Text Adventures: Past, Semiconditionally Modified Past, and Present
April 22, 2021 3:03 PM   Subscribe

Aaron Reed's 50 Years of Text Games (intro) so far covers 1971-1986, e.g. Oregon Trail, ROCKET, Hunt the Wumpus, Super Star Trek, dnd, Adventure, Zork, Pirate Adventure, CYOA novels, MUDs, and HHGTTG. But dissertations by Carra Glatt on "... Counterfactual Plotting in the Victorian Novel" [PDF], Alex Solomon on "The Rhetoric of Probability" [PDF] in 17th-18th C. lit (including proto-science fiction by Kepler and Godwin), Jessica Saxon on "... Paratexts, Narrative Interventions, and the Queering of Possible Worlds ..." [PDF] in "illicit" 19th C. narratives, and Peter Sorrell on "Narrative Worlds and Fictional Worlds" [PDF] in novels by Queneau, Simon, and Robbe-Grillet take up Meinong's Jungle, "Truth in Fiction" [PDF], and especially "Possible Worlds" narratological theory to reconsider texts from the further past in similar terms: "machine[s] for producing possible worlds" [PDF]. Incidentally, Reed's uniquely-generated horror novel Subcutanean is a current finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.
posted by Wobbuffet (26 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
 
Cool! Thanks for posting!
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 3:24 PM on April 22


That novel sounds so cool! It sounds like elements of the plot, locations, etc., are procedurally generated on every printing so that no two copies tell exactly the same story! I'd love to know more about the process behind that.
posted by treepour at 4:04 PM on April 22


That novel sounds so cool! It sounds like elements of the plot, locations, etc., are procedurally generated on every printing so that no two copies tell exactly the same story! I'd love to know more about the process behind that.


There's this from his medium:

The master manuscript contains hundreds of moments of variation on the same core story. Sometimes these are whole scenes that might appear in some versions but not others: sometimes they’re single words that change the way you might feel about a character or an event. Each time someone orders a copy of the book, a new version will be generated by randomly collapsing all these alternatives down to a single version of the story, including keeping interconnected bits consistent, handling print-ready layout, and uploading the new text to the printer.

Which makes it sound like it's maybe not procedurally generated?

The interesting thing is that he's gone way above and beyond what would be required to get to "no two copies are the same" even assuming only binary branching against, optimistically, the current population of the world plus an order of magnitude, it takes very, very much less than "hundreds" of moments of variation to assure that "no two copies are the same."
posted by juv3nal at 4:42 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


This other post has output from a Python script that maybe gives some insight: "Subcutanean: Generating the Final Books." I'd guess the 'vars' designate chunks of text to turn on or off, a little like the two variants of Milorad Pavić's Dictionary of the Khazars: "Difference between Male and Female Version of Dictionary of the Khazars."
posted by Wobbuffet at 5:03 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting this - I’m looking forward to following. I loved Infocom games so much when I was a teenager. And that book sounds like an excellent gift for my difficult-to-buy-for dad.
posted by Kriesa at 5:06 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


as a pal of Aaron's with two copies of Subcutanean I gotta say:

Dictionary of the Khazars is one of my favorite books ever but Subcutanean blows it out of the water in terms of procgen, Aaron was like "hold my case of beer, then hold this drive-thru liquor store"
posted by taquito sunrise at 5:24 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


Holy shit, the paragraph on what happened to Gregory Yob, author of "Hunt the Wumpus", after he released his one well-known game is possibly the most 1970s paragraph ever written.

And in retrospect I am not surprised that it sounds like "Yob" was clearly not his given last name.
posted by egypturnash at 5:33 PM on April 22


I know my username gives it away, but I mashed that "favorite" link so hard you could hear it from space.

