InfoCom Games

Remember the old text based Infocom games like Zork?

Chris and I were talking during lunch today about how great the old text based games were. Neither of us like the “twitchy” type games all that much. I (currently pretty infrequently) play an online game called Ultima Online (UO). The game is 9 years old now, so it still has strong text roots. It is a game where the bulk of things to do are nearly impossible to do by yourself. This strong group play aspect necessitates a fair amount of organization and group communication. I will claim that the bulk of my typing skill gains (if any) over the last 3 years are likely a result of playing UO. There a many a night where I have loged in and not done anything but talk to my friends in the game.

Possibly triggered by a lunchtime conversation shortly prior with Anthony (a new coworker) about literacy, Chris and my text based game conversation drifted towards kids learning to read and write and Infocom games.

We decided that the world (or at least the bulk of America) would be a more literate place nowadays if we still had the old Infocom games. Well, at least that is what I got out of the conversation – I can’t speak for Chris.

We talked about how great it would be to create a text based game that would appeal to both kids and adults (the two of us might be a bit of both) today. We discussed a few updates that would be needed in order to make a text based game interesting to today’s children. Now mind you, neither of us have any children (currently – although Chris got a new puppy today), so our ideas might be a bit off-based.

The ideas discussed range from cut scenes to real-world rewards.

The most important part of a good text based game is a good storyline. You need a good plot, goals, etc. in order to keep yourself involved in the storyline. I think this is a bit lacking in many modern games. Some of story lines bounced around ranged from a text based football game, to a story about hunting for the Loch Ness Monster – where you have to acquire the scuba gear and boat and whatnot and then go diving, searching for Nesse while keeping track of your air supply.

We figured that it would be very difficult to get kids interested in a text based game long enough to actually get into the game. One way to garner this attention would be the addition of visual cut scenes. Fairly frequent in the beginning of the game, they would highlight important discoveries, actions, encounters, etc. in the game. An intriguing twist to the cuts scenes, would be that they only depict what the game has already described in text. For example, if you walk into a clearing with a tree and trigger a cut scene, you would see a clearing in a woods with a lone tree in the middle. If, however, you had examined the tree, and found a birds nest, the cut scene would also depict the birds nest. This way no more game information could be garnered from the visual displays – well, not directly. Subtle things such as a full tree with a bare section of branch visible might inspire a closer look at the tree – triggered by textually prompting an examination of the tree of course.

Today’s computing environment also gives ready access to the Internet. Communication and interaction with other people could be an interesting aspect of the game. Working together to accomplish a goal would be rewarding.

Another aspect of enticing children to play text based games would be real world rewards. I don’t believe that today’s parents are nearly as computer illiterate as Chris and my parents where when they got us our first computers. There could be a oversight and goal setting portion of a text based game that parents could access, monitor, and set. With real world rewards such as treats, trips, toys, sleepovers, whatever is appropriate, the children could be further enticed to start playing the game and to keep playing it.

Some criteria for reading and typing could be word difficulty in reading, typing speed and accuracy. The game could have a built in thesaurus where depending on the child’s reading level, more difficult words would be swapped in to describe the proceedings in the game. Vocabulary usage could be bolstered by interacting with characters that only speak with certain “dialects” that happen to contain the more difficult words and not the simpler words.

In a playing to learn how to read type environment, a built in interactive dictionary would need to be included. This could also be textual, visual and aural to accommodate different learning styles.

An alternative aspect of this would be to offer the game in foreign languages, either to help foreigners to learn English, or Americans to learn a second language. I have tried to learn foreign languages with software before, and they didn’t work so well for me. Maybe the more interactive reading and writing and thinking might improve the results.

What do you all think? As the comments may be long, feel free to comment on your own blog, linking back to this one.

[UPDATE FEB 1]
Chris has written his 2 cents worth, I decided to add it here to this post instead of creating a new post for his comments. He doesn’t have a blog of his own.

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Chris
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Yes, folks I am definitely showing my age and talking about Infocom games. For the young ins out there that have no clue what an “infoCom” game was let me take you back to a different time and difference place.

These were the days of Home Computers that were ground breaking when you had 64K of RAM, that’s right 64K. Believe it or not it was powerful enough to run every game on the market and you didn’t have to buy another stick of memory or a new video card to run it. The most popular Home computer was the Commodore 64. They were introduced way back in 1982 with a hefty price tag of $595.00. No monitor, no printer, no modem, no network card, no hard drive, floppy driver, or cassette tape (that’s right folks and you thought cassette tapes were used only for music.). I got my Commodore 64, 5 1/4 floppy drive, and dot matrix printer the Christmas of either 83 or 84. I was in heaven. I had no idea of how to use it but i knew it was the coolest thing in the Sears Christmas Catalog. Luckily, I already had a TV to hook my new computer to.

I eventually started to acquire computer games and and shared with my friends that had the same system. My handful of computer geek friends were drawn to the text based games of InfoCom. These games were text only. No graphics or sound. You had to use your imagination to envision the world that you were reading. We truly enjoyed the adventure and in the long run we gained valuable skills that we use each and every day. At the time there were graphical type games out like F-15 strike eagle which was a great dog fight plane simulator. I had it and spent many hours flying over Russia (i.e. the cold war enemy at the time), and shooting down MIG’s. Compared to the graphics of today’s games it was no comparison.

InfoCom had many different type of adventure games. The most popular were the Zork series where you were in search of treasure and had to solve problems to get the gold or to open a door. You had to read the descriptions very carefully and “see” the clues that were hidden in the message. For instance, you may go north on a dirt road. and you may go north again but this time the description says that there is a puddle in the middle of the road blocking your passage to the north. Did you see the hint? It’s the puddle, you could step over the puddle, only to slip and fall in. You could go around the puddle but it is way to wide and the bushes on either side that are filled with sharp thorns that are sure to rip your skin to shreds….what to do?

This was the awesome, did you feel yourself in the situation by just using your imagination? We would spend entire weekends immersed in new worlds and puzzle solving. There were other types of adventure games like in Deadline, you played a detective that had to solve crime. You would interview witness, gather evidence, and make arrests. In my favorite game you played a Archaeologist that was searching for treasure in a pyramid. It was called Infidel. The beginning of the game you were stuck in a desert and all of the workers had left because you could not find the entrance to the pyramid. So guess what, you have to find the top of the pyramid and dig for the opening. It was great.

As the years progressed and graphics became better and better, the way of the text based games were left in the dark. We now have these extremely powerful computers and game consoles that can make the characters and situations look real. But for some of us, we still like to use our imagination rather that having feed to us with a spoon. As you read before, Mike and I were discussing these games and thought it would be great to bring it back. Not only for my generation of gamers, but to hopefully stimulate the youngsters of today to use their imagination and to learn to read and type. There were a lot of ideas that were thrown around, some good and some not so good, but we believe that there could be a market for parents that may have been exposed to this type of game in their childhood and would want their children to experience the same things they did and hopefully learn a few things along the way.
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