More than words?

When you earn your living from words it’s always interesting to find new lights in which to view them – new ways of responding to words, putting them together, or even reading them – which is at least one reason why I’ve found myself, over the last week or two, digging into the world of independent video games (the other: it’s Christmas; anyone who isn’t feeling too lazy and bloated to do anything even remotely productive really hasn’t got the hang of it) – and specifically, I mean the kind of independent games that, in one way or another, depend to a significant degree upon words.

Some of you (i.e. those that still remember such computers as the BBC Micro) will probably be thinking of text adventures right about now – or interactive fiction as the overall genre tends to be called now. We’ll get to those a little later.

However, the games I’ve happened upon lately, and which I most want to highlight here, are more what might be termed ‘art games’, which is to say games created with the intention that playing them might evoke the same kind of effects and emotions that viewing a piece of art, or reading a poem, say, might evoke. To generalise even further: these are games that perhaps seek to move, more than to entertain. These are games like The Company of Myself.

On the surface, The Company of Myself is a simple platformer, but with the twist that in order to solve a puzzle and reach the green door to the next level you often have to co-operate with echoes of your own playing character – and on that level alone, it’s an interestingly different way to while away some time. But reading the overall story of love and loss (and something altogether darker) that appears at the beginning and between levels – and which, you realise, you are playing out as you play those levels – is what gives it a strong and unexpected emotional hit, the strongest part of which is only clear once you have reached the end, heard the full story, and understood the implications of some of the actions that you’ve had to perform to progress. It’s the quality of the writing as much as the game mechanics – and in combination with the game mechanics – that make this such a poignant experience. (A walkthrough can be found here, should you need it).

Another game that might be of interest to anyone with a professional interest in words is Today I Die, a sort of interactive poem of a game. A main character is controlled with the arrow keys, but at the same time in order to complete the game a poem must also be manipulated (changing its mood and meaning with each alteration to its words), with your character’s final action also determining the final line and ultimate meaning of the poem. Again, it’s a very satisfying example of interactive storytelling, and for me at least sparked off a new way of looking at words. (Again, hints are here, should you need them).

A rather more literal (and very literary) take on games that rely on words is Silent Conversation, by Gregory Weir, a platformer in which the landscape of each level is composed entirely from the text of a famous poem or short story, through and over which you must try to safely manoeuvre a letter ‘I’, even as you read the words themselves. In the background, sandstorms of the word ‘sand’ might fly past; or you’ll find yourself leaping off the words ‘ledge’ or ‘leap’; or the text will sometimes mirror its content, by forming a tunnel, for instance. Also, particularly poignant or affecting words are highlighted in red, the resonances of which you have to avoid and neutralise if you want to achieve the full score for each level.

How successful it is as a game may be open for debate – during longer levels things can get a bit repetitive, sometimes you’d rather just get on with the story, rather than going back or stopping to complete a particularly difficult section, you could find yourself wanting to argue whether some words really are the most powerful in any given text – but it definitely hints at what might be achieved, and at times it does genuinely seem to add something to your experience of reading the stories themselves (in fact, an involving new way of reading might ultimately be the best way to take the idea).

(Another wordy Gregory Weir title worth a look is The Majesty of Colours, by the way).

As for interactive fiction; I haven’t investigated nearly enough yet to confidently recommend standout titles, but nonetheless the highly ambitious Blue Lacuna, especially, seems to go far, far beyond those frustrating Tolkien-esque things in which, as a kid, I always seemed to just blunder around getting hopelessly lost typing ‘GO SOUTH’, ‘HELP’ and ‘WHERE AM I?’ over and over again. Of the very few I have played, Aisle‘s been the most inspiring so far – essentially it’s a very short story, with numerous potential endings, suggesting larger, more complicated stories, mostly reflective of the sanity or lack thereof of the actions you type.

As yet, I haven’t enough experience of the genre to say exactly what I think there is to be learned from playing interactive fictions, but it’s definitely a different way of writing – one that’s very much about involving and immersing the reader – and one that excites me with its possibilities.

So here’s an early New Year’s resolution: to write an IF title myself. That should keep me busy…

N.B. For more IF game recommendations, the Interactive Fiction Database is a great place for short reviews and downloads. (Most interactive fictions come in story files, but an interpreter like Gargoyle will run most of them).

And on another note entirely…

A belated Merry Christmas and an early-ish Happy New Year from all at Radix!

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