I regularly teach classes on interactive narrative and gaming, and text adventures (especially more recent ones) are usually miles ahead of more modern graphical games (with some exceptions) in terms of their commentaries on narrative, storytelling, and player input. But whenever I try to get my (~19 year old) students to run through text-based interactive fiction, even simple, canonical examples like Andrew Plotkin's Shade, Emily Short's Galatea, or Adam Cadre's Photopia, they immediately get frustrated with the parser, flail around, and give up.

Evidently trying out noun-verb pairs in a game is a lost art, like rendering tallow or steeping willow bark for headaches.
posted by lorddimwit at 5:42 PM on April 22 [8 favorites]


students to run through text-based interactive fiction...they immediately get frustrated with the parser, flail around, and give up

Parser-based and text-based needn't be the same thing, how do they fare with Twine stuff?
posted by juv3nal at 6:39 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


They're pretty good with Twine; I've had some success doing Brendan Hennessey's Birdland with them, and am thinking of doing Stay? (MF post) in the future. But they really just blank out when confronted with the older games--I'm not sure if they can't get past the interface or whether they place a burden on the player that they're unfamiliar with.
posted by lorddimwit at 6:53 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


I think Gregory Yob's game takes on new meaning after you've visited the campus of his alma mater UMass Dartmouth.

All it takes is a wrong turn somewhere in that twisted maze of angular concrete and brutalism and you either fall into a bottomless conversation pit or end up walking right into the mouth of the wumpus.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:53 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


Evidently trying out noun-verb pairs in a game is a lost art, like rendering tallow or steeping willow bark for headaches.


It’s even a Trope!

TVTropes: “You Can’t Get Ye Flask”
Strong Bad: And you'd be all like, "get ye flask", and it'd say "You can't get ye flask", and you'd just have to sit there and imagine why on Earth you can't get ye flask! Because the game's certainly not going to tell you.
posted by darkstar at 6:54 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]


Reed has a whole design blog about the writing process of Subcutanean, from basic syntax to compound logic to using sentiment analysis to maintain narrative consistency.
posted by ectabo at 7:11 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


Pirate Adventure

THE OPPOSITE OF LIGHT IS UNLIGHT

/scuttles off, chortling/
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:00 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]


lorddimwit > Evidently trying out noun-verb pairs in a game is a lost art, like rendering tallow or steeping willow bark for headaches.

I feel like a lot of the text adventures always had "this is a text adventure, here are some common verbs, but there's a lot more you'll have to work out while playing, and here is a sample transcript showing off the particular kind of interactions this game specializes in" in the manual. That and occasionally the suggestion to play them with a few people around the computer, tossing out ideas when you get into that special place of "I have no damn idea what verb the game expects me to use and I have been bashing my head against it for two weeks". There was a thriving ecosystem of hints, too, whether from your schoolyard friends who you'd shared a pirated copy with, a magazine, or a hint book you bought. I don't think I finished a single text adventure without hints or outright walkthroughs. Even short ones from the hobbyist circles.

I am gonna assume you're providing at least *some* of this and I figure there's a decent chance you've tried to provide a lot of this, but maybe there's something more of this whole thing you can create? like, i dunno, extra credit if you join the weekly Professor Dimwit Suffers Some Zorks* stream on Twitch and drop the occasional command suggestion in the chat, double extra bonus credit if you do that a few times then start your own Zork-Suffering Streams? There's only so much time in the class, plus whatever ratio you think is fine to demand from the students as homework, of course, and maybe you've tried these already and found that they're not worth the time cost!

But to be quite honest I sure have suffered some zorks in my time and as the range of gaming experiences and other electronic demands on my time expanded, I sure did stop suffering any zorks myself. I'd have to treat it like I treat reading a novel nowadays: go out to the park with my hammock and my laptop and absolutely no internet, and give myself time to sink into its slower pace.

