June 08, 2005

The Dreamhold

by peterb

I'll start off with a disclaimer. I know Andrew Plotkin, the author of The Dreamhold. We've worked closely together. We run into each other at the library on occasion. I consider him a friend. So as I discuss the game, I'll wear my bias on my sleeve: I think Andrew's games are great. Despite (or because of?) that, I think I have some interesting things to say about it.

I like to think that I inspired The Dreamhold. This, of course, is a damnable lie, but I like to think it anyway. This thought springs from Andrew's reaction to my review of the independent game The Witch's Yarn. In that review, I characterized The Witch's Yarn as being in part a response to the inability of most players to enjoy the idioms and interface of the modern text adventure. In doing this, I fabricated a sample transcript from a nonexistent adventure game, trying to demonstrate the sorts of problems that, I think, turn people off of the genre.

I received two very different responses to that article. Andrew's response was disappointment that I had made up a transcript, because he felt that the specific examples I gave weren't really valid. If you start up a typical modern IF game, you won't encounter all the problems in my condensed, artificial example.

The other response I got, from several people, was along the lines of "Yes! That is exactly why I stopped playing text adventures."

I think both points of view are valid. My example might not be strictly accurate, but I believe it captures the overall sense of frustration you feel when you hit a rough spot in a text adventure game. It is a frustration that comes not from the difficulty of the puzzle, but from the difficulty of the interface.

When faced with a user interface problem like this, a game designer really only has a few options. One option is to change the UI in some way to try to make things easier for the user. The Spellcasting 101 series of games tried to do this by adding a menu of actions and objects that the user could select with a mouse. Graphical adventures such as Monkey Island managed this by reducing the number of actions to a minimum ("open", "use", "push") and by having the player use mouse gestures instead of typing.

The Dreamhold takes a different approach to this problem. Instead of changing the UI, it teaches the player how to use the interface. It is an introductory game which tries to show the player not only the mechanics of playing a text adventure, but also some of the common idioms and patterns common to the genre.

I don't want to discuss the plot of The Dreamhold in detail, for obvious reasons, but I can say that it begins with you, the protagonist, waking up on a cold stone floor, with no memory of who you are, or how you got there. The game is, in some sense, a story of self-discovery. And despite its being an "introductory" game, I had a lot of fun playing it.

It's hard for me to say whether The Dreamhold achieves its goal of being a good "teaching tool," because I've played a few hundred too many text adventures to be its target audience. It feels well-balanced to me. Right off the bat, the game tells you how to get help. As you play the game, an anonymous voice pipes up and makes helpful suggestions. For example, after you move out of the room you have woken up in...

You are standing in a short windowless hallway. To the east is the foot of a flight of stairs, which rises out of sight. To the west, the hallway narrows, ending in a small gap of a doorway.

[Looks like you've taken the first step. Well done.

Let me introduce myself. I am the Voice of this tutorial. Most games don't have me; but in this game, I will watch over your shoulder and give you some help. With a little practice, you'll soon be moving around the text adventure world in style.

Back to the story. Remember what's going on? Actually, you don't. As the introduction said, you can't remember who you are or what you're doing here!

Amnesia. Yes, it's a cliché, but it'll do for a tutorial.

I'll let you go on exploring. The west corridor leads back to the cell where you started, so you'll want to try up the stairs instead. Type "up" or "climb stairs".]

The game makes suggestions about mechanics, but doesn't spoil the story or puzzles unless you specifically ask it for help. Plotkin strikes the right balance here: the anonymous narrator will often point out puzzles as you wander through the game world, but it doesn't spoil them by giving you clues you haven't asked for. The game also aggressively tries to help you avoid both "guess the verb" and "guess the noun" problems, and introduces meta-game concepts at just the right points. For example:

It is dark, as dark as you could imagine -- a lightless dream beneath stone.

[Oh, dear. You've walked into a very dark place.

Going "south" probably won't get you back; you can't tell directions in the dark. So what now? One option is to type "undo". This will let you "back up" one move -- back to just before you walked in here. Everything will be the same, except that you'll be in the Natural Passage, and you'll be able to see.

In this game, you can only "undo" one move in a row. So if you do something else now (even "look" or "south"), you won't be able to jump back to the lit Passage. The "undo" command is intended only to fix immediate mistakes.

If you want to go back more than one turn, you'll have to use the "restart" or "restore" commands. Type "help saving" for more information.

Or you could stumble around in the dark, and try to find your way out. Since this is an introductory game, there is a way out. And maybe more to discover, as well.]

This is, I think, a perfect example. He explains the situation, he introduces some commands that might be relevant without demanding a specific solution, and he provides reassurance that there are several ways to solve the problem. The entire game is full of moments like this (and if you're an experienced player who finds such interjections distracting, you can turn the Helpful Voice off). All of this combines to allow novice players to feel at ease with the mechanics so they can concentrate on the story.

As regular readers know, I typically enjoy the narrative of a game as much if not more than its mechanics. I can't help it. I've read too many books. I'd rather play a game with a good story but poor game mechanics than a superbly designed game with a flat narrative. The Dreamhold takes a somewhat tired archetype (the amnesiac protagonist), puts it in a setting that could be clichéd (you'll see when you play it), yet tells a story that is both unique and eloquent. I loved the plot. I loved the way it was told. I will play it again, because I want to read it again.

My love of the game was not a foregone conclusion. Andrew Plotkin has a large body of work, and some of it is not to my taste. At his worst his prose can be affected and somewhat elliptical (I may be the only person who found parts of his work So Far to be artificial in a disagreeable way). But the writing in his games has continually improved. Where his early prose was sometimes as abstruse as his puzzles, he now writes clearly and directly. I don't think it's a coincidence that my favorites of his works are The Dreamhold, where he is writing didactically, and Hunter, In Darkness, which was pseudonymously submitted to a competition. In both of these, Plotkin consciously toned down the verbal frippery that marked some of his earlier writing.

