The interactive fiction community has been set abuzz by a recent PC Gamer interview with Jonathan Blow. Emily Short provides a handy index to some of the early comments in what will likely be a long addition to a discussion that had only recently gone dormant again.

Blow, as you might remember, designed the justly acclaimed Braid. He’s currently working on a game he hopes will update the sensibility of adventure games the same way Braid updated the sensibility of the platformer genre. To that end, Blow told Brendan Caldwell,

If you go to conferences, designers are always talking about how they’re doing things and how to make games more fun. And that’s true, it’s pretty obvious. If you go back, get an emulator and play some games from the eighties on home computers, they’re kinda unplayable. You know, people say, “Games were just as good then as they are now.” It’s just not true. Things are way better design-wise.

So far, he’s on pretty safe ground. He doesn’t start to raise the ire of IF gamers until he says,

That happened to all the genres, but it never quite happened in adventure games.
[...]
Adventure games are still what they used to be. And what the core gameplay actually is, is very different from what the designer intends. The designer wants it to be, “It’s going to be cool puzzle solving. There’s going to be a story and stuff.” But really what’s actually going through the players head in adventure games is, “I don’t know if I should be clicking on this thing” or “I don’t know if this is a puzzle” or “I don’t know if I need an item to solve this that I don’t have yet, or if I’m just not thinking.”

The bottom line is that “adventure gameplay is fundamentally broken.” And no doubt many in the IF community took it as a more personal criticism when Blow added,

Adventure games kind of died, commercially and a lot of people felt really sad about that. Like, “Oh, I’m nostalgic for the days of adventure games. They died. It’s such a shame.” It’s not an accident that they died. It’s absolutely not.

Of course, stripping these comments from their context makes them look a great deal more pointed than he probably intended them. He was, after all, making these criticisms largely as a way of framing his design decisions in The Witness, the aforementioned, still-in-production game that occasioned the interview. Emily Short does a good job of emphasizing that his comments were mostly a discursive bit of self-promotion. She’s right, on all counts, to take those comments lightly.

On the other hand, there may be other valences worth pointing out. For one thing, there’s Blow’s handling of genre. He’s careful to put a positive spin on it, but essentially what he’s praising is a narrowing of the scope of innovation. The focal point of his comments is that,

for most genres of game, gameplay has really been streamlined. A lot of problems have been fixed, things are better.

By that standard, you judge progress by looking at the genre, as represented by the latest game that can be identified by it, and saying,

It’s been iterated and refined.

In particular, he seems to be talking about the mechanics of the genre. So if adventure games are “broken and inaccessible,” it’s reasonable to assume that, at least from Blow’s perspective, that’s because they haven’t been refined by the process of genre iteration.

In a way, he has a point. Text-based adventure games have, in fact, gone through a process of iterative genre refinement, but the focal point of that refinement has largely dealt with the content of those games. So much so, in fact, that it was sometimes difficult to see how particular titles could qualify as “adventures,” at which point the name “interactive fiction” steadily came to encompass not only more traditional Infocom-style adventures, but also the wide variety of games that don’t revolve around puzzle-solving in genre fiction territory. Meanwhile, though some have experimented with the fundamental mechanics of the genre, interactive fiction still centers, by and large, on typing second-person commands into a mostly opaque language parser.

Where I think Blow is wrong is in seeing that as a limitation of the genre.

Inaccessibility is, of course, a relative thing. Most any adult who had a Nintendo Entertainment System can jump into Braid rather easily because the mechanics are broadly familiar. Nearly every NES sold in the U.S. shipped with a copy of Super Mario Bros., from which much of the pidgin mechanical language of Braid is cribbed. It is, in other words, accessible precisely because it conforms closely to a genre that’s been in the spotlight for more than 25 years.

The process of iteration and refinement of which the interview makes so much is, in many ways, a means of streamlining whatever could have been alien in a game. Most of us catch on to Braid pretty quickly precisely because the foundation for all that’s clever and interesting in the game is a backdrop of tropes and mechanics that we’ve already played a thousand times. For much of the game, then, we are playing the platformer genre as much as we’re playing anything that Blow has designed, and the moments in which we’re most truly playing Braid are those when it offers us something we haven’t already seen in another iteration of that genre.

Genre development can be a fascinating thing, and the history of the platformer is illustrative, particularly on the NES where the relatively limited control scheme put pressure on designers to play with different ways of interacting with the tropes of the genre. It’s interesting to explore what happens, for example, when Bionic Commando replaces jumping with grappling. But it remains an open question why anyone should suppose that the best way to judge a game is by asking how it functions as an iteration in that process. It’s a bit like judging a pet by how well it contributes to the evolution of the species to which it belongs. When you look at your cat that way, you’re stepping away from the sort of “personal” relationship that’s possible between owners and their pets. But you may have a bright future as a breeder.

