While preparing some blogs to discuss things like my decision to use a text parser for command input, the oversimplification of the adventure game interface, and a demonstration of our hybrid interface, I started thinking about all of the different verbs used when playing interactive fiction. Because when you really get down to it, the real heart of an adventure game — aside from the salient features like writing, story, and characters — is arguably the verbs.
My impression is that the vast majority of commands in IF are limited to a few categories, like movement or examining. But once you get beyond those common actions, you find the jucier verbs, the ones that seem to have a larger impact on advancing the game and the story. Verbs like PUSH, PUT, WEAR, TURN, or BREAK. And then the rare verbs, the ones that are used maybe once or twice in a game, but have a specific purpose and impact. Like DISLODGE, SUMMON, or ARREST.
But how often are these verbs used in a typical game, and how many of these jucier verbs are there, really?
That’s actually a complicated question, for a number of reasons. The main issue is that the frequency of verb use is highly dependent on individual game design, as well as the person playing the game. The frequency of verb use is very different when you compare an experienced IF player with an inexperienced one, and playing style is important, too (I tend to overuse LOOK, EXAMINE, and INVENTORY, for instance — who knows why, I think it just gives me a sense of “buying time,” so to speak, which is silly since IF is turn-based). And it’s also very different if you compare a relatively short game, such as those in the annual IF Comp, with a more full-length game.
But in an attempt to initially explore this question, I’ve decided to take the relatively easy and straightforward route: I downloaded the published walkthroughs for three games entered into the IF Comp in the recent past, and compiled a breakdown of the verbs required for each. Note that these walkthroughs are not necessarily fast solutions — they include commands that are technically unnecessary for solving the game, but which provide a more complete experience of the game for players who follow them. Still, these are by no means game transcripts, so they don’t really reflect the typical use of verbs that one might expect from players. As such, I expect there is a significant underrepresentation of verbs such as EXAMINE, LOOK, SEARCH, ASK, and INVENTORY, among others.
The three games I decided to look at are Floatpoint (by Emily Short), The Elysium Enigma (by Eric Eve), and Tales of the Traveling Swordsman (by Mike Snyder). Below are the breakdowns from each of these games. In order to avoid any spoilers, I chose to leave the graphs unlabeled, and to erase the labels of the least common verbs. I have also grouped together all movement verbs into one group, which includes the compass directions, plus verbs like IN, OUT, ENTER, EXIT, and UP and DOWN.
What to take from all of this?
Well, not a lot, really, given that it’s a very small, very biased sample. That said, I think it’s no surprise that movement commands and EXAMINE make up a huge chunk of the verbs. But it’s interesting that, once you get beyond that, it can be pretty variable, which I think is largely a reflection on game design. It’s pretty fascinating that if you look at the top 10 verbs beyond movement and EXAMINE, they are quite different between games.
What I find most interesting from this is the surprisingly large number of verbs included in the walkthroughs for these games. The totals ranged from 34 up to 65. Granted, not all of these are verbs (such as the responses YES and NO), but it’s still a surprising range of input. And that doesn’t necessarily account for synonyms.
Of course, many of these verbs act on specific objects, and many of those actions are, generally speaking, the only important actions one could perform on those objects. So in theory many of these verbs could be replaced with the generic “use” verb, or a simple context-sensitive menu, as is often done these days in graphical adventure games to simplify the interface. It’s more efficient, and players don’t have to think about what specific action they want to perform. Plus, it eliminates any “guess the verb” frustrations.
Still, many of these verbs don’t act on objects, and provide a deeper level of interaction with the game world. And I think there is definitely something to be said about forcing the player to think about — and explicitly state — what he or she wants to do next. Figuring out what to do, not just how to do it, can be part of the challenge of an adventure game, and I think it’s something that is missing from today’s simplified interfaces.
Many people might respond with a “good riddance”, and perhaps that’s how most people feel since the market has shown that the simplified interface has been quite successful. But just as I believe there is a role for text output in a graphical adventure game, I also believe there is still a role for text command input, to potentially broaden and deepen the player’s experience.
I should state that, with Vespers, we really will have more of a hybrid interface. Movement, of course, will be handled as with many typical FPS games, and many other common commands will be able to be entered quickly, either via the mouse or a single key. That will eliminate a lot of the typing, but it will certainly leave a considerable amount.
Will people see it as a benefit or a barrier? Who knows. That’s all part of the experiment. It’s one of the things I like about being an indie — you’re not just forced to design to the lowest common denominator.
Oh, and I suppose you might be wondering about the text version of Vespers. Here’s the breakdown. Fewer verbs required than some other games, but still a pretty good number. Plus, the walkthrough leaves out a few verbs, and there are also three different walkthroughs, so others might be slightly different.
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