What compassless games are missing

This is a topic that has come up several times as a discussion in the Interactive Fiction community. Most text games require the cardinal points to move around the map. North, south, east, west, abbreviated N, S, E, O. From time to time some dissenting voice comes out against them and very rarely comes any game that eliminates that form of movement by some more or less daring scheme or original.

The fact is that the cardinal points are super useful because they provide a functionality when exploring a wide space: orientation. An example putting a case of apparent innovation that does not stop working: Blue Lacuna, by Aaron A. Reed. It has no cardinal points and that is a problem … because you do not know where things are, the beach is on one side and the mountain on the other? Are they side by side? It does not work to make a mental map or picture of the scenario. Of course, Aaron knew that and provides earlier in the game a compass that the player could use to take her bearings.

Anyway, removing the compass could work in games with small maps, for example, I have a game with no cardinal points (The strange case of Randolph Dwight, in Spanish; yes, with that title you can expect something Lovecraftian). But it happens inside a mansion, and it has 5 locations. It is easy to give the player to get a sense of direction.

Recently I played Bring me a Head, by Chandler Groover, I know him and some people are very fond on alternative systems to N S W E. But even with a map as small as this one, I couldn’t get my bearings, stumbling around aimlessly. So although in “Bring me a head” the problem is a little alleviate thanks to the west wing and east wing, but certainly the other rooms… where are they? I don’t know.

Again, this is just a nitpicking, a small problem for Groover’s piece, but I think games that remove compass should heavily depend on maps or any other systems for orientation. But for a longer game, this could be a great problem. Even, maps are a straightforward solution.

In the case of Bring me a head or others, this can be solved by providing a graphic map (as did Groover’s Eat me). An illustration that tells you unequivocally where everything is. But maybe that takes away the pleasure of mapping for yourself (although this is something that fewer and fewer players do), or the pleasure of discovering unknown places.

Well, the other day I found this game. The castle of the red prince. of J.E.C. Pacian, an author who likes to play with the conventions of the middle and almost all his games eliminate the cardinal points. (Yes, I’m studying the topic at hand).

In this work, all the mapping is available within reach, as if we were an omniscient being in a dream landscape. To explore, use the command X abbreviation of eXamine and eXplore, so that everything is conveniently within reach. You examine a hill, and you’re there. On the hill there is a hut, you examine it and it takes you to a mine, you examine the mine and it takes you to a box with a piece of forgotten dynamite. Etc.

It works, at first, it works very well especially because some of these explorations have “the trip” implicit in the text. Let’s see:

x inn
The inn bears no name, only a hanging sign depicting an overflowing tankard. The windows are barred and the door is unusually heavyset, but the hearth within casts a friendly glow and the barstool is a welcome respite for your weary legs.

Or this other example

x hall
You enter a domed hall of faded tapestries and tarnished gold. Cobwebs span the archways and dust coats every surface.

However, there is no code to control where you really are (because everything is always within the dream range of the hand) and therefore this great transition does not always occur, so in the end, the game disappointed me a little because it creates a kind of narrative disruption. Like a racord error (cinema lingo). Between that, how short it is, which is a small game to demonstrate the gimmick of removing cardinal points. I doubt this trick would work for longer deeper games. Yeah, yeah, I know, Toby’s Nose. I don’t think Toby’s Mystery has the same feeling of exploration of Red Prince or Dark Souls, even the virtual exploring of the Colossal Cave. For me, it is more a game with a robust system for remembering stuff. Toby uses his great nose to remember things, not to travel there (but this is a very subjective vision of the work by me).

Returning to Red Prince. In this game the orientation works, because “everything is in sight”. There is an action, map, that describes the known world:

Wild forestland surrounds a quaint and shadowed village.

A sheer cliff rises over the treetops, upon which is an ancient and gothic castle perched.

Maybe it works because it’s a very small world. It is almost a world painted in watercolor: a village, surrounded by a forest, threatened by a hill on which there is a castle. The orientation is implicit in the relationship of some localities with respect to others.

As I say, a small game by way of example, but interesting in turn. And the first steps in the world of Amaranth, make the sensation of exploration. It works perfectly, without the need for cardinal points.

Another game that succeeds in this is Lime Ergot, the telescopic nature of the game builds a perfect mental picture of St. Stellio. But, would it work for a bigger and deeper world?

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Or, in German, N S O W. But who’s counting? :slight_smile:

(Puzzle idea: a maze where you have to switch the world from French to German to change what “O” means…)

ooops, that’s O for Oeste, Spanish one.

I’ve seen a few people comment about how Toby remembers scents in Toby’s Nose, and I’d just like to clarify that he doesn’t remember them: he smells them. In the present. Some flashbacks do happen, but these are distinct from the game’s main sniffing mechanic.

