Last week’s Drax Files Radio Hour featured an excellent interview with Emily Short. The interview starts with discussion of an adventure of its very own, the fall and rise of Versu as our hero or heroine finds themselves stuck in a cave with exists, north, south, east and west all seeming to be blocked and you have the feeling that you are likely to be eaten by a Grue.
However, like in all good text adventures, if you know the right text you find a torch, which you can turn on and so it turned out in this adventure as Versu returned, under new terms and conditions, but interactive fiction app Versu is very much back from the dead.
Draxtor Despres, playing the role of ace interviewer asks Emily about the purpose of interactive fiction and Emily explains how for her it all began with Scott Adams text adventures. Emily also talks of software houses such as Melbourne House and Magnetic Scrolls, both of which I’m familiar with.
Melbourne House made big noises on the Sinclair Spectrum back in the 80’s and I fondly remember Sherlock, based of course on Sherlock Holmes and with a review from Crash magazine that said :
A subset of English, Inglish, first seen in The Hobbit, is used to communicate with the program which utilises a large vocabulary of 800 words. Each sentence must have a verb and there are a few simple, and mostly obvious, rules governing the use of adverbs and adjectives. Several actions or sentences can be linked in a manner which allows many different permutations. ANIMTALK is another strong feature, which allows you, Sherlock Holmes, to instruct the other characters what you would like them to do — but each character remains independent and can refuse to cooperate. Where this form of conversation proves most useful is when discussing the case with Watson and Lestrade, an Inspector from Scotland Yard. You can pick their brains generally or direct their thoughts to a particular item or incident.
Time passes as in real life when in a cab or train which can be profitably used conversing with Watson or examining objects. Of course, being an impatient reviewer I just WAITed … This method of accelerating the passage of time can be disorientating since other characters in the adventure do not stop carrying out their actions. Each independent character will act in a manner befitting his/her personality and will vary each time you play Sherlock. The literature even suggests a crass approach to a suspect or witness may not elicit a response.
Now where this gets interesting is that Versu has been hailed as being wonderful because of the advanced artificial intelligence of the engine, we can see how long people have been trying to make leaps and bounds in this area because Sherlock was released in 1984 and at the time was pretty damn impressive.
Magnetic Scrolls released the excellent The Pawn, I still have the novella that came with this game. The Crash review of the game highlights more advances with text style adventures :
Similarly, the rather more complicated area of picking up items in a crowded location allows the likes of GET ALL FROM THE SCHOOL BAG EXCEPT THE ERASER or GET ALL EXCEPT THE CASES BUT NOT THE VIOLIN CASE which if you follow the logic, actually means you will get the violin case along with all the objects except the other cases! More impressive still, the instructions weigh in with KILL THE MAN EATING SHREW WITH THE CONTENTS OF THE VIOLIN CASE (a sentence which is even ambiguous in plain English!) AND REMOVE THE SHREW’S TAIL, an example of possessive construction I can’t remember seeing before in an adventure (SYMB SHIFT and 7 brings up the raised apostrophe). AND, THEN, punctuation and IT are catered for as well but rounding off the vocabulary with another impressive feature is the intelligent way the program deals with input as when it asks a question to clarify the player’s aims. For example, when dropping a hat the program might wonder which one should you be carrying two. Many programs inquire ‘Which hat?’ or ‘Which one?’, but this program not only is more specific with the query (say, ‘Which hat, the small hat or the spotted hat?’) but also allows the player to just quickly type in which hat without the need to repeat the initial input. Friendly indeed, mighty friendly.
So we can see that computer text adventures were trying to stretch the boundaries of artificial intelligence in characters back in the 80’s. The text adventure mostly evolved into the graphic adventure on computers, but it didn’t quite die. Inform, which Emily Short was involved with bravely fought the good fight for the beauty of text and now Versu shows the potential to take it to new levels. In the interview Emily explains some of the power of text, how you can do more with words to describe reactions and emotions, these are difficult concepts to fully portray in a graphic adventure.