...fuck it, I think I just kinda talked myself into picking up this old save of Hadean Lands that I last touched in 2014 as tonight's entertainment. :)

* or, "Professor Dimwit Plays Some Text Adventures", I just like saying "Suffer A Zork" as suggested by a letter published in one issue of the Infocom newsletter
posted by egypturnash at 8:09 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]


You can't Suffer Some Zorks!
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:27 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


That and occasionally the suggestion to play them with a few people around the computer, tossing out ideas when you get into that special place of "I have no damn idea what verb the game expects me to use and I have been bashing my head against it for two weeks". There was a thriving ecosystem of hints, too, whether from your schoolyard friends who you'd shared a pirated copy with, a magazine, or a hint book you bought.
This is really what I think is lacking today; text adventures, whether by virtue of their difficulty or their sheer obscurity (I would NEVER have figured out the Echo Room in Zork without some kind of help) created this community of people struggling toward a common goal, just confounded as a whole and gnawing at the edges of some larger mystery. I still remember the issues of OMNI that had classified ads begging for help on passing the screening door in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. That was all part of it; your friend had figured out the Flood Control Dam puzzle but you hadn't, so you were pressing them for that information on the playground but they're going to be coy because they're your (secretly very duplicitous) friend and they want to tease you with it.

In a somewhat unrelated point: I remember visiting a friend of the family's house when I was maybe eight (??). When we got there, he grasped me by the hand and urgently said "I need your help with something." He led me to the basement (of course it was a basement!) where there was a computer flashing the initial prompt for ZORK. He told me (in the same urgent tone of voice) that he couldn't get past the Echo Room and needed somebody who could. Of course I beat my head against that fucking impossible puzzle for a couple of hours until it was time to go home. But there was no help, no gamefaqs, nothing to help me through that. Just a solid wall of enigma and frustration. And I feel, very deeply, that that's actually a very good and positive thing, something that's almost impossible to replicate in today's games (and narrative forms more broadly). There are no easy answers. You have to rely on uncertain and dubious information from your friends on the playground, or send a desperate message to a sci-fi mag asking for help.

I'd like to replicate that for my students, to actually actively cause them some gamified suffering that they can't actively and easily resolve. You can figure out the Echo Room in a few seconds these days with a quick Google. But making them feel the frustration of a problem that's really theirs alone and can't be resolved with an easy recourse? That's a really unique thing.
posted by lorddimwit at 8:58 PM on April 22 [9 favorites]


ENJOY VOGON POETRY.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:17 PM on April 22 [7 favorites]


Complementarily, The Digital Antiquarian is a rich and delightful blog covering the early history of video games.
posted by fairmettle at 11:12 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


If Subcutanean is of interest, then you might also want to check out Guy Maddin's work Seances from 2016.


Seances is a 2016 interactive project by filmmaker and installation artist Guy Maddin, co-creators Evan and Galen Johnson, and the National Film Board of Canada,[1] combining Maddin's recreations of lost films with an algorithmic film generator that allows for multiple storytelling permutations.



(The first link goes to the film site, where you'll get your own unique variation of the "movie".)
posted by gusottertrout at 12:13 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]


A few years ago a few of us rescued a PDP-11 from a storage unit in the Bronx and were able to boot RT-11 on it. The RK-05 disk had a FORTRAN compiler, so with some effort we were able to transfer the source for Colossal Cave Adventure over the serial port and compile it. Since the PDP didn't support lowercase, IT WAS A BIT SHOUTY, but fun to revisit the caves via a DEC VT-100 terminal or AST33 teletype.

One of the funnier details is that in the 1970s, the postal mail was how they ran git merge:
Bug reports and other correspondence should be sent to:

        Digital Equipment Computer Users Society
        One Iron Way, MR2-3/E55
        Marlboro, Mass. 01752
        Attn:  Adventure Maintenance
posted by autopilot at 2:38 AM on April 23 [4 favorites]


When I was maybe 10 a family friend took me down to McMaster U and logged onto the mainframe to do his engineering homework, and set me up at a neighboring terminal with "Adventure". I was GOBSMACKED that this was a thing that existed, and goofed around with it for as long as I could before we had to go home. I was crushed that he never took me back.

