Interactive Text

Our kids are no strangers to computer games. While we’re very selective about what they play, and limit their computer time to about half an hour a day, their world at school and the world they’re growing up into is being shaped by computer-based media.

At home, they’re playing with Minecraft, Kerbal Space Programme, Into Space, Light Bot and Scratch. Each has some level of educational merit; due to playing Minecraft our kids have asked questions about and shown an interest in coal, ore, or even animal husbandry. The games span a variety of genres – from first person experiences, to flight simulation, to arcade, logic puzzles and programming. They’re rich in colour and art – which of course makes them appealing, as well as competitive in a modern computer games market.

But it got me thinking – there is a type of game kids aren’t really exposed to today: text adventures. Games where the story’s special effects are formed in the player’s mind. They were popular thirty years ago – but quickly died out as the computer entertainment industry grew.

I wanted to introduce our seven year old to this game type. But at his age, something like Zork would be, well, too much. He needed something much simpler.

So I put together a very simple text adventure in Ruby, in which he’s in his room, smells smoke and has to get out of the house. It’s just a maze – there’s nothing really to do but enter in compass directions and try and leave the house – and there’s only five ‘rooms’.

There were no graphics, no art. Just white text on a black background. He had to read the story and make decisions based on what he read. And sure enough, a minute or two later, he’d reached the end. His reaction: “That was awesome!”

Watching him get immersed in an interactive story was fascinating. The compulsion to keep playing was generated by his own reading and imagination. And it got me thinking – have we lost something along the way, with computer entertainment? Have we so diluted story and imagination with pretty pictures, that we’ve forgotten just how great these old games used to be?

I’m tempted to find out – either by writing another for him, or by exploring a site I just found (which saves me making my own!): Quest appears to be free, and allows you to create your own text adventure and share it with others. I might just have to try it out on the seven year old again!


Having the Same Name doesn’t make you the Same Person

My kids are quite young. One is in second grade, the other has recently started in Kindergarten a few days a week. As a parent this is a fascinating time because I can watch their horizons expand on an almost day to day basis. Things that we as adults take for granted are as yet completely undiscovered by the kids, and there’s some joy and occasionally a little hilarity when they discover something new.

Although names can work a little different in some cultures, in ours it’s fairly common for our given name to be, well, not exactly unique. Instead, it often has some history or meaning to it that seemed appropriate to our parents at the time and, perhaps, goes on to shape us a little as we age (which I’m sure is an engrossing subject in itself). At three years old, though, there’s a very good chance we’ve never met anyone else with our given names. So what went through our heads that first time? Did we for a moment wonder if they were us? I somehow doubt it; I think that at most, we only sensed some kindred bond (or, if the other person was annoying, perhaps a small sense of betrayal).

So I find it amusing when I catch myself expecting other things with the same name to be the same.

Recently, I had the good fortune to watch the recent Les Misérables film on bluray. The musical has been a favourite of mine since the 1980’s, when I studied it for a month before watching the original production on tour. I have the musical on CD (well, transferred to MP3 these days) and could probably sing through almost the entire musical from memory. The prospect of adding massive setpieces to the musical and stepping beyond the stage was more than a little alluring, and so it was with high hopes that I sat down to watch it.

Well, as you might imagine, it wasn’t what I was expecting. Yes, there’s some great imagery, and getting closer to the performers than you can at a theatre certainly opened up more room for appreciating the performance. But… it was different.

They added a song. They cut some parts out. They changed some words here and there. One part that stood out towards the end, which I couldn’t get my head around, was the duet between Cosette and Marius which, in the musical, includes these verses:

Cosette: Every day, you walk with stronger step, you walk with longer step, the worst is over.

Marius: Every day, I wonder every day, who was it brought me here from the barricade.

Cosette: Don’t think about it Marius, with all the years ahead of us, I will never go away, and we will be together every day.

In the musical, this verse structure makes sense: Cosette says something about Marius’ condition, Marius takes that and turns it to show his ongoing frustration at not really knowing why he’s the only one left alive from the barricade, and Cosette responds, trying to ease his mind (and demonstrating she doesn’t really understand what’s bugging him). It’s touching, it’s characters talking across purposes, and in my opinion it works.

In the film, this same duet is sung, except… they cut out Marius’ verse above. Now, Cosette says something, and then she answers herself, and it doesn’t even make sense. Seriously? Did they cut this because they needed to make the film four seconds shorter?

And don’t even get me started on Russell Crowe’s singing.

So things like this bugged me, and it took perhaps a day for me to come to a realisation.

Having the Same Name doesn’t make it the Same Story.

Together, the film and musical can form a larger, more complete story in our heads. They’re complimentary; visuals from the film, or Anne Hathaway’s I Dreamed a Dream add to and inform our enjoyment of the story in its other media.

It was probably a good realisation to come to about then, since a few days later I finally got around to watching the film version of one of the books I most enjoyed reading recently.

So when Cloud Atlas showed grim determination at staying, well, vaguely related to the novel I wasn’t quite so annoyed. If anything, it reaffirmed my appreciation of the original story in its written form.

Which makes me think I should probably read a certain novel by Victor Hugo one of these days…