And that, by analogy, is the position Blow has carved out for himself. He seems to see himself as a kind of game breeder, pushing the evolution of form. Asking of every instance of a genre, “Okay, what’s next?” doesn’t necessarily put him in the best position to see the qualities intrinsic to any given genre.

So contra his post mortem analysis in PC Gamer, the supposed stagnation of the IF parser can be seen as the retention of a very early and durable refinements of the genre. Just as sharks and crocodiles have had very little need for major evolutionary shifts over the ages, it could be argued that the fundamental mechanisms of interactive fiction have changed so little not for lack of innovation or effort, but rather because no other refinement has managed to be quite so flexible or appealing in practice.

That may be a confounding way to look at it. After all, it’s a commonly heard complaint in the IF community that the parser is one of the major obstacles to the genre winning a wider audience. Blow is ultimately only repackaging that complaint when he suggests that IF games are nigh-well inaccessible.

But the fundamental limitations that come with the parser are actually its greatest strength, and help explain why it’s been so resistant to the insistent process of iterative genre refinement. Yes, the parser does keep us at arm’s distance from the world represented by any given game. And, in doing so, it forces us to contemplate that world a bit more. The danger with a platformer is that the tropes become so familiar that eventually refinement is not enough. The designer has to use them as a way of highlighting elements that aren’t refinements at all, but rather the introduction of new gameplay mechanics. Blow should understand that better than anyone, since Braid succeeded largely by first establishing Mario-esque conventions, then confounding those genre expectations with the introduction of a new mechanic. A platformer that doesn’t shake up the genre that way runs the risk of bouncing off of the player’s consciousness altogether.

The parser takes a lot of blame when an IF game goes wrong, but the parser itself is rarely the problem. It’s only job is to facilitate the player’s interaction with a world that is initially hidden, and only gradually revealed. And since most parsers these days belong to one of a handful of suites (Inform, TADS, Adrift) that have, themselves, evolved over the last several decades, today’s most popular parsers all stand on evolutionary plateaus. More often than not, when an IF game is bad, it’s because the world behind the parser is poorly designed. The parser takes the blame because the parser looks like it handles the interactions that make up play. We think we should be able to use a given item a particular way, and when we can’t, we blame the messenger. But the verbs that define those interactions aren’t part of the parser. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, they’re part of the world. The parser lets us access them, and it does so impartially. That impartiality is part of its strength.

What do IF players get for consenting to access their game worlds through so opaque a control scheme? They get, for one thing, a range of possible worlds unmatched by any other genre for the sort of interactions that can take place. It’s difficult to imagine the FPS genre giving players an experience like that involved in Galatea, but less difficult to imagine an IF story that puts you on the battlegrounds of WWII, as the Medal of Honor games do. And an IF game that does pit you against the Axis powers generally doesn’t begin by virtually welding a gun into your hands.

Even in MMORPGs, which have generally piqued interest by promising a well-fleshed out world where the player can be practically anything, the range of behaviors available to a character tend to be limited by the constraints of genre and interface. For the most part, gameplay still revolves around fighting NPCs, cruising over terrain, and collecting objects for the ever-present arms race. When they include less traditional role-playing tasks, those tend to be cosmetic and rather automated. Back in the old days of Ultima Online, when a player decided to be a blacksmith, they thereby tacitly committed themselves to long stretches of clicking on the sides of mountains, not really playing the game at all. No doubt these are areas subject to the sort of iterative refinement Blow presents as the sine non qua of gaming the genres. We still have a long way to go before it ceases to be a tedious distraction.

The IF parser forces the player to explore not just the game world, but also ways of interacting with that world. That behavioral exploration is at the very heart of most great IF games. Generally speaking, IF players get their kicks from tinkering with a game world in order to find out how it can be used to tell a story. If the behavior of IF game worlds were as similar as the behavior of platformer game worlds, most IF fans would lose interest. The mechanical continuity that you see from one platformer to the next is a genre necessity, the foundation on which the really interesting innovations, like Braid‘s time manipulation, must be built. In IF games, that mechanical continuity can be kept relative small, in the form of the parser, allowing much more latitude in the variation of game worlds and potential ways of interacting with them. More than any mechanical convention, what hamstrings mediocre and boring IF games is a slavish, but completely avoidable devotion to the conventions of literary and movie genres.

If it sounds as though I’m saying that there’s no real solution to the long-standing concern that the IF parser is keeping the genre from winning a broader audience, I suppose I am. I’m not convinced that the parser is really a problem. To the extent that a given person tries to play an otherwise fine example of the genre, and says that they can’t get past the convention of typing rudimentary commands into a command line, I’d say the parser is merely indicative of a deeper and more intransigent divide. More likely, that person doesn’t feel the same enthusiasm for exploring the range of behaviors offered by that world. It may be possible to bridge that personality gap by making the parser more opaque and the terms of interaction more certain, but in doing so we would only be draining from IF the thing that makes it so appealing in the first place.


is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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