Interface Design and Text-Based Games

When Marloes, Dave and myself started to discuss about this Facebook game idea, we quickly agreed that we were more interested in using a text-only environment. It’s faster to develop, the constraint is a great catalyst for creativity, it forces you to approach gaming outside of the popular interface metaphors and, above all, it fits perfectly with the text fueled social media environments we want to describe.

Back in the 70s, early computer games were de facto text-based due to the obvious lack of graphical environment, yet they still survived through several generations of action packed arcade style games. This popularity can be explained partly because many of us are still using terminals to interface with our machines – maintaining and building upon a long and healthy tradition of command-line celebration – but mostly because text remains a very engaging way to build a narrative. Here, your imagination is used instead of a Graphic Processor Unit, in order to construct a particular atmosphere, extrapolating from the couple of words displayed on your screen (shocking concept and heresy I hear some say).

A particular advantage often mentioned for text-only environment is the little time needed to develop these, which is true as long as you keep the game engine rather simple. For example, many popular point and click web based games that are popular on Facebook and other online platforms are not necessarily complex, but heavily relies on addictive tricks and cute graphics. At the opposite there are many online multi-player text based games and interactive fictions that sit on top of rich engines, despites their lack of adorable color saturated farm animals sprites. In Naked on Pluto, we already have quite a few bots that are now inhabiting, processing and wandering in the server. But without 2D/3D graphics – in the most common interpretation – to represents and interact with these entities, we must find a way to transcribe this activity the best we can only using a Text User Interface.

In most text adventure games, also known as interactive fictions, the interface relies usually on two components: an input form where the player can type in some commands or possibly choose answers/actions from a quiz/list, and a feedback text area used to describe the result of the commands entered.

In Naked on Pluto, we rely on similar system but the difficulty for us is that we need to deal with much more data. For example each player has an inventory, an evolving list of possible actions and an overview of the space she/he is currently located, and who is around doing what. On top of that other players and bots are following their own plans that have an influence on your player’s status or on what can be available at a given place. All this data can be turned into text and displayed as some practical text-based interface, but we set ourselves the challenge to design the web application as if it was a book page. This choice is not gratuitous but I’m not going to spoil anything. In a classic text adventure interface all these elements are accessible via various commands, for example typing ‘inventory’ would display a list of the items that you are carrying. In our case we are trying to have these elements always visible on the interface, which is not easy when you need to deal with a growing list of items, or people standing in a room.

At the moment we split the interface in three zones: a “story” section, an input form and a status area. Concretely each action from a player or from another entity in the same location can be translated as a narrative element while allowing the player to get a constant overview of what are her/his options and what kind of entities are around. This still needs a lot of puzzling to make everything look nice and tight with the constraint that all must fit on a single page at fixed text/page size ratio (I probably need to explain that in the future). For now, we focus on tidying up everything as much as possible and I think we will be finally ready to run some gameplay test sessions very soon! :)

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One Response to “Interface Design and Text-Based Games”

  1. Cos says:

    A very interesting project, pity it is only on Facebook, since I personally am against using Facebook, since I noticed it’s not really a medium for contact but a medium for self-glorification. Will there be a release outside facebook?

    What software/language do you use for Naked on Pluto? What would be a good language/engine to develop outside of facebook? (Tads3? Just program it yourself in Python, Java etc?)


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