Fictionally interactive

On cross-pollination in text-based games

(Excerpt from the book Let a Billion Videogames Bloom.)

Having recently played a very nice text-based RPG made in Twine of all things, and tested a new (to me) authoring system in addition to resuming work on a text adventure, I was once more prompted to think about the similarities between different genres of text-based games. For example, nowadays we associate parser-based interfaces with brainy puzzlefests, or else sophisticated story games, but Adventure and Zork had RPG elements and a strong exploration component. And while works like Hunter, in Darkness or Kerkerkruip are generally seen as experimental, Eamon has always explicitly been an RPG engine, and proudly so (yes, I know people who still swear by it), despite looking for all the world like an interactive fiction authoring system. After all, is there really that much of a difference, mechanically speaking? It's still a world model based on a graph of discrete locations, with objects that can be manipulated in the same basic ways: examine / take / drop. And the parser itself, as a mode of interaction, has inherent appeal to at least some players, orthogonally to the content. We shouldn't mix up genre and medium here, like we do with videogames at large, where Heretic and Doom are seen as largely interchangeable simply because they're based on the same engine and core verbs.

(I'd give newer examples, but I'm not aware of any fantasy first-person shooters this side of Hexen; all the famous titles appear to be sci-fi. Did the Daikatana debacle scare off everyone, or have games like the Elder Scrolls and Might&Magic series been covering the demand for first-person fantasy fans? Oh wait, there was Hellgate: London, another commercial flop. Fair enough, there's a pattern.)

More recently, some makers of authoring tools have begun to recognize the mechanical overlap between genres again. StoryNexus and Undum both have built-in support for qualities, that can be used for RPG-like gameplay. Quest, too, appears to have a similar feature, albeit sadly not in gamebook mode. Inform 7 has at least one RPG combat extension, and similar functionality can be shoehorned into Twine, however awkwardly. (A future version might want to provide authors with a pinned passage that sits on the screen all the time, refreshing with every click.) Not that I'm a fan of random combat; my own roguelikes are deliberately predictable in that department. But clearly a lot of players are, and giving authors the right tools out of the box can only encourage more experimentation — a good thing for everyone involved. Especially as videogames have been happily mixing genres again for a while now, and they're better for it.

But there's another family of text-based games that share the same core mechanic of moving around a graph of discrete locations. Ever heard of Star Trader? It's the distant ancestor of Elite, and by extension the entire space trading genre. But it also spawned other, less-known text games such as Trade Wars and the unfortunately-themed Drugwars. The latter, at least, is remarkably similar to a text adventure in some ways — albeit one that made love to Hamurabi, giving birth to a hybrid strategy game. A remarkably compelling one, it must be said. And it just happens that I wanted to break into this particular genre for a while now. It would only make sense to build on familiar game mechanics, rather than diving head-first into making a completely new (to me as a developer) kind of game.

Can it be done with an interactive fiction authoring tool? It depends. The aforementioned Inform 7 is likely suitable, with its support for tables. (It would be hard to build a strategy game without that.) If anything, I7 has a lot of other features that would remain unused. Unless of course you also add a narrative layer on top of the strategic gameplay, which in my experience is a good idea, if not so easy to pull off. Well, you could have a story made of small independent chunks, like in Fallen London, and indeed there is a space trading game — with a story — built on StoryNexus: a steampunk romp by the name of Maelstrom, sadly never completed. Cross-pollination for the win! The combination is an ambitious concept, to be sure, but there's no shortage of ambition in the community.

That, however, is a misleading question. Just as modern commercial story games are made with new tools that borrow from decades of experience while shedding the baggage of nostalgia-fueled tradition, it might be best to approach this new kind of game from a fresh perspective. What verbs and nouns describe the storyworld? What would be the best presentation?

Any answers are likely to be imperfect. But it looks to me like an avenue worth investigating.