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Bending Reality to my Will - A New Appreciation For Gardening

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November 25th, 2012

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01:52 pm - A New Appreciation For Gardening
I've just finished, er, something. "...reading a graphic novel?" No. "...playing a game?" Kind of. "...having an experience?" Closer. "...experiencing Botanicula." That'll have to do.

Botanicula is a computer program/game/graphic novel from Amanita Design, which came to me via the Humble Bundle program, and it's a stunning example of what's possible when you really take advantage of what a computer can bring to the art of telling a story.

First, though, a brief recap of history, starting with the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Literature with hyperlinks in the dead tree medium. Although illustrated, they were still fundamentally a text-based story. Much less well known are Infocom's computerized comic books of the time. They released three titles that were a cross between a traditional comic book and a computer game, where the story line was presented with different perspectives and one could switch back and forth between them. The release of HyperCard for the Macintosh helped spur computer-based interactive fiction. In fact, while researching this post, I discovered that Myst was originally written in HyperCard.

I think these days there are some parallel-ish developments. Or maybe they're converging. It's hard to say. I've seen very little contemporary hypertext literature. I think that is, in part, because it's just so hard to do. A writer already has monumental challenges just making a classic linear narrative compelling and engaging. If the reader is allowed to wander around the text, experiencing things in (at best) a semi-predictable order, it's so much harder to get the story's events and characters to set up the story arc in a way that will leave the reader satisfied.

Then there's "interactive fiction," or IF. I am not really satisfied with the current trends in IF because the term is used primarily for what most people think of as "text adventures," of which the original was Collossal Cave, and the most famous being Infocom's Zork games. There is innovative work being done in this area, but it is still very much focused on working through the command-line interface, where a 'reader' will type things like "go west," "pick up the letter," and the like. There are many potential ways to interact with fiction other than typing words at a prompt, but what I feel are some of the most innovative and promising approaches aren't really encompassed by the IF community as such.

In fact, most of the best "interactive fiction" I've seen in the past few years has caught me by surprise because the work presented itself as a computer game. Alas, this belief that a computer program designed to entertain must by definition be a game is (I think) the cause of what I think have been the major flaws in the works I've enjoyed. To illustrate why, I need to tell you about my encounter with "Millenium."

In the late 1980's, my computer of choice was the late, lamented, way-ahead-of-its-time Amiga, and, like many computer owners of the time, there was a certain percentage of the programs in my floppy case that were illegal copies. I wasn't as avid as some of my friends, but there were certainly a couple of occasions when I got together with a fellow Amiga owner and we'd spend time running some kind of copy-protection-bypass program and swapping software.

During one of these sessions, I acquired a program called "Millenium." Since my friend didn't have the original box it came in, I didn't know anything about it. So, when I popped it into the drive and launched it, the initial screen was pretty baffling: a picture that was fairly obviously some kind of moon base. Most of the systems were deactivated. I eventually found a button that activated a power plant, which provided enough power to activate the computer, which . . .

It was obviously a "game," but for me, it really wasn't much of a challenge. With very few exceptions, the next action I should take seemed pretty obvious. What I didn't know was why I was managing a moon base in the first place. The backstory unfolded piece by piece while I took care of my various tasks; the fact that something catastrophic had happened on Earth (but what?), and that there were other colonies in the system (somewhere? friendly?).

When I finally "won the game," I felt like I'd been watching a movie or reading a book, more than playing a game, and I loved it! I strongly suspected that, had I bought the game in the store, a lot of the backstory would have been plastered all over the box, and I was very glad I hadn't seen it, because the gradual unfolding of the context was, for me, the best part.

Now, as it happens, if you want to retrace my journey, you probably can, because it wasn't hard for me to dig up the details of that mysterious game. Its full name was "Millenium 2.2", released for the Atari and Amiga, and for DOS as "Millennium: Return to Earth." There's a Wikipedia entry which you should avoid, since it pretty much spoils the entire storyline in the first paragraph. Even better, they re-released the game (for I must assume, Windows, since the download file contains only an *.exe file, although the web page totally neglects to provide any information about the system required) in 2006. Again, avoid the "readme.txt" file if you want to experience it as a movie/novel, because the designers clearly see it as a game, so most of the context is spelled out in a few paragraphs right at the beginning of the file.

"Botanicula", delightfully, didn't try to tell me what it was about. Well, okay, when you start, there's a 'cinematic' sequence that sets up the story line, but mostly it's a game of discovery. It's entirely wordless; the story is told through the animation and the sounds made by the objects in the game. It reminded me of the movie Yellow Submarine and the animated series Samurai Jack on more than one occasion. It's surreal and beautiful and unexpected. It has a sonic background/soundtrack that adds immensely to the experience.

