Best Games - The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
There was never any chance that text adventures would last. Not in any real way. There are a lot of people who still dabble in the genre, and a few techno hipsters that would swear up and down that text based games are more pure than games with graphics, or some such nonsense.
Text adventures were a stopgap of course. They were the best that developers could do with the resources that they had. If they could have made an interactive story with graphics and sound there is no way that they would ever have stuck with text. In a lot of ways, games like the Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect series are direct descendants of text adventures. Had it been possible to have your character walk through lavish locations rather than describing them in text, that’s what would have happened. It’s tough to get the same level of detail in 200 pixels with a pallet of 4 colors than you can in one well worded paragraph.
Text adventures were always destined to be overtaken. All of the great games from the text adventure era could be realized better today with a modern audio visual experience. All of them except one.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy banks entirely on the writing. Not writing in the sense of vibrant descriptions of locations, or interesting nuanced characters. The literal, one word following another to create a clever joke type of writing. The precise placement of words magic trick comedians tend to use to such great effect. The writing in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is all setup and punchline. Even the puzzles. Especially the puzzles. There are several occasions where the game plays with the text you type in to create either a setup or a punchline, as if the writers could predict your behaviour well enough to invite you to participate in the joke.
The game itself is damn near impossible to beat without repeated playthroughs. It might even be unfair from time to time, dangling an easy puzzle solution in front of you just to yank it away and then joke about it. I certainly never completed it, back when I was much younger, and slower at typing. I did keep playing it though, for the near endless supply of funny phrases, situations, and asides that could be unearthed from every command you punched into the text parser. I pull it up on one of the many places it can be played on the web, probably once a year at least. I play through until just after I get the babel fish and then usual mess up and have the game murder me in some hilarious fashion.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of the few games that was such a perfect blending of time, execution, and technology that I don’t think there is any way to meaningfully improve on it with new tools. Graphics wouldn’t improve it, and the only sound that could be added might be a skilled narrator. Specifically a skilled, british, narrator. You would probably do just as well to imagine John Cleese reading all the lines.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is still on the of the best games.
What you are really designing against is boredom. Somewhere along the path to writing that book or composing that song or staging that production, they have all had that thought. It might have been a twinging type of thought, ephemeral, just barely there and then gone. A thought not fully considered. Never rolled around the mind and tasted like rich liquor. The foremost design challenge is boredom.
This song has 4 verses rather than 5. The chorus repeats 6 times.
This play runs 1.5 hours not 2.
This movie is 128 minutes long instead of 115 or 132.
This chapter reads around 17 minutes long. This one 45. It includes the word “Floppily”
All tightly constructed, all timed and tuned and set to a metronome. Usually this tuning is done intuitively, often attributed to the influence of muses and artistic sprites. Make no mistake, designing against boredom is precise as surgery.
Maybe it is the infancy of the medium that is to blame, or the influence of large teams all pulling and stretching the design till it barely holds. Games have a boredom problem. Arguably the most exciting, engaging, visceral artform created by humans, and yet, most are deeply boring for long intervals. It’s the interactivity. It is very difficult to time and tune an experience when the jackass experiencing it is in control of the pacing. You can design the game, but you can’t design the player. If the player thinks that they need to walk everywhere in the world you have created, and they think that walking everywhere is boring, you won’t be in their home to point out that they are standing next to a horse. It won’t matter. They will be bored and quit your game, and maybe leave a bad Steam review. So instead, say that you attach a giant neon sign to the horse reading “Press x to ride horse”. If they player is somehow able to miss this sign horse combo, you have the horse make a lazy pass through the players field of view every minute or so. Some players, occasionally even the ones that would have missed the horse outright, will feel patronized and offended that the sign is there, leading rapidly to boredom and the same poor Steam review.
How then, to ensure that players don’t become bored while playing, or become bored while you try to explain to them how to not be bored while playing. I honestly wish I knew. I have narrowed the problem space down for you considerably though. Any design task, any edit, any refinement, should only ever have to answer the question, is this boring. More to the point, would someone else find this boring.
BOO! (you know, to combat the boredom)
I think pro wrestling is awesome. I try to stay current with the personalities and performers. I have read no fewer than four books by wrestlers about wrestling. At least the book jackets said that they were written by those wrestlers. I actively seek out news about the current state of wrestling every few months. I find the whole business fascinating. Now I haven’t actually watched a whole pro wrestling show in at least a decade. I have watched a few isolated matches, some great japanese and mexican stuff, a couple of smaller american promotions. I started out this paragraph by stating that I think pro wrestling is awesome. As a concept, I do, but I also think that, as presented, it is pretty terrible most of the time.
