Tuesday, 30 Oct 2018

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Text Parser Games

This post introduces a form of digital storytelling we will sample during class.

If you read an old novel, you’ll notice that characters write each other long letters, and the plots often require the characters to find time to write, read, deliver, hide or destroy those letters. In the 19thC, plots often depended on telegrams (brief text messages sent form a local office, transmitted via Morse code to a telegraph office in a distant city, where the message was printed on paper and delivered by hand).  Think of how many movies from just a generation ago depend on misunderstandings that could have been cleared up if the two parties had mobile phones. Plots of today that depend heavily on text messaging and social media posts will quickly become dated as the technology changes.

My point is that our technology has always been part of storytelling, even in genres that are not science-fiction. The word “novel” means “new,” referring to the new form of storytelling that was made possible by the mass-production of printed books.

Tools that seem old-fashioned to us were once new.

The video above gets some good comedy from the scenario of an older monk who has trouble learning how to use a book. But it works both ways. Tools that we can hardly imagine living without will be hard for the generations who follow us to figure out; we can’t really see how these tools are affecting our thinking unless we step away from the tools, even if briefly.

In the 21st Century, most written English is being written and produced electronically; yet when we study literature, we focus overwhelmingly on the world of print. This unit introduces a particular type of storytelling that responds to, and incorporates, some features that make digital texts so different from printed texts.

Here’s what it looked like when I booted up my Commodore 64 in 1986 — not my first computer, but the computer I took with me to college.

No menus, no buttons to push.

You were expected to consult a printed manual that had lists of commands to type. You typed these commands, and the computer would execute the order. Or more likely than not, the computer would instead print back an error message, and you’d read the error and try to figure out what went wrong. Then you’d try again.

This brief video captures what it was like working in this environment. (Notice the amount of pre-existing knowledge these routine interaction depend upon.)

This kind of back-and-forth, you read a status report, you type a command, you read the computer’s response, was part of the natural rhythm of working with a computer.

Here is a trailer for a documentary film that explored text-only computer games that were the product of this textual environment. (Watch the whole thing… it’s short.)

The next video shows me introducing my son, who was 11 at the time, to this kind of game.  (Watch about 5 minutes of this video.)

To make a “blockbuster” video game today, you need an army of 3D modelers, coders, artists, scriptwriters, voice actors, motion-capture performer.

But to make a “text-adventure game,” you just need yourself (and some time). It’s a very writerly process.

To get some sense of what it looks like on the authoring side, watch from the 2 minute mark to the 10 minute mark. I’ll walk you through a very simple sample game, and demonstrate the first few steps in the authorship process. (You won’t be required to code anything like this; I just want to show you what the process looks like.)

Now that you have sampled these texts, I’d welcome your thoughts.

During class, we will spend some time working through interactive fiction texts.

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