Review of Graham Nelson's 'The Craft of Adventure'

By Mark Silcox

So you've decided to write an IF game. You're sitting in a darkened room, text editing program open and at the ready (unless you're one of those bright lights who's made the move to ADRIFT, in which case you're staring disconsolately at a flashy-lookin' GUI instead). And The Muse, having inspired you earlier on this week with a stunningly novel and artistically potent idea for an original interactive narrative, has returned to her home in Adam Cadre's basement without having bothered to fill you in on how to actually set about constructing such a tale in a stepwise manner, from hard code through testing and debugging to releasing the finished product. Where, oh where, can you turn for inspiration?

Well, there's actually an easy answer to this question - you need to go read Graham Nelson's celebrated series of essays "The Craft of Adventure." Nelson is a giant on the IF landscape - he created INFORM, the most powerful and widely used IF coding language, and wrote two monumentally successful (and almost insanely complicated) IF games, "Curses!" and "Jigsaw," both of have been part of the IF 'canon' ever since their release. In addition to being a programming genius and a world-class game designer, he's got a wonderfully funny, professorial-but-offhand writing style that makes TCOA a pleasure to read from start to finish. What he tries to do in these essays is to provide a set of rules, pointers and suggestions for the neophyte IF writer that will help him/her to put together a structured, playable game while avoiding some of the obvious technical and stylistic pitfalls of the genre. I think everyone who's ever read these essays from start to finish would have to agree that he's succeeded wonderfully in achieving this aim - what follows, then, must be considered less a review per se than a 'celebration' of Nelson's accomplishment, supplemented by a few very minor quibbles where his opinions do not square exactly with my own.

My very favorite part of TCOA is the first essay. Here, Nelson provides a kind of potted history of the steps that led up to the writing of "Zork I," the commercial text adventure that first brought IF into the cultural mainstream. Nelson ingeniously decides to go considerable further back in history than the dawn of the PC revolution, all the way to the discovery of the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the setting for Willie Crowther's very early work "Colossal Cave" which was the original precursor to "Zork." The story is a fascinating one, and raises many interesting questions about the possible similarities between IF addiction and other, superficially quite different sorts of avocations, like crawling around underground in the dark sniffing the air and looking for undiscovered passages. It has long been a secret fantasy of mine to see some of the most gifted authors of IF slip into a miner' helmet and some steel-toed boots and head out to Kentucky to get back to their roots - perhaps one day I'll set up a 'field trip' through this site...

Most of the rest of TCOA consists of an enumeration of certain sorts of "dos" and "don'ts" for the IF writer. These range from the fairly obvious (e.g. "Enough with the mazes!") to the insightful ("No puzzles that you need to die once to solve." - Are you listening, Mr. Plotkin?) to the somewhat dubious. Probably the most memorable formula from TCOA is Nelson' often-quoted remark that an IF narrative is "a crossword at war with a narrative." To the novice author he offers this rather curious piece of advice:

There's a fine line between a challenge and a nuisance: the designer has to think, first and foremost, like a player (not an author, and certainly not a programmer).

I'm less than entirely comfortable with this description of how IF writing works, myself. To suggest that there should be a sort of parity between the telling of stories and the construction of mere puzzles seems to me to underrate the possibilities of IF as an art form. There has really only ever been one reason why puzzles show up so reliably in IF narratives: they're there as part of the genre's commercial heritage. When one is trying to sell a piece of software for $30-$50 it simply cannot be the sort of thing that can be entirely consumed in half a dozen one hour sittings. Anyone involved in commercial PC or console game design who's being honest will tell you that precisely the same rationale lies behind the inevitable presence of "combat" in contemporary games that are themselves truly memorable only because of the stories they tell or the visions they offer, rather than simply because they offer the satisfaction of splattering baddies. But f you can't make a game that takes forty hours to play, the masses will feel gypped if you don't sell it at a reasonable price. And fifty bucks just ain't reasonable.

Of course, this is a crude oversimplification. Part of what makes IF distinctive is that the stories it tells are always 'non-linear,' or else at the very least discontinuous in structure, and the presence of puzzles will always be an important device for bringing this about. Still, Nelson's enthusiasm for old-fashioned, puzzle-heavy IF occasionally leads him into a somewhat excessive Puritanism. He repeatedly expresses a preference for more 'austere' styles of writing of the sort that one finds in the original Crowther/Woods version of "Adventure," or in classic Infocom games like "Trinity" and "Plundered Hearts" rather than the more rococo offerings of writers like Steve Meretzky or Magnetic Scrolls' Michael Bywater, (two of my own all time favorites). He shuns historical anachronism and self-reflexivity with a vehemence that makes one long to write about a medieval toaster salesman who makes wisecracks about the weakness of a game's parser.

Even when he's giving rather questionable advice, though, Nelson never fails to sound sage and amusing, and his remarks have a rather quaint air of finality that occasionally remind one of a favorite grandparent who was full of wit and wisdom but never quite got over the advent of punk haircuts. Certainly, there isn't a single text in existence that does a better job of giving practical advice to the new writer of IF, and those of us who've been doing it for a while would benefit from going back to TCOA at least once every year for a refreshing reminder about How Not To Suck.

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