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Indie Nation #48: Aisle

2:20 PM on 01.30.2009 // Anthony Burch

I don't consider myself at all knowledgeable about text adventures, but it bears mentioning that of the dozen or so I've played to completion, I've totally fallen in love with at least three. 

My favorite of the three is Photopia. My third favorite is Gun Mute. This week, I'll focus on the remaining game.

Aisle is one of the shortest text adventures ever, and also one of the longest.  If you want to know what makes the game so damned interesting, you'll probably figure it out for yourself if you just follow the link and type something -- anything -- in.

If you're horrendously lazy, however, you can just hit the jump as I explain why I like it so much. 

[Thanks to sbshootme for suggesting this in the Photopia Indie Nation.]

The first few times I played through Aisle, I tended to make the protagonist do or think negative things. I don't know if this was due to my life situation at the time, or if that's just the way I approach videogames, but I assumed that (despite the disclaimer at the beginning of the game) there was really only one protagonist, and by entering in different things I was simply getting different reactions out of the same guy while learning more about his singular past.

When I, on a whim, decided to "find Clare," and I actually did, I was initially bummed out. I wanted the game to be a story of misery and loneliness and regret, and all I have to do is "smile" or "call Clare" to make it happy? What a cop-out, I thought. 

Though I still feel the game overwhelmingly tends to lean toward the more tragic side of things, making those few happiness-inducing commands feel random and surprising, I don't mind the fact that there isn't just one protagonist, just one story. Aisle, unlike other text adventures, doesn't ask the player to partake in a role so much as it asks us to explore the possibilities of a single moment, suspended in time. Whatever suggestion we give to the storyteller creates an entire universe of context and consequence in which that action fits. 

Though I initially wanted the action "call Clare" to result in the protagonist helplessly shouting her name to the heavens before collapsing in a sobbing heap of pasta and hate, I kind of dig the fact that somewhere, somehow, there's a version of the protagonist who, somehow, achieved happiness. His happiness may not be as easily found as his misery (which is, in its own way, a pretty honest description of reality), but it's still hidden there, somewhere. There are a million lives and a million stories, and some of them turn out differently than others (I didn't even find the "scooter accident" backstory until replaying it today for the purposes of writing this article).

Leaving the thematic and narrative stuff to the side for a moment, Aisle is more successful than most interactive fictions I've played because it doesn't have to deal with any of the major problems associated with so many IFs -- there's no inventory management, no spatial navigation, no constant irritation that the parser won't recognize what you want it to do. The parser is still relatively limited, of course, but given the game's focus on this single moment in time, almost any believable action (and a few unbelievable) will elicit some sort of individual response, and that immediate feedback will make you want to play again and again and again. Where the worst text adventures feel like LucasArts adventure games with all the graphics removed, Aisle is something that could not be done in any other medium.

It may not be a "game" so much as a piece of interactive story exploration (like Photopia), but it's "games" like this (and again, Photopia) that made me realize I don't mind interactive stories. There are no rules or goals in Aisle, but it does what it does so effectively and imaginatively that I don't find myself wringing my hands over its non-gameness the way I did with The Graveyard.




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