More Reflections on Zork and IF

Matt Barton's picture

I have finally finished writing my history of Zork for GamaSutra. Despite some initial difficulties, I was able to secure interviews from a variety of important figures in the Zork and larger IF world, including Steve Meretzky, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, Nick Montfort, and Howard Sherman. Everyone of these gentlemen has been extremely helpful and deserves applause for taking the time to help me research such an important topic. After the article appears on GamaSutra, I plan to publish the entire interviews on here as a sort of "round table" discussion.

At any rate, doing the work for this article has certainly caused me to think more about the relationship between text and graphical adventure games. Indeed, I'm wondering if the two can even be considered similar, much less part of the same genre. What's nice about the Zork series is that you have the whole spectrum from pure text to Myst-clone. Imagine the transition from text to full motion video. But which, ultimately, offers a more compelling experience--graphic or text? Is it ultimately a matter of personal preference?

One thing that came out in the interviews is that a text parser offers (or at least seems to offer) more freedom than any kind of menu or graphical interface. Games like The Secret of Monkey Island "channel" the player by offering up menu of possible actions (even though you can see a decreasing number of menu options in that series as well; compare Maniac Mansion with Loom, for instance). On the other hand, even if you can theoretically type anything into a parser, it can only "make sense" of a finite number of commands. It seems to me that the only way a command will work is if the programmers anticipated it and implemented a logical response. I know we've had this discussion before, but some linguists (Chomsky, in particular) argues that language is infinite (generative grammar). Thus, if you have a finite set of responses, but an infinite number of possible responses, you'll always have a problem. Possible solutions are the "adventurese" type pidgin language of text adventures, where players quickly learn what words and syntactical structures they share with the parser. The simplest or most "primitive" text parsers are hardly more flexible than the menu-based interface of a game like Maniac Mansion. On the other hand, the most advanced parsers are capable of making sense of a much broader range of inputs; the effect can seem like magic (People have even been fooled into thinking Eliza was a real person, or frankly not caring that she isn't and still using the program for therapy).

Another interesting thing that came out of the interviews was the problem of identification. One of the neat things about text-based IF is that the player can be required to identify an object with an incomplete description. For instance, a knight could find a computer, but not be able to describe it very well to the player ("I see a strange box with a glowing mirror and a series of tiny squares with strange markings") or the like. This sort of thing would be difficult (if not impossible) with a graphical interface, since the player would see right away that the object was a computer. The only exception I can see here is if the game had either a "fog of ignorance" effect of some sort, or if the graphics were in fact so poorly resolved (as in The Wizard and the Princess) that you simply couldn't tell what it was.

Ultimately, I think the question of which one is better comes down to what type of game you're making, and what type of activities the player will be performing. If the game is focused on puzzles, then a graphical interface opens up many interesting possibilities and can greatly facilitate visualization. Compare, for instance, the sliding blocks puzzle in Zork III with the sliding rooms puzzle in Myst. I also can't imagine the many symbol and glyph-type puzzles commonly found in GAGs existing in text-adventures.

Where text adventures really seem to trump is with dialog and interacting with other characters. No simple dialog tree can compare with being able to type literally anything you want to say. Unfortunately, this is also the hardest thing to implement convincingly, and even cutting-edge games of this sort (say, Facade, or the much older Eliza) are hardly perfect. What we need goes far beyond "parsing." The ideal would be to have dialog so effective that the other characters would act just like real people, with real motives, vocabularies, memories, personalities, emotions and so on. Thus, telling a character "Please give me that wrench, sir" would have a different response than "Oh, please. Give me that wrench, sir." I can imagine some pretty wonderful possibilities if a game was truly able to recognize such nuances. We could take it a step further and even have it interpreting italics for emphasis and quotation marks for irony. In effect, I seem to be pushing more for what Brenda Laurel envisioned as interactive drama.

I suppose we already see this, not between computer characters, but rather between human role-players in games like WoW and Second Life. But will it ever be to the point where this type of rich interaction will be possible in a one-player game, particularly one in which some type of "adventure" was called for? I suppose the real difficulty lies in grafting some type of story or narrative onto it. If you need the player to do X, Y, and Z, that's difficult without putting in rails. On the other hand, you could have the "stuff" going on independent of the player's actions (i.e., the Japanese will attack Pearl Harbor no matter what the player does), which might lead to some very interesting scenarios (i.e., the player tries to tell everyone that the Japanese are about to attack; no one believes him, but after the attack, he's imprisoned for being a spy).

