Fictionally interactive

Eamon: between CRPGs and interactive fiction

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

It's safe to say that I like interactive fiction a lot better than computer role-playing games. Just about the only CRPG that ever piqued my interest was Planescape: Torment. Which, sure enough, may well be the most adventure-like such game ever created, with much more of a focus on storytelling than combat, and with a setting that came alive (literally, within the game's fiction) in a way few other games managed. You could say it's a matter of patience, but I spent countless days, weeks at a time, playing strategy games, and also sank plenty of hours in roguelikes — the RPGs' low-tech, mechanistic cousins. So this isn't about preferring story over gameplay, either; in fact, some of my all-time favorite games are shooters.

May seem strange, then, that someone like me would be interested in trying out Eamon, an RPG as old-school as they get, and of a flavor that wasn't all that popular even back in the day.

But inspiration can be found in unlikely places. For one thing, Eamon is a cult classic: released as public domain software in 1982, it was recreated more than once, and the Deluxe edition (easily playable forevermore thanks to DOSBox), was last updated in 2012 — no less than three decades since the original! Apart from the early Ultima games and Infocom's library, I can't think of many games the same age that people worked as hard to preserve.

Second, a game designer should know the history of their craft. For instance, in the first-person shooter Destiny players go on missions starting from a safe hub with stores, a bank and whatnot. A novelty? Hardly! Connoisseurs may point at the Concourse in TIE Fighter, or the town in Diablo (if not Angband), but it was Eamon with its Main Hall that went there first. And as a Gamasutra article from January 2017 points out, these "in-between spaces" can be especially meaningful in a game.

Third, while the idea of a database-driven text adventure dates from 1980, Eamon got there too before any authoring system for interactive fiction — one year before The Quill. And while the approach is too rigid for the typical text adventure, where each and every interaction is handcrafted with purpose, it works noticeably better for a more simulation-oriented game. (In fact, MUDs still use it.)

Eamon was also the first CRPG designed right from the start for modding, with tools built right in; in fact, fan-made adventures vastly outnumber official ones, even in the carefully curated collections that ship with modern editions. What's more, players could keep their characters from one adventure to the next, improving them along the way — something commercial series soon started doing as well. An obvious idea given their roots in tabletop RPGs, but still.

Speaking of tabletop games, at at time when programmers struggled to hammer the baroque rules of Dungeons&Dragons into a shape fit for computers, Eamon came with a simple, uniform ruleset that was easy to balance and didn't let a battle outstay its welcome. The game would probably work just as well if it was played with dice, around a table. A rare thing: devising RPG rule systems is still an art, no less so than writing or worldbuilding.

Given all this praise, you might be surprised to hear that the adventures proper were a big letdown. I found them incredibly boring, and didn't play any very far at all, much less to completion.

Yet the overall experience was worth every moment.

You see, while hitting giant rats with a pointy stick isn't much of a fantasy, I still find it more fun than beating my head against a hard puzzle that exists for no better reason than the author thinking it cool to have in the game. All too often while playing interactive fiction I wished for the option to brute-force my way through some problem; at least that way it would be my own solution, unlike one found in the hints or walkthrough. Sure, RPG combat can be just as annoying when a roll of the dice makes all strategy pointless, but that's another story.

Moreover, a database-driven engine is easier to implement and customize than a virtual machine / programming language / standard library triad; easier to reverse-engineer, too, should the need arise. And to many authors, ease of use is more important than expressive power. The trick is figuring out how to let them describe interesting interactions without resorting to scripts, and RPGs can be a source of inspiration even if you don't want all that random combat.

The one thing interactive fiction still does better, as a general rule, is telling stories more compelling than "the brave forest ranger defeats the evil orcs and becomes king" — or for that matter "the brave space ranger defeats the evil aliens and saves the galaxy". But the way interactive fiction tells stories becomes stale sooner, and where else to get fresh ideas more readily than in a genre that already shares most of the same DNA?

Text adventures and CRPGs already split up once, with only occasional reunions since then. (Ironically, after being born joined at the hip.) And maybe they'll never become all that close again. But estrangement also isn't doing either genre a favor, and playing a game that so deftly straddled the line made the distance feel artificial and needless.