Series Info...#35: The Power of the Medium: Text!

by Shannon Appelcline

May 24, 2001 – When people used to ask me what I did I'd tell them, "I work for an online game company. We create..." And then my voice would drop and the last two words would be almost unintelligible: "...text games." It was like a dirty word, something I had to apologize for. We were doing text games. It was so 1982.

But, the truth is that we're doing text games for a reason. We believe that they have strengths all their own that can, for certain types of games (and certain types of players!), make them a superior medium. So this week I going to continue on my thread from last time and tell you about another strength of our Internet-based computer-moderated text-dominant medium. I'm going to talk about text!

But, before I get into my spiel this time I've decided to enlist the aid of an expert in the medium: Brian Moriarty. He's a veteran of text-dominant games (or prose games as he prefers to call them). He wrote Trinity, one of the best text games of all time. He also wrote Beyond Zork, Wishbringer, and was a member of the Council of Seven who jointly put together Bureaucracy. And, he's also the Director of GameDev here at Skotos.

So, without further ado, here's what Brian said about why text games are cool:

Brian Moriarty Speaks

Text is not cool. 3D is cool! Pushing millions of anti-aliased voxels per second is cool! Installing the latest nVidia GEForce-3 64 MB DDR graphics card is cool! That's why hundreds of thousands of people are paying to play EverQuest, while only a few tens of thousands are paying to play text games.

Nobody writes text games because they're cool. They write them because they're old-fashioned.

Consider this paragraph from H.P. Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook":

"Of course it was a dream. All the specialists have told him so, and he has nothing to prove the contrary. Indeed, he would rather have it thus; for then the sight of old brick slums and dark foreign faces would not eat so deeply into his soul. But at the time it was all horribly real, and nothing can ever face the memory of those nighted crypts, those titan arcades, and those half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness. Odours of incense and corruption joined in sickening concert, and the black air was alive with the cloudy, semi-visible bulk of shapeless elemental things with eyes. Somewhere dark sticky water was lapping at onyx piers, and once the shivery tinkle of raucous little bells pealed out to greet the insane titter of a naked phosphorescent thing which swam into sight, scrambled ashore, and climbed up to squat leeringly on a carved golden pedestal in the background."

What image could possibly do justice to a scene like this? Not even an unlimited ILM budget could ever approach what Lovecraft's prose evokes when I read this description – much less the laughably crude approximations of current real-time 3D technology.

Images circumscribe reality: they say, it looks like this. Prose works by evocation. It invites participation in the creative act, indeed requires it. The only conduit to the imagination more direct than reading is listening... but that is another article.

Prose has other, more practical advantages over graphics:

  • It is inexpensive to produce and deliver. The awe- inspiring scene above probably took Lovecraft fifteen minutes to compose, and it occupies less than a thousand bytes, even if I don't bother compressing it.
  • It is easy to manipulate. I can dynamically create new perspectives for every witness of an event, transform landscapes, and alter the finest shades of detail in real time with very little effort.
  • You can change your mind. Don't like the cut of that butler's suit? I can alter it in seconds. Need the silhouette of a crumbling Gothic cathedral against that sunset, with a circling vulture for atmosphere? Click, click... done. But in a graphic adventure, I'd have to plead with my producer for an extension of the schedule and budget, find an artist who was good with birds, and spend hours figuring out what I have to remove elsewhere in the game to fit it all on two CDs. No, thanks; been there, done that.
  • You can be an author. One person with a talent for writing and programming can create a significant text game on a miniscule budget. Graphics games require mighty teams and millions of dollars. Guess which is more likely to yield a fulfilling creative experience?

But to hell with practicality. The real reason to work with text is because you love to read and write.

Prose is not "better" than graphics. They are simply different media, each offering particular strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and limitations. They are not even mutually exclusive; there is a lot of room for experimental hybrids. The important thing is to know yourself well enough to recognize which format suits your taste and personality, and then pursue your vision regardless of how big you think the audience may be. That's the only way you'll ever produce anything worth reading or watching.

And I Do Too

It's hard to compete with Brian, so I'm going to be much briefer than usual in listing out why I think text is a strength of our medium. Some of this repeats Brian's thoughts.

It's cheap! It's easy! Harken back to my movie script of four weeks ago when I talked about how easy it was to create huge graphical effects in a text game. It becomes even more of a big deal when you think about the budgets: a couple of hours tops for a big effect in a text game; many man-months for similar effects in a graphical game. And, because it's so easy (and cheap!) to write text you can describe really unlikely things. Sure, no one's likely to read the message hidden in the crack in the ground under the rock covered by the cloth stuck behind the armoire... but how much work does it take to describe that message? Not a lot.

It's fast! The number of hours that go into creating a graphical game now are astronomical. We're talking about man-decades of effort, probably man-centuries. Just look at the fact that Diablo II was over a year behind schedule, consider the number of people they had working on the project, and do the math. On the other hand a text game can be created much more quickly. Castle Marrach took about one man-year of work before launch and about one man-year of work since. And, our tools are getting better. If we had a real hot license we could easily turn a good game around in two to three months.

It's dynamic! In a graphical game you're mighty reluctant to tear down what you built because every building, every town, and every NPC might represent man-years of work. Because text is cheap, easy, and fast, there's much less implicit cost in anything you've done. Thus you can burn down the players' favorite watering hole, nuke half of your space station, or wipe out the entire royal family without having wasted huge amounts of time as a result.

Anyone can do it! Take that statement with a grain of salt; as an editor for Chaosium and before that a proofreader and editor for a few different small papers I can assure you that not everyone can write. But, most people can, and a lot of people can do it fairly well. And the percentage is a lot better than people who are good artists or great musicians. Not only does this truly open the doors to creators, but it also creates a cool parity between StoryPlayers and StoryBuilders. A player can look at a game and truly appreciate its craft, without there being some strange veil of magic between the creator and his games' participants.

It's imaginative! Graphical games hand you everything on a silver platter. They tell you what you see and how you see it. Text games, just like books, leave that imagination up to you. As a young lad I once stood up in the middle of a crowded movie theatre and shouted "That's not what hobbits look like!" when the first J.R.R. Tolkien animation made it to the big screen. I'd fully imagined a world and that imagination was more powerful than anything that could be drawn and animated. That's the power of text.

That's All They Wrote

I should really close up saying that I absolutely love text, and not just in computer games like the ones you can play at our site. I'm a voracious reader and a voracious writer too. In fact, I just recently signed a contract for my first professional fiction sale. It's a short story called "Keystones" which will appear in an anthology called Legends of the Pendragon later this year.

Point being, I'm biased. Text is cool.

Next week I'm going to try really hard to finish up my movie script on Marrach, completing my thoughts of four weeks ago. Wish me luck.

your opinion...