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Interactive fiction

April 10, 2005 ・ Blog

The closest I’ve seen any form of videogames getting to art so far is in interactive fiction. Yep, those old fashioned text adventure games with the text descriptions and clunky GET KEY commands. Most people assume that they are long dead. But there are small but active communities that are still creating games even now, and I reckon they’re offering experiences that are in some ways far more interesting than those had in the glossy 3D worlds generated by Xboxes, PS2s and Gamecubes.

IF has been playing around really interestingly with the notions of interactivity and narrative. It’s sometimes hard to call them games as such, because in the pieces of IF that I’ve find most interesting there is less of the puzzle solving that characterises most traditional text adventure games.

Galatea, by Emily Short, is one of those. Galatea revolves around a conversation between you, the player, and a statue. The answers to the questions you ask it reveal the actual story. Your task, as a player, is to ask the right questions, and the sense of freedom you get as you experiment is great - the statue will respond to a lot of the things you throw at it.

Shade, by Andrew Plotkin, is another really interesting one. It is set in “your” apartment in the early morning before you should be going on holiday. The defined physical boundaries make it really accessible – you don’t get lost – and the plot, delicately revealed by your actions, is interesting, if a little pretentious in places.

There are of course big problems with these games - I find reading screens of text on computers gruelling and off-putting. It’s hard to concentrate on the details of a plot when I much prefer reading it on paper. And then there’s the interface – that blinking cursor. The dreams of the magic that can be conjured by your typed words are usually quickly broken when it quibbles over or fails to understand your garbled command-making, or when you can’t figure out what to do next just because you can’t compose the proper wording.

That interface is a bit of a game-breaker to be honest. As soon as you have to consider how to make the game understand what you want to do the suspension of disbelief is broken.

But I still think these works are the closest the videogaming world has come to art in its traditional sense – closer than games like Rez and Ico. It’s partly because they relate so closely to literature, but more importantly, I think, because they work with the imagination. Their worlds aren’t built around the literal-ness and insufficiencies of 3D graphics; they demand more from from the player, just as art does.