Auto Cannibalism Is Not The Answer

I’m too young to remember Zork being released, and I suppose even to appreciate it ever really being a “thing”. When I first got my hands on a games console, it was a Sega Megadrive, and I was playing Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (as far as memory serves, it’s all a little fuzzy). Adventure games were still going, but I had never heard of them, and straight up text adventures were pretty much dead. I had graphics and pretty colours and all I needed to do was get from A to B without dying (a task I still find impossible today, despite having owned numerous reincarnations of the game on a variety of consoles).

I only even heard about Zork in my early teens, when I discovered the video game poet, now drunken piano player, Seth “Fingers” Flynn Barkan and his superb book of poems, “Blue Wizard Is About To Die”. One of the appendices included in the book is a transcript of Barkan while playing Zork, desperately trying everything he can think of to survive after his lamp runs out and the game informs him of his inevitable wandering into the slavering fangs of a lurking grue. He attempts to touch the grue, eat the grue, and even take the grue, and each time the game throws back a humorous retort. I loved this idea – I’d never experienced a game in which my own idiotic ideas would be thrown back at me with such derision. Sonic had never laughed at me wanting to jump down a pit, he just followed orders.

I tracked down a Zork emulator online and tried it out for myself. Now, I’d like to apologise to any text adventure lovers out there, but I didn’t have a fucking clue what was going on. I was only the tender age of twelve, and had grown up with ever improving graphics. I was nicely settled into the PS2 by the time I even contemplated playing Zork. A body of text nearly sent me into a coma. How did people play these games? But I pressed on. I wandered round, confused, eventually succumbing to the grue menace myself. But not before I tried out some stupid ideas. I attempted to take myself. To kill myself with myself. I tried to eat myself, a suggestion that the game was keen to discourage me from: “Auto-cannibalism is not the answer”, it told me.

This particular line has stuck with me for years; I don’t think I’ve experienced a single game other than Zork that has dissuaded me from attempting to gnaw off my own face. And that’s a shame really. Too often we’re given an open world and told to go and have fun while the game kicks back and waits for you to come back and ask it what to do next. There’s no reward for trying idiotic things, other than the personal satisfaction of knowing you thought of something incredibly pointless.

It’s true that open-world games do give you the tools to do what you like, but the world just doesn’t react the same way. My friend once spent half an hour on Crackdown, running and jumping between four rooftops, but nothing happened. He was free to do that, and it was incredibly stupid (and boring to watch, believe me), but nothing changed. The game spat out generic yells from the announcer guy, and occasionally a car stopped when my friend’s jump fell short. But the game never made a note of the idiocy of his action, or even batted an eyelid. He was making his own fun and getting nothing in return.

The Hitman series tried to do this in the latest entry by offering up challenges that suggested new and ridiculous methods to take people out, and then rewarded you for working out how to go about it. You could even say that the Contracts mode gave you freedom to off guys any way you see fit, with its array of costumes and weapons, but really, when you got down to the nitty gritty, you were just messing with variations on a theme. Half the contracts available involved shooting a few people, while maybe dressed in a silly outfit. That’s not total freedom – you’re given some options you can adjust and that’s it. You’re restricted by the developer’s imagination, not your own.

I’m not saying Zork didn’t fall prey to this either – you can’t exactly solve the game’s puzzles by attempting to eat yourself, but it’s at least something you can try. And someone actually sat down when writing that game and thought, “what happens if a player attempts to eat themselves?” You get the impression that the designer was thinking about the players, and allowing them to do what they desire, even if it’s incredibly fucking stupid. You just don’t get that these days.

Of course, we can’t expect every developer to suddenly decide to allow their players to eat their own faces. Zork worked because it was pure text – the players can imagine it in their own minds. With today’s graphics and technology, it would take days for a team of people to implement the face-eating button-mashing mini-game that would accompany the option to eat one’s face, which would likely have to be placed in a context-sensitive environment so the player doesn’t accidentally whip out an AK-47 or something.

It’s not practical to give the player a world where they can do literally anything, particularly when someone somewhere has to draw it, and I don’t think we need to return to a world where text is king and graphics aren’t a key point anymore, otherwise those years of constant advancement would be all for nought.  I think developers need to take a step back for a moment and look to the past, to a time when graphics were an added bonus, and a player could do whatever they pleased and sometimes get a response. Sometimes it’s just nice to know that some developer out there was thinking the same dumb thing that I was.




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5 Comments

  1. Rich says:

    Oh the joy of text adventures. Ric, believe me when you’ve spent an hour trying to do a specific thing and in the end the only word combination that will work is ‘INVERT TOTEM’ you’ll soon learn to hate the genre.

    Good article, man.

  2. Rook says:

    Zork was available as an extra In Black Ops. Escape from your bonds from the main menu and type Zork into the computer and it starts on that computeer..

  3. SD says:

    I love this article! Thank you. I think that there is a place for both the poly-pushing arms race we’re experiencing now, which has brought on some of the most beautiful and immersive experiences imaginable, as well as old fashioned text adventuring (which has taken on the more accurate, and somewhat pretentious moniker of “Interactive Fiction”).

    There is something quite enjoyable about a really well-crafted work of IF, where it was basically one chick (or dude) hammering out an expansive and engrossing (or hilarious) story, entirely of their own devising, and without the need to worry about whether or not the art direction was misleading or distracting. It’s certainly an (often frustrating) acquired taste, and a time sink, but can be fun on occasion.

    I’m happy to enjoy both old, and new-school gaming :-)

  4. Lorna says:

    One of my big loves back in the day was text adventures. At worst they could be frustratingly obtuse, badly designed, or full of the sort of gameplay stumbling blocks that would have you smash your chunky CRT against the wall in a fit of rage. At best, however, they could be smart, witty, devious, and utterly absorbing, with many boasting some great concepts and stories.

    Of course, the first few minutes would always be spent trying out every swearword you could think of. Had to be done. Trying weird and wonderful things right off the bat was a great way of testing the game’s humour and therefore seeing what sort of fun time you were likely to get out if it. Zork was one of the ones I never played, but this makes me wish I had. Great article, Ric.

  5. Edward says:

    > Read article
    _You read the article. It’s pretty rad.

    >Like page.
    _You do just that.

    >Make Ric yours.
    _Sorry, I don’t understand that command.

    :’(

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