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INTERVIEW WITH
NICK MONTFORT

This article is by Mat

One of the earliest genre of computers games was the text adventure, a type of games with no graphics that involved the player typing in various commands to explore different rooms, solve puzzles, and interact with objects. Nick Montfort found playing these games so interesting that he started to write his own text adventures. Recently, he wrote Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, a book covering the history of the text adventure genre with an academic tone not usually seen in video-game history books. It is a great read for any fan of adventure games or anyone interested in what games were like without graphics.

I was able to get Nick to do an interview for us here at E-Boredom. His responses on topics ranging from translating a text adventure from Spanish into English to the rise of new media as a new field of academic study were quite intelligent, offering a view on text adventures I have thought of seen before. Thanks go to Nick for agreeing to do the interview. You can visit his website to download his text adventures, read his various articles on new media topics, and get the latest news on his upcoming novel with Scott Rettberg, Implementation.

E-BOREDOM: What was the first text adventure game you played?

NICK MONTFORT: It was Zork I, if that experience counts as playing. We got it for the family's Epson QX-10, which ran CP/M. It came on an 8" floppy, which I still have; the salesman copied the files to a 5.25" disk so that we could use it. After a few days of fruitlessly typing "EAST" and "REMOVE BOARDS" over and over again -- not knowing how to leave the first location -- I ordered the hint book and pretty much followed it through the whole game. A friend and I finished Zork II without Invisiclues assistance not too long afterwards, though.

E-BOREDOM: Out of the several text adventure games released in the 1980's, arguably the best of them came from Infocom. Which Infocom games were your favorites and what made them stand apart from other text adventures?

NICK MONTFORT: A Mind Forever Voyaging was a favorite of mine, and not just as a "literary" person looking back on things. Providing a rich world, dividing the interaction into different stages, and creating a dystopia that offered a political comment impressed me when I first played AMFV, and it still does. I would guess that Infocom was distinguished by having many good IF authors, a culture that fostered creativity, and good software development practices. They also kept expanding into new genres and trying new things.

E-BOREDOM: Pretend you have a few minutes to convince a young PS-2 owning video-game player to playing a text adventure. What would you say to her?

NICK MONTFORT: First off, I should mention that I'm not opposed to anyone, young or old, firing up their Playstation 2, if that's what they want to do--even though I'm a Dreamcast owner.

I suppose might say this: Interactive fiction offers terrifyingly complex and challenging worlds, games that are as detailed and fun as Jet Grind Radio or Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, but are way more subversive. Imagine if you read great books all the time but never went to see a movie in your life. No matter how much you like books, you'd be missing out on a lot. Playing video games but never having tried to play interactive fiction means you miss out, too.

Reading and typing words as you play a computer game may sound strange, but sitting in a dark room and looking at a lit-up screen is actually weird, too, if you've never done it. Take some time -- two hours, maybe -- and give it a try. See what you're missing.

E-BOREDOM: How is the gameplay of a text adventure game a different experience from a graphic adventure game (such as King's Quest)?

NICK MONTFORT: On the simplest level, one involves typing a command and the other involves moving and clicking a mouse. Just as typing is a poor way to point to something, mousing around is a poor way to indicate a complex action or express a complex thought, unless they come from a small menu of such things. So you might spend more time searching for "hot spots" when you play a graphical game, which can be enjoyable, but is a different sort of activity. In text-based IF, if you missed something, it's probably because you didn't comprehend what you're reading, not because you actually overlooked a certain word. Better yet, it might be because you didn't understand the whole system or workings of the strange world that you're in, and you need to think more deeply about those.

Also, the interface in text-based IF is, at least at a basic level, symmetrical -- you get text from the computer and you give it text in reply -- which I think is neat, and which provided some inspiration for the puzzles in Ad Verbum.

E-BOREDOM: What are some of the best fan-made text adventures that you have played?

NICK MONTFORT: Really, the IF (Interactive Fiction) that I know of today isn't an imitation of earlier work by a group of fans, and it doesn't generally appropriate and play with established characters the way fan fiction does. Some truly excellent, original IF is being written these days by accomplished programmers and authors.

Interactive fiction companies had a decade in which they could have produced something as compelling and innovative as Dan Shiovitz's Bad Machine, from 1998, but they didn't. Emily Short's Galatea and Savoir-Faire are other examples that push beyond what was done in the 1980s, as is Adam Cadre's Varicella. There are also plenty of shorter, less involved pieces that are of high quality but never would have been made in the 1980s because the game providing 20 to 30 hours of playing time was the only format thought to be marketable.

ONTO PART TWO