Keyboard power

Posted by Leopold McGinnis.
First posted on 08 January 2007. Last updated on 30 June 2009.
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Is there life after death of the adventure game? Rise of the adventure game ethic
McGinnis is the author of Game Quest.

About the author

Leopold McGinnis is the author of Game Quest, a novel published by Underground Uprising Press about the hostile takeover of the world’s most famous computer game company and the death of the adventure game.

For more information, visit Leopold McGinnis dot com.


Let us pause for a moment in this world of rapidly expanding graphic engines, of megabytes gone gigabytes gone terabytes and vibrating feedback joypads, to remember the passing of a dear old friend—the keyboard.

Today, the idea of using a keyboard to enter commands into a gaming system seems laughably archaic. Not too long ago, however, it was the preferred (if not only) option for playing games. In a gaming world where ergonomic and instamatic refinements on the game playing experience pop up every other week, it's easy to get lost in the moment and lose track where this is all headed, to forget about the way things once were and what we once took for granted.

This isn't about how things were just fine in the olden days, nor is it necessarily a call for a return to the old-style keyboard interface—an option that I think, frankly, takes too much refinement, subtlety and, dare I say, craft to implement in today's high pressure game market. Rather, this is about reflecting upon the keyboard and an aspect of gaming it offered that seems pretty much lost today—the concept of endless possibility.

A key gaming aspect which designers shoot for to make a game work is immersion. A lot of focus has been put on 3D space, physics, and graphics since the appearance of Doom. In an optical or physical sense, the capabilities of modern day computers have really put 'reality' immersion within reach. Yet, this aspect of immersion—the 'wow it looks so real' factor—has become a crutch and the only pillar of the immersion experience for which most games aim. Maybe it's easier to sell or produce en masse. It seems like a distraction or an eventually empty substitute for what was once the key tenet of the 'immersion' experience—the ability to 'do anything' in a game.

When it comes down to it, there are only a few things you can do in a modern game—shoot, jump, manoeuvre, open doors, push switches, select weapons, and pick up ammo. Even other games, like strategy and simulation, limit you to a small set of actions. While some games allow you to carry conversations, it is only within a narrow script in which your only real choice is in what order you read what the character has to say. Though a lot of time is spent giving the impression of vast worlds and endless corridors, you really can't just do anything. If in frustration you want to turn your BFG on yourself and take your own life, you can't.

The fact that this 'do anything' immersion experience is greatly missed can be illustrated by games such as Half-Life 2, where all the hoopla wasn't over the storyline, the graphics, or the War of the Worlds styled enemies, but over the fact that you could pick up nearly anything and throw it at nearly anything. Yet, you are still limited to just throwing objects. Once upon a time, there was a type of game where the ability to pick up objects and use them was the least interesting and most obvious thing you could do.

They were called adventure games, and thrived back when the mouse was just a quirky computer add-on. The basic premise of these games, their immersive selling point, was not the photorealistic quality or their physics but the feeling that you were 'living' the game. In effect, anything you could think of, you could do—all in pursuit of your goal. At least, you had the option of inputting what you wanted to do.


Of course, a lot of times your commands wouldn't be recognized. You could try anything, but generally the computer just wasn't up to speed. Yet, half the fun was seeing if the computer would let you do it. The other half was just even trying to do it, whether the computer understood it or not. How would you even input 'PEE ON OGRE'S CARPET' into Half-Life? It's not even possible to try. Quite frequently the best parts of a game was when you typed in a crazy command, which was quite unrelated to your 'quest', and the computer actually recognized what you were attempting and responded.

Of course, this isn't to say that the keyboard interface would let you 'do' anything, it just presented the possibility. If the programmers hadn't thought of it or allowed it, you couldn't do it. A lot of time you weren't trying to figure out how to solve the puzzle, but trying to figure out how the designers wanted you to solve the puzzle. It was frustrating that you couldn't burn down the tree in your way with the matches in your inventory, but instead you had to trick the giant pterodactyl into crashing into it. More frustrating was when it wouldn't even let you do something legitimate, such as lighting the air sick bag on fire and throwing it down the volcano at the end of Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking for Love (In Several Wrong Places). On the other hand, you could always type in 'KILL SELF'.

This type of 'keyboard stupidity' was a major roadblock on the way to achieving that feeling of total immersion. It was impossible to have an answer to everything which the user could imagine. The problem was well answered by the word choice format used by LucasArts, which limited what you could do to a few things via a mouse driven clickable menu. I suppose it was a good move for the genre as it took away a lot of the 'how do I make the computer understand me' difficulties. The computer could now do almost anything you asked it to do because your range was limited to what the computer was prepared to answer. LucasArts solved the problem by taking away your abilities. It was certainly better than the overly simplistic icon sets used by Sierra On-Line.