Compare the opening of So Far...

Hot, foul, and dark. How did indoor theater become so fashionable? Well enough in spring rain or winter, but not in the thick, dead afternoon of high summer. And though Rito and Imita looks very fine, shining with electric moonslight in the enclosed gloom, you're much more aware of being crammed in neck-by-neck with your sweaty fellow citizens.
...with just the merest fragment of Hunter, In Darkness:
You are lying in cold still water. It licks at your cheek and arms, and across the backs of your thighs. The chill makes your bruised knees and chest hurt all the more; your neck screams from craning high enough to breathe, but there is no room to sit up. No room to turn. No room.
I'm deliberately omitting excerpts from The Dreamhold in this comparison because, hopefully, you will read them for yourself. But the feel is similar. Sometimes, it has felt to me as though Plotkin's more ambitious words were squirming out from under him, leaking into his text into places they didn't belong. "Look at me!" they would shout, and you would look at them, and in so looking lose sight of something perhaps more significant. In The Dreamhold, his words are under lock and key, and exist to serve the story he is telling. The text is stronger for it.

The Dreamhold has an interesting internal logic and geometry — in places it actually evoked certain moments of Ico — and an arc of character growth that is drawn with words that are precise, economical, and subtle. If it were a short story, it would be worth reading. As a game, it is worth playing. And it is worth discussing.

The philosophical technical premise underlying The Dreamhold is, it seems to me, correct: bring the players up to meet the game. Making major changes in interface (see the Witch's Yarn) may indeed make a game more approachable. But you can change the interface of a piece so much that you catapult it into a different medium. It doesn't make sense, in an artistic context, to destroy the village in order to save it.

It is clear that text adventures are, today, no longer commercially viable. That lack of viability may simply be due to a failure of imagination and marketing ability on the part of game publishers, or, more likely, to a real change in the requirements of today's game players.

It does seem odd to me that text adventures aren't viable. The common wisdom seems to be that gamers do not want to spend their entertainment time playing games that don't have graphics. While I'm willing to accept this as true (I'm not publishing games for a living, so I'm loath to argue the point with those who do), it does strike me as singularly strange. The publishing industry in the US is a $220 billion dollar industry. People spend a lot of money on books. I and many others pay the New York Times cold hard cash in order to be able to do their crossword puzzle online. Yahoo! games has an entire section devoted to word games; at the moment, I see 15,000 people online playing them. Other gaming sites devote similar real estate to them. Now, perhaps there are explanations for this. A word game such as Boggle is qualitatively different from a text adventure, if only because Boggle is competitive. But I think the pat answer "people won't play text adventures because there are no graphics" is not adequate to explain what's going on. I certainly don't have a good explanation. But my instinct is that this comes down to marketing, packaging, and development cost. It would be interesting to know if there's a successful business case that can be made on behalf of the genre.

Whatever the reason for the recent disappearance of text adventures from the marketplace, they are still being written. Just because we don't generally buy and sell text adventures anymore doesn't mean we can't write, play and enjoy them.

Art is enjoyed — at least in theory — because of what it is. Not because of whether or not it is for sale. You wouldn't (I hope) tell a black and white photographer he should switch to working in color digital video because more people will be willing to pay for his work. A well-written piece of interactive fiction is enjoyable art. The Dreamhold is very well-written.

There are, I think, some changes that could be made to text adventures that would make them more approachable without fundamentally changing their nature. That's really the subject of another article, but I'll mention one here: bundle the interpreter and the story file into a single application. Most of the games that interactive fiction authors are developing are distributed as story files, which are then loaded into the user's interpreter of choice. This is all well and good, but it automatically means that the bar is higher for any user that doesn't have an interpreter installed, let alone those who won't even understand what an interpreter is. The "play as a Java applet" links are a good start, but why stop there? Release your games as executables that the naive user can download and double-click to play. Yes, you're adding a few hundred kilobytes onto the size of every game. It's 2005. Disk space is free. Knock yourself out.

The other thing that needs to change is that these games need to be publicized more. How many years has it been since a text-based game has been reviewed in a major gaming magazine? How many gaming weblogs fail to even consider reviewing or talking about these games, not out of malice, but simply because they don't really understand that they are still being developed? Get one article about a text adventure on Joystiq or Kotaku every few months, and just maybe you'll reach a few people who'll discover that they love a text adventure game who otherwise would never have known they exist. It's worth a shot.

If you want to play The Dreamhold, for yourself — and you should — your best bet is to start at its home page. You can play there via a Java applet (without the ability to save or restore games), or you can download the game itself and an interpreter to play it on. And, knowing Andrew, despite my arrogant thought that I "inspired" the game, I have no doubt he was working on The Dreamhold for months before my review of The Witch's Yarn was even the merest glimmer of an idea. Whatever inspired this creation, I am glad it is here.

Additional Resources

  • The Guardian gamesblog asks an excellent question, which is: given obscure games with no marketing budget, how do you discover them? And how do you know which ones are any good? With regards to modern text adventures, the answer is pretty easy. Start at ifcomp.org, look at the lists of previous Competition winners, and download the top three from each year. Once you've done that, look for more games by the same authors.

  • One of the best ways to keep tabs on what's going on in the gaming world is to make sure you read The Carnival of Gamers. The second edition is available now.

  • Though one shouldn't force a photographer to take commercial photos, that doesn't mean commercial photographers are evil. The Witch's Yarn is an interesting attempt at refactoring interactive fiction to appeal to a wider audience. It was not my cup of tea, but I applaud the attempt.
  • Posted by peterb at June 8, 2005 08:06 PM | Bookmark This

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