I like the absurdity. Giant muscley men, and increasingly women, yelling about how badly they are going to injure one another. They then engage in precision acrobatics and careful, practiced, stunt work in an effort to ensure that none of them are ever actually injured. Occasionally one of the characters will be particularly odd, or the audience will be informed that a wrestler has some sort of super power or magical ability. The more absurd it is, the more I enjoy it. If a well performed wrestling show was put together where every single character was a bizarre superhuman or wizard or alien or something, I would be all over that. Any time a wrestling show attempts to dip into some sort of realism, or plays off relationship problems, or interpersonal squabbles, I rapidly lose interest. None of those storylines jibe with the rest of the proceedings. The more ridiculous the move, the more preposterous the spot, the more pro wrestling works. Saddling that with a narrative about one of the performer's personal lives is kind of gross. The story and the action are at odd with each other.
I have talked a bit about how games like Uncharted fall into this same trap. The attempt to humanize the player character during the story beats falls flat when he or she is essentially a walking tank through the gameplay sections. The only way to balance this dichotomy is to either let the story blaze off into the realm of the fantastical, or reduce the action to something believable. Through the century or so of pro wrestling history, the issue of story being at odds with presentation has seemingly not been solved.
Comics, specifically superhero comics, tend to skirt the issue of story and action subverting one another by making sure that all proceedings live fully in the realm of the absurd. Super powered humans clad in flashy primary colors defending the city, the planet, the universe, from equally bizarre villains. This is where myths live. This is the territory of gods and monsters, titans and demons. When anything is possible, nothing seems corny or trite.
Something very interesting happens when your characters and narrative occupy this heightened state of fantasy. A small, quiet, personal moment from the likes of a Batman or Superman can land with all of the emotional intensity of the finest drama. Spider-Man can make you cry, Daredevil can test the boundaries of your empathy, and Galactus can make you consider your small and profound place in the universe.
Absurd is never the tagline. Absurd is not the word that hollywood and literary luminaries use to pitch projects. The words gritty or grounded or realistic get tossed around. We’ve been there. Pro wrestling attempts gritty or grounded week in and week out, with almost universally awful results. Absurd, works. Absurd opens the door for affecting metaphor, for illuminating the personal and small by contrast with the inconceivably large. Let absurd be your watchword.
I have been doing a lot of 3D modelling lately. The tools I have to work with now are so much better, so much richer, more stable, and capable than anything I ever used in the past. This isn’t because, Blender, the suite of tools I am using is any better than the others available. In fact, strong arguments could be made to the contrary. Maya, Houdini, ZBrush, and 3D Studio Max, are all probably better in some ways than Blender. Still, through the march of time, all of the tools currently in use are quite simply the best they have ever been. Almost none of this clever software design makes it easier to make a model.
You might think that new tools would simplify the process. What took artists ages to create for Jurassic Park would now be somehow boiled down to a “Make Dinosaur” button. The tools are a bit more glossy, and profoundly faster and more stable than they used to be, but the process of creating a model or animating a character hasn’t really changed much since I started working with 3D programs in the late 90s.
Some of that might seem obvious. Pencils haven’t changed much since people found you can scrape a burnt stick across a rock. The fundamentals of animation, putting one picture after another and playing them back as a continuous stream hasn’t changed for a century. But 3D modelling and animation is high tech stuff, and high tech stuff is supposed to grow and evolve in great revolutionary waves. Most of what I do still consists of shifting vertices around a 3 dimensional grid and managing layers of interrelated data. Everything is still built of triangles.
A few times, just this week, I have been reminded that what I do is more about very basic geometry than any particular new tool. It’s more about cascading inheritance of data down a long chain of subtle operations than the whizz-bang of a new digital sculpting tool. There is a reason why every athlete with media training has the line “we just have to work on the fundamentals” tucked in their back pocket. Fundamentals is all there really is. Once you grasp the fundamentals, anything else, any other advanced feature or time saving technique, is just a choice. You can take it or leave it.
If you want to learn 3D modelling or animation, learn about geometry, learn about organizing data. Everything else, every other tool, every other technique, is a preference. Do what makes you happy.