Did you know that one of the funniest English language authors in history wrote a bunch of videogames, and they’re really funny? Well, you probably did, because Terry Pratchett made that huge Oblivion mod, but also, his peer Douglas Adams also made stuff, though on earlier, clunkier, uglier hardware.
Yes, once more I delve into the infocom vaults to talk to you about a game that is, primarily, just text, almost as if I have some kind of bias towards that kind of media for some reason.
Anyway, I’m going to complain about Twine briefly.
Sometimes I feel like the web browser is the wrongest way to do a text adventure. I’m not against Twine, don’t get me wrong. Parser games are understandably, less accessible and they’re famously hard to make comprehensively responsive to the ways a player might engage with it until that player has learned to ‘speak to the parser.’
It sometimes reminds me of how I frame poker. Poker is a game where you and the other players spend enough time with one another to create a common language – how you bid, how quickly you bid, all that stuff – and then see how you can use that language to lie to one another. Parser videogames can kinda do something like that too, but all of that language is set up ahead of time and a little remotely. It had opportunities to create interesting tension, such as if a developer didn’t consider a particular word that could be a noun or a verb, as in the famous Put Bag Bottle problem from Leisure Suit Larry 2 –
oh okay, so in Leisure Suit Larry 2, you have to hastily construct a molotov cocktail (kinda) with a bottle of fuel (kinda) and a paper airsickness bag from an airplane. There’s a bug? of sorts? in the late stage of the game where most people are typing phrases like PUT BAG BOTTLE or USE BAG BOTTLE. Normally, if that doesn’t work, the game will just say something like ‘I don’t understand,’ which is a good way the games handle a lot of their error states, but in the case of this little bag and this little bottle, instead, Larry does something else entirely with its own animation and puts the game into a failed state: he chucks the bottle down into the volcano you’re standing over.
It makes sense at the time.
Thing is, what was going on there was that the parser could interpret the word ‘bag’ as a verb. The way the parser worked to tidy up commands was to consider the first verb and the last noun – because that’s usually all it needed, which helped clean up when players were using unnecessary adjectives that might accidentally confuse them. If you were in a room with four phones and one was ringing, ‘answer phone’ was functionally the same as ‘answer the yellow phone in the middle’ because the game would happily recognise that ‘in the middle’ wasn’t a noun and since only one phone was ringing, knowing you meant the yellow one didn’t mean anything. You could use this to weird results in speedruns of some games, where you could type an extensive list of commands nested inside one another like USE HAT SCREW FLUFF BUG POTION and then just delete the words at the end each time you repeated the input.
In the case of the Leisure Suit Larry bug, the way around it was the use of the word ‘the’ – you had to PUT THE BAG IN THE BOTTLE, but also not PUT BAG IN BOTTLE because it’s missing the word ‘the’ that indicates it’s a noun and a noun.
Parsers are hard, and all of this predicates on the idea that you’re a person who looks at the word ‘bag’ and thinks of it as a verb before you consider its applications as a noun.
Text Parser games introduce ways that you can be wrong, and it introduces ways that you can be frustrated, and those two elements were definitely part of Douglas Adams’ vision of games in Beaurocracy. That game has a limited number of inputs you can make – a typo for example, uses up one of them. If you check your inventory because you’re stuck, that uses up one of your inputs. You ultimately need to only ever make correct, non-frustrating inputs to get through that literally and deliberately kafkaesque form input system of a game, and that means you need to know how all the puzzles are solved ahead of time. The only way to do that is to do the puzzles, note how you did it perfectly, then restart the game to do it again. This is before widely distributed cheat code or walkthrough websites. This game was explicitly, deliberately, inconveniently difficult, and it was trying to manipulate you and how you interacted with it.
Basically, you should hate Beaurocracy because it was trying to make you hate it. I know I’ve never finished it, even if I’m very impressed with the dedication to, as it were, the bit. Douglas Adams would have killed on Tumblr is what I’m saying.
Okay, but what about Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
I assumed I’d written about this in the past, a long time ago, and over ten years the words flow to me like I’ve probably told it in little bits and pieces, but Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is a text parser game that really leant against all the surfaces of the kind of game it was. First of all there are just some deliberate uses of a turn based timer to fuck with you.
There’s this puzzle early on, where, in order to unlock access to most of the rest of the game, you need a babelfish to stick in your ear. These are super common in the lore of the world, so much so that there’s a vending machine you can get one out of. In the book series, and radio play, the babelfish is added to Arthur’s life by Ford helpfully jamming it in his ear after getting it from a vending machine, but in the text parser game, you have to retrieve it from the vending machine yourself.
It’s a pretty neat little puzzle; you press a button to get a fish, and then immediately find a problem with how it’s dispensed. So you solve the puzzle of how it’s dispensed and press the button again. It dispenses another one, but your solution breeds a new problem and now it falls down a grate. So you look at the grate and you devise a solution and you press the button on the vending machine and get another fish which now goes from solution one to solution two to problem three. You solve problem three, press the button, and if you’ve done it like this the vending machine is now out of fish. But it doesn’t matter, because you’re also out of time and get dragged off to solve another puzzle, which you can’t, because you can’t understand any of the text being spoken to you.
The only way to solve the puzzle is to know at least one of the steps ahead of time, and then you need to pick up all your guff you put down in the process because you need it later.
The game even asks you, as you’re putting the pieces down, hey, do you know what you’re doing or are you winging it?
It’s mendacious but also it’s deliberately trying to engage you, the player in a particular way because I feel like this whole genre of game expected you to play with the whole of its text. That there was a reason every word was put in a description and it was to make reading it and engaging with it interesting. That’s pretty cool, and the HTML-ification of interactive text (which isn’t a problem per se, but it does present a sort of ‘first point, easiest point’ for the genre of interactive fiction it creates) does kind of lose some of this just because it needs to make its point of interface pretty evident.
(Not that you can’t get sneaky with it!)
(You can make twine games that notice when they’ve been rolled back, like ‘remembering’ something is a chance to change the past.)
(This is an idea we talk about in game studies as ‘hypertext,’ where text you can experience multiple times in different ways does not present a dozen readers a dozen paths but rather, all twelve readers experience the same path, which is to say, they go back and play all of them.)
Anyway, this isn’t the real thing in Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy that I love beyond meaningful words. What I love is that at one point, you have to demonstrate a capacity for abstract thought by showing an NPC that you are holding both tea and not tea.
And like obviously, when you think about it for a moment, of course you are, right? Like if ‘tea’ is an inventory item, any other inventory item is ‘not tea.’ But that’s not it – you have to specify that you show someone both tea and the absence of tea, as a way of representing that you aren’t just treating the objects in the game like entities in a parser.
Which you are.
Because when you do this, in your inventory, you get ‘no tea.’