Pictures of the Mind

Today, I ask the question, does entertainment require pictures?

The obvious answer is, “no.” People enjoy books without pictures. Music is fine without an accompanying music video. Both forms of entertainment often leave the visuals up to the imagination. Ideally, your brain fills out the experience in engaging ways.

I am obsessed with interactive fiction. To be more precise, I have spent a lot of time thinking about text-based games, a sub-category of interactive fiction.

This kind of game probably started in the margins of text books. On the upper left of the inside cover, you would find something like, “Turn to page 23.”¬† The bottom of page 23 would have an instruction to turn to page 16, which would take you to page 76, and finally to page 42 to read the message, “You are a dummy.” Nice payoff.

At some point, a bright lawyer, Edward Packard, during his daily commute devised the mechanic for choose-your-own-adventure stories. You are (sort of) in control of how the story unfolds, making key decisions at the ends of the chapters. Packard and another gentleman wrote a series of books that were popular when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s.

Computers are all about information and branching logic, so they are a natural tool for hosting modern “pick your path” style games. Imagine the available options auto-magically readjusting based on previous behavior, AI, and a bit of randomness.

That kind of adaptation is impossible (or at least highly impractical) in print. So most interactive fiction is played on computers. For that reason, the category expands well beyond simple text-based games. An obvious enhancement is to add graphics, first for the “cover” art, followed by chapter illustrations. Some forms allow you to create an avatar and place you in immersive scenes.

My interactive fiction platform StoryTime is still exclusively in the text-only camp. That’s more due to the limitations of my time and skills than some conscious choice. I use the system as a way to practice programming, and being a team of one only takes things so far. C’est la vie.

Some platforms choose to keep pictures out of the mix. Choice Of Games successfully sticks to text, touting the power of the imagination, rather than being spoon-fed eye candy (my tongue-in-cheek characterization).

From their website:

By using text, we can interact with the imagination in different ways from a graphics-based game. We can also allow game designers to quickly and inexpensively produce games in comparison with graphics-based games.

I agree. I also appreciate the practicality of their message. Good writing takes time for one writer and an editor. Producing a game with compelling visuals takes a lot longer and requires more skill sets, which means larger teams and a bigger budget.

While I may be biased by the limitations of my own platform, the case for text-only adventures is strong.

Another favorite of mine is TriadCity by SmartMonsters. This text-based adventure explores the idea of a game as literature. To quote from the TriadCity website,

We find that our own ability to form excellent pictures in imagination is more fulfilling. And, blind and visually impaired players are first-class citizens in TriadCity.

That quote exposes another way to extend text-based games, by having them read so that people who cannot see can enjoy them. This twist is not as obvious to those of us with working vision. Ironically, it may be the ease with which we take in supplied images that deadens our ability to have visions of our own.

Did you notice how we crossed over to the realm of sound? There’s another form of entertainment that hearkens back to the days when a “radio” was a giant novelty box that sat in your living room. Well, not your living room, but those of your ancestors. Of course, I mean theater of the mind.

This form of entertainment blossomed again with podcasting. When podcasting was new in the mid-2000s, the character John Bell came to life in Bell’s in the Batfry, with a whole cast of characters primarily voiced by Bell himself. John, a.k.a. Professor Zounds, is a talented voice actor with a sense of humor that has me guffawing in just about every episode.

Have you heard old-time radio programs? You have to think of ones like The Shadow that haven’t (to my knowledge) been portrayed on television or other visual media. Do you have a picture of what the characters look like, even though you have never seen them? This can happen over a conference call with someone you just “met” on the phone.

The same is true of Bell’s in the Batfry. The show revolves around him trying to produce a podcast with his cohorts: the inventor Arnie, the ad man Brad, the science professor Mr. Whizzr’d (who likes to torture his assistant Billy with his experiments), and the ditsy by lovable Miss Schmacklehiemer, to name just a few. It does not take long to imagine how these characters look, although each listener’s rendition is certainly different.

To bring this to a close, many forms of amusement rely on the creativity of the reader or listener to supply the visuals. So it’s okay for games to impose the same constraint on players. The best part of the game might be what the player brings to it. Don’t count on it, though. You’ll need to supply plenty of context for most people to follow.

Once you have the text-only basics worked out, you can always think of ways to introduce visuals and sounds without disrupting the intended effects.

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