made, with Inform’s files are now capable of being run on interpreters for every system from the Oric to the Gameboy — and that’s not even considering the other alternative Interactive Fiction creation systems. Yearly competitions — such as IF Comp and the XYZZY Awards — provide a forum for new games to debut and be discussed. It’s very much a living community.

However, this is more interesting than simple retro nostalgia for OPENing DOORS with GREEN KEYS. Of all the underground gaming communities, IF is probably the most progressive. To a newcomer investigating it, it’s a striking example of a gaming community virtually divorced to the mainstream, running in its own separate direction, facing its own problems. The technology is relatively stable, at least compared to the tsunami of 3D cards most games face, leaving the creators questions of formalism, deconstructionism and finding answers to the ever-relevant “what on earth can I do with this thing”?

“Having established conventions of form is freeing when it comes to content: because the author doesn’t have to spend all his time teaching the player a new play style, he’s free to cover some different and more surprising territory,” notes Emily Short, IF author of critically acclaimed games like City of Secrets, Galatea and Best of Three, “How can we play with (or against) the reader/player’s expectations? How can we use the form to express new things that have never been handled before? It’s possible for those sorts of things to read as self-indulgent, dull, or obscure, but at their best, such experiments can have very startling effects. Adam Cadre has written a few pieces of IF that, like a good piece of stage magic, draw you in and get you to participate in something you fully understand only at the end.” To choose a relatively minor, but clever, example — and Edge suggests you skip to the next paragraph if you’ve already been convinced of the worth of this work and plan on downloading it yourself — in 9:05 you find yourself waking up in the bedroom, covered in mud. A phone rings. You answer it, being told by a loud-voice that you’re late for work. What follows is a selection of normal morning tribulations as you get washed, ready and head to work. It’s only when you turn up in the office is it revealed that it wasn’t actually your house, and you were a burglar who fell asleep in the job. The contextual cues are enough to fool you completely. It’s an exquisitely told short joke, but this sort of trick has been used to examine a far broader range of emotions.

It’s also possible to play through in a quarter of hour break from work, which is another interesting trend in the community. Not all games are novel-sized epics, with short works — either as a polished narrative unit in themselves, or to explore some coding possibility to allow better future games — relatively commonplace. Equally, it’s also a hard game to “lose”. The IF games spread along the axis between the two poles of the form, from the cross-word puzzle to the narrative, with there being some examples where you’re dragged through the story, kicking and screaming. Even in the most extreme cases, however, there’s a uniqueness to its approach that make the even nominally interactive IF compelling.

Where is the community going next? “The thing about IF is that its creators can face /whichever challenges they want/,” notes Emily, “There’s no marketing department. IF tends to evolve because specific people decide they want to try experimenting with specific things that have never been done before.” She focuses on areas such as accessibility, plot branching — a difficult thing to do with a modern budget, but relatively trivial in non-intensive text — and better characters. Adam Cadre, however, is more downbeat: “I imagine that it’ll probably gradually die off again. I suspect that most everyone who would be inclined to take a crack at IF has already done so. I know a lot of people who wrote a game, often a well-received one, and that was pretty much it; they’d gotten it out of their system and had no inclination to write a second one.” Emily Short is more optimistic on this point, “I really don’t know how long the community will last,” she argues, “But there are still new people becoming interested in IF who have never tried it before; this is pretty evident from the newbie posts on the newsgroups.”

Over in the mainstream, expectations are even lower. Will anyone go as far as Planescape did in the future? “Probably not,” opines Chris Avellone, “I think a text heavy game is a tough sell to any publisher now, and even so, most games coming up are focusing more on voice-acting, which is probably better for the player. As an example, working on Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords requires that LucasArts and us here at Obsidian manage a great deal of voice recording, and while it doesn’t have the freedom of text, I think it’s pretty powerful to hear characters actually delivering the lines instead of reading them. It’s just a LOT of work.”

So does that mean the writing’s on the wall for writing? In the current industry model of more-Hollywood style games, some of their traditional roles will continue to be usurped by speech. That is, the spoken word triumphing over the written one. However in certain areas, either inside games as context or as underground games, they’ll continue to work their special magic. After all, we’re not bored of words yet. Or, for the sake of its readership figures, Edge sincerely hopes so.

//box out//

With hundreds of games available, it’s difficult to know where to start. In an attempt to avoid such difficulties, Edge provides a handful of relatively accessible base-camps to start your explorations.

PHOTOPIA (Adam Cadre)
A fractured narrative piece that takes its time to unwind, juxtaposing a series of real world encounters with a dreamy fantasy story. When it hits its emotional target, it takes off the top of your head.

SHADE (Andrew Plotkin)
Kitchen sink realism transforms into unresolved, lingering and disturbing psychodrama. Also consider the longer, puzzle-based work, Spider and Fly, which is based around flashbacks from an interrogation.

GALATEA (Emily Short)
A conversation between an art critic (the player) and a living statue (the single, highly developed NPC). With dozens of endings, this is unique and literate. Consider also her later relatively short romances Pytho’s Mask and Best Of Three.

SHRAPNEL (Adam Cadre)
More of a fragment in every definition of the word than a full developed piece, but this is still a memorable and brutally powerful work.

RAMESES (Stephen Bond)
A carefully judged emo-pop-single of a work. Minimal in terms of player action, which it neatly uses forced player inaction as a metaphor for teenage depression.

All games are available from the IF Archive (www.ifarchive.org). Links and reviews are available from Baf’s IF Guide (http://wurb.com/if/). Most games will require a Z-Code interpreter to play, also available from the above. Edge recommends WinFrotz for PC users (http://www.cris.com/~Twist/WinFrotz/).