: New: Book Report: 50 Years of Text Games

It's a history of text-centric computer games structured as 50 essays about 50 games, choosing one game published each year 1971-2020. It's pretty interesting. It took me a long time to get through this book. When I was reading, it went quickly. But I kept wandering off play the games it described.

E.g., the book only mentions the game Ditch Day Drifter in passing, but I figured it might be the closest I could ever get to participating in Caltech's Ditch Day. And maybe the game felt more like something you'd find in Zork's Great Underground Empire than in Pasadena, but it was still pretty good. And there's a few hours gone to play a game that was a few sentences in the book.

In recent years, a lot of text games have been something like computer-enhanced Choose Your Own Adventure books; except they've concentrated on storytelling. The original CYOA books couldn't have much story; each book was kinda short; and whenever the reader made a choice, the book needed a whole set of pages reflecting the outcome of that choice. So maybe each version of the story, you were just reading eight pages. But thanks to computers' nigh-infinite storage, a "book" can hold a lot. And maybe a book doesn't need totally-distinct "pages" to reflect the effects of choices.

Maybe in one scene, the reader's presented with a choice:

Adopt Chunko the Wonder-dog?
  • [ Yes, give Chunko a home ]
  • [ No, I have enough problems ]

Depending on which button the reader chooses to tap, different things might happen. But maybe the author doesn't need to write totally-different stuff. In a dramatic confrontation with the sinister Master of Horridness, the author might write a little paragraph:

Chunko the Wonder-dog barks at the sinister Master of Horridness. "Bark! Bark, bark!" The Master of Horridness hisses and clutches his cape closer.

The author can specify that if the reader adopted Chunko, that paragraph should appear; but not otherwise. It's a little flourish that might give the reader warm fuzzies, but doesn't require writing two versions of the whole narrative.

These games have caught the eyes of writers who want to use them for actual storytelling. And so they write these games: you, the reader can make choices about how the story will go, guiding the protagonist. And so you're trying to "win" by working towards a compelling story, navigating the path of narrative. To jump nimbly as Mario, you must master timing; to choose wisely in a 16-chapter genre mystery story, understand that your prime suspect in chapter three is a red herring, with maybe a 50-50 chance of surviving the next four chapters.

Anyhow, I've been reading/playing a lot of these games. When I slowed down, I'd go back to reading 50 Years of Text Games, make it about three pages further—and them, bam, I read something that made me return to the games.

For example, after I played a few too many romance games with a billionaire/prince love interest, I got pretty sick of them. The billionaire would whisk my character off on a private jet flight to Rome for a plate of penne; and I, the reader, was supposed to ignore the whole climate-change implications of private jet flights and think This character has earned a life of luxury by dint of their sweetness, and if the glaciers must melt to drive this point home, so be it.. It made me want to re-word the classic @dril tweet

Food: 200 CO2 lbs.
Data: 150
Housing: 800
Monthly pasta jaunts: 3600 CO2 lbs.
Utility: 150
someone who is good at the ecology please help me, my planet is burning

After I played one two many games with that plotline, I avoided anything else with "billionaire" in the title or blurb.

When I saw the blurb for the game Elite Status: Platinum Concierge "How far would you go to make a billionaire's dreams come true?" I noped out of there in a hurry.

But then I was reading 50 Years of Text Games again, and Emily Short came up again, and I decided to seek out some works. And it turns out she co-wrote that Elite Status: Platinum Concierge game. So I played that game after all. And it was good; she didn't treat billionaires as over-the-top wish-fulfillment machines. That story had some gnarly choices.

Writers want to exercise writerly techniques. Some literary devices don't mesh well with games. In a plain ol' book, an author might build suspense by revealing information to the reader unknown to the protagonist. Perhaps a chapter shows the sinister Master of Horridness making evil plans with his minions, the Horrid Horde. Oh no, the protagonist is unaware of this looming menace! In a game, this feels weird. The reader gets this "inside info," and then makes choices on behalf of the protagonist, who's unaware.

You're heading out for a walk. Want to wear your motorcycle helmet?
  • [ Yes, oddly. I would. ]
  • [ No, don't be ridiculous. ]

You, the reader, might choose differently if you watched the Master of Horridness planning to drop a piano from some rooftop: oddly, a helmet seems like a good idea, hmmm. But how to explain why the protagonist donned the helmet? Unconscious psychic powers? Monumental good luck? Aliens?

Things get weirder when you combine story, game, and capitalism. The book 50 Years of Text Games covers both art-for-art's-sake highfalutin' works and commercial games. These days, a lot of the commercial text-y choose-y games are free-to-play, but make money by charging the reader for extras.

