Monday, 22 July 2013

Linden’s adventure products: dio and Versu

The second of two articles this month for AVENUE magazine.



Just over a year ago (February 2012), we discovered that Linden Lab had acquired experimental game studio Little Text People, a venture set up by Artificial Intelligence specialist Richard Evans and Interactive Fiction author Emily Short. The day after the purchase, Linden CEO Rod Humble left comments on the New World Notes blog which indicated the company was developing new products that had nothing to do with Second Life®. Rumours had been circulating the previous year that Linden were interested in developing text adventures, although a tweet by Humble in September 2011 had appeared to deny this.


Twelve months later, Linden have launched first ‘dio’ (at the end of January) and then ‘Versu’ (in the middle of February), and we have not one but two new products based around the text adventure genre, the first a web-based platform and the second an iOS app. Neither are in any way related to SL, and if it wasn’t for the banner ads for Versu recently added to the SL website, you could be forgiven for having completely failed to notice these new companions to our beloved digital world in its parent’s product portfolio; nothing about these launches has so far (at the time of writing) been announced on the SL site. This does though add some possible light to the sudden flurry of posts since the start of the year in the ‘Featured News’ section of the SL dashboard: perhaps Linden are hoping new users of these two products might pay SL a visit and want their engagement with the community to appear a little more, well, in existence.

Dating back to 1975, text adventures started out as games where descriptions of locations were given in text and you were able to move around and do things by typing in simple instructions such as ‘Go north’ and ‘Get sword’ and ‘Kill troll’. In the very first text adventure, for example (‘Colossal Cave Adventure’, written by Will Crowther), players were greeted with the following at the start of the game:

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.

Typing, ‘Go in’ then gave this update:

You are inside a building, a well house for a large spring. There are some keys on the ground here. There is a shiny brass lamp nearby.

Games were eventually completed by using objects found such as the keys and the lamp to solve problems encountered. A darkened room, for example, might yield no secrets without that shiny brass lamp lit, but you might have to source oil and matches elsewhere before you could do that.

Text adventures were popular in the very early days of home computing, with titles such as the 1982 adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit achieving over a million sales in the UK. As the graphical capabilities of those machines developed, however, the more immediate appeal of arcade style games swiftly pushed adventures out of the mainstream market. But a small and dedicated community of writers and players remained loyal to the genre and new games have continued to be created ever since. Whilst they might be more difficult to get into initially than a game of Space Invaders, text adventures can be very immersive once you’ve got your head around them and the pleasure at solving a complex problem is immense.

Two key developments in adventures as the memory capacity of computers grew were the addition of pictures to location descriptions in some games (though these were still considered ‘text adventures’ since the medium of interaction remained text) and a greater focus on the quality of writing. The text descriptions in very early games were necessarily short and functional since anything more indulgent would have quickly filled up memory; as this ceased to be a limiting factor, however, more lengthy and literate narratives could be created. Over time, the term ‘interactive fiction’ became adopted to reflect this shift towards more immersive writing. Today, the term ‘text adventure’ is often used to refer to games where the focus is on solving puzzles and moving around an environment, and the term ‘interactive fiction’ used to refer to games where the focus is on narrative. This is a useful distinction for the exploration of Linden’s new products, since dio would appear to be built around the text adventure approach and Versu is very much a platform for interactive fiction.

In fact, one of the first adventures to be found at dio (www.dio.com), which you access via the web and can log into using your Facebook account, is an implementation of none other than Will Crowther‘s Colossal Cave Adventure (https://www.dio.com/places/colossal-cave). The dio approach, however, does not require anything to be typed in: instead, the options available to you in any given location are arranged down the left hand side of the screen like the navigation buttons of a turn-of-the-century web page. The location text, pictures and messages display in a frame in the middle of the screen and there is space to the right of this for visitors to leave their comments. For me, the photographic illustrations instantly cheapened the feel of the Colossal Cave Adventure, but then text adventure enthusiasts always did argue that graphics ruined the visuals. Moreover, the arrangement of text and pictures on some of the dio titles feels a little ‘scrapbook’. Still, it’s early days. The first blogs were hardly works of art either.

But it’s not just adventure games that can be created using dio. A text description of a place could be a real place or an historic place or a remembered place or a hypothetical place. A teacher could create a Victorian street of shops for pupils to explore. Distant relatives could create ‘tourable’ versions of their homes to show off. Holiday photos of places visited could be linked together as an album of pictures and jotted down memories. And so on. In a sense, dio kind of does for text adventures what SL did for first person shooter games: it takes a way of exploring an environment and broadens this beyond merely ‘game’. dio ‘places’ are not just restricted to spatial environments either: suggestions made on the site for content include hobbies and interests, such as dios that show off any collections you might have (think places on a shelf). This, therefore, is Linden’s ‘Pinterest Product’, a new way for linking pictures and text that challenges the dominance of the blog and Facebook format: items linked conceptually rather than chronologically. At a simplistic level, it could just be used as a website creation tool.

Versu (www.versu.com), on the other hand, is only a dedicated interactive fiction platform, the obvious outcome of the purchase of Little Text People. Currently only available as an app for Apple devices, the download comes with three free stories and a fourth available to purchase – all written by award winning interactive fiction writer Emily Short. No doubt, the range of titles for sale will grow over time, especially once users are able to generate their own content. Currently this isn’t an option, although there are plans to introduce it in the future.

The Short stories are a collection of nineteenth century tales, the freebies consisting of ‘An Introduction to Society’, a Versu tutorial that follows schoolgirl Lucy taking instruction from her grandmama on how to behave in polite society, ‘The Unwelcome Proposal’, an adaption of Mr Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, and ‘The House on the Cliff’, a mystery story taking place on an apparently empty estate following a horse and carriage accident. On entering a story, the reader is given a choice of characters to play and narrative is presented from that person’s perspective from that point onwards.

As with dio, there is no text input for the Versu stories and your options are made available via menus. Don’t mistake this for a simple system, however: the options available are numerous. When Lucy takes tea with her grandmama, for example, these include stirring her tea, sipping it, slurping it, checking the level in the teapot, pouring out a cup for Grandmama, spilling a cup on Grandmama and many more besides. The response of other characters to your actions will depend upon a number of factors, including their personality, abilities and mood. And all of this complexity is gift-wrapped in Short’s sumptuous narrative and accompanied by beautiful line art illustrations. Overall, they brilliantly showcase Versu as a reading experience and set a high standard for future authors to live up to. I hope there will be more titles available soon.

Blogoshpere comment on dio and Versu at the time of writing is sparse, since they are both still very recent releases. Some initial disappointment has been expressed that two products which appear at face value to do a similar thing are not compatible with each other. dio and Versu, however, are conceptually different things and targeted at different audiences. They both have immense potential as content platforms and of course both will succeed or fail depending on the content created for them. I used to write text adventures many years ago and I like both of these products. I have two new toys to play with, therefore, which take me back to a way of thinking about stories that I haven’t entertained for a long time. That they both come from Linden – the company responsible for the product that has perhaps most engaged my imagination and creativity over the last ten years – is just the icing on the cake.

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