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Could Infocom make it today?

Posted February 6th, 2006 at 09:58 PM by S.R. Krol
And when I say could they make it, I’m talking about the early ‘80s version of the company. All text interactive adventures. No graphics. Let’s say a better parser though, and what the hay, they would throw in a bunch of goodies like the microscopic space fleet from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

So, would they make it?

Oh, and one more thing. We’re talking mainstream gaming. We’re talking units on the shelf at your local Best Buy or Fry’s, right next to the racks full of 360 titles.

Would they? Could they?

They’d have about the same chance of surviving the marketplace as a Danish cartoonist doing street doodles outside a mosque in Lebanon, right? And that’s of course assuming they could even get their games onto a shelf.

So, why would that be? Well, let’s pretend that Infocom just came out with Zork in 2006. Here’s a snippet of a review from your typical popular PC gaming magazine:
<div align="left">“[Insert 750 words that have nothing to do with the game and simply discuss how cool the writer’s Mini-Cooper/plasma television/new kidney is]…and so when I finally stopped chugging Jaegermeister with the midget strippers and fired this game up I about vomited my last week’s worth of stale Taco Hell and Buger King all over my shiny new Alienware rig! Jeebus, this game doesn’t even have graphics! It’s 2006 guys, get with the times! My score: 2 flaming skulls out of one hundred (Editor’s note – Hey, they didn’t spend money advertising with us, knock that down another three skulls!)”</div>
Anyone who has ever played an Infocom game knows though that yes, they did not have graphics in the early (and definitely golden) days, but they didn’t need them. They were fun. And isn’t that what’s a game supposed to come down to? Do you enjoy playing it?

Why are we so hung up on how pretty a game looks? Let’s talk about a boardgame for a moment to illustrate something…

Think of chess. Here’s a game that has been around hundreds of years and hasn’t changed. We’re still playing on a black and white 8 by 8 grid, with a bunch of stylized figures. In terms of computer gaming we’re still playing Spacewar forty years later, but you know what, that’s okay!

So why do we look back at games from just ten years ago with scorn and derision just because they don’t have the SuperFantasticMegaGraphixx™ of today? Especially when a decade ago we did think they had the SuperFantasticMegaGraphixx™!

Of course you know how it is to be an indie game in the world of retail gaming. Indie games are the nerd chicks with the hearts of gold at the prom while retail games are the drunk ****s with store-bought hooters and no future. (Remember kids, molesting computer games just gets you weird looks at EB Games, so don’t take any of this literally.)

When did gameplay become secondary in a game?? Is it the mass market? Is it that all those millions of people who are now into our hobby really don’t have any tastes in games and as long as it’s good looking, you could slap whatever you want in a box? Is it because there are so many games on the market now that they’re all pretty much disposable? Are gamers like babies (or crows) with shiny baubles? Entranced for now, but as soon as something shinier comes along the first is forgotten?

And what of the developers? Does anyone in the mainstream world of gaming try to get a game produced based on its gameplay merits, or based on how many polygons it will push?

Just so you know where this rant is coming from let me share with you my source of frustration…there was a comment made by someone I’m acquainted with who was complaining about a game…and they said, and I quote, “And even when I boosted the resolution up the game still sucked.”

That’s right. Apparently a game’s resolution is directly proportional to how good of a game it is.

I fear for the future of gaming. In ten years all mainstream games will be nothing more than tech demos selling for $79.95.


Rip it up, kick it out.
Blood begins to flow.
Taking chances,
The only way I know.
Sacrificed everything.
I'm the grinding stone.
Ripping flesh, drawing blood.
I'd love to eat your bones.

My world will not cave in.
I will dare so I will win.
Hear the timebombs begin to tick.
I'll hit you like a ton of bricks.

--Ton of Bricks, Metal Church
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Rich Carlson

The beauty part of a well-written Infocom game (and most of them were VERY well-written) is that you see the environment and characters in your mind, which is personal and is -with no doubt- a better representation than even WETA, or Squaresoft, could produce for you.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words is cheaper by several orders of magnitude than Valve Software technology. A thousand words can convey a million dollars worth of visual storytelling effort, so to speak. (Actually, more like three million dollars, these days.)

In an Infocom game, you are able to manage and manipulate a far wider variety of objects and things in the game world than in a 3D game, and more subtly and "close up," and even more grandly on the other hand, than you can in both 3D and 2D games.

Infocom game conversations between the player and an NPC operate as well as conversations that occur in modern action adventure games do. However, they are, by and large, better written than most text and dialog in games now, and despite cries of "retro!" and "old-fashioned!," text input is more fun than multiple choices (hey what about MY choice that isn't on the list?) displayed for you in predictably cascading and circular conversation trees.

Modern action adventure games show and tell. Infocom games immerse and teach.

Modern action adventure games rely primarily on one type of interaction: shoot &amp; kill. Infocom games rely on one kind of interaction too but it is far more flexible and powerful: the ingenuity of the human mind.

And so on...

Text adventure games would not fly these days because gamers, at least generally speaking of the mass market, learn what to expect and like and depend on from publishers and marketers, who perpetuate certain genre trends over others because of bottom line concerns, the hardware PUSH and just a kind of general consensus that BIG is MORE!

There's also lots more competition, technology driven entertainment choices, for the individual in general than existed in 1985, and the fastest, slickest, newest and trendiest stuff aimed, straight for the eyeballs, at the visually-addicted culture that we are, will get most of the attention first and all of the funding.

Also, the IF movement on the www (see XYZZY awards; IFComp awards; etc.) produces new adventure games (and hybrid IF as well) as freeware downloads.

That's a good thing but the audience is relatively small and the selection of IF games is large.

These are the folks you would aim for if you were making an adventure game to sell. The question is, with all of the freeware IF available already, would they pay for an IF game? And even so, you might only be talking about sales in the hundreds -or even dozens.
Posted March 5th, 2006 at 08:44 PM by

Scott Ellsworth

I disagree with the contention that it is all about the visuals. A friend of mine has virtually vanished into Jeff Vogel's Avernum, a game whose graphics are at least five years behind the curve, all because the gameplay is keen.

MOO3 had absolutely wonderful visuals, and utterly awful gameplay, and it tanked.

I have played every revision of Rail Tycoon. The best was the original - RRT2 spent way too much time on graphic candy, and not enough on game play.

I love the 4x kinds of games, because I can pull them up, play a turn or two during a compile, and then get back to paying work. If my two year old demands my attention, I can put the game down, play with her, and get back to it when I have the time. RTS, racing, MMORPG and twitch games assume your life revolves around the game, as a rule. Well, mine does not.

You do need more visuals nowadays, but I am not convinced that you need millions of dollars of them. Graphics 'good enough' to keep suspension of disbelief need not be that expensive - just look at Doctor Who, in all revisions.

You are correct that Game Informer would just pan an infocom style game nowadays. I suspect, though, that there are a lot of us thirtysomethings with a bit of time, a fair amount of money, but a busy life.

Posted April 7th, 2006 at 04:45 PM by

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