Arthur DiBianca


Summary: An experiment in usability that didn’t work for me

[spoiler]Some people really enjoy IF which is principally about puzzles which must be solved by figuring out the actual and potential way the game’s world works, as opposed to (say) puzzles that depend on word play, or puzzles that depend on reaching conclusions about information presented to you (as in a mystery game, for instance), or IF that is really story or environment driven. I am not one of those people, or at least that I strongly prefer it when puzzles form part of a strong narrative. It seems evident that the author of Excelsior does like IF that is essentially a vehicle for puzzles about the physical environment, and it’s only fair to point out, therefore, that my mileage was likely to be limited.

In the intermittent lamentations about the decline of this sort of interactive fiction (which is often associated with a sort of “golden age”, for which Zork stands as archetype), its enthusiasts sometimes worry about why it might seem to be difficult for it to reach a large audience. It looks to me as if the author here had two main ideas about that.

First, he seems to think that a detailed narrative and a full environment, replete with much description and many objects, stands in the way. Stripping the world back to one in which the player can be reasonably certain that every object has a purpose ensures that the focus is on the question of how things should be used rather than where they might be found. Nor is there anything necessarily wrong with terse descriptions, sketches which leave the player to fill in details. It’s more reasonable to insist that every word counts when there are few of them.

Secondly, the author seems to share the common (and obviously, in one sense, reasonable) view that one of the barriers to entry to this kind of game is the complexity of the parser, and the way that novices can fail to grasp it. One solution to this is a smarter parser. But the author offers the opposite solution: a dumber parser, which understands only basic directions and meta-commands, and is otherwise based on a single Swiss Army knife command: USE – the very command that most games normally try to teach novices is too ambiguous. That is not, on its face, a ridiculous idea. Since we cannot actually deliver on a promise to understand natural language, perhaps better to make the language so simple that it can be instantly understood.

But, although the ideas are not inherently silly, I think that Excelsior shows that they do not actually work, or at least that they did not work on this occasion.

The minimalist approach to description and story has been overdone. It’s all very well to remove unnecessary verbiage, but Excelsior has lost sight of the need to create a satisfying or intriguing world. At least as far as I played it (and, to be fair, I did not complete it, even with the walkthrough) one simply cannot make sense of what one encounters. Let’s take the first two puzzles. Why should anyone construct tower with no apparent entrance, but which is in fact open to all? One could understand a desire for security; perhaps the door might be camouflaged; but camouflaged and open? It doesn’t ring true. And then the stairs. Someone went to a lot of trouble to make stairs which can collapse; the mechanism must be elaborate. Bearing in mind how much easier it would be to have, say, a door with a lock, why make it child’s play to thwart this ingenious contraption using an object that is left hanging around? It’s as if someone has installed a state-of-the-art safe, and then pasted the combination in an adjoining room. As an environment, it all rings hollow. It seems like the world exists for the puzzle, not the puzzle for the world.

Puzzles as arbitrary as this are not very nourishing. Even a fantastic world should have some sort of internal logic, and this seems to lack one. With description more or less entirely devoted to the dull business of giving directions and a general sense of space, there’s nothing to chew on. By all means let us have only a few objects; but let those objects be really intriguing.

The parser adaptation doesn’t work either. Granted “USE” is a broad term; but it is not all-encompassing. In ordinary terms, taking something is not normally a way of using it, nor is dropping it. I can see no benefit, for anyone, in positively disallowing such simple verbs as TAKE, DROP, OPEN, CLOSE. The result is jarring and, for anyone who does know the parser at all, positively infuriating. For me, at least, the USE syntax didn’t help at all: USE BROOM ON DOOR is an instruction to sweep the door, not to wedge it open. The overall effect was like trying to write wearing boxing gloves.

And finally, what of the puzzles? After all, if your message is that it’s all about the puzzles, they had better be fantastic. Those I saw were not. They were not bad puzzles, in the sense that they did require some thought and careful reading of the text. But (perhaps it gets better later on) none of them had that sequence of rising and falling hope where you make progress by stages which, for me, mark the best puzzles. All of them that I saw depended really on a single moment of insight, rather like seeing a word in a crossword clue. For me, in a game without any other interest, that’s not enough. By the time I quit, I had reached some sort of maze which looked like it might have yielded to careful investigation and been more satisfying; but by that time I was too lacking in motivation to give it the attention it might have deserved.

I expect there will be people who enjoy this. But I also expect they will be people who are already pretty heavily invested in this sort of game already. In so far as the aim seems to have been to make this type of work more generally accessible and attractive, I don’t think it succeeds.[/spoiler]