Key & Compass Blog

February 13, 2016

Affordances: GO BACK

Filed under: Interactive Fiction, Uncategorized — Tags: — davidwelbourn @ 3:56 am

This is the second in a series of planned posts about affordances in parser-based interactive fiction. Affordances are features that enhance the playing experience in some way, perhaps by making the work of IF less tedious, less frustrating, easier to play, more attractive, more interesting, or more fun. Affordances may be said to improve the play value of a game; reviewers will often point to these positive features as reasons why they liked a particular game.

Have you ever used the command “GO BACK” in a work of interactive fiction? Here’s what it can mean:

  • GO BACK can mean go back to your previous location, assuming the travel route you took from there to your current location isn’t one-way. This is the usage I wish to discuss.
  • GO BACK can also mean go back towards the beginning of the story, as opposed to GO FORWARD meaning to go towards the story’s conclusion. This is the usage in Gun Mute, for example, whose geography is topologically linear and whose story is strongly goal oriented.
  • GO BACK can also mean to go back relative to the way the player character is facing, so if the player is facing north, “GO BACK” means to turn around and go south. This usage is very very rare in IF; I can’t remember any works that use the relative directions FORWARD, LEFT, RIGHT, and BACK this way.

GO BACK in the first usage is an affordance because it gives the player an extra way to help them navigate through the game’s geography. But although it was used in the very earliest text adventures, the command has all but faded away into obscurity today. So I’m curious, what happened to this lost affordance? Why was it added in the first place, and why did it disappear? I have some guesses on the last question:

  • It was too much effort for the author for too little gain for the player. Although I don’t think it’s a difficult affordance to add, really. The game just has to remember whenever the player changes locations what the last location was and whether or not the mode of travel is reversible or not.
  • Players just didn’t use it. Once you start navigating with compass directions, you don’t suddenly start thinking of relative directions. “BACK” just isn’t part of the compass.
  • It was eclipsed by UNDO, a far more powerful tool for retracing one’s steps in a game.

I’m inclined to think it was a combination of all these factors, especially UNDO, that contributed to the demise of GO BACK as an affordance. And I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. Are we missing something by not having GO BACK? One early game, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, used GO BACK in a puzzle. A sign quoting MGM’s The Wizard of Oz told players: “I’D GO BACK IF I WERE YOU”, and if you typed GO BACK at that location, you’d end up somewhere you couldn’t reach any other way. Which was kinda cool to figure out, but probably isn’t enough to ask other authors to add GO BACK as an affordance in their games.

Hm. What about games where UNDO is disabled? Would GO BACK be a welcome addition then? Ummm… I don’t know. Maybe? You’d have to tell players that the command was there, and even if they knew, would they use it?

I have more questions than answers about this one. Players, would you use GO BACK in a game? (Assume you can abbreviate the command to BACK or B.) Or should the command remain in the dustbin of history? Please let me know what you think in the comments below.

1 Comment »

  1. It’s the kind of nice to have command I might type in testing (hint hint implement this!). But there is a chicken-and-egg problem that if most games don’t support BACK then it doesn’t pay to try it during play. As you noted, most parser games support UNDO (and/or reloading). A direction is only 1-2 letters whereas I can’t predict what B does in a random game. Many players prefer to play favourite/popular old parser games mostly so it’s hard to change expectations.

    Perhaps the majority of Twines don’t support UNDO or reloading a save state. You sometimes see a back arrow icon which corresponds to UNDO (e.g. you can undo an ending). A related mechanic is unlockable chapters – clicking a chapter link is like going back in time.

    Comment by heartless zombie — February 19, 2016 @ 5:04 am

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