A couple of years later (based on year of release I was 12) I badgered my dad into buying a copy of Planetfall after reading reviews in a magazine. I sucked so hard at it! I remember obsessively making maps and trying to keep the maps to scale and having my mind blown when someone pointed out to me that the map could just be lumps and arrows on a page, because only the functional relation between "rooms" mattered. (I still feel a bit foolish about that now). Anyway, as said elsewhere, minimal sources for clues, really no playground chatter to speak of because all my friends were busy playing bump and jump (or whatever) on their fun c64s and I had staid old planetfall running on a PC XT in my dad's office.

A couple of years after that I got a bootleg copy of starcross, but it needed a word from the manual on a certain page as a key...so I bought one of those invisible ink clue books because it listed the answers in the first section. So that one I played all the way through...but I leaned on the clue book VERY heavily. Too impatient! I remember I found the story of it quite captivating though.
posted by hearthpig at 4:12 AM on April 23 [3 favorites]


Wobbuffet and esteemed commenters, I have WAY too much to get done before 5PM local time to give this the attention it deserves. I just wanted to lay this out there in case it sparks anything like the joy it sparked for me.

Sixteen+ years ago, a friend in my tech/nerd industry pointed out that there's money in romance novels for people who can write. I can't write, but I can program, so I wrote a program that took inputs (HERO, LOVE_INTEREST, SCENARIO, and SUPRPRISE_TWIST_ENDING) and started writing your romance novel. I offered this example to my smarter friends, who crafted these beauties. Not perfect, but there's some good bones here:

###
Once Willie Nelson murdered a judge at the cat show. Kinky Friedman said, "Oh, Willie Nelson, it would appear you have murdered a judge at the cat show. Let me take care of that for you." And they, Kinky Friedman and Willie Nelson, live happily ever after. Except Elvis Presley was alive and well and living in Toronto.

###
Once Charlotte Winthrop (beautiful and spirited heiress to the Winthrop fortune) been kidnapped by pirates, while sailing to America. Rod Steel said, "Oh, Charlotte Winthrop (beautiful and spirited heiress to the Winthrop
fortune), it would appear you have been kidnapped by pirates, while sailing to America. Let me take care of that for you." And they, Rod Steel and Charlotte Winthrop (beautiful and spirited heiress to the Winthrop fortune), live
happily ever after. Except he is actually her cousin.


(apologies for all the Kinky/Willie shippers and actual novelists out there, if this is too much. It still makes me laugh every time I think of it. Oddly enough, it's not the only email I get when I search on the word "heiress.")
posted by adekllny at 5:31 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]


I remember Aaron A Reed from like 2001/2002! I was like, "what do you want your career to be?" and he was like, "it's hard to explain, because it's like text adventures but doesn't really exist yet."
posted by aniola at 8:08 AM on April 23 [3 favorites]


simple, canonical examples like Andrew Plotkin's Shade, Emily Short's Galatea, or Adam Cadre's Photopia

I'm not gonna say you didn't choose well, I love all those games, and I love Emily Short's work in particular, but for simple games for people new to the genre, you might also include Plotkin's Advent Door which uses a very limited set of verbs in a very surprising way to give a very satisfying puzzle (thanks irrelephant for introducing me to it), and/or Sam Barlow's Aisle, where guessing commands is how you explore the narrator's story. Or for a lighter take on the latter, Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle, though that one's better if you also have the context of Rob Noyes's Pick Up the Phone Booth and Die, which is itself probably not ideal for people frustrated by guessing verbs and objects.
posted by solotoro at 10:32 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]


lorddimwit > I used to introduce my students to game writing and narrative design by having them play Tom Bissell and Matthew Burns' The Writer Will Do Something, which isn't classic puzzle-based IF or proc gen but does give a pretty good idea of how writing for games works, on two levels, and also gives you time to nip out and grab a coffee while they play it.

Teaching one group of screenwriting students, they were half-way through TWWDS when one of them looked up from her screen. "There's a lot of... words?" she said.
posted by Hogshead at 4:08 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


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