The Journey of the King — Text as Treasure

May 28th, 2007 Comments Off

I recently wrote and released The¬†Journey of the King, free for download from the¬†IF archive, adapted from the writings of Lord Dunsany. Reception to the game has been mixed, with most notices centered around the style of writing, and its abundance. While it at first seems odd that someone might not like too much text in a text adventure, after a moments reconsideration there are in fact very good reasons for this sort of complaint. When writing “Interactive Fiction”, it’s all a matter of finding the right dividing line between the “Interactive” part and the “Fiction” part. And without a doubt, there is a lot of the latter in Journey of the King.

Journey of the King contains large chunks of text at certain points in the game. It’s probably worthwhile to talk about what that usually means. Works of IF usually use large chunks of non-interactive text in three different ways: cut-scenes, payoffs, and info-dumps.

A “cut scene” with a large amount of text is typically employed when the actions required by the player for this particular section of the game would not add to the level of enjoyment substantially, perhaps a part of the game that requires the player to go to the airport, board a plane, fly to another location, disembark, and find their hotel might be better described in a paragraph or two of text rather than actually played — it’s not central to the story, would take a tremendous effort to code, and isn’t very interesting to the player. This is a very intuitive use of text and similar shortcuts are employed in movies, for example; just an establishing shot of a landing plane is enough to convey the entire process.

Cut scenes can be mishandled, too; usually by forcing the player to perform many uninteresting steps, and then, just when the game is about to get interesting, put in a non-interactive cut scene instead that forces the player to become a passive observer. To use the same example above, imagine a game where you do play getting to the airport and boarding a plane, only to find the scene in which a mysterious stranger appears, makes cryptic statements, then jumps out of the window to be told in a cut scene and you as the player are not allowed to intervene in the proceedings.

The mishandling of cut scenes can be so annoying that it gives having cut scenes at all a bad reputation.

A “payoff” with a lot of text can sometimes be deeply satisfying: after performing a lot of actions, solving a lot of difficult puzzles, there is nothing worse than having a game simply and abruptly end. The payoff text provides the emotional payoff for the entire work. This is standard game writing practice with text-based and graphics-based games of all kinds. The big, cinematic, finish is a must in graphic-based games. These endings can be short, but it is satisfying as a player to get some sort of payoff for finishing your game. The end text is their reward. If a cut scene can be good or bad, a payoff is almost always a good addition to a game.

An “Info-dump”, on the other hand, is almost always bad. Lots of games start with page after page of background information, that make you tune out as if someone was droning on the other line of the phone. While reading is an integral part of playing Interactive Fiction, so is playing. And when you first start a game, you want to jump into it. Let the background information come out in the scenery, in the characters. Don’t dump all that information at the beginning. This is the hardest pitfall for a writer to avoid. Another place an info-dump can occur is in conversation.

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Journey of the King is based on a short story by Lord Dunsany. The plot is simple: The King feels he is nearing death, and no longer enjoys making merry. He summons all the prophets of his Kingdom to him, and each in turn tell him what they believe happens after death. Each contradicts the other, and in the end, he makes a choice. The End. Now, there is nothing interactive at all in this story, but nevertheless I immediately seized on it as a story I would like to adapt. The one fundamental change I made to the story, the change that moves it from static fiction to interactive fiction, was to move the prophets out of the palace. Instead of simply sitting in the Throne Room and listening, the King must now go out into his Kingdom and seek out the prophets, wherever they may be. When he finds a prophet, he then must receive that prophet’s prophecy. The prophecies do not contain clues to anything in the game, they are simply stories. The prophecies are lifted exactly from the original short story, these are Lord Dunsany’s own words. The framing story, of the wandering King, are my own.

While this may seem like an unusal concept for a game, in many ways, I drew on the same model as the traditional text adventure: You must wander the landscape and discover treasures. I simply replaced the “clockwork egg” or whathaveyou with less tangible stories. It is, as the title of this column suggests, text as treasure. Lord Dunsany’s words, in the form of the prophet’s speeches, are treasures in the context of the game, and your job, as King, is to collect them. To underscore the concept of text as treasure, I awarded points for each prophecy collected, and modified the SCORE command to summarize each prophecy found. But no tangible objects are collected.

One of my beta testers suggested, after playing through, that each prophet should give you an object when you meet them, and at the end of the game, when you make your choice, you can put that object on an altar or something, which would then indicate whether you have chosen correctly or not. I thought this suggestion was excellent, and implementing it would have surely converted the game into a collect-and-score system much more familiar and friendly to the average player. It was, however, contrary to what I wanted to do with the game — Dunsany’s words are the real treasures here, and additional trinkets would only detract from that fact. The game is a story of the spirit, not of objects, about seeking the wise to help steer your way, but ultimately making your own choice. It’s about religion and rationality. I hoped to use just enough of the treasure collection system to make the game mechanics understandable, without fully moving out of the realm of ideas.

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The long text passages of Journey of the King, then, substitute for “payoff” — enjoyable bits of story that you receive for completing certain portions of the game, rather than “info-dumps” — large sections of text that you must read to understand the game world and what you are supposed to do. There are a couple reasons that long time IF players, upon encountering the passages, mistake one for the other.

First, there’s the matter of the text itself. Written by Lord Dunsany in a pseudo-Old Testament style, it is very difficult to parse. You can’t read his words quickly, you have to slow down, follow its cadence, rather than trying to impose your own. For some, Dunsany’s text will never be a treasure, but more of a chore. Well, let’s agree to disagree on that one, and move on!

Second, payoff text usually appears at the end of a game or after a difficult series of accomplishments. But in Journey of the King, long prophecies emerge right away. Trying to merge the idea of Dunsany’s story, in which the prophets assembled for the King, and my idea, in which the King seeks the prophets, the game opens with two of the prophets having heeded your call. Now, you may summon them and hear their prophecies, accumulating them and earning points without lifting a finger. So much text so early in a game immediately suggests to an experienced IF player that they are getting an info-dump. At that point, they try to dig through the prophecies, trying to figure out what they need to know to play the game. Dunsany’s writing makes this an impossible task. And so players give up at this point, muttering about “info-dumps” and moving on. Their point is well taken, in that I can see how the structure of the beginning of the game lends itself readily to this interpretation. Combined with the difficulty of Dunsay’s text, that’s a one-two punch many players can’t recover from.

But too often, the focus of text adventures is in using text as a tool — using simple phrases to interact with the game environment. But text also describes that environment, and the people in it, and everything that goes on there. In a land where text is used as a tool to explore a text landscape, why not text as treasure, too? Text that shimmers with creative energies as potent as the day it was first written, a hundred years ago. Now that’s something worth discovering.

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