Thursday, April 19, 2012

Get Lamp : Lamp Got

First, I have a confession to make - as much as I love games, and as much as I love writing, I've never really been big on Interactive Fiction. I have my reasons - mainly based in the fact that, when I was learning about interactive writing, it was called Hypertext Fiction and, to be frank, a lot of it was weird because people were exploring the limits of the new medium. Then again, at that point, people still thought books were hypertext, so I don't know.

I have enjoyed the occasional wander through the texty land of storytelling - such as The Baron, which won 1st place in the 2006 Spring Fling - but I suppose, like many, my days of typing to a computer that talked back ended with the remake of Quest For Glory 1, or the arrival of King's Quest 5. Sure, there was still guesswork involved, but at least you only had 5 verbs to choose from, rather than an entire vocabulary's worth.

It seemed - and still seems - so much easier to follow a set of rules that determined how you could interact with the world though, true to form, the mouth icon in KQ didn't always mean 'talk'. It was more like a range of verbs shuffled under a heading than a direct translation of a single word into an icon. Would I recommend someone who's never played an adventure game play Monkey Island as it was originally intended when there's the point-and-click remake floating around? No. Even my fianceé, who's only three years my junior and at least as computer-savvy, has trouble with parser input. It takes a special kind of practice, and a lot more patience than most games I've played.

So I'll admit I was watching Get Lamp for my Masters, hoping there would be some insights I could apply to dialogue writing in current commercial computer games. I was thrilled when Dr. Bartle appeared on-screen (he's the nicest man, though I've only met him once, especially so because he put up with my fangirl attitude and let me take a photo with him). I felt a little ignorant, not knowing who all these other people were, since they were famous enough to be in a documentary about a field I should be relatively well-versed in. I recognised Ernest Adams and Steve Meretzky, and that was it.

And, in the end, I came away a little disappointed. Not because the documentary wasn't about something wonderful, which it is, or wasn't upbeat, because it was. Even when enthusiasts are describing how the IF community consists of only 2,000 people, and only about 250 of those people have enough time to vote in the annual IF awards, there's still a note of hope in their voices because, as one of them states, at least the people who are into IF are the people who really like it for what it is. And, as another says, the barrier to entry is so low that it will continue to exist, even in its limited scope, because people can access it so readily.

I do agree that IF has excellent educational applications and, yes, we spend a lot more time reading than we think we do, and yes, it's good if you make someone think. The Baron certainly made me think. But I felt the documentary as a whole, while well-meaning and stocked with helpful and valid viewpoints, failed a little in its application. The main problem, I feel, is that it's a documentary made by a community, for a community, an aspect that is reinforced when it's revealed that the original funding came from the IF community.

I can't help but feel this damaged its message in a small way. When you make something to tell other people how great something they love is, it really loses its impact. You're preaching to the converted, to make use of an over-used phrase. Sure, IF is amazing and we know it, and the documentary did a reasonably good job of explaining why, but why is it relevant now, beyond 'art forms never die'?

Sure, the book is still around. It may be an eBook, but it's still a book. Then again, a book is highly portable. My laptop and internet connection aren't as easy to slip in my pocket. When I'm reading a book, my family know to leave me be. When I'm on the computer, my time seems to be fair game.

And, let's not forget, the computer is the king of multitasking. To be brutally honest, I was reading my email, catching up on industry news and playing Solitaire while 'watching' Get Lamp. When on the computer, I feel like I need to make my time super-productive because I can. It's the same thing I have to avoid doing when I'm Skyping with my Grandma - remembering, of course, that divided attention never makes a whole. But while I'm reading a book, I'm away somewhere else. Perhaps if I treated IF the same, I would feel the same, but the fact remains that it's a program running on a computer that's also connected to the internet, which means chat, email, Facebook and lolcats. How will it hold my attention with that kind of competition?

Or maybe I've just become part of the ADD generation. But I doubt it. I recently played through the original Leisure Suit Larry and King's Quest, for fun and research. They're still excellent, by the way. I'd forgotten just how easy it was to die, but that's the price of fading memory. And I do love the assembly factory where they make more Larrys.

So, what did Get Lamp accomplish for me? For the moment it's drawn me away from the lure of learning to code in Ren'Py, mostly due to Dr. Bartle's wonderful assertion that "No matter how far you take graphics, eventually, the farthest you can get is text." He's right, you know. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but I'm a writer, not an artist, so I'll work with what I've got. And, if what I've got turns out to be any good, I'll post the results here.

Having spent the majority of my career writing for a visual medium, it will be interesting to be back in the realm of the text-visual. I do adore Adam Warren's use of alliteration, after all. And, who knows? Maybe this is the answer to my 'why can't I make a game without an artist and a programmer?' whining. Now I have no one to blame but myself if I never get anything done.