I only wish it weren't as much of a game as it is. "It's a game! There must be puzzles! The player must solve the puzzles!" I eventually got tired of the story grinding to a halt because I couldn't figure out what the **** I was supposed to do, and found a walk-through. Still, "Botanicula" is, for me, hugely better than many other similar games I've played because it seemed less obsessed with forcing me to be clever than many of them. You still need to be familiar with this genre, and know that you will spend a fair amount of time waving your mouse pointer around the screen looking for objects that change the pointer from the arrow to the hand. But Botanicula's art and design do a really good job of cueing those 'hot spots.' Each screen tends to be fairly minimal, and the objects you are likely to interact with are clear and sharp; objects that are decorative are usually slightly out of focus.

Arrows appear readily to show you where the exits are from the screen. Sound effects usually clearly informed me if I'd started a sequence of events that were good, if I'd found the right button but didn't have the right item with me to complete it, or if they were just amusing toys added for fun. Generally, I was led, gently but firmly, from chapter to chapter of the story.

It's rather the antithesis of a first person shooter, in that most of it happens at an easy, measured pace. Things float, drift, flutter, flex, bend, and sway much more than they snap, pop, explode, flash, or blink. Everything's small, and cute, except for the bad things, which are deliciously scary, rather than horrifyingly evil.

Except for the worm and star. There's a point near the middle of the game where the job is to move a star through a maze before a worm catches up to it, and this bit resembles nothing so much as those wooden marble maze games where you have to tilt the board to get the ball through the maze without dropping it into a hole. I was infuriated when I hit that stupid thing. Maybe if I'd had a mouse with the sensitivity dialed down, or a good trackball, it would have been okay, but with the trackpad on my laptop, mastering that stupid maze to get the star through fast enough was going to take me hours of trying over and over again, and there was no way I was going to waste that much of my life just to finish this story.

It turned out that there was a trick. It wasn't in the walk-through I had, but rather in Amanita's discussion group, and it's so non-obvious that the person who posted it speculated that it might have been an unintentional bug. There's a loop near the beginning of the maze, and if you take the star around the loop and back to the start, the worm gets confused and heads toward the end of the maze, You can then follow along behind it. When it gets to the end, it turns around and goes back to the start, so you have to move the star into a side branch as it passes, and you still have to complete the maze before the worm gets back to the beginning or the star just resets, but it's still vastly easier to complete the maze in the time it takes the worm to traverse the entire maze forwards and backwards rather than the time it takes for it to just catch up to you.

I think this is the key difference between thinking of something like "Botanicula" as a work of interactive fiction vs. a game. If it's a game, then you're going to think in terms of "winning" and "losing." If it's a story, then you should plan to make sure that every reader will be able to finish it. A writer doesn't want a reader to feel like they've "lost" when reading a novel. "Yea, I couldn't finish it, so I gave up and read something else." Yikes.

I can't really fault Amanita, though, because they clearly think of it as a game. And yet, it is so close to working as a brilliant and innovative interactive graphic novel. All it would need is some mechanism(s) for graceful challenge decay. If somebody spends more than a certain amount of time wandering back and forth without obtaining a token or entering new territory or whatnot, then some subtle hinting might appear. Make the little creature start peeking out or rustling the leaf its hiding behind. Have an arrow appear briefly to suggest a direction to travel. Have one of the characters pop up a thought balloon suggesting a course of action. If I'm wandering around stuck, I wouldn't mind just pacing back and forth trying random crap if I knew that eventually I'll either find what I'm missing or the game will give me a clue.

As it is, I'm pretty sure the game will let me wander around indefinitely without helping me along, and there were at least three places during the game where, when I resorted to reading the walk-through to find out how to advance, I said "there's no f***ing way I would ever have thought to try something as nonsensical as that!!" Now, there were also times when I *did* think to try something pretty nonsensical, but each reader is going to have different moments of "aha!"

So in a sense, as a work of fiction, it's a failure. It's unreadable unless you have the Cliff Notes to hand, or annotations, or what have you. But it and Trauma (which I described in a Google+ post as 'Deft, dream-like, and fairly short, [striking] a delicate balance between "too obvious" and "too obscure." Delightful.') are still very satisfying, engaging, and immersive. I recommend them both.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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[User Picture]
Date:November 26th, 2012 02:38 pm (UTC)
Out of curiosity, have you looked at either My Secret Hideout or Meanwhile?

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