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How The Impossible Bottle makes text adventuring accessible

Examine article

Joint winner of IF Comp last year was a text adventure game called The Impossible Bottle. You should try it! It’s free and works in your browser, and you play as Emma, a little girl who has to tidy up her house and help her parents before guests come over for lunch. At least that’s how it starts, because The Impossible Bottle goes places, and the way it goes to those places is very clever, with several revelations and a central gimmick which I’ll do my best not to spoil here. But one of its cleverest features is evident from the start: hyperlinks.

Anyone even slightly clued into interactive fiction would rightly point out that hyperlinks are hardly new to the form. Twine is built on them: they create its choice-based branching pathways. But The Impossible Bottle’s hyperlinks are different, because they don’t take you to new pages. They instead form an interface to a classic text adventure, the kind of game where you type go north and down to explore a world, and issue commands like pick up flashlight to interact with it.

“The text game interface has a beauty, but it’s also terrifying,” The Impossible Bottle’s writer, Linus Akesson, tells me as we discuss the forbidding and inscrutable blinking prompt that has waited for your next command since the first text adventure, Colossal Cave Adventure, was written in 1976. “It’s the same terror as the writer gets from a blank sheet of paper: it can do anything, so do what?”

What’s surprising and exciting about using hyperlinks is that they make a text adventure easy to play. For one thing, you can play on a phone, tapping the word east in a room’s description to go into the kitchen. But it’s the way that they make your options clear that makes them stand out. Click look and the game will tell you what’s in the room; tap on toy chest and you’ll see its description, and then below that it’ll show a contextual list of all the things you can do with the toy chest, such as open it.

“If you have an interface you think is good but is terrifying to the player, you shouldn’t hide it or take it away, you should teach it to the player.”

And yet Akesson loves the prompt. As an experienced text adventure player, he knows exactly what to do with it, typing l to look around and x to examine specific things, a standard series of commands that help to map out the text world. For seasoned players, the prompt is powerful, fast and flexible, so he didn’t want to jettison it, especially for The Impossible Bottle, which soon starts to ask you to perform complex tasks, placing objects inside others; retracting this; switching on that. So you can type commands and even entirely disable the hyperlinks, if you like.

“If you have an interface you think is good but is terrifying to the player, you shouldn’t hide it or take it away, you should teach it to the player,” he says. “The hyperlinks are doing that because they’re not directly controlling the game world, they’re controlling what you type at the prompt. They take you through it, and then you can do it yourself later.”

To me, a bad text adventure player, the hyperlink interface opens up The Impossible Bottle’s complexities and makes them approachable. I don’t need to try to keep Emma’s house in my head, because the game happily indicates everything around me that I can interact with, and I don’t have to remember the precise syntax the game needs to do the things I want, because it always lists the options.

In many ways I think The Impossible Bottle’s interface shares the connection between gaze and action you have in third- and first-person games: the way you interact with the things in the world that you look at. In The Impossible Bottle, you see the names of all the things around you, and then you can pick one and do something with it. It feels natural.

Akesson wrote The Impossible Bottle in a language of his own invention called Dialog. He’s not a professional game developer – few interactive fiction writers are – he’s a software engineer at the Swedish synth company Teenage Engineering, maker of the OP-1, Pocket Operators, and various other marvels of industrial design. But at night he’s into retro games as well as text adventures, and he found himself wanting to get modern text adventures running on a Commodore 64, which just can’t handle the output of languages like Inform, so he made Dialog very efficient, while also outputting to web browsers so its games are playable anywhere.

Akesson’s first Dialog game was Tethered, a fairly standard text adventure which happily runs on a C64. But he introduced hyperlinks to Dialog in his second, Pas De Deux, which is about being a conductor of an orchestra. “You’d do everything by looking at the people in the orchestra,” Akesson explains. “So the only verb was examine, basically. You’d click on the noun to examine it and that would do something in the game.”

In many ways The Impossible Bottle’s interface shares the connection between gaze and action you have in third- and first-person games

In his third game, The Impossible Bottle, he expanded on that idea by adding the new step of showing the menu for what you can do with a noun after clicking it. Some of the tiny tweaks he made to the way it works are fascinating. Take, for example, the way the menu says things like take it rather than just take after you click on flashlight. If you think about it, clicking flashlight and then take is the wrong way around in most Western languages. So Akesson added an ‘it’ after the verb in the menu to form a phrase. “If it’s grammatically correct you don’t notice it as much. I was quite proud of that idea, to use pronouns to cover the seams.”

The hyperlink approach also affected the way he wrote descriptions. They had to include proper parser commands, so the game always lists rooms in terms of their direction: “The laundry room is to the west, and the bathroom is to the north.” And while many text adventures might say, “Stairs lead below,” implying that you can descend by typing down, in The Impossible Bottle, Akesson had to mention down so you can click on it, helping less experienced players to navigate the house.

He also had to plan carefully for some potential problems, such as going into a dark basement with a flashlight. If you should turn the flashlight off and drop it, the room description would simply be, “You are surrounded by darkness,” making the game impossible to complete. So Akesson had to add the line, “You feel a flashlight on the floor,” to shoehorn flashlight into the script.

Another invisible feature is that Akesson curated the list of available actions to avoid making the game too easy, or suggesting nonsensical or inappropriate things. In the bathroom there’s a toilet, but though the game responds when you type use toilet, the option isn’t listed because it’s pointless.

Furthermore, since The Impossible Bottle’s logic is as detailed and consistent as most text adventures, it inherently understands the concept of clothes and being able to take them off, but this action isn’t relevant to the game. “If you’re stuck on a puzzle, you tend to try everything and it’s perhaps something people will try,” says Akesson. “But it’s not going to be suggested by the game because even if there’s a response, it’s not necessary to complete the game and it’d also put the reader in the wrong frame of mind just by suggesting it.”

There’s one puzzle, though, where the key action is never listed. To describe it would be to blow one of the best reveals in the game – suffice it to say that it makes sense that it’s never shown as a hyperlink. To solve it, you have to type the relevant command at the prompt.

Akesson knows that there’s a lot about his hyperlink text adventure interface which might be questioned by UI designers. Take the way you perform complex commands like put microphone on stand. First, you’d click inventory in the permanent list of actions at the bottom so you can then click microphone. Then you’d pick on something from the options below, and then you’ll need to find stand somewhere in the script and click it.

“People might disagree that it works but I think it does, because you’re controlling what goes into the prompt and it’s interpreted differently with the context, and that can be excused because you’re co-writing a story with the computer. But I guess I’m on thin ice from an interface design point of view.”

Yes, I did find it a little strange before it became natural, and once it did, the story came to the fore. But while The Impossible Bottle does so much to make the traditional text adventure accessible, that wasn’t really what Akesson was trying to achieve. He set out to make a game to submit to IF Comp that would be well-regarded by other text adventure aficionados. And that worked! But he also managed to do something else: to push one one of the oldest gaming genres forward, not by reinventing it, but by making it more approachable.

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