As we ranged by Gratiosa, on the tenth of September, about twelve a clocke at night, we saw a large and perfect Rainbow by the Moone light, in the bignesse and forme of all other Rainbows, but in colour much differing, for it was more whitish, but chiefly inclining to the colour of the flame of fire.
— Arthur Gorges, ordinary seaman aboard Sir Walter Raleigh's expedition (1597)
“Explain why the game-world exists and thus give a consistency to the text that you will present to the player” (Thomas Nilsson, in the Alan manual). It is worth a look back to compare ‘Advent’ and ‘Zork’, the alpha and omega of the cave game. ‘Zork’ is better laid out and its middle segments (now called ‘Zork II’) are among the smoothest and best structured of any game in the literature. And yet for all its dead ends and hidden canyons, ‘Advent’ is essentially the better work, more memorable and more atmospheric, because its roots lie in a true experience. The mythology of ‘Zork’ is far less well-grounded: the long-gone Flathead dynasty, beginning in a few throwaway jokes, ended up downright tiresome by the time of the later sequels, when the “legend of the Flatheads” had become, by default, the distinguishing feature of Zorkness. Though perfectly engineered, ‘Zork’ lacks authenticity.
The most telling argument in favour of a clear fictional backdrop is provided by the games which did not have one, and which were merely surreal miscellanies of the medieval and the modern. A very few, such as ‘Brand X’ by Peter Killworth and the chess grandmaster Jonathan Mestel (1982: later called ‘Philosopher's Quest’), came stubbornly alive through their ruthless difficulty. ‘Brand X’ lacks even a descriptive title – there is no setting or plot to describe – and the overture reads: “You don't need instructions, so you won't get any.” But in the main such games are indistinguishable from each other and are justly forgotten.
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Here is a revealing moment from ‘The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy’ (Steve Meretzky and Douglas Adams, 1984):
Ford yawns. “Matter transference always tires me out. I'm going to take a nap.” He places something on top of his satchel. “If you have any questions, here's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” (Footnote 14). Ford lowers his voice to a whisper. “I'm not supposed to tell you this, but you'll never be able to finish the game without consulting the Guide about lots of stuff.” As he curls up in a corner and begins snoring, you pick up The Hitchhiker's Guide.
Why does Ford feel the need to whisper? Who supposes that Ford should not say such things? Roger Giner-Sorolla does, for one. His 1996 essays Crimes Against Mimesis put the case for the prosecution of such passages:
I see successful fiction as an imitation or “mimesis” of reality, be it this world's or an alternate world's. Well-written fiction leads the reader to temporarily enter and believe in the reality of that world. A crime against mimesis is any aspect … that breaks the coherence of its fictional world as a representation of reality.
This elegant polemic, posted to rec.arts.int-fiction, provided the mise au point for a debate which rumbled on for some months.† The target was not so much the tripping over of mimesis in a pratfall, as in the passage above, but the accidental undermining of mimesis by careless authors. The placing of objects out of context or of characters without motivation, the bending of genres to include whimsical anachronisms or the use of puzzles which are out of context (a sliding block puzzle to solve in a ruined crypt) are problematic because they emphasise exactly what ought to be concealed, that the game is a collection of puzzles to solve. From this view it follows that a game should have a coherent fictional world and its puzzles should be seamlessly joined to the textual fabric, appearing to occur naturally.
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The secret of success in designing the backdrop is originality: once you can imitate that, all else will follow. Probably the most popular source is real life, and for many games design begins with, and is periodically interrupted by, research. If constructing geography, maps of real mountain ranges, river valleys and cave systems can be a helpful reminder that real geography is convoluted and continuous – if a river passes through a given location, it must continue elsewhere, and so on. (More on this in §51.)
