Do you remember those old-school text-based adventure games? (Or, given the median age of this fandom, do you remember hearing older fen talk about something called Zork?)2 I've always been fond of them, partly because back when I first started playing computer games, text adventures were the best kind available.
It turns out people are still making text adventure games, though they're more likely to be called "interactive fiction" nowadays despite the way that term suggests a genre little better than a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story.3 Some of the more recent IF games even have graphics4 and/or sound, though their interfaces remain primarily text-based.
The urge to play some old-fashioned text adventures came over me the other day, so I went looking for ones that were available in emulation mode for modern computers. Most people (myself included) can only play Zork and Advent5 so many times. I could actually play Transylvania6 over many more times, but it's apparently not available in a ported or emulator version, probably due to copyright issues.
Once I stumbled across the frankly huge listing of text adventures available via the Beginner's Guide to Interactive Fiction, I hoped I'd be able to find at least one game that didn't drive me crazy with the sort of stupidly-crafted puzzle that can only be solved by flailing randomly into exactly the right word or phrase,7 rather than offering puzzles that can be solved logically.
I decided to try out Lucian Smith's "The Edifice" based on its small filesize and the brief description given, as well as the fact that it runs on Zcode.8 It's a much smaller game than classics like Zork, but this means its puzzles are more fun (or at least less frustrating) to find and figure out.
Edifice has three levels, or areas of gameplay (not including the introduction screen where the player must solve the extremely simple puzzle of accessing the Edifice). Each one has its own multi-part puzzle.
It's the Level Two puzzle that earned Edifice its several awards and lasting popularity among IF fans. Most of this puzzle involves meeting and interacting with another primitive human who speaks a language unknown to the player (the language was created by Lucian Smith for the game). It is possible to learn the mysterious language of this "Stranger" -- indeed understanding at least some of his language is necessary to completing the level.
The language itself is not terribly complex, due to both the need for players to be able to puzzle out words' meanings from context and usage, and the programmer's desire not to have to code in thousands of different phrases as well as behaviours for the game to follow when a player spoke each possible phrase in the strange language. But the language is complete enough for the player to eventually be able to hold a meaningful conversation with its native speaker.
This language puzzle is unique not only in the IF genre but, so far as I know, throughout the larger category of computer and even non-computer games. It's a fascinating and satisfying exercise in linguistics. Once you've played it, it's easy to see why The Edifice remains not just classic but popular.
Other game features of interest: It is not necessary to complete Level One before moving up to Level Two (nor must Level Two be completed to access Level Three) so if you're playing mainly for the language puzzle, you can skip nearly straight there. Also, there's another linguistics puzzle of a simpler sort in the prologue area -- examine your surroundings carefully and you should be able to find and decode it -- this is a nice bonus which doesn't affect your game progress directly and may not even affect your score, but it's fun, so who cares?
I highly recommend using the [Beginner's] Guide link above, but if you'd rather just get your downloads on and get on with it, here are direct links to the install file for (Windows) Frotz (Mac users will need to go through the guide to access an "interpreter" program to run the game on) and The Edifice game itself. The website of the game's creator, which includes reviews of and commentary (by Lucian Smith in the form of interviews) on the game, is here, but be warned that there are spoilers of various degrees9 behind most of those links.
Brief mention of two other games
For a completely different experience with alien linguistics, try "For a Change" (also in the listing linked above, or click here: 89KB) -- the game's dialogue bears nearly the same relationship to standard English as an e.e. cummings poem's language does. And for an almost entirely dialogue-based game (with bonus feminist overtones), talk with "Galatea" (the link at the Guide to IF site seems to be broken, but you can play Galatea online here).
1. There is, however, a strong possibility that a text adventure game set in the DCU may become available. Because I'm going to try to write one. Interactive slash fiction!
2. For background, check out the wikipedia entry for Colossal Cave Adventure, the original text adventure game, which has been ported to almost every subsequent OS and which a Flash version of can now be played online; and/or check out the entries for Zork; and follow the links top related content from there.
3. Another low-tech diversion from my youth which was shiny and new at the time.
4. This is not entirely a new phenomenon. My favourite IF game of all time is the mid-80s Transylvania, which I played on the Apple IIc. Here are some screenshots of what passed for graphics back then. Pretty good considering they were drawn by the high-school kid who programmed the game...
5. See note 2.
6. See note 4.
7. Sometimes referred to as guess-the-verb or guess-the-noun puzzles. This class can also include guess-the-direction; For example, in the original version of CCA, new players were often stumped just a few screens into the game, by a room which described the streambed they were following as continuing south, yet south was not a valid exit, and the player needed to "go down" instead.
8. A Zcode interpreter is a small application that runs IF games coded in Zcode. The Guide -- and I -- recommend Frotz for Windows users. Yes, the application is named Frotz. Also, Inform, the application I may soon be using to create some IF games (see note 1), produces games coded in Zcode. Games with other coding formats will not work with Frotz.*
9. Plenty of spoilers for the Level Two language puzzle, and some for Level One's puzzle, too, but annoyingly none for Level Three, where I have managed to get stuck.**
* I really enjoy saying Frotz.
** I have now solved Level Three. Watch out Level Four!