Thanksgiving break is over, and it is officially the end-of-semester crunch for all of us at Rutgers. Meaning these desires to express myself at odd hours of the late night / early morning are likely to become a lot more common, because I can only write when I’m really supposed to be doing something else.

Tonight I’m going to talk about text-based adventure games. Why? Because I look at most video games today and realize they’re full of shit, which leads me to believe we went wrong somewhere, which means I should go back to the beginning and see what was done right. The answer: Not a whole hell of a lot. “Interactive fiction” is next to unplayable, unless you have a lot of free time and brainpower. Which is funny, because people still run entire sites about the damn things, analyzing them and everything.

Well, now I’m going to piss off everyone by saying that I’ve played “Undo” by Neil deMause, and it was the most entertaining game I’ve experienced since Portal. It also had me banging my head against the wall in frustration, before I realized banging the neighbor’s dog’s head against the wall in frustration was a much more productive way to spend my time.

I found “Undo” here, a page with a list of text-based adventure games. I played a few others, got stuck, and gave up. I freely admit that I’m absolutely god-awful at Interactive Fiction, but then again, a game that sits there and waits for you to make the Right Move is hardly fun to begin with. I sucked equally at “Undo”, but it had me captivated for other reasons.

To begin with, it let me do things, and when I did things, stuff happened. Like I said in my Portal post, gamers don’t want freedom. We want responsiveness. In “Undo”, you begin in a room titled only “Somewhere”. Your only objective is to win the game by going east, but a large hole blocks your way. Big deal. But when you explore the other directions, you find much more interesting rooms.

Take, for example, the “Self-Referential Room”. Its description is, “There is a room here. It looks just like a room.” Further cleverness ensues when you discover an eraser that can only erase itself, and read the writing in the room. To the north is a “Binary Swamp”, whose description has been “sadly destroyed by a disk error”. There are two objects here – a 0 and a 1. If you take the 0 and look at your inventory, you’ll see that you aren’t carrying anything, because you “have nothing” in the literal sense. Then there’s the room filled with syntax errors – something I won’t ruin for you.

The gameworld is small, only five rooms. That’s a vast improvement on most text adventures, where the designers think that getting lost in a maze is somehow fun, or that stopping to draw maps and jot down reminders is a good time. I have to do that in real life, I don’t want to do that in a game. Games are supposed to be escapes from real life, no?

“Undo” is an extremely simple game, whose reward comes not from beating the game itself, but from exploration. It’s cleverly written, and you get a sense of the humor style right away. I was satisfied with what I had seen and, upon realizing I couldn’t beat the puzzle required to win the game, figured I had seen enough to declare it well worth my time. I Googled for the solution, only to find nothing but reviews. By now, I’d left the game far behind me, until I came across this review:

                  UNDO - part of Disk 1071

                 A Review from Peter Clark

I'm afraid this game totally got the better of me. I just didn't
understand what the writer was on about. Maybe his sense of humour
is something that I didn't grasp or maybe he lives in a different
world.

Thank you, Peter Clark, whoever you are, you’ve created an unbreakable bond between myself and this little game.

No matter where I searched, I couldn’t find a solution, but I found a fair amount of complaints. Every complaint drew me to “Undo” more and more. Suddenly, I flashed back to my Comparative Literature course.

We were discussing Dante, specifically a canto in the Paradise bit that alluded to sex. The translator left an endnote that suggested he was infuriated by people interpreting the canto sexually. The professor responded to this by saying, when a piece of text causes the interpreter that much anxiety, there’s a reason to pay attention.

The same with Undo. It’s such a terribly short and rather obscure game, yet all I could find were complaints. Specifically, complaints by judges and reviewers who considered themselves experts. My respect for “Undo” grew with every quip about its unfairness and odd sense of humor. Something like this, shot down so quickly, obviously had some trait going for it.

Eventually, Mark worked out the solution to the game and texted me while my computer was busy vomiting (I’m having some technical issues this week). I’m going to post the solution here just in case anyone else is, sometime in the future, caught in my position with zero results on Google being helpful: Ask the frog about the hole, then the duck about the hole, then the frog about the duck, then go east. And no, I haven’t really ruined anything for anybody. The beauty isn’t in solving the puzzle; it’s in playing the game.

A game should be more than about getting to the end – and I think that’s what frustrated so many players, including myself, the fact that the end seemed impossible. But what kept me playing this game, instead of so many others, was the environment. It sucked in some ways, but it was immersive. The world had a personality, and it was easy to keep track of – only five rooms, each with a distinctive feature. It was an awesome experience. And through nothing but text!

I think there’s a lesson game developers, and even game players, could learn from “Undo”. I don’t think you’re necessarily meant to get to the end, so much as just play the game. In fact, the game begins at the ending, so to speak, as you’ll see when you play it. You’ll find the WinTADS interpreter here, and the game itself here. Give it a look.

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