Livescribe Zork

January 27th, 2011 9:53 AM
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As people like Andrew Plotkin and Wade Clarke and games like A House in California demonstrate, text adventures and their cousins are still capable of innovative gameplay, decades after the genre's emergence. Such creativity usually takes the form of unique software features and storytelling techniques — but let's not overlook the role of hardware.

I first became aware of the Livescribe Echo pen in Major Nelson's podcast, when co-host Laura Massey demonstrated a small portion of its features. This traditional ink pen includes modern electronic features to remember what you wrote and even interact with those writings. For example, by drawing a picture of a piano keyboard, one can then use the pen to tap on the keys of the piano illustration, and the pen will emit the corresponding tones, as if it were a real piano.

Apparently the pen is also programmable, allowing the implementation of original functions. One hacker took advantage of this opening to create two games for his writing implement. The first, Tic-Tac-Toe, is not of specific interest to readers of this blog, but I'm including it in the embedded video to provide a simple demonstration of how the pen works. But the second game, Zork, seems beyond what any pen should be capable of.

Infocom games have long been ported from their original platforms, with a move to portable devices being especially popular these past few years. But the above example is an entirely new medium in which to play interactive fiction. Practical? Not especially. But it showcases the outside-the-box thinking that has made text adventures popular in the first place. Who knows where they'll go next?

If you prefer a classic interface for this classic game, try Good Old Games, which is currently selling six Zork games for six dollars.

(Hat tips to Eric Neustadter and Jason Scott)

The return of interactive fiction

November 18th, 2010 10:09 AM
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Text adventures, or interactive fiction, are currently en vogue, as evidenced by more than the release of the medium's own documentary. Beyond GET LAMP and its niche market, IF has been making appearances in even mainstream media, leading the way for new and exciting developments in this classic gaming genre.

My cousin, bless her heart, emailed me this clip from the CBS sitcom Big Bang Theory, asking, "Do you remember these games, or are they before your time?"

I suspect most of BBT's geeky audience will recognize and appreciate this nod to gaming's textual origins, as even modern gaming has taken to acknowledging its roots. Earlier this month, Activision released the highly anticipated first-person shooter, Call of Duty: Black Ops (or CoD:BlOps for short). The game includes an Easter Egg: hidden within but accessible from a virtual computer terminal in the game's militaristic setting is none other than Zork itself. This treat is made possible by Activision's purchase of Infocom in 1986, seven years after the company was founded and three before it was shut down.

Although this bonus feature is an amazing opportunity to introduce the current generation of gamers to interactive fiction, Jason Scott points out an inherent flaw in the context in which Activision has chosen to do so. Players of CoD:BlOps are expecting an intense, fast-paced, and violent experience, filled with twitch reactions and realistic graphics. To ask them to slow down, sit at a virtual keyboard, and be challenged by the puzzles of Zork only brings into contrast how far gaming has come, and the obstacles IF now faces.

Nonetheless, those obstacles are being tackled — and overcome — by the likes of Andrew Plotkin. This IF designer, interviewed in GET LAMP, recently set out to use Kickstarter to raise enough money to quit his day job and dedicate himself to creating text adventures for Mac, PC, and iPhone. He hoped to raise $8,000 in 30 days; in the first twelve hours, he raised $12,000.

Many of Plotkin's current works can be played on his homepage, where we should expect to find the fruits of his labors continue to be published once his sabbatical begins.

In the meantime, if you want to try a point-and-click interface that explores abstract concepts in an interactive fiction-like experience, try A House in California, loosely based on the Apple II classic Mystery House. It's one example of how far IF actually has come in the past three decades — even if it is no Call of Duty.

(Hat tips to Andy Molloy and Jason Scott)