I’ve recently started a podcast called Text Adventure Purgatory wherein myself and several friends play and talk about Text Adventures/Interactive Fiction. Doing so has crystalized, in my mind, a few thoughts have been in mere fluid suspension in the back of my head about games and fun in general.

“A Theory of Fun for Game Design,” by Raph Koster asserts the following basic premise: fun is learning. This predicts that if a game offers to you a system which you can learn, then you will have fun playing it up until you have exhausted either the system or your capacity to continue learning about it. It’s silly to suggest that this theory covers everything that is fun or everything we might want to assert is a game (this kind of idealism is counterproductive in any context, if you ask me), but it is, I would argue, a useful one.

What is learning, anyway? I think neuroscience and contemporary machine learning techniques (which are inspired by and inspire neuroscience) can provide us with a useful model of the process: learning is an optimization problem which attempts to map inputs onto “desired” outputs or outcomes. Eg: the pixels (and their history) on a screen are mapped by our brains into a series of button presses which result in Mario reaching the end of the screen, where he touches the flag pole. Better than just describing the process, we now have a reasonable idea of how it happens too, and how to imitate the process in software.

There are lots of techniques for the latter, but they basically boil down to optimizing an objective function (the mapping from input to output) by exploring the input space, finding, and following trends in the output space. That is, start with a naive model, take some characteristic input data, apply the model to it, measure the outcome, make small changes to the model to improve the outcome (lots of strategies for this step), repeat until the model behaves well enough for your purposes. In the brain this happens by adjusting synaptic weights (and other physiological properties) of the neurons in question. In computerized learning systems this occurs by modifying the numerical parameters of the model.

Now we are ready for the point of this reflection: text adventures and interactive fiction provide too sparse a set of inputs and outputs to meaningfully train a system for playing. They (generally, I’m sure exceptions exist or attempt to exist) don’t provide a rich enough state space for learning, and hence they aren’t fun in the way that “A Theory of Fun” proposes we interpret that word.

What do I mean by “too sparse?” I mean, for one thing, that for any state in the game I can specify some non-perverse measure of similarity and value for that measure which has the following property: there will be no neighboring states included within that boundary. This is in contrast to games which involve simulated motion in space, which is, for the purposes of our discussion, continuous (that computers actually only simulate discrete spaces is not really material to the discussion: they are discrete spaces of sufficient granularity that our brains perceive them to be continuous).

For instance, there is a state in Deadline, the infocom game we played for several episodes in TAP, wherein the player character has discovered several pieces of broken china in the rose garden near the balcony of the library in which a murder has taken place. We arrive at this state only and exactly when a particular sequence of events (amounting, in isolation, to a few turns in the right order) has occured. There is nothing to refine about the process of reaching this state: either you perform the sequence of actions that produce this outcome or you do not so perform them.

A bit of reflection reveals how much in contrast this is with more typical videogames: in Super Mario Brothers, for instance, there are effectively an infinite number of ways to touch (to specify a single instance) the final flagpole in each level. As we vary the exact moment we press the jump botton, where we jump from, how long we hold it, how long we have run before, we refine the final state of interest and can find a solution which maximizes our height on the pole. There is a continuum of input states and output states (and a clear way of measuring our success) which allows those learning circuits (to use a drastically oversimplifying colloquialism) to grab onto something.

When playing a text adventure, in contrast, we essentially have nothing to do but explore, often by brute force, the state space the game gives us branch by branch until we find the final state. This is not usually fun, and using the context clues embedded in the text rarely helps: they can be either obtuse, in which case we are in the first strategy, or obvious, in which case there isn’t much to do but follow their instructions and traverse the graph. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that text adventures present themselves to us as text, creating the illusion of a rich, detailed world where, computationally, the exact opposite is true: everything reduces to a set of nodes connected by edges. Labeling more than one of those edges as “ending” the game helps a little: we can repeat the experience and land at different ending nodes by virtue of knowledge obtained on previous playthroughs, but we are still jumping for discrete state to discrete state, connected by discrete edges of low cardinality.

This isn’t a dig at interactive fiction: it is a way of explaining why it doesn’t “play like” other kinds of videogames, despite sharing a medium (computers). Novels, for instance, are even more restricted than interactive fiction: they proceed only and exactly in one way and come to life only and exactly as we read them.

Maybe these reflections tell us what we already know: that interactive fiction is more literature than game and that we should look elsewhere than traditional videogame experiences for an interpretive strategy which will allow us to discuss interactive fiction meaningfully.