Sunday, June 22, 2014

Texted Ventures

As a formerly jazzed anticipator of The Secret World, it's been hard watching the game fail so miserably, compromising its core functions in endless ways while making nonsensical desperate bids for attention. However, in its role as idiot savant among MMOs it has also provided an intriguing case study in various modes of failure.

One of these is TSW's devolution from ambitious "next-gen" MMO, to fragmented theme park, to an adventure game with better graphics, to recycling its game areas into small-group gear/reputation grinding, and now finally bringin' back the 80s with text adventure. Your character gets a "laptop" icon in his inventory, which you use to activate the schtick below.
Welcome to the future of online games, apparently.

This is part of the first "Sidestories" mission pack released a couple of months ago, which I was hoping would feature more of TSW's best content, puzzle-solving adventures well-integrated into the game map itself. Instead they reek of desperation. One mission chain delves into the disgusting so-called "alternate" reality game fad. This second is, well, the thing above.

For a bit I did think that hey, waitaminute, maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe this is a justifiable variation on TSW's existing story-based half-puzzle half-combat mix. Maybe it's only the surprise that's putting me off from savoring this mission. (Note to self: I have got to send this Tailsteak guy some more money, he's feeding me way too many apt references.) Maybe instead of romancing TSW I can simply be friends with it.
Unfortunately that excuse sort of falls apart because TSW doesn't want to go dutch. TSW is a tease. Sidestories as a whole cost the same as any mission pack, about $7-8, money I thought I was spending on TSW gameplay: graphics, combat, music, voiceovers, environment interaction, the works. In other words, 2014 game content. This means this particular 1980s text adventure is costing me about $2. I wonder how many old Infocom text adventures I can get for a couple of bucks. (hint- abandonware)

Yes, my expectation when buying a new game does include the myriad technical advancements newly made since 1980, like, say, a graphic interface to minimize the drudgery of repetition - "this is one tough troll!" It also does away with some unnecessary ambiguity.

My standard rejoinder to the "chinese room" thought experiment is that one would indeed be interacting with an intelligent entity in that scenario, albeit indirectly: the programmer/translator who created the algorithm, who speaks, for all intents and purposes, through the machine. There's this sort of "chinese room" element to computer games in general, all the more so the more communication is involved. Much like having to learn all the quasi-rational acronyms used as internet jargon in order to play online games (LF2M AOE DPS 4 UBRS) text adventures also depend on certain linguistic conventions, on jargon, through which both programmer and player attempt to communicate their intent. What if the game writer had thought "let go" made more sense than "drop"? Sheldon's character would be inhaling quicksand! What if I think the logical countermand of  "loot" is "unloot axe" instead of "drop axe" or "leave" as opposed to "take?" I'd be right down there in the bog with Sheldon.

That's where I've wound up when trying to communicate with AI text elements in games, stuck in a quagmire of near-misses because try as I might, I simply do not possess the same speech patterns as a programmer (much less one from 1983.) Me no talk good Codemonkeyish. In order to trudge through Immersion in TSW I am already having to look up the specific term the writer wants me to spout here and there.

But what about old-style MUDs like Achaea (which I've been halfheartedly trying recently) which after some decades online do a decent job of explaining their terminology to new players and inserting some flexibility into their jargon? Should the old text-based system be held as equal to, say, dodging around in an Elder Scrolls game or powering up your sensor jammer in EVE Online?
And this might sound odd from someone who more or less raved about Faery Tale Online, but hear me out.

I can certainly agree that tabletop roleplaying remains competitive with electronic games because the flexibility of verbal interaction and a flesh-and-blood GM allow for a much wider range of action. I myself tend to wax poetic about all the actions I wish I could take in MMOs.
Typing commands into a computer game however is different. You are only attempting to regurgitate the correct verbalization to trigger a preset action, and if typing "take" executes the same action as hitting a "take" button, then yes, that reliance on text is meaningless and the only explanation I can give for its persistence is retro hipster appeal. FTO used an intuitive graphic interface to do away with much of that nonsense, and was a superior game for it. No, I should not have to type "hit troll with axe" every time I want to swing my weapon or even every time I find a new troll. My game experience gains nothing from this concession.

As for TSW, I'm curious how far its devolution will go as its staff apparently gets pruned of designers, visual artists, voice actors and all that fluff down to one lit. major with a notebook scribbling text content on his lunch breaks. How long before TSW's paid updates can simply be released in ebook form? They already seem to be putting more work into comic books based on the game than the actual game.

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