All we really need, methinks, is an AI smart enough to act like a real dungeon master in a classic game of AD&D. If you've ever played D&D with a group of friends, you know what I'm talking about. There's usually a great deal of play-acting and "in character" stuff that gets lost on the computer. A really good DM knows how to respond to unexpected situations and "go with" the flow. Often enough, a good game of D&D may end up far from what the DM or players expected, though the DM is able to referee and make sure what the players are doing is consistent with physics and the logic of the fantasy world, and so on. it need not necessarily be text, either; with advances in speech recognition and better speech software, I can imagine this all taking place without the need to type or read.

At any rate, what I wonder is what would games be like today if AI and Natural Language Processing had come as far as graphical technology? Heck, it seems we're really dragging our heels when it comes to stuff like speech recognition, and computers still don't seem to able to speak naturally (i.e., you can always tell right away that it's a computer). Is it just somehow easier to offer better graphics than better AI? I'm not sure.


Michael McCourt
Joined: 01/17/2007
I'm wondering if the need

I'm wondering if the need for advanced parsing and AI is becoming diminished by increasing amounts of online multiplayer interaction. There are so many people playing games these days where they don't need worry about what they type because the "parser" interpreting their input is another human brain.

On the other hand it is interesting to think about developing parsing and AI to the point where not only can it convince a person that they are talking to another person but also convince them that they are talking to a specific person. Imagine an online game where your avatar is always online and the longer you actually play it the better it becomes at imitating you when you're not online. You log back in after taking a night off and get a little summary of what happened and what "you" said to other people (whether they were actually there or if it was just their dopplegangers) and continue in your role. Maybe you weren't able to participate in a raid but your avatar did and is able to give you a full recounting of the event. Of course, that's kind of like a friend telling you about what a great time they had at a party you didn't attend, or were too drunk to remember any of, so I'm not sure I see an actual commercially viable application for this. It may make an interesting short story, however.

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Interesting Points
mezrabad wrote:

I'm wondering if the need for advanced parsing and AI is becoming diminished by increasing amounts of online multiplayer interaction. There are so many people playing games these days where they don't need worry about what they type because the "parser" interpreting their input is another human brain.

That's an interesting point. At least two of the IMPS mentioned that MMOs seem to represent the future of IF, or at least that's where they saw the most influence of Zork and the like. My problem with that is that it's always good in theory, but then you login and realize you're dealing with cretins. The only way it would really work well is with the right group, and that's very hard to find. Again, it's not unlike real AD&D. To really get the most out of it, you have to have so many things--very smart and nimble DM, very fun group willing to do "get into the role," and so on. If even one element is off, it can throw off the whole thing. It takes a lot of talent all around.

I know a few times people have hired professionals to try to do this stuff. A MMO could feature paid actors, for instance, to really provide atmosphere and make the quests muich more interesting than just simple "instances," or whatever the hell they call it. I just don't think it will ever be efficient though. You really need to have this programmed in, and it needs to be much better than any "NPC" we have today. I can imagine how great it'd be if they could pull if off. You could even have "gossip magazines" about what the NPCs were doing, because even the developers wouldn't be able to predict precisely what would happen.

That's also interesting about the doppleganger. It does sound like good stuff for a novel or movie! "Your virtual self has abducted your family! You're their only chance, because he thinks just like you--only much faster." Heeheh.

adamantyr's picture
Joined: 01/28/2007
Future of IF

Chris Crawford's Storytron engine seems, to me, the best potential future of IF. Instead of trying to make the computers understand human language better, (a task of monstrous proportions... consider how much trouble we can have just communicating to other people!) his engine has its own unique language, Deikto, for communication. It's heavy design stuff, but it has very good potential to deliver realistic interaction between a computer player and a human being.

However, he and his team are doing everything in their power to distance themselves from games. They see the value of the engine as being a vehicle for dramatic storytelling. So they are avoiding association with games, which are about having fun and winning. The overview on the website does a pretty decent job describing why it's not about games.

You also have to be careful with the word "interactive"; Crawford may take your head off calling Zork or any old text adventure "interactive". One may argue the point, but he did write a book on interactivity, I'd read it before challenging his viewpoint. Also consider all the old text adventures where there was basically ONE way to win, and the game beat you on the head until you did everything in an exact order. This wasn't so bad when the tasks made logical sense, but I can remember plenty of adventures where they didn't. (Hitchhiker's, anyone?)

I also remember playing Cutthroats and getting very frustrated because I really couldn't speak to the various characters. I went to rent the ship and the McGinty was loitering about. So I deliberately asked for the WRONG ship. But Johnny Red still got pissed and stormed out, despite the fact I'd cleverly fooled McGinty into renting the wrong boat. The limitation of the engine was readily apparent at that point; you had to do things in a particular order, or it all fell apart. I never finished it.

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