In Bring Me A Head!, I’m not sure why “the parlor is next to the kitchen” is more conceptually confusing than “the parlor is south from the kitchen” would’ve been. What matters is that these rooms are close together. Their exact positions relative to the compass aren’t important. You’re on a screen where “parlor” and “kitchen” are both options, and you can click one or the other. It’s the same with all the rooms.

I suspect people are processing space differently. I rarely think about compass directions in real life. More about how “these rooms are down that hallway” or “this is over there.” Which is why I’m always getting turned around when games use compass directions. They don’t map well in my brain.

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Indeed, think about how we give directions in real life. “Take a right at the stop sign, proceed two blocks, and turn left, third house on the right.” “Go left through the double doors after you get off the elevators.”

Compass directions seem apply best to outdoor roadless areas: sky, sea, wildernesses, and, of course, colossal caves.

I’m all for compass directions and they’re very functional in certain narratives, but I understand that many people don’t jibe with them. If I go to the living room, I’m not thinking GO NORTH. GO WEST.; I just [[Go to the living room]].

I’m finding in my current project that plot momentum is easier to maintain with the “jump cut” of a choice-link [[Discuss this with the hotel manager.]] rather than "You’re furious and should speak with the hotel manager. >OPEN DOOR >S >CLOSE DOOR. W. ENTER ELEVATOR. PUSH L. WAIT. EXIT ELEVATOR. E. TALK TO MANAGER.

It reminds me a bit how early film audiences didn’t yet understand conventions of a cinematic “cut” and what it meant - that a scene directly following another could be hours later. There are many silent films that spend time showing the character leaving their house, getting in their jalopy, driving to the bank, walking into the bank waiting in line, then arguing with the teller because of this. A jump-cut would leave the audience confused going “wait, what happened, where are we now?” Today, no director and editor would even think of wasting time and money showing a character driving to work in real time outside of an avante-garde stylistic work meant to be in real-time. (Something like INTO THE VOID which is primarily in continuous first-person.)

It’s all personal preference and often hinges on how the author wants to pace the story. With Castle of the Red Prince especially, zooming around omnisciently made me feel like the powerful spellcaster the PC is.

Plenty of choices games don’t have a meaningful spatial dimension. But what I find is that in any game which involves intentionally moving around a space, compass directions are invariably better than any alternative. Except for an on-screen map, of course.

Neither do I, so this is a red herring. The question is how you process space while playing a game.

To be clear, I’m speaking from my experience writing Seltani and my XKCD game. Moving around those games is uncomfortable and confusing. If you find them more natural than compass directions, please speak up now.

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I think that is dependent on how well experienced you are in playing IF.

The first text adventure used compass directions because orienteering was an important part of the experience of game. Since it was the first, compass directions became a convention adopted for subsequent games. Had it been Colossal Hotel Adventure, instead of Colossal Cave Adventure, travel might have been done differently and we’d be used to a different standard.

However, if you are new to IF, I don’t think it follows that compass directions are natural way to communicate where you want to travel to in many environments.

With Seltani, some areas are designed better than others, but I don’t find it to be the major step down from compass navigation you’re suggesting.

I can’t hold compass directions in my head without a struggle. It’s much easier for me to move around once I understand the relationship between how rooms connect. “This is near that.” Whether rooms are to the north or south or whatnot doesn’t help. I end up going in the wrong direction all the time. So this idea that the compass provides automatic and functional orientation doesn’t hold up in my experience. If you throw ordinals into the mix, I’m doomed.

Actually, to make a direct comparison between two zarf games, I could navigate Bigger Than You Think just fine on my own. The Dreamhold, on the other hand, was so confusing that I couldn’t reliably move around even while looking at a map. Appropriate for a wizard’s house? Maybe. But not easy or comfortable or natural.

Okay, that’s useful.

(Dreamhold was an intentionally baroque map, yes. My thought, foolish as it might seem fifteen years later, was to teach the player to expect the worst.)

Upon reflection, it’s not compass directions per se that I’m attached to. It’s a consistent method of navigation that I can use (in familiar areas) without re-reading. Just like a GUI app puts its menu options in consistent places, so you can move around without inspecting the screen every time.

Imagine a sidebar which shows nearby locations in a list. Perhaps two-level, regions and locations, with “nearby” locations called out:

  • Estate Grounds
  • Mansion
    • Kitchen
    • Pantry
    • Dining Hall
  • Farthing Village
  • Gloomy Forest

This provides a spatial sense of “nearby” in the list itself, without trying to place rooms in any kind of grid.

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I think those of us who’ve lived with Text Adventures since the days of Infocom are much more naturalized to thinking about a map in compass directions. There’s a big generational gap between then and the Nouveau IF resurgence.

