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Ryan Veeder has created some of my favorite interactive fiction work throughout the 2010s, starting from his 2011 IFComp winner Taco Fiction and continuing on from there. I discovered his ongoing oeuvre via the quiet and wistful Wrenlaw and the hectic optimization challenge Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder. His work espouses a unique sort of friendly and welcoming humility rarely found in video games of any variety, whether the nominal subject of the game is a desperate thief, a high-seas pirate (who is also a talking rat), or an everyday person wandering around some interesting landmark of Iowa City. These games use the text-adventure medium to offer surprising levels of shifting depth in unexpected places, such as the part in Taco Fiction where you can put the story of small-town intrigue on hold to flirt with an ice-cream-shop clerk and sample every flavor of dessert on display — each of which has its own voluminous responses to being smelled, tasted, or purchased, and none of which drive the plot forward, and all of which makes the game somehow unforgettable.
I could go on, but will instead defer to a more detailed examination of Ryan’s body of work (as of 2016) by Emily Short. Given my clear admiration for them, though, I was surprised to see that I’d never mentioned any of these games in Fogknife before today. On further thought, it stands to reason: I began this blog in earnest at the end of 2014, the first of my four years helming IFComp, and thus the after the point where I stopped playing IF with any regularity. (Working in the sausage factory, and all that.)
But I do manage to get a text adventure onto my plate from time to time, just the same. Two years ago I played, enjoyed, and wrote about John Baker’s all-but-forgotten John’s Fire Witch. And last summer, I had the pleasure to play Ryan Veeder’s Curse of the Garden Isle within days of its release. In the year since, I realized I’ve mentioned the game again and again in different contexts to friends and colleagues as a wonderfully accessible and rewarding example of modern parser-based interactive fiction, a real stand-out work. And yet, I have seen essentially no other mention of it online, not even within dedicated IF discussion spaces. Let me try to help rectify this, examining why I find it a quiet exemplar of the form.
Garden Isle’s player-character works at a geological museum on Kauai, the titular Hawaiian island. In this only-slightly Brady Bunch-ified version of reality, a regular part of your character’s job involves receiving packages from around the world, all from tourists convinced that a native rock they brought home as a souvenir triggered an island curse resulting in all manner of personal misfortune. So each one sends their purloined stone back to the museum, with an attached letter of apology, and a request that you-the-recipient please put the little piece of the island back. On the day the game takes place, the museum has received a healthy pile of these guilt-ridden parcels. To complete the game, then, you’ve got to use each visitor’s handwritten tale of woe for clues about the origin location of each respective rock, and drop them all more or less back into place.
Like a lot of Veeder’s best work, this becomes a game about exploring a space through the eyes of a person very familiar with every aspect of it, and yet with a knack for describing it in a visitor-friendly way. You cruise around the shoreline highway that circles the perimeter of the little round island — the game’s online-play page links to a live Google Map as a usable gameplay aid — visiting all its towns, parks, and other signifiant seeing-sights as you lay all the stones back to bed. (In a subtly nice stroke of design, the game begins with your driving to work, exposing you to a few of these potential stone-destinations before you encounter the stack of packages, and jump-starting the idea of what you should do next.)
Befitting its setting, the game has a very aloha-compatible pace: unhurried, unhassled. Taking the time to admire all the scenery, whether forest, fort, or gravesite, and mixing in a little bit of island history whenever the player shows deeper interest by requesting a closer look. And always stopping to let the ubiquitous feral chickens of Kauai cross the road. (You will meet a lot of these chickens, and learn about how they all got there. Make sure to look at the chickens.) And Ryan, for his part, confirms one’s suspicions about the game’s inspiration by writing himself in as one of the hapless but penitent tourists whom the player-character helps absolve. This character takes it all in stride, putting around the island for as long as the player needs, on a mission with stakes both as clearly visible and as calmly muted as the ancient volcanoes that the highways weave around.
I’ve been thinking about accessibility in games a lot lately, and in interactive fiction in particular. An IFTF program that I’ve led for the last year and a half is about to release a report about the state of accessibility in IF, with recommendations about its improvement. Curse of the Garden Isle came to mind several times while I wrote the report over the past month — not just for the high quality and welcoming attitude of the game’s own content, but for a very minor but still noteworthy facet of its in-browser presentation: the static text that appears around the main gameplay pane, linking permanently to helpful resources (including that Google map), and in particular the “text parser tips” displayed in the lower left margin. It’s just a short bullet-list of the most common parser IF commands, readable in a few seconds. But that’s the thing: I can’t think of another modern parser game with a browser-play mode that bothers to offer a tiny cheat-sheet like this, even though many might link to longer-winded “how to play IF” guides.
As I write this, for example, my own The Warbler’s Nest (of 2010 vintage) does offer a prominent “Help and Hints” link, but the result tells you nothing about how to play parser IF. Two more clicks from that page will lead an especially determined newbie to this quick-reference card that Andrew Plotkin and Leah Albaugh designed the same year I released that game. The card remains a great little resource, but wow, what a marathon to get to that information-dense PDF when one could do like Ryan did and just paint a bite-sized list of get-started prompts right on the game’s cover.
I pair this observation with a personal experience from earlier this year, when I opened a short talk about IFTF at a local technology meet-up with a group-playthrough of the first half-hour or so of Admiral Jota’s novice-friendly Lost Pig. The gathered players — almost all newcomers to parser-based gameplay — struggled quite a bit through the first few scenes, having absolutely nothing to grasp at when out of ideas for what that bare-naked text prompt might want from them. “Is there a vocabulary list?” one audience-member asked, quite reasonably, and I found myself feeling a little bit ashamed at the only answer. This moment must have sealed my admiration for Garden Isle’s dead-simple solution to this very predicament: list some verbs, the most basic ones, and tuck that list down in the corner from the very start. Just enough to vault new players over the strange hump of that typey-typey interface and into the unique back-and-forth rhythm of the text adventure, encouraging further discovery (including further reading of those more involved help materials) if they find it welcoming.
I stand convinced that all text games, parser games especially, should prominently and permanently display basic controls like Curse of the Garden Isle does — and the upcoming accessibility report will say as much.
This article was also posted to the “games” section of Indieweb.xyz.
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