Monday, February 16, 2009

Blue Lacuna - Usable Interactive Fiction

I've just spent the past several days Blue Lacuna. I won't say go play it now; it will suck you in and you may be in the middle of something. Also, it may not be your kind of game. I do, however, encourage you to at least take a look at it when you have a free moment.

Blue Lacuna (which you can get here) is a work of Interactive Fiction(IF) -- the modern evolution of now-ancient text games like Zork or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Unlike graphical adventure games like Day of the Tentacle or Monkey Island, IF games stick with the text based interface. The games have little to nothing in the way of graphics, and all interaction is typing things like "get rope" and "go west" (or "west" or simply "w" to the veterans).

Interactive Fiction is not a big budget business. It's no longer a commercially viable medium; Interactive Fiction is kept alive today by an incredibly active amateur community. As a medium it doesn't focus on graphical innovation. It can't because there are no graphics. Instead, all of the innovation centers around gameplay and story. Blue Lacuna is a wonderful example of this kind of innovation.

Some of Blue Lacuna's biggest innovations are in the areas of developing relationships through interaction with NPCs and in player decisions affecting gameplay. Others have written about this in far more depth than I can and I encourage you to read more there. What I'm going to talk about here are the simple gameplay innovations that are added -- the convenience measures that breathe some fresh air into gaming via typing.

The standards of the IF medium go back a ways, back to when games were expected to be hard. In many works of IF, you have to guess at the right verb -- "eat" or "taste", "punch" or "hit"? A good game is well tested so that the game recognizes most different words. Still, it can often be very difficult to pick the important details out of a scene -- to know what can be interacted with (is that painting important?), and what is just window dressing.

Blue Lacuna does something very simple to make this style of interaction more acceptable to the modern gaming pallete: it highlights keywords. For instance, the first description reads:

The tutorial pretty much says it all (and incidentally, the tutorial is another innovation that is missing from almost all modern IF, and is well done on top of it). Every object that you need to interact with to get through the game and to get most of the story is highlighted in blue so you're very rarely stuck guessing at words and objects that may be important, trying to lift the bed because you're stuck, etc.

The other big gameplay innovation in Blue Lacuna is player movement. Moving around the world in IF is generally a fairly klunky affair. Drawing from the dungeon-crawling beginnings of the medium, most interactive fiction worlds are set up as a series of rooms laid out in a grid. The player navigates between rooms by moving in compass directions -- east, west, north, south, southeast, up, down, etc. Older games often had mazes - dating back to Adventure's maze of twisty little passages, where players were expected to take graph paper and map out the dungeon.

In Blue Lacuna, you navigate by keywords and landmarks instead. Rather than going "east", you go to the "forest" or the "rocks" or the "rise" etc.

This offers a more intuitive way for players to remember what lies in relation to what especially when the number of "rooms" gets fairly large. This approach actually comes close to what graphical adventure games ended up doing -- certain objects in the world would be "exits" and when you clicked on them you would move to another location. The following image shows exits in a screen from "The Secret of Monkey Island" by LucasArts:

In addition to allowing navigation by keyword, the game also contains a compass that you find relatively early on -- when you open the compass, the game reverts to a traditional model -- all the sudden you can "go east" instead of typing "forest". When you close the compass, the game reverts to the default state.

In addition to the basic keyword navigation Blue Lacuna also features "Landmarks" which are general areas that you can quickly travel between. You might, for example, want to travel from where you are back to the "bedroom" but don't want to have to type "stairs", then, "bridge", then, "ladder", then, "door", etc. This works much the same way having a map with quick travel points might work. It cuts down on a lot of tedious typing.

Keyword navigation and highlighting important objects are two mechanics that could improve nearly all interactive fiction. Both features not only make the medium more accessible to the novice, they also cut down on frustration for the experienced IF player. I applaud Aaron Reed for his inclusion of these elements and encourage all those who create Interactive Fiction to think about including usability mechanics like these in their works.

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