The games were improved, but at an expense. You couldn't type 'EAT CARPET' because they didn't give you an 'EAT' action word. Still, you could do a lot with what you had. In fact, a lot of the fun to be at hand in games such as The Secret of Monkey Island was doing stuff you weren't supposed to do—putting rats into soup, buying drinks underage, cheating at spitting contests, getting other people thrown into jail, dressing up as a lady. There was still plenty of possibility, and the limited interface helped focus the user on what was and was not possible.

Of course, this interface is now gone too. Such changes were just the signposts of what was to come—a limiting of the user's power to interact. Mice and joypads have been great improvements for interacting with the computer, but mostly because they computerize us—limit us to thinking in ways the computer understands. It hasn't adapted to us. We've adapted to it.

If we examine the modern games—even more open ended games such as Warcraft—they play like chess games where there are very limited set of rules within which you have to play—build buildings, make ships, attack enemies. Certainly, there are a lot of combinations within the 'rule world' that make the game diverse and challenging. A key part of what makes games (of any kind) fun is the strategy aspect of having to think creatively in a rigid but consistent rule set. In Warcraft, you couldn't just start to build a garden or crossbreed orcs with demon hunters. Modern shooters play like theme park rides, where you go down the right tubes and fire a gun at things that jump out at you from the sides. Not that it isn't fun. However, in an adventure game you could find yourself paying off the dead ferryman, climbing a whale's tongue, feeding pigs, climbing a mountain, and kissing a girl—or not kissing the girl if you didn't want to do so. You could punch her if you wanted, but you'd probably get in trouble.

Even in the so-called modern adventure games, among which there are some incredibly notable titles such as Grim Fandango, the play is very limited. Grim Fandango had no 'TURN' option or even 'PULL', 'OPEN', or 'THROW' option—just an action key for interacting with predetermined 'areas of interest'. Surely, you can be incredibly creative with this—making Glottis puke gelatine all over the floor to solidify a nefarious domino setup rigged to blow up your hot rod—but it's much like a Chinese puzzle, where you fiddle around and see what happens, rather than inhabit a world. Myst also plays this way—you can't climb walls unless there's a ladder there, or manipulate objects that weren't meant to be manipulated, or just dig a hole in the sand on the beach and have the computer respond as if you had tried. Conversations are limited to what the computer wants to provide, not to what you can think of asking.

I'm over romanticizing the keyboard a bit, perhaps. I remember feeling more frustrated at the computer for not letting me do things in an adventure game than in any other genre. The problem with the keyboard was that it was too generous. The keyboard gave you the chance to 'try' anything and then couldn't respond to half of it. By comparison, a joystick has only 2 axes and up to 8 buttons. The computer can be programmed to be prepared for all the combinations you can throw at it. For some reason, we're satisfied with that. The keyboard, frankly, was too powerful. It's a bit dishonest to say that with the keyboard you could do anything, but it would at least allow the user to adapt to the situation—you could climb a mountain, or you could rip off your clothes and make them into a rope. As a result, adventure game design was much more open ended. We weren't trying to fit a story into joystick. There are more than 2 axes and 8 buttons to tell it. This is the aspect of gaming, in the pursuit of a less frustrating game experience, which I believe we've lost out on—possibility.

It's quite unlikely there is going to be a return to this style of interface. Yet, considering the advances in technology in other aspects of gaming—from joysticks to game physics to hyper realistic graphics (thought to be impossible in the days when the keyboard reigned)—it's a wonder that the worst glitches of the keyboard era couldn't be resolved now. If we can make game characters look real and make objects act real on the fly, why can't we make a smart keyboard? Maybe it's still out of our grasp.

Perhaps the biggest frustration with the keyboard interface was the realization that the computer was woefully inadequate at keeping up with us. When we play on the computer's level, we are amazed. When we ask the computer to play on ours, however, we get bored and irritated. Is the command style of playing going to ever come back? It's hard to say. We've become very attached to changing ourselves to suit the computer, not the other way around.

Still, it's worth remembering a style of play that once existed. Notwithstanding all of its frustrations, the keyboard was a phenomenal and interesting interface. In terms of gaming, there is a lot to be said for just doing whatever came into your head. Even these years on, in a world of rapidly expanding graphic engines, of megabytes gone gigabytes gone terabyte and vibrating feedback joypads, the only interface that's ever really come close to letting you do anything is the keyboard.


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