The Promise of the Blinking Cursor
By Anna Rettberg
Casey Muratori
Look, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but if you roll up to the valet in your sports car, and you have women sitting on top of other women in the front seat, and they end up in the fountain, and you end up buying the hotel, at some point someone’s going to look you in the eye and tell you, “Bruce, it’s not who you are inside, but what you do that defines you.” This was made very clear in the critically-acclaimed documentary Batman Begins:
Do not despair, though, because as that film deftly demonstrated, if you focus on what is in your heart and let it lead you down a path of hand-to-hand combat and justice, eventually you can redeem yourself by lifting a woman and a small boy up from street level to the roof while an old man plays with your car fob:
This is a very important service to the community, because people often find themselves confined to street level with no direct roof access. This is due to a part of the fire code in many metropolitan areas that requires locked fire doors between a building’s main stairwell and its roof. Also, old people are usually retired and don’t have much to occupy their time, so something as simple as a car fob can provide hours of enjoyment and really make a difference in their waning years.
Anyway, I don’t want to get bogged down in specifics. The point here is that it’s what you do that defines you. Rachel Dawes knew it, Batman knew it, and now you know it.
But unfortunately, once you know it, you can’t help but apply it to video games. And if you do that, you come to some rather dismal conclusions about their fiction.
We run, we drive, we shoot.
OK, so here’s a question for you: what is, you know, Grand Theft Auto V about? Or Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare?
In a pre-Batman analysis, where we ignore what the player actually does, you might describe those games in a way that sounds like they’re about their fiction: “Oh, it’s about these three guys from different walks of life who…” etc., etc.
But post-Batman, where what the player does defines what the game is about, the descriptions wouldn’t sound anything like fiction at all: “It’s about driving, running, and shooting.” “It’s about running between two prescribed points while shooting.”
This is what most modern games are “about”, and it’s not an accident. We’ve gotten really good at creating experiences where players do things like move around, attack, even build. If you look at something like Grand Theft Auto V vs. the original Grand Theft Auto, it’s obvious that the intervening years have seen massive improvements to just about every aspect of what the player can do. Every aspect except, of course, the part dealing with the fiction. In these games, the player still  —  often literally  —  can’t do anything with the fiction.
And this, in my opinion, is the biggest elephant in the gaming room today: despite advances on nearly every front, if we look at the level of interactivity a player can expect from the fiction in a game, things haven’t really evolved since about 1986.
Now, the nice part about something like Grand Theft Auto is it doesn’t really matter that the fiction isn’t interactive. That’s not why you’re playing it. The fiction provides context for the experience, and your desire to interact with the game is satisfied by the fact that physical things in the game are interactive: driving cars, shooting guns, running, etc. Each year, the world simulation underlying games like this improves, providing greater levels of interactivity, so the experience really does become more rich even if the fiction itself remains non-interactive. Batman-wise, the game is still about driving and shooting, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
However, this poses a very real restriction on the types of games that can be developed using this style. It requires that you have some large set of physical interaction sequences sufficient to satisfy the player’s desire to actually play something, because otherwise you have nothing off of which to hang the fiction. And that is not such a good thing for the medium as a whole.
There’s a reason they’re called “walking simulators.”
In recent years, developers have tried to move past these limitations by skirting them. Games like Dear Esther and Gone Home have explored the possibility that non-interactive fiction can be presented without intervening action. While the success of titles like these is great from the standpoint of opening up more ways to tell stories on computers, it still fails the Batman test just as completely as anything else  —  in terms of what the player does, Gone Home isn’t about a girl and her family. It’s about walking around.
Which leaves us with only the modern, direct-if-distant descendants of interactive fiction itself  —  games that might bear the visual novel tag on Steam, or the comparitively small portion of the playtime in RPGs like Fallout or Mass Effect where the player choses dialogue options. These games still try to make it appear as if the fiction is interactive, but by nature of their construction, it is all too obvious to the player that this interaction is very limited, like a glorified choose-your-own-adventure. Even in what people generally consider to be the most interactive game of this flavor, The Walking Dead, the player’s biggest “choices that matter” are actually just binary decision points so obvious that the game actually displays a screen comparing your binary choices to other players’ choices at the end of each playthrough.