So after you read that scene in which the protagonist has a tense conversation (replete with fleeting glances and significant pauses) with Cragfield the brooding, good-looking local landholder, you might see the choice:

See that same conversation again, but from Cragfield's point of view, including exclusive interior monologue and innermost thoughts?
  • [ Yes (10💎) ]
  • [ No ]

If you choose Yes, you'll spend 10 gems, available at your device's app store for perhaps a dollar. And thus you'll get to find out that Cragfield is secretly obsessed with you and also with memories of some mysterious figure in his tragic backstory. (Well, you probably already guessed that if you've ever read a genre romance story. Presumably, spending 10 gems on the scene also yields some more-specific insight.)

Later on, perhaps you can choose to have the protagonist flirt outrageously with Cragfield, despite the offputting demeanor. Why would the protagonist think flirting would work? Extreme good luck? It might feel as though the protagonist somehow deserves good luck, since you, the reader, spent a dollar. But within the context of the story, it still feels strange.

Another literary trope: If the protagonist makes a bad decision early on, that's strong character motivation: They feel responsible; they want to fix the problem they created. If I'm reading a plain ol' novel and the main character makes a stupid decision, maybe I notice at the time, but probably I don't. I probably just ride along, enjoying the book. Later, when consequences emerge, I might think Aw, too bad that happened. Welp, better get to work fixing that.

In these games, on the other hand, I'm paying pretty close attention to the main character's choices. Often, I'm doing the choosing. If asked to choose between three bad ideas, I don't just nod my head and ride along. I notice I'm being set up. My eyes narrow; my hackles rise.

As motivation, it works in novels; but it backfires in these novel-adjacent games.

It can work. In stories or in games, maybe that character's bad decision doesn't just steer the plot. Maybe it shines a light on some aspect of their personality. I've seen this work well in comedies and a tragedy. A character in a tragedy or comedy might have some exaggerated trait: a tragic flaw or funny quirk. In the Episode app game Competitive Edge, the main character is hilariously hyper-competitive and arrogant. The reader often faces choices that might be summarized:

How do you reply to your rival's question?
  • [ Over-the-top confident answer ]
  • [ Over-the-top competitive answer ]
  • [ Over-the-top narcissistic answer ]

The consequences of these choices are bad for the character, but darned funny for the reader. Later in the story, a meanie character manipulates the main character into an obvious trap; the reader sees it happening, but grins and goes along with it, well-trained by previous rewards. (OK, I grinned and went along with it. Your mileage may vary.)

When nudging the player to grin along with bad choices, consistency matters. In the Choices App game The Cursed Heart, at the story's start, we establish that the main character is overly trusting. Midway through the game, the main character misplaces their trust and falls for an obvious trick. It feels stupid: before this, the reader has been presented with choices, and can steer the main character away from traps. When I played I thought, Thanks to my paranoi expert guidance, the main character has overcome their naiveté. I'd only induced some momentary aberrations, but the game didn't make that clear until that jarring forced misstep.

The Choice of Games game "Tally Ho!" makes it safe to make bad choices, even if the main character isn't absurdly flawed. This game is a comedy in the style of P.G. Wodehouse; as such, it's about the upper classes in England. It's possible for the main character to face consequences for bad decisions, but quite unlikely. Meanwhile, the effects of failure can be pretty funny, sometimes funnier than success.

I mentioned the Choice of Games game "Elite Status: Platinum Concierge," in which you're something like a personal assistant to a few billionaires. In this game, you face situations with no good choices, only choosing who to harm. In this game, it works; it's a tragedy, and you expect a character in a tragedy to face terrible choices.

When one of these book-ish games works well, it feels like the player and the author[s] are telling a story together. When it doesn't work well, it gets clunky. When a heist game rewards you for making good choices with a bigger heist take, that's all very well. But then you have to second-guess your choices: do they make sense? Do they make sense in the context of a cinematic heist story? Should you knock out that palace guard by clonking him on the head? In real life, no; you shouldn't concuss someone. In a heist story… maybe? How realistic is this heist story? Maybe the story is light and glib, knocking guards out is totally cool, everybody guaranteed to be all recovered in the next scene. Maybe the story's more realistic and you should be worried about concussions. If you choose to handcuff the guard instead of knocking him out, will the game penalize you, lower your score for making a choice that doesn't fit the mood, taking things too seriously?

How well do you understand the story that the game's author wants to tell? Are you sure you want to be part of it?

Oh… the book? Right, that's what I'm supposed to be writing about. Yeah, I recommend it. It talks about the games; talks about changes in what each, uhm, artistic movement? Sure, let's say artistic movement. The book talks about what each successive artistic movement has tried to accomplish. It's interesting.

Tags: book game