It’s a really good piece of work and shows real potential for making text games accessible: teaching the syntax while letting people get on with the game. But it also highlights one of the text games major problems – there’s way too much choice.
The strange thing, is that by including clickable links for things you can do, the problem gets worse, not better. Normally, when I play a text-game, I’m aware that at any moment I could try a huge range of different things, but I ignore most of them.
After all, most are meaningless in context. I certainly don’t work through any kind of systematic list in my head: rather I play half-strategically, and half-intuitively, and the best moments in interactive fiction feature a little of both kinds of thought.
But as soon as there’s a link for every option – even using Erik’s neat system of focusing on an item in order to offer that items functionality – it starts to get overwhelming. The contextual clues of what might be sensible get over-ruled by the visual clues supplied by the familiar-looking hyperlinks. There’s nothing on-screen to tell me that one choice is better or worse than another, so they all look on a par with each other.
And suddenly, I can’t choose.
What’s happened, I think, is that the normal text-game interface, which is analogue, has become digital. I’m no longer forming commands in a fluid, seamless way, by typing them: I’m now looking at a list. The result is something much easier to play, much but harder to read.
Looking at it this way, it suggest that normal interactive fiction has more in common with console games than you might think: both have quite wide input spaces (in console games, this freedom is in the detail of movement, camera, and aiming) but disguise them with very generic inputs – the letters of the keyboard; or the left stick and sticks on a gamepad that both have a multitude of uses, especially once combined with the shoulder buttons.
Console games are obviously analogue: text-games less so, but compared to clicking the options – or even compared to a game like Monkey Island – they have that analogue element to them.
So is Erik’s demo flawed? I don’t think so. I think all it needs it a visual pass to put the missing context back into the options.
For example, at the moment, all interactable nouns are highlighted as links. They probably don’t need to be, and it’s kind of distracting that they are. What if the links only showed when moused over? Would the player be left pixel-hunting, or would the interactions they expect to work, simply work?
What if the box of options was closer to where the input happened, and only appeared when necessary? Those of you who use Gmail will have seen the new layout of labels, which slides in and out of view when needed. Perhaps we could do something similar?
I certainly think we could use a “hidden until needed” approach for the inventory. It’s great to have it up there at the top level, removed from being a command, since the command is so utterly opaque.
It’s all about making the choices a little bit more analogue again: these choices when the cursor is over here, those choices when they’re over there. It’s about letting the player explore their interface, rather than be presented with it like a twenty-page restaurant menu.
None of this stuff is easy, of course. But it has the potential to be so very, very slick.