Digital Spaces in Text-Based Games


First let me say that never before have I felt my personal space so invaded than as I attempt to perform (what would in my usual life be un-commented-on) actions. Perhaps I do just want to jump without friend computer condescendingly suggest hopping around the dungeon, expecting itself to applaud, or promoting me to the second grade for my efforts. Navigating a digital space with only a text-based computer narrator is new to me; even my earliest video games on the Tandy PC were augmented with basic visuals.

This situation gives me a new perspective, since in my life I, and likely most other people, have usually subconsciously parsed sensory data and given me some idea of what to do with it. For example, I could be walking through a parking deck, see the sidewalk on the other side of a short wall, and I would figure out what angle, speed, and force is necessary to hop over it. There are myriad queries in this process, all happening while I may be performing some intense conscious task like preventing my full cup of coffee from sloshing while walking. However, in text-based adventure games like Zork and Book and Volume (B&V) this process forces consciousness into every action and seems to be what most engages and immerses me in the environment. Like any good storyteller, it manages to build a space traversable by its members as far as their memory cache can store; the only action that managed to break me was wanting to >play a game, and the game responding that that is, in fact, what I’m doing. So meta.

With a computer terminal screen as a medium, the only way of dropping spatial anchors is with this small mental map cache of responses after I enter commands. I found that returning to Zork and B&V a day after first playing them that I could remember how to get to the next room, even though the only feedback printed to me is usually in squeaks of words. However, moving over this digital terrain in general is like an extremely near-sighted person navigating a new place and having to remember what was around him several actions (e.g. move, climb, descend) ago instead of simply seeing it in peripheral vision or in the background. The senses are extremely constrained, causing the space to feel rather claustrophobic – something easy to build upon by many games in this genre navigating a cave or similar location. Furthermore, intentional or not, the black/white color scheme of Zork in particular gives me the feeling that the darkness is the unknown space I’m exploring with the white light of textual information illuminating it.

On top of this spatial close quarters, my sensory information is entirely and claustrophibically textual, forcing all of what my mind wants to do — actually >check pager or >eat lunch — into a very slow visual channel, the computer screen, that can only discover new things when I query with the right diction what I have to assume is there. That is, when Zork tells me There is a wall there, I have to assume that the entire Zork universe is not entirely composed of a wall there and that I can do something else. However, even in the real world (cue Morpheus: “What is real?”) these sensory channels are only increased from one to five, and my mind must use the slow, imperfect sensory organs and, again, assume from my eyes and other parts that there is a solid wall in front of me. And that while preventing my coffee from spilling on my new shoes, I misjudged how high to kick my foot up and tripped over that short wall.

In this situation, I find Zork’s elusive courtesy. Though I find it to be a particularly spiteful world with its often contemptuous narrator/inner-voice and winding passages, it does assume that I did not really want to >kill self and various other potentially game-ending action. In fact, the game prevents me from failing at anything; even the candles seemed to not want to hurt my feelings by going out, despite its frequent complaints of getting dim. This space is truly safe and forgiving, for example there are no police around to ask me why I choose to >attack wall with sword and subsequently arrest me on suspicion of substance abuse.

However, in B&V I have tasks and something to fulfill with a little inkling of insanity for not doing so, like avoiding the pager. This space is much more eloquently described and unforgiving, such as being unable to >talk to carrie fisher, who is totally not there any more after bolting north to the airport to reboot the servers. This game, far less a sandbox like Zork, requires action to play and thus discover the space. In case the space was not clearly described to me in the several paragraphs printed for me, my Windows 97-esque stapler friend chimes in to describe what to do in the space to help me out, including hints to commands. Somehow a more descriptive narrator does not translate into more commands available for me than Zork, which seems less effective in that I feel I should be interacting with the game as richly as it interacts with me.

An advantage of B&V over Zork is the structure of directional movement. As my nLap described nTopia, it is a grid system; however, mapping Zork is far from that. When I >move north and then >move south in Zork, navigation sometimes broke and I ended up in different places when I should have returned to the same spot as before both moves. Zork, in its cavernous and labyrinthine darkness is much less navigable and easier to get lost in than B&V’s inner-city environment.

Adding to the ease of losing myself in the impersonal worlds of these games, socialization was downright avoided — trapdoors are slammed shut on me, Carrie Fisher doesn’t stay to chat, interacting with people yields undesirable results. Generally, exploration of a space is augmented by dynamic interaction like socializing with other people. Socialization and human partners in other non-visual adventure games, like Dungeons and Dragons, that I’ve played differ from the computer screen as a medium. Digital spaces in text adventure games are not necessarily confined to the text, I’ve learned, as the usual senses used in reality are simulated in the mind of the user, making it a pretty cool medium.