“### You know, I’m disappointed the word ‘vidiot’ never really took off. ###”
This review contains unmarked spoilers.
True story: I had a white baseball shirt with blue sleeves when I was a boy. On the front, a large Space Invaders iron-on. On the back, a word in blue, capital letters: “VIDIOT.” Where did I get that word? Mad Magazine, of course, where I found so many words.
Let’s Do Some Crimes
Interactive Fiction Competition 2023: When I read reviews of LAKE Adventure mentioning Repeat the Ending by name, I was curious enough to disobey the IF Comp randomizer. I’m interested in games that draw attention to their “gaminess,” since, in doing so, they push back against decades-old theory. How important is it, really, to try one’s best to fashion convincing mimicries of life in our text adventures? Is that the platonic form of IF, an illusion so compelling that we forget we have bodies, that we sit in chairs, that we operate computers?
I’d rather celebrate a mindful, self-aware practice of media consumption. Let us commit some crimes against mimesis… together!
On Medium, Form, and Content
A common idea in writing studies is that the medium or form in which a text is constructed/presented contributes to its meaning. A poet’s decision to write a sestina rather than a limerick, for instance, is a meaningful choice. It seems fair to assume that the semantic possibilities of rock operas and serial comic books are different. Not better or more “artistic,” mind you, but different. Said differences could include constraints faced by creators. There just isn’t a lot of content one can fit in a sonnet. Sometimes, the audience imposes constraints of their own. I have heard that some players will immediately abandon a parser text adventure game that begins with a page or two of text, quality of that text notwithstanding. Both B.J. Best and I are guilty of this, for all it matters.
An author will likely consider all such factors when planning their work.
It’s been almost two years since I wrote about Enchanter here. I asserted that the most complete realization of the parser text adventure as a form must involve text. For a work to reach such heights, it should not only be constructed of text. Rather, its mechanics and narrative ought to involve text in an immediate way. That is the unique proposition of the text game, isn’t it? Text? Player actions performed with text, upon text. A game cast in this mold should call players to consume text–though not too much, some might insist–and subsequently respond to text, in text. Infocom’s Enchanter, mechanically, is a game about finding pages and copying them into a book. In a practical sense, the pages grant the player new verbs for the rudimentary sentences they type. The core loop of Enchanter is finding new texts and sentences to curate and/or construct. Its protagonist is as much an author as they are a wizard.
Some decades later, I find it fitting that the community has consensed around Counterfeit Monkey as the greatest parser game of all time. I suspect this is so because–above and beyond the craft of its prose and puzzles– it does what only a parser game can do well: manipulation of the words and grammar describing and therefore governing the world of its game. In a graphical work, the gameplay loop of Counterfeit Monkey would not possess the credible matter-of-factness that makes its puzzles so accessible. All would be too baffling, too surreal. Such a game would trip over its own presentation repeatedly, frustratingly. Instead, CM is a perfect synthesis of form, medium, and content. Thematically, there is a potent undercurrent regarding the power of language as it relates to us as both subjects and objects. Counterfeit Monkey is a game wholly aware of the opportunities afforded by the parser medium and is entirely capable of leveraging them.
And Then You Came to a Game Quite Unlike the Previous One
In recent years, I think we have recognized–or have begun to recognize–another exciting mode or form of parser game: a game that assesses the text of an adventure game. While there is nothing new under the sun–Hamlet‘s play-within-a-play is a productive frame of reference–a text game about text affords a less-examined way to leverage the unique gameplay and presentation characteristics of parser-based adventure games. The first bona fide “hit” (in parser terms, of course) in this nascent ouvre is B.J. Best’s own And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One, which won the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition back in 2021. Therein, two young friends play a text adventure together, a seemingly “infinite” (thanks to randomization) possibility set of fetch quests. The player(s)–the protagonist as well as we members of the audience–move from game to “reality” and back again. Ultimately, readers are called to consider the ways that our fantasies and entertainments converse with the events and circumstances of our daily lives.
Reviewers have referred to ATYCtaHNUtPO (whew!) in the course of reviewing Best’s new game, LAKE Adventure. At a surface level, I suppose they must seem quite similar, especially if one were tempted to dismiss the two games as high concept, low stakes “meta stuff.” It’s rarely interesting to be so reductive, so let’s avoid that if we can. In reality, the two works are radically different in terms of structures, rhetorical strategies, and themes.
And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One, which I will only discuss briefly, is about, among other things, being an audience, about being a player of computer games. There is a relationship between real-world outcomes and the seemingly unrelated decisions that co-create them. It is a novel solution to a question I’ve asked before: how can IF grant players their freedoms while maintaining a firm sense of their character? The phrase I used was “destabilizing effects of player agency.” The inner text–the game within the game–proves a perfect laboratory for taking the measure of the protagonist’s care and empathy, as well as the strength of their friendship with their neighbor and close friend, Riley.
In a (fictional) 2014 review of Repeat the Ending, a (fictional) author asserts that parser games are constructed of an “atomizing discourse, a trade language of specificity: lamps, swords, various doohickeys.” The structure of ATYCtaHNUtPO resists the materialist legacy of parser gaming’s two ur-texts, Adventure and Zork. It is a game of decisions, qualities, and phenomena, ever reaching toward the invisible. This new, qualitative design approach asserts that there is a moral dimension to the protagonist’s consumption of Infinite Adventure. The way a protagonist plays a video game is a window into their capacity for empathy. If we are what we consume, perhaps the way that we are is the way that we consume.
