So I’m seeing more and more references to Second Life these days;
apparently, SL is the new
black MUCK, replacing all that stuffy
old text with 3-D graphics.
This “graphic virtual world” idea isn’t new to me; I worked for a while at There, SL’s erstwhile competitor, and the one that for a year or so looked like it was going to kick SL’s virtual ass. However, There aspired to be a virtual Disney World, with the company designers as Imagineers and user-created content as window dressing, and promises of future enhancements to customization and scripting. SL started out with customization and scripting tools available to everyone, and inevitably, that wins in the long run. While There’s execs were talking about being a platform for the metaverse, SL was releasing one. As crappy as SL’s engine and tools are, crappy real products consistently beat fantastic vaporware.
But I don’t like either very much–not for roleplaying, particularly when compared to stuffy old text.
In the early ’80s, when you talked about “computer adventure games,” you usually meant text games. Graphic adventure games existed, but the company doing the most interesting stuff was Infocom, which released brilliant works of interactive fiction. Enchanter is still probably the best-implemented magic system in any computer roleplaying game (and the best single-player “Dungeons and Dragons”-style game made, in my opinion, in that like a good D&D adventure, there was an unfolding story rather than a mere dungeon crawl). Suspended and A Mind Forever Voyaging were two of the best science fiction games ever produced.
Infocom stuck by their text-only guns even after graphic adventure games started filling up the field. In the words of a 1983 ad,
There’s never been a computer built by man that could handle the images we produce. And there never will be. We draw our graphics from the limitless imagery of your imagination–a technology so powerful, it makes any picture that’s ever come out of a screen look like graffiti by comparison.
Any game is bound by its technology: the sophistication of the game’s “world” can, by definition, be no greater than the technology the game engine supports. And text stomps all over graphics.
A concrete landing sits at the midpoint of a cove that forms much of the eastern shore of this tropical island. A handsome wooden dock juts out into the lagoon, with several boats tied up. The land rises gently to the west, and a gravel walkway, lined with palm trees, follows it up the hill. A plantation-style home can be seen at the hilltop.
The cove can be followed northeast, to a rocky point, and south toward the lagoon’s beach. A carved wooden sign, in typical bright island colors of blue and yellows (and faded by typical bright island sunlight), stands at the side of the gravel path.
The afternoon is mostly cloudy, with extremely high winds blowing across the dock. Choppy waves strike against the beach and the dock.
Obvious exits: northeast, south, southeast, and west
Your idea of what a plantation-style home might be different than mine. You might see a different color for the wooden dock, and you almost certainly see different boats. But that’s okay. You’ve gotten a a clear picture of what’s going on there, and I haven’t had to either expose you to my less-than-stellar graphic talent or recruit someone with talent to try and render it. Your own imagination is “higher resolution” than even the best engine can provide.
Yet, in the end single-player adventure games became exclusively graphic. LucasArts games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango proved you could add pictures and still have wonderful stories, but better technology didn’t make for more sophisticated game play. (1985’s A Mind Forever Voyaging, where the player takes the part of a self-aware AI running simulations to solve an Orwellian future society’s problems, has yet to even be matched.) The $64,000 question is, of course, whether massively multiplayer graphic games will crowd text worlds out of the ecosystem.
MUDs are unusual in that very few of them aren’t completely free; since they’ve always been labors of love rather than labors of profit, they have less pressure from market forces. But creators and maintainers get, in fannish lingo, egoboo–and that requires a certain minimum of players. It’s difficult to set out on a project like the Excursion Society MUCK as it is; the worry that some of the players I’d most like to see involved will be spending their time chasing Warcraft goblins or tweaking personal avatars is not a small one.
An odd coda: the adventure genre is nearly exctinct commercially–and the demand for graphics may well be what did it in. Infocom’s classic games were done by one or two people working together; while LucasArts’ games had one or two primary authors/designers, as time marched on, they required bigger and bigger teams, more and more elaborate graphics and sound, higher and higher investment, and just not enough of a fan base to prevent an ever-dwindling ROI.