Monday, November 22, 2010

You Are Likely To Be Eaten By A Grue

For those of us old enough to remember, there was a time in which video games didn't have *urp* graphics.

"WHAT!!" I can hear all of your teenagers and college kinds dropping your X Box controllers and pausing your Halo game. "That's not a GAME!"

 This was once the future of gaming.

Well, once upon a time it was. Back in the day, computer processors didn't have the capacity to generate a significant amount of graphics--which is why so many games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong had only two or three static screens. Even when Apple computers and Commodore 64s became commonplace as household computers, there were severe limitations.

There was also a fairly large genre of games called "Adventure Games." They involved complex story lines, cerebral-heavy gameplay, and--do to its story-telling nature--plenty of capacity for sequels. Sierra and LucasArts were two of the more prominent players in the adventure game market, producing such classics as King's Quest and the Secret of Monkey Island. (The adventure game today is more or less dead--with limited replayability, and computer processing times so high as to make the slow-paced adventure game obsolete, there are few titles that draw people in. Current games such as Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption kind of fit into this mold. They have extended plots and dialogue, but there is much less puzzle solving and much more violence. It's probably as close to the genre as we are ever going to get.)

Well, adventure games were popular from the late 70's on, being one of the first styles of gaming available. But by their nature adventure games had to be large in scope--you don't feel like you are progressing if you just stay in the same six locations. The result was to make these adventure games almost completely text-based.

It may seem odd now, but back then it was natural: the game would write a description of your location ("You are in a dark room. Light shines in through a crack to your west, and you smell sulfur from below...") You were then given a command prompt, where you typed in your action ("Go north" or "Pick up axe"). The game would then respond with the result ("The dice are added to your inventory") and you could then continue. As the genre progressed and programming languages became more sophisticated, these parsers could evaluate increasingly complicated actions ("Pick up stone and throw it to the east then kick the gnome").

While other companies dabbled in it, the undisputed king of the text-based adventure game was a company called Infocom. They produced around thirty-plus text games in the 80's. They had done remarkably well; it was a very efficient system, and once the language was constructed only minor tweaks needed to be made each year.

And they were rather thrilling little games. There's an element of charm to it. It was quite literally like playing a novel--you used your imagination as you read what was happening. Of course, it was easier when your actions actually were described back to you, but much like conventional novels everyone had their own idea of what each character was like.

Of course, this couldn't last. Sierra in particular developed a quite extensive graphical game engine and used to to churn out a multitude of series: King's Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, Quest for Glory, other stand-alone titles. While reading a game was fun, actually watching an adventure was both fun and novel, and the text-based adventure died a pretty quick and quiet death. (Infocom also made some bad business decisions that probably killed it off sooner rather than later, but that is probably for the best.)

Sure, a lot of it is nostalgia, and I sound like one of those ancient English teachers who keeps telling you books are better than movies. But there is something compelling about participating in a novel rather than just reading it.

All of this is a lot to simply introduce this: all of the Infocom titles--you know, the ones people used to pay forty bucks for at the book store because game stores hadn't been invented yet--are available free to play here. There are a few missing due to copyright issues, but over 95% are there. Most people can't tolerate more than a few minutes worth of play, but it's certainly worth a look.

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