Howard Phillip Lovecraft, who should need no introduction, kept a list of ideas. As far as I am aware, all writers (and most artists) do this in one form or another. I constantly struggle to keep my list compounded, as it organically tends to sprawl across several sketchbooks, notepads, and scraps of napkins and toilet paper. I only wish I had thought to come up with such a sublime title for my own collection of nonsense; Lovecraft called his “the Commonplace Book”:
LOVECRAFT’S COMMONPLACE BOOK is a written compilation of ideas: from 1919 to 1934, Lovecraft wrote down fragments, plot ideas and scenario outlines, all concrete elements he could put to use at any given time. The texts contain suggestions for story-writing as well as a list of ‘horror fundamentals’, intended to stimulate the imagination.
Gamers are generally surprised when the topic of new text-adventure games is brought up. Familiar as we are with pioneers of gaming such as Zork, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the idea that anyone still enjoys a rousing session of “guess what I want you to type” is baffling to most of us.
On the other hand, there is something to be said for any game that implants alien weevils in your head and expects you to type your way out of it.
Far be it from me to criticize this particular genre too harshly, seeing as I am occasionally employed as a cover artist (recognize the goblins?) by one of the leading interactive fiction studios, but I have never been much of a textual gamer. I readily admit to an Alice-in-Wonderlandian restlessness when presented with pictureless games, and favor my PSP over my DS primarily for reasons of graphics. And so it was with trepidation that I undertook a couple minigames from the Commonplace Book Project. I started with the website’s most highly-acclaimed game, Dead Cities. The game was built around a Commonplace entry that read “An impression – city in peril – dead city – equestrian statue – men in closed room – clattering of hooves heard from outside – marvel disclosed on looking out – doubtful ending.”
One time I picked my nose and was rewarded with a better plot outline than that, but I digress.
The absolute worst part of any text adventure game is the absence of a DWIM button. DWIM stands for Do What I Mean, and is usually overcome in the context of other genres by sheer firepower. Interactive fiction demands that you conform exactly to your script. The better the game, the more script branches have been set up for you. In the case of Dead Cities, everything I typed was met with stubborn misunderstanding, confusion, or was entirely ignored as the game marched on, with or without my participation.
The entranceway to the house, leading from the front door past the wooden stairs to the closed heavy oak door at the end. Various doors lead off on either side, with a long handrail running between them – clearly someone infirm has lived here long enough to adapt the place to their needs.
The rain continues outside unabated. Aside from your coat, you brought scant other possessions worth listing.
The maid follows you inside, wiping water off her face with her apron.
> BITCH, GET ME A TOWEL
You seem to want to talk to someone, but I can’t see whom.
Admittedly I was a little irritated at this point. I wanted to explore the nuance of the game, not be led around by the nose. I’m sorry I lost my temper; it won’t happen again. Ahem:
> MAID, GET ME A TOWEL
“I’m sure he’ll be very pleased to see you,” the maid replies.
> MAID, I WANT A GODDAMNED TOWEL
You don’t have anything to say.
I bloody well do!
The maid slams the front door behind you, shutting out the rain. “Nasty weather,” she complains. “Plays havoc with my teeth.”
> YOUR TEETH ARE HORRIBLE, OLD WOMAN
Years later, after I had sat through an actual exchange in which the old man in question made me type through searching about seven different places in the room for a book that he was sitting on, and then actually type “NEXT PAGE” several times in order to read the fucking thing, weird shit started to happen outside and I jumped through the window (like you do). The old man was already out there in a hail of gravel, being slowly beaten to a pulp. In an attempt to get some sense out of the old bat, I:
> HIT ARKWRIGHT
You wrap your fingers around his throat and begin to squeeze. The old man’s eyes light up with the sharpest flame for just a second and then begin to fizzle away, much like the rain has evaporated into stone. As he falls, so does darkest night, the heaviest cloud. The hail beats at your body like a drummer’s stick; you cling to the dead body in your hands for longer than you need to. Arkwright is quite dead, but as he predicted the world continues. The stone does not stop. You turn to flee, feeling a growing cold from inside your belly. A lack of action. A pause.
*** The End ***
What? Did I type STRANGLE or even KILL? How dare you. How dare you.
Disheartened, I moved on to Ecdysis:
Ecdysis is based on idea #221 of the Commonplace Book: “Insects or other entities from space attack and penetrate a man’s head and cause him to remember alien and exotic things–possible displacement of personality.”
> EAT LARVA
Which larva do you mean, the small larva, or the large larva?
> EAT SMALL LARVA
You grab the small larva and twist it, shake it, and smash it against the walls of the tunnel until it stops moving. Then you consume the creature, tearing it apart with your jaws and powerful tentacles. Viscera runs down your face. Finally you crack open its braincase, to get at the soft brain parts, which you consume with relish.
The other larva thrashes helplessly back and forth, unable to escape, forced to watch you devour its broodmate.
Now we’re cooking with Lovecraft! I would post more, but I frankly don’t want to spoil it for you. Ecdysis is highly recommended. There are multiple endings, the parser seems to have a sense of humor, and the writing and pacing is far superior to Dead Cities. Give it a shot.
The Commonplace Book Project [Illuminated Lantern Publishing]
As an aside, if any of you are in the Bay Area tonight, I am having an art show opening in Berkeley (Blow Salon, 2112 Berkeley Way). Even if you’re not big on art, I can guarantee the catering will be damn good. Stop by and say hello, and see what I do when I’m not cellotaped to the underside of Niero’s desk.