Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game Design: Verb Consolidation

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 13, 2012

The text adventure genre provided a wonderful deception to a generation of gamers  – or to be honest, multiple generations, as the Interactive Fiction community still manages to provide some pretty interesting games for a niche audience. The grand illusion of text adventures – and certainly one of the things that most endeared me to the genre in my youth – was the open-endedness of controls. By using a subset of one’s native language, one could do almost anything in the game world! These game worlds were full of possibilities!

Of course, you couldn’t. While we willfully suspended disbelief for as long as possible, the frustration inevitably set in as the parser prohibited apparently obvious solutions.  Why couldn’t we wield the oar as a weapon and hit the sea serpent with it?  Why couldn’t we use the axe to chop a locked door down?

Graphic adventure games started out as simply text adventures with pictures (and usually a pretty limited text parser). But as time went by, and particularly as mouse control became popular, the most popular verbs (the command words of adventure games) were moved to a menu, but the text input window remained a stubborn hold-out in some games until the early to mid-90s. The thing was, most verbs could be consolidated into a smaller list of potential inputs. Most of the time, this was pretty sufficient – most of the time, there really aren’t that many ways to use a lamp. A simplified menu meant a lot less frustration playing “Guess what the designer was thinking.”

But the exceptions were what mattered. Sometimes the most interesting puzzles might come from creative uses of a lamp.  Sadly, many graphic adventure games lacking the ability to force players to play “guess the verb”  resorted to reliance upon its cousin, “hunt the pixel.” In the meantime, some of the more interesting approaches to adventure game puzzle design were cut off due to rarity.

RPGs didn’t quite go through the same level of consolidation for the most part, but this is arguable due to the wide variety of RPG styles of the 80’s and early 90’s. Ultima is perhaps the most interesting example. Originally, the games had commands mapped to all 26 letters of the alphabet… with creative spelling, like “K” for “Klimb.” Or “J” to Jimmy a lock (instead of picking).  Both players and designers got frustrated trying to determine the difference between Looking at an tile and Searching it.  Here’s a list of Ultima IV‘s main commands (besides movement) – with a few notes on how they changed in Ultima V:

A: Attack,    B: Board,  C: Cast,   D: Descend,  E: Enter,  F: Fire,  G: Get Chest,  H: Hole Up (and Camp), I: Ignite a torch,  J: Jimmy lock, K: Klimb,  L) Locate Position (“Look” in Ultima V), M: Mix Reagents, N: New Order, O: Open Door, P: Peer at a gem (“Push” in Ultima V), Q: Quit & Save, R: Ready a weapon, S: Search, T: Talk, U: Use, V: Volume (“View” in Ultima V), W: Wear armor, X: X-it (Exit), Y: Yell,  Z: Ztats (Stats).

In Ultima VI, mouse control was added, and the verbs were consolidated. The basic commands (besides movement) were: Attack, Spell, Talk, Look, Get, Drop, Move, Use, Rest, and Switch between combat and non-combat. There were a few auxillary controls as well to let you manipulate your inventory, inspect the party, and of course quit the game.

How much was lost in the consolidation? To be honest, not much.  While tapping all over the keyboard was kinda cool, for the most part the core gameplay of the Ultima series was left unchanged. Okay, it was unchanged by the consolidation of commands, at least. Ultima VI really was perhaps the largest departure from the traditional look & feel of the series at the time.

What’s interesting is that this list is pretty close to the list of interactions by most modern (western) RPGs. We generally don’t have moving objects around in the world available as a general option, but otherwise… it’s about manipulating objects in our environment, attacking enemies, casting spells (or using other special abilities), talking to people, inspecting things (either directly or with in-game support), and manipulating inventory.

However, in some other areas – particularly combat – modern RPGs have really added quite a bit.  Combat has gained a bit more depth beyond attack, defend, or spell.  I guess that tells you where modern game designers think the “core gameplay loop” can be found in RPGs. Expand it where it’s meaningful, I guess. I was also reminded of this (once again) by the new XCom: Enemy Unknown, which has simplified many mechanics, but has offered in exchange some potent new tactical options as the squaddies level up.

Which brings it all ’round again to what’s good and bad about consolidating the “verbs” of the game. I feel like I’m debating ancient history here, but as I always say, there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from the past.

Consolidating the list of verbs wasn’t just to cut redundancy (definitely a problem in text adventures – “Take Lamp” versus “Get Lamp,” “N” verses “North” versus “Go North”). It was also to limit player confusion.  Having a lot of verbs that didn’t work with 99% of objects was confusing and frustrating.  So instead – in the case of Ultima VI for example – this became a tiny list of verbs that worked with almost everything of the appropriate class of objects. You could talk to any non-hostile NPC, attack any hostile NPC, etc.  The commands were pretty universal. But when the world becomes even less interactive, and even these generic commands feel underused… then something feels wrong.  The world of Ultima VI didn’t get less interactive when the command list was culled. Actually, quite the opposite. While I recognize that breadth of interaction is not necessarily desirable, depending upon the game (a lot of people felt that baking bread was a waste of time).

The other side is doing what (fortunately) many games have done – take advantage of the simplified main interface to add more depth where it counts. Fighting games, popular in the 90’s, were a perfect example of this. While the basic commands were so simple and generic that a cat could randomly walk on a gamepad and make it look like his avatar was putting up a reasonable fight, the depth came from choosing the best command for the situation, timing it just right, and of course putting together the combos.  Frankly, I sucked at ’em, but I enjoyed watching skilled players do their thing.

The point is – done correctly – a simpler, consistent control scheme can actually do a better job of preserving the illusion that text adventure games portrayed in the early days of the medium. If all you can do is move, poke, and prod – but the entire world responds to being moved through, poked, and prodded, with a depth of interactivity that can be predictable but fascinating (and hopefully challenging), and then the world will come alive.

Simple? Not hardly.  There are a lot of recently released games – even big-budget games – that still don’t get it right. I can’t say I’m great at it personally, either. But it’s important to keep in mind, especially as indies continue to mine the past for inspiration.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Felix said,

    It’s generally accepted in the IF community that breadth of implementation is, in fact, needed to maintain the illusion. Granted, the current standard is to implement as many interactions as possible, even if they aren’t needed to win the game. In fact, being caught with a generic response to any standard verb is a sure way to lose points in reviews; beta testing helps a lot with that.

    That said, it’s a LOT of work to implement all those custom responses (shameless plug: here’s my take on that), and come to think of it you can have breadth without many verbs. Myst, in fact, had only one: “click”, and it’s one of the greatest adventure games ever.

    In the end, it’s a balancing act which depends on both the game and the audience. But it’s worth thinking about it deliberately during the design phase.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I think you put it better than I did. Exactly!

  • Noumenon said,

    Felix: “IF” community?

  • Felix said,

    Short for Interactive Fiction. Think literary text adventures, that actually try to be, well, literature (and largely succeed).