Friday, December 24, 2010

Lacuna = unfilled space or interval; gap. You're welcome.

Note: for many of the games here you'll need a z-machine interpreter like Frotz or Zoom to play them.

I recently finished Blue Lacuna, a tour-de-force showing from Aaron Reed. This game was the only text adventure to be exhibited at this year's Indiecade conference, if you're excluding the fascinating and innovative Groping In The Dark, as I am. (They could both arguably fall under the category of "interactive novel" – which Reed owns – but Groping doesn't have the same openness of structure that's characteristic of the text adventure, and which is what I'll be highlighting here. Incidentally, it looks like text adventures have been 2 for 2 at Indiecade so far, with last year seeing Jim Munroe's Everybody Dies. TEXTS NOT DED)

What impressed me most about Blue Lacuna is the sheer magnitude of the work. Many of the most influential text adventures of the past decade have been explorations of the short form, which has been directed mostly by the guidelines of annual competitions. As such, it's easy to lose sight of what can be done in a full-length space. (Who was it who recently exhorted independent game designers to finish their damn games?)

Reed strikes a fine balance between free-ranging exploration and guided storytelling. You are able to spend your time in the game however you like, and a wide variety of approaches and actions are anticipated by the author, but there is an overarching narrative which you will be gently funneled into, if necessary. However, this coaxing always feels natural; the game features a "boredom meter" which can tell when you're just spinning your wheels. Once it does, it will send an unobtrusive hint your way: "out of the corner of your eye you glimpse a small animal heading into the bushes," and of course the player must now satiate her curiosity by following. This minimal, yet clear, sort of signposting is something that I always appreciate in a game. In keeping with Csikszentmihalyi's idea of flow (something all game designers should familiarize themselves with) the goal should be for the player to spend as much time as possible skating on the leading edge of their ability, balancing between frustration and boredom. This can be difficult in a genre so self-consciously thinky as the text adventure, but this seems to be a nice way to pull it off.

Blue Lacuna is also a game that rests largely on notions of identity. The myriad choices that you make in the game, both large and small, are not arbitrary; they lead to different developments and reactions, and, if you've been playing with a consistent philosophy and outlook (and you haven't been spamming saves to try everything like me), the game will ultimately present some honest questions for you to consider.

On a more straightforward note, the amount of customization available in the game (choosing gender both of yourself and your romantic interest, for instance) allows some exploration of the dynamics of identity. It seems to be an accepted tenet of game design that your player should identify closely with their character, and this is generally done either through making the character a blank slate or by allowing extensive customization. This customization is often largely cosmetic and doesn't really affect the story or mechanics of the game. In Blue Lacuna it's not quite clear to me yet if that is the case; it may take a few more playthroughs and some experimentation. Nevertheless, it does seem to have a distinct psychological effect – the sense of being in the character is great enough that changes in identity are truly felt. However, for me one of the most convincing games in this respect is Choice of Broadsides, where, despite (or maybe because of) the stripped-down mechanics, finding myself in a star-crossed homosexual affair on the high seas at some point became all too uncomfortable.

You may be noticing that I'm not talking about the plot of Blue Lacuna that much. I have to admit that the fantasy/sci-fi sort of thing is not really my bag anymore, and there's definitely some naked philosophizing scattered throughout. What impressed me most, and inspired me to write about it, is the obvious care and craft that went into it, and the interesting and unique mechanics at play here. I highly recommend you give it a spin.