For ‘Jigsaw’ (Graham Nelson, 1995), a game containing historical re-enactments, the present author began by wandering along the open shelves of Oxford County Library with pockets full of coins to photocopy pages at random. Later there came the 1956 run of the Eagle comic in facsimile (for views of the British Empire at the time of Suez as expressed in fiction for boys), the Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal (Eric Jones's superb Internet resource, now officially adopted by NASA) and, for the 1900 sequence of the game, Stephen Poliakoff's excellent film Century. As this may suggest, research can be overdone. Here is Stu Galley, on writing the Chandleresque murder mystery ‘The Witness’ (1983):
Soon my office bookshelf had an old Sears catalogue and a pictorial history of advertising (to help me furnish the house and clothe the characters), the Dictionary of American Slang (to add colour to the text) and a 1937 desk encyclopaedia (to weed out anachronisms).
And so we walk up the peastone drive of the Linder house to meet Monica, who has dark waved hair and wears a navy Rayon blouse, tan slacks and tan pumps with Cuban heels, and she treats us like a masher who just gave her a whistle. In a game which is intended to be a little kitsch, this is all in good fun. In a more serious work it would be way off balance.
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Book adaptations present two main problems for interactive fiction. Plenty have been made: Frederik Pohl's Gateway, a masterpiece of “hard” science fiction, and the books of J. R. R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett and Enid Blyton have all lent their extensive imaginary worlds. But in each case by permission. Even if no money changes hands, copyright law is enforceable until fifty or seventy years (depending on jurisdiction) after the death of the author or the author's spouse. There are nineteenth-century novels still subject to copyright and numerous characters have been trademarked. Some literary estates, that of Tintin for instance, are highly protective, and the rights managers of Anne McCaffrey's “Dragon” books or Paramount's Star Trek franchise are assiduous in watching for abuse of their property by authors on the Internet: understandably, since a venture by Marion Zimmer Bradley in authorising fan fiction ended in miserable litigation. The Commodore 64 game ‘HitchHiker-64’ (Bob Chappell, 1984), an unauthorised work loosely based on Douglas Adams's comedy had to be hastily rewritten as ‘Cosmic Capers’, with the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal becoming the somehow less satisfying Barbaric Binge Beast of Bongo.
The second problem is that, in any case, a direct linear plot simply does not work as an adventure game and a novel is too long for a game, just as it is for a film: both are nearer to a longish short story. Dave Lebling reckoned ‘Shogun’ (1989), an authorised version of James Clavell's epic novel, the worst not only of his own games but of all Infocom's too. (Graeme Cree: “Too often the story just seems to go on around you while you get meaningless points for smiling, nodding, or bowing at the right times.” Torbjörn Andersson: “it never lets you stray more than a few baby-steps from the pre-determined story”.) ‘Sherlock’ (Bob Bates, 1987) was on the whole more successful, not because Conan Doyle is more interesting – he is so familiar that the reverse is true, and besides, Bates overplayed the camp humour – but because the game was a pastiche, not a slavish adaptation. The same can be said of ‘Wonderland’ (David Bishop, 1990), one of the few Alice-based games not to follow the text. Shakespeare's ‘The Tempest’ has been adapted at least twice for interactive fiction (David R. Grigg, 1992; Graham Nelson, 1997) but Jonathan Partington's confection of Shakespearian settings, ‘Avon’ (1982), is more fun than either. Puzzles range across most of the plays in a mad rush, from hiding in a laundry basket (The Merry Wives of Windsor) to borrowing three thousand ducats (The Merchant of Venice) and one is really best advised not to eat the pie from Titus Andronicus.
The tension between open-ended simulation and narrative has attracted much comment. David Graves's three papers Second Generation Adventure Games (J. of Computer Game Design, 1987) have little to say. Gerry Kevin Wilson observes that “The Minimalists argue that games should be an experience in exploration and simulation. They want to be able to start their own plots and toss them aside at will. In my opinion, they are very dangerous people.” Mike Roberts, in the appendix to The TADS Author's Manual, writes: “Adventure games all have a major problem: they pretend to be what they're not … Adventures are simulations. Unfortunately, most adventures claim to be simulations of the real world… The key is to choose a small universe that you can model completely.” He develops this idea of self-containment by suggesting that design should concentrate on a single important usage for each object, with irrelevant connections added only later.
† To be parodied in Adam Thornton's game ‘Sins Against Mimesis’ (1997).