So truly, at present, we really don’t have any such thing as a game that features real, deep interaction with the fiction. We either have a) games where non-interactive fiction is intercut with interactive action, b) games where non-interactive fiction isn’t really intercut with anything at all, or c) games with coarse, superficial fictional interaction.
Subjectively this might not be considered a problem, because plenty of players enjoy all of these types of games. But in the objective sense, it’s definitely a problem, because it means we have a big huge gaping hole in our space of possible creations. We have no idea what it would even look like to have a game where you can actually interact with the fiction. And we definitely don’t know what kind of wonderful new experiences we might be able to build if we did.
Now at this point you’re thinking, “Casey, that’s all fine, but what does this have to do with the bygone era of so-called interactive fiction? Surely if you’re saying that something like The Walking Dead was barely interactive, then you’d have to say the same thing about the average Infocom game from the eighties.”
And you’re totally right. But there’s one crucial point that this overlooks, and I wouldn’t be doing my job as a random person who writes a blog if I didn’t tell you what it was.
With a blinking cursor, anything could have been possible.
What the player could do in an interactive fiction game era was, almost universally, quite abstract and varied. A few things were common, such as the ability to navigate between “rooms” and manage an inventory of items, but beyond that, almost all other actions were specific to the fiction.
A typical interactive fiction game set up situations that could be about almost anything, and your interactions with those situations would see your character doing just about anything. In one game, you might find yourself handing a magic pigeon perch to the knight on a living chess board, while in another you might find yourself cutting the chalk lines of a pentagram to escape a Lovecraftian summoning ceremony.
Now to first approximation, these actions were nothing more than the great grandfather to today’s quicktime events. Most interactive fiction sequences involved a rote series of steps that you had to do, and no matter what other actions might have seemed logical or plausible, the game was only going to let you do the specific steps the designer had programmed.
But, unlike quicktime events, which specifically tell the player what gamepad combination they must perform to continue the action, the interface to an interactive fiction sequence was literally just a blinking cursor. The instruction to do each step had to come entirely from the player’s own brain, and it was in that specific moment  —  the moment when the player is considering all the possibilities and choosing to try one of them  —  that interactive fiction really differentiated itself as an experience as compared to anything we make today.
If you didn’t have the pleasure of living through the era of interactive fiction, you may never have experienced this, but trust me, the feeling of staring at a blinking cursor, thinking about typing your next command, is unlike anything we’ve been able to reproduce since. It was the perfect moment of fictional immersion. It felt like you were choosing what your character did next, even if you really weren’t. Your imagination was running wild and you really did believe you were the character in the story.
And not just a story that had to work within a gamey-action context, but any kind of story. Sure, it could be about gaming staples like magic or futuristic robots or a space marine, but it could also be it about a diver in a run-down seaport, or an Englishwoman kidnapped by pirates or even just a guy trying to change his address with the bank.
Thus the typical interactive fiction game, much moreso than anything I’ve played in recent memory, delivered a unique experience where the actual things you did in the game were closely tied to the fiction itself. Blissfully unaware of any requirement that games be about well-defined, repetitive actions, interactive fiction titles were free to set games anywhere, with any kind of character, and involve any kind of activity. They were truly on-par with other mediums in their ability to engage any subject matter directly.
But sadly, the blinking-cursor moment was always short-lived.
However, as anyone who has played a lot of interactive fiction games will attest, at the core of the genre was always a critical flaw that ensured it could never truly fulfill the promise of its blinking cursor. And that, my friends, will be the subject of next week’s post.
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Until next week, thanks for reading, and we’ll see you on the internet!