The perpetual cough and the text adventure

Still coughing, but the health updates are getting tedious so I'll leave it at that.

What I'm really here to talk about is that a few days ago, Jim and I downloaded one of the top-rated entries in this year's Interactive Fiction Competition and played it.

Interactive Fiction (IF) is the new term for what we used to call "text adventures." Like the Scott Adams adventures, or Zork, or the other InfoCom games, or (best of all) the original Colossal Cave. "Somewhere nearby is Colossal Cave, where others have found fortunes in treasure and gold. . . ." There was a time when I knew that game well enough to play the computer's part and take people through it, responding to their spoken commands. Hmm, maybe that should go on my "Ten things I've done that you probably haven't" list.

But I digress. Point being, there are still people writing these things, and every year there's a contest. I generally don't look at the entries; these days I'm not so fond of puzzles as I once was (I'm more content to just say "a solution exists"), and I don't find text adventures as satisfying as I used to.

In general. But this year Jim wanted to try out some of the winners, and I figured it might be fun to tag along. One of the entries, "Blue Chairs," by Chris Klimas, had gotten some of the highest scores but also some of the lowest, so we decided to give it a try.

And it turned out to be excellent. You play a guy named Dante Hicks (apparently a reference to Clerks, though I didn't realize that at the time); you start out at a party, where for no particularly good reason you buy a drug from someone and take it. And then it's unclear whether the surreal and hallucinatory stuff that happens in the rest of the game is real or not.

It has flaws, including some of the standard flaws of a text adventure; for example, the bits in which you have to interact directly with other characters are as frustrating as they usually are, due to limited options for interaction. But this game does some nice messing with your head in the process. For example, when you wake up after taking the drug, someone is holding a cell phone to your ear; it's your ex-girlfriend Beatrice, and she's asking you to come to her house, but whenever you try to type something, all the letters show up as the letter "u", so you can't actually say anything.

And there's quite a bit of the game that consists of it leading you through sequences you can't have any effect on, which I suspect contributed to some of the low ratings it got. Normally, I get really annoyed by that kind of thing; here, it's so well done that I didn't mind. It ended up feeling more like being told a story (with a little bit of interactivity) than like playing a game; then again, I've been in tabletop roleplaying games that were like that, and if the GM is a good enough storyteller it's still worthwhile.

And there are a couple of things that you can do that have a big impact on the story. In particular, right at the very end, your answer to another character's question determines which of two extremely different endings you'll arrive at. It's very much worth saving the game just before that point, then going back to see the other ending. Each of them alone is pretty good; the two of them together form a really nice indeterminate state, a nifty tension about what's "really" going on.

Jim and I didn't solve the whole thing ourselves; we referred maybe half a dozen times to the walkthrough that's provided with the game, and it got us past a couple of points where we were about ready to give up. I recommend not being a purist here; think of the walkthrough as a provider of useful hints when you get frustrated. If you're too frustrated by the frustrating parts, you won't appreciate the coolness of the cool parts as much.

Somehow the Dante/Beatrice thing made me think that we were going to find out that we were in Hell, but that didn't happen; in retrospect, I think I had somehow thought Dante went to Hell to find Beatrice. I must've been mixing in a little Orpheus or something; my only defense is that I was sick.

There's a political sequence that will probably annoy conservatives; I'm not convinced that bit is really relevant to the rest of the story, but it does lead to some nice images.

Oh, and there's definitely some geek humor in it; you'll probably appreciate it more if you find this T-shirt amusing, and if you've had any experience working in cubicle hell.

But I don't mean to scare anyone off. If you like dreamlike narrative written in excellent prose, go take a look at "Blue Chairs." You can download all the interpreters and contest entries from the download page, or you can download Blue Chairs and a Z-code interpreter separately. There are interpreters for all sorts of platforms. Frotz, for example, is available for Windows, Mac, Palm, Amiga, Solaris, Be, Linux, and so on.

After we were done with "Blue Chairs," Jim showed me the opening sequence of Andrew Plotkin's classic 1998 IF piece "Spider and Web." The structure is great; an approach/technique I've never encountered before. You can download it from the archive (it's called Tangle.z5), or you can play it online if you like (just click the "Do it" button without entering text when it says *** MORE *** or [Hit any key]).

A few useful abbreviations when playing these games: x is short for "examine", as in "x door" for "examine door"; i is short for "inventory"; l is for "look"; z is equivalent to "wait". The usual "get" and "look at" and "give X to Y" commands will come in handy. And don't forget "save" to save a game before doing anything irreversible. To respond to a direct question, just type your answer; to speak to another character in other contexts, say their name or identifier, a comma, and what you want to tell them (as in "Alice, hello").

4 Responses to “The perpetual cough and the text adventure”

  1. David Moles

    Have you seen a doctor about this cough? Even if it started as a cold, you might have picked up a secondary infection. And even if it’s viral, they can probably still give you an inhaler or something to help you out.

  2. David Moles

    Oh, and Beatrice does eventually turn up in the Paradiso, but nobody ever reads that far.

  3. Anonymous

    The Paradiso is soooo boring.

    Spider and Web is well worth playing through. There are several “wow!” moments.

  4. Jim Moskowitz

    By the way, it turns out (though we never noticed) that typing ‘hint’ in the game brings up an extensive hint screen, which presents increasingly-less-subtle hints for all the major parts of the game.


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