Touché, aaronius

Occasionally I surf around the IFDB looking for goodies. I really like the way it is set up, as it takes a number of cues from other community sites that encourage engagement and social interaction. Often I’ll find myself weaving my way through games, reviews, and lists before realizing how much time has passed, and typically I’ll come out with a couple of new games to add to the play list. I also absolutely love how it is so smoothly integrated with Zoom (and others, like iPhone Frotz), which so effectively feeds the immediate gratification beast. Anyway, I digress.

I was flipping through some IFDB pages the other day, looking for some choice information on this year’s IFComp winner, Rover’s Day Out, when I noticed that it had already made someone’s online IFDB poll:

“Games with Impossible-to-film moments”, by aaronius.

Okay, I get it. See, Aaron, now you’re just gloating. I know you finished Blue Lacuna, all ten wonderous and intricate chapters, light years before Vespers is even close to hitting alpha—and on top of that it’s a fantastic, groundbreaking piece. But this, this is just rubbing it in.

The poll?

I’m looking for games that demonstrate the power of text-based games. Games with sentences that would make developers of 3D games weep, like “The army of ten million robots marched over the liquid landscape,” or “She concealed her anger perfectly.”

Oh I weep, Aaron. Something as relatively tame as Vespers has me weeping almost daily. Sentences, passages—entire sequences. Just the avalanche scene alone is enough to keep me up at night. Must you see me weep more?

Honestly, though, I can’t imagine it is too challenging to find IF with exasperatingly difficult-to-implement-in-3D passages, and plenty that are designed in such a way that translation into 3D would not just be onerous, but essentially pointless. I doubt there are many people who fail to see the intrinsic advantages of the written word for (at least) certain aspects of storytelling. The translation of books into movies is an obvious analogy, and I’m sure Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), Chris Columbus (Harry Potter), and countless other directors had their fair share of sleepless, weeping nights. Certainly this would extend to the gaming world, at least for those demented enough to consider translating an IF game into 3D.

Take even something as (relatively) simple as dialogue: despite the fact that NPC conversation still has glaring limitations in the text-based world, it still far exceeds anything being done in 3D games for many reasons, not the least of which is the inability to delve anywhere below the shallow surface of expression, thought, and emotion. Non-verbal communication of all kinds, from facial expressions to internal thoughts to detached narrator descriptions, can convey sophisticated and subtle information far more easily and deftly than anything currently available in 3D, where there is already little latitude or patience for subtlety. After all, in 3D, you might not be able to tell if what you just saw was a subtle gesture or merely a graphical glitch.

Even what might be thought of as a simple physical gesture can be added almost as an afterthought in text, but cause turmoil in the 3D world. Take this brief passage from Vespers, when the player first encounters Ignatius:

Brother Ignatius sits in one of the pews near the front, staring intently at the candles.

“How are you, Ignatius?” you ask, laying your hand on his shoulder.

He startles, whirling around, his bad eye twitching and shuddering. “Oh, father. You spooked me.” He shakes his head. “I’m sorry, what did you ask?”

There is plenty of information conveyed in what seems like a few insignificant physical actions described in that passage—the touching of the shoulder communicating something about the relationship between the two; the whirling, twitching, and shuddering communicating something about the NPC’S mental state. But in a pure 3D world, even simple actions like those become problematic because of the introduction of space. Where might the player be standing when he encounters Ignatius? How could we make sure the player’s hand actually touches the NPC’s shoulder? How do we ensure that the NPC whirls around to directly face the player instead of looking the wrong way? Missing on either of those is potentially worse than not including them at all. There are certainly workarounds for those, but they require additional planning and work for arguably less reward than something that is done almost effortlessly in text.

Of course, that’s part of the curse of taking an established text game and adapting it into 3D; the game is already designed for a particular medium, and does its best to utilize the established techniques and strategies available to it—strategies which don’t always translate well to other media. A graphical translation (even if it is a hybrid) will undoubtedly highlight, maybe even accentuate, the limitations of the graphical approach within that context.

Still, the point of the Vespers experiment is not to see if we can provide in 3D the same or better Vespers gaming experience than already available in text. This is primarily to see if, generally speaking, the text interface of IF and the graphical interface of first-person 3D have the potential to live together and synergize, maybe becoming something more than each alone. A true (and perhaps best) test of this hybrid 3D/IF approach would be a game designed from the ground up for this medium. Could it be that 3D/IF has particular strategies, not yet discovered or explored, that would provide unique opportunities for expression and storytelling? In ways previously unavailable, or available to only a limited extent, in either medium alone? I have no idea. I really hope to find that out eventually.

But for now: touché, my friend.

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  1. Posted November 24, 2009 at 4:35 PM | Permalink

    I didn’t even think about Vespers 3D when I posted that, Mike– and I certainly didn’t mean to give you more things to weep about! Sorry about that. 😉

    I agree that 3DIF probably has lots of potential as a medium. I’m sure when Vespers 3D comes out it’s going to turn a lot of heads, some from well outside the IF community.

  2. Posted November 24, 2009 at 9:39 PM | Permalink

    Just giving you a hard time. You can make it up by doing some alpha testing, of course.

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