Back to the LAKE, for the First Time
First things first: I have no reason to believe that B.J. Best has played Repeat the Ending. I would never assume that anyone has played any game outside of IF Comp (so many play those games!), unless they mentioned it directly. I certainly don’t think my Spring Thing game influenced the creation of LAKE Adventure. How do I account for these two games appearing in one year? The German idealists of old would have credited that unseen boogeyman, “the spirit of the times.” I will not bore readers by explicating my own work, but I will say that I didn’t want to make an accessibly literary puzzler that wasn’t as good as Counterfeit Monkey. I imagine many postwar poets felt the same way about writing in the shadow of The Waste Land. Text within text, besides appealing to the strengths of the medium, was a way to do things that, out of the box, parser games usually struggle with: character, agency, qualitative worldbuilding, “thing-ness,” and narrative voice (and others, I’m sure).
Best’s LAKE Adventure seizes upon these opportunities, too. It’s important to restate, here, how different it is, structurally, from And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One. We should resist the urge, as critics, to file them away as “meta” narratives and be done with it. In terms of character study, creation and consumption present two entirely different surfaces. If Infinite Adventure, the game within ATYCtaHNUtPO, affords a space for gauging the protagonist’s capacity for empathy, what does the author-centered narrative of LAKE Adventure accomplish? I extrapolate: if we are what (the way) we consume, then we must be what (the way) that we make.
Like Repeat the Ending, LAKE Adventure dramatizes a fictional author’s fictional creation as it changed over the years. Unlike RTE, the framing device of LA involves the fictional author, Ed “Eddie” Hughes, responding to his own work in the present day, now decades removed from its initial creation. It is a kind of memoir, then, in which the created elements of the game-within-the-game evoke, in broad strokes, the ugliness of Hughes’s childhood. Rather than dramatize those events directly, we witness the effects of them. In a way, this is a more inward and intimate portrait than a direct and literal approach could render. What are/were Ed(die)’s fantasies? His fears and rages? They roil and smoke below the threadbare surface of a thing-centered game constructed solely of knickknacks and compass directions. This fabrication, unlike that of Infinite Adventure, offers no relief. It is instead a rebuke, a failure, of sentimentality. Ed, looking back, finds only anger, loneliness, failed friendships, and the crushing. brutal reality of death visited upon the innocent.
Best’s chosen narrative perspective feels novel, too. A coworker of Ed’s from the IT department has offered to help him revisit the old game on his “retro” rig. We are that IT worker, sharing our screen with Ed (this is during the COVID outbreak). As play progresses, Ed provides a sort of editorial commentary. He reacts to the text, recalls its conditions of production, and even apologizes to the anonymous player for the increasingly personal nature of the text. The completely undescribed IT worker responds to apologies and opportunities to stop by expressing their desire to continue, but we never read those responses, only Ed’s reactions to them.
If ATYCtaHNUtPO uses play to gauge a specific quality (empathy) and its effect on a relationship, then LAKE Adventure uses authorship to perform a more detailed examination of character. This may be the greatest value proposition of the game about a game genre, specifically games concerned with their own production: the artistic process rises from the unseen depths of the mind. In contrast to the typical over-the-shoulder play of most parser games, the dramatized emergence of art is filled with a great and vague significance. To experience it is to interpret it, as opposed to merely witnessing it.
Who is Ed(die) Hughes, and who has he been? What were his hopes and fantasies, and, rather significantly, what became of them? The evolution of the text over time–a feature of Repeat the Ending, too–yields a revelatory delta. Appearing to us in the wake of young, expired fantasy, Ed is a bleak figure. There is no redemption, no catharsis. This is a hard game. It is not hard as in the case of Spellbreaker, a famously challenging work. No, it is hard in the way art sometimes is, in that it renders a vicious, unyielding world and life. It does not respond to our touch; it fulfills no fantasies of mastery or power. It is not even kind enough to be tragic. Sometimes, the awful happens, and it marks us in awful ways.
In this sense, LAKE Adventure is perhaps more mimetic than even our most beloved treasure hunt.
I have only scratched the critical surface of LAKE Adventure with regard to fictional authorship as a character study tool. What of its platform, an AGT game playable in a DOS emulator (Repeat the Ending was supposedly an Inform 5 game)? How does the COVID epidemic affect the mood and setting of the piece (release of the critical edition of Repeat the Ending was delayed due to COVID-related circumstances)? From a craft perspective, are there hazards to offering up interpretations of one’s own work, even if those “readings” are part of the fiction? This is to say nothing of the role that feelies play in games about games. LAKE Adventure generously includes a magically true-to-period, true-to-“author” hand-drawn map of the game.
LAKE Adventure affords a new way to think about text adventure games in terms of authors and audiences, suggesting fields of play beyond a thing-centered design model approaching its fiftieth birthday.
Apologies to Trinity fans! Reviewing every bit of media about Trinity has proven to be quite a task. On top of that, I tried (and failed) to get a game completed in time for Ectocomp. Then came the IFComp games. So much IF, so little time. Fear not, more Trinity is on the way.