Several years ago, Graham Nelson released a piece of work he modestly referred to as a “parsing exercise.” This exercise really was a short game, a competition-sized game before there was a competition. It included the spell system from Enchanter, and several good puzzles. In fact, it was very loosely based on the sample transcript included in Infocom’s original distribution of Enchanter. This game was called Balances, and it was a big hit with the IF community. It’s probably the most-played “exercise” in the IF Archive. It also spurred a discussion, which reoccurs from time to time, about what fun it would be to create games based on the sample transcripts from various Infocom games. Now, David Ledgard has been the first person to turn that notion into a reality. He took the sample transcript from Planetfall and (apparently with the permission of Activision) implemented it in Inform, also extending it a bit so that it would comprise a full, winnable game (the transcript ends with the player’s death.) Where Balances only took a couple of ideas from the Enchanter transcript, Space Station lifts the Planetfall transcript almost verbatim. Unfortunately, the results are a little mixed.
The transcript itself is great reading. It’s funny, interesting, and well-written. Consequently, the pieces of Space Station that are copied straight from the transcript are also funny, interesting, and well-written. This is not something for which the author can really take credit, though I’m certain it was a fair amount of work to do all the transcribing and implementing. Ultimately this section of the game occupies a rather shadowy realm of authorship, its text written by an Infocommie (one presumes Steve Meretzky), and its code implied by the written text, but the final code of Space Station was written by someone else, and while he certainly implemented it in the spirit of the transcript he also (of necessity, or from an enterprising spirit) added quite a bit of his own. The seams between the two parts of the game are sometimes all too visible. For example, a scene outside the space station’s window is described (in part) thus: “Through the large observation window, you see the milky way. Where the stars are scattered thinly, and the cold of space seeps in.” When I read that, I thought “Surely Meretzky didn’t write that sentence fragment!” I was right — he didn’t. It was a part of the game’s “extensions”, and the grammatical error grated quite harshly against the polished, accomplished prose in other parts of the game. Sometimes the problem was just as bad when the game didn’t extend itself — it was quite jarring to try a legitimate (included in the room description) direction and run into the terse reply “Unimplemented!” On the other hand, there were some very funny moments in Space Station, moments that I was sure were a part of the transcript but in fact were part of the extensions as well. It was an extra treat to find out that those parts weren’t authored by Infocom. The problem is that once any seams at all showed, the split between the transcript and the rest of the game was constantly on my mind, and grammar and spelling errors (of which the game has a few) felt all the more glaring because of it.
This is a cautionary tale for anyone who decides to implement one of the Infocom transcripts. The transcripts themselves are generally excellent, as they should be from a professional company which had the important task of explaining interactive fiction to a novice public. They are well-written and entertaining, with good settings and clever puzzles. To implement one of these transcripts so that it becomes a good game in its own right, you need a few things. You need to be able to write so well that nobody will be able to tell where the transcript prose stops and yours starts. You need to be able to make your sections of the game as entertaining as the transcript section. You need to be able to extend the setting of the transcript rationally, without introducing a foreign tone or feel. You need to be able to come up with puzzles that are consistent with those in the transcript, and are done as logically as the pre-written ones. If you can do all that, then absolutely write a transcript-based game (assuming you can secure Activision’s permission, of course). Then again, if you can do all that, why waste your talent on adapting transcripts?