I used to only play 3D games with mouse and keyboard and the controller was foreign and difficult. Now I’m not sure I could go back. All interfaces are learnable, but people have different amounts of RAM (if you will) in their brain available to grok the compass paradigm or any other control scheme.

I agree with Zarf that if you’re going to simulate walking around a map specifically, compass directions are indeed the easiest and most “real world” way of doing it - people read maps in real life and the concept applies. Trying something odd like “forward/back/left/right” gets very confusing even though it would seem to be more natural.

Sorry to add only a digression to this interesting thread, but someone /is/ going to follow up on this and make Colossal Hotel Adventure, aren’t they?

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Ow, yeah, sorry. That’s me expressing myself with my butt. Definitively he smells, and sometimes, remembers things. I meant when some other place is reached by Toby, is because he is remembering it? Can he smell smells (sic) from afar locations? For example when the opium den is reached. Or maybe in those moments, simply, he builds a mental space of afar locations, like the mental palace of Sherlock Holmes?

Ok, the problem at hand it is not a problem of orientating within the location. Those micromovements are ok. The problem is that players can’t get the “big picture” of the distribution of the land/castle/cave, whatever. But for Bring me a head is just a very little problem, I’m nitpicking. Just using it to expose the problem for bigger efforts.

Yeah, in real life you get your bearings because you have direction. The room is down that hall and such. Compass is just a commodity of the genre to provide an orientation in a paradigm that makes impossible to orientate yourself because you have a representation of the space that is not spatial. Our text games are not 3D spaces, or 2D maps.

You can see the problem at hand in a bigger work, and see how it fails, in Renga in Blue articles about Empire of the Overmind:

bluerenga.wordpress.com/tag/emp … ?order=ASC

He says:

And this materializes in the hell that is to try to map that game:

To summing up. It is ok to not have the compass in text adventures, but the author must provide a means for the player to get her bearings. For example, you can do a big parser game where the player moves using, just and always, landmarks, but at the same time, you can use the compass to orientate things. “The valley is north from here, and beyond you can see the tower.” >ENTER THE VALLEY

Indeed, you can have a simulation of orientation like in real life. Look ahead, turn right, go back, turn around. But that is tedious to play and map. In the end, the compass is a handy convention, easy to grasp, and easy to use.

About the topic of “cutting” and doing ellipsis in the movement through the map to reach the proper beats of the plot, as suggested by Hanon. Our game Tuuli has something of that.

When you find Mákke you have transported automatically to the beach to talk to the chief. And at first, I had an additional cut who transported you to the altar, even with all tools for the ritual available. That is, I did that the character gathers the elements for the player. It has sense because it gave the work a literate flow. But in the end, I dropped this last cut because that removes one important part of the play: the gathering of the objects.

So yes, I hope in the future more model world IF uses an ellipsis to remove the boring parts of our games and make them more fluent and better paced. (but insist, take care to not to avoid in this way some important themes of adventures: exploration, gathering resources, etc).

One solution could be this one:

Imagine you have a world and character that has to do nothing with maps and cardinal directions. You can move using landmarks or the names of adjacent locations. How to solve the orientation problem? How to make the player understand what is that way, and what in the other direction?

What about giving a command called >get your bearings, or orientate. And the character talk describing the exits relative to some important landmark of the game.

You are in the courtyard. You get your bearings facing the grand stairs in front of you, and giving your back to the main entrance. To your right is the art gallery and to your left is the stairway that descends to the dungeon.

Well, this is more or less the solution given by Blue Lacuna, although there the compass has sense.

He’s not remembering the opium den. He was never there. He’s smelling it. That area’s scent is still attached to the people who visited the den, and Toby’s nose is so good that he can sniff the subtle odors nested inside the scent.

Why does the player need to get the big picture? In Bring Me A Head!, it’s not important to the story for players to understand the castle’s floorplan. The way navigation works in this game, with special hyperlinks to change rooms, it’s not necessary to move around either.

Because I got lost every time in a castle I supposedly knew like my hand.

I mean, some players need that kind of “big picture”, others not. Me personally yes, I prefer to being capable of doing that mental map to get my bearings and get to places more efficiently.

Cast an eye to the link I posted about Renga in Blue having problems with a compassless game.

Also, remember, I’m using Bring me a head! to make a point. I admit that Bring me a head doesn’t need really the “big picture”. Although I can’t have a proper mental map of the game.

I’ve incorporated a mixture in some of my projects (none of which have been released) where compass directions are used outdoors, blocked when indoors and replaced with “entering”. It comes naturally, I think, to “go east” to get to the east part of the village, “enter tavern”, and “enter back room”. I don’t know, it works for me, and I have yet to receive outside criticism.

Wait… where has Toby been? Has he even been to the servant’s passage?

At least some of what Toby describes is from memory, right? Like